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fuck starbuck’s holiday cup, this is what religious people should really be up in arms over

I just watched this clip from the Rachel Maddow Show:

Three Republican candidates speak at anti-gay pastor’s rally

Holy fuck. This is some seriously messed up and disturbing shit. I don’t even know what to say. Part of my thinks, “These people are just a tiny, crazy minority. Nothing to worry about.” But then I think about the fact that three presidential nominees were there, which in and of itself illustrates the influence these growing number of voters have, and gives this insanity some sense of legitimacy. And then I think about how religious nutjobs in the US like Kevin Swanson have already helped to pass anti-gay legislation in places like Uganda and Nigeria, making homosexuality a crime punishable by lengthy jail sentences. And I think about how, even though being gay is no longer criminalized here, violence against the LGBTQ community is still frightfully common, which makes me worry even more for my LGBTQ friends.

I consider myself a spiritual person, but I absolutely agree with everyone who says religion is dangerous because it makes hating and oppressing others so easy when you’re 100% sure God is on your side. I love aspects of religion and philosophy. But historically, religious people seem obligated to push their beliefs and values onto the rest of society, ideas that tend to oppress and discriminate against segments of society in the name of love and acceptance. Moreover, religion as a broader social phenomenon has been more about constructing moral absolutes than personal transformation and enlightenment. In this sense, religion, as opposed to personal faith, has primarily been about control over the hearts and minds of people via dictating and then enforcing societal norms that, because of their ‘divine’ origins, are notoriously difficult to challenge, let alone amend, becoming immune to things like compassion and reason.

As sympathetic towards religion as I am, I’m also aware of religion’s proclivity to fall into absolutism and dogmatism, as well as its historical reliance on things like authority and tradition over evidence and rationality. Religion may be “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions”; but it’s also the impetus for a great deal of intolerance and oppression. It’s a double-edged sword that, like the personification of wisdom, Manjushri, has the potential to cut through our greed, aversion, and delusion; but which more often than not seems to be used to oppress and kill those who are different and/or don’t hold the same beliefs and values. And this kind of thing makes me embarrassed to have religious and spiritual interests. I don’t want to be associated with such people.

We absolutely can’t let this kind of misguided bigotry go unchallenged, even when they cry out that they’re being persecuted for their beliefs. We can’t let people like this hide behind the banner of religion, as if that somehow makes their ideas immune to criticism and justifies their threats of violence against others. We must continue to stand up against homophobia, as well as against racism, sexism, and all other forms of discrimination. To quote an apt line from John Stuart Mills, “Let not any one pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing. He is not a good man who, without a protest, allows wrong to be committed in his name, and with the means which he helps to supply, because he will not trouble himself to use his mind on the subject.”

work less, live more

I had a rather crazy train of thought yesterday.

It started with the realization that one of the things that irritates me the most about the majority of the jobs I’ve had (predominately in manufacturing and retail) is the way management perceives and treats their employees, not so much as people but as robots. It’s all about things like coming in on time and efficiency. You’re punished if you’re late. You’re punished if you’re not productive enough or if you don’t pick up the slack for someone else. You’re punished if you socialize too much on the one had, and you’re talked to like a child on the other, like each day you forget how to do your job and have to be reminded again and again what it is you’re supposed to be doing. The list goes on.

It’s even more apparent where I currently work, because managers and supervisors are explicitly forbidden to fraternize with workers outside of work, where workers generally feel like themselves because they can actually be themselves. Any kind of real human-to-human contact in that sense is strictly taboo; and I hate not being treated like a person. I’m not a fucking robot. I care about doing my job well and being recognized for it. I care when I’m being overworked and pitted against my fellow co-workers so that someone else can make more $. I care about the way someone talks to me, whether they’re telling me what to do or about their day, just as much as I care about being able to interact with other human beings even when that interaction doesn’t include a monetary a transaction.

