In Spirit Of An Experiment

In the spirit of an experiment – shall we try a small test?

Nothing rigorous, nothing legally binding – just a little discourse; a small act of mapping some spaces, some boundaries, some questions and some things that need to be questioned.  Let us seek truth. 


What does it mean to say – “violence isn’t the answer”? 

There’s also this other trope – “violence never solved anything;” I realize it isn’t quite the same thing, but I hear both quite a lot, more lately than ever. Could someone help me figure out what they mean?

The counterargument to the second is obvious. It’s as close as the nearest history text, conveniently re-purposed as a door stop. A close reading of that text will reveal that, in fact, violence has a demonstrable history of solving many things. 

I know, it’s earth shattering. I’m considering publishing my research findings, so please don’t go around talking about it. 

Back to the history text – oh, look. The majority of philosophers, political figures, religious authorities, and cultural commentators throughout human history have given the use of violence a specific or implicit green light. 

In fact, it’s a panacea; they wish they’d thought it up themselves. It solves nearby boundaries which may be inconvenient to trade; it solves far-away resources which may be inconvenient not to own. It solves half-siblings, bastard offspring, ex-spouses, and other trying familial associations. You get the picture. Violence is the stuff of solutions. So that one is taken care of. 

Now, the first one – “violence isn’t the answer” – oh, dear. It inhabits trickier semantic ground. If we set up the question just right, Jeopardy-style – “What is a cessation of conflict?” – sure, experts all agree: violence is not the answer. 

Spiritually speaking, most people would agree that violence isn’t the answer, at least not for them. Damnation and other potential eternal repercussions look best on other people’s conscience. 

But practically – because around here, we are practical adults who inhabit the real world – well. Sometimes the muscle becomes the meat, as it were. Sometimes the frying pan meets the fire. Sometimes the – 

Well. You know what they say about things hitting fans, no one comes out clean. But I digress. The point is, people play semantics but what they typically mean is: Violence has one purpose, and that purpose is whatever I find convenient. What does this mean in practical terms? “I am fine with violence when I’m confident the person committing it is on my side.”


Lately, you’ll notice the pleas for non-violence are coming mostly from people who are not at all confident the people committing violence are on their side. 

It’s a clever response. It doesn’t name names. It neatly removes the specific question of cause and effect from the picture – “They’re rioting why? Oh it doesn’t matter; violence is never the answer.” 

In the hard-boiled wonderland of American party politics, it also distances them from whatever the specifics of “who started it” turn out to entail. Extremist fomenters of any vein are rhetoricalized away. Poof, it’s almost like it was never a problem. Oh, right. It was never taken seriously as a problem… 


One more little thing: don’t be a hypocrite. Look at that history textbook. Look at the obituaries of people for whom “violence” was listed as the cause of death. 

Maybe you genuinely inhabit a world where you believe violence isn’t an answer, and it doesn’t solve anything. If so, good for you. 

You realize, of course, that means completely giving it up – not farming it out. 

That means not benefiting from others’ acts of violence. That means not benefiting, specifically or implicitly, from the presence of a military or a police force or any other type of armed presence – no sins of omission or commission. I guess oil and petroleum products are out of your life, huh?

Anyways, I’m sure you’re busy extinguishing all inadvertent instances of profiting from violence from your life. So I won’t take up your time any longer, except for this one tiny observation: instead of trotting out the tried-and-true tropes, you might consider a new, more honest, set of slogans. In the spirit of an experiment – repeat after me:

“Ignoring injustice isn’t the answer. Ignoring injustice doesn’t solve anything.”

Peace out, friends. 


Super important ethical footnote: As it turns out, I actually have strong logical and faith-based objections to acts of violence. It comes from being angry all the time. I am arguing against the perverse faux-innocence of vacuous chestnuts like the above, specifically when they are used to further conflict by deliberately devaluing the terms of conflict. If you want my opinion on an effective beginning of a response, here you go.


In America, Quarantine Isn’t New

Note: This piece was written last Tuesday, before our persistent failure to admit and amend racial injustice became a topic of national discussion…again. Had I written it a week later, it would have been written differently. However, the historical record would remain the same. Therefore I have let the piece stand, unedited.


When the world restarts – what will we see?

Very likely what we’ve always seen: exactly what we want to. Which is to say: a great deal less than is actually there. The fact is, we’ve always been quarantined from each other. As communities and as individuals, we were in lockdown long prior to the shelter-in-place orders issued in response to covid-19.

