A form for my father

Five years ago, after a visit in which the signs of his dementia could no longer be ignored, I handwrote a paragraph across 24 pages of notebook paper, one for each hour of the day, about my father and my relationship with him. It became the base text for an asemic writing project called SCRO. I never meant it to be read.

I visited for the first time in 18 months this June and saw with shock how far his condition has advanced. My stepmother can’t really look after him on her own anymore, though she persists with immense courage. Thankfully, she’s letting go her resistance to bringing in a home-care aide. And though my father can’t remember a conversation 30 seconds past, he’s become kinder and sweeter, affectionate even with N., and that’s a blessing, given how much it takes out of her to look after him, now.

His doctor wants him in a facility, which is not going to happen, while N. is alive. I assuage my desire to fix every fucking thing on this painfield with a mantra: You’ve got to let them die as they’ve chosen to live. I’m surprised to find I can let that matter more than my awfully good ideas for their welfare.

SCRO had two aspects: a scroll and a sequence of short videos. The former I finished but never found a home for. The latter, I found after doing 12 of them, I was out of moves. A few were included in a couple of exhibitions and I moved on.

After my visit, the text feels alive to me again, not as the start of something else, but as itself. I put it here as a tribute to my father, our sometimes strained and usually unspoken but always unbreakable love for each other. In places it’s unkind to me or another. I think it lacks compassion for my mother. And there are a great many verbal infelicities. I’ve left all the flaws unimproved, feeling that moments of meanness, smallness, self-pity, they too belong to a life. The text is a record of a feeling process, one I hope that, in this new framing, becomes itself a feeling process.

In the first 13 sections, the image is linked to the video made for that hour. There are also 24 aleatory Easter eggs hidden in plain sight. Easter, festival of the sun’s rebirth, is, I know you know, derived from the name Ishtar. Her lines of flight from my text touch down on pages pulled from books pulled by chance procedure from the Google shelf. Because the page is a field where my father and I met early and long in beauty.

TW: Discussion of suicide and suicidal thoughts from 7 to 10 pm.


SCRO

[6 am]

– pictures of my house I could send him now the landscaping’s almost done. Bay & I put in raised beds, two big ones for summer vegetables & three smaller where I’m going to plant fruit trees I need to drive up to Cloud Mountain Farm to choose. There’s a greeting. Another, before I even heard the mortgage was more than a bank was going to lend me on my own, he emailed to ask if he could help. The house is my own, bought with my labour, & his name verifies mine. A bed under the living room window for perennial herbs, a bed under the kitchen window for edible flowers. We laid drainage in the fall & raised & levelled the yard with topsoil to dry

[7 am]

it out. My house got shorter. Where is he going? into nothing? I miss him already. You always missed him. Sitting at his red kitchen table from a garage sale in Vancouver, at his house there, CBC News on the radio before dinner, steam from his shower after running welling into the hallway. That table’s my brother’s now, I think, down in their rec room. Dad would’ve picked pole beans or beet greens – always hated those – for steaming for dinner. The rototiller & smell of grass-cuttings & old gas in his garage. The tractor shed at Spruce Run still smelled the same as when I was god, what, five, when we went there a few years ago to spread his sister’s ashes, they

[8 am

were granules more, on the slope above the creek. Dad wasn’t with us. In a recent email to me he wondered if it had ever really been called Spruce Run. His father’d had an orchid greenhouse there, by then collapsed & since restored by Lowe’s Home Improvement & the City of Columbus School Board. I can barely keep a bean row. Crows are shouting now in the drizzle out back & a willow or something sticky-uppy in leaf across the lane. Bay & I planted all native species, idea being, they should thrive without too very much care. My last visit to California, Dad kept saying how much he’d have saved if only he hadn’t sued for custody. At least once maybe twice a day. Felt stupid for being hurt by that & angry for feeling stupid. I want his

[9 am]

suit to have been a quixotic attempt to save us from what I want to think he saw closing down around us. Apparently R. wasn’t our mother’s first infidelity either. He was just the one who took. I suppose she would say Dad’s need to run her forced her to it. And controlling for sure he is. I asked N. why she didn’t get her own e-mail account so we could talk privately about what’s going on. You go to the library a lot, couldn’t you use a terminal there? I said. Oh, no, your dad won’t let me go on my own, & when we’re there he wants to be in & out, he hovers over me. Whenever I read To the Lighthouse Mr. Ramsay sets me trembling. And Dad, the infant in him, is only going to come all the more out. And all the controllingness & jealousness in me that I

[10 am]

wrestle down – will they too, when I’m there, & that, come out? N. sees what’s up but won’t see it. Oh, that’s just your dad, he’s always been forgetful irritable antisocial set in his ways. Dad sees it too & it makes him rageful. Well it’s easy enough for me to call it denial, I’m not the one who’s got to live with the degraded future & the loss of what makes me me. On the walks we took with him on his weekends in Kerrisdale, or in North Arlington visiting his mother summers or Christmas in hot-cold Ohio, we two were always long-striding to keep up. That memory’s sweet to me. He knew the names of trees & things & said them: buckeye, Osage orange. He said hi to people we passed & that was sort of strange to me, & it softened something in

