Saturday, May 4, 2019

Piaget, Archimedes, and a Defense of the New (and Necessary) Centrism

“Evil exists,” writes the man in my Twitter bubble as a caption to his post, a news piece about a man who tortured & murdered a two-year-old. Were I in the other, right-wing bubble, where it’s a given that evil exists, I’d more likely be hearing a call to disembowel the perpetrator or the liberals who are soft on crime. The Trump era has taught me the fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives. Conservatives assume no one can be trusted, even those who can be trusted, while liberals like me assume the good in everyone. For two years, we’ve been reeling from the blows of every hateful word, each corrupt act, pulling out our hair, chanting, “How could they do this?” It’s time, I guess, to shove past the formal operations stage of development, though I’d argue that far too many conservatives have yet to even reach it. Having reached it, though, too many of us on the left have been content to perch here, looking down at the ones beneath us who fail to even try to make this milestone. Even Piaget was clear that it isn’t an end in itself, that adult life tempers the high ideals of the young adult abstract thinker, and though he, being a serious scientist, didn’t use the word realpolitik, many of us need to recalibrate without becoming utterly cynical, push off from this shore we thought was safe and good, though laced underneath with larcenies with longer half-lives than plastic, as we’re often reminded by those in a particular bubble that often overlaps with ours—the purity left. While we cry out, “How could they do this?” they pounce (hi Glenn Greenwald!) and say, “How can you be upset by this when X has been done in your name?!” This bubble intends to live in the formal operations stage, hang portraits of Hegel and Marx on its immaterial walls, imagining that the privilege enabling them to do so is the fulcrum Archimedes dreamed he could build.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

The Kind of Dream You Have Near the End of the Spring Semester

When the mediocre male student defends the mediocre female student against my utterly fair grading mainly because he loves her and is desperate for her to return his love, it’s a sad chivalry but one I secretly applaud while outwardly chastising him for interfering where he has no business, flooding him with such guilt that he cuts out his own tongue, which floods me with such guilt that I search the streets for the tongue, in hopes of keeping it alive long enough to be reattached. I find it in a planter under dirt outside a coffee bar, a piece of jerky I put in my mouth to reanimate, later finding a cup of water where it softens and flaps in a promising way. The problem now is I can’t get my phone to show me his number. Hours pass as I try to figure this out. People stop by and try to help. A Middle Eastern dignitary passes in a motorcade. The dean would like a word with me. My daughter thinks I should just let it go. In a window of time between security shifts, three thugs come in and begin gathering my things nonchalantly, as though they are collecting trash and not robbing me. When I tell them there’s a tongue in there they drop everything and run. In the end, he shows up fluent as before, something about stem cells, he didn’t need the piece. The woman he loves still hasn’t done enough to earn the grade she wants. I want to tell him she will also never love him, that he is just a foot soldier on her chessboard, but I bite my tongue.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Sonnet for the Republic, 2018



This was the first Fourth of July I can ever remember people joking about civil war
because it felt better to tweet in jest about #SecondCivilWar than to let that sink in.
I know I’m getting older when I repeatedly remark on the watermelon’s ripeness,
that reddening pink that’s so sweet, at the family pool party, where I enjoy the company
and don’t talk about politics—& don’t even want to, there’s too fucking much to say,
I’ve decided to just be kind to the humans I encounter IRL. Floated in the pool
until clouds and thunder, then an off and on of noncommittal rain. Corn in the husk.
Grilled kielbasa. Salads. It’s legal to buy fireworks in my state now. I hate it.
Whether in war or joy, the rocket’s red blare, released by every other Joe or Tyrone,
becomes a fusillade. People on Twitter were writing parody Civil War-letters,
and that trend as a whole was funny in a way that funny trends are usually not,
at least to me. They made me belly-laugh without laughing, that solar-plexus
warming like a hotplate. The home of life-force, all the mystic traditions say,
and though it already feels embattled, it rallies, because what else can it do?

Sunday, July 1, 2018

In 2018, I’ve been working on my feet



In 2018, I’ve been working on my feet, which are, frankly, disgusting. I saw at the calluses with a tool with sharp holes, like a grater. I coax ingrown nails to come out where I can see them. I fumigate for fungus. I paint to hide shame.

In 2018, I’ve been working on shoulder strength, push-ups and planking. The closer I get to the ground, the harder it is to support my own weight.

