Friday, November 14, 2014

That Smell

There's some significant internet buzz about semi-nude photos of Kim Kardashian, particularly one of her backside. I'd call it much ado about nothing, but judging by the photo it's much ado about quite a lot. The photo shoot's title, "Kim Kardashian Breaks the Internet," appears to have been a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The buzz is, for the most part, not flattering to Ms. Kardashian, ranging from denunciations to parodies to "Why is this okay when _____ isn't?" pretensions of moral outrage to catty comments about Photoshopping (which may well be true). Kanye West is not spared, either: one meme has a picture -- almost a mug shot -- of West with the caption "Here's that picture of Kim Kardashian's ass everyone's been talking about."

Stay classy, Internet.

In one sense this comes with the territory. Kardashian, like Paris Hilton before her, is the quintessential person famous for being famous.

Life in the spotlight brings all kinds of attention, and while I suppose the old adage that there's no such thing as bad press rings true, not all of that attention is savory. Live by the photo-op, die by the photo-op, as Rush Limbaugh (himself no stranger to the pitfalls of celebrity status) used to say of Bill Clinton.

Some gawk, some mock, some take the opportunity to (perhaps a bit too) loudly proclaim their lack of interest and/or familiarity with all things Kardashian. The Kardashians and their ilk allow us the opportunity to perform our identity.

It's not exactly schadenfreude -- there's no real misfortune involved for us to take pleasure in -- but we do get to congratulate ourselves for not being that kind of person. They offer us what Robert Scholes calls cultural reinforcement: the opportunity to be confirmed in our ideological positions and reassured as to our membership in a collective cultural body.

The Kardashians, et al. wash up onto our cultural shores as the flotsam and jetsam of our own self-absorption, the detritus of our vanities, the lingering purple haze of our collective narcissism. They might be the family members we'd just as soon not have show up at the family reunion, but they're still us.

We look, and then we make a big show of looking away. We're like the kid who's too cool for fart jokes but is nevertheless fascinated by the smell of his own flatulence.

Every driver thinks they're making autonomous decisions and yet traffic constellates into mathematically predictable patterns. The most popular station in most metropolitan areas is the country station, but nobody likes country. Advertising must work on someone, because it certainly doesn't work on us. And Kim Kardashian is famous.

Because none of us cares.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Tell Me Something Good

[A talk presented at the 3rd annual English Studies Conference at Central Michigan Univerity. The theme was "Authority, Autonomy, Anarchy," and I was asked to give the keynote. The talk includes bits of my dissertation as well as things I've written on this blog.]

At the end of the first chapter of Ursula K. Leguine’s The Dispossessed, the protagonist, Shevak, travels from the inhabitable moon on which a group of breakaway anarchists had formed a collective to the home world to conduct academic research. His arrival is quite controversial due to the animosity between the two groups, and at the end of the first chapter he tells his hosts, “You have him. You have your anarchist. What are you going to do with him?”

I would begin my talk this afternoon the same way except that I am no more an anarchist than Barack Obama is a socialist. The truth is, I don’t have the guts for revolution, I don’t have a flair for the theater of protest, and I don’t have the fortitude for social experiments in anarchist polity. I have an academic interest in anarchism, and a philosophical sympathy for anarchism, but on a practical level I’m just another boring white middle class liberal.

I'm reluctant to call myself an anarchist partially because I don't want to be one of those people who co-opts a sexy sounding word because it supposedly has some kind of cachet. Partially, too, because it is a deeply misunderstood designation, owing not a little to all those people who like to co-opt sexy sounding words because they supposedly have some kind of cachet.

I'm not saying that people whose political thinking doesn't go much beyond Dead Kennedys T-shirts and a predilection for shouting and breaking things aren't anarchists, but they might be making things confusing for anarchists who construct their politics a little differently. I don't want to be that guy.

I say all of this not to distance myself from “those people” – many of whom I have a deep respect for – but to allay your fears that I’m going to indulge in anarchist proselytizing or peddle anarchist propaganda. “That’s good,” you might be thinking, “because isn’t anarchism a state of lawlessness and chaos in which everyone does what they want and the strong prey on the weak in a kind of Mad Max dystopia?” 

The answer is no: you’re thinking of Congress.

“Anarchy” does carry those connotations, however, and some make a distinction between “anarchy” in that sense and “anarchism,” which describes the political philosophy, whereas the purists want to wrest the word from those connotations entirely. Suffice it to say that while it would not be impossible to find people of a mind that lawlessness and chaos are underrated and should be given a chance, that really doesn’t describe anarchism either in the historical sense or in terms of present-day anarchist discourse.

Anarchism as we know it begins in the nineteenth century, though anarchists often claim a more august pedigree. Kropotkin saw an evolutionary case for anarchism, arguing that “mutual aid,” and not just competition for limited resources, shaped our evolutionary journey. Anarcho-primitivists similarly see hunter-gatherer societies as proto-anarchist, going so far as to call into question civilization itself. Christian anarchists – yes, that’s a thing – see the original Jesus communities as an analog to anarchist collectives and tend to read the Old Testament through something of an anarcho-primitivist lens.

Anarchism as such, though, is usually traced to Mikhail Bakunin, a contemporary of Marx who shared of a lot of Marx’s concerns and was part of the First International. He and Marx agreed that private ownership of the means of production led to oppression and that collective ownership would eliminate class stratification and thus poverty, but he disagreed with Marx’s assumption that such ownership would have to pass through the state apparatus on the way to a classless society. I’m glossing a lot here, but Bakunin didn’t buy the idea that the state would wither away on its own and thought it was probably going to need some motivation in that direction.

19th century anarchism was concerned with class, but didn’t see class as the only dangerous hierarchy; it saw the state in the same way,  especially since the presence of the state would almost certainly result in a defacto governing class. Bakunin wasn’t alone, either: Kropotkin, and Proudhon in Europe and Lysander Spooner and Benjamin Tucker in the US had similar ideas, and women like Voltairine de Cleyre, Lucy Parsons, and Emma Goldman would add early critiques of patriarchy to the mix.

The basic is idea was that we were evolutionarily predisposed to egalitarianism, that this was in some real sense our destiny, and that a combination of education, worker discontent, and the inexorable forces of history would soon usher in a new age of true freedom and equality. What we might call “classical anarchism” is very much a product of the Enlightenment and 19th century humanism. They weren’t necessarily alone in their ideals; they were just very particular as to the telos or goal of those ideals as well as the means to get there.

History is not exactly kind to anarchism. The new age does not arrive as such. The Revolution never comes. The liberation of human subject is never fully realized. There are pockets of anarchist resistance and experiments in anarchist polity as well as an anarchist thread – what we might call a black thread after the anarchist black flag – that runs through leftist movements in general, from the Paris Commune to the American labor movement to the Spanish civil war to student movements on both sides of the Atlantic.

Anarchists were involved in the ultimately unsuccessful uprising in Paris in May of 1968, which is in some ways The Day the Music Died and the time when philosophy started to get really interesting. By this I mean the sense in which the events of 1968 marked a crisis in the left as we knew it and gave rise to shifts in Continental thought that we’ve come to know as postmodernism or poststructuralism. This is important because of where anarchist theory has been heading for the last fifteen years or so.

