Experiencing Racism

Somebody on Twitter asked: “Have you ever experienced racism? Tell us your story.”

There are two ways to experience racism: As a victim and as a beneficiary. I have experienced racism as a beneficiary. It’s called “white privilege.”

And the more I observe the victims of racism, the more undeserving I feel of its benefits.

I am no more deserving than my black brothers and sisters of being able to walk (or jog) down the street without being harassed.

I am no more deserving than black Americans to feel only mildly annoyed when a cop pulls me over on the highways or city streets.

I am no more deserving than they are of living in a comfortable home in a “safe” neighborhood.

I am no more deserving than they are of being able to watch birds in a city park without others feeling threatened by my presence.

It’s been said that America will never truly rise to greatness until we undergo the genuine soul-searching and structural realignments demanded by “truth and reconciliation.” This week I’ve seen a lot of people encountering some big truths about America and who we have been (and still are) as a racially divided nation. There’s a lot more to come. And the reconciliation will never come without uncovering all of the shameful truths about our nation’s history and about how I and others like me have benefitted while others suffered.

It’s time.

You might also want to read my previous post, “This is Not a White Country.” Or this broader take on the notion of “Privilege.

1960s Déjà Vu

A protester carries a U.S. flag upside, a sign of distress, next to a burning building Thursday, May 28, 2020, in Minneapolis. Protests over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody Monday, broke out in Minneapolis for a third straight night. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

I got up this morning experiencing a sense of déjà vu that sent me looking for my bound volume of all the campus newspapers from my senior year in college—1969-1970. I was editor-in-chief that year, so there’s a lot of me on those pages, from editorial decisions about what got covered and what went on the front page to editorial statements (many, in retrospect, rather outrageous!) about everything that was going on that year.

There was a lot going on. There was a Moratorium declared in opposition to the Vietnam War. On December 2, 1969, there was the infamous draft lottery. We put out a special issue on the environment in March of 1970. There was also the Texas Pop Festival and skinny dippers in Turtle Creek. But I think what prompted my déjà vu was the memory of our black students’ association (yes, we had one at SMU) and the list of demands they drew up and how meticulously we tried to cover them in the student newspaper. We got criticism for that.

The previous year, in May of 1968, I had submitted a term paper in which I cited numerous political theorists and a few black activists. The paper concluded that white America had long since declared war on black Americans and that black people had every right to fight back, including with violence. I quoted extensively from James Baldwin and even included one citation of Stokely Carmichael’s writings.

There had been repeated riots through the 1960s. We may have thought that the Civil Rights Act and school integration and a few other achievements would fix things. More recently, we may have thought that having a black President would fix things.

Nothing has been fixed. The past decade has seen a vicious resurgence of (never dormant) white supremacy with its constant toxic handmaiden, white privilege. And black people and other people of color have had enough. The current pandemic has revealed the deadly extent of existing economic and healthcare inequalities. The murder of George Floyd forced us to see what we haven’t wanted to see: The heritage of slavery and Jim Crow are with us still.

When people time after time are pushed to the brink, when they ask for and then beg for and then demand change and nothing changes, eventually something explodes.

When it’s a gas fire, you don’t just spray water. You turn off the gas. And until we address the very real structural inequalities that exist within our society, we’re going to keep having explosions. Maybe even some big ones.

 

Rabbit! Rabbit!

Did you know I have a monthly newsletter? If you subscribe to my blog, you probably get it already. It comes on or just before the first of each month. I started it last October. It’s called “Rabbit! Rabbit!” because, as explained in the first issue, many people believe that if the first thing you say on the first of the month is “Rabbit! Rabbit!” you will have good luck for the month and nothing would please me more than being able to help all my readers have good luck! The luck may not be working so well at the moment, but I’m going to keep trying!

At the end of this post there are links to all of my newsletters so far, and from this point forward, I will be including each new one somewhere on the blog.

Wishing all of us better luck in May!