I work on friendship, work on writing, work on the c-major scale for guitar.

In 2018, the democracy’s battered. I’m getting fatter. Now my dog is on a diet. I study how the president triggers my past powerlessness in the face of my father. Patriarchy is real, so I’m working on my feet and my shoulders. I’m working on my face and my fingers. I’m working on belief.

In 2018, I’m sequestering grief in the opposing big toes where the nails have been buried by the pointy-toed pumps of the eighties. Short of tearing them out, I welcome the pain. I wonder if this counts as self-mutilation. I wonder if, as with laboratory rats, this grooming is a sign of distress.

It is 2018, and thousands of immigrant children are in cages at the border. It is 2018, and the president’s family has made billions of dollars while they charitably give up their salaries. Or they contemptuously laugh at their ridiculous salaries. I bet their feet look real good. I bet they offer them up to subservient faces beneath them.

At night, I cover my feet in cream, pull on socks and let them tenderize. Once I walked eight miles on a beach in the hopes that this would work like an emery board. It was also a way to escape some relatives’ “We got ours” politics. My feet were rougher, not smoother, at the end.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Fight, Flight, and Abuse

There were times when it just seemed hopeless, impossible to escape—the emotional abuse in my childhood home. My family will hate me for writing this. Mostly they would say, let go, it's in the past, and I agree, I've forgiven my father, I miss him and wish he were alive so I could stand up to it completely and thereby disable it, helping him to get free of his layers of barbed defenses. If only it would stay in the past. But not with this president. He has for the past month ordered those working the southern border to separate anyone entering from their children. Some 2,000 children have been taken and caged since that order began. Now he's saying this is the Democrats' fault for not giving him his wall. It makes me sick just to type this all out.

Today, ProPublica circulated audio from one child detention center where children were sobbing and screaming out for their parents, while a man working there joked about how they had quite an orchestra in there. I keep thinking of terrified, disconsolate kids. I keep thinking about the hopelessness of so many of the people who cross. They are seeking asylum, whether they declare it or not. They are fleeing one hell and entering another. But Trump and the people around him, many of them women, poison the air with lies and logical fallacies. They are aggressive about it, and it throws all reasonable people back a step or two. I for one feel backed up tonight. I feel it physically, in my gut. I had the feeling a lot in the months after the election, but it became less so over time; it's back.

What we are faced with is insanity capable of great distortion, complete falsehoods, and violence. Coming up against that, of course: fight or flight. In dealing with my father's unreasonableness as it welled up into abusiveness, I did both, but fought more than I flew. Until a point when I realized that these fights could not be won unless I matched his tactics, which I was not willing to do. Then I withdrew. When I was older and mostly out of adolescence, I had my own place to live and so my withdrawal could be both physical and emotional. But, once by myself, the absolute frustration was still there with me. Disinclined to renew and escalate the battle, even if there might be a catharsis that would change things in at least a small way between us, I often turned that feeling inward. I would smoke more. When I still drank, I would want to get drunk. When I was a very young girl watching it happen to my mother—the movement of words stated calmly to something like a hurricane of rage in mere minutes—I sometimes cried out and pleaded for it to stop. It seemed to me as if life, my life, had stopped and would not be permitted to start up again until the storm had passed. I muttered prayers out my bedroom window, just like I did tonight during yoga savasana, asking for the return of sense, the return of people being decent to one another, being just, compassionate, and not like predatory animals asserting dominance, the more lawlessly the more it is opposed. There were even a few times in my tween years when I did dramatic things like swallow a bunch of aspirin—not because I wanted to die but because I wanted to control the flow of events if I could, throw a strong current against his rapids. Make it stop.

Tonight The New York Times has published an editorial against this "zero tolerance policy" that has led to the incarceration of children away from their parents. Here's how it opens:  "Watching President Trump blame Democrats for his administration's inhumane practice of snatching immigrant children from their parents at the border evokes nothing so much as an abusive husband blaming his wife for the beatings he delivers: Why do you make me do this? I hate doing this! If you'd only be reasonable and listen to me, things wouldn't have to be this way."

