Guns and Cigarettes

Guns and Cigarettes

I grew up in a house without guns. My parents are artists, they love a beautiful aria and a good book. We were not a hunting family, we didn’t even fish. I don’t recall one single conversation about guns. Their absence was entirely normal to me, in my quiet mostly white and Asian suburban world. I was mildly intrigued by the idea, the power and masculinity they seemed to imbue, but having little interest in sports or much of an inclination towards activities that required good aim, they left my mind as breezily as they went in. It didn’t occur to me what the black and brown kids who lived on the other side of the freeway thought about guns until I was much older. I found myself drawn to a different symbol of masculine self-reliance – cigarettes.

Visiting my brother in rural Ohio, I remember going into a gun store at the end of a quaint little collection of stores selling quilts, Amish furniture, antiques and the like. My brother and I, having never really been in a store that sold guns, went inside to look around. My father followed us in. At 5’10” in his Puma sneakers, with his hands in his pockets looking around, he smiled an expression that was not a smile, and he turned around and walked out. Something about that small moment struck me – the look on his face was a knowing look, with more than a hint of resentment and disapproval. He looked culturally out of place in that store, and he probably felt that way too. My father, who loves nothing more than puttering around the house and to fall into a nap with a spy novel and a cat at his feet, who will weep at the sound of a beautiful solo tenor or a chorus of children’s voices, exuded a particular version of masculinity to me, as his child. He has many traditionally masculine traits – he loves baseball and tools, women and woodworking, he was in the army reserves and was a pretty good shot. He was even pretty rageful and scary in his drinking years. But the unarmed, emotionally minded, gentle masculinity was what was passed on to me.

It is difficult to come to terms with the privilege I now know it to be, to be able to grow up in a world with not even the faintest fear of gun violence. It’s so easy for me to take a moral high ground and make a grand statement that I will never own a gun. That sentiment reminds me of the snarky comments I often received by those who clearly disapproved of my cigarette smoking and the effect it had on others. It was an obvious cultural difference between us, and I indignantly disregarded their comments. The gun lobby and the tobacco lobby share many similar traits – the stalling and hiding of science showing the heath risks involved in their products, the appeals to libertarian freedom of choice, invoking images of rebellious individuality, and the stoking of culture wars to keep the sales flowing. For both industries, it is ultimately about profit. I grew up in a world where cigarettes weren’t smoked in front of children, but was still something adults seem to enjoy, or was at least acceptable to do. I cringe at the thought of all the butts I threw from my car window, and all the youthful eyes that watched me smoke. My depression and anxiety had me searching the ashtrays in front of restaurants as a teen, and I have given god knows how much money to the tobacco billionaires, all for a cultural and chemical coping mechanism. Clearly guns and cigarettes are different animals, but both are animals none the less.

I could go down so many rabbit holes on this topic – how the relentless sales of arms has fueled the ridiculous violence we are seeing in the world, a musing on the human propensity to take a life, white privilege and guns, the sadness around so many unnecessary deaths cause by both guns and cigarettes… I could write about how I think regulating gun sales actually helps strengthen responsible gun ownership (look at Canada, look at regulation of driving cars), and speculate on how far past that point we are. Many, many rabbit holes. But what I sit here with is just the enormity of our shared predicament, and the powerlessness I feel to affect it as a single individual. It is a hugely complex issue that is interconnected to so much else, with no quick fix or sound bite slogan. Like the reality of poverty, its causes and solutions are multifaceted, requiring effort from all angles to even get it to budge. A myopic attack of one small variable will not move it.

When did you first experience guns? What was the culture surrounding them in your world as a child? Do tell 🙂

j

TDoR and Evolution

I’m sitting at an outside table at a corner coffee shop in Tucson with Bennett and his dog Honey. We passed Trans Day of Remembrance driving Hwy 62, 72, 10, 86, 8, and 10 again from the Mojave to the Sonoran desert. We got the van stuck in a sandy wash, and on our third attempt to dig it out with a plate and a frying pan, two guys in a minivan stopped to help pull us out with a rope. Honey thought it was the funnest game there ever was.