Since the 1999 “The Battle in Seattle,” anarchism has garnered attention from both the media and the academy. The WTO protests were part of what is sometimes called the “anti-globalization” movement. “Postanarchism” is the name attached to the attempt to theorize the relationship between this movement and emerging forms of anarchism that seem to characterize it.

This term does not mean to be done with anarchism, or that anarchism’s moment has definitively passed, but instead denotes the introduction of poststructuralist and postmodern critiques into to anarchist theory. It is often contrasted to the “classical” anarchism of Bakunin, Proudhon, Kropotkin, and others.

Whether this is a truly a break from these thinkers or a continuation of their thought is a topic of debate among postanarchist thinkers, as is the usefulness or accuracy of the term "postanarchism," but is enough for our purposes to note that postanarchism is critical of the humanism and essentialism of modernist anarchist discourse.

Postanarchism is also is markedly different in how it conceptualizes the state and its place in political theory. Todd May borrows language from Michel de Certeau, and calls this a difference between “strategic” and “tactical” thinking. In strategic thinking, May explains,
The variety of oppressions and injustices that pervade a society and the possibility of justice are located in a single problematic; if that problematic is properly analyzed and the right conclusions for intervention are drawn, then justice, inasmuch as it can be had, will be had….[This reduction] lies at the core of strategic political thinking. All problems can be reduced to the basic one; justice is a matter of solving the basic problem.
Whether that basic problem is seen to be ownership of the means of production as with Marxism or the state as with classical anarchism, postanarchism questions the strategic calculus by which a single site becomes the focus of resistance.

Tactical thinking, by way of contrast, assumes power to be multiple and fluid, requiring more creative responses. Saul Newman points out that contemporary radical politics is working more and more outside the state rather than strictly against it. Postanarchism sees the state as a problem, but not the problem; it rejects the logic that would make any single point of resistance primary or central.

One reason for this shift, besides the influence of poststructuralist thought, is the changing role of the state in contemporary politics. Both postanarchism and the anti-globalization movement have come about as a response to neoliberalism, in which the state is no longer the primary political actor. 

Wendy Brown argues that the designation “neoliberal” describes a repudiation of certain aspects of Keynesian economics in favor of a more radically free market – the Chicago School of economics run amok. But she points out that this is not merely economic. It has an ideological and political component as well: “Neo-liberal rationality, while foregrounding the market, is not only or even primarily focused on the economy; rather it involves extending and disseminating market values to all institutions and social action, even as the market itself remains a distinctive player,” she writes.

Responses to neoliberalism are mixed. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri describe neoliberalism as a global empire and call for an equally global multitude to rise up in resistance. Slavoj Žižek issues a new Marxist – even Leninist – call for socialist revolution. The response on the streets has been, as Graeber argues, largely anarchist.

Postanarchism tends to emphasize the ethical component of anarchist theory. It is not necessarily pacifist – at least not on the personal level – but it is to some extent predicated on an ethics of nonviolence. Newman argues that violence is “an authoritarian, sovereign relationship, something that violates the autonomy of the other” and that nonviolence should be the ethical horizon of an anarchist politics. 

In “Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology,” Graeber points out that violence forecloses on dialog: if I hit you over the head hard enough, he explains, I don’t need to bother getting to know you or even having a conversation with you. I can get what I want from you without securing your consent. The postanarchist attempt to make this nonviolence comprehensive leads to a critique not only of neoliberalism or the state but also of other forms of radical resistance, including some elements of classical anarchism. To abolish the state outright, for instance, would be to foist upon millions of people an anarchism (or anarchy) that they did not choose and for which they are not prepared.

Richard Day’ speaks to this in Gramsci is Dead. After pointing out that “there is no single enemy against which the newest social movements are fighting," Day identifies neoliberalism with hegemony, which he defines as “a process through which various factions struggle over meaning, identity and political power." Neoliberalism, he claims, is seeking and achieving hegemony on an unprecedented scale. The significant question for Day is: how can we fight it? His answer is worth quoting at length:
The obvious answer is to try to establish a counter-hegemony, to shift the historical balance back, as much as possible, in favor of the oppressed. This might mean a defense of the welfare state in the global North, or a continuation of the battle to enjoy its benefits for the first time in the global South. Or it might mean attempting to establish a different kind of global hegemony, one that works from ‘below’ rather than from ‘above.’ [Here I think he has Hardt and Negri in mind.] To argue in this way, however, is to remain within the logic of neoliberalism; it is to accept what I call the hegemony of hegemony. By this I mean to refer to the assumption that effective social change can only be achieved simultaneously and en masse, across an entire national or supranational space. Marxist revolutionaries have followed the logic of hegemony in seeking state power, hoping to reverse the relationship between the dominated and the dominators. Liberal and postmarxist reformism display the same logic, although in a different mode—rather than seeking to take state power, they seek to influence its operation through processes of pluralistic co-operation and conflict. What is most interesting about contemporary radical activism is that some groups are breaking out of this trap by operating non-hegemonically rather than counter-hegemonically. They seek radical change, but not through taking or influencing state power, and in so doing they challenge the logic of hegemony at its very core.
It is not difficult to see here the similarity between Day’s “hegemony of hegemony” and May’s “strategic” thinking. Simon Critchley describes this non-hegemonic impulse as “neo-anarchism," and in terms that are similar to those of postanarchism. He offers a three-fold typology of political response. One he calls “military neo-liberalism,” which roughly corresponds to Day’s hegemonic, “neo-Leninism,” which is counter-hegemonic. [Here he is probably referring to Zizek.] The third response is neo-anarchism, which takes up what he calls an “interstitial distance within and against the state,” which is non-hegemonic. What makes it neo-anarchism, Critchley argues, is that it “does not hope to achieve the classical anarchist dream of society without the state.” It is an anarchism that functions more as critique than blueprint.

It’s this idea of anarchism as critique that I’m most interested in. Another reason I don't really embrace the moniker is that I don't think an anarchist society is practical. I don't mean to say that "anarchist society" is an oxymoron -- one of the horrible clichés people almost instantly reach for – but that a) there's no way we're ever going to get enough people behind the idea to make significant progress toward it; and b) it seems like the sort of thing that would be all too easy to fuck up if we did. In this I find myself siding with Jacques Ellul, who likewise distinguishes himself:
The true anarchist thinks that an anarchist society—with no state, no organization, no hierarchy, and no authorities—is possible, livable, and practicable. But I do not. In other words, I believe that the anarchist fight, the struggle for an anarchist society, is essential, but I also think that the realizing of such a society is impossible.
I'd quibble with Ellul that anarchism is really about no organization or no authorities, but the opportunity here is to recognize that anarchism and other forms of resistance to Empire are nevertheless parasitic upon Empire as the thing they need to kick against – which is the point of the Matrix trilogy if one can get past the first film. There is no pristine or primordial anarchist site that has been obfuscated by Empire; there is only the negative space that is always already defined by Empire. True anarchists may not agree with this, but I think they can nevertheless help us to see it.