I’ve been reading one of the books Katya, a professor at PSU, gave me called Station Eleven; and there’s one part that I read this morning which kind of perfectly (and I suppose sadly) sums up my daily experience. Clark, a corporate coach of sorts, is interviewing Dahlia, the employee of a certain CEO who Clark is trying to help be a less shitty boss, and Dahlia is musing about how “adulthood’s full of ghosts”:

“I’m talking about these people who’ve ended up in one life instead of another and they are just so disappointed. Do you know what I mean? They’ve done what’s expected of them. They want to do something different but it’s impossible now, there’s a mortgage, kids, whatever, they’re trapped. Dan’s like that.”
“You don’t think he likes his job then.”
“Correct,” she said, “but I don’t think he even realizes it. You probably encounter people like him all the time. High-functioning sleepwalkers, essentially.”
What was it in this statement that made Clark want to weep? He was nodding, taking down as much as he could. “Do you think he’d describe himself as unhappy in his work?”
“No,” Dahlia said, “because I think people like him think work is supposed to be drudgery punctuated by very occasional moments of happiness, but when I say happiness, I mostly mean distraction. You know what I mean?”
“No, please elaborate.”
“Okay, say you go into the break room,” she said, “and a couple of people you like are there, say someone’s telling a funny story, you laugh a little, you feel included, everyone’s so funny, you go back to your desk with a sort of, I don’t know, I guess afterglow would be the word? You go back to your desk with an afterglow, but then by four or five o’clock the day’s just turned into yet another day, and you go on like that, looking forward to five o’clock and then the weekend and then your two or three annual weeks of paid vacation time, day in day out, and that’s what happens in your life.” (163)

Clark realizes that she’s describing his life for the past couple of years, moving half-asleep through the motions of his life; and I realized I’ve definitely felt like that, too. In fact, that’s pretty much how I feel most of the time. And thinking about that, I can’t help but recall passages like this from Marx:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. (A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy)

And within this economic structure, there exists a number of contradictions and inequalities that I think ultimately lead to the indignity of labour vs. capital, conditioning most work into drudgery and most workers into ‘sleepwalkers’ because capitalism not only estranges and alienates the worker’s relationship to the products of their labour, but it estranges and alienates the worker’s relationship to the act of production itself.

As Marx discerned with such clarity, the worker’s labour becomes “external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his intrinsic nature; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind.” As a consequence, the worker “only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor” (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844).

In a similar way, our value system as a society (at least in the West) is geared towards consumption and how much stuff a person can buy, as well their efficiency in the production process, not so much the value of the person themselves. In the end, we tend not to even value ourselves. Rather, we value symbols and representations of value, of status and material gain, instead of our intrinsic worth as individuals. We’re judged more by what we do and how much we get paid to do it, regardless of whether or not we’re actually happy. And I think people often ignore, or else fail to realize, the tremendous role our ‘social existence’ plays in conditioning our culture, our values, and, ultimately, our very sense of happiness and self-worth.

It makes me realize that one of the things I like about monastic life (aside from the spiritual aspects, of course) is that it reflects in many ways the kind of classless society I want to live in: where everyone is of one heart and mind, holding everything in common and distributing to each according to need; where a person’s time is unmortgaged and one feels free to do nothing without feeling guilty; where, from the rising of the sun to its setting, I truly feel at home and connected to the world around me.

Then today, I read this article in Open Culture, which touches on a lot of what I was thinking about yesterday:

Why must we all work long hours to earn the right to live? Why must only the wealthy have a access to leisure, aesthetic pleasure, self-actualization…? Everyone seems to have an answer, according to their political or theological bent. One economic bogeyman, so-called “trickle-down” economics, or “Reaganomics,” actually predates our 40th president by a few hundred years at least. The notion that we must better ourselves—or simply survive—by toiling to increase the wealth and property of already wealthy men was perhaps first comprehensively articulated in the 18th-century doctrine of “improvement.” In order to justify privatizing common land and forcing the peasantry into jobbing for them, English landlords attempted to show in treatise after treatise that 1) the peasants were lazy, immoral, and unproductive, and 2) they were better off working for others. As a corollary, most argued that landowners should be given the utmost social and political privilege so that their largesse could benefit everyone.

This scheme necessitated a complete redefinition of what it meant to work. In his study, The English Village Community and the Enclosure Movements, historian W.E. Tate quotes from several of the “improvement” treatises, many written by Puritans who argued that “the poor are of two classes, the industrious poor who are content to work for their betters, and the idle poor who prefer to work for themselves.” Tate’s summation perfectly articulates the early modern redefinition of “work” as the creation of profit for owners. Such work is virtuous, “industrious,” and leads to contentment. Other kinds of work, leisurely, domestic, pleasurable, subsistence, or otherwise, qualifies—in an Orwellian turn of phrase—as “idleness.” (We hear echoes of this rhetoric in the language of “deserving” and “undeserving” poor.) It was this language, and its legal and social repercussions, that Max Weber later documented in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Karl Marx reacted to in Das Capital, and feminists have shown to be a consolidation of patriarchal power and further exclusion of women from economic participation.

