Some poetry too

A poem about Zoe, by Brock

 

I was looking through the endless turns and tucked away places,

made of 1’s and 0’s,

that used to hold my attention and histories

now being erased, washed and replaced

 

I found an old poem about an old dog that belonged to the man I used to call my father; it went something like:

Zoe, by Brock

Zoe’s eyes would rise and

Her tongue would begin grasping

Her nose, as I spoke, her nails tapping

The tile as she sits up on her legs,

My hand raised, palm down, she begs

It’s gone now because it’s too many letters

to fit into ten-minute long colored boxes

nor put into their byte-sized wallets
as they worship their new secret dollar

not knowing it’s not buying but tithing

to the invisible gods of the markets because
you can’t be a loser

if you’ve already surrendered
to your fake YouTube preachers
selling your fake bible verses;

 

or is it that no one cares for an amateur’s musings on a dead dog?

 

Even now I’m feeling as though I’m losing my only viewer

for the cage they tell me I’m making

of the millions of whispers,

they’ve now sorted and filed,

with no more need to remember

 

 

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Some fiction for fun

A Gift from a stranger, by Brock

I hear the white hum of the round white machine; now I hear voices from behind the door and I tell her.  I see the paper star on the wall in the next room, my hand rubbing a smooth stone, I feel my feet pulling the earth up to meet them; my tongue squishing left and right in my mouth as she tries to get me to talk about a secret I’ve been avoiding.

I was on a stone bench in front of an empty stone fountain; I wore orange pants and a somber expression.  She would call him the “punisher” because of the shirt I pictured him wearing.  He was, I was, my quiet anger and what’s putting words on this page.  [I would always be surprised that I would never him in the mirror]

You’re okay, he said, for he was me.

There was a coarse grain as though the whole world was an old family video; we were washed out by the sun behind us leaving us as part noise, part shadow.  I had my head lying on Kaylee’s lap on the same bench in front of the same empty stone fountain.

You’re okay, she said, for she was me.

Left and right.

I can see the blue carpet and the “T” shaped halls lined with rooms, a desk with ladies in white paper thin dresses in the middle; an old piano, miraculously in tune, a blue couch with a worn flower pattern and a small room with a television on a cart.  There was where I remember we would all sit in a circle.  I listened to a woman talk about her everything but heroin.  I can’t remember her name but I thought she was nice.  We were friends for a week so it goes.

I remember the smell of old ash and burnt out cigarettes, the window looking out into the common room and the girl who would hide just beneath it.  I’ve been back there since and they’ve replaced all the faces; a new, red plastic chair has something to say carved into it with a blade.

“You’re not okay,” it said, to no one in particular.

And we might be afraid to end up with yellow skin and a hand clasping our blue veined arms and tears running down along their fingers.  Our bodies, mouth open with white lips and eyes closed, lying frozen on a hospital bed paid for by insurance; our lives passing on as fading memories and a trail of meaningless miracles.

“I believe you’ve had trauma…”she says, making sure to look at me and that I look at her seeing me, and then pauses to wonders if she should say what she thinks I’m avoiding.  I can see it like a painting, like the star in the room next to us and the voices behind the door; I see it just like the memories that I’ve put on this page.

I don’t know if I want to talk about this anymore, and I tell her.  She says, ”okay… okay… okay”

This is what I’m trying to say and I apologize but the carefully pruned images, sliced into their frames and the words we keep rewriting so each letter might flow clearly into the next… this is, to speak frankly and again I apologize but this is not the case; we’ll never really know had I remembered that forgotten phone call whether not saying enough was better than saying nothing at all.  Would the vacant, faraway voice on the end of the line give me to chance to keep one more voice out of the dark?

Some old stuff

Note:  I wrote this several years ago for an SEO site; hopefully they won’t be offended.

 

Why do people smoke?

