death

I’m back, but I’m sad

When I blogged about conscious consumption on June 7th, I planned on blogging weekly from then on.

Then, on June 12th, a man killed 49 people and injured 50+ more at a gay night club in Orlando. I cried, I tweeted and retweeted, I devoured reports about the lives of the victims, I walked in the St. Pete Pride Parade, I donated some money. I looked up my congresspeople and representatives and made phone calls, sent emails urging for gun control. Mostly, however, I felt depressed and helpless, as I often do in these situations (See “People Die Every Day” and “On Ferguson”).

In early July, I watched the video of Alton Sterling being shot by police while he was pinned face-down to the ground. A day later, I watched video of Philando Castile immediately after he’d been shot by a police officer while he sat in the passenger seat of his girlfriend’s car. The blood was so bright red and his girlfriend so level headed, it took me a minute to recognize the video was real.

There have been more deaths. I watched video of the shooting at a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas, a shooting that resulted in the death of several police officers. I’ve been limiting the attention I pay to all of this violence because it wears on me and sometimes pushes me into depression, but I couldn’t help but see that Charles Kinsey, a man who works one-on-one with an autistic man, was shot by police in front of the person he cares for while sitting on the ground with his hands up in North Miami.

More recently, Chicago police shot and killed teenager Laquan McDonald while he was walking down the street. Even more recently, they killed teenager Paul O’Neal. The United States has a lot of problems, and it has become undeniable that the police are one of them. The police-caused deaths we hear about in the news are only a small slice of the deaths that are actually happening–check the Washington Post’s Fatal Force database to see that the police kill people every day.

I am not writing this post to argue for any particular answer or solution, although I, like many people, have some ideas. Essentially, I want to start blogging again, and I wouldn’t feel right doing so without acknowledging what’s been happening. Even though this violence is difficult and heavy, I believe all Americans need to continue facing it and continue speaking up about it. It hurts. It’s depressing. Feeling that hurt, pain, and sadness is what will push us to demand change. No matter how much I want to descend into my own little cocoon, I will not look away.

We need police reform immediately. We needed it years ago. Having police forces mirror the demographics of the communities they serve would be a start. (Clearly this issue disproportionately affects Americans based on race and class.) Or, better yet, require police to be from the communities they serve. Body and dash cameras would be another start. To paraphrase the tweets of many–this isn’t a new problem; we’re just now finding out the extent of it because it’s being recorded. I hope never to find myself in one of these situations live, but if I do, I know to record the police. It seems to be the main thing driving change.

In response to the other shootings–the Pulse shooting, the shootings in movie theatres, schools, etc.–I have become firmly pro-gun control. I used to not care much about the issue. I have relatives who hunt for food and sport, and friends who own hand guns for protection and target shooting. I’ve shot guns before and found it enjoyable, and I know there can be such a thing as responsible gun ownership. Still, things are absolutely out of control. It should not be easier to get a gun than to get a driver’s license. People should most definitely be required to have background checks, psychological tests, and educational training before they can own guns. Also, military grade guns should be illegal, bottom line. There’s no justifiable reason for them whatsoever.

This New York Times article shows just how uncommon gun deaths are in other countries, really emphasizing that this is not an uncontrollable issue. In Poland and England, a person’s chance of dying from a gun is equal to an American’s chance of dying by falling off a ladder. In Japan, a person’s chance of dying from a gun is equal to an American’s chance of dying after being struck by lightning. The massive rate of gun deaths in the US is a direct result of pro-gun culture and public policy. Other countries–many other countries–are not experiencing the same gun violence crisis.

Again, I have no nice and easy clear answer. I will be blogging again–hopefully at least weekly, but ideally more often. Most of my posts should be happier than this one, but as long as this level of violence is occurring in the US, I will keep facing it and using what I have, which is generally writing, to push back against it, to say it’s not okay, to make it clear that this is not the country I want to live in, that we as Americans are better than this, we can do better, we can turn things around, we can foster a space where people coexist peacefully, we can create a place that doesn’t involve a constant turning to violence to resolve problems or express difficult emotions.

 

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death, fear, Florida, health, personal growth, places, writing

When Tony Pierce tells you to blog, you do it.

florida foliageIf you don’t know who Tony Pierce is, click this link, look around, and come back. I’ll wait.

The other day Tony, or as I like to call him, “The Blogfather,” pointed out that entering an MFA program has slowed down my blogging. Where do I start?

Tony, you remember my old blog posts from 10 years ago? Five years ago? You were there, you read them. You know I used to (figuratively) cut myself open, reveal everything. It was cathartic. It was terrifying. It probably helped some readers, and it definitely helped me. Writing as therapy.

