Love is Architecture

Three years ago my life started to come apart like a rock slide down a mountain. A few pebbles turned into a massive avalanche of falling boulders and ruin. Sometimes I rode the wave, but more often I found myself digging out from under the rubble, then standing around going “The fuck is this shit??” When the structure of your life disintegrates, it makes you examine the support beams. Involuntarily perhaps, but necessarily all the same.

I can’t describe myself as a romantic (and neither can anyone else), but the conclusion that I came to is that the fulcrum of life is love. As Mr. Rogers once said, “Love is at the root at everything, all learning, all relationships, love or the lack of it.” Our earliest notions of love are formed in childhood. Then they change, evolve, grow, or die as we move through time and relationships. I’m not an expert on this; I just know that standing in the wreckage of my life made it easy to see what was left. Mr. Rogers saw love as roots, but I saw it as the skeleton of my inner house. The support beams that stood were not the ones I thought they’d be. Some others stood still, but they weren’t tied to the joist of my survival.

I left some old beams out when I started to rebuild – some old notions of what it means to love. I abandoned the idea that feeling love is the same as doing love. Love is a verb. It isn’t enough to say, “I love you” and expect the recipient to feel loved. That’s like saying “I can fly” and expecting people to call you Superman. It isn’t enough to feel a thing and assume someone else is going to feel it the same way. Love is abundant and cheap when measured that way. But I can tell you when I felt loved in the hellscape of my emotional badlands and it wasn’t in the conspicuous silences of people who claimed to love me. It wasn’t in their admonishments to guard my words, or in their cartwheels of conversations that somehow became about how my suffering was causing their suffering. The places where love wasn’t were just as surprising to me as the places it was.

So where was love? It was in the literal embrace of people who offered what they had: space, time, and a willingness to hear me. It was in the friend who held me as I sobbed out that I felt like a disposable person and who assured me, “You are not disposable.” It was in the arms of a woman who only knew me by profile picture but pulled me into a hug when I arrived on her doorstep, lost and in pain. It was in the offers to kick ass from a thousand miles away – sincere, I’m sure, but thankfully unfulfillable. Most surprisingly, love was in my therapist’s office – that tiny, darkened space in hour-long increments. I discovered there, to my astonishment, that I love myself but I needed assistance in figuring it out.

Love was in all the places where people showed up for me without judgement and with a willingness to share their strength – including myself. That’s it. It’s so marvelously uncomplicated, yet so improbable in daily life.

Where does that leave all those expressions of love that are felt so intently by the giver and never quite reach the intended? There is a saying that “impact is greater than intent” and while that’s true it doesn’t invalidate intent. Intent has value, but it doesn’t move. If you progress to action, to impact, then intent may be a foundation. If the growth is significant and the reach far, it may be said that the foundation is strong and the value might even in retrospect increase. But inertia is the death of progress. Like a dock from which no boats launch, a foundation that supports no progress, no action, cuts a lonely figure. Intent to love which doesn’t become active love instead becomes an echo of emotion that drifts away, inconsequential as a ghost and just as sad.

I think that’s sometimes natural. I had a conversation recently where I discussed the natural death of relationships – casualties of distance or maturity and there is space in my philosophy for the memory of love. It might be a genuine affection for the past, or a lingering tenderness for the person who now inhabits the person you used to show up for. Those beams still stand, though they bear no weight. Some are beautiful and there’s value in that, too. Others, not so much. I quarreled with an older family member over morals and our ethical stances and even as she told me she’d never talk to me again, she also said that she’ll “always love me” and that’s just strange as hell. We never see each other, we offer no material support in each other’s lives, and we are diametrically opposed in our world view. Where is the “love” in that? All she did when I was at my lowest was to caution me not to express my feelings in public. That’s not love. If there was intent there, it was indeed a ghost before it could reach me. That’s a beam I’m content to let crumble.

Love is hard work, and like most hard work, it doesn’t flow smoothly. Some days we’re just not up to it, other days it pours out of us in a righteous flood. Part of my struggle is realizing that not everyone who says, “I love you” can follow it up with the effort. Kind of like that one friend who says, “Sure I’ll help you move” and then is mysteriously unreachable on moving day. I have this horrible habit of taking people 100% at their word, not because I’m naïve or have never dissembled myself but because ferreting out hidden meaning is also hard work and I’m essentially lazy. But through many (oh so many) life lessons, I’ve learned that the intent isn’t enough; you have to do the heavy lifting. You have to show up, without judgment, and with a willingness to share your strength. I hope there are people in my life who feel I do that for them. I hope I get better at it.

