JMHS Hall of Fame Speech, in the cyberflesh

Way back in 1996 I graduated from John Marshall High School in Cleveland. About six months ago I found out that this year I was among the honorees for the school’s Hall of Fame. It seemed unlikely that I’d be able to make it to accept the award in person, but I wrote a speech for my sister Dawn to read at the ceremony.  Now I feel inspired to post it here, in part because I’ve been far too quiet in the cyber-place, in part because it serves well to illuminate my brain space. Despite the obstacles of the past three years I’m infused with surprising optimism and creativity, and I suspect I’ll have a lot more to share with all of you in the coming months.  Thanks again to Dawn for reading this, and to my mom for attending the ceremony alongside her.

“It’s a great honor to be part of the distinguished (and growing) list of John Marshall Hall Of Fame honorees. I’m also grateful that my sister, Dawn, volunteered to serve as my stunt double for the purposes of this speech. As a teacher, she still goes to school every day, so this is kind of her thing. Organizing myself into a speech is a challenge for me, since my preferred topics are rarely casual fair. My favorite subjects in seventh grade were the first Gulf war and pandas. In fourth grade, it was the Holocaust. Once a year I get an email from one former classmate or the other that begins, “remember how you used to always talk about Hitler and the holocaust?” Yes, I remember. Dawn probably also remembers, which is why she’s standing in front of all of you and I’m safely tucked 3,000 miles away.

Still, the instructions on the paperwork indicated that this is an audience that “will be very receptive to almost anything that you may say.” This is a dangerous statement in the wrong hands, and I happen to have two of them.

On one hand: In 2016, after riding on a boat for three shivering hours to the borders of Vancouver, BC, I had the honor of observing the unexpected formation of a super pod of orcas. The resident whales of Puget Sound joined with transient whales from two other pods for socialization; this event was closely supervised by the resident pod’s matriarch, Granny, who patrolled the waters with two sister whales that mirrored her every move. The Pacific was alive, with bold males performing stunts Sea World isn’t ready for, and with baby orcas surfing waves in perfect sync with their mothers, one giant, bold head breaking the surface next to a smaller, rounder head. The orcas surrounded the boat, communicating through sighs and clicks and whistles and sprays of water, and every human fell silent and lowered their cameras and phones to honor this sacred moment with our ancestors of the sea. And I wondered what their means of recording was, what allowed the patterns of sound to be passed on from Granny to the small round babies, and whether their brains preserved and transferred things in a way our brains also could, if we simply lowered our gadgets.

a wee orca sprout sneaks to the surface

The other (wrong) hand: This year I observed a total solar eclipse through paper safety glasses on a tulip and filbert farm in Woodburn, Oregon. Just before the ring of fire the sky took on a green-grey cast, and every insect and bird fell silent. The absence of buzzing and chirping made space for other sounds that usual serve as static underneath the chatter, like the whisper of wind across grass, the plunk of a dew drop splitting earth. There’s no way to record this lack of sound; you have to simply sit in it. The sun was nearly swallowed and it was safe to remove our glasses, and my eyes searched the ground for the promised shadow bands, and instead I found a bee, unmoving on my sleeve. It was possible to pet it, so I did, before returning my focus to the sky, for the remaining minute of totality. When the sun returned the bee flew away, and silence sunk into noise. Later, a gentleman from the Astronomy Society heard me talking about the bee, and told me, “Oh, that bee was asleep. During eclipses, they go to sleep.” A bee dreamed on me. This is amazing.

the most beautiful thing I’ve seen


Both hands are to tell you what I do: observe and record and dream. These are the ingredients of a writer, to me.

The third hand (when you are the wrong hands, you can have as many as you want) is insomnia, without which I’d be a completely different well-rested person observing different things.  Not sleeping creates this black mirror of time where the brain has the ability to notice things, but lacks the faculties to make complex decisions or perform physical labor. Sufferers of this affliction know that 4am is a beautiful hour to craft unrealistic goals that can only be achieved with the full cooperation of a large bank, several startled friends, and the department of public works. 5am is the crossroads, where you either dive deep into a haze of coffee and grumbled conversations with imaginary demons at bus stations, or you like, watch TV or something. My first stint with insomnia happened when I was seven, when I waited until my parents went to bed and then went downstairs to watch televangelists weep and plead with viewers for big dollar donations. The theater of the whole thing was fascinating, the rhythm of their language, the way repeating key phrases functioned as a drum beat to soften the skulls of listeners. I waited for it to seem convincing, and it didn’t come, and I couldn’t tell if it was because they didn’t pick the right word or because they didn’t mean it. So I decided to observe and record the televangelists themselves, and their perceptions about the fate of my immortal soul. I wouldn’t call it journalism, but I would call it my first personal essay.

When I went to school to share these opinions with a teacher who always seemed startled by me, she told me that she could see me getting somewhere, but that I wasn’t going to get there in a straight line – it would have to be spirals and circles. And insomnia is what coaches me through the spiral, because at 6am you are back where you were at 1am, and by 1pm, there you are. Tired.

My senior year at Marshall, which was also my only year at Marshall, was heavily defined by insomnia, which directly informed decisions to leave early or not enter the front doors at all. There was a lot of eating sloppy breakfasts at Denny’s, wandering around city parks, and then watching Gullah Gullah Island and napping. Sometimes I talked to my Internet boyfriend, who I only knew as Hideo723. It should go without saying that I did not go to prom. All this behavior might have been acceptable if we were stoners, but we were just tired nerds.

The only thing that startled me awake was Mr. Wasowski’s European history lectures, which included a lot of detail about Katherine the Great’s questionable romantic decisions. Mr. Wasowski was also the basketball coach, and had an animated teaching style that was half on the court, half in the classroom, which meant he was basically yelling historic anecdotes at us for forty minutes a day. It was awesome. An extra credit question was introduced with “ding ding ding ding dong dong” which seemed to activate some dormant brain chemicals capable of immediately producing the desired factoid. I salivated over the return of my papers and tests, which would serve as evidence that I remembered everything this dude said. I wanted to be his history MVP. My final grade in the class bordered on absurd, since I scored 100% on every test and also managed to snag every extra credit point. At the year-end award ceremony, Mr. W gave me a trophy for this, and let me tell you, the best introduction you could hope for comes from someone with a gravely voice who shouts as their default communication, grasping the podium and leaning forward to emphasize the spectacular nature of your academic achievement. The only thing missing was a drumroll; I wanted to run down the aisle like Rocky with my fists in the air. Instead I just walked up and accepted the award, and spent the evening pleased that I was graduating from a high school that actually gave awards for such things.

In fact, I often tell people that I only really had one year of high school, and that was my senior year at JMH. My original high school, John Adams, closed at the end of my junior year, and even though I felt connected to the people there, it had a puzzling way of operating, and if there was any encouragement to pursue academic excellence, I never saw it. I arrived at JMH having been in the top ten of my class, and had no idea. JMH never let me forget I was in the top ten, or that I wrote for the Plain Dealer, or that the SATs were coming up, or that a scholarship application was due. If I was willing to walk a little, they were going to push me to run. So I did, all the way to a full scholarship I never would have received if not for the assistance of the guidance counselors and teachers.

And I never would have survived college at all if it wasn’t for Mr. Lakovic (sp?), the first English teacher to ever give me a C on a paper. He told me in terse language that my writing was overly emotional and that I’d failed to answer the question. He asked where my thesis was, and I asked him, “what’s a thesis?” Then he threw my paper in the air. That’s my kind of teacher. A surge of glee rushed through me as it dawned on me: my writing was going to improve, and this guy was going to help me. He did, and my work in that class crafted a strong foundation for my future academic writing. And he did not get in the way of my preferences to observe and record and dream.

