I. I took another personality quiz the other night; I find these irresistible. This one was part of an online course a magazine article on happiness had directed me to, and the quiz’s 96 questions of the “How well do you feel this statement applies to you?” variety, promised to rank 24 attributes in order of my personal strengths and weaknesses. Here, in order, were what the course called my “signature strengths” (i.e., the top 5 most applicable):
Love of Learning
These felt accurate, by which I mean they flattered the things I like to pride myself in (when I feel I’m able to). I noted the image of the person they pointed to; he’d be most comfortable in an ivory tower. Out of curiosity, I looked at the rest of the list to see what, at #24, was the attribute ranked last among all possible attributes.
It was Love:
Valuing close relations with others, in particular those in which sharing & caring are reciprocated; being close to people.
I thought two things when I saw that: I’m not surprised, and then, Shit is this a wake-up call?
Follow up to yesterday’s post, because things I was asserting about safety in certain sectors of Flyover Country haven’t sit well with me. I mean, I don’t think I have it right. What I said was that Texas (which I’m going to continue to include in Flyover Country only because I get to imagine how indignant it would make Texans) wants the non-Texanness of you to get the fuck out of there, and the Deep South will be very polite and hospitable to you without actually liking or even respecting you if they don’t know your people or where they hail from, but the Plains are a place of nice people, and their famous “Minnesota Nice” is real.
George Floyd’s murderer is from Minnesota, I seem to have forgotten. And Michael Stipe and Kate Pierson are from the Deep South.
Whenever I want to assert a thing about a people or a place, I should remember that I’m in dangerous rhetorical territory, particularly as a person who has vocally stood as an exception to whatever nonsense others were peddling about his current home state. So whatever is leading me to feel unsafe in other parts of the country reveals things about me, not those parts of the country.
In other words, I need to write, alas, about history.
History was my worst subject in school, and I’ve never really cared for it or bought into its dictum about being doomed to repeat it, so I’ll keep this quick. The history I have in the Plains is long and all those memories are (chiefly) fond ones. I continue to have people I love and miss who live here. This isn’t (as) true in other parts of Flyover Country, or F-150 Country, or the Bible Belt.[*] I feel about the Plains the way I can tell a number of the grad students I taught in Alabama feel about the Deep South, a place I endured for three years until I could get out, and a place they had four of the most fulfilling years of their lives in.
With the right friends and family in the right places, you can feel safe and home everywhere. Even Boston, a city I’ve many times called the Angriest City In The World, which has plenty of its own Texas-style Get The Fuck Out Of Here vibes, but it’s also where my old college friend Jay lives (well, he lives in Quincy).
Boston has a big history of rebellion, given all that tea they spilled. Texas too, Jesus. I know so little of history, but I know that the Six Flags of those amusement parks refer to the 6 nations that have owned/stolen Texas throughout its history: Spain, Mexico, France, Texas Itself, the U.S., and the Confederate States of America. And the Deep South still claims its failed rebellion as its heritage. It remains important to them that they once tried and failed to hold onto a way of life that needed to enslave Africans to survive.
The Plains, on the other hand, was an empty land of bounty when the people my friends and family here claim cultural/ancestral connections to first showed up. The Missouri Compromise instilled slavery in one part of the Plains, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act spilled it outside of Missouri, but when people think about the Civil War we’re not looking at Flyover Country. What rebellions seemed to be waged here involved populist, pro-agrarian, William Jennings Bryan-style demands for fair labor and wages. (Right? I don’t know my history, I only know what I picked up after 7 years of living here, which is that it’s an exaggeration to call Plains voters “fiscally liberal, socially conservative” but like only a little.)
Every time I’m in Sioux Falls, I make sure at the HyVee to grab all the free magazines off the rack in the store’s vestibule: etc. for her and Sioux Falls Woman and The 605 and the rest of them. These are glossy monthlies printed here in what they call “the Sioux Empire”—i.e., the city of Sioux Falls and its suburbs. Print media is thriving here. And in the articles I read in those magazines about the history of this place, they always begin the story with the first settlers, which I don’t need to tell you means the first white settlers.
The Plains, like all of the U.S., are a site of Native American genocide. It’s probably going to take a while for South Dakota to see what’s psychically and historically wrong with the phrase “the Sioux Empire”, because if people don’t turn to denial and willful silence when confronted with their shame, they turn to anger. Neither emotion is good for growth. I recognize how it must read to have essentially a Plains Tourist like myself tell people whose people go back generations here to grow up, but maybe one way to end this post is to admit that it’s advice I need to take, too. We all do.
