The Price of American Exceptionalism

Last night the New York Times had a live interactive thing on Facebook entitled “Me Time”.  It featured yoga, meditation, and Tibetan ringing bowls.  Don’t get me wrong- as a bipolar person I know how important it is to take good care of yourself, and I also believe that yoga and meditation and Tibetan bowls can also help some people.  Still, calling it “Me Time” seemed perilously close to the Trump administration’s anthem of late.

Maybe we need less “me” and more “other people”.

I highly recommend the new documentary “I am not your negro” about James Baldwin.  It calls in to question so much about American life and American ideals, and left me feeling like I was suspended in mid-air.  Like there was nothing to hold on to.  But really, there isn’t any ground, there isn’t any thing to hold on to.  And that’s as it should be.

Americans cling to the notion of American Exceptionalism–that we are somehow more special,  more deserving than any other nation.  That is simply a bunch of hooey.  I agree with a friend, too, that American Exceptionalism is dangerous because it promotes the belief that we don’t owe anyone else anything.  Somehow we are unto ourselves, sufficient as we are, and not connected to people around the world.

In 2005, I left America for China because I was disappointed in my own country.  I thought I could have a better life elsewhere.  I thought people would be better somewhere else.  I know, I know, it was a foolish notion of mine.  After three years in China, I went to Saudi Arabia, and suffice it to say a lot of bad shit happened there (stay tuned for the book I’m writing), and suddenly I realized I was disappointed with the world in general.  I was manic and oh-so- angry.  I, again, foolishly believed it was about the place.  The place was bad.  So then I went back to China, and there, too, I was disappointed.  Again I thought it was the place.  I blamed Saudi Arabia; I blamed China.  But I was wrong.  I was wrong even to blame humanity, which you would think is so much more individual and therefore more blameable.  I was wrong.

After nearly seven years in China, Saudi Arabia, and Japan, I came home in 2012.  It’s taken me years of quality medication and therapy to come to my own perhaps more sensible  conclusions:  the world, humanity, the universe, whatever–they don’t owe me a thing.  It is I who owe the world.  I know these are not new ideas.  Plenty of people have said the same thing, including a farmer-philosopher in the literary magazine The Sun some years ago whose name I wish I could remember now.

Perhaps the only reason I would recommend travel is not to add to your Instagram account, but to see how other people live.  To see that other people work, and strive, and suffer just as we do.  To see how the rest of the world is indeed connected to us.

In the movie, James Baldwin says that America is very immature in its outlook on race, racism, and a host of other things.  This makes sense to me.  Friends from other countries have always mentioned the “innocence” of Americans, but I think what they mean is indeed immaturity.  More and more, I think that Americans may have problems with abstract thought, and in particular, the abstract thought, as a friend talked about recently, of empathy.  Why do so many white people have a problem accepting that racism exists?  Why can’t they accept that one person’s reality is not like another person’s?  I think in part it is this inability to make the leap into abstract thought, and therefore the leap into empathy.

We do not live in a society that promotes empathy.  We do not live in a society that punishes selfishness-in fact, it seems to reward it.  It’s all about the “me”, and increasingly so, with Muslim travel bans, a halt to diplomatic discourse, the dismaying cuts to the EPA and lifting of car emission rules that date back to the 1970s.  I don’t care, I’m not listening, it’s all about me, damn it.  And the world watches on in horror.

I remember a very good friend of mine, who is Chinese, screaming at me “You are so selfish, Americans are so selfish!” in Xinjiang Province when I left the confines of a travel group to find coffee.  Now, I admit to being selfish about coffee.  Mostly I think you don’t want to be around me if I haven’t had it.  But in this case Xinjiang Province was having some political turmoil between the dominant Han ethnic group and the minority Uighurs, and travel was a bit dicey in some parts.  I don’t think I was ever in danger, but my hosts felt very strongly that I should be protected as a foreigner.  This was the same place where I accidentally shut down an entire hotel because it wasn’t deemed “safe” enough. My travel company, at the behest of the local police, moved me to a “safe” (more expensive) hotel which was pretty much the same as the previous one, down to the curtains and carpet.

But I think about my Chinese friend screaming at me, and I think, yes, we are pretty much a selfish lot.  There are good points about individualistic societies, of course, but this is the downside.  We don’t think very much about the choices we make–from the cars we drive, to the food we eat, to the clothes we wear.  We think we have the right to the life we live, when in fact it is due mostly to dumb luck and an indifferent universe.

We are not better than anyone else.