Rabbit! Rabbit!

October 2019   November 2019   December 2019 

January 2020   February 2020   March 2020   April 2020   May 2020

 

A Moment of Magic

Once in a great while, life offers up moments of unforgettable magic. Facebook gave me this image today and in doing so gave me back a moment of magic from 2010.

The photo looks down from the slopes of Gangri Thökar, on a path leading up to Shugseb Ani Gompa in central Tibet. I was on a pilgrimage with Dechen Yeshe Wangmo and we’d arrived later than we planned at the base of the mountain. A number of our group opted to engage in brief prayers and then head back into Lhasa for a hot supper and welcome rest. The rest of us headed up the mountainside.

This was one of the pilgrimage sites that had strong personal significance for me. My teacher in Nepal, Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche, had been a student of an important abbess at Shugseb, the yogini Jetsunma Chönyi Zangmo (1852–1953).

It was late in the day as I made my way up the mountainside, and I soon lagged behind the younger and fitter members of our group, whose destination was a cave near the mountain’s summit associated with one of Tibet’s most revered scholars, Longchen Rabjam. We’d been told that the cave was currently occupied by Dudjom Yangsi, recognized as the reincarnation of another important figure in my teacher’s lineage.

Breathless as the mountain air thinned, I eventually gave up trying to keep my group in view. I stopped to rest and when I looked over my shoulder, the luminous valley took my breath away. I snapped a photo.

I finally reached the nunnery and began wandering among its buildings, unsure what to do next. The rest of my group were long gone, and I knew that this was as far up the mountain as I would go. I found a small structure that housed a huge prayer wheel and I went inside, circling the wheel as I turned it, chanting the guru mantra.

Soon I realized I was not alone. An elderly nun had entered. I greeted her in Tibetan and she smiled warmly and gestured for me to sit with her on one of the benches alongside the prayer wheel. Communicating in a patchwork of simple Tibetan and simple English augmented by a lot of gestures, I think I finally succeeded in telling her that my teacher had once studied here under the Shugseb Jetsunma (whose full name I didn’t even know at the time). She told me that she was called Ani Dawa. “Dawa” is Tibetan for “moon.” She offered me tea and tsampa, which I gladly accepted. We sat together for a while longer.

I had no idea when my friends from the mountaintop would be coming down, nor where I might encounter them. Maybe they’d already passed back through! I decided to take my leave and go back down the mountain alone.

It was dark by this time and I had no flashlight. But there was a full moon. So I was accompanied down the mountain by my friend dawa as I continued chanting the guru mantra.

When Facebook offered me this memory today, I felt the need to experience the magic again, to let myself remember this special moment in my life’s journey. As a scientist, I often shy away from magic, unwilling let it just be what it is without asking all the hard questions. I’m trying to tell myself to stop being that way. Sometimes it’s okay to let the circumstantial confluence of symbols and circumstance move me. Sometimes it’s okay to call it magic.

I also did a little more research online and discovered a new biography of Jetsunma Chönyi Zangmo, whose early associations with Nepal surprised me. I learned that her birth name was Chonga Lhamo (co lnga lha mo), which translates as “Goddess of the Fifteenth.” The biographer speculated that her name had something to do with the fifteenth day of the Tibetan calendar. It’s a lunar calendar, and the fifteenth is the full moon day.

Pandemic Revisited

I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few weeks about the pandemic that I wrote about in my Recall Chronicles series. I think about how my different characters reacted to it.

One of them denied their symptoms right up until the diagnosis came back. It was just stress, they said. Or the altitude. That was all.

Other characters contemplated the relevance of political action under dire circumstances.

Montagne stared out the window and said nothing, his fists shoved deep into his pockets. When he spoke, his voice was heavy with sadness. “I know,” he said. “It seems like a lot of people are going to die of this disease no matter what else happens. Except maybe for the plutocrats who are rich enough to isolate themselves.”

But what if the plutocrats are a bigger problem than any disease?

