Monday, November 25, 2013

Snowflake Soup

My voice is the voice of privilege. Want a specific breakdown? It's a white voice, a male voice, a Christian voice, a voice whose parents are still married after 27 years. This voice owns a car, pays rent, affords luxuries. This voice gets his grad school tuition paid for. This voice complains about things like having too many clothes. This voice stops counting his blessings because he can't count that high. If you could listen to The Man talk, he would probably sound like me.

(Is the self-doubt too subtle? It might be too subtle.)

Let's detour to Marion, Illinois. The year is 1996 or thereabouts. I am tall for my age, with gigantic faux-horn-rimmed glasses and protuberant buck teeth.

My grampa and gramma live half an hour away, in Carbondale. They live in the same house their parents lived in for years. It's great that they live so close--sometimes my grampa, an amateur geologist, comes over and demonstrates how fold mountain ranges are formed. He uses a bath towel to show us.

Marion winters come slowly but with strange violence. High winds and heavy snow-dumps happen regularly, and as regularly the drifts are swallowed by muddy, grassy earth. My mother tells us we may not play in the snow when it's below zero. We immediately become very interested in finding out every day's temperature.

The first snowfall of every winter, my gramma makes us snowflake soup. It's awesome and thick and creamy, and I feel sleepy after I eat it. Snowflake soup becomes as ritual as Thanksgiving, sometimes happening before, usually after.

What a sweet story. Here's another. When I was running regularly this summer, my evening route would take me past a certain bus stop on the corner of 8th and Wells. I knew to breathe through my mouth as I rounded that corner every evening, because the homeless woman who slept on the bench of the bus stop smelled rather pungent.

Another detour. This one won't take you far, Dear Reader--just two weeks ago today, to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The first snowfall of the year, and somehow I remember a tradition I had nearly forgotten: snowflake soup.

My towel-folding grampa passed away more than a year ago, but my gramma still lives in the ancestral mansion. I don't contact her often enough, but this time the chain of connection is obvious: first snowfall, snowflake soup, gramma. I send her an email reminiscing about snowflake soup--a memory, not a request, but she sends me a box with snowflake soup mix, a recipe, a piece of glassware shaped like a snowman. She even sends imitation bacon bits, which I had forgotten were an absolutely fundamental part of snowflake soup.

She didn't forget.

I get the box on Saturday, but I wait until it snows again--we must hold fast to the traditions of our forefathers, you see. It snows today, and I look forward to the snowflake soup all day long. And then I make it, and eating it fills me up just like it used to. It's so awesome and thick and creamy, you see. Memory in a bowl.

Should I feel guilty for being privileged? I'm not sure. Should I feel guilty for judging that homeless woman, even implicitly? Absolutely. Could I give more to those less blessed than me? Most likely. Should I be doing more to help the smelly ones, the hairy ones, the ones who mutter to themselves? Of course.

Answering those questions--that's easy. But in the first draft of this post, in which I asked rhetorically how the homeless men clustered outside the Milwaukee Rescue Mission would react to my idyllic story, I generalized. I assumed that all of those men have had bad, un-idyllic lives--that because they're smelly now they always were smelly.

That's wrong, I'm pretty sure. And maybe if I had ever been smelly, I would be more aware of the breadth of catastrophe that can make people smelly. I would be less willing to generalize. Maybe my privilege means I'm fundamentally unable to understand them. Maybe my privilege even manifests in the fact that I think about them as them.

But snowflake soup is so awesome, and thick, and creamy.

"O, speak to me no more!
These words like daggers enter in mine ears."

(Hamlet, III.iv)

Sunday, July 28, 2013

I Am The United States Marine Corps

I need to write this down so I remember it.

I need to write this down so I can begin to forget it.

I need to write this down so I can understand it.

This actually happened.

She: relaxed, cute, articulate. She asks me for a brewed coffee. I treat her with the deference she deserves: a polite customer ordering a simple drink. I meet her eyes and smile, then break off after no more than a few seconds. Look at customers too long and they get uncomfortable.

