Permanent Jellyfish Blues

There is an a species of immortal jellyfish out there in the far-flung depths of the ocean (Turritopsis dohrnii).  I don’t mean it’s immortal in an allegorical sense, like “your fifth studio album was amazing, MC Jellyfish, it’ll make you immortal in the world of hiphop” or “Jellyfish, your pitching performance in game five of the World Series will immortalise you in Cleveland Guardians history.”  No, I’m far too sober to make allegories right now.  I mean it literally: the damn jellyfish is immortal.  If nothing eats it (their predators are turtles and Cantonese restaurants) then it can just… go on living… forever.  It’s really rare, but it’s still an amazing critter to learn about.

***

When the new year turned a few hours ago, we were in our apartment here in Barcelona.  This is the first time in about 42 years that I’ve spent the new year in a country other than the US, which is absolutely not an interesting fact.  What is slightly more interesting is that, given my age of 43 years, I am likely more than halfway through my natural life.  I mean, I hope not, I hope I stick around for a long long time as a burden to society and to see my enemies buried before me, but the actuarial tables say otherwise. What is *really* interesting, at least to me, is that I’m totally cool with being middle aged.

I always thought I would dread my middle years; every sitcom and Dave Barry book I ever read said that I would experience crisis upon crisis, and holy moly were they wrong.  I go through emotional crises all the time, mind you, but the thing is that I’ve been having them since I was like 13, so middle ages have been nothing new.  In fact, I have a LOT fewer crises now, and the sudden drop in crises lately is surprising.  

I used to live in an apartment building where the two people next door (brother/sister?  married couple?  pair of parrots? I have no idea) would yell at each other almost every day about the TV shows they were watching.  One weekend they were quiet for about three days straight, I got really really concerned and went and knocked on the door.  Turns out they bought headphones for each of them and now they watch different shows in silence.  Anyway.  That’s what this feels like to me, having a vastly reduced amount of angst: its like the neighbours in my head are quiet.

My wife and I talked about it, and there are probably a number of causes for this internal relative calm: 

1) an increased sense of peace about who I am stemming from personal growth and a loving family life, 

2) drugs, 

3) age-related memory loss of any angst or self-esteem issues, 4) legal drugs, 

5) a recent ADHD diagnosis which just makes EVERYTHING MAKES SENSE NOW HOLY CRAP THATS WHY I AM THE WAY I AM, 

6) the cafe next door makes that sandwich I like.

***

The way the immortal jellyfish works is that, during their life, they alternate between two phases, a polyp and a medusa phase.  The polyp phase is where they stay rooted to the ocean floor, like a coral or an anemone.  The medusa phase is what most jellyfish you think are are in, they float around in the water column eating smaller sea creatures or, on Level 1-2, Mario and Luigi.  

In fact, jellyfish and corals are all Cnidarians, a phylum of goopy animals where none of them have spines or faces or credit scores or anything.  They’re all basically waterlogged grocery bags that are either filled with rocks (corals) or spicy needles (jellyfish).  Most Cnidarians start off swimming around in the water column when their parents squirt them and their thousand of siblings into the ocean, but then each species kind of picks a lane, Polyp or Medusa, and then they’re like that for the rest of their lives. They either pick a spot and buy some real estate for cash (no credit score for a mortgage, remember) or they roam the earth like David Carradine and the Incredible Hulk.  

That’s where the immortal jellyfish comes in: they spend some type in the polyp stage, then, when the environmental cues change in certain ways, they cut their roots and drift in the ocean for a while.  When they find a good spot, they anchor again.  Ad nauseam, Ad infinitum, until they’re eaten or the world ends.  

***

Back in Chicago, we bought a two bedroom condo near the kids school, and, for all intents and purposes, probably looked like we were settling down for a long while.  The truth, though, is that we’d been hoping to live out of the country for a bit, and when we saw a chance to move to Barcelona with our current jobs, we grabbed it.  Our plan is to move back to Chicago after a few years out here, polyp/medusa/polyp.

We’ve become, in our mortal and warm-blooded way, a reflection of the immortal jellyfish.  And, when I stop and think about it, this isn’t just our family: I think this applies to most folks, at least sometimes.  All of us on this side of heaven are continuously pulling up stakes and moving when the environment requires it.  Job change, marriage, divorce, war, flood, school admissions, political crackdowns, all these environmental perturbations knock us out of our comfort zone and make our secure footholds seem less secure that we previously thought.  The polyp sometimes looks around and says to herself, “I better medusa the hell out of this situation.”  And the medusa looks around sometimes and says, “this place seems like a good spot to rest and stretch my legs for a little while.”

Maybe that’s why it feels ok being middle aged; I’m more comfortable with either where I’m at or who I am.  For those of us confronting the realisation that we’re on the other side of the inflection point of a lifetime, it is easier to handle the medusa phase, to be jostled by politics and expenses and work and unemployment, if one is emotionally in polyp phase, if one can be more at peace with the imperfect, mortal, human beings that we are.  Like the Cnidarians, we’re just water-logged bags of bones and anxiety, and I find myself to be more at peace the more comfortable I am with that fact.

***

In the first paragraph, I told a lie. I said that the immortal jellyfish are rare, that they are found in the deep depths of the ocean. That’s not true: they’re everywhere.  They’ve spread all over the world, via the circulation of the ocean and as stowaways in ship ballast tanks.  Everyone of us, emotionally and physically, is swinging between polyp and medusa phase, for all our lives, and either we notice that we are doing it, or the jellyfish jsut hide in our own mental ballast tanks.  

