Friday, June 24, 2016

Bull-Ish on America

Bull-Ish on America



Powerful things, words. In the still-gaping wounds from the immediate aftermath of the most horrific event to ever touch me personally, I have been reminded that, while bullets took and shattered precious lives, the crossfire of words can be almost as destructive—and unifying. Words, the constituent parts of language, are ever-sprouting from the culture to affect how we interact. Sometimes benign and playful, sometimes less so, we see language evolve to reflect the boundless blue sky of possibilities where dreams and nightmares intersect with reality.

One such word was newly popularized during the era of W: “Ish.” In some circles it became a rap-infused anagram for excrement—rhymes with “spit.” In other circles, it became a popular suffix that meant an approximation, a source of noncommittal equivocation: “I’ll be there nine-ish,” and “That shirt is cute-ish,” soon begat a standalone entry into the lexicon. Following up a sentence with “ish” became the centrist’s non-comedic equivalent of Borat’s mildly comedic “Not!”

Although I may have stopped agreeing with Rush Limbaugh around the time Pulse was being built, one of his catch phrases still resonates: “Words have meaning.” As someone who has produced nothing but words in his career, he can attest to their power. We must admit, like our own president implicitly does, that he is right.

If memory serves, this new(ish) word became fully pervasive, at least politically relevant, during the presidential run of John McCain. To many of us Republicans, he was conservative-ish enough, but with a long history as an effective legislator, too prone to compromise on our core values.

Oh, but for the good ol’ days. Ish.

Running against an eloquent law professor for whom there was no room between words and their precise meaning, McCain’s ish-ness was too reminiscent of the Clintons’ just-left-of-Centrism which doomed Hillary’s 2008 primary run. 2008 was, it seemed, the zenith and death of the radical-ish idea that a common sense middle could lead this country of rabid partisans. John Huntsman in 2012 and John Kasich in 2016, moderate executives, seemed to be the last gasps of this short-lived phenomenon.

The nation seemed too divided among enemies for two of the nation’s great religions: Islam and Christianity to thrive side by side. Apologists dug in their feet and sharpened their tongues. Even as enemies of the other isolated, as representative, the words and activities of those small numbers—Westboro and ISIL—who were at best Islamish and Christianish, the President knew and implicitly asserted that they are false prophets and perverters  of their respective faiths (and of his own):

"We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.”

And, in a statement of self-immolation, “...On Easter, I do reflect on the fact that as a Christian, I am supposed to love. I have to say that sometimes when I listen to less than loving expressions by Christians I get concerned…”

As a governing reality, Obama’s rhetoric may not have always matched his actions—constrained by an uncooperative Congress and the stark realities necessitating pragmatic management of the economic and diplomatic business of government—but he has always chosen his words carefully: professorially.

Today, in light of the Pulse massacre—at least for those of us whose friends’ homes were hovered over by helicopters on June 12—we would like for those bullets sprayed from a hate-infused terrorist’s weapons to have been only deadly-ish; for 49 souls that was not the case. As we have watched a city—a worldwide community—coalesce around the tragedy, we have also seen battles play out with the words that could describe the event.

Was it terrorism? Was it hate?

POTUS, true to form, argued unapologetically that it was both, “We know enough to say that this was an act of terror and an act of hate. As Americans we are united in grief, in outrage, and in resolve to defend our people.”

In so doing, he reaffirmed his command of language. In nuance, he understands, we find the strength of language. He could have chosen an “ish” and lessened the wrath of the politicos on both sides whose posturing required the singularity of the hard c at the end of “Islamic” or the hard t that punctuates “hate.” He made the calculated decision to acknowledge both in his hard wrought statement—in his choice of words. Brilliantly, even before the Pulse massacre, at a National Prayer breakfast, he asserted, “And we have to reject a politics that seeks to manipulate prejudice or bias, and targets people because of religion.”

