Monday, March 06, 2017

Let's Talk About What We Talk About When We Talk About Teaching Let's Talk About Love

Although this essay is Part Three of “Let’s Talk About . . .”,
“A Time To Be So Small” was designed to be read separately.
If you're new you may skip to the "Extra Credit.

Part Eight of an ongoing series.
Catch up with the first and second parts of the essay.
Catch up with Part One of the series.
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Part Three – A Time To Be So Small

To you.

Obama has staked his candidacy on union—on bringing together two halves of America that are profoundly divided, and by associating himself with Lincoln—and he knows what both of those things mean. He calls America’s founding a “grand compromise”: compromise, for him, is not an eroding of principle for the sake of getting something done but a principle in itself—the certainty of uncertainty, the fundament of union. (MacFarquhar)

It was early. My wife left for work ten minutes earlier. I was trying to fall back asleep when the phone rang. It was her. The manager of the station had just interrupted programming and come on air to announce that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center.

We lived in a barren suburb of Tulsa named Owasso and volunteered at a college radio station over the hill in Claremore. It was a dance music show, the main attraction of which was my wife’s DJing. After she lost her job in Tulsa and had to get contract work out of town – first in Norman, and later in Memphis – I took over the show, Saturday nights from 10PM-3AM. I was left alone in Owasso for weeks and months at a time, working a part-time job at the Kohl’s next to the Wal-Mart, an early morning receiving shift that involved processing and distributing merchandise throughout the stockroom and floor. Oklahoma can be a very lonely place. I took to wandering the all-night Wal-Mart early Sunday mornings, doing grocery shopping for the following week on my way home from the station.

I didn’t think anything of it at first. Odd, sure. Probably a small private plane, some kind of air traffic mistake. I put the phone down and rolled over.

Another five minutes and the phone rang again. “You should turn on the TV.” 

The Strokes’ Is This It was released in the UK on July 30th, 2001, with an American release set for September 25th. The album was preceded by a kind of hype that ultimately proved self-defeating: they represented the apogee of urban cool for one brief and shining moment, the last possible moment for the last possible expression of pre-millennial ennui before the tone of the century irrevocably and unexpectedly darkened. The Strokes carry the burden of being the last significant rock & roll band of the twentieth century and the first of the twenty-first – allowing for the assertion that the twentieth century did not conclude its business until the morning of September 11th 2001.

Copies of Is This It had already been sent out for review and radio play before the release was postponed two weeks, from the 25th to October 9th. The reason was the album’s ninth track, “New York City Cops,” which was removed and replaced with the tepid substitute “When It Started.” The reason why is obvious, as the track culminates with the refrain of, “New York City cops / New York City cops / New York City cops / They ain't too smart.” In the original running order it’s the rousing climax of the album, and without it the album never really recovers from the one-two punch of “Last Nite” and “Hard to Explain.” For the rest of my life, every time I transfer Is This It to a new device I have to spend five minutes monkeying with iTunes in order to restore the original running order that I fell in love with on a CD-R burnt in the studio at KRSC-FM sometime in late Summer 2001.

As a historical document Is This It was instantly dated, an artifact of a disaffected youth culture whose disaffectedness lost currency the moment it blinked into being. It’s the sound of loose ends, with Julian Casablancas a young, rich, insufferable, spoiled ass, scion of moguls and models, standing in for the kind of urban sophisticate that was the ultimate product of the streamlined future lionized throughout the waning years of the 1990s. “Last Nite” is a song about someone walking out on his partner because he doesn’t care about anything she has to say (“Oh, baby, don't care no more / I know this for sure / I'm walkin' out that door”). It’s perfectly empty. Many mistook that emptiness for insouciance. It was, at least for the Strokes and those first fans who heard "Last Nite" on the radio in the waning days of Summer 2001, disassociation in advance of trauma. At the moment of its release Is This It was already a period piece. 