What this suggests is that if anarchism isn't practical, in conventional terms, it is a least practicable, in small communities and small ways. In fleeting and furtive moments. In the refusal to wield power or the decision to use power outside of approved channels to help those with no access to power. Accepting the mantle of leadership can be a way to occupy the place of power, which might be seen as necessary, in order to give power away. It's a little like having an anarchist mayor in Reykjavik; it sounds oxymoronic, but it's not, necessarily.

Another illustration that comes to mind is an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. In the story, an unfamiliar ship docks at the space station in need of repairs. The ship's lone operator, of a previously unknown species called a Tosk, manages to strike up a friendship with the station's chief engineer, O'Brien, but also gets in trouble for snooping around the weapons stores (for which he refuses to offer an explanation) and lands in the brig.

Eventually another unknown alien vessel comes looking for the Tosk. They are not the same species, and it turns out they are hunting the Tosk, not in a law enforcement or bounty hunter kind of way, but in an English-gentlemen-out-with-the-hounds kind of way: the Tosk is their prey. The Tosk are bred, in fact, to be exciting quarry and honored for their cunning in evasion. The captive Tosk is bound by social custom to be the hunted, and in getting caught alive (facilitated, of course, by his being held in the brig) he faces humiliation. The station is prepared to hand him over to his pursuers.

O'Brien is scandalized by this; he realizes that the Tosk was interested in the weapons as a possible hedge against his pursuers, and finds the idea of hunting a sentient race repugnant -- but the Prime Directive (which, in some ways, represents the logical outworking of liberal "tolerance") prevents him from interfering with the social customs of these other races. The Tosk could ask for asylum but he refuses; it would only be further indignity and a violation of his code. He would rather die with honor than evade his fate, even though the means for that evasion are available.

O'Brien takes things into his own hands and launches a plan to help the Tosk escape. The plan succeeds, and the Tosk is freed, in not in O'Brien's sense of what freedom would be, but to continue the hunt without further loss of honor. O'Brien, however, must be reprimanded for violating orders – for violating the Prime Directive, in fact. He is called into the station captains's office for a dressing-down. As he accepts his reprimand, he pauses to admit puzzlement over one aspect of the plan: at a crucial point at which he was certain it would fail, the force field system he thought would stop them was curiously slow to engage. The captain, Sisko, says suggestively, "I guess that one got past us," and the two exchange a knowing look.

The Tosk's escape is a violation of the law but not of the social code by which the Tosk lives. He cannot accept asylum but he can accept O'Brien's offer of outlaw justice. He is restored not to freedom as we might think of it but to the life for which he is bred and to which he seeks to return. Sisko is required by the law to reprimand O'Brien and does, but in the process it becomes clear that he not only secretly approved of O'Brien's actions but also played a role in making sure those actions were successful. He was occupying the place of power, and maintaining the pretense of power, but he was also giving it away.

Of course, there are ideologies and social constraints that are upheld, to a certain extent precisely through this violation of the law (Žižek would have a field day with this), and in no sense are O'Brien or Sisko enacting an anarchist society or articulating an anarchist theory. But they are working in the negative space of empire to offer aid to the oppressed on the terms of the oppressed. It is a fleeting anarchical moment. It critiques the present order at precisely the point where that order cannot account for the complexities of the sociopolitical situation at hand. And that’s the problem with massive – in this case galactic – social structures: they aren’t supple enough to deal with life as it is actually lived. 

This is related to anarchism’s critique of fixed hierarchies. Anarchism is not opposed to leadership or structure or even authority. What it’s critical of is any authority that isn’t contextually situated. Most of us reject hierarchies based on race or gender, even though we still live in a society in which white men disproportionately hold power, and we’re largely blind to hierarchies of class even though the white men in question are also ridiculously wealthy, probably because we’re suckers for the myth of equal opportunity.

Anarchism is critical of any authority that cannot justify itself. Just as we find unconscionable the idea that one race should rule over another, or that one gender should be head of the other, and give lip service to the idea that one class should be lord over another, anarchism would also question the idea that one might govern on the basis of being able to get elected, or manage on the basis of being able to impress the hiring committee.

There’s a sense in which we get this kind of critique from The Office. Michael Scott is hilariously inept, and yet the system keeps him in place. He almost magically manages to keep his job, and there’s an extent to which the employees go along with it because they’ve learned to manage him. There’s an element of sticking with the devil you know, but there’s also an element of a very tactical response to a dysfunctional power dynamic – the practice of everyday office life.

Anarchism is predicated not on the individualistic and often juvenile pronouncement that you are not the boss of me, but on the ethical conviction that I am not the boss of you, and I certainly shouldn’t expect to be in charge of something or be listened to simply because status, station, or privilege. Rather, I should expected to be listened when and if I have something worthwhile to contribute and I should expect to be followed on the basis of being able to take others somewhere they want or need to go.

This even has application in the classroom. David Sedaris tells a hilarious story about a gig teaching a writing workshop. As he tells the story, he was hilariously inept, and his challenge was to get through each class session without the students discovering he didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. Eventually, when asked who he thinks he is to tell the students how to write their stories, he has an epiphany: “I’m the only person in the room,” he tells them “who gets paid to be here.” He loses all credibility, however, when they ask just how much he was getting paid.

It’s a funny story and Sedaris is a great humorist. But he knows, and we know, that getting paid to be in the room is not a legitimate source of authority. At least we should know this. We can’t deny that our authority in the classroom comes from the system itself – that would be naïve. But it is equally naïve to think that it is enough. Our de jure structural authority becomes a legitimate de facto authority when we demonstrate that we are competent, that we have something useful to offer, that we are credible.

If it seems obvious that anarchism would critique authority, it seems less obvious that it would critique autonomy as well. Postanarchism is a response to the linguistic turn, the idea that we don’t have access to mental states but only to language. We only know what the words do. If our worlds are linguistically constructed and mediated, then the question of autonomy becomes problematic. Theorist Todd May takes this farther in The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism:
Poststructuralism dissolves the subject/structure dichotomy by substituting for both a concept that might be called “practices.” What is of interest to the poststructuralist is neither the constituting interiority of the subject nor the constituting exteriority of structures, but instead the interlocking network of contingent practices [like language] that produces both “subjects” and “structures.” Whether these practices are founded upon a metaphysics of forces, as is the case with Deleuze and the Lyotard of the 1970s, or rejects metaphysical grounding, as do Foucault and more recent Lyoyardian writings, they remain a multiple, diverse, and contingent network of events, effects, and influences that defies such dichotomies as above/below and inside/outside. Subjects and structures are sedimentations of practices whose source cannot be discovered in a privilege ontological domain but that must be sought, rather, among the specific practices in which they arise.
May goes on to connect this specifically to anarchism, suggesting that what was going on in poststructuralism was continuing the anarchist critique in the wake of he calls the failure of Marxism.

My point is that an anarchist critique cannot stop at a simple binary in which authority is oppressive and the human subject must be emancipated as an autonomous agent, but must question the individualism that undergirds our assumptions about autonomy. This, in a roundabout way, is also a critique of the liberal theories – meaning “liberal” in its broadest political sense – on which Western democracy and capitalism are based. If we are not, as it turns out, independent rational actors (and here even cognitive science suggests that we are not), then the very premise of Western society is called into question – it doesn't get much more anarchist than that.

