shaunterrywriter

These are my writings. Ideally, these are the most honest expressions of myself that I could give.

A Land of False Promises – Deconstructing the Mythology of Meritocracy and Equal Opportunity

You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” – Howard Zinn

The ideal of disseminating greater freedom proved paramount in the formation of America. It is a credit to the founding fathers that they were able to achieve this goal to the great degree that they were. Despite (or, perhaps, it could be argued, because of) this accomplishment, the American constitution now holds the distinction of being the world’s oldest (National Constitution Center 2014). Yestercentury’s radical dreams have found their ways into Americans’ hearts, minds, and bones. As such, the government of the world’s preeminent superpower is, perhaps, operating like an 18th century relic.

Hegel, in 1821, noted, “As for the individual, everyone is a son of his time; so philosophy also is its time apprehended in thoughts. It is just as foolish to fancy that any philosophy can transcend its present world, as that an individual could leap out of his time or jump over Rhodes” (P. 18). Yet, American leaders clutch to the residue of Enlightenment philosophy, including Lockean property rights (1689). Meritocratic ideals come from long before the Enlightenment, but they seem to remain foundational to American culture.

Britain’s feudal system made social mobility an unrealistic expectation. It was not until Chinese meritocracy was imported by the British East India Company that some Enlightenment thinkers were inspired to advocate for abolishing or weakening the monarchy (Elman 2013). Meritocracy provided a well-reasoned argument for greater opportunities: if the pool of people to choose from is widened, then better candidates may be found. This reasoning may or may not have borne out, but it very likely provided more freedom and opportunities to China’s poor.

Just as China’s meritocratic civil services examination influenced Britain, Britain’s Enlightenment thinking was imported, and expanded upon, by Americans (Elman 2013). Meritocracy founded much of the literature of America’s formation. The founders had grown tired of rule by a king in a distant land, with no voice of their own, and no freedom to rule themselves. Plainly, the monarchy and aristocracy interfered with Americans’ abilities to do what, for them, made the most sense. This rebellion to British feudalism led to a dramatic change in America’s form of government. America’s new government created more opportunities for many underprivileged Americans.

Today, the rhetoric of “The American Dream” and “equal opportunities for all” helps to form the roots of American culture. The idea behind this rhetoric seems to be that any person with enough gumption and persistence can be as wealthy and free as she wants. In the minds of many, anyone willing to take what is offered can have absolute freedom, but evidence suggests that this assertion is contrary to reality.

If meritocracy were working as it is designed to – providing broad opportunity – there would be movement between social classes. Instead, we see social entrenchment.

It is no well-kept secret that the wealthy are getting wealthier, while incomes for the poor and middle class stagnate. Reich, featured in Kornbluth, has made income inequality central to his work (2013). He often shows that income inequality was as high just before the Great Depression as it was leading up to the Great Recession (Kornbluth 2013). Piketty argues that this wealth concentration is a hallmark of capitalism, despite meritocratic arguments seemingly buttressed by a period of relative equality in the mid-20th century (2014).

From the end of the Second World War until the mid-1970s, America moved toward unprecedented equality (Piketty 2014). Piketty describes anomalous features that created this period of equality: two world wars, the Great Depression, and a recession fueled by debt – particularly, debt of the elites (2014). To regain forward momentum, redistribution of wealth was necessary. Social programs, work projects, and a progressive income tax created a more-level playing field. Never-before-seen expansion of government coincided with recapitalization of the proletariat, and spurred demand for products and services.

During that period, it was reasonable to think that an American, starting from humble beginnings, could work her (by “her,” I mean “his”) way into the middle class. In the 1960s, income equality peaked. Relative to earnings for the wealthiest, minimum wage equated to $21.16, after adjusting for inflation (Babones 2014).

America was becoming freer, with greater social mobility than ever before. This period has proven to be instrumental in the dissemination and perpetuation of the myth of American meritocracy. This time may appear to be a prime example of the value in meritocracy. However, the rights of underprivileged groups remained (and continue to remain) far behind those of privileged white men.

