The Dream Life of 2020

December 16, 2020

When we wake from a dream, half remembering the details and then immediately losing them, we only know what we don’t know. Keith Richards once wrote in his detailed autobiography, “Memory is fiction” as a way of letting himself off the hook for constructing a picture of his life that may have diverted from facts. But all history is a construction. George Washington told a lie or two. When I remember something in my own life, am I remembering it as it happened, or merely remembering my last memory of it? A picture of a picture, losing sharpness with each copy.

That’s sort of how I reflect on 2020, a year of years, as if a dream that I am just now waking up from. Did all that happen? The clouds of CS gas may have affected my cognitive ability. If I’m not mistaken, everything collapsed. Reality as we know it ended and I’m a bit foggy on whether that was a bad or a good thing.

The year for me really began on March 11. Before that it was the usual drama; war in the Persian Gulf, Democratic debates, stock market and helicopter crashes, and me trying to get my kindergartner dressed for school. The news about the “novel coronavirus” had been spreading fast and I remember telling my students in February that this was probably going to be the story of the year. Little did I know it would be a tsunami that would wash over every person on the planet. March 11 was the day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. It was also the day that we were supposed to see Patti Smith in concert. We had tickets for show at the Seattle Paramount and were going to drive up after my Wednesday classes. That afternoon the show was cancelled out of fear of the virus spreading (Washington was the first state to get hit) and I had a feeling that it was just getting started. The following day Tom Hanks was was sick. As goes Tom Hanks, so goes the world.

The year now exists in a series of half remembered moments that may have been scenes from a movie and not my life.

I remember fleeing Portland because the wildfires in Oregon and California had clogged the air with smoke, making breathing impossible. We headed as far west as possible, ending up in Newport, Oregon, which was a mixture of smoke and fog but at least you could breathe. You couldn’t see the ocean and the escape it promised. We camped out in the Sylvia writers’ hotel, where we found sanctuary in old books as our daughter played with Shelly the Cat. (I am back at the Sylvia Hotel now, sitting next to my wife who is writing her book that will change the world. I can see the Pacific Ocean and it can see me. I’m finally starting Patti Smith’s The Year of the Monkey.) When the rains came back to Oregon, Cozy and I danced in the streets, thanking Gaia for protecting our house.

I remember Andi and I being in the streets of Portland as the revolution ramped up. Trump’s federal troops had come in to quash the Black Lives Matter protests, which only brought more anti-fascist Americanos to the fight. By that week’s Battle of Portland, we already had a few tear-gassings under our belt. There was a moment this July night (really morning) when I was hiding behind a concrete pillar on SW 5th Avenue as the DHS troops fired rounds at unarmed protestors. Was this Argentina, 1979, Mexico City, 1968, Belfast, 1972, Cairo, 2013? What country was I in and would I be killed by a hastily assembled gang of federal forces whose only mandate was to show that Trump was tough on “antifa”? Andrea and I made a mad dash across the street to a safer alcove. In 1994 I had tried to get to Sarajevo from Austria and was blocked at the border. In 2020, I was in the middle of something equally as historic. A group of protestors came marching eastward, chanting “No cops, no KKK, no fascist USA” and the federal forces fired rounds and them and then chased them down to attempt mass arrests. “Oh my God” Andi screamed. Was that America or was that a dream?

I remember having to move my college classes to a remote set-up and hoping my students, laid flat by deportations, lay offs, depression, and the virus itself, would show up. Weekly Zoom meetings became more like therapy sessions and I found myself longing to see their two-dimensional faces. Most typically kept their cameras on mute, making me wonder if I was dreaming them or they were dreaming me. Did they even exist? A name on a role and on a screen. Had the virus erased them, as well? While my daughter found community in a neighborhood “pod school” with four other first-graders, I was stuck in my living room, whiskey in my coffee, pretending I was a college professor.

