Fort Davis

Had we lived then, and we are talking some 140 years ago, we would have had woolen clothing. Max would have been a soldier, he says. Lulu, a mother. Maybe she would have been the soldier’s mother. Or wife. The clothes, though, would have been plain and scratchy. That much we know.

How novel the simplicity seemed to them. I may have imagined it, but it almost seemed like they were relieved. You get one color. Once choice. You will be a soldier. Or mother. You would probably be that one thing very deeply; more deeply than we nowadays can be any one thing. And that would be comforting. You’d know just who you were and where things stood.

There is something to be said for that. Because now we accumulate so many things that just when we’ve got an interest in one of them, something newer and shinier piles on top of it. My children say that they want this. But then you look at them in those scratchy clothes and you think, well, I’m not sure they wouldn’t have been just as happy back then. I mean, providing they survived this long (which was far less certain back then).

At the ranger station, we are told not to judge the people then with our standards now. I wanted to subscribe to that line of moral thinking, mostly because it would (presumably) also apply to people 140 years in the future. I am rather sure that from their point of view we are leading horrible rotten kinds of lives. But we are really not so bad, you know, if you think like we do now and not like they will later, in the future, that is.

Still, though, wasn’t that a genocide or at least a violent and under-handed bit of ‘settler colonialism’? And isn’t that the sort of thing we want to consider wrong in a universal, a-historical kind of way. Maybe some of ‘my’ standards are not just the latest trend in moral fashion but actually, well, true. Then again, if Max had been a soldier and it had been this cold back then and he had orders to shoot and the other guys were known to be blood-thirsty at times and Lulu would love him even though (or because?) he shot…could I condemn them?

We are here now because men took those shots back then. They had two Gatling guns at the fort. We looked at them briefly in the cold, reading about how they frequently jammed. Heavy sons of bitches too. All the loot we have now was, in the beginning, the stuff of pillage and plunder. Should we, if not judge, at least cringe? That cannot be undone without doing the wrongs all over again.

I think they call this the identity problem: had anything, even the slightest fart, happened differently in the past, then we would not presently exist. So, don’t judge. Because your life depends on everything that happened before. Be grateful…unless you prefer non-existence (which I am not sure makes sense, given that having preferences is something that only existing kinds of things can do).

Here we are, great-grandchildren of the victors, of the ones with better weapons and better (though scratchy) clothing. The grandchildren of manifest destiny, whose western wave has sloshed against the furthest coast and washed back this-a-way.  Here we are, children of a father who had thought for a moment of condemning history but decided instead to take our picture in these old-timey rags. And then we got something hot to drink.

The Man Who Made Humble Reign

rain

March 31st, 2022

We all remember where we were the day President Trump didn’t blow up the world. It was one year ago. My wife had holed up in a makeshift fallout shelter we had started digging when his re-election seemed certain. But I had decided to sit on my roof eating a croissant in solidarity with the #itsjustcroissantsyouidiot global movement. Naturally, croissants were sold out. So, I ate a bagel instead, feeling that it was at least in keeping with the spirit of the thing. I sat there watching for the first mushroom cloud, which never came.

How could it be that the man who was so certain of himself suddenly paused with his finger literally poised over the button?

Thanks to the release of a recording from inside Situation Room South at Mar-a-Lago©, we have now pieced together those final minutes when civilization nearly winked out of existence.

“Sir, please reconsider,” the General said in a modest panic.

“What was that?!” Trump bellowed back, “Those frogs must pay!” He ripped off his shirt and spun it over his head in his patented “cyclone” move. He stormed over to press the button. Along the way he grabbed a glass of water from a golden tray and huffed it down with gusto.

“Sir, I beseech you to consider that you may be wrong.” the General insisted in what has now become the ubiquitous t-shirt slogan.

And then the miraculous happened. Trump stopped. There was an unusual silence. Then he spoke in a strange soft way, “Tell me more.” And then, so we are told, he looked once again at the satellite photos. All we hear on the recording is a gentle, “Oh, my…” coming from Trump.

A moment later, Steve Bannon can be heard screaming, “The logic of history cannot be stopped” as he races across the room in a desperate attempt to launch the nuclear strike by himself. This is followed by the sound of a scuffle and a tremendous WHUMP. Reports have it that Trump himself wrestled Bannon to the ground before he could push the button.

