A Quarter for My Thoughts

I left the confines of “Apartmentostan” early this afternoon, to run a few errands. After acquiring fresh cat litter, wandering Target for way too long trying on sundresses and rompers (with mostly underwhelming results), I reached the final item on my shopping list: quarters. I look forward to the day, just over the horizon, when my husband and I will move into our own home with our very own laundry machines, when quarters will regain their status as pocket filler. For now, they remain arbiters of convenience, holding the power to make or break the smooth operation of the household (as if that were ever even possible, given our talent for ignoring the basic maintenance of our surroundings).

Anyway, after the cashier ringing me up at Target rebuffed my request to trade the two fivers in my wallet for a roll of magical laundry-enabling discs, I tried the customer service desk, where a friendly woman informed me that “unfortunately”, corporate policy now forbids them from fulfilling such requests. The customer service attendant at the nearby Cub Foods reluctantly traded me eight quarters and three singles for one of my fivers, which when added to the ones I already have in my jar, will hopefully represent enough to do at least one load of laundry.

As I was standing in line, waiting for this transaction to occur, I started thinking about how the corporatization of businesses has removed any impetus for them to serve communities in a real way. Sure, they’ll donate predictable amounts of money to local schools and charities, but they can’t actually be human in their micro-dealings with individual community members. Doing so would result in variabilities in quantifiable figures in spreadsheets that would interrupt the certainty of shareholder value. This is understandable, in a certain light, but it also gives the lie to the idea that corporations should be thought of as people, absent the imposition of the same kinds of morality we ascribe to each other.

I noticed something, standing there thinking these thoughts, that if I’d noticed before, hadn’t revealed itself as particularly significant. To the right of the customer service desk was a locked display case, holding goods which required an employee to open. Usually, I see these cases filled with cigarettes or razors. These cases were filled with baby formula.

Baby formula.

The inhumanity of it all crested over me, and I thought, can’t we all just agree, in this day and age, that babies should get to eat? I mean, Cub Foods shouldn’t necessarily have to finance it by just letting people steal formula when they need it, though the Robin Hood in me kind of feels like they owe at least this small thing to the communities they profit from. Is there some kind of weird secondary market for stolen baby formula?

Sure, we have government programs for making sure babies get fed, but accessing those programs is often complicated and purposefully arcane. We rack up tax dollars and throw them at hopelessly tangled systems to ensure that those who receive benefits like WIC or SNAP “deserve” the help they get, and we lock baby formula behind glass, because a baby’s hunger matters less than what its parents are willing or able to do to feed it.

What if, instead of locking it up, grocery stores simply tracked their theft losses on things like baby food and formula, and the WIC program reimbursed them? Or, better yet, what if we did away with WIC and SNAP altogether and just put all that money into a fund to enable grocery stores to supply basic foodstuffs for people in need? Each store could just have a section with selected free items, which would be “rung up” but paid for out of the fund; like a food shelf, but publicly funded and not contingent on philanthropy (or enabling you to feel good about getting rid of that 8-year-old can of beans in the back of the cabinet).

I know the knee-jerk reaction to these questions is to think they could never work, because people would just take advantage of it. Maybe that’s true, but I’d at least like to see it studied. My instinct is that we’d end up spending about the same amount of money on a system that would actually serve the community instead of commodifying the health of babies.

In Between

Note: I wrote the following paragraphs yesterday afternoon, recounting an encounter I had at work, because I needed to exorcise my feelings. I had no real intention of publishing it, but then today on Facebook, I saw a “Mom” meme that made me reconsider. It read:

I either have my hair and makeup done, or I look homeless. THERE IS NO IN BETWEEN.

I’m not generally one to scold people for taking things too lightly, or push up my imaginary glasses and say, “Well, acxtchully…” (OK, sometimes I am that, however unintentionally), and none of this should be construed to be about shaming people for having fun venting on the internet. It’s just that the juxtaposition of this meme with my experience yesterday formed a sort of ironic poetry that begged to be shared. So here’s what happened.

For about the past month or so, I’ve been working on a little renovation job at the Hennepin County Government Center, in downtown Minneapolis. Unlike the big, new construction projects I’ve been seeing lately, the building is fully open and working, so I encounter a wide variety of government workers and citizens as I go through my day, traversing the hallways, eating in the cafeteria, and using the public rest room (a rare privilege indeed, in my line of work).

This afternoon, like every afternoon, as my shift came to a close, I took off my coveralls and bandana and walked the hundred yards or so to the bathroom to wash the fiberglass and dust off my face and hands before handling or donning my (relatively) clean jacket and heading home. I walked in and was a bit taken aback to see that two young women had basically monopolized the entire sink area and were putting on makeup. One girl moved over and let me access a sink, where I did my thing. As I stood back from the sink, drying my face and blowing my nose with a paper towel, cheap camouflage pocket tee tucked into orange, nuclear issue scrubs, glue-stained black work boots, and a red face, I felt like an impostor in the women’s room. Whatever that creature was, looking back at me from the mirror, was most certainly an entirely different thing than these two primping ladies on either side of me. I tossed my towel in the trash and went into a stall to pee, avoiding eye contact and not really taking in the whole scene.