As much as people want to make the Civil War our country’s greatest conflict, a better one (well, “better” is a poor word here but you get what I mean) is our centuries-long genocide of Native peoples and theft of their land, “better” because it happened everywhere, it’s likely still happening, and in happening everywhere it can unite us as a country. The Native genocide isn’t a red/blue state conflict. It’s not contained in Flyover Country. San Francisco, where I live, was stolen from the Ramaytush speaking people, one of eight nations now referred to as Ohlone.
The South Dakotans I know grew up with Native Americans as neighbors, as a lived and seen reality. (How they treated or considered Native folks varies depending on who you talk to.) In Virginia, Native Americans were something out of history. Here they make history, like in the blocking of the Keystone XL Pipeline. If, as a Plains Tourist, I can have a dream for a state I only visit once or twice a year, it’s that South Dakota lead the nation in first acknowledging the tragedy of Native genocide and then working to restore Native lands and equitable treatment.
In the Deep South and Texas I feel like an outsider to their conflicts of two centuries ago. In the Plains I remember I’m another American, thriving from the spoils of genocide. If you’re curious which Indigenous people the land you live on belongs to, you can find that info at native-land.ca.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
Once, in grad school, I asked my officemate where the Bible Belt was exactly, because nobody had ever depicted it on a map for me. Was it the strip that runs north from Texas to North Dakota, or did it go laterally along the South? I felt it had to be the former, because a belt (I’m a very literal person) bisects a body right around the middle. But which middle? “Well, it actually starts just east of Seattle and goes along the Canada border, then it sweeps down at the Dakotas, runs all the way to Texas, and then goes over to Florida and Georgia, and sweeps right up to Maine.” It was a good joke for 2007 and probably a better joke in 2021.↵
Before the Internet, we subscribed to Nintendo Power magazine. Every video game was like a maze we asked our moms to drop us off in on her way to work, and whole days were spent finding our way over this fiery gap, or that impossible wall. When we got stuck we asked a friend who had gone before us, or we dug through our Nintendo Power library, or we threw the controller across the floor. The first time I swore in front of my mother, my small Mario had just been bitten once again by a fish. I said “Fuck!” and threw my controller across the floor. I gasped, and my friend James sitting on the floor next to me gasped, and my mom digging through her closet gasped, and I ran to my bedroom and locked the door.
This is the way video games were real. Alice fell down the rabbit hole, I knew; Samus fell down shafts in the Brinstar, but I controlled Samus, and when I couldn’t hit B with the right timing to make Samus bomb herself up the high wall, I didn’t say, “Samus can’t do it,” I said I couldn’t. Death came often and had consequences. What kept me staring into the screen was less TV’s total narrative absorption and more this fire in my belly that felt like commitment and courage. Video games helped me feel big. To this day, knowing that Ganon once again has Princess Zelda gets me a little mad the way news of Amazon’s tax payments does.
Time to go slay another beast.
Gamers have terms for all this I won’t bother to learn, but one I’ve picked up is Platformer, meaning the type of game where you jump on and off a lot of different platforms while the screen scrolls back and forth. Super Mario Bros is the classic platformer. Mega Man 2 is another. Like Caddyshack 2, which played basically every afternoon on cable, Mega Man 2 was a sequel we knew and loved better than its original.
Two things made Mega Man 2 fun: one was that you acquired the weapon of the boss you killed at the end of the each board, and the other was that you could play any board in any order you wanted. So part of what made the game a treat was learning that the saw blades you get from beating Metal Man were handy in killing the floating eyeball things rampant in Heat Man’s board. Not every weapon was useful. Wood Man’s leaf shield felt too slow and cumbersome for most battle situations. Bubble Man’s bubble lead was virtually useless. In time, you refined your arsenal and this is how you traversed the maze of the game.
The afternoon I want to write about took place in the summer, in Jenny’s bedroom, where for a number of reasons the NES was kept in those years. Maybe I was 12. I was boards deep into MM2, which I’d never beaten in full before. What I failed to say about the game was that, like with all platformers, death came quickly and often, and even though the game had a password system that let you begin tomorrow with the same victories and weapons you’d acquired today, there were still lots of repeated frustrations. Somehow, that afternoon, I had made it to the final board, where I knew at the end of it lay Dr. Wily, the evil scientist who had built all these robots I’d been killing. I had a number of extra men, but not a ton, and I had an audience: Jenny sat up on her bed watching me play.
I made it to Dr. Wily, who I remember floating in a kind of pod it was hard to aim into. I tried the trusty metal blade, and it bounced off. I switched to the quick boomerang, and nothing. He was hitting me two or three times a second it felt like. Then I died.