Every single one of us goes through our lives sheltering from the inconvenient reality of some other group of people, some other experience of life. We are terrified of breathing in Other, becoming infected by contact; we are terrified of understanding what life looks like from some other angle. 

It is safe to say that this pandemic has affected everyone in some way. Even those normally inured to crisis have experienced some interruption of their normal activity. Pandemics are pervasive. But the reassuring platitude – “We’re all in this together” – masks the harder truth that some of us are in over our heads. Do not confuse “pervasive” with “equally affected by.” 

In the U.S., people who are considered “minorities” are disproportionately affected by covid-19 (The Lancet, May 8, 2020: Evidence Mounts on the Disproportionate Affect of Covid-19 on Ethnic Minorities). Despite the standard “more studies are needed” conclusions, sources ranging from the CDC to The Economist observe that people who check off any census box other than “Non-Hispanic White” have higher rates of hospitalization and higher rates of mortality from the virus (Yale News, May 19, 2020: New Analysis Quantifies Risk of Covid-19 to Racial, Ethnic Minorities). Cumulatively, they also experience higher rates of adverse economic impact through job loss or furlough, and have fewer economic resources to fall back on during economic downturn. 

Crises tend to most adversely affect the most vulnerable members of a society. Crises unmask vulnerabilities that exist as blind spots during better (read: “normal”) times. To clarify, what this means is that these vulnerabilities are not new. They are simply more visible because crisis has made them (temporarily) impossible to ignore. This particular crisis has revealed social, cultural, and economic stratification. Few things reveal a tenuous place in society quite so effectively as “shelter in place.” 

These strata exist because – generally speaking – social distancing has always been part of the fabric of American society. 

It’s a laundry list of boundaries. Economic and cultural isolation of minorities leading to entrenched poverty; the rapacity of slavery and Jim Crow laws; the awkward historical agendas of the Monroe Doctrine, the Trail of Tears, and the various literal and structural massacres of Native societies – these atrocities occupy a sort of dead space in the narrative of “We the People”. They are the sections everyone skips; they have been edited out “for clarity”. 

The coronavirus has thrown their cause-and-effect descendants into stark clarity. 

We have constructed our histories, our policies, and our communities to quarantine against those who are inconvenient – those who don’t fit the average of “assimilated.” 

The standards for “assimilation” are established by those who are above average – a state maintained by excluding or exploiting or ignoring anyone who exists outside the manipulated safe space of “normal”. 

In short, we relish a good “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps” story, but ignore the underlying truth that such stories either rely on miraculous thinking or having access to a shoe store to begin with. 

African-American, Hispanic, and Native communities bear the ongoing brunt of this sort of direct and indirect lockdown, so it is not surprising that they also bear the brunt of worst-possible-scenario outcomes during the coronavirus pandemic. 

What remains to be seen is if we will see things differently once the pandemic is over – whether the end of quarantine will actually bring about the unrealized promise of “we’re all in this together.”


Origins: A Break In Our Regular Programming

According to Darwin, this Skeleton shouldn’t survive. 

I am told people love a good origin story. What’s not to like about a promising start? It has rich narrative potential: good omens, a few occurrences of occult significance, symbolism, some prophecies – or at least a silver spoon (somewhere). Just try writing an epic fantasy without it. 

That being said – today I opt for honesty. The disturbing truth of the matter is this blog has a dreadful family tree. I have a history of starting blogs and then abandoning them. 

The poor young things never have a chance. Each and every one of my back pages arose out of turmoil, phoenix-like: they were intended to channel the promising energies of whatever my latest project was, into something which would (certainly) prove my fame and fortune. At least three of them haunt my WordPress “My Sites” tab; they are starved but not dead, not gone but mostly forgotten. I wish I could report I have nightmares of them smothering me, but nothing so Twilight Zone – mostly I just look at them and think “…lesson learned.” (You’re welcome to imagine it in Rod Serling’s voice.)

Sometimes you can’t force what isn’t there. Sometimes you can’t trick yourself into love. Sometimes – whatever is needed – you just don’t have it yet. I’d like to say otherwise, but that wouldn’t be honest. 

So in terms of “survival of the fittest,” this Skeleton does not have a promising pedigree. It’s like finding out a canary survived the meteor that took out T-Rex. Chirp, chirp. 

Maybe the canary learned something. Maybe adaptability is a better lesson than appearance of expertise. 

