I wrote The Emergent in order to subvert my very own American heterosexual white middle-class male point of view. As a matter of necessity, as a matter of progress, as a matter of allyship, white America needs to take a hard look at its history of oppression. And that task extends to the world of literature. But I do not believe that established white writers are capable of doing this; they have too much to gain by protecting the status quo.
Though I am certainly not an established writer, I wrote this book to challenge my own status quo. So, in the spirit of necessity, progress, and allyship, I will share at least 60% of my royalties from The Emergent with those searching for their writing voices.
Off and on for the last couple weeks, I have been working on an open letter to you. Sending out the original letter would have had real, direct interpersonal consequences within my adopted family. Because so much was riding on it, I weighed paragraph structure and vocabulary word by word for dozens of hours.
In brief, the original letter was straightforward, and it stripped away all policy issues that we might get hung up on; my idea was that, if you decided to engage in a dialog with me, all that would be allowed in our discussion was POTUS 45’s fitness for office based only on his ethics and morals. And then—perhaps foolishly, perhaps brilliantly—I was going to ask you to consider these two issues before casting your vote.
And we can have that discussion if you would like. But not here.
You see, it occurs to me that most people—liberal and conservative—are tired and scared, whether they admit it or not. 2020 has been non-stop stress and anxiety. But maybe stress and anxiety could actually unite us.
This is to say, perhaps we need to take a long pause once a day and stop drinking from the firehose of anxiety-causing news and doomscrolling. Perhaps then we can focus on the good that our close fellow humans bring into our lives, regardless of political affiliation. Maybe then we can allow ourselves to get in touch with our humanity again.
I mean, I have failed to have any real conversations with anyone about baseball. Where’s the humanity in that?
Maybe you think most of what I’m writing about here is some hippie-dippy bullshit (and if you think I’m a hippie, I suppose we need to get to know each other better, because I ain’t no hippie). Or maybe you, like my liberal friends, think I’m being soft, that I have my head in the sand, that I am being unrealistic.
But my idea here is more realistic than believing that one of two political ideologies is the only way we can move forward. I mean, really, there’s little more that you or I could do right now (or even after the election) than be civically engaged in our communities, and voice our concerns to our elected officials. And vote.
So here it is: more of my vulnerability to make you uncomfortable. But maybe it will help us to truly start prioritizing our individual and collective well-being.
So here it is: the most important parts of my original letter.
I write this letter to you as a person you have shared birthdays, weddings, graduations, and holidays with, a person who you grew up with, who you sponsored for Confirmation into the Catholic Church, who partied with you and swam laps with you in high school, who navigated Korean culture with you. I write as a person who has exchanged travel stories with you, who has traded stories with you about first loves and heartbreaks.
I write this because I am forever grateful to the rural-suburban Wisconsin family that welcomed me more than a decade ago. I write this as a person who has tailgated with you at Miller Park in snow and sun, a person whose commitment ceremony you attended in Milwaukee’s East Side, a person you have shared martinis with, and Old Fashions, and the Champagne of Beers, and the Beer that Made Milwaukee Famous. I’m a guy who has benefitted from your generosity, whether it was your donation to my book project, or a friendly payout after the Niners beat the Packers, or your treating me to a Friday night fish fry at MJ Stevens’, or your warm unhesitating Midwest hug. I write as a person who has waited with you for a deer in 4 AM flurries of November snow in the Kettle Moraine, as a person who has helped you tend your land, mow your lawn, whack your sumac, cut your trees, split your wood, and burn your brush.
I write this letter to you because you have played a part in my life, and/or you have given me perspective, and/or you were a close friend in lifetimes past, or you play an important role in my life now.
I write to you today as a person, not a “leftist mobster.”
I write to you as your fellow American, not a “coastal elite.”
I write to you to find common ground, not to find ways to further isolate us.
I write to bring us together, not to divide.
So I propose something scary: vulnerability. Call me or write in my blog’s comments section (since I am using StayFocused to limit my social media time to 10 minutes a day) and let me know what you think we could accomplish together.
Inevitably, we will find differences in how we accomplish those goals.
