The Listening Post

The listening post during war was an intelligence gathering station focused on monitoring transmissions. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last month – gathering information. I’ve been reading heavily, eating up news sources left and right, reading in-depth articles. I’ve reached the conclusion that we’re truly screwed as a species. That seems facile. Perhaps I could massage it a bit – we’re in challenging times. Spin it up another notch – it’s a great time for creative thinking.

canstockphoto48358399I’ve circled back to a novel idea that I had a couple of years ago and am now putting my nose to the grindstone and churning out words. The sense of urgency is heightened by the upcoming election. This election is probably the most important election of this American’s lifetime. Not just about who wins or loses, but about the very legitimacy of voting in our American democracy.

The voter suppression tactics, some long in the making (gerrymandering), some that have shown up in the last few years (availability of polling stations), and the more recent, blatant sabotaging of the postal service may break our system. And yes, white people, we’re a little late to this game. People of color have been dealing with voter suppression tactics since 1866.

Anyway, these times right now might be later viewed as the good times. Who knows where we’ll be in a year? Writing must happen now.

28114469I just finished reading Margaret Walker’s Jubilee. It is shocking that this book, written in 1966, did not receive more attention and accolades. The author is a black woman who heavily researched and wrote a semi-fictional historical novel based loosely on her grandmother’s stories. The book, which covers roughly the same period and location as Gone with the Wind, is written from a slave’s perspective. It makes me angry that this masterpiece never once showed up on the recommended reading lists in college or in any other predominantly white literary space.

Like a lot of white liberals right now, I’m knee-deep in books about racism. Many were already on my shelves, because my trek towards deliberate expansive reading began a few years ago. I began reading more works in translation, more works by people who had different lived experiences.

As a white woman, it’s hard not to be depressed by the Karen and Becky tropes. Or the 53% who voted for the load in the White House. Or the ones who are now throwing temper tantrums in stores about masks. I never knew entitlement had created so many whackadoodles. And of course, the Whackadoodle-in-Chief talking about those mythical suburban housewives, of which I could be considered one.

canstockphoto53920997I call him a whackadoodle, but that makes him sound less dangerous than he is. Mostly because I think it’s the enablers that bear my wrath. He’s just an organ grinder monkey.  Set up to perform, to distract, to entertain the slack-jawed masses while our rights are being impinged upon, our votes suppressed, our pockets picked clean.

So here we are, in the middle of a global pandemic, with a jackwagon at the helm. I am angry nearly all the time. But it’s an anger that has become tempered, redirected, and incisive. This might be useful. Or it could just be more negative energy out in the world, I don’t know. I often say that emotion without action is just so much noise. Perhaps I’ve written less publicly because it is already so noisy out there.

Despite, or because of, this constant seething state, I’ve become wildly productive. The paralysis in the early months of the pandemic has worn off a bit. Perhaps I got bored with being in that lethargic state. Maybe I’ve got live free or die zipping about in my head. The people who use that mantra, usually gun-waving anti-maskers (sorry New Hampshire), would be surprised how easily that phrase can be adapted to an entirely different ethos.

My adaptation is that I don’t want to live in a prison of my own anxiety or fear. I’m going to be louder, more political, intolerant of views that compromise the health, dignity, or rights of my fellow humans. For people who prattle on about divisiveness, it’s an easy muzzle for those of us who have often valued civility over justice, manners over standing up for others. I’ve always been relatively quiet and introspective, but the alchemy of anger and age is creating an element of fearlessness. It’s go time.

canstockphoto12869795It’s go time for all my creative urges as well. In addition to taking 5 million pictures of annoyed birds, I’m practicing/working on The Green Study Podcast. It’s not going well. I’d hoped to give it a try for September, but when I listened to the first episode, I realized how incredibly boring I sound. How’s that for self-promotion? Anyway, it’s still in the works and at some point in the future, you’ll be able to briefly listen to and then abruptly mute, the dulcet sounds of my musings. I might rename it The Sleepening.

How are you doing? That’s such a loaded question, isn’t it? What’s your mantra?  What are your days like? What gets you through the day?

