What Can I Do? Redux

Fifteen months ago, I wrote a post titled “What Can I Do?” about Ferguson, Syria, the Ukraine, depression, and trying to make a difference in the world. In the time since that post, the U.S. has experienced nearly 400 mass shootings. Last week, activists (humans!) protesting police brutality in my old Minneapolis neighborhood were shot by white supremacists. Chicago’s police superintendent just resigned over a cover-up of a shooting that has led to murder charges. The U.K. just voted to bomb Syria. France has increased bombing in Syria in the wake of a terrorist murder spree in Paris. U.S. presidential candidates talk glibly about shutting down mosques. There’s a climate conference happening in Paris that, like its predecessors, seems doomed to handwringing and little meaningful action.

Excuse the profanity, but: things fucking suck right now.

That doesn’t mean everything sucks, nor do things suck for everybody. There are a lot of us who are insulated from the direct effects of catastrophe. I’m in an exurban district this year. My students worry about the local cops giving them traffic tickets, not shooting them. I like my job. My personal problems have become, mostly, typical American middle class ones. Hell, I’ve even gotten work under enough control to be blogging again.

This insulation from the direct effect of crisis makes it all too easy for outrage fatigue to set in—especially when social media is filled with people shouting about the (often imaginary) things they’re angry about, or about the things they want you to be angry about. It’s easy to turn media—social and otherwise—off for a while and think instead about what you want for diner, or when you’re going to get the car in for an oil change, or how to get your kids to do their homework. That’s a perfectly human response.

It does not make the problems go away. Really, this is privilege in a nutshell: the ability to choose when to care about crises, to decide whether or not you want to be affected by them.

My old neighbors don’t get that choice.

Syrian civilians don’t get that choice.

Victims of the flooding in Chennai don’t get that choice.

By all means, turn off social media. I had to for a few weeks. But turn if off knowing that changing the channel doesn’t change the problem.

I wrote, back in August of 2014, about choosing hope, that hope is the opposite of despair and depression. What I ask you to do, what I tell myself to do, is this: choose hope. Choose hope every time. Don’t choose to hope that somebody else solves the problem. When you make choices in how to spend your time, in how to treat the people around you, choose hope.

Speak, in the hope that your words will be heard, knowing that words left unsaid never will be.

Act, in the hope that you can make a difference, even though you can’t see the future.

The Nineties were awash in the slogan “think globally, act locally.” As the internet has flattened the media landscape and our sense of the world, it’s worth remembering that. We don’t have a magic wand. We can, as a global community, share our despair, share our concerns, share even our hope. When we act, though, we have to do it locally. That can mean lobbying your elected representatives. That can mean volunteering. It can be something as simple as talking to your neighbors—you know, the ones with the weird flags on their porch.

We will never be able to bomb an idea. As satisfying as fantasies of wiping out the extremism of Daesh or of making police officers into perfect instruments of peace-keeping may be, they’re still fantasies. We can get our world a little closer to those fantasies with the dozens of decisions we make every day, those times when we choose fear or apathy or hope. I ask you, from my tiny internet pulpit, to choose hope.

How can you do that? Look around. See where the people in your community are hurting, and do what you can to help. Neil Gaiman said, of writing, you put one word after another. It is that easy, and that hard. Choosing hope is the same: it is that easy, and it is that hard.


Song of the Year Edition

Give me some music. Now, good morrow, friends.
Now, good Cesario, but that piece of song,
That old and antique song we heard last night:
Methought it did relieve my passion much,
More than light airs and recollected terms
Of these most brisk and giddy-paced times:
Come, but one verse.

—Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, II, iv

How much of a year can a single song encompass? If we judge by saturation, 2013 gave us plenty of candidates: Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” the catchy bundle of terrible ideas and musical plagiarism that was Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” the ubiquity of first Macklemore and then Lorde…but I’m not really interested in picking a 2013 song of 2013. This is a personal project rather than a stab at music criticism.

2012’s song of the year was (for me), the traditional “Wayfaring Stranger.” Here’s a version sung by a Rick Rubin-era Johnny Cash:

I also really dig this version by Bill Monroe. There are lots of versions, actually, because it’s a powerful, melancholy song. I sang it a lot more than I listened to it, though. Back in Minneapolis we had a piano. I liked to bang “Wayfaring Stranger” out over open fifths, sometimes with a little syncopation in the accompaniment. I also sang it an awful lot in the car as I drove to and from the suburbs.

