Miscellany

Uncertainty

A few weeks ago, when the world’s crazy was on the horizon but only if you were looking, I had to decide what I wanted to do with Hamlet. I added it to my AP Literature syllabus last year, swapping it in for The Tempest. I make our Shakespeare the last major work we do before the exam. It’s the oldest strata of language the students are responsible for, and it’s good to have that in their “ears” as they get ready for their cold reads. Hamlet, in addition to its place near the heart of the English-language canon, is a really versatile play that works for a variety of potential “Question 3” topics on the exam. (That’s the one question that asks students to deal with a work they read before the exam.)

IMG_0498

Anyway. Last year, I got through the nuts and bolts of the play, focusing on language and performance issues without really building a whole unit around it. (Spring break and high school ultimate season kept a lot of potential elaboration away.) This year, I wanted to give the play its proper due and put it at the center of something substantive. So—and again, this was at a point where even the reports coming out of China were just starting—I decided on “uncertainty.”

Sometimes life can be a little too on-the-nose, yeah?

My district has now officially added two weeks to our scheduled spring break, putting us off campus at least until early April. Like most of you, I’ve been wrestling with what to do, with fears of what may come, with the “pale cast of thought” that “sicklie[s] o’er the native hue of resolution.” So did Hamlet.

That doesn’t mean we’re suddenly all Hamlet—at least no more than we already were troubled Danish princes. The more I think about Hamlet’s uncertainty, the clearer it becomes that he’s phenomenally self-centered, probably the most self-centered protagonist in Shakespeare. Hamlet’s driving questions are all about himself: what should he do, what’s right for him, what’s his place in the universe. Even when he has seemingly committed himself to vengeance and the guidance of the “divinity that shapes our ends,” he’s still thinking about how it affects him.

He does, sometimes, reach for abstract principles of justice and duty, but only intermittently and not always productively. The Act 4 soliloquy he delivers as Fortinbras’ army marches by is generally read as inspired, but it has never quite clicked that way for me. If you haven’t read the play or don’t remember it (buried as it is in a transitional bit where Hamlet’s headed for the ship to England), the gist of it is that all the soldiers marching by, as well as the Poles they’re going to fight, do not hesitate when honor is at stake. They are ready to die for a piece of land that is too small for them to all fight on at the same time. This quickness to violence in defense of honor is what inspires Hamlet to give all his thoughts o’er to vengeance.

It’s a selfish and self-centered uncertainty, Hamlet’s, even when there’s method to his madness.

That’s part of the reason why the play is praised, of course. Hamlet’s easy to read as the “modern” individual, struggling to navigate an unjust world without the pole star of moral certainty. He trusts only Horatio, and Horatio only as a kind of metaphysical sidekick and sounding board for his digressions. Hamlet’s so smart that he doesn’t know what to do. (He’s also pretty consistently a jerk to people over the course of the play.) The questions he wrestles with, as I told my class, are questions we all wrestle with.

But there are limits to what we do as individuals. A melancholy cliffside castle might seem attractive right now (or the Italian countryside of Boccaccio’s Decameron), but that’s not how we live, nor was it how people lived in Elizabethan England. Our uncertainty right now is individual, but it is also painfully collective. We don’t know what is going to happen to us—to our family and friends, to our society, to our economy, to our governments. 2020 was already going to be a messy year. Now there’s a fog thickening over the mess.

Collective uncertainty is easier and harder to deal with. Easier, now, because we have so many ways to communicate that don’t rely on physical proximity. Harder because we don’t have experience. We have experts; hopefully people are paying attention to them. But we haven’t done this before. It’s not influenza in 1918. It’s not SARS or Swine Flu. We are all of us making this up as we go along.

Last Friday, my students wanted answers I couldn’t give them. They’re high school seniors. Their worlds can be as narrow as Hamlet’s, but also as big and sweeping as any of the Romantic or Enlightenment dreamers. They’re already engaging with their communities and the world, but most of them still want to keep a few lifelines to authority. They want to know about prom and graduation and AP exams. They want their rites of passage. A lot of them want to know that, if push comes to shove, the olds will have some answers for them. None of us do. The best I could manage was to remind them that Twitter’s not the best place to get your information, to explain to them the necessity of flattening the curve no matter how cheap plane tickets might be. To remind a room full of 17 and 18-year olds that it’s not necessarily about them, but rather about us.