 I hope you and yours have a wonderful 2022.  I hope that you find deep roots when you can grow and be safe and warm.  If, instead, you need to change where or who you are, then I hope that your road is bright and the wind is at your back.  And I hope, whatever stage of life you are in, that you know that the ocean is a weirder and more wonderful place with you in it.

***

Works cited:

I am an unreliable narrator.  You’re lucky I remembered to include this link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turritopsis_dohrnii#Distribution_and_invasion

Photo Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Turritopsis_dohrnii.jpg

The nearby distant shore

[Photo by blake wisz on Scopio]

There is a quiet that only really exists late at night, after the kids are asleep and the dishes are done and the hyperfixation and hyperavoidance of my ADHD has passed out until tomorrow, and I am hesitant to go to bed then because it is so brief, so fleeting, to have that silence.

The left side of my brain wants to make a dumb analogy, like “these moments are special and temporary, like the McRib being available or the US electorate caring about what New Hampshire has to say.” The right side of my brain tells me to go to sleep, and the now empty cup of coffee on my desk tells the right side of my brain to prepare for disappointment.

We’ve been in Barcelona now for twenty-one days, exactly three weeks. In some ways, it is a radical change, and the culture shift, language change, and oceans-distance from most everyone we’ve ever loved makes for occasional bursts of disorientation, moments of surreality that take a few minutes to return from. My Spanish/Castellano skills are not sharp enough to allow me to easily slide from one language to another quickly; I need time in a conversation to “rev the engine,” and so I’ve adopted a series of meaningless small talk at the beginning of every social interaction to allow my brain to catch up to whatever situation my stomach or my ass has gotten us into.

If I’m being honest, though, I’ve been doing that my whole life. “Bullshit-small-talk-as-filler” is probably one of the few things I do very well, and in English its role is the same as its been in Spanish/Castellano, which is: stall the conversation until I can figure out what the hell is going on. There is a small, but noticeable, sense of disorientation at the beginning of every social conversation, until my head remembers who I am talking to, what I’m doing here, and which topic we’re discussing. In Barcelona, the disorientation is just a wee bit longer for me than in English.

English wasn’t my first language, it was Tagalog. Officially now called Filipino, it’s the language I heard the most until I was 1 or 2 years old, when we moved the US from the Philippines. My first few years in the United States, I had a soft mish-mash of English and Tagalog when I spoke, which I think made me hesitant to speak much when I was young. I have no way to know for sure, but I suspect it also contributed to my extreme shyness as a boy. I remember trying to use Tagalog words with American classmates and failing. Or maybe I was just a quiet, shy kid, so who knows? Anyway, this isn’t really about me, not anymore. It’s about my daughters.

We’ve moved to Spain and our kids don’t speak the languages yet. We’ve been told that they will pick up Spanish and Catalán quickly, and I really hope that’s true. I also know that there is a sense of alienation they’re going to have now, of not understanding their classmates and teachers, and of the push to silence and solitude that the alienation exerts. “They’re not really understanding me, I’m not really understanding them, maybe I won’t try and share what I’m thinking.” It’s probably never gonna be that explicit a thought, because thoughts live in the brain and the alienation doesn’t live in the brain, it lives in the stomach, because that’s where you feel it. It lives in the bottom of your mouth, because that is where your tongue hides when it doesn’t know if its efforts will be useful. It lives in the floor, because that’s where your eyes go when they are tired of meeting confused or impatient looks on the children around you.

Of course, I don’t know if my kids are going to experience any of this, I hope not, and more than hoping, my wife and I are trying to make it a smooth and non-traumatic for them as we can make it. They attend a school where the kids and teachers speak German, which the kids already know and understand, but there are no native English speakers in their classes and the truth is that the tiny threads of friendship are knitted by words and kindness, and the words they share are going to be limited even if the kindness isn’t.

If luck and fortune favors our efforts, they’ll be proficient in three languages in a few years. If luck doesn’t favor our work, they’ll be comfortable in a more limited number. And however many book languages they may speak, there is the chance that they’re learn the language of loneliness here. Such is life, I suppose, and such is the risk we exposed them to when we moved them here, away from Home. I hope and trust that the benefits of our lives here will outweigh the risks of alienation, the emotional risks that come from being immigrants in a different land. Maybe it’s inevitable that the language of Loneliness is part of their linguistic patrimony, maybe not. We can only work and pray that Loneliness is not their first language, and that they will only speak it in broken, incomplete phrases.

***

It’s been 42 years since we left the Philippines for a new life in the United States, and in our time in Spain I’ve been struck by how brave and daunting the move must have been for my parents, and for countless others, to make such a move. I have internet, Facetime, Zoom. I speak with my parents every day, my kids speak with their grandparents everyday on video. My parents didn’t have that; they had once-a-year calls back home, and they missed every holiday, every wedding, every funeral. I never had a relationship with my grandparents in life, just a pastiche of stories in two dimensions. I don’t remember their voices.

And I don’t speak their language.

In grade school, they priority was for me to learn English. I spoke it before school, as my parents were fluent in English, but the goal was to learn to speak with other Americans, to drop the words they wouldn’t understand from my daily usage. Gatas became Milk, and then became Skim Milk (thanks, 80’s health marketing). I stopped using Tagalog; I put it down, and have never picked it back up.