On the other end of the communication spectrum, Trump demanded he blame “Radical Islamic Terrorism,” that he speak words designed to alienate and divide along imaginary lines.

Obama resisted the bait.

And so, true to form in the throes of the 21st Century version of the Culture Wars, one group blames Christians while the other blames Muslims. Presidentially, Obama blamed neither. Instead, he framed a debate that fully empowered both defensive positions. Here, he proved his overwhelming optimism in the American people while concurrently failing to lead any single subset of us.

“Wait, did he just say that?” You may be re-reading that last sentence.

Let’s be clear. Obama’s words were not “ishy.” To the contrary, they proclaimed the stark and unequivocal equality of two whole reasons: hatred AND terrorism. He didn’t chose one, one hundred percent. He didn’t choose both, as fifty percent each. He confirmed his legacy of fuzzy math through division. He affirmed both reads of the attacks on Pulse with equality: Two singular one-hundred percents.

With his words, he tells us that he believes that America is big enough and strong enough to maintain two fully correct—yet fully antithetical—assertions at the same time. He opened the floor to debate in the collegiate seminar that is the national discourse; he presented two wholly rational positions and implicitly said, “Here you go, America, have at it.” He led neither side, but rather stood in a lonely canyon with his hands—and words—outstretched and echoing. 

In a singular statement, he affirmed the internal beauty of a living Constitution: tension between our individual freedoms needn’t undermine our collective freedom. Speech and religion and protection exist because of each other, not despite each other.

What did his potential heirs to the Oval Office have to say?  In the shadow of President Obama’s optimistic,  two-hundred percented eloquence, Trump pandered to his forty-two (and dwindling) percent, dwelling in the first standard deviation:

Look, we’re led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he’s got something else in mind. And the something else in mind—you know, people can’t believe it. People cannot, they cannot believe that President Obama is acting the way he acts and can’t even mention the words “radical Islamic terrorism.” There’s something going on. It’s inconceivable. There’s something going on.”

Can we even call this logical-ish? Certainly ineloquent, clearly misinformed, and at best cover-worthy of the only first-amendment-protected, supermarket-checkout-littering media outlet willing to endorse his drivel.

The other presumptive nominee took a slightly more diplomatic approach, drawing upon her decades of politicking and upon her tenure as Obama’s Secretary of State. In light of Trump’s statements, her middle-ground reflects Obama’s approach, but does not capture it. She falls upon the established tropes of her-until-now-second-placeness. She slices the issue down the left-of-middle:

I have clearly said we -- whether you call it radical jihadism or radical Islamism, I'm happy to say either. I think they mean the same thing."

And here’s the difference between being Barack Obama and being Hillary Clinton in 2016. One knows words like a pro and one uses them like a pro. One, the current POTUS, exudes optimism in his words: we are great enough to debate and still live side by side. The other, the next POTUS, reflects conciliation: we are similar in our shared Americanness and should drive toward the middle ground. One, Barack Obama, celebrates an America that overflows its bounds, two hundred percent. The other, Clinton, celebrates an America that exerts its current potential for progress, one hundred percent down the middle, 52-48.

I have little doubt that Hillary, when president, will finally be able to stop campaigning and start growing the discourse like her predecessor. I also believe she will help, with the friends Obama has not been so eloquent about, grow us fiscally to match that rhetorical two-hundred percent worth of stifled American economic potential.

Divided, but whole, one divides us with a chasm, the other with a dotted line.

And thus, we find ourselves faced with a linguistic challenge in November. Playing out right now, with our own backyard as the backdrop, do we choose the forty two or the one hundred? Who has the best chance of filling out our full potential—of growing and nurturing  us? Who has the best chance of fostering a generation of divisive bullies? It seems like a no-brainer (because of the twenty-second amendment and, perhaps, because we can’t survive another four years of academic leadership instead of administration).

Islamic or Islamish? It’s all, at the end of the season, who you’re listening to and who you’re talking to.