Research into meritocracy shows that outcomes remain unequal between population subgroups. It seems clear, to even the most casual observer, that race and poverty in America are intertwined. While minorities see unjust outcomes, so do underprivileged Whites, and this is an important point. But it does nothing to diminish the apparent fact that minorities face unique forms of discrimination. Blacks and Latinos experience poverty at a higher rate than Whites do. Racial inequalities, that are completely separate of socio-economic discriminations, ensure that poor Blacks and poor Latinos face more injustices than do Whites, poor or otherwise (“Poverty in the United States: Frequently Asked Questions” 2011). A field study showed that Black men and Hispanic men have a harder time finding work than do White men (Pager, Bonikowski, and Western 2009). Members of each cohort demonstrated job qualifications equal to those of the other cohorts (Pager, Bonikowski, and Western 2009). To make matters worse, the Black participants and Latino participants had clean records, while the White participants were convicted felons (Pager, Bonikowski, and Western 2009). Finally, prospective employers channeled minority candidates into lower-status, lower-paying jobs, while they channeled White candidates into higher-paying, higher-status jobs (Pager, Bonikowski, and Western 2009). Over the past fifty years, the impact of this sort of discrimination seems to have worsened; Black males have a harder time finding work than Black males did in the 1960s – the end of the Civil Rights Movement (Wagmiller and Lee 2014). To look at compensation, equally-performing workers see unequal rewards, based, largely, on racial discrimination and gender discrimination (Castilla 2008). In addition to workplace discrimination, minorities face discrimination in housing, credit, and consumer markets (Pager and Shepherd 2008).

One might assume that The Civil Rights Movement should have led to solutions to these and other problems. It was a time where more equality was created, greater social progress was made, and opportunities were more abundant than ever before. But it would not last for long, as the source of much of this equality would soon be undermined.

Education, some opine, has the power to provide fully equal opportunities. But in America, higher education has been, gradually, de-funded. The progress that was being made toward equality and social justice has been undercut as education has been de-emphasized.

In 1944, Roosevelt’s passage of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, otherwise known as the G. I. Bill, coupled with Cold War pressures for research to provide unprecedented access to higher education. From 1958 to 1965, the University of California (UC) added eight campuses to its existing two – an increase of 400% (Bady and Konczal 2012). Since 1965, one new campus has been incorporated into the UC system (Bady and Konczal 2012).

In America, the 1960s were a time of considerable unrest. A better-educated populace grew listless of a system that favored well-to-do white men. But the power-holders of that time would not remain quiet or complacent.

With the election of Ronald Reagan to the California governorship, in 1966, the UC system was in for dramatic changes. Reagan used large police forces in response to nonviolent protests (Bady and Konczal 2012). While it had been free of tuition and fees to California residents, 1969 saw fees introduced. The UC system has never recovered; today, the cost is prohibitive to many students (Bady and Konczal 2012). In a twist of irony, protests on UC campuses have, recently, been a frequent occurrence, despite the persistence of large Reaganian police forces (Bady and Konczal 2012).

On a national scale, policy has not looked much different from California’s. In 1975, the Trilateral Commission produced a report that claimed that America’s education had led to dangerous power in the hands of the people, and dangerous distrust in government’s authority (Crozier, Huntington, and Watanuki 1975). The impact of this report may be debatable, but the fact is that this report preceded widespread, albeit gradual, de-funding for higher education. While progress for higher education seems to have been reversed, it may be that primary education has never seen the progress that it has always needed.

Many seem to paint education as a sacred cow, and for good reason, it seems. To note the rhetoric surrounding this great equalizer – the area where the best and brightest hone their skills to play vital roles in America’s future – one might assume that America must be getting the most out of its citizenry. On the surface, it may appear that no one should dare engage in any policy that does not ensure America’s best possible education system. It may seem sacrilegious to provide anything but a level playing field to poor American geniuses, all the underprivileged stars of tomorrow, born into the wrong homes.

The research demonstrates that high schoolers’ races and genders, and the racial makeups of their high schools influence the tracks that high schoolers are placed on (Southworth and Mickelson 2007). This means that what kinds of courses these teenagers take, the quality of their teachers, and the kids that attend classes with them are determined, at least in part, by these kids’ races, their genders, and the racial makeups of their schools (Southworth and Mickelson 2007). In 1978, a study concluded that educational differences cause income disparities between races (Wright). Wright argued that these educational differences are products of nothing more than socio-economic status, while conceding that the mean income for black workers was 75% of white workers’ mean income (1978). His argument seems to be that race affects neither education outcomes nor income returns on education. (Wright 1978). The fact that Blacks make 75% of what their White counterparts make, he seems to be saying, is evidence that racism in America is not as bad as some people claim. New research seems to disprove the idea that racial injustices are only products of socio-economic unfairnesses. Fryer and Levitt show that equivalently-performing kindergartners fall behind white classmates within two years, despite accounting for socio-economic factors (2004). Apparently, even Black and White kindergartners are not free from systemic discrimination.