When I’ve visited the Philippines since then, my wonderful cousins have taken care of us. Much of the Philippines speaks English, but there is still a gulf between myself and the nation of my birth, and I’ve perpetuated that gulf by not (re)learning Tagalog. I’ve taken classes in Tagalog in my early 20s, but, like my relationships and careers in that time of my life, nothing lasting came of it. I look at pictures of me as a baby, of the stories of the things I used to say, and it seems like a frosted glass panel between me and my childhood, between me and my cultural heritage.

This sense of alienation is not unique to me, I know. It’s the story of immigrant kids, of third culture kids, all over the world, and we’ve made decisions that have made our kids into characters in that story. I’m over the moon to be here in Barcelona, to be able to give our kids opportunities for growth and life that, in our own way, continues the journey that my family and my wife’s family has been walking for generations.

I also know that the alienation is also backwards looking; our parents endured displacement, moving, cultural shock. My father rarely speaks the language of his youth, Waray-Waray. My mother rarely, if ever, speaks in Ilocano. We’re generation and generation of people doing our best to push our children into new worlds, new opportunities, new places to grow into. We’re lobsters, molting to grow and I can’t help but think of the shells I’ve left behind. And to think of the shells of my life that my daughters will need to shed to become the people they need to be.

***
At heart, language and culture are tools. Vitally important tools, of course, but tools, And as we work to give our children new tools, as we work to add onto the toolset our parents gave us, we try hard to pass on some knowledge of the older tools in the drawer. Because the full set of tools are what are going to give them the best chance of making a home, a life, wherever fate takes them. And I hope that whatever home they build with those tools, that we support them and earn a spot in that home; a spot for us, for their grandparents, and for the lives and cultures and histories that delivered those tools to them. And I hope that when the time comes for them to forge new tools, they have the wisdom to keep the tools that need to be kept, to discard the tools they cannot carry, to know that all the tools, necessary for their lives or not, were given with love and hope for the future.


Magic



We decided, before our children were born, that we would always tell them the truth, and that we would work hard to avoid ever lying to them. Topics like Santa Claus, death, the Tooth Fairy, God, all make this really challenging. We’ve found solutions to this, I guess, though sometimes honesty is difficult.

Our kindergartner asked me if magic is real. Oh no. I have to answer her truthfully, now, no matter how tough it is.

“Yes, magic is real.”

***

I was watching a video of Prince performing Purple Rain live, and found an argument buried in the comment section. The thread was deleted, but the gist of the argument was whether Prince was a natural genius or whether he practiced a million hours to get as good as he was.

First, why the hell was I reading the comment section in a YouTube video? Comment sections are always a tire fire. Always. I should stop reading them.

Second, the natural answer is: genius is some mix of natural talent (or potential for talent) and hard work, and luck, and timing. Why do we think that genius isn’t based out of hard work? Why do we think that being born with talent is a negative? Are those of use who don’t have talent in music so mad that we don’t have the natural ability that we throw our hands in the air and say “that guy is just born with it” as if it provides us comfort in our mediocrity? Why do we minimize the talent someone who has to practice and practice and practice? Do we say “She’s been doing this since she was five years old, of course she’s good,” so that we feel better that we are not on her level? Probably; it’s probably emotional self-preservation.

I have this theory that 80% of what people say out loud is just them talking to themselves. Does your mother have an opinion about what you should do with your life? She’s just processing the choices she’s made about her life, in your general direction. Is your best friend convinced he knows what will make you happy? Nah, he’s trying to convince himself that he knows what will make him happy. The advice, the rage, and the declarations of love that are directed at us? It’s mostly just the speaker justifying their own actions, searching for validation, hoping to find, in us, a flattering mirror of themselves.

A staff meeting is, therefore, just a mutual exercise in group gaslighting.

A song, a book, a poem, a dance, is a unit in and of itself. It has a context, of course, a cultural and human medium in which it operates, but the creation of such art is done in the face of the human failings of the artist. If a guitarist needs to practice a million hours to produce the work that he is called to produce, good on him for doing it. If a painter is able to create a Magnum Opus with little to no formal schooling, good for her.

To those of us that have no experience, an act of creation seems magical, like Athena springing, fully formed, from the head of Zeus. “Purple Rain” is the work of a shaman, an nganga, a wizard who knows an art that I can barely understand, much less reproduce. Dunning-Kruger effect leads me to underestimate the effort it takes to make such a work, and thereby underestimate the amazing effort of Prince and his Revolution to get to that point.

“Purple Rain” was originally a country song. And Prince wrote it for Stevie Nicks. She turned it down, because she felt that the song was too big for her to do justice. Through the effort and alchemy of Prince and his guitarist Wendy Melvoin, it started to emerge as the song we know now. There is no Athena, no gaping hole in Zeus’ head; there is a collection of very talented human beings working very hard to make something great, who ended up making something transcendent. What looks like magic is just the caboose of a train of effort that we cannot see.


***

Arthur C. Clarke wrote that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I type this on a computer, more powerful than anything the Apollo mission could have assembled. This is a piece of technological magic, a physical symphony of invention, and I spilled mustard on it; I normally use this breathtaking machine to argue about sports and to make toilet jokes. To an uninformed layman like me, how this computer works is a mystery, but the fact that it *does* work seems trivial, a throwaway part of my day. If it stalls for more than five seconds, I feel irritated, I feel inconvenienced. I lose sight of the wondrous collection of patents under the hood, the almost unimaginably complex supply chain that brought this computer to me. I lose sight of the people harmed in the steps it took to get this computer made, bought, and shipped to me.