Maybe the canary finally learned to quit overcrowding its schedule, quit doing things just to maintain the appearance of “young professional,” quit forcing an interest in things that weren’t worth spending a life on. Oh, and learned to just sit down and write. 


This post is somewhat more personal than the usual, ah, high-quality in-depth reading material you have (hopefully) come to expect. 

I mention all of this because Skeleton-At-The-Feast.com just passed 200 “follows.” And though I try very hard not to pay attention to the numbers – it means a very great deal to me that each of you give a portion of your lifetime towards reading my thoughts and learning experiences. It keeps me writing, each and every day.

My world has been challenged and expanded by your comments and by your own blog posts and work. I am very fortunate that each of you share your unique voices in this community. I consider each of you to be friends, and I hope my work contributes something useful to your day. 

Maybe it’s not always “survival of the fittest;” sometimes, it’s “survival of the best community.” 

Thank you.


Whatever Future Is Out There

I guess I didn’t really experience the world prior to the pandemic. 

Most of my life has been lived in some sort of isolation. It wasn’t always voluntary (or at least, anything that a conscious choice could change) – but it became a defining habit; impossible to break. 

When I took on the idea of Skeleton for this blog – when the idea showed up one day and refused to go away – I came to realize it was no accident. The childhood Halloween figures of skeletons and ghosts have always had a place in my affections; they’re forever separate from the world around them, and they’re forever just a bit out of step with time. They can’t really join others, and they can’t really move on. In a certain inalterable sense, they’re alone. 

Of course, this all sounds terribly emo. It’s funny and ridiculous, and I really need to do something about my bangs. But it’s the closest I can come to expressing the reality of the matter, putting some sort of rhyme or reason to the business. 

Most of the things They say won’t come back are things I always thought I had yet to experience. 

Crowds, travel, conferences, collaboration, concerts, clubbing, or whatever else people do with each other on busy Friday nights. Wander through New York City; explore Shanghai or Tokyo or the rest of the world’s cities, big beautiful creatures of light and dark and constant change. 

Very few things in life actually disappear, but most things change beyond understanding. Quite a few things have changed beyond my understanding, in a matter of months. The fact that I didn’t understand them to begin with does not lessen my sense of loss. 

I’d like to shrug all of this off. I’d like to hide it under my coffee cup as I get up to go about my day. But loss is as important a thing as happiness, reassurance, creation. It must be acknowledged. Without it, I can’t honestly go about rebuilding my life or the world we share. 

Our world has lost things. It has lost people. Families have lost loved ones; loved ones have lost the chance to say goodbye. Students have lost futures they dreamed of; parents have lost jobs and economic security. Communities have lost cohesion. Trust, respect, and a sense of shared values have fallen victim to political grandstanding and the darker side of (selective) social distancing. 

We had tools to prevent this. 

We didn’t. Things broke down. Things usually do. 

Do we have tools to rebuild? 

Sometimes you have to lose expectations. If it comes down to it, I’ll give up the things I always thought I’d do, someday. Because now it’s today, and I’m not ready to lose whatever future is out there. 


Life-Changing Magic of Navigating Books

I must admit to a bad habit. I love to read – but separate from this, I also love to horde library books. Not all books; just specific books during specific times. They seem to be a sort of talisman. Perhaps I will read them – perhaps not. Maybe I will only skim through, taking a word here, a sentence there, acknowledgements or bibliography. Sometimes it is enough just to have a particular title or cover design on my shelf. When their purpose is served, back to the library they go.  

Since late November I have continually renewed The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo. I have read it every which way, forwards and backwards and piecemeal, multiple times. I find it extremely comforting. It appears to toute the hypnotic magic of order, but that is only superficial. Conceptually the book is driven by the process of acknowledging, examining and making peace between your past and present. 

My very favorite part – the part I look forward to every read through; the climax of the action, if you will – occurs at the beginning of Chapter 4. Ms. Kondo narrates how she comes home. 

She talks about unlocking her door, saying hello to her house that has been waiting for her. She puts on water for tea, changes clothes, returns the contents of her purse and tools of her day to their respective places. By this time the water has boiled; she makes tea, and sips while reading through her mail. 

It is a very simple progression of actions. She does not directly describe her space any more than necessary to explain, in precise terms, where each item comes from or returns to. 

Yet, based on her description, I have an extremely vivid sense of being invited into that space. I am able to map it, conceptually and emotionally. It’s the idea of home as a sort of labyrinth – a space which, as we navigate its physical boundaries, also helps us understand and navigate our internal boundaries and constraints. 


