Random Thoughts from a Much Better Thursday

  • Very little has changed in the material reality of my life. Trump is still an atrocious empty suit; I still have mountains of papers to grade; many students are still paralyzed by fragility or lack of confidence. Yet I feel much much better today.
  • Mac Barnett is awesome.
  • Thanks again to friends and family that were willing to help or just put up with me as I dealt yesterday with my occasional swing into depressive terrain. As promised, the pendulum has swung back into the manic.
  • It can be healthy for me to have these occasional episodes, because it gives me a glimpse into the lives of people who suffer from actual depression. It’s not a choice, it’s not a moral failure, it’s not a light switch. Things change, but sometimes they don’t change much or very quickly. At those times we’ve got to be careful that we don’t say or do things that will make the person feel even worse.
  • Granola bars are tasty.
  • I’m tired of being chastised and gaslit by Trump apologists. I work really hard to be open-minded, compassionate, and intellectually honest. People who try to convince me that I’m not — well, haters gonna hate.
  • I’m working on Part Two of my Resisting Oversimplification thing. Maybe I’ll put in some work on it this weekend.
  • Soon I’ll get to do a thing I’ve wanted to do for a while. Yay!
  • I still don’t know if that horrible rumor is true or not and I still have no way to find out. That still sucks.
  • Some students write some really awesome stuff.
  • Today a student asked to read Nelson Algren’s Nonconformity, my favorite book about writing ever. This was the first time a student ever asked to borrow the book, so I’m very happy. I hope they like it.
  • There’s nothing like a slightly-too-small pair of pants to remind you that you should do more sit-ups and eat less stuffed-crust pizza.
  • It’s tough to teach a text you really love. If students don’t love it (or don’t love it enough) then you might take it personally. And it’s not personal.
  • A student just asked to see my copy of The New Jim Crow after I mentioned it in class. There is no better way for a school day to end. We’re done here.

Random Thoughts from a Terrible Wednesday

  • It’s very difficult to grade papers in the midst of an existential crisis of despair.
  • I struggle with great pain to remain hopeful in a world so filled with people who ignore the pain of others, and blind themselves with certainty about Truth.
  • Ideology and cowardice make people do terrible things. All my life I have struggled to inspire people to transcend ideology and summon courage. Days like today (Betsy DeVos, fragile children, demons in my head) fill me with despair.
  • “the only true defeat is to be capable of playing a part in the world, and playing no part at all.” — Nelson Algren, Nonconformity (c. 1950) p. 50
  • Happy birthday to my brother Mark. I wish I could be more positive and upbeat on this happy day.
  • I am eternally grateful to my friends and family as they wait out yet another swing of the pendulum toward depressive. I’ll snap back to manic soon, I’m sure. Thanks for your patience.
  • Sometimes the most important thing you can do — and the most difficult — is nothing.
  • AP is correct on em dash spacing. Suck it, Chicago!
  • I keep finding stuff to inspire my students to write stories and create real characters and compose great poetry and I have no time to write except for tiny jabbers of tweet-length stuff like this.
  • “When one is peacefully at home, life seems ordinary, but as soon as one walks into the street and begins to observe, to question women, for instance, then life becomes terrible. The neighborhood of Patriarshi Prudy (a park and street in Moscow) looks quiet and peaceful, but in reality life there is hell.” — Anton Chekhov, Notebooks (Dude was tweeting back in 1901.)
  • Any teacher who feels that s/he is good enough should not be teaching.
  • It’s hard to be satisfied with a day’s work when you know it’s never good enough.
  • I’ve made some really cool presentations for classes over the years.
  • When I can’t even finish one stack of papers in a day of grading, I feel like a failure.
  • I heard some horrible news recently but I have no way of finding out if it’s truth or rumor.
  • Alan Watts is awesome.

The Didactic Interview: Sofia Ali-Khan

To confront the existential horror of President Trump, I’m joined by my longtime activist friend Sofia Ali-Khan. We discuss our lives as progressive rabble-rousers, educators, and Americans. We sort through the problems we face and some concrete steps for action. Let’s get to work, everybody!