He: clothed in dull red shorts and, incongruously, a red sweater, white-bearded, stooped. He lurches from the right into my field of vision. I look in his direction. He is no customer. I see them a lot: the ones who come in to day-drink at one of the bars in the building. As a matter of course I nod mildly at him.

He stops, turns, moves toward the counter. Perhaps I was wrong? No: "Can I just smell the flowers once?" He gestures at the vase of zinnias. I nod. He eases into her personal space. Elastically she shifts away from him, imperceptibly re-establishing her bubble.

He sniffs the flowers perfunctorily. Turns to her: "do you like how they smell?" She could be his daughter. She says, "I haven't smelled them yet."

"United States Marine Corps," he says to her. "That's me. I'm the United States Marine Corps." I make some motion, because his attention shifts momentarily, grudgingly, to me. He holds out his hand to me. "I'm the United States Marine Corps." I take his hand; it has that banded wiriness of muscle built long ago. He squeezes my hand.

Then he's back to my customer. "You should smell those flowers." He moves his arm up and touches her back. It is a strange touch; familiar suggesting intimacy, or the proposal of intimacy, but brief suggesting camaraderie. He does not clap her on the back. He does not trace her shoulderblade. He touches, and then his hand drops.

Now she steps away from him. "You take care of your business now," he says to her, and she just nods. I watch, frozen. He turns back to me. "I'm the United States Marine Corps. You take care of your business now," to me. I nod too, with false cheer. "I sure will!" I chirp. He's moving away from us. I almost dare to breathe again, when he stops and turns back.

"I fought in the war," he says. "I fought overseas, in the war. I'm the United States Marine Corps." I nod again. "You take care of your business now," he says. "I take care of my business. I can prove it. You want me to prove it? I got my shotgun in the truck."

I swallow something in my throat. I manage to shake my head. "That's all right. I believe you."

He steps back toward us, and despair rises like my gorge. But he only wants to repeat the importance of taking care of our business. "I will, I will," I say. I hope my growing panic doesn't sound in my voice. "Have a good night, sir."

"Take care of your business," and then he is out the door. I see him talking to someone outside--another innocent buttonholed? but no, it is his female doppelgänger, and his body language tells me she and he are together. I am mildly surprised that he should have someone, anyone.

I turn back to my customer. Still cute, no longer relaxed. I lean across the counter, attempt to re-establish that rapport which so often leads to a dollar tip in the jar. "I am so sorry about that," I say. Then I realize what I have said.

She shakes her head, hands me her money, takes her coffee, walks away. Not another word. No tip, no smile, no connection. A repeat customer slipped through my fingers. And why did I apologize for that man, for the United States Marine Corps?

I go into the kitchen and breathe great deep shocked breaths until I have calmed myself. Then I return to my counter to smile, to banter, to serve, and, it seems, to apologize.

Long live solubility.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Talking Into Thin Air

On February 26, 2012, George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin in the chest, killing him.

On April 11, 2012, Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder.

On July 13, 2013, a six-person jury found Zimmerman not guilty on all counts.

Today, I read an intriguing op-ed on, discussing whether the US justice system has failed African-Americans. It draws a connection between Atticus Finch's closing argument in To Kill A Mockingbird and the decision of the court in the Zimmerman case. Austin-Hillery's thesis is persuasive, because her research is sound, and her insights are worthwhile.

Reading her column, and scrolling through tweets and posts on Facebook over the last two days, I realized why the debate over the case has raged so viciously. Some praise the rule of law--"they had to acquit, given the evidence"--and others condemn the unfairness of Florida (and, indeed, more broadly, American) procedure--"and yet this woman gets 20 years!" And the two sides talk past each other, as is so often the case. They fail to realize that their conception of What Courts Do is different.

Many--Austin-Hillery among them--believe that the legal system has a responsibility to discover, implement, and enact justice. With Atticus Finch, they call for a morally/socially responsible judiciary, one that sees to the heart of cases and determines what is right. (The complexities surrounding that word are too great to contain in one blog post, perhaps, so we will leave it alone.) In their eyes, the 18th Circuit Court's response to Zimmerman's actions perpetuate a historical precedent of white prejudice in the legal system.