These are the bones of love for me. Most of my life had to die before I could see it. I guess part of being a grown up is realizing that there was only one way for me to learn that lesson – a customized syllabus taught directly to my nature, both the strengths and the weaknesses. But Thomas Paine said that “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value.” The dearness of discovering what holds your personal house up is valuable beyond measure. I hope you find it and I hope it’s love.

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It’s Not the Same

I’m coming to a point where it’s time to accept that the cactus is not an oak tree.

I love oak trees. I grew up around California black oaks – their twisty limbs bending low to the ground, inviting you up or under the shade. They even smell nice – woodsy, just like you’d expect. Cacti are not oak trees. I’d like to sit in their shade and admire their beauty, but they’ll literally stab me to death if I try. And cacti grow in the desert. There is life there but it’s not the kind of life I want to live. I spent some time growing up in the desert, too, but it was painful, and lonely. 

Look, I’m talking about people here. I think that’s obvious. But it helps to depersonalize them. People are the way they are, and some may change or grow but almost never because we want them to. Most people will never change to be what we need them to be. The cactus is never going to magically morph into an oak tree. I’ve known that for a long time. But I think I’m finally ready to be at peace with the idea that it’s okay not to keep returning to the cactus. The cactus fucking hurts, folks. I’m sure it does great things for its own ecosystem, but it makes a lousy shade tree. It makes a terrible shelter. It doesn’t love you back. 

It’s useless to be angry that the cactus isn’t an oak tree. It’s just different DNA. I mean, I could go into long backstory in which the cactus kept trying to convince everyone it was an oak tree and even fooled some people for a while, but let’s just jump to the part of the story where everyone can see it’s a cactus. At this point, it’s useless to be angry that the cactus isn’t an oak tree.

It just isn’t. There are other trees. Leave the desert. Go find the shade and shelter you deserve. 

New Pompeii

“Now, now, let’s be reasonable.”

That’s the most common response I’ve seen from men to my piece on women’s anger. Which wasn’t meant to be a “piece”, by the way – it was my last thought before falling asleep on Thursday night. I thought of women’s anger and other unstoppable things which led me to lava – its terrible destructiveness and its intractability – and I thought, “Hm, that’s something we have in common.” Evidently, some other women agreed.

So right on cue, here come the men. #Notallmen, of course, which we must be careful to say, lest a single, solitary bench-sitter who might have understood but instead got his one feeling – pride – hurt and decided to close ranks with ALL THE OTHER MEN.

“We have to be reasonable about this.”

No, we don’t. There is no reasonable response to the kind of abuse marginalized people suffer. Women, people of color, the disabled, LGBTQ – there is no reasonable response to having your rights and dignity stripped in public and private. There is no reasonable response to having your safety and security daily threatened. There is no reasonable response to rape. To violence. To the denial of your existence.

“You’re being completely irrational.”

Kindly fuck off with your offers of reasonable discourse. Unless, of course, you’d like to set the example by arguing your position from a physically threatening and mentally traumatic position. I’ll leave exactly what up to your imagination, but make sure it’s designed around the thing that most informs your identity. So, ignorance, maybe, or your precious testicles. Y’know, whatever works FOR YOU. Also, do this thing for centuries. Life span not up to the task? Recruit your ancestors and descendants! Make sure you’re being reasonable through every example of abuse anyone can bring up – which they will, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. We wouldn’t want to overlook any tiny example which would invalidate your entire response.

“Too much anger.”

Not enough anger, actually. Are you a sports fan? How about if, just before the start of the game, the rival team walked onto the field, punched out the refs, stomped over to 12 inches from the goal line and said, “Okay everybody! Starting now, play by the rules!” Which is a shitty analogy, because in reality it’s more like NOBODY WAS PLAYING A GAME AND SOME ASSHOLES JUST ASSAULTED PEOPLE THEN DEMANDED NOBODY BE MAD ABOUT IT.

The reality is you’re afraid. Men are afraid that women’s sense of justice will require retribution. It’s what men would want, after all. And I suppose that having your very existence erased through scorching the earth with a layer of lava seems pretty retributive. But the powerless know better. Anyone who has had their life burned to ash through oppression, trauma, or violence knows what it takes to rise from those ashes. We’ve been doing it for our entire lives, while those in power never have. We have the tools, the knowledge, and more importantly the courage to both rise from and withstand immolation.

“Calm down.”