I had been living in Northern Virginia for a few months and met a friend of mine for drinks. We knew each other from Richmond, where I had spent the last half decade or so. We were drinking, smoking and talking about politics, ethics, whatever else, sitting on an empty patio on a slow weeknight. We wandered through topics from physics to psychology, wondering if all thoughts and actions can be explained through the careful observation of elementary particles.

We then moved perhaps to the dangers of motorcycles, perhaps a passing glance from an unknown drinker like ourselves, or even just a remembrance of perceived judgment of our daily choices, as we loudly ponder the morality of our preferred addictions. I think I mentioned my continued state of quitting smoking; daily attempts then breaks, maybe twice a week not smoking then smoking again.

Parallels were drawn like battle lines. Then he said, “lot’s of things are bad for you.”

Yes, but how bad?

I remember having my first cigarette. I was with a friend of mine, my best friend then and today, in one of those strip malls that populate the district suburbs where I grew up. It was around midnight I think. We were sitting on metal chairs bolted to the sidewalk, him and a few others I had just met. They were all smoking cigarettes, drinking over the summer between high school and college. I was edgy and nervous, as I was coming down on what would become a familiar depression.

I asked, “can I have one of those?”

He asked me if I was sure; I’d been one of the few holdouts from my friends who chose to abstain, committing to never being a smoker. I persisted, and he handed me a Camel, back when they could be called lights. I took it to my mouth, lit it, took a shallow breath. The smoke hit my throat in a way I can’t even remember now, harsh and unpleasant. But again, I persisted.

In the next few weeks I would wear white clothes and take walks in a park near my house. There were trees and asphalt walkways and a short bridge running above a narrow creek. Plastic bags and fallen tree limbs would drift slowly down the water. I would pull out my pack, the first packs I had bought, and light a cigarette then walk and look around. A person walked by, he was probably the age I am today, and asked politely, “how are you?”

“Great,” I would reply, the first time I can remember saying that in a while.

I talked to my father over the phone; he lived far away at the time. I said I had started smoking, he said I should stop. But I enjoyed my walks, this little reprieve. These help me calm down, relax, be happy, I thought, even if only for a few hours. I would be trading away years of my life for this, and at the time, I felt that was the right decision. Even when pressed with that knowledge, I kept going, taking a cigarette out one at a time.

Then I learned the little benefits of smoking. The free conversations out in between classes, breaks at work or even at bus stops. The easy excuse to get away, be alone, think. The bad too. That time you run out unexpectedly, leaving you with an extra hour or two without, the impending but largely imagined symptoms of withdrawal. The coughs from chain smoking in those too often stressful situations, attempting to conjure up some sort of mythical relief.

I have memories when I was little of my grandfather. Well, only one memory. Our family made a trip down to see him and our other relatives. I ran up the stairs in their house and saw him sitting on a recliner, I smiled and ran to him and he scooped me up and I laughed. It’s all vague now.

He died some years later of lung cancer. That’s all I can say about him.

My other grandfather died of lung cancer too, and I have no memories of him. But I do remember my grandmother later married a man who had worked for Phillip Morris. They sell the Marlboro brand cigarettes. By the time I knew him he had had a stroke, he was a long time smoker, and he would need help walking and could hardly speak. My grandmother would help him outside where he would pull out a cigarette. He would have a hard time lighting it because his hand wouldn’t stop shaking.

One time we were sitting in the living room and he wet the couch and started crying. He died some years later, too.

A few days ago my sister had a son. That makes me an uncle now. Since time relentlessly moves forward, no matter our own personal desires to the contrary, one day too I will die. I’d like to see my nephew grow up a little more before that happens, and it makes me angry that that might not happen because of a product I chose to consume years ago for a few weeks of happiness.

Will I become a vague memory, too?

I started smoking because I thought it would help. I wanted to be part of that group that would stand in a circle and pass the lighter around. I wanted to have coffee and cigarettes, know what a menthol tasted like, compare brands. Be an intellectual, different, I don’t know. I would watch someone put a cigarette to their lips and there was some vague, indefinable magic about it. It made them seem more real, somehow. Serious.