The role of education is a cornerstone of the idea of meritocracy. In a perfect meritocracy, ascriptions would be invisible, when looking at faceless, nameless data, but this is not the case. The idea that social stratification is merely a product of educational attainment does not seem to hold water (Krauze and Slomczynski 1985).

Despite “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps” rhetoric that speaks to millionaires and billionaires rising up the social ladder from the poorest conditions, the playing field appears riddled with unconquerable mountains and bottomless trenches. In fact, the education provided to someone is an excellent indicator for where, socio-economically speaking, a person is to end up. This means that so-called “self-made wealthy” are extreme exceptions to a very safe rule. To whatever degree poor people are able to take advantage of what the system has to offer, these people are exceptional.

In fact, meritocracy does not seem to exist on a broad scale in America, no matter the definition. While it seems that only 10% of the rich claim “inheritance” as the source of their wealth, the mean of wealth transfers (inherited wealth) among the top 1% is $2.7 million, while the mean for those making under $25,000 is only $6,100 (Frank 2008; and Wolff and Gittleman 2011). The mean for each group between these extremes follows a steep, perhaps even exponential, gradient. The evidence seems clear: the data claim that at least 62% of the 400 richest Americans, according to Forbes, either inherited their wealth or inherited huge advantages in creating it (Chittum 2012).

The wealthy seem to be the staunchest advocates for meritocracy, with people being less enthusiastic toward it as one looks further down the socio-economic ladder (Kunovich and Slomczynski 2007). If meritocracy is illusory, then it seems that the American elite have the most to gain by perpetuating this myth.

In fairness, some institutions are more meritocratic than others. But in spite of all its plaudits and advocacy, meritocracy seems rife with flaws. It is hard to get around the fact that meritocracy does not seem to pervade American society quite in the way that some might argue that it does. In the most meritocratic cases, the system does not seem, as some might suggest, blind to the designations of race, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status, etc. that, traditionally, have made leaders.

People are all born into differing situations, with differing advantages and disadvantages, and those situations are further altered by circumstances that are encountered throughout people’s lives. It seems that, by the time a person sees reward or punishment, external mechanisms have, long since, sorted her into her destined socio-economic status. Marmot makes an empirical argument that constituent aspects of socio-economic status go a long way in determining health and mortality (Marmot 2005). These aspects seem to relate with each other such that low socio-economic status causes ill health, and ill health causes low socio-economic status. The constituent aspects that Marmot speaks of are products of the American system – a system that only can operate by the broad consent allowed by widespread belief in meritocracy (2005). If this is the case, then inequities that come from what Americans call “Meritocracy” are a source for shortening human lives; death by “Meritocracy,” as it were. If meritocratic thinking creates, instead of equality, vastly unequal outcomes, then, perhaps, it is only an arbitrary rationalization for oppression.

It is sometimes argued that “some inequality is good,” with some people asking, “Well, how much equality is appropriate?” These, on their faces, may seem like legitimate contentions. However, it does not appear that, if a situation cannot be made perfect, there is no point in trying. If people see oppression around them, then rationalizing oppression only makes them complicit in the forced labor of underprivileged people. This complicity is necessary for the perpetuation of meritocratic thinking, and the system that it allows. Regardless of how imperfect any solution may be, it seems unreasonable to think that this system should be perpetuated.

At best, meritocracy seems to produce the veil under which oppression operates; it is the hopeful illusion, thrust upon the masses, that allows hegemony to sap production from underprivileged workers for gains by the power elite. And there does not appear to be any momentum toward correcting these inequities.

Many people agree that education plays a foundational role in creating equity. But American leaders continue to argue for de-funding both primary and higher education. This agenda is often hidden under the auspices of budgetary concerns, greater focus on job-producing majors of study, injecting the leadership of America’s best and brightest corporate heroes, etc.; even the cloak of aims to create equity has been a culprit for inequitable policies and rollbacks of funds. These sorts of policies do not seem useful.

Hegel stated that philosophies are artifacts of the times that produce them (1821). I doubt that he envisioned a world where Americans would, four hundred-and-counting years later, argue for Enlightenment ideas. The expansion of rights to the lower castes was overdue. It was a time where much of the intelligentsia and the power elite worried over the plight of the virtuous poor. Americans now live in a post-Randian society where the poor are the enemy – they are the thieves, the liars, the drug addicts, the whores, the assailants, and the diseased. Poverty is criminal, and the punishment is pervasive.