Along with Marx, various others have raised significant objections to Protestant, capitalist definitions of work, including Thomas Paine, the Fabians, agrarians, and anarchists. In the twentieth century, we can add two significant names to an already distinguished list of dissenters: Buckminster Fuller and Bertrand Russell. Both challenged the notion that we must have wage-earning jobs in order to live, and that we are not entitled to indulge our passions and interests unless we do so for monetary profit or have independent wealth. In a New York Times column on Russell’s 1932 essay “In Praise of Idleness,” Gary Gutting writes, “For most of us, a paying job is still utterly essential — as masses of unemployed people know all too well. But in our economic system, most of us inevitably see our work as a means to something else: it makes a living, but it doesn’t make a life.”

In far too many cases in fact, the work we must do to survive robs us of the ability to live by ruining our health, consuming all our precious time, and degrading our environment. In his essay, Russell argued that “there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what has always been preached.” His “arguments for laziness,” as he called them, begin with definitions of what we mean by “work,” which might be characterized as the difference between labor and management:

What is work? Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid.

Russell further divides the second category into “those who give orders” and “those who give advice as to what orders should be given.” This latter kind of work, he says, “is called politics,” and requires no real “knowledge of the subjects as to which advice is given,” but only the ability to manipulate: “the art of persuasive speaking and writing, i.e. of advertising.” Russell then discusses a “third class of men” at the top, “more respected than either of the classes of the workers”—the landowners, who “are able to make others pay for the privilege of being allowed to exist and to work.” The idleness of landowners, he writes, “is only rendered possible by the industry of others. Indeed their desire for comfortable idleness is historically the source of the whole gospel of work. The last thing they have ever wished is that others should follow their example.”

The “gospel of work” Russell outlines is, he writes, “the morality of the Slave State,” and the kinds of murderous toil that developed under its rule—actual chattel slavery, fifteen hour workdays in abominable conditions, child labor—has been “disastrous.” Work looks very different today than it did even in Russell’s time, but even in modernity, when labor movements have managed to gather some increasingly precarious amount of social security and leisure time for working people, the amount of work forced upon the majority of us is unnecessary for human thriving and in fact counter to it—the result of a still-successful capitalist propaganda campaign: if we aren’t laboring for wages to increase the profits of others, the logic still dictates, we will fall to sloth and vice and fail to earn our keep. “Satan finds some mischief for idle hands to do,” goes the Protestant proverb Russell quotes at the beginning of his essay. On the contrary, he concludes,

…in a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving, however excellent his pictures may be. Young writers will not be obliged to draw attention to themselves by sensational pot-boilers, with a view to acquiring the economic independence for monumental works, for which, when the time at last comes, they will have lost the taste and capacity.

The less we are forced to labor, the more we can do good work in our idleness, and we can all labor less, Russell argues, because “modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all” instead of “overwork for some and starvation for others.”

A few decades later, visionary architect, inventor, and theorist Buckminster Fuller would make exactly the same argument, in similar terms, against the “specious notion that everybody has to earn a living.” Fuller articulated his ideas on work and non-work throughout his long career. He put them most succinctly in a 1970 New York magazine “Environmental Teach-In”:

It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest…. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian-Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist.

Many people are paid very little to do backbreaking labor; many others paid quite a lot to do very little. The creation of surplus jobs leads to redundancy, inefficiency, and the bureaucratic waste we hear so many politicians rail against: “we have inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors”—all to satisfy a dubious moral imperative and to make a small number of rich people even richer.

What should we do instead? We should continue our education, and do what we please, Fuller argues: “The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.” We should all, in other words, work for ourselves, performing the kind of labor we deem necessary for our quality of life and our social arrangements, rather than the kinds of labor dictated to us governments, landowners, and corporate executives. And we can all do so, Fuller thought, and all flourish similarly. Fuller called the technological and evolutionary advancement that enables us to do more with less “euphemeralization.” In Critical Path, a visionary work on human development, he claimed “It is now possible to give every man, woman and child on Earth a standard of living comparable to that of a modern-day billionaire.”