We lose, through familiarity, the awe for those parts of our lives that would seem magical to a person from the 1800s, from the 1960s, from 300 BCE. I type on an artificial brain, powered by lightning. I work on a magic tablet, and it is humdrum to me.

This computer may be the single most expensive and complex material item in my house; it probably is. But it is not the most magical thing here.

In the rooms next to me, my wife and my daughters are sleeping. We celebrated Easter today together (itself a complex mix of Christian, Germanic, and American beliefs and traditions). They are all full of chocolate and pizza, and, somehow, through the haze of neurochemical reactions, evolutionary incentives, and (if you believe in such things) Divine Grace, they are the most important things in my life. Their well-being is the star around which my goals orbit, and inverse is also true: my wife feels the same way about the kids and myself, and the children see us, their parents, as the loci for their own elliptical orbits (at least until they are in middle school).

This is, honestly, wild.

Seventeen years ago, I’d never met any of these people. And now I think about them all the time. Not just about their well being, in a co-dependent way: I also think about how to give them the space needed to grow into the people they need themselves to be. Seventeen years ago my greatest concern was finding lunch and avoiding my credit card debt collector. Those are still two major concerns, don’t get me wrong, but now my family is right up there with them.

The people we surround ourselves with, that we draw close to us, are our source of comfort, support, and joy (Or, they should be. Sometimes they’re not, and that’s the topic for a different essay). We have friends, family, teammates, dungeon masters, dance partners, classmates. And we all have the power to make each other’s lives better or worse. We may not want that power (I sure don’t), but we’ve got it. We’re holding magic wands that can divert the courses of those close to us. A well-timed text, a phone call, an argument, a painful silence, these things are all powerful, and we wield this power unintentionally and unknowingly throughout our days. And they have this power over us.

It’s not just the things we do intentionally, with purpose, that alter the world around us. It’s also the offhand, the unintentional, the absentminded things that we do that leave our mark on the people around us. A lot of days, the offhand actions are the main way that we leave our mark. The words I say when my brain is not engaged are heard the same as intentional words. And those words will have weight to those who are affected by us: family, friends, coworkers, waitstaff, ourselves. The actions I take, or do not take, cast a shadow. And sometimes that shadow is long. Did I call my friend back? Did I confront a racist joke? Did I fulfill the small promise I made to myself? Tiny actions can change trajectories, which is an amazing and disturbing fact to realize in the middle of an otherwise normal day. We have the power to make our own day better or worse, we have the power to make the days of those surrounding us better or worse; a day here and day there will add up to a lifetime. We’re like a sleepwalking Moses: with every swing of our arms we part and close the sea around us, oblivious to Egyptian and Israelite alike, each and every day of our lives.

This is not something you didn’t know before; you already know it, and I am telling you nothing new. That power we have has just normalized for most of us, an amazing piece of emotional and socially complex magic that we see everyday to the point that it’s invisible. My laptop is covered in mustard and breadcrumbs out of familiarity with the mind-boggling technology within it. Our social relationships are covered in the thin dust of familiarity, belying the mind-boggling complexity and coincidences that lead us into each others lives.

We’re unintentional sorcerers, we don’t normally see the power we have to heal and to harm those close to us, nor their mutual power over us. We’re whales in each others oceans, whether or not we are aware of the water around us.

***

I will sleep at some point tonight, then I will wake up, and then I will have coffee. I will have a dozen conversations by days end, I will send dozens of emails and messages through air and space at people a thousand miles away. I will do things today that my children will remember, consciously or not, their whole lives, long after my dust has scattered.

I will reach out to people I love, or that love me, after far too long a time without contact. Or, I will not. I will give a $10 bill to a panhandler, and that will help him reach the $25 he needs to sleep in a bed that night, instead of on the sidewalk. Or, I will not. I will wave this wand in my hand, that I never asked for, and I will makes the seas rise or fall, I will make the moon shine or darken, whether I intend to wave the wand or not. And you will do the same for me. Or, you will not. And we will do this, or not, our entire lives.

I don’t know yet how to explain it to my daughter, but, yes, child, magic is real.

Image Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dark_storm_clouds.jpg

Unintentional Giants

Archeological Reminiscence of Millet’s “Angelus,” 1933–35, Salvador Dalí.Photo: © Salvador Dalí/Fundació Gala-Salvador Dali/Artist Rights Society (ARS), 2015

There is an exhaustion in America this year, an exhaustion of spirit borne out of political knife-fighting, out of a pandemic that attacks the weak and old and those trying to care for them.  An exhaustion with our fellow citizens and a disappointment in our fellow human beings, an exhaustion from financial worry, and an exhaustion with an existence that seems less and less full of joy than generations past.  

America is a machine, a glorious, magnificent, dangerous machine that runs on, more than anything else, self-confidence.  That self-confidence is what pushed it to the Pacific, to the Aleutian Islands, and to the Moon. That self-confidence convinced America it belongs in the drivers seat of the world, that The Six Grandfathers should be taken and renamed Mount Rushmore, and that poor villagers in rice paddies and date palm oases would somehow welcome its bombs. The self-confidence was a double-edged sword, and the blade tended to fall on the poor, the brown, the foreign.  That self-confidence was beamed from movie theaters, from Radio Free Europe, and from Arpanet to the whole world.  America is that machine, massive and powerful, that is now running low on its fuel, and piloted by people who lost the instruction manual.  Or maybe there was never an instruction manual in the first place.  