As I sat on the toilet, one of the girls left. A minute later, a guy came in, impatiently (but not roughly) trying to convince the remaining young woman that she looked fine and they should go. He had gone before I emerged from the stall, and as I was washing my hands, she startled me by asking me how her makeup was. I looked at her, for the first time since I had come into the bathroom, and said, clumsily, “It depends what you’re going for.” She was wearing jeans and a red “boyfriend”-style T-shirt, with medium length, light brown hair framing a pretty, but harried face, and she’d shaded the creases above her eyelids and lined the lower lids with a light, ruddy tone, highlighted with thick swaths of bright, sparkly white eyeliner on the top lid. She told me that she was going out for dinner to celebrate her anniversary, and she wanted to look really special, but she was homeless and couldn’t get the kind of makeup colors she wanted. At this point, I realized the three or four ragtag totes lying on the floor probably held all her earthly possessions.

She looked as though she’d been crying, but her makeup job wasn’t bad. I told her the colors she’d picked were cute on her (which they were). She thanked me, and told me that her boyfriend thought she looked fine but she asked me because “He’s a guy. He doesn’t know.” Despite my appearance, I guess I was welcome in the girls’ club after all.

I went back to get my coat, feeling conflicted. Should I try to help this girl? She looked so young. What could I do? Was that other girl in the bathroom with her and her guy? They didn’t seem to be talking to each other. Was he some sort of pimp for both of them? If that was true, would he really take his girls into the government center, which is crawling with cops, to clean up? I remembered that there was an ATM near where I keep my coat, and decided to take out some money for her. I stopped back in the bathroom on my way out, half of me hoping she was still there, and the other half hoping she’d gone. She was still there, and I handed her a folded twenty-dollar bill, and said “I just wanted to give you this. Have a nice dinner.” Then I turned to leave, and she told me to wait, welling up with tears and opening her arms. We hugged, and I left, holding back my own tears, which haven’t stopped threatening since.

I still feel conflicted, like I didn’t do enough. I keep wishing I’d tried to talk to her more; maybe at least asking about her boyfriend – if he was good to her; where were her parents; nothing she’s done could possibly be so horrible that they wouldn’t take her back – so many swirling questions. But I don’t know her, or her situation. All I know was she reached out to me for advice and I treated her like a person. It was all I knew how to do in that moment. And now I’m home – clean, warm, surrounded by nice things; crying because I feel at once involved and powerless.

It’s Pretty, But Is It Art?

A few months ago, as part of an on-going attempt to make up some more of the cultural deficit left by my sheltered childhood, my husband suggested we watch Orson Welles’ F for Fake. It’s a strange and lyrical film about the meaning of art, and it captivated me utterly from the first frame. I was immediately taken with Welles’ charm and presence, and enchanted with the foundational works he referenced.

I had never heard the Kipling stanzas that form a major poetic stream in the film, but was so taken with Conundrum of the Workshops that I scrawled a line from it on the whiteboard above my desk. Shelley’s Ozymandias, on the other hand, was something very familiar to me. It had first captured my attention in high school English class, as an Egypt-obsessed teen, wide-eyed and desperate for culture. I’ve thought of it often, over the years; the image of those trunkless legs in the sand haunts my imagination.

I started thinking about these and other major literary and poetic obsessions of my life and how they relate to and sometimes reference each other. Michael Ondaatje, Herodotus, Neil Gaiman, Joshua Homme. How were these people connected? What did the post-modern popular novelist and the ancient historian; the artsy rock singer and the writer of romantic anthropological fiction have in common?

They pull the same threads; some more earnestly than others. Or perhaps just more convincingly or compellingly? Elegantly? With more skill? In any case, it doesn’t matter. They circle the same eternal theme, and I circle it along with them.

That theme is the place of the individual in human history, and in finding the eternal meaning of a human life in the face of the certainty of final oblivion. It is the struggle of every artist, sure. But they’re just struggling more publicly than everyone else, with what is a universal human worry: what can one puny little human life possibly mean when weighed against the huge, anonymous vastness of space and time?

It seems we have it worse, now, in this post-post-modern age of science and reason; with our Hubble pictures and our constant streams of information and “content” making us feel at once insignificant and redundant. It certainly feels like we’ve reached a new level of cultural self-consciousness. No longer does the devil mutter behind the leaves; he shouts at us in crowds and rubs our faces in the pointlessness of our endeavors. We extinguish our own creations before they begin to take shape, for fear of doing something that’s been done, or looking foolish; for believing we have something new to say, something important; for daring to grasp at the threads of immortality.

That grasping, though, as much as it’s a lie we tell ourselves, is the key to our success, as a species. Our names may not matter to history, after all is said and done, but for most of us, ensuring that they outlive us, whether by being carried by some great work into the public imagination, or being borne into the ordinary (or perhaps extraordinary) lives of offspring, is the highest purpose we serve.

In this way, a name becomes a sort of burden. It carries with it the expectation of memory; of making something memorable of oneself. I wonder if anyone has ever studied the relative happiness of people with common and rare names. According to this line of thinking, the John Smiths of the world should feel a great deal less pressure than, say, Dweezil Zappa.

Some of us burden ourselves by choice, taking on more challenging names. Is this noble, or is it hubris? Or, worse yet, masochism? Self-importance? But art requires a measure of self-importance, as does any life well-lived. We must feel ourselves worthy of celebration, and our work worthy of attention. If not, then why do anything?

