Faces the End

•12 May 2018 • Leave a Comment

It was only afterward that I realized the gravity of my sin. In the moment, there was panic, a rush to my victim, a call to my mother, who loves all creatures great and small. A silent vigil as I watched him, still breathing, sitting in shock in the dandelion-strewn impossibly vividly green, half of which I’d already mowed. The air was thick with upper midwestern humidity and it was midday; in short, it was hot. Sweat had already darkened my armpits, upper chest and brow — it should come as no surprise that I’d already taken off my glasses, rendering me just short of legally blind; give me a few more years, and it’ll be faît accompli.

But this account is not dedicated to the crows, squirrels and assorted wildlife adapted as best they can to an urban environment. No, I write this to the rabbit whose face I had just, mowing, listening to sonic youth on my phone, sliced in half. His nose gone, the wound flowing, assured that his life would soon be over, he (or she — I can’t differentiate between rabbit sexes on surface examination) was stoic in a manner I could not then understand. Only when I stood at Yates’ deathbed did I understand such perseverance in the face of impossible odds. Seneca may have understood.

The renowned poet Hewson once wrote that “Every life involves the committing of a crime.” I do not know if that is true, but I see her point: life is fragile and tenuous, and one must that which is required in order to maintain it. I committed no crime, though it feels as if I did. The rabbit did me a favor by dying, sitting still, breathing rapidly until it slowed and it and I knew his time has reached its end. Yet it was no favor to me; I had no means of ending his suffering, and if I had, I don’t know that I could kill it. Looking in his eyes, I saw the eyes of Yates — an awareness of an end, a regret about things undone and a fear, chilling to behold, that the end could be many things, and all unknown.


Livin’ In the Scrawl

•11 April 2018 • Leave a Comment

When I was thirteen or so, I made a major life decision one day. Apropos of nothing, I decided it was time I developed my own distinctive signature. I had always looked in admiration and semi-awe at the loops and squiggles, illegible by intent, that grownups used to formally affix their name to some or other document. That was part of the allure at thirteen. A signature was something adults wielded; lacking one indicated a lack of maturity, of still being “just a kid” — anathema to any self-respecting teenager desperately crafting a sense of self. Moreover, the magic of a signature lay not in its decipherability, but rather in its snowflake-like uniqueness. Penmanship wasn’t then, hasn’t been, and isn’t now my forte — in elementary school, when “Handwriting” was a topic on par with math, social studies, science et al and for which one received a letter grade on one’s report card, I routinely received “C’s.” At best, I made it to a “C+.” A signature in its idiosyncratic scrawl would make all that irrelevant. You can’t grade a signature.

So, armed with notebook and pens, I sat down at the kitchen table and set to work, trying down different styles and accoutrements. Should I sign as “Benjamin Taylor?” “Benji Taylor?” “Benjamin N. Taylor?” These were pressing and vitally important questions that would define me for the rest of my life. So far, just to note, that’s been the case; some minor modifications aside — a curlicue here, a flourish of a tail there — my signature in its rudiments has changed very little in the intervening twenty years. Were you to see my signature in 2018 and then see it from 1998, you’d instantly recognize that they came from the same hand.

A signature is — or has been — one of the most indelible ways in which we present ourselves to the world. Our selves. I delight in my signature, and use it whenever I can, even when a signature might seem unnecessary or out of place, as in a holiday card or after the final sentence of a blue book exam. I’m secretly disappointed when I pay for something with a credit card in person and am not asked for a signature. You can keep the receipt, but for gods’ sakes, let me sign something! I love my signature because it is mine. willed it into life. gave it breath. honed it and refined it, and I alone can wield it. It is mine. It is me. I consider it as much a part of me as my DNA. For the time being at least (I have no doubt whatsoever that this will change, and likely sooner than we think), I can be identified by my signature more quickly than and as equally reliably as a genome scan.