Shortly after that, the President was back in bed and the world learned to breathe a collective sigh of existential relief.

A few months later, I received a curious e-mail from “a big fan of my work.” The man said he had read all of my articles, which he took to be good guesses about what was going on in the Trump White House after the complete prohibition of all but “friendly and true” news outlets.

“I can explain it all,” he wrote, “the change in social media habits, the formation of the #policygeek phenomenon, and of course the new Trump…the man now described as ‘the great listener.’ I know why the federal register now garners more internet traffic than pornhub. We are all behaving differently and I am the reason why.”

He said he would like to be called Dr. Bronowski. He offered me the inside scoop. At first I refused, assuming he was a crank. But then he sent me hundreds of files — documents that linked his “little genetic uplift experiment” with news stories over the past few years. The dots started to connect in my head. He was only a short drive away, living, as he said, “off the grid in the mountains.” So, I spent a day with him listening to his story. I have come to believe that what he says is true: we have all been unwitting subjects in a massive research trial…for our own good…maybe.

**

“Reason dances, pleasure calls the tune.” So read a (poorly) hand-carved sign above Bronowski’s one-room log cabin. We sat along the south wall in a patch of sunlight. Bronowski told me his story in a jolting cadence, switching between near-maniacal titters and monotone pontifications. As we spoke, he stroked his cats: a fat one named Epimetheus and a skinny one named Pandora. I was not offered anything to drink, which suited me, because the bathroom (I would later learn) was the third Ponderosa on the left.

“Man’s basic problem is a mismatch between the pace of cultural and biological evolution, hmm.” (He said hmm frequently). “As a result, we are not well adapted to the technological world we have made.”

I said hmm, but in a more quizzical way and shifted in my uncomfortable wooden chair, which had been carved in what I might call an eco-brutalist style.

“Monkey brains,” he said pointing to his cranium, “in a very post-monkey world,” he added as he stood up (still stroking Pandora) looking out over the vast city sprawled at the foot of the mountain.

Eventually, I gleaned that he had been a young neuroscientist at an internet start-up in the mid-90s.

“NOT Yahoo!” he insisted.

“Ask Jeeves?” I asked.

“Screw you,” he replied.

“Why did they hire a neuroscientist?’ I asked.

“They thought I would know how to sell stuff, hmm.”

He remembers the utopian dreams coming out of Silicon Valley that a new global citizenry would emerge. Bronowski laughed in their faces, “Because we are not cosmopolitans. We are tribal.”

Bronowski watched the following years as the internet Balkanized and people hived themselves off into bubbles that would confirm their pre-existing beliefs. Alternate realities took shape. At this point in his story, he pulled a vial from his breast pocket. It was full of a clear liquid. “Dopamine,” he said and peered into my eyes. “Hmm” we both said. I tried sitting on my hands as a makeshift cushion. “Why dopamine?” I asked.

He tittered, “You think we are the rational creature?”

We?” I asked, “you and I?”

“Humans,” he clarified.

“Oh, sure,” I said.

“Wrong!” the cats bolted at this exclamation and Bronowski stood upright with his vial of dopamine thrust overhead. “We may be clever but we are not rational. We are not scientists…not even the scientists are scientists.” He spat on the floor.

Then he sat down again and held forth in a much calmer tone as if he were reciting a paper at an academic conference. Rationality, he argued, is an adaptation to our social behavior. Groups are a double-edged sword, however, when it comes to the selfish genes who are really running the show. The genes favor groups insofar as they help the individual to survive and pass down copies of genes to the next generation. The genes don’t like groups, however, insofar as they allow freeloaders to get all the rewards of safety without doing any of the risky work. A gene for bravery might only serve the function of getting yourself killed to save the genetic neck of a loafer.

So, what rationality is really all about, from an evolutionary standpoint, is making sure we don’t get screwed over. Bronowski claims that he discovered the physiological mechanism behind this. We get a little burst of pleasure from defending our own actions and beliefs and sticking to our guns. It feels good to pick apart someone else’s position (who, after all, might be trying to pull a fast one on us), but it feels bad to pick apart our own position.

“Thus, the dopamine?” I speculated.