Near the end of F for Fake, Orson Welles waxes poetic (in his grand, hypnotic way) about Chartres Cathedral, seemingly praising the by-gone purity of a bunch of nameless masons and sculptors coming together to create a monument to the greatness of God. This is not quite how I see it. Those masons and sculptors, as much as they may have taken pride in contributing to a work of such magnitude, plied their trades for paychecks. And the financiers and architects who designed it undoubtedly did so to glorify themselves as much as God.

But like Shelley’s mocking sculptor, those nameless tradesmen have the last laugh, and their work, in its anonymity, glorifies all humanity and each of their individual hands, all at once. That is, undoubtedly, art. The rest remains necessarily unclear.

Ignorant and Harmful: Popular Left Politics and the Working Class

It’s been a while since I sat down to write anything that wasn’t a short status update or a comment. I’ve been feeling the urge bubble up, over the last few months, around a congealing understanding I’m coming to regarding what I’ll call Popular Left Politics – you know, academic, feminist, anti-racist, safe-space-creating, language-concerned, privilege-counting shame-shamers, and the allies who love them — and how those politics interact with (or avoid, as it were) the views and interests and politics of the working classes. Specifically, I’ve noticed a divergence; a reversal; a contradiction; a removal of things-as-such into the realm of things-as-symbols and symbols-as-things; a realm of fetish and ironic appropriation.

I was finally driven out of this latest writing famine after reading an article that came across my feed addressing the problems facing adherents to Popular Left Politics — specifically feminists — who come from rural and working class backgrounds. I’m a working class person from a rural background, who has in the past run with the denizens of the Popular Left. Even though I ostensibly agree with many of the views held by these people, it’s been made clear to me on a number of occasions that my unpolished bearing, working class experience, and resultant worldview are not welcome in such polite and upstanding company. As such, I have a few things to say on the matter.

Before I get into my specific thoughts regarding this topic, let me elucidate the basic parameters of my own political thinking, lest I be accused of one treachery or another. It’s bound to happen anyway, but I have to try. I’m basically a left-libertarian. I believe in a society, with a robust safety net, that creates the greatest possibility for the greatest number of individuals to achieve freedom and fulfillment. Ideally, that would mean absolutely everyone. Unfortunately, ours is not, and never will be, an ideal reality. Unlike most people, I see capitalism and socialism as ideas that are not mutually exclusive, but which should be maintained in tension with each other to create a balance. The particular game of tug-of-war we’re playing in the United States today has pulled the knot much too far onto the capitalist side of the river for my taste. I think we’re overdue for a new labor movement (more on that later).

OK. Back to this Everyday Feminism piece. The author describes her experience as a rural kid moving to the Big City and encountering negative stereotyping and prejudice among her political peers, and lays out some advice for “Urban feminists” on how to be more welcoming to people like her. She correctly identifies a Civilized Academy/Savage Rural Community dichotomy at work, and attempts to explain ways in which rural and working class people really aren’t all a bunch of backwards, misogynistic, illiterate rubes. (Even thought they sort of are.) But please stop assuming she is, thankyouverymuch.

I do not presume that my position is an obvious solution which any sane person parsing this topic will necessarily arrive at, as I don’t actually believe that’s true. However, what “Annah Anti-Palindrome” hasn’t figured out is that there is a fundamental opposition between current Popular Left Politics and working class culture.

This opposition lies in the very structure of civilization. People in white collar, academic, and executive positions have become increasingly detached from the direct means of their survival. Undoubtedly, specialization is a great boon to the human race. The mass production of food and the mechanization of manufacturing have freed up vast human resources to focus on “higher” concerns. When we don’t have to spend all of our energy to feed and shelter ourselves, civilization progresses. In one sense, we become more interconnected. But in another, we become more segregated.

The problem is, no matter how far we progress, the basic fact of human existence depends on a constant battle against entropy. We need to work land and manage livestock to produce food. We need to build and maintain homes and schools and skyskrapers to live and learn and work in. We need to produce fuel and energy to move goods and power our modern conveniences. We need to protect ourselves and our property against those who would steal from us or do us harm. Technology has increased the efficiency of all these activities, but great numbers of humans must still put in long hours performing these essential tasks in the fight against entropy. Unless and until we develop automated means by which to do this work, a large portion of the human race will continue to labor on behalf of the rest, in order to enable the continued march of civilization’s progress.

So as certain segments of the population get further and further removed from worrying about protecting themselves from ever-encroaching entropy, they find different things to worry about. They philosophize and meta-analyze and sensitize. They find new monsters; vague monsters; monsters in the mirror. Meanwhile, those on the front lines every day, doing what needs to be done to maintain the buffer zone for civilization, employ age-old coping strategies to fight against their own entropy of meaninglessness, while continuing to grind on. They uphold traditions and practice escapism and de-sensitize. They create heroes and villains. All of these things are natural and valid. Unfortunately, the further removed the intellectual and creative classes get from those doing the difficult, uncomfortable, and dangerous work to provide for their basic needs, the more alien the values of each become to the other.