I lived for the past ten years or so breathing in thousands of cigarettes. More than twenty a day, probably. Last week I was mowing the lawn and had to take breaks because I would run short of breath every few minutes. Some days I have a constant headache because I have to have a cigarette whenever I read a news article, get anxious or take a break, causing a small overdose. A cashier asked me if I wanted to donate a dollar to a charity for curing some disease. I didn’t give because I needed that money to buy cigarettes.

Not to mention it’ll kill me you know.

Yet, here I am, sitting outside at three in the morning. My laptop’s on the table and my pack of cigarettes sitting beside. What if I stopped today? A friend of mine quit recently, she’d been smoking since she was in middle school. She started getting nostalgic because she could smell things she remembered from when she was a kid. I remember honeysuckles now, I would pull apart their petals and lick the dew from their stems. I don’t know if I could even taste it now.

Your senses comes back pretty fast. Maybe it’ll help me remember things that I thought that I’ve lost. Wouldn’t that be amazing?

There’s a poster in the doctor’s office with the symptoms of COPD. It describes it’s causes and symptoms, shortness of breath, persistent cough and others. There’s also a colorful infographic picture of the lungs. It’s red and pink and detailed with veins, encased in a ghostly and transparent ribcage. Why does this grab my attention now? I feel like begging the doctor to tell me to stop. It’d be doctors orders then and that’d be enough.

It’s my fault though. It’s up to me. Why not today? Not tomorrow, no commitments in the discounted future. No perfect times that I ignore even if they come or bad days to ruin things. Just keep going, try anything and everything. I know that I should or ought to, but I am not paralyzed by my own personal lack of agency as though my mind were my parent and my body it’s rebellious offspring.

You’re in charge man, do it.

Thoughts on Free Speech

I want to talk about what I’ll call the conservative free speech narrative. The narrative, at least as it appears to be, goes like this. Leftists in some sense, by engaging in some manner of political correctness, harmful defamation or outright violence, suppress or delegitimize conservative ideas and by extension conservative values and viewpoints. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, particularly since I went to DC via train to take pictures of the inauguration and subsequent protests. Apparently the train is popular among Trump supporters, and I talked to a few people who you may even see around Richmond.

In any case, I feel as though my experience since then may be insightful so I’d like to share it. I have two main criticisms that I plan to elaborate on, and then a thought about how we might have better conversations in the future.

The first point has to do with the suppression of conservative ideas, values and therefore political speech. I think a lot of conservatives view this as a rights issue. From what I can tell, if anything there’s more conservative speech than ever, and conservatives I’ve met in my personal life seem to have no problem sharing their opinions, even potentially offensive ones and oftentimes unprompted. In summary, the argument seems to me is a victim hood narrative predicated on the idea that conservatives are essentially cowards, which is not at all my experience.

I was listening to a Sam Harris podcast where he discussed the free speech narrative and invited Charles Murray, the author of The Bell Curve, onto his show. Sam Harris argued that Murray and his co-author had made a good faith effort to present a case based on some rigor, and that it should be considered on its merits no matter the uncomfortable content. His complaint was that Murray’s work was unfairly maligned due to rampant political correctness in academia and the public at large. I find this confusing; at the time, the book was a best seller as hundreds of thousands of copies were purchased. It’s probably one of the most famous non-fiction books ever written, at least that I can think of.

If you’re not familiar with the book, he argues that the reason African Americans make less money and have worse social outcomes is because they are essentially genetically inferior by way of being stupider than whites. His policy recommendations include scrapping interventions to improve under performing urban schools because it would be a waste of time, and also poor mothers shouldn’t be given subsidies to help raise their children because it incentives poorer women, who are therefore genetically less intelligent, to have children.