Fierce Civility

It frequently strikes me how little power I have in the world beyond the interior of my brain. While others have found solace in their powerlessness by fawning over those with power, adopting their language, swearing their fealty, and deluding themselves into thinking that it will somehow rub off on them, I find solace in the fact that I do not matter. That nothing I do has much consequence or meaning in the bigger scheme. I own no banks or armies. I cannot seduce or overpower. I’m marginally intelligent, but have thus far found little advantage in a world that dances with stars and phones in an idol.

canstockphoto466246After the corrosive Supreme Court process, some people are crowing and bragging. Others are blaming and giving out unsolicited advice. Mostly, it’s just more noise.  A good portion of it is online, but to paraphrase Soylent Green, it’s people. Trolls are people. Politicians are people. Republicans and Democrats, racists and snowflakes are people. They all were born and they will all die and they each get to decide what kind of person they want to be in between those milestones.

The point is that individuals don’t get to take cover in ideology to justify behaving badly. How they conduct themselves is entirely their responsibility. They don’t get to point at someone or something else and bleat they started it. They don’t get to shroud themselves in the flag or the Bible or self-righteousness, while being cruel and vicious to other humans. They cannot do this without damaging their character in the process.

I used to give politicians some leeway because it seemed like no matter how decent they were prior to going into politics, they seemed to morph into snake oil salespeople the longer they served. Would you believe that Senator Grassley didn’t always seem like a sack of donut holes and denture cream? My family used to vote for him. I once shook his hand as a Girl Scout growing up in Iowa.

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”

   — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Address, 1964

But the day has come and gone for excusing ratty behavior in the pursuit of a win and encouraging that behavior to gain power. I’ve never had much power, except over who I decide to be. It’s a battle I have to fight everyday. I wake up, read the news, and I have to decide if I’m going to spend the day simmering with anger, or if I’m going to get on with the business of being human and using the very small, very localized power that I have to ensure that my own house is in order before I venture out to tell someone else how to take care of theirs.

canstockphoto6997195Last night, I vetted audience questions for a school board candidate debate. It meant screening out snark and partisan comments, rewriting questions to have broader application, etc. It was a polite process, even when there were tough questions on the table about an upcoming levy referendum, the achievement gap, and other education-related questions. No one shouted. People didn’t storm out.

Candidates considered each question and gave their perspectives. People applauded to thank them at the end. Would it have been more useful with people hurling invectives, the moderator acting more as investigative journalist? I think less information would have been shared, fewer audience questions addressed, and anxiety levels would have been high. No doubt there were disgruntled people, but not inflamed. The whole evening was a lesson in political civility.

“Civility is the natural state for people who know how limited their own individual powers are and know, too, that they need the conversation.”

David Brooks

There is an argument that to wield power you have to win that power and to win that power, you have to put aside your moral compass. So from the get-go, that power is tainted. While people talk about resistance, I go a step further and define it for myself. Amoral people don’t get to turn me into them. They don’t get to take my humanity and twist it into an unrecognizable heap of venom and spitefulness. If that happens, then there is no point in “winning”.

Despite what seems to be delusions en masse, I don’t confuse civility with weakness or canstockphoto16445383cruelty for strength. I don’t confuse “telling it like it is” with truth or decency. I am not led astray by those who would condemn entire swathes of people to being evil, especially by those who say they are Christians or patriots or freedom-lovers. Liars. Your behavior betrays you. Your self-identification is an empty vessel. Your representation is false.

When I listen to the president of this country tell people that they have no right to representation and governance, that they are weak, that they are paid to represent the other side, that the media is the enemy of the people, I do not need to ask that McCarthy-era question. I know that he has no decency, no moral compass, no sense of honor. But that does not mean that he gets to take the rest of us with him.

The whole country wants civility. Why don’t we have it? It doesn’t cost anything. No federal funding, no legislation is involved. One answer is the unwillingness to restrain oneself. Everybody wants other people to be polite to them, but they want the freedom of not having to be polite to others.