I remember watching the body count. 1000 dead. 50,000 dead. 250,000 dead. 294,535 dead, just in the U.S.. All while the president played golf and held super-spreader rallies, proclaiming it would magically go away after election day. (Didn’t he get the virus? And his wife? And his kids? And his greasy-hands-in-pants lawyer?) I remember thinking that I had COVID more than once, including this morning. (That was just a hangover from drinking Gin Rickies in the F. Scott Fitzgerald room at the Sylvia.) I remember worrying I wouldn’t be able to say goodbye to Andi and Cozy with a ventilator down my throat. My parents, in their seventies in hard hit Georgia, stayed in my mind. Would I get to see them again? Would anything be anything again?

I remember a gameshow president trying to imitate his dictator pals, even after he lost the election BY A LOT. I think about his cult-like followers caravanning into Portland in pick-up trucks, shooting paintball guns (and real ones) at protesters, oblivious to the 1922 March on Rome that brought fascism to Italy wrapped in a national flag and the cry, “Kill the communists!” I wonder where those people are now. Training for Civil War II, I imagine, their orange lord encouraging to them face the bullets while he snorts Adderall in his last moments in the White House. Donald Trump was cancelled like Coachella, but the specter of his idiocy hovers like a toxic cloud from a sewage plant fire.

I remember a planet convulsing with the burden of having to carry the human race for another year. So many hurricanes they had to start the alphabet over again. Endless fires and floods and people wondered, “Is Tiger King on?”

And I remember black people begging for their lives to matter. Not begging, demanding. Tired of this shit 155 after the end of slavery and yet it continues. The signs said it all, “Enough is enough!,” “Black trans lives matter!” “Stop killing us!” and a thousand others. A hundred nights of protests in Portland. Americans being gassed in Lafayette Park so Trump could hold a prop Bible. White People reading White Fragility and then looking in the mirror. A racial convulsion of a nation that had too long denied its sins. Was this an awakening or were we still asleep?

But I also remember the more personal moments, like my wife being awarded her masters degree and then landing a teaching gig at Reed College, or my daughter learning how to ride a bike or communing the the lemurs at the Zoo. Those moments seemed more real than watching the death throes of the American Century. Deep, quarantine-time conversations with my wife about how to make our marriage a friendship meant more than worrying about Melania and her celebrity apprentice.

With the vaccine and Inauguration Day on the way, I’m ready to wake up and see how this year will be remembered. But I’m happy to wait for the grand historical recap to be told. Or the post mortem. In 2021, when we open our eyes, there will be a dance where we once again embrace and celebrate the joy of life, vowing to not go back to sleep.

Guest Essay: The Status of Women

May 31, 2018

I like to occasionally feature the work of the only actual award-winning writer in the house, my wife, Andrea. She really pulls the #metoo moment together in this essay.

The Status of Women

by Andrea Barrios

Guest Essay

To paraphrase what Walidah Imarisha stated in her Martin Luther King, Jr. speech: wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world without the triple evils: militarism, materialism and poverty? Without the militarism that has placed neighbor against neighbor in Myanmar, sparking the Rohingya refugee crisis, or the genocide the military carried out under the government’s veil in Guatemala. Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where instead of valuing the vain interactions of our online personas trying to out-buy ourselves into acceptance and determine our self-worth measured by likes and followers, we valued more meaningful human connections? A world without the racism that puts up walls between human beings that would otherwise discover they have so much more in common than different. The kind of racism that makes some proclaim that “all lives matter” while they sit idle as young African Americans are shot or suffocated to death and immigrant families are torn apart. Indeed, it would be nice, and even finer if you could live in that world as a man. In a perfect world, men and women’s idea of a perfect world would be the same, but in reality, women have an additional set of visions of what makes a perfect world, and their world does not include sexism and misogyny. In the words of the man with the dream himself, Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase.” Like Imarisha mentions, women might have never seen a world imagined without sexism and misogyny, but lucky for the world, we’ve been taking that first step all along, and will continue to climb our way out of the fiction.