I can’t imagine a book more offensive to liberals, and yet there it is on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. It’s also gotten hundreds, maybe thousands, of academic critiques. Murray himself has had a multi-decade career afterwards doing speeches (despite protests), writing op-eds (even being published in liberal leaning newspapers) and testifying before congress. There seems to be no shortage of discussion.

Then there’s Fox News, far and away the most popular cable network that brings in tens of billions of dollars annually, not to mention popular podcasts, talk radio hosts, newspapers, blogs and even organizations widely considered hate groups. They’re still chugging along.

To make a personal anecdote, while I was on the train to DC I spoke to someone who was unambiguously a white nationalist. I know this because he told me as much and even pointed to tattoos on his arm.  He had hardly been silenced.

So, I just don’t see it.

The second point I’d like to make has to do with a lack of realism in the discussion. When people like Ann Coulter, Milo and Richard Spencer are held up as defenders of conservative speech, how could you be surprised when some people think you’re ignorant bigots? Not to mention countless internet trolls, talk radio hosts, news networks and mainstream conservative politicians who consistently trash talk liberals. What did you expect was going to happen?

Furthermore, as far as poor rural conservatives go, liberals don’t think about them very much. Well, at least they didn’t prior to this election season. Usually they’re more concerned with evangelicals proposing biblical laws and rich people willing to let people die on the street in exchange for tax cuts. Concerns about racism and bigotry are targeted more at systemic issues like segregated schools, with the villains being wealthy businessmen pining for the privileges of a lost plantation era. So liberals usually don’t think about poor conservatives, and when they do, it tends to be relatively sympathetic. They would argue that poor conservatives were essentially being tricked by race baiting and culture war narratives so that the wealthiest can rob them at their leisure. Talk about working class racism in the counties were relatively an afterthought.

Most of that potential good will has been destroyed now.  As far as progressives go, conservative identity has become synonymous with petty spite and unapologetic racism. This even includes you libertarians. Oh well.

For those of you who are genuinely concerned with free speech issues, I would hope this is at least something worth considering. My advice would be to listen carefully, give people some benefit of the doubt, and communicate in a way that’s intended to be understood. Hopefully this can lead to a more thorough discussion of free speech issues, such as government censorship, violence and yes even people unfairly maligned on the internet. I believe that it’s important to have a world of ideas with few inhibitions, however I don’t see how listening or speaking considerately is by necessity compromising ones beliefs.

Try to show people a better way, so, please don’t be a dick.

Why do I care?

 

I remember some years ago I was waking up on a futon in my grandmother’s house; drool clung to my mouth as allergies had forced my mouth open as I slept in my work clothes.  I wasn’t planning on going to work though.  I woke up and took a shower.  My roommate at the time, who had recently been reunited with his mother and sister, complained that I had used the last of the shampoo so I promised that I would get more right away.

And so I did.

It seems for my memories the words are the first to go, particularly my own.  I’m left with a vague impression and the thoughts of others voices as though they had just finished speaking.  I would try to write down this day so many times I’ve probably forgotten; I’ve promised myself that I would.  I wouldn’t want to forget the small details, or more worrisome the big ones.  What day it was I can’t remember exactly or even how many years ago it was, but I certainly remember answering a phone call from a number I didn’t recognize.

As I walked out the door, I said, “Ok… ok… ok…”

I’d imagine you can see where this is going already.  I can remember the feeling, as though my life before this moment had been some cloudy distant dream or endless reruns on the television.  Then it was quiet except for my own wailing, the smell of the yard and the feeling of the sun.

“I’m coming home,” I said to my mother on the phone, “I’ll tell you why when I get there.”

The drive itself I listened to the Arcade Fire Funeral on repeat; my only CD turned out the foreshadowing after the fact.  My parents’ house, as I was growing up, always felt like a white walled and carpeted prison.  I would sometimes lie down on my back staring, up at a light on the ceiling, wishing to be anywhere else but with nowhere to go.  I was always prone to sadness and anxiety, walking away from parties no matter that I my friends would beg me to say.  For some reason, I never believed them.