Rock in the first decade of twenty-first century was defined by the lowered expectations of a shrinking and splintering marketplace. There is an embarrassment of riches in terms of excellent bands who have produced lasting and significant bodies of work, but the era is underrated in toto because of the music having gradually and suddenly been reduced to a niche. The music knew it, too: gone were sweeping pronouncements regarding the regenerative power of rock & roll, gone was the sense of youthful vigor and immortality that could elevate even Ian Curtis’ depressive (if compelling) rumblings to the status of holy writ. Rock was nervous and insecure about its diminished power on the world stage, just like everyone else. Rock was no longer the voice of a generation (or rather, could no longer pretend it was). It finally accepted its role as the voice of a demographic. A matter of taste.

Turn on the Bright Lights, recorded in November of 2001 and released in summer of the following year, is hopeful music for hopeless people. Banks' voice on the debut is more vulnerable than it will be on any subsequent release. Antics is guarded, defensive, scabbed over by scar tissue, but Turn on the Bright Lights is the sound of fresh trauma, a wound that has not healed and feels for the moment as if it may never. It feels like the aftermath of violence. The moment before life kicks back into gear, suspended in the moment of rupture, caught relieving the same awful seconds over and over again. The world has changed, and not necessarily for the better. There’s no going back.

We don’t talk a lot about the election of 2000 anymore. It’s ancient history. But it was the turning point of the last thirty years. We didn’t know at the time, of course, just how consequential it would prove to be. And we can’t even say for certain that the world would have been measurably better with a President Gore than another President Bush, but it would have been measurably different. It is difficult to imagine it would have been worse.

I cast my vote in the 2000 election in Owasso on the morning of November 7th, before driving to the airport to catch a flight to Miami, from where we flew to Jamaica and were married. We went to sleep early in the morning in a hotel in Miami on the 8th believing Bush had won. We woke to find out that he had not, and that it was getting very complicated. We flew to Jamaica and when we returned after a week the matter was still up in the air. The feeling of disappointment after 2000, of having taken the wrong turn at the last moment at a critical juncture, was just a taste of what was to come as the following two decades compounded that mistake with many subsequent tragedies and debacles, with a few bits of hope and change thrown in for seasoning.

John Trimble states in Writing With Style that, “clarity is the indispensible characteristic of good prose.” Please explain how this idea has impacted your writing this quarter.

No book has influenced the course of my adult life like Wilson’s 161 page manual. I became intimately familiar with its contours after reading and rereading the book every quarter for a year. Eventually the message started to sink in: there really is no such thing as capital-T Taste, or at least nothing redeemable. And if taste doesn’t matter, then the cultural capital to be accrued through advanced scholarship is suddenly worth a lot less. Just the idea of Taste seems suddenly not merely worthless but harmful. Corrosive.

What are we left with instead? Everything but an endless appeal to some amorphous concept of “tastefulness,” whose virtues in different spheres remain confined and isolated from a mass audience due to the diligent gatekeeping of experts. (As Wilson states, “Part of the reason for the recent backlash against indie rock, I suspect, is a weariness by how much of it seems to be mainly music to judge music by.”) The music isn’t dead and there’s still good rock music being made every year, but the cultural spotlight moved on. That turned out to be pretty healthy for the genre. Like jazz, it will eventually transform into a diminished but concentrated nub of its former self, popular and evolving among a small coterie but largely segregated from the advancing tide of contemporary pop culture.

It was only as I sat down to finish this essay that I realized just how much I had taken from my year-and-a-half of teaching the Celine Dion syllabus. I learned a great deal from it: how to plot an argument in nonfiction, how to build suspense simply through developing an argument, and how to use misdirection in order to mask and amplify your arguments. We understand Wilson’s argument not finally as a result of his formidable mastery of the facts in his investigations, but because we understand the motivation behind his argument, why it was important to him in the first place to investigate the mystery of why people listen to “bad music.” Turns out “bad” is relative, and reductive criteria of tastefulness obscures many more interesting ideas than merely who has the best and most sophisticated taste.