And I promise to do my best to be open-minded and be respectful.
But that only works if you can promise the same thing.
No matter a person’s political affiliation (is there any such thing as an apolitical adult anymore?), they are likely to have one of four frames of mind about rioting:
they understand it and condone it as a last resort of communicating outrage;
they understand it but don’t condone it;
they try to but don’t understand it and don’t condone it;
they willfully remain ignorant and don’t take the time to try and understand it
The common denominator with all of these mindsets is that they belong to people who believe that rioting is not an ideal method of communication.
photo credit: Ryan Michalesko/The Dallas Morning News via AP
Today (and in the coming weeks, months, and lifetimes), white Americans have yet another opportunity to choose a riotous or non-riotous future:
The status quo (which continues the unending cycle: invisible racism turning into visible racism, which leads to peaceful protests that often turn violent, followed by blaming and distracting from everything but the root cause; the last phase of the cycle is apathy)
Most importantly, learn what it means to be an ally. As my friend Melissa Roshan says, LISTEN! Assume only one thing: that you don’t know a goddamned thing about the daily injustices of systemic racism. Take action based on cues from people of color.
Support and volunteer for political candidates who increase diverse representation in government, as my friend Dan Knewitz has been doing in Minneapolis for several years.
Donate to organizations like Ethel’s Club so that the voices will be given to “artists, creators, and practitioners working to empower people of color… doing positive work in their communities.”
Donate to after-school programs or schools with missions like Comp Sci High in the Bronx, where my old friend John Campos and the team of educators have made advancements in career opportunities through educational accessibility for under-served populations.
Last week (was it last week? it feels like a lifetime ago), I learned about the first Memorial Day. On May 1, 1865, thousands of freed enslaved people held a parade in honor of the hundreds of Union soldiers they had spent several days exhuming and properly re-burying; the bodies had been hastily buried in a mass grave by retreating Confederate troops only months before.
I was irritated that I had never before heard of the first Memorial Day. Then I saw the George Floyd video.
Then the protests and riots began.
“Los Angeles Protesters were among those who turned out in cities across the U.S. on Saturday to protest the death of George Floyd at the hands of police.” (photo credit: Nam Y. Huh/AP)
The first Memorial Day came back into mind today as I continued trying to process the ongoing peaceful protests and riots across the country. Something occurred to me: the freed men and women who organized the original Memorial Day (Decoration Day) likely had at least two expectations. One, that their gesture would be understood as genuine gratitude for the Union that had, finally, ended slavery. And two, that their gesture would be unmistakably political. The parade, after all, was staged in the very city where the Civil War began: Charleston, South Carolina. Black Americans, in my humble estimation, were signaling that they expected to be recognized and respected for their own outsized contribution to America.
Wouldn’t it also be reasonable for the freed people to expect after May 1865 that race relations in America would be different for their descendants? Some 10% of the Union Army was comprised of black men (there probably would have been more if white lawmakers hadn’t been so afraid of arming too many), and 40,000 black soldiers would die by the time the war was finished. And slavery was over—at least legally and overtly.
After all that bloodshed, as well as 246 years of forced unpaid labor in America and 89 years of building the white ruling class’ monuments to themselves and their hollow documents of life and liberty, the freed men and women must have thought reparations were in order. At minimum, those reparations should have come in the form of good-faith efforts by white Americans to act on a founding tenet: all men are created equal.
And yet here we are again. Protests against racial injustice in America speak a truth that is self-evident.
Protests against police brutality and racial oppression is an American tradition. Watts (1965). Newark and Detroit (1967). 125 US cities (1968). Miami (1980). Los Angeles (1992). Cincinnati (2001). Ferguson (2014). Baltimore (2015). Charlotte (2016). And that is only over the last 55 years. It stands to reason that all the lynching which went unchecked by law & order from the 1870s to the late 1930s was a form of police brutality. Silence was consent. And that resulted in The Great Migration, during which black Americans were refugees in their own country.