I live in Portland now, but when you grow up in Cleveland and attend Cleveland Public Schools, you never forget where you came from. For these reasons, I’m probably the least passive aggressive person in the Pacific Northwest, which is useful when bargain shopping and in parking situations. I can see Cleveland in my Polish nose, my suspicious eyebrows, and my affection for the underdog. Continuing to create, to achieve, to help others, feels like a commitment I agreed to honor a very long time ago. Again, I think of the pods of orcas, joining together from three different places, whistling and chirping and groaning to one another, each asking to be witnessed. Language and story reaches all of them, generation after generation, while every human witness takes a different something from the collective agreement to simply listen, and watch, and wonder. To observe and record, or just remember.

This is story. And it’s 3:15am, and I am tired, but not sleeping.

Thank you again for including me in the Hall of Fame. Buy thousands of copies of my book. (I really mean this part. We all need to get paid.)



Winter Star

Last night I spent hours watching people jump from burning buildings. Winter left me thinking about plane crashes, explosions, the number of days we’ve gone without an incident in the workplace, fingers that don’t bend the way they’re supposed to, legs that are a bit too short for even tiny bodies and can’t be made to cooperate. The Hangman card neglects to address the cost of self-inflicted funeral arrangements, and the power of choosing death instead of suffering it unexpected and terrible, flames and cannon-fired water doing nothing to slow the inferno.


Winter is crafted for hibernation. Every activated limb requests rest, only to be tested again and again. Unrealistic demands are made of checking accounts and credit cards. Ovens are used with greased determination. Relatives are contacted to commemorate entangled threads of DNA. Gift lists are exchanged, and people look forward to working.


Wikipedia is unfair to conspiracy theorists, reporting findings on actual X-Files of everyday bumbling CIA investigations in snide tones reserved for college freshmen making snappy retorts to tenured professors. A pet theory coaxed to life with fermented anxiety and selected video viewing is debunkt courtesy of a source-free Popular Mechanics opinion piece, and I wonder if that magazine has ever been cited before a Wikipedia contributor had his condescending druthers. I don’t know the line between truth and conspiracy. What I know is that each president prematurely greys, and switches up statements once complex reality crashes through the front gates of town hall debates and lands in lap, unchanged.


I think my relationship will survive another winter, even if it is murder and feelings.


Winter changed somewhere and managers started hating their workers. Paying them a reasonable wage is the stuff of unions of yore. Benefits are things the government should supply (once properly paid and then paid again). Workers respond in kind, showing up when they feel like it, yawning away mornings when they don’t, escaping for smoke breaks without habits, monitoring windows and wondering what the point of hard work might be in an era when it goes unrewarded. The people who jumped? They arrived early.

Maybe someone will cure cancer. Maybe someone will play violin on the train home. Maybe someone will hand out juice boxes on the street corner. Maybe tattoos will start to leak. Maybe Sunday will come twice. Maybe.


Aisles blocked by people making desperate phone calls home to determine whether or not grandpa is allergic to wheat and eggs. A woman wearing a pink surgical mask asking me where to find the shopping carts. A bagger giving himself a crude haircut in the breakroom with a bowie knife. A man holding one container of premade flour-thickened gravy, and one container of cornstarch gravy, looking around before stating: “I don’t know what to do.” Another, in the midst of shoulder-to-shoulder turkey requests: “What is the fat content of this sausage, exactly?” Then someone rolls out a cart of wine samples, and the workers start circling.

Motivation. Result. Hard work. Windows.


Somewhere, in the morning, a warehouse will be warmed by the sweat of a thousand laborers racing to stuff things into boxes. Somewhere, far away, a wrist grows thick with button clicks. In the morning, the lines outside of doors will snake around stores and I will swallow the tail. Before this there will be eating, gratitude skimmed from the surface. Cynicism sends me back for seconds.


The Hanged Man on fading screens no longer knows the light of spring. I’ll ask him to stoke coal from the parts of me diamond-pressed. To show me three windows that don’t have such a drop. To show me what happens, after all that burning. I’ll ask him. This winter. I will.

Dangling by the ankle, falling.


this is how it happens

(Trigger warning. This is a discussion of rape and rape culture, and it’s about to get raw, because I cannot take scrolling through message board stupidity anymore. So there’s this, and it’s all I’ve got. – Amanda)

It’s the first big pop off of spring, and whether the snow melts or not it’s on. Some of the team comes over and you spend a long time getting ready, acting like you don’t care while they fuck up your Playstation and eat your mom’s food. Before you leave the house you have a few. Not sloppy, just enough for confidence. Your boys feel the same way, and they have a few, too. You look good before you leave, and you know it.

The yard and front steps are a mess of players and cheerleaders and wannabe players and wannabe cheerleaders, screaming and flirting and play-hitting each other. It smells like hairspray and gum. There’s a keg in the basement and a collection of bottles harvested from lost liquor cabinets. You pick the bottle that sounds like something your grandpa would drink and decide to just carry it and take swallows. Who the hell gets fancy at parties? This isn’t the place for martinis or blue shit with umbrellas. It’s a good time. The girls you texted all week are there. All you have to do is fake like you aren’t interested long enough, and it’s on.

Then one of your boys hands you a drink and says, “Drink deep, brother. It’s special.” A jolt of suspicion moves through you, because you don’t trust anyone who grins like that. So you ask “Special how?” and kinda laugh, and he tips the cup up to help you swallow and you are drinking. Then he hits you on the shoulder and walks away. You figure it’ll be fine. This is your boy, your teammate. Besides, he’s bigger than you. Don’t fuck with it. Just party.

The drink hits hard and fast. You didn’t feel so drunk a second ago. Hell, you didn’t even hit buzzed and just like that you’re hammered. Then your legs are gone and so is the rest of you, and there you are. Gone.

The part of your brain still dialed into what’s happening thinks about that movie you saw about the dude who goes into surgery and the anesthetic only half-works. He can’t move, but he hears, sees, and feels everything. That’s you, on the ground, and you can’t even talk. When you try, this gurgling comes out.

“Son is done,” someone says, and you feel something wet hit your cheek. It’s his spit, drooling from his mouth. Then you feel something else wet and warm. Piss. Yours.

From out of the corner of your eye you see one of your teammates, even more gone than you are. Both of his eyes are closed and his mouth dangles open near a puddle of puke. He’s also totally naked.

Within minutes he’s like a booth at the county fair. People arrange objects on him, take pictures. Out come the Sharpies to draw a dick on his ass, boobs on his back, balls on his chin. You can’t tell if their faces are actually elongating into the masks of jackals or if that’s the last of your consciousness running for cover. The guy who gave you the drink is talking to another in a corner and you can tell he’s full of ideas. He walks up to the limp body, pulls him arm back like a slingshot, then jacks him in the face. Just like that. Hits him hard. Again. The dead body is suddenly coughing.

“Damn,” someone says, and rolls him on to his stomach so he doesn’t choke on his teeth, on his blood.

Someone squeals, “Don’t let him choke!”

Not stop punching him — don’t let him choke. You try to say What the fuck but all that comes is another gurgle.

Out come the cell phones.