It also keeps us from falling prey to simple libertarianism, which is predicated on the same faulty social ontology. One of the reasons I think contemporary anarchism, or postanarchism, is somewhat less strident in its anti-state rhetoric is that such rhetoric plays too easily into libertarian sentiments. Getting rid of the state is not the answer, especially if that means leaving us at the mercy of the vagaries of the free market. 

Capitalism is demonstrably not a viable meritocracy, and without regulation it offers no hedge against an owner class amassing wealth at the expense of a worker class making as little as the market will support and paying as much for goods as the market will support. It is a kind of divine command ethics in which the market is God. Today’s left, such as it is, wants to ameliorate the effects of neoliberalism without being willing to interrogate its ideological framework, whereas the right wholly accepts the ideology without interrogating its effects.

Instead of authority and autonomy, then, perhaps we can think in terms of agency – at least it begins with ‘A’, right? [The conference title was "Authority, Autonomy, Anarchy."] If there is no central locus of power that we can either abolish or take hold of, but rather a web of intersecting lines of power in which we’re always already caught up, and there is no static, essential human subject to be liberated but rather the product and intersection of practices, then perhaps we can see the task of anarchist critique as one of interrogating those lines of power and opening up new avenues for agency, new lines of flight, new forms of life. Not life forms – let’s not get that sci-fi just yet – but new ways of living and having agency.

So where does this leave us? First of all, as you might have noticed, we kind of already know this. We are already shifting away from teaching the canon or standard written English as fixed forms demanding our adherence and homage. That is to say, we teach them, but as responses to specific contexts. The conventions of academic writing are just that – conventions. I tell my students there are no rules of grammar; there are conventions, based on the way we’ve actually used the language, that vary from situation to situation and to which we might want to pay attention if we want to be taken seriously. We’ve already made the linguistic turn that anarchist discourse has just caught up to in the past fifteen years.

Second, in literature and cultural studies (and there’s a journal called Anarchist Developments in Cultural Studies) we might look to anarchist theory as tool for exploration. Making the structures of power visible is the condition of possibility of interrogating those structures. We might look to anarchist theory as something of an umbrella term for the various investigations of power with which we are already familiar. Or we might not need to – the anarchists aren’t going to come after you if you don’t.

Third, we might let the anarchist critique question our own assumptions about and pretensions to authority. It might encourage us to recuse ourselves of presuming to be in charge of others, and to substantiate our claims to authority in those situations where we are in charge. We have authority precisely to the extent that we have credibility – ethos, if you will. 

In the classroom it means that our authority comes not from the fact that we get paid to be in the room, or that we have an advanced degree, or that we were able to pass our certification, but from our ability to help students learn the things they need to learn, to help them cultivate the practices that will allow them to contribute to their worlds. As authors, it means that our authority comes not from an ability to put words on a page or get them published, but from our capacity to say something worthwhile – to, in the words of Stevie Wonder (made famous by Chaka Khan): 

“Tell me something good.”


Thursday, September 25, 2014

Crazy Train

"You're not here to make a choice," the Oracle tells Neo in The Matrix Reloaded, "You're here to understand a choice you've already made."

I have, as far as I can tell, two great passions: music and writing. Added to these are what I take to be two lesser but nevertheless significant interests: teaching and theology (which includes an interest in atheism -- that's not as paradoxical as it seems).

These have long existed in a kind of tension. I don't have time to devote to all of them, vocationally or avocationally, and they can be complementary but they are not always compatible.

When I went to college I wanted to be a minister -- this would combine theology, writing, and teaching. But music called too loudly, and I didn't fit the ministerial profile, so I ended up a music major.

Music for me has almost always been church music. Whether it's the acoustic pop stylings of contemporary worship or the jangly piano of gospel hymns or a Mass written for my master's thesis, my musical language is that of the church.

Being a church musician does, to some extent, combine the theological and the musical. There's even a teaching element involved, and a writing element, insofar as I wrote some of my own songs.

Still, there's a tension. For one, I'm not very good at believing in things. When I graduated from Bible college, I put off going into ministry and worked in the pizza business instead. I still went to church and helped out with the music, but I wasn't ready to be vocationally Christian.

In fact, I harbored atheistic fantasies of an intellectual life without the theological furniture. I read Isaac Asimov. I lurked in atheist chatrooms on CompuServe (this was the 90s), fascinated by the world they narrated. I was envious of characters in books and movies and their utter unconcern, for the most part, with things religious.

I was still a Christian, still pretty much a believer, but I ventured out. I flirted with atheism the way you might flirt with the kind of person your parents don't want you to date.

The music called me, though, and when I got an offer to join the staff of a church full-time, I stuffed that atheist impulse and assumed God was trying to get my attention. But I was still restless, and it's possible that a choice had already been made that I wasn't fully aware of.

The other tension was that while there was a writing element to what I was doing, it wasn't really the writing life of which I was somewhat enamored. I had plenty of time to study and a budget for books, which was nice, but not much of an outlet. I signed up for a graduate degree, partially because I was bored.

Relief from this tension came in the form of another job offer. I had been in chatrooms again, this time not with atheists but with preterists -- people who believed that the prophecies of the Bible had already been fulfilled in what turns out to have been more whimper than bang.

The basic premise of preterism is that the parts of the Bible we usually take to be about the Second Coming, or Heaven and Hell, and so forth, were really ways of narrating more temporal events like the destruction of cities or major battles, and had more to do with a new covenant between God and humanity than with hellfire and brimstone.

The details aren't really important. What's important is that this theology assuaged my skepticism insofar as it re-contextualized some of the difficult bits. There was, in a sense (and this is horribly unfair to earnest preterists), less to believe. Moreover, I understood this theology really, really well and could explain it to others, which is what I ended up doing on the message board.

This attracted the attention of the group that hosted the board, and they offered me a job writing for a magazine they were starting up. Here was a theology I thought I could latch onto and a shot at the writing life.

This failed spectacularly on two levels. First, the magazine flopped and the organization folded, beset by massive internal problems. Second, the more time I spent with this theology the more it auto-deconstructed. Again, the details aren't important; the end result is that it collapsed for me along with the organization and led me again to atheism.

Granted, it could have led me other ways, like back to my evangelical roots or into a more robust postliberal faith. I had a thing for Episcopalians -- it could have led there. But it didn't. I think I went where I wanted to.

On Christmas Eve 2001, I wrote in my journal "Tomorrow may be my first Christmas as an unbeliever." I"m wondering now if that choice hadn't been made well before that.

My ticket out of this conundrum came in the form of yet another job offer, this time teaching music at a Christian college. I'd kept my atheism to myself, and could narrate my path as one of repenting of my suspect theological digression and coming back to the mainstream fold.

I didn't believe in God, but the turn of events still seemed providential. I needed the money, and I could play the part, and maybe I wasn't so much lying or playacting as I was trying to inhabit my true calling. At least that's what I told myself.

In the process I was introduced to another theological turn, this time a postliberal theology with an Anabaptist flavor rooted in a pacifist ethics. I would come to understand (and write a dissertation about) this theology as a kind of Christian anarchism.