Judith Martin

So I hold fast to civility. I look to leaders in the past who led through non-violence and radical compassion and iron kindness. People in power don’t get to make the rules for what kind of person I will be. In the current environment, I’m really going to have to work for it. It’s not easy and I have, at times, failed.

canstockphoto40192237Fierce civility. It’s not acquiescence. It’s not complicity. It’s not silence. It’s the ability to understand that violence and unethical behavior has a temporary quality, but a permanent stain. It’s courage to be decent humans in the face of blatant rage and fear. It is our character under fire that defines us. Those fires are going to get hotter. Practice civility and courage now and often. We will be tested as individuals and a nation. It’s a test I want to pass.

Things I Learned While Away from My Computer

Blogging after a long break means my words feel as wobbly as a toddler learning how to walk. But here I am.

 

canstockphoto1469876I’ve spent the last month reading voraciously, walking miles, getting sleep, reconnecting with friends and family, working out more regularly, and spending a lot of time staring off into space. It’s been good and necessary and I came away with a brain filled with thoughts and ideas and no sense of what to do with it all.

Think Little

I’ve always been a “This Old House” kind of goal setter. In the course of a few episodes or hours, I plan to completely rip out my old life and become someone entirely new. Someone who doesn’t binge watch bad 80s television or eat an entire bag of Ghiradelli Peppermint Bark Chocolates in one sitting. I will no longer be the person who whinges on about writing and drags myself begrudgingly, bitterly, to the gym. I will like people in general and not avoid them like the plague. And it will all happen…tomorrow.

On one of my random library strolls, I discovered Small Move, Big Change: Using Microresolutions to Transform Your Life Permanently by Caroline L. Arnold. While I’ve read similar approaches, her process resonated with me.

canstockphoto293181.jpgLearning to meet small goals, to not let their scope creep through ambition, and to whittle things down to the smallest component, is an exercise in patience. It’s walking as far away from the insta-fix mentality that afflicts late night ads and reality TV as possible. I’m in week three of meeting small goals and it is difficult only in the sense that I must resist my urges to go big, to fall victim to my enthusiasm and unrealistic expectations.

Sound and Fury

There’s a lot of dying and death near me now – aging pets, aging relatives, the roller coaster of illness and recovery and diminishing returns. Winter is only tentatively here – killing everything in sight, but without the civility of covering it up with a blanket of snow. Nothing meets this head-on better than reading Shakespeare. Drafty, damp castles, ribaldry, murders, and words, words, words.

canstockphoto3731968.jpgI’m no intellectual heavyweight, so I was delighted to discover the No Fear series of Shakespeare’s plays. It includes the full text of his plays with plain English on the opposite page. So far I’ve gone through Hamlet and Macbeth. So much of our literature, even our conversation, finds its origins with Shakespeare. For people who love words, whether written or spoken, Shakespeare is worth revisiting. It’s Julius Caesar and Richard III next – apropos of our current political climate.

The Politics of Anger

The news during my break is enough to crush one’s heart. Two mass shootings. The cultural dominoes tumbling down over grabby hands and penis exhibitions. The continuing government’s trend towards authoritarianism and the willful embracing of that by a portion of the population, regardless of moral or ethical conflicts.

The natural and unnatural disasters seem to grow exponentially by the minute. Before I took a break, I imagined all forms of apocalypse, found myself ideologically entrenched and rigid, depressed by the widening crevasse between my beliefs and the beliefs of others.

Somehow, it’s different now, because the question I’ve begun to ask in earnest is: what is helpful? Was it useful for me to read the news twice a day, get enraged and depressed and frustrated about things over which I had little control? Did I act upon those feelings in such a way as to change it?

canstockphoto7124977Shortly after the 2016 election, I did what I felt were the right things. I contributed to organizations that supported causes I value, which are being threatened: reproductive rights and women’s healthcare, the environment, and civil rights. I started volunteering to work with English learners at a local public high school, feeling like I was cancelling out a couple of white nationalists in my efforts. I sent emails and made phone calls and wrote self-righteous, heated letters to politicians.

Still, I was depressed and felt little sense of relief from any of my actions. Nothing I’d done up to this point seemed to make a difference, except for the thing I was actively doing. Giving money, emailing, and leaving phone messages (rarely did I reach a person) – these are all relatively passive things. Working with English learners had a real time payoff every time someone proudly showed me a great paragraph they’d written or told me when they’d gotten their first part-time job.