Another character finds herself thankfully immune to the virus. And that became another whole set of issues. She and her friend decide to volunteer at the hospital, offering comfort to patients:

There were only a hand­ful of [immune] people who could work without the encumbering suits and hoods and we were issued badges indi­cating our approved status. Most of the other badge-wearers came from the ranks of lower-level workers who tended to sweep­ing, cleaning and trash removal. My heart sank, realiz­ing that in another week or so they’d also be removing bodies. My task was bedside care. I gave people water and helped them with their meals and their palliative medica­tions—analgesics, anti-nausea pills, sleep aids. I held their hands and looked into their faces. They seemed grateful to be able to see mine.

And then there’s the opening to book three (Flight of the Owl), which came from someone trapped in the misery of the ongoing pandemic (you’ve been warned).

September 11, 2126—She takes another deliberate breath and stares at the rigid form, dismayed at how inexorably her friend’s life had leaked out, bit by bit, thinking about how it will feel when the same thing happens to her. And it will hap­pen. If not tomorrow, then the day after.

Breathe.

She struggles against encroaching tears. Breathing is already hard enough. She fills her lungs with the oxygen her broken blood cells refuse to carry. Not moving around helps, not robbing oxygen from failing organs.

Breathe.

She considers opening the door and running away, run­ning until she drops. Out there nothing works anymore. Everything’s broken. Out there smoke hangs in the air, smoke from the fires. Not funeral fires. There were no funerals. She doesn’t open the door. She lies still, next to her dead room­mate while her own life leaks out, bit by bit.

Breathe.

The last time she looked in the mirror, she saw how her youthful face had gone pale and gaunt. The calendar tells her she’s 107 and she searches for 107 years’ worth of memories. She finds a few. In her mind she writes letters to friends and family, the dead and dying.

Breathe.

Dear Maggie – I just want to say how sorry I am that I stole your favorite eyeliner pencil. She hasn’t heard from Maggie in years.

Breathe.

Dear Uncle Bart – Thank you for making me memorize poems. Thank you for Dylan Thomas and ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’ I have no rage left.

Breathe.

Dear Jonathan – How I wish you were here to hold my hand. I’ve wished that before but I never told you. I’m remem­bering a poem I wrote in college, one where I longed for a revolution. Everyone called it anachronistic nostalgia but you said it was good. I think about what’s happened and I think it had to be deliberate. I think this is our 22nd-century revolu­tion. I didn’t think it would be like this. Is this victory? If so, whose?

“Long live the revolution,” she whispers.

Love, Kate.

Breathe.

 

Scared

 

The population of planet Earth is currently around 7.53 billion humans. The loss of a few million to COVID19 won’t make much of a dent in that. But if one or more of that few million happens to be someone you love or someone who could have made a difference for a whole bunch of other people either through literally saving lives (because they’re a doctor) or through thinking us into a better way of being together (once we’re allowed to be together again), the loss is magnified many times over.

This morning I’m feeling scared.

I’m scared to leave the house because I really, really don’t want to catch this virus. I’m 71 years old and prone to annual bouts of allergies that haven’t been kind to my lungs. If I got COVID19 and had to be hospitalized in the midst of high demand for ventilators, would I be one of the ones shunted aside as too old to qualify? I just found out yesterday that about half of COVID19 patients who are put on ventilators die anyway. I found out today that about 20% of patients exhibit neurological impairment. What if I became too disoriented to call 911?

I’m scared for my son and my daughter and their spouses and my grandchildren and my sister who is older than me and her family and all of my elderly friends who have so much living still to do. I don’t want any of them to get sick. Hell, I don’t want anyone to get sick, but that doesn’t seem to be a realistic aspiration under the circumstances.