Beyond the satisfaction of presenting to the world something unique to me and only me, the physical act of putting pen to paper and executing the strokes and slashes so diligently practiced that they long ago entered into muscle memory, finishing with aplomb gives me joy. The act of writing itself — pen to paper or stylus to clay — is and should be an exuberant action. The ability to write constitutes one of the deepest and most ancient differences between Homo sapiens and all other known living things. (For an excellent gloss on the importance of tangible writing, check out Amy Goodman’s 2004 interview on Democracy Now! with the late Utah Phillips, pacifist, musician, labor and peace activist, storyteller and onetime archivist — also a personal hero of mine). I still keep my journal, write out my “to-do” lists, scribble notes or flashes of an idea, even write my first drafts by putting pen to paper. I don’t go anywhere without at least two pens on my person and a notepad. But I digress.

Thus it was with great sadness that I read Steven Petrow’s op-ed in today’s New York Times, “Why Signatures Matter.” Please read it (if you still have free articles remaining). I share with him the sense of loss occasioned by the accelerating death of the personal signature, the connection between scrawled ink and the deeper memories of another person that a chip in a card or under one’s skin can never distill.


“Omg, I Hope No One’s Hurt…”

•7 April 2018 • Leave a Comment

Such is the state of gun violence in America, that when I received a push notification late last night with the title “Shots fired in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang duel” from a prominent Arsenal blogger I follow, my immediate reaction was not — as it should have been — “Oh, I bet this is related to how best to use Aubameyang’s and (Alexandre) Lacazette’s scoring prowess harmoniously, and get each to push the other to be better,” but rather “Omg, shots fired? What’s going on? Omg, I hope no one’s hurt. Why don’t the BBC or the Guardian or Agence France-Presse have any updates?!?” General panicking until I stopped myself, thought about it, and realized that it was just a formerly common metaphor, not a description of actual events occurring in real time.

Such is the state of gun culture in America in 2018. Seeing phrases like “shots fired,” the automatic assumption is gun violence, rather than a fear of an improbable but not impossible situation. Gun violence has even lost its ability to shock — I was a freshman in high school when the Columbine massacre shattered the nation’s naïveté (there has never been innocence) regarding mass shootings, and it hit my generation hard. Now, almost 20 years later, we’ve learned not to be horrified by death tolls in mere handfuls — as though a shooting that results in “only” four or five dead doesn’t make the cut, doesn’t really count — but in dozens — 33 at Virginia Tech, 28 at Sandy Hook, 49 in Orlando, 59 in Las Vegas, 27 in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Seventeen at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. A friend texts you or you get a push notification from the New York Times alerting you that it’s happening again, and by now, you just shrug and wonder “how many this time?” Movements like that started by the incredible survivors of the Parkland massacre — the “March For Our Lives — are essential to combatting this learned passivity. It’s not as though we’re indifferent to the horror, don’t mourn the victims whose lives were lost and mourn with the victims who survived and their communities.

We’re just not surprised.

“Or Does It Explode?”

•4 April 2018 • 1 Comment

As I’m sure most of you are aware, today marks the fiftieth anniversary since the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had been since 18 March assisting the sanitation workers striking for better pay and working conditions. King, whom I consider — for whatever it’s worth — the greatest American and a personal hero, was thirty-nine years old. Before I write anything more or before you read any further, revisiting the speech given by King on 03 April 1968, unknowingly his last, is imperative. I listen to this speech several times each year, and have yet to get through it without full body chills when King says:

We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.

And I don’t mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

One can’t help but allow the thought to flicker: was it unknowingly his last speech? Was it a merely rhetorical tactic to suggest that he may not get there with his audience? Or did he just somehow intuit that his thread would soon be cut?