I see in current Popular Left Politics a privileged ignorance that attacks the very foundation of its existence. It eschews tactless stoicism and practicality, while it reveres social strategy and “knowing better”. This is, itself, classist. The Popular Left preaches Marxist collectivism, yet practices consumerist individualism. In this way, identity has become currency. The identity-obsessed spend money to accouter themselves in ways which they assume will make their chosen identities self-evident to the rest of the world, however complex or esoteric those identities might be. They buy bumper-sticker lifestyles. They don uniforms to tell the people who matter that they “know better”. They climb academic and corporate and social ladders. They make money. They buy shit they don’t need, but make themselves feel better about it by choosing “sustainable” or “organic” or “fair trade” or “carbon neutral”. Meanwhile, everything in their lives becomes inextricably tied to their perceived identity and projection of morality, so any affront to or misunderstanding of that identity starts to feel like an existential attack.

This Everyday Feminism piece, and numerous like it across the internet, are how-to guides to help the target audience “know better” how to approach a certain kind of person; that they might not “harm” or “offend” with their ignorance. In this environment, natural social impulse becomes gauche, unscripted interaction between people becomes a minefield, and naïve curiosity becomes violence. Working class culture, which doesn’t prioritize the protection of the individual social identity, and instead encourages the formation of independent self-esteem and resilience, becomes the epitome of barbarism.

So even as “Annah Anti-Palindrome” asks her fellow feminists not to think her uncivilized, the very framework of her politics accuses the rest of us of savagery. Therein lies the rift.

Liberal pundits often lament the lack of cohesiveness among the various strains of left activism. Billions of words have been written, speculating on this inability to form a robust coalition behind any of a wide range of meaningful projects. In the current climate of increasing corporate power and continuing marginalization of workers, we desperately need a new labor movement in this country. But when the working classes see the Popular Left as out of touch, elitist snobs and the Popular Left sees the working classes as a dangerous, uncivilized mob, well, it’s not hard to see why it hasn’t happened yet.

I don’t have any grand solutions for all this. Sometimes I think the Luddites were onto something. Perhaps there really is a point past which civilization becomes counterproductive to humanity. I grew up in the 1980s, so I naturally feel like that was the high point. I recognize my inner geezer in that sentiment.

Maybe we ought to implement some kind of mandatory civil service where everybody has to spend a month out of every five years contributing directly to our collective battle against entropy. Sure, it would be hugely inefficient. But the benefits to society might prove immeasurable. I don’t see much hope along our current diverging trajectories.

Identity

Who am I? What do I call myself? How do I see myself? How do I sit in relationship with others? What does this say about me? Who am I separate from others? Am I anything without reference to others? Is any of us?

Sometimes I think removing myself from civilization will show me, finally, who I “really” am; a simple cabin in the woods somewhere, a few months or a year of living my own personal Walden to let the essence of ME free herself from the din of self-conscious nagging (What does this thing I’m doing say about me? Would so-and-so like me less if I admitted to liking such-and-such?) that goes on in my head so often. But the truth, I suspect, is that there is no ME essence. There is no static ego. No “soul” to speak of. Not in any of us. Not in the way most of us grow up believing, anyway.

There is only an ever-replicating conglomeration of experiences; narrativized into memories; serving as a scaffold for the collection of ideas that forms our self-image from moment to moment. And even as we feel this process as an immutable SELF, the ground shifts beneath us. Our memories are weak; fluid. They change as we change. They morph in support of new realities; new narratives as we go through life. Most of us don’t even feel it happening. We feel the same. We tell ourselves we are the same. We cling to labels and affiliations. Indeed, human civilization as we know it might cease to exist were it not for such tendencies.

But here I am; very much aware of this process. Too aware? Perhaps. Well, too aware to make a proper cog, anyway. Or maybe that’s just self-flattery. Whatever it is, where most people tend to see themselves as stones in the river, I feel more like the water. There are times when I feel I’ve lost myself altogether; unsure what parts of me are truly ME and what parts have been adopted to please others or get along in various situations I’ve found myself in. Are any of the things I like actually THINGS I LIKE? What does that even mean, really?

And then I remember that the important thing is not where I might have picked up this or that bit of myself. The important thing is who I am, moment to moment. It’s what I enjoy, now. Maybe I do like Westerns today because my brother liked them when we were kids. Does that make it mean any less? In a way, it makes it mean more. It’s not only an interest, it’s evidence of a relationship. Why should that mean less to me than some ideal of “authentic” discovery, whatever that even means? I carry pieces of everyone I’ve ever known. Every relationship I’ve had has changed me; and that’s the way I want my relationships to be. I don’t want to be static, and collect static friends and acquaintances so we can all reinforce each other’s stasis. I want to be changed by the people around me, and I want to change them in return.

Holding up a Mirror (and actually looking into it)

In the midst of the now-continual screaming din of outrage and counter-outrage that has come to define the face of the internet that I see on a day-to-day basis, I’ve taken a step back.

Otha and I went to the Mall of America today, sans smartphones, to walk in a habitable environment (it was in the single digits outside today, with a horrible biting wind) and enjoy what is, sadly, the closest thing Minneapolis has to vibrant, pluralistic, public space.

As we lapped around, up, and down; stopping for an occasional browse (it’s nearly impossible to walk by the Lego store without stepping in), we talked about life, the internet, and everything. We even ran into a couple of friends, and they joined in on our “Solving the World’s Problems” sesh for a bit. Good times.