“Bingo,” he said with a devious look, “this little chemical pulls our strings. It makes us feel oh-so-comfortable in our beliefs, even when contradictory evidence should force us to change our minds or at least stop and think. There is no pleasure reward for that…er, I mean, there was no pleasure reward for that.” He tittered nervously as he excused himself to use the Ponderosa.

**

“Did you build this cabin by yourself?” I asked upon his return. I was standing now, working out the kink in my lower back.

Bronowski answered proudly in the affirmative, rubbing his hands along the slanted and misshapen beams. “It is my greatest achievement!” Hmm.

“So, can you explain what happened to Trump in the situation room?” I asked hoping to cut to the chase. But Bronowski was feeling contemplative as he continued to walk slowly around the room, petting his log cabin. He circumambulated me as he talked.

There are two kinds of pleasure, he said, “meaning pleasure and feeling pleasure.” The cabin was a kind of meaning pleasure. It comes from a skillful (more or less) engagement with the world. There used to be apprentices and masters. There used to be vocations that oriented human lives. They were wainwrights or carpenters or blacksmiths, and they built intelligible worlds around them.

Meaning pleasure is, thus, deeply satisfying and all pervasive. But it is also inextricably linked to feelings of pain and burden and confinement. Long days at work in a simple world offer much hardship and only the occasional reward in the hearty meal or seasonal celebration. They offer little by way of feeling pleasures. Those are more ephemeral and scattershot. They come in short bursts and are not tied up with a whole way of being in the world. They are ultimately less satisfying, but because they can be had more or less on demand, they are more alluring.

Our world, he continued as he peered at his handiwork, represents the triumph of feeling pleasures and the decay of meaning pleasures. All of our mythologies – just look at Disney! – are about breaking the stifling bonds of family and tradition to strike out on your own. But out on your own you are not immersed in a matrix of meaning. Rather, you are a little island – a node on a network that can feed you feeling pleasures in proportion to the amount of money you make. Or how many opioids you can get a hold of. Either way, you are dependent on mysterious systems and don’t really exercise any sovereignty.

“We have traded freedom for comfort, hmm.”

“And this relates to Trump how…?” I interjected. He paused momentarily, crawling now on the floor. He knocked on a beam as if to test its soundness and replied, “ah, the internet, yes…”

He continued crawling and telling his story. The internet, he said, permits us to have such constant affirmation in our beliefs that we are bombarded with a ubiquitous dose of feeling pleasures. This sheen of good vibes starts to behave for us like the anchoring presence of meaning pleasures. We stare into our phones first thing in the morning to see ourselves reflected in the world, to feel that sense of orientation we crave but can no longer get through traditional vocations. We build little virtual log cabins of our identities. We get all snuggled down in our beliefs. To really challenge them would not just feel horrible, but would cause our world to come crashing down.

“You may have noticed I don’t have a toilet or indoor plumbing, hmm” he glared up at me from his intensifying floorboard inspection.

“Oh, is that so…”

“That’s because I don’t understand how they work!” he said with a certain pride in his ignorance that we have all noticed more of lately.

We think we know more about the world than we really do. “My old friends in cognitive science called it the illusion of explanatory depth,” Bronowski said, now feeding the cats a bowl of what appeared to be giblets. Epimetheus boxed Pandora out and wolfed most of the food down. “Everyone is an expert, hmm.”

“We need different doxastic norms,” Bronowski mused, picking up Pandora just as she was finally about to get a bite of the scraps. “Come, look at this.” I followed him and the cat to a small bench where he was working on another carving. It was nearly complete and read:

“It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient e”

“EVIDENCE!” he shouted out the last word and began scratching away at the “v” as he continued to speak. Everyone has an opinion, he said, a conviction about even the most complex things: TPP, Obamacare, infrastructure, the tax code, new source review, on and on. But none of us jokers has a clue what we are talking about. Dopamine, that’s why. Because what we want is not to be rational but to be right. We want that ping of feeling pleasure to fill those dark spaces of ignorance rapidly growing in a world so complex we cannot possibly understand it or genuinely be at home in it.

Suddenly, Pandora clawed her way free, causing Bronowski to make an errant gauge in his wood carving making the ‘d’ look more like an ‘L’. He pondered it for a long while, then slowly set it in the fireplace. He grabbed a new piece of wood and started all over, carving “It”…

**

I think he forgot I was there until I cleared my throat, now feeling about in the growing dark for my uncomfortable chair.