I’m scared for our future (and this gets back to the kids and grandkids again). How long will the economic pain last and will we have the courage to change some things that we can now see need to be changed, especially in case anything like this ever happens again? And it will happen again. Viruses are sneaky bastards that only behave in terms of their own survival and propagation. (Don’t be like a virus…)

I try to be positive. Really I do, but I can’t just turn off the news, because not knowing what’s going on makes me even more stressed out and anxious. Or guilty for feeling upbeat when there’s so much disaster out there.

I try to imagine myself in the picture above, high on a mountainside in central Tibet in a snug cabin, all alone by choice, with people bringing me food and drink every few days…

I’m actually in my urban condo. Alone. Not by choice. The traffic on the street has grown quieter. The food delivery people bring me groceries. I’m still reasonably healthy. I have a secure income. I have a place to live and plenty of supplies and conveniences at the ready. I have internet and friends and family and we check in with one another regularly.

But I’m worried. I’m worried about me and about you. And sometimes I’m scared.

 

 

Not Blogging

“Gifts”

Wow. My last blog post was in October of last year!

I really shouldn’t let myself get “too busy” to blog. But apparently that is what has happened to me over the past four months. What have I been busy doing? Writing, editing, synopsizing… and for the past two months looking after my precious baby granddaughter every weekday.

My next book, tentatively titled Song of All Songs, is finally feeling ready to query. I’ve incorporated advice from a professional editor and three specialized (and very helpful) beta readers. (Thank you Teresa, Claire, and Cheryl!) I’ve also rejiggered a few things in the story after realizing that it is really book one in a series that I’m calling the Earthcycles Trilogy. I’ve already written about a third of book two and settled on a primary plot arc for book three. I’d tell you more, but I’d rather not until I see where this might go in the traditional publishing world.

Then there’s been the baby-tending, which is both exhausting and exhilarating. Physically exhausting because she’s not quite 16 months old. But exhilarating because this is such an intriguing time of discovery for her. How tiny humans learn language (verbal and gestural) and figure out how to coordinate bodies that don’t come pre-programmed as other mammalians’ bodies do is amazing! Of course, this particular little human goes about it in her own way that is different from the way her big brother did it, which also differs from the path taken by her dad (my son) or aunt (my daughter). I’d show you pictures of her, but her parents have decided that until she is old enough to consent (or object), her image will not be shared on social media. And I respect their respect for their children. So the image I selected to accompany this post shows the gifts the little girl gave me one day when we went walking…  

In March, baby girl will be starting preschool. (I’ll miss her hugs!) And I will be back to full-throttle writing and blogging!

How It Might Have Been Different

“Pursuit of Happiness”

The future was already lost. The only hope was to retrieve their past, reposition it, and hope for the best. They would eventually be known as “Timecrypters”. They knew this, but preferred to call themselves “Travelers”.

The scenario in which they found themselves was occurring in what the carbon-based alpha species of this rather pretty blue-green planet referred to as the year 2015 CE. Travelers tried to make note of these time-posts, as otherwise they were inclined to forget where or when they had been coming from as well as where or when they were going. It was easy to get caught up in scenarios, these convoluted meanderings of present circumstances laden with residues of past occurrences and hints at future possibilities. As noted, these hints had recently faded away into absence.

It should perhaps be confessed that the narrator of this story is also a Traveler, but since Travelers have no native linguistic equivalent of first person pronouns, it is easier for them to relate this story as a third-person tale. Verb tenses are also problematic, but they will have done their best.

The expertise of Travelers – Timecrypters, as you say – lies in their ability to navigate the currents of the time-space continuum by accessing small breaches between eras and universes. And when they say “small” they mean really minutely tiny. So tiny, that they can’t actually move through the breaches themselves, sending instead nano-robots equipped with photonic projectors and holistic transmitters, by means of which they can manifest whatever forms seem spatio-temporally appropriate and then projecting their consciousness into that form. Because they are not just communicating with these forms but rather BECOMING the form, they sometimes forget, as it were, which when they’re in and become more involved than perhaps they should have been in specific scenarios. It is always being a risk of this particular mode of travel.