We are allowed to make mistakes, and to be disappointed.  We are human, after all.  I think many people struggle with these issues, and that’s important.  Thinking about it, struggling with it, these are beginnings.  We are certainly right to start with ourselves in making the world a better place, and if that means yoga and meditation and Tibetan ringing bowls, so be it.

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On Certainty

I remember being at a party, an uncomfortable one (but most parties are uncomfortable to me) and a man saying to me and a friend I came with, “Hey, I remember you from high school!”  I was embarrassed to not remember him at all, and as he waxed on nostalgically about a time and place that are dim for me, it occurred to me that memory is an uncertain thing.  This man went on to talk about some barn “where all the parties were” and kept asking my friend and me for confirmation.  We couldn’t give it.  I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about.  I never went to parties in high school, or at least not parties like those.  So while memory is an uncertain thing, I know my own geekiness is a sure thing.  Of that, I am certain.

Beyond my life-long outsider status, I am convinced that I am certain of fewer and fewer things in life.  I know that’s just a function of age, but I also hope it’s a function of humility.  I guess we all could use a little more humility.  And, we all could use more uncertainty.  We, as a society, are so fucking certain of everything.  So sure of the space we take up, so sure of what we know, and so sure of our own opinions.

Remember the whole burkini debate recently on Facebook?  The French were cracking down on burkinis on French beaches, and a hue and cry went up that the treatment of those women wearing burkinis was outrageous.  They had a right to wear whatever they wanted.  Mostly, on my liberal leaning Facebook page, people were horrified.  What were the French doing?  Then a friend of mine said, “Do I really need to have an opinion about this?  I feel like it’s a lot more complicated then what we’re seeing.”  Of course she is right.  A lot of the French revolution, as my dad pointed out to me, was about the power of religion in French society.  Things like this are deep seated and indeed, complicated.  There is history there that we are forgetting, or never knew in the first place.  Plus, there is Islam, which is also complicated and of which perhaps in the West we are quite ignorant about.  Plenty of Muslim feminists have spoken out against the liberal West’s sudden quiet when it comes to the subjugation of women in Islamic societies.

So it’s complicated.  So maybe we don’t know shit.

There are things I care about that I have to admit, I don’t know shit about.  Take climate change.  I start to talk about it, the science of it, and I have to stop myself mid-stream.  When I start talking about it, it’s like gumballs falling out of a gumball machine.  I can’t stop myself, but I know I should.  I don’t even think I could explain the concept of global warming and greenhouse gas if I had to.  I am too ignorant.  But I know it exists.  I know it will increasingly rule our lives.  I’m pretty certain of that, even if I have to admit my uncertainty about the rest of it.

We are certain, and rightly so, that racism exists in our society.  We are certain that it is a bad thing.   We are less certain of who is a racist, as the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie points out in her book, Americanah:

“In America, racism exists, but racists are all gone.  Racists belong to the past.  Racists are the thin-lipped mean white people in the movies about the civil rights era.  . . . Somebody has to be able to say that racists are not monsters” (Adichie, 390).

We are certain it is not us, right?  I can’t be a racist, I’m a good person.  And somewhere in the ether, we hear the echo:  It is us.  It is us.  It is us.

It is hard to be uncertain.  Certainty is more comfortable, to be sure.  But perhaps when we are so certain, we are denying the humanity of others, and denying the humanity of ourselves.  Warts included.

We want to be certain of people.  Who and what they are.  We want to be able to say, “Oh, so and so is like this.  They are that.”  But that denies a person complexity, and complexity, thou art human.

Certainty shuts down argument.  Certainty shuts down conversation (unless it’s one of those showing off, one-up-man-ship kind of conversations).  Certainty shuts down avenues of approach.  We stop listening.  And no, I’m not talking about the election  I’m not talking about doing more “listening” to white supremacist views.  No.  Some things need to be shut down.  Some things need to be stood up to, and stared down.  Some things are too dangerous to tolerate.

I have been very fortunate in my life in a lot of ways.  Perhaps the grandest part of that fortune is the certainty I have in the love of my parents.  They love me, and I know it.  I love them, and I hope they know it.  I’m getting all cheesy on you here, but I’m saying this to illustrate a point:  If we are to be certain about something in our lives, let it be love.  It is necessary to be certain of the love we have for others and the love others have for us.  Therein lies a lot of pain, and that pain, I think, leads to a lot of the world’s ills. I’m not being new in saying this.  Mother Theresa once said, “If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.”  I think there’s something to that.