We talked about our journeys through transition. We talked about our experiences in the context of trans* experience through history. We talked about how, even in the light of our relative privilege, we still feel like we barely made it through the fire. Both of us could have easily made it onto that long list of names that were read and acknowledged by communities all around the world. I thought about my pen pals from Iran and Venezuela who persevere in environments totally unimaginable to me. I think about my new friend who courageously steps out of her home each day, finally as herself. When the list of names is read and I can count the names of male-identified folks on one hand, my bravery seems to pale in comparison.

Gender is something so fundamental to human culture and biology. As our environmental pressures change and our survival tactics must adapt, we find that oftentimes culture lags behind. At least it feels that way to those of us who bear witness to such unnecessary violence and loss. The faster our environment changes, the faster we must change, and the more friction there is at the edges. The history of physical and social sex transition is a good example of the quickening nature of change, and the greater whole of us’s struggle to keep up. But it happens, glacially as it may seem. When I read articles about gay men fleeing from Syria to Lebanon and the torture and extortion they experience; workers paid pennies a day to make western clothes dying in crumbling buildings, and there’s no clear consensus on whether buying the clothes does more harm than not buying them; my beloved western spaces fracked beyond repair in my life time, because lighting faucet water on fire still isn’t proof enough that it’s dangerous; hundreds of thousands of people killed in a war while the governments of the world stand by and weigh their financial interests; poor countries taking the brunt of climate change caused by the excesses of wealthy countries – I am overwhelmed at the enormity of suffering that exists on this planet. Hope seems elusive when lost in that emotional storm. What tethers me pack to the hopeful present is just the plain impersonal nature of impermanence. Change. Evolution. It happens in its time, its force a confluence of so many energies so complex, all I can do is accept it and trust its nature. And do what I can to add my breath to the great wind of growth, awareness, and love.

My heros this time around are Ben and Rachael Hudson of the Gender Heath Center. Together, with very little means, they set out and created the services they wanted to see provided in the world, and now serve and inspire a community that stretches over all social lines. They provide services for youth that they did not have access to. They provide services to families that their families did not have access to. Services that my family and my young self did not have access to in the same town we lived in. Seeing that change has been more rewarding than I could have imagined. From all of us who’s lives you have changed, many thanks.

Tucson is mellow and overcast, many friends I knew here have moved on, and I am such a different person than I have been at many times through this town. The trains still holler through the city, and it is still one of the loveliest places to be in the winter. Bennett and I will play for Transgender Week of Awareness here and do our part, I get to play with my super homie Courtney Robbins a few times, and take another long beautiful drive through the desert with my buddy. All the names on the list stay with me, as well as those who remain unknown. Also, all people who lose their lives due to our inability to evolve fast enough. They are all ours.

Love,

j

Election Day Thoughts

I’m reading a book on the evolution of the western world view, it’s basically a Western Civ text book. I went to arts school, it’s all new to me. What strikes me is the enormity of people, circumstances, opinions, experiences, perspectives, suffering, privileges, causes, effects, lives, deaths, etc that can get summed up into a “cultural mindset” of an era of history.. a time as chaotic and controversial as the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation.. come to think of it, when have things not been chaotic and controversial? Some folks would say the 1950’s in America, but only if you where white and middle class, and what a tiny speck of a moment that was. Every microcosm is balanced precariously, hemmed in by the ones around it, but in our brief existence an illusion of stasis is understandable. When I was a kid I naturally assumed that Sacramento was the most important city in the world, since it was the capitol of the most important state in the most important country in the world. Doesn’t that seem perfectly logical?

When I think about the horrors of, say, the Reformation – the long standing unquestioned authority of the Catholic church fracturing, the conservative backlash from the extravagance of the Renaissance, beautiful art commissioned yet paid for by the taxes of the poor, people burned at the stake for refusing to relinquish their cultural inheritance, forced to recant from honest scientific observation and deep seated personal beliefs, mayhem, terror, sickness and death, a level of poverty truly unknown in our time, control, cognitive dissonance, censorship, corruption.. It sounds like hell on earth. How, during such intense flux, did science carry on, did people get educated, poetry get written, cows get milked, did society heal and change and come to understand, respect, and protect the autonomy of the individual? How did we get from pilgrims and Indians and the fourth of July to reelecting a black president??