Links to things we discussed:

Here’s the song at the end, “Simply Are” by Arto Lindsay:

10 Things Every American Should Do When a New President is Elected

1. Read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Know what it says about the rights of every human being on the planet. Be prepared to stand up for your own rights, and be prepared to defend the rights of other humans.

2. Read the United States Constitution. Know what it says about the rights of every American citizen. Be prepared to stand up for your own rights, and be prepared to defend the rights of other Americans.

3. Build community. Wherever governments or other forces try to violate the rights of people, they have less success when people know each other. Meet your neighbors if you don’t already know them. Reach out to friends and family and reinforce networks of support.

4. Pick a specific movement for good and work with other people. I have been a member of Amnesty International for over 20 years, because I believe in its mission to protect the UDHR. Perhaps you’d like to work specifically to help children, or protect the rights of LGBTQ individuals, or stand up for religious freedom, or defend freedom of the press, or preserve the environment. Whatever issue is most important to you, be active and involved.

5. Stay focused on what people say and do. Avoid demonization and oversimplification. JaySmooth from the website IllDoctrine.com once made a very important video called How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist. If you’ve never seen it, please take three minutes and watch it right now.

6. Learn how to be angry for a long time. As I wrote in my book MindWipe:

It’s absolutely essential for people (especially young people) who fight the power to learn how to be angry for a long time. Otherwise the rage and fury will clot your blood and clog your pores. No one will protect you from the exhaustion and emotional toll these struggles will take; you must protect yourself. And in my experience, bitterness and bile are supreme enemies against which you must be vigilant. Nothing will make you burn out more quickly than succumbing to the belief that there’s no point.

The chapter “How to Be Angry for a Long Time” is on the Medium website. Please have a look.

7. Take care of yourself. Eat well, drink water, breathe deeply, and exercise. Watch funny movies and play fun games. Garden, take walks, or do whatever makes you feel good. Resist the temptation to escape into clouds of oblivion or bottles of despair.

8. Made good art. As Neil Gaiman said: “Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art.” Read the comic from Zen Pencils.

9. Find a book about history and read it. I recommend Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States or perhaps East Timor: Genocide in Paradise by Matthew Jardine. Learn about those people and organizations who have resisted violence and oppression in other places and times.

10. Educate others. If you are unhappy with the result of an election, you must know and/or believe things that other people do know know or understand. Use this opportunity to share important facts and perspectives with which others may be unaware. Stay focused on specific things that people can investigate for themselves. Find common ground where possible and challenge everyone to be their best selves.

Deer, Me

There I am, driving in to Sun Prairie this morning on Highway N like I do every day. Public Enemy is on full, Terminator X pounding through my system. I’m getting psyched for the day ahead as I pass the BP station, ready to wake some heads and rattle some cages.

Then BAM something hits my car — OH MY GOD I hit a deer — and there’s a black piece of something stuck to the door, dragging alongside the car and flipping up to hit the window. I’m freaking out and I kill the radio. My hands are shaking and I almost drop my bagel. I take crazy rapid breaths, trying to calm down as I pull over. I put the bagel in the dish beside me and hit the emergency lights.

It was a deer oh god I hit a deer! How could I hit a deer? I’m always so careful. People who hit deers aren’t paying attention but I hit a deer so I guess I wasn’t paying attention oh god that poor animal why did my industrial machine have to kill it? Is my car totally broken now? What the hell just happened?

I get out of the car and realize that a strip of plastic from the bumper is jammed in the the wheel well. I yank it out and drop it in front of the car. I expect blood and deer body parts, but there’s nothing. The bumper gap has exposed a plastic tank, and it’s dripping onto the pavement. I put my hand under — which I immediately realize is stupid, since it could be really hot or corrosive or something — and sniff the liquid. It doesn’t smell of anything.