It’s all just words, not bullets. Right?

Or maybe we’re just too mired in the bull-ishness to recognize the difference.


Maybe it’s all just bull-ish. 

Sunday, June 12, 2016

No PULSE!

No PULSE!



No Pulse!
               No tears left
No Pulse!
               To cry, Oh!
No Pulse!
   Here they come.
No Pulse!
               Hearts now stopped.
No Pulse!
               Hearts broken.
No Pulse!
               Wild Chaos.
No Pulse!
               Mass Slaughter.
No Pulse!
               Sick murder.
No Pulse!
               Hate from love:
No Pulse!
               Destruction
No Pulse!
               from progress:
No Pulse!
               Atrocious.
No Pulse!
               “Get out now!
No Pulse!
   “Keep running!”
No Pulse!
               Gun showers
No Pulse!
               To blood bath.
No Pulse!
               Like WTC
No Pulse!
               One and Two.
No Pulse!
               Like OKC.
No Pulse!
               Like Stonewall.
No Pulse!
               Like Selma,
No Pulse!
               Montgomery.
No Pulse!
               Like Charleston.
No Pulse!
               Like Trayvon,
No Pulse!
               Like Paris
No Pulse!
               Like Brussels
No Pulse!
               Tel Aviv,
No Pulse!
               Palestine.
No Pulse!
               Upstairs Lounge.
No Pulse!
               Orlando.
No Pulse!
               Radical
No Pulse!
               Terrorists
No Pulse!
               Must not win:
No Pulse!
               May not win:
No Pulse!
               Shall not win.
No Pulse!
               Don’t forget!
No Pulse!
               Attack one
No Pulse!
               Attack all.
No Pulse!
               We live on.
No Pulse!
               For martyrs
No Pulse!
               Dance, sing, love.
No Pulse!
   Beats silenced,
No Pulse!
               Just for now.
No Pulse!
               Advocate
No Pulse!
               Civil Rights.
No Pulse!
               United
No Pulse!
               In our grief.
No Pulse!
               In resolve.

No Pulse!

               Burn in hell.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

I'll Bet You Think This Essay's About You

I’ll Bet You Think This Essay’s About You



When I was growing up, my parents had an extensive record collection. Yes, albums: the big kind (thirty-threes) with long-feather-haired androgynously thin artist’s portraits fronting cardboard covers and cursive writing heralding singers’ names. Stacked up in a corner next to the giant speakers that pretended status in the mid-eighties, seventies music stars stared at us as we ate microwaved TV dinners from the breakfast bar of our 1960s-built split-plan ranch.  As far back as I remember, we never listened to a single one of those albums. Nonetheless, they litter my memories of childhood. One album stands out more than any other, mostly because the over-skinny, long-haired, jowly face of Carly Simon staring back at me from beneath those jumbo-sized speakers looked a lot like my mother.

It wasn’t until I was much older that I actually put together a faceless oldie song that I heard on the radio with that face.

Like that stack of albums, there are nearly as many people on my FaceBook feed that I don’t know as those I do. I use the word “know” pretty loosely. Three categories, I think, comprise my feed:

1.      Besties. Those people that I know and love. We like each other’s stuff and even comment on each others’ pages. We may not see each other in person very often, but when we do, it’s as if we haven’t missed a day. We never miss a beat.

Many of them already know the story about my fascination with Carly Simon. They have similar stories about 70s pop stars like the Carpenters and the Gibbs and Elvis, depending upon whether they were first, middle, last, or only children.

Childhood buddies, favorite teachers, boyfriends (ex and current, every single one), ex-girlfriends, most family members, church friends, and a few randomly spectacular people I’ve been lucky enough to meet along the way comprise this group. I’m friends with their parents and their siblings and their current and past lovers and their children.

