Lately, I’ve been stewing in fustration. I mean, I’m not even simply blaming the obvious political maelstrom currently choking the life from us; flushing down any last shred of Democratic checks and balances and oversight that swirl in the toilet bowl with the last of the American spirit we once collectively possesed. No, it’s been other stuff too. But yes, inescapably, it’s worth noting that it’s also the time of emperors. And given the way we’ve conducted ourselves, why shouldn’t it be? I think we get what we deserve. Honestly, did we not think, as liberals, our smug investment in the world of books and ideas and money (yes money because liberals do tend to make fairly good livings) and coastal living wouldn’t eventually catch up to us? Did we really think ignoring people like my father with his subscriptions to news sites that have titles like militiamen and his cluttered house full of guns would make them somehow go away?
The divide is wide and wider each day. Some of my friends grumble about leaving and I will admit to entertaining this notion myself. And I love Europe. I really do. But something inside me would miss, beyond rational or reasonable explanation, the terrifying expanse of the American West. I was born and raised here, a fourth generation Californian. There’s something about wide open spaces and large mountains and trees and deserts and oceans that have become inextricably fused to my own internal wanderings. And with that, goes the “uglier” side too. I’ll admit, even, to a strange fondness, probably born out of familiarity, for the gun toters, the Central Valley republicans, the overly masculine truck drivers and all of that. Why? I was raised with it. By it.
That’s because my father was always a staunch Republican. I knew from an early age we would never agree on matching our visions. He flew small planes as a passionate pursuit and this culture was also dominated by mostly white male Republicans who also flew planes. With this was the implicit understanding that if one did this, they had an innate foundation, that others lacked (especially liberals in the cities and other such freeloaders), of self-sufficiency. My father’s people were people who had no need of the help of others. Who reveled in doing things their own way. Who had a right and unshakeable sense of the American independence this country was founded upon. One that, thanks to social democrats and immigrants, was slipping away.
In flying, men could still be men. In control of their own plane, their own flight plan and if trouble arose, if the engine failed, they had trained and trained on how to cope with that too. I’m not sure how strongly I can impart to others how much this foundation in the lives of white conservatism plays a part in this growing divide and in the way they see liberals, immigrants and well, frankly and almost especially, black people.
And how also, for those who are white and disenfranchised, this plays a role in making “sense”, if you will, of the helplessness they feel now with manufacturing and the hard work of the middle class having left the back door to Mexico and Asia (thanks again to those with all the power over them, mostly associated with the name Clinton). Think of it, if you will, as a way to make oneself still feel less helpless in the face of the anxiety that comes with a shifting landscape of fewer jobs, a mortgage meltdown ushered in by bankers with degrees from Harvard, immigrants coming in and making them feel worse by accepting field work (which no white man will stoop down to do), the complexity of different languages moving in next door, the religions that are not their own (my father was not a religious person, but still found familiarity in the idea that Christianity was foundational to our general culture), and then the real crux: the constant perceived attack on guns. I really wonder how many liberals have taken this into deep consideration, just how important the Second Amendment is to conservatives. How my father laughs at the countless posts by liberals to enact more gun control. For him and his brethern, this is not an option and it never will be. There will be no rational discussion around the finer points of this either. Guns are fundamental to how he and others vote and think. It’s his first and last line of defense against all the things that are confusing, emasculating and beyond his control.
Anyway, I also learned how to fly, via my dad, and even got my pilot’s license before my driver’s license. I used to live in the Sacramento Valley, in a single wide trailer on a small airport and made my living by taking people up in gliders every day and was paid in kind by comraderie with my fellow male pilots in addition to about $80 – $100 a day. Sometimes less. But I loved it. I really did. And flying above the valley, all those brown hills and ranches and argricultural places that stretched out all the way to the Sierras, it sparked my imagination in ways that made me want to write, to experience, to travel further and further into that vast horizon.
Not only did my life involve planes and small Valley towns, but the guns went with all this too. When I turned 14 my dad felt it was time to get my hunting license. Instead of a coming of age celebration that some girls did back then, it was time to learn how to shoot. And I was good at it too. He gave me a rifle with a fairly good scope. And I got high marks from the cowboy hat wearing field instructor. I’ll admit to enjoying lying flat on my belly, like some kind of sniper or hunter even, and sighting the bullseye and the satisfaction of hitting my target. And yes, I’ve owned a gun before too. In New Mexico. But everyone there had guns. Growing up, guns were everywhere. In my life, they were ubiquitous. I can’t say I like them, but I also can’t say I dislike them. A dangerous thing for a liberal to say. There’s the tendancy, after all, for other liberals to really take umbrage with how one thinks and then correct it. Something that has caused our conservative American counterparts to retreat further and further from the conversation and into their own isolated news sources and communities where they don’t feel corrected or belittled by those who seem to want to dictate how the disenfrachised should live and think.
Anyway, I’m writing a memoir piece about my father and I suppose all of this is on my mind. And I began this post by voicing a frustration. All week has been marked by outages at work, an overworked and overstressed boss who’s way younger than me and has a hard time seeing managment as collaborative (to his defense, he mostly manages people in Bangladesh, so it’s a different style altogether). I’ve been feeling isolated and alone mainly because I’m the only US engineer and there have been a lot of moments with the servers or applications going down, getting rousted at 5am to fix things, people feeling anxious about it all and no one to really depend on. Feeling angry that the outages were caused by acts of god or faults in the software architecture. Things beyond my own control. It’s like what I was saying about the flying thing…that sense of self-sufficiency. If your engine quits, it’s on you and you alone to solve it. To land safely. No one else will help you make that series of critical, in the moment decisions, other than what you’ve trained for and how you keep your shit together.
On the other hand, as I’ve grown older and and further away from my younger years, I have also come to value being able to depend on others and find meaning in community and the sharing of ideas. But this week, it’s just felt more like that isolating self-sufficiency thing instead. And just as I concluded a long time ago, it’s no real way to run things. No real way to live. And in the middle of all this, the stress took over and my writing and reading time, which I value highly, went straight out the window.
Poetry is a type of self-sufficiency, if you think about it. It fights (if it’s done well) generalizations. It offers insight into unknowable places of at least one human experience, the poet’s. It celebrates a sort of individuality that can’t be robbed by political language, by fear, by blandness, by New Age asphorisms, by religion. It strives to balance the inward and external storytelling place within us by doing the hard work of stooping down to harvest what’s been grown, what’s been ridiculed, what’s been ignored. But it’s no utopia. Everyone has an idea of how this world could be better. Some think it would be by leaving the guns alone.
Others think that it’s by taking them away. For some, it’s about being the lone cowboy against the maddening world. A good poet tries to be all these things and more. And the poem is only good if one feels the need to return to the lines to read them again and again. Usually a way to remind ourselves of our frailty, our failures, our hilarity. And our stories. It becomes an utterable shot in the dark, one we can use again and again to defend ourselves against the encroaching banality of dogma and greed and violence or whatever it is that seems to want to absorb us into something no longer based on humanity.
Can it lessen the divide between me and my father? Probably not. But every day I remind myself of who he is, how he reached his conclusions and refused other narratives to inform himself otherwise, and how that in turn shaped me. He gave me my weapon. And I try and look down the scope of it when I can carve out the time, so I can attempt to hit a bullseye. Truth is, it never stops being frustrating and hard.