Obama said it well – we are exceptional because we are the most diverse nation in the world. We are largely a nation of immigrants. Only the American Natives have a cultural creation story that is actually tied to this land. Mine came from a place far across the sea that I have never been to in a desert city that is constantly torn by war, yet I grew up knowing only the foothills of the Sierras, the quiet intensity of Lake Tahoe, the soft grassy hills of the California coastline. This is the land that I recognize as home. My genes were passed on to me by people who left their homelands and went west, generation after generation, until they again hit the sea. This nation was built entirely on occupied territory – the impersonal brute forces of famine, war, society, survival, overpopulation, technology, just plain old growth – the human diaspora has as many interconnected currents and causalities as the weather. America is different (I take issue with the world “exceptional”) because relative to most other countries, it is huge and full of people who wandered here from somewhere else and tried to build a life out of what they found. Individual liberty is indispensable when everyone is a minority. I think in many ways we forget who we are and where we came from.

I can marvel at the state of Europe in the 1200’s and appreciate the madness that I myself did not have to live through; I can learn from the progressions, the swings back and forth striving for equilibrium and forever overshooting it, the major causes and effects of social movements, the people that pushed themselves to the very limits of their own understanding and beyond; I can appreciate that an entity can only build on its current model with the materials and tools available to address the next task. When it comes to my own time and place in history however, I notice I have much less patience and serenity around its evolution. It feels uncertain, volatile, frustrating fits and starts, infuriating – often times it’s hard to recognize the forward motion through the circular logic and repetitive actions against evidence. I realize how tiny an increment one generation – one lifetime – really is in the grand march of history, and I wish I could stay around for a few more to see what happens. Perhaps just as one human eventually grows up, anxiety subsides, a sense of understanding is reached, they have seen enough to know that things eventually work themselves out in one way of another – so too will a society that can truly integrate its past into its present existence, and access the fullest range of choice that exists to determine its future. Perhaps that it far too Utopian, but the only reason for living that we can all genuinely agree on is the continued propagation of our species. It is what we are built for, after all, regardless of any belief in a divine purpose that may lay beyond. As long as we continue to successfully pass the torch, we will continue to evolve. Whether I get to see it or not, that is where my hope lies.

I started writing this with a question in mind: How do you love what is when it is in such a tumultuous state? How do you love the mess, the fear driven decisions we make that shoot ourselves in the collective foot, the good works that go unacknowledged, the incredible and fundamental unfairness? How do you forgive the path chosen when there appears to be a more direct route to health and happiness? How do you get such a massive and heterogeneous group of people to agree on anything when the sources of information are so disparate and unreliable? How do you love it for what it is, and participate with clarity, grace, and abandon?

I don’t know. I guess you just do it, as best you can. Or you don’t. You stay drunk or in front of the TV or at the mall or clinging to victim-hood or at the office or whatever your drug of choice is. How you feel about something isn’t ultimately as important as the actions you take. However, in this one lifetime I get, I’ll be dammed if I let my feelings alone determine my decisions and my quality of life without my consent. The only silver bullet I can honestly deduce and accept – rigorous awareness, from the deep self to as far out as it will go.

Here’s to Obama, here’s to the American people, here’s to excruciatingly incremental change. As is the nature of the universe. Here’s to these next four years we will all witness, endure, participate and revel in – together.

j

Consciousness and the Jailbird

The Sacramento Valley is held by mountains to the east and west, and on a clear day you can see the foothills of the Sierras, if not the snow caps from the right vantage point. You have to get a little further west on 80 before the Coastal Ranges come into view. Otherwise, the valley is as flat as Kansas. Power lines run all along the gridded two lane roads that connect still small farms in various levels of productivity; the encroaching housing developments will only make it so far south before they hit the Delta, with its levees and sloughs, peat and marshland, unfit for higher population density. A few acres of solar panels starkly confront the older industries as the dairy cows look on, RVs rust, and barns decay in the fields. Mustard flowers and spring green grass contrast with the cloudy early morning sky, pink in the east, gray in the west. A partial blanket of clouds hang overhead like a low ceiling. This is driving south on Bruceville Road to the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center, or “R triple C.”

