I Heart Rednecks, Sometimes

In college I took a poetry class from a guy who brought a littered beer can to class every week. It was a class about the modern nature poem, but he spent a lot of time picking up the can and saying “I understand this [mimes drinking] but not this [mimes throwing on the ground].” I guess that relates to every American nature poem of the 20th century or something.

Anyways, I took Squinch and his brother to the river today and there was a campfire littered with beer cans and plastic bags. Classic Snoqualmie redneck party. One of my students just wrote about the giant garbage patch, so I decided to pick up the trash. Keep it out of the ocean. I understand this but not this, said my professor in my head as I poured the beer dregs out on the sand.

But I disagree. I think I do understand. It’s something we all do. But rednecks are just more upfront about it. How many times have I listened to a story about climate change on NPR while driving around in my car? I can’t point any fingers here. I was getting maudlin about the smell of stale Rainier and cottonwood trees, when the dogs started barking at a lady in a bougie jogging outfit. I apologized and she told me to be careful because “there was a leash law and there might be other dogs.” Which is something I just can’t see the throwers of the beer cans saying, especially since what she really meant was “don’t let your dogs bark at me.”

Sometimes, I just prefer the redneck thing.

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Your Mama, My Boogers: Free Speech and Charlie Hebdo

Like many of people, I’ve been following the story of the shootings at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris, and because I’m always good for an opinion, it turns out, I have one.

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The attacks, obviously, were horrific and wrong. To quote my mother, “people are not for hitting.” It goes without saying they are also not for shooting. Equally obviously, free speech is incredibly important. A free and just society is an active, constant creation, much like love, and speaking freely and truthfully is a crucial part.

But just because it is your right to say it doesn’t mean it’s right to say it. I’m not talking about political correctness or other people telling you what not to say — censorship of all kinds is frightening. I’m talking about taking responsibility for the power of your words.

Words are very powerful. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” is a flat-out lie. Satire is a particularly powerful tool, because of the way it can speak truth to power. This is where Charlie Hebdo was right, and this is also where I think they were wrong.

We’ve been hearing a lot that Charlie Hebdo is an equal opportunity satirist. However, the implications of making fun of different people are really different. Satire is imbedded in the political and social structure — it’s whole role is to comment on that structure. But that means that it can’t escape the power dynamics of race, gender, class, and the colonial residues that are part of that culture.

Making fun of Islam in a country that a) colonized a lot of North Africa, and b) has a long history of marginalizing Muslims, and c) etc. is not the same as lampooning the president or the Catholic Church. It’s not speaking truth to power — it’s picking on the underdog. Clearly, the editors thought differently, as is their right. And I may be missing something, since I’m getting these cartoons in translation. But the conversation I’m interested in isn’t so much about that particular newspaper as it is about free speech and responsibility — both of the speaker and of their society.

We have the right to write all kinds of things. I can say anything I want to about your mother (as long as it’s true!), or talk endlessly about my own boogers. If I want to do these things, I shouldn’t be censored, but I can be held responsible for what I say.

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about one of my favorite essays, “Boats Is Saintlier Than Captains,” by Robert Bringhurst. It’s an essay ostensibly about morality, language, and design, but it doesn’t stop there.  He says that “there are always plots afoot to limit the moral sphere. These schemes are often called philosophies, but they are rarely more than claims to the ownership of power….” He goes on to define morality as a “working relationship” with humans, other life forms, objects and ideas. Artists are those who “act from a developed moral sense towards certain inanimate things.” Paint, or wood, or cartoons, for instance. This doesn’t make artists more moral than other people, it just means that “the artist is, in his particular field, articulate. We might, in a healthy culture, ask the artist to meet many more criteria than that.

What criteria might we ask our satirists to meet? That they write courageously in the face of intimidation, yes, but perhaps also that they write from a spirit of love, or that they pick their targets with the good of people in mind, or that they are wise, or kind, or genuinely funny. And what about the rest of us writers?

This (along with how to keep the recent events from fueling Islamophobia) is the conversation I hope we all have.

(A couple relevant links:  In a look at the problems with the cartoons, Jacob Canfield of the Hooded Utilitarian wrote, “Nobody should have been killed over those cartoons. Fuck those cartoons.” And an interesting article from 2012 in Slate about the hypocritical way we treat offensive speech against Jews vs. that against Muslims.)

Dublin Conundrum

So now I’m in Dublin, slowly heading home. Here’s my newcomer’s observations: Dublin is a city of contradictions. I’ve seen a nun in Birkenstocks, a man driving a horse and buggy while talking on a cell phone, a lady who had to move to England to divorce her pub-loving husband but many pairs of men holding hands, a bedraggled 1940’s boy scout canteen from North Bend Washington being sold for twenty euro in a flea market, the word “authentic” on everything that isn’t. 

