Straight White Privileged Male

Over the last several months, maybe years, there have been different fronts where I, upper-middle-class-straight-white-married-with-kids-and-a-mortgage-man, have had to look in the mirror and realise the man standing there does not see things that should have been seen.

The first were the astounding number of homeless people in my city. I routinely walk downtown and the amount of obviously homeless people is amazing to me. At first, I found myself crossing to the other side of the street (Pharisee!) to avoid a confrontation. But one afternoon, I walked past a man slumped on the sidewalk and he stopped me. I don’t know if this is right or wrong, but overtime I’ve found myself evaluating the person asking me for money. I don’t really know what criteria I use to determine who gets the dollars in my pocket, but I look them in the eye and make a determination. Sometimes I don’t have any change, but they’re more than happy to take an American Spirit. This guy, though, was different than a lot of the people I’d run into – he truly was slumped and emotion was showing on his face. He’d heard of a church that was offering help and asked me directions – I wasn’t sure which church he was talking about, so I pointed out the ones I knew nearby. He was broken by addiction and couldn’t get help – I asked him about the crisis center nearby and if he’d been there, but there was apparently bad blood. I knelt by him and he took my hand and he told me bits of his story, how he was trying to get back on his feet. I got a little weepy listening to him and I didn’t know what to do. So I offered him the money I had but he shook me off, even while still grasping my hand. I wished him well and turned to walk away feeling the shame of this man trail me as I asked myself what else was I supposed to do? How is it, that in America, there are people left on the streets? How is it that we can’t find a way to help these people out? How is it that some of these people refuse to be helped? How is it that I can continue to live my relatively extravagant lifestyle and not find some way to do something more to help these people other than a few bucks and smokes?


The next was my brother re-coming out as a homosexual and getting a divorce from his wife. He had been “rehabilitated” by the church – we’d successfully “prayed away the gay”! And here he was, a few years later, done fighting against the person that he was and always had been. He was tired of hiding and wanted to find the relief of just simply being who he was without fear. The first time he came home after the divorce, my wife and I were in a much different place spiritually than we had been and we sat around a campfire in our backyard under the autumn stars beaming their own special heat and I just tried to reaffirm my love for my brother – that no matter what, I was not going to stop loving him. Right around that time we bought a rainbow flag to fly – our own little testament to the story that we loved my brother no matter what.

The next time my brother was in town, the shooting at a night club in Orlando happened and I got my first true realisation of the hate my brother’s community faced. Previously it had been the simple condemnation he had faced by my conservative upbringing – hate the sin, love the sinner kind of shit [that, in and of itself, was hurtful enough]. We spoke about the shooting the morning after it happened, briefly, but we had our nephews’ birthday parties to attend, so we spent the rest of the day with my sister and her family, and at the end of the day, my brother’s one persistent thought was: no one once brought the shooting up. It was as if, in our straight, white [well, my sister’s brown, so that’s not an entirely fair characterization], conservative religious family, there was no thought to the hateful killing of precious lives in Orlando. Not one thought. And that was the realisation – I, too, had not given it much thought the rest of the day, but my brother and his community via social media were actively mourning – loving, kind, caring people were checking in with him from a thousand miles away to see how he had been affected. And straight-white-privileged-male me [who thought he was “woke”] was hardly awake to it. How can I sit and consume media and our culture so passively while there are so many in the LGBT community affected daily by hate? How can I proclaim that I love my brother if all I do is hang a rainbow flag and sit smugly beside it in my cult of suburbia, cut off from the real hurt and pain these people experience, all the while complaining about my life and how I have it so bad [because of my own self-inflicted wounds, nonetheless]?