We’re in this counterintuitive position right now of needing to lean on one another by staying apart. So many things have been cancelled, but people are putting ingenuity and empathy to work to support one another. Virtual concerts and collective education aren’t going to put more masks and ventilators in the hospital, but they can remind us what we’re saving people for. They help us remember that even if we’re stuck in our homes as individuals, we’re all in this together.

(And hopefully none of us, individually, are planning to pass the time with poisoned swords or poisoned wine.)

Producing Culture, Provoking Empathy

I am continuing to puzzle over the intuitive leap I made the other day to “There is no transcendence, only empathy.” If you haven’t read the post about that, you probably should do so before you read what follows. Today I’m writing about other ways of trying to understand creative work. For better or worse, much of this post is going to be in an academic mode, though I’ll do my best to clarify any jargon. Ready? Here we go.

There’s a game academics play that involves reducing your dissertation to a single sentence. Mine (which you can find a link to in the “works” tab) boils down to “music is a product of its time.” This is a pretty common conclusion for musicologists to reach. It is also, on its face, facile. How could something not be a product of its time? Is it instead something from the future, accidentally abandoned by time travelers? Seriously.

I find, though, that a lot of nonacademics need reminders of this common sense point. People—westerners, anyway—have a tendency to buy wholesale into both Romantic mythologies of music and the ancient Classical ideas of music of the spheres and universal harmony. This pushes music, especially “classical” music (stuff written for the concert hall) into a transcendental space, and leads to utter nonsense like “music is a universal language.” (Uuuuuuugh.) I listened to somebody at a workshop (for English teachers) expound enthusiastically on this idea as he explained how he was learning about jazz. (Aside: music is not a language. The semiotics of music are hella messy and culturally constrained. Philosophers who write about music frequently have unhealthy fixations on the European canon and zero understanding of any kind of nonwestern music.)

Music is cultural production. It is made by people, mostly for people. As cultural production, it is limited by cultural constraints. That doesn’t mean innovation is impossible, only that it is limited. You can do crazy things from inside cultural context! Late Beethoven (especially the quartets), for example, is a marvelous cul-de-sac of musical geometries that have only tenuous connections to what surrounded them. Even rebellion takes its form from what it rebels against.

Anyway. My idea about empathy as a kind of transcendence sidesteps the question of cultural production. Fundamentally, “there is no transcendence, only empathy” occupies a shaky conceptual space that is simultaneously about audience response and about the ontology (philosophy of existence) of art. The transcendence-empathy theory also involves epistemology (philosophy of knowledge), because it suggests something about how art functions to encode and convey understanding. Culture doesn’t come into it until you get several layers in.

I leaned a lot, in my dissertation, on the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu wrote about culture and power;  the idea of “cultural capital” derives from his work. (Cultural capital is the set of knowledge and skills that marks one as an elite without necessarily involving material power. As an academic with a broad liberal arts education, I have a ton of cultural capital despite what I get paid as a high school teacher.) Bourdieu writes about “field” and “habitus.” Field is the available conceptual space. The field of cultural production, for example, includes everything from romance novels to symphonies. (There are axes to the field, usually, but they’re not mandatory to understanding the concept.) The field of power, which Bourdieu (and I) spend a lot of time on, is a way of understanding who has power and who doesn’t. Habitus is the way individuals navigate the field.

auditorium chairs comfortable concert

You have some expectations about what you do in a place like this. That’s the field at work. [Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com]

Bourdieu’s theory doesn’t touch empathy or anything about the semiotics of art…at least beyond representing spaces in the cultural field and field of power. By Bourdieu’s theory, concert hall music (“classical”) occupies a space in the field closely aligned to the field of power. Think about the stereotypical image of a classical concert: musicians in tuxedos and black gowns, wealthy older people dressed up for a night out. There’s a lot of stereotyping in that image, but there are reasons it exists. It’s important to understand that music’s place in the field changes over history. Opera, which carries the same associations as classical instrumental music, began as a display of aristocratic wealth and became popular entertainment before gradually resuming its place as music for the elite.