In the public schools I attended in Rockford, Illinois in the United States, from Kindergarten through AP U.S. History, Dr. King was presented to me and my (mostly white) classmates firstly and foremostly as the bearer of a dream, a civil rights icon in direct lineage from Frederick Douglass to W.E.B. DuBois to Rosa Parks and beyond to Barack Obama — a man of unimpeachable character who (as far as we were taught for the most part) had always been celebrated and revered by right-thinking Americans, whose 1963 speech on the National Mall competed with the “Gettysburg Address” and Washington’s First Inaugural as the single greatest example of American oratory. Even at the AP level in high school (keep in mind that for me that was in 2001-02; 11 September occurred in the third week of that school year, followed by the swelling bellicosity and need to lash out that undergirded the descent into the twin morasses of Afghanistan and Iraq, from which we have yet to emerge — it was a unique time to be studying American history), Dr. King was presented as an almost beatific figure, sanitized to a noncontroversial American Hero™. I get the impression that it is this version of King — the Dreamer — that most of my peers learned to venerate through their secondary education.

But, as outstanding a work of oratory as “I Have a Dream” is, Dr. King’s story does not end with the March on Washington. I admire King to the extent that I do, because he lived what he preached; he adhered to nonviolence even when his erstwhile allies on the left castigated him for it in opposition to the war in Vietnam and the crescendoing breakdown of civil order as the 1960s progressed. John and Robert Kennedy thought him a nuisance at best; J. Edgar Hoover loathed him; LBJ tired of him quickly once he made his vocal opposition to Vietnam clear and uncompromising, despite LBJ’s signing of the Civil Rights Act and Great Society programs that directly addressed urban decay, poverty and inequality of opportunity. On his right, he was practically Satan incarnate. An oft-quoted remark of King’s is “The time is always right to do the right thing,” which stripped of context makes a perfectly anodyne entry in any collection of “inspirational quotations” or “best American quotes of the last hundred years,” et al. But King lived itHe was the context — his words, certainly, but his very body as well. One can easily imagine Dr. King repeating the words of his namesake, who according to legend (the quote is almost certainly apocryphal), when commanded to recant at the 1521 Diet of Worms, said “Here I stand. I can do no other.”

It is indeed convenient to stop the narrative in 1963, and not confront the fullness of King’s evolving vision. For racism was not to be considered in a vacuum. King enumerated two other evils which, with racism, constituted the shame of America — poverty and war. The above speech from Memphis summarizes well his views of the insidious manner in which racism and poverty mutually reinforce each other, and the speech that very possibly signed his death warrant, in which he announced his opposition to war in all forms, and in Vietnam in particular tarnished the golden door (I would add xenophobia, intimately connected to the three):

Dr. King would be eighty-nine were he alive today. Any speculation on how American history would have been different had he been a voice crying out in the wilderness is just that — pure speculation. But I cannot help but think that what America needs today is the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. of 1968. The radical, unafraid and secure in his belief of the righteousness of his cause. Contrast the convictions of King to the corrupt, racist coward doing his damndest to undo King’s legacy and that which it did achieve. Even at eighty-nine, I have little doubt that King would be a voice against neoimperialism, elites’ kowtowing to money and influence, the dark persistence of racism and rumblings of fascism (see Charlottesville, Va.), jingoism, sexism, the for-profit prison-industrial complex, police brutality and militarism at all levels of authority. I do not doubt that King would have protested against Iraq, supported #MeToo and the #MarchForOurLives, held even Obama to live the messy reality that the eloquence of his words belied, and summoned the righteous ire of a nation that witnessed the overtly racist and classist responses to Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, Irma and Maria — the devastation from the last of which left Puerto Rico, neither independent nor fully considered American, shattered and lacking electricity, food, potable water and adequate medical care.

No person is perfect, and I am not naïve enough to believe that had King lived longer, perhaps until 2018, that the original sin of America would have been redeemed. I am, however, still quixotically hopeful that in remembering the man in full, as one unafraid to speak truth to power, and learning from him, can we cease this madness. We may wander in the wilderness for who knows how many more years, but let Liberty be crowned with no false patriotic wreath, opportunity real, life free, and equality in the air we breathe (paraphrased from Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again”).

“God help me!”