It stands to benefit those in power that the pervasion of the notion of meritocracy should persist. Were the poor to decide that the rich do not deserve outsized power and reward, the rich may be in for a good deal of trouble; at least, likely sacrifices. Further, the idea of meritocracy provides some delusional hope to those outside the elite. The argument that meritocracy is no more than a tidy, idealistic rationalization, for exploitation of the unsuspecting masses, seems compelling, and right. Still, meritocracy forms a base for much of what seems to be American culture. John Steinbeck reportedly said that “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

Maybe he is right, and if so, what a clever trick.

Bibliography:

Babones, Salvatore. 2014. “The Minimum Wage Is Stuck at $7.25; It Should Be $21.16 – or Higher” Institute for Policy Studies. Website accessed June 22, 2014. http://inequality.org/minimum-wage.

Bady, Aaron and Mike Konczal. “From Master Plan to No Plan: The Slow Death of Public Higher Education” Dissent: A Quarterly of Politics and Culture. Website accessed June 22, 2014. http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/from-master-plan-to-no-plan-the-slow-death-of-public-higher-education.

Castilla, Emilio. 2008. “Gender, Race, and Meritocracy in Organizational Careers.” American Journal of Sociology Vol. 113 (No. 6), Ps. 1479-1526. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/588738. Accessed June 22, 2014.

Chittum, Ryan. 2012. “Billionaires made from scratch? Hardly.” Columbia Journalism Review. http://www.cjr.org/the_audit/made_from_scratch.php. Website accessed June 22, 2014.

Crozier, Michel, Samuel P. Watanuki, and Joji Watanuki. 1975. The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission. New York: New York University Press.

Elman, Benjamin A. 2013. Civil Examinations and Meritocracy in Late Imperial China. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Frank, Robert. 2008. “The Decline of Inherited Money” The Wall Street Journal. Website accessed June 22, 2014. http://blogs.wsj.com/wealth/2008/01/14/the-decline-of-inherited-money/.

Fryer Jr., Roland G., and Steven D. Levitt. 2004. “Understanding the Black-White Test Score Gap in the First Two Years of School.” The Review of Economics and Statistics Vol. 86 (No. 2). MIT Press. http://faculty.smu.edu/millimet/classes/eco7321/papers/fryer%20levitt.pdf. Accessed June 22, 2014.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friederich. 1821. Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Germany: Nicolaische Buchhandlung.

Kornbluth, Jacob. 2013. “Inequality For All.” Video. 72 Productions. New York: RADiUS-TWC.

Krauze, Tadeusz, and Kazimierz M. Slomczynski. 1985. “How Far to Meritocracy? Empirical Tests of a Controversial Thesis.” Social Forces Vol. 63 (No. 3), Ps. 623-642. Oxford University Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2578483. Accessed June 22, 2014.

Kunovich, Sheri, and Kazimierz M. Slomczynski. 2007. European Sociological Review Vol. 23 (No. 5). Oxford University Press. http://esr.oxfordjournals.org/content/23/5/649. Accessed June 22, 2014.

Locke, John. (1689) 1982. Two Treatises of Civil Government. Illinois: Harlan Davidson.

Marmot, Michael. 2002. The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity. New York: Times Books.

National Constitution Center . Explore The Constitution – National Constitution Center. 2014. “Fast Facts” National Constitution Center. Website accessed June 22, 2014. http://constitutioncenter.org/constitution.

National Poverty Center. 2011. “Poverty in the United States: Frequently Asked Questions” National Poverty Center. Website accessed June 22, 2014. http://www.npc.umich.edu/poverty/.

Pager, Devah, and Hana Shepherd. 2008. “The Sociology of Discrimination: Racial Discrimination in Employment, Housing, Credit, and Consumer Markets.” Annual Review of Sociology Vol. 34, Ps. 181-209. http://www.jstor.org/stable/29737787. Accessed June 22, 2014

Pager, Devah, Bart Bonikowski, and Bruce Western. 2009. “Discrimination in a Low-Wage Labor Market: A Field Experiment.” American Sociological Review Vol. 74 (No. 5), Ps. 777-799. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27736094. Accessed June 22, 2014.

Piketty, Thomas. 2014. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. France: Éditions du Seuil.

Southworth, Stephanie, and Roslyn Arlin Mickelson. 2007. “The Interactive Effects of Race, Gender and School Composition on College Track Placement.” Social Forces Vol. 86 (No. 2). Oxford University Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20430751. Accessed June 22, 2014.

