And Then: An Account of the Last Three Years

I forgot how to write in 2019. I was still doing it to some extent, nouns and verbs here and there, publishing the odd post and scribbling notes to myself in the various places I stash ideas, but I had become confused. The internet soured. Each time I logged on, I felt myself permeated by incoherence, as if each day’s assault of random interestingness was a kind of cosmic radiation, weakening my bones, shredding DNA, mutating my sense of self, place and purpose.

At the same time, my twenty year career as a college librarian was unraveling. I lost connection to the work I was doing, had done and had felt to be important. The place I was working became poisonous, a place that celebrated mediocrity and prized uncritical conformity. The feel-good phraseology of employment as “work family” took hold, and directionless “innovation” masked an institutional rot that still breaks my heart.

The larger world seemed no better. Everywhere I looked, I saw once-trusted systems breaking. “We can’t keep living like this”: the mantra circling like smoke in my mind.

I started talk therapy (again) with an affable, but himself exhausted, therapist who helped me understand the turn a mind often takes in midlife. We talked a lot about the physical experience I had of staring into woods at night and feeling myself being swallowed by darkness, which seemed the inescapable fact of death — mine, yours, everyone and everything. It was, in psychological terms, a depression. It was, in spiritual terms, liberation. He helped me see that I didn’t have to do the things I had been doing. I didn’t have to continue thinking myself a plaything of what others deemed important or useful or vital. I could define these things for myself. He prescribed James Hollis and Robert Bly and poetry and writing and running and meditation. He prescribed family and friends and community.

And then: the pandemic.

My sense of darkness and the inescapability of death came to seem prescient. I felt also a kind of global kinship as we all moved our lives onto the internet to keep ourselves physically apart to help “bend the curve” of hospitalizations and death around the world. There was a brief moment of togetherness, beauty and wonder as my feed filled with video of people all around the world leaning from balconies to clamor and praise the work of nurses, doctors and emergency responders daily placing themselves in harm’s way. I saw cellists and opera singers perform in empty town squares for people who needed the courage that music and art bring. We stopped driving cars so much and air quality got better. And the thought “we can’t keep living like this” became “Oh. This is how it can feel to be a human.”

And also, then, the “work from home” experience which, for me, dovetailed with remote onboarding into a new job inside a completely different profession. I made my escape from the broken place that had been my professional home, a place that had been making me physically sick. Painful as it was to leave behind my own team and friends via web conferences, I found a new opportunity to do meaningful work in a place I respected and that respected me.

I turned my mind again to the possibilities of writing but my mind was worn with constant thought of pandemic, the gathering strength of anti-democractic politics, economic stress and the inescapable fact of climate crisis. I didn’t know what to write, where to start. And then, the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. My feeds were full of protests, the swell of pent up people coming together to demand accountability for the unaccountable. And then, tear gas and billy clubs as the state’s answer to the gathered people. And then, the gassing of Lafayette Square to make the way safe for the vainglorious president and his ego handlers to strike sanctimonious poses in the borrowed shine of St. John’s Episcopal Church.

And then, a white teenage gun nut became a Fox News hero for carrying his AR-15 into the midst of chaos so he could feel like a bad ass. And later, America went full Watchmen when Texas deputized all citizens to enforce its heinous forced birth law. Everywhere I looked, the people saying “America First” most loudly were actively putting American values last. Metastatic dumbness grew rampant, aggressive and violent. 

In the midst of all this, I lost my words entirely. As a white, professional, affluent male, I had no idea what to say. Everything that seemed possible to say also felt like a gross exertion of privilege. Who should care what I had to say? What could it possibly matter?

I am not proud of this reflex. In the moment, I could have used my voice to elevate the voices of Black lives, female lives and queer lives — people who already understand the violence and chaos I was feeling as a more or less normal part of their whole lives. I didn’t. I let myself vacillate too long trying to decide if using my voice was an act of aggression or an act of hubris. I couldn’t discern which. My silence became an exertion of my privilege. I spoke quietly to those people who already agreed with me, who saw what I saw and felt what I felt and tried to ignore the stupids and crazies.