He punches him in the face again, on the back of his head and shouts for everyone to notice that when you hit the back of his head, blood comes out the front. Punch to the skull, blood from the nose! Science! This is awesome! Another guy lines up behind him because this is going viral, and he wants to get in a good clean punch in too, while he’s there. He’s excited, hopping from one foot to the other, and it’s making the rest of the team excited, so they line up. They’re a team. They do things together. Someone points at you and says, “Too bad your running back is out” and another says “We know. He’s next.”

Your whole self says fuckgetup, and still, you can’t.

This guy is a bloody mess but it’s like Lord of the Flies around his carcass, everyone whooping and hollering and high-fiving, kicking him and shouting GOAL, passing around booze and joints and then suddenly pissing on him, a massive golden shower sponsored by 10 bloated athletic bladders.

Twitter lights up. #drunkpunch

Somebody starts to get pissed about the blood on the carpet. What the hell is he going to tell his mom, some dude got his period? This is hilarious, too. You’re hoping the focus on the other dude’s face and the carpet is going to make them forget about you. So much time has passed, and you can’t even raise your arm. They decide he’s going to be a burden to take care of. They decide the same thing about you.  You’re cold. That’s how you realize you’re naked, too.

The next day you wake up, and have no idea where you are. Wait: your bed. You remember your bed. Mom. That was who found you on the front porch, naked and covered in blood. All you know is what the mirror reveals: you’re missing a few teeth, and your cheek might need hospital intervention to properly heal. Still, you prepare yourself to say something about how the night was alright, and you fell. Boys being boys and all that.

Downstairs your mom is crying. You can’t deal with her yet, and she lets you walk right on by her. You plug in your cell phone, turn it on. The phone lights up. The first thing you see is a picture of the quarterback’s nuts on your forehead. One dick for each one of your eyes. There’s a foot on your face. Teeth, resting on the stained carpet. #drunkpunch.

Another photo shows someone writing something. You can’t tell what it says, so you lift up your shirt. Your stomach reads: “Turned out slut.”

There’s naked pictures of the other guy everywhere. You see more of his intimate anatomy than you’ve seen of your own. You throw up. Hangovers, they’ll do that.

You try to think of what to text him, but you don’t know what to say. Finally you come up with: I guess we got pretty wasted. 

No response.

You’re still trying to come up with what to say to your mother when the police come by. They’re hoping you’ll come down to the station. There’s a bit of confusion, because there’s been an assault, but they’re not really sure it was an assault. You play dumb for a second, which is hard when your whole face is bruises and blood. Instead you try, “People get punched. It happens.” The police say that yes, his teeth got punched out, and he has a concussion, and contusions all over his body, and even a few puncture wounds. They’re not sure whether this was consensual. He says it wasn’t consensual. You say, “Well, he went to the party.”

Still, you go down to the station.

The police are concerned about you as well. They ask about your own beating and missing teeth, and you tell them you’re a football player. They ask if the other guy is one too, and you say of course. And you say hey, if you’re a football player and go to a party, stuff is going to happen.

When they leave the room you check your phone to see what’s up on Twitter, Snapchat, all your internet business. There’s video. Video is the worst.

No: the discussion underneath the video is the worst. Words like sloppy-ass bitches pop out. People being cute, saying that football players like hitting things, so maybe they enjoyed the ass-kicking. How it’s not like anyone said no.

Then you get a text from one of the girls you like. It says, I saw a video of you. I’m sorry. 

You still don’t know what to say. You do know you won’t text her again.

The police come back in and recommend avoiding the internet. You say that’s kind of like avoiding oxygen or avoiding waking up, but they’re not listening. Instead, they say you have to go to the hospital, as some of your wounds are significant and require documentation. Shit.

At the hospital, the doctor is concerned. She needs to take a lot of tests. There’s a number of infections you could have been exposed to, with many open wounds, with being naked and exposed to the elements. That means a Qtip shoved up your dickhole. She shaves half of your body and puts it into a bag. She clips your fingernails. You think it’s all ingredients for some kind of voodoo, but you’re done talking.

She’s not. She says it’s also important to document as much as possible for the police report. That means getting naked again. That means remaining that way, while the camera flashes.


On the way home you realize there are 45 new posts using 45 different variations of #punchingbag, including #dickpunch and #dickbag and #punchingdick. You’re officially in the mix with #teabag, which seems worse than #punchingbag.  You tweet: I might be a teabag but I’m not a snitch. #punchingbag Someone responds, Whatever #snitchbag.

Then the other guy texts you: I might be a snitch, but you’re a coward.

You don’t say shit, because he’s right.

Your front lawn is lined with media wolves, and you wonder how they found out so fast. Right. Fucking internet. They are careful to use words like alleged. They want to know if they can use your name. Then they want to know if they can use your name after you turn 18. When do you turn 18 again?  It’s hard to not notice the one reporter who always screws her eyebrows up in concern and talks about the “potential to ruin a whole season.” She really wants to talk to you. You really don’t care.

Weeks later you still don’t have any front teeth, and neither does he. The dentist estimates implants will cost $8K, even with your insurance. You wonder what his dentist said. He’s still not talking to you. He quit the team because he gets these dizzy spells that make it hard for him to stand up for long periods of time. Everyone says he’s faking it. That he’s just embarrassed, is all. They paint his locker pink and write Punching Bag Bitch so he knows where he lives. You wonder if he still has a scholarship, and if he doesn’t, what he’s going to do. You think your mind might be tricking with you, but it seems like he’s shorter.

They haven’t let up on you either, but it’s easier to focus in on him.

The prosecutor says there isn’t much to go on. All he has is four videos, about a dozen still images, his testimony and yours, 46 witnesses, 342 Tweets, and a signed confession from the boy with the chemistry experiment drinks. This really isn’t enough for a conviction. Your mom is pissed. She says all it would take is four joints to get another type of conviction. Then the prosecutor holds up his hand and says, “It’s not enough. Not for this type of case. It’s simply not enough.”

Your mom is talking about suing somebody. She says all the boys in the pictures need to go to jail. You are thinking about how everyone knows your body, your face with fewer teeth, and your name everywhere you go. The media sort of tried to hide it, and then they didn’t. When people don’t know your name, it’s Snitchbag.

His parents are talking about moving. His mother was smoking outside one day and you walked passed and she waved you over. Then she pointed at her house and said: “Tell me, just how many eggs does that supermarket sell?” You say you’re not sure what she means, but you know.

Here’s something else you know: you’ve got four more sessions with the counselor, and then they might leave you alone. This counselor likes to talk about your role in going to the party, about having a drink in the first place. That all of this could have been avoided if you had just stayed home and never played football.

You don’t say anything back. You’ve got nothing to say. If they don’t leave you alone, you might just leave.

And even though you can’t remember that night, you keep trying to remember. Then you try and remember to try and forget. You’re supposed to find it all funny. You’re supposed to let it all go. You’re supposed to remember that it was just a party. A party you chose to attend. That you could have been okay with it. That it could have been okay. You should know.

Your wounds have been recorded.

A Day in the Life of Poverty

   You roll over and look at your clock. It used to be a cell phone. Now it’s just a clock. 6:30AM. Time to get out of bed. St. Vincent’s starts getting rowdy around 7AM, so you need to rally and get there fast if you hope to be seen by 5PM.

This isn’t waking up. You’re not sleeping. You haven’t for days. Anxiety prevents lids from lowering. Brokeness has also informed a wheat heavy diet. When you had money you were allergic to gluten. Now you know donut boxes drop to $2 after 8PM. The food bank down the street offers early morning day-old giveaways: cakes, pies, donuts, bagels. Your arms, legs, and back reflect on the food and return with a bumpy, itchy rash that actually swells on occasion, making you feel like you’re wearing a bright red saddle. Without health insurance, the ointment to treat it is $40; the doctor won’t fill the prescription again unless you come in to see her.