Dublin looks as if its fashion-consultants were all alternative high schoolers in Seattle in the ’90’s. Lots of black lipstick, hair dyed the color of cherry lollypops, short dresses and frumpy sweaters, everything a little loud and a little awkward, like it’s a statement as much as an expression of natural grace.

I went to hear some traditional music in a pub outside the tourist district a couple of nights ago, and while the bar was a dead ringer for Conor Byrnes, this was no Seattle Old Time Jam. This was a bar full of people (lots of guys — lots of dudes) who were belting out the choruses of everything from “Wild Mountain Thyme” to “I’m Just a Teenage Dirtbag, Baby.” Not sure how that one made the trad cut. I drank my obligatory Guinness; the Irish drank Bulmer’s Cider. A girl with cherry pop hair and cherry pop lipstick drank a cherry pop colored drink. A guy spilled his beer in my hair and then headlocked me and kissed the top of my head to say sorry. I met a bunch of very sweet guys from Donnybrook. One of them insisted on walking me home, though he was smaller, younger, and drunker than I was. I hope he got home alright — he had much farther to go. When I showered in the morning, my hair gave of the artichoke smell of beer.

So that’s Dublin, or a flash of it. No pictures, because I’m in a hurry. 

Hank, Your Brother Made Me Cry

We braved the middle school girls yesterday and saw The Fault In Our Stars, which if you don’t know is an adaptation of the novel by John Green, who if you don’t know is the brother of my friend Hank, who if you don’t know is awesome.

The movie was awesome too (as are the novel and John and probably the middle school girls when you get to know them). There was love and there was cancer and death and Big Questions and a blind kid egging a fancy car. Hollywood didn’t take all the smart out of it. I cried and the middle school girls laughed inappropriately so they wouldn’t cry and then cried anyways.

The strangest thing was that Gus, the boyfriend in the movie, had John and Hank’s mannerisms. He had the eyebrow lift, the hand thing, the quick delivery of the witty line. Either he watched a million of their videos or they mimic the mannerisms of today’s awesome eighteen-year-olds. Either way, it’s weird to see a movie star doing someone you know’s mannerisms. Even if that person also happens to be a teen heartthrob of the internet age.

Anyways, go see the movie. Read the book. Buy stock in Kleenex. Be good to the people you love before the inevitable oblivion.

The Morning Blend

I want to tell you about one of my favorite hours of the week: 7:30 — 8:30 AM on Wednesdays. I wake up early on Wednesdays and have a long commute. That is when I have the little ritual of listening to the Morning Blend show on KBCS, one of Seattle’s community radio stations.

The host, a lady named Fionamoran, which is probably two words but sounds like one, sounds as sleepy as I feel. Actually, she sounds stoned. At 7:30 in the morning. The show alternates between little news programs and folky music, in a completely spacey kind of way. The news doesn’t overwhelm you. The music is broken up often enough that you know that you’re awake.

The news segments drift along in a predictable, dreamlike progression. This is helpful for a sleepy mind. First comes news from Bellevue. In Bellevue, citizens save each other with defibrillators in the gym and run for various local offices. That’s nice. Then there’s music, usually a lady singing, who may be wearing a cowboy hat or something flowy, but it’s radio, so I don’t know.

Then comes Earth Sky, a science show. Earth! Sky! A Clear Voice for Science! This is where they find life in distant galaxies and discover that the dinosaurs who left the tracks were swimming, not stampeding.  Cool.

More music.

Then Jim Hightower and his populist commentary. Usually this comes when I’m in a mass of cars driving over Mercer Island, also known as Poverty Rock. Mr. Hightower is cheerfully incensed about corporate power in his blowsy Texas accent. He exposes the world of politics to be one big Comedy of Tragedies, and he always lets me be on his side. It’s awesome and it never makes me cry.

Right on his heels — we’re running up against the end of the hour — comes Labor Neighbor Radio, the Voice for Working Families, with John Sanderfeld, who sounds like a cheerful robot. He also explores everyday atrocities, but sticks to local ones. Then more music.

Sometimes Fionamoran comes on to tell us what song just played. She reads every title like a foreign concept. Sometimes she says it will be Earth Sky, but it is Jim Hightower. She never apologizes. She just keeps going. I keep driving and drinking my oatmeal.

Then, often many minutes before the hour, she comes on to wrap things up. After that comes an indeterminate amount of a probably endless song that might be African or Caribbean or South American and I should be able to tell but I can’t but I like it anyway. It’s probably African, because the words I catch go “Africaaaaa, Africaaaaa,” and I think I hear marimbas. But other people might sing about Africa, too. You never know.

Eventually, it fades away, and on comes Amy Goodman, rocking out to the Democracy Now theme song, which sounds like superhero music. Then more atrocities, all through Sammamish. But I’m awake now, and can take them without a happy Texan voice.

And then I park the car and go for a walk somewhere beautiful with Squinchy. We see flowers and eagles and snakes. And then we teach little children about Walt Whitman and apostrophes, and driving back home again there is rarely anything interesting on the radio.