I've got to say that, even though we were treated to that sort of reality bending in the course of the hellfire rages of my dad, my father was different from Trump and his administration: It might take a few hours or even overnight, but after an episode, he presented as remorseful and hoping it would never happen again. I don't remember being told, by the more rational, morning-after father, that I had something to do with what happened. The more I think about it, yes, there was some of that mixed in with the relative gentleness and rational-sounding speech tone and volume. Many people consider this conciliatory phase part and parcel of the abuse, but I don't see it that way. For one thing, I've heard tales of completely remorseless abusive parents and spouses. For another, I honestly think he wished that didn't happen, that deep down, he knew it was something in him and not us that caused him to become insanely furious and at times even physically violent. The older I got, the more I'd use those conciliatory moments to make it clear that I no longer believed I had caused the storm by, say, having a different political view during a dinner conversation or deciding I wanted to go away to college; I'd say to him, often with tears in my eyes, that he needed to get help.

My father loved me, and though I didn't always sense that from him because of the demons he struggled with, I knew that to be true, at least as an abstract principle.

This national abuse is much different. Though they are Americans like you and me, they do not seem to bear much love for those of us who have different views. In simple terms, they think it is okay to lock up brown children to enrich the contractors who run these concentration camps and show a few ignorant racists that they mean business about "illegals," and they hate us for thinking it's abhorrent and inhumane, for thinking—reasonably, I believe—that between the two terms of their either-it's-children-in cages-or-it's-open borders fallacy are an infinite number of solutions if there were two sides willing to work together to find it. To be unwilling to listen or hear the other side is a very thoroughgoing abusive disposition. And there is seemingly no escape from it. I feel impulses to violence when I feel helpless to reason with this governing group. Too often, because I don't want to act violently, I turn it inward. There, to keep from self-harm, I try to intercept it somehow. I write about it, as I'm doing now. I wish I could say that that is good in itself, but there are children and parents wondering whether they will ever see each other again sleeping on thin mats on concrete floors. There are people trying to rebuild their lives in Puerto Rico, after thousands of unnecessary post-Maria deaths. More must be done, and I should rest and be ready to help.


Tuesday, June 12, 2018

A Bobby Bandiera Babble




I went east to the Jersey Shore to visit the guru in the bars where he played, with his more than a dozen perpetual fans, wrinkle-cream bleach blondes, grizzled hippies, and mandatory wiry wise guy in fully zipped Adidas tracksuit. He's been called The Human Jukebox, and it's true he channels every cover that he covers, going from Roy Orbison to Hendrix to Cat Stevens with complete and total change in voice.

But it's his guitar work that's his core. In his mid-sixties now, he does it with his eyes closed if he wants to, electric or acoustic, wa-wa or earnest Dylanesque plucks. He toured with Bon Jovi and played with the Asbury Jukes, but the day in day out life for him is standing up in a Jersey bar and working. Now that he's older (he's let the gray come in now), the guitar rests comfortably on the pillow of his modest pot belly, and he appears to be the least stressed person on the planet, just showing up for work, no big, and moving his left hand up and down the frets, strumming with the other, occasionally producing a wail with a lever below the mouth of his guitar.

The first night, we saw him at Jamian’s in Red Bank, a pretty bougie place where we couldn't help but remark that there was an unusual amount of middle-aged people making out, especially in the middle area of the bar, where people stood or sat on tall stools around tall tables; we came to refer to this is the "pheromone zone" of the bar. It was uncanny. Every couple that entered that space became unbelievably amorous. Early in the night, during the first set when we still eating dinner, a youngish couple—a tall man and woman in their late thirties—were getting it on in that zone. They left. Then an older very tan woman whose face had a tautness that suggested cosmetic surgery came in with a man with a bald head that folded into deep creases on the back. They were frenching each other; it was out of control, or it seemed to be since they were at least in their fifties. So, it's important to note, were we. But we weren't used to seeing this. Next another couple came in, a preppy sort of couple. She was tall but no nonsense in her makeup and dress, tan khakis, not trying to look edgy and young like the super-tan, taut-faced woman. But, boom, they sit around that table and it's hands on ass and everything. Finally, a graying man who looked like he could be a professor or accountant came in with a darked-haired woman who was small, a little beaten-down looking, like she's been in a long marriage with an abusive man (think Talia Shire in the first Rocky). Both were in their fifties, too. They entered like they were unsure they should be there at first. A half hour later they're doing something like the lindy bop in—you guessed it—the pherozone, which of course is fine, but they're doing it to everything from Tom Petty to Johnny Cash, occasionally sucking face in the generally hectic process and always, every time, high-fiving each other at the end. These two were clearly people who needed to let loose. I floated the narrative that they had had crushes on each other in high school but never had the nerve to declare themselves, she went on to enter the convent, and he entered a loveless marriage full of weirdness and honest longing à la Big Ed in Twin Peaks.