Sound utopian? Perhaps. But Fuller’s far-reaching path out of reliance on fossil fuels and into a sustainable future has never been tried, for some depressingly obvious reasons and some less obvious. Neither Russell nor Fuller argued for the abolition—or inevitable self-destruction—of capitalism and the rise of a workers’ paradise. (Russell gave up his early enthusiasm for communism.) Neither does Gary Gutting, a philosophy professor at the University of Notre Dame, who in his New York Times commentary on Russell asserts that “Capitalism, with its devotion to profit, is not in itself evil.” Most Marxists on the other hand would argue that devotion to profit can never be benign. But there are many middle ways between state communism and our current religious devotion to supply-side capitalism, such as robust democratic socialism or a basic income guarantee. In any case, what most dissenters against modern notions of work share in common is the conviction that education should produce critical thinkers and self-directed individuals, and not, as Gutting puts it, “be primarily for training workers or consumers”—and that doing work we love for the sake of our own personal fulfillment should not be the exclusive preserve of a propertied leisure class.

I couldn’t have expressed it any better myself.

feelin’ the bern, sort of…

I’m really happy that Bernie Sanders has been doing so well in the polls. I thought he did OK in the debate; and I like that he’s using his platform as a presidential candidate to talk about things like universal healthcare, the threat of global climate change, and the treat of capital accumulation (i.e., the consolidation of capital in the hands of large corporations and uber-rich individuals who own the majority of the earth’s wealth). He’s exciting young people, drawing huge crowds wherever he goes, and getting the term ‘socialist’ out there in a positive way. And I’m happy that a lot of people I personally know are behind him for that reason.

That said, I’m too cynical to get as excited and throw my full support behind him. For one, he’s not really a socialist in the sense that he stills supports a capitalist system, albeit a more regulated one, rather than a true socialist alternative where opportunity is socialized and the economy becomes a part of the commons. In addition, his strong support of US drone strikes in places like Syria that kill innocent people, as well as his support of Israel along with his relative silence on Israeli apartheid of Palestinians, bothers me. I’d prefer a real socialist like Kshama Sawant to Sanders any day. Also, I have no illusions that anyone elected to the White House, socialist or otherwise, can implement the kind of policies I think we need, not only to transition to a more socialist economy, but to help us survive the threats we face due to climate change and the socio-economic inequality created by capitalism. Our Roman-style republic was specifically designed to be difficult to change.

But like I said, I’m truly happy that his message is getting out there and inspiring a lot of people, and I hope it continues. I just hope that energy can be harnessed into a working-class mass movement rather than simply funnelled into the Democratic Party and die of entropy.

the punk singer

Instead of being productive today, I decided to watch The Punk Singer. It definitely gave me a greater appreciation of what bands like Bikini Kill and Le Tigre and the riot grrrl scene were all about. A couple of things I took away from it:

  • Kathleen Hanna is fucking awesome; and I missed out on a lot of good shit in the 90s.
  • The riot grrrl movement was an artistic expression of feminism, led by women who looked around and saw that they’re not treated or even viewed the same in society. They utilized the labels and extremes that society placed on them and transformed them into rhetorical and visual weapons against things like sexism, violence against women, and gender inequality. They gave a creative voice to the anger and frustration that many women have, empowering them as well as calling out a society and culture that often relegates women to the periphery.
  • Everyone doesn’t see the world the way you do. Everyone has different experiences and outlooks and you shouldn’t necessarily give up on a relationship or friendship simply because you’re not always on the same page. By being a part of someone’s life, even if you have really serious political, social, or religious disagreements, you can help that person grow and eventually see things differently. If you take away an arguably positive influence on their life, you’re not doing them any favours, especially if you really care about them.
  • Changing minds and social structures takes time. Things like racism, sexism, gender and sexuality inequality don’t disappear overnight. Each generation needs radical movements to help build on the progressive momentum of the previous generation. Be a part of that any way you can.
  • It’s important to be vocal about these kinds if issues. If you’re educated about these issues and keep silent, that silence = consent. Confront discrimination and inequality. And if you find yourself in a relatively privileged position (e.g., being a white male), be a good ally—stand in solidarity with whomever you’re fighting with while at the same time giving people and groups their space when they need it. Don’t take it personally. Even if you feel like you’re not a threat and are 100% on their side, there may be times and places where they’ll feel more comfortable talking about certain things without you there, or else would like to speak for themselves as a member of particular identity group.

some reflections on the passing of my mother

On June 24th, I got the call that I’d been dreading for years—the call that my mom was dying. She’d had a lot of health problems, and there’d been a number of close calls over the last couple of years ranging from illnesses to open heart surgery. Each time I thought, “This might be it. This might be the time I lose her.” Looking back, I suppose one of the few graces of having a family member with a history of serious health problems is that it can help prepare you for the inevitable. At least it doesn’t hit you out of the blue; you have the time and impetus to imagine the possibility, to emotionally prepare, to build up the reserve of strength needed to face one of the most painful experiences of your life, that of losing someone you love, without being completely overwhelmed.