We are exhausted because the men and women who held us up, or fought to stop those who were holding us down, are gone.  Jane Addams and Dorothy Day are gone.  Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau are forgotten after sophomore year English class.  Muddy Waters and Sister Rosetta Tharp are in the discount bin at Best Buy. 

Giants once walked the land, they fought Nazis on the beaches of Normandy, they marched on Selma, they burned their bras at Amherst, they rioted at Haymarket.  Their footprints are enormous, and we live in them, tiny in comparison.  

Xenophon and his 10,000 Greek mercenaries were trapped deep in Asia in 400 BCE, and while trying desperately to get home, they camped in the ruins of a massive city. Bigger than any city Xenophon could ever imagine, he then lamented. The name of the great city was lost to the shepherds who grazed their flocks in its ruins. If a city this great and rich could disappear into history, what hope is there for his adopted city of Sparta?  His birth city of Athens?  What hope is there for any of them?  What hope is there here, in America, for us? Our giants are long gone.

I realize that I do not measure up favorably to the women and men who paved the way for my family and for our children.  

My grandfather, who served in the US Army in the Philippines during WW2, was captured, starved, and marched in Bataan.  He lived to tell the tale, incompletely and sporadically, to my father. And he lived to survive fires destroying his home and all his possessions twice, to have raised seven children, and to meet me, just after my life began and just before his ended.

My wife’s grandparents left home and family in Pittsburgh and traveled across the country and started a new life in Los Angeles, when California was still an idea, a destination, and a vessel for dreams, and where my father-in-law and his siblings grew up.

Every family has such stories, and we wake up and look at ourselves in the mirror and see faces that look vaguely like theirs, and yet unlike them: I cannot plow.  I cannot fight.  I do not know how to fix a jeep.  I do not have the sense that everything will be alright, that we will all persevere.  I do not have the optimism that my children will have a better life than mine.

Still, I sit with my children as they ask me about the world.  And they ask my wife about her life.  And they ask us what life will be like when they are grown.  And, somehow, we have to be their giants.  Because our own giants are no longer here to take that role.  It is us, it is the teachers in their schools, it is the young people who flood the streets to demand a better, safer, more just world, that will take that role.  We are exhausted, but the baton has been handed to us, and so we will have to decide whether to pick it up and run.  The only shade our children will sit in will be from trees that we either plant or protect.  

America is exhausted, our confidence is shot, our tank is empty.  And, Lord help us, we have to refill it.  It will have to be refilled by more than just self-confidence, than jingoism, than a belief in our own strength.  That is poor fuel, I think, and it runs out quickly, it burns dirty.  Our self-confidence, our optimism, will come back when we accept that it has always come from the hopes of those on the outs, the marginalized, the people experiencing poverty, and the foreign.  Each time the America embraces its duty to increase justice, it becomes stronger.  Each time America confronts its own demons, its slavery, its racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, its economic inequality, it becomes stronger.  The giants of the past moved the needle, but it is nowhere near where it needs to be, as much as we may appreciate the progress they made.

It has been said that “comparison is the thief of joy.”  Maybe we can’t go back to the world of our giants, and we can’t go back to the optimism of the 1950s or 1990’s.  Maybe it is because we know that that optimism did not touch enough people; maybe it is because we know that the table can be bigger.   Maybe we are realizing that the table our forebears set for us was the children’s table, and now, as our hair turns grey and our bones creak and our blood thins, it is time for us to prepare the adult table. Maybe our grandparents were never giants, they were men and women doing their best in an unjust and imperfect world.  They became giants when we had to build our homes in the footprints they left behind.  We are, wherever we step, leaving the footprints in which our children and grandchildren will grow.  Every person we feed, every person we forgive, every punch we throw, every virtue we embrace, every injustice we allow to happen, leaves the frame of the world they will have to live in.  

Maybe America does’t need to aim to be strong, or rich, or mighty.  Maybe we need to aim to be just.  And maybe we will cast a shadow in which people will later sit, and marvel that such Giants once walked the earth.

In-group and out-group

 

There are four basic approaches to the needs of others:

1) selfishness / narcissism: this places yourself above all, full stop. 

2) martyrdom: placing others over yourself in all ways, usually neglecting ones own well being. 

3) egalitarian selflessness: placing the needs of others in line with your own, including people of different “groups”, whether religious, ethnic, political, or national. 

4) in-group selflessness: placing the needs of others in line with your own, provided they are in-group. For out-group folks, there are two sub-categories how people of viewpoint 4) look at them:

4a) out-group individuals should have their needs considered only after the needs of the the in group folks are met

4b) out-group individuals are fully expendable for the sake of in-group individuals. 

***

I suspect that most of us fall into the category of 4a, depending on how our groups are defined. 

I also suspect that the big divide in the USA (and possibly other places) is WHO is considered in-group. Are Muslim citizens in-group?  Are undocumented residents in-group?  Are refugees in the Mediterranean in-group?  Are religious minorities in Iraq and Syria in-group?  Are prisoners in federal penitentiaries in-group?