“The key part was the water,” he said from behind me in the gathering gloom, “no one thinks of that.”

“What water?” I asked.

“In the situation room, hmm.”

“Oh.” I suddenly realized he had a wood carving knife in his hand somewhere in the dark. I decided to go.

“Democracy!” he growled loudly in disgust. “Rule by morons, hmm. Death by low information voters.” He lit an oil lantern and came to sit down next to me again. I was about to leave, but what he said next transfixed me.

“The sun of the new enlightenment rose in the west, hmm.”

We had noticed that things first changed in California and crept slowly eastward. We had assumed that was just the way this social movement arose and progressed. First Ted Cruz in Texas, then Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, then Marco Rubio in Florida. One by one they started asking real questions of Trump. They started craving independent sources of news. They started hosting town hall meetings that went long into the night with detailed policy discussions instead of slogans and equivocations. Like dominoes, a new wave of political discourse swept eastward. It was symbolized in Paul Ryan’s late night town hall remark: “Wow, isn’t this fascinatingly complex?!”

“It wasn’t a social movement!” Bronowski tittered, rocking on his chair, “It was a biological movement! No, a physics movement! Simple diffusion. Just the natural flow of the jet stream, hmm.”

Like other early members of the resistance, Bronowski started wearing t-shirts in 2016 that said “Science is Real.” If only the scientists were allowed to speak…if only the experts could be in charge, he figured, then things would be alright. But by 2018 he became disillusioned by his fellow scientists.

“Not even scientists care about the truth anymore. Money money money! They want publications. They want their name in headlines. They want steady jobs with good benefits. Most of what is published now is crap. It cannot be replicated. It does no good in the world.”

Bronowski claimed the biggest threat to science was not Trump’s budget cuts, but, rather, the opposite. It’s all the money that flowed to science after World War II with no strings attached. That allowed for a huge cohort of mediocre intellectuals to churn out un-reproduceable garbage studies. “Not even scientists care about the evidence, about being earnest in the search for truth! They too just want that little rush of feeling right that comes when one of the umpteen million journals out there publishes their papers. Science is fake news, hmm.”

Bronowski spat in disgust. In 2018, he started wearing t-shirts that said “Science is a Joke” in protest of his colleagues’ craven behavior. Trump supporters naturally ate it up and Bronowski made a small fortune selling his t-shirts to them. By 2019, as the re-election campaign geared up, Bronowski was in a deep depression. Trump’s slogan, we all recall, was: “Nobody, and I mean NOBODY understands ____ better than I do.” Just fill in the blank with anything. It was the “blank slogan,” which political scientists argued (in reams of peer-reviewed publications) would long be studied as sheer brilliance. Those in the resistance still debated whether his selfishness and greed were the worst things about him or whether it was his racism and sexism. But for Bronowski, the worst thing about him, and about all of us, was arrogance.

“Hubris!” He bellowed. “To pretend to know. To reach further than one’s understanding will permit. That is how high-tech democracies will perish, hmm.” Some moron will claim to have it all figured out and, like the sorcerer’s apprentice, he’ll unleash Armageddon. “That is, until the Sorcerer himself comes back as the savior,” Bronowski gave his most effusive titter, so violent that it devolved into a coughing fit.

Bronowski was radicalized when the Parisian Ivanka scandal went viral. In the absence of a terrorist attack, he could see that Trump was using this trifling affair to scare and control the populace and win re-election. I can still remember when Trump tweeted his first threat to the French President: “You will wear Ivanka’s anklets. Or else. Believe me…OR. ELSE.” The French President apologetically tried to explain there simply were no anklets in his size or style. That was the last straw for Trump. We all remember how he exploded in an orange hurricane of fury. He waved his shirt bombastically for hours until his rotator cuff finally gave out, which led to the cast he then used to bonk his “advisors” on the head when they gave answers he didn’t like.