So where does empathy fit into that? Let’s go back to the specific works I mentioned—particularly the Vincent Valdez paintings. Like most artists, Valdez occupies many different spaces in the field depending on how we’re looking at it—as a Latino from San Antonio, as an art school graduate, as a recipient of grants and awards. I saw his work in a museum on the campus of a state university, which has its own place in the field and lends a certain institutional credibility. By working in a “prestigious” medium (painting) and having that work displayed in an institution with authority (the Blanton), Valdez occupies a space in the artistic field that aligns to a significant degree with the field of power. None of that takes away his experiences navigating the broader field of power as a human being.

This is how we fit the one thing into the other. Art as a vehicle for empathy rather than transcendence can bridge distances in the field of power, even if the work as a cultural object is limited to a specific spot in the field (concretely as the museum, abstractly as a work in a medium with high cultural weight). Conceiving of art as cultural production doesn’t automatically preclude the intuition that I had at the museum. I can look at Valdez’s work and experience it empathetically despite the raft of privileges that go with standing in an art museum on a Wednesday afternoon.

I’m still not convinced that “There is no transcendence, only empathy,” entirely holds together. Experiencing art empathetically is great, but ignores many of the other elements of cultural production that affect the work, the creator, and the audience. The paintings that provoke an empathetic response in me won’t do the same for everybody else, because my experience is mediated by all the things I bring into a museum with me. The harder we push to universalize, the more the holes in the idea show.

Can something be true without being universal? Probably! Next post in this series is going to come at the question of empathy and transcendence from the other side, focusing on where our western idea of transcendental art comes from.

Thoughts?

In Memoriam

My dad’s mom was the first person I told I wanted to be a writer, at least with any proto-adult sense of what that meant as an aspiration. I was 17, in a rented car on a winding road in Appalachia. I was, at that moment, technically a high-school dropout, but it was my graduation trip.

Grandma Plocher took each of her grandsons (and she only had grandsons) on a graduation trip after high school. It wasn’t a first trip with her for any of us. By the time I got mine, I’d already traveled with grandma on a jetboat through Hell’s Canyon, camped with her in what seemed like half the national parks west of the Rockies, and spent time taking advantage of her membership in the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I’d traveled with my grandma and brother, with my grandma and various cousins, but the Appalachia trip was the first time I’d traveled with just grandma.

We didn’t really get each other. I was 17, moody, and far from being a morning person. I didn’t need itineraries or specific plans…to a point that was probably annoyingly noncommittal. (I was really good at shrugging nonchalantly.) My grandmother was retired, an experienced traveler, somebody who—like my dad—wanted everything to go right now, precisely according to plan. The stays in the hotels were not always great, but that’s not what I remember. I remember being up in the mountains, mountains older and rounder than the Rockies on my youthful horizon, but still…a misty day on the ridge roads was a kind of magic.

So was eating at a weirdly fancy restaurant attached to the Natural Bridge State Park in Virginia. Restaurants, at least, I knew. We did Colonial Williamsburg. I pulled grandma to North Carolina, a quick detour to Kitty Hawk just so we could say we’d added another state to our trip. The Wright Brothers museum was much cooler than it had any right to be. We drove into Tennessee and ate at a McDonald’s just to say we’d done it.

The mountains, though, were the best part of that trip. We hiked, and didn’t talk all that much. Grandma got a number of pictures of my back as I walked or stared at the scenery. There are one or two that she convinced me to actually look at the camera for. Not many of those. (Most of the pictures of me from the trip  are of me reading plaques at the places we visited.) The longer conversations were in the car as we traced the Virginia border. I told her about Wales, about being at an international school, about what were surely my Deep and Profound Teenaged Thoughts. [Aside: the more time I spend with AP high school students, the more I realize how insufferable I probably was for spells when I was that age.]