How does it make you feel? What does it make you think? Does it make you think? How does it work? These are far more interesting questions. And these are more interesting questions to answer on a practical level as a writer than on a scholarly level as an academic. In order to fulfill my employment contract with the University of California I taught four years of college composition. It did very little to further my interest in professional scholarship, but it did make me a much more compassionate writer. 

I tell my students the voice with which you write should not be artificially stiff. Syntax and diction should only be as elaborate as absolutely necessary to convey your point. You should strive for naturalness, but not casualness. Imagine yourself answering questions in a job interview on the best day of your life. You’re smart, you’re funny, you’re well-balanced and completely at ease. You don’t stutter the usual “ums,” and “ahs,” or scatter in the requisite “you knows” and “likes” that are perfectly normal and unexceptional parts of verbal communication but which detract from the necessary focus and concision of effective text. Don’t bore your audience. Don’t make them regret taking the time to read your writing. Give them something worth sticking around for.

Wilson’s book was released in 2007. He wrote about the pop culture of the previous decade to make sense of personal tragedy, gradually transforming his understanding of his subject as well as himself. He knows his audience wouldn’t buy a book about his breakup so he writes a book about his breakup that his audience will read. Ten years, more or less, sounds like a good time to start thinking about the pop culture of our youth, processing the incidental music of our teens and twenties into something durable to carry with us as we age.

If there were justice in the world, Let’s Talk About Love – A Journey to the End of Taste would sell 50,000 copies every year for fifty years. People could do worse than to read a book about how to become a more thoughtful and understanding person – even if it is an odd little story about Celine Dion and heartbreak.

Extra Credit Question:

1.     Above I have included a link to a famously unusual music video, the Replacements’ “Bastards of Young” from 1985. Based solely on the information provided in the video, who is the audience for this? Please be creative.

I recently received a poor teaching evaluation. I surprised myself by not being particularly upset. My heart was no longer in teaching. The things that I enjoyed about teaching – actually talking to students, lecturing, leading discussion – had become a smaller and smaller part of the time I spent working. It already seems like teaching was someone else’s dream, someone that I used to be but in whose ambitions I no longer see myself. The hunger I felt for the cultural capital of an advanced degree is an unpleasant memory.

Although I struggle with many parts of the job, some owing to inclination and some owing to problems with my executive functioning, I am still able to work. But this revelation comes at the conclusion of a jumbled three-month period where, despite many positive developments in my life, I struggled to gain purchase, fought hard to maintain momentum and motivation. The file for this essay was created on January 24th of 2017. It has taken me another month to make painstaking headway, the essay expanding precipitously along the way.

It didn’t start that way. It started out somewhere different. Originally this essay was supposed to be about Kid A, and to be relatively brief – no more than 1000 words. No mention of Radiohead survives. Perhaps you can see its ghostly shadow. Probably not. 

As the essay neared completion I realized that I had fallen into a deep depression. It was a depression all the more insidious because it was masked by surface cheer. My therapist told me recently that I associate negative feelings and ideas so strongly with the person I used to be that I've created negative reinforcement against negative thoughts. The reason why this is important is that from the middle of January to the end of February I was quite cheerful and yet completely falling apart. 

I only discover I have been depressed after it lifts. It happens gradually towards the end of February. I finish the first draft of this essay, totaling around fifteen thousand words. I experience a sense of confidence and relief that's been lacking for many months, in which time I have been unable to concentrate even on typing for more than brief periods. I look in the mirror one day and realize that I am a different person now than I was ten months ago. I am more comfortable than I have ever been. I have lost a great deal but can blame no one for that but myself. I must learn going forward. Publishing this essay will put the capstone on another era of my life. It has been one hundred and forty six days since "One Hundred And Sixty Four Days": as of today I have known I was transgender for three hundred and ten days. I am now almost completely unrecognizable. 

We long for the transformation, we beg for it. We need it, we so desperately need to see someone else looking back from the other side of the mirror. I did for years without knowing why. Sometimes we do see someone new, sometimes we just see old faces accusing us of everything. We suffer for the sin of being someone else. I told myself to not expect anything, to not get my hopes up. Hope is deadly. But then when the change actually arrived, I was unprepared. You can't be prepared. I told myself it wouldn't happen, and when it did I was shocked.