Again, the details are unimportant; this was something I thought maybe I could believe. I still had trouble believing in God, but perhaps I could nonetheless live a life of faith, and this might mean that I really did believe after all. It's crazy, but it just might work.

It was a stark contrast from the evangelical world of contemporary worship music, and while these worlds aren't necessarily in conflict, they don't sit together easily. The megachurch paradigm is not one in which Christian anarchist principles obtain.

Another tension is that after I finished my master's in music, I soon discovered I didn't really want to continue with it. I did a year of doctoral work in composition but needed a change.

The American studies department looked attractive to me, and I pitched the idea of studying contemporary praise and worship music from the perspective of cultural studies.

They liked it, and I got into the program. Then I took a course on American radical thought and fell in love -- here was a connection to the theology I was so interested in -- so I changed my topic and left music behind as a field of study.

This was a little awkward since I was teaching music, but I eventually left the Christian college and began teaching writing at a state university. Music did not go quietly into that goodnight, however, and I got another offer to lead worship part-time at a fairly large church, and I took it. It seemed like the right thing to do, and in many ways it was a great experience.

In retrospect, it was a horrible place to be -- not the church, as such, but in the tension. I was intellectually an atheist, theologically a Christian anarchist, vocationally a secular academic, and quasi-vocationally an evangelical worship leader. It was, to say the least, a little crazy-making. I could be any two of those, maybe -- but not all four.

This quadrilateral tension tended to collapse into one between music and writing, with belief rather loosely tied up with music and unbelief with writing, simply because of the way they sat with me. They didn't exactly line up, because of the added theological tension between my anarchist interests and the evangelical world, but it mostly came down to music and the ecclesiastical world as an evangelical versus writing and the academic world as an atheist.

I was on both paths, and I had probably already made the choice but it was hard to give up the music. I loved it, even if there was an element of guilty pleasure to it. It's like flipping through the channels and stopping on a Three's Company rerun: it's fun, but you don't want to get caught.

I was good at it. I knew how to get the sound. I knew how to work the crowd. I liked the attention. I liked the idea that I could, for 20 minutes on a Sunday morning, make people feel good. I could help them have the "God moment" they were looking for, which they attributed to the Holy Spirit and I chalked up to the affective power of music.

It was ultimately dishonest, though I submit it wasn't as cynical as it sounds. I was not just fleecing the flock for a paycheck and a few minutes of glory; I was contributing to the life of the church in a positive way, and I wanted that to be earnest. It's just that I kind of suck at earnestness.

Irony is my spiritual gift.

Things came to a head when it came time to hire someone full-time to do what I had been doing part-time. They loved me there, and I had a shot at the full-time gig. But I couldn't do that and teach full-time as well, so I faced a choice that I knew I had already made.

I quit the big church and helped out for awhile at my home church, but when I moved to Ann Arbor, I left the evangelical world and music with it. I still hammer out pop covers on my guitar at home, and I'd entertain the idea of picking up a (non-church) gig if the opportunity presented itself, but I'm pretty much a hobbyist at this point and happy about it.

I'm an atheist, but I still love theology -- atheism is, after all, unavoidably theological. I don't wear it on my sleeve; it's less a point of identity for me than an artifact of a lazy, almost passive unbelief. I just can't be bothered. It's actually more nihilistic, but that word scares people. "Atheist" is bad enough.

I've toyed with "skeptic" or "unbeliever," since a lot of atheists I know still believe in more gods than I do (they just don't recognize them as gods), and epistemologically I suppose I'm technically agnostic, but "atheist" seems more accessible and more honest. It's a choice that's taken me twenty years to understand, and I don't want to get cute with the semantics.

And I teach. Mostly writing, but when I get the chance I teach a little cultural studies or literature. I write when I can, which is not often enough, but that's okay. I'm trying to get my dissertation published, and I have some ideas for followup projects. Or I might indulge myself and try to get published with some more personal writing or creative nonfiction.

Probably I've already made that choice -- I just have to understand it.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Lucky Man

"No, wait ... I'll tell you something," said Zaphod. "I freewheel a lot. I get an idea to do something, and, hey, why not, I do it. I reckon I'll become President of the Galaxy, and it just happens, it's easy. I decide to steal this ship. I decide to look for Magrathea, and it all just happens. Yeah, I work out how it can best be done, right, but it always works out. It's like having a Galacticredit card which keeps on working though you never send off the cheques. And then whenever I stop and think -- why did I want to do something? How did I work out how to do it? -- I get a very strong desire just to stop thinking about it." -- The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
It's just after 6am when I pull into the gas station about a mile from our apartment complex. It's a two-hour drive to where I'll be teaching for the day and it will take a tank of gas to get there and back. I don't mind the drive; seasoned road warriors know there's a serenity to the open highway, and I have podcasts to pass the time when that serenity eludes me.

It's the kids' first day back at school, and I've left Dawn with most of the morning routine, except for Willy's morning pills and whatever we were able to do the night before. It's still hectic, and I'm on the road before the real chaos starts.

We spent Labor Day getting everything ready -- school supplies, clothes, lunches. We made lists and charts and schedules. We drilled the kids on their routines and responsibilities until we couldn't stand any more eye-rolling. Everything went off without a hitch, except Dawn got to work and realized she didn't pack a lunch for herself. Such is a mom's life.

Dawn and her ex moved to the same apartment complex after they separated, which means there are three of us around for parental support (and supervision). They've remained friends and he pops over now and then for a beer or dinner or to pick up some leftovers we've saved back for his lunch on the night shift. I joke that it's a very postmodern arrangement, and I've thought about pitching the premise to Fox as a sitcom. We just need a couple of catchphrases and some canned laughter.

Because of the move, however, the kids are too far from school to walk and outside of the district to be bused -- except for Willy, who gets bused regardless. That translates into three kids needing to get to three schools at three different times via two different means of transportation around three different work/sleep schedules. I'll spare the details, but the logistics are such that even with the three of us on task we still have to enlist the help of one of our neighbors. It takes a damn village.

The truth is, though, that things are going remarkably well. Amazingly well. Almost uncannily well, as if orchestrated by cosmic forces. Things have fallen into place with refreshing regularity and we're grateful, even if we're a little fuzzy on where such gratitude should be directed. This is common, of course -- what couple doesn't feel their love to be fated in some way?

I'll take well-worn clichés for fifty, Alex.

On the one hand, it does feel like that, even in a more general sense: we've both lived lives that have pretty much just worked out, beyond our ability to orchestrate them. I have applied to and attended exactly four schools in my academic career -- I figured I'd go somewhere and I did. I can only think of one time where I was granted an interview but didn't get the job, and it's hard to shake the feeling that in most cases just the right job showed up at just the right time.

This feeling is not uncommon. Daniel Quinn called his memoir Providence, and it narrates what is for him the uncanny process by which he arrived at his life's work. Kelsey Grammar, in his memoir, describes his own sense that the universe was somehow making his path straight.

I recently heard an interview with David Sedaris in which he confesses his belief that the right thing will come along if we are but patient and hard-working, and it worked for him: he kept plugging along writing articles until one day a publisher called him to see if he had a book they could publish. "I've been waiting for your call my whole life," he said. "I have one in my drawer."

