isaac black

isaac black writes

Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of my last day at my old job. It went by fast. 

Looking back at my year off I can’t help think of how little I did, even though I wrote a novel and went on half a dozen trips-of-a-lifetime. And part of the success of all that time off was to slow down my sense of productivity, to allow myself some days to only drink coffee, make dinner, and watch a movie. It’s disappointing now to feel myself wanting to account for all my unstructured time. 

I have learned to devote more time to my friends, something which allows me to ask for more in return, or to just feel the satisfaction of helping someone I care about. I’ve read some really great books that have influenced me artistically and politically. I’ve learned to calm my financial anxiety by learning what budget I can live on. And I’ve learned to accept the pace of my life and my creativity. 

I feel very at ease at the end of my year off. I’ve started graduate classes in History. I plan to get a job next year to supplement my savings until I can get student loans next fall. I have enough time, as is, to pursue other things and will have more time after this semester to incorporate friends’ feedback on my novel and seek out an agent. 

And I adopted a dog, a husky puppy from a rescue shelter. She’s plenty energetic and curious and demands much of my time but I love her enormously, after only a month. I’ve settled into a steady but not overwhelming pace. 

I believe I’ll keep posting about my life and how I manage to survive periodically, but I will most likely expend my writing energy toward a new blog I started under my birth name, where I will write about insights from my studies. 

It feels good to have accomplished a year without steady work, even though I had few doubts about it being possible. I hope I will continue to be so fortunate in the future. 

Ok Trump is not going to win. He has no campaign. He’s not a campaigner. He played the media like a fiddle because he’s an entertainment star, but is he looking at numbers in the swing states and coordinating a ground game to turn out the base? Is that what you think Donald Trump is doing right now? He’s not going to win. But that means in 8 years the Republicans are going to run someone who can use racism to get people excited, only that candidate will be smart about it, another Nixon. In 8 years do you want another corporatist neocon who most of the country is lukewarm about, whose sole virtue is not being racist, running against that person? or do you want the Democrats to actually get behind someone who excites the left and independents the way Bernie Sanders did? You get to influence what happens in November.

I got back recently from a three-week long road trip through the South. I hadn’t been back to my home town in South Carolina since 2003 because my family and most of my friends had since moved away. Without any real purpose in going back, I hadn’t prioritized flying in. But given that I don’t have a full-time job, I decided to turn a family vacation to Myrtle Beach into a road trip to see the places in the South that I haven’t seen.

The South is beautiful almost anywhere you go, but there isn’t a great destination if one is coming from the other side of the country. Even beautiful cities like Charleston and Savannah don’t offer all that much to do. So rather than flying in for a long weekend, a road trip is the ideal way to see the South.

I have conflicted feelings about the South. The culture is still very segregated, and white people are largely unwilling to acknowledge their racism. Because racism is less institutionalized than it has been in the past, many affirm that they aren’t racist and aren’t willing to hear how they might be. While this is the case with most of the country, Southerners in particular chafe about being seen as racist when they disavow outright white supremacy.

In a more personal vein, my parents’ being transplants meant that while I grew up in South Carolina for my entire childhood and adolescence, I never quite felt Southern. A part of that was my buying in to stereotypes about Southerners; I consciously avoided speaking with an accent. So while returning to the area brought back a sense of familiarity, it also reminded me of how out of place I felt growing up.

Machismo is prevalent, even though the average upper-class white Carolina man seems effete and speaks with a lisp. Manliness, whether it’s a blue collar interest in hunting and cars or white collar chivalry and good ol’ boy sexual harassment, is a pervasive construct in the South. I remember moving to Utah and thinking how Utah men, in the by-definition patriarchal LDS religion, seemed so gentle and sensitive.