[11 am]

the world, enkinded it a bit. The days before his region of the summer I would cry in bed till my mother came down to comfort me. The change from her to him was a lurch up the curb of the world. The change back was the same curb back down. I don’t know how I’ve become a man; don’t know for sure I have. My father got his doctorate from Harvard, he earned tenure, he had children, got rich, has a doting wife. And I, I am a shitty adjunct, obscure & nameless, having no child, having no woman, just as alone as he was all those years, & I probably always will be. I think I wasn’t made for other people. Or I was, but poorly. Hello I am crap mind. Seems I’m lonely for my father & trying to summon one up out of lint & leaf-bits. Dad-

[12 pm]

dy’s going again. Am I going to do it inside this time the way I did it last time? My bad? That won’t be any good for me. It won’t be any help to him. If you haven’t grown up yet time to now. He still walks twice daily “religiously” in Guerneville, his stride a short sort of shuffle-step painful to watch. Oh bitter son let be. His heart’s good & strong. The meds are controlling the atrial fibrillation well. It’s unlikely that what I’m sure’s dementia’s from the sort of mini-strokes that took his sister one by one. No way to know for sure of course without he gets to a doctor for it. He gets to the top of the hill without needing a rest tho stops to feed Babe’s cat (she’s 94) & take her paper

[1 pm]

to her & pet Riley & chat with neighbours. It’s as happy as I see him. Once only have I seen him cry. It was a summer night in Ohio, after a birthday picnic for T. & me, in the car, his mother had choked in a bit of hotdog. I saw & I pointed. Her finger had been raised as if to gather our attention to a point we might consider also. The ambulance took half an hour after a wrong turn on the way to the state park & they said she was in fibrillation & took her to a hospital. Uncle D. was driving us there with Dad in the front & T. and me in the back & D. was saying something Dad didn’t want us two to hear. I didn’t understand the argument & then I didn’t under-

[2 pm]

stand Dad crying. Then there was some waiting & then Dot was dead. I had the feeling when she raised her finger that she wasn’t trying very hard. She looked slow, thick, numb, far underwater. Probably? I spiked adrenaline & everything slowed way the fuck down. Just got that now. My father wanted to protect me. He’d have – why am I crying? – he’d have flashed fire for me. He’d have fistfought a bear for us. N. says what he means by “could have saved so much money” is their mother did so much better a job than I would have. Maybe? A diagnosis of dementia will shatter him. How clouded is my view of this by my anger he’s not smart anymore? He has been to me the acme of intellect, all of what reason’s capable of shining, & I could outwit

[3 pm]

him now at checkers. I won’t get another father. He told me once of walking with me in a contraption on his back in the woods, & he tripped on a root & I flew out, & he ran forward stumbling to catch me & caught me in mid-air in his arms. He’d have laid down his life for me. Either of them would have. So what sort of weirdly quivering thing am I to have thought the powers they unleashed in each other were headed to kill me rather? A mystery tho they lifted not a finger on them to guard me from themselves. Yes & but why did I think, do I think, the rage they lavished on each other (it was always for each other) was meant for me? Too much of a kind

[4 pm]

of sensitivity I guess. I was sitting on a wood floor in a hallway in the dark, trying to put two cars or three cars of a toy train together. My father knelt down beside me. He & my mother wouldn’t be living in the same house anymore. It was not our fault – they loved us very much. I thought fault? And his apartment in Vancouver. And walks with him around the Haney house looking at & naming different kinds of earthmoving equipment. And this when they still were together – a beard he had! Sitting on a chair, bearded, playing guitar, bent over it, concentrated. The room was bare, there was nothing & no one in it. Picasso’s Blind Man’s Meal. It’s going to get worse. Steel yourself. Little by little & more by more he’s going to just blurt

[5 pm]

out whatever he feels. And it’s easy to say I leave it be & don’t push for a medical intervention & so on. But if N. falters he’s going to fall to me. He can’t live with me. I can’t live with him. Brutal boy. That tyrant gaze, it asks a subjection which wrecks me inly to give. I see it sap N. daily the same. She chose it – but would she now? He can’t live on his own down there. Up here, assisted living? He’ll say he would rather die, & I will have to say, you don’t get to yet. Listen, right?, the powers they brought to bear on each other, they were not going – however you might have felt it otherwise – to bear down on you with. They kept you safe from them that much. Say it. They kept me safe from them that much. This morning they said on the radio that

[6 pm]

matter, the whole world of it, has a sound, heaviness itself has a sound, the dark has a sound. Everyone’s glad it does. It’s the fruit of someone’s curious unpossessive reach from a little small local core of care. Can’t be only for me it’s hard to be a person. Can’t be any it’s not for probably. They could have said I don’t have time for this. I’m not going to be a father, probably, more than I already am to hundreds or thousands in traces, and I guess I’m okay with that. But who will come see to me in my elderly decay? That’s not for a while yet. These migraines I inherit from Dad are getting worse for all I do for them. Four different medications & biofeedback & physio & chiropractice. A gift of it I guess – one I don’t really want – is that I get a

