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The End of the Beginning

Like many people I have been holding my breath for the last 4 years, waiting for current occupant of the White House to hit bottom or leave. At first this was figurative, and of late, with the pandemic and everything, it became a literal holding of breath.

This week, I got to take a breath for the first time in a long time. America (barely) decided against hate, ignorance and incompetence. I am trying to take this as a positive step towards recovery, but I think we all know this is the end of the beginning. The work starts now.

Fear

I’ve been in an introspective mood recently, as I try to deal with the psychological and emotional fallout of the pandemic. As I think back through my recent life (and, if I’m honest, into the depths of my past), I am peeling back the layers of ideas and neuroses like layers of an onion, an onion that’s started to go off. If you’ve ever opened one, you find the black dust that sits between the layers. And that dust has had different names depending on the layer.

I used to think that I needed control. All the language I used around my issues pointed to a need to exert control: control of my body, my reactions, my thoughts, my behavior, my surroundings, and my circumstances. Not just control, but control no matter what. There was no room for loose ends or chaos (despite the almost constant chaos around me). A friend from my graduate school days (the height of my control mania phase) referred to me as “man vs his environment”, like a story about a man stranded in the woods, or marooned on a desert island. My adversary was the world around me. I was whipping the sea like Xerxes.

This brought me a lot of grief, and by extension brought grief to the people who were in my orbit. But here’s the thing: what lay behind that desperate desire for control was something more fundamental, and more damaging. Fear. Inside me is a wellspring of fear that doesn’t seem to run dry, and to combat it I have used the poor man’s version of courage, which is control. I sought to control everything around me, everything in my life, as a means to combat the fear I felt. For some things, it wasn’t so pernicious. After all, if you’re worried about your test scores, then the best way to deal with that fear would be to control yourself, study hard, work relentlessly and perform. Maybe a little unhealthy, but this behavior is rewarded in society – in any society. The problem comes when your fear involves other people. Fear of rejection is controlled by doing the rejection yourself, or never letting yourself get close enough for there to be anything at stake. Fear of social isolation is controlled by never saying no to anyone, going to everything, putting up with minor humiliations lest you force people to make a choice between you and another option – it’s a control that’s out of control. And that’s not the worst of it. Fear of an increasingly bold white supremacist bully inhabiting the White House with no legislative checks and a judiciary that’s essentially beholden to him, there’s no controlling that. That’s just straight fear, or Fear, orbited by its handmaiden, Anxiety.

FDR said that the only thing to fear was fear itself, and he was more right than he knew. Fear is one of the most basic, fundamental emotions in life, and not just human life. It’s literally hardwired into the brains of every creature on Earth. But I feel like this is a sorry excuse for my behavioral tendencies. After all, other people seem to be coping with it just fine. They go about their days as though they are not numbered; as though the miasma of this pandemic does not surround them; as though fear is not paralyzing. They are perhaps ignorant, but they are not superhuman

Unintended consequences

I never intended this blog to be a confessional. In fact I was desperate to keep it from being one. This was supposed to be a place to jot down my observations, to do more writing, and to occasionally indulge in some bon mots. But the road to hell is famously lined with good intentions, and I find myself writing more about myself – my boring, boring self. While this is solipsistic at best, I find that I can’t help it. The things filling my head are increasingly more introspective, and more crowded. They need to be let out, like insane children from a Victorian novel, free at least though somewhat likely to cause havoc. So much havoc.

I have paradoxically been a very private person, despite this blog. I have compartmentalized my life (for a variety of reasons, as you can see from the previous post) ,

I find my hands are unaccustomed to writing them down in my paper journals, and so I write here. It doesn’t feel as satisfying and I suppose that’s down to my own old-fashioned tendencies, and my pretension; and to my own laziness. Resigned to my fate, and uncharacteristically willing to “go with the flow”, I am pressing ahead. So … you’ve been warned. From here on, it may get messy. Be patient with me, because I’ve been patient with you all.

Passing

Looking at me, you wouldn’t think that I would be able to pass for white, but that’s something I have unknowingly been doing for most of my life. Listening to Phil Collins, wearing surfer t-shirts, dancing at 80’s nights at grungy college clubs; those things were only the outward indicators. I was surrounded by white kids, who I thought were my friends, who I studied to better mold my behavior to their own. I was white, wasn’t I?

In the 1980’s in NY, I lived in a midtown Manhattan apartment building, surrounded by white families. I smiled and waved at neighbors, and at the doorman and the receptionist. But I was clearly an outsider, clearly to everyone but myself. There were few black folks in our building. It was at the Catholic school I attended where I saw a lot of children that looked like me, riding buses and subway trains from the boroughs, to a safer place where their parents hoped would get a good education. I looked like those kids, but I wasn’t one of them, they made that clear. I was a foreign boy with a strange name, not Catholic. I spoke differently, ate different foods, hell I didn’t even play basketball or any other sport that they had heard of. I was suspicious, like liver hidden under peppers and onions by a parent trying to fool them. I did not belong. So I found a place among the other kids, at the margins. Ultimately, it was the benign neglect of the white kids vs the suspicion of the black kids. It was an easy choice really, and once the die was cast, I had marked myself.