I used another man and tried again. Nothing with the crash bombs, nothing with atomic fire. Then I died again.
I thought about throwing the controller, but I didn’t.
I used another man. Every single weapon I tried on Wily did no damage and I couldn’t figure out how to not be killed again. Then I tried the only weapon left, the useless bubble lead, and it hurt him. “Oh my god,” I said, mad at all the men I’d wasted. Of course with this plot twist: the game’s most useless weapon becoming the only way to win. I did my best to keep hitting him with it, but he was too fast, or I was too slow, and I died again.
I was on my last man. If I died now I’d have to start the whole board all over again—not a disaster, but a frustration. I knew what weapon to use, and I went in ready this time. It was not easy. I kept getting hit and then hitting him, and if you looked at our energy meters it was neck and neck. I worried about running out of bubble lead. I was so unfamiliar with this weapon that I had to learn its tactics alongside Wily’s. It wasn’t looking good, and Jenny wasn’t keeping quiet. “Come on, come on,” she kept mumbling, the way her teammates did on the softball field.
And then I heard her say, “Come on, David! I believe in you!”
One thing the Internet has obsolesced is working shit out on your own. We know this about bar bets and memory, none of us needing anymore to argue whether it was Rich Hall or Dennis Miller who played the fast food carhop alongside Taylor Negron in One Crazy Summer, say. But the survivable experience of being lost in unknowing for a while is what I’m talking about. In the maze of living, the Internet is a bird’s eye view.
With the Internet in my pocket, I would’ve just looked up how to beat Dr. Wily, and chalked my subsequent victory up to my execution of somebody else’s plan. I’m sure it would have felt good enough.
Despite my years of playing video games, I’m a glutton for somebody else’s plan. In grad school I devoted far more time to reading other writers’ craft books than figuring out how (and even why) I wanted to write fiction. Chalk it up to always wanting to get a good grade from teacher. My therapist is very good in her job in this regard. “It sounds like you’re looking to me for validation,” she’ll often say, and I’m like, Yeah, duh.
One thing I’m trying to work out for myself these days is free expression. I understand this to mean saying directly whatever you feel in the moment, the way children do until manners get shamed into them. I don’t like that. I’m bored. I’m horny. I want to be alone for a while. I just feel a lot of love for you right now. You are pissing me off. I don’t want to be friends. None of those feels possible for me to just say, not without real difficulty. One reason is that I’m often afraid of the other person’s reaction to what I’ll say. But a more pressing reason is that just saying what I’m feeling feels embarrassing.
Jenny and I continue to this day to joke about that “I believe in you!” She shares my feeling that it was a funny thing to do, but it also may be the most free and sincere thing anybody’s ever told me. To just say aloud what you’re feeling, uninflected with humor or irony, tends to make me roll my eyes. Twitter tends always to make me roll my eyes. I get embarrassed for anyone who writes something like, “If America is a democracy, then the GOP has officially become the party that hates America.”
Sure, yes, nothing could be more boringly obvious.
And that’s I think what lies at the heart of my problem: I either assume that what’s not obvious is obvious, or I assume that the obvious never needs to be said. I’m probably wrong on both accounts.
Look, baby, I’m not a mind reader You’re going to have to tell me so You’re looking down at your shoes again Take us down off of a cloud Riding high in the sky You’d have to tell me so
“Mind Reader” is a song about every relationship ever, and how what seems obvious isn’t actually obvious. Within that seeming lies a disregard of the other person’s experience of the world. Why don’t you see the way I see? It’s a selfishness I’m often guilty of, which you can see in the way I want to finish everybody’s sentences for them, my brain having already gone off on its own, abandoning the present the other person rightfully assumed we both shared.
Let’s state the obvious: the only way somebody can know what you’re thinking and feeling is by hearing it. This is why “the obvious” needs to be said. (Or written. Years ago, I chose writing over speaking, and only now am I realizing I could have chosen both.)
This isn’t, I don’t think, why people need to tweet. I think the ostensible, intended purpose of putting “If America is a democracy, then the GOP has officially become the party that hates America” out there is to inform one’s imagined audience. The hope is that this point (this “take”) is heard, and that it changes or in some lesser way effects somebody’s mindset. But I think the real purpose is to be given a place to speak. I’m not being a radical thinker here when I say that people tweet foremost to express themselves, to speak into a public forum when they feel otherwise powerless or small. I’m scared and/or lonely might be the base content of four out of five tweets, and it’s probably good and healthy to express that?
I don’t know, I’m figuring it out on my own.