I was bad at asking questions. I wish I’d asked more, or remembered any of her answers. We seemed to be in different worlds, from different worlds. I remember, not from that trip, but from other visits, the way she would throw her hands in the air, raise her eyes, and cry “Good grief!” Her grandkids inspired that reaction sometimes, but so did her own kids. So did the world.

She wrote, a few days into the trip: “…getting more comfortable. We talked about his school and his interest in writing. He reads much more than I do and more heavy stuff. More power to him.”

And that’s what made those trips so special: “More power to him.” She didn’t understand me, but she didn’t have to understand me to appreciate me. Grandma was great at appreciating the world and the people in it, even when she didn’t understand. She traveled all over North America, was active on Elder Hostel trips, and was constantly telling stories about people she’d met or things she’d seen. She was great at asking questions, at listening to the answers. Sometimes her only response to those answers was “Good Grief!”, but she didn’t stop asking questions. She didn’t stop listening to the answers.

Grandma Plocher died in her sleep this past weekend. Her health had been deteriorating for years; her memory was shot. The last time I sat down and talked with her, she needed occasional reminders of which of her sons I went with, and didn’t always remember that my dad was dead. It didn’t stop her smiling, though, to see my mom and my brother and me. We had a big party for her that summer, a belated celebration of her 90th birthday with all the kids, grandkids, and great grandkids. She held on most of the way to 93.

Death doesn’t get easier to deal with, even when you know that it ends a struggle. That makes it more complicated, sometimes, because part of you is relieved to see an end to suffering and an end to the complicated responsibilities that go with care. One of my first responses was a desperate sense of how unfair it was that I couldn’t help my dad through this, that he was already gone. Mourning grandma came later.

Grief is messy because life is messy. We only ever understand a small part of either, but we keep trying. And that is good, Charlie Brown exclamations included.

Rest in peace, grandma. The world’s a better place for having had you in it.

You Take It With You

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.
       —Heraclitus (via Plato)

Embed from Getty Images

Four years ago (give or take), I was somewhere on I-35, south of the Twin Cities and north of Austin. We had carefully timed our departure to eke another month of benefits from the job my spouse was leaving. We had, rather less carefully, packed up the apartment we spent seven years living in. It’s cliché, but you never know how much stuff you have to take with you until you’re trying to squash it into shipping containers. You also forget just how much work goes into getting an apartment move-out ready until about 1 a.m. the night before you go.

My wife and I left that North Minneapolis apartment with two more kids than we’d moved into it with. We had more books, but fewer papers; my decision to leave academia was a good excuse to get rid of folder after folder of notes and printed articles. We had more furniture, too, having upgraded from Goodwill to IKEA and therefore having some furniture that was actually worth moving.

I can’t say that I was particularly reflective my last night in the apartment. On an air mattress. In the last room we hadn’t scrubbed down. Surrounded by the few items that were going into our cars rather than the pods. The thoughts that went beyond ‘I’m tired’ aimed at the road ahead, about how we’d keep the kids occupied, where we might stop, how it was all going to come together at the other end. I swam in a sea of change, taking care of whichever wave was coming at me next.

Now, I live in Texas. I doubt that it will ever be where I’m from…but my daughter has spent half her life here. I’ve made a new career as an educator here. I still hate the summers and love the availability of avocados. I still miss winter and the quality of the air that you only experience on clear days with subzero temperatures. I occasionally fantasize about moving to Duluth…but I have regular spots here, places I go not just because they belong to the right category (e.g., “coffee shop”), but because of the specific spot (e.g., Star Coffee downtown, which has decent coffee and good food and a few tables tucked into out of the way corners).

The neighborhood in which I wrote swathes of my dissertation—the area around Target Field in Minneapolis—has mostly completed the transition from dilapidated warehouses and small commercial businesses to posh condos and hip eateries. Going back would not, exactly, be going back.