Anyway, the whole experience has me thinking about a lot of things; mostly circling around the ways in which our relationship with social media primes us for the kind of exhausting political merry-go-round so many of us seem to be stuck on.

Walking around today, I kept feeling pulled back toward social media. At least half a dozen times, I found myself wanting to share a photo or comment about some observation or experience I was having, and because I was very consciously not doing that, I tried to poke and prod at the mechanics of that pulling sensation when it arose.

For me, it is very much the sense that an experience is not fully realized until it is shared; that experiencing something or making an observation without access to a potential pool of immediate feedback somehow diminishes it. As I sat in the food court, waiting for Otha to come back from the bathroom, I watched the amusement park rides and felt a tangible void creeping in; as though my existence had been robbed of a dimension.

But, upon examination, that absent dimension is often a parasite, at least in the relationship I have with it. It’s a drug; brimming with unfulfilled promise while mostly serving as a distraction from living my life the way I claim to want to live it. That’s an ongoing struggle, but not the point I want to make here.

The salient point is the idea that social media outlets tend to commoditize our everyday experiences: we are all the content producers that keep each other coming back to these giant online hubs, which then harness our content and consumption to turn a profit. It’s the 24-hour news cycle on steroids; infiltrating every tiny little aspect of our lives. And we all want to be heard; to be seen; to be validated, so we give it everything we’ve got. We become more concerned with the document of an experience than with the experience itself. We, in essence, become documents. And our world becomes an incestuously-connected web of intractable minutiae. But we must continue the conversation; we must participate, lest we find ourselves left behind, and so we become consumed with the minutiae. It’s like we’re a billion mirrors, all reflecting images around and across and over and through and back again, with no time to actually look at the original image or its context.

I don’t think unplugging entirely is the answer. If I thought that, I wouldn’t be online anymore. But I do think it would be good for all of us to cultivate a more thoughtful relationship with the media we consume and participate in. I’m thinking of enacting some kind of defined social media time for myself; treating it as a window I can choose to look through rather than a lens permanently attached to my face (for me, that is a figurative turn of phrase: I do not have Google Glass).

I know it’s good for me to be more present in my physical environment. I’ve been having a fantastic time selling my wares at the various flea markets around town; surrounded by all kinds of people with all kinds of views, but no imperative to hate or demonize each other for our differences – we’re all just trying to have a good time and maybe make some extra money. It’s a lot harder to see someone as an enemy when you can see more than just one opinion or statement. I keep trying to think of ways to translate the multi-faceted nature of humans onto the internet, but I’m not sure it’s possible.

I’m always open to suggestions, though.

The Weight of Music

Records. Information saved for posterity. Music saved for posterity. Music records. Was it ever just anthropology; only concerned with documentation? When did listening to records become a recreational activity? Did it happen before radio? Even before radio, on telephone circles, there was a social element to listening; it was about coming together with others to experience a performance. With the advent of records, that coming together lost its temporal dimension. The music industry shifted toward creating the perfect hit song; rather than trying to document what was happening in the culture. Or perhaps that’s what it was always about, at some level.

But certainly something changed as music evolved into a physical product packaged for mass consumption.

In the digital age, music may be primarily consumed in non-physical form, as files from the ether, but its position as a commodity seems to be cemented. Some artists appear to fight against this fact by streaming impromptu performances or giving their music away for free, but these same artists also make their livings selling recorded (and usually heavily-produced) songs. Everybody’s gotta eat, after all.

I’m not sure what any of this means; it just seemed important to me tonight, jarred out of the book I was rapt in when Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control” came over Otha’s Pandora stream and invaded my mind with a visceral sense of history. I had to put the book down and just live in that moment; not sure whether it was something inherent to that particular song, or the accumulation of my own affinity for this particular piece of music history which roughly coincides with my own entry into this world – no doubt fueled by the unforgettable recounting of its creation in the film “24 Hour Party People”…

Anyway, that got me thinking about all this stuff, and now I’m asking you: Have you had this experience listening to recorded music? Which songs feel heavy in this way, to you?

Sex and the Socially Awkward

A self-identified “Aspergian” blogger has penned an an open letter to women, pleading for our mercy on behalf of awkward men everywhere. I imagine many women will dismiss it as privilege-soaked and condescending, get angry and perhaps rant, then move on without thoughtfully considering the sincere question at the heart of it. But I think there’s some important stuff to unpack here, not the least of which is the very real pain of isolation behind these words.

So, Awkward Men everywhere, let’s talk about this. I can’t speak for all women, but I can tell you what I have learned in my own struggle with social anxiety and awkwardness. Who knows? Maybe we can help each other.

You begin your letter with an analogy, to try and explain to women what it’s like for men who struggle in their search for sexual fulfillment.

“Ladies, I ask you to imagine, for a few minutes, that you have a deeply rooted biological need to play chess. Something about moving around a bishop or a rook gives you the highest possible pleasure and satisfaction. You can have some of this pleasure playing against the computer or watching others play chess, but there is no decent substitute for playing with another human being. As often as you can – maybe every day, maybe a few times a week, you ask people to play chess with you, or you try to join in a game.”

First, let’s clarify something here. Women don’t need to imagine this scenario. There may be some quibbling around the edges over the exact degree of difference due to the difficulty of seeing past all the cultural baggage, but women need sex, too, and there is certainly a significant number of women in this world who are similarly frustrated over their lack of sexual prospects. It seems that what you really mean when you say “women” is “women I find attractive and wish to have sex with”.

