It’s raining in Fairbanks today. Maybe some of the rain can help put out a few of the 200 forest fires in Alaska right now. It’s the first time since Monday that the skies don’t look like something out of a post-apocalyptic horror movie. You likely have no idea just how pervasive the smoke is. When I blow my nose, I smell smoke in my mucus even though I haven’t been outside for days.
We had well-below average snowfall in most of Alaska this past year, and the lack of meltoff already increased the threat of forest fires this summer, even before summer began. So it’s not entirely unexpected — though, as this is my first summer in Alaska, and I’ve never lived where forest fires were the norm, it’s a thoroughly unsettling experience. I look out my window and it appears, as my university’s official Facebook account put it, “like Mordor.”
What disturbs me about the fires is that most of them were set by people, not by lightning strikes or what have you. This in spite of an state order not to light fires.
And I wonder what would possess people to start the fires to begin with. We’re under orders, but the orders are difficult to enforce, particularly in a state so sparsely populated. So it falls to each person to be accountable to themselves and to be responsible. And hundreds have failed to do so.
Perhaps it’s Alaska’s characteristic culture, the individualistic frontier spirit, that compels people to flout the law so. But I’m not willing to write it off to the culture, particularly when I see this mindset playing out all over the world. It’s disturbing when a person puts their self-interest so far ahead of everyone else’s. It gives rise to oppression and tyranny, when the needs of the few holds sway over the needs of the many.
As we edge closer to the precipice of major climate disruption and the effects of mass extinction, those who grasp power, who selfishly put their own interests over the needs of our entire species — such people hold the keys to the extinction of our own species.
To preserve one’s own species is one of the primal drives of nature. Can we be such fools as to bring about our own demise?
I have likely expressed some of the following sentiments elsewhere in my blog, but I’m too lazy to go through every post to see if this is the case. Nonetheless, this is what is on my mind and heart today.
Father’s Day is always a hard day for me. Facebook fills up with friends posting photos of their fathers accompanied by loving sentiments. Or they post photos of their husbands whose parenting skills they praise.
To consider my own father is tough enough. I’ve written before about him, a sociopath without a capacity of love or an understanding of empathy. It took me a long time and a lot of therapy to come to terms with his illness, to understand why he was the way he was without okaying his abuse.
But harder still to contemplate that I will never be a father.
I closed yesterday’s post with an odd allusion that might not have made much sense in the context in which I put it, so I thought today I’d clarify.
You see, patriotism doesn’t make much sense to me, and here’s why:
First off, patriotism implies an allegiance to a country that either you were born into, or that you have moved to and chosen for yourself. Now, in the latter case, having an allegiance because of a conscious decision you’ve made makes some sense. You determined which country would be the best fit for yourself, and you’ve made considerable sacrifices in order to reside in or even to take up citizenship in that country.
But most people don’t make that conscious decision. They reside in the country they were born in. And though some may disagree with me, I will maintain for this argument that you don’t choose where you’re born.
So, then, what obligates your loyalty to a choice you don’t make? Let’s start by looking at who or what makes this all-important choice. And of all the theories and philosophies and theologies I can think of, it boils down to one of two options: Chance and Fate.
Let’s look at Chance first. This theory assumes that the place and time of your birth is left up to the randomness of the universe. And it’s hard to argue in favor of loyalty to sheer randomness. But, to make my point clearer, let’s look at just how random this chance is. It’s important to bear in mind that nation-states, as we understand them today, are very temporary things. I’m reminded of how my father always referred to “the great 48 states of the United States”. Now, I think my father was aware that there were 50 states when I was a child, but when he was a schoolboy, Alaska and Hawaii had not yet become states, and he could never get that early schooling out of his system. So it’s always been evident to me that what constitutes a nation-state changes over time. And, for a wonderful further proof of this phenomenon, check out this video:
If I had been born at a slightly different time (relative to the very long history of humanity), then my obligation, my loyalty, would suddenly change. So this idea of patriotism is a very impermanent thing.