January was a blur. I entered February reeling, uncertain, anxious . . . I still felt that I was wearing a costume. I didn't recognize the person in the mirror. That is a special horror. Then suddenly I wasn't wearing a costume, I was myself, and the person in the mirror was myself. Different. I have lost seventy pounds in almost a year, a significant life change by itself. Another way my body had become a stranger to me. I no longer need the CPAP machine I used every night for five years. I stopped using it gradually, got out of the habit and didn't even notice the difference. 

People ask me almost every day how I lost so much weight. The answers are 1) I received a tremendous shock last Spring that completely changed my life, including eating; 2) I got a dog and she needs to be walked every day; 3) I stopped taking Celexa in 2015 after fifteen years, and as a result no longer believe I suffer from chronic insomnia; and 4) losing a little bit of weight made me sleep better. Sleeping better led to losing a lot more weight.

I am a different person. It's a good feeling but also a frightening, nerve-wracking, disconcerting, and even dangerous process. We can hurt ourselves with happiness just as easily as with misery. I was cracking and buckling under the tremendous pressure of too much change. It didn't feel like it at the time but I notice now that my mood was fading. Many things in my life have been hurt or damaged, for many reasons but primarily through my own poor judgment. I didn't see the darkness until I was almost out of the tunnel. 

I can still barely concentrate for longer than five minutes . . . except for typing, and driving. Typing holds me in rapt attention for hours on end, which is why these essays exist. If it wasn't helpful for me to do this  I wouldn't. It makes me feel better so I write and rewrite constantly in the hopes of arriving at some way to make sense of a senseless life in a senseless universe. It's why my dream of a writing career has any hope of succeeding: writing is the only activity that relaxes me. I am incentivized to do as much of it as possible by seeing the drastic improvement in my mood once I got into the habit of trying to write each day. This is how I made it through the Winter. Even if it was just a Twitter rant or a message to a friend, I was making time to sit down and write every night. Soon it was the best part of my night, soon the best part of my day. A good habit to build. 

I wish I were good at literally anything other than writing essays. Such an oddly specific habit. I haven't tried writing fiction in a long time. My dream career, the one profession to which I am most uniquely suited by habit and temperament, is writing Star Wars novels. If you know someone hiring for that, pass on my name. I'm still remarkably bad at self-promotion. Readers are extraordinarily enthusiastic about my work but it would benefit from a larger audience. Although I am quite bullish that these essays will eventually look good bound between two covers, that makes them slightly less than attractive propositions as ostensible blog posts. I'm writing for the trade. They require a lot of hand-selling in terms of being feasible recommendations. My hope is that people like the work enough that they sell it for me. That's a terrible long-term strategy that has nonetheless worked pretty well so far. 

My greatest fear in this world is that I will be misunderstood. I wish to make myself understood. I would very much like to have a more successful writing career because I think I would be very good at it. The problems is that I have difficulty concentrating long enough to promote my writing more assiduously. My follow-through is shit. 

Click to hear "A Time To Be So Small"

The verdict of the psycho-educational evaluation was inconclusive but fateful: serious problems with executive functioning, not believed to be connected to hyperactivity. Stimulants are off the table. I wasn't expecting a miracle - had specifically tried to moderate my already low expectations. The situation is critical. The hypervigilance I feel from the moment I wake carries through the entire day. I leave Post-It notes anywhere I need to remember things - writing down in order the errands I need to run after work, because otherwise I will forget. It was funny at first but for a while now - years, probably - my attention span has been slowly drifting downward. It takes a force of will to sit still long enough to grade a single paper, and even then my brain wanders, scattered, mutinous. I used to be able to inhale a medium-sized book in a single sitting.