That doesn’t necessarily matter. Until my memory goes, I’ll still have the late-night walks home, cutting across icy parking lots and over dingy barriers of plowed snow. I’ll still have the spring afternoons with my cohort, drinking a Friday beer outside when it was still actually too cold to enjoy sitting outside, but we did anyway because you can never hold back spring. I’ll still have summer afternoons running around the wading pool in the park with my kids (even if they were too young to remember it). I’ll still have burying my son in leaves, listening to his happy cackling and then having to dig out the Tigger he’d left in the pile.

In the last year or so, as I settle in to secondary teaching as a profession, I’ve caught myself thinking more and more about what has already happened. Partly, that’s middle age around the corner (I can hear it there, sounding like spilled soup and a mop.) I am a long way out of high school. When I taught freshmen last year, I had some who were born after I graduated from college. Time keeps on ticking, you know? Lived experience builds up.

The other, related part of thinking back through time is this: I am not in school anymore. I’m not training for what comes next. Years of graduate school kept me oriented toward an imagined future that was always one semester, one successful application away. Hope was perpetually deferred. These days, I have projects, from novels to school stuff to working through the home improvement to-do list. “What comes next” is smaller now. Sometimes that is a welcome release from anxiety. Sometimes it’s a tacit excuse to slide into mere preoccupation: mindless games, social media, reading comment sections.

Stability takes getting used to. Years in the same house, the same job—and teaching the same classes. This year I have no new preps, so I’m tweaking lesson plans and syllabi rather than creating new ones. Drop a work here, insert a project there. Remember which things my students hated and either adjust them or double down on the teacher-side enthusiasm. The small changes add up, just as they do in revising a work. The years are never as much the same as you might expect.

This is because of, and in spite of, memory. You take it with you. Memories aren’t exact, they aren’t permanent. They bleed together. They distort to match the stories we tell ourselves (or are told about) what happened. Even the things we remember as being the same were not necessarily the same; stability is more about the relative equilibrium of competing forces than it is about stasis. Memory is our throughline, but it wavers. We’re constantly re-writing the past in small ways to fit our present, just as we’re constantly adjusting to incoming waves of change.

The waves I’m swimming in August of 2017 are smaller than the ones I swam in August of 2013. The only things I’m packing up are the few items that need to go from my house back to my classroom at the end of the week. (I have plenty of boxes to unpack there, though.) As much as I might pine for Minneapolis on a rainy morning, I’ve still got the version I’ve taken with me. And the furniture that survived the pods. And the books. And things that I have added here in Texas…memories included. Men, rivers, und so weiter.

Light/Socket

Last weekend, my family went camping. This involved a flashlight hunt; the kids have the usual interest in them and they end up everywhere. We were particularly looking for one from our last camping trip, which prompted digging through the minivan to see if it had gotten stashed somewhere in there.

The flashlight we were looking for never did turn up. Instead we found this:

DSCF3820

It’s a flashlight, obviously, by Eddie Bauer. It is also, though:

DSCF3823

A socket-and-screwdriver set. Flashlights and socket sets, two things that go together like chocolate and tuna fish…

…unless you were my dad. Since my spouse and I beat my younger brother to having kids, we ended up with the minivan when my dad died. My mom had gotten a thorough mechanical review of it, and cleaned out most of the stuff that my dad had left in there. Most.

My dad was always putting things in the van. It was not only his commuting vehicle, it was the catering vehicle and the barbecue puller (we had a trailer-sized gas-and-lava-rock grill). It was where he kept his stuff. I still remember when he got a car phone, how it sat between the seats in its leather box, hardly ever used. He also filled the van up with flashlights, because apparently you could never have enough of them. By the time I got the van, it still had a couple of the big Maglites, the kind that for some reason I will always associate with Richard Grieco breaking cantaloupes on 21 Jump Street (something about proving to gangers that a crowbar, not a cop flashlight, killed their buddy). There were matchbooks. There were a couple of sponges. A first aid kit. A fire extinguisher. A pair of my dad’s sunglasses that I wore until they broke.

And, under the passenger seat, this flashlight-socket set that had remained out of both sight and mind for years. It is such a dad thing. You never know when you might need to shed some light on some…emergency auto repairs? That would have made more sense if my dad had been the sort who did his own automotive work. His level of expertise, like mine, ended mostly at checking fluids.