But now, let’s argue that the time and place of my birth were not random, that some supernatural power (that here, to accommodate all the belief systems that share this claim, I call Fate) had foreordained the time and place of my birth with a specific purpose in mind. Then, suddenly, there’s purpose to the time and place of my birth, which would seem to justify a feeling of loyalty and patriotism. But wouldn’t this adoration be more properly directed to the Fate that put me here? The time and place would be secondary, in this equation.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s argue that this formula still obligates me to be patriotic to my country. If the time and place of my birth were foreordained, it stands to reason that this would be true of every single person who ever lived (because, gracious, there’s nothing particularly special about me). But then, that means that different people are born in different countries at different points of history were all put in their particular locations by this same Fate. And that would mean that every person was obligated to be loyal to whichever of the thousands of countries that have graced this planet over the milennia.
Now, here, I think the fact that I was born in America gets in the way. In the United States, we are taught that our country is the greatest country in the world. (Even though, in many measurable respects–from healthcare to infrastructure to education to sports–we are not #1.) But it stands to reason from the path of my argument that every country could argue for being the greatest country on earth. And that makes no sense.
It’s not that I’m lacking in loyalty. It’s where I place it. And I place it in humanity – a view which is independent of time and place, and which recognizes our fundamental equality.
I am not a patriot. I am a humanist.
I was working on a different story this morning. But I just hit delete, because now I am haunted.
This story (trigger warning: cancer) showed up in my Facebook feed. It features a four-minute video that covers the life and death of a young woman. If you have the emotional space right now, I recommend you watch it.
And I watch that, and it seems that any piffle I could write this morning pales in comparison.
Because life is oh so fragile. And we don’t like to confront the fact that it is fragile. We busy ourselves with a million distractions to keep our thoughts away from the awful fact that every single one of us will die.
And life is so unpredictable. We don’t know when we will die. The young woman in the video had a couple of months’ notice. But some of us get no notice at all.
I look back on my life and see so many opportunities missed. Risks not taken. Chances squandered.
The party I skipped out on because I was too tired to go — the lost chance to spend a few precious moments with friends.
The date I didn’t ask for because I was sure I would be turned down — the missed possibility of friendship or romance.
The injustice I did not speak out against — the forgone opportunity to make the world a better place.
And, of course, I run the risk of wasting my hours and days and years looking back on a life of regret, rather than seizing the moment to better my life, to better the world, thus perpetuating the cycle.
So how do I make these few fleeting moments of life worthwhile? This is a question only I can answer for myself. But it must be answered — before it’s too late.
I can feel it coming on. Most years, it comes around the end of September. I fall into even poorer dietary habits than usual, and pizza, cereal, and ice cream become my mainstays. I have to push myself more to socialize. I run out of energy even if I feel like I’m in a good mood.
And there’s the trick. One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn is that I can think I’m in a good mood when I’m not. I can be happy with some of the more peripheral things in my life–like school or chorus–but still have a deep-seated discontent.
And right now there’s plenty of reason for deep-seated discontent. It really all began a couple of months ago, when I turned 39. Now, I don’t buy into this silly game of being ashamed of how old you are. You should be proud to be a survivor. But, as my hair falls out more and my joints betray me more often and my metabolism disappears, I’m acutely aware that I am middle-aged, and that, unlike in my twenties, I cannot take anything about my future for granted.
It was right around my birthday that I got word that a friend of mine had died. We weren’t really close but we weren’t just nodding acquaintances either. Her death has haunted me these past two months. I don’t think I’m thinking about her any more often than I did before, but now I have to stop and remind myself that she is no longer alive. All the good things I’d hoped to see her do will never come to pass. My next time to see her in class or on the bus or what have you will never come.
All of this transpired not long after I had come to the realization that I am now an atheist. It was a long time coming. For most of my Christian experience I had grave doubts about the existence of God, but I could not express or explore those doubts because of the culture I found myself in. It all came about bit by bit. I left evangelicalism because I was expected to do the impossible and punished when I was unable to do so. I left Christianity when I realized that the narrative of Jesus didn’t make much sense. But the exit from theism was more gradual. When I identified as an agnostic, I explained that it wasn’t really that I wasn’t sure about the existence of God. It was more that there were days I believed there was a God and days that I didn’t. And as time wore on, the days I didn’t grew more common, when one day I realized that I couldn’t remember when exactly was the last day I believed in God.