PTSD is a hard label to accept but my therapist agrees readily when I present her with the evidence. For what? Going back how many years? Decades spent tying myself into knots because of fears of mental illness, fears of poverty, fears of being queer. (Now I know I am mentally ill, poor, and queer, and work hard to eradicate every shred of guilt and shame about it.) A feeling of bottomless anguish leading back to years of self-inflicted wounds, all the way to a turbulent childhood where disassociation was sometimes a survival skill. If I hadn't learned to turn everything off, I could never have made it through public school, or maintained a semblance of a normal adult life. I trained myself to get by without so much as admitting I had a problem. I could get by. I always got by. 

Until I couldn't get by. And I refused to acknowledge what was happening or why it was starting to destabilize every aspect of my life. In hindsight the cracks were already clear in my last years as an undergraduate. The process of applying to grad school was arduous, and I dropped the ball towards the end of the two year process. I got into a good school but fucked up a few applications along the way because I was already cutting corners and had no clue why.

I put it off for as long as I could but I went to take the test. I already knew the answer, and I already know the consequence. I cannot continue indefinitely in my current career unless I arrest the slide. I can no longer read for more than five minutes before my eyes glide off the page. I need help and I don't know how to ask for it. 

My terrible classroom observation comes at the beginning of February. It doesn't surprise me. It forces me to realize how disconnected I have become from my former ideals and life goal. My advisor, a kind man who has never been unfair to me in any way, is nevertheless an intimidating man who always makes me nervous. Very tall. I think back to my shitty performance in both oral exams as well as my observation and I deduce that I am easily intimidated by men in positions of authority. I always have been, but never understood why. 

I thought I wanted that security. But it's not my security - any kind of authority is rancid and bitter. Academia was his dream. If I let go, it's easier. 

That's not how we got here, sorry. I'm scattered.

Transition is rarely as sudden and sharp as mine. I snapped my fingers at midnight on December 31st and was reborn in the first moments of 2017. Without having had any intimation of my nature at any point throughout the previous thirty-five years before April 30th 2016, I retained a lifetime's worth of taboos regarding cross-dressing. It's difficult to retrain your mind to understand that the taboo doesn't apply anymore, that it never should have applied in the first place but for a quirk somewhere along the assembly line. I am afraid and intimidated by every single aspect of my life so I try to run forward as hard and fast as I can, headfirst into the breach. 
I spend much of January in shock. I don't remember days on end. The first night before I step in front of a class of teenagers dressed as a woman I sleep for less than two hours. The second for three. It gets easier, but I fall into the habit of only sleeping two or three hours on the nights before I teach. Eventually it is simply routine. It's normal. The first time I wear women's clothing is also the first day I step outside of the apartment as myself, to get my first real haircut and an industrial piercing in my right ear. It feels like jumping into the caldera of an live volcano. No one notices. It's normal.

Until I no longer feel quite so much tension I will not know just how hard I struggle to combat anxiety and insecurities about my presentation. I have no desire to grow my hair long or wear dresses. I have my hair clipped tight on the sides and floppy on top, a future side cut providing the hair on the top of my head continues to regrow. I wear jeans (size eight, astounding me and everyone else in my life) and boots, plaid flannel shirts and bright pink hoodies. It's eclectic. I refuse to dress to anyone's expectations: wearing a skirt would feel as coercive as returning to mens' clothing. It doesn't fit any preconstructed narrative of how trans women are supposed to dress, and as such I am never recognized as trans by anyone who doesn't know in advance. I never correct anyone because correcting everyone I meet would make every social interaction hell. I am worried, vaguely but persistently, that I am somehow doing it wrong.

This is what life is like now. I'm lonely a lot. Even when I'm surrounded by people, friends and loved ones and family and students who have opened their arms to the new me - even in most cases prefer the new, cheerful me - I'm still special and set apart, someone to notice. Someone whose presence, when felt, is registered. I'm still alone because I'm a unicorn now. I have friends all over the world but my only connection to people like me is a small glowing rectangle of glass and circuits that never leaves my hand. I don't know anyone like me where I live. I feel sometimes as if I am the only person on a very large island. The relief I feel when I encounter another of my kind is palpable. There are so few of us. I am now a proud member of an elite club of walking cultural flashpoints. It's not something that gets better, you just have to get used to it. You never really get used to it.