[7 pm]

feel now for how Mom’s world is contracted to a little nut of pain. Yesterday I was out all afternoon pulling horsetails. My week away in TO they’d all pushed up thru the earth. I was there to give a talk on chance operations in my work but what stays with me is telling B. over breakfast about J.’s suicide, how I didn’t know him well, hadn’t seen him in years, but the news hit me hard anyway, it had come the same day as I’d said to my J. how thoughts of ending my life had been brushing me – not, I said, that we needed to worry about me, but low-level chronic pain’s a bitch, & actually being back in touch with my mom apparently isn’t good for me, I’ve got something to lose again, before I’d already lost the worst, her love, you know?,

[8 pm]

& I’d lived. My resilience felt shot to hell, & my liking for myself, I couldn’t find it anywhere. Might’ve added, but for wanting not to be too much, when I heard word of ending things on say the radio, the notion seemed, for a moment, a relief. Come rest, it said, come to rest. And that it did spooked me shitless. I told B. I could see sense in J.’s choice even as I raged at it. I looked at the strawberries on the cuttingboard & heard some little bird cheeping out the open window. J. said, no more to this, or that, I put it down. Why would I even ask why am I crying? No more of this, or that, for me, I’m done. I got it. I saw that it was sane. And I saw that it wasn’t mine.

[9 pm]

I wanted more of it, another moment, & another, whatever was in it. I didn’t say yes to it – yes said me to it. As to this no I carry with me everywhere, yes to this too, if it’s the cost of being at all for me. It may yet find its right bearing. I may have to break it off with Mom again. Her mind has resumed a place in mine where it is injurious to me. If I do break it off, there’s gonna be blowback, & I gots to father me in it. There’s no one else going to. That student, A., who told me she’d been feeling suicidal in the winter, I asked her, What’ll you do if you find you’re in that place again? I’ll call my boyfriend. Okay so well what if you can’t find him? I guess I’ll call my parents. Okay but what if they don’t pick up? I’ll call the suicide hotline. Okay, do you have,

[10 pm]

you have the number in your phone? When I called the person that answered was useless. Say they let you down. Say all the people you reach out to let you down. What are you going to do? She shrugged. I’ll tell you what you’re going to do. You’re going to get yourself to the ER at St. Joseph’s, & you’re going to tell them you’re suicidal, & they’re going to look after you. If you can’t get there on your own, you’re going to call 911, okay? Okay. I want you to promise me. I promise. A few weeks later she had to go there, & went there, & she was okay, she was fine, she was good. The conference was fine, the conference was good. A seagull shat on my head & shoulders, three hours before my talk, great gobs of seagull shit, good luck, I was told later, on a

[11 pm]

date – a date, WTF? The talk went fine, it was good! Got back, the horsetails, shit-tons of them, pulling them now for the Oregon sunshine & the oxalis to get their light on again. The yarrow’s establishing well. I wish he could see it, I wish he could visit. But he doesn’t travel anymore, no further than, I don’t know, Santa Rosa. I learned from N. on my last visit that his urinary sitch is worse than I’d known, it’s not just frequency, it’s incontinence, but will he see a doctor about it, oh, no. Instead N. buys menstrual pads & she stitches them in his briefs & while he’s as thrifty as she, well, that one must unman him twice over. The aspens, up from suckers, are shaking most glorious this morning. Ache of fathering forth out of Hopkins in them. Same

[12 am]

wind as shakes this page. The gift of the gift B. gave me came a little later as I stepped out of the shower in the vaguely depressing residence we were in, came as just, health in body & mind, get back to that, you got off track a bit. Why do I feel that’s selfish? This body’s a vessel of life, this mind’s a vessel of life, why selfish? The least stone in the path so why not me. Even affirming it I elide any me in it. The “possessive.” Who or what on earth could ever possess? This body is my body – remember? Say it. This body is my body. I’m done work for front out now. Beans are clambering up their poles, & cherry tomatoes are goldening at their end of the asparagus bed & I’m turning

[1 am]

now in mind to the back, which is thick with horsetails again, & morning glory, & I’ll be out there among, this weekend, the day-lilies flowering & the blackcurrant flowering & the cinquefoil gone to seed. These two yards, front & back, of my escrowed house – two seed sacs astride an attuned & capricious life-discharging waste-discharging vessel that swells & wanes at a passing thought. Hm. Something to that. Something about a signless sign. It’s aasemic writing yo. Started last night to wean from the goddamned gabapentin from the goddamned hernia op. Which did fix the nut pain but dropped two new pains down there nearby too. If I had known. Well, the pain’s still there, but the shit makes me fat, & I want it out

[2 am]

of me. Cut the dose by half, that made for a doomy mood. Tossed & turned last night & dreamed high hedges with holes with children in them. Hallowe’en candy in the alleys. I don’t think the world needs me to have children. Of course it doesn’t. But I had this sense of loss on waking which I don’t even know how to put words to how I don’t know how to put words to it. Those summers in Ohio we played catch, he had no idea what was in us, he threw, we caught & threw, he praised, we missed, ran & threw, he chided, & then he praised. Does he know what’s happening to him. Early early stage, probably he does, knows & doesn’t, knows & refuses. Stubborn cunt. The going isn’t ever only going, that was the thought I had on waking, it’s al-

[3 am]

ways also – a forwarding? the word was greeting. I don’t know what I meant by that; wasn’t I that meant it. He didn’t know what was in us, or what we were in, but still by inches he drew us out & into the present he was in. Is that what it is to father? A student in my summer class, L., she goes very far away inside. First day, she wouldn’t speak, not even her name, she just stared at the floor till I moved on. Eyes darting this way & that. I thought, trauma, bad, dissociative disorder, but I don’t know. I care for her tho I don’t think she likes me. Been trying to clear a path for her to help. Like the system can help. Got mad at her once for making me feel useless, stupid,