I think your chess analogy only sort of works, and I’d like to try to help you think around it. I get that it is useful for people on the autism spectrum to try and apply sets of rules to social situations, in order to help them navigate shorthand that they don’t naturally understand. But doing this is necessarily reductive, and can blind you to the real solutions to your frustrations.

Instead of comparing sex to chess, let’s pull back a bit to a simpler construct. Let’s say sex is the chess board. It is the field of play, rather than the action itself. There are many different games that can be played on a chess board, which suit different personalities and their goals. For the purposes of this analogy, let’s say that good, old-fashioned picking up people in bars is chess. Those of us who struggle with social cues and come off as awkward in person are not going to be good at chess without a lot of trial and error and patient strangers. The problem, of course, is that strangers do not owe us their patience. We can certainly ask for others to put themselves in our shoes, but we must also put ourselves in theirs – there are understandable reasons why women in bars are extra sensitive to behavior that falls in or near the “creepy” category, and other understandable reasons for women to avoid giving direct feedback with their rejections. You and I might agree that it would be wonderful to live in a world where people were always explicit with each other, but for most people that world would be a nightmare.

So the answer is to stop trying to play chess, at least until you get some experience under your belt and learn to be less awkward. Just because most of the people in the world meet and hook up in bar culture doesn’t mean that everyone has to. Try playing checkers instead. Try to find women with similar struggles to your own. Instead of hanging out in bars, put up honest ads in personals sections and on dating sites. Spell out your need to have things spelled out. Find other awkward humans in online communities or at in person meet-ups and get to know them – I’ve heard MENSA is a great place for the awkward to find each other.

You’re right when you say that confidence can be very attractive. But, as an Aspergian, you can’t fake confidence. At some point, you’ve got to stop trying to be something you think women will find attractive and just own what the fuck you are. Yes, that’s a lifelong struggle. And part of that struggle is realizing that owning what they fuck you are will get you rejected. But it will make the acceptance you find so much more valuable when you do find it, because you will know it is an acceptance of you – as you – and not an acceptance of something you’re pretending to be. At this point, what do you have to lose?

Along this journey, you’ll meet some crazy characters. You’ll likely drive away most of the “normies” you’ve been trying to pick up in bars. You might have to re-assess your expectations regarding the types of women you will consider dating. If you’ve got an idea in your mind of “the perfect mate”, against which you compare the women you encounter as you go through your life, knock that shit off. Shed your expectations and really learn people. I get that it’s natural, when you feel deprived, to think of sex as an economy, and women as the holders of the most precious resource in that economy. But at the end of the day, we’re people, just like you. We contain depths of complexity and individuality, and that’s the place to start. If you need to, give yourself permission to stop trying to date for a set period of time, and just work on getting to know people outside of the transactional economy of sex. If you cannot separate the idea of transactionality from your conception of social sexuality, you might consider utilizing the services of a sex worker to meet your needs.

This will not be an easy journey, and even if you do everything I suggest and become a totally awesome, fully-realized, confident human, there can be no guarantee of sexual success, because even though it might look like it from the outside, sex is not something you can earn. There are no short-cuts to real fulfillment. But, when it comes down to it, the struggle is where humanity lives.

Now round up those checkers and start playing… 

#YesAllWomen: Internet Feminism and the Real World

Maya Angelou died last week; eulogized in memes on social media feeds, breaking up the erupting solidarity of fearful femininity marked by #YesAllWomen with quotes about courage and empowerment:

You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.

A wise woman wishes to be no one’s enemy; a wise woman refuses to be anyone’s victim.

What is a fear of living? It’s being preeminently afraid of dying. It is not doing what you came here to do, out of timidity and spinelessness. The antidote is to take full responsibility for yourself – for the time you take up and the space you occupy. If you don’t know what you’re here to do, then just do some good.

We allow our ignorance to prevail upon us and make us think we can survive alone, alone in patches, alone in groups, alone in races, even alone in genders.

I am never proud to participate in violence, yet I know that each of us must care enough for ourselves that we can be ready and able to come to our own defense when and wherever needed.

To be sure, the #YesAllWomen meme is an interesting development. It gives the women of the internet an opportunity to join their voices together and talk about their experiences with everyday sexism and the things they perceive as threats which influence the ease with which they go about their lives. It gives well-meaning men who agree that women should have equal opportunity a window into an experience that differs from theirs in ways they are often unable to see. That’s important, and valid. But the other side of a campaign like #YesAllWomen is the reinforcement, not of empowerment, but of fear. And the implication from the feminist blogosphere is that the solution to this particularly female set of problems lies in removing the sources of women’s fears, rather than in teaching women to feel empowered in spite of them.

It is a fact that the world is not a safe place. It’s a shitty, unfair fact, but it’s true. The public safety of individuals varies along many axes and situations, and it is true that women face a unique set of concerns. At the end of the day, the world owes us nothing. Attempts to make the world better are noble and can certainly help, especially when implemented within local cultural paradigms by people who understand the forces at work within those specific paradigms. But if we wish to be empowered, we cannot rely entirely on civilization to empower us. We must claim our agency and empower ourselves. We must meet humanity where it is, even as we work to change it.