I hit upon the most interesting and helpful accessories. I remember a passing fancy of two identical steel rings worn on the middle fingers of each hand. It seemed like an interesting aesthetic, statement pieces around which to build a persona. I find a brass ring at Madewell that fits around my right pinky perfectly, breaking the symmetry. 

I don't know what kind of person wears those rings, but I like the way they look. I want to be the kind of person who would wear those rings. From the last week of December through to the present I never go longer than a day between coats of nail polish. My memory is such that I need the mnemonics. The rings also help immensely as well, a constant reminder not to accidentally lapse into old ways of moving or talking. 

I'm a different person. February began in a daze, a state of heightened tension that was a symptom of heightened pressures both internal and external. By March I no longer feel that I am wearing a costume. I look in the mirror and see someone new. It makes sense. I make sense. I passed through the crucible and I feel lighter.

Last week I deleted all the Interpol off my phone, replacing it with Arcade Fire. I need something completely different. Arcade Fire are a band I have always enjoyed at a wary distance, and I look forward to getting to know them better. I have gotten in the habit of listening to music on my headphones as a fall asleep every night, something I haven't done since my late teens when I would lay in bed with my Discman. As of this moment I have no intention of writing an essay about Arcade Fire. Who am I? Apparently the kind of woman who drives around town blasting Arcade Fire from my car, wearing a bright neon hoodie and singing along, badly, as I slowly learn the words to these beautiful songs with terrible lyrics. I have developed the habit of rubbing my hands together so the rings make an ominous clicking sound. You will always hear me coming.

It's hard to build a new person. I feel throughout the month of February 2017 as if I am a deep-sea diver, stumbling among the coral ("Bottom of the ocean she dwells / Bottom of the ocean she dwells"). The initial rush of adrenaline from the first of the year has warn off. Now I'm stuck. I need help and I don't know how to ask for it. 

I lash out at the people I love, falling back into his old worst personality traits with the ease of sliding on an old pair of slippers. So much easier to procrastinate. To let all the pressure build up until it feels as if you are covered in blocks of ice, immensely heavy, cold. Sharp. I am a bad friend and ignore my work. The reason I only get two or three hours of rest every night is that for some reason I intentionally starve myself of sleep. I do everything I do to avoid sleeping even though I am always tired. I am paranoid, unsettled. I jump at the smallest noise. I'm backsliding: I need help but the only words I can think to type are either accusations or bromides. I have developed a reputation for hopefulness that initially I find encouraging but soon feels like a straitjacket. Hope is hard. From a dark place, hope is very far away. I begin splintering at the end of January and the fissures have almost overtaken me by mid-February.

I don't see it, of course. I'm writhing like a bug pinned to corkboard. No one notices. I don't even notice. Without even thinking I've lapsed back into the same double-column bookkeeping that kept me safe and miserable for decades: the real work of my soul is subterranean. I don't recognize what is happening until I'm already surrounded by wreckage. I have lost a great deal. I would do anything to have this month, these weeks back. They're lost. Swallowed up by depression. I am being ground into gravel by anxiety. I am simply tired. I feel as if I have been wrung out and left to dry. 

I drive out into the fields surrounding town and on a long and lonely stretch of agricultural land I scream as loudly as I can for as long as I can into the darkness of the evening. I feel that I am fraying. Nothing helps. But I notice in the moment that the side of the road is not hard gravel but soft dirt. My wheels are sinking. Now I'm stuck. I almost have to call a tow truck to pick up my car off the side of the road because of a nervous breakdown. I'm able after a minute to extricate the wheels, thankfully. It's a low point. 

But I will write my way out, build a sixteen thousand word labyrinth in which to lose myself, left with the simple challenge of finding my way back out of misery by following the string wherever it leads. Hopefully somewhere good.

How did we get here? The world has changed, and not necessarily for the better. There’s no going back.

Something happened. 

