Noun

Ambleguity: (n.)

The bumbling, directionless gait of the lost, the elderly, and those staring into their smartphone.

///

You know when you’re walking…

Let’s say you’re at a mall or something. And you’re kinda angry to be there because malls are horrifying and gross and way too goddamn big and they smell like depression dabbed in cologne… and you’re trying to just get a goddamn pair of khaki pants (you refuse to call them chinos, because who authorized that name change?) but to do that you have to sift your way through a clot of sneering, obnoxious teenagers who slurp Orange Juliuses with the blithe indifference of a creature too blinkered and boring to be aware of its own mortality, and they’re all standing in a henge of kiosks hocking bright, cheap tchotchkes – bubblegum colored weaves! The Zero-G Yo Yo! Some crappy RC helicopter emblazoned with the Albanian flag! – and once you finally lace your way through, you’re pleased because you see the store ahead of you… but there, directly in your path, is some pocket-sized grannie with a sky blue knit cap who’s shuffling from foot to foot, not even looking where she’s going, just slowly floating along like some lost and derelict moon drifting aimlessly through space… and you try to go around her, but she oozes in your path, and so you dart a bit left, but she lurches that way too, and you find yourself on the balls of your feet, waltzing with some woman who doesn’t even know you’re there… and everything’s making you mad, but you can’t really be mad at everything so instead you just funnel all of your frustration at the back of this little old lady’s head even though you know deep down that she doesn’t deserve it, and she’s hopefully really sweet (but she’s probably a little racist) and you say, “Lady…” but not as under your breath as you had intended, and she jumps a bit and turns her head and looks at you with eyes that say, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I used to be so much faster…” and it puts a chill to all your hot blood, and you stop for a moment and think of how stupid you are to get so frustrated – to be in such a hurry all the goddamn time to get wherever it is you think it’s important to go… so you blink, and you say, “I’m sorry,” and she smiles, and then you walk into the store buy your pants…

That ever happened to you?

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Noun

Indeference: (n.)

The rote and meaningless portrayal of solemnity.

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One of the strangest things about getting older is realizing the moments that are clearest for you aren’t necessarily shared by the young. I’m always a little shocked to remember that for teenagers and even some 20-somethings, 9/11 has very little personal resonance. Or at least, an ever diminishing return on significance.

Never has this concept more clear than when I was a teacher.

Every year I’d assign my students an essay or article about 9/11 – most often Tom Junod’s heart-shattering Falling Man – then spend the entire class discussing it, their memories of the day, and what those meanings and artifacts have come to mean now. It was a hit at first… students pounced at the chance to approach an emotionally taboo moment in their lives and dig into it – get out their knives and flense a day they experienced as frightened children, armed now with the nascent sophistication of their burgeoning adulthood. But as years and semesters went on, my students’ memories and anecdotes grew fuzzier, less immediate, less distinct. The point of view in their recollections subtly shifted from a sharp, rambling first: I was in Geometry, and the vice principal came in and whispered to my teacher. She looked so freaked out, and she said that something happened, and we had to go home, and I knew something was wrong because there was this whole line of busses outside already… to something bereft of both detail and feeling, not so much recalling their memories as reciting them as if they were read from an optometrist’s chart… I remember my parents were in the kitchen? No, the living room. My mom looked sad, I think. 

I was in bed when the first plane hit. It was right at the start of my sophomore year of college. I was living in my first apartment. Very adult. Very exciting. My roommate came into my room and woke me up, insisting that there’d been some accident in New York; I should come see, it was all over the news. We spent the next thirty minutes watching the tower smolder on CNN, we hunted through our fancy new place, dropping books into our bags – we had class in an hour. When the second plane hit, we stopped. At some point we sat down. Didn’t move. I watched the towers collapse in my apartment that morning, bundled on the couch in my pjs beside an untouched bowl of cinnamon toast crunch. We watched it all with barely a word. And then we got dressed and went to class.