When the first very public incident of a black man being killed by the police came to light, I heard about it because it was a thing, but didn’t think too much more about it. Living in MT, the ratio of white to black/brown/yellow is pretty ridiculous. Seeing a black person in MT is not necessarily a daily occurrence. And so, as the deaths continued to pile up in the media and it gained more and more traction, as #BlackLiveMatter gained traction, I groaned, incredulous, when the #AllLivesMatter movement tried to take up the ground that #BlackLivesMatter was trying to gain. But, again, all of it was at arms length away. It was so much easier to look at it from a distance and sadly shake my head. Because, what else can I do? What more can I do than sit on my hands? What more should I do than silently condemn the obvious systemic racism still pervasive in this country?

The Brilliance has a beautiful song called Does Your Heart Break? [link] I was doing the dishes on a Saturday morning, listening to the album that song is on quite loudly and suddenly, in the midst of this beautiful, song, it wrenched my heart with these words:

When the man said,
you are choking me
And he cried out,
I cannot breathe
Did your heart break?
Does your heart break now?

I can’t find it for certain, but if I had to guess, this would be referencing Eric Garner – choked to death by an NYPD officer.  And, again, I had heard the story, but I hadn’t let it in – I hadn’t let it affect me. But when I heard that song, it made me as those questions again and again. What else can I do?


Then, the #MeToo movement started up and #TimesUp – a well deserved war against the tirade of terrible men doing terrible things to women because of their power. As Harvey Weinstein was exposed and the dominoes of powerful men began to fall and the stories started coming out [newsflash: it’s not just white men or heterosexual men – it appears to be NEARLY EVERY FREAKING MAN] the mirror became an ugly thing for me to look into. The terrible recounting of over 150 women [last I saw reported] who were sexually abused as little girls  and teenagers by Larry Nassar for US Gymnastics. The obtuse efforts by Aziz Ansari to get laid. The sad, pathetic efforts of James Franco to take advantage of his position at his school to put aspiring women in compromising situations. The lewd behavior of Louis CK. The forceful [and apparently, obliviousness] of Charlie Rose. These men weren’t just horny. They were getting off on the power they held over those perceived to be weaker than they.

As I read the stories of these and more encounters, the comments on those stories, listened to the perspectives of women in my life, I again began to ask the questions I had been previously asking: how is it that I can live my life the way I do and not see the consequences others have to face? How is it that I can continue to quarantine myself in my pretty little self-sufficient life without fear of retribution from almost no one else? How is it that I can not be more aware of the pain, struggle, and suffering that other peoples in “lesser” positions than me?

As I sat and asked myself those questions, I realised, looking in the mirror that I’ve never done enough to stir a change. It doesn’t matter where I live – I have a voice that can speak out against injustice and a body with hands and feet that can reach out and help in whatever way necessary.

And, listen: I’m not trying to be “white woke guy”. Being woke isn’t my responsibility. My responsibility is valuing and fighting for every single life. Finding ways to help the homeless. Standing up for and loving and respecting lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgenders. Embracing and fighting for the equal standing of black men and women and children. And looking women in the eye with respect and standing up for them whenever I see a situation when someone is trying to take advantage of them.

Nothing Changes If Nothing Changes

When Children stick their hand down a narrow cookie jar they can’t get  their full fist out and start crying. Drop a few treats and you will get it out! Curb your desire – don’t set your heart on so many things and you will get what you need.”

– Epictetus, from Discourses 3.9.22

Curb your desire. I live so self-unaware, I am not even certain what it is I want – but I act on my impulses most of the time without thinking. Am I frustrated? I’ll smoke a cigarette. Am I aroused? I’ll masturbate. Am I stressed out? I’ll have a drink. Is there a roll or three leftover after dinner? I’ll eat them all.

What do I want?

I want to break the barriers that hold me back. I want to be a man of integrity, peace, and patience. I want to be in shape and healthy. I want to create things and understand how things work. I want to be educated and well read. I want to be passionate about living life fully, well, and joyfully. Yet I want to show restraint with the indulgences life offers, while still enjoying those things.

I need to think differently about the things I am about to do. And I need to say no to myself more. Curb your desire.