Wagmiller, Robert L., and Kristen Schultz Lee. 2014. “Are Contemporary Patterns of Black Male Joblessness Unique? Cohort Replacement, Intracohort Change, and the Diverging Structures of Black and White Men’s Employment.” Social Problems Vol. 61 (No. 2). http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/sp.2014.12133. Accessed June 22, 2014.

Wolff, Edward N., and Maury Gittleman. 2010. “Inheritances and the Distribution of Wealth: Or Whatever Happened to the Great Inheritance Boom?” Bureau of Labor Statistics Working Papers 2011. US Department of Labor. http://www.bls.gov/ore/pdf/ec110030.pdf. Accessed June 22, 2014.

Wright, Erik Olin. 1978. “Race, Class, and Inequality.” American Journal of Sociology Vol. 83 (No. 6), Ps. 1368-1397. The University of Chicago Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2778109. Accessed June 22, 2014.

Leviathan

Leviathan

Pharisees live sparely, the wishing between the seams.
Carefully, you bury your living beneath your dreams.

Apathy you feed the crowd, and educate; with ease, predict.
Guilty – conceived and bound – a destiny to convict.

Rules you write: gifts to you, for lemmings beneath the sun.
You provide, with open palms and a prickly grin, behind a gun.

Save me.
Save me.
Save me, Leviathan.

Magnolias in a Hurricane

Magnolias in a Hurricane

     He sat across from me, the skin on his face bunched and tense, seeming to stretch and contract, in several directions, and all at once. I could feel the breadth of the lump in his throat, and I waited for the tears in his shimmering eyes to reach a critical mass. The wind blew a swollen, acidic air, and I could smell magnolias, from a few hundred yards away. His breaths carried the weight of an elephant’s feet, but his heart didn’t beat so much as oscillate.
He hooked his eyes into mine, enslaving me to sympathetic anguish. Where, moments earlier, the world had seemed tidy and joyous, my stomach had lost its balance. With his help, I was, suddenly, reeling from the unforgiving recognition of unwitting cruelties, isolations, and insignificances.
He spoke deliberately, trying, in vain, to hide himself among all these people. His voice maintained slow, legato slides from one pitch to the next, above undergirdings of broken, sporadic vibrato. I felt trapped – naked, during his assault – him striking at my feelings of guilt and duty.
And I wouldn’t escape without committing to bloodying my hands.
Because, for all my progress and self-defense, I could never be very different from him.

A Heist

Fly

He straddles a hair on my leg,
as he eagerly strokes
his mischievous hands with one another.
He licks his lips,
in anticipation, and then,
he extends the eerie black straw from his face
to suck in calcified remnants of sweat
from my morning workout.

He shuffles and prods,
softly tickling my skin,
as he inhales the oils and salts,
and laps in his fill.

A few moments later,
satisfied,
he makes his getaway.

What a Silly Thing You Did

Emotional Self-deceit

What a silly thing she said.

Her face shrunk,
and each of its constituents met in the middle.
It made me think of warriors’ trophies,
as described by anthropologists and history teachers.

And the sounds that came from her mouth
sounded like the shrill sounds
you hear in YouTube videos
when you enter “jungle animals.”

And her skin became the color of egg shells,
marked by tiny bubbles;
and she convulsed, cracked, like James Brown. “Unh!”

“Hate” sounds nothing like “love,” my dear.
But it’s funny that hate, sometimes, sounds like love.

The crowd rumbled,
producing the gentle roar of an ocean,
ebbing and flowing;
an ocean of despair and solemn warning.

What a silly thing they say.

My toes crunched together,
and I slowly slid across the floor.
My arms waved, wildly,
in the pattern of a frantic blind person’s cane,
as it probes for unwelcome surprises.

I could hear your shrill sounds, again,
and they felt like 1970s Jazz,
slowly, softly smothering me.
I followed your voice,
down one hall, through another,
to a dark, loud room.

And that’s when you killed me -
you said, “I’m sorry, and I love you,”
and you walked away,
making that terrible noise again.

A Final Corruption

Forest Warrior

A native wears paper armor,
and a menacing glare.
This sylvan warrior swallows her fears,
and will chase them with blood from her enemy.
She’ll seduce a sentinel,
only as to distract.

Distract her prey?
Distract herself?
Could she know the difference?

Ceremonial paint makes her appear exotic and frightening.
She moves swiftly, blade flying, racing through the air,
fatally lodging into its target.

And the paper armor shakes,
like feathers in the wind.

She claims victory,
but she will never again be anyone’s champion;
least of all her own.