I’ve been listening to Interpol incessantly for the last three months. I started by returning again to Turn on the Bright Lights, the only of their albums I returned to with any regularity in the last decade. It seemed like a good idea, an old favorite I hadn’t heard in a while. It stuck around. Paul Banks' bruised and scarred masculinity spoke to the moment, a state of tentative sorrow that precluded appeal. Banks channels weakness against a backdrop of sturm und drang, a wounded and paranoid man who nevertheless accepts his fate with dignity. The sound of resignation.

There was a feeling in the songs, a weariness that fit me. Crucially it wasn’t a selfish or solipsistic sadness. It was a communal sadness informed by shared experiences of trauma and shock, rarely individual agony. It was most importantly a compassionate sadness that carried in its bones the hope of impossible reconciliation. Interpol is about loneliness. Every song is about communication, somehow - trying to speak, to be understood, to somehow be heard and recognized even though in the moment nothing seems to be working. Nothing fits and nothing works because we're all always alone, but we don't have to be. The desire to leave behind the person we are in order to find something new is overpowering. Sometimes you make it. Sometimes there's nothing waiting for you on the other side of the mirror. You just have to find out, leap into the unknown and accept the consequences of a necessary drastic change.

Everything frozen. Suspended. Unable to process change. Unable to comprehend the enormity of having to move, find a job, possibly a new career, while making headway as a writer while continuing the never-ending process of transition. Eventually the stasis thaws. I realized I need to finish this essay before its incomplete status threatens to scuttle the whole project.

Everything frozen. Suspended – collapsed on the bathroom floor broken. The TV news playing in the other room echoes the same disbelief, shock on the faces of pundits across the ideological spectrum. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime upset that people will write about for a hundred years. Except it’s not a history book, it’s happening now, the consequences are real, the people are real, the fear radiating outwards to my limbs, numbing every nerve and making it difficult to pull myself off the ground, even to speak, is real.

When I pull myself up after twenty minutes I can’t focus. It’s everywhere. The dog is upset and there's nothing I can do because she's upset because we're upset. There’s no escape, no reprieve. This is happening, this isn’t a hoax or an imaginary story, not a dream or cautionary tale. I don’t realize I’m shouting, I don’t really know why I’m shouting and I can’t hear my own words. Someone is talking on the phone. I’m not cognizant. It’s midnight and I have to clean the bathroom, scrub the walls with the heavy-duty chemicals necessary to peel off months of shower scum and mold from the low ceilings. There’s more yelling. There’s a knock on the door and three police are on my porch. Yelling I hold my phone in my hand, sweat pouring off my body in sheets, wearing yellow kitchen gloves to protect myself from the heavy-duty chemicals. The dog is barking because the dog always barks. The police ask me to raise my hands. I do. They see the phone and relax. They see me covered in sweat from labor. My partner comes in from the other room, perturbed at the dog. It occurs to me only later, after processing the sly thumbs up given by the police that they leave after thirty seconds only because they process the scene as something other than misery, and certainly not the domestic disturbance which they expected and for which they arrived en masse, three large men at my doorstep. In just two months I will no longer be able to depend on the willingness of the police to allow straight white men to commit petty offenses.

It’s later, the early morning of November 9th 2016. I am walking my dog in the small park behind our apartment building. It is still, quiet, and cold. It is difficult to imagine in a moment of such peace that the world has come unmoored, that this stillness can be broken. I am walking around the park slowly, allowing plenty of time for the dog to explore. As I stroll I am reading on my phone an article written that July by Tobias Stone entitled  “History tells us what may happen next with Brexit & Trump.” History does not have cheerful things to say:

So I feel it’s all inevitable. I don’t know what it will be, but we are entering a bad phase. It will be unpleasant for those living through it, maybe even will unravel into being hellish and beyond imagination. Humans will come out the other side, recover, and move on. The human race will be fine, changed, maybe better. But for those at the sharp endfor the thousands of Turkish teachers who just got fired, for the Turkish journalists and lawyers in prison, for the Russian dissidents in gulags, for people lying wounded in French hospitals after terrorist attacks, for those yet to fall, this will be their Somme.