But more and more these days, turning to Twitter for takes on what’s happening feels like running to the Internet for video game cheat codes.
So: not everything said is meant to signify to an audience, much less transport them somewhere new and exciting. I don’t think I want to believe this, or I think I enjoy believing that I’m a better person when I exempt myself from this truth. Here’s the reality: I might be able to argue that I’m better, but I usually feel worse.
John Dewey, whose Art as Experience I’m still slogging my way through (he’s a great thinker but just a terrible writer), makes a helpful distinction between expression and statement. For Dewey, science states meanings and art expresses them; the difference lies in the fact that statements point to or describe experiences, whereas expressions constitute them. Expressions make use of a medium to turn raw and spontaneous feeling—like, say, throwing a NES controller across the floor—into something else, something new, the way vintners make use of their feet to turn plucked grapes into juice for winemaking.
Which might be one way to understand my bristling at most tweets. Despite what this blog usually demonstrates, I am as an artist more interested in expressions than statements. It only feels fair to hold myself to the same impossible standard.
And yet, my life seems to be calling these days for a turning away from Dewey’s idea, or at least it’s calling me to give myself regular breaks from the burden of always needing to cleave raw emotion to some creative medium. To risk whatever embarrassment might befall me—or, actually, to fully learn I’ve got no reason to presume any embarrassment. Jenny and I still joke about “I believe in you!” but moments after she said it, I finally beat the game.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
Here’s another way video games are real: as an Xmas present, Neal got me Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a game where you are encouraged to create a character who looks like you and has your name, just in case living vicariously through a different person/creature is too challenging for you, and the overall point is to gather items and creatures on this island you’ve moved to, and turn them in for money. As I’m sure others have said, playing Animal Crossing every morning has helped balance my days and make them more emotionally even. It’s nice to have chores to commit to. I’ve got digging chores, where I gather ore from rocks and look for fossils, and then I do my shore cleaning chores, picking up shells and fishing for sea creatures I can sell. I do all this after my daily walk through the park, where I pause mentally every time I see a tree branch on my path, or a large pinecone, or even an insect—my immediate instinct is to gather it so I can sell it later. My video game practice has informed my living in the world practice, and I don’t see it as a problem, but then again I don’t play Grand Theft Auto and rarely, if ever, find myself in a position in this world where I need to carjack a woman while running from the cops.↵
The Internet tells me that I actually was fighting an alien that Dr. Wily transformed into, but I have no memory of an alien, so I’m choosing not to believe it.↵
The rare times I see anybody who isn’t my partner, in person or on camera, they ask “How’s it going?” and I say the same thing each time: “The same. I’m the same. Every day’s the same.”
In California right now, it’s hard to go outside because not only do 5,000 new people test positive for COVID-19 each day, but there are enough wildfires surrounding the Bay Area that the air outside isn’t safe to breathe. So now even going for a walk isn’t advisable, and we spend all day in our 500 sqft apartment.
I’m trying to write about something other than self pity, but I do pity us in our position, and I do feel anger that U.S. profit-motive policies over my lifetime, coupled with the ruinous fascist my fellow citizens elected, have made it a danger just to leave my home. I think what I’m trying to write about is how it feels to miss the people in your life, that hard hole in your heart, while also kind of knowing that you are right now feeling exactly what they are.
We’re suspended, it feels like, and in this suspension, we’re all lonely, but lonely together.
I. Searching for something else in my files this morning, I came across this old note:
How do you get better? How do you get better at being a person? Does it always just happen over time? What if you get worse? What if you work so hard every day to become somebody and in the end you become worse? No one’s ever going to tell you, and so you’ll never know, and there’s nothing worse than a terrible man who doesn’t know how terrible he’s become.
I seem to have written this seven years ago, back when I still lived in Alabama. They were very dark years, for a number of reasons. These are the years I’m writing about now, on these very last days of my sabbatical.
I’m not sure which aspect of myself I was thinking about when I wrote this, but all these years later I’m struck by how often these questions still feel valid, and the answers just as elusive.
The saddest tweet I read today (always a tough contest) was this one:
If you don’t know Andrew Sullivan, he’s a gay conservative terrified at the potential for racial justice conversations to put him out of a job. He likes also to holler online about how leftists are trying to shut down “civilized debate” while also throwing tantrums when people push back about his falsenesses:
In short: he’s one of a number of mediocre thinkers paid—still, in 2020, confusingly—to profess opinions. But Sullivan is not my focus here, it’s the unfortunate person in the first tweet who lauded Sullivan for “making sense of all the chaos.”
My point in this post is that that’s how despots come to power.