Fortunately, my own home – though small – is already a highly effective labyrinth. The library is closed, so my stacks of library books have acquired semi-permanent status. 

They form islands in the midst of the floor, and towers in the middle of tables. Some of them function as trays, laptop rests; some of them sprawl invitingly open around my chair. To move through my apartment is to enter into a physical interaction with these books, every bit as intense as the mental interaction of reading them. They now, literally as well as figuratively, shape my world. 

And they have indeed guided me towards new understanding. From now on, I’m only checking out e-books.


Out Of Nothing

“What can I make with this?”

It’s a question to which I return, over and over. It is a question, understood not so much as the first half of an answer, but as a tool to create better tools for living. 

Confidence says you can make anything out of nothing. Common sense quotes “you can’t get blood out of a turnip.” Knowledge says you had best pick the material to suit the purpose, or else reshape the expected outcome.

Somewhere, each of these viewpoints intersects to form something useful.

What sort of tool do you craft out of nothing?

What sort of purpose is the material suited for?

What are key characteristics of nothing?

  • It has space.
  • It is infinitely light (lacks mass).
  • It is characterized by absence of something expected.
  • It reveals, through that absence, what is expected.
  • It holds no distractions.
  • It is a tool for clarity.
  • It is characterized by lack of resources; lack of the things that remove barriers to work. 
  • It is a space in which your barriers are revealed or made clear.
  • It is a space in which your task is to confront your barriers. 

Nothing reveals what we need.

People are shaped by need.

Seek to understand what you need, what others need. Then you will begin to understand why and how people are shaped. So nothing is a worthwhile, fertile area of inquiry.


Let me be clear: need, unanswered, can be crippling. In a systemic or social sense, “having nothing” only holds potential when it is clearly defined as finite, an experience to be contemplated rather than something that is all-encompassing. Otherwise it quickly takes over a life. 

A month of nothing is enough to destroy a life. It will certainly cripple that life’s future for quite a while to come. Do we really need to go about the business of qualifying the state of having nothing as the news does – “through no fault of their own” and all such unexamined catch-phrases?1 

I don’t know about you, but when I see someone choking or drowning my first impulse is to ask – “Excuse me, but is this through any fault of your own?” (Not really.) 

If your only resource is “nothing,” fault is missing the point; it implies that there are other people who have nothing through every fault of their own. 

Why do we not instead say, “they have nothing through every fault of ours? We, as a system, have had a failure of empathy; that is the correct understanding of need within this context.” 


In a creative sense, I am determined to learn and create from nothing because that is the only space allotted for so many throughout this world. Each day I look for something that is less than what it could be, with the goal of understanding what it needs to become more than it is. 

In an intellectual sense, this action should be unnecessary. But maybe once I know the trick of creating out of nothing, or tricking nothing into becoming something, or perhaps just tricking the people who are busy saying “through no fault of our own” – I will have a chance at tricking other brains into refusing to accept nothing as an option. There may be a chance to say, look – nothing has become something, therefore nothing is no longer an option. Let’s instead turn our energy and attention to growing something into everything, something all can share. 


1 In the United States, much of the discourse surrounding the economic impact of covid-19 and associated shelter-in-place orders has focused on the fact that people are experiencing unemployment, debt, homelessness, and privation “through no fault of their own.” The fact is that, in absence of the epidemic, these same issues were bitterly divided along partisan assignments of blame just a few months prior. Yet the causes of economic vulnerability have not changed, only been magnified. “Through no fault of their own” has become the political excuse to avoid saying, we should have put in place greater workforce and wellbeing/safety protections all along.


Limited Understanding (Understanding Limits)

Show me slowly what I only know the limits of…” 

Leonard Cohen, “Dance Me To The End Of Love”

Limits are a strange, essential force within our lives. Most of us prefer not to examine them too closely; like a hundred dollar bill, if someone gives you one it is often best to simply try to pass it on as quickly and quietly as possible. 

But like counterfeit money, limits can frequently give more than they get1. They are an essential tool to build understanding. Once you have limits, you can begin to map what is inside those limits. In absence of limits, it is impossible to map anything.

Map (v): to create relational understanding. See Create.

Let’s step away from metaphor for a moment. In cartography, the process of mapping is one of using a given perspective or question to make sense of a set of data that includes a spatial component. Areas are defined by boundaries (or concentrations), and boundaries are defined by a process of repeatedly asking “true, or false?” regarding a given set of requirements. 

