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Enough

From time to time, people close to me have asked me why I decided to get involved with politics, and what I've told them is that after the 2016 election I was upset and angry and depressed. I was upset with the outcome, of course, but even more than that, I was upset because I knew I hadn't done anything to prevent it from happening. I didn't want to some day be on my death bed regretting not having done something.

As I write this, it seems all but assured that a rapist is going to be confirmed to the Supreme Court, and what I keep coming back to is that idea of leaving it all on the field. The idea that you can feel comforted in defeat by the knowledge that you did everything you could. It's that "everything" that gets me, because I know that whatever I have done, I could have done more.

I've had a lot of talks with people over the past year and a half as we've worked together to try to build a movement. At times we all deal with exhaustion, burnout, depression, and what I say to them is this: you have to take care of yourself if you want to be able to stay in the fight. It's not just good to take breaks and recharge, it's necessary. What matters isn't one person's effort, but the collective effort of all of us, working together. You don't have to do everything; you just have to do something. It is, of course, a lot harder to apply that advice to myself than to others.

There were plenty of times where instead of canvassing a neighborhood or registering voters or phonebanking or helping to organize a protest, I chose to read a book or work on an art project or watch TV or something else that feels frivolous on a day like today. In the abstract, I know that never taking time for myself would be self-defeating, that self-care is as important for me as it is for anybody else. I needed some of that time for myself. What eats at me is: did I need all of it?

I'm not so arrogant as to think that one hour more or one hour less of my efforts would have made much of a difference either way, not in a struggle big enough to bind up the entire country. The question is always: what's enough for me to feel OK with myself?

It feels like I'm asking you for something, but this isn't the kind of question that anybody else can answer. No one can give you permission to stop, or absolution if you do. No one can tell you what your limits are, what you're capable of, or how much you need in order to recover. You have to decide all of these things for yourself—which is to say, I have to decide for myself.

I think that being hard on myself helps me go further, but only to a point, and being clear-eyed about where that point is is difficult. I guess that what I hope is not so much that you can tell me what to do, but rather just that sharing a burden might help lighten it a bit. And I don't know everyone who receives these letters, but I've often found that these things go both ways, that when I read about someone else's struggles, I often feel better, too.

So, thank you. And take care.

Seven Years

Dear Eva,

This past weekend we went up to Anaheim and spent two whole days at Disneyland. You brought one of your best friends, and all of us together walked over sixteen miles over those two days. You also went on your first real roller coasters, something you've been a bit nervous about before now. What I mean by telling you this is just that you're growing up, you're getting bigger and stronger and smarter and braver, and I'm proud of you.

What are some other ways that you're growing up? This year you learned to swim, and you've swum both in swimming pools and in Lake Erie. Your reading has really taken off this year, too, and now you're reading chapter books on your own. And in our reading together you've been asking for longer and longer books—we started the Harry Potter series just recently and you seem to be enjoying it. And, of course, you continue to be very serious about dance, and you work very hard at it.

Just all around, you're a great kid. You're kind and smart and a good friend. You're thoughtful, but you know how to be silly, too.

You've been counting down the days to your birthday for weeks now, and now it's finally here. You're seven! I hope today is a wonderful day for you, my girl. Happy birthday! I love you.


Soundtrack: “Let's Go! (Instrumental),” by FEALS. Licensed from Marmoset Music.

Four Years

Dear Mary,

Your mom, Jason, and I came home from Jason's birthday trip tonight, and although at first you were upset that that meant that Nana would be leaving, before the end of the night you'd given me two hugs and a kiss. I always treasure it when you decide to show affection, because I know that it's truly your choice.

This is the thing that everyone notices about you: that you have a big personality and strong opinions, and you are not shy about sharing them. You are smart and strong of will. You don't give up, although you do sometimes change your mind. You have learned to write your name, and you are excited to write it every chance you get. I hope you never run out of opportunities to put your name on things, and that you never lose the willingness to do it. I call you my little bear, and I think you're every bit as powerful as that name.

Today is your birthday, and I hope that it's a great one for you. I love you so much. Happy birthday!


Soundtrack: “Not Over (Instrumental),” by Kid Prism. Licensed from Marmoset Music.

Ten Years

Dear Jason,

As I’m typing this right now, you and one of your best friends are sitting on your hotel room bed, poring over a theme park map to try to decide what we’re going to do tomorrow. Today has been a particularly great day—we’ve been planning this trip for months, and it hasn’t disappointed. Getting to see you having such a great time has been wonderful.

I don’t know what to say that I haven’t said to you a million times before. I’m proud of you every day. You are enthusiastic and kind, you’re a hard worker, and you care a lot about doing the right thing. Over the past year you have become a great reader, too—I know I don’t let you stay up late as often as you’d like, but the fact that you have so often asked to stay up just to finish one more chapter makes me so happy.

More than anything, I’m glad that we have fun together. I’m looking forward to the morning and getting to have more fun with you. I’m looking forward to seeing what the next year brings for you and for me and for all of our family.

Happy birthday, Jason!


Soundtrack: “Summit (Instrumental),” by Hugo Hans. Licensed from Marmoset Music.

Time and Tide

A photograph of footprints on a sandy beach.

This past Sunday I spent a good portion of the afternoon with my newest nephew in my arms. I and my own kids were at my sister-in-law’s house for a celebration, the little guy was understandably unwilling to have to entertain himself at his own party, and I was the only adult around who wasn’t occupied with cooking or some other preparation. I didn’t mind, of course—he’s a sweet kid who smiles easily and has adorably squishy cheeks. More than that, though, it’s been a while since any of my own children were that small, a fact I’m aware of all the time.

Of course, when my father-in-law arrived and told me “That looks good on you, maybe you should think about having another,” my response was to say “Bite. Your. Tongue!” I later told my mother-in-law, truthfully, that I had just been thinking that morning how thankful I was not to have a baby right now.

I’m going to be thirty-nine next month, which is to say that for about six months now I’ve been saying “I’m almost forty.” I love my children, sometimes so powerfully that my breath literally catches in my throat and I feel like I might die from it. But the idea of being almost forty and having a newborn, having all the same midnight feedings and burpings and changings and desperate entreaties to please, just this once, just go to sleep, just give me three hours, just two, having all of that and also my almost-forty knees and my almost-forty back, and three other kids on top of it all... Well, it’s more than either my wife or I want to deal with. We decided a long time ago that three would be it.

And yet, as thankful as I feel to see my youngest out of diapers and writing her and her siblings’ names (on every loose scrap of paper that she can get a hand on), to say, aloud “I am not having another baby” is not without a certain pang, a certain feeling of loss, of grief. Holding my little nephew, I feel the weight of that decision more than I feel the small weight of his body.

Not that this is a new sensation, though perhaps the direction is different now. Four years ago, when we told our son that he was going to have another baby sister, he cried because he knew he’d never get to have a little brother. He loves both of his sisters now; he’s a great brother. He still sighs from time to time about the brother he wished he could have known. Sometimes I sigh about that, too.

What I’ve realized, though, is that what I’m mourning now is not the loss of some hypothetical future child, nor even the passing of my own children’s infancy. What I’ve actually lost, what I’m in the process of losing, is myself—the self that has young children. The self that is young enough to have young children.

Ten years ago I was about to turn twenty-nine and already thinking of myself as “almost thirty,” and my eldest was a scant two months from being born. And I was excited, of course, and anxious about what kind of parent I’d be, whether I’d be up to the task. But I also felt the nearness of the end of that period of my life, the period in which people still called my wife and I “newlyweds” or “those kids,” the period in which, yes, I had responsibilities but no one and nothing truly depended on me for life. As much as I looked forward to what was to come, I couldn’t help but mourn the life I was leaving behind.

The obvious truth is that having more children wouldn’t keep me from getting older. I had children. I am older. What’s always been harder to see beforehand is that whatever I may have left behind in entering a new phase of life, I’ve gained at least as much more. Change happens whether you will or won’t; there's neither sense nor use in swimming against the tide. It's time. I'm ready.

Compassion and Justice

I’ve been thinking lately about abuse, and especially about how it is so often passed on from one person to the next like some sort of communicable disease. It’s something that I’ve had a lot of time to think about over the course of my life, though it’s only fairly recently that I started using the word “abuse” to describe my own experiences.

For about five years in my early adolescence, in middle school and into high school, I was bullied on a near-daily basis, verbally degraded, pushed and shoved, spit on, occasionally beaten hard enough to leave bruises or be given a bloody nose. I obviously spent a lot of time thinking about how this affected me, both at the time and since, but it wasn’t until much later that I started thinking about what these boys’ lives must have been like, that the only way they could find to make their own lives feel comprehensible and manageable was to hurt someone else. How it must have been that no one ever taught them how to deal with their own pain and fear, so that the only way they could find to deal with it was to pass that pain and fear on to someone else. How they were just kids, themselves.

Really, in one way or another, don’t we all end up using other people poorly when we’re working through our own problems? I don’t mean to say that we are all abusers, because that’s dismissive to a harmful degree. But we’ve all hurt other people in ways small or large, and it seems to me that we mostly do so because of how we’ve been hurt. Perhaps sometimes we feel justified, that in hurting one person in one small way, we might help make things better for many others. Maybe that’s right. Maybe it’s a rationalization. I have neither the wisdom nor the authority to make judgments for anyone else. I know for certain that I when have been small, or petty, or condescending, or mean, it’s usually because I’ve been unable to deal with my own pain. It’s not right. All I can do is try to see myself clearly, and be better.

I don’t mean to say that my abusers’ pain and traumas are somehow more important than the pain and trauma they inflicted on me. But I guess I am saying that compassion and justice can coexist. That forgiveness and accountability needn’t be mutually exclusive. One of the boys who picked on me ended up committing suicide at the age of 36. I won’t ever forget the look on his face when he slammed me against a locker in seventh grade, how small and helpless he made me feel. But I can only feel sad to think about how his life turned out, and how maybe all of it could have been avoided if only we both had been taught earlier how to take care of ourselves.

I’m not here to defend those who hurt others, because abuse is indefensible. I’m not here to take away anyone else’s pain or anger. I’m not here to say that my traumas are the same as other people’s traumas, because they’re not. And I am deeply aware of how much more often the powerless are the ones being victimized, how compassion is something to which so often only the privileged are entitled, how calls for understanding are so often deployed to erase systemic injustice and silence victims. I just look around and see so much pain inflicted on so many people, and I can’t help but think that it doesn’t have to be this way. And I wonder what it would take to get us to a world with less suffering. It feels right to say that people must take responsibility when they harm other people. It also feels right, to me, that in a world where everyone felt able to be open and vulnerable, where everyone was given the tools to understand and process their own emotions, maybe people wouldn’t hurt other people as much. Or at least maybe the hurt would be smaller, more mundane.

Maybe this is naivete on my part. I don’t know, maybe.

Scattered

  1. Art about happiness or joy—or any sort of positivity, really—is usually dismissed as corny or sappy or saccharine or sentimental. But, really, isn’t this just a form of anxiety about being vulnerable?
  2. I tend to understand art as the product of a set of decisions made by the artist, each decision having been made for a reason. I find myself captivated by the desire to understand those reasons, and even if it’s not possible to unambiguously arrive at that understanding, I feel like there’s something valuable in the attempt.
  3. Still, I can never help but think about Whitman. “Have you reckon'd a thousand acres much? have you reckon'd the earth much? / Have you practis'd so long to learn to read? / Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?”
  4. So often when I talk to people above a certain age—and by that I suppose I mean people past middle school—they talk about what we’ve lost as a society. There’s this anxiety about what we are becoming, about whether humanity will eventually be something they don’t recognize. Maybe that will happen, and maybe it won’t, but humanity is bigger than what any one person can do anything about.
  5. My grandmother used to talk often about how her father was a poet, how one of his poems was put on a monument along with a poem by Bashō. My great-grandfather’s pen name was Kanji, which is the word for the characters used in Japanese writing. I’ve never seen one of his poems, and if I had, I wouldn’t have been able to read them. I don’t know where that monument is, or if it’s even still there. My grandmother has trouble remembering my name now.
  6. I wonder a lot about what it means that the culture that is supposed to be mine, my heritage—as though culture is something inherited and not lived, but that’s another story—is one that I can only ever experience in translation.
  7. The other day as I was driving home I had an epiphany, which seems an embarrassingly grandiose word to use. I had an idea, let’s say, about how to finally finish a project that has been collecting dust on my work table for the past eighteen months. It’s funny how such a small detail can seem so earth-shattering. By the time I got home, my hands were shaking and I felt sick to my stomach.
  8. Every day when I am alone in my car, perhaps driving to or from work, or on my way to pick up one of my kids from some activity, I see some photograph I’d like to make, but either because of time or safety, I don’t. Every time this happens, it feels both tragic and utterly inconsequential.
  9. I finished two more books last night. I wonder if the reason I read so much is because I still think that, somewhere, there’s someone who can teach me how to be. I wonder if the reason I’m looking for a teacher is because my education was mostly in things that don’t matter to me anymore. Or, maybe, in things that never did matter to me, really. I wonder what it actually means to be self-taught.
  10. I realized this morning, again, that the things I correct my kids about are the things that I most struggle with myself, which is to say, failures of empathy. The thing is, they are, mostly, kind and compassionate, and they hurt or dismiss each other sometimes anyway. Parenthood so often reminds me of how impossible it is for me to teach them anything, how everything they learned about how to be is something they came to on their own.

Book Anxiety

On my last day of high school, my English teacher gave us one piece of advice: to keep a reading journal. Being a teenager, of course, I waited six years before starting to keep track of my reading. I’d feel bad about that—I guess if I’m being honest, I do—but college was pretty legitimate in its distractions. In any case, I’ve been thinking a lot about books lately, because I’m on pace to read more books this year than any since I’ve been keeping track.

I set a goal for myself to read 30 books this year. I finished the 30th the day before yesterday: Franny Choi’s Death by Sex Machine. (It was excellent, by the way, a collection of poems using artificial intelligence as a frame for how people are marginalized, alienated, and dehumanized.) This is the 16th week of the year, so if I maintain this pace, I’ll end 2018 having read 97 books. I doubt I’ll be able to keep that up, but it seems likely that I’ll beat my previous record of 51.

Reading this much is on one level exhilarating. It’s a feeling I haven’t had since I was a kid, when I used to spend whole days immersed in one fantastic world or another. In some ways the world felt more alive, more electric, bigger back then, and I suppose I’m not sure whether it’s because I spent more time mentally elsewhere or simply because I hadn’t had my own shine worn off yet. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t feel worn down back then, but even the grinding felt epic in its way.

This year I’ve read more, and more widely, than I can ever remember. It’s been thrilling, but at times I also feel like I’m drowning. Like the written word is simply too energetic for me to hold close, and I’m overwhelmed. And then when I come back to reality, I’m left both spent and disconnected, feeling as though I’m floating, unmoored from any sense of narrative or progress in my own life. I find myself wondering if I should try to be more present, more in the world, if I should read less.

At the same time, I find myself increasing anxious about all of the books I’m not reading, and which I’ll never read. Since 2003, I’ve averaged 24 books a year—though, of course, my journal doesn’t include the picture books I’ve read to my kids for almost ten years. Nor does it extend far enough back to include all of those lazy afternoons when I was a child, myself, nor the decade or so of assigned reading from middle school through college. If I’m generous with my estimates and my definitions of what a book is, I may have read as many as 1500 books or so in my life so far. If I live to be a hundred and keep to a pace of 100 books a year from now on, a feat that seems staggering to me, that seems to put an outside limit of 7700 books in my lifetime. In reality, it will be less than that. 7700 books might seem like a lot, and in truth it’s probably more than most people manage, but when I consider that over 600,000 books are published each year in the United States alone, it seems miniscule.

When I think about this, I feel a tiny bit of panic. And not just because of the books, themselves. While I sat and read during my lunch break today, the articles, essays, short stories, and poems in my bookmarks app sat untended. The video games I bought over a year ago sat unplayed on the hard drive of my neglected console. The movies and shows in my Netflix, Hulu, and Crunchyroll queues sat unwatched, and this is to say nothing of the music I still haven’t listened to. Even while I’m reading, if I choose to read a new book by a favorite author, there are countless writers whose work I’ve never experienced that I’m still not reading. I’m certainly not writing anything of my own.

It’s that last thing that’s the crux of it, of course. I know that my anxiety tends to spike when I feel like I’m not accomplishing anything. I don’t want to slow down my reading, of course, but I need to get back to my own work, too. Aside from my reading goal, I also set a submissions goal for the year. Maybe it’s time to get to work on that one.

I had a whole other topic, but it’s late and I’ve gone on long enough already. Perhaps another day soon. I’m trying to get back in the swing of this thing. Thanks for your time and your patience.

Guns, again

I've been thinking a lot this morning about guns, of course. I've been thinking about how I have family and friends who are gun owners, who I like a lot and enjoy being around. As far as I know, all of them are what we consider responsible gun owners—my uncle, for example, is an avid hunter, but I never feel any concern taking my kids to his house to visit him and my aunt because I know there is no chance at all that they will find a gun lying around. There are a good number of my gun-owning friends and family who I have no idea what their position on gun control is, because I've never talked to them about it. I would imagine that at least some of them are in favor of common-sense gun regulations. I know for certain that some have, at least in the past, been vocal opponents of gun control.

I don't think any of these people are bad people—on the contrary, many of them are people I respect and enjoy immensely. I'm sure that they all find each new school shooting to be as shocking and horrifying as I do, and for the same reasons. But I guess I don't know how relevant it is what people feel in their hearts. At least, it is and should be less relevant than the consequences of their actions.

The point here is not that gun owners are monsters, but that understanding how we are complicit in things that make us uncomfortable is difficult, even as it is necessary.

We all make choices in our lives. And those choices say something about our priorities and values. I don't think many people would say that they believe that it is acceptable for children to be murdered in their schools. I don't think that many people would say that those children's lives matter less than the right to own a gun. Maybe I'm naive, but I think the number of people who might say such things is so vanishingly small as to be irrelevant. I certainly don't think my gun-owning family and friends would say anything like that.

But I do think that the end result, the function of some of the things I've seen friends say about gun control is the same.

For example, when we say things like "this is a terrible tragedy but there's nothing that we can do about it," this just isn't true. We know that there is a strong correlation both internationally and within the United States between permissive gun laws and increased frequency of gun violence, and, vice versa, we know that US states and foreign countries with more restrictive gun laws have less gun violence. We know that we can make this happen less often. What we mean when we say "there's nothing we can do about it" is really "I am not willing to do the things that can be done about it."

We also say things like "gun control won't end gun violence." And certainly this is true—no law that I've ever seen proposed would end violence, because human beings are inherently prone to violence, and determined people will find ways to circumvent laws. But it's also irrelevant, because mitigating harm is worth doing even if it won't completely end harm. When we say "gun control won't end gun violence," this is in function the same as saying that reducing the number of lives lost to gun violence is less important than maintaining access to guns.

We say things like "if we criminalize guns then only criminals will have guns" or "why should we penalize responsible gun owners?" But this is, essentially, to argue that laws and regulations should not exist at all. We accept regulation in so many aspects of our lives in order to mitigate harm, reduce risks, improve safety, and allow us to live together in something approaching harmony. Why are guns different? What makes gun ownership more essential and less open to regulation than workplace safety or automobile operation or food safety or environmental protection or any number of other areas where people can cause harm to other people, and we have decided not to allow that?

I think the most honest thing I've ever heard a gun control opponent say was "I like my guns and I don't want to have to give them up." And I get that. To be honest, I enjoy shooting and I always have, though I haven't gone to a range since I was a teenager. When you come down to it, we all have trouble prioritizing other people over our own comforts and conveniences. I'm no different. But I think that the most important thing any of us can do is take a good hard look at ourselves and ask ourselves whether the way we are living is harming other people. To ask, "What would I be willing to give up in order to help others, and what wouldn't I be willing to give up?" To understand why we don't want to give up certain things. To ask whether it's worth it.