The Tao te Ching adjures us to wait until the muddy waters clear and the right action presents itself. The Taoist concept of wu-wei describes a kind of flow, rolling with life's changes in the way that a good surfer neither fights the waves nor succumbs to them.

It's not hard for me to see each life as having its own genius, one that we are to lean into and go where it takes us without regret or triumphalism.

On the other hand, neither of us really believes this. We'll say it was "meant to be" but we do so with the irony of those for whom "meant to be" isn't really a thing. It's too hard to reconcile with a world in which there are brain disorders, tsunamis, and only one season of Firefly. Providence, if that's what we're going to call it, might narrate our experience but I shy away from it as a way of making sense of the universe.

Maybe it's all a matter of perspective, and I simply have a better attitude than some people. It could be that I just stumbled independently upon the power of positive thinking. Metaphysical musings aside, it's become almost axiomatic that positive people tend to experience the world more positively, and negative people more negatively, with some fuzziness as to which way the causality arrows are pointing.

But what about all those people in situations where positive thinking isn't going to help them? There are millions of people in the world in situations that are simply and abjectly cruel if part of a cosmic plan, and putting a positive spin on that isn't going to do them any good. If I take any part of my own experience, make it normative, and extrapolate from it a path to success and happiness, I'm a tube of hair gel and a good dentist away from being Joel Osteen.

No thanks.

More likely, it's a matter of confirmation bias and selective memory. We humans have a predilection for pattern recognition, even when the patterns aren't really there. Add to that some dumb luck and some underacknowledged (or even subconscious) machinations on our part, and it's no wonder our lives seem charmed.

In the end, "meant to be" is an affirmation, a way of calling something good. It's a way of saying we believe -- not in fate or cosmic forces, but in us, in our own future.

I get home around nine and Dawn has saved some salmon for dinner. "How was the drive?" she asks.

"Uneventful," I say. "Just like I like it. How was your day?"

"Let me tell you," she says, her smile weary but content, "the morning was crazy..."

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Hey Joe

I love the beginning of the fall semester. I love the feeling of a fresh start. I love the excitement on campus. I love the lingering rays of summer sunlight as autumn approaches. As much as I enjoy the time away, by the end of the summer I'm ready to be back in the classroom, and to meet a new crop of students.

I started teaching in my early 30s but looked far younger, so I made a habit at the beginning of the semester of dressing up a bit. Not a tie or a jacket but khakis and a button-up shirt -- just something to establish a slightly more professorial air. 

By the end of the semester I'd be in jeans, and that button-up shirt would be unbuttoned over a colored T-shirt (hey, at least I coordinated the colors). These days I don't really bother with the pretense; I'm likely to show up on the first day wearing a hoodie. 

This business of classroom fashion came up one day in the faculty lounge. I don't know how we got on the topic of sartorial choices but in response to my dress habits one of my colleagues patiently explained to me that she didn't have the same luxury: as a woman of color, she felt she had to dress very professionally every single day in the hope of garnering a modicum of the respect that I, as a white man, had upon entering the room. 

This was my first object lesson in white privilege, which refers not only to the fact that I can pretty much wear whatever I want and not reap (or at least not notice) the consequences, but also to the fact that I never even had to think about it. It matters little if my colleague's perception is 100% accurate; even if it turned out that she could afford to be more casual without losing the respect of her class, the salient point here is that somewhere or another -- either through experience or the passing down of wisdom from the previous generation -- she learned to account for such things.

White privilege was brought to my attention recently with the death of John Crawford, who was shot by police at an Ohio Wal-Mart for brandishing an air rifle he picked up off the shelf. One of my friends asked "does this happen to white people, like, ever?" The story might not exactly fit the "unarmed black man shot by white cops" trope, but that sort of thing happens often enough to be a trope in the first place. More stories keep coming in as I've been working on this essay, most notably the situation in Ferguson, Missouri

Here again, what interests me is not so much the event itself, which may or may not turn out to be a tidy example of racially inflected brutality, but the comments from African-American men pointing out that when you grow up black you learn there are certain things you simply don't do -- waving anything remotely resembling a weapon around white people being one of them. (You also learn a certain deference to law enforcement, which you're statistically about three times more likely to have to deal with than your white counterparts.) They weren't blaming the victim; they were bearing witness to a piece of relevant cultural knowledge.

Even The Daily Show is hep to this, offering a satirical admonition to black men not to attempt open carry. Imagine, for instance, if people of color staged an armed rally such as the one held by Tea Partiers at the Alamo. Or if the NAACP endorsed open carry. African American boys grow up with constellation of things they're taught to do and not do in order to navigate a racially charged world to which I can remain oblivious if I choose to. 

My Facebook friend Brian Smith, who brought my attention to the Crawford piece as well as the sketch, commented, "We have to teach our sons this happens and how to improve the odds it doesn't happen to them."

I don't have to think about teaching my sons anything of the sort.

We need to be careful with this, however. Just as Slavoj Žižek can point to subjective violence (I hit you with a stick) versus structural violence (I benefit from a world in which you're more likely to get hit with sticks than I am through no fault of your own), I'd like to suggest a similar distinction between subjective and structural racism ("subjective" here simply meaning "pertaining to subjects").

To be subjectively racist is to actively and consciously bear ill will toward people of another race. Structural racism is that which is chronicled masterfully by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow: it describes the way in which the cultural deck is stacked against people of color. The interesting thing is that once this obtains, once the structures are established and self-sustaining, no living white person needs to be subjectively racist in order for the system to nevertheless skew that way.

We might fill out this spectrum be adding latent racism, where I display behaviors or attitudes inflected by a racial prejudice I'm not aware of, and passive racism, which describes my unexamined complicity in structural racism. There's a lot of racism that happens, then, in a kind of middle register or passive voice.

With this taxonomy in mind, I'd like to take a look at Mo Brooks's comment that Democrats are waging a "war on whites" and what appears to be a growing interest in open carry. I think these are connected.

Brooks's comment is, of course, certifiably nutty. Even Laura Ingraham seems to have thought he was over the top. But it speaks to what I think is a perceived loss of white hegemony. The Democrats are not waging a "war on whites" -- that's stupid. But white people, particularly white males, are being unseated as the holders of uninterrogated cultural power, and this is uncomfortable for them. Brooks comes awfully damn close to admitting that straight up.