Ladders

This was originally posted on Facebook on Nov. 20, 2015 (LINK).

***

So, I’ve been talking a lot about refugees lately. Maybe an explanation is in order. Story time!

I’ve been very lucky. VERY lucky. I was born into a loving family, to a mother and father that moved over an ocean to give me a shot at the best life I could somehow carve out for myself. They left the Philippines at a time when a dictator and his wife were in power, hoarding money and shoes and years in purgatory.
I was raised in the U.S., which, for all her faults, is a dream country to many, many people. I was traveling overseas a few years ago and met a pedicab driver who asked where I was from; when I said, “America,” he said “That is my dream. That is my dream. That is the dream of all of us,” he said, waving his arm at his fellow pedicab drivers.

Just so you know, my family members back in the Philippines are doing well, and through hard work and talent they’ve built wonderful lives for their families there. I, for one, do not have the skill that my cousins back in the Philippines have, but I live in the U.S., and here, an eternal B-minus student with a penchant for bullshit can do alright. And I do.

There was a communist insurgency in the Philippines, then and now, and the specter of murderers and thugs calling themselves Abu Sayyaf and MILF still haunts men and women in the southern part of the nation, Muslim and Christian alike. I did not have anything to do with either the communists or Abu Sayyaf. I was one when we left for the United States. More on this later.

I will always be proud of my Filipino heritage, and the values and culture and history and religion that go hand in glove with it. Make no mistake, though: the U.S. has given me everything I have. Here I found a career, an education, a safe home, the Texan who freed my soul, and the Most Beautiful Daughter In The World. I owe it all to my parents, who emigrated from home and taught me bravery and sacrifice and basketball; they had their struggles to get us here, but I think that is not my story to tell.

Here, I can read any book I choose and argue freely on Facebook and put whatever bumper sticker I want on my car. American men and women I’ve never met fought and died so I could vote and be free; they roared and charged and fell, holding helmets and rifles and newsprint.

I was given a ladder I did not earn, and that ladder lead me up to where I am, to an apartment with hot running water and Chinese take-out within walking distance and a life without drones and mortars and men with bombs.

Here, you really only see most balaclavas on bitterly cold days.

I did nothing to deserve this. My parents worked and sacrificed to get me here; I am tremendously lucky, as I said. I could have been born in a war zone. My parents could have been killed by a car bomb or snipers or morality police. I spent my seventh year on earth in primary school, racing to get the good play rug in Ms. Wendell’s second grade classroom; I could have spent it in a camp after my school was burned to the ground.

Whenever I meet an immigrant here, no matter their origin, their religion, nor how they got here, I admit: I see little bit of me, as a young boy. I see a bit of my father, my mother, looking for work and affordable clothes and some picture books for their boys.

Sometimes these other immigrants worship God differently than I do, or not at all. Sometimes they were professionals Back Home, sometimes they were laborers. Sometimes they want to leave memories of the Old County behind forever, and sometimes they would pay anything to have soup the way Mother made it one last time. They remind me of me. They are me; they are me if only the Cosmic dice had rolled differently. If those dice had rolled differently, the Abu Sayyaf kidnappings and communist insurgencies could have halted immigration from the Philippines to U.S., or at least made it harder. Those are the dice that have been rolled from some would-be Americans, for some immigrants who made it to our soil.

These other immigrants, they came here on that ladder I used. Sometimes that ladder looked like an unguarded part of the Rio Grande and sometimes it looked like the front door of a consular office and sometimes it looked like a wedding veil. I took that ladder, too, ma’am; my parents carried me. I was on that ladder, too, sir; it is not always an easy climb.

Sometimes that ladder is in a refugee camp, through 18 months of interviews and vetting and background checks and more interviews.

I admit, I have been on something of a soapbox lately about refugees, at least on social media. I’m sorry if I have come off as shrill, and to anyone who does not want to accept more refugees here, I disagree, but I want to make sure you know I respect you. Most of you who oppose the refugees are concerned for your own families, your own little ones, and I cannot fault you for that. Some of you have lived in places with bombs and blasts and monsters with human faces, and you don’t want that here, on American soil, and I cannot fault you for that.

By way of explanation, this is not an political exercise for me; I like the U.S. president, but I will vote for any and all of his political rivals if it would mean that more refugees would be let into the U.S.

When I see the doors closing on refugees, I see my ladder being pulled up. When I see the gate close on any of these families, I see the gate closing on me. Please, let down that ladder, I am down there. Please, please, someone let down that ladder, my father and my mother are down there, holding me. Please let down that ladder, I am down there, holding my daughter and my wife and we are scared and we have nowhere to go. I am trapped down here with murderers and killers, and they will either kill me or turn my son into one of them.

I am an American citizen, and I have freedom and privilege that other, better men earned for me; I do not deserve it by my own acts. Please let the ladder down, I am also in a refugee camp with my children and my grandchildren and we did nothing to deserve this, either.

The Pearls of Medusa

http://www.props.eric-hart.com/how-to/medusa-head/

Credit: Eric Hart

[TRIGGER WARNING: Sexual assault]

1. You are wrong, I promise you, when you think of Medusa. She had snakes for hair, we are taught; the hideous sight of her turned men into stone. Perseus was a hero, we are told, because he slew her and escaped her monstrous sisters, the Gorgons. Her head was a trophy, proof on the shield of Athena of the death of an evil monstrosity, we are taught. Yes. We are wrong.