Even still, I wasn’t really prepared; I wasn’t really ready for the fear, anger, and sadness that was looming over me, and my family, like a gigantic tidal wave about the crash down and all but obliterate my fragile being, sweeping away everything in its path—all of my hope, joy, and faith in the future. As I sat there in the airport Wednesday night, in the midst of struggling to deal with the reality of my mom’s situation, I remember being struck by the nonchalantness and even callousness with which we often treat death and dying in our culture. It’s as if, in our fear of death, we do everything in our power to deny it, hide it, romanticize it, or joke about it, anything to take away the power of its sting. But while these things may help us cope with its existence and inevitability, they rarely do much to prepare us for the reality and actual experience of watching a loved one die, of holding their hand as they spend the last few hours of their life gasping for breath.

I suppose that death can be beautiful or heroic depending on the circumstances; but in my experience, death is painful, torturous, heart-wrenching, full of monitors, needles, moans, tears, and parades of names and faces who do their best to be compassionate and supportive when they’re not too stressed from being overworked, under paid, and/or trying to push your loved one out as quickly as possible in order to free up a bed for the next customer/patient. For anyone who’s spent enough time in them to notice, hospitals are revolving doors of the sick and dying, although they could (and should) be more. Money should have nothing to do with caring for the sick, the elderly, and the dying. Money shouldn’t dictate the level and quality of care, or the concern with which they’re administered. And yet it does. Reflecting on everything my mom had been through and endured, not the mention the mountains of red tape, bills, and collection notices, I was saddened by how we’ve cheapened life, how we’ve made life more about making money (mostly for someone else), or else worrying about not having enough, than actually living. All those wasted years…

Suffice it to say that I was lost, heartbroken. My faith in something greater than myself was tested and destroyed before being raised up again like Lazarus. I had nothing to hold onto. All my prayers had seemingly gone unanswered. Any purpose to life I once believed in seemed all but imaginary. Only the pain and sadness I felt were real. I watched Aliens on the flight; and with every bump of turbulence, I thought that at least my pain would end if I were to die. Midway through, they called for a doctor. Someone was having a medical emergency. I’m not sure how serious it was, but after we landed a lady was helped off by EMTs before the rest of us could exit, and I hoped that she’d be OK.

Tracey, one of my closest and dearest friends, picked me up from the airport and took me to my parent’s house. I thought it’d be better to go up with my dad, although now I kind of wish I’d just gone straight to the hospital to spend as much time with my mom as possible. As I sat there, waiting for my dad to drive us up to the hospital to see her, trying to let it sink in that we were possibly just a breath or two away from losing her, I felt sick, shaky, alone, wanting to cry and scream at the same time and hating myself for not coming sooner. I felt empty of everything except this sickening fear and guilt. I think I was still in shock, and I imagine that what I felt in that moment was similar to what someone who’s just experienced a natural disaster might feel—half confusion and half terror. It was all a blur, and the next thing I knew, I was at the hospital, winding my way down corridors and past room after room while trying to mentally prepare myself for the worst.

No words can adequately describe the sheer emptiness I felt, nor the pain, grief, and despair that came bubbling out of that ineffable darkness. The sadness and tears came in waves that threatened to drown me. I was buffeted by anguish, and it was felt as if some sort of cosmic sinkhole had opened up beneath me, swallowing every ounce of goodness and stability from my world. By then, she was barely conscious/cognizant, but still seemingly in a lot of pain, moaning and what almost sounded like crying at times. I think part of her knew what was happening. When they came in to tell us they recommended putting her in hospice, it felt like everything was spinning. I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t do anything but hold her hand, afraid to let go, as if she’d drift away the moment I did.

They said that everything was starting to shut down — her kidney, her heart, her respiratory system — and that there wasn’t much more they could do. Once my dad signed the papers, they put her on a steady drip of pain medication to help keep her comfortable. I think it was hydromorphone, also known as Dilaudid; and after they started her on it, she slept heavily, which seemed to us better than the alternative. But at the same time, I was afraid, afraid that she’d never wake up again, afraid that I’d never be able to tell her one more time how much I loved her or hear her tell me the same.