It’s bonkers in retrospect, but then everything is bonkers in retrospect. Absolutely nothing had prepared us for something so upending and uncanny. Indeed, when I arrived on campus I found I was not alone. Students ebbed across campus, dutifully shuffling from class to class; teachers half-taught their lessons, half-counseled their kids; classmates sat in shattered silence, entranced by the dream of it all, until their cellphones rang, and they exploded from the room desperate for news from their family. My university would cancel classes later in the day, of course. But for a few hours that morning, we all drifted together.

Eight years later, I took a job teaching at that same university… and every semester the sights and smells of campus autumn did their Proust thing. I’d walk into class on 9/11… and have to teach something. The day was normal. And that baffled me. I wanted to understand 9/11 as the evolving social metaphor it was becoming, so I started nudging my students to dig into the symbolism of it all – the remembrances, the rhetoric, the countless towers silhouetted as windshield decals, and the repeated insistence that we Never Forget.

I started assigning a short essay on the form and language of that phrase – Never Forget – “Why do we say never forget, opposed to always remember to commemorate 9/11Do the two statements convey the same sentiment? Which do you prefer? Why?” The answers I got were varied. Conversation lasted all class long. At least in the early years. Like I said… as time wore on, the farther my students got from the significance of 9/11.

I’ve always found Never Forget a troubling phrase. For one, I’m oppositionally defiant, and don’t like being told what to do. For another, I’m often skeptical and impatient of maudlin shows of dutiful remembrance. They ring hollow to me – and expect a unified response to something we all experienced, yes, together… but ultimately, terribly alone. We remember and we mourn as individuals – our experiences are ours… as are our forms of remembrance. There’s something tiresome, and to me horribly disrespectful, about how commodified our remembrances have become – bumper stickers, t-shirts, and decals, syrupy gifs and memes and schlocky slogans all insisting upon a certain tenor and tone of how we remember. Or, rather, reminding us not to forget. We’ve branded a national tragedy. And brands are ultimately empty promises, written in the language of sincerity. Invented by men like me to sell something. 

Never Forget has always been too easy to say, and too little to deliver. It requires nothing more of us than obeisance. It calls upon no action. Demands no reflection. Summons no alteration in our behavior. It urges no understanding of what caused it, nor wisdom for how best to combat another moment like it. For those who remember 9/11, Never Forget demands our static, silent, horrified appraisal. It’s a symbol now. Sacred in the public imagination. Deified by the dogma of our tweets, and shares, and likes. It’s content.   

For those too young to remember 9/11, it will doubtlessly shrink into the horizon… dwindling further into meaninglessness with every year. You can’t forget something you couldn’t remember in the first place.

9/11 makes me sad – for its own tragedies to be sure. But what saddens me most about it all is how little it means on any other day. We hurl ourselves into portrayals of mourning on 9/11. But what about 9/12? Business as usual. Two weeks from now? Three months? It’s gone. We’re back to the same blithe motions of 9/10.

We never forget. And as such, we’re never called upon to learn. We’re never expected to look at our own behavior. Demand more of our leaders.

Yesterday, John Bolton – Trump’s National Security Advisor – threatened the International Criminal Court, an organization designed to investigate and punish (among other things) those responsible for genocide and mass killings. The ICC had criticized the US military and intelligence departments for reports of torture and rape in Afghanistan. In response, our government threatened the ICC with sanctions.

I can’t help but feel that such imperious ego, such rage and indignity, such staunch refusal to observe the norms set by our neighbors, is the kind of thing we should have learned not to do by now. I can’t help but feel that we’ve learned nothing.

Always Remember.

 

 

 

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Adjective

Scholeric: (adj.)

Irritability and cantankerous one experiences while talking to the academically disinclined.

///

I had a professor back in college who absolutely despised his students. You could just tell. There he was, a man who had spent decades of his life dedicated to study and scholarship, forced to share his painstakingly hoarded minutiae with a room full of yawning, boozy teenagers day after day after day…

Every class would begin the same – with him as fresh and buoyant as warm laundry. “This time will be different,” his posture seemed to say. “This time they’ll see why this stuff is so important.”