It’s raining hard and mixing with hail, but you ride your bike to the food bank because it’s faster, and taking the bus would cost you $5.

$5 = a can of tomatoes, garlic, onion, ginger, beans and rice.

When you get off your bike you’re coughing like a smoker with a two-pack a day habit; you’re fighting a cold. The outside of your body is wet from rain, and under that layer you’re wet with sweat. The biggest problem, however, is your shoes. The zippers on both of your boots are broken, and water poured into them during the ride. This cold is going to get worse.

It’s 7:15, and the line is already a grey snake that curves around the outside of the building. The people at the front of the line are drunk. The bottles around them suggest that last night they hit a liquor store just before close and elected to drink their purchases right there. A flash of judgment and scorn hits you hard, and then you notice that you wish you were drunk, too.

You become fast friends with the woman directly in front of you, Marciela, when she notices your cough matches her daughter’s. She has two children with her. The older one is four, and is carrying a copy of It’s Not Easy Being a Bunny. You’re hoping you can read it with her once inside. The other daughter is bundled in a collapsible baby carriage of plastic and wobbly wheels that you’ve seen some children use for their baby dolls. She’s fast asleep and wrapped in a blanket decorated with orange ducks, a bright knit cap covering her ears and tied just under her chin. She has the longest eyelashes you’ve ever seen, and after a few minutes of staring she blinks her eyes awake to look at you, and smiles. For a second, the world feels okay.

The doors open at 8AM and the whole crowd surges forward. A man nearly knocks over Marciela, who shouts at him, “I’ve got children, here!” You stand on the other side of her daughter so she doesn’t get knocked to the ground. She doesn’t thank you, and why should she? This is something you shouldn’t have to do.

Inside, a giant man over six feet three huddles behind protective glass and shouts to take a form and sign in. Everyone knows the drill: if you’re not in the top 20, this is going to be a bad day. If you’re after 20, you might as well go home, and try again tomorrow. You’re number 11. With a little luck, they might see you before lunchtime.

You should have got there earlier.

The seats are all taken and this is okay, because you’re able-bodied and need to dry out anyway. You shift back and forth on your feet, because the four year-old likes the squishing sound of wet sock meeting wet shoe. There are other children in the waiting area, eager to play and aware of the importance of not making their parents angry. A Russian girl looks up at her mother several times, and then pulls a green ball from her pocket. She rolls it across the room to the four year-old. A quiet game is on.

It’s a downtrodden rainbow tribe. An elderly black man with a Vietnam Veteran cap offers his seat to Marciela. A couple trades what sounds like insults in Russian. A white woman with a nice purse and nice rings wears a face that reveals she no longer cares if people think she looks like someone who belongs elsewhere. Some college students. A man who talks to himself in song lyrics. You keep gloves on your hands so no one sees your skin and wonders if you’re contagious. Within thirty minutes, people are talking, and not the shallow conversations of people greeting each other in a grocery line. No one is here because things are good. It’s a volley of unpaid child support payments, being screwed out of unemployment, delayed financial aid checks, money tied up before an estate is settled, an employer who just announced there wasn’t money to meet payroll. Each story is chased by surprising phrases of hope and gratitude. No one bangs on the glass and asks them to hurry up. It’s the patience of a forgotten era, infecting any new comer who arrives to discover no seats, and nothing but time in front of them.

After 9AM everyone who comes in walks away angry. The sad-eyed man behind the glass repeats the same refrain: “You can wait if you want to, but you probably won’t be seen today.” Every time he says it, his face accumulates another shade of age. He reminds the people who walk away angry that they have to come early. They just have to. People try to negotiate, offer long stories about when the power will be shut off and how they have kids at home and they’ll be in the dark today. Some of the people in the top 5 were these people yesterday. Every time one storms out, the woman closest to the door laughs, and the man next to you says: “They should have come early.”

It’s getting close to lunchtime. The panic in the waiting room is rising. Every day they close at noon and reopen at one. They’re on number 9. Marciela is number 10. Her panic is so thick she will no longer talk to you, or anyone. Her son is released from school at 2, and she has to be there to pick him up. She walks up to the window at five to noon, and asks if he thinks she can get in. She says she has to get her son. The baby has begun to fuss, and the four year-old is trying not to look bored by feigning being hypnotized by a carpet stain. The Russian girl can’t find her ball. She whispers, “Can you help me find my ball?” You help her look, and notice a slimy looking man. You think he has her ball, and too many demons.

Marciela is told no, and the announcement for lunch is made. The man behind the glass offers juice for the baby as consolation. She can’t talk. He offers a cell phone so she can call somebody. She takes it, looks at the ground, hurries her children outside.

The man on the wall trades “They should have come early” for “Lord, have mercy.”

You follow Marciella outside. She’s talking on the phone, crying. She’s trying to find someone to pick up her son. The first option doesn’t work, and she shields the side of her face with her hand as she tries to remember the number for the school. The baby is officially wailing. The four year-old is rubbing the baby’s duck-covered belly, trying not to look at her mother. You know in an instant: she will remember this.

She will remember all of this.

You go back inside and pound on the protective glass. A sad-eyed woman has traded places with the sad-eyed man. You say, “There’s a woman outside crying. Number 10. She needs to pick up her son. You have to see her, or she will have to go home.”

She looks at the clock, and back at you. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that they made these rules for a reason. It doesn’t take a genius to see her anxiety that one exception could lead to five or accusations of unfairness. You repeat again, “You have to see her.”

Another person behind you says, “See her now, please.”

Another says, “Please help the mother. Please.”

It’s too much “please” for one food bank. Marciela is brought back in, and led to the back. You’ll see her when you return, the four year-old eating dry cheerios and the baby sleeping all over again, each side of the stroller weighted with plastic food bags.

You will never see her again, and you’re glad.

At 4PM the man with the Veteran’s cap is building a cough that mirrors yours. It is this hour that you’ll discover you’re not qualified for rent assistance. $800 a month in income is too much, even if your rent is $750.  Your mind scrambles for options and before it locks on one you burst into tears. There’s a box of tissues on the desk. There’s a full box of tissues under the opened one. He tells you that you can still get food. You can always get food. Everyone gets a juice box.

There are better foodbanks than this one, ones that sometimes have bread or cheese or meat that isn’t very, very expired, and sometimes even oil or vegetables, but you don’t have time to go to two different places and fill out two different sets of forms. You can’t go home empty handed. You’ve stopped crying, and remember to thank him when he hands you two heavy plastic bags. Your sleeve slides up as you reach for the bag and he spies a sliver of rash and drops them. You pick them up from the floor instead.

Back home the whole house reeks of depression, and the two bags are two more bundles to bloat it. Your partner is at his computer, applying at temp agencies; with only a few years of college and two full years of unemployment, he’s completely given up on Craig’s List. He’s going to make dinner while you work a $10 an hour online job you got only because you have a master’s degree, until your neighbor turns off his internet connection. If that happens before midnight, you’re going to cry for the second time.

However, there’s a problem: you’re out of cooking oil. A house-wide change hunt puts you within 50 cents of your goal, so if you can find ten glass bottles on your walk to the store, you can do it. If you can find 20, you can also get a head of garlic. You cough some more. You really need the garlic. This mission will steal another two hours.

When you get back, the internet connection is turned off. The library is closed. You burst into tears. That’s two.