It was also the reason I deleted my old blogs–I didn’t want to be indefinitely raw and exposed like that. I didn’t like finding out friends, family, and acquaintances read about the most personal parts of my life and gossipped. I didn’t like suspecting that guys who were super into me then suddenly not might’ve changed their minds after realizing how much I put online.

To me, personal blogging has always been similar to when a close friend pulls you aside and says, “C’mon, it’s me. Tell me what’s really going on.” When I open up a draft post on my personal blog, I want to let it all out. So yeah Tony, school has kept me busy, but it hasn’t slowed down my blogging. The reason I haven’t blogged is because I know what I’d want to tell you if I started writing.

mushrooms

I’d want to tell you that, while I don’t regret moving from Illinois to Florida or entering an MFA program, it has been very difficult. First, one of my parents needed treatment for a brain tumor and I felt awful being away during that. So awful. Then my grandfather got sick. I missed my opportunity to see him before he died because I was here, in Florida, writing and studying. I don’t know that it was worth it. Right now, my other parent is dealing with a rare and dangerous blood and spine infection. It is improving, but again it’s hard for me to be across the country, unable to help.

Sometimes being in Florida to study and practice writing feels really dumb and selfish of me, and if I were going to give it to you straight, I’d end up telling you that.

I’d also want to tell you that eight people I know in Illinois (not including my grandfather) have died of various causes since I left and that it weighs on me. The deaths are unconnected, but it feels so strange–why so many, in such a short amount of time? Is that just part of getting older–each month someone else you knew dies? These are eight people I wasn’t terribly close with–old friends I lost touch with after moving, acquaintances I used to see around at shows, former classmates, close friends’ family members I’d met a few times.

bougainvilleaI’d want to tell you I feel sad about these deaths and think of them often. I’d want to tell you I also feel guilty about feeling sad, as if I didn’t know the deceased well enough to deserve to grieve. I’d want to tell you I feel shitty for blogging about them right now, that I don’t want to make other people’s tragedies about me.

I’d want to tell you that I’m dealing with health issues. That the symptoms feel like a moving target. That I’m doing my best to stay calm and optimistic while I try to yet again figure out what the fuck my body is doing. I’d want to tell you that I’m suffering and afraid. I’d want to tell you that I feel very alone in my pain and fear.

I’d want to tell you that I found out I can’t take out any more student loans because I already have a masters degree–it turns out the federal government will only help pay for the first one. I’d want to tell you that this means I have no clue how I’m going to get through the next two years. Despite being thirty-four years old, I do not have significant savings. I’d want to explain that a “funded” graduate program isn’t really, not unless you can live off of about $1,000/month. My expenses exceed that and I do not yet know what is going to make up the difference.

palm trees

I’d want to tell you that I’m becoming disillusioned with academia. That while I’m grateful for all I’m learning, I’m realizing the system is deeply unfair. I’d want to tell you about the day I saw a flyer at Aldi and realized that grocery store assistant managers make more money than many full-time college instructors.

I’d want to tell you that promoting beer pays me twice as much as teaching undergraduate writing courses pays me. I’d want to point out that college sports coaches are the highest paid public officials in many states. I’d want to write potentially melodramatic things such as, “What is wrong with America?”

I’d want to assure you that, despite all of my woes and worries, life isn’t all bad. I’d want to show you photos of Florida foliage and tell you even a short walk resets my mood, leaves me marvelling at nature.

I’d want to tell you that I love instagram, and even though that sounds cheesy or basic or whatever, it has become a bright part of my day. I’d want to tell you that I’ve decided to, for real this time, buy a nice DSLR camera whenever I can afford it. That even though I can’t afford it now, my iphone is a substitute and I enjoy taking photos and thinking about photos I will take in the future.

I’d want to tell you that I go to the gym every day now and it’s become a surprising source of strength and calm for me. I’d want to admit that for the first thirty minutes or so after walking in the door I feel anxious, want to leave, and think some variation of “I don’t belong here and everyone can tell.”

pink puff ball flower

I’d want to tell you that I notice those thoughts and feelings, keep exercising anyway, and feel amazing by the time I’m done. I’d want to try and make that into some sort of metaphor for life. I’d want to express hope that if I just keep on moving through difficult times and do not waver in my commitments that I will ultimately be rewarded with feelings of security and peace.

I’d want to tell you that I’ve made two really great friends down here, and that we’ve started a lit mag and a live lit event. I’d want to tell you that I have crazy, incredible daydreams in which I can eschew an academic career by growing one or both of these two things into a business.