Unfortunately, this migration didn’t change the system enough over the years, as there are no major cities in the US—north or south—that have been immune to the unrest over the decades. And even today, smaller Midwest towns and cities (e.g. DeKalb, Des Moines, Davenport, Madison) have seen peaceful protests turn to violence.
It is clear that there is a correlation between oppression and protests-turned-riots here in America. What is not clear, however, is how the protests turned violent. At least not yet with this most recent flare up. I am immediately suspicious of anyone who says with confidence that, “It is a subset of cops” or “It is white supremacists” or “It is Antifa” or “It is the anarchists.” In reality, any and all of these groups could have active provocateurs at the protests. The conditions of racial tension are ideal for any and all of these groups to achieve their aim: to sow discord (albeit for different ends). It is also true that the group(s) responsible for inciting the violence really just depends on which “news” service or social media “friend” can provide an individual’s preferred narrative.
In the end, who instigated the riot in Minneapolis or Anywhere, USA doesn’t fucking matter. The conditions for peaceful protests and riots as they pertain to race are ever-present but often invisible, especially to the white majority. It’s just that now—as at so many other times in America’s turbulent, oppressive past—the conditions exist in which the murder of another unarmed black person is held up and examined in the light from the flames of another burning police car.
Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible…until you let the sun in.
I’ve never been good at humor; I’m really good at anxiety and staring at walls in brief bouts of depressive catatonia. Getting really good at those things these days.
I’m not good at producing humor. I try, but I’m no good at it. I know it when I hear it and usually when I read it. But I can’t tell jokes very well, and I can’t write funny stuff (just look at my FB posts recently), and I am only beginning to experiment with dark satire (see Stratovirus-19 installments elsewhere on this blog). It’s all that much harder these days to just be plain funny without it all wrapped up in blue-state this and red-state that…Conan O’Brien does it by being humble, self-effacing, and recently/usually steering clear of politics (there’s no shortage of comedians doing politics these days, and that’s important in its own right). This is the time we need humor, as serious and goddamned deadly as these times are.
See? There I go again.
But if I die before I learn to tell a joke and comedy can’t bring people together, maybe there’s another way. What follows is not poetry (I used to be okay at that, but not anymore), but it’s me.
Carbon is not a man, nor salt nor water nor calcium. He is all these, but he is much more, much more; and the land is so much more than its analysis.
–John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (p. 158)
Got up today long before my snoozing and snoring co-quarantining beings. I crept down to the backyard and communed with the chilly air, the sunrise, and the chirping of thousands of birds. I tried to hear my beloved cardinals and their distinct calls, but I gave up and leaned back, the light growing a paler orange.
I didn’t want to but I knew I had to go on a run. I rousted the pooch and headed down to the trail along the banks of the Des Moines River heading southeast. A couple people lurked in the brush, cast us looks suspicious or otherwise, and we ran on. About a mile in, two doe crossed the path from their drinking spot in the river about 50 yards ahead and bounded into the brush. I spotted them casually watching us as we passed.
Another doe leaped across the path into the brush a bit later and Frank alerted to it. I think back to a couple lifetimes ago (Fall 2016) when four doe passed by the softball field where we were playing early morning fetch in DeKalb, IL. Frank alerted and ran toward them; fortunately, he saw the size difference and didn’t feel the need to pursue them through the opening in the fence. He would have been trampled, if not humiliated by his inability to get the deer to play fetch with him. He could probably catch a squirrel, but he wouldn’t know what to do if he did. Besides, he’d have to drop his tennis ball to really catch the critters, those taunting ubiquitous tree rodents.
We turned around and ran back the way we came, and I scanned the underbrush near the river, looking for the beaver Nic said she saw the other day; or I was looking for the white feral cat that I once saw skulking on a hunt as I ran by; when I passed by ten minutes later, the savvy bastard had a field mouse freshly killed in its mouth. But on this morning’s run, no such drama. No usual redtail hawks gliding overhead. No owls calling to each other from their roosts after a long night of hunting, as if to say, “It was a good night. Whoooo shall we kill tonight? Sleep well, neighbor.”