The love I have for my family and the love my family has for me has always been my foundation.  The bedrock that makes up who I am.  I am increasingly uncertain about things in life, but of that, I am certain.  And I think that’s the only thing I need to be certain about.

 

 

 

The Selfishness of Art

If you’re a fan of musicals, maybe you remember Mandy Patinkin singing the line “Art isn’t easy” in Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George.  Whatever your feelings about Mandy Patinkin, he was singing truth.

“Art isn’t easy. . . anyway you look at it.”

It’s an obvious statement, to be sure.  Anyone who wants to create anything knows this.  Hard to make a living with art.  Oh hell, hard to find the time to do art at all, even if you’re not depending on it for money.

Artists are accused of being selfish, but they need to be.  There comes a time – maybe once in your life, maybe every week, or every day – that you need to shut out the rest of your life, the rest of the world, and do art.  It won’t get done, otherwise, and god knows we need art.  If it hadn’t been for the selfishness of artists, societies since time immemorial would have been poorer in spirit.

I’m not saying that artist have license to be shits.  Dickens had a lover outside of his marriage, Jackson Pollock was an alcoholic jerk, and Woody Allen a pedophile.  The list goes on.  I think you can be a decent person (and the diversity in the word “decent” would be hard to limit) and still be selfish, still do art.

That we need to separate the person from their art is arguable.  (Although if I never see another Woody Allen movie again, I would be fine with that).  I’m not going there at the moment because obviously, I have conflicting thoughts on the matter.

I know people are often selfish (for reasons other than art).  I see it all the time, and I’m sure you do, too.  We live in a very individualistic society that probably encourages selfishness.

I’m writing a book (isn’t everyone?).  Between work and volunteer activities, between family obligations and my Etsy shop, I often feel overwhelmed and without the needed time to write.  Even when I sit down at a computer after a strong cup of coffee, I have difficulty quieting my mind enough to work on my story.  It’s true, I’m not a dedicated writer.  Sometimes I don’t want to write.  Actually, I can go for long periods like this.  It worries me – do I want to write enough?  – but all I can do is wait out these fallow times.  I suppose a lot of artists worry if they’re enough of an artist, if they’re good enough.  It’s tiresome to spend any energy on these thoughts, but they rise up, like a tsunami, sometimes.

So perhaps for this reason, among others, it’s important to make the time to write, even if I’m just staring at the screen, or pacing in the kitchen to a pop radio station.  All of that is writing, too, after all.  A lot of work is internal before it ever reaches the page.  And sometimes, sometimes, I must put work, and volunteerism, and family all aside, and just do what I can to put words on paper.  It may be selfish, but it sustains me in a way that other things don’t.

I think, too, we are often berated for our selfishness, perhaps unfairly.  As a good friend once said to me, “We’re all muddling through as best we can.”  I believe that.  Perhaps we need a little more “presumption of goodwill” – a phrase that came out of a writing workshop I’m in.  I like that a lot – presuming the good in people instead of jumping on them for something they’re supposedly not doing.  The pressure “to do” in this society is out of control.  Maybe we’re doing enough, just as we are.  Take a deep breath and think about that for a moment.  We’re doing enough.  We are enough.  And if you need art in your life, you also have, I believe, license to be selfish.  Take time to create.  If feeds the soul, and if we’re all feeding our souls, how much better off life would be (for everyone).

 

Just. One. Day. (Letter to Myself)

I’m not proud of this, but I admit since I began driving I’ve been known to speed.  Perhaps not as often now as in my youth – mortality weighs heavily upon me these days.  Still, I speed.  And even occasionally blow through an orangey-pink-red light.  And not once have I been pulled over.  Not once.  I have thought I’ve had a few close calls – police or state troopers maybe even seeing my pathetic attempt at slowing down and my break lights coming on.  But I have never been pulled over.

****

There was a time when I enjoyed shopping in brick and mortar stores, but now I do most shopping online.  I still hit the last independent bookstore in town, which is too much fun, and I still go to CVS and grocery stores and places like that.  I pride myself on being a highly observant person, and I know that I have never been followed around a store because the clerks thought I might steal something.  Never.

***

I live with my parents in a nice house in an upper middle class neighborhood.  It’s the same house we moved to in 1980.  I have never had to wonder if my parents were not shown the very best houses, in the very best neighborhoods, in Bloomington or anywhere else they have owned a home.  I have never had to wonder if they were ultimately charged more for the house than it was worth.

****

Sure, I’ve smoked pot, in my college days.  I’m sure the college security guards knew exactly what was going on in those student houses, and same for the local police.  But I was never caught doing it.  I probably never worried about it at all.