Your partner reminds you that you stole a coffee mug from the nearest coffee shop, and if you take it you can probably wander in and fake like you bought coffee earlier. Perfect.

While there you check your email, and there’s one message after the other from friends who haven’t seen you out in a long, long time. The whole, “Sure I’ll come…drinks are on you, right?” is only funny if you can actually afford your own drink. A lot of your friends are doing really well. They are having children. They are buying houses. Jobs are turning into careers. Trips are being planned. You decide you will write them back when you can think of something positive to say, or when you relocate the sarcasm many of them find charming. Then you can joke about how you and your partner both spend time inspecting the other’s possessions for stray items to sell. That you understand why money is the number one cause of breakups. That you understand why money was the first thing Virginia Woolf said she needed before she could really start writing.

Instead you don’t respond to any of them, and decide it’s okay if they hate you a little for it. You hate you a lot for many little reasons, anyway.

Late at night the coughing that has chased your day escalates to an asthma attack, and your partner is angry. With a monthly income of $800 the emergency room is not an option, as this is too much to qualify for their medical assistance. You start cycling through the pilgrim-like solutions you cooked up when the $20 over the counter inhaler became illegal: coffee and eucalyptus tea. Your partner wants you to take a shower, but you can’t take hot water on your back or anything touching your skin. You hack into the evening, your partner slapping you on the back to loosen you, furiously knitting so that your hands are too busy to scratch. Crying for the third time. Tomorrow you’ll send an email to a friend with health insurance to see if he’s managed to convince his doctor that he has a respiratory disorder yet. This is the only way you’ll get a rescue inhaler for less than $45.

You think about the papers you should be reviewing the first second the internet comes back on or a coffee shop opens — whatever comes first. You think about whether your partner will be called for an interview, whether he even has anything to wear, and whether it’s appropriate to press him to do even more, even if you don’t know how much he’s doing, exactly. You think about whether you should call your mother, and the shame that would come from such a phone call. It seems unfair to ask someone who has worked 35 years to support someone who hasn’t. You’re reminded of this every time you read an article about boot straps and the iphone you supposedly have and how people like you are trading food stamps for drugs, and a thousand other things that are true for maybe the drunks at the front of the line, but not the 50 people standing behind them. You think someone wealthy somewhere is cackling about how easy it is to convince poor people to hate other poor people, to hate the things and people who try to help them, just so they can feel aligned with unanointed kings, false prophets in political clothes and the black-hearted gods of talk radio. You think about all these things, and remember that you don’t get paid to think.

Outside the window, time passes. Inside it reverses, and a cell phone is still just a clock.

Author’s note: this story is based on actual experiences that occurred in 2012, though some names, locations, and personal identifiers have been changed.

The Falls Apart, or a Case for Hope

Headlines are murder to my eyes. Today’s reading allowed me to learn than the top 1% of the country now controls 40% of the America’s wealth — the highest percentage since 1927. These people send peasants in RVs to Burning Man ahead of them to establish elaborate camps they can parachute into, wearing the standard uniform of fuzzy legwarmers and cowboy hat and clip-in dreds for one-week of alt-culture tourism. The art they observe is also crafted by peasants who crowd-source funding to make the models they photograph and climb on happen for the adoring star-struck masses. This art is photographed by people holding Apple-emblazoned products envisioned into hand-held existence by a tyrannical man, and produced in factories so heinous that suicide is the only retirement plan.

Many Americans shed one-third of their bi-weekly income to taxes. They argue viciously against socialized medicine and government funded higher education, without realizing that they pay the same tax rate as most Canadians with none of the benefits. Medical care is either unavailable or discouraging of preventative medicine, resulting in Americans having the shortest life expectancy of any westernized nation. 36% of recent college graduates currently live with their parents, and cannot comprehend both eliminating student debt and paying a monthly rent. This is when they can get paid employment at all.

One percent of the country, those folks with the ability to take private fuel-wasting jets to exotic locations with tiny dogs trapped in purses, pay 35% income tax at most, and reduce the burden of this with a slew of deductions pushed through again and again by the wealthy politicians that defend the interests of their wealthy friends. They thank us for our labor by squabbling over the salaries of teachers, keeping the minimum wage a pittance, making bankruptcy laws more complicated while bailing out banks, failing to comprehend student loan forgiveness but allowing white collar criminals to walk, and considering the exposure of funds stashed in international locations a breech of privacy while having nothing to say about what Snowden sacrificed to expose how 1984 our world truly is.

Racism and sexism and anti-gay wackery and all its bullying offspring are all alive and well, and often captured on Youtube for international astonishment and horror that celebration of terrible exploits trumps desire to enter adulthood without jail time. Organized media outlets pay more attention to a legal-aged starlet gyrating on stage and singing about molly than they do young women still forced to grapple with virgin-whore dichotomies useless to modern society, and black women used as stage props for wealthy people unable to reinvent themselves unless it happens on-stage and thoughtless. Despite the disappointment expressed by parents about someone supposedly once a role model for young people, many would testify that they never saw themselves in the perfect skin and teeth and predictable hair colors of any of Disney’s darlings, and therefore emerge from the non-scandal gif-happy and undamaged. Young people who want to see themselves are better suited to Canadian television anyway, where the transgendered, queer, bi-racial, cancer-stricken, stoned, and gun-totting reality of the waking world happens on your pimpled prickled face, whether you ace the SATs or not.

Back in the world of guns and ammo and soldiers that aren’t supported during or after service, we’re prepping for an unsupported and unpopular war with a country most Americans can’t locate on a map, supposedly to defend citizens sadly murdered by chemical weapons. Our leaders seem downright annoyed by anything that slows bomb drop, and international news outlets can’t isolate a villain since we so loudly stormed the castle before facts were readily available for dissection, with a mission to solve killing people by killing more people more swiftly and brutally that their last best efforts. That’ll teach em.

Sometimes I fantasize about what would have happened if we’d made it all the way through WWII without dropping the Atomic bomb. Maybe we could have spared ourselves becoming the world’s hypocritical high-powered policeman in favor of actually developing our country and supporting art, the environment, and education. Instead we continue on as the final scene of Dr. Strangelove, a cowboy straddling a bomb like a bronco as it sails downward on the winds of mixed information and haste.

And honestly, I can’t even write about the environment at this point, as even the word threatens to squeeze the lump in my throat to cancerous proportions. Between the radioactive waste and oil regularly dumped into the ocean, to fracking, to the oil executives and big oil supported scientists that continue to deny climate change, to the few cities that can’t get their shit together enough to have a recycling program (the most basic of environmental efforts), to the dwindling rain forests and reefs…I just can’t. It makes my outsides cave into my insides to consider that there are still so many that can’t clock in to the simple fact that we share a common pulse.

So why do I feel such an unprecedented sense of hope and joy?

As the financial world becomes more and more depressing for all of us without a financial world to speak of, what we truly do with our time becomes more interesting. While I recently read that broke people have less time for creativity, on account of being overly preoccupied with said brokeness, I’ve found that acknowledging its potential to eat away at your time pops the bubble and allows that dormant creativity to resurface. The broke world is populated by eccentric artists, dedicated bloggers, activists, musicians, self-styled pirates, and comedy gold. Absence of easy-buy solutions leads to things that are pop-up and brightly painted and salvaged and re-purposed and spit-polished into shine. It’s a challenge that pushes the brain beyond immediate convenience and into daydream, where many of us are better equipped to pilot anyway.