I wonder how the naïve young rabbits—those cute little guys Nic and I call Jenkins, Jimmy Carrots, and Baby Carrots as if they were the same ones we named all those years ago in DeKalb—I wonder how they or their mothers ever sleep, what with the deadly graceful daytime hawk drafting before diving and the big-eyed nighttime assassin swooping.
“[Dr. David] Drake hopes the urban canid project can encourage city dwellers to engage with the natural environments around them and inform decision-making among wildlife managers. With a rapidly urbanizing global society and increasing pressure on wild places, it behooves humans to better understand the animals that share their spaces…”
And I wonder if I’ll ever see a wild fox again like the one I saw in DeKalb while oblivious Frank chased his tennis ball across the infield. Red coat ablaze in the early autumn sunrise, trotting confidently from behind the car across the parking lot and into a stand of trees, a fox is the semi-urban Midwest morning.
Photo courtesy of the UW-Madison Urban Canid Project.
“I am a god. I’m not the God, I don’t think.” –Bill Murray, Groundhog Day
A plague is descending on the world…
…as crazy as that sounds, we should make one thing clear: I am not a liar. Quite the opposite, in fact. You will notice—as I chew the fat, compose, consider, or whatever you want to call this—that two intense and mundane mini-epics are materializing simultaneously. It is not an uncommon duality, especially in a time of plague. It is what so many call “madness.” At first, the stories may seem distinct, that there are two…well, you can’t call them protagonists. Two antagonists? two anti-heroes? two tragic heroes? two tragic-antiheroes? Whatever it is you want to call the main character, the fact is—and it is the most important fact for you to know—what is happening to him is not the time-travel to parallel universes that it appears to be; it never is. Whether you call it “madness” is up to you.
photo credit: OnTimeSupplies.com
photo credit: Valley Vet Supply
At the risk of seeming too dictatorial about your experience in this space, don’t get caught up with inexactitudes, inconsistencies, non-binaries, or unlikelihoods: in a global plague, impossibilities happen all the time. While we’re at it, don’t get too bent out of shape about the obliviousness, contradictions, and willful ignorances of our person: Julius. And if you’re looking for symbols or metaphors or parallels or motifs, you may find them. But I wouldn’t hold out hope that Julius will also observe these devices. You see, the fellow I am going to tell you about is not too observant. This isn’t to say he’s stupid; it’s just that Julius is not attuned to such things and will therefore never see symbols or metaphors or parallels or motifs. To be more accurate, he does see them, but he will either move quickly past their significance altogether, or he will misinterpret them. Put another way, Julius rarely sees the things that have flashing neon arrows pointing at them; even more rarely does he see things that have peacock feathers coming out of their ass.
But, dear audience, critic, witness, or whatever it is you might call yourself: you yourself will see things you wish Julius would see. This is all we can hope for. But even in this most extraordinary time of imminent global plague, there is little hope for Julius.
As to what or who or where or why I am, well, suffice it to say that I am the only way a story like this can happen.
Now that we have those things cleared up, a plague is descending upon the world.
When I was a kid, Good Friday meant an annual consideration of death, a full day to imagine what it means to be dead, 24 to 48 hours to re-live a famous death that lasted fewer than 72 hours. It took me decades and degrees in literature to better figure the metaphor and its metaphysical ramifications, not to mention its relationship to the Buddhist nirvana and the Hindu re-incarnation. From a spiritual standpoint, death is not permanent. In the science of memory, it’s only as permanent as remembering. Maybe that’s why people of Christian faith perennially observe death and “Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani?”, and re-birth.
The question is, what color will everything be at that moment when I come for you? What will the sky be saying?
—Death in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief
Death has rarely touched my life directly. Perhaps that is somewhat a phenomenon, as I am in middle age. Perhaps it’s a middle age crisis that I am so woefully underprepared for this COVID moment. I read dark books; I watch post-apocalyptic shows and movies where death is all around. For the love of all that is wholly desperate, I even wrote a novel in which the narrator loses everyone close to her. Is it masochism that leads me to voluntarily experience these things? Morbid curiosity? Training for the inevitable? Whatever it is, I know nothing will prepare me for each time someone in my life dies. Or what the sky will be saying when Death comes for me.