And then, there is this inexplicable thing – a softening in political attitudes and a desire to not be so angry. Anger made me stupid. My thought processes and words had become twisted. I had to step back and regain my composure. I started with my own words. I paid my teenager money every time I swore in front of her and after the first ten bucks, I stopped. I love a well-placed swear word, but my anger had eroded even basic civility. It gave me a sense of entitlement – to rant, to not even try to sound like a reasonable person.

Next, I sought to neutralize the click bait nature of online or televised news. I used a site blocker on my browser to block the news sites I visited frequently. I still read the news online, but now I have to make a deliberate decision to turn off the blocker and many times that decision is to leave them blocked – the delay makes me mindful. I read most of my news delayed now, by getting The Economist (a serious bang for the buck, but get out your reading glasses – the print is small) and The Atlantic (edifying long form writing). It’s amazing what changing the immediacy of news can do for one’s day.

Reading Rebecca Solnit’s The Mother of All Questions reminded me that anger cannot stay anger – it has to be something else. In Ms. Solnit’s case, it became some outstanding writing on complex issues. I read an article in The Atlantic, “Conservatism without Bigotry” (online title “Republican is not Synonymous for Racist“) by Peter Beinart that has made me really think about how we talk to each other and how to move beyond the shouting of memes at one another. There are so many rational, reasonable voices to counter the provocateurs who seek to divide us.

Moving Forward

My brain reservoir has been replenished. I am well-rested. And I have a lot of things to write about. I’m glad to be back and I’m looking forward to reconnecting with my fellow bloggers, having conversations with readers, and doing my part to contribute a civil voice to the internet.

Fired Up, Part 2: Softening Perspective, Steeling Resolve

Apologies for the length of this post. Like many people, I’m still working through a lot of emotions and ideas following this election. It looks like it is going to take several posts to get it out of my system. See Fired Up, Part 1: Changing Where, When and How I Get Information.

Moral ambiguity is a hard line to walk. In an election where people became tribal and primitive in their powerlessness, where everyone was an us or them, it was hard to feel like an ethical, decent person. I’ve always believed how we behave under fire is truly representative of our character and of our integrity.

canstockphoto9443627It would be easy to say we all failed the test, but many people would decry being painted with the same brush. I can only say how I failed. I got angry, I fumed, I thought of other humans with a degree of contempt. It was easy to get caught up in the maelstrom of emotion on either side, but stepping back, it’s even easier to see the willful ignorance on both sides.

You see, I did not want change. My life is comfortable. I had the fortune of being born white in a country that apparently still believes that is something. I have the fortune of good health and health insurance. I’ve had the fortune of being intelligent. Not as smart as I like to believe I am, but enough to pass tests, go to school, to interview well, to find jobs.

I had the fortune of an inner eye that told me whatever happens, I’d be okay, because that’s the way I’m wired. I have a habit of rebuffing others’ complaints, because like any bootstrapper, I believe we all have the same capabilities and that turning lemons into lemonade is a cottage industry that anyone can manage. I’m wrong about that and in cultivating empathy, I have to remember that I am wrong.

As a woman and the parent of a daughter doesn’t all this misogyny bother you? Yes, yes it does bother me. But an individual’s misogyny, like President-Elect Trump has expressed, is just a reminder that some people are still that stupid. Misogyny on the ground and in my face enjoys a good ole’ screw you and just watch me ace you, moron. I don’t mind being underestimated – it’s a tactical advantage.

avoiddtrumplistThat an unappealing human should say things any civil person would find appalling and potentially criminal, is really nothing to my esteem. Until he legislates the misogyny, he’s just a gross person that I wouldn’t let near my family or friends. He’d be on my personal registry of shitty people I avoid. The fact that now he will have the power to act on his belief system, aided and abetted by his creepy religious sidekick, is a real problem.

Right now, some of his supporters are spending a lot of time doing virulent versions of nanny-nanny boo-boo by ramping up graffiti and verbal and physical assaults on people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, and women. Someone just signed their permission slip. This is a real problem and humans, regardless of their vote, should be angry about this and prepared to step up as witnesses and defenders.

canstockphoto4607292It’s a funny thing how we try to disavow those in our particular demographic when they do something inexplicable. I mean 53% of voting white women voted for Trump. Clearly, I don’t understand most white women. I suppose I could fall down the rabbit hole of theory and speculation, but it will either be condescending or again, just wrong.