So I’ve been adjusting to a new paradigm, which is never easy for anyone–even and especially if they tell you otherwise. And, as my thoughts, for all the reasons above, have drifted to the nature of mortality, I’ve had to understand what that looks like, in a very literal sense. In the past, I could picture what existence after death looked like. And that picture changed over time, but it was always there. Now, it is like a friend of mine who was born without eyes. The best that I can imagine what the world is like for him is that he sees nothing but black. But this is not the case at all. My friend sees nothing, and this is impossible for me to grasp. So it is now with death.
Now, this is not to say it’s an impossible concept. The majority of people can assent to the idea that the world existed before they became conscious of themselves and the world around them, that there was a time and place that there was no “me”. And of the remainder who do believe they existed before they were conceived, most will still state that there is no way for them to mentally access a perception of the world before their present existence. And so, I can conceive that existence after I die is just like existence before I was conceived (or was born, or became self-conscious, take your pick).
But just because I can conceptualize this idea, however abstractly, doesn’t mean it is at all comfortable. In fact, I find the whole affair depressing. And I’m learning to cope. And I’m arranging some therapy.
But this round of depression isn’t solely influenced by such morbidity. There is also the sorry state of American politics. Right now, the House of Representatives is quite willing to throw most of us under the truck because it best suits their own interests. And the lower you are in the socioeconomic pile, the more screwed you’re going to get. And I’m pretty low in the pile.
We’re facing a federal-government shutdown come October 1. Now, I remember going through a government shutdown once or twice in my life (I’m not bothering to Google for the dates). And the shutdowns were just for a few days, and the only thing you really noticed was that you didn’t get any mail for three or four days. Then Congress resolved their issues and it was back to business as usual. But the two parties (oh, don’t even get me started on the impracticality of a two-party system) are much further apart now than they were ten or fifteen years ago. I anticipate that this shutdown is going to last a long time. Even as it is, the current sequestration is seriously damaging the United States. Our research labs are having to lay off scientists. Wildfires rage as the fire service can’t provide adequate containment. Preschoolers have lost educational enrichment at a crucial point in their lives. And that’s just for starters.
I’m having to scramble, coming up with alternative plans for finishing my degree, for work and for housing. Twice I’ve had to leave my undergraduate studies because of financial issues outside my control, and I will not allow that to happen a third time. I tire of always scrambling, yet it’s almost all I’ve known.
And so comes the black dog (what Winston Churchill called depression), not because of some quirk in our orbit around the sun (for the record, I’m not diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder, but with major depression), but because of factors outside my control.
Now I have to soldier on. I have to keep appointments and visit friends and keep up on chores and so many other things, regardless of how little energy I have, regardless of how much it physically hurts to do these things. Because if I don’t, I could fall into a deep vortex. I have been at the bottom of that vortex before, though it’s been awhile. I’ve worked really hard to stay out of it, and I will not allow myself to go there again.
Edited 17 Dec 13: I inadvertently attributed a quote of Winston Churchill to C.S. Lewis. My apologies for not double-checking.
Many across the United States are aware that Minnesota is in the midst of a nasty battle for a constitutional amendment (an amendment the Republican-led state legislature felt so important that they had the state government shut down entirely via lack of budget until the amendment was put to ballot) that will restrict the rights of emancipated adults to engage in civil contract (the contract of legally-recognised marriage) and restrict the religious freedoms of churches who wish to follow their beliefs by marrying same-sex couples. This concerns me. Not because I am gay (I don’t think I’m quite marriable). If I were straight as an arrow, I believe this would still concern me. See, this battle is being fought by and large by people who claim they are fighting this battle in the name of Jesus. When I read the Gospels, I see that Jesus repeatedly lambasted those who wanted to embroil themselves in other people’s moral affairs. He actually praised the Pharisees for their practises of personal piety, but then condemned them for legislating everyone else’s morality ad nauseum. This Jesus has been forgotten somewhere along the way.