I, like many other women, imagine what our daily lives would be like if those specific evils that haunt us women were to suddenly evaporate. I wonder what it would be like to live in a world where I don’t have to worry about the simple act of walking to and from class without having to clench my pepper spray in my hand, a world where I felt completely free to just walk. I wonder what it would be like to be treated with respect regardless of how I look and how my hair decides to lay that day. A world where my decisions and expressions aren’t attributed to my being a woman or my anatomy. A world where I am not infantilized in the workplace or in the classroom, after all, I’ve stored my girlhood in exchange for womanhood. This world I speak of is nothing like the world I live in, so I have learned clench my fist as I walk, I speak my mind regardless of my bad hair, and although I cannot see the top, I take the steps.

As I take the steps, the freedom I do possess seems to anger my male peers. The way I walk is too confident for their liking. The way my unyielding silence rubs against their unwelcomed compliments is taken as insult. How dare I not say thank you for being acknowledged? Who do I think I am to take up space, to sway my arms without a care. Although I’ve been taught to, I no longer want to hold myself together and shrink into myself. I am the product of all the steps taken by women who came before me. Although the women in my own family have never walked across the stage at graduation, I am here because I am just as worthy of this education, and I am just as worthy of being listened to and learned from.

It is true that we cannot build that which we cannot imagine. The artist sketches out his creation before ever laying a brushstroke on canvas. The writer’s mind collects inspirations and absorbs ideas from everyday life. We cannot build without imagining, but often, the limits of what we can imagine were often not set by us. As a woman, I have come face to face with the limits set by society time and time again. You can be a leader, but be careful not to be pushy or bossy. You can be confident, but not so much that a man might feel threatened by you. As women, we bump into those limits so often that sometimes they run so deep we start to internalize and even embrace them. There are those chains that others impose on you, and those we impose on ourselves. You might ask, but why would someone who knows they are chained not just set themselves free? The truth of the matter is that women don’t hold all the keys, or if we do, they are just a tad out of reach and stretching our arms to reach them, would mean starting a fight with a system that has very defined roles for women.

There are many women taking these blind and hopeful steps. Countless women at all levels creating a path for themselves and others towards equality. The road to equality should not be a solitary journey, although it may feel like that sometimes. In order to create real change and live a closer life to the world we all imagine, we also need men’s help. We need men who are willing to offer a hand as they pull us closer to equality. We need men who will not let other men’s shortfalls become a regular event, especially when they affect girls and women directly. We need men who are willing to defend women’s rights just as much as they defend and guard their masculinity. The only way to move from symbolic solidarity to actual change is to get in motion and to act out and defend women’s rights through action, through community, through art. Action means using any means or talent one possesses and helping women carve out the path to their better world.

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The recent events taking place in our society are lingering echoes of the change that is to come. The echoes of women sharing their #metoo stories, of women and men proclaiming that #timeisup and #neveragain. Women and men are both visualizing a world where women are equal and men are set free from the chains of toxic masculinity. The real world will push back on those ideals, because its shape is so set in stone that it takes grinding and chisels to change it little by little. Step by step. For those of us who never shared our #metoo story, for those of us who are mothers and students, for those of us who are just finding our voice, know that there are steps that have already been taken for all of us, but plenty of space for growth and representation for those men and women that are ready and willing to climb.

It’s all a part of asshole recovery

June 15, 2017

Other than Donald Trump, does anybody truly like the sound of their own voice? Mine makes me cringe when I hear recordings of it. I feel for the thousands of the students who have had to listen to me over the years. But I do love to talk and maybe my jabber has some value in the world. Those students got a lot of stories from my weird life to illustrate points, hopefully finding applications in their own stories. Maybe I should keep talking.

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The reason for talking is that I’m an asshole. But I’m trying to get better. I was featured in a front page interview in yesterday’s Oregonian newspaper. I casually chatted with the reporter about all things related to racism in Oregon. I assumed this was background research for a larger story, but it was an actual interview. I was trying to make the case that institutions are changing from the inside and said, “I’m the last person in the world that says human resource ladies are giving us hope in the world, but they are a reflection of how much institutional change has happened. Every HR department has an equity and diversity department now.”