My dad and sister were equally as devastated, as was my aunt Debbie. As we all sat there, taking turns holding her hand and talking to her, we were each overwhelmed by grief. A part of me wanted to die with her. Every time I tried to talk to Annie on the phone to let her know what was happening, I broke down into tears. Words would turn into sobs. Trying to find both privacy and decent cell reception, I passed by the gift shop where only a year ago we’d gotten something for my mom when she was in for her heart surgery, and the memory was like a dagger in my heart, letting my sadness bleed out in uncontrollable spurts over the phone. Annie got a flight that night and flew in the next morning.

Tara and I spent the night at the hospital. Neither one of us wanted to leave her side. Orlando, a friend of Tara’s from school, came up to visit for a while. The next day, my mom’s eyes were open, though she wasn’t blinking, and her breathing had become more laboured and shallow. They said, in so many words, that it was only a matter of time, hours or maybe days, but definitely soon. People came and went — her cousin Cindi, her childhood friend Carol, some of Tara’s friends who had known her — but what I remember most is sitting by her side and holding her hand, telling her that I loved her and that she wasn’t alone. I remember crying a lot. It was like I was stuck in a bad dream I couldn’t wake up from. My dad said some really touching, heartfelt things and I wished that she could hear them. At the same time, I was angry at him for not telling me sooner how serious things were. Maybe he didn’t want me to worry, or maybe he didn’t fully realize it himself, but neither thought comforted me or assuaged my feelings of anger and guilt.

By this time, Annie had arrived, alternating between being a silent watcher, a fellow griever, and an angel of mercy and comfort. She took time with each of us, and seemed to always say or do the right things, having the compassion of a bodhisattva and the patiennce of a saint, enduring her own grief and the burden of ours with a strength I still marvel at. Her presence was my only refuge, the only thing that kept me sane. That night, June 27th, my mom passed away sometime after midnight with Annie, Tara, and I by her side, her hand in mine.

I can’t remember who called him, either me or Tara, but we let our dad know, who’d left only an hour before to let the dog out and get some rest. He came and said his goodbyes, signed some papers, and had the chaplain on duty come to say a prayer. I wasn’t enthused about the idea of some random person who didn’t know us saying generic things and quoting cliche scriptural passages at such an intimate and emotional time, but I figured if it’d make my dad feel better, what’s the harm? Afterwards, my dad, who was close to inconsolable, went out to talk to the chaplain alone and, while expressing his grief, also managed to share his theories about aliens seeding life on Earth and possibly being what we believe to be angels/God with him. That poor man. We left the hospital around 3am, and headed home in the somber darkness and mournful rain.

For the next few days, almost every waking moment was consumed by worry and all the funeral arrangement. All I felt like doing was crawling into a hole and crying, but bureaucracy demanded otherwise. And the whole time, I had trouble believing that she was really gone. Her presence permeated the house, and I kept half-expecting to see her sitting in the kitchen drinking coffee. It killed me every time I reminded myself… Making all the arrangements was a surreal, as well as painful, experience; and in between all the phone calls and running around, I was trying to think of something to say at her memorial, but the words refused to come. In some ways, I don’t think I wanted to make it final. I eventually settled on Rudy Funeral Home in part because it doubles as a small nautical museum. My mom loved lighthouses, and I love weird things, so it seemed like the right choice. In addition, Kathy was really nice and helpful.

We decided to have my mom cremated. It was her wish, which worked out well since it was also the only thing we could really afford to do. It’s extremely expensive to bury someone once you factor in the cost of preparing the body, caskets, burial plots, and all the other related fees and expenses. Cards. Flowers. Food. You also need like a hundred copies of the death certificate (usually $15 each, although you get a discount after the first couple) because everyone will want one. Annie helped out with the planning and cost more than I expected, and I don’t think I could have done any of it without her. Looking back, she was like a heavenly messenger, guiding us all through the darkest days of our lives with perfect love, compassion, and patience.

The memorial service itself, which we scheduled for July 1st (inadvertently falling on the full moon), turned out really nice. A lot of people showed up, many that I didn’t even expect. Tracey helped pick out the main flower arrangements and paid for them, a pair of garden-variety flowers, one with ‘mom’ and one with ‘beloved wife’ on the ribbons, which were lovely. Annie’s parents sent roses that were equally as lovely, and a few others sent arrangements as well, including the video game club Tara was the president of at Macomb Community College. We chose a picture of my mom from 1975 to display next to the urn. It was one of her favourites. She was young and beautiful and I know that that’s how she’d like people to remember her. Like my dad said, it was more about celebrating her life than memorializing her passing.