How to distinguish myself as cool amid so many like-aged people acting out Cialis ads or playing the aged groupie with flat-iron-decimated hair? Every so often, I'd get up from the table and go up to the groupie-zone (just a yard beyond the pheromone zone) to stand back and watch Bobby's guitar work. I was my own kind of cliche. Remembering how Bruce Springsteen used to, as a kid, stand outside the open doors of shore bars and zoom in on the band, absorbing technique, I was a 56-year-old with two private lessons under her belt and zero musical training standing there in a trance, my eyes on his fretting hand. So, really, none of us weren't a type or cliche. Except Bobby. Bobby was just Bobby. His Wiki page notes that fame eluded him. Fame couldn't elude Bruce, because Bruce's will to fame was unbendable. It didn't elude Jon Bon Jovi, although lately it winks at him ironically. And fame didn't elude Johnny Lyon, who didn't really know what to do with it, so he just left it in the foyer until, eventually, it left for greener pastures. But it eluded Bobby, or so the Wiki writer suggests. I'm thinking something can only elude you if you chase it, hard. I'm not so sure Bobby chased fame. He seems content to have raked in the dollars on tour with Bon Jovi. He seems content to go out to these bars and take things one step up from his living room. You get the impression that he'd be playing no matter what, so he might as well play for these fine people at the bar.

The second show we saw was over in Rumson. Now, Rumson's a pretty pricey place to live; Bruce and Patti's mansion is there. The median income is well into six figures, and a lot of its residents work on Wall Street. It's a very white place, too, with like .25 of the population being African American. Down by an inlet there's a bar/restaurant called Barnacle Bill's, and that's where Bobby was playing. Where the night before he played with two other guitarists, tonight he played with a bass guitarist and a drummer. My friend Jane, who's been living in Arizona and taking care of her mom for the past 13 years, knows Bobby and all the Asbury Jukes, having organized Jukefest: Three Days of Peace, Love, and Rock 'n Roll back at the beginning of the century. The Jukes manager told her to make sure she went to both of Bobby's gigs during her rare trip to the East Coast. I and Dana, another of Jane's friends from Pittsburgh, had met up with her for this visit. But when we pulled into the lot and heard the trio playing "Sounds of Silence," we were wondering if this was going to be the same playlist as the one at Jamian's—heavy on the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and due to a birthday request, an unwelcome Eagles tune. Not that any of these covers were bad; it was just that Bobby's best when he plays bluesy guitar.

Fortunately, Bobby changed things up considerably, really getting us off our feet with some Hendrix. That's when I did my stand-up-close-like-I'm-a-musician trying to vicariously absorb his second-nature guitar licks. The same core of a dozen fans was there, too, and I began to love them because I could see how much they loved Bobby, the music, and each other. LeBron and the Cavaliers were losing the last game of the NBA finals on the big screen TV above the bar. There was no pheromone zone at Barnacle Bills; I think the name of the venue alone made that impossible. There were a few old golfer-types at the bar. One of them kept hitting on me until I had Dana draw his eye (Dana's petite and super-stylish in the manner of the Bowie fan she is). Jane stayed at our table, up a level from the bar, until Bobby called her out. She wrote a note for me to hand him: "Jane sez Roy Orbison." He said he'd meet her request, but she had to come down. So she came to the rail overlooking the bar, and he channeled Roy Orbison before breaking into some Dylan, which really fired Dana up. There had been lots of folks dancing hard throughout the set, but the crowd was thinning out to the true believers. By the time we left, we felt connected to the Jersey die-hards, who wished us a safe trip home.

Bobby uses his thumb to fret the low E string, just like Hendrix used to do. Watching him, I vowed to get over my impasse at making chord changes. The impasse has gone on too long. When I got home the next day, I decided I was going to conquer the chord change impasse through faith: just move the hand from B to D without looking. It worked about 1 in 3 times. Just when I think I've got the calluses I need to keep fretting, I notice that I'm not pressing down hard enough on some string or another, and encounter a new level of tenderness in the skin on my fingertips. I don't know if I'll ever be any good at guitar, but at least I'm now getting inside music rather than just standing on the outside admiring the impossible miracle music-making has always been to me.