Certainly many young men like myself felt critical of Southern machismo, but in my quick-moving tour of Southern states I was puzzled by the invisibility of the counterculture. There are few avenues there for oppositional ideas. The counterculture in many places is limited to outdoorsy hippie types, whose rejection of the status quo is often merely aesthetic. I knew three punks growing up, and only one of them went to my high school. It still puzzles me why, since the hegemony of Southern racist machismo is so stifling, there isn’t more of a rebellion against it. My mind was grasping at explanations—maybe the Southern narrative of white persecution at the hands of the Union makes people think they are the rebellion against the status quo? maybe that manifests through white identification with black people? maybe the material rewards associated with white privilege are too enticing? I don’t have a good answer.

Despite my ambivalence, I fell in love with two cities. New Orleans was fun and charming. At the same time it was sad to see how neglected the infrastructure was in black neighborhoods while Loyola was surrounded by pristine, affluent neighborhoods and a “park” which was in fact a golf course. Walking up to Audobon Zoo it struck me that there were no pedestrian paths to the entrance. I felt out of place walking in the street as cars drove up. It was an architectural reminder of the class and racial segregation that persists to this day.

The other city was Asheville, North Carolina. Having heard good things about several cities in the South, Asheville was the only one that, in the brief time that I was there, seemed to live up to expectations. The downtown was full of little restaurants and coffee shops and a lively mix of people tolerating the humidity, including transient people playing chess in a park. But the really winning part of the city was its setting. It’s an hour’s drive from Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi. In Pisgah National Forest there were weeks’ worth of hikes and swimming holes to explore.

Driving back through Wyoming made me feel conflicted. Normally when I come back to Salt Lake City I get excited to be back. It’s a great, overlooked city that offers lots of outdoors activities as well as a burgeoning music and arts scene. But the West looked so dry and brown compared to the Blue Ridge Mountains. There must have been something deeper going on than just feeling underwhelmed by the landscape.

In the week following my return, I sank into a depression. I had been looking forward to this trip for months and now had nothing to plan for or to look forward to. There is also the theory that the high altitude can trigger depression. Along with these factors, I felt vulnerable in that I was wanting to date someone, to feel romantically, and I came home to no prospects. I hadn’t felt vulnerable in this way since my ex, around this time last year, left me the day before my birthday without saying goodbye. The traumatic nature of our split meant that I never processed the feelings of rejection until last week.

But it took me days to work that out. Even once I had a grasp on the source of my depression there was no solution other than isolating myself in my room, wishing for something to spark pleasure.

As I began feeling better, I had a temp job for two days fall into my lap. Working helped me distract myself, which was good. But I wonder if the deep wallow into feelings of worthlessness was something I needed to experience, to help overcome the trauma of my break up. I don’t know. I was working when we broke up, and part of my motivation for burying my feelings was so I could go in to work as if all was normal. I’ve never had to ask for time off because of depression, which is to say I’m fortunately high functioning. But it also is a sad fact of our social order that the emotional health of workers is of so little importance to capital, that it’s a learned skill for many to bury feelings that conflict with one’s ability to sell labor.

I worked on my novel a little while on my trip. But since getting back it became an important activity for me to work through. I also started a short story, something I haven’t done in over a year, again with the motivation of expressing myself. And, with the luxury of having nothing else to do, I’ve finished the longest, most difficult section of the novel. I’ve almost finished the first draft.

The system hasn’t changed yet because it’s working as designed. One million black people are in prison. They are incarcerated at around six times the rate of white people. Philando Castile, murdered by a police officer during a routine traffic stop, had been pulled over 31 times since 2002. I’m a white man, and the last time I was pulled over was about eight years ago when I was going fifteen over the speed limit. The officer approached with a smile and let me go with a warning. The police and the prisons are instruments of white supremacy. Maybe you think it’s unfortunate that black men regularly have to lose their lives at the hands of police officers. But if you support the racist war on drugs and a heavily armed police force that mainly exists to protect property and issue fines you are accepting the disproportionate loss of black lives as a consequence. If you persist in believing that black people engage in more crime than white people, or that it’s some individual moral failing that causes black neighborhoods to decay under the weight of poverty and unemployment instead of the centuries-long plunder committed against them, if you view black adults as disobedient children, then you believe that the black population is a problem to be solved, to be kept under control, and you are accepting the loss of innocent black lives as a necessary cost of doing so. If you accept this then you also accept that the USA is a police state, that ideas like justice and freedom are still just ideas, and that you’re content to benefit from a system in which your quality of life is better because people of color are singled out and terrorized.