—–
I wrote all of these things earlier this morning after finding the quote online from Lifehacker [link]. What I find so frustrating about my life is how I can go from one sensation [lust] to another [determination to live a better life] and then to another [having a drink when I come home from work ’cause it feels good].

I want to ask the question, “When will this all be different?” but I know the answer: when I choose to make things different. When will I break barriers? When I choose to break those barriers. I am my own worst enemy and my own best friend. I am the only one responsible for my success. I’ve been down this path before, writing something very similar just over month ago:

I just want to sit in the dark and hide from my life. There are certain bright spots that I allow to warm me, but it seems more than ever that there is a large darkness permeating and enveloping my life. It is cold, this darkness, like the bottom of a cave, far away from sun and warmth. But I’ve just put another jacket on, one after another, and some wool socks, some long johns, a hat. I grow a beard to try and keep warm and pretend that I have not created a dark cave to dwell in.

I am tired. But, as the quote goes, I can’t get any rest because I’ve been doing nothing – and I can’t quit doing nothing to get any rest. It’s funny – I used to not have time for anything. I was always working, always creating, always performing that I rarely would come home and find myself with nothing to do. And now, that is where I am, I come home from work, it’s 4:30 pm, my kids are off playing, my son is napping still, and though the house is a disaster, I have nothing to do. And so I do nothing. I sit outside in the cold and I smoke cigarettes and sip a scotch. And then it simply progresses until at the end of the night, I go to bed drunk, cold, rank with cigarette smoke.

Last night, I found myself frustrated after dinner because my wife had started helping our middle child with her math homework and I was doing the dishes and then my wife turned to her phone and instantly shut out everything around her. Middle Child was asking her a question repeatedly and wasn’t getting a response, so I started to help her, but I wasn’t familiar with where she was at and I just wanted to finish the dishes so they could be done. It’s so dumb now, but I was a little bit drunk which probably just incensed my frustration. And so, I tried to bring up my frustration to my wife and she ripped me for being a jerk [which I probably was]. But I was frustrated. I responded that I wouldn’t bring up how I was feeling any more, and her response to that was, “Good.” Which is exactly the opposite of what she’s been asking me to do. So I told her to fuck off. In front of the kids. (And of course, my three year old immediately was like, “Yeah, fuck off mommy.”). Damn it.

And we spent the rest of the night separate – me fuming while she watched tv. Me vowing to never speak of my feelings again – her I don’t know. And so, by this morning, the opening of this writ is how I am feeling. Weepy as I write this; the breath in my lungs surging as I smoke a cigarette; the shame of my failures staining my shirt as a sign to all. The other night, my oldest noticed the sadness delivered from my eyes. And it made it worse – I can’t hide it from my kids now? The only thing I’ve ever been consistent and good at is hiding. I have always been able to hide: from my parents, from my siblings, from my wife, from my in-laws, from my kids, from my friends, from my bosses and co-workers, from the seeing public. I have hidden in various forms from these people, some more than others, some less than others. But I hide because it keeps me safe. But that hiding has turned into hiding from myself too – that’s why I get drunk, so I don’t have to feel. That’s why I smoke, so I get that puff of “satisfaction” to cover up my own smell.

The scene that C. S. Lewis depicts in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when Eustace, turned into a dragon with a deep lust for gold, faces Aslan the lion has always struck me savagely. And it’s because I am Eustace, covered in layer after layer of scales. As Aslan shreds skin after skin with his strong, terrible claws, the core of my being shakes, begging, hoping, yet distancing myself from the request to be made new.

But of course, now I find myself in a place where I am questioning the very existence of God, at least of the god I grew up believing in. That’s why the idea of Aslan was such a tremendous impact in all of the Narnia stories – the idea of Jesus physically altering the universe made so much sense. That was why I could pray, “Lord, tear these scales from my body” and hope desperately that by some miracle I would be made whole. All those times I cried. All those times I believed I heard him say something. All those things I told people that he had revealed to me. All the while not actually doing anything myself to change. What a load of shit.

