Unlove

[from an exercise I did along with my Creative Writing students]

It’s a tickle. Tickle, tickle of something missing.
Like phantom limb syndrome for fins and fishtails and gills and things–
for things we’ll never have.

I saw a report about a man whose hands and feet
have turned to tree bark
as if nature forgot all her boundaries
and was no respecter of persons.

It must be like that
being something
you’re not meant to be

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On reading The Power and the Glory

Strictly speaking, my title is not accurate.

I’ve actually found myself reflecting on Graham Greene’s masterpiece The Power and the Glory not through rereading, but through reading my students’ final written responses to it.

It might be ironic that I’ve found this novel so moving, and have found new value in it by reading the thoughts of students who, by and large, don’t seem to have been moved by it themselves. After all, Greene’s Catholicism is central to the novel’s themes and purpose, and I am a lowly unbeliever.

Yet really, I think the work transcends the pigeon hole many place Greene into. He himself famously objected to critics characterizing him as a “Catholic novelist,” countering that he though of himself as a novelist who happened to be Catholic.

Many of my students have (quite rightly) focused on the protagonist, aka The Whisky Priest, and the sense of “uselessness” he feels in the hour of his execution. But, in the shadow of his death, which was undeserved to be sure but which the Priest does not feel makes him a martyr as he is fundamentally unworthy in so many ways, Greene shows the impact the Priest has had on others around him, the subtle significance of a life lived poorly, yet still bound to a duty outside the self.

Just the other day I was on a short flight. I know many people who are paranoid about flight in a way that they never are about climbing into an automobile, but even I sometimes think while sitting and staring out the little portals on the plane about those “what if’s” that terrorize some people.

We all should from time to time, I think.

How useful would I feel if, as could happen at almost any moment, I found myself facing death?

Greene deserves more than the simplistic label tied to his religious background because his novel offers some really nuanced structure for thinking about this all-too-common question.

His Whisky Priest is a deeply flawed person, but he does not offer platitudes about some etheric grace from above as consolation. Mortality is inevitable, Greene reminds us, but the balm for this fact is not simple religious affection. No, Greene offers us something else. The Priest dies without understanding his impact and only we, the readers, learn about it through scenes that follow his execution.

It’s not grace, but duty that redeems the character. Purpose gives his harried life meaning. He was, ultimately, useful–in ways he could not understand himself.

So, in a further stroke of irony, I wonder if I can fathom out my own usefulness, if I can guess what scenes would follow my untimely death to justify my stint her on this earth–the very thing the Priest could not fully appreciate.

I’ve tried, in as many ways as I know how and with no discernible measure of success, to illuminate the truth as I’ve understood it. I’ve tried to tell the world, or at least a few people in it, what I see. Anyone who fancies himself a writer wants to see his words live after him. If I died tomorrow, though, that seems unlikely. Who knows, though; many great authors like Melville and Kafka were out of print at the time of their deaths, so maybe…

I’d have to look elsewhere, then, to be sure of some usefulness. As the Priest with his flock, I think of my students over the years. I don’t know how well I’ve served them. I’ve tried. Tried to model the kind of thinking, exploring, and questioning mind I think the world needs. But who knows. Like the Whisky Priest, I’m far from perfect and I know I have served these hundreds and hundreds of young minds briefly remanded to my care quite imperfectly. Who knows…

So in the end, this reflection becomes yet another love letter to my own children. If nothing else, I feel useful through them. I see my daughter’s drive and ambition and passion. I see my son’s good nature–his humor, his curiosity, and his unassailable optimism. It’s quite a thing to witness, progeny. The Whisky Priest missed out on this. Perhaps his greatest failing was in not taking responsibility for his own offspring, to be a father. I have surely served my children imperfectly, too, but by luck or good fortune (or my wife’s better nature) I am confident that at the very least, I have helped give the world two souls better than mine.

 

 

The Little War on Rooftop Solar

 

These are my solar panels. There are many like them, but these are mine.

These are my solar panels. There are many like them, but these are mine.

By now–and despite anti-science propaganda from politicians bought off by big oil–most Americans know the score about climate change. Few Americans are fooled any longer and understand that as we use more fossil fuels, we are changing our atmosphere in ways that will impact future generations. Climate researchers point to a future of rising sea levels and less predictable weather systems caused by human activity.

We know now that we, as a culture and indeed as a species, literally cannot adopt clean energy fast enough to offset some of these negative consequences.

Knowing this makes it completely shocking and appalling that electric utilities around the country are actually trying to disincentivize solar power through extra fees on customers with rooftop solar panels.

It should surprise no one that these measures can all be traced back to dollars from the big oil oligarchs the Koch brothers–dirty money propping up dirty energy.

Now these backward-thinking regulations have come to my home town: the Sun City.