#BlackLivesMatter

I went on a bike ride today. My rides used to be a meditative time where I was forced to be alone with my thoughts. It was refreshing. But today it wasn’t so distinct a break from my usual day of doing and thinking nothing.

It made me think about what kind of creatures we are. Getting food 5,000 years ago was not much of a cognitive drain, whether one was hunting and gathering or farming. People, being social creatures, developed complex emotions to deal with the kinships and friendships that we relied upon to keep each other alive. Compared to the average office worker in 2016, a human 5,000 years ago probably used much less of their cognitive ability and much more of their emotional capacity.

The big selling point of the forty hour work week was that a worker’s productivity tapers off sharply after that fortieth hour. Despite the Western conception of the self as an intellect piloting a dumb ape body, what if humans just aren’t very good at extended bouts of reasoning, deduction, and decision making? Maybe a lot of our collective discontent comes from overworking our cerebrum and not adequately stimulating our emotions. Maybe the patriarchy that devalues emotional work leads us to think of ourselves as intellectual beings rather than emotional ones.

I have a lot of cognitive ability, but I spend only a couple hours a day, if that, really thinking about anything. I have no idea how representative I am of the general population. I do think that my anxious brain is maybe more inefficient than most, since with any given problem my brain doesn’t approach it methodically but instead by throwing every possible solution at it at once and seeing what turns the lock.

The Washington Post reports that a Harvard survey found that a majority of millennials reject capitalism, with 51% opposed and 42% in favor. The article notes, however, that the term is difficult to pin down. Only 27% “believe government should play a large role in regulating the economy.” Yet almost half indicated that basic human needs are a right that the government should provide.

To me, this sounds like they’re in favor of Scandinavian-style “socialism.” I put the term in scare quotes because very few people, even in those Nordic countries, are advocating the nationalization of the means of production. The millennials in the survey are rejecting the branding of capitalism but not the core principles of private property.

This isn’t revolutionary; it’s just moving the needle. Redistribution is part of capitalism and always has been. Bernie Sanders, while identifying as a democratic socialist, has not rejected capitalism, regardless of how oppositional his label may seem. In fact, the best thing the elites could do at this moment is to placate the increasingly agitated masses by cutting them in. In particular, free college would be a relatively cheap way to win over a dissatisfied generation. But, acceding however little money toward the commons in order  to hang on longterm to their privileged position is probably not on the minds of the elites. The masters of the universe are gamblers, and the volatility that will come from an entire generation saddled with six-figure student debt will not deter their hoarding.

I can’t say enough good things about this song and video.

The video uses an absurd concept to sharpen the tragedy of the subject matter (and with a spot-on archetype of today’s basic white girl). But what gets me every time is when Mitski rips into the second pre-chorus, finding solace in her cranked Les Paul.

I’m a big fan of emotional indie rock. If that doesn’t tip you off already to my demographic, I’m a college educated white dude. Before I was aware of the idea of privilege, before Twitter, I saw indie rock as a refuge for outsiders, like myself. Yes, I was an outsider! Learning that my music tastes (including the dilettante forays into hip-hop and afrobeat) were extremely typical for college educated white dudes made me embarrassed to listen to the Pixies for a minute. I realize that in the cultural landscape the travails of college educated white dudes are over-represented, and that’s lamentable, but it still resonates with me! Call it my guilty pleasure.

I have no idea what it’s like to try to assimilate, as a young Asian-American woman, while trying to find love. I have no idea if it’s subversive for Mitski to play a cranked Les Paul. But there’s something here that speaks to me, outsider to outsider.