Maybe it’s because, as someone who once volunteered as a sexual assault survivor advocate, I know that rapes in all hideous forms have been happening since the dawn of man, but this is the first time in my lifetime they’ve been widely reported and loudly condemned as heinous by all but the most out of touch CNN reporters. Headlines from India happen alongside our own, making sexual assault an international issue of shared outrage and demands for change, and bold women like India’s Red Brigade taking to the streets to defend their own while the slow wheels of justice finally begin to turn in their favor.  Sure, advertisers continue to objectify women to sell body spray and bad music, and this will likely continue until well after I’ve taken my permanent dirt nap, but dammit if there isn’t a loud, articulate opposition finally assuming center stage and forcing the uncertain hands of prosecutors still hesitant to paddle the powdered bottoms our fortunate sons.

Internet activism is often a mix of the serious and the hilarious, and can be a terrifying hammer capable of shutting down the sites of big banks and disrupting Amazon sales with tech savvy anonymity and aggression. It’s an unscripted and masked mass of millions that’s been sorely needed for too long, and the inability to pinpoint a single voice to silence makes the collective roar ever louder.

Cities throughout the country are choosing to take a turn for the green, from Detroit tearing down deserted neighborhoods and turning them into large community gardens, to the addition of bike lanes and vast recycling and compost programs in places as traditionally conservative as Columbus, Ohio. Many folks moved to radical outposts like New York, Portland, and San Francisco to get away from the stranglehold pillage-the-village sorts had on Midwest communities, and as that grip loosens the mood of the country changes to one that values local farmers, big trees, and clean water, and favors change over fostering a world built on a vision that was never responsible or sustainable in the first place.

There’s also the exciting return to a craft-based economy, after years of relying on employers to doll out cookies and raises and actually treat individuals like human beings instead of cogs in the machine. Even brief perusal of outposts like Etsy makes it easy to see what people are doing as alternatives to day jobs — and this sort of things was barely possible just twenty years ago.

The Falls Apart, a young adult story I’ve been working on for a long, long time, is about a group that exists to witness and record an end. Our end has been snowballing from ball to boulder since 9-11, a day when many Americans awoke to join the rest of the world in feeling anxiety and uncertainty towards the tools of our destruction. It was, quite literally, our Tower card.  I feel very much a Falls Apart, and that it’s a cause for celebration, not depression. It’s something that will allow us to understand both our privileges and the ways in which we needlessly suffer, and how to cultivate joy in the midst of such challenges. Each headline I read that pains me and seems to hasten this end inevitably also brings joy, as we grow ever closer to the kind of break that brings great revolution and enlightenment. The next birth will be as painful as the last, but it is, and will be, change.

In 2014 I plan to take to the rails and roads and hit up as many festivals and celebrations of expression as my personal economy allows. There are so many people producing outrageous creative exclamations that it would be a shame to not record these, and the way they reflect everything happening in the world and the impact on everyday people. This creativity also reflects the early stages of great new things, a physical representation of prayer and great hope that the coming Star will be a brilliant one.

You don’t have to go to college. Really.

One of the ways I wage-slave is online tutoring. Each day I slug a few cups of battery acid strength coffee and then nurse papers written by college students with my MFA-teet of pseudo-expertise. Often assignments are crafted with headlines in mind, including a recent one asking students to weigh in on the student loan crisis and the millennial casualties fast achieving economic rigor mortis in their sobbing parents’ second-mortgaged basements.

Despite mainstream media prophecies casting colleges as places to master more scholarly spare changing techniques, the bulk of papers insist that even triple-digit student loan debt is ultimately worth it, so long as the end result is a four year degree. Why? What result is so lusted for that it becomes okay to forsake youth’s adventure in favor of becoming a student debt Master Blaster, with a poor dumb body perpetually steered into the Thunderdome by a tiny lord?

Knowledge? Sadly, in hundreds of papers the reason offered has never, not once, been because college is a place for brain ignition and to have the mental breakdown of turning 19 with company. No one, not one, has written that nerd core trumps financial burden, or even that the problem is what colleges are charging in the first place. In fact, cost never comes up. Life experience? No. The clinical way they describe college makes me wonder if it’s even still considered the ultimate mating ritual and watering hole. Instead, nearly 100% of those arguing that 6.8% interest rate loans signed in lifeblood are “worth it” contend this worth is established through achievement of a “good job.” A “good job” is defined as One Where You Make A Lot Of Money, which is increasingly advertised on blogs and bad reality shows as the ultimate American objective for everything.

Is this line of reasoning even valid? According to the New York Times, with a major in education or engineering there’s solid potential for gainful employment post-graduation. This same article states that 17% of grads enter the work force courtesy of the food industry — working alongside degreeless peers that likely command a higher hourly wage on account of experience. This article, and most all others that have emerged in the past 18 months, regard a humanities degree as being as useful to employment as four years in prison on a felony conviction. A degree in the arts has pretty much always been a punchline for those aspiring for multi-car garages and suburban pedigree.

The good news is, if jobs and money are the motivation, William Bennett seems to think that in 2018 there will be 14 million jobs that require “more than high school, but less than a degree.”  This is a great case for technical schools or community colleges — the sorts of schools that market themselves as gateways to employment and skilled labor. They are affordable, practical, and in some cases offer education at the same level as four year universities. Best of all, even if riding in on student loans exclusively, it’s reasonable to assume a two year degree can be obtained with a significantly smaller student debt burden.

Others with money on the mind know when reasonable skills have been acquired and it’s time to quit. These are often folks in the IT or design industries that can choose between slogging through classes or running with an idea before someone else smells it. A combination of learned skills and on-the-ground work has made plenty of businesses and billionaires. (I’m looking at you, Bill Gates, and all these other folks.)

For me, the question then becomes (and is stated directly in these papers): if the motivation is employment and money, and the result of staying is that a negative balance adds more zeros, does it hurt you more to stay? It would seem so, especially when it isn’t so bad to just go. 

Some would assert that college in general is becoming an antiquated enterprise, and the modern equivalent of library card exhaustion is the financially savvy route to academic mind expansion. Online classes, streamed lectures, and free to download class materials are just some of the channels opening for people interested in college for knowledge acquisition exclusively. Gluttons for learning can certainly feed themselves fat auditing ivy league classes if they’re okay with the dedication without the degree.

For me, online interaction can’t replace the excitement of a thriving college classroom. Working online offers daily insight as to what’s missing, and when I log off each day I remember what that is: the heart. There’s a chemistry that occurs when a competent professor engages a room in debate, poses a new idea in direct response to a student question, or riffs on the fly based on collective reaction to a controversial theory. Even with virtual classrooms that allow for more robot-to-robot interaction, the distance created by screens spares both student and teacher the immediate all-revealing expression. It’s a play where you exaggerate every facial expression in hopes that the pinhole camera captures it and communicates so there’s no second, bigger grin necessary to simply state: you’ve got it. 

College memories are shaped by the thick pheromone smell created by over-heated hallways, sliding down an ice covered hill on a backpack to get to a test on time, nudging a neighbor for thoughts on the half-cocked nonsense that just fell out of the professor’s mouth, meeting half a dozen people in a diner for endless coffee and dollar breakfasts over books. It’s being in a pile of people having different reactions to being in the same place at the same age, responding to the same words with different interpretations, and understanding the amazing mechanics of the human mind and our emotional catacombs as a direct result.

Getting a job sounds like a decent enough reason to start college, but not a good enough reason to stay. 