It was a solemn occasion, but the day wasn’t without humour. My dad’s sisters mistook my friend Chris, who can’t speak well due to a stroke, for me, and told him they were sorry for his loss while I was standing nearby. I just smiled, declining to correct the error, happy for the temporary respite from the obligatory stream of condolences. Kathy got a semi-retired Catholic priest, Fr. Dennis Nowinski, to lead the service. He was nice and soft-spoken, with a good sense of humour. The service was a lot like daily mass, with prayers, a couple of scriptural readings, and a short homily. The only thing missing was communion. It was a little awkward, though, since most of the people there weren’t Catholic or even necessarily religious; but I think he did a good job nonetheless.

My dad, Tara, and I, along with my mom’s cousin Cindi, Mrs. Sylvester, one of Tara’s teachers from middle school, and Barbara, a long-time friend of my mom’s, all got up to say something about her. My dad went first, and was surprisingly eloquent, if a bit long-winded. Next up was Cindi. Between the two, they said everything I’d planned on saying, although I did my best to follow them without being too repetitive. I talked about how my mom was our rock, an extraordinary source of comfort and strength who was always there for us, whether we needed advice or a shoulder to cry on or someone to bail us out of jail (definitely not one of my finer moments). I talked about how the Finnish word sisu (a stubborn kind of courage, strength, and resilience that characterizes the spirit of the Finnish people) summed her up perfectly, how her life was an example of sisu, and how she did her best to instill that quality in all of us. And I talked about how, now that she’s gone, it’s our turn to follow her example and be rocks for one another as much as possible, regardless of whatever else life decides to throw at us.

It’s been almost two weeks now since she passed away, yet I still don’t feel like I’ve had the time or space to let it all sink in, to really grieve or whatever it is that you’re supposed to do. Instead, I feel numb, empty, and it kind of scares me. Then again, I’ve often had trouble expressing my emotions. Everything tends to get bottled up inside, like a pressure cooker, until it eventually explodes in a violent eruption of tears and anguish and self-loathing. It’s the way I’ve always been. Thankfully, some of it came out at the hospital. But the moment she died, it became all about my dad, my sister, and the funeral. Once that was over, though, I was left feeling hollow.

I’m trying to go on with life as usual, taking things one day at a time, but it’s not quite working. I can go through all the motions OK, but everything feels different, less real or fun or important. I’m just kind of sad all the time and doing my best to distract myself from the emotional void that’s growing inside of me. On top of all that, the world seems even crazier and more absurd to me than before; and the people I find myself increasingly relating to the most are the religious hermits who turn their backs on the world because the world has turn its back on itself. The only thing that’s helped to fill the void, the only thing that’s helped to heal the hurt and pierce the numbness, has been the love and support of others.

some tentative thoughts on mad max: fury road

Just saw Mad Max: Fury Road and still processing what I think about it. For starters, it lives up to its name. It’s non-stop action from the word go, most of it taking place in, or on, nitrous-fueled hot-rods of terror in a bleak, repressive, post-apocalyptic world of scarcity and barbarism (likely the result of nuclear holocaust and/or environmental degradation due to ‘end-stage’ capitalism). But in this action-packed world, it’s the class and social issues that really take centre stage.

The main plot involves the escape of five women from the Citadel, the base camp of a group of brutal, war-worshiping neo-Vikings. The women are part of Immortan Joe’s harem, the leader of this wasteland stronghold. Through a cult of personality and control over a seemingly abundant source of water, Immortan Joe controls the people. And in this male-dominated world where women are mostly treated as property and ‘breeders’ (except for Furiosa for some inexplicable reason), death in battle in the service of Immortan Joe guarantees a place in Valhalla.

In A History of God, Karen Armstrong argues that religion is in many respects something we create for ourselves, and for it to survive, to be useful, it must be practical. In this twisted world, however, the faith of Immortan Joe’s War Boys is one of war, violence, and slavish devotion to the state and an ideal, both personified in Immortan Joe, who holds the means of their material reproduction (natural resources) and their spiritual salvation in the palm of his hands. It’s a faith not unlike that of today’s Jihadist suicide bombers or the bushido of Japanese soldiers during WWII.

But just as Armstrong demonstrates that, when one idea of God is no longer tenable or useful, it fades away to be replaced by one that does, a reformation/new ideology emerges due to the struggles of a band of unlikely and, initially unwilling, revolutionaries. Through their struggle, they not only take on and defeat patriarchy, but a ruling class that accumulates and hordes resources while the masses survive on the scraps thrown to them from above.

