Wednesday, December 16, 2015

On My 35th Birthday

Two hundred years ago, life expectancies were shorter and "35" was synonymous with "middle-aged."  Now, it's more like the late morning of youth or the final entrance into adulthood.  I don't feel old, but when I talk to my 18-22-year-old students I sense a distance.

I spent yesterday evening at a dive gay bar in Portland.  It had slot machines and strippers.  I saw a middle-aged woman walk in, lose a solid amount of cash on the slots and then leave.  There were half has many strippers as there were customers and they were hungry for work.  One came over and leaned into me.  He had terrible breath and an irritating personality.  I looked at my phone and realized that I would be 35 in one hour and somehow all of my previous 35 years had led me to this particular bar.  I went back to the hotel.

I spent today driving down the Oregon coast.  It was rainy  I stopped periodically and contemplated the high waves.  On better days and in better seasons, I could have spotted some whales.  I also would have been surrounded by crowds.  I liked the way I spent today.  It was peaceful.  I always liked the winter more than the summer.

There's a lot I could write about, how little I feel I've accomplished so far in life, the disappointments, the friends I wish I hadn't lost contact with and the missteps.  Right now, though, I'm thinking of the accidents in life that lead someone to be in a certain place at a certain time doing the work that he is doing, being around the people he is around.  Ten years ago, I was up for a job as an arts editor at the Honolulu Weekly.  I was one of two final candidates.  They gave the job to an islander, and so instead of moving to Hawaii, I took my savings and went to Eastern Europe.  I worked for a few months for a newspaper in Bulgaria and then for a year for a newspaper in Latvia.  While in the Baltics, I wrote profiles of a Latvian animator named Signe Baumane and an Estonian animator named Priit Parn.  This led me to apply for a Fulbright to study Hungarian animation in Budapest.  I spent a year in Budapest and came home right at the time of the financial crisis.  What to do?  I applied to grad school, and now I've spent two years doing an MA in Iowa City, and four years pursuing a Ph.D. in Seattle.  My first peer reviewed article, based on interviews I conducted in Budapest seven years ago, will be published this spring.  If I had gotten that job in Hawaii, I would be in a very different place right now.  

There are the things you can't control.  There are the things you think you can.  Last year, around the time of my 34th birthday, I made a list of all the things I would tell my 15-year-old self.  I sent them to a friend of mine.  This is a slightly edited version.

1.     Everyone has prejudices.  That includes you.      
2.     Most people don’t know what they’re talking about.  That includes you.
3.  You have no idea how many of your beliefs will change over the years.  Your 35-year-old self will still support the Democratic Party, still be in favor of gay marriage and still be pro-choice, but he won’t recognize the attitudes you express on a day-to-day basis. Outside of murder and rape being wrong, cancer sucking, and no war being a good war, never stop questioning.  
4.     Smoke marijuana, but don’t do it more than three times/month.
5.     Get drunk at least once.  You are a lightweight.  This will never change and that’s okay.  Many people enjoy getting drunk, but you don’t.  That’s okay. 
6.     Any given person’s political/religious beliefs are usually uninteresting.  A person can have uninteresting beliefs but still be interesting.
7.     You never have to get an A.  Let me repeat that.  YOU NEVER HAVE TO GET AN A.  Nurture your talents, but don’t be afraid to rigorously pursue subjects in which you will never earn more than a D plus.  Your 35-year-old self practices yoga almost every day and is trying to learn a Slavic language.  He’s terrible at both.  People tell you to always try hard.  The better advice is to increase your tolerance for humiliation.
8.     All status is bullshit.  There is no binary between success and failure.  There’s no such thing as a “loser.”  
9. You know nothing about any country until you’ve visited it.  After you’ve visited it, you’ll know even less.
10. Your high school is a very small place, but there’re more interesting people around you than you realize.  Seek them out.  There will always be more interesting people around you than you realize. 
11. Dress well.
12. Go hiking.
13. Get a real job in the summertime.  
14. Learn to like children.
15. You’ve hurt more people in your life than you will ever know.  You’ve also helped more people in your life than you will ever know.  This will continue to happen until you die.
16. On that note, people say awful and hurtful things about you, often without any malice.  Everyone is guilty of this crime, including you.  
17. Only 10 percent of the people you meet have an opinion about you that matters.   
18. Read Philip Roth, Ursula Le Guin, Samuel Delany, James Baldwin, Edmund White, Nathanael West, Walt Whitman, Philip Larkin, The Forever War, The Brothers Karamazov and Cancer Ward.  Jane Austen is better than you realize, but it’s okay to put her back on the shelf and pick her up again in 10 years.  Most people who say they like James Joyce are lying.  Most people who say they like Virginia Woolf are telling the truth.  It’s cool that you dig Faulkner, but you’ll like him more in college.  Read more history and books that explain science to a lay audience.  (You are always the lay audience.)  One of your brother’s college friends has a huge collection of alternative comics.  Raid it.
19. Country music is fantastic.  So is gospel.  Get every Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash record you can get your hands on.   There’s a box set of Ray Charles’s country covers.  Mahalia Jackson.  The Louis and Ella recordings.  Miles Davis’s Porgy and Bess album.  Old Elvis is better than Young Elvis.  Keep going with the Dylan obsession.  In a few years, all music will be free, but you won’t enjoy any of it the way you enjoy it now.   
20. All those things you want so much right now?  You'll get a lot of them in the future, around the time you stop wanting them.   