My time in Sudan was an aberration in this regard. Surrounded by people who looked exactly like me, I was forced to face the fact that I was among my own people. That didn’t stop me hanging out with expats, and other folks, although that was mostly socioeconomic. I was also a little too soft, too foreign – or maybe that’s just how I felt.

It was in college that things began to change, ever so slightly. I was in America again, but not the America that I knew. I was in the South, but at the large school across town from the HBU (historically black university). The kids in my dorm were almost uniformly white. My black colleagues sensed my otherness and steered clear, although to be fair I had surrounded myself with white kids, and hence marked as “other”. I went to football games, clubs, coffee shops. I played table top and live action role playing games, more and more marginal. Graduate school more of the same, this time in the southwest. This is when I began to get curious, hanging out with the black graduate students, wondering if I could cross back over. I don’t want to say it was too late, but enough time had passed to make it difficult for me. I had formed my identity around this delusion I’d overlaid onto real life.

Of course, I wouldn’t have much choice. As the country has shifted right, my marginal “whiteness” has disappeared. The feeling that my blackness will be forced upon me in an encounter with the authorities has increased. The hostility towards the various aspects of me (black, Muslim, immigrant) has reached levels I could not have foreseen. My version of passing isn’t going to protect me going forward: not from my neighbors, or my in-laws, or some random person in the park. The only question left is who am I when I am not passing.

Ashen Rain

It’s fire season here in California, where the description of any day sounds like “the opening pages of a Cormac McCarthy novel” (as a friend of a friend said). The sun is red on the horizon and ash falls from the sky as we huddle in our overheated homes, afraid of the air and the death it carries on it. As it does, my heart is doubly sad to think of the places we are losing for at least a generation, with the large redwood stand at Big Basin apparently severely damaged, perhaps never to be the same. That is added to the loss of life, property and livelihood that is happening on a massive scale in the affected areas.

As all this happens, I can’t help but think of the culpability of our “leaders”, who have, at best, ignored or, at worst, exacerbated the underlying issues that have lead us here. The pandemic – while always bringing death – has had an outsize impact, due to the willful ignorance of the current administration, and petty and malicious response to anyone else trying to do something. Climate change has been ignored, and any effort to ameliorate it has been hamstrung. All in the name of a freedom which is essentially the freedom to die more horribly, and live on our knees.

All we want is to breath freely, and hold our loved ones close. It seems that ever more impediments to these simple desires are being arising everyday.

Cowardice: more investigation

Rather than post at length about the cowardice of others, I’m going to ask myself a question: am I a coward? If you’ve been following along closely, I asked myself that question after murder of George Floyd and the subsequent street protests. I did actually take to the streets after that, cautiously venturing out for the first time since the Muslim ban protests of 2017, but that hasn’t really answered my question. After all, I was being extremely cautious, returning before the curfew time that was imposed on the city, or taking part in “family friendly” protests where the likelihood of state sponsored violence was diminished by the presence of lots of little white children. So was I still a coward?

I subsequently listened to this episode of the Code Switch podcast episode (Why now, White People?) which, while it didn’t address my question directly, did give me something to think about. The title refers to why, with the overabundance of extrajudicial and summary execution of black people in America, have White People chosen this time as the time they would take to the streets. There is no pat answer, but there are several lines they follow, and one of them that interested me was the concept of “permission”. White people, by virtue of the sheer numbers of people participating, feel like they have permission to care about this. This made me irate, until I started thinking about it in terms of myself. Maybe it’s not simple cowardice, rather it’s my natural desire to not rock the boat, to conciliate. So I wait till I have permission to be angry, to protest, to speak up – or perhaps a certainty that I am not overreacting. This desire for confirmation/validation of my actions runs pretty deep and may undercut my ability to simply act. I don’t know where it comes from, whether it’s inherent to my personality, or part of my coping mechanism to deal with the white supremacist millieus that I have lived in. Where it came from, it has put the brakes on desire to act on issues that I care about for a long time. Now that I know this, what do I do?

The World As It Is

If you’re listening to the news or walking the streets or (God help you) listening to What Sucks This Week, you know what’s going on out there. The extrajudicial murders, the protests, the hidden conspiracies; it’s all enough to make a man give up on life. What’s left of our hope for the future, when all the signs point to disaster, and our fellows seem indifferent?