Except, the stupids and crazies were everywhere. People I knew. People I had worked with. People I once had liked. People I had invited into my home. They were all on social media saying outrageously dumb things with a galling lack of shame.

I left Facebook because it was making me hate people I was meant to love. And then, I left Twitter because the richest man in the world decided he could fix America’s so-called “free speech problems” by buying the speech platform. Nothing to see here. Just one more self-righteous billionaire writing a check to feel like they are actively solving problems they daily help make worse.

And also the failed January 6 coup which was broadcast live for all the world to see, but for which the right people will never pay.

And then, the week the Supreme Court declared war on all of us. States cannot enforce hundred year old gun restriction laws but can force women to give birth against their will.

It is all too much. It has been too much. It will be too much.

And now, I am here, with you, to tell you that I never meant to leave this place and I never wanted to stop writing. For a while, I thought it hurt too much to try and now I find it is hurting too much to not be trying. Silence is making me sick. All of this not writing has become a thing I feel in the viscera of my body, in the hot reach of my soul.

And so, I am trying to return. I am trying to return with a new sense of what’s actually possible. Reading back on so much of my writing, I find a person struggling to declare what he believes he knows and understands. I stopped writing when I realized I know nothing. I understand nothing.

It takes a while to find humility, to accept your limits and realize that what you have to offer isn’t your certainty about things. It is your curiosity, your courage in uncertainty, your willingness to show your doubts to others in hopes they might recognize some of it as familiar, that some piece of your confusion about the world and these lives we are making can resonate and be helpful.

So I am trying to find a new way into my writing. Not as a declaration of what I know but, rather, as a joyful celebration of everything I don’t know, what I cannot perhaps ever understand. I still like the title Ubiquitous Quotidian but the meaning has changed. It is a journey of thought, feeling and community through what I am encountering everywhere (ubiquitous) everyday (quotidian).

I can only promise to show up in my writing. What we might do together with any of this remains to be seen.

The Day Before: January 5, 2021

My journal entry from 9:57pm on Tuesday, January 5, 2021, the night before the Insurrectionists disrupted democracy and trashed the Capitol.

I don’t know what to write tonight. I am tired, and I am anxious. Anxious enough to puke. The Senate race being tallied in Georgia tonight will determine the balance of power in the Senate. Not normally something I’d want to puke over but these are not normal times. If Republicans pick up the two seats, we can count on two years of impasse and obstruction from do-nothing, Grim Reaper McConnell. We don’t have time to waste with the pandemic ranging, the economy crashing and the environment burning. The future is burning and Trump’s idiot band of enablers are crowding into the clown car. They either don’t understand that the world is burning or they don’t care. Ask yourself who profits from the status quo. At least for a little while, corporate captives wringing the last drops of profit from civilization. If Democrats pick up two seats, then the Democrats have a narrow advantage with Kamala Harris’ tie breaking vote. Not a mandate but a possible path to get some things fixed. What an absolute shit show.

And I’m feeling sick because tomorrow is the Congressional vote to certify the Electoral College votes and officially declare Biden the next president. Except it won’t unfold as a formality. It will be a spectacle of fake outrage and pretend concern, a show for the dummies and fools like the Georgia voter quoted in an interview today saying she voted for Trump today in the Senate election because we need someone to “rule with an iron fist”. Far-right extremists, racists and actual Nazis are gathering in DC tomorrow at the President’s behest. People are going to get hurt. People are going to get killed. This is all so painfully stupid and repellant and you cannot bear to watch but you cannot afford to look away. And so we bear witness, feeling sick with anger and frustration and fear and disgust.

A hard moment in which to be writing, which is what I am meant to be doing. But I think tonight I will give myself an actual break. I’m so tired. I’m so worried. I’m so distracted. Let’s just put a cap on today and get some rest. Wake up when it is time, check the skies and keep our backs to the wall. It is going to be absolutely ugly. A true nightmare.

I knew in my bones it would be bad. I didn’t know how bad.