Not long afterwards came the first briefings with national security advisors warning us that Paris was stockpiling nuclear weapons. Satellite photos, we were told, confirmed a steady stream of enriched uranium pouring directly into the French capital. Trump’s re-election campaigns were now awash with chants of “Bomb the Frogs, Bomb the Frogs!” Zealous mobs burned berets, shoved baguettes into unsightly places, and poured French wines into the sewers. Trump gleefully launched a trade war, which in turn sparked an underground railroad of real French goods, most symbolically: croissants. Trump tweeted: “Maybe anyone eating a croissant doesn’t deserve to be called an American?” He was gobbling up the spectacle of it all, especially the wrestling matches between Captain Patriot and Pepe Le Pew. He sailed to victory on the promise to “eliminate the French scourge.” “Nasty country,” he smirked at his rallies, “just nasty.”

**

“The only way to save us at that point,” Bronowski mused with his face lit from below by the lantern on the floor, “was to change the pleasure principle at the bottom of it all, hmm.”

And so that is what he did. He used the CRISPR gene editing kits that were by then available off the shelf for less than $100. He rigged up a waterborne biovector that would deliver the new genetic sequence to any human host that swallows it. The edit, he claimed, was simple. And quite necessary to correct for our new sociological conditions. First, the vector snipped out the sequence that gave us pleasure from having our beliefs affirmed. Then, in the same spot along the seventh chromosome, it inserted a genetic sequence that would trigger a rush of dopamine anytime our beliefs were challenged.

“People would now get high on thinking twice, hmm!” he practically giggled. “They’d be stoned on facts! They’d be junkies for hard evidence!” He squealed.

The vector was ready just before the election in 2020. Knowing there was no time to spare, Bronowski decided the fastest way to get maximal spread of this upgraded bit of human genome would be through cloud-seeding.

“Come with me,” Bronowski grabbed his lantern and led me outside and down the hill. Under a makeshift canopy of branches the light showed something large hidden under a tarp, which he pulled aside to reveal what looked like a cannon from Star Wars. He flipped a switch and the contraption started to whir. Then he pushed a button and the cannon fired several shots high into the night sky. This, he explained, was how he spread the vector. He had spent several months pumping the California and Oregon skies full of a powder designed to create clouds and, thus, rain his “truth serum” on the land below.

What we hadn’t noticed was that the NSA agent who first leaked the satellite photos had recently traveled to Nevada, where he presumably drank the water. When he got back to D.C. he noticed something that now seemed obvious. Those weren’t trucks full of uranium. They were croissant delivery trucks. As more and more people, including high ranking Republicans, started demanding to see the photos for themselves, the NSA agent sent them to wonkyleaks, which had just formed.

“By February of 2020,” Bronowski, continued as we walked back into his cabin, “it was sleeting Socrates all over the heartland. People fell in love with aporia – that sensation of paralysis by uncertainty. They yearned to know more, and the more they knew the more they realized they did not know. What joy it suddenly gave them to profess ignorance! And to change their minds when the evidence warranted it.”

I asked him why he thought philosophy was suddenly the hottest major on nearly every college campus.

“Because sometimes just getting the facts straight actually led to convergence of beliefs. Like, you know, a croissant truck is a croissant truck. But often disagreements still persisted. Take school vouchers, for example, people realized that underneath that debate were different conceptions of the human self and no amount or evidence or facts could seem to clarify which was right. Are we best understood in terms of a logic of internal or external relations? My little genetic edit gave us a powerful thirst for metaphysics…I hadn’t seen that coming, hmm.” He laughed at the way research dollars were hemorrhaging out of science into philosophy.

So that was why that drink of water saved the world. Some people required a higher dose of the vector to achieve enlightened humility. Trump was nearly the last to feel the effects. Fortunately in what seemed to be the final seconds he was just one dose away. Bannon, of course, still hasn’t succumbed. He still swears those are toxic symbols on the sides of the trucks rather than pictures of croissants. That’s why he has become the poster child of what is now listed in the DSM 6 as an official psychological disorder: The Hegel Hallucination – an insistence, despite all experience, that history tells a Grand Narrative and is marching to some culmination.

“But why the economic recession?” I asked Bronowski. “Is that just a coincidence or is that related to the rains of humility?”

“No coincidence, I’m afraid,” he now replied in an unusually sober tone. “It turns out that a certain recklessness is required for economic growth. Now every CEO is endlessly pondering whether what they do – the next innovation, say – is really for the better or not. Madison Avenue has lost its swagger…bitten by an ironic bug of self-doubt. Do people really need all this stuff? They ask themselves, hmm.”

