About myfreesentences

My novel, Flowers on Concrete, is available in paperback or as an Ebook. Please peek inside the sample at amazon and discover if it's something you might enjoy. I'll post short fiction and muse on various aspects of writing and always enjoy reading the same. Find me on facebook: GregMetcalfAuthorPage and on twitter: GregMetcalfMGP

NFL Boycott: I wouldn’t kneel for the Anthem but I will stand with a man who chose to

Football is the only sport I still follow through the regular season. There are too many games in the other sports, so I only pay attention to the playoffs. Sunday afternoons watching football in the fall is a great unwind for the weekend, and I think the Browns were going to have a great year. But I have to give that up because of the NFL’s treatment of Colin Kaepernick.

It’s really difficult to argue that Kaepernick didn’t deserve even a look from a team. For a short while, he was looking like a premiere quarterback in the league. He’s still in his twenties. Think of some of the former solid quarterbacks who have at least gotten looks as potential backups. Think of some of the baggage some of those players carried and still got hired. (Michael Vick, as an example.) So we know why he didn’t get the shot. He knelt during the National Anthem.

This either upset the NFL powers that be or the powers that be of the NFL determined this upset enough of their fan base that they decided the controversy of shunning him outweighed the controversy of allowing him to play. The fans offended by Kaepernick’s kneeling for the National Anthem have all entered his mind and determined that he is disrespecting the flag of the country and everyone who fought and died protecting the freedoms that flag represents. Because to recognize that he is actually exercising one of the freedoms that our country was founded on by choosing a form of protest that would, and undeniably did, draw attention to an issue in this country genuinely important to him, and one he was willing to risk his livelihood on, which it has ultimately cost him, would prove they’re being self-righteous, which those fans are motivated not to do.

We actually don’t know what motivates Colin Kaepernick to kneel during the National Anthem, not for sure, but everything points to him being a man of integrity with the legitimate issue of instances of blacks consistently receiving unfair treatment, including getting shot and killed, by some portion of the nation’s police force at statistically anomalous rates. Wherever we stand on that issue, no one can point to it as trite.

So this is about the NFL, either by capitulating to a portion of its fan base or acting on its own set of beliefs, telling an individual he must stand for the country’s anthem. Forced displays of loyalty to the country, besides being oxymoronic, are in direct opposition to everything America stands for, which ironically seems to me more disrespectful to the flag and to the people who died protecting the country. By supporting the NFL, we’re supporting forced displays of loyalty. So I feel I must withdraw all support from the NFL. For me, this won’t be too hard. I maybe watch ten games a season. For other people this will be a lot harder. I would suggest doing what you can. If everyone gives a little less time, attention, and money to the NFL this season, they’ll get the message that we stand with Colin Kaepernick’s right to kneel during the Anthem. They’ll get the message that we won’t continue to support a multi-billion dollar business while it flouts one of the principles this nation was founded on.

Advertisements

Why the Confederate Flag Should Go

People are sincerely asking about the Confederate flag and other symbols, statues of leaders from the South during slavery, being taken down. A lot of this can be explained by correcting the common misconception that there is such a thing as a private language. Language is by its very nature public. You can take a very enjoyable trip down the rabbit-hole on this by reading an essay by David Foster Wallace, “Authority and American Usage,” which is an essay about usage dictionaries that is gobs more fun to read than you just imagined when you read “an essay about usage dictionaries.”

Symbols, like the Confederate flag, work the same way. What the public thinks of at the sight of an image matters over private opinion. This will make more sense when we look at an even more extreme symbol, the swastika. The swastika was a symbol of peace the Nazis stole because they thought it looked cool. No one would get away with wearing a swastika on his or her shirt with a message underneath saying, If you find this shirt offensive, you don’t know your history (because it started as a symbol of peace.) But probably just about everyone has seen someone wearing a shirt with a Confederate flag on it, accusing us of not knowing our history if we’re offended. Whether or not people who wear those shirts truly feel they’re celebrating their heritage or not is irrelevant, because symbols, like language, are not private.

Then people are saying, Who’s next? If we take down the Robert E. Lee statues, what about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, they were slave owners? Personally, I’m not a huge fan of either one of them. John Adams is my favorite founding father; he was an abolitionist, when being an abolitionist was rare and unpopular. Some of the things I’ve read about Washington and Jefferson leave me feeling they are over-glorified, but that is irrelevant because it’s private. The public thinking of Washington and Jefferson are of the ideals of America, that’s what they represent in the public view. That matters.