El Paso, Texas should be awash in solar energy. With so few days of cloud cover throughout the year, it’s an ideal climate for distributed solar power.

Yet now the El Paso Electric Company has requested a rate change to charge rooftop solar customers an extra fee and has even launched a series of commercials trying to sell the public on their twisted logic.

According to EP Electric, the problem is that rooftop solar customers still use the grid on cloudy days and at night, so the cost of maintaining that grid needs to be represented on their bills.

It’s an argument presented by a reasonable sounding narrator and, in the TV spots, even has a cute little graphic of dollars being distributed equitably between houses–one with and one without solar panels.

But it’s an absurd argument with no basis in reality.

All customers already pay to support the grid–based on how much they use it.

By this faulty logic, EP Electric should look at customers with small houses who need less energy to cool and bill them extra.

According to this bizarre reasoning, when customers invest in energy efficient appliances or energy saving window panes, they should be charged extra because those energy saving measures mean they’re no longer “supporting the grid.”

Rooftop solar panels are no different from any other energy-saving measure in this regard and trying to charge these customers more is worse than a shameless attempt to grab cash from a minority segment of the customer base–it’s actually part of a sinister political agenda to undermine clean energy.

Despite the ad campaign’s implications, rooftop solar customers are not vampires unfairly taxing the electric grid. Quite the contrary.

When consumption is at its highest–during the summer when every house in this city has the A/C on full blast–rooftop solar customers provide an important service, easing the burden of an expanding power grid and preventing brown-outs. In fact, some customers even produce surplus energy, feeding into the grid and alleviating the draw off the main grid from their neighbors.

Let me be clear here. This is not about the money for me. I am a life-long supporter of clean energy and have always put my money where my mouth is. At one time El Paso Electric had a program where customers could help subsidize expansions in regional wind and solar power. For years, I voluntarily paid into this account to help develop this important infrastructure.

No, this isn’t about the money for me.

This is about principle. El Paso Electric should be doing everything possible to encourage rooftop solar adoption, not punish customers with unfair surcharges that reduce the value of the investments they made in the best interests of our community.

It’s a dirty game El Paso Electric is playing and every customer–rooftop solar or not–should rebuke this disgusting step in the wrong direction.

Playing the Victim

Over on The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf has an interesting write up on “Victimhood Culture” as described by sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning.

Contemporary American society has, they argue, evolved away from past modalities based on shame, honor, or dignity into a new paradigm in which people are motivated to fiercely, and typically publicly, decry the harmful affects of oppression, aggression, and microaggressions against them, their ethnic groups, religious affiliations, or other subgroups.

things-that-offend.jpg

I’ve seen a lot of online memes lately celebrating how notoriously fickle our sensibilities have become in the early 21st century (though I often catch those same people expressing outrage over some other slight). From Gamergate to the culture wars swirling around transgender issues and which bathrooms they should use, there’s been a lot of outrage and misunderstanding flowing through the veins of cyberspace.

Campbell and Manning, though, are talking about this behavior as a reflection of assumptions about behavior underlying the conversations we have about issues and identity. Their insights have a lot to say, I think, about the polarized politics of our day. Both sides of the aisle are guilty of playing the victim to defend their ideologies, but this sociological research suggests that this has become more than just a rhetorical strategy and has crept into our deeper selves. I have seen conservatives who complain about political correctness run amok turn around and immediately deploy violent rhetoric at anything they deem to be “Unamerican” (or at anyone who suggest that maybe we should have some, you know, new gun control regulations). Likewise, the left wing is generally quite vocally in favor of tolerance and free expression, unless you’re pointing out the excesses of the tolerance and free expression police, in which case you’re probably a cultural chauvinist or something.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the outrage cycle in our public and political discourse lately. About a week ago I ended up in a spat with someone after posting some negative comments about a video on her Facebook page. The video featured someone knocking Black Lives Matter protests for telling black people to “hate white people,” coupled with some cherry picked videos of black (and even one white person) saying nasty things about police and a clip of Farrakhan saying his followers should “kill those who kill us” or something like that.

I said it was a straw man and an attempt to deflect attention from a real issue.

My reaction really upset her in a way that puzzled me. I was “slamming” and “trolling” and she took it all quite personally. In fact, I was accused of, along with the “liberal minority,” trying to silence her.

It reminded me of what has also happened with my father, who is more conservative than I am. Once upon a time we used to discuss political and social issues with aplomb even though we disagreed on many, many things. A few years back, though, I felt as though he was drifting, along with the majority of American conservatives, into strange territory–the things he was saying seemed less and less rational to me.

Finally, it reached a point where I literally couldn’t even think of what to say to him. It was, he told me, Obama who, rather than being the victim of entrenched prejudice as America’s first black president, was the racist. Obama. Half-black, half-white, Mr. Compromise-so-much-that-even-my-liberal-backers-will-end-up-hating-me. He was the racist. The American Dream Embodied, son of both immigrants and middle-America Kansas-born. He was the problem. My brain locked up. It pissed me off. I told my dad we should not talk about politics, ever again.

