Archive for the ‘novel, toil & sound, creative writing, short fiction, writing life’ Category

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.

Me & father-in-law Tom
(November 2014)

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.

Here is an excerpt from an open letter I am drafting; I intend to release it within the next couple weeks. Some of you may think I am wasting my time writing a letter like this. I welcome your insights. In the meantime:

I write this letter to you as a person you have shared birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and holidays with, a person you grew up with, a person you sponsored during Confirmation into the Catholic Church, a person who navigated Korean culture with you, a person who partied with you and swam laps with you in high school. I write as a person who has exchanged travel stories with you. I write as a person who has exchanged stories with you about first loves and heartbreaks.

I write this as a man who is forever grateful to the adopted rural-suburban Wisconsin family for the way you welcomed me into your family more than a decade ago. […]

Suffice it to say, 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.

Kewaskum, WI (circa 2012)

This is my non-exhaustive reading recommendation list for white folks. In no particular order:

*-not yet read; it’s near the top of my to-read list

native sonmen we reaped

 

[You can read Part 1 of 2 here]

Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible…until you let the sun in.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

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.

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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)
  • Change:
    • 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.
    • No White Saviors
    • The Conscious Kid
    • Brittany Packnett
    • Austin Channing Brown
    • The Loveland Foundation

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.

BLM KAJ

“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.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

[Tune in tomorrow for part 2 of 2: [a humble list of resources and American black perspectives]

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…”

–Will Cushman (2019), “Lives of the Urban Coyotes and Foxes

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.

fox in a parking lot

Photo courtesy of the UW-Madison Urban Canid Project.

 

From the scrappy leaves of our Box Elder, there is a frantic chirping. Somebody might think it was a bird that had gone a little nuts. But it is a squirrel’s urgent warning. The shadow of the neighborhood hawk glides over me and across the lawn; it swoops near the tree top, and the chirping stops for a moment. Holding dearly to its final breath? The raptorial wraith floats on an up-draft of warm air, and the squirrel’s frantic chirping resumes.

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photo credit: Brian Sullivan, Mcaulay Library

I sit alone here on our hillside backyard that overlooks the vast field of sprouting crop of corn or soybean. I’ve been doing the same thing for over a week now, taking some time away from my work and anxiety, to absorb myself in the plight and flight and roaming of animals through the field. Wolves stalking the scent of stray cattle, a pack of once-domesticated dogs sniffing and grazing the shoots of long prarie grass at the edge of the field, a fox, a badger, a bear, their journeys overlaid with the soundtrack of increased bird chatter, squirrel alarms, and rabbit screeching death in the maw of a roaming coyote. I find comfort in the escape, the what-if in the death of other things.

I haven’t seen Jean in the ten days since she miraculously avoided the night patrols and checkpoints to get across town to help with nearly-catatonic Momma Sharon and Rose and Thomas. Daddy Doctor Daniel is still going in to work, likely trying to drown his guilt in the distraction of the chaotic clinic. This is about all I know. Electronic communications are closely watched, scrutinized for inadvertent confessions of breaking the quarantine. Luckily, the old fashioned mail always arrives quickly and unopened. Even so, Jean and I have only sent one note to the other, she wrote to tell me she was okay, and I responded with, “Good. Be safe.” I suppose I should have written a bit more, told her that I loved her and missed her. Maybe that would have helped with her suspicions that I am a sociopath.

The wind picks up and the sun goes behind a bank of clouds. I stand, stretch and haul my increasingly large gut and ass inside to the TV. I’m going to watch the remaining three episodes of Sociopath King, a documentary reality show about a couple of rival government zookeepers. The winner is decided when it is revealed which zookeeper has culled only the sociopathic humans they are in charge of; the final episode will reveal if the one remaining human in the competitor’s respective cages is a “normal” human.

It wasn’t like Frenchie was political, but it’s the only voice of authority she knew her whole life—other than her parents. And when Daddy Doctor Daniel is at the clinic early in the morning and when Momma Sharon is taking care of the little ones over the last four years, Frenchie was left to fend for herself, slurping her cereal, listening to Our Dear Leader talking through the robot that turned on the speakers every morning. War is peace. Slavery is freedom. Poison is antidote.

Coronavirus.