It’s such a goofy thing. Why would anybody make it? You can still get them, apparently, so you can “never be caught unprepared for household emergencies or repairs.” The reviews mention that keeping charged batteries in it is a challenge, and most of the praise is that it’s a convenient package for the small socket set, or that the flashlight was handy during a power outage, not that there have been times when having a flashlight and socket wrenches saved the day.

But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Saving the day, I mean. That’s what dads want to do. We get sold, sometimes, on the fantasy of the perfect tool for the job. My dad was hardly immune to this, even in the kitchen, where a good paring knife and a good chef’s knife and your hands can accomplish at least 80% of what you need. Despite this, we had a few kitchen tools that we only used once or twice. I’m sure there were a few that never made it out of the cupboard.

Being a dad is the same way—as much as we might want to have the perfect, day-saving tool, the real work is the stuff you do every day with basic knife skills. In doing the dishes. In paying attention to your ingredients. In knowing the people you’re feeding. I can’t help slipping into kitchen metaphors because that’s where my dad lived. That’s where it was easiest for me to get along with him, to understand him. That’s where he taught me so much of what, like all sons, it took me a long time to understand: we want to save the day. We want gadgets that are perfectly suited to the problems. We want to have a magic wand to fix things for the people we care about…

…but we don’t. We have work to do, everyday work, and every day. If we really want to be good at the fatherhood thing, that’s the work we must do. There are no magic wands, and rarely do we have a perfect tool for the job.

Still, the flashlight/socket set has gone back into the van. Who knows? It might save a day.

Reality’s Got Teeth

If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh?
If you poison us, do we not die?
—Shylock, Merchant of Venice (III.i)

Most of what I write is fantastic.

waits the necessary beat

…by which I mean it’s not real, nor is it intended to be. I don’t think there are many places that becomes clearer than in the way so many of the novels I read and games I play deal with violence and its consequences. In most roleplaying games, damage is abstracted to hit points or health levels. It usually doesn’t matter where you get hit or what you get hit with, because damage is just another stat that you track. Healing, likewise, is a matter of popping a healing potion or medkit, sometimes resting a few days. Few games deal with scarring. I’ve yet to see any deal with rehabilitation.

A lot of the novels I enjoy are the same way. Our heroes get the crap beaten out of them. They get stabbed or shot or scorched by magic. Then, a chapter or two later (sometimes just a page or two later), they’re back to running across rooftops or dueling with evil wizards or piloting starfighters. Writers—myself included—build in medical technology or healing magic that’s just as fantastic as the dragons or fireballs or jump gates. I’ve tried, in the novels I’ve written, to keep track of injuries, to let them mean something. But I’m guilty, too, of slapping magical healing or nanosurgery or such on my characters once the crisis has passed.

Partly, it’s a genre expectation. Partly, it’s really hard to effectively write a scene where being able to sit up unassisted for fifteen minutes is a victory. Mostly, I think, we as writers and readers find pain, well, painful. Agonizing months of rehab, scars that don’t fully heal? No thanks. Get me back to the monsters and swordfights and ancient mysteries.

Recently, a family member was in a serious car accident—the “we’re not sure she’s going to live” kind of car accident. She spent a week in the hospital with a laundry list of trauma. Now that she’s out of the hospital…she still has that laundry list of trauma. Her recovery will take months. Realistically, she may never recover 100% of what the accident took. Almost dying will do that to you. Right now, the walk from bed to the bathroom is a hike to Mordor carrying the one ring.

Injuries have consequences. Pain is real. If you prick us, we bleed, whether or not we’re Jewish. This is why current U.S. politics are seeping so deeply into so many lives: policies cause material harm, whether that’s choosing between health insurance and utilities or facing deportation or understanding that your rights aren’t as good as somebody else’s. Life isn’t fair, but that’s no excuse for abandoning the work of trying to make it better.