I’d want to tell you that I’m still working on my novel, and that it’s horrible, but that’s okay. I’m plugging away and still telling myself I’ll finish it this summer. I’d want to tell you that I’m equal parts proud and embarrassed of it. I’d want to tell you that writing it might be the most challenging and exciting thing I’ve done in my life.

I’d want to tell you that I have over fifteen finished pieces of shorter writing and that I am submitting like crazy. I’d want to tell you that even though I’ve only received rejections so far, I don’t plan on stopping. After years of not believing in my writing ability, I finally have faith in myself.

brussels griffon

I’d want to tell you that my dog is awesome and that I’m not embarrassed to say he’s my best friend.

I’d want to tell you that music is a beautiful panacea. I might try to get you to listen to Surf, if you haven’t already. I’d want to remind you that the right Apocalypse Hoboken song can help when dealing with unpleasant emotions.

I’d want to talk about TV and say I get it now, I’m sorry I was an “I-don’t-watch-TV” type of snob a few years ago. That Bojack Horseman and Broad City and Inside Amy Schumer and Orange Is The New Black make my life feel richer.

I’d want to tell you that while things don’t always feel okay, I know that they will be, or that they already are, even when they aren’t. I’d want you to know that I’d know I was mostly writing that for myself.

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death, education, internet, police, race, society, teaching, twitter

On Ferguson

Along with much of the country, I’ve followed the aftermath of police officer Darren Wilson’s killing of 18-year-old Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri for the past few months. Through this, I became more aware of institutionalized racism in the US, particularly where it overlaps with police brutality and the militarization of police forces. I was already aware of these issues to an extent, but really had no clue how often the injustices lead to death, specifically the death of Black men. The Guardian article comparing lynchings of years past to police killings today was one of many that opened my eyes.

As is usually true when I turn my attention toward death, I’ve felt helpless as I’ve watched the scene in Ferguson unfold and learned more about similar incidents happening all over the United States. I’ve wondered what I could do. Thanks to twitter, I found three concrete things:

1. Donate to the Ferguson Library.

I learned about the Ferguson Municipal Public Library fundraising effort via Ashley Ford. The Ferguson Library’s website has a donation button in the upper right corner of the front page. They received around $300,000 in donations last week, which exceeds their yearly budget. They might hire a second full-time librarian as a result. They stayed open when the local public schools closed as a result of unrest and they host many community events. Although I did not have very much money to give, I felt good supporting this community institution. I believe in the transformative power of reading and writing, and donating to a library is a way to translate that belief into action.

2. Talk about Ferguson in my classroom.

I learned about #FergusonSyllabus via David M. Perry, who wrote an article calling upon academics to use the lenses of their disciplines to analyze Ferguson-related texts such as Darren Wilson’s testimony in the classroom. Next semester I am teaching a composition course focused on rhetorical analysis of public campaigns so this will fit in perfectly. I originally wanted to use local social issues as examples in the class so I might choose a police brutality case from Florida to focus in on instead, but the conversation will be similar and I can easily relate it to the Mike Brown killing as well.

The challenge here will be approaching this as objectively as possible. Clearly I have strong opinions on police brutality in the US right now–I will not share them outright in the classroom and I don’t want them to become immediately obvious to my students through the structure of my lessons. The purpose will be for them to think critically about the rhetoric used by all of the involved parties, engage in dialogue about it, and draw their own conclusions, which could very well end up being different than my own. Maybe I will share what I come up with on this blog as I develop course objectives and create my lesson plans.

3. Start conversations with people. Write a blog post.

I follow many writers on twitter and several of them wrote about Ferguson. I am often awed by Roxane Gay’s writings on current events, and her response to Ferguson was no exception. She is consistently eloquent and moving, putting forth honest, raw emotion that only bolsters her often strong and logical arguments. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article on Obama’s official response to the Darren Wilson non-indictment is another one that got me thinking more deeply about the issue.

At first I hesitated to write about Ferguson. It’s a blatantly racially-charged situation and I’m White. Also, I don’t have a journalism background or regularly write about current events. I worried I’d mess it all up and look both racist and stupid (or, perhaps worse, faux-enlightened and arrogant). Then I realized that allowing my self-conscious fears to determine my action (or inaction) would be the ultimate selfish, ego-driven act. This tragic event–one of many in a nationwide pattern of similar events–is not about me.

We currently live in a society where White police kill Black citizens once every few days and face few or no repercussions. It isn’t okay. It is systemic, institutionalized violence and murder. To recognize that and remain silent is to assent to this system of injustice. Although my initial responses to Ferguson were sadness and helplessness, I will not allow those to lead to complacency or inaction. The three things I’m doing about this issue might be small, but they are the actions available to me.