•29 March 2018 • 5 Comments

On the last of the past several days I spent in hospital (nothing to worry about — a chronic condition), I was moved to a different room. Why? Something to do with overcrowding (the phrasing’s comparison to prison conditions would surely elicit a wry smile from Foucault), though I was being moved from one double suite to another, but whatever. My new roommate C. was in a very bad way. I occupied my new room in mid-afternoon, and the rest of the day (and through the night), C. moaned in apparent agony; I didn’t even attempt to introduce myself, as he was clearly semi-conscious at best and non-verbal. I’m quite sure he never knew I was there.

I had already been informed that I’d be discharged the next day (yesterday), as I was more or less recovered and in good and improving health. C.’s anguish was difficult to listen to, and I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t admit that yes, it got tiresome. There’s really not much to do in a hospital bed when you’re no longer seriously ill nor are on the good drugs. I had my iPad and a book and a New Yorker, so I read, napped, watched “Rachel Maddow,” and frittered away time reading various internet things, farcical, ludicrous and serious in relatively equal doses before attempting to sleep. Despite the potent (but not potent enough) cocktail of sedatives and anxiolytics I was on, I could do little more than doze. At some point, I gave up all together, figuring I’d just watch something on Netflix or waste time on Twitter. But something else happened — whereas until then, I had been trying my damndest to ignore C.’s inarticulate moans, I started listening. It’s remarkable what can happen when one stops and just listens.

Earlier in the day, C.’s wife of 43 years had come over to my side of the room to introduce herself and vicariously C. She explained that his was truly a cruel fate — an autosomal recessive disease that results in early-onset emphysema that was now in its literally final stage — his physicians estimated he had a day, maybe two left. He’d never smoked a cigarette in his life. He was only in hospital while waiting for a bed in hospice care. His journey had reached its end. Though he looked a decade younger, he was 81, and had outlasted his illness since its symptoms had caused him to go on disability thirty years prior. By rights, he should never even have known who Barack Obama was. I heard all this and expressed my sympathies in a polite, but rote manner; I heard and filed away in my memory; but I didn’t listen.

I’m generally not the world’s most compassionate person; in the abstract, sure, but when it comes to individuals, there’s typically only room for one in my orbit: me. I am an egoist through and through, and, while I’m not proud of this fact, I can’t help but acknowledge it. Yet, listening to C. cry over and over “Help me! Help me! Help me! Oh God help me!” some ember of humanity flared into life within me, and I did something I wouldn’t often do. By this point, it was starting to get light, but still too early for visitors; C. was alone in a sea of torment that only he could know. I dragged myself out of my bed and staggered over to his side of the room. I moved a nearby chair to the side of his bed and just held his hand. I didn’t say anything, I didn’t pray — I don’t pray, anyway — I just listened and held his hand. The rational — and one could say cynical — part of me knows that it made no difference whatsoever, that he never knew I was there, that of the earth’s 7.6b people, he was one alone in the dark.

And yet. I can’t accept that. I know we all die alone, that our deaths and lives have no ultimate meaning, that we and all we know and have ever known amount to the Planck mass against the unfathomable vastness of this (perhaps itself one of infinitely many) universe(s). Try as I might, I can’t kill the Romantic kernel deep within me; even if it meant something only to me and his wife, C. was not alone. Had he passed during the few hours I sat there with him until she came, he would not have been alone. I do not know if he’s alive as I write this, but his hospice approval came around the same time I was discharged and wheeled to the exit. He will die alone as we all will, but he won’t be alone.

I don’t write this to congratulate myself on doing something for someone else for once, but to express how a dying old man brought me to my metaphorical knees, and reminded me that the most important things you can’t learn from Plato, Spinoza, Kant or Proust. A frail hand holds more than all the world’s libraries.