Even before the pandemic, the topic of death was a frequent visitor to my mind. What would life be like, for example, without my wife? Would I remember her voice? Could I cope with the guilt of not remembering the many different laughs she has?
Now I try like hell to avoid catching my death, isolating and reaching out, checking in on my folks several times a week to make sure they are not risking getting caught. Read the headlines these days and death seems even more imminent, if that’s possible. Yet I don’t know how I’ll experience demise up close, especially when it is “untimely”—a stupid term, as all death seems to have terrible timing. Goddammit! Don’t you know I’m trying to live?
There have been what I guess could be called “timely” deaths in my family. In my teens, I touched foreheads at the home bedside of the patriarch, my legendary grandpa, a day or two before he gave up the ghost. In my twenties, I fed hospital applesauce to my mute grandmother, a complicated woman whose complexities were mostly unknown to me until well after she passed a couple days later. In 2010, after a late night in a Busan singing room celebrating Nic’s birthday, I delivered the sobering news of her grandmother, a woman whose passing seemed untimely because we only met once and she seemed to like me and really love my homemade guacamole.
As of today, death would have touched me even less if it weren’t for social media: people I knew ten, twenty, twenty-five years ago are now dead and, with few exceptions, I would know nothing about those high school classmates’ departures if it weren’t for the internet.
I went to a high school with a young woman who, seven years after we went to the Sadie Hawkins dance together, was found strangled in a DC park; a soccer star who got hit by a car; a young lady who lived down the street and was murdered in the front of the high school; a swimming star who overdosed.
I am, in all truthfulness, attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me…Please trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful…just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.
—Death in Zusak’s The Book Thief
In my twenties I sometimes drank like I was immune to death; that alone probably aborted several spiritual re-births. But when you think you’re a barstool poet-philosopher who cannot be touched by death (who thinks that all the dead binge-drinking brain cells will come back to life; who thinks that brain-dead hangover hours will somehow be given back), you eagerly accept your first bartending job and all the free poison you could want. You got that job because a drinking buddy of yours worked at a bar with a fella who had recently died. Maybe it seemed normal that someone fifteen years older than you could die; it was certainly timely for your privileged 21-year-old self. However, many years after those days of immortality when you find out that a different bartender friend several years your junior drank herself to death, life and its maintenance started to take a different shape. Your ritualistic avoidance masked as self-reward was clearly selfish.
Pandemics have a way of reminding you that you have to now live long enough to capture as much as you can of your own voice in writing. Pandemics get you thinking about posterity, have you getting video of your wife laughing all those ways she does as you regale each other with your shared memories.
still feeling my way through this whole quarantine thing.
there are all the comforts and vices around me but I work from home so I must keep them at bay so I can be productive and creative in the mornings and in this hour of seven o’clock and I keep this 717 project on path for the last 3 days and there is much that can derail it but not really because I don’t sleep in but I have found myself sleeping in more each day and as I usually write here on these dumb fucking pages that I will get better that I will do more that I will not drink as much that I will read more and that I will take this time to focus on me and I have stopped reading the news and listen to only about 15 minutes of NPR in the morning.
I have started to think about what I can do after this insidious monster has passed us by. there will be so many who are without work, it will be time to read The Grapes of Wrath again or perhaps a re-imagining of that tale put in modern times and starting with the end of the quarantine; this idea just came out of this whole mass of words and tiptoeing around self-loathing and self-affirmation; but what else do I have now? a lot more than many, I will admit. it even seems that now I have more in regards to punctuation as this note goes along; there is more form, more function, more purpose after the opening paragraph that is full of nonsense like “full of nothing” and there is Cobain singing in my ears, “I’m anemic royalty” and “distill the life that’s inside of me” and the meaning of lyrics and music changes with such times as does the meaning of literature; in my self-absorbed moments of isolation, I think about how my novel may need some more tweaks because the world has changed as such that there is far more unity than there was in any other time over the last two decades; but I think that is only because all we hear is that people are dying and everyone has a similar chance at death or knowing someone who has died or knowing someone who is at high risk of getting infected and dying; as such, we are on our phones…what the fuck do I know about “we”? I am on my phone to my parents 3 times a week, I call my sibs a couple times a week, just the other day I talked for fifteen minutes with a colleague I haven’t seen in five years; maybe there is something in the recreation she chose in the before-times: camping. how about all of us who take this isolation thing seriously take turns going to national parks with our co-quarantined people for a week to re-set, to commune with nature, to get us away from this nightmare that we cannot wake up from; here’s the thing: there likely wouldn’t be too many people who would take this opportunity, such is the mania about places where other possibly infected people have been.