Medusa’s gaze turned people into stone, we are told. Her sisters, horrid and immortal, flew into a murderous rage at her death. Yes, yes. But why were they there? Why did the Gorgons exist? I will tell you: to suffer.

In the temple of Athena was a priestess, beautiful and beloved. As Ovid says, “Words would fail to tell the glory of her hair.” She lived here, like her goddess, Athena, chaste and loyal. She had family, the priestess did. Her older sisters, Sthenno and Euryale, loved her, watched for her, cared for her.

And then Poseidon, god of the sea, came to her in the temple. He came to the temple and he raped her. He attacked the priestess, Medusa, on the holy ground of Athena.

It was a crime, a sacrilege, a monstrosity. Athena howled in rage, in anger, and she took her revenge. Athena would have her revenge, oh yes.

She took her revenge on Medusa, the priestess. That is who was punished. Not Poseidon, no, it was Medusa. Athena punished her priestess, turning her hair into snakes and cursing her with the gaze of stone, so she could never fully live in the world. Medusa was victimized for a second time. Her sisters, Sthenno and Euryale, for the crime of loving and defending their sister, Athena cursed them as well.

The sisters were immortal, they could not die, so in their exile into a remote island, they protected Medusa, as best they could, since they could not be hurt like their sister. There on that island they lived, in a cave that held less horror than the temple of Athena. The frozen statues of those who came to kill Medusa grew in number, but Medusa lived. That, at least, Sthenno and Euryale could do.

And then Perseus, founder of Mycenae, crept in and took her head. He never looked directly at her, never confronted what Poseidon had done, what Athena had done. Perseus killed her and ran, and her sisters screamed and wept, and we are asked to call Perseus a hero. We are asked to call Perseus a hero for escaping the Gorgons, who attacked the stranger who crept in and murdered their little sister.

***

2. It is just a story, you know, a myth. The story has changed, like all stories. Sometime the Gorgons have names, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes Medusa is hideous, sometimes she is beautiful.

But in all the stories, a few things are always told the same way. Perseus is a hero. Yes. And Athena is wise. Yes. And Medusa is dead, and she cannot suffer anymore.

And Sthenno and Euryale, the Gorgons, are immortal, and their little sister is dead. They will never see her again. They lost their sister many times: When Poseidon came, when Perseus came, and again when their story is told.

***

3. “NASHVILLE – In 2004, Cyntoia Brown was sentenced to life in prison because she killed a man who bought her. 13 years later, she is still in prison…

When she was just 16, Cyntoia Brown was being sex-trafficked by a pimp named “Kutthroat.” She was verbally, physically, and sexually abused then sold to a 43-year-old Nashville realtor, named Johnny Allen, who used her for sex.

According to Newsweek, Cyntoia eventually shot and killed Allen after being taken to his home.” (Source: WGNTV.com, 2017-11-23)

***

4. “She left me, you know that? My wife abandoned me, walked out of me, was fucking who knows who. And now SHE wants something?” he told us. “She got a restraining order on me, saying I choked her? Does she know how fucking embarrassing that is? I’m not giving her anything.”

“This isn’t about assigning blame, sir,” my boss said. “We are asking for possession of the home. She takes care of the children, she should get to stay the home.”

“No,” the man’s attorney said. “Unfortunately, my client’s hours at work were drastically cut a few months before we filed for divorce and he has almost no income. Since your client is not working, and they can’t afford the underwater mortgage, we’re going to have to have a short sale. My client has family in the area with a large house, so we think its best for the kids to live with him, since your client has no one.”

***

5. “Former kicker Katie Hnida, 22, said this week she was raped by a teammate in 2000 after her final season at Colorado. Hnida, one of the first women to ever play college football and now a student at the University of New Mexico, said she does not plan to file charges… [Colorado Coach Gary] Barnett told reporters Tuesday that Hnida never told him about a sexual assault and he knew of no evidence to back up her claim.

He said the football program tried to make Hnida comfortable and had provided extra precautions when she told him about a stalker.

But he also bluntly criticized Hnida’s ability.

“It was obvious Katie was not very good. She was awful,” he said. “Katie was not only a girl, she was terrible. OK? There’s no other way to say it.

…At the heart of the scandal are federal lawsuits filed by three women who say they were raped by football athletes at or after a December 2001 off-campus recruiting party. Boulder County prosecutor Mary Keenan decided against assault charges in the case, saying the heavy drinking involved would make it too difficult to prove in court.”” (Source: Associated Press, 2004-02-19)

***

6. It was just a myth. There was no Poseidon, no Athena, no Medusa. It was just a story, after all. In the story, is Perseus the hero? Is Athena? Maybe there are no heros in the story, not really. Maybe there is just Sthenno and Euryale, and what is left of Medusa.

A note from the modern Ellis Island

It is nice to know how many folks wish me and my family never came to this country.

“But Mark,” they say, “Trump wasn’t talking about Filipinos!”

I have no desire to take comfort in that. All of us lucky enough to make it to these shores have more in common with each other than we do with the folks who don’t like us because we come from places of low GDP, or from authoritarian regimes, or mostly brown folks, or high infant mortality.

I am incredibly fortunate to be here in America, like many other immigrants from the developing world. We owe it to this country to give our fellow citizens our gratitude, our tax dollars, and our military and civic service. I also will state without hesitation that the nation is stronger, smarter, and healthier with us here.