My head was swimming with the implications of this one-man experiment in our evolutionary history, I had to ask one last question: “Are you a hero or a villain?”

Bronowski took a drink of water and thought a long time, stroking Epimetheus whose purr was the only sound.

“I was positive that I had to do it,” he replied at long last, “but now I’m not so sure.”

The Myth of the Warrior MG

We have been reading creation stories lately in our family. So, in light of MG’s official name change today, I thought of this myth.

*

At first there was only bear and dragon. They wrestled playfully in the great darkness for an eternity. Once, though, bear grabbed dragon by the belly and squeezed too hard. She did not mean to do it. Fire poured from dragon’s mouth. This was the beginning of light and time. Sadly, the fire burned so hot that it scorched poor bear, who rolled into a ball called earth. Her bones were charred into rocks, her skin became soil. Dragon wept and his tears became the oceans on the ball of the old bear’s body. The cinders from his fire caught up in the fabric of the sky and smoldered here and there, becoming the stars.

The right eye of bear floated up and became the moon, white and unseeing, winking slowly. The left eye started to float up too, but dragon held it down. He then made an ax from the red granite heart of old bear and he used it carve a cave into the mountain. The left eye, he affixed to the entrance of his cave so that it became the door of his home. He laid the handle of the ax across the door to bar the way. It was so mighty that no one could lift it. Dragon then hid deep down in the bones of bear.

He slept a long sleep. The steam from his nostrils rose up through the rocks and became the spirit of all the living things. The sky was dark all around. Only the pale light of the moon cast faint shadows on the moving bodies of the living things below. When dragon would dream of bear, fire leaped out of his nostrils and up through the volcanoes. When the fire cooled into flows of mud, it became humans. Their fire birth meant that they could speak. They made names and they gave names to all the living things and to their own children.

These humans were accustomed to the dark. They licked the rocks for minerals and they ate the lichens that grew in the moonlight. They cared little for anything but their names. Each said that his or her name was the best in all the land. This was their way.

In truth, there was only one who had the greatest name. It combined the letters of the alphabet in the most perfect way. Everyone knew that name was the best and that he who wore that name was the greatest warrior.

It came to be that dragon awoke. He was hungry, his belly was empty of fire. And when he saw that the humans had stolen his fire to make their names, he grew terribly angry. He swooped down on the tribe of lichen eaters. But the warrior stood bravely and fought the dragon. It was an awful battle and the warrior nearly died. The dragon ate all of his name except for two letters. Only a tattered M covered his top half and a ragged G covered the bottom. Yet he had repelled the dragon. The people carried him home gratefully and nursed him back to health.

The dragon’s belly was full again, even though he had not eaten the full name. That’s how powerful that name was. He turned up to the dark sky and, remembering his old friend bear, he blew his fire as strong as he could. The fire collected seven hands above the horizon and became the sun. The way the sun rolled around the earth reminded dragon of rolling through space wrestling bear. At long last, he smiled. He went back to his cave, forgetting to close the door.

The lichen eaters, however, did not like the sun. It hurt their eyes. They told the warrior to go and slay the dragon so that all of his fire would finally die. The warrior found the dragon in his cave and they fought for over three years without resting. The warrior turned his M into a set of teeth that bit at the dragon’s back. He turned his G into a hook that grabbed at the dragon’s neck.

Finally, both warrior and dragon slumped against each other, exhausted. The dragon said, “We must make a truce.” The warrior nodded. The dragon continued, “Because it reminds me of my old friend bear, I will leave the sun in the sky…”

“But my people hate the sun,” the warrior yelled. Although, secretly he loved the sun.

“Your people will get used to it,” the dragon said calmly, “their eyes will adjust. And in return, I will give you a new name.” The dragon and the warrior both looked at the M and G, those battle-worn weapons on the floor of the cave.

“Very well,” said the warrior.

And with that, the dragon said, “I will give you my ax,” and he reached out and grabbed a stalactite from the roof of the cave. With his breath, he warmed it until it became as pliable as a cord of leather. He picked up his granite ax and the metal M and tied them together and that is how he made Max.