Political philosopher Robert Paul Wolff describes how we got here in a blog post exploring the right's reaction to the Affordable Care Act. For Wolff, the this reaction has gone well beyond the normal partisan bickering. It's not just that the right doesn't like the bill; they've been downright hysterical in their opposition to it. As Wolff explains,
There is now a sizeable fraction of the American public, and a considerable number of Representatives and Senators, who say that they consider Obamacare an assault on everything they hold dear, a fatal blow to the American Way, a Socialist plot to destroy life as we know it, an evil so great that it is worth bringing the government to a halt and threatening the world financial system to defund it or even slow marginally the pace at which its provisions go into effect. What on earth is going on? The answer, I think, is actually rather simple, although unpacking it will take me more time than I usually devote to a blog post. To put the answer in just four words, the real, underlying reason for the hysteria engendered by the ACA is: 
Because Obama is Black.
Wolff is not particularly careful in the way he couches this, but I will be: this does not necessarily mean that anyone opposed to the ACA is subjectively racist. It does not mean than any particular conservative legislator is racist as such (though of course some are). It has more to do with shifts in the cultural zeitgeist, and structural and latent racism. Let me quote Wolff at length:
During the slavery period, only well-to-do Whites owned slaves. An adult male slave in 1850 cost as much in the slave markets as a year's wages for a free white northern worker. There were millions of poor Whites, especially in the South, whose principal claim to self-esteem was the simple knowledge that they were not Black, not slaves. With the end of legal slavery, things changed dramatically. The same men and women whose presence, even physical closeness, posed no threat to Whites now became anathema. To sit in the same train carriage with a Black man, to use the same facilities as a Black woman, to walk on the same sidewalk as a Black child very quickly came to be experienced by Whites as a threat to their safety, security, very being. Black labor, needed by plantation owners to raise and bring in the cash crops, was beaten into submission by Black Codes and the renting out of convict gangs and the threats of lynch mobs.

Thus a new relationship emerged between free and bound, between White and Black, a relationship encapsulated in Jim Crow laws. Whereas previously, White women expected to be served in every way by Black women, now these same women, or their daughters, found it intolerable to be served in department stores by Black clerks, so that for a long time Black women could not find even low-paying service jobs that might bring them into direct contact with Whites. Residential segregation, which of course was impossible under slavery, when slaves had to live close to where they were required to serve Whites, produced a sorting out of the two populations and the creation of all-Black ghettoes. The segregation was officially enforced and written into Federal and State law by means of covenants restricting the sale of properties. During all of this time, it remained the case that poor Whites, exploited and oppressed by White capitalists, could tell themselves that they were free, White and twenty-one, that they were, at the very least, not black.

The Civil Rights Movement, launched by African-Americans half a century ago, threatened, and eventually began to break down even these legal, customary, residential, and employment barriers. It was at this time that the old familiar political rhetoric about "working men and women" also began to change. The new rhetoric spoke of "middle-class Americans," which, although no one acknowledged it, was a thinly veiled code for "not Black." As economic pressures mounted on those in the lower half of the income pyramid, Whites wrapped themselves in the oft-reiterated reassurance that at least they did not live in the Inner City [which is to say, Black neighborhoods], that they were "Middle Class." All of the political discourse came to be about the needs, the concerns, the prospects of the Middle Class, which to millions of Americans, whether they could even articulate it, meant "not Black."

All of this crumbled, frighteningly, calamitously, disastrously, when a Black man was elected president. "Free, white, and twenty-one" ceased to be the boast of the working-class White man. Statistics do not matter, trends do not matter, probabilities do not matter, income distribution differentials do not matter. If a Black man with a Black wife and two Black children is President of the United States, then a fundamental metaphysical break has occurred in the spiritual foundation on which White America has built its self-congratulatory self-image for three centuries and more.

Hysterical Whites tried every form of denial. Obama's election was theft. Obama is not an American. Obama is a Muslim. Obama is a socialist. Obama's election was a one-time proof that we are not racist, to be followed immediately by restoration of the status quo ante bellum. When Obama was reelected, vast numbers of Americans went into terminal denial. They seized upon the ACA simply because it was, as everyone knew, Obama's signature domestic accomplishment. To repeal it, to defund it, to make it as though it had never existed, would be in some measure to deny that he had ever been President. The actual details of the ACA matter not at all. Neither do the actual felt medical needs of those driven insane by the very fact of Obama's tenure in the White House. None of that has anything at all to do with the real cause of the hysteria. Why are millions of Americans driven beyond hysteria by the ACA?

Because Obama is Black.
Blogger Doug Muder has explored this more recently. In "Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party," Muder painstakingly chronicles a history in which, as he sees it, the Confederacy eventually won insofar as Reconstruction, culminating in the Atlanta Compromise and the advent of Jim Crow, allowed them to restore significant parts of the social order they were trying to protect.

That seems a bit of a gloss to me, but Muder's point is that on some level, the South got what they wanted: a way of maintaining paternalistic control over black Americans because to the Confederate mind, they weren't ready for freedom.

But that hold has been slipping for over half a century, as Wolff points out, and one of the flash points is the election of the first African-American president. The fervor and furor over gun rights during Obama's tenure is, at least in part, a shoring up of white hegemony in ways both symbolic and actual. As Muder explains it,
Confederates need guns...Gun ownership is sometimes viewed as a part of Southern culture, but more than that, it plays a irreplaceable role in the Confederate worldview. Tea Partiers will tell you that the Second Amendment is our protection against “tyranny.” But in practice tyranny simply means a change in the established social order, even if that change happens — maybe especially if it happens — through the democratic processes defined in the Constitution. If the established social order cannot be defended by votes and laws, then it will be defended by intimidation and violence.
Again, my caveat: this does not make every (or any) white person with a gun a racist. It doesn't make you a racist if you apply for a carry permit (though I do think it would be interesting to see a demographic breakdown of permit applications). In fact, no one need be subjectively racist for most of this analysis to obtain, at least in theory.

I don't need to call anyone a racist; we live in a culture so fundamentally shaped by racism that no one has to be.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Live and Let Die

It's Saturday, and I have to work, so I ask if there's anything I can pick up. Since I'm stocking shelves at grocery stores, it's easy for me to grab something on my way out.

"We need drinks for the pool party tomorrow," Dawn says.

"Okay," I say, "what should we get? Do you like piña coladas?"

It's an innocent question at first, but I immediately know where I want to go with it.

"Oh, sure," she says.

"And getting caught in the rain?" I deadpan.

"Absolutely," Dawn replies, without missing a beat. "But I'm not much into yoga."

I'm not into yoga, either, but I've been practicing something recently I call "bolus judo." "Bolus" refers to the way we feed Will, using an open syringe as a funnel and letting gravity do the work. Another option is to use a pump, but that option has been precluded by Dawn's discovery that she can't substitute her laptop charger for the pump's power supply.

The bolus feed is precarious, as I explained in an earlier post, because it involves an open syringe of formula in range of limbs akimbo. What I've discovered is that I can put the side of the bed down and swing my own leg up to block Will's arms. I'm not really pinning him -- my leg is draped over him with my foot on the far side of the bed -- but it does keep his arms out of the way.

Will's summer school is with the county school district rather than the city proper, so it's a different facility. It's also a much more robust facility for special needs, with a dedicated full-time nurse, a pool, great equipment, and a high teacher-to-student ratio.

These are the people who fixed his wheelchair, and his teacher regularly texts pictures of his activities and progress. This is not to slight the teachers and aides at the city school, who were fantastic; they just didn't have the same resources. We're looking at keeping him with the county school for the next school year and beyond.

The hitch is that the county school won't recognize the Do Not Resuscitate order, or DNR, on file for Will. Not without a court order. The director is sympathetic; there's currently a family pursuing such an order, and the school has helped them find an appropriate lawyer and has generally been cooperative and supportive. It's less a rancorous clash of wills than it is a collective attempt to jump through the proper hoops.