Awash in Kittehs of Unknown Origin

•6 March 2018 • Leave a Comment

I had a strange and painful dream yesterday, in which I let Ariel (my belovèd cat, if you were unaware of that) out the front door for a spell (on the advice of a dream-reason dream-vet), and lost him. A knocking at the door brought to my attention a glowing Midwest summer day, temp around 27° or so, and a woman in a sleeveless knee-length florally-patterned dress holding a leash restraining a cat, collared but remarkably similarly resembling Ari — continental patches of grey and white, yellow eyes you’d know would gleam in the dark, their mirror reflecting their ignorance of The Dark. But it wasn’t my little dumpling. I was set to coach a U-18 football match a few hours hence of a great local girls’ team versus a boys’ team; the match was actually FIFA-sponsored with hardware on the line — even in my dream, I wondered “what the hell is this competition?” yet I correctly called a handball and we were up 9:2 at the half. Meanwhile, my father was searching ardently for my cat, in a neighborhood suddenly overcome by stray cats closely resembling Ariel (who is very much alive and well, passed out on his bed about 3m from me, thank you), before I woke up. None of them were Ariel. I felt abandoned. Dreamland is an odd place.

Rest, but Not in Peace

•21 February 2018 • Leave a Comment

Billy Graham was many things to many people. To many, he was America’s moral leader, thundering his neo-Calvinist message to adoring and frenzied crowds, admonishing presidents and politicians of both parties to turn to his wrathful Old Testament God, repent and be “born again.” There is no question that he left an indelible mark on American politics and political discourse, culture and religion. “Called” at an early age, he believed, to be a preacher “on fire for the Lord,” a modern Savonarola but on a national — even international — stage. Graham’s distinctive style and apparent personal faith and zeal inspired millions, and influenced everything from children’s television programming to American foreign policy. Ignoring the transformative impact of the movements that he — whether or not he may have sought the role — spearheaded or inspired would be a grave mistake to the scholar of modern American history and culture studies.

To others, like myself, he was at best a carnival barker — a prudent and diplomatic would-be éminence grise, at home among presidents and bankers, pastors and skeptics, the powerful and the downtrodden, theologically every bit as venomous as his less reputable but equally dangerous fellow-traveler Jerry Falwell. Graham had the master politician’s — for, in the final analysis, he should be remembered first and foremost as a politician — gift for seeming all things to all people combined with the demagogue’s ability to move and manipulate a crowd. And he had crowds — his “revivals,” and the thousands that still plague towns and warp minds from Chillicothe, Illinois to the National Mall annually — were nothing if not pure spectacle. The hermeneutics of the conversion/revival experience I leave to sharper minds, but Graham was a maestro of its orchestration. His legacy is immense, but among the bastard children of his theology include such monstrosities as the “prosperity gospel” and its charlatans, the anti-choice, anti-feminist movement, homophobia, opposition on “Biblical grounds” to racial equality, xenophobia, white supremacy, scapegoating of the poor and the faux piety without which even in 2018 few politicians dare to conduct their political lives. Graham gave us the National Prayer Breakfast, the opening of public ceremonies with a prayer to one interpretation of the Christian religion’s deity, and the messianic and moralizing interpretation of American foreign policy, particularly with regard to foreign aid (though there are many other factors, granted).

Thankfully, the “Moral Majority” has learned that it never was a majority, and with each successive generation fades more into irrelevancy. America is moving indelibly toward becoming a society that is more tolerant, accepting and — hopefully — more equitable. I’m neither naïve nor optimistic enough to think that the politics of intolerance, patriarchy, xenophobia and raw power are going anywhere any time soon, or ever — look at the buffoon spouting pieties he does not understand who occupies the White House. But the times they seem to be a-changin’. I will never celebrate the passing of any human being, and my condolences to your family, friends and the millions whose lives you “touched” or found in you a beacon of hope in a “fallen” world; so may you rest, Rev. Graham, but not in peace. Your work, and the damage it’s done, is already fading.

(On a personal note, I was raised Baptist of a very Graham-influenced vintage, and know first-hand the damage politics masked as holy writ of intolerance can inflict. To anyone queer and or affected by this distorted worldview — have meaningful faith: it gets better.)

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