Friday, December 11, 2015

On Taking Your Pain All the Way to the Supreme Court

The first students to desegregate schools in the South were all excellent students.  It was a no-brainer. If you wanted to prove that black students could thrive and handle themselves in a racist environment, you needed to pick excellent, disciplined students.  Those kids would be the most likely to earn the sympathies of Southern moderates.  It wasn't fair.  It wasn't fair at all.  It's enraging that such concessions were ever necessary.

The woman whose case is now before the Supreme Court is extraordinary only in her extraordinary mediocrity.  She was a good student with a 3.59 GPA in an era of rapid grade inflation.  She did some activities, but doesn't have much of a history of leadership.  Her family wasn't poor.  She isn't the member of any minority, any minority that I can see.  Couldn't they have found the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants who worked 40 hours a week outside of school?   The standard claim against affirmative action is its unfairness towards Asian-Americans.  Couldn't they have found a poor white kid with a similar GPA?  After all, one of the other complaints against affirmative action is that it "privileges" middle-class black people over poor white people.  Couldn't they have found someone who didn't land a job with a starting salary of $60,000 after she graduated from another school?  Good god, couldn't they at least have found someone with even a white ethnic background, the great-great- or great-grandchild of Italian or Jewish immigrants?

I get the complaints against affirmative action.  I think they're wrong.  I think they ignore the reality of the world we live in.  Institutions suffer when they roll back affirmative action programs.  It's not just a matter of correcting a historical wrong.  It's about creating a more just and more functional society.

And the fact that this woman is the best the lawyers could find may be the best argument for the policy on the cultural if not the legal level.  There's a certain kind of person who will complain about her lack of success because of a policy that is designed to help others.  There's a certain kind of person who will be so indignant that she didn't get into the school she wanted to go to, she actually will take her argument all the way to the Supreme Court.  That poor white kid who struggles and gets a 3.59 and that child of Vietnamese immigrants may or may not agree with the policy, but by virtue of their life and their background, they won't suffer from such entitlement.  They were taught early on that life isn't fair and they won't expect everyone to hand them everything they want.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

On Guns

Some people like to carry guns on their belts where everyone can see them.  They like to touch guns.  Americans don't have genes that make us this way.  I went to a shooting range in Latvia back in 2006 where I shot an AK-47.  It was a hollow experience, but the other people on my tour, folks from Scandinavia, Germany and England, couldn't stop taking pictures of themselves with guns.  

A few years before, I went to a shooting range in Maryland with an old high school buddy.  The people who ran the place were good, responsible men.  They walked me through the safety regulations, gave me advice.  My friend let me shoot his pistol.  I barely had the strength in my hands to squeeze the trigger and I remember recoiling at the thought of the power contained within a gun.  I suppose my car has a similar power to hurt, maim and kill, but there's something more visceral about the ability to shoot a man clean in the head, to destroy his life with such a small toy.   

About 11 years ago, when I was in Vietnam, I had the pleasure of having lunch at a wedding with a kind old Party man.  He had met Castro back in the '70s.  He called him an intellectual. He told me about his life in the years after the war, when he was stationed in Saigon.  He had been an officer, but not a fighter and he had to carry a pistol at all times.  He hated carrying that pistol.  A few days later, I went to a small gathering at his house.  There weren't many chairs in his living room, but he demanded that I take his.  He showed me his study.  It was filled with books, but I only remember two of them, Michael Moore's Stupid White Men and a copy of one of Joseph Conrad's lesser-known novellas which, he was excited to discover, included a passing reference to Haiphong.  Our politics were not the same, of course, Castro-hating small-d democrat that I am.  Still, we had more in common than not.  He loved spending hours in a library surrounded by books from which he would note the least significant details because they meant a lot to him, and he hated carrying a pistol. 

This post is not an argument about gun policy.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

On Motives

It's the Law and Order theory of murder: Every crime speaks to a recognizable social pathology.  A sexually frustrated misfit declares his vow to seek revenge on the women who refused him and we call it misogyny.  A white supremacist opens fire in a black church and we call it racism.  A Christianist opens fire in a Planned Parenthood and we call it religious extremism.  In all cases the killers, whatever their grasp on mental health, have declared their motives and we accept them at face value.

We have a habit, however, of seeking such explanations everywhere.  Columbine, we told ourselves, was about bullying.    The crazy news guy, a black gay man, kills his former colleagues on camera and we consider it indicative of our culture's continuing dehumanization via the media.  A college dropout opens fire at a congresswoman's meeting and we call him a Palin-inspired right-wing nutcase.  The first claim is inaccurate.  (One killer was a diagnosed psychopath who would have killed someone at some time and was just waiting for the opportunity.  The other was a troubled kid who fell into his orbit.)  The second claim might be true, but seems a little tenuous.  The third claim was inaccurate as well.  The killer had recently suffered a psychotic break.

Then there are the murders that defy anybody's explanation, like the shut-in who killed a classroom of kindergarteners.

There are two reasons, I believe, for the desire to define motives:

The first is that we all seek out examples of the extreme results of social pathologies we fear most.  If you are a woman who has been harassed at a comic-book convention, the story of a geek who kills because he can't have sex will strike a chord.  If you are a neoconservative who believes we should be bombing Syria, the story of jihadists at home will strike a similar chord as well.

The second is that we need explanations for people who do evil thing we could never see ourselves doing, or to see the roots of these killings as related to social problems, problems that we might, in the long long long run, be able to solve.

This is not to say that the motives don't matter.  I believe they do.  I also believe that the motives in all cases are far more complicated and far more individualized than Facebook memes and political posturing suggests.  I admired the Rolling Stone cover story on the Boston Marathon bomber, because it understood that as much as we would like it to be the case, our most evil citizens and our social pathologies cannot be summed up in a paragraph.