I’m happy you’re here, Ghana, Nigeria, El Salvador, Laos, Assyria, Budapest. My life is better that you’re with us, Beirut, Oslo, Sao Paolo, Catbalogan.

Some of you may not be happy we’re here, some of you may wish there were just less of us. That’s your right as an American to think that. I will defend your right to be wrong, because I believe that minority views should be protected.

Make no mistake: the xenophobes are a minority. The majority of us in the USA welcome all those who come here to build a new, productive life, no matter their nation of origin, their native tongue, or how and if they worship God. The reason I know that fact is that the majority of Americans welcomed an immigrant family from a third world dictatorship back in 1980, and have been wonderful to me and us my whole life. I am honored and happy to join the vast majority of us that will be doing the welcoming in the years to come.

Dreamers


Dreamers, the children brought here who are covered under DACA (for only 6 more months) are just like me. They’re just like many of us who were brought here by our parents in search of a better life.

One of those Dreamers lost his life saving other Americans in the floods in Houston.

The was a time when a boat load of immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and Italy would be met by members of the American Nativist Party, who wanted to keep them out.

When we debate this issue with others and in own hearts, please close your eyes and imagine that scene from 1880s New York or Boston. Now ask:

“Did I imagine myself as a person on the shore, or a person on a boat?”

I suspect that our answers to that question will predict how we feel about Dreamers. For me, I know what I see when I close my eyes.

*** If you choose to comment, please be civil and be kind. Any comments that are neither may be deleted without notice. ***

Guy Fawkes and a Concert in Manchester

Guy Fawkes in an illustration by Cruikshank (Wikipedia)

In 1605, a man named Guy Fawkes planted an enormous cache of gunpowder in a plot to blow up the English Parliament. In response, Russia banned all Protestants from entering Russia because of fears of importing English style bombing violence.

“Wait,” you may say, “that makes no sense. Guy Fawkes was a radical Catholic, and it was the entirely-Protestant English Parliament that was the target of his plan. It makes no sense to blame Protestants for that.”

You would be correct, and Russia did no such thing. To many in the Western or Western-influenced world, we are able to make that distinction because we readily can tell the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant. Why is that? Familiarity. We in the US all know several Catholics, Baptists, Anglicans, and Orthodox Christians. We don’t lump them all together (at least, unless we are talking about ecumenical issues). For many in the US, we don’t know many Muslims or many Middle Easterners, and tend to lump them all together and fail to readily distinguish between Sunni and Shia Muslims, or between Christian people from the Middle East and Muslims (and Yazidis and Mandeans and Jews).

In the USA, most of us KNOW more people who call themselves Methodists than who call themselves Muslim. We KNOW more people who are Dutch Reformed, who are Unitarians. We don’t lump them together. I argue that we shouldn’t lump the violent and genocidal brand of Islam that ISIS and Al Queda represent with the Islamic traditions of Sufi Mystics, with the Ismaili followers of the Aga Khan, or with Ahmed who lives down the street.

I guess the last one in the last is the big one, huh? I HAVE a guy who lives down the street named Ahmed. He’s a good neighbor. His kids need to pick the toys off the sidewalk more often, but they’re a great family to have on the block. I can’t lump all Muslims with the murderous bastard who bombed the concert in Manchester, because the majority of interactions with Muslim men and women in my life have been positive. One of my kid’s teachers is a Muslim lady. The guy in my old fantasy football league who won every other year is a Muslim. They shouldn’t have to bear the moral weight of a guy killing children in England. Not all Muslims are good neighbors, of course; Ibrahim from high school was a prick back then and he was a prick at our reunion, and Miriam from college always wanted to borrow other people’s notes and never gave you any of hers. My friend Samuel is from an Assyrian Christian family in Northern Iraq, and the Muslim neighbors he knew his whole life laughed and taunted his family when ISIS came to town and they all had to flee to the US and Canada. Muslims are good people, kindly people, and they are assholes and collaborators with evil, just like every. one. else. on. earth.

I can’t say “Islam is the cause of all this extremism” because I know too many Muslim people, barbers and cardiologists and cab drivers and stay at home moms and school teachers and liars and angels. Is Extremism an evil that the Muslim community has to contend with? Yes. And we all who oppose extremism, violence, and misogyny need to stand with members of the Muslim community who also oppose those things. For example, there are Muslim men and women in Pakistan who are fighting against persecution of non-Muslim minorities and apostates out of Islam, and we need to support them in their fight against increasing theocracy. Malala Yousafzai is a Muslim, and our familiarity with her story prevents us from lumping her in with the Taliban bastards who shot her. It should be the same for all people, Muslim or not, who are fighting their oppressors. It will take familiarity with Islamic philosophy, history, and with Muslim individuals for us to see the same differences within that community that we see between the Rev. Al Sharpton, the Rev. Franklin Graham, and David Koresh.

Don’t forget: it would be unjust for the English crown to blame all Catholics for Fawkes’ gunpowder plot. Punish the murderers and their accomplices; don’t punish people who are not the murderers. The enemies we must fight are murderers, are fascists, are those who dehumanize others to justify their own violence and tyranny. A peaceful Christian has more common interest with a peaceful Muslim, a peaceful atheist, and a peaceful Jew than any of them have with a murderer. The later must be opposed without demonizing any of the former.

 

*Ahmed is not the real name of my neighbor, and I’ve anonymized all the other names of people I personally know.