****

I’ve been out with friends, maybe vacationing, having a good time. I’ve never been asked to leave a place because of my so-called “behavior”.  I’ve never been told I’m acting “too white”.  I’ve never been told I’m making other customers “uncomfortable.”

****

I am human like everyone else and yes I’ve gotten shit from people, both known to me and from strangers.  But I’ve never had to wonder if they’re treating me this way because of the color of my skin.  It must be exhausting to have to wonder about this, day in, day out.  It must take a huge emotional and psychological toll on a person.

****

This past week I’ve wished for true wizardry in the world, and a chance to be a black person.

Just. One. Day.

A chance to see what it would be like to walk around my town, sit in a park maybe, go to a store, a movie, a restaurant.

Just. One. Day.

How would it feel?

Of course I wish a lot of things for this world, but I would start by wishing for more empathy.  Empathy.

And it would start with me.

Just. One. Day.

Black lives matter.

Can People Change?

The Victorian author Anthony Trollope had some funny titles for his books – He Knew He Was Right and Can You Forgive Her? and Is He Popenjoy?  So in the spirit of Trollope I add my own title, not as funny, perhaps, but something I wrestle with:  Can people change?

The obvious answer is yes, people do change.  But then there is the age old adage:  “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”  Or even, “People never change.”

My argument is that people DO change, sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worst.

Let’s start with the bad stuff first, so I can end on a positive note.

It’s been frustrating for me to hear the news pundits say things like “Trump has really tapped into something with voters.”  People, there are some things you shouldn’t tap into.  The yawing chasm of hate that he has opened up is something, as a friend on Facebook pointed out, we might never recover from.  And the change is palpable.  Yes, those people who go to Trump rallies might have had that hate buried deep within them all along, but I also think they have changed for the worst.  Suddenly this bigoted, no-nothing shell of a man has given permission for the worst to come out of people and now we have images of a young black woman being shoved and pushed and yelled at at a Trump rally, and a young black man being punched in the face seared into our collective memory.  Trump supporters have changed because they no longer think it’s necessary to keep their behavior in check.  And that’s a scary, scary thing.  It’s all I can do not to think that this is the end of civilized society.  And yes, I know, perhaps we’ve never been “civilized”, especially to minority groups, but the public discourse has definitely been ratcheted down to a new low.

Still, I believe people can change for the better, too.

Back in the Jurassic age when I went to college, I remember arguing with my father about gay rights.  He said, “Gays are just a special interest group and special interest groups shouldn’t get privileges.”  Or something to that effect.  He made me cry.  Decades later, he has a gay son, my brother Tom, and a bisexual daughter, me.  You would never believe he ever said such a thing.  He knows the importance of gay rights now, and even more importantly, has been openly supportive and loving to Tom and his partner Jean, and of course to me.  My father, and my mother, have changed.  For the better.  I’m sure it hasn’t been easy for them, but they rose to the challenge beautifully.

Sometimes I think it’s a matter of theory and practice.  In theory, many people support gay rights and same-sex marriage, but in practice are pretty awful about gay people.  They’re clearly uncomfortable around gay people, say stupid or offensive things to and about gay people, and generally let the world know that they have some serious issues to still work out.  My parents, on the other hand, in theory are still uncomfortable with gay issues and talking about their gay children.  But in practice, my parents are love personified.  I wish more people were like them.  It is in our practice, in what we say or do, that really matters.

The Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has written extensively about the “fixed” mindset vs. the “growth” mindset.  She is particularly talking about intelligence, but intelligence may rule so much of our behavior and character that I think it is relevant to change as well.  People with a “fixed” mindset don’t believe they can change.  They are stuck with what nature gave them.  The “growth” mindset believes it can change and become better, the effort itself being an important element.

Dweck writes:

“For twenty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value. How does this happen? How can a simple belief have the power to transform your psychology and, as a result, your life?

Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.

I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves — in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser? . . .” (Dweck, taken from the “BrainPickings” blog)

I think it’s possible to go from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.  Maybe that’s what happened to my parents. It has probably happened to me, when I accepted my own sexuality.   I don’t know if I can go as far to say that the Trump supporters at his violent rallies all have a fixed mindset.  But I wonder.  I wonder if they are just very fearful people, fearful of change, of difference, of “the other”.  I wonder if their posturing is just another form of what Dweck would say is “proving themselves over and over.”  That Trump himself, for all his braggadocio, must be a very insecure man down deep goes without saying.  That’s classic narcissism for you.

