Thursday, August 28, 2014

Thoreau, Howard Zinn, and My Bad Day.

I had kind of a crappy day and so I am just going to write a little bit.

Don’t feel obligated to read any of this. I don’t even know what it will turn out to be yet, but I have some time, I have Posrtishead going in the background and I have a little bit of nice cool white wine. Let’s see what happens.

I always feel the need to preface posts about my troubles by saying that: YES, I understand that I am not a tax collector in Mogadishu. YES, I understand that I am not getting gunned down by racist cops. YES, I understand that I am not getting beheaded in the desert. YES, I understand that the problems of two people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. YES. I KNOW.

But I think it was Graham Greene who said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation” and that has always inspired me to not be quiet about it!

It wasn’t actually Graham Greene by the way, it was Henry David Thoreau who wrote that in Civil Disobedience, but I always feel kind of pretentious quoting Thoreau because he was a pretty pretentious dude. Don’t get me wrong, I think he was well-intentioned and I think he had some good ideas, but I also imagine that he was an insufferable prick. As I understand it, that cabin he lived in was on Emerson’s land and people used to walk right up to the cabin to bring him food and wine and hang out at night. During the day is when he would write about being alone and an individual. But I have no desire to pick on Thoreau. If anything I’m sympathetic. He did his work and died a century before anyone much cared about it.

I don’t know why I’m more comfortable attributing that quote to Graham Greene. I’ve only ever read one of his books. I know that he worked for MI6 during WWII and maybe that is why I have such an affinity for him; I love those Brit spies. I know that he did actually write, “Despair is the price one pays for setting oneself an impossible aim.” That’s rich coming from a man who was both a spy and a novelist (those are - in my humble opinion - the only worthwhile professions), a critically and popularly successful writer who was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in literature.

The Nobel Prize - BTW - is named for Alfred Nobel the Swedish industrialist who, among other things, invented dynamite and made his fortune manufacturing cannons and other various weaponry. There’s some irony in the fact that the medal placed around the necks of Nobel Peace Prize winners bears the face of the man who also basically thought up the torpedo.

How strange is it that someone had to invent the torpedo? I have only lived in a world where it existed. Doesn’t it just seem like a forgone conclusion? For fun I sometimes think about how funny it would be to suddenly be transported 200 or 300 years into the past. I imagine a character who would seem like a fricken’ genius if he fell backward through time with no special knowledge of technology other than what one picks up just going about contemporary life.

When I was younger and living in the long, dusty San Joaquin Valley of California I used to kill some of my spare time by driving around the empty country outside of town and imagining conversations I might have with Thomas Jefferson. He would say something like, “I demand to know what sort of self-propelled vehicle we are traveling in!” and then I would have to explain to him what a car is.

ME: … and it runs on gasoline.
THOMAS JEFFERSON: What is this ‘gasoline’ of which you speak?
ME: It is basically just oil.
ME: No, of course not whale oil. Get your head out of your ass Thomas Jefferson.

We would prattle on like that for hours. In retrospect, I probably should have imagined that I was riding around with Benjamin Franklin. I love me some Thomas Jefferson, but it seems that he was a far too complicated and contradictory a man to just have a joy ride with. And I’m not just talking about the outsized contradiction of the slave owner who wrote “all men are created equal”. No, I am talking about the wild insanity of a man who took the Bible, cut out with a razor all the parts he didn’t like, rearranged the stuff he did like, and then published it calling it the “Jefferson Bible”. In his defense, he was smart enough to know not to publish it while he was alive.

The point being that Jefferson may have been brilliant, but he also kinda seems like a haunted and hypocritical pain in the ass.

Now Ben Franklin on the other hand, he seems like a man I could hang out with. Most days I walk to work and I always end up having to wait for the light right here at the corner of Zelzah Ave and Devonshire (the intersection of two pretty busy streets) and while I wait there, I often find myself hearing Ben Franklin in the back of my head:

BEN FRANKLIN: What is that?
ME: That, Benjamin Franklin, is a street light.
BEN FRANKLIN: What is a streetlight for?
ME: It controls the flow of traffic through the intersection.
BEN FRANKLIN: Who is operating this street light?
ME: No one, it works automatically.
BEN FRANKLIN: No one is operating it?
ME: Nope.
BEN FRANKLIN: But everyone does what it tells them anyway?
ME: Yep.
BEN FRANKLIN: But if no one is controlling it ... what if the street light is wrong?
ME: Look Ben Franklin you’re blowing my mind a little bit right now. Could you stop?
BEN FRANKLIN: What is THAT?! Up there!
ME: That’s an airplane.
BEN FRANKLIN: What is an airplane?
ME: It’s that thing you’re pointing at.

I think that anybody who could just invent the Post Office probably had enough mental alacrity to enjoy discovering the modern world with me. Although - I realize now - that wasn’t actually what I said before. Before I was talking about a modern person going backward through time, but here I have wasted all of this time talking about founding fathers springing forward through time. Sorry about that!