Others see America's justice system as interpretive, translating the laws created by legislature and enforcing them in individual cases. They expect a passive judiciary, neither imposing its will on other branches of government nor seeking anything more than a formulaic comparison of evidence and case to precedent and statute. In their eyes, the 18th Circuit Court's response to Zimmerman's actions was its only possible response.

The former group seeks a possibly unattainable ideal--the enacting of Real Justice. The latter group seeks a probably heartless result--the precise interpretation of the Law of the Land.

I don't know where I fall. Except this: we humans have major issues. We think ill of each other, we speak ill of each other, we hate each other, sometimes we kill each other. We may not be as violent as George Zimmerman, or as equipped for violence, but we enact emotional violence in our hearts every day--to that moron who just cut us off in traffic, to that terrible customer who sends back his entrée four times because it's not hot enough, to the colleague or coworker or classmate or friend or enemy who gossips about our personal shortcomings. Humankind is a mess. Expecting some kind of silver out of that dross--whether the silver of real justice or the silver of precise interpretation--may be an exercise in futility.

Now I'm depressed.

Long live careful consideration.

Friday, June 7, 2013

It's Not About The Journey, It's About The Destination

As the final minutes of Game 1 of the 2013 NBA Finals ticked through their petty pace, I found myself in an unfamiliar situation: caring about the result. GameCenter couldn't update fast enough, I felt. I caught myself whispering encouragement across thousands of miles to My Team, begging them to hold on, hold on, hold on.

They did. I went to bed euphoric. I awoke confused: whence the euphoria? The NBA holds little allure for me, and apathy is easy in the city that is home to the Bucks. The season is too long for Every Game To Matter, but too short for tickets to be frequently affordable.

It's the Spurs, I realized. San Antonio is the only reason I care at all.

Popovich and the Spurs have held my imagination ever since that magical run in 1999. My 9-year-old jaw was firmly on the floor throughout the series, one-sided though it was: the dominant play of the Twin Towers, the (alleged) villainy of Latrell Sprewell, Avery Johnson's giddy postgame interview after his clutch shot to win the series ("I believe in me, my momma believed in me, the Lord Jesus believed in me!" he laughs). The Spurs were the first pro team I could call my own.

They're still my team, though my reasons have changed. As the history of their not-quite-dynasty has unfolded throughout the last decade-plus, Popovich and his core have made their priorities clear: they play for the result. For Popovich's Spurs, success isn't bought; wins aren't stolen; victory isn't happily accidental. Everything is earned, and it's all part of a larger plan.

This deliberation has cost the organization: the first time the Spurs met the Heat in the regular season came at the end of a grueling road swing for San Antonio, so Popovich made the decision to rest his starters in a game that meant little for the Western Conference seeding race. Unfortunately for the Spurs, the game had been labeled a marquee matchup by a league seeing dollar signs, given national television coverage, and expected to be brimming with drama. The canny Popovich started his bench and was fined by the league for it. (The reserves still almost pulled out a win, falling 100-105.)

I don't watch the NBA; I follow it. I read box scores, accounts, recaps, rather than viewing the product. So I don't give a fig for claims that San Antonio is "dull" or that Miami is "entertaining". Prioritizing the spectacle is fine for David Stern and his money-grubbing ilk. I'm interested in the scoring of actual points, rather than of style points. Gregg Popovich was San Antonio's GM before he picked up the head coach's clipboard; he knows how to play the long game. I like that.

As I finish my first year of graduate school and launch into the second, there are a few solid predictions I can make for the future: I won't be done soon, I'll have to work hard, I won't be flush financially, I'm working towards a specific, achievable goal. Perhaps why I'm rooting for the Spurs is because I can identify with them. In my experience, success is earned, not purchased. San Antonio shows me that hard work can pay off.

Long live superimposition!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Flip Side

Today I went back to school.

I've done this nine times, and there's always the same complex, convoluted taste in my mouth. The bitterness of work-dread and the sourness of regret and the sweetness of new challenges anticipated, they all mingle and swirl, and I don't know which one is dominant. I can tell they're all there, because I've learned to recognize them. They muddy themselves into a new taste, something ambiguous and unnerving and dangerous.