[4 am]

helpless to help. The way you might at a hurt bird for outwitting your little need to hold it. That’s a stupid anger. Also stupid to be angry at me for it. Let be. Let be. All I’ve got is practice & I don’t even know what practice is! Well, I like her smile, all those awful teeth. I don’t know what her hurt are but I feel their rhyme with those in me. I wish I could lift them from her. I’m going to stop asking me why crying & trust answer. Daido said trust yourself & I said WTF. This is the fuck. At dinner a couple of nights ago at a friend’s place a man, older, good friend of good friends, not really a friend of mine, he shouted at me for some reason, probably not no reason, to shut up, & some rage, & some blood, & some tears, they all rose in me,

[5 am]

I felt them all in my face, & they wouldn’t settle. After a bit I got up & said good night. Halfway home, almost stopped & walked back, I wanted to tear into him, Christ I wanted to, I almost tore into him. That’s a pun, it’s his name, a somewhat dim Norse god’s. God that would have felt good. But our host, she had made us a lovely dinner, & her father’s dying, & I didn’t want, & don’t, to be out of peace. And the man knows no more than I how to be one or to ride the righteous wave that feels like a god in you but’s not. Warrior should be inward, guns should be gone, we’re too goddamn dumb. I could name cities & not be done & not be done & not be done. Ah dawn is coming – has come – a gift I could send him – pictures of my house

On resisting compromises

In response to a white student, active in local protests & passionate about that work, exhausted by it, & frightened by white supremacists in the street & SWAT teams on the roofs nearby, asking that, in consideration of the enormous strain students are under, and so that they can focus on what’s important right now, I cancel the final exam for the whole class.


Dear ______,

I appreciate your sincere and heartfelt words, and I do take them seriously. We need your passion and commitment if crucial changes are going to be made to our unjust, unequal society.

For reasons I’ll try to lay out briefly here, I’m not going to cancel the final. But I can offer you the same accommodation I offered to BIPOC students in our class.

If you feel unable to write the final next week, we’ll have you make it up at another time. That may mean taking an Incomplete (K grade) and getting the work to me after the quarter is done. The make-up would be a short critical essay (1000 words) on ONE of the final essay topics. I’d be reading and grading this essay as finished essay, not as in-class writing, but if you are taking the P/NP option, you wouldn’t need to stress about that.

So why am I not cancelling the final, though it would mean a lot less work for me?

We’re in four simultaneous crises right now: pandemic, economic downturn, systemic racism, and fascist upsurge. You’re out on the street fighting the third. I’m insisting on these standards as resistance to the fourth.

One strategy of fascists, whether they’re on the rise or actually in power, is to attack independent institutions – universities especially. One kind of attack, and this can begin well before a state has become fully authoritarian, is to make it more difficult for us to conduct our business. Instructors, departments, administrations, students too, are put in positions where they have to cut corners, compromise; or just where it would be easier to.

And cancelling the final exam would be a compromise, because it would degrade your education by a little. Studying for an exam, writing an exam, helps students consolidate their learning over the course. Remove the exam, the course is a lesser experience.

If I did what you ask, out of my concern for my students’ anxiety and stress, I’d be giving you a short-term relief, at a long-term cost.

And the cost goes beyond the students themselves to the university as a whole. One instructor would have, because of violent cops and far-right paramilitaries, offered less to, and asked less of, his students. Fascist takeover is the sum of ten thousand, a hundred thousand, a million such compromises.

I want to assist your fight against police brutality and systemic racism. I want also to remember what resistance to fascism requires. So instead of cancelling the exam, I offer an equivalent.

If you’re interested, I’ve written more about this here.

I hope these considerations make sense to you. If you want to take the alternative route, please let me know.

Thank you for your service,
Chris

On a request to cancel final exams in a time of pandemic, racist violence, & erosion of democratic norms

There’s a petition going round, asking instructors at my school to cancel finals for our courses, for Black and POC students in particular, or just for everyone, this quarter.

Here’s what I wrote back to the class as a whole.


My friends,

I’ve received a couple of e-mails asking that, in consideration of the pressures students across the country are under – in particular Black and other POC students – I cancel the final exam for this course.

Having seen the same petition on change.org a few days ago, I’ve had some time to think about the question.

I want to tell you, first, I don’t believe in grades. I hate what they do in us, and to us. Grading is a system we’re inducted in from early childhood, before we can say no to it, that tells us our worth can be measured on a scale.

It’s a terrible thing to tell a person. It serves power, not human beings. Your worth is real, beyond measure. You’re perfect, and there’s nothing wrong, nothing missing.

That’s the place I’m coming from. And so if I had my way, I wouldn’t grade you at all, and our time together would be given to free disinterested inquiry, in a space of mutual respect, compassion, and fiery dispute.

However, I don’t teach at Black Mountain College, or Evergreen State. The structure you and I are in, it calls itself Western Washington University, insists I grade you.

And so, I grade, so that I can teach at all. Hoping that as we go I can invite you to some detachment around grading. Hoping I can grade in a way that spurs learning – of the material, and of appreciation for yourself, your own powers, and your peers, their powers.