Looking through Campbell and Manning’s lens, though, I wonder if my father might not have been turned off to Obama, not through Fox Newsy brain washing like I’d assumed, but by “microaggressions” toward older white males. When Obama used that phrase “typical white woman” to describe his grandmother and pondered the way in which angry whites “cling to their guns,” was he insulting them in a way that in an honor culture might have resulted in a gauntlet being thrown down but today results in years of smoldering political animosity. Was it micro aggressions like this that could make someone so offended by both Black Lives Matter and my support for it?

I’ve been looking through my feed and past posts, looking for such offenses. I guess it’s hard to see your own sins.

The same is often said about our privilege. Me, I’ve long since come to terms with just how snugly enconsced in white privilege I am. Knowing that has not left me much claim to any kind of victimhood. I suppose I am conscious of many things that feel like microaggressions toward atheism, my sole claim to anything resembling “minority” status, but I don’t often step out and solicit outrage on my behalf. Reviewing my past posts and writings, I can admit I’m certainly guilty of defending my profession, but in that case we really are victims!

When all is said and done, we’re probably all guilty of this behavior–both giving and taking offense–to some extent.

Campbell and Manning’s work argues that all of it comes back to questions of culture, but in ways we don’t usually think about. We’re quite accustomed to being fractured along lines of gender, race, religion, orientation, but maybe deep down we have a cultural similarity we’re not paying attention to and which, ironically, is tearing us apart.

We should take stock about what is and what isn’t constructive about this victimhood culture. How is it serving us and how is it not? And, ultimately, should we be pushing back against this thinking in which each of is constructing a self-serving narrative about the wrongs done to us?

First, there is something encouraging in this development. Sociologists point out that these sorts of cultures can only emerge in society’s with a substantial degree of equality, where all parties believe they can find some receptive audience when they air their grievances.

We can at least take some pride in that fact.

However, and I really think this should be obvious, there really are some substantial inequalities that continue to exist in our culture. White privilege, for example, is quite real. The statistics about our justice systems treatment of African Americans make it crystal clear–for the same offense blacks are more likely to be charged, more likely to be convicted, and more likely to receive maximum penalties; and of course, there’s the evidence that minorities are more likely to be shot when involved in altercations with the police. Only someone who is being willfully ignorant will argue that our society is not still vexed by racial inequalities.

And therein lies the real danger of Victimhood Culture. It reinforces our own biases, insulates us in echo chambers of those similarly aggrieved, and may ultimately retard progress toward a healthier dialogue as a society.

What kind of culture do we want to shape for our progeny? Do we want to perpetuate this landscape of dueling victimhood narratives? Or do we want to move in another direction?

Not backward to shame or dignity cultures, but forward to something more constructive.

What that might be I’m hardly qualified to say, but there are two values I would nominate to take greater eminence in our culture.

What if our conversations could be filled with less finger pointing and more fact-checking? Would an empirical culture serve us better? One where–when it comes to politics–instead of arguing about amorphous economic ideologies, we could look at empirical evidence about what kind of government spending really does create jobs and at what rates to people really use and grow dependent upon government assistance. Psychologists and neuroscientists have now shown how prone to defending our beliefs we humans (with our newly developed cerebral cortexes) are, and how we must take great pains to actually think through an issue. Can we imagine a society, like More’s Utopia, where careful, rational consideration of all issues is the norm.

Of course, an empirical culture might be a bit cold.

Perhaps the real cultural shift we need–and I will sound like a broken record here–is toward greater empathy, toward a society where our conversations are more about listening and understanding one another than shutting one another down.

Dare I even hope for both working in concert: Listening, and then Thinking.

Here’s a little ditty…

So here’s a poem called “Thermodynamics” that Arsenic Lobster (which is just about the coolest journal name ever) put up.

 

On Creating People…

Screen Shot 2015-08-05 at 6.27.09 PM

I’m going along, revising my book, my latest little book, by changing all the “stopped” and “plodded” to “stops”and “plods” and I hear these words, all these things my characters are saying to each other, the words that fly between them that I think I really only have some marginal responsibility for and mostly just kind of exist on their own, and I think:

Yes, I am glad you two exist.

(And I am glad I will spend years with you, writing the rest of your story.)

And I don’t really feel they are my creations anymore at all. They simply are. And now I will follow them, write down what they do.

It’s a bit like those other people, the ones who live in my house and kind of look like me.

It’s strange to look at them and just marvel:

You are people, all in your own right and such.

Yes, I just marvel at it all.

New Poem

Check out “Unseen” in the Corner Club Press’s summer issue.