The prime movers in the scenario related here appeared to be energy and moisture and the changing distribution of these across the blue-green planet’s surface. Ah yes, mundane, mundane. Exactly. The most fundamental facts so often appear mundane to those who exist by means of them. Have you ever tried to explain water to a fish? Don’t bother. They don’t get it. Likewise the alpha species of this blue-green planet, a terrestrial species, didn’t get their own reliance on the time-currents that distributed energy and moisture for their sustenance.

There were more proximate factors in the scenario, namely Mario Verguenza – the wealthiest specimen on the planet in terms of the things the alpha species valued most – and Gandida Raksha, who exemplified their highest ideals of personal beauty and sexual desirability.

The lifeways of the planet at this juncture in the scenario were facilitated by means of energy that was having been mined from below the surface, where is storing over many eons. Of course it all comes first from their star – a rather unremarkable mid-sized star – and was having been being transformed into physical form by an exceptionally efficient and truly admirable process they called photosynthesis (which the alpha species didn’t invent). The photosynthesizers carried much of this fixed energy to their graves, where it was having been stored and was now extracting for use.

Rather than ingesting this stored energy for direct benefit, the creatures of this planet were taken to burning it in various inefficient and wasteful contraptions to produce a wide range of goods that, as far as Travelers could see, had no benefit. They also consumed a lot of it in scurrying as rapidly as possible from one place to another. As a byproduct of these activities, the efficacious balance of energy and moisture transfer essential to their basic life processes was being severely – no, terminally – disrupted.

They didn’t really care about this, even in the fleeting moments when they almost understood. Among those most notable for not caring were Mario Verguenza and Gandida Raksha. They reveled in the reckless accumulation of useless goods and scurried from place to place more than most.

The Travelers were having produced a particularly endearing photonic small canine, which Gandida has quickly adopted and carried with her everywhere. They also produced a specimen of an unobtrusive variety of small brown bird, free to fly about and observe more broadly.

It became obvious to the Travelers that Mario was bent on extracting and incinerating every last ounce of stored energy from the planet. They felt the quivering disruptions in the continuum. They sensed the disappearance of the future.

During the late nights when Mario and Gandida were engaged in non-reproductive sexual activity and early mornings when they slept, the lapdog and the little brown bird convened to compare notes.

“It is palpable,” the little bird said. “These people have consumed their future.”

“Shouldn’t there have been some doing to help?” asked the dog.

“It’s so hard not to get involved,” the bird replied, with a sad, down-drifting twitter.

“If Travelers could have gone back to where this scenario began, to see if it might be tweaked? Just a little bit, understand…” The dog rested its head languidly on a paw and twitched an ear.

And suddenly they were inside a building where huge metal objects with four wheels were assembled. The term “Model T” comes to mind. The Travelers were taken the form of cockroaches skittering about in the corners of the factory, and as they look at the heavy boots of the workmen, they felt the vulnerability of this particular form choice.

“Is this where it started?” one of the cockroaches said.

“Unlikely,” said the other.

The scene shifts again, and they were in a beautifully appointed sitting room. There are chairs of carved mahogany, upholstered in intricate tapestries. Heavy brocade curtains hang at the windows and brass ornaments gleam in the light of a blazing fireplace. A corpulent gentleman sits on one of the chairs, smoking a cigar, while a gentlewoman in rustling silk sipped tea or coffee from a delicate porcelain cup held in a hand sparkling with jeweled golden rings. The Travelers occupy the forms of mice hiding behind the wainscoting.

“Can you feel it?” said one mouse, its whiskers quivering with excitement.

“Yes, it manifested strongly here,” the other replied. “This is where the future begins to disappear. But what is it that was happening?”

They both sit very still for a couple of minutes, training ears and whiskers this way and that to get a better read on the time currents flowing through this scenario.

“It’s the desire, isn’t it?” said one.