We are not required to modulate our response to trauma for your comfort.  You can’t handle it and you expect our pity? Our sympathy for your discomfort?? Our anger is justified because it is the only justice we’ll see. You can run from the lava – I’m riding it straight to freedom.

How NOT to apologize: a handy primer

Don’t start out by co-opting the subject’s pain.

Don’t continue by drawing minute and irrelevant distinctions in their facts; such as quibbling between 8 times out of 9 or 9 times out of 9.

Don’t victim blame.

Especially don’t victim blame children.

Don’t mischaracterize the subject’s personality in an effort to avoid responsibility.

After all of that, definitely don’t say “I apologize” like it’s supposed to mean something.

No, we didn’t do it better “back then”

Originally published as a Facebook note on April 7, 2015. Possibly more relevant now. 

Between family, acquaintances, coworkers and – of course – the internet, I seem to be bombarded with an onslaught of “What’s the world coming to??” comments lately. These comments – both unadulterated in statement form and pseudo-sly, in pithy meme format  – enrage me like nothing else.

They started out just irritating me, but the more exposure I got the more psychotically angry I got until I very nearly had an epic facebook explosion in just exactly the wrong place and time. Luckily, extensive experience in regretting previous facebook explosions prevailed and I left the keyboard to cool off. But it did bring to a head the need to unpack my issues over this common viewpoint and the seemingly blind agreement it fosters.

First, let’s look at the types of comments I’m talking about:

“What kind of kids are we raising these days?” said by a coworker in reference to younger people who don’t subscribe to her version of respect.

Any number of “back in the old days we did things differently and we should’ve stuck with it!” memes, posted all over facebook by people I otherwise like.

“People (and/or kids) today just want to be famous,” applied universally to anyone receiving the lion’s share of attention for anything.

I’m sure you’ve seen your share of these types of comments, and perhaps have contributed a few of your own in what you thought was a tongue-in-cheek, yet still adroit, commentary on modern society. (I have some bad news for you, by the way: it was neither of those things.) So now that we know what I’m talking about, let’s get to unpacking.

1. These comments are supremely unoriginal.

In a quote wildly misattributed to Socrates, but still written by a student of classical Greek culture: “The counts of the indictment are luxury, bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect to elders, and a love for chatter in place of exercise. …Children began to be the tyrants, not the slaves, of their households. They no longer rose from their seats when an elder entered the room; they contradicted their parents, chattered before company, gobbled up the dainties at table, and committed various offences against Hellenic tastes, such as crossing their legs. They tyrannised over the paidagogoi and schoolmasters.” (Kenneth John Freeman, 1907)

Plato may not have quoted that directly from Socrates, but the odds are overwhelmingly in favor of both men having said something similar. In fact, I’ll lay odds that anyone reading this has made the joke that they “sound like their parent(s)” while chiding, reproaching, blaming or otherwise bemoaning the state of today’s youth. THAT SHOULD BE YOUR FIRST CLUE. Every generation thinks their elders’ reproving scolds are out-dated and old fashioned and have no practical place in modern society. This “tradition” has been going on for centuries – like head lice and other undesirable symptoms of large groups of people congregating together.

2. The implied insult.

“Repost if you agree the way we did things was the RIGHT way!” Which would make everything opposed to that agreement… what? The “wrong” way? We no longer put children in the back of open pickup trucks. That’s “wrong”? Tell you what – why don’t you argue your position from the open bed of a ¾ ton Chevy barreling down the highway at 75 miles an hour. No? Are you sure? Could it be that your position, when stripped of the bubble-wrapped safety of nostalgia, looks a lot like reckless endangerment?

But let’s leave aside obvious and logic-defying issues of mechanical safety. How about those childrearing techniques of ages past? Never mind what my personal opinion is on corporal punishment, let’s address how each of the statements made with regard to “we raised kids better in those days” implies that kids today having nothing of value to offer. And don’t give me that bullshit about “exceptions”. If you post that nonsense where I can see it, I am under no obligation to assume that you think my kid is an “exception”. I think my kid is extraordinary, but not exceptional.

As Elizabeth Gilbert pointed out in a remarkably satisfying rebuttal to the “kids these days” argument (it’s on her public fb, and I encourage you to seek it out):

Today’s American teenagers are the most sensitive, least violent, least bullying, least racist, least homophobic, most globally-minded, most compassionate, most environmentally-conscious, least dogmatic, and overall kindest group of young people this country has ever known.