“Now,” said the dragon, “I will call you my son, because you are made from my fire.” And when he said the word “son” he spit it into his hand. There he held it as he walked out of the cave, dragging the terrible G behind him. The warrior followed him. The dragon then peeled a ray of light from the sun that he so loved, the sun that reminded him of bear, the sun that he had forged from the warrior’s old name. And he took that ray and tied it to the word son and then he grabbed up that fearsome G that had been so often slung across his neck and he built the word Grayson.

And this is how the warrior Max Grayson walked back to his tribe. And in time he taught them how to adore the sun.

**

Here we are at the courthouse after getting his name officially changed.

mgnamechange

Winter Hawk

That last tatter of the once royal prairie

toggles his sabre wings against the blue

spelling the end, my friend, for the likes of me and you.

He hadn’t looked so scary on his telephone pole

I even said “his feathers are tattered and his chest is dull,”

you might recall, my fellow vole.

But now he has become Shiva,

a mote in the encompassing eye transfixed with deadly intent,

and he has claws enough, I’m afraid old stuff,

for the furry fruit of his ruinous descent.

Run? You say. Run…but where?

Better to hold my paw and sing Kumbaya

and get ready for our time in the air.

We are only the hawk before the hawk

just as this salted grass was the preface to us.

Soon we will see through the veil of his whicker bones

and this final cloud of dust.

The Legs of my Four-Year-Old Daughter

Though made of watermelons and Sunday chickens

they are not these things.

Hominluluid, curvilinear, balletic exclamation points.

The size of a serious mechanic’s wrench,

two-handed tool, capable of a fair poundage of torque.

Though I have watched, I have never seen them grow.

It is the same as Orion toggling across winter’s horizon

or the roots of the water lily spreading under blankets of mud.

Imperceptibly she is stealing away from me,

born away by these pale vines, detestable

beautiful archeries of flesh.

Shins of moon cratered with ochre and midnight bruises

(I counted eleven today)

subdermal epistemology, wisdom of worldly encounters.

Spriglets sprightly wound up tightly, dancing drumsticks, metronomes…

Keep the time in tapping toes, oh Anthropos.

Two half notes with stems pointed down surround a quarter rest,

the squiggle of a conch tossed with driftwood by the ocean.

Some can only appraise the volumetrics of cylinders.

But you walk on talismans, the howls of wolves made solid.

The Turing Toaster Test

Father of a Gender Non-Conforming Kid Lovingly Responds to Hate Mail

*The following is part of what may or may not become a quasi-regular series of posts. They are my (mostly light-hearted) replies to actual things people have said/written to me. I have modified their comments just enough to fit the format of this “Dear Abbey” style question-and-answer, but the gist of their remarks is unchanged.

 

Installment #1

Dear Deranged Douche,

You are obviously a joke. I can’t believe you are a professor. Boys have penises and girls have vaginas. That’s called science – look it up. You can’t just choose one or the other. So, if your students asked you if they can be a toaster what would you say?!

Sincerely,

Self-righteous Blowhard

to

Dear Blowhard,

Great question. And, I might add, one of the perennial quandaries that ranks up there with “do we have free will?” and “how many degrees of separation are there between Francis Bacon and Kevin Bacon?”

There is much debate about the Great Toaster Conundrum (as it is known among analytic philosophers). Some follow this chain of thinking, which is generally attributed to Gettier:

(proposition alpha) Humans and toasters both have a material existence,

(proposition beta) humans and toasters both know (in the main) what to do with bread,

(conclusion) therefore, yes, humans can be toasters.

However, at the 1932 conference of the Vienna Oval (a breakaway group of philosophers who had interminable quibbles with Popper re: Abduction, etc.) Herr Wundtz surmised:

(proposition theta) Humans have veins whereas toasters have heating elements,

(proposition chai) humans are (generally) mobile whereas toaster are (generally) not,

(conclusion) therefore, no, humans cannot be toasters.

Obviously, I am glossing over all the crucial details, which continue to play out in the pages of the periodical Of Bread and Men (H factor: 32).

My own take is slightly more pragmatic. While walking out and about, I have found people say things to my son like (upon holding the door) “What a gentleman!” or “How old is your son?” or “What sports does he like to play?”