The other twitched its nose in agreement. “Even so,” it said at last. “The desire for objects, things, experiences of faraway places. Maybe the desire to feel exalted? Outside this space there is readable a similar desire to have what is in this room. And of course, there can never be enough for that.”

“Is there anything that can have been done about it? You know, to prevent what transpires from here and consumed the future?”

“Maybe it’s just the way they are,” the second mouse suggested. “Maybe they were destined to be a species with no future.”

“You know that’s not the way things work,” the first mouse scolds. “There’s no such thing as destiny. You’re absorbing their way of thinking. Get hold of yourself.”

The second mouse scratched its head with its back foot. “Sorry.”

The first mouse closed its eyes thoughtfully. “What if these ones have never acquired these things? What if they have to rely more on things from their own place? You know, their own resources?”

The second mouse perked up its ears. “Maybe if their temporality had been shifted somehow. Grabbing a piece of the past and repositioning it in such a way as to give them a chance to have emerged in a different way.”

The scene changes once more and they are on a ship at sea. They are no longer mice, but instead rather large and nasty rats, gnawing vigorously at some thick ropes. The ship lurches side to side, backward and forward in a dreadful tempest. The wind howls and waves smack loudly against the timber hull. The ropes the rats have gnawed through give way. A mast cracks and then crashes onto the deck, smashing a hole where water enters. The two rats climb onto a piece of floating debris as the ship disintegrates. And because they are really Travelers and not rats at all, they can read the names inscribed on the disintegrating hull of this ship and two others equally doomed – Niña, Pinta, Santa Maria. Sailors flailing about in the storm-tossed waters, desperately clinging to anything still afloat.

As dawn breaks, broken bits of wood, a few empty barrels, and a couple of corpses bob aimlessly in the calm waters.

On the time horizon, the future glimmers.

(This was originally posted in October of 2015 but I thought it was worth repeating in honor of Indigenous Peoples Day – aka “Columbus Day.” It is a “Tale of the Timecrypters”, a species of time-travelers invented by author Seth Abbot, a character in my recently published novel, NOT KNOWING. It has been lightly edited from the 2015 version.) 

Pettifoggery

“Pettifoggery” is the word that floated into my consciousness as I perused the morning’s news about the whistleblower, especially a story about a phone call between the occupant of the oval office and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

HIM: “Hey, can we do something about this whistleblower complaint, can we work something out?”

HER : “Yes, you can tell your people to obey the law.”

In his world, everything is—always has been—negotiable, and he keeps a coterie of loyal lawyers close at hand to facilitate negotiations.

So many in our business and lawyering communities live—have always lived—in a world where everything is negotiable. Spinnable. Obeying “the law” is not a concept they understand as most citizens do. For them, “the law” is a set of pliable parameters that they fiddle with to the benefit of their clients and personal bottom line. Businesspersons congratulate themselves for finding clever ways of circumventing tax laws and government regulations of all kinds. Lawyers (okay, “not all lawyers”; got it) care little for determinations of actual culpability or liability. Blame is their game. If you can’t prove your client innocent, just sow doubts about the reliability of witnesses who say he’s guilty. Spin it and spin it and spin it again until we’re all so dizzy we just want to get off the ride.

Pettifoggery. My 1941 edition of Roget’s Thesaurus includes the word under four separate entries: sophistry, deception, litigious, dishonourable.

Sadly, we live in a world where pettifoggers rule. Unless we can bring them back into the clarity of arcane concepts such as “obey the law.”

 

Let’s Get Together

Boudha Stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal

As I walked through Boudhanath, Kathmandu, one evening in September of 2013, under a light rain, I was enveloped in the crowd. Everyone was headed in the same direction, toward the Great Stupa. I was reminded of Barcelona, where I had been the week before. But here, instead of heading to the plaza to sip wine and share food with family and friends, we were headed to a sacred place to walk in brisk clockwise circles murmuring prayers.. or chatting with family and friends. I love both customs and the way they bring people together in a shared space at the same time.