They were raised to be nice to each other. They have always been encouraged to be tolerant with each other. They weren’t allowed to hit each other in the sandbox while adults looked the other way and let them “work it out on their own”. They don’t smoke as much as my generation did, they don’t drink (or drink and drive) as much as my generation did, they don’t beat each other up as much as my generation did, and they aren’t as mean to each other as my generation was. They don’t even have as much sex as my generation did.

Yeah. Kids these days are also kind of glued to their electronic screens, which can be annoying when they run into you headlong on the sidewalk (speaking from experience), but do you know what they’re looking at? No, you don’t, so quit being so judgey, McJudgeFace.

3. Direct insult.

I am morally and intellectually opposed to many of the attitudes embraced in these romanticized notions of the past. The past wasn’t a very nice place to live, especially if you belonged (or were forced into) a marginalized group.

Fun fact: women were only granted the privilege of carrying consumer credit in their own name in… 1975! That’s right. While you’re waxing nostalgic about how great baby blue eye shadow was, your mom was buying that with cash because she WASN’T ALLOWED TO HAVE A CREDIT CARD in her own name. You know who got her the right to have her own credit? Loudmouth and militant feminists who definitely DID NOT sit down and be quiet in the presence of their elders.

Because I’m on a roll with quotes, let’s revisit this one from George Bernard Shaw: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” If you honestly believe that the world was a better place when one class of humans exercised the power to keep another class silent, please just practice that silence yourself. You are an anachronistic albatross around the neck of human dignity.

4. Appeal to antiquity/tradition. 

Just don’t even go here. I can’t say this better than Wikipedia, so here ya go:

Appeal to tradition (also known as argumentum ad antiquitatem, appeal to antiquity, or appeal to common practice) is a common fallacy in which a thesis is deemed correct on the basis that it is correlated with some past or present tradition.

The appeal takes the form of ‘this is right because we’ve always done it this way.’

An appeal to tradition essentially makes two assumptions that are not necessarily true:The old way of thinking was proven correct when introduced, i.e. since the old way of thinking was prevalent, it was necessarily correct. In actuality this may be false—the tradition might be entirely based on incorrect grounds.

The past justifications for the tradition are still valid at present. In actuality, the circumstances may have changed; this assumption may also therefore be untrue.”

Note that the opposite of this is to appeal to novelty (“it’s better because it’s new!”), and that is NOT what I’m doing here. Just because something is new doesn’t make it better. Making it better means identifying the inherent problems in the old system and weeding them out. Homeopathy is not better because it’s “new”, but that doesn’t make the medieval practice of bleeding someone less wrong.

5. When we know better, we do better.

I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I first heard this statement from Oprah, but I still embrace it whole heartedly. As referenced above, sometimes past justifications were valid for the time and place. It’s okay to kiss a child’s boo-boo, it makes them feel better. But, if I may be so bold, grow the fuck up.

We now know that many human behaviors and identities exist on a spectrum; it’s not okay to label people based on ignorance. “Back in the day” we may have been somewhat justified in raising our kids in a culture of fear, but I’m going to take a leap here and say that era died out with the saber-toothed tiger.

If you, personally, still equate respect with fear, then you have my sincerest sympathy. I don’t know what happened to you to make you think that (though I suspect it was the generation before you going “IT WAS GOOD ENOUGH FOR ME AT THAT AGE!”), but I implore you to get to a library and look up virtually anything written after 1991 on the subject of early childhood education. Please. Just go. You’ll come out with a profoundly more empathetic value system, and not just a little resentment for your parents’ and grandparents’ generations. It’s a feature, not a bug.

In case I haven’t made myself clear, I think that clinging to unexamined notions of the inherent “rightness” of past habits and traditions is not just immoral, it’s dangerous. Not only am I happy to live in a time and place where knowledge, discourse, and scientific discovery are made available to the vast majority of people, I am actively looking forward to more of the same in the future. And yeah, I’m personally offended when you express regressive attitudes.

I know you think you’re cherishing your past, but there has GOT to be a better way of doing that than by parroting the exact same complaints your parents, grandparents, and other ancestors voiced going back at least to classical times (see #1).

I was going to close this out by apologizing for offending anyone, buuuut, let’s be honest: I’m not sorry, really. It wasn’t my intent to offend, but if that’s the outcome, I can only hope you’ll take a closer look at why you hold those ideas in such high regard. Why does it make you feel better to hold yourself up as an example of a good and moral upbringing while tearing down everyone who doesn’t agree? If you don’t mean “everyone”, then maybe examine who the hell you think is listening to you when you say such things. Either way, you should know that I am listening.