If this all sounds too arbitrary, I’ll invite you down a second rabbit-hole and answer the Who’s next question. As a childhood fan of Cleveland’s baseball team, I’ve had a challenging relationship with that team’s name and especially its mascot. I stopped wearing the hat, but it was only after I spent a few hours reading studies that I finally committed to Change the name, change the mascot. In brief, scientific study shows that the image of a caricature of a minority groups decreases a person’s sensitivity to all minority groups. How do they know? They have questions that reveal that sensitivity level and ask them to two groups, one that receives a primer of a Chief Wahoo image and one that receives a neutral image. They’ve studied this backwards and forwards. They’ve had to because the results get mostly ignored. And when Native Americans see the image, they score lower on levels of self-esteem. This is a group of people with much higher suicide rates. They even went so far as to select Native Americans who claim to not be bothered by the Chief Wahoo image being used for Cleveland’s baseball team and those people still scored lower on self-esteem after being primed by the image.

I’ve never gone down the rabbit-hole on the effect of seeing the Confederate flag. It would surprise me if the findings weren’t similar to the numerous studies corroborating this effect from seeing the Chief Wahoo image. I brought it up to illustrate the point that the argument that people finding something offensive is their problem because to the person wearing that shirt or flying that flag or putting that statue on a pedestal the image means something else is null and void. Symbols don’t work like that.

Why ‘I don’t usually get political but’ should be cut from political posts

There is a quote I like to apply broadly to life: “My vocabulary is perfect. Yours is either deficient or pretentious.”

It’s sarcastic, but makes the point that we tend to get fixated on ourselves and forget that other people have reached different conclusions about how to live, the words people choose to use being just one example. Do some people, sometimes, intentionally use 50 cent words to appear impressive? Sure. Are some people’s vocabularies so deficient they’re poor communicators? Also sure. Our current president’s limited vocabulary is a legitimate concern. He uses words like “great” and “terrible” and fails to articulate to the extent that people don’t know where he stands on important policy issues. We can change the quote to “I post about politics at the correct times. Other people either post too often about things that aren’t that important or they fail to post when they should.”

I’ve been told to my face that all I ever post about is how much I hate Trump. (Kind of jokingly but there’s a little truth in every joke.) First of all, that’s not accurate. That’s an impression someone’s formed whose thinking matches the point that quote illustrates. People don’t really know why I post what I post, so their guesses about my motivations say more about them than me. I’m probably like most people who lean left, I posted a handful of times my concerns about Trump and my support of Clinton leading up to the election. I didn’t want to make a contentious political season any more contentious than it already was. I expected Clinton to win and for the country to heal from the stress of an election season. Then Trump won and besides being deeply upset, I felt deeply guilty. I didn’t have a Clinton/Kaine sign in my yard to counter the Trump/Pence one across the street. I didn’t have a Clinton/Kaine bumper sticker on my car. So I decided I wanted to be more involved. I made an effort to get to the Women’s March in Washington D.C. I ended up at the Cleveland Women’s March instead. And I’ve been posting my thoughts and opinions more freely than I’m comfortable posting them.

I don’t expect to be hailed for pushing out of my comfort zone and posting more about politics, but I also get the sense that those of us posting about Trump are viewed as being bitter about the election or cynical or intentionally obnoxious. If a post is obnoxious to someone that doesn’t mean that the person who made the post was trying to be obnoxious. That’s essentially what “I don’t usually get political but” is trying to convey, that I’m not one of those obnoxious types who post about politics to be obnoxious, I have a genuine opinion I feel is important enough to share. It’s the equivalent of saying, “I don’t usually use 50 cent words but I’m about to use one but I’m not like the pretentious “other people” who use them.

If Trump has crossed a new line that motivates you to post about him, if it’s the banning transgender people from military service that’s done it, then welcome. Share that opinion. But why separate yourself from those of us who had that same reaction to Trump at an earlier point and made that same decision to put ourselves out there, just at a different time? Because there’s someone else who’s still going to judge you for putting your opinion out there, now. “I don’t usually get political but” isn’t going to spare you that judgment.