I’m also concerned because I live in the Twin Cities, what I sometimes call a “gay bubble,” and so many I converse with are utterly convinced that the anti-marriage amendment will be defeated, no problem, and they’ll point to some random poll to prove it. Yet every single poll I’ve encountered has said that, though a tight race, the amendment looks like it will pass. Moreover, I know a number of people who are working at various levels of Minnesotans United for All Families who all confirm my assertion and refute that of my acquaintances. I think living in this gay bubble inures people to attitudes outside the bubble
But as concerned as I am about this amendment, I am even more concerned about a second ballot issue which has garnered less national attention. The proposed amendment would require a “photo I.D.” in order to vote. Can’t afford the fee for a photo I.D.? Well, just head down to your DMV and they’ll make you a special, free voter ID. It sounds innocuous enough, doesn’t it? But then the truth rears its ugly head….
The hue and cry that got this proposed amendment put on next week’s ballot was claims of rampant voter fraud. Extensive studies have demonstrated that this rampant voter fraud simply doesn’t exist. The claim that it’s easy-peasy to just go down to the DMV? Never mind the many mitigating factors that can keep someone from the DMV. Just ask the good folks in Wisconsin. They were told that they could do just as Minnesotans are being told, to go down and get your free ID at the DMV. But then the DMV employees were instructed specifically by the state government to do everything possible to *discourage* applicants from obtaining these voter IDs. (Watch this video to see these tactics in action.) Or voters of a certain political persuasion (read: Democrat) had their closest DMVs taken away from them outright. Never mind that the implementation of this special voter ID will cost in the neighbourhood of $50 million with no clue as to how to fund it.
If this sounds like a diatribe against the Republicans, it is somewhat, but only because they are the ones who have seized upon this issue. (I have diatribes I can write against the Democrats, but that will have to wait for other writings.) Look at the stats across the country. There is a clear correlation between the ease with which one can vote in a particular state and the likelihood that that state will favour one party or the other in elections. (I say this having come from Indiana, one of the more dependably Republican states, which is also one of the hardest states in the country in which to vote. For example, you have to be registered at least thirty days before election time, and the polls close at 6 p.m.—the earliest in the entire country.) The Republican leadership are well aware of this correlation, and have admitted as much. So, on the surface, this is appears to be a matter of one political party subverting the political process to gain control, which is in itself repugnant. (For the record, I agree with George Washington in thinking that political parties are an inherently bad idea.)
But the heart of the issue is much more insidious than a simple power play. It is nothing less than the assertion that some human beings are inherently inferior to other human beings. A couple of months ago, I haphazardly ended up in a debate (I hate debate, or rather what is mislabelled as debate these days) on Facebook with a friend of a friend (there is no enemy like a friend’s friend). I gave him my personal account of how, two years ago, I was nearly turned away at the polls under the existing laws for reasons related entirely to poverty. And this friend of a friend asserted that he didn’t care. He didn’t care about whether circumstances beyond my control kept me from the polls. Furthermore, he stated that he could hear a million stories that were the same, and they still wouldn’t change his mind about ensuring that this repugnant amendment becomes enshrined in the Minnesota state constitution.
He stated it right there: he believes his Story is more important than mine, or those of the hypothetical million others, and by extension, *he* is more important than I or the million others are. And I maintain that the belief that some human beings are inherently better or worse than others lies at the core of most of our social ills.
And that is what this fight—what many fights—are about. It would take unmitigated gall to walk up to someone and say, “Yeah, you know? You could vote just fine last year, but I’m taking away your ability to vote next year.” Of course, most backers of this amendment would dare not express such unmitigated gall to someone’s face, instead hiding behind the anonymity of the ballot box and the socioeconomic, racial, and cultural cloisters that keep nearly all of us from ever truly learning the experience of anyone whose Story isn’t like our own.