Perhaps I must leave the question:  Can people change? and go to a statement:  People must change.  We must grow and become better people.  And yes, we must convince others to do the same, whether that is in a family and done with love, or whether that means protesting the hate of others.  Both are important.

 

 

Small Talk and Civility

I love talking about the weather.  In fact, I just love weather, my least favorite being sunny hot days.  I’m perverse in that way, I know.  But I’ll still talk about it.  I know that talking about the weather is often disparaged, but I think that’s a mistake.  The world needs small talk, if nothing more than to maintain a level of civility that wouldn’t be there if we’re talking about something else.

So it was with dismay that I read a NY Times Modern Love article by Tim Boomer entitled “The End of Small Talk.”  In it, he talks about dating and how he started doing away with small talk, jumping into heavy stuff to start them off.  Admittedly, dating is something I haven’t done in a while, but to me this sounds terrifying.  Diving in with “our weightiest beliefs and most potent fears. . . Questions that reveal who we are and where we want to go” ??  I don’t think so.

Small talk, even though as an introvert I’m not very good at it, is necessary.  Start small, I say, and work up to the big things.  Build trust.  Find common ground.  And if the only common ground you can find is the weather, so be it.  That in and of itself tells you a lot about a person.  By sticking to the weather, one can avoid any number of unpleasantries.

I’m not against big and weighty issues.  God knows (and so do you, if you read my blog) that I don’t shy away from the hard stuff.  But I don’t do this all the time, or with everyone.  It’s not always important to bring up the serious.  It can be a real drag. Or somehow it misses the tenor of the moment.

So in a recent interaction, I didn’t.  I was near a conversation between two friends, in a public space, and it went like this:

Person A:  I can’t believe the Anglican Church now marries gays.  You could see them swishing down the aisle. . .

Later –

Person A:  I taught mostly black kids.  And they were all on their way to jail. . .

So perhaps you can see that a little small talk was in order here.  Something safe, like the fucking weather, and not views on social issues mixed in with a little homophobia and racism.  It would have been a much safer topic of discussion.  And what did I do, you ask?  Good question.  I debated speaking up, but I didn’t.  Perhaps that was wrong of me, but a friend pointed out that a heavy silence can be its own form of condemnation.  I hope so.

Perhaps we need to be a little more afraid of offending people. tornado-8 There seems to be more than enough incivility to go around.

 

Vulnerability and Writing the Dead

In his wonderful book “Nothing to Be Frightened Of”, Julian Barnes says that we must write as if everyone we know, everyone we love and who loves us, is dead.  What he means, of course, is that writers can’t get hung up on what people might think of us according to what we write.  We can’t worry about hurting people, or saying things that people will disagree with.

But this is hard.

Of course I care what people think.  Of course I don’t want to hurt anyone (and know that I have).  I think about these things a lot.

Writers are just as vulnerable as the people they write about.  This is true in fiction, too, because where do we get our inspiration if not from life itself?

The world does not like to be vulnerable, but it is equally true that the world doesn’t like to witness other people’s vulnerability.  It makes us squirm in discomfort.  Perhaps other people’s vulnerability is a window into our own selves, a window we would rather not look through.  Sometimes, and this is the worst of it, it makes people vicious – using someone’s vulnerability to hurt someone even more than they are already hurting.

A friend pointed out to me that when a woman writes about being vulnerable, she ends up regretting it because the world makes her feel overexposed.  When a woman is vulnerable, she is at best confessional and at worst hysterical.

I want to be clear about something in this blog.  When I’ve written about myself, it’s been for a larger purpose.  I want people to know that they are not alone – not because they suffer in the exact same way that I have suffered, but because they have suffered period.  I want people to live carefully.  Our words and actions matter – always.  I use examples from my own life because they illustrate a broader point – not because I’m interested in pity.  Ultimately, this blog is not about me.  It’s about everyone, everywhere.

Originally, I wanted this blog post to be about racism.  That’s what I was going to write about.  I wanted to say even when we think we’re not being racist, we’re being racist.  I had examples – examples that would hurt people.  Examples that would hurt me.  As the song from the musical Avenue Q says, “Everyone’s a little bit racist.”  But that feeling of vulnerability stopped me.  Writing the dead stopped me.

Maybe that’s too bad.  Maybe strength is the ability to be vulnerable.  Sometimes.

I’m writing fiction now.  I feel like I can tackle societal shit in a form that distances me and people I know from it.  I can safely say that my characters are NEVER myself, NEVER an exact replica of anyone I know.  It’s fiction.

Writing is risky.  I hope you believe it’s worth the risk.  I do.