That judgment is deeply flawed anyway. When I approach any situation that involves other people, I’m always, subconsciously or consciously, well or poorly, evaluating how I choose to behave with how my behavior will affect other people. I don’t intentionally choose to act in ways that will annoy other people, but I also don’t allow other people to control my behavior to a degree that makes me uncomfortable. Well or poorly, I put that thinking behind every post I make. I try to assume other people do, as well. I’ll assume you did if you cut the “I don’t usually get political but” from the beginning of your post and just share your opinion.

What Makes Us Girls

Young girls mature into women under the male gaze. This probably feels like intense scrutiny, how much so and what influence this has on ego development will vary widely, but this isn’t an experience men have with anything close to the same degree or frequency. Lana del Rey writes from the perspective of someone affected by an especially piercing male gaze. This is my interpretation.

Watch me in the swimming pool, watch me in the classroom, bathroom, slipping on my red dress, putting on my make-up

The lyrics partly stand out because I know my niece is a fan. For Christmas, she got me a copy of Honeymoon. It felt a little odd to get a CD with a Parental Advisory Explicit Content warning on the cover from my fifteen-year-old niece, but I love that she’s a fan. Because Lana del Rey’s song lyrics I find troubling don’t offend me, they don’t make me like her less, and they don’t make me think she would be a bad influence on my niece. Her lyrics aren’t misogynist, they wouldn’t be if I wrote them; they reflect the misogyny still influencing us. They’re insights, whether through characters, her author persona, or her personal reflections, into how misogyny potentially affects young women.

The last track of Born to Die particularly makes me think of my niece listening, “This is What Makes Us Girls.”

Sweet sixteen and we had arrived, walking down the street as they whistle hi hi

They feel they’ve “arrived” at the age of sixteen and the confirmation of their arrival is being cat-called on the street. But the line I find haunting is: running from the cops in our bright bikini tops, screaming ‘get us while we’re hot, get us while we’re hot.’

Get us
While we’re hot

They’re running from cops but the subtext is hard to ignore. They’re perceiving of themselves as objects under men’s gazes, being wanted gotten, aware, already, that these same men think of them as having a brief shelf life of ‘being hot.” What makes them girls is this common experience. I hope my niece grows up with that influence feeling less pronounced, but I don’t see any drawback in her being exposed to honest writing from someone who seems to have grown into a woman with that influence pronounced. It can only broaden her life perspective and if she does identify it will help her feel less alone. My niece is probably never going to choose to share with Uncle Greg her experience of becoming a woman under the male gaze and it’s not a subject I can broach with her, but she knows I like Lana del Rey, so maybe she thinks her uncle Greg gets it. Maybe one day she’ll read this blog and know I’m on her side.

How we got here with health care

I was seventeen when I had my first brain surgery. I’m an extremely lucky unlucky person because my issue was easily fixed with “a machine,” really a shunt, that I just had to trust to keep working. I got to leave the hospital to live as a healthy person, but I have a vivid memory of my doctor telling me to get a job with a big company and be sure to keep it.

At the time, I had no intention of building a life around making sure I maintained health care coverage. I mostly forgot about the machine that kept me alive. Then I got a nagging headache and my health history came back to mind. I decided I better pick up health insurance. The preliminary information some company sent me had a list of ailments and mine was on there, so I called and asked what that meant. I would go into the high-risk pool. My health insurance would cost close to two-thousand dollars a month. That headache turned out to be nothing, but my life plan of not building a life around maintaining health insurance went mostly out the window. Since then I’ve worked for two big companies and stressed about maintaining the average hours necessary to stay on their health care plans, which wasn’t always easy and would have been impossible if I’d had a condition that caused me to miss work. I’m a lucky unlucky person.

I was a naïve kid when that doctor told me to get a job with a big company and keep it. What he was essentially saying was that I’d better be careful because I’m going to turn out more expensive than I’m worth. He was right. My various insurance companies have spent way more on me than they’ve gotten back in premiums paid by me and my employers. But I’ve helped. What people who haven’t been sick probably don’t know is how much of the burden of paying for health care falls on the sick. My brain machine broke on separate occasions six months apart but on separate calendar years. I paid my maximum annual deductible both times, at that time $5,000, for a total of $10,000, out of my pocket.