“He’s dead,” I told her as I walked into her room.  “Oh my god,” my mother replied.

I wasn’t going to go to work that day.  When I was 19 I had realized that I was going nowhere.  I barely made it through high school and the loneliness hadn’t subsided.  Making friends was alien to me, and I could not exactly explain how I had gotten the few that I had.  I had spent some time in hospitals and was tired of being unsure on my decision, and so I thought I would give myself an easy standard.  Two years, and if something good happens I’ll see it to the end.

About two years later, I moved down into my grandmother’s old house in Chesterfield for a few months.  I couldn’t stand Fairfax and its empty strip malls anymore.  I felt bad as I would be leaving a few people behind; a friend of mine was having a rough time too.  I hoped he would get better, but instead he made a mess in a bathroom by splattering his brains.  I wonder if I could have done something had I stayed.  I still feel guilty sometimes.

I remember I woke up with drool on my lip.  Did you know that nitrogen forces oxygen from your lungs?  In 30 seconds, a minute perhaps, you become unconscious and a few minutes after that your mind starts suffering as it’s starved from oxygen.  A few minutes later, you seize for a few moments, and then people start wondering why you hadn’t shown up to work that day.

I had hoped it would be painless.

How unfair.  How terribly unfair it is that I made it because he didn’t.  I don’t know if I can write anymore now.  But, to answer the title without much eloquence, I want to make something beautiful.  I don’t want to see as much sadness.

In Defense of Democracy

Recently, I’ve felt overwhelmed by the offhand remarks reflexively spoken in defense of authoritarianism.  I’ve heard an argument in favor of some mythical benevolent dictator of the past, perhaps a modern day Caesar or Napoleon, to lead our nation and our world into an glorious future; also, a shallow sentence during a speech about “running government like a business” with little discussion of what that really means. I find this troubling.

But perhaps I am mistaken.  Our votes are stolen, either through straightforward malfeasance or parliamentary obfuscation; our rights are nothing more than words on a piece of paper. A paper without consequence.  What of the electoral college that handed our election to the loser of the popular vote?  Gerrymandering?  What of all those illegal votes?  Perhaps, perhaps, the government that we believe to be democratic is in fact rigged against us.  Rigged!  Would a dictatorship really be any different?

And, I’ve been told, certainly we are only picking from one dictator or the other.  And besides, what of it?  Our “democracy” isn’t so great anyway with drone strikes and the extrajudicial holding of prisoners in Guantanamo.  Our press is merely the shill of political salesmen, our speech compelled by political correctness and the cruelty of insult.

Or so I’ve heard from people choosing to sit on their couch, choosing neither to learn of the chains around us or of the myriads ways we’ve been given to overcome them.  It’s hard for me to believe that in a world where we repeat Tea Party slogans (remember how broken our government is?) is also a world in which grassroots activism is hopelessly ineffective. I fear we speak in the same breadth our hatred and distrust for authorities, be it governments and political parties, the media or popular internet culture, all the while consuming their advertising.  Remember how the media is biased?  Good thing Fox News offers “balance” to the liberal squawk box that is MSNBC.  Better watch them both to, you know, get both sides.

At least a dictator would help the trains run on time, right?

I hope, above all hopes, that I can convince you that the people you demonize represent your own ignorance as often as theirs.  I hope, above all hopes, that the system you call broken is closer to the best that we have than you might imagine.  I hope you realize that there are no certainties, no easy answers and no easy ways out.

A dictator is still bound by their own flaws and the institutional crawl of bureaucracy. They will not and can not carry all your carefully excused burdens. They live and work with no given motivation except their own gain and power. You cannot blame everyone else for the things you choose not to do.  And my defense of democracy?  At least if you make a mistake, you can change your mind.  Hopefully we can continue to do that into the future.