Last night I went to a Halloween party. As I rode the bus through increasingly conservative neighbourhoods out to the inner-ring Saint Paul suburb of my hosts, I saw on a number of lawns a maddening sight that was the impetus for writing this article: signs, side-by-side, one saying to “Vote No” on the anti-marriage amendment, but to “Vote Yes” on the voter suppression amendment. This repeated sight angered me because the posters of the signs could not see that both of these amendments are cut from the same cloth of inequality: that homosexually-coupled individuals are inherently inferior and don’t deserve to live lives of the same quality as their heterosexually-coupled counterparts, and that the poor, the disabled, the elderly, college students and anyone else who doesn’t “fit” that look to be marginalised by this amendment are inherently inferior and don’t deserve to participate in one of the foundations of a functional democracy. Both of these amendments maintain that some people are fundamentally inferior to others, an assertion that undermines the very notion of democracy.
And so, I turn back to my earlier illustration of all of us hiding in our own little homogeneous cloisters. We have the gay, the lesbian, the ally who will fight tooth and nail for their own rights and of those close to them, but are at best indifferent to the rights of those who do not run in their own circles. And that is repugnant.
To vote no on both of these amendments is to affirm the dignity and equality of all our citizenry and to support democracy. It is the absolute least we can do. May we do this and far, far more to uplift our species.
A final note: this is my last word on the subject. And I will not be lured into what-passes-for-debate-today on the subject, because there is no possible way you can convince me that some human beings are inherently better or worse than others.
Edited 28 Oct 12 to add a link regarding Indiana voting shenanigans.
Edited 5 Nov 12: I also want to add that supporters of the amendment have stood on the idea that the amendment will “reduce voter fraud.” The evidence of voter fraud is virtually nonexistent, far smaller than the statistical margin of error. Yet this amendment would remove from thousands the ability to vote in order to sift out one or two voting cheats. From a mathematical standpoint, this makes no sense.
Edited 5 November: Fact-checked, figure “hundreds of millions” for implementation of Voter ID measures brought down to “in the neighbourhood of $50 million.” Still way too much for an unnecessary measure
I realised a couple of days ago that, for the first time, I am blogging and have at least a small handful of people reading my writing who do not actually know me face-to-face. This is of course a good problem to have. But it does leave me feeling like I should impart a bit of my autobiography to aid those who are coming into my my blog and the life it revolves around in media res.
I was born and grew up in Southern Indiana. I have three siblings younger than me who all came in quick succession. I was a bright but awkward child, the latter aided by the fact that my father was an abuser, and abusers use social isolation to hide abuse. Thus, I did not really grow up around any children my own age.
When I turned eight, my mother escaped with us and filed for divorce. After a fiasco of my father having temporary custody during the divorce, my mother won custody. However, owing to the abuse, my mother suffered permanent disabilities. Added to the fact that my father did not payand my mother could not get the courts to get him to do so, I grew up quite poor, in a community with a very sharp class divide. This experience made me very aware of class-consciousness.
Once we escaped my father, I took an interest in going to church, in part because it was one of the things he forbade. I ended up in a congregation in the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, and then attended one of their Bible colleges in St. Louis.
During this entire process, I was slowly coming to the realisation that I was “not like other boys”–because I liked other boys. Not knowing what to do, I turned to the authorities in my life–the college authorities–and the short version of the story is that I was required to attend ex-gay “therapy” in order to remain in school. I remained in the “therapy” much longer than I remained in the school, which I had to leave for financial and health reasons.
I relocated to my hometown of, Indiana, and transferred to Indiana University, where I majored in philosophy. This was a misguided choice of major for a few reasons, chief of them being was that I wanted to go into creative writing for at least a chunk of my career. It took me awhile to realise that the Jean-Paul Sartres and Ursula LeGuins are by far the exception in the world of philosophy.
But you don’t make every decision in life. Some decisions get made for you, quite unexpectedly. In May 2004 I received two letters from the. One informed me that I would lose my medical insurance, which I needed for the treatment of disabilities, and the second stated that there would be major cuts to my school funding.
One month later, I boarded a Greyhound for, sight unseen. I only knew two people here, both online–one remains a dear friend. But I had heard great recommendations for the city, and as I researched it, it had everything I was looking for: progressive and gay-friendly (offering me my first realistic chance of coming out), with a large arts community, a stable economy, and good health-care and transit services. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.