A guy who lives in the house across the street comes over and assures me that it happens all the time. I ask if I should call the police and he says “Sheriff’s Department.” I ask if I can use his cell phone because I don’t own one. He dials and talks to someone. I look at my car. There’s no deer parts around, and the splotches look more like mud than anything. I look at my hands, which are filthy. I take the strip of broken bumper plastic to the trunk and put it inside. The towel I expect to find is missing. I look back at the road and there’s the deer corpse in the middle of it. Cars are slowly moving around it.

“They’re sending someone,” the homeowner says, hanging up his cell phone. I thank him and try to laugh.

“Whenever I hear about people hitting a deer,” I say, talking really fast, “I always think Oh they weren’t paying attention. What’s wrong with people? But you don’t realize how fast it can happen until it happens to you.”

He nods and says he needs to start packing up his truck for work. We’re a bit of a contrast — here I am in my suit with my pink shirt and pink tie (I totally forget about the LGBTQ-solidarity rainbow flag lapel pin, which surely adds an interesting element into the dynamic), and there he goes with his jeans and Packers jacket, ready to move stuff into his truck as his kids wait for the bus. I worry that I’m coming off like some effete intellectual (which I am), and I think about the perceived class difference and the probable actual class difference and my brain’s just racing.

Two people pull over and a woman asks if I’m alright. I say yes and she drives off. A second guy in a Notre Dame cap nods and stands near me, tapping his cell phone. I tell him he doesn’t have to wait because I’m fine and the car seems okay and the other dude called the sheriff. He just nods and I think Okay that’s weird. Then I look at his white SUV and I realize one of the headlights is gone.

“Oh wait,” I say, “did you hit it too?”

“Yeah,” he says. “I was going the other way and I guess it bounced off of me and hit you.”  He does that thing Scott McCloud describes in Understanding Comics Chapter Two:

The vehicle becomes an extension of our body. It absorbs our sense of identity. We become the car. If one car hits another, the driver of the vehicle being struck is much more likely to say “Hey! He HIT me!” than “He hit my car” or “His car hit my car”, for that matter.

Oh, so I didn’t hit the deer. I mean, I did, but only because it ricocheted off the other guy’s car. Maybe he wasn’t paying attention. Wait, really? Weren’t you just talking about how stupid it is to jump to conclusions like that?

These are the conversations that go on in my head all day every day.

“It could be worse,” the Notre Dame cap guy says. “At least it’s not raining.” He gestures to the sky. “We can enjoy this sunrise.”

“Yeah,” I say. I pull out my iPod and take a photo of the sunrise, which I often do anyway. Oh man he probably thinks I’m some weird arty geek (which I am) but he doesn’t realize I often take photos of the sunrise when I get to school. My brain continues racing. I get some napkins out of the glove box and wipe some of the dirt off my hands. I get out the manual and find a diagram of the engine area. The leaky plastic tank is for windshield washer fluid. Whew.

We wait. I practice being here now and count my breaths. Notre Dame Cap Guy points out that someone is pulling the deer corpse off the road into the ditch. We wave thanks.

The teacher who teaches next door to me pulls over. As soon as I see that it’s her I laugh and approach her car. “I’m fine,” I say as she rolls down the passenger window. “Everything’s fine. We hit a deer.” She asks if I need a ride and I say no. “Thanks, though. I should be in soon.” She nods and heads off.

We wait some more. Eventually a cop car pulls up and an officer approaches us. I think about Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and how different I might feel in this moment if I were a black man. The officer takes down our info — I’m visibly delighted to see that I have an up-to-date insurance card in my wallet — and goes back to his cruiser. A minute later he comes back with a report number scribbled on his business card. We thank him.

“So you’re both okay?” he asks. We nod.

He pauses. “Do either of you want the deer?” he asks. We say no, but I wonder if maybe one of the hunter kids at school would like the meat. Oh well. We pack up and drive off.

I feel really bad for the deer. I hear the line from My Cousin Vinny, in Marisa Tomei’s thick New York accent. “Imagine you’re a deer.” The only thing that animal did wrong was frolic through the prairie at the wrong time. Our industrial automotive fixation killed it, as it kills thousands of other animals every day. One of those hideous, acceptable tragedies that probably could be avoided if we transformed our entire society.

Oh well. It could have been worse.