Suddenly I am aware in the frosty morning black that the gears have moved beneath my feet. The life I thought was mine has disappeared forever behind the rustling curtain, relegated to the realm of alternate outcomes built on foundation stones drowned in the flood. Even though I saw it unravel thread by thread, the end seemed quite unreal – until it wasn't. To imagine that the world might stand still long enough to allow me to live a life untouched by history - !

Standing at the literal dawn of a new epoch, cognizant that the world has changed around me and that the stillness I feel is an illusion, I remember the only other time I have felt anything like what I feel in that moment. I remember mopping the wood floor in our living room, moving to concentrate on something besides the images being broadcast on the television, images of planes hitting towers that will be played and replayed beyond exhaustion in the coming years, seared with a branding iron onto our memories. My wife is coming home early because there’s nothing left to do at work. She will be one of the first let go from her job at Williams Communication after her company suffers significant losses the following year, partially due to the economic downturn that follows September 11th. I mop and I clean and I cook because there’s nothing left that I can do, nothing else to possibly exert order or control over a world that exists beyond my ability to effect change.

Click to hear "The New"
It’s a feeling I hear echoed on the penultimate track of Turn on the Bright Lights, “The New.” What begins tenderly, almost as a lullabye, grows in intensity and ferocity over the course of its six-minute run time, traveling the distance from hushed reverence to screaming despair in just a little longer than the time it takes to type these thoughts. The first words of “The New,” recorded as the rubble of the Twin Towers still burnt at the foot of Manhattan, convey the sense of devastating loss:

I wish I could live free /
I hope it's not beyond me /
Settling down it takes time. /
One day we'll live together /
And life will be better /
I have it here yeah in my mind.

Banks doesn’t sound convincing. He doesn’t even sound convinced himself. The first two lines, built on wishes and hopes, convey a longing for a life that the speaker knows is gone. The aspiration to “one day” be able to relax, to settle down, live together with someone you love in peace and freedom – that dream is a fantasy. What’s real, what’s new, is terrifying. The old world is already a fast receding smudge on the rearview mirror. It’s a lie. The speaker knows that future has been foreclosed. It exists now only as a memory of a time when the world could have been something else. In the coming weeks I will take to absent-mindedly humming these lyrics under my breath in the car like a defeatest mantra.

That’s all it takes, sometimes – a moment, an instant to realize that a change has occurred, and that the stillness that surrounds you is the dead calm at the eye of the storm. But soon the gears turn and the machinery begins again. The axis pivots, leaving you facing in a different direction, a new land with new scenery and strange customs. There’s no going back.

Sometimes the world changes and it’s not fair. Sometimes it's your fault. It never really makes a difference. The message from the future never arrives in time. The planes always crash. The election always miscarries. You can’t unsend the message drafted in a moment of weakness and anger. You will wait long enough to know that you were wrong to expect an apology when the mistake was yours. But there’s no way to return to that moment. The future is different now.

It's too late. The universe keeps what it takes. We rage, we mourn, we bargain and lie and desperately flee to the past only to preserve what is already gone. 

Soon we must rise from the rubble at the end of our world and rededicate our lives to the preservation of what is left.

But that’s not what this essay is about.

 Part Eight of an ongoing series. 

4. Someday We Will All Be Free
5. Trifles, Light As Air  

Let's Talk About What We Talk About When We
Talk About Teaching Let's Talk About Love
6.  One - The Modern Age
7. Two - Slow Decay
8. Three - A Time To Be So Small

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CalvinPitt said...

Tegan, I can't really speak to the music aspect of the post, but I've found the way you connect it to what was and is going on in your life excellently written and I'm looking forward to the next installment.

Also, I don't have a Twitter account so I didn't have a different place to mention this, but you tweeted last night you were considering resuming your "Tao of" posts on your Ice Cream for Bedwetters site, and I wanted to voice my support for that, for whatever it's worth. I loved those posts on Hawkeye and Iron Man.

nomatrix12 said...

It is only through reading this at 12:50 in the dead of night, in the void that i am in do i get this piece.

harada57 said...
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