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I was trying to make a joke about the stereotype of people who work in Human Resources offices and how they are, in fact, agents of change. In print it fell flat. I just looked like an asshole and the online commenters sunk their teeth into my quip. I could’ve gotten defensive, bleating, “It was just a joke!” but I’m in recovery and that means taking responsibility for my mistakes.

There are two types of people in the world, (I love it when people bisect humanity like that) assholes and people who know they are assholes and are trying to not be. I’m trying to be in the latter category and that requires more listening than talking. So why am I starting a podcast about my privilege? Shouldn’t I shut my privileged mouth up?

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Privilege is such a dirty word in our culture. Everybody’s “worked hard” for whatever they have. Try telling a white guy who is homeless that he has white privilege and male privilege. It might be a hard sell. But he does. Devah Pager’s profound 2003 study, “The Mark of the Criminal Record,” found that African-Americans without criminal records faced more job discrimination than whites with criminal records. For years I assigned Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” to my Intro Sociology students. (“1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.”) Most of them were smart enough to get it. Having an unearned privilege doesn’t make you a bad person. It just means the playing field that you walked on to is not even.

I had a trick that usually worked pretty well in the classroom. I’d ask the left-handed students to raise their hands. Then I’d have them testify to the multitude of advantages that right people have. Usually the right-handers would be a bit surprised. “Well, I never thought of that,” they’d grunt. Then I’d ask the righties how many had lefties in their life that they cared about. “Is it possible that there’s a similar dynamic with race or sexual orientation?” “Oh,” they’d grunt.

I’m right-handed.  And a white, cis-gendered, able-bodied, heterosexual, male, middle-class homeowner. I’m pretty damn privileged. Some days it doesn’t feel like it, but even on those days I am. If I ignore it or, even worse, deny it, I’m officially an asshole. So I thought I’d make my own recovery a public one. Growing up in Stone Mountain, Georgia (the birthplace of the modern KKK), I can recall some pretty racist moments in my life. I wrote a paper in high school titled, “If they have Black History Month, why can’t we have White History Month?” I was a product of my environment. Now I’m actively anti-racist, but I have to acknowledge there is racist residue (it’s sticky), and it is strongest when I deny my white privilege.

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So I’m kicking off my first podcast, Recovering Asshole. I’m going to talk to people who don’t have privileges I enjoy. Maybe they can help me (and you) be a little less of a privileged asshole. In the wake of the Portland Max stabbings, I thought we’d tackle immigration first. It made sense to talk to my fabulous wife, Andrea Barrios, about her boarder crossing. In the spirit of John & Yoko, we did the interview in bed. It gave me a deeper appreciation for what she went to just to be in this country. I won’t discuss what happened after the interview. (Maybe I should launch Recovering Asshole: After Dark as a paid subscription podcast.)

Recovering Asshole Episode 1: My Favorite Alien

We’re here on iTunes. Please subscribe. It’s free. And share. If you don’t have iTunes, you can find it on Soundcloud. Maybe we’ll get a sponsor. Maybe we’ll bring a bit of empathy into our lives. I know there are a ton of great conversations coming.

I’ve got lots of interviews lined up. We’re going to talk to Muslims, African-Americans, Trans people, gay parents, domestic violence survivors, and, yes, even left-handed people. I’m a podcast fan (Fabcast is my current favorite), so I think I know how to keep the listener engaged. My hope is that people who find Recovering Asshole with share it with their friends (especially the assholes) and it can grow into something that can have an impact.

We’re allowed to make mistakes on this journey. It’s not easy. I’m sorry if my comment about “HR ladies” came off as sexist. I’m using it as a moment of reflection. My tagline for the show is my tagline for life – We’re all works in progress, so let’s get to work.

PODCAST EPISODES ARCHIVED HERE

RecoveringAsshole

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