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death, fear, media, personal growth

People die every day.

People die every day. Every single day. People are dying right now. Lots of them.

Some of them are 85 and older but some aren’t. Some are in the United States–your state or city even–but some aren’t. Some maybe played a part in their death, like they got drunk before they drove, or they joined a gang, or they smoked cigarettes for 20 years, or they dragged a razor against their wrist. Some didn’t play a part in it, like they were a baby who drowned in the bathtub because they didn’t even know what a bathtub was and their parents walked away for too long, or they were painting a building and the faulty ladder collapsed, or they were celebrating at a wedding in Yemen and the United States government murdered them with a robot.

How’s that song go? Six million ways to die: choose one.

If you do the math, which I did, about 33,000 people die per day throughout the world and 6,700 people die per day in the United States.

I’ve gotten better at watching and accepting the news without becoming worked up. I’m getting better, maybe I should say. I’m still working on it. Life includes horrible, terrible things, like constant death, more deaths than we can comprehend. About 23 deaths happen per minute. After I opened this browser window, I spaced out for 10 minutes thinking about what I wanted to write. Over 200 people probably died during that time. Death is upsetting. I will probably never not be upset by it, but I can at least accept that it happens and that it upsets me.

I no longer feel confused about the fact of death. Sure, I’ll never truly “get” it, but that’s because I’m not God. I accept that deaths happen. I accept that they won’t stop happening. I accept that I’ll never fully comprehend it. In my teenage years, I didn’t have this acceptance. I was obsessed with the concept. I desperately wanted to understand why. Not any more. I accept that I cannot know.

What I don’t “get,” what I’m stuck on now, what I hope I can start to see more clearly, is, with so many deaths, how do we pick? Which deaths matter? How do we decide? Which deaths are the most sad? Which are unfair? Which are tragedies? Which should make national or international news? Which ones deserve our attention, and which do not? Which should we rally around and have conversations about? Which type of death should we work the hardest to prevent from recurring? At a societal level and at an individual level, when to respond and when to ignore death?

I read Elliot Rodger’s autobiography. I felt sad for him. Maybe it’s because he was a decent writer and I relate to writers. Maybe it’s because I generally empathize with loners and outcasts. Maybe it’s because he was clearly an unreliable narrator, clearly delusional, and I could see his mistakes happening in slow motion throughout his story, but I knew it was too late for me or anyone to try and intervene. I didn’t pick these emotions; they just popped up. I noticed them, though. I accept them.

Rodger killed and died because of almost entirely imaginary rejection. He was convinced women were repulsed by him, but he had never so much as said “hi” to one that he liked. I felt sad that he dealt with that anger and loneliness. I felt sad that his anger and delusion drove him to such an extreme. I felt sad that his life ended so early. I felt a sad, deep sense of loss while reading that he toyed with the idea of becoming a writer. When I read that his mom had encouraged it as a career path, I saw a glimmer of hope, a salvation he had nearly grabbed, but let slip through his fingers. Writing is transcendent. I felt sad he got stuck in his own obsessions, and wasn’t able to use writing to overcome them, to gain clarity, to see them for what they were.

Which deaths matter? I’ve seen many people write that they’re glad Elliot died. I’m not. I don’t agree with what he did, of course. You might think it’s foolish, but I don’t know I can honestly say I’m glad about anyone having died, ever. I’m sure some deaths throughout history have been for a greater good, but even typing the beginning of that sentence puts a bad taste in my mouth. I mourn for the friends and families of Elliot’s victims. Still, I don’t think his death is any less sad than the deaths he caused. Yes, even though he chose his death. Even though, according to many, he “deserved” it. It’s still sad. It’s all sad. Death, itself, is sad.

Were the seven deaths that occurred in Isla Vista more sad than the ~33,000 other deaths that happened across the planet that same day?  More sad than the ~6,700 deaths that happened in the US? They certainly garnered more air time. Who chooses? Who gets to pick? We seem to agree that when the elderly die, it isn’t as sad or important because it’s more expected. Plus it seems more fair–they were given a chance to have their way with life. But even excluding the elderly, there are still thousands of deaths per day. How many deaths can we hold in our attention at once? How many should we hold? How do we pick which ones matter?

Like I wrote earlier, I’m getting better at watching, at accepting. I see waves of outrage and despair. I see raw, expanding, uncontrolled emotion. Sometimes I feel it in myself, but then I stop and look at it. I try to figure out how it got there. Why am I outraged about this death, and not the thousands of others? Generally, the answer is that it’s because I know about this death. I’ve heard details. I can fairly easily imagine either the life of the victim or of the mourning loved ones.

