isaac black

isaac black writes

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.

The healthier I become emotionally, the more I realize how much of my life I was living in emergency mode. I was very high-functioning. But I realize that I was living in a kind of manic state, where a number of defenses kept me from risking the disapproval of others. Commonly, I would use some artistic endeavor to justify my isolation, an attempt to communicate how I was feeling by speaking for how everyone feels, a quixotic effort that embarrasses me now.

And then I would wear myself out and become depressed. It was a cycle that I couldn’t identify, even as in its throes I felt thrashed around and abandoned by God.

Taking God out of the equation helped; it made the cruelty of life feel less personal. Seeing a therapist helped immensely. The first two months during our sessions I could hardly speak for crying. The biggest victory was finally feeling that I deserved a voice. Me, not some ur-narrator. My therapist helped me identify where a lot of things were coming from. She approved compassionate practices for myself and helped me avoid counter-productive, passive aggressive strategies. I’ve continued to learn about myself since discontinuing our sessions.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how my fear of commitment, my anxiety, my tendency to withdraw from relationships, all stem from a fear of inadequacy. Inadequacy ruled my young life. It ruled my 20s, and I’m only recently learning how to validate myself so I don’t seek out validation from romantic partners based on some version of me tailored to fit their tastes.

The fear is so deep that it feels appropriate to say that it comes from trauma. I don’t use that word lightly, and it feels strange to use it to describe my childhood. I was the youngest, the spoiled golden child in my loving, upper middle class Mormon family. I was racked with teen angst and resented my mom for babying me, but, I thought, wasn’t that normal? Even then I felt that I was being dramatic and that I should have been more grateful for what I had.

But the inadequacy was there, intensely, during my teens. High school was when I learned my habit of pining after some idealized crush, only to loathe myself when she rejected me or, heaven forbid, started dating someone else. An implicit rejection. I earnestly believed that X really understood me, that she could take away my loneliness. When she went for someone plainer, someone simpler, it felt personal.

I can’t pinpoint the age when I began to hate myself. The first day of 6th grade when I realized my friends from last year had graduated into a tier of popularity that I hadn’t? Earlier? Sometimes I wonder what memories of my childhood I may have repressed.

I do remember being no older than 7 or 8 and chasing the neighbor kids, friends of mine, off our sidewalk because they were selling lemonade there without paying us rent, swinging a wiffle ball bat at them with tears streaming down my face. It was the unfairness. My mom gave me the idea that they owed us something and didn’t change her tune even after seeing my inexplicable reaction.

The person in this world who I’ve felt the strongest connection to, my ex girlfriend, was the victim of childhood abuse at the hands of her delusional, bipolar mother. We understood each other’s emotions in an intuitive way. She won’t talk to me anymore, but I even understand that. The fact that she had gone through trauma made me try the word in my mouth: abuse.

I don’t believe my parents actively abused me. They both spanked me, though my siblings and I only took my dad’s spankings seriously. He administered spankings at my mom’s request when he came home from work. Not in anger. Afterward he left us alone to cry, coming in five or ten minutes later to give us a hug.

Maybe it was the hug. The hug was for him, not for me. None of it was for me. My feelings at the time probably knew that, even as my parents’ words said otherwise. Maybe that was the beginning of my tamping my feelings down, making room for my parents’ anxiety about being parents.

Maybe it was the time I hid in bed after losing to my brother in Risk, he following me there to continue talking shit. I yelled for my dad, and he stormed into my room to physically kick my brother out. Thinking he had come to save me, I smiled and said thanks as he put his fearsome face in mine and yanked me out of bed to spank me, telling me that he wouldn’t have a sore loser in this family. My brother glared at me through dinner.

I used to joke about that story when recounting it. I can appreciate the comedy of it–a game of Risk can be brutal. I can also see the humor in a boy chasing neighbors off “his property” with a yellow wiffle ball bat. But when my therapist asked if my dad had ever hit me, I told her the story, beginning it light-hearted and ending in tears. Thinking about both stories brings up very dark feelings in me. It’s a disorienting tangle so thick that it makes my throat feel physically constricted. It’s so dangerous that my body, still, chokes itself to keep whatever that feeling is from being expressed. When I talk about my feeling of inadequacy, it’s more than that; it’s a black void where I feel alien, rejected by normal humans for not understanding how they work.

My parents’ mothers both died in their youth. My mom was 7. They kept her and her twin sister in the car at the cemetery when they buried my grandmother. The family thought it would be best for them. My dad thought it would be best for me if he hit me, if he socialized me to be tough. They didn’t know it and still probably don’t, but they also socialized me to keep all my feelings to myself by responding to any emotion with anxious behaviors–my mom prattling on about someone she knows that I don’t know or care about, my dad barraging me with superficial questions and then offering a tidy answer as if he solved the problem. Both put our family to the foreground of their lives in such a way that their failure as parents would devastate them. Again, I don’t know at what age that I learned this, but I grew up removing my feelings from the fraught tension that existed just below the surface of our family dynamic. I will not hit my kids, but I don’t think that’s where my trauma comes from. “Abuse” doesn’t sound as accurate as “neglect.” Precious few of my feelings were validated until adulthood.