The one thing my mother told me when she first separated from my father was, “Nothing changes if nothing changes.” She was referring to him, and I was pretty oblivious to the realities of my dad, who he was, how he behaved, how he functioned and lived. To this day, I still don’t really know. But the little that I do know I have seen in myself in some of these stupid fights my wife and I have had. Me vowing not to talk about my feelings any more. Me not saying anything for months and then blowing up in a mild instance. Me hiding.

So, the long story short is this: I am not ok. I have not been ok for a long while. But no one is going to save me. No one is going to fix me. I am the only one who can do this. I am the only one who can change. I know that I am a person who deeply longs for order and direction. I am the one who has to create that order and walk in that direction. And I can be the person who does that. I can pull myself up by my bootstraps, shed the heavy coats that I’ve buried myself in, and begin the long climb out of the deep, dark, damp cave. Toward the light. Into the light.

—–
I’ve been writing some form of that for the last 20 years [for that I blame religion]. I’ve believed for so much of my life that I am not good enough. And it’s just bullshit. Believing that I am not good enough has made me endure 20 years of failure without change, hoping that some thing was going to save me. The only thing that’s different is that last paragraph. I’ve never really believed I can be the one to instigate change in my life. And you know what? I can and I will. And I am.

jsf

Re-introducation to Algebra

René Descartes

I hardly remember doing algebra in school [is that middle school?], but something last week came through me when I was once again [for the 50th-thousandth time] exploring the different variance in programming languages and reading different blogs by programmers [https://blog.codinghorror.com/ for one] and pondering the idea of computer science I stumbled upon the reality of one thing I have struggled with in learning to code proficiently is understanding variables [see link] and how they’re very similar [maybe I’m technically way off base here, but it’s how I’ve just now related to it] equations in algebra. I hadn’t thought of algebra since the last time I had to do a math problem – I did fine in math in school, but I never applied myself and never learned the purposes of it. But through reading some other books about the science behind the earth and the universe all of the sudden, I realised, math is something I want to invest in.

So, I jumped on Khan’s Academy and watched his intro videos on algebra – giving the ancient history of it. One of the most fascinating things that I came away from those videos was the idea that Rene Descartes had was to figure out how you could physically map out equations on a Cartesian plane [I’m clearly making this much more simple than the reality of his work] and for the first time, plotting out x and y coordinates made sense. And it was a light bulb above the head moment. I know that doesn’t explain everything, but for me it was, yes, math is important for the entirety of all of our existence.

What I am looking for now is more knowledge – I want to be able to make math applicable to the rest of my life and make use of this important fundamental tool.

So I forged into the first quiz and somewhat surprisingly had no issues. I went through the second quiz and had no problems with that either.

[quick: Evaluate 1/4c + 3d when c=6 and d=7. See - not so difficult, right!?]

The third pre-quiz is where I ran into a small stumble and that was just because I made minor miscalculation – but that reminded me of the concentration required for the progress to be evident. And instead of swaying me, it inspired me. I want to develop a better ability to concentrate on difficult tasks [this mini-rant is for a different subject, but our society’s #DistractMe culture is a great disservice to the growth and development of good productive people].

One of the things that I have found out about myself in this season – my mid-thirties, husband, father, worker, provider – is that I’m aching for knowledge in a way I never have. Even when I went back to college in my mid-twenties, I didn’t really thirst for knowledge the way that I do  now. There is a part of me that wishes I had been this thirsty when I was 15 – who knows what I would have done with my life then. I suppose there is a reason I wasn’t interested then – it’s probably not a great reason, though.