The easy scapegoat is insurance companies, certainly where I directed my ire for many years, but insurance companies are just forced to maximize profit, like every other company. The problem is capitalism. Fitting health care into a capitalist system is like putting your washing machine under the cupboards above the kitchen counter where the microwave goes. The pressure has been mounting for decades in the form of rising premiums and more cost put on the sick. There is something synergistically devastating about being sick and getting the mail and finding bill after bill that you don’t know how to pay. There are people who stop taking the care because they don’t want to face the bills. Some of them risk stroke by not taking prescribed blood thinners, others just let themselves get sicker and sicker and then die.

The Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare,” didn’t solve all these problems. It wasn’t perfect, but it improved the situation by getting health insurance to a record number of Americans. These are all people who, when they get sick, are now able to go to the doctor and not the ER, which costs more money for worse long-term care that has to be covered by all of us. The claim by the GOP is that the American Health Care Act will give more choice to Americans but if you look at the details its real aim is just to fall back on the old way of hiding the problems with our health care system by leaving them for the sick minority to worry about. One of the details that stuck out to me in the new plan is a projected sixty percent hike in what insured people who get sick will have to cover themselves. The “death spiral” Paul Ryan always says “Obamacare” was in, even though the CBO reported it was not in a “death spiral,” is expected to hit especially older Americans most likely to need care. People sixty-years-old would be forced to spend half of what they make on premiums, which means they’ll forego coverage. Our ERs will have to accommodate that. People will get worse care at ERs at a higher cost that will be covered by everyone else when they can’t pay all so that a tiny percentage of the richest Americans can receive tax breaks.

The hunting and gathering days often get romanticized. When a member of a tribe, family to many of the rest of the tribe, got sick and couldn’t hunt, the tribe shared. They expected that member would get better and be back to helping the tribe and when someone else got sick the help he or she gave would be returned. Some members of these tribes were surely wounded or sick past being able to return to help hunt. That’s when human empathy kicked in. The human instinct to sacrifice to give aid but there are other human instincts like greed and selfishness. Sometimes those instincts won out. Some of these injured or sick ancient peoples were almost surely dragged out of the village and left for dead. If the countries of the world are the different villages and communities of ancient days, America is lagging in accepting the challenge of committing to caring for everyone who is a member of our village. The passage of the Affordable Care Act was a step in the right direction. The GOP’s bill is going backwards, leaving more of the sick to die unnecessarily.

Gabby: A Tribute to My Neighbor’s Dog

A few years ago, a dog across the street, often out while I was writing, became my surrogate pet. I went over and met my neighbor as a ruse to meet her. She was an old dog, she couldn’t see or hear. The man told me she didn’t know I was even there but that I could pet her. I pet her and it startled her. One day, she was no longer there and I knew why. I went over and offered my sympathies to the man. He said he sometimes still heard her in the house. I sat on my porch and wrote about Gabby, and I liked the piece, so I typed it up and gave it to the man. I never heard anything else about it. I returned to the piece later and didn’t think it held up to how it felt when I wrote it so I never did anything else with it, and I was a little embarrassed I’d given it to him.

Cut to a couple weeks ago, that house is for sale. I thought the man had moved but he’d died. I thought he’d lived alone, maybe he did, but his wife talked to me. I told her I’d visited with him, a few times, and talked to him about his dog, Gabby. She said, “Oh, are you the one that wrote him that letter? That was really nice.”

I’ve gotten a lot better over the years about floating my writing out and not worrying about what reactions it gets or if it gets a reaction or if I find out about it getting a reaction. But finding out that my tribute to Gabby at least meant enough to the man that his wife ended up knowing about it, got me to revisit this piece and now I like it again. This is what I gave the man printed out on a sheet of paper.

Gabby

A tribute to my neighbor’s dog

I became a watcher of my neighbor’s dog. I went over and introduced myself after asking my neighbor, first, if I could pet her. He said sure. “She’ll be startled, she doesn’t see or hear anymore, but she won’t mind.” Her initial lurch when I put my hand on the top of her head and then relative calm as I ran it down her back let me feel she enjoyed it, but when I returned the next day my petting her startled her again. I would always be a sudden hand on her in the familiar square of front yard she knew and trusted without use of her senses. I would always startle her.