There is nothing wrong with being a plumber, a fisherman, a construction worker, a line cook. There’s nothing wrong with education exclusively to be a carpenter, an electrician, a paramedic. There is something sad about perceiving four years of your life as an onramp to a paycheck that won’t arrive unless you slick the surface with debt.

My post-graduate six-figure pay day never came, and I’m from an era where everyone wore big pants and some people wore them backwards, and no one thought the economy was screwed. I filled out dozens of scholarship applications until I got one, and went where the scholarship told me to go, knowing that any college was more college than some of my peers would enjoy. My five year dive bomb into my twenties included jobs, study, love, loans, scholarships, creativity, ideas, and very little sleep. The education and experiences accumulated could never be boiled into paste. I didn’t succeed or fail, though in the aftermath I’ve often been broke and sometimes poor and have taken jobs that I hate, including (at times) the tutoring one. This is life.

To this day I consider myself lucky for having had the privilege to interact with brilliant minds who mastered their subjects, and curious people with excitement for invention, and for having known (and knowing) the thrill of challenging myself to approach the terrifying truth that there is always, always more to learn. The sod of such discovery was sewn there. I found new ways to use old tools.

There are no more ways I know to tell my students that what’s left, when you take the future away, is the real reason to go or stay.



Ebook now available (and all these other things)

It’s pseudo-summer in Portland, which means sun bursts interrupting our regularly scheduled rainfest. Hooray for pale pallor disruption! Hooray for tacos and margaritas on porches! Hooray for all the things!

The ebook for Psychopomp Volume One has arrived, and is available via the following link land. 

It’s also available from me directly in mobi, epub, or pdf formats at $3.99. Click this button right here and shake all the change from your pockets POST HASTE!n .mobi or pdf format. The cost is the same either way: $3.99.



For those of you who’ve been waiting (im)patiently for me to finish Volume Two: All of Us Are Hiding, I’ve got bright news: I recently received a RACC Professional Development grant to attend the Port Townsend Writer’s Conference in Washington. This conference is unusual, in that it also functions as a retreat without the competitive aspect most retreats implement to make sure participants all have active New York-based book deals and a last name evoking images of liberal intellectualism. The only competition I’m interested in engaging with other writers involves the phrase “demolition derby” and I really wish the AWP would get on that already.

Anyway, for two weeks I’ll occupy a state park and wade through the too many pages of writing completed while building volume two. The location is isolated enough that it’s unlikely that I’ll have a wireless connection, which means less hours wasted wandering around social network sites spying on people I’m attracted to and folks I haven’t seen in decades. When I’m not locked into writing whatnot, I’ll be able to wander around and get my Thoreau on during the most predictably dry month on the year. This and my winning $10 scratch lottery ticket clearly indicate the tide has turned.

If you haven’t read mah book already, this very affordable ebook version should tickle your fancy (and wallet) into immediate action. Feel free to tell everyone standing in that agonizing roller coaster line all about it. Please read the ebook with both feet firmly planted on the floor, after memorizing the security code of your favorite credit card and drinking no less than two cups of coffee. This ebook will not make you a more social person. It will not assist with voting in forthcoming elections. It will not get you out of jury duty. It will not guarantee admission to the college of your choice. It’s unlikely to result in a fruitful job search, a healthy 401K plan, or to resolve any lingering addictions. It’s recommended that you purchase six copies. Upon purchase of the sixth, you’ll be granted short-term access to the invisible seventh level, which will cause everything in your pockets to spontaneously explode. Please empty your pockets to avoid this sort of unfortunate accident.

Happy reading to you all.

animals and empathy: a response to those who don’t comprehend fundraising for “just a cat”

For every ten people who easily comprehend the unique bond between humans and animals of all sorts, there’s one suffering some deficiency of feeling, and unable/unwilling to acknowledge this as exactly that. While I’ll stop short of saying they are all one type, they are frequently the sorts that readily eat meat but don’t want to hear about their slaughter, who think animals feel but don’t think, and can’t address the subject of animals without declaring human dominance over all species. Life is observed exclusively through the lens of personal convenience, need, and desire, an insulated tube of autonomy where even community is exclusively to boost exceptional individuals; there’s no acknowledgment of relationship between human beings, let alone all beings, and our reliance of living things outside of ourselves for our very existence. It’s a private den for lazy observers and those who lack empathy, declaring issue with those who extend themselves openly and with love, as opposed to acknowledging personal limitations in the ability to give and receive love from anyone or anything.

These individuals make statements like, “People are more important than animals” while failing to note that a.) humans ARE animals, and b.) no one asked them to pick a team. They observe people with special affection for non-human creatures through a judgmental lens, and feel justified in doing so. This is illustrated through a recent knock-down drag-out in the comments section of a KATU news story about a woman who found an injured dog. The dog was found with a badly damaged leg, and was brought to Dove Lewis and then Multnomah County Animal Shelter. A staff member at the County recognized the dog as belonging to a homeless man. The individuals commenting on the story were basically divided into two angry camps: 1.) Those upset that the woman who found the dog was more concerned about the fate of the dog than the fate of the homeless man, and 2.) Those who used this as an opportunity to soap box issues about mental illness and the homeless — despite there being no evidence that the homeless man in question suffered any sort of illness. The dog was returned to the homeless man (despite terrible injuries of nonspecific origin), and there was very little discussion of the fundamental difference between the man and his dog. While it’s unclear what the mental state of the man in question is, the one thing for certain is that the dog is not given choices. There was no debate as to whether the dog would be placed in a home with a roof instead of returning to the man, and he certainly wasn’t asked about his feelings about an ongoing outdoor existence; he was immediately transferred to his owner.

So the question then becomes: what responsibility do we have to those animals in our charge? What do we sign on for when we adopt animals and agree to feed and water them and care for them every day? For me, this means we agree to observe them as living things and not stuffed animals. Living things have needs, desires, thoughts, ideas, and feelings. They are sometimes sick and sometimes well, but a social contract is formed in which we agree to care for them, even when it challenges us mentally or puts a pain to the pocketbook. We acknowledge their autonomy, their lives, their choices.

There are, of course, exceptions to this. Like humans, sometimes animals cannot integrate with other animals or humans, and threaten the community. In these instances, it’s in the best interest of everyone for the animal to live elsewhere, or (if necessary) be put down. I’ve known many people who are strongly against this idea until they encounter a dog or other animal who appears irreparably damaged in some way. It’s then that we learn that Death is also compassionate.

When I set up a fundraiser for my beloved cat Winston, I did so with the understanding that he did not and does not want to die (yet). Since I took him in as my own I’ve made the commitment to provide the best life possible for him and his adopted brothers. This means not just interacting with him for self-serving reasons, but observing him. As an individual, Winston likes people and what they offer, and interacts with them with compassion and love the exceeds the average human-cat interaction, thus directly feeding community. Is treating Winston for renal failure excessive? No. To not treat him would be violating our social contract, and the community he’s influenced. I have chosen to love Winston, and part of that love is observing his illness, and treating it when it can be treated.

Additionally, each year, I work for numerous nonprofits to raise millions of dollars for people. Why? Because I think there are many nonprofits doing excellent work. Sometimes, these nonprofits extend benefits to people who will never be doctors. Lives will be carried out without inventing anything new, solving world hunger, or making a special mark on all of humanity. The ripples these organizations make are often small ones — but they are still ripples that are felt by some people quietly, and others in profound and life changing ways. Even if I start out uncertain as to the benefits or unclear as to whether or not such work ultimately makes a difference, I usually come around and see clearly that my initial perception was clouded by judgment and my own limitations. In other words, slapped in the face with what I don’t know yet.