But today there was a new flavor, a new taste element twining and blending with the others.

Today I sat in my office, answered student emails, read texts for class, battled (unsuccessfully) with the procrastination troll that lives on my desk and looks just like the Internet. Colleagues stopped by the office intermittently to distract me. I thawed a block of spaghetti for lunch and I ate it. I printed my lesson plan. I went off to teach with subtle butterflies fluttering in my intestines. And it felt normal.

I felt normal. I felt like things were back as they should be. The world had returned to its usual method of rotation. Life went on, as usual. And--here's the surprise--that was a relief.

Last night a friend claimed that I value uniqueness above all else. I agreed; so my realization, that The Usual is a good thing, confuses me.

Maybe it's because my current Usual is a good thing. I like my setting, professionally speaking.

Vocation. Calling. Career. These words are weighed down with connotation, and I shrink to use them lightly, because they imply some sense of certainty of the future. That certainty just don't exist, folks; but the niche into which I nestled again today, breathing a sigh of comfortable relief, is something else. It's something different from the coffee shop or mowing lawns or cashiering at Wal-Mart. It feels...tailored.

Long live the dawn!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Chameleon

Image via

Last week I drove from Sheboygan to Milwaukee on Christmas evening, and I drove through the town my parents live in on my way to the highway. I've done this before, and it affected me last time I did it. There's something quickening about solitude.

As I drove through Sheboygan Falls, I noticed something: I was changing.

I am one person when I am with my family. I laugh at our inside jokes, I adhere to certain standards of behavior and interaction integral to the family-community, I am Ian-At-Home.

When I am in Milwaukee, I am another person. I am different. I find different things amusing; my discourse is different. I am Ian-In-The-World.

Of course, this change is illustrative of what I taught my Rhetoric and Composition I students last semester. I told them about discourse communities, different bubbles of relation with different standards of interaction. I tried to communicate to them the importance of facilitas, Quintilian's conception of community-jumping--intellectual agility--the ability to switch between discourse communities with self-aware grace.

That's all very well, but I'm gradually realizing that I am what I say. My identity is determined by my interaction. Does that mean that when I pass through Sheboygan Falls, morph from Home-Ian to Elsewhere-Ian, my identity is shifting?

Or am I a chameleon? Am I the same person beneath my ever-changing skin? Do I alter my outside to fit in? And if so, who or what is underneath?

Is there anything underneath? What if my cyclical skin is all there is?

Long live the cold sweat.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


I did a good thing today. I really want to tell someone about what I did, because it's a really good thing. I don't often do altruistic things. Not this altruistic. The good things I do usually benefit me somehow.

Some of the hows, because who doesn't like a numbered list? (Don't answer that.)

1. They make me seem more cool and/or awesome.

2. They make people like me more.

3. They make my superiors think I'm more cool and/or awesome, and therefore like me more, and therefore I am more successful.

4. It would be super-awkward not to do the good thing. (An example: I'm going somewhere with friends, and I'm the only one with a car, and all of a sudden the question "Wait, how are we getting there?" drops into the conversation like a stone thrown into a still pond, and nobody looks at me, but I know they're all thinking at me, so I offer.)

5. I have an image to maintain, a helpful, good-thing-doing image, and it's getting kind of rusty and disrepaired.

6. I feel sorry for someone, so in order to stop feeling sorry for them I do a good thing for them. It seems like it's altruism, but it's actually just selfish, because I'm doing it to make myself feel better.

See? Not really good. These all help Ian the Pontificator.

But I did something good, and I can't tell anyone what it was, or it'll stop being good.

"Why?" you ask in an inexplicable Polish accent.

"Because, dear Olaf, the only real reason I'd tell you would be to make me look better, and that would just be a strange sad mess of failure," I reply.

If I say what I did, and if I spread it around, it won't be a good thing any more. Which is indeed bothersome.

More bothersome, though, is the thought that perhaps even this blog post, vague though it be, divests my good thing of goodness. That would be an unhappy birthday.

Long live sneaky goodness.