The man was retired and this was Gabby’s hospice care. He let her out often and she must have enjoyed exploring the same patch of grass past the front steps—perhaps her dwindling senses made every visit feel different—because she would spend ten to fifteen minutes each trip rooting in the grass and under a nearby bush before returning up the porch steps to be let back in. Some days she couldn’t propel her hind end up the steps and had to wait with her front legs on the steps and her hind end in the yard for the man’s help. I wished I could be the help she needed instead of sudden hands behind her startling her and shoving her forward. I would have even simply waited with her if I could have felt, to her, like familiar company. Watching from my porch I would say, “poor girl, poor girl,” softly to myself, imagining that once she was a puppy who would have scrambled up and down steps like that in a yippy blur of fur. That she once kept vigil over her square of territory emitting barks that would sound friendly to family and friends and ferocious to strangers. And that now she gets startled by a hand sneaking onto her back.

Gabby didn’t recognize aging and think of her dwindling senses as loss or she did and possessed grace. Because I’m human or lack grace I could never help aching for her as I can’t help staring over at her empty yard and missing her.

If Jesus Rose from the Dead Why Doesn’t My Mom?

I’ve probably been to Catholic Mass as many times since my mom died as I’d gone with her since returning to Ohio from Seattle, several years ago. I always felt like an imposter when I went. Everyone worshipped so sincerely and I felt like I detracted from that energy, the way a non-participant in laughter therapy can ruin a session. I went a few times with her as her illness progressed because I felt like she wanted me to and I got something out of it, but I liked to stay home and write while she and her husband were at church and then have breakfast ready for them when they got home. Mom came to understand that represented me better and she respected that.

Now I’ve been to her funeral Mass, another bereavement service, Christmas, and Easter. I go so her husband doesn’t have to go alone, but I also go for me. Mom’s there. I drift in and out of paying attention. I’m mostly communing with the mystery, where Mom’s gone, to the mystery of being. Our presence proves the mystery of being. My conflict with religion is that it attempts to unravel the mystery by attaching specifics I don’t relate to. What Joseph Campbell taught me is that all religions are true. They’re metaphorical of something. What’s happening to Jesus should be happening in your life. Whether Jesus rose from the dead or didn’t, that was almost two-thousand years ago. I relate to it as a story. Jesus died and rose from the dead, as a metaphor. My mom died but I think of her sitting in her church with her husband, as I always think of her, but being in church brings me closer to the mystery of being, where she is now, and I commune with her. She has risen. It’s well known that that’s blasphemy, in some thinking, but in other thinking that is the point of religion to recognize that God is in you and your loved ones and everyone you meet. Joseph Campbell says, “Jesus ascended to heaven but what is heaven? Heaven is no place. He ascended to heaven through the inward space which is where you must go.” Sitting in church, I travel to the inward space and be with my mom. I enjoy that.

David Foster Wallace: Where an Obsession Begins

I tell people to check out David Foster Wallace but always qualify it with “but be careful where you start,” which isn’t very specific, so I’m listing his books in a recommended reverse order.

9. Infinite Jest

I posted a review of I.J. I’ll link below but just for fun I dug through and found a line that I often think of and giggle. The dad of two of the characters moves a bed and is complaining about how dirty the floor is and says, “Under what presidential administration was this room last deep-cleaned, I’m standing here prompted to fucking muse out loud.” There was probably a lot of context that made that stand out as so funny. Here’s the review: https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2015/08/20/infinite-jest-brilliant-and-hilarious-tedious-and-self-indulgent-five-stars/

8. Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity

D.F.W. studied math, as in super high level math theory, and wrote about infinity. I read every word of this book and understood hardly any of it. But the opening was interesting. He talked about how a word, like “chair,” can be repeated until it stops denoting, which is that weird feeling you can give yourself by picking a word you’ve known since you were three and wonder why it’s called that. Why do we call chairs chairs?

7. Brief Interview with Hideous Men

This was the first book of his I read, and I actually listened to it. The second story was “Forever Overhead,” which remains my favorite short story. If this collection hadn’t included that story, I might have stopped here. I don’t recall liking very many of the others, though I intend to try them again at some point.

6.The Broom of the System

I enjoyed this book. It doesn’t seem like his other stuff, though. He hadn’t hit, yet, on the unique style that makes him him. It’s definitely worth reading, I just wouldn’t say you’re getting the best sense of him from it. The best parts were these supposedly terrible short stories students had written and the teacher of this class describes the stories to his girlfriend and the stories are actually bizarre but kind of awesome, as summarized by the character.