I got a job in customer service at Minnesota Children’s Museum, which I held for four years until the museum was hit in the first wave of recession cuts in November 2008, when I was laid off.
I was adrift for a while after the layoff, and I got really depressed. Changes in student-loan laws opened up the opportunity for me to return to college, which I did in January 2012 at Metropolitan State University, this time majoring in Creative Writing where I belonged.
In the midst of all this was a sea change spiritually. After having to leave the evangelical Church for entertaining the idea of living a celibate but openly gay life (which takes more explaining than this format allows), I ended up in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, where I found a safe space to ask the questions innate to my sceptical nature. And those questions led me right out of Christianity. And it was okay. I spent a while with a small Quaker group, and more recently have sporadically attended a Unitarian-Universalist church. I mostly see myself as a pilgrim, always journeying, as one friend put it, “always an emigrant, never an immigrant.” I pick up something valuable wherever I go that I keep.
My day-to-day life now is focussed on school, which I attend year-round. In my free time, I sing with Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus and serve on Metropolitan State’s arts-and-literature editorial staff. I half-joke that I am terminally single. I do, however, live with a bicycle named Wilbur.
This is not the first blog I’ve started. I have maintained a friends-only blog on Livejournal for some time, and tried to keep up a public one there, as well, but continued frustration with the increase in spamming and hacking on Livejournal keep me from wanting to maintain it. I will be transferring my best writing from there to here in due course.
What inspires me to start this journal is the fact that, in January 2012, I will be returning to college to study creative writing. This will be my third attempt at completing a Bachelor’s degree, the first two having been thwarted by financial difficulties, and this one possible only through President Obama’s student loan reforms. I am working to finish the degree before there is the chance to have those reforms undone.
Why study writing? My first majors were in music (an unmitigated disaster, not because of my musical ability but because of the school’s ability to teach it), and in philosophy (how disillusioned I became when I found I was born in the wrong country to be a philosopher–vive la France). The common thread between the two: my desire to communicate a message, my beliefs, my values. However, you can’t communicate clearly through music (or visual arts, my other passion), because everyone wants to interpret your work. I have no desire to be interpreted–if I have not effectively communicated exactly what I mean, I believe I have failed. And philosophy? Well, it helps to have someone actually read your communications.
Ah, you may say, there is nothing guaranteed in the field of writing. You could be living on bread and water your whole life, etc. I have no illusions. This economy is wretched, and it is my personal belief it will never be as good as it was. Because the economy is wretched, well-educated people are having to turn to low-level, entry-level jobs. And that is exactly the issue–try competing against them without that education! Colleges make you choose a major, something I’ve pretty much always detested. I live in the spirit of da Vinci. But the thing is, when employers are looking at these stacks of college graduates applying for a low-potential job, they are not looking at the majors, because, after all, what major is applicable to work that doesn’t really require a degree at all? I may as well pick a major that is at least going to hold my interest until I graduate.
But, then, why this particular major? Because it resonates with my interests and values. My interests abound–I often say I never get bored. The breadth of my interests will unfold in this blog over time, so I will not waste time now listing them. To write means I can write on many subjects. Furthermore, as I said before, I believe in communicating my values and beliefs clearly. One can write such that one is as clearly understood as possible, with no ambiguity. This is what I desire. And I believe in leaving a legacy. I am so often told that I need to just “live in the moment,” and, whilst the advice is good to a point, I believe it’s a terrible dictate for one’s entire life. Lack of forethought is what leads to pollution, wars, and so much else wrong with the world. What if, instead of us thinking of our interests right now, we considered how our actions now affect the world ten generations from now? (I will be coming back to that theme a lot.)
It is my intent to write an article of substance in this blog each day I find myself online. If I’m going to be online–where I find myself a lot–then I need to be productive. I need to start communicating those values and beliefs now, and allow my schooling to further shape and improve what I am already doing.
I look forward to sharing my heart and mind with you, dear reader.