I don’t want to call the outrage and despair “manufactured.” These are emotions that feel awful and real, in response to events that are terrible. Who am I to trivialize them? Still, when there are 33,000 deaths a day and large groups of people are all blinded by anger over the same six, I’m suspicious. Who picked which deaths people were supposed to feel sad about that day? Could it have just as easily been different deaths?

How does the media choose which deaths to emphasize and run detail after detail about? Am I a cynic to think they choose the deaths that involve the largest spectacle, or are the most novel? Am I a cynic to think they choose the deaths with the story attached that is most easy for their audience to understand? Am I a cynic to think they choose the deaths that are most likely to rile people up and get them angry, ensuring they’ll watch, click, comment, and share?

Am I insensitive to say that, in the whole scheme of things, if we’re sorting deaths by importance, which we are by necessity because of the sheer number of them, that I think the Elliot Rodger mass shooting-related deaths were probably some of the least important that occurred that week, and least worthy of our mass amounts of attention? I fell into it, too. I watched his videos. I read 138 pages of his writing. I got caught up in it. Only later did I realize it wasn’t a good use of my time or attention.

About 100 people die per day in car crashes in the US. That’s much more important to me than mass shootings because it’s more likely to negatively impact me or someone I love. Even if I view it unselfishly and objectively, car crashes are still more important because they’re more likely to affect anyone. It seems logical to focus most on the deaths that are frequent and most preventable. Car crashes get my vote. Connect them as a trend. Market them as an overwhelming tragedy deserving of our attention. Talk about them in connection to one another on the news in grave voices night after night until something is done.

Car crashes don’t have a simple story line, however. They’re not very sensational. The American public watches psychological thrillers and murder mystery shows, not shows about how to build safer cars, write policy that reduces drunk driving, or create more widely used transit systems. The mass shooting deaths follow a story line that we’ve seen before, feel familiar with, and, in some perverse sense, have fun trying to solve. In the past week I’ve read literally dozens of articles, blog posts, and tweets of people who believe they’ve figured out the six Elliot Rodger murders and know how they could’ve been prevented. I’ve even shared my two cents in conversations with friends. I haven’t seen anyone in the past week, however, comment on how we as a society should handle the probable 1,200 car crash deaths that have happened since the day of the shooting.

Or maybe it isn’t the lack of a catchy story. Maybe it’s big oil. Maybe it’s the car manufacturers. Who owns the media? What stake do they have in an auto-centric society? How involved are they with government, and in what way? I’m not sure. Thinking about it makes me feel sadder, and tired. Who chooses which deaths are important? Not us, I don’t think. Not the ones feeling the outrage and despair. Not usually. People with more power.

Several mass shootings have occurred in Chicago recently. Why aren’t those stories sweeping the nation? Murders happen in Chicago neighborhoods way more than they do on college campuses. Wouldn’t it be most beneficial to use our time and effort trying to solve that problem? Maybe there’s silence because of the unspoken social agreement that deaths are less important when they happen to people who “deserve” them. Maybe the American public can’t find clear cut “good guys” and “bad guys” in the Chicago murders. Does a gang banger deserve to die? Does a drug dealer? Because of racism, is the American public fuzzy on which of these Black deaths are “innocent” and which aren’t? Everyone knows the blonde, teenage sorority sister was innocent, and that the narcissistic sociopath who daydreamed about forcing all women to starve in concentration camps was not. That mass shooting was clearer cut, easier to understand.

Confession: I don’t have a conclusion. I don’t know where I’m going with this. I’m not building up to “the answer.” I’m muddling along. I’m thinking about all of the people our federal government is killing with drones and I’m feeling sad, then I’m looking around and not seeing many others feeling sad for that reason and as a result I’m feeling isolated. Which lives matter? Which deaths are important? Who gets to pick? What constitutes “news?”

Maybe the slightly sick feeling I have is because I’m so averse to manipulation. Maybe I can’t stand knowing that these corporate media outlets play such a big role in dictating what we talk about and think about on a day-to-day basis. Maybe part of my sadness lies in looking around and realizing that so many others, even intelligent others, don’t seem to notice this regular cycle of manipulation of thoughts and emotions. Maybe part of my anger and frustration is with myself for not having cracked the code yet, for not having figured it out. Who chooses which deaths are important? How do they pick? What are their motives? Could more deaths be prevented if different stories were run? Could our wars end? What are we sacrificing as a society by giving away our attention, by trusting that the stories we see on TV and the internet most often are the most important?

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