5. Girl with Curious Hair

This is a story collection. Little Expressionless Animals was fantastic. Here and There I also really liked. Some were, like Infinite Jest, great in parts but tedious at times, overall. The last story, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, felt like a precursor to the approach he would take to Infinite Jest. That’s probably the only thing he wrote that is close to like I.J.

4. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

This is a collection of six essays on a variety of subjects, a report on a tennis player trying to make the pro tour, a piece on the movie Lost Highway being made by David Lynch, where he discusses Lynch’s earlier movie, in depth, Blue Velvet.

The probably most relatable essay is his report on taking a cruise, which is the essay the collection is titled after. This includes the line, “Temperatures were uterine.” He describes the cruise as being sad and inducing despair: “It’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling of becoming aware that I’m small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die. It’s wanting to jump overboard.”

As I mention in my review of Infinite Jest, his writing is dotted with insights, either through characters or through his author persona, that feel like they must have been drawn from his mental illness, a combination of anxiety and depression, that led to his suicide in 2008, but I’ve never read anyone that’s made me laugh out loud more while reading.

3. Consider the Lobster

Another essay collection. The title comes from an essay he wrote about lobster, which poses ethical questions about how we treat the animals we eat with such thoughtful consideration to both sides, and he did eat meat, I would recommend anyone who’s thought about this issue, which is most of us, give it a read. And what’s even cooler is he wrote it while covering a lobster fest for a food magazine. It’s available online. A few others stood out, in these politically polarized times as thoughtful and careful looks at both sides, one on the politics of usage dictionaries, which was surprisingly entertaining, another covering John McCain’s 2008 campaign, and another piece on a right-wing radio talk show host.

2. Oblivion

The reason I always tell people to be careful where they start is because David Foster Wallace is so dense in his writing style, if you hit on something not to your interest you’re likely to be overwhelmed. The stories in Oblivion, more so than the ones in Girl with Curious Hair and much more so than the ones in Brief Interviews, were all enjoyable. Mr. Squishy was a story about the marketing strategy for a snack food, which presents the idea that the market will push healthy foods but then turn and then use the exhausting pressure they are responsible for to push unhealthy foods as a break from the pressure.

Antitrend Shadows they’re called. “…the rather brilliantly managed stress that everyone was made to feel about staying fit and looking good and living long and squeezing the absolute maximum productivity and health and self-actuation out of every last vanishing second…”

(skipping some stuff. This leads to the turn for the snack foods push even though they’re unhealthy)

“(the snack foods) said or sought to say to a consumer bludgeoned by herd-pressures to achieve, forbear, trim the fat, cut down, discipline, prioritize, be sensible, self-parent, that hey, you deserve it, reward yourself, brands that in essence said what’s the use of living longer and healthier if there aren’t those few precious moments in every day when you took a few moments of hard-earned pleasure just for you?”

(then skipping some more really good stuff, there is a description of) “ads that featured people in workout clothes running into each other in dim closets where they’d gone to eat (these snacks) in secret, with all the ingenious and piquant taglines that played against the moment the characters’ mutual embarrassment turned to laughter and a convolved espirit de corps.”

Then there is Good Old Neon, which is narrated by a character who has committed suicide because he felt like a fraud, which is obviously tempting to take as very autobiographical, which maybe is unfair, but either way is a fantastic story of a human being under extreme duress from dealing with issues we can all relate to, to some degree, that everything he presents to the outside world hides who he really is deep inside, of course also aware how cliché and banal he is for fixating on this when everyone does. A hero on the internet read the entire story and posted it on youtube if anyone would rather listen.

1. The Pale King

Initially I swore I would never read this. It’s an unfinished novel, at about 500 pages, and while no one could guess how long it might have been, it sounds like from the notes left behind it would have been a second Infinite Jest type of length. Most of the chapters introduce characters who will work together at an IRS facility. Chapter two is a guy on a plane studying for the CPA exam and getting constantly distracted by everything around him. Boredom as a form of anxiety is one of the big things he was exploring. He was taking classes on taxes as research. Another chapter was a character who broke out into sweats if he started to think about sweating, or if he started to think about thinking about sweating, which left him in a pretty much constant pickle. D.F.W. broke out into panic sweats in high school, according to his parents, so again there was likely an autobiographical element to that character. He’s also in the book, in an author foreword that starts on page 68, where he claims the book is actually nonfiction. He apparently was hired at an IRS company but his name David Wallace was common enough that he got mistaken for a different one. To keep that from happening again he started using his middle name and somewhere he writes, I have to paraphrase because I couldn’t find it, “once you pick a nom de plume you’re kind of stuck with it, no matter how pretentious it sounds.”