The decision to put a DNR in place is fraught and complicated. It means leveraging our ability to prolong life against the quality of that life as well as the life of the rest of the family. It's an alarmingly real-life variant of Lifeboat, involving not just real people but your own children. Put the most starkly, it requires sussing out the conditions under which you are willing to let your child die.

There's no clear line for this. There's a point at which prolonging life is inhumane, but that point is by no means obvious, and sorting that out is different for every family and every situation. There's no appealing to what is "natural" (a long-deconstructed notion anyway); in completely "natural" terms Will wouldn't have made it nearly this far -- but then, neither would many of the rest of us. "We're already keeping him alive by feeding him through a tube," Dawn points out.

To go through the arduous process of coming to such a decision -- consulting with doctors and family, wrestling with the ethics involved, starting into the abyss of mortality -- and then have that questioned a priori by a board policy can be demoralizing. For the board, it's a matter of liability; for us, it's a matter of parental rights.

Dawn and Todd didn't come to the decision to establish a DNR for Will lightly, and it is intended to represent their wishes in those cases when they can't be present to make those wishes known. Almost the only time Will is not with one of us is when he's at school, meaning that the one place a DNR is most likely to be relevant is one where it's not going to be honored.

It's the same ticklish, ironic structure as being on hospice. This seems to pop up everywhere. I'm reminded of Zaphod's reaction in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy the first time they use the Infinite Improbability Drive, whereupon they miraculously (or, rather, improbably) pick up Arthur and Ford seconds after the latter are ejected from a Vogon airlock: "Is this sort of thing going to happen every time we use the Infinite Improbability Drive?"

"I'm afraid so," comes the reply.

My understanding is that while the DNR is legally valid, it's not legally binding. It effectively establishes parental or guardian wishes but does not obligate anyone to follow those wishes. That, apparently, takes a court order, and the University of Michigan's Advocacy Clinic has agreed to represent us. They're trying to work out co-plaintiff status with the other family, otherwise we'll have our own case. Either way, we hope that it sets precedent for other families. Surely the board doesn't want to get sued every year.

It's especially frustrating because Will's previous school was receptive to the DNR without any legal wrangling. Again, that structure: the better facility for special needs is the one fussier about a legal detail common among special needs families, especially involving terminal conditions like Will's. Does this sort of thing happen a lot?

I'm afraid so.

The piña coladas were a bust, so I tried my hand at making a Bloody Mary. The end result? I won't be trading in the coffee and papers for bartending anytime soon.

But I'm going for gold in bolus judo.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Stuck in the Middle with You

I pull into the Meijer parking lot at 2:30 and punch in on my Blackberry (yes, those still exist). For my Coke job, I'm on the road, going from store to store stocking shelves. The Blackberry is how we clock in and out and how get our route and keep track of what we've done at which location -- how many cases we pulled, whether or not anything is out of stock, etc. It's also our only contact with the office, by email (usually) or phone. I haven't been to the home office in months.

The first thing I do is check the coolers in the checkout aisles. These we stock with 20 oz. single bottles of our main products, and they're the first thing the higher-ups would check if they visited the store. Stocking the coolers is a little like having your towel with you in Hitchhiker's Guide:
A towel...is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can
have.... For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker might accidentally have "lost."
 
Basically, if the coolers are stocked, the supervisor will assume you've got everything under control and simply haven't gotten to the other bits yet, whereas if the coolers are a shambles this will cast something of a pall over the visit.

I say this as if such a visit has actually happened, which it hasn't. I also haven't seen any of my supervisors since training. But the effect is real; if I go into a store and  the coolers are in good shape, I immediately assume the stop is going to go well in general, even if that happens to not be true. Someone told me that sales from the coolers alone pays everyone's salary but the truck drivers, but this strikes me as a tall tale. Unless that includes vending machines; that might actually be plausible.

Today the coolers look fair but they need some attention, and I am just completing my perusal of them when the day guy catches up to me. A typical route is four or five stops with the same Meijer outlet as the first and last stop. That means that sometimes I run into the day merchandiser when our stops overlap.

He tells me that the bad news is they've cleaned us out of two liters and the coolers need to be hit, as I've already seen, but the good news is he's got the backstock all organized and ready to go. We talk shop and a little gossip and he heads out.

I head to the backstock area -- and it is nicely organized -- and load up an L-cart with 20 oz. singles, which we just call "cooler pop." I'm in the middle of stocking the coolers when my phone rings (my regular phone, not my Blackberry). It's not a number I recognize, so I just answer "Ted Troxell," in case it's a student (I'm teaching an online class) or something official. Usually it's a telemarketer.

This time it's not a telemarketer or a student. It's Will's teacher.

"Hi, this is ____ from Will's school." I'm immediately on edge: I've never gotten a call from the school before, but he's in summer school now and this is a different facility. She immediately puts me at ease.

"Everything's fine," she says, but she wanted to let me know that their resident MacGyver had fixed Will's wheelchair by using one of the ankle straps, which we don't use, to repair the lap belt, which was broken. She wanted to make sure that was okay, which had me wondering in what kind of scenario that wouldn't be okay.

Will's been on hospice care, which has been a great boon. An aide comes out to give him a bath twice a week and a nurse and social worker come out every other week. Most of his care is coordinated through this one service and they do a great job. He's managed to avoid any major hospital stays and is, in general, healthier than he's been in a long time.

There are some downsides. He has to show signs of regression in order to keep qualifying. If he makes too much improvement, he'll get kicked out of the system and we'll be navigating things on our own. It's the medical analog to the welfare recipient who gets a job and then no longer qualifies even though they still need the help.

Lately he's been having trouble with seizures and chorea (erratic involuntary movements) and even as we're trying to address those issues we're also secretly glad that this might be enough to secure his place in hospice a couple more months. It's an odd world to live in, where you simultaneously want your child to be healthy and to regress enough to qualify for hospice, precisely because it's hospice care that's doing the most to keep him healthy. It's not just a catch-22; it's Derrida's pharmakon inverted.

Another artifact of being on hospice is that we only get about two weeks of Will's medication at a time, so it feels like we're constantly running low. The idea is that a patient in hospice is dying, and not just in the Sylvia Plath/Eastern philosophy sense in which we're all dying. Ergo, they don't need a stockpile of drugs.

(It reminds me of a scene in Brighton Beach Memoirs. Eugene's mother sends him to the store for a quarter pound of butter. He complains that she sent him just that morning for a quarter pound, so why didn't she just have him get half a pound then? "And suppose the house burns down in the afternoon," she says. "Why do I need an extra quarter pound of butter?")

It also means that the insurance company won't cover both hospice and repairs to Will's wheelchair (it also won't cover prescribed modifications to the chair, like a headrest that would keep Will's head from flopping, or additional equipment like something to sit in besides the broken wheelchair). Dying people don't need to be secure in their wheelchairs, apparently. They're dying anyway, right? It makes a certain kind of sense, in a systemic corporate logic kind of way, but not on a human scale.

"Are you kidding?" I tell Will's teacher. "Of course! Thanks so much." We exchange pleasantries and hang up. It's just a wheelchair strap, but somehow I feel lighter, like for awhile I might be able to believe in humanity. It's the little things, I guess. I text Dawn to let her know, and then I have to get back to work.

These coolers aren't going to stock themselves.