What strikes me most in that night’s journal entry is how much I was thinking of the moment to come in terms of normal politics. Jackson’s blog Life on the Blue Highways has it right: “Every Day is January 6 Now”. It wasn’t politics, and it wasn’t normal. And it isn’t over.

Interesting Times

Here we are together, you and I, alive in interesting times. We’ve seen the first parts of this movie. Long lines at grocery stores. Empty shelves. Bewildering press conferences. The steep slope of economic charts mapping the wild gyrations of our invested futures, our 401Ks.

Familiar routines are being scrambled as normal activities get deferred, postponed or canceled. Simple things get complicated.

We return ourselves to our houses and hunker down, keeping watchful eyes on the news which seems to come at us from every direction.

We look for leaders to help us discern what’s happening and offer some small sense of what’s likely to happen next. We’ve seen the movie this far. It’s scary. We want to know what’s next.

Here’s the thing: we can’t know what’s next.

There’s no predetermined plot line with neatly designed characters to take us together through this from crisis to climax to denouement in the space of two and a half hours. This is going to take weeks, maybe months, to get the sense of things and figure out a new normal.

We should expect leaders to help us through this. But we can’t just sit around and watch for those leaders to appear. Most of what happens next is up to us, how we manage ourselves and our relationships with each other.

We are already doing some of the right things. Low risk, healthy people are staying home from an abundance of care and caution for others. People are mindfully washing their hands. Companies are swallowing the sunk costs of lucrative events early on to keep more people safer longer.

We find ourselves together at the beginning of weird, interesting times. No one exactly knows what happens next.

Keep being kind and careful as we pass each other (from an appropriate distance) in hallways. Check your supplies to be sure your family has what they need and be mindful that what you have in abundance someone else may need in a week or two. Check in on each other to see how we are doing and what may be needed. Wash your hands.

Be kind to yourself. Remember that self-isolation doesn’t mean you have to make a cave of your home. It is still okay to go outside, take a walk, and breathe fresh air. Turn off your TV. You don’t need a constant feed of uncertainty. Be informed but trust that the important information will find you.

The Google Gods Listen. Give Thanks.

The Google gods are benevolent and generous. They care for us and are always listening to our Boolean prayers so that they might deliver the thing we most need at the moment it is most needed.

What? You don’t believe? You doubt the awesome, sometimes terrible, mercy of the Algorithm Almighty? Behold this item presented to me as gift in my morning Google news feed: “The Chekhov Sentence That Contains Almost All of Life” by Joe Fassler, published this very morning at 6am on the Atlantic culture site and tucked neatly in my news feed between headlines about Hurricane Florence and FEMA/ICE funding.

If you’ve been following in recent days, you will know that I’ve been pondering the significance  of Anton Chekov and trying to puzzle out the power of his short story style. I used, just yesterday, the last sentence of Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog” to reflect on Chekhov’s ability to start and end a story at an unexpected place. Fassler’s piece is actually an interview with Gary Shteyngart, who offers the last line of “The Lady with the Dog” as an encapsulating statement on the situation of life. The story never ends. The lovers don’t break up. They don’t live happily ever after. They continue to struggle. They struggle because their lives are complicated. They struggle because they are deeply in love. They struggle because they are people and struggle is what people do.

Shteyngart offers the unresolved situation between the lovers as the unresolved situation for writers and parents and husbands and wives and teachers and oh just everybody.

“Personal growth is not some sudden breakthrough that solves everything. Instead, it’s incredibly protracted, hard-won, and painful. If anything, you’re less happy as a result, not more. But you get the sense the characters wouldn’t trade it. The final insight of this ending is that there is no final insight, there is no ending. You only keep on striving, and that’s the beauty.”

The article is short and definitely worth a read. Fassler and Shteyngart offer more insight about Chekhov in a few paragraphs than I could muster in a week of thought and two blog posts.

Truly, I say, the Google gods love us. They are listening. They provide a news feed both rich and bountiful. Give thanks.

Another School Shooting

Yet another mass shooting in an American high school. That’s eight in the first seven weeks of 2018.