I pick a metal stool in front of a window with a phone hung up on my left and wait for the inmates to come in. There is a mother with a one year old to my right and an Asian woman to my left. The door to the hallway on the other side of the glass opens, and the inmates file in looking for their visitor. My brother Robert, in a faded thermal and orange pants, sits down on the stool on the other side of the glass, and we pick up our phones.

Protective Custody (PC) is reserved for gay guys, child molesters, older or disabled men, and gang dropouts. They are housed in a wedge-shaped room, or “tank”, with bunks along the back wall and high ceilings with a catwalk so guards can look into many such rooms at a time. There are a few tables and chairs and two bathrooms. They get to go outside twice a week into a yard with high walls and a net across the top. Visitors can come Tuesdays at 9am for one hour. Three of his friends happen to be in his tank, and they sit at a table and play cards, gossip, and share ideas about what they might do when they get out. They pool the money that gets put on their books, and sometimes will combine graham crackers and chocolate pudding to make a pie, or crush up a candy bar in coffee to make mochas. Robert says the gay jokes are mild and rare, no one really cares much to puncture the monotony. They eat at 5am, 11am, and 3pm, so their commissary is very important to them, as well as the welcomed relief from the boredom it provides. The cinder block walls are painted grey and the high florescent lights are either on or off, obscuring the contours of the day. There are no recovery programs, no classes, no job training, no therapy, no library, nothing that might actually prepare them for re-entry into the world. Almost everyone is serving time for a drug or alcohol related offense. Robert’s friends will all leave months before he will. He has eight long months ahead of him.

The idea of “serving time” coaxes me into rumination.. Is that the most we ask of those who disrupt the social order for whatever reason, to forfeit a specified amount of time from their lives? We don’t insist or even ask that they educate themselves on the consequences of their actions or on the factors that may have led them to take those actions in the first place, not to mention help them to not repeat the behavior. There are obvious conflicts of interest here, few people want to open the can of worms marked “Class,” particularly those who benefit from its structure, who also happen to include the private industries that own and run the prison systems. It is not in their interest to rehabilitate inmates, the profit is in repeat offenders. These are the cold hard turning gears of capitalism. It is proven that education, prevention, and treatment produces better results and is far more cost-effective than incarceration, saddling someone with felonies that limit their employment opportunities, burdening them with social stigma, and setting them up to repeat the same behavior. Robbing someone of precious years of their lives while securing them on the path that led them there is cruel, if you ask me. Time is the only thing we really have, for without it, no dreams can be built and seen through to fruition.

I don’t have a better answer for Robert. Social change happens as a reaction to the current state of things, and often only affects the next generation, if it happens quickly enough. Robert has been to rehab many times, he knows the recovery programs well, there is nothing more anyone can give him that is available. I don’t think he really understands the breadth of why he is where he is. At least I know he is safe in his tank, and at the moment isn’t selling drugs to some young person who hasn’t yet seen many consequences and may have a chance of escaping the black hole of addiction and incarceration. I don’t know what would work now, it is really up to him. The adversities are great, but hey – people do it, and this is the only life.

The walls of my tank are silent, the clock on the computer ticks on. The light through the windows turns dim and bright again from the passing clouds and intermittent rain. Everything that exists in our human world in its current state is only an adaptation of the previous model. Evolution is a response to changes in the environment, and the process often times cannot keep up with quick and drastic changes, which is why species perish. Our world is now a blur of quick and drastic changes. No one would have designed us, nor the systems we depend on to function, as we/they are now; an organism cannot develop a trait to help it survive in an environment it hasn’t yet experienced. Consciousness, as in a group or an individual, denotes “a part of the human mind that is aware of a person’s self, environment, and mental activity and that to a certain extent determines his choices of action.” I would add that full consciousness requires an understanding of exactly what state we are in, how and why we got here, and to what extent is it serving the greater good. Those questions being answered (and they can be), a course of action usually reveals itself in a very obvious way. I venture to say a broader social consciousness is a trait that is naturally developing, however tumultuously, and will surely have a huge impact on the lives of individuals and the community as a whole. Conscious evolution may be our adaptive short cut to the long unconscious process of trial and error that has served us up to this point. The change in environment we must adapt to or perish – the quickening pace of change.

j