And, of course, each time we’d shrug and drowse and stare back at him with wide, bovine eyes. By the end of class, he’d be stalking around in front of the room, red-faced and burbling with a tepid, cerebral rage like a leopard in a sport coat. And still we’d just sit there and watch him rant. 

In the next year or so, I’d wake up. I’d start to give a shit. I’d come to class ready to discuss. But I wouldn’t fully understand the extent of his frustration until ten years later… when I’d be the one pacing in front of a room like that (in some cases, the same exact room… as I taught classes at the same college I’d myself attended)… flailing my arms around, trying to summon even a flicker of excitement in my students.

“Here, look at this,” I’d say to my kids, “some writer made this… he wrote it hundreds of years ago. And it’s still just as true now as it was then. Do you see how magical that is? That there are experiences that transcend culture, time, language, oceans… that there’s some seething undercurrent to existence that touches every human life? See how some play from the Renaissance, or some poem from the 1950s can both be about the same thing, and yet be totally different? That our heart and our mind are a set of rubix cubes that we jumble and solve, jumble and solve over and over and over again? See how everything matters? Even thought it doesn’t? Surely you can see how this could move someone. Surely you can understand why I’m up here talking about this to you, despite the fact that I can barely afford my rent while doing it. Because this language has affected me so profoundly that I want to be close to it. Share it with you. Because it matters. (and also, I’m allowed to wear slippers to work)”

Sometimes they’d get it. I was a decent teacher… hardly a scholar (I find pushing commas around a thesis to be soul-crushingly dull)… but I was good at infecting others with my enthusiasm. I was good at making people care. Even if it was just for 50 minutes.

But boy howdy… there were times. Students – usually boys, because boys are without question not less-intelligent, but better at stupid than girls could ever hope to be – who wore their apathy like a badge. Who’d roll their eyes and smirk and stretch their limbs disdainfully, “See that buddy? This is how bored I am. This is how few fucks I give.” These are the kids you hate. I mean hate-hate. That black, tarry muck hate that you can’t hide, no matter how hard you try. Some over-valued, under-challenged, mean, suburban puke of a kid who looked at college as a beer pong tournament rather than a place to learn… whose dad – totally – owns this dealership.

You look at that kid and think… someone isn’t in college because of you. Someone’s raking leaves, or salting french fries… and there you are, sprawled in a ballcap and sweatpants, checking your Facebook on your iPhone for $22,000 a year.

And then you remember that you were probably more like that kid than you’d ever want to admit. And you remember that poor, wan professor from ten years before… that poor schmucky guy with the widening belly and dwindling hairline who capered around the room at the start of every class trying desperately to show you why it all mattered… all while you doodled in your notebook, and tried to catch the eye of the girl you liked.

And you realize that you’ve been both those people. That they’re both so different, and they’re both the same… because they’re both you. And you wonder if anyone would want to sit and talk about that, and how much it reminds you of so many books you read with passion when you were young.

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Adjective

Unentendrenal: (adj.)

A statement, phrase, or description that sounds like innuendo, but you honestly didn’t mean it that way. You swear.

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Once, while at a backyard barbecue, I was offered a wiener by a Lutheran youth minister.

He was a jolly chap – a human pastel – who assured me with an earnest smile that I could have as many wieners as I liked. He directed me toward the buns for my wiener. And the condiments to put on my wiener. All I had to do was say so, and he would cook me up a wiener right away.

This was back in my early teens, during the brief summer when I was a Lutheran.

By which, of course, I mean I had a crush on a girl in a Lutheran youth group, and thus  feigned faith in her god in order to linger on the periphery, too afraid to introduce myself.

She had scarlet hair and freckles and was a full foot taller than me, and I adored her.

Ah, youth.