But all too often, the two prongs of this principle are set at odds to one another, because to talk about transcending your own fear and empowering yourself is seen as invalidating to those who are crippled by their fears. Claiming your agency and discussing practical approaches to safety often garners accusations of victim-blaming. Attempts of well-meaning male allies to discuss risk/benefit analyses with regard to women’s fears are regarded as derailments. All of this happens because the online feminist community is held together by women’s desires to see their fears validated; to be reassured that they are not crazy for feeling the way they do; to convince men that their fears are not silly.

The feminist reaction to the recent mass killing in California is a great example of this phenomenon. The implication behind much of the commentary from the feminist blogosphere is a big finger, pointing and shouting, “SEE?! They really are trying to kill us! We’re not crazy!” This is entirely understandable. And these discussions and the ones coming from #YesAllWomen will likely go a long way toward getting middle- and upper-middle-class men, in the developed world, who were already basically on board with feminism, to step up and address these issues where they see them.

But what about the rest of humanity? What about the vocal, misogynist minority? What about the men and women in other cultural paradigms who are not part of this discussion? What about John and Jane Doe? What about future Eliott Rodgers? Are we really prepared to stake our liberation to the conversion of all of these people and the eradication of the forces that drive them? That’s not only unrealistic; it’s self-defeating. If we are not, indeed, the weaker sex, then we shouldn’t require a consensus vote from the men of Earth granting us permission to walk freely among them.

The internet is a revolutionary social force. It empowers us to organize around principles that transcend geography. It amplifies our voices by joining them together. It allows outsiders and marginalized individuals to find validation in a sense of community and shared experience in virtual space. These capabilities are undoubtedly creating positive change in the world.

But, as is true of all civilizational change, these capabilities come at a cost. The power and convenience of the internet as a communication and organization tool make it a cultural magnet, tending to draw everything into itself. It links locally active organizations with large, international communities. Because of the anonymous nature of much of online communication, organizations and their representatives frequently receive comments from trolls and trouble-makers and dissenters, whose motives are difficult to distinguish. These forces naturally create in-group defensiveness and wagon-circling within these online communities, which inevitably leads to a situation where even constructive criticism can be dismissed as attack, and those who ask the wrong questions can be counted amongst the enemy.

The demographics of internet access, combined with the above-detailed emergence of online tribalism within these groups, creates an environment in which the concerns of specific classes of people become the primary focus of online discussions, and, by extension, define the parameters of the most visible areas of activism. Combine with this the demographics of higher education access and the entanglement of academia in social justice movements, and a picture begins to form of an increasing prioritization of Western, middle- and upper-middle class concerns.

In addition, the mechanics of the blogosphere itself can influence the direction of activism within a community. The ongoing discussions of the #NotAllMen “derail tactic” among online feminists is a prime example of this. The very idea of a “derail” is the product of specific expectations that online discussion forums, in order that they do not devolve into chaotic flame wars, should be limited to pre-approved discussion points. This tendency is entirely understandable. It helps people create spaces in which they feel safe sharing their fears and experiences, which is a powerful tool in building communities. But at some point, the community has to be about something other than building itself, and the tools that a community uses to build itself can actually undermine its own efforts to fulfill the stated aspirations of its members.

The goals of the loudest voices in the online feminist movement are neatly situated within a careerist, capitalist paradigm, focusing on wage equality, reproductive rights, and the politics of identity and consumption. Within this context, it makes sense to try to win male allies in the fight to eradicate harassment and remove sexist barriers to female acquisitions of power. But this set of interests should not crowd out or dictate the terms of discussions of barriers to female empowerment within other paradigms.

For example, attempting to apply this same logic to street harassment and casual, everyday interactions outside the context of a corporate or academic workplace is doomed at the outset. Despite the increasing prevalence of adults walking around in sweatpants, the world is no one’s living room, and none of us has the right to expect to go through life without encountering unexpected challenges and scary circumstances. To tell ourselves that we do is to confine ourselves to “safe” prisons.

A couple of weeks ago, I was walking to the library – a journey which takes me through a lively, culturally-diverse section of the city – and I glanced down a side street as I passed. There was a tall, thin, black man walking clumsily in my direction, and after our eyes met, he ran up to me and started chatting me up as I walked. We had a friendly, easy interaction. He complimented my physical appearance, then told me he was high on crack and some other stuff, and that he was looking for a nice woman he could “spoil”. The whole conversation unfolded over about two blocks, and as soon as I told him I wasn’t interested, he said a friendly goodbye and walked away.

Did this encounter make me uncomfortable? Sure. I didn’t know this guy. He was a self-avowed crack-head. It was the middle of the afternoon, and there were a lot of other people around, so I wasn’t concerned for my physical safety, beyond the usual level of worst-case-scenario paranoia my brain likes to produce, no matter what is happening around me. And even though he did look me up and down like a piece of meat, he didn’t persist after I refused his advance, so I didn’t feel disrespected. In fact, the whole thing left me feeling rather positive about the human race.