A given point is either within a boundary or not; New Jersey is either within New York, or it’s not. Otherwise – without discrete places – there’s no need for a map. A map, therefore, is a relational understanding between areas defined by limits. 

Within the realm of metaphor, limits form the boundaries around concepts, properties, desires, and needs. 

Create (v): to map between memory and unknown. See Map, Unknown.

When these limits are mapped in such a way as to discover connections or adjacencies, the result is philosophy or science. When these limits are mapped through personality and symbol, the result is a narrative. So a narrative can be understood as a progressive exploration of, and engagement with, limits. (Remember that – you’ll need it later.)

This is interesting because, although many people think in terms of narrative, people commonly talk about not being defined by their limitations. It is an inspiring idea, but not always a practical one. Without limits, there would be no reason for growth. Sometimes you must directly address your limitations. 

Of course, limitations are not necessarily fixed. They are frequently an attribute of a specific set of conditions. But to the extent that you must expend energy addressing those limitations, you are at least temporarily defined by or through them. 

Therefore it is often more useful to ask how you would like to be defined in relation to limitations. And in order to come to an answer, you must understand what limits represent. 

Unknown (n): the first thing to establish in a system. See System.

Remember the idea of a narrative as a progressive exploration of, and engagement with, limits? I say that because limits form the space between the known and unknown, the possibility for duality, the dynamic tension of differences. (Just try creating a good narrative without differences.)

Limits represent the potential for a thing to exist on its discrete own. Limits give identity and form to that which we would not otherwise recognize as unique. At the most basic level, limits give us the ability to understand one thing by juxtaposing it against another thing to discover what the first thing is not.

Light is defined as not-dark; night is not-day; spring is absence of winter; and death rises from the end of life. Humans seem to love this idea of juxtaposition. Duality is a very old story, one we tell about boundaries – about limits. It fits neatly alongside our entrenched love of patterns, and yields a cross-cultural penchant for narratives that display patterns of things understood in contrast.

System (n): framework composed out of entropy. Perfect or imperfect map of cause and effect. See Map.

Today, though we play with the idea of escaping the old mythologies, our modern world is built on boundaries and limits more than ever. In much of the code that surrounds our daily activities, everything is either a 0 or a 1, true or false. It is, literally, binary. It is a system made possible by the limits between 0 and 1, true and false. Limits create the framework upon which a world may be built. 

Now, after all of this – have I still failed to convince you to appreciate limits? It’s true, I am biased; I was busy convincing myself, the case decided before the evidence was in. One of my favorite songs is Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me To The End Of Love” (though I prefer the version sung by Madeleine Peyroux). 

It is a romance crafted entirely of limits: a binary hide-and-seek between lyrics, across boundaries – things hinted, secrets revealed, knowledge concealed, and underneath it all a keen appreciation for the space between opposites. So if none of my other cases ring true, consider this: without the limit between Self and Other, we would have no good love stories. 

Of course, love stories are also about bridging boundaries, finding the gaps in the limits – but that’s another story, because it exceeds this story’s limits. 


1 Disclaimer: to whatever federal agency may be reading this, I do not condone nor conduct money laundering or counterfeiting. I have my limits.


Memorial

Those who take on battles
They know they may not win;

Those who see the world clear,
Yet give it their best;

Those whose final strength
Is memory.

May they know peace.


My mother grew up in Tennessee. Her childhood understanding of Memorial Day was to decorate graves with bundles of huge irises, the type known as “flags.” To this day my image of Memorial Day is a small child running through fields of graves, hugging a bundle of twilight-blue flowers.


There are many types of battles. To take on something bigger than yourself, with the understanding that you may be subsumed, is a hard path.

I cannot reconcile with remembrance stripped of context. But at the end of a struggle, when loss bites hard and the world will never be the same, sometimes memory is the hardest stand to take. It is easy to say “remember” – it is hard to experience memory. But if this day means something to you, let it be an act of memory that is honest and true. And within that memory, may you find seeds of peace, like flowers on a grave.


Don’t Wander Off

“Don’t wander off,” they said –

You already know. The path led
Anywhere, deeper by wider
As long as interest conspired
Distraction, while gloom gathered.

Shadows grew. Branches shattered
And drama flew. It was a squall,
Caught between sunshine. After all,
Here’s the plot: I didn’t get lost.


Just once – JUST ONCE – I’d like a fictional character to wander off the path and be perfectly fine. But I guess that wouldn’t be much of a story…