One of the things that I liked about this movie is that Furiosa, not Max, is the main protagonist. She’s the real star of the show; and her mission, to free these enslaved women and bring them to the safety of the “Green Place,” her childhood home, is the main focus of the story. In that sense, I think, this can be seen a feminist movie: it’s the story of one woman trying to free other women from the oppression of patriarchy; and Max, rather than being the hero, is merely one of two reluctant male allies swept up in that struggle.

That doesn’t mean the movie is without its flaws. Max’s character is flat, as is Tom Hardy’s acting. There are huge plot holes and unanswered questions (e.g., how did Furiosa get to be one of Immortan Joe’s lead general in the first place?), not to mention cliches, throughout. And the five wives of Immortan Joe are thin and scantily clad, catering to the ‘male gaze‘ no doubt. But I find it encouraging in that such a message found its way into an action-packed blockbuster, the stronghold of cinematic male chauvinism. In some ways, I see it as a more action-packed version of Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale.

rape is a tired trope that needs to be put to rest

After last Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones, the New York Times asks, “‘Game of Thrones‘ fans: How do you feel about the show’s depictions of sexual violence?” That’s a good question; one I think needs asking.

I’m to the point where I can’t stomach any rape scene, regardless of the context. I’ve seen arguments recently re: Game of Thrones, however, that lament the rape scenes but don’t seem to take issue with the vast amount of other forms of violence, from murder and mutilation to psychological abuse, which I find somewhat disturbing for a number of reasons.

My issue with one-sided arguments aside, as a quasi-period piece (loosely based on the War of the Roses), Game of Thrones mixes fiction and historical realism, and from that point of view, sexual violence isn’t out of the norm. Our history isn’t necessarily a pretty one. But the continued and often graphic inclusion of, and in some cases focus on, rape bothers me. Why do we have to continually have movies, music, literature, etc. that vividly perpetuate this form of violence, especially against women? Is it needed? More importantly, is it wanted? I certainly don’t think so.

An argument can be made that, at least in the past when they first started showing rape scenes on TV, it was bringing to light an issue that existed was but never talked about. As one person put it:

[Rape] was basically an unreported crime because women were afraid of being branded as unfaithful and ‘encouraging’ it. Sexism in action. The women that did, and stuck through the criminal litigation were often deemed encouraging and proved the scared women right. In the 70’s, Elizabeth Montgomery made a ‘made for TV’ movie about a housewife who was raped twice by the same attacker and the struggle that she went through to prosecute the man. Those scenes had a ‘purpose.’ It also brought awareness to the general populous that rape really existed and was a problem for ‘nice women.’

Fair point. But I don’t think that’s the case today; and I question whether there’s a need, or even a good reason, for the prevalence of sexual violence against women in pop culture. I also question whether there’s an actual demand for it from consumers or if it’s being gratuitously dumped on us from above by execs, writers, etc. (most of the male, I’d hazard to guess). They say sex sells, but even if that’s true, rape ≠ sex. It’s a violation, an act of domination and control that’s often meant to hurt and instill fear as much as give the offender (and us ‘voyeurs’) pleasure.

We don’t have to pretend like it doesn’t exist, but we don’t have to make it an intrinsic part of our pop-culture, either. This, of course, naturally brings up the issue of censorship. People really seem to hate the idea of censorship, but they also seem to fail to realize that things are censored and edited all the time, either directly through editors or indirectly through public opinion. Editors edit articles and books. Studios change movie endings if they don’t test well. And even in our own lives, we censor others. Parents censor their kids. Partners censor one another. The list goes on.

In this case, I’m not simply arguing that we need to censor Game of Thrones, but I’m strongly suggesting to all those who wonder why so many people are complaining about these rape scenes and the prevalence of rape scenes in general that they don’t have to include such graphic scenes of sexual violence; and they certainly don’t have to try to talk their way out of by saying things like ‘it’s sort of consensual’ (i.e., the scene with Jaime and Cersei). You can criticize rape, patriarchy, or whatever without graphically depicting rapes and/or trying to eroticize sexual violence against women.

It seems like more and more people are starting to say, “Hey, I’m getting tired of this. Just stop already, please“; and it’s my hope that writers, producers, musicians, etc. will start to listen. I think it’s high time we all start to say fuck rape, fuck rape culture, and fuck the perpetuation, even ‘artistically,’ of sexual violence.