And I really don’t get the white power thing. You just happen to be born white. It’s not like you did anything to earn it. It’s not a product of integrity or values or virtue. If you want to be proud of your skin color for its own sake – well, shit. That’s just Hannibal Lecter weird. Maybe it’s generous to assume that we do these things out of fear and out of love, in the hopes of empowering ourselves through numbers – in the hope of saying to others who look like us, we matter. You matter. You are not alone. But the triangulation of supremacy, victimhood and violence is a threat to civil society.

Lastly, religion and politics. It’s toxic. The 1980s and Jerry Falwell happened. The Republican party mainstreamed religious belief systems as a recruitment effort. People began to feel a moral imperative to legislate exclusionary beliefs. The argument is that identity politics, a religion unto itself, has been trying to legislate their beliefs as well, but I find a stark difference between laws that oppress others in the name of religion and laws intended to protect the civil rights of all Americans, not just the ones who have fish decals on their bumpers.

I have no moral high ground here – I was willing to overlook a lot of things when I voted, because the alternative was worse. I’m scared of the people I saw at Trump rallies – their virulence, the angry mob mentality, their t-shirts which showed a shameless racist and misogynistic view towards their fellow Americans. I looked carefully at the pictures, at individuals, at their children – looking for signs of moral decency, looking for their humanity. I wanted to understand, but I don’t.

canstockphoto5824707All I hope is that my fellow Americans’ win is not a Pyrrhic victory. I must not emulate those representatives that gleefully hoped our last president would fail, because that is treacherous schadenfreude, to wish such a thing on fellow citizens. I must hope that things will not be as bad as I imagine they will be. I must not be an asshole by wishing them so.

So what now? For me, I feel the softening around my edges. My rage is not sustainable. My brain never stops at the boundaries of my beliefs. I’ve been thinking a lot about those people that I am scared of, those people I don’t understand and the road ahead.

I’ve been thinking about actionable measures, about what I do when the elected officials  begin to delete people’s health insurance and restrict the bodily integrity of women. What do I do if they persecute journalists and entertainers, intimidate and threaten protesters, enable religious fundamentalists in all their inglorious rigidity? What will I do if the nuclear threat is heightened to the 1950’s-style hysteria? What will I do as hate crimes crop up around me? Will I be paralyzed? Will I pretend that I don’t see?

canstockphoto12192237The tables are turned. To people who value civil rights, reproductive rights, the right to not be a believer, the right to be of a different religion other than Christianity, the right to love and marry who we choose, the right to be whoever we are inside, it feels as if we have been rendered powerless, noisy Tweeters and street blockers, flailing against the machine.

I think about the introspection I might have undergone, if my candidate won. It would have felt like entrenchment, spending the next 4 years defending her against the words cunt and bitch and episodes of domestic terrorism. Much like many Trump supporters have felt about their religion and lack of education and employment, digging in, constantly on the defensive as the world leaves them behind. But entrenchment and reflexive demagoguery do not create good governance.

I’m not ready to paint a happy face on this, but I am ready to say, This is where we are. What matters? What is helpful? How will I live my integrity, live my character in trying times? Who am I going to be during the next four years?

I’ve started with some ground rules for myself:

  • No stupid nicknames. The President-Elect Trump will be President Trump, no matter how many times I want to refer to him as the Pussygrabber-in-Chief. Okay, now I’m done.
  • I will continue to use qualifiers when describing any group: Some, A few of…which is to say, my brush will be as narrow as it needs to be.
  • I will pay attention to the issues and more specifically, to legislation.
  • I will use my writing skills, my phone skills and whatever money I can scrounge up to support causes I believe in and to fight against injustice.
  • I will continue to respectfully engage those people with whom I disagree.
  • I will listen more than I talk.
  • I will defend the things I hold dear: civil rights, the environment, justice and reproductive rights.
  • I will continue to seek knowledge and understanding.
  • I will honor those who fight, here or abroad, to make the world a safer place for others. This means vigilance against unnecessary wars, ensuring aftercare and respecting their service regardless of whether or not I agree with the objective.
  • I will do the best I can to uphold my personal integrity. Walk the walk. Lead by example.