Any graded assignment in a course of mine is graded so as to aid learning. Actually, the grade is incidental. If the grade motivates you, do it for the grade. If you don’t care what grade you get – and I hope you don’t – do it for the intrinsic interest of the material, out of your own passion for learning, growing, testing yourself.

Coming back (were you worried I might not?) to the request.

The final exam is not for a grade; the grade is only to focus your mind, your effort. The real point of the final is to consolidate your learning. The studying you do for the exam, the work of writing the exam under some pressure, sinks your learning deeper into you. It helps your free, lively, creative engagement with the material stay with you. It helps the course, everything we took on together, last beyond the end of the quarter.

I’m not going to cancel the final. It’s the culmination of the course, where you draw together everything you’ve learned to a single focused light that illuminates – you, to yourself.

Please, please, do not write the final to please or impress me. Write it to show yourself what you got.

Western created the Pass/No Pass option to invite you to this mindset. That’s why I’ve encouraged students to take it. It acknowledges how extraordinary & difficult the moment we’re in is, and should relieve the pressure you may feel to perform.

If you take the P/NP option, all you have to do to pass the final is show up, and tell me your take on the plays. Don’t stress about it. Be easy on yourself, and when it’s time to do it, just do it.

All that said . . . if you truly feel unable to write the final, e-mail me. Use your own language – not a template, someone else’s eloquence. I’ll take you seriously if you do. I can’t just exempt you from the final (would you respect me, or yourself, if I did?) but I will work with you on alternatives. It would probably mean taking an Incomplete, and finishing the course when you feel able to.

Thanks for reading this far. I wanted to take this request seriously, as a measure of what students are going through right now. Ah, well, we all are.

Please do be well,
Chris

“20 Lessons from the 20th Century on How to Survive in Trump’s America”

We are watching a full blown assault on American democracy.

The coronavirus pandemic, which might have seemed to doom Trump to electoral defeat, is providing cover for a renewed attack on democratic norms, practices, institutions, values. Trump has the aid of lackeys in his Cabinet, enablers in Congress, allies he placed in the courts, racist & brutal police forces, and armed paramilitary groups committed to white supremacy & the breakdown of civil society.

Here, because we need it, is Timothy Snyder’s “20 Lessons from the 20th Century on How to Survive in Trump’s America,” as published on November 21, 2016. (It grew into a book which you can get here.) I’ve formatted it to emphasize bits that seem extra salient to me.

If you don’t feel up for marching (no. 10) there are 19 other things here you can do.


Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.  Now is a good time to do so. Here are 20 lessons from across the fearful 20th century, adapted to the circumstances of today.

1. Do not obey in advance.

Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You’ve already done this, haven’t you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.

2. Defend an institution.

Follow the courts or the media, or a court or a newspaper. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you are making them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions don’t protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning.

3. Recall professional ethics.

When the leaders of state set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become much more important. It is hard to break a rule-of-law state without lawyers, and it is hard to have show trials without judges.

4. When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words.

Look out for the expansive use of “terrorism” and “extremism.” Be alive to the fatal notions of “exception” and “emergency.” Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.

5. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.

When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don’t fall for it.

6. Be kind to our language.

Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. (Don’t use the Internet before bed. Charge your gadgets away from your bedroom, and read.) What to read? Perhaps The Power of the Powerless by Václav Havel, 1984 by George Orwell, The Captive Mind by Czesław Milosz, The Rebel by Albert Camus, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, or Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev.

7. Stand out.

Someone has to. It is easy, in words and deeds, to follow along. It can feel strange
to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. And the moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.

8. Believe in truth.

To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

9. Investigate.

Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on your screen is there to harm you. Learn about sites that investigate foreign propaganda pushes.

10. Practice corporeal politics.

Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.

11. Make eye contact and small talk.

This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.

12. Take responsibility for the face of the world.

Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.

13. Hinder the one-party state.

The parties that took over states were once something else. They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their rivals. Vote in local and state elections while you can.

14. Give regularly to good causes, if you can.

Pick a charity and set up autopay. Then you will know that you have made a free choice that is supporting civil society helping others doing something good.

15. Establish a private life.

Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the Internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Authoritarianism works as a blackmail state, looking for the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have too many hooks.

16. Learn from others in other countries.

Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad. The present difficulties here are an element of a general trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports.

17. Watch out for the paramilitaries.

When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and pictures of a Leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-Leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the game is over.

18. Be reflective if you must be armed.

If you carry a weapon in public service, God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no. (If you do not know what this means, contact the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and ask about training in professional ethics.)

19. Be as courageous as you can.

If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die in unfreedom.

20. Be a patriot.

The incoming president is not. Set a good example of what America means for
the generations to come. They will need it.

Letter to Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee uncertain on impeachment

Drafted this today. I plan to send it on Monday to the five Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee who haven’t come out in favour of an impeachment inquiry.*

Of course you’re welcome to steal, part or the whole thing, for a letter of your own. I’d also welcome input. Is it too long? Is there something I missed, or got wrong?


August 5, 2019

Dear Representative _______________:

I am writing to you in your capacity as a member of the House Judiciary Committee to urge you to open an impeachment inquiry into the conduct of President Donald J. Trump.