(Photo by: Cavallini James/BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Yes, a winning slogan. “Poison is antidote.” Since the advent of The Sociopathy Purge Protocol instituted two months after Our Dear Leader (ODL) won election a decade ago, instituted after rigorous-yet-swift questioning and neutralization of the sociopaths in the medical research community—the population has been thinned by nearly four percent. ODL won huge support from the electorate, 93.2 percent of those polled said they were willing to say forever goodbye to at least one of their family and two of their friends. 93.2 percent said they were willing to endure the short term sadness of the bereft for the safety of the country. “United We Stand, Together We Cull.” And wouldn’t you know it? 93.2 percent of the population reported an increased quality of life after The Sociopathy Purge Protocol had done the lion’s share of its work. What had anyone to worry about now that most of the “socioprats” had been eliminated?

That is, until Stratovirus-19 hit. Now the poll numbers are a little more normal. But I am trying to tell my story here. Frenchie is dead. Momma Sharon, kids Rose and Thomas are mute. Daddy Doctor Daniel is wracked with guilt but still goes to work at the clinic. To make matters worse, my wife Jean has lost her job at the Personal Protective Equipment factory—demand is just not what it used to be in the days when sociopathy was discovered not only to be a hereditary trait but also an airborne virus. Now she spends her time illegally over at her sister’s house trying to get them to talk, to cry, to eat the Stratovirus-19 rations of food dropped on the doorstep every week.

the armies in the north are gearing up, their leaders salivating at our weakened defenses and superior, unused medical resources. a whole division of our troops in that region injected disinfectant a couple days ago. and radio silence from Our Dear Leader, the man who said it could be a good idea. “What do you have to lose?”

bleach

photo credit: OnTimeSupplies.com

syringe

photo credit: Valley Vet Supply

but we don’t have any time for those worries, the border is hundreds of miles from here; might as well be a million. especially now that Frenchie is dead. our beloved Frenchie, the youngster with a hell of a fastball—the best opponent could hope for was a dribbler down the third base line for an infield hit; tough to make contact on a 70 mph heater when you’re only 11. but that doesn’t really matter anymore either. I won’t be giving her pitching lessons in her backyard.

my niece is dead after following the advice of Our Dear Sarcastic Leader, a desperate man trying to hold onto his power amidst the national quarantine to combat the spread of the Stratovirus-19, a man whose power was derived from his association with and intimidation of scientists who found the “sociopath” gene and won office on the idea that he—and he alone—could rid the country of sociopathy, “a disease that infects little babies in the womb; but we have no way of knowing until much later, nobody knows, nobody can know who has socio…socioplathy until much much later. One in every 25 people is a socioplath. Orange you glad you know that now?”

A brilliant speaker he is not. yet still he has been able to tap into the conscience of the fearful. some say he’s brilliant, being able to determine that it is people who read books and write newspaper articles have a higher rate of “socioplathy” than any other group of people. “It’s Lizzie who determined all this. a great doctor of medical. a great person; we have a very great friendship; she always tells me what I want to hear. I really like her. and now that we know who’s socioplarthic, we can do something about it. People are saying we should kick them out of the country. Lots of people are saying this, some of the smartest people with the biggest you know whats.”

And this is the kind of talk that wins an election, the last time we had elections. Ten years ago. it is also this kind of talk that distracts me when I’m trying to tell a story about my flame-throwing niece who just died the other day after a lethal cocktail of Tide Pods dissolved in bleach and a deep huff of aerosol disinfectant. Her mother came in from the backyard—the only place she’s allowed to go with her two little ones—and found the aerosol can laying next to the broken shot glass on the kitchen floor. She heard gurgles and ran to the stairs leading to the basement. a horrified scream surely still echoes in the ears of those little kids in tow, Rose age 4, Thomas age 2. and the sight of their sister foaming at the mouth, will play in a loop. they will never get to know her for her prowess on the ballfield, the intimidation she wielded in hurling 70 mph gas right down the pipe. 9 pitches, 3 strikeouts, side retired. a typical refrain for the days she pitched. but all her brother and sister will remember her for is her twisted body at the bottom of the stairs, foam oozing down the side of her face. and their mother’s horrified scream, which itself faded into a gurgle of its own, maybe the last sound they’ll ever hear from Momma Sharon. She hasn’t spoken in 48 hours.

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?

20191006_175848

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.