My dad was the son of a train engineer, a blue collar job–hard work with little pay. After retiring he sold shoes. He owned a little house and raised three kids, but whatever my grandpa took home from that job wasn’t enough for my dad. My dad became a different kind of engineer. He went to college and chased the highest salary he could by moving to Minnesota with his young bride. And they pinched every penny. My parents are retired now, with something in the ballpark of a million dollars in assets. They’re accruing so much from my dad’s investments that they can’t spend it fast enough, even while going on three or four cruises a year.

My mom was always helping and never accepting help. She’s the one in the neighborhood making casseroles and banana bread for all the neighbors, keeping up with everyone else’s life and never talking about her own. But she would let some complaints slip when her schedule, packed so tight as to never let herself feel anything, would become too much for her. She would demand my help, right that second, and then criticize me for setting the table wrong and redo it.

When I was 25, I was living with them. I had been working an agonizingly boring job for eight months. I couldn’t drag myself into work anymore. I confronted my dad, crying before I even started the conversation, telling him that I was quitting, asking to continue living there rent-free. He wasn’t happy. “You can’t just not work,” he said.

He always wanted to give his family a good life. That’s why he came home stressed and unhappy most nights. That’s why he moved to Minnesota, then Alabama, then South Carolina, not knowing anyone. But after he gave us that good life, he envied us for it. “You can’t just not work.”

I realize that materially I grew up with much more than most. I never starved and I never froze. But that fact was used as one of several cudgels to keep me from expressing myself. These material things were for me, supposedly, but they didn’t come without strings attached.

I became depressed my last year of college. I was going to graduate without finding the person who would make my life make sense, and I had no career plan. Moreover, I had no idea how much I needed to make to get by. $40k? $50k? I needed to save for a house, for retirement, to pay down student debt. In my early twenties I had become more attractive to women and got good grades, and I used those successes to delay thinking about the future. When I had no choice but to face the uncertainty it inspired such feelings of worthlessness that, after accosting God for not caring about me, I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t feel anything.

Sometime prior to this night I freaked out on my parents. I skipped a family function because I was wracked with anxiety and unable to project the stable false self they expected of me, but I blamed it on being sick. They wouldn’t stop calling to “check up on me,” until I felt so claustrophobic that I returned their call to yell at them for treating me like a child. My dad offered a non-apology: “We were just concerned about you.”

When I would tell my mom I hadn’t asked for what they gave me, I would usually add that all I wanted from them was to be left alone. I wanted independence. I finally achieved it, and there’s something to be said for that. When I found a job that paid me well and that had enough variety to keep me from getting bored, I felt satisfied and settled. My anxiety and depression abated.

During the summer before I quit, I had been working from home once a week. Let’s be honest–I wasn’t doing a lot of work from home. My boss naturally caught on and sent me an email saying as much. I panicked. I thought I was going to be fired. Anytime I sense any displeasure from anyone around me–and I have a very sensitive antenna for it–I internalize it and automatically assume the worst. I am, in my thirties, learning that sometimes when people are mad at me, it’s not my fault. Or that it’s not a big deal.

I tend to default to thinking that I’m going to fail unless I manage to convince myself otherwise. A cloud of embarrassment and regret always hovers just out of my peripheral vision. My anxiety comes from my mind trying to figure out the myriad scenarios in which I will fail and draw the disappointment of everyone around me. I have such a visceral fear of it that my psyche will do almost anything to avoid it–becoming depressed, diving hastily into exciting romantic adventures, overeating, or checking out completely. After the reproach from my boss, I checked out from my job because the thought of feeling inadequate and getting fired terrified me.

But as much as it scares me, I’m very attached to that cloud of inadequacy. It’s been my survival strategy, and letting go of it feels like letting go of a trusty knife. My psyche tells me, when I try to encourage myself, that I’m lying to myself, that failure is more true. I feel vulnerable when I feel good about myself, like any second the cloud of inadequacy is going to fly in and leave me feeling stupid and embarrassed.

In a sense, living off of savings like I’m doing is a perpetuation of using independence as a defense. But it feels therapeutic, when I don’t drop everything to finish a contracting assignment as soon as humanly possible, to remind myself that I don’t need that gig. I am beginning to feel autonomous in these kinds of relationships, to feel like I can assert and negotiate for my needs and well-being, that I can accept or reject things on my own terms.

Being healthy and well-adjusted means depending on other human creatures for, at the very least, understanding how to interpret social cues. I have lacked that understanding for most of my life because of a family environment where my feelings weren’t appreciated, because of my devotion to a church whose only prescription was more church, because of my kneejerk superiority and sarcasm. My therapist, two years ago, was among the first to give me the permission to feel, and I’ve come to learn that I have many friends who will give that to me as well. I’m beginning to let go of the knife.

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