While most people can comprehend my decision to work for nonprofits, some struggle to comprehend empathy and commitment with regards to other living creatures. Perhaps it’s out of fear of sensory overload. When you cut down a tree, you’re not just killing a tree (which is alive, btw) but you’re displacing the animals that lived within the tree. You’re compromising the health of nearby trees, which might have relied on the felled tree for nutrients, shade, etc. You’re compromising the health of humans who rely upon trees to breathe. Despite the cheesiness of the notion, it really is a circle and not a straight line. There’s not a singular winner or loser, there’s no king of the jungle or master of the ocean, it’s a relationship that some folks choose to ignore so they don’t have to think of the consequences of their actions. This allows people without herds of children or heavy machinery to justify purchase of an SUV, people to prioritize the convenience of shopping at a big box store over supporting a local business, and people to neglect farmer’s markets because they don’t want to clean their vegetables prior to consumption. It’s all self-serving human laziness that we cast in other shadows so we don’t have to confess our deficiencies as a species.

So what does Winston have to do with any of this?

When people question my decision to dedicate personal funds (and donated funds) to his well being, they do so with absence of empathy. They have not considered the physical pain he might be experiencing. They have not considering his willingness to live, and the frustration he might experience trying to communicate exactly that. They have not considered his relationships to other beings, or his contributions. The answer comes exclusively from a place of dollars and cents, which is an unemotional realm that favors a privileged few. Others suspect I’m allowing my own desire for him to live to trump his probable pain and suffering, and am forcing him to zombie through another round of life against his will. Both of these assumptions question my ability to observe an animal who has been a fundamental part of my life for more than ten years. I’ve been accused of many things (sometimes accurately) but “shitty observer” has never come up.

Then, there’s this: why are some threatened by my capacity for loving a cat? My ability to love cats directly feeds my ability to love people. I trusted cats first, and their willingness to offer themselves as companions, despite the ability to leave at any time. Through observation of such unselfish gifts, I’ve been able to see this ability within myself, and others.

No one has to take part in this fundraiser. An invitation is not gun-point. It’s not for everyone, and I never claimed it was. You’re within your rights to dedicate all of your funds and energy to creating a giant room of Apple Jacks if that’s what tickles your fancy. I might even contribute to the creation of said room. This is not an assault on your bank account or your values, or a demand that you immediately reorder your way of thinking to celebrate cats and all their amazing eccentricities. It doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t host a fundraiser for a niece or friend who had renal failure, or that I won’t contribute to a leukemia fundraising for a child. It’s simply what I am choosing to do with my time and money to honor my long-term relationship with a beloved companion. It’s not up to you to determine his value, or the value of animals in general.

Winston is a part of the circle, even if his ripple is small.



Today I got vampired too early. Drained of every physical sign of life through the tidal wave of information assailing me on Patriots’ Day from a city notorious for harbor outcry and dumped tea. Boston is forever locked at 1770 and 1773 in my brain, having never explored its modern day incarnation and choosing to favor its place in the history of rebellion and unfair taxation angst. It’s forever white wigged and powdered in the memory of me; my apologies to the aliens left to dissect this.

Anyway, as I sit in this coffee shop watching people wander by in the green and white and yellow scarves that are the calling card of a local soccer fan, I search myself for the center of this storm, the calm part of my consciousness better equipped to process the too much information. Though it happened hours ago, I still have not released the memory of blood splattered streets, a fluid filled abstract expression, a collection of ink blots with DNA imprints a doctor will press to medical files if you’ll just offer what you think it looks like. That one looks like a butterfly…like a man on a horseback…like a viking raider…like a rose cut off at the petals.

Yes, please go on.

American martyrs tallied on the screen, portraits of violence in the street. Cops grasping radios and guns hunting frantically for the source of smoke and fire. People wrapping belts and ties around legs to secure gruesome wounds until emergency workers arrive and offer boards and syringes and speed. These faces offer no anger or resentment or fear, just the locked expressions of people high-tuned into urgency. As of this writing three people are confirmed dead, and approximately 100 are being treated at area hospitals; 15 are in critical condition. In the coming days these numbers are likely to rise, and more information will be released regarding severed limbs, permanent loss of faculties, ongoing surgeries and treatments, and what exactly shook people off their feet and switched cheers to screams.

Meanwhile, frantic social networks spool public reaction, even before Google News begins reporting the first embers of St. Elmo’s fire. Major news sites choke on the flood of inspectors tallying information about the outcome. Many will read exactly enough to feed their faces a full second, and will then post lengthy complaint about the coverage, their feelings about who did what and the Great Big Why. It’ll be like school shootings, only with less wonder of how someone could do such a thing, because whoever did this is definitely Not Like Us.

Everyone is busy today. One: people who perceive this as a great opportunity to talk about the capitalist/imperialist tyranny of America, pointing to instances of especially violent political idiocy (both previous and ongoing) to underscore the sentiment that citizens should get over this through acknowledgement that our own government is dastardly on the daily. Two extremes should cancel each other out and set your cry meter to neutral; you’re a terrible fascist if you feel otherwise.

Two: people using this as a chance to express personal prejudices with new justification, despite an absence of information regarding the identity of the perpetrator(s). The (insert religious/political/nationalist group here) are exactly the sort of sand demons we’ve always imagined them to be, so let’s launch a campaign with a title plucked straight from a video game and packed with onomatopoeia until their death toll defies numeric descriptions. Operation Whistle Bang. Operation Fist of Death. Operation Fizzbang. More than one online source has already called dibs on Operation Tea Bag.

Three: conspiracy theorists, currently gathering and simmering just the right stew of information and speculation, likely to be served with a side of photographs blown up in isolated places and hastily circled with editing tools. Conspiracy theorists need to set every dot on the table before connecting them, before they’re certain the event exists to distract from another event, and while frequently there’s a nugget of terrible truth the full truth often emerges as more warped and depraved than what can be conjured by all but the most creative minds. I learned this lesson reading the book Area 51, which poses the theory that the so-called aliens occupying the dark corners of Hanger 18 are actually the unfortunate results of Russian genetic experiments that created creatures to capitalize on War of the Worlds hysteria. This was beyond what my own brain could cook. I actually like the aliens idea better. I will likely also like aliens better than whatever truth emerges about Boston.

The speed with which people enter a place of criticism and speculation with no opportunity for mourning leaves me lingering on the emotional constipation of our nation. Armchair utterances often erupt from angry self-righteous places, perhaps perpetuated by people who find compassion in the immediate aftermath uncomfortable. Empathy is not a comfortable feeling; it challenges your own shoes, where the emotional pallet is familiar and organized. Empathy is spontaneous. It’s derailing. In this instance, it requires the acknowledgment of pain. Still, it is possible to simply feel, even when it’s inconvenient, unscheduled, and awful.

And yet, I get it. This isn’t easy for me, either, and I’m not discounting anger as a valid emotion. Can feel snark gurgling in the back of my throat and threatening to surface in a blast of adolescent expression. There’s a desire to carve distance from people who live in another city and another state that I can’t verify the existence of unless I fully trust the narrative of headlines and history books. With such energy around this event, this isn’t just distance, it’s isolation; it’s preservation of the personal sphere to a degree that strips the existence of something greater. These thoughts of anger and confusion and bitter humor exist but won’t yet leave my mouth, because today is for Death to complete his horrible harvest, while we hold space and offer help and accept that no scientific innovation or preemptive strike or isolation will spare us from surprise.