So here’s to the exploration, the learning, the development, the growth – here’s to the maths!

jsf

I am not a Smoker

 

I had my first cigarette when I was 18. I hadn’t drank, smoked, or done any drugs before then. It was my own personal right of passage – I drove to the gas station and bought a pack of Marlboro Reds then drove out of town to the local fishing hole and sat on the trunk of my father’s car and tried to smoke while playing my guitar. I discovered the unpleasantness of smoking in the dry heat with the smoke barreling from the lit tobacco right into my eyes. When you’re holding a guitar in two hands, there’s only one place for that cigarette. I didn’t have another cigarette until later that fall when I was at college – one of the guys I was hanging out with was looking for a cigarette and I had the same pack from 3 months before, hidden in my bag. By then, then were quite stale, so the rest of the cigarettes I just gave to the guy, cause I wasn’t interested in this as a permanent habit.

About a year went by before my next cigarette – I was living in a house with a bunch of friends and we were into smoking pipe tobacco. We would sit on the corner on one of the main roads in town and smoke our pipes, getting chuckles and stares from people. There was one friend in particular I had formed a special bond with while smoking our pipes – he would frequently come over to the house in the late morning, just a few hours after I had finished up a night shift at work, and wake me up and we’d go out for lunch and find a place to smoke our pipes. One late night in the fall, we laid out in the back of his Volvo and he had some specialty cigarettes, which we smoked luxuriously as a chilly wind swept across our bare faces.

I don’t remember buying my next pack, but it was shortly after that night we started smoking cigarettes instead of pipes. In a sense, it was just rebellion. I had grown up so conservatively – I remember my own father being disgusted by someone lighting up a cigarette while they were driving out of the church parking lot on a Sunday afternoon – smoking was an escape from the rigid bounds of my religion. I was smoking because I could and because it was wrong. But even more than that, smoking was a social thing. It was what I did with my friends. [Well, not all of my friends – I kept it from those who I thought wouldn’t approve.] And that was what made it special.

But I also started smoking more and more alone. And it was in those moments I felt conviction. It was in the winter, I moved out of the house with my friends and back into my room in my parents house, and I remember driving home from a night shift, the cold air freezing my fingers in a way that felt like I was grasping the cigarette with my bones, crying because of the weight of despair I felt even then. I don’t know how many not empty packs of cigarettes I threw out the window on the interstate in desperation. But this conviction was my religion creeping in, causing me doubt and grief and shame. Interestingly, that was all my own doing. I doubt I hid it very well, my smoking. I would lead a worship set for church and during the sermon, walk around the neighborhood surrounding the church building and smoke a cigarette and then come back enveloped in the mixed stench of my cologne and the cigarette to lead one last song before sending people out the door. But no one ever said anything about it.

Despite my internal conviction, there was something about it that continued to draw me – and it was [as ridiculous as this sounds – and it is ridiculous] the idea of Joe Cool and the Marlboro Man, of Brad Pitt, Joaquin Phoenix, Sean Penn, and any other celebrity I had seen smoking a cigarette in a movie – it still seemed cool. And I still wanted to be a rebel.

And here I am, 14 years later, still smoking. But finally wanting to truly quit. And also realizing the depth of the hole I have dug for myself. I don’t want to stand in the cold and shiver while raising that toxicity to my mouth. I want to spend my days healthy, motivated, and living with clarity and depth. This 14 year experience hasn’t lived up to the billing. I am not a smoker. That is what I am going to continue to tell myself until it is true.

I am not a smoker.

 

jsf

A Gift: Cutting Boards

For a long while I have wanted to explore wood crafting as a hobby and have toyed with it in the past but never seriously pursued it. About two months ago the desire sparked again and I started doing some reading about it, checking out other peoples’ work and gathering some ideas for what I could start with (of course, my lady has plenty of ideas for me, they’re just much larger projects!). I settled on a cutting board based on this guide from Fix This Build That. Fortunately, I didn’t have to spend anything on the wood as my mom’s husband had a handful of hardwood scraps from other construction projects I was able to scavenge. He was also incredibly generous in letting me use his father’s table saw, planer, and joint planer.