I love sharing life with them and being shared with. Their accomplishments buoy my heart. Their despairs break it. I like their kitten pics, absurd philosophical musings, and Trump rants. We argue politics and still love each other despite our differences. I’ve shared their new and broken relationships with them. They know my deepest secrets and keep them, except perhaps among each other when appropriate. They read my poetry and buy my books. I like their DJ pages (good Jesus, how many DJs and drag queens do I know?) and their business pages. They reciprocate by liking my author-fan-page and poetry blog. I’ve watched their children grow up and go off to college. I’ve watched some of their children’s children do the same. I’ve watched some of them die very publicly; they remain on my feed as a reminder every year on their birthdays and in my “you have memories with…” reminiscences.

If my facebook was comprised of these people and nobody else, I could go on living. Their absence would leave a crater in my life.

2.     Hook-ups. As it turns out, even if I “met” a guy or girl only once or (if they were lucky) twice, many have found their way into my FB world. I’m not going to say that this is a huge number (I stopped counting in the early aughts in the triple digits), but others might. Many of these people are pretty interesting in their own rights. I may have passed in and out of their lives pretty quickly (I’ve never been one to last very long), but it’s been fun to watch the trajectory of their lives since I crossed through them. Some famous, some rich, some hard-working, some idealistic, some disappointingly lazy or frustratingly angry. I’ve watched them go back to school, get new jobs, move far away. I’ve watched them fall in and out of love. I’ve watched them get sober and off drugs. I’ve watched sadly as some failed quite publicly. Some, it turns out, unexpectedly crossed over to the “Bestie” category.

I enjoy what they share. I may not always get it or like it; sometimes its just plain stupid or offensive but I like it. I happen to like many of these people. They’ve seen me naked (or at least partly so) after all. And I them. That breaks down a lot of barriers and smooths over a lot of discomfort.

We may not share the same memories about music, or about Carly Simon, but we appreciate current pop together: Taylor Swift and Adele and Nick Jonas: the kind of stuff we stream on iTunes while we are scrolling through Facebook. I keep them around with the hope that they’ll cross over, that one day we may reconnect, fully-clothed, and become friends.

3.     Assholes. I have an unfortunately high number of these “friends.” I wasn’t friends with them in high school, or at the clubs (in the day), or in college, or at the gym, or at that stupid party where we talked for a couple minutes over cheap vodka and cocktail wieners for a reason, but they got drunk one night and recognized my name on some friend’s list and sent me an invite. If we have a mutual friend that is in either of the above categories, I’ll usually accept.

Sometimes I’m the drunk one.

Initiator or victim, I usually regret it. And yet, my FB relationships are sticky. I’m often overly reluctant to let these people go and am disappointed when I find they’ve self-deported. I always hold out hope that they might move up.
 They’re lots of work. They pop in and out of my feed with offensive non-sequiturs, sometimes spouting ignorant anti-gay, anti-Christian, anti-American, or anti-other blathering. ANTI-anything is litter on “my” FaceBook.  Other times, it’s woe-is-me, the world-is-awful-and-it’s-all-somebody-else’s-fault lamentations. They comment on my posts with statements that make no sense or worse yet re-post others’ drivel that makes no sense.

For some reason, whenever they mention music, it’s like THE WORST! Obscure hair bands or terrible fiddle country about the good ol’ days of the Jim Crow South. They listen to the radio or old CDs in the same beat up hoopty they parked under the pier while skipping school in 1991.

While I love FaceBook for the way it’s shrunk the world (like BOSE speakers), it’s also made the navigation of personal relationships different. We can hide behind avatars, putting forth an image of who we’d like to be even if it isn’t actually who we are. For better or worse, it’s a source of idea-sharing and angst, a venue for laughter and tears, a source for news and entertainment. Most of all, it is a mirror—maybe a prism—through which we can see ourselves and others and ourselves in others. It’s like a soundtrack or an LP that we produce and consume. It is banality.


It is vanity: “With one eye in the mirror as we watch ourselves gavotte.”