According to press reports, more than half of Democratic House members – including all but five Democratic members of your Committee – now support opening such an inquiry. My own representative, Rick Larsen, along with every other Democratic Representative from Washington State, has come out in support of an impeachment inquiry. I am writing to you, and other holdout members of your Committee, to beg you to act.

The Constitution gives it to Congress to define “high crimes and misdemeanors.” President Trump’s insults to the body politic, through his venality, incompetence, misogyny, racism, xenophobia, and pathological lying, are beyond counting. But among the documented behaviors that appear to warrant impeachment are:

  • Profiting from the Presidency in violation of the Emoluments clause;
  • Violation of campaign finance laws, as affirmed in sworn Congressional testimony by his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen;
  • Obstruction of justice, evidence for which Special Counsel Robert Mueller has all but said can only be further pursued by Congress through impeachment;
  • Conspiracy with a foreign power to influence an election, evidence for which has not been fully examined because of said obstruction;
  • Advocating violence and giving aid and comfort to domestic hate groups, in violation of his constitutional duties to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” to protect the citizenry against “domestic violence,” and to ensure “the equal protection of the laws”;
  • Abuse of the pardon power, in the case of former Arizona sheriff Joseph Arpaio;
  • Abuse of the powers of the executive branch, in directing law enforcement to persecute political opponents;
  • Efforts to undermine the freedom of the press, through verbal attacks, threats to individual journalists, and threats to change libel laws and revoke licenses;
  • Separation of immigrant families at the US–Mexico border in violation of asylum law, the Due Process clause of the Fifth Amendment, the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment,” and international law.

I am sure the images of children held in cages without access to decent food, proper hygiene, or their own parents have shocked your conscience. Whether or not you agree that these “detention facilities” should be called concentration camps; whether or not it worries you that dehumanization of just this sort has elsewhere been a prelude to ethnic cleansing, or worse – it is a simple and appalling fact that thousands of children have suffered long-term psychological harm by these separations. The practice is a crime against humanity, as the American Federation of Teachers has affirmed.

If a private citizen were treating children this way, he would be tried for kidnapping, child endangerment, and negligent homicide. We have only impeachment as a remedy. Indeed, if this were the only charge against the president, it would be ground enough for impeachment.

I know Democratic leadership worries that a drive to impeach Trump might ensure his re-election. And I agree Trump can’t have a second term. But while your political duty to defeat him in 2020 is an imperative, your constitutional duty to impeach, regardless of the outcome in the Senate, outweighs it. Our system of checks and balances is waiting urgently for the legislative branch to do its job – to say to Trump and his enablers that these abuses of power, this dereliction of duty, cannot stand. The process starts with the Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee.

We have an autocrat in office whose actions threaten our core values as a liberal democracy. It’s on you now to reassert those values with vigor and clarity and without letting up. If you count on the election to remove Trump, when it does, you will have faltered in your duty, and history will not be kinder to you than to the Republican Party, whose moral and intellectual collapse this presidency confirms.

Surely you can find a way to fulfill your constitutional duty and win an election against an historically unpopular president. An impeachment inquiry gives time to assess evidence, build a thoughtful case, and persuade an uncertain public. There are times to listen to public opinion and times to shape it.

Thank you for your kind attention. I look forward to your response. With best wishes,

Sincerely,

Dr. Christopher Patton
Department of English
Western Washington University


New York Times impeachment tracker here. The “support” column grows longer daily.

* The five holdouts are Karen Bass (CA 37), J. Luis Correa (CA 46), Hakeem Jeffries (NY 8), Lucy McBath (GA 6), and Chairman Jerrold Nadler (NY 10).

The bathos of Donald Trump

From an anthology yet to be conceived, The Accidental Wit and Wisdom of  Donald Trump. The subject, climate change. The source, this interview with the Washington Post.

“No. 2”

If you go back
and if you look at articles
they talked about
global freezing.

They talked about
at some point the planets
could have freezed
to death.

Then it’s going to
die of heat exhaustion.
There is movement in
the atmosphere!

There’s no question
as to whether or not it’s
manmade and
whether

or not the effects
that you’re talking
about are there.

I don’t see it.
Not nearly like it is.

With a nod to Pieces of Intelligence: The Existential Poetry of Donald Rumsfeld, by Hart Seely. The image up top is from A. Richard Allen’s homage to Katshushika Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa.

high_res_editorial_a_richard_allen_trump_wave

Read more about it here.

An Anglo-Saxon #metoo?

On a final pass through the proofs for Unlikeness Is Us. The title mistranslates a line from a short lyric, The Wolf, spoken by a female protagonist. There aren’t many such Old English poems. Reading this one today, I was struck by how it sits in #metoo’s penumbra, though it was writ 1,000 years ago. It’s hardly news that our crises are not new. Still, the sudden feeling of historical depth caught me by surprise. Even though I’ve posted this translation before, that bit of vertigo felt meaningful enough to share, with revised commentary, and a few new thoughts appended.