We were talking about the inevitability of the invention of the torpedo, I think. If Nobel hadn’t thought them up then someone else surely would have. There is a hilarious section in the foreword to the Daily Show book America that deals with this issue. That foreword is - coincidentally - “written” by Thomas Jefferson and it goes something like this:

Yes, we were very accomplished. We discovered electricity, invented stoves, bifocals, the lazy susan, efficient printing presses, and the swivel chair. But in the 18th century it was nearly impossible not to invent something. “What if we put refuse in a receptacle?” “Oh my God you just invented a sanitation system!” We lived in primitive times. Hell, I shit in a bucket and I was the president.

That America book is actually pretty fabulous. It is styled to look like a high school civics or history textbook. When I was doing my undergrad I actually used it as a source once. I was writing a paper on Nathaniel Hawethorne’s The Scarlet Letter and in a section discussing America’s religious history I pulled the line “The Pilgrims were searching for the freedom to practice the most stultifyingly oppressive brand of Christianity ever known to man.” (Stewart 18)

I got an A on the paper and in the class. I figured I could get away with it because I don’t think that professor did more than skim the papers. He had done his dissertation on the works of Thomas Pynchon, he liked to try to make himself seem cool by talking about all of the drugs he had done, and I know atleast one girl who swears her grades started to improve the shorter her skirts got. That is all to say that this guy found himself to be far too fancy and important to be interested in my paper about The Scarlet Letter.

Once you have picked up the America book, you should then check out Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the Unites States. Not because it is funny - it is actually one of the most horrifying things I have ever read - but because it is so hard to read that we begin to understand that the snide and glib humor of America - and the Daily Show generally - is actually just a defense mechanism against how truly gut wrenchingly vile America’s history is. If you have not come across Howard Zinn before, then you just need to know that he does meticulous research and he brings a post-colonial sensibility to America’s story. For instance, America would not stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific were it not for greedy opportunists, patriotic fundamentalists, and more than a few bloodthirsty racists. You do not get the America that we live in today without murdering a fuckload of native Americans - is Zinn’s point - and we shouldn’t be so casual about sweeping our dirty history under the flag.

I’m explaining this poorly. Zinn deserves a better write-up then that. Remind me to come back to him when I can really dedicate some time.

I actually had to draw on some of my Howard Zinn knowledge yesterday. My semester has started and I am teaching another one of those Supplemental Instruction classes. Basically my students are in what once would have been called a “remedial” English class. We go to their freshman English class together and then afterward they spend another hour with me and I help them work through everything they’re supposed to be learning. Sometimes that means workshopping their essays, sometimes that means leading a discussion about certain readings, sometimes that just means answering their questions about STDs and what the fuck is going on in Iraq. Well this week they’re reading an essay by Sherman Alexie. He’s a well-known Native American writer. The essay is called “The Joy of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me”. It is a pretty good personal narrative essay wherein he recounts his falling in love with books. He makes a lot of references to growing up on an indian reservation and several oblique references to the low expectations placed on his socioeconomic group, but he doesn’t give any of the history! He writes to an audience that already knows what Manifest Destiny was. So I spent a while yesterday explaining - for the benefit of my Kuwaiti students and my Chinese students and my Indonesian students - what exactly he meant by “reservation” and what exactly “Wounded Knee” was. I tried to be as straight with them as I could, because it is college and that’s when you’re supposed to learn that everything you have ever been taught is a lie. One of my students grew up in Glendale and she claims to have never heard the term “Manifest Destiny” before, so it was probably a good thing we covered it.

But that was yesterday. Yesterday I felt okay. Today I have felt less okay. Some of it is money stress; I’m about to drop half of my current net worth on car repairs and maintanance and that doesn’t feel very good. I also had kind of a rough day personally. Nothing we need to talk about here, but I felt sort of lonely. Not just lonely, but forced into the corner of loneliness by someone close to me. That may have been unintentional on her part, but it falls into a pattern of behavior that at this point is so long that the future of it is completely statistically predictable. So that brought on some deep thoughts of the un-Jack Handey sort and that was no fun.

But look at all this stuff I have written in an effort to duck my own feelings tonight! It sure is a lot of STUFF! And I do feel better now than when I sat down to start writing. Writing is always a kind of therapy for me and this blog is the couch that I lay on. This stuff would all be terribly embarrassing for me - my inability to process emotion in a healthy way, my inability to describe Howard Zinn properly, etc. - were it not for that fact that no one reads this thing except for South Korea Guy and he probably only comes here because he reasonably assumes that “standardkink,com” should be a porn blog.

Although … if you get off on the self-involved navel-gazing of an over-read, self-indulgent would-be writer, then I guess this is a kind of porn blog after all.


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