Watching my sister-in-law in her hospital room, working to breathe, only inconsistently able to track what had happened to her and what was going around her, I couldn’t help thinking “there’s no way to write this pain.” That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Writing and reading promote empathy. When reality has the kind of bite it does right now, that’s more important than ever.

Forty-Five

Embed from Getty Images

On January 20th, we inaugurated Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States.

I remember, back in February of 2016, before Trump was even properly on track for the Republican nomination, writing a post on Facebook about belief in policies not making people good or evil. (There were a lot of moral judgments flying around between Berners and Clinton supporters on top of the tumult in the Republican field.) One of my high school friends pushed me on a particular point of phrasing. At that time, I confessed that Trump had said things that went well beyond the political for me, things that crossed moral lines.

In February.

A year ago.

The outrages and the outrageous have only compounded since then. We now have a sitting president who boasted about his ability to sexually assault women with impunity. We have a president who mixes George W. Bush’s insight and Reagan’s nostalgic machismo with Nixon’s paranoia, disdain for intellectuals, and ethical corner-cutting. His campaign strategy was that of the most effective internet trolls: keep spewing shit, ignore anybody who tries to call you on it, and then yell about the bias of the mods. He approached the campaign with all the savvy of a reality TV star.

With a substantial assist from the electoral college, Americans kicked the only alternative off the island.

I’d watched Brexit unfold in real time through the social media accounts of European friends. There was disbelief. There was grief. There was a sense that an order was ending for all the wrong reasons. People predicted immediate disaster.

November 10th felt the same way. I’m not going to lie: I cried. It wasn’t in disbelief, though—I live in Texas. I grew up in rural Idaho. Hell, I’ve spent time in the deeply-red outer ring suburbs of the Twin Cities. There’s a lot of bigotry in this country, much of it quiet and wearing the clothes of class and the trappings of “responsibility.” Even more, though, there are many people who already see the world ending, for whom progressivism and any hint of relativism are failings of both morality and civilization. There are people who see zero-sum games everywhere they look and understand others’ rise as their loss. There are those who believe fervently in American exceptionalism and national pride. Trump was able to tap into all of that. I cried that day because the world I want for my students, for my own kids, is not the “great again” one that Trump spun for the crowds.

Is the best case scenario for our president “too incompetent to really damage much”? Alas, that’s unlikely. He’s built a cabinet of the rich and richer, of executives and careerists who have in many cases aggressively argued to end the existence of the government offices they’re about to lead. Steve “Breitbart” Bannon is his chief policy advisor. Even if Trump himself is too busy throwing Twitter fits about the meanies who make fun of him, that cabinet is going to make things happen.

The media won’t save us. It can’t. Let me tell you about one of the impossible situations teachers occasionally face. Sometimes, there’s a student who decides to say “no.” No threat of consequences will move her. No appeal to personal responsibility, to judgment, to the needs of fellow-students will dent that “no.” As a teacher, your only recourse is to call in administrator (or, sometimes, an SRO). Trump has said “no” to the media in so many ways. He has said “no” to the American people when they have asked about his tax returns, his potential conflicts of interest, and, in most cases, any description of policy beyond “best,” “outstanding,” and “terrific.” He’s the president now, and he doesn’t care. There’s no administrator to call in. His surrogates are already talking, literally, about alternative facts… We’ve taken internet echo chambers into a real reductio ad absurdum.

There were protests over the weekend. As Congress moves to gut the Affordable Care Act—a law, incidentally, that guarantees my son his health insurance—their phones are busy as hell. There are calls to make sure the cabinet nominees get at least standard ethics office screenings. We can push back. We might lose. We will lose on some things, because it’s not for nothing that Trump was elected. It’s not for nothing that Republicans control government. Democracy means losing sometimes.

What we can’t lose is democracy, as fragile and incomplete as our American one has always been. We will have to build our own bulwarks against the flood of propaganda that is already flowing from the White House with its “alternative facts.” We must keep one another from falling into “some people say…” no matter how much we’d like those things to be true or untrue.

This isn’t reality TV anymore. It’s reality. We have an obligation as citizens to deal with it that way.