This guy was acting within the parameters of a cultural paradigm very different from the corporate, academic, middle- and upper-middle-class expectations of the prominent voices in the online feminist movement. Part of my personal empowerment process is understanding these paradigms and learning to navigate them on their own terms, so that I can more comfortably traverse a wide variety of situations. Throwing temper-tantrums about unwanted male attention on the street accomplishes little, especially when that attention is part of a codified system of behavior practiced and accepted by both men and women within that context. If and when people within these paradigms feel oppressed and ask for help, we can certainly ally with them in respectful ways, but expecting to swoop in with your white privilege and teach “urban” men why it’s wrong of them to holla at you is the height of ethnocentric hubris. And walking briskly through those neighborhoods, wearing your headphones like a hijab and staring at the ground, as though danger you can’t see or hear can’t hurt you, seems terribly childish.

The crux of the feminist mission is to make a place in public life for women to thrive and make our own destinies. If we wish to take our places in public life, we must accept the burdens that come with existing as public entities. Public life is often chaotic, and it is impossible to exercise any ultimate form of control over what you will encounter, in public, on a day-to-day basis. We can support each other in meeting these challenges. Part of this support can take the form of sharing our frustrations. But we need to keep them in perspective. We need to remember that, in the end, the real progress we make will be in the rights we take for ourselves by deciding not to give power to our oppressors by believing their slurs and libels and threats; not in the ones we badger and cajole and shame them into provisionally ceding to us. We’ve got to be able to walk on our own. The world will never be completely safe for us.

Freedom isn’t a given. We buy it with our courage.

Oh, the anxiety!

I’m thinking about anxiety today, after reading a little doodle comic aimed at explaining the experience of the anxious person to the unafflicted. It’s an Imgur series, linked in an article from relationshipsurgery.com, but it’s not clear to me who made it in the first place. (If anyone understands these things better than I do, please let me know and I will edit this to credit the illustrator.) In any case, as a life-long anxiety sufferer who has actually made progress learning how to live with anxiety, I have some thoughts I’d like to share on the matter.

While I think the weather analogy is a great explanation to help people who don’t have anxiety understand how it feels, I find the rest of the advice in this set of doodles a bit problematic, because I think it misses something key that might actually help people recontextualize their anxiety and see a way through it.

I certainly agree that it is not helpful to have people around you who don’t understand what you’re going through get tired of humoring you and say tone-deaf things that send you into a downward spiral of self doubt. And I think it’s good to point that out. But I also don’t think it’s helpful to set up a privilege framework of sorts where someone who doesn’t suffer from anxiety can never make observations about it without being categorized as insensitive or harmful. The author wants others to offer constant reassurance and patience, and leave it at that. It’s essentially saying, “You can never understand what I’m going through but please sit and pat me on the head while I talk about it over and over again but don’t try to understand or offer suggestions because you don’t know my experience.”

To me, the point of forming relationships with other humans is to grow better together in the pursuit of mutual understanding. If you set up a framework in which you believe that no one else can possibly understand your experience and become insulted or hurt when they try to, you are setting up a framework in which your ideal relationship will tend toward codependency: each person in the relationship exists to support and validate the other person in a way that enables both to continue their respective unhealthy behaviors. It diminishes both parties, keeping them mired and comfortable in miserable ruts.

For me, having a loved one constructively tell me how my anxiety appeared to function from an outside perspective helped me to think about it differently. I began to see how I was projecting my own self-judgements onto others, and how that would spin into a cycle of awkwardness and self-consciousness and lead to more anxiety. Because this person cared enough to engage me in a conversation about my social problems and share his own unencumbered extrovert experience with me, I was able to step back and look at my social life from a third-person perspective, and understand on an intellectual level that, at the end of the day, most people I encounter don’t fucking care about any of the things I worry about. They don’t care if I use the wrong word or pause too long in conversation or have a piece of hair sticking up at a funny angle. They’re too consumed with their own shit to notice. And if they do care about those things, they aren’t worth my time.

Coming to terms with the idea that other people’s worlds don’t actually revolve around me was magical. I’ve started taking myself a lot less seriously in social situations – laughing at myself when I say the wrong word; getting out of my own head and just watching other people socialize without worrying about why no one is talking to me. That shift of focus off of myself is an incredibly powerful tool. These days, I catch myself talking and laughing with strangers like some kind of extrovert. It still feels really weird sometimes, but it’s wonderful.

I used to think my anxiety was just part of who I am, and that nothing could change it. That seems to be the view of the author of this comic. While I don’t think I will ever be rid of the raw, emotional reactions at the root of my anxiety, I now know it is possible to change the way those reactions influence my behavior. Instead of letting myself get sucked into those feelings of inadequacy and self-consciousness and turn into a neurotic mess (which actually does influence others’ willingness and ability to engage with me), I can take a deep breath and move on, accepting myself where I’m at and allowing the people around me to do the same.

I think that asking people who love people with anxiety to treat it as an immutable condition and never offer thoughtful, constructive criticism does a disservice to people with anxiety. I also think that reinforcing the idea that people with anxiety should expect unquestioning support and validation from those around them is bullshit. Often, being truly supportive means challenging someone to see their way clear of a self-imposed roadblock.

You know what? My anxiety absolutely is all in my head. That doesn’t make it an imaginary problem, but it does empower me to do something about it, instead of resigning myself to cowering in corners at parties for the rest of my life. I can recognize it for what it is and move past it. That is a profound gift, and I will be forever grateful that someone cared enough about me to help me find it.