Who do you want to be? What values are you willing to go to ground for? What is helpful or important?

The Green Study’s Guide to Good Manners (or How Not to Get Eaten)

What? ! I was just suggesting you might need a weedwacker for those eyebrows.
What? ! I was just suggesting you might need a weedwacker for those eyebrows.

“My, grandma, what big teeth you have!” Seriously, Little Red Riding Hood, who taught you manners? She deserved to be eaten by the big bad wolf.

Of course, if manners determined who would or would not get eaten by carnivores, the overpopulation problem would become a thing of the past.

When, on this planet, did it become de rigeur to comment on people’s physical appearance in the course of daily life? I’ve been the object of as well as witness to this kind of discourse between humans. It usually earns the purveyor a death stare until they look away (I practice this with my cats, so I’m extraordinarily skilled).

Without knowing someone intimately, comments about appearance are decidedly rude. For self-conscious people, it is a torturous process to ruminate and work through someone’s thoughtless remark. I read enough feminist blogs to get why it’s not even complimentary to give someone positive kudos for how they look. It is generally an element we humans have little control over, especially when it comes to meeting cultural standards of attractiveness. One’s observations don’t always need to be verbalized.

We live in a world that now demands our input on everything. Call this number to vote for this singer, rate this movie, fill out a survey, review this book, down vote or like this. We’re being trained to view everything with a critical eye and that our opinions matter. It feels nice. Everybody wants to know what we think. Everybody wants a helpful comment or ten.

Well, everybody doesn’t. Don’t ask me if I lost weight. It’s creepy that you’ve been paying attention. Don’t tell me you’re jealous that I’m so skinny (this has never been said to me, but to friends). Don’t notice that I dyed my hair or that I’ve started plucking that one long black hair that used to grow out of my chin. Don’t ask when the baby’s due or if I’ve been working out. Don’t say “wow, you have really big feet” or “you have a lot of freckles” or “you need to put some meat on your bones” or “how did you get that scar?”

This kind of conversational banter is impolite and in some cases, offensive. Talk about the weather. Ask me what I’ve been reading. Tell me about your kids. Don’t be a troglodyte. These bodies are the vehicles that brung us, but they are not us and sometimes the things that you are bringing attention to are things about which we’re self-conscious and over which we have little control.

Social conduct has become a Lord of the Flies free-for-all in the name of independence and honesty. Oh don’t even go there. I don’t need your truthiness. It’s a bare minimum request to wish that humans act slightly less contemptible than what is knocking around in their heads. Here’s a few simple guidelines to remain borderline civilized:

  • Do not make comments on people’s physical appearance, unless solicited.
  • Do not assume you know anything about someone by how they’re dressed, their size, color, age, gender or by what they drive or where they live.
  • Don’t ask me how I’m voting, how much I make or if I am going to have any or more kids. I’ll volunteer that information if I want you to know it.
  • Stop revealing intimate details of your life in public on your cell phone. You’re talking louder than you think and we’re all totally grossed out by you.
  • Don’t use the phrase “those people” or qualify offensive statements. I’m not racist, but...
  • Don’t swear, harp on religion, politics or your latest diet in the company of relative strangers. Don’t launch into the men are or women are lazy screeds.
  • Don’t ask me if I take vitamins when I get sick. It’s an unregulated industry. If I sneeze in your face, you’re getting sick, vitamins or not.
  • Don’t sneeze in people’s faces.

Every day, I have to practice the following things, to varying degrees of success, in order not to devolve into a barbaric asshole:

  • Be mindful of the feelings and sensibilities of others.
  • Understand that everyone experiences and sees the world differently than you do.
  • Be kind to one’s self and to others.
  • Question knee jerk beliefs and thoughts.

Nobody gets eaten and the world gets mildly better.

This unsolicited opinion was inspired by Ross at Drinking Tips for Teens (“The Skinny on Skinny“) and Michelle at King of States! (“I’m a fat woman. Here’s what you should say when you see me at the gym.”). And by that human who was rude to me. She tasted like chicken.