“Somewhere I have heard this before
In a dream my memory has stored
As defense I’m neutered and spayed
What the hell am I trying to say?”
I know. This is a lazy, alliterative title, many of which you may find in the archives on this blog. But I have re-writes and revisions to do. The ideas and notes that started last October are turning into actual sentences and paragraphs that have been missing from the manuscript for years; and I didn’t know how or where to put these words until this week.
As of late, I’ve been corresponding with a handful of people for some historical and musical context in my novel. In discussing music with Donny Olewinski and Dan Knewitz (two 90s grunge nerds I am fortunate to have in my orbit), I shared with them a theory (to be discussed elsewhere on this blog) that I am playing with about the subliminal influence that Alice in Chains’ 1992 EP Sap may have had on some of the images and themes in the novel:
The correspondence with Donny and Dan got me thinking about the role music has played in my writing rituals and how I listen to music while writing.
I listened to Recipe for Hate on the way to work today because in my mind it’s associated with the Friday writing ritual I had in undergrad (namely 1998-1999). I would listen to this album on my Discman Fridays as I walked to Café Matisse to write longhand. Its slashing punk riffs acted collectively as some sort of fight song:
By the time I actually sat down to write, though, I would play these classical and jazz albums, or something very similar:
Why? you might ask. Maybe because the lack of lyrics in these albums allowed me mental space to write a little better. I was, after all, writing in longhand; when I put pen to paper, it was only after several minutes of serious consideration. This isn’t to say that what I put down was perfection. Not by a damn sight. But the music itself allowed for meditation and access to the muse.
In 2000, around the time I got my first reliable laptop computer and started typing my journals, the music ritual changed. And it would entrench itself over the next decade or so. A session of writing was almost always begun with this album:
It is so loud and raw that you may wonder how any writing could come from listening to this. But the music (not necessarily the lyrics) reflected the point of freewrites for me: loud and raw. This isn’t to say that the music itself is raw, as it seems extremely proficient to me; but it is to say that it evokes some pretty raw emotion and thought. Perfect for freewriting. Besides, it sure as shit drowned out any distracting chatter in the places I wrote. Other albums that came into the mix over time were:
Tool’s music was the only of the set listed above that powerfully resonated with me in both musical and lyrical ways. With the exception of how AEnima and Lateralus may have affected the images and themes I was trying to conjure, the hard nature of all this music must have been a way for me to drown out the nagging self-doubt that often leads a person not to even write in the first place. This self-doubt is commonly referred to as “writer’s block.”
I was late to the Chris Cornell scene, but the albums below (and other albums from these bands) entered the rotation ~2007 and helped drown out the self-doubt (and certainly inspired me with their arresting lyrics):
As the book began to take shape in 2004, my writing ritual evolved: I began to divide my time between freewrites and more conscious edits, though the circular-reflexive nature of writing (writing and revising and then revising and writing) made a distinct line quite impossible to delineate. In later stages of drafting a need arose for me to access that meditative quality from my Café Matisse days. Since that was the case, my editing sessions included some of the finest music I could get my hands on:
Most of what I do these days has to do with careful rewrites and edits. I lean a little more toward the meditative side. Maybe that’s because I am getting old. Whatever the case may be, I have discovered a happy medium between the well-worn paths of rule-breaking freewrites and the more meditative qualities of crafting, molding, shaping words and sentences and ideas: a string quartet rendering some of my favorite hard sounds: