Thursday, November 29, 2007

no title

Pain is not simple or discrete. It is not homogeneous, straightforward, or consistent. At the same time, it is both enduring and in constant flux; it never goes away and yet somehow it is never possible to shine down a grating white light and stick a pin through the middle of pain so that it can be held down and examined from all angles.

Rather, it bleeds through the body in endless permutations, flaring brightly at a touch and casting flickering shadows in the compression of a muscle. In stillness, it pools like rot or quicksand, and in movement it blares like an unexpected accident, so sharp it barely registers.

The colors of pain are more varied than the human brain is capable of believing. Even I who am so well-acquainted with pain, as soon as it moves or changes I cease to believe in the form it took before. I forget. When the pain I feel is blue and brown like an old bruise, or green and sharp as the smell of limes, I don't believe in the crimson and orange pains of sudden, foolish movement. Primary colors aren't the end of it: the deep dark reds of core muscle fatigue are different than the fresh new slap of pain in the skin or the dull firelight ache of a headache that's settled in for a long stay. There is a pain that is nothing but shadow, and then there is the white hot pain of cold temperatures soaking into the bone through muscle and tendon and skin.

I know that all of these things exist, because I have lived through them and will again, but still, I forget how bright the colors are so quickly. I am over-exposed to the brightness of existence, and so as often as possible my mind chooses blindness; it is blindness to past and future pain, and so I am left with only the present and the colors that inhabit my body in this moment.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

One Week of Food

Sometimes it's easy to forget how fortunate I am. I'm a complainer by nature, always negative, and circumstances lately have reinforced that tendency. I'm glad, though, that I live in a country where if I am so poor that I can't afford to buy all the food I want to eat I can fill out tons of annoying paperwork and get food stamps. Not everyone is so lucky. The smiles on the faces of the family in the last picture in this photo essay astound me; I think that if I had so little, I would be angry and despairing.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Raven Steals the Sun

I don't remember what I was doing but somehow earlier today I stumbled upon this picture of a tattoo, which shows Raven, which in the folklore of many of the Native tribes on the northern west coast of America is a creator god figure. There is a story that many tribes tell in different ways, but which comes down to this: once upon a time there was no light in the world. The light was kept away by an old man (or Eagle or Seagull in some variations) who kept it locked up tight so that only he could possess it. Raven tricked his way into a place in the household via the old man's daughter (some variations say he courted her, some say he turned himself into a tiny pine needle in her tea so she swallowed him down and became pregnant) and stole away the light, scattering it across the world to form the moon, sun and stars. The old man was angry but in the end he could see how beautiful his daughter was so Raven got away with it.

I really like this story, for a lot of reasons. I think monotheistic religions are poorer for their lack of trickster role models. Ravens have always symbolized the battlefield in my mind, and I like that this story puts a harbinger of death in the position of one who brings light to the world. This is probably not the spin a Native storyteller would put on it, but it was the first thing that occurred to me when I heard this story. I like that the hero of this story is a frail bird who obtains his goals through subtle trickery instead of violent confrontation. I think it tells a true story, in the sense that it says things about the way the world works that are true.

Anyway, so this tattoo is something that I wouldn't mind getting. I won't, because I don't want to lay claim to a culture that, when it comes down to it, my ancestors purged from the land in a violent genocide; I don't really have any right to it. Its a beautiful tattoo though.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Gluttony

Being poor means always watching where your money is going, and keeping a stranglehold on all those dollars spent on frivolous things. Americans are taught by advertising and the lifestyles portrayed as normal in media that shopping is an essential pursuit. Buying things, owning things, having a life full of objects, is fundamental to life. Everyone is supposed to be upper middle class, which means owning an extravagantly large house in a suburban neighborhood, and filling it with things you don't need, just because that's the default in our culture, even if you can't afford the things you buy, and even if they don't make you happy.

This kind of consumerism was on ample display today, Black Friday, the biggest collective orgy of spending all year. All the stores have sales, so of course everyone has to run out and see how much they can spend so they can show off their wealth to their family and friends. On the way home from my mother-in-law's house on Thursday evening, we passed by a line of about 40 people camped outside a Best Buy. It was only about 6:30pm, but they were camped out there in the 35 degree darkness, ready to wait all night until the store opened at 6am, so they could get in first and get the special sale on whatever.

Combine this disgusting wealth obsession with the celebration of genocide we call Thanksgiving, and this weekend has made me rather squeamish.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The trap I set for you

Sometimes it seems like dozens of separate events are conspiring to force me to think about one thing, chance conversations, books read and YouTube videos happened upon all focusing me on a single idea. Its odd that I think of it like this, as though there is some agency manipulating my world, even though I don't believe that the world works that way. I suppose it's part of what makes me human, the tendency to view unrelated things as part of a plan that centers around myself. Perhaps there is something at work in my subconscious, working out my opinions on things without the help of logical thought.

If that is the case today, my subconscious isn't finished, as I have no coherent opinion. I read this post today, though, and thought about prayer and the nature of God, and remembered all the things that have pointed me at this thought, and so I am writing this.

I have been realizing lately that I don't remember a great deal about my life. Perhaps this is natural, although it seems 22 may be a little young to be realizing that I'm losing huge gaps of memory; perhaps I'm just tired. Either way, it upsets me when I search for a memory and it isn't there. Yesterday (or the day before, or earlier- it all blurs together) I searched for a memory of my faith at the moment I lost hold of it, and the memory wasn't there. It makes me wonder: was it ever there? Was there ever a moment when I knew, when I stood up and declared my unbelief, when I took my fear in both hands and held on? Maybe there wasn't. I don't know.

I do remember some things, though.

I remember Josh and his black hair and ugly smile, and I remember learning that God's presence among his people doesn't affect the quality of character. I remember learning that either God isn't present or God isn't good and there is no other choice.

I remember hearing the silly excuse for faith that goes: either Jesus was a madman or he was the Son of God, and since he was obviously wise and good he must have been the Son of God. And I thought, well, what if he was instead some wise and good man manipulated into death by a God who desired to start a force of history that would get millions and millions of people killed? Maybe God thinks religious conflict is amusing. It fits the facts of history better, though it's a little melodramatic.

I remember being all fired up with missionary fervor until I realized that the Good News meant one of two things: either God condemned to death people who had never heard a damn thing about him, or it would be better for missionaries to be silent so as not to condemn those who heard and didn't believe.

I remember believing that God would help me when I needed him, all the way up to the point where I needed him, and then it was like the air was empty.

I remember knowing that God always answers prayers, with the often unspoken assumption that if all you heard was silence it just meant he was denying selfishness or foolishness. If you hear nothing, it just means he said 'no.' So I cried out to him to know if he loved me, and there was nothing. He didn't speak.

I remember being taught that perfection in Christ means the erasure of the self, and realizing that this is nothing more or less than death without eternal life.

But none of this was the tipping point. I don't know what the end of it was. Maybe I'm searching for the wrong thing, maybe I'm expecting a tense and emotional, gripping moment when really it was more of a drift, a gentle letting-go. It seems like I ought to remember, though.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

I'm a digger of holes in the land

From The Bridge of San Luis Rey:

p. 6: [After witnessing the collapse of the Bridge] Anyone else would have said to himself with secret joy: “Within ten minutes myself…!” But it was another thought that visited Brother Juniper: “Why did this happen to those five?” If there were any plan in the universe at all, if there were any pattern in a human life, surely it could be discovered mysteriously latent in those lives so suddenly cut off. Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan. And on that instant Brother Juniper made the resolve to inquire into the secret lives of those five persons, that moment falling through the air, and to surprise the reason of their taking off.

p. 134 on: Brother Juniper became convinced that the world’s time had come for proof, tabulated proof, of the conviction that was so bright and exciting within him. When the pestilence visited his dear village of Puerto and carried off a large number of peasants, he secretly drew up a diagram of the characteristics of fifteen victims and fifteen survivors, the statistics of their value sub specie aeternitatis. Each soul was rated upon a basis of ten as regards to its goodness, its diligence on religious observation, and its importance to its family group. Here is a fragment of this ambitious chart:

------------Goodness ----Piety----Usefulness
Alfonso G. ------4 ---------4 --------10
Nina ------------2 ---------5--------10
Manuel B.------10---------10--------0
Alfonso V. ----(-8)-------(-10)-------10
Vera N. --------0 ---------10--------10

The thing was more difficult than he had foreseen. Almost every soul in a difficult frontier community turned out to be indispensable economically, and the third column was all but useless. The examiner was driven to the use of minus terms when he confronted the personal character of Alfonso V., who was not, like Vera N., merely bad: he was a propagandist for badness and not merely avoided church but led others to avoid it. Vera N. was indeed bad, but she was a model worshipper and the mainstay of a full hut. From all this saddening data Brother Juniper contrived an index for each peasant. He added up the total for victims and compared it with the total for survivors, to discover that the dead were five times more worth saving. It almost looked as though the pestilence had been directed against the really valuable people in the village of Puerto. And on that afternoon Brother Juniper took a walk along the edge of the Pacific. He tore up his findings and cast them into the waves; he gazed for an hour upon the horizon of that sea, and extracted from their beauty a resignation that he did not permit his reason to examine. The discrepancy between faith and the facts is greater than is generally assumed.

p. 139: I shall spare you Brother Juniper’s generalizations. They are always with us. He thought he saw in the same accident the wicked visited by destruction and the good called early to Heaven. He thought he saw pride and wealth confounded as an object lesson to the world, and he thought he saw humility crowned and rewarded for the edification of the city.



The main theme of The Bridge of San Luis Rey is pretty evident from these quotes. Its not a new concept, looking for the hand of God in disaster. In fact, the idea is so universal, I’m tempted to say there’s something about it hardwired into the human brain: the search for meaning, the desire to understand and to control the world around us, assigning cause and effect to those events that seem emotionally significant to us.

I’ve been reading The Slacktivist lately, and Fred’s essays on American evangelicals seem relevant here. Whenever religion doesn’t sufficiently guard against it, and maybe even when a guard is kept as well as it can be, religious rituals become a form of magic, an invocation of a higher power for our own purposes rather than working toward the supposed purposes of the higher power itself. The human desire to control all of life and death manifests everywhere we let it.

I believe this is the same impetus that leads medical professionals and laypeople everywhere to believe that the sick are able to choose health, whether by prayer and piety or by practicing cheerfulness as described by Sontag. In this case, religion and psychology are two sides of the same coin, used to quell the fear that the universe is indifferent to our pain. Humans have trouble internalizing the idea that the world is large and cold and bad things happen because of causes outside our control and comprehension. Natural disasters don’t pick their victims based on piety, and illness doesn’t strike those who are more melancholy than they ought to be. People die, good and evil, wise and foolish alike, and no choice that we can make will change even a second of our misfortune.

Each of us is a speck of sand thrown about in a storm, and it doesn’t matter at all- not to the storm, not to our chances of survival- how we feel about the ride or how fervently we pray and wave our arms in religious fervor so that God will save us.

But this truth is antithetical to the form of the human mind, and so every time an illness strikes and doctors don’t know why the cause is psychological, and every time a flood sweeps away whole towns of people the wicked are being punished for their sins. This mindset blames the victims of misfortune for not ordering their minds or souls so as to avoid disaster; it's not fair to the victims to add blame on top of misfortune, but we do it. It comforts the safe to think that lives that are happy and easy and free will remain so because they are better than the ill and the ruined, so I don't suppose this mindset will go away any time soon.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Mukasey

There are a lot of things going on in the political scene in the United States that I find pretty abhorent and disgusting; I've written about some of them here but some of them have just passed by, because my energy for outrage is no higher than my energy for anything else. I suffer from outrage fatigue as well as every other kind of fatigue I can think of (emotional, physical, mental... is there any other kind? I'm sure there is. Anyway.) It's gotten to the point where I seriously look at all the political maneuvering and campaigning and the money and the flashy ads and think to myself, I could be happy with this if only I thought that we, as a country, were trying, even a little bit, to do the right thing.

This is more or less how I've become a single issue voter. Don't get me wrong- there are a lot of things I care about. I care about the economy, about the war in Iraq, about the Gag Rule for international reproductive health aid, about habeus corpus, ENDA, and the things I hear about how the very richest Americans are paying a lower percentage of taxes than the middle class (18% v. 30%, according to... the comments sections on blogs that I've read on the past couple days but can no longer remember. Balloon Juice, possibly.). But, to get my vote, all you have to do is proclaim loudly and believably that you strongly oppose the United States torturing confessions out of captives who have been convicted of no crime.

I really wish that I was joking, but I'm not.

You would think the country masquerading as the Good Guys in a Cosmic Battle Against Evil could be persuaded that torture was, you know, wrong. Particularly since it doesn't even work. (see A Question of Torture by Alfred McCoy for a good review of the evidence, or this article for a brief overview.) This whole absurd drama drives me beyond words; I can't even describe how frustrating I find it.

Which is why today, for the very first time since we moved to Missouri, I wrote my Senators to tell them my opinion. Michael Mukasey has passed the Judiciary Committee and his appointment as Attorney General will soon be voted on and, according to the New York Times, he will probably be confirmed. Even though everyone who cares, including most of the Senate I have to assume, has read his written testimony weaseling out of defining waterboarding as torture, weaseling out of condemning the practice, weaseling out of being a decent human being, still he is seen as fit to command the highest law enforcement post in the nation.

It makes me sick, all the more so because I know that writing my Senators will change absolutely nothing.

I'm not answering the phone- let it ring

At least the sun is shining, right? and despite the cold and the monotony and this very intense feeling I have of being lost in my head, adrift on a sea of fragmented, fuzzy memories, there is beauty in the world.







Saturday, November 03, 2007

I'll see you on the other side

I have just finished watching every single Jericho video available on CBS.com, something like 20ish episodes. Its a decent show, although watching it makes me wonder why shows like this- the 'group of ordinary people in dire circumstances' genre- always reinforce gender stereotypes so forcefully. I mean really, would it be too much to have just one woman in the town who can shoot a rifle? Shooting a rifle is well within the physical limitations of a woman. Or is the black FBI agent exactly the right amount of multiculturalism? I guess maybe I should be glad that the women were allowed to be 'strong women' as long as they stayed in their Biblically Defined Roles of nurse and schoolteacher and waiter-at-home-while-the-dashing-men-go-out-to-save-the-day.

Not that I'm objecting to dashing men, not really. And the FBI agent has the most deliciously rich voice I've heard on television in a long while; the best male voice anyway, the woman who plays Beth Turner in Moonlight has a wonderful voice also, although she over-plays hers. I think his voice is the only Southern accent that I've ever really liked, instead of just tolerated.

As a direct result of watching way too much television lately, I've got an Aquabats song stuck in my head. "Chemical Bomb" is a song that I haven't heard at all recently, despite my 20 minute search for the CD this evening. Since I couldn't find it, I'm stuck with "We Will Become Silhouettes" by The Postal Service, another soft and sweet song about war with WMDs. I remember reading stories written in the 70s that were full of abject terror about nuclear war, they were dark and difficult to read. I don't know by what mechanism this terror has changed, but it has, to the point where the most poignant art about these fears is light and resigned and listening to it, you almost get the feeling that the bright light of the explosion might be beautiful.

Not an original thought in my head

From Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush, by Robert Draper (though the clumsy use of elipses is all me):

Early on the afternoon of February 18, 1998, Bush [who was running for reelection as governor of Texas] and Karen Hughes arrived at a juvenile prison in Marlin, Texas...While the TV cameras rolled, one boy after the next recited his litany of criminality- I'm Jimmy, I'm from Mineral Springs, at the age of thirteen I did steal the next door neighbor's car and I did run over my grandma with it, which did cripple her permanently- followed by his acknowledgment that he, rather than society, was to blame and his pledge to do better.

This was the Responsibility Era personified, as Bush well knew. It was also exploitative, and he knew that as well. This prefab moment was about winning votes... when the last preselected urchin had concluded his recitation, Bush and everyone else sat there for an uncomfortable moment as if at the end of a bad blind date, searching for something nice to say about a thoroughly meaningless encounter.

A scrawny fifteen-year-old black kid raised his hand.

"Can I ask the governor a question?" said the boy, a petty thief from Tyler named Johnny Demon Baulkmon.... "What do you think about us now?"

...[Bush's] words, when he found them, sounded almost confessional: "You look like kids I see every day. And I'm impressed by the way you're handling yourselves here. I think you can succeed. The state of Texas still loves you all. We haven't given up on you. But we love you enough to punish you when you break the law."

That was the answer to the question.

A strange euphoria overtook Bush and the other adults in the dormitory. Something had just taken place here that did not ordinarily occur, either in youth prisons or on the campaign trail. A sense of institutions humanized, of possibility....

[Karen Hughes] began to work the Marlin tableau into his speeches, in language that one seldom heard from the lips of any politician, much less a conservative: "Each of us holds a piece of the promise of America. That young man at the jail in Marlin wasn't sure. He wasn't sure the promise was meant for him. He didn't know whether he still had a shot. Yet some spark was alive. He was willing to risk asking the governor, What do you think of me? He meant, Is there hope for me? Do I have potential? Can I make it? Do I own a piece of the promise of America? In the mightiest and wealthiest and free-est nation in the world, he still wasn't sure. And that's a tragedy."

(Johnny Baulkmon "still wasn't sure" for a reason, as it turned out. Some time after his chance encounter with George W. Bush, the boy was raped by another juvenile offender. Though the meeting in Marlin would become a centerpiece of Bush's nomination-acceptance speech in 2000, Baulkmon did not learn of his fleeting fame until years later. Apparently unconvinced by "the promise of America," he would become an adult petty criminal. In 2006, from a Beaumont prison visitation room Johnny Baulkmon would appraise Bush thus: "He doesn't care about anything but himself. He's complete trash, a horrible evil person.")

The Farther Shore

I recently finished reading The Farther Shore, by Matthew Eck, and I found myself wishing that I had read this book when I was younger and reading books like Ender's Game; never mind that The Farther Shore wasn't published until earlier this year.

It amazed me how this book so perfectly reproduced the way I experienced my military service. Not that I ever got stranded in a city in Africa or accidentally killed kids or even fired my weapon in fear. None of the details are the same, but the essence of it is identical. The feeling of being just yourself, not a soldier, feeling like you don't know what you're doing or what you ought to do. Feeling like the soldier on either side of you is a stranger who might not even be a person the way you are a person, who might even be a monster, mad and untrustworthy. The absence of comraderie, the absence of purpose or conviction or confidence of any kind, whether in the rightness of your mission or in your own ability to keep yourself alive.

Military fiction is often written by people who have never been to war. This book makes me wonder if maybe the world wouldn't be a better place if more soldiers spoke up about what being a soldier is really like. I don't know if it would have kept me from enlisting; maybe my own wish to be a hero would still have overridden my better judgment. I should have known from the information I had at the time that joining the Army wasn't the way to make myself into the person I wanted to be. I can't help but think, though, that the current fashionable thirst for war would be not quite so fashionable if a higher percentage of the population knew what they were asking for.