The Wolf

As if one had made the people an offering.
They will receive him if he comes in violence.
        Unlikeness is us.
The wolf is on an island. I am on another.
Mine is secured and surrounded by marsh.
The men on that island are glad at war –
they’ll receive him if he comes in violence.
        Unlikeness is us.
I have borne a wolf on thought’s pathways.
Then it was rainy weather and I sat crying.
When the war-swift one took me in arms,
the joy he gave me, it was that much pain.
Wolf – my Wolf – thoughts of you
sicken me. How seldom you come
makes me anxious, not my hunger.
Listen, onlooker, to our miserable whelp
        a wolf bears to woods.
Easy to part what was never joined;
        our song together.

The Wolf

Lēodum is mīnum swylce him mon lāc° gife.
Willað hȳ hine āþecgan° gif hē on þrēat cymeð.
        Ungelīc is ūs.° ⬩
Wulf is on īege, ic on ōþerre.
Faest is þæt ēglond, fenne biworpen.                                   (5)
Sindon wælrēowe weras þǣr on īge;
willað hȳ hine āþecgan gif hē on þrēat cymeð.
        Ungelīce is ūs.
Wulfes ic mīnes wīdlāstum wēnum dogode°.
Þonne hit wæs rēnig weder &ic rēotugu sæt. ⬩                                   (10)
Þonne mec se beaducāfa bōgum bilegde,
wæs mē wyn tō þon, wæs mē hwæþre ēac lāð. ⬩
Wulf, mīn Wulf, wēna mē þīne ⬩°
sēoce gedydon, þīne seldcymas,
murnende mōd, nales metelīste.                                   (15)
Gehȳrest þū, ēad wacer°? Uncerne earmne hwelp
        bireð° wulf° tō wuda.
Þæt mon ēaþe tōslīteð þætte nǣfre gesomnad wæs,°
        uncer° giedd geador. ⬩ :⁊

Commentary

More commonly Wulf and Eadwacer. A woman speaks. She’s pregnant and her people are hostile to the father of the child. Not much else is settled about the poem. Wulf may be a raider from another clan; is their encounter a rape, as has often been thought? Her longing for him is tortured but I don’t hear that sort of wrong in the past of it. Something more mutual then. Still, though, the poem is riven with her ambivalence; she wants him to come, wants him never to have come; and the doubleness in her thought sickens her.

That ambivalence streaks the poem with ambiguities. A refrain, Ungelīc is ūs, as odd in composition and placement as Stein’s “The difference is spreading.” A female speaker whose relation to her culture’s masculine warrior ethos is intimate but aslant and has, for us, only a few interpretive helpmates in the AS corpus – primarily Her Case, a poem as obscure in its own ways. Verbs that appear rarely or nowhere else and must be defined in a context almost as unprecedented as they are. A scribal practice that leaves names uncapitalized, making it difficult to discern person from animal from epithet. When is wulf a wolf and when is it her Wulf? And an oral tradition, contemporaneous or not long past, in which the spoken “wulf” could function without trouble as both. The scribe, following his lowercase practice, could preserve the ambiguity, but these days an editor has to choose.

Unlike most, I take ead wacer as an epithet, not a name, removing the third party usually thought involved – a jealous husband, Eadwacer, ready to avenge himself on the raider Wulf. Dramatically, that’s one extra, a late entry throwing off an otherwise finely balanced poem. Her people and her own mind, and Wulf too sort of, are opponents enough. A few other readers have also doubted this third party; Marsden suggests reading the compound as an epithet for Wulf himself, “joy guardian.” I go back and forth between “overseer” and “onlooker,” and end up choosing the latter because it hints at a break in the frame, an address to reader or auditor. That the speaker might assay such a move, moves me.

By this reading, which I admit is extravagant, ead wacer is the one who gehyreþ the spoken poem, the wacer of the written poem – you, dear lecteur, and I. It’s not that we’re her imprisoner, exactly, but consider, if we weren’t here, she wouldn’t be either. She’s hurt into a consciousness so sharp it rends the fabric that gives it voice – tears the air or page that binds her to, even as it divides her from, her only interlocutor, us. Many of the poems here perform like ruptures deliberately, either by addressing the reader directly – riddle poems that invite you to name their subject; maxim sequences demanding you speak from your heart – or by pointing in code, as the runes in His Message may, to the very surface they’re inscribed on. And why should the woman speaking here not tear the fabric her poem is made of? It may feel like her only way out.


That commentary done before the hashtag dawned. A few addenda –

Her cry against him isn’t, You violated me, or That was against my will, but more, This is the unlivable position I’m in now, thanks to you and our peoples. In directing to him a cry against more than him, she captures something about the complicity of an individual in a collective harm.

She first expresses concern for his wellbeing, only then for her own, and their unborn child’s. That her concern unfolds in that order is part of her predicament, and she and the poem both know it.

The power asymmetries between men and women in her culture mean that, while their circumstance may be fatal for both (all three) of them, he at least gets some agency. If he dies it was his choice to show up. All she gets to do is sit and grieve and await her fate.

She makes sitting, grieving, waiting, and articulating that, the work of resistance, and summons a force strong enough to rupture the frame.

The pathos of the poem then is that her resistance is at once minuscule and total.


Notes

1     lāc. “Offering” or “gift,” especially in a ritual sense. A sacrifice; in some contexts a message.

2     āþecgan. The verb appears to mean “to receive” in the sense of food, but with a suggestion of killing, destruction, consumption (Muir 571).