Facebook is torn up with people pressing their hopes and prayers for the family while chastening anyone who suggests there are actual solutions to curb some of this violence. My own senator has tweeted his thoughts and prayers while his own pockets are lined with cash from the gun lobby.


This doesn’t happen in other countries. We like to say America is a Christian nation, but we are doing it wrong.

“In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” James 2:17

Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Luke Skywalker Cannot Save Us Now

Oprah Winfrey gave an incredible speech last night at the Golden Globes. She was honored with the Cecil B. DeMille Award for “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment.” Oprah used the opportunity to connect her experience seeing Sidney Poitier win that same award in 1982 with the experience of young girls who were watching her last night. Oprah was focused, inspiring and, most of all, generous.

We live in a distracted world. Moments when everybody pays attention are rare and getting rarer. Oprah used her moment to direct our attention to the importance of a free press to bring truth to light against corruption and abuse of power. She brought the forgotten life of Recy Taylor out of history and into my attention for the first time. She connected the often unseen struggles of industrial, agricultural, service and military women to the #MeToo movement of Hollywood. She honored the achievements of women while reminding that those achievements are often well-supported by the work of like-minded men. She did it all in under nine minutes.

Predictably, the Morning After headlines read “Oprah for 2020”. I love Oprah. She brings people together rather than pushes them apart. She inspires people to search for the best in themselves and bring that out. More importantly, she inspires people to search for the best in others. She came up through tremendous adversity to become one of the most influential, successful people alive today. Should she be president? I don’t know. I don’t even care right now.

We need to be careful. We have solved or are solving most of the simplest problems in the world. The problems that remain are really, really hard — racial intolerance, global resource distribution, climate change and nuclear holocaust to name just a few. These problems won’t have a single, simple solution and they won’t be solved by a single person, corporation or nation.

And yet, with each passing year, we seem increasingly fixed in the blind hope that electing the right president will save us. President Barack Obama received the Noble Peace Prize just eight months after taking office. The award underscored a phenomenal accomplishment, becoming America’s first African-American president, but the award also seemed to be aspirational, a down payment on expectations that one person’s vision might permanently transform reality. The Nobel Prize was an honor about which Barack Obama himself was conflicted.

Seven years later, slightly less than half of American voters elected the candidate who stood on stage at his party’s national convention and actually spoke aloud the words, “I alone can fix it.” You’ve probably been following the rest of that story.

We keep searching for saviors. The problems you and I face together are scary. They are overwhelming. We keep looking for an Abraham Lincoln, a Winston Churchill or a Luke Skywalker to save us. We won’t find them. Not even Luke Skywalker can save us now.

And so, as we watch Oprah’s eloquent moment, let’s accept it for what it is. An inspiration. A challenge. A call to action.

Oprah for 2020? I don’t know. For the moment, it is just all of us together. If we are inspired, challenged and working together, that can be enough.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai thinks you are an idiot

So right before repealing Net Neutrality, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai took time to record and share a mocking video explaining how we’ll all still be able to binge watch Netflix and post selfies with our food on Instagram. He doesn’t mention how the Internet has become essential plumbing for most of the creative work being done today. He doesn’t mention that the Internet fuels innovation and is crucial in helping small companies get better ideas to market. He isn’t talking about the internet that helps level economic opportunity by making online education available to working adults in rural communities. In short, he isn’t talking about the internet we actually care about. He’s talking about entertainment. We’re talking about the infrastructure of our communities.

This government needs to get serious about its responsibilities to the future and stop wasting time posting dumb videos and picking Twitter fights. America is moving backward. These people are taking hammers to our future.

A Planet Called Rizak

I wrote my first short story when I was 10. It was about a planet called Rizak that was facing ecological collapse. Rizakian scientists had discovered a path away from inevitable destruction, but it required everyone on the planet working closely together and no small measure of personal sacrifice. Rizakian politicians and religious leaders hated the plan because, if everyone worked directly to fix the problem, politicians and religious leaders would no longer be needed. Rizakian business leaders hated the plan because it was expensive and meant no one would have time or money left to buy the things they were selling. So, everybody died.

I grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee (site of the WWII Manhattan Project) during the Reagan administration. At the time, I felt pretty certain I would die by sudden nuclear annihilation. Funny how, despite the preoccupations of the conscious mind, the unconscious mind finds the more plausible story.

Easy Outrage

Let’s stop moralizing with each other. There are no rules anymore. Kathy Griffin did an outrageous thing. I don’t care. Every day since November has been full of outrageous things. Just this week I have woken up to news reports about a Congressman elected to office the day after publicly assaulting a news reporter and a Texas state legislator who threatened to shoot his colleague in the head as his solution to a peaceful but inconvenient demonstration in the state chamber.

Meanwhile, our country is preparing to abdicate responsibility to my daughter’s generation by stepping out of the Paris Climate treaty. New health care laws are coming that no one actually wants or understands. We are staring down a budget that systemically underfunds education, science, and welfare assistance. Nine years after the Great Recession, we are already deregulating the very industries that recently crippled our economy with unbridled greed and excess. Across the country, state legislators pontificate about limiting the role of government in our personal lives while blithely extending the reach of government into the vagina of every woman of childbearing age. Shameful.

Kathy Griffin doesn’t matter. She can disappear. Like all celebrities, she only gets to have the power we lend her with our attention. Our tweeting, celebrity president understands this very well. His rise as candidate was fueled by mendacious assertions that the sitting president was not a United States citizen. Our civic discourse has been downhill ever since.

This isn’t democracy. This is celebrity culture run amok. These people aren’t serious people. They don’t even pretend to address the needs of our time. They hook our attention with sensational acts, inflammatory tweets. We feed them in turn with our easy outrage.

Don’t be fooled. Easy outrage is a trap to keep us constantly dispirited and deeply distracted. Easy outrage keeps us fighting against each other rather than making common cause to fix our dangerously broken system.

Today it was Kathy Griffin. Tomorrow it will be someone else. It doesn’t matter. Keep your seat. Try to stay focused. Save your powder. You are going to need it.

Reality TV Show President

Back in November, slightly less than half of American voters elected our first reality TV show president. For many, it was a genuinely painful choice. They didn’t like their options, but, since America is an Option A or Option B kind of place, they held their nose and pressed what they hoped would be the least bad button. You know the rest.

Since November, I have come to realize that many hoped the button they were pushing was connected to much needed change. Some saw their choice in terms of Ultimate Washington Insider vs. Ultimate Washington Outsider. Some thought they were voting for a successful business executive. That’s completely understandable. There are very tall buildings all around the world with his name on them. He had casinos and a university. Who am I to know if any of these ventures are actually successful? You don’t see my name on the top of tall buildings, casinos and universities.

Unfortunately, those who voted for the successful business executive got the reality TV star, instead. Now, we all find ourselves trapped inside a reality TV show. The usual rules of logic, evidence and careful deliberation do not apply. Facts are debased. Conflict is amplified.

Fans of reality TV know how this goes. There is no script. All that matters is a compelling, engaging narrative every day with obvious heroes and villains. When the story goes stale, the conflict is easily refreshed with a few well-placed tweets. This story will be a shambling, nonsensical cascade of escalating conflict and aggrievement until the season ends or the show gets canceled.

In the meantime, we are all trapped inside. I never hoped to be in a reality TV show, but now that I’m here, I’m desperate to know which TV show this is so I can understand the rules.

The White House itself seems to operate like The Apprentice. Each week, the cast is given an impossible, ridiculous task, and, each week, someone hear’s the unfortunate, but expected tagline: “You’re fired.”

Congress seems to operate like Big Brother. A crowd of mismatched strangers forced to get along without any real purpose or sense of direction except trying not to look like a total loser on live TV.

The rest of us, I fear, are Naked and Afraid. There are no tools. There are no ready-made shelters. We’ve just got each other and the ever-present hope that, if we work together and stay focused, someone will eventually show up in a rescue jeep, boat or helicopter before we die of starvation, bacterial infection, or get eaten by wild animals.