I didn’t mean for this to be as morose as it started. I had a story in my head, about what it means to be alive at this time, in my own time. I am not old, but too old to really throw myself into demonstrations, to the expressions of public rage that this situation warrants. It’s a young man’s game, I tell myself, which adds to the feeling that I am a coward. I am in some ways not different from the men (as they overwhelmingly are) who spit conspiracy theories, and gin up rage in the young foot soldiers of the right. Posting memes, tweeting and retweeting, but are they on the front lines? No, they (we?) let the young folks duke it out in the streets, as we sit on our couches.

But, I tell myself, I have a kid. Do I leave my wife with her while I gallavant around town? Do want to let someone else fight for my freedom? Or my kid’s, or my wife’s? Am I a coward?

Grinding My Teeth: Expert Opinions

(Disclaimer: This post came to me from a dream last night, but I think it might actually make some sense.)

I grind my teeth.

This is quite inconvenient, and has come up relatively recently in my life, increasing in incidence after I had a child. After all isn’t this what dad’s do? Worry to distraction and keep it all inside? After all it’s what my dad did.

That’s right! My own Dad grinds his teeth, and has for years. He’s mostly easy going, to the point of almost downright carelessness, so when I first noticed the tooth grinding it was a surprise to me. I remember it most clearly from my 20’s, when I would visit the family home from graduate school. Dad would be sitting and reading in his chair, jaw working away at some problem. In fact, as I think of it, I also recall it from my teens! I feel bad, now, for not asking to him about it, but then that is the lot of fathers I suppose.

I suspect that a lot of it came from work at the time. Dad was working in the Sudanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs during my teens, mostly after the coup which resulted in a military government, which ended up driven by a fundamentalist, kleptocratic Islamist party (go here for a little more info). This government differed from previous ones in that it initially sidelined all the career civil servants, and then began packing ministries with its own (unqualified and corrupt) operatives. In this environment my father stuck around and tried to do what any career civil servant would do: to serve the interests of the nation and it’s people as best he could. To that end he continued to file reports, advise and speak – but no one listened, and occasionally they would do the exact opposite, to the detriment of the Sudanese people. This Sisyphean task took its toll and, eventually, he left the service of his country. While life afterward was frustrating, it was not as bad as it had been, to some extent because he was not watching his colleagues being purged, and not being ignored.

I feel like this parallel well with the current state of affairs in the US response to the corona virus pandemic. Dr Fauci of NAID is emblematic of what many other civil servants and experts of various kinds are going through. They are being ignored at best, and being discredited at worst. Character assassination, if not actual threats of death, are being used to attempt to silence them and bury the inconvenient truths they are speaking. These people are civil servants or scientists who have, by and large, eschewed the material rewards of the private sector to do something for the common good. What’s most concerning about this is that it implies that many of their fellow citizens do not believe in this common good, or that anyone would work towards it. Or worse, they may not care about the common good at all, inasmuch as it might require them to do anything whatsoever. Paradoxically, these people equate not caring about the whole with being somehow patriotic or superior to everyone else. How does this track? While Americans in the 30’s and 40’s made their sacrifices for what the common good seemed to be at the time, Americans now seem to believe that only the most symbolic of gestures are sufficient – and even those should be done by “someone else” (cf. unnecessary flyovers by military craft to thank first responders who would have rather had access to better PPE, a coherent national strategy and, perhaps, that erstwhile patriots actually use masks and engage in social distancing).

Time Dilation

In quarantine, time seems to travel more quickly and more slowly by every measure. The minutes slow to a crawl, the hours leap wildly back and forth, and the days slip by as your beard grows out of control. This time dilation effect seems to be getting more pronounced the longer we’re under lockdown. It has made Ramadan this year more difficult, along with the removal of the social aspects which made it more bearable.

Additionally, the timey-wimey stuff is really wreaking havoc on my patience. As I spend the same/more/who knows time teaching kindergarten, I am running out of stamina. Who can keep this going indefinitely? Even teachers get the summer off, but the concept of “summer” (or “off” for that matter) seem so alien at this point that it’s got me spiraling.

So where does it all end? Is there such a thing as an end? Stay tuned, and I’ll let you know when I figure it out.

Dad’s special day

It’s my birthday and I’m happily confined to my bedroom. I know! I am also surprised! I am laying in bed listening to music, nodding off occasionally. This is bliss. I was allowed to sleep in, I got a fun little home made hat, and lots of kisses.

It reminds me of an old bit from Bill Cosby, Himself (with deep apologies considering the revelations about his behavior). It starts with him making breakfast for his kids, and ends with him being sent to his room, which is where he wanted to be in the first place. Now that makes so much more sense!

I need to apologize to my Dad for all the times I gave him a hard time for his Sunday nod off. Dad, you were right.

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