There were also odd chapters, like one about a kid who devotes his life to doing stretching exercises with the goal of being able to kiss himself on every part of his body. (He’s going to worry about the back of his head later.) And another one about a guy who decides to record a month of TV on twelve channels and then watch it over a year. And as they’re discussing endlessly the logistics of accomplishing this, there is one character who keeps breaking in and asking, “Why, though?”

If you can take it for what it is, the last writings of honestly one of the greatest writers to have ever lived, which sounds ridiculous but is accurate, and not focus on what it isn’t, The Pale King is just a super fun read. I bought it for my sister as her introduction to David Foster Wallace. She hasn’t read it, yet.

It should go without saying but I’ll say it, this is all just one reader’s opinion on his books. And it’s worth noting that this reverse order is closer to the order I actually read them in. I went from Brief Interviews to Infinite Jest and worked my way down this list reading Pale King second to last and Oblivion last. Which could also mean I largely learned to read him as I read him. It will be interesting to reread Brief Interviews and see if I enjoy it more the second time.

How Obama’s Blackness Led to Trump

The Persistence of the Color Line by Randall Kennedy has a subtitle different from the one I gave to it as I was reading, which I used as the title of this post. Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency is the real subtitle, but I think that’s only because the book came out in 2011.

The book begins with the feeling in the country that the election of our first black president signaled the end or at least the beginning of the end of racism in America. Then it suggests that race influenced how Obama was perceived and evaluated and the author presents this as happening on both sides. From the introduction:

Racial liberals supported Obama more than they would have backed an ideologically similar white candidate while racial conservatives opposed Obama more than they would have opposed an ideologically similar white candidate.

At one point in Obama’s 2008 campaign, Obama launched an anticipatory attack on McCain, by preparing the public for a racialized line of attack from McCain. Including they would remind voters not to forget he was black. Randall Kennedy criticized that: “If you are going to indict someone for the social crime of racial wrongdoing, you should be careful about doing so, which means identifying with specificity the misconduct to which you object. Obama did not do that.” The author also credits McCain. “McCain’s record on racial matters is considerably less impressive than what one would like to see in a leading American statesman. Running for the presidency, however, and to the dismay of allies, McCain imposed upon himself a code of conduct that precluded taking full advantage of his opponent’s racial vulnerability.”

Randall Kennedy’s ability to objectively analyze all angles comes through clearly in his in-depth look at the case of Gates, the black Harvard professor neighbors reported for trying to break into his own home, July 16th, 2009. Gates reacted strongly to being approached, feeling his blackness was the cause, which was unfair to the police officer, Crowley, responding to the call. Although Crowley then overreacted by arresting Gates for disorderly conduct, a charge later dropped. [This is the author’s opinion but I agree. Police officers are trained to control situations for public safety but need to recognize instances when their presence is the instigating factor in a volatile situation and defuse that situation by exiting the scene. Gate’s reaction was extreme but understandable. So let him yell at you, let him yell about your mother. It’s not personal.] Kennedy called the beer summit that followed “lamentable,” but thought Obama’s response was fair. “The first black president must simultaneously address supporters who will be tempted to see racial bias in opposition—whether or not bias is actually present—and detractors who will be tempted to see opportunism in all complaints against racial prejudice—whether or not the complaints are justified. Obama seeks to appease the latter more than the former. He is deeply hesitant to claim that a criticism of him is in any way racially discriminatory. He is keenly attentive to the reality that racial discrimination is often hard to identify clearly and that the very effort to make the identification is often politically costly.”

He follows this case with the simple, generic case of a black customer in a store being treated rudely by a white cashier. Couldn’t the white cashier be dealing with personal issues or just a jackass to everybody? Of course. Couldn’t the white cashier, maybe, be a closet racist who treats black people rudely but hides his or her tracks? Also of course. “The problem, though, is still more complicated. People who engage in racial discrimination not only hide their prejudice from observers; they also often hide their prejudice from themselves. Many who engage in racial discrimination believe with all sincerity that they do not.”