Nobody wants to think of themselves as part of the problem, and honestly few people will do so. But we all agree that problems exist and that they are mostly brought about by people. It simply can't be the case that it's always someone else's fault, that we are always blameless. If we are ever to solve the problems that exist, then we must be willing to look to ourselves first.

Perhaps we will choose to continue on as we are, accepting that other people will pay for our choices, sometimes with their lives. Maybe we will decide that that is acceptable, that those lives are worth it. Let's at least be clear about it when we make those choices, though.

Intimacy

This morning I was thinking about podcasts and social media and relationships and intimacy, which is to say that I was thinking about the same stuff I think about a lot. There’s a podcast I’ve been listening to for over seven years now. Call it a bit under a fifth of my life, though, actually, it feels like longer. But seven years is a good long time, and you can’t spend that much time with the same voices in your head week after week without feeling some kind of a connection or relationship.

Obviously, I’m aware that this imagined relationship is just that: imagined. One-sided. The people to whom those voices belong don’t know me from a hole in the ground. But it’s also not wrong to say that I’ve spent time with them, perhaps more time than some people who would actually count me as a friend. It’s a strange thing, this kind of relationship—it feels both intimate and distant. You feel like you know these people, and in a way you do. At least, you know that part of them that they choose to show you. And if it is only one aspect of their lives or personalities, it’s also not nothing.

I think about this kind of thing a lot, in part because I spend so much time on social media, which means that I have to consider what intimacy and friendship mean in a context where neither of us really have access to each other’s lives, other than what we choose to write about. What can I ask of someone, and what can they ask of me? What are our responsibilities to each other? How much do I actually know any of them, and how much do they know me?

But then, I suppose the reason I’m thinking about this now, and the reason I’m choosing to write about it here, is because I find myself wondering—again—how much we can ever really know anyone.

One of my co-workers died suddenly about a month ago. I’d worked with him for over eleven years, but somehow I still thought of him as one of the “young guys” just because I interviewed him for the job when he was a new grad. Realistically, back then I was a young guy, too.

The company held a memorial lunch for him last week and we all ate and swapped stories and laughed a lot. He was that kind of guy, the kind that made you laugh. People talked about how fun and funny he was, what a good engineer he was, how he was a good guy. Eleven years, and what else can I say about him? I knew him, joked with him, stayed up working into the wee hours with him. Sometimes we argued, sometimes we pissed each other off. A lot of times we laughed.

What does it mean to know somebody? To be close? I’ve pushed not to be defined by my job, either to myself or others, and so I often think of my relationships outside of work as being more real, somehow. That the people in my home life or often even people online know me better than my coworkers. And to some extent, that’s true. But as many parts of my existence that my coworkers never see, there are also parts that only they see, whether that’s how I talk when I’m giving a technical presentation or what I look like when it’s two in the morning and I’m still in the lab. I’m different at work from how I am at home or out in the wider world, but I’m no less myself for that.

The easy question to ask here is this: are social media friendships somehow less real because of the fact that social media personas are curated? Or: what are the limitations of intimacy in these relationships, which are necessarily defined by the narrowness of their visibility? But I find I’m uninterested in those questions. Because it’s easy to talk about social media being seductive. It’s easy to talk about presuming an unearned or nonexistent intimacy in that context. What I find myself thinking about more is how “real” life is seductive and narrow. Not to say that listening to your podcast means we have a relationship or that being able to see and hear and smell you doesn’t, but rather that every relationship is both real and false, both more and less than it seems. That we are at the same time profoundly connected and utterly alone.

I think that what you do with a thought like this is a matter of temperament and choice. If you can keep both the candlestick and the faces in your mind at once—or at least remember to switch back and forth—I think there’s an opportunity, both to rejoice in closeness and to respect distance. I’m trying to see it that way, anyway.

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