The song perfectly captured what it was like for me to be finishing my dissertation, punctuating it with intermittent adjunct jobs, and hoping that there would be something on the other side. The late stages of dissertations are about as close to “a world of woe” as you can get without actual material hardship. It is an intensely lonely song. Much of my 2012 was intensely lonely.

2013 wasn’t as bad for that, even though I’ve spent the whole year unemployed and the last third of it in a new town where I have mostly my in-laws for company. There was not as much struggle this year, though there were some abysmal lows for me in February and again in December. I spent a lot of time in the gym over the spring and summer. The exercise helped balance my life. So did getting an hour or two without the kids several days each week. I played a good bit of ultimate over the summer, too. The FSM was also kind enough to grant Minneapolis a week of perfect September weather in July before we made the move to Texas in August.

Despite all that, 2013 has been a rough year. World and domestic political news has been awful. Higher ed keeps finding new ways to cannibalize its best resources. I’ve flailed through (and continue to flail at) a job hunt in a town where I’ve got painfully few connections. My successes with writing can’t always buoy me amidst the sucking sea of other failures…no matter how reasonable those failures are or the steps they mark toward success.

So here’s my song of 2013:

“Unsatisfied” from the Replacements’ classic album Let it Be. You can hear what it sounds like to be a directionless 20-something in the mid-80s U.S. It holds up pretty damn well for a 30-something trying to find some direction in three decades later. Paul Westerberg’s vocals are powerfully raw and thick with yearning. That is how this year has felt. Even though it hasn’t been an especially hopeful year, I’m hopeful as I write this. I want better for myself, but more importantly from myself.

I have a novel to finish, a job out there (somewhere), kids to keep raising as best I can with my awesome partner…there will be plenty to do in 2014. If enough of it comes through, maybe the next song of the year will be in a major key. How’s that for a resolution?

Thanks for your reading in 2013, and best wishes for the new year!

If You Build It…

“If you build it, they will come.”

The whispers of Kevin Costner’s cornfield ghosts are not pearls of secret wisdom: if you build it, they might come. They might not. Especially if you don’t tell anybody about it. To get to the truth in those whispers, season them with some negatives: if you don’t build it, they can’t come. You will never get anything published if you do not complete your manuscript. You will never get in better shape without actually doing the exercise.

All the to-do lists in the world won’t change that.

Seventeen years ago, in a rental car somewhere in Appalachia, I told my grandmother I wanted to be a writer. That was my plan. I went to college with that plan, happy to be an English major and mix creative writing with literature courses. I wrote for the school weekly. I put (my) poems up on the wall outside my dorm room. I wore a lot of black.

And then I signed up for a second semester of music theory to secure reduced-price trombone lessons. Even though I kept wearing black, I was soon spending most of my time in the music department. I still took my English courses, and I still enjoyed them. The intersection between words and music fascinated me. I concocted an honors project that involved writing a piece for orchestra, accompanied by a longish narrative poem. I hadn’t given up on being a writer, but I was busy being a composer.

If I had been a little less confident in my writing, things might have been different. As it was, I convinced myself that pursuing graduate work in English was wrong. I hated picking apart literary works; it felt like vivisecting a bird and being dismayed that it no longer flew. I did not think I would get much from an MFA beyond the time to simply write. (Never mind that I was and continue to be interested in the kind of writing usually dismissed as genre fiction, which was not exactly popular in the academy.) No, if I was going to learn something, it would be by pursuing further study in music composition.

That lasted about six weeks. I missed writing papers. I found the pragmatic questions composers asked about music shallow. (I was 22. I thought a lot of things were shallow.) I switched from composition to a dual degree in composition and music history. I got to write papers again. I got to research the esoteric questions that interested me. Meanwhile, I kept composing. I wrote some music that I still like almost ten years later. I was not writing a lot of prose, though, and poetry had pretty much fallen out of my life until I had to concoct a libretto for my thesis composition. By the time I started my doctorate, my work was about performance and theory and sociology, not about words.

I became a scholar, and that conversation in the rental car fell away.

I have spent most of the last seven years of my life taking care of my kids and working on a Ph.D. in musicology. The former gave me perspective on the latter. Maybe a little too much perspective, because I could not make myself obsessed with my research. (I eventually managed to foster an obsession with getting it done, which proved much more fruitful.)

The writing never went away, not really. I’ve written constantly for games, started but not finished a pair of novels, and continued to live with words. Academics live with words a bit differently, but I think that I am mostly finished with being an academic. I’m ready to get back to writing, really writing…writing the stories I care about, the poems that catch in my mind’s ear, about the way that favorite authors have kept me going.

So here I am trying to build something. Thanks for coming. I hope I do my job well enough to draw you back.