Anyway…

So, look… if we’re being totally honest here, I’m embellishing a little bit about the wiener thing. But ONLY a little bit. I swear. He really did offer to cook up my wiener. Straight face. Big smile. Wiener. And then he put his hand on my shoulder and aimed me toward the buns. Whatever other embellishment I added was done A. for comedy, and B. to highlight what I love about, if not all Lutherans, then at least the Lutherans I knew while pretending to be a Lutheran.

This is it: Lutherans are nice.

Like, really nice. All of them. Even the mean ones. The whole of the Lutheran community is a pathologically pleasant congregation of sweater-vested avuncularity. Every one I’ve ever known has been tall, polite, and at least partly (mostly) Scandinavian. They invert my every expectation of theological zeal – Where others worship, Lutherans praise. Rather than preach, they share. The drama and severity of Martin Luther’s rigid, teutonic theses notwithstanding, the world to a modern Lutheran seems one big rumpus room… a place to take a load off, strum an acoustic guitar, and tell you a thing or two about their friend Jesus.

All this niceness. It’s… just so… nice. And ya know what? I don’t trust it. On some basic level, down in my bones, I find it all alien and suspicious… because I was raised in the brambled bosom of the Catholic church… and there’s nothing nice about Catholicism, let me tell you. Oh, sure… Pope Francis has overseen a heroic rebranding effort these past few years. He’s the kinda pope you could hug, maybe. But Catholicism itself? Would you hug Catholicism? Hell no. Because we all know – down in its bones – there’s nothing nice about it. All that blood ritual? The obsession with violence and torture mythology, and submissive dogma? From Mitre to slipper, the whole ordeal is a gilded, monarchical terror pageant. And that shit sticks with you.

Which is why, all those years ago, standing in that lovely back yard and politely accepting that youth minister’s wiener, I smoldered with guilt and fidgets. Because I’m trained to look for the creeps in any situation. I’m programmed to find the darkest timeline.

It makes life complicated.

Fun! Hilarious! Worthy of note!

But woof. Ya know?

 

 

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Adjective

Autocowrecked: (adj.)

When the text or message you intended to send is ruined by the intrusiveness of your smartphone’s autocorrect function.

///

I received a photo of my newborn niece this morning.

Okay, hold up. I’m lying a bit. Full disclosure: she’s not my niece.

I have no siblings. I’m an only child. Hence the catastrophe of my personality. But still!

She’s my cousin’s daughter. But my cousin and I were born six-weeks apart and raised in social proximity, plus we’re Italian-American so we’re basically brothers. I’m claiming him as a brother. I’ve abropriated him. Boom. New word. Abropriated. Be impressed. In lieu of flowers, send flours. I’m into baking these days.

Puns.

Anyway.

So he sends me a photo of the little peepin’ spud… and she’s a cutie. A feat, considering that she’s a newborn caucasian… and not to make it a race thing… but white babies newborns are… rough. Mottled. Lizardish.

But she’s cute! So I texted him as much:

what a cutie

But that dreaded autocorrect function took that text, and interpreted its subtext:

what a chore

Words cannot capture the restraint it took not to send that message to him. Because… comeon. Imagine how funny that would be. Those would literally be the first words I’ve ever spoken about this child… to anyone, let alone to her father. That poor bastard, all sleep-deprived and proud of his most recent contribution to overpopulation… he sends over a salvo of pictures of his 10-pound-boucin-baby and what does he get? What a chore. That’s friggin hilarious!

But I didn’t send it. I corrected the autocowreckt. Because I’m an adult. And because sincerity is the order of the day.

So ducking annoying.

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Noun

White Wail: (n.)

White people’s obsessive persecution complex in response to multiculturalism an economic justice

///

I try to avoid extreme positions. It’s not that I don’t have extreme feelings; nearly all of my feelings are extreme. Ask anyone who’s watched me talk to or about my cat. I’d compose arias to the little goblin if I could. But in nearly everything else, I strive to stay somewhere in the middle… for perspective if no other reason. I’m a centrist in my politics. A relativist in my morals. And a moderate on nearly every subject except Shakespeare (I know), astronomy, and sandwiches.