3     Ungelīc is ūs. Either “(it) is different (between) us” or “(it) is different (with) us.” It’s ambiguous whether the gulf has opened between the speaker and Wulf, or between those two and the speaker’s people.

9     dogode. Possibly the past tense of an otherwise unrecorded dogian, meaning something like “to suffer” or “to follow,” maybe here in imagination (Marsden 337). Some amend to hogode, past tense of hogian, “to consider, to dwell upon” (Muir 571–72). My translation draws on both senses.

13    The punctum marks the end of folio 100v.

16    ēad wacer. Most take it as a proper name. Ēad “riches, prosperity, joy, property” + wacer “watcher.” Eadwacer, a possessive spouse and enemy to Wulf. However, because the scribe doesn’t use capital letters to distinguish names, the compound can be taken as an epithet; Marsden (338) suggests “joy guardian,” for Wulf. I hear near the core of the phrase a sense of being thronged by eyes all round. Where “onlooker” downplays the possessiveness in the compound, “overseer,” also possible, would emphasize it. Note that she calls on the watcher not to see but to hear. She will rip him if she can out of his crowning sense function.

17    bireð. “Bears.” Since OE lacks a distinct future tense, this can be read either as a present event or as anticipation of what’s to come. ¶ wulf. It’s ambiguous whether she’s crying wolf here or naming her Wolf.

18    Þæt mon ēaþe tōslīteð | þætte nǣfre gesomnad wæs. “The man easily tears apart what was never joined.” The line doesn’t alliterate. Muir: “[It] has the ring of a gnomic utterance, and may well be an Anglo-Saxon rendering of the biblical ‘Quod ergo Deus coniunxit, homo non separet’ [Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate] (Matt. 19:6), which might account for its not following an accepted alliterative pattern” (572).

19    Uncer. First-person dual genitive – “of us two.” Ours as in yours and mine.

Minor emendations. 16 earmne MS earne.

“Poets Mistake Non-Poet for Fish in Barrel, Open Fire.”

Here is a bad bit of light verse published in this morning’s New York Times:

Screen Shot 2018-09-03 at 11.16.08 AM

Here is the Facebook pile-on by poets, some nationally renowned, that ensued. We rose up to defend the shade of John Ashbery and the immortal values of poetry:

FB pile-on

It goes on much longer. An umbrage orgy. Here’s why it’s embarrassing for us and for poetry:

Screen Shot 2018-09-03 at 10.35.22 AM

It was the NYT opening its pages to an ordinary reader. A non-specialist.

No one (including, at first, me) thought to check – everyone just leapt at the chance to pummel this light verster into submission to our post-modernity. It’s high-minded bullying. How are poets going to be critics of the culture if we succumb this easily to its ugliest temptations?


P.S. And here, of course, am I, doing meta-umbrage, its own temptation.

 

America again

And now our government has made the abandonment of children an instrument of policy and a means of gaining political leverage. As if those children had not already had more bravery asked of them than most of our leaders have ever shown.

Exhibit A: toddlers in wire cages with no idea where their mothers or fathers are.

Exhibit B: bone spurs.

On and off all day today, listening to the radio as I weeded the patio, made some lunch, napped through a migraine, tears of anger and grief for these kids, also for the men and women they’ll become. They’ll carry the injuries, many of them in silence probably, all their lives.

I don’t get to say “not my president.” I’ve never thought I do, I belong to the body that elected him and am part of this unconscionable mess, I’m implicated, we all are.

I’m appalled to be an American. “Make America Great Again.” You assholes.

I made a bumper sticker – see top of post. In Bellingham, where I live, it’s how you change the world. Want one? Contact me (leave a comment, or through FB) and I’ll send you one. It’s on me.

“Constructions of Whiteness”

Next week I’m moderating a reading and discussion called “Constructions of Whiteness” with the brilliant and talented poets Stephanie Bolster and Barbara Nickel at the Canadian Writers Summit in Toronto. What little I mean to say by way of introduction, follows.


Hello, and welcome to our reading and discussion, “Constructions of Whiteness.” Before we say more we should say that we are meeting on traditional indigenous territory of the Mississaugas of the New Credit. Land also with a deep history of use and care by the Haudenosaunee and the Huron-Wendat nations. We are grateful to be able to gather here.

I’m not going to say much by way of introduction. Just that we have taken as our starting point, as invitation and provocation, a passage from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me.

[R]ace is the child of racism, not the father…. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.

These new people are, like us, a modern invention. But unlike us, their new name has no real meaning divorced from the machinery of criminal power. The new people were something else before they were white—Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish—and if all our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again.

But for now, it must be said that the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.

—Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (2015)

He’s talking about his son’s body and his own there, and the African-American body more generally, and the American body politic, including American whiteness, and we’re here in Canada, and our national experience is different. But maybe not altogether different. We each, the three of us, Stephanie Bolster, Barbara Nickel, and myself, Christopher Patton, want to share with you projects that examine the invention of whiteness, its construction, and some of its attendant destructions, examine them in ways we hope are morally alert, if fallible.

I’ll read first, followed by Barb, then Steph, with some time for discussion after. Each reader will introduce the next one, though since I’m going first, I’ll introduce myself, even if it feels a bit weird.


Curious to hear more? If you’re attending the CWS, join us in Toronto!

Saturday, June 16
2:00–3:15
Loft 1, Harbourfront Centre