I had a good mix of oak and a little bit of cherry and what I’m guessing is a couple of different types birch. I began by cutting each piece I had into 15 inch segments and then paring down the wider pieces to 1″ and 2.5″ wide.

pre-glued-boards
Pre-glued boards

You can see from the picture they’re still of varying heights – they were much more varied but I used the table saw to trim them down to right around 1.5″ – I’m still trying to get used to the variances of this old table saw – but it’s a beast and I love it.

After that, I glued the pieces and clamped them, letting them sit overnight [typically a day, as I was doing most of the work after I got home from my day job].  The end product of that comes out uneven top to bottom, but nice and solid overall:

pre-planed-boards
Pre-planed boards

The Ryobi in the background is the planer which takes the boards down nice and flat – I’d never used one before, but they’re quite handy and it makes the work a lot quicker and easier. I did purchase a hand planer, but it’s for more of a finishing job. This Ryobi takes 10″ wide pieces, so all of my cutting boards hover just under that mark. After the planer, they come out nice and flat, though a couple of my boards, depending on where they’re laying have been a slightly off kilter, I’m guessing because I didn’t use a jointer on each side of each individual piece [though, I wisened up after my first two cutting boards]. I also ended up having to trim one side of the board down a bit because of varying lengths of wood – initially when I was calculating board sizes, 15″ was my shortest piece – again, I’m still growing accustomed to the table saw, which is where some of my variance in lengths come in. Additionally, the gluing process can be difficult to keep the alignment exactly where you want it because the pieces slip around, especially as I clamped them. It definitely takes some patience.

Once the board is flat on both sides, the most rhythmic and peaceful part of the work comes: sanding. I bought a small hand sander and start each board out with a 50 grade sand paper, followed by 80, 120, and then finally several finishes of 220 to get it nice and soft. When I get to the 220 grade after my first go over of the board I get a rag and wipe it down – the Fix This Build That description says to use a spray bottle to get it wet – the purpose of this is to “raise” the grain for your next sanding. The three boards I have finished so far seem quite smooth with out spraying it down that way, so I am assuming it’s fine.

finished-unfinished-boards
Finished and unfinished boards

 

In the above you can see the difference between the final stages of finishing the boards – you can also see the imperfections of some of my wood. There’s a part of me that wants to “fix” those things, but a part of me that appreciates the added depth it brings, giving a separate identity to each board I have created. In some instances I’ve tried to polish the mistakes up and in others, as you can see above, I’ve left. They’ve turned out quite beautiful when finished.

In order to finish, I’ve used a mineral oil (two coats) – it’s really spectacular watching the oil spill across the dry wood, instantly giving it depth. After the mineral oil coats, I then coated it with two coats of Butcher Block Conditioner, which is basically beeswax and mineral oil mix – I think my hands have gotten smoother just finishing these boards over the last few days. The finished product looks really good – I just hope they hold up as well as they look.

finished-board
Finished board

I’m a terrible photographer and the light doesn’t really do this justice, but this is the end product. I’m really fascinated by how the oak darkened with the oil – there’s one board I did that has a couple of the rich cherry pieces in it, one thick and the other thin, that I think is my favorite. There’s definitely a lot of things I’ve learned through this process in terms of learning your tools and how they work, making good clean cuts [especially on some of the thicker hardwood] without burning it by going too slow [although, some of those burn marks have turned out really pretty], paying attention to the details of the wood before cutting – so many things, it’s hard to list them all. I’m really glad I did five of them (potentially one more in the works) because of all the things I learned from each piece.

It has felt really satisfying creating something with my hands and making use of my time in a way that has produced something that will [hopefully] bring my family joy. It’s a strange gift to bring to someone, especially because no one really asks for a cutting board. But it’s a gift I’m giving – I’m assuming me giving the gift is going to be much more satisfying that anyone else receiving the gift.

Update: Everyone I gave a board too seemed appreciative – again, it’s a weird gift to give because no one goes around asking for a cutting board for Christmas. I think the meaningfulness of it comes from the work and effort put in to create something for the people in your life you love. At the very least they’ll get used!

jsf