And my cat. He’s the best. 

But there is one absolute I’ve developed over the years – something ironclad:

Rich white people need to stop complaining about their own victimization.

Immediately.

I say this as a straight, white man of the upper-middle class born in the 1980s. When it comes to the span of human history, I’ve won the goddamn lottery. Everything has been handed to me. I’ve wanted for nothing. I’ve experienced personal pain and tragedy, of course. I’m human. But in nearly every respect, life has offered to trim the crust from my sandwiches from the moment I slipped into being.

Fellow white people, dudes mostly… here’s the deal: We’re not victims. Not at the hands of racial and economic justice, anyway. We can’t be – it’s fundamentally impossible for us to be so – because the very mechanisms of victimization were built by people like us long ago, belong to us to day, and ultimately turn and churn for our benefit. We are the beneficiaries of a broken, unjust system built on denying equal access to justice, money, land, and basic human dignity. For further reference, I urge you to either consult the whole of human history, or just look around the world right now. Both the past and the present are the footnotes to this concept. I urge you to consider them.

I’m not going to say someone can’t be rich – I don’t know enough about economics to really understand the ramifications of such a concept. And I’m not saying that a white person can’t be proud of their cultural heritage. I’m an Italian-American, and I’m super happy about it. I get to wear black and be neurotic and just fundamentally make better meatballs than you do. It’s tons of fun. But here’s the thing, y’all. White people can’t claim victimhood. Ever. That’s the cost of owning pretty much everything… you don’t get to whine when your ownership is criticized. We could dismantle the mechanisms of white supremacy. We could offer reparations for what our ancestors took through force. But we don’t. And therefore we can’t claim the dignity of victimhood. It’s that simple.

So stop. Stop debasing yourselves with the term. And please bring a swift end to the theatrics of it all. We’re not benighted. We’re not beset. And we’re not at war. Not yet.

It isn’t “class warfare” until your head is in a basket.

Until then, it’s just people trying to get their share of the pie.

 

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Noun

Repravity: (n.)

A horrific event that happens over and over and over and over again.

///

I watched a few episodes of Ken Burns’ Vietnam documentary this weekend – four of em, right in a row. It was a lot.

Today, I’m struck by an irritating sorrowful pang. A reminder of something I kinda already know – an exhaustion informed by the undercurrent of cynicism that grows as one gets older.

How much of our history – long and short – is just the same dumb story told over and over again? I realize this isn’t a new question – it’s already been aphorized into meaninglessness – history repeats itself – and so forth.

I know. We all know.

But still.

It’s a hard lesson to be reminded of – how all of life, history, and even the world itself so often seems a long, arduous, gorgeously told tale of utterly stupid and entirely avoidable tragedies.

Modern society is basically crappy, mid-afternoon tv reruns of old miseries…

Police officers shooting, harming, or otherwise abusing African-Americans, and then refusing to hold themselves accountable.

A seemingly endless parade of mass shootings, and the tepid irrational debates that follow, but never lead anywhere.

Idealistic citizens bravely taking to some city square to protest the crimes and injustices within their government, only to be met by tear gas, riot shields, and truncheons.

The utter disaster that is the American Electoral system.

The climate change debate, unfettered by scope, science, or sense.

The reminder that every war since WWII has essentially been the same war fought for the same lack of justification and without any perceivable end.

Santayana said we would repeat history if we don’t learn from it. But learning about history teaches me is that history teaches us nothing. Rather – we are learning – just the wrong lessons, is all. We learn how to do the same cheap, wicked, awful things more quickly, with greater efficacy, from a greater distance. We learn how to recycle the same abuses, faster.

I don’t want to think this way. I just do, is all.

Is this really the best we can do? Is this it? This is who we’re going to be?

How are we in the same species as the Mr. Rogers and the Carl Sagans and the Jim Hensons out there? Where have they all gone?

I’m feelin’ it today, you guys.

 

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