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witness

Last night, I cried when someone said “th.”

Of course, I didn’t cry because the sound “th” is especially poignant when spoken aloud.

My tears ran deeper than that.

wpid-img_20110505_180026Many years ago, I ran into Joss Whedon at an L.A. comic book store. I began shaking, realizing who stood to my right. Joss Whedon! Creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Angel! Two shows that totally shaped my real life!

I told him why I was sad, and asked if he’d mind signing my journal.

He signed.

It was important I have his signature. Read more…

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On heroing

Once upon a college-time, I found myself so useless–to myself, to others, to the world–that I wanted to die.

I challenged myself to find one thing I liked about myself; if I didn’t, I’d kill myself. If I could find one thing, though, I figured I could probably find more … with some patience.

I decided my calves were pretty rad. Seeing that one good thing paved the way for my sticking around to see more, so that one little thing meant everything: choosing life, as opposed to suicide.

Over time, I came to have faith in words. I understood them and became adept at shaping them to express precisely what I meant.

Then I began reading Neil Postman, who helped me understand some of the biases in words and word combinations, particularly English ones. Nouns are especially appropriate to represent some physical items (table; car; sandwich), but help create the illusion of stasis in some more dynamic “things” (language; people; school).

There’s a lot to this, but some of the biggest questions Postman opened for me were about this illusion of stasis, or unchangeability. By referring to “language” instead of “languaging,” English speakers may perceive language as an unchanging behemoth instead of sets of ongoing processes. By referring to people by individual, set names, we tell ourselves each person is one relatively stable unit instead of a changeable, changing entity who does the hard, ongoing work of “personing” in a rapidly changing world.

Some statements presented as fact aren’t, really.

“Projection,” as the term is used by semanticists such as Korzybski and Hayakawa, means that we transfer our own feelings and evaluations to objects outside of us. For example, we say, “John is stupid” or “Helen is smart,” as if “stupidity” and “smartness” were characteristics of John and Helen. A literal translation of “John is stupid” (that is, its most scientific meaning) might go something like this: “When I perceive John’s behavior, I am disappointed or distressed or frustrated or disgusted. The sentence I use to express my perceptions and evaluation of these events is ‘John is stupid.'”

When we say, “John is stupid,” we are talking about ourselves much more than we are talking about John. And yet, this fact is not reflected at all in this statement.

Language might actually be used to conceal more than it reveals.

At first, it felt liberating to be able to see some of the processes behind purported “things” I’d wrongly perceived as more or less stable. Slowly, though, it destroyed my faith in something that had almost always been a bedrock for me: that I could set forth words that showed precisely what I meant to almost everyone who read them. But if meaning is projected onto words by a perceiver instead of simply absorbed as stated, what I stated was far less important than the meanings being projected onto my words by readers/hearers.

With everything apparently objective revealed as potentially quite subjective, then, I lost faith in my ability to English-language … or that there was much merit in bothering to even try. I was especially disturbed by one kind of illusion I began seeing everywhere, especially in my own words: one of scale. Words can help things I’d consider enormous seem small, and can give small things an illusion of comparative enormity.

For example: If it’s a “disaster” when I flub an important meeting, what is it–apart from, of course, a crime–when hundreds of thousands of people lose their homes and retirement funds due to the bad behavior of a small number of extraordinarily powerful bankers? When those bankers aren’t even held accountable, but slapped on the hand by having less-than-incremental fees effectively taken from investors … as punishment? (How is that “punishment”? How does that deter abuse of power?)

If it’s “crushing” to remember a particularly bad memory, what is it, then, when entire villages are literally crushed by American-sold (and, often, -dropped) bombs? Especially when many of those bombs are “gifts” that keep giving for decades to come?

If an especially tasty hot dog can be “awesome,” then what’s the feeling you get standing and looking upon grand portions of the Grand Canyon?

If it’s “amazing” to get a great bonus at work, what is is when a family is granted asylum … and thus given a chance at life when they’d have almost certainly died had they stayed in their (prior) home?

With so many hard-to-see flaws in tools of meaning conveyance, words, I stopped seeing the point of trying to negotiate them.

If I was no longer a(n effective) worker-of-words … what was I, even?

Last week, I was fairly bludgeoned–multiple times daily, each day–by a word that I’d always translated as representing goodness. Read more…

Discovering Haymarket Books

Soon after I finished reading #FROM BLACKLIVESMATTER TO BLACK LIBERATION, its publisher tweeted an Arundhati Roy quote. It read, “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

All right, then, I told myself after sharing the tweet with my sister and husband. I need to be reading Arundhati Roy.

Unless I absolutely can’t get a product from not-Amazon, I’ll buy that product from not-Amazon. In this case, I figured I could probably buy Roy books directly from the publisher, Haymarket Books. I visited the site, both confirming my ordering suspicion and deciding I want to read everything they’ve ever published.

I prefer reading bound books. I’ll read ebooks in a pinch, but I’m anchored by the happy weight of hard books.

Four of the five books I ordered came with ebook copies. Given that the bound books were going to take more than a week to reach me, I peeked at the first: Angela Davis’s Freedom Is A Constant Struggle. Having peeked, I had to read the whole damn thing, even in ebook form. Davis spoke eloquently to something I’ve recently discovered: emphasizing the individual tends to displace the totality in people’s hearts and minds. Freedom, Davis explains with the eloquence of one who’s spoken these things for decades, is earned by collective struggle, not granted when charismatic individuals ask politely.

I decided to peek at another of the ebooks, Arundhati Roy and John Cusack’s Things That Can and Cannot Be Said. I breezed through the short book, an accounting of the authors’ meeting with Edward Snowden. Its parting words chilled me. Per Daniel Ellsberg, U.S. calculations of damage from nuclear attack have only included blast and radiation. They’ve excluded fire and smoke, because “we can’t calculate fire … It’s fire that kills most people–but they left that out of their calculations.”

This is an excellent example why every single USG-offered statistic must be explored in depth, and viewed with some skepticism. (Asking “cui bono?” benefits these analyses.)

With almost a week until my other Haymarket books reached me, I began reading Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark. I began reading it while sitting in a doctor’s waiting room last Friday; those around me might have mistaken my tears as originating with pain, rather than the beauty of connection … and hope affirmed even while looking genuine horror in the face. But, no: I was moved from almost its very first word, both the new preface and the older text.

Solnit sings praises of the activists whose works have changed understandings of what’s normal and right. She calls out for hope based both on the merits of hope, and the ample evidence of how–and where–activism has worked, though the public forgets the before and during, misremembering that we’ve always believed what we now acknowledge as true and right.

In 1900, the idea that women should have the vote was revolutionary; now, the idea that we should not have it would seem cracked. But no one went back to apologize to the suffragists who chained themselves to the gates of power, smashed all the windows on Bond Street, spent long months in jail, suffered forced feedings and demonization in the press.

Since I paused reading Hope in the Dark to finish a couple of other books, I’m not yet halfway through it. I don’t want to read it too quickly. It’s food for my soul, and as I’m always telling my sons, it’s important to savor good food.

It is, of course, also easier said than done.

This 2/28/17 post transferred from L2SP 5/26/17

 

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