As I said, this book came out in 2011, so the author never connects any of this to the rise of Trump but everything about it felt predictive of the 2016 election outcome. I think Obama had little to do with that, but our response to Obama, to his blackness, had a lot to do with it. Obama was just doing his hard job of being president, reading his daily briefings and making the best decisions he could for the country. And the vast majority of Americans aren’t racist and didn’t evaluate Obama based on his blackness. What I do think happened is people in agreement with Obama pointed at those opposed by finding the few whose criticisms were racially based and lumping them together. Meanwhile those with legitimate criticisms of Obama sincerely believed that his supporters were missing what was going wrong because they were overly sensitive to his blackness. All of this set the stage for Trump’s rise.

Obama avoided the fate of other black leaders, like Al Sharpton, who developed a reputation of always making everything about race, which creates an aggressive-cried-wolf perception among people. This racial sensitivity fatigue leads to the wrong-headedness of believing everyone else’s racial sensitivity couldn’t be sincere but must be the result of “political correctness” going too far, which led to misreading Trump’s racist and hateful, and essentially dull, rhetoric as refreshing. We were ready for a black president and we were ready for a woman president. What we couldn’t handle was a black president followed by a woman president. That was going too far.

The title of the post is provocative because these are disheartening times, for me and many. Those who think we’re overreacting to Trump’s presidency will criticize it, I imagine, but to be clear, all I said is that this subtitle for this book came to my mind. Nowhere have I ever suggested Trump voters are racist. That’s absurd. I don’t lump Trump voters all together and hope Trump supporters don’t lump all of us in protest of Trump together. In a close election myriad factors swung the result. This reaction to the perception that racial sensitivity is political correctness going too far is one of those factors that did swing this election. As Van Jones said on election night, “I know it’s not just about race, there is more going on than that, but race is here too and we got to talk about it.”

Mom Says Goodbye to Her Most Valuable Possession

Mom always said, “Time is your most valuable possession.” We thought of this as a “Mom Quote.” Some famous philosopher probably said it first, but we still think of that as hers. Mom chose to value her last months, resigned that the progression of her illness would lead to her death, but letting the knowledge enhance the joy of living. Not easy to do, I don’t imagine, but if I’m fortunate to have that kind of time for myself I’ll now have a model for how to manage. She said goodbye to visiting Seattle in the Fall, goodbye to Florida in the Spring. Expected final visits started coming early in the summer as people visited from far away. These goodbyes were always emotional, heartbreaking even, but she also found them nourishing.

The goodbyes came more bunched as her health deteriorated. The first I recall was trips to the basement. One weekend we were talking about installing a better hand rail for those rickety steps and the next she told me she was done going into the basement. They had an old house and a purely functional basement. It contained the water heater and furnace and the washer and dryer, a work space scattered with tools. Mom only went down there to do the laundry, to do a chore. But it hit me to pass that door and hear her say she was done going down there. I read recently that when people know death is imminent they run through lasts: last time to see a sunset, last time to see the snow, last time to feel the wind. These aren’t even always last pleasures but even last chores, like doing the laundry. When I read that I immediately thought, I wish I’d known. I was so focused on Mom’s health, I thought of her as thinking, I won’t be able to go into the basement to do laundry ever again, but maybe she was thinking, I won’t go into the basement to do laundry ever again. Maybe she wasn’t regretting losing these pieces of her life but simply saying goodbye to them.

What I read makes sense even on a less significant scale. When I quit waiting tables in Seattle, I still remember nearing the end of my last shift and thinking of how that was the last time I would run food, drop checks, fill drinks, etc. Repetitive tasks I’d certainly had my fill of after seven years, but I focused on them, a form of meditation maybe. Certainly life is filled with repetitive tasks we’ll one day say goodbye to stunned at the degree of low current pleasure we received from them. When we do, we have options. We can fixate on what’s being taken away or we can reflect on the pleasure they gave us and say goodbye.

When I initially read that, I got hit with a brief but potent feeling of regret. If I’d read about that in time, I could have been more with her for those goodbyes but that feeling quickly passed because my behavior wouldn’t have changed. I was with her and she was showing me how to live, it just took this long for me to understand the lesson, which means she’s still teaching me.