So, I tell my students to run an experiment along the lines of the Turing test: head out for a walk down campus just being simply who you are. If people spontaneously and sincerely say things like, “My, this toaster really does bagels perfectly!” or “What setting should I use for rye?” or “Whose toaster is this and can you get it the f**k out of chair?” well, then I think the answer to your question is “yes.” But for now, I am going with a provisional “no.”

Sincerely,

Loving Dad

Penises, Guns, and Fear in Texas

I want to push an analogy about two of the hottest debates in Texas politics now: bathroom bills and campus carry. Of course all analogies walk on three legs, and I may have pushed this one so far it falls over…

gundude

Someone with a penis walks into a women’s bathroom but no one is ever the wiser, because it belongs to a trans woman who might look something like this. Someone with a gun walks onto a college campus but no one is ever the wiser, because it belongs to a conceal carry license holder. One is always hidden behind clothing or a stall door. The other is always hidden in a purse or a backpack.

Both are there because of rights claims – the right to equal treatment under the law, the right to self-defense. If either of them ever becomes visible, then almost certainly an illegal event has occurred. You cannot rip someone’s pants off and you cannot just rip someone’s purse off. Also, you cannot pull down your own pants in plain sight, and you cannot pull out your gun in plain sight (see the UNT campus carry policy).

In both cases, it is claimed that allowing a penis or a gun in those places will invite greater dangers. Men will take advantage of non-discrimination policies to gain access to women’s facilities. Disgruntled people will take advantage of concealed carry policies to bring more guns on campus. Then, they say, we’ll have increased sexual assault and campus shootings.

Sure, it is always possible that a dingbat uses a gender identity inclusive law to justify getting access to a bathroom or locker room. But it is exceedingly rare (over 200 cities and 18 states with non-discrimination laws report no increased incidents of sexual assault or public safety violations as a result of the laws). Further, this is all a red herring given the fact that over 80% of rape and sexual assault is perpetrated by non-strangers, whereas 64% of transgender individuals will experience sexual assault simply for being who they are.

And, sure, someone with a conceal carry license could fly off the handle and become a campus shooter. But it is exceedingly rare (in Texas, conceal carry holders, who comprise just three percent of the population, are six times less likely to commit a violent crime than the general public). In the US, 150 campuses have concealed carry laws and not one violent act has resulted. Further, if a person really wants to commit a violent crime on campus with a gun, they are not likely to go through the process of obtaining a legal license when they can much more quickly and easily just get a gun and illegally carry it on campus.

You want to restrict penises in ladies rooms and guns on campus? Good luck enforcing that without violating privacy rights and ratcheting up a culture of policing and control.

The penis or the gun doesn’t matter. It is the behavior that matters. If everyone is being peaceful and respectful, then there is no issue. And indeed in both cases, you can argue that history has proved this to be the case. Transgender people have long been using Texas restrooms that match their gender identity with no incidents. Conceal carry holders have long safely been walking around Texas.

Yes, in both cases there is the further argument not about behavior but about mere presence. People say they don’t feel safe just knowing there could be a penis in the stall next to you or a gun in the backpack next to you. It will foster an atmosphere of discomfort in one case. In the other case, it will have a chilling effect on free speech and critical feedback (e.g., honest grades).

But in the case of genitalia, this is simply a mental hang-up. It is not the responsibility of a trans person to help you deal with the complex reality of gender identity. That’s on you. They should not be forced to lead undignified, stigmatized double lives just because you have a vague sense of repugnance or discomfort. If there are bad behaviors, report it. Otherwise, get over it.

The same thing goes for guns. Your mental block and feeling of unease does not trump someone else’s right to self-defense. Yes, it would be more important if the statistics showed conceal carry leads to more actual threats of intimidation or violence, but they don’t show that. Of course, a gun is not neutral – it opens up a different reality and makes its possessor into a different subject. Still, though, there is no evidence that someone with a conceal carry license will turn into someone who intimidates or commits violent acts simply by virtue of having a gun.

In the end, if someone is going to hurt you either with a penis or a gun it won’t be because of a non-discrimination law or a campus carry law. Of course, there is always a slight chance – we can never rule out even the slimmest of possible risks, even death by falling coconut. But the fear engendered by these laws is blown way out of proportion.