But such a warrior never shows her tears, her pain, her fears.
These things will,
forever,
be vapor in the ether.

To be losing, to be lost – response re home and my heart

Originally posted on At the still point of the turning world:

To Be Losing; To Be Lost

…..instead I did  the same…and where I am and who I am with I honor but know, no, this place and these moments are not home. It does not follow – sadly- that I have a home for me waiting… I have no idea except when I felt at home with the one who no longer holds me…..

—this “re-blog” & reply —
Is to a poem linked above to the blog of Shaun Terry.

As with so many lines of his prose, his words cut to my center and that which I hide or haven’t said or keep in my heart lay open.

View original

Mississippi Castles

 

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She rests on tin bedfeathers.
Her heart oscillates
with the sound of foam crescendos,
splashing into the fickle floor.
The walls sweat,
awaiting the warmth of her bellows.

“Compromise” is a word that describes what Benedict Arnold felt;
she doesn’t know this word.

She is parting with parasites
that have plagued her.

Shining instruments shake,
and sing endless songs.
Sweet drinks from hidden French provinces
fill half-full bellies.
Plump, round pearls form a perfect oval
about the trunk of her head.

A globe
– that archaic artifact of expansion and wonder -
rests near a joint of two walls,
in her craftily curated home.
She’ll point out Mauritania,
if you’re invited.

Her pillows are soft and neat.
Her rocking chair is fair and firm.
She’ll play delta blues
on a chrome harmonica,
if you’re invited.

She knows what she wants.

You want to be invited.

An Unrecognizable Messiah

“I’m old again, today,” he said. Years of wear and diligent ironing had softened the pleats in his brown, woolen pants.

She sat, cross-legged, reading her book.

If I could see what it was, I’d probably think that it’s pretentious, he thought. He cleared his dry throat of nothing but air, as he glared in her direction. He repeated, a little more loudly, “I’m old again, today.”

She grabbed her bookmark, and gently placed it between the supple pages of her beautiful, sweet-smelling book, and laid the book next to her. She wriggled her nose, as she pushed the bridge of her glasses up, slightly, to look at him more clearly. With all the enthusiasm of a limestone wall, she uttered, “Happy birthday.”

Feeling a little foolish, his glare softened, and almost-inaudibly, he responded, “Thank you.”

She smiled, but if you only saw her from the cheeks, upward, you wouldn’t have known that any part of her had moved, at all. He knew that fake smile, but what could he say? She continued to look at him, wondering if he’d continue to molest her with his demands for attention.

afterlight

But she loved him. She loved his face. Even when he was irritating her like this, she could look at any part of his face, and feel instantly gratified; relieved at all the wonder that continued to be discoverable, simply upon looking at the skin and bones that made up this grouchy old neurotic. The easiest thing for her to do, though, was to pretend to be indifferent and unimpressed, so as to avoid encouraging all his whines for attention. When she was good and intoxicated, or otherwise in some emotionally vulnerable state, she would let just enough information out that he might guess how she generally felt about him. But normally, he was in a constant state of paranoia and absolute insecurity about how she saw him.

It wasn’t just her, though. He was simply unsure about most of these sorts of things. And how could you blame him? He’d been given a life filled with privilege, and, with equal half-steps, each, he’d pursued every avenue he could think of to find happiness, only to be left feeling vindicated in his mild self-loathing. “Milquetoast, even in my melancholia,” he’d once said. He was in his mid-forties, and fast-approaching middle-age, he thought. He was, indeed, an attractive man, but maybe mostly to just the right sort of quirky person. And no one would stop in the street to admire this sort of attractive man, although he didn’t look nearly his age. His head was filled with shiny, white hairs, and tiny wrinkles ruled over his face, and still, no one would guess that he was much older than in his mid-thirties. Once in a while, a kid at a convenience store, or tending the bar, would ask him for his ID, and this delighted the vain, old fool.

The funny thing, though, was that for all his misconceptions about himself, and his, at-times irritating obliviousness, he’d lost all the energy to fight with people that he’d fought in his youth. He’d given up on winning arguments, trying to dominate people, and trying to impress people, and he’d resigned to simply appeasing people, and benevolently tricking them into temporary contentment and even glee, where he could. That is, unless he was feeling needy. He seemed to vacillate between being the most thoughtful, emotionally-clairvoyant man, sweeter than rose water and honey, and being a self-centered, whimpering lapdog.

He’s lucky that he has all the things that no man ever has, she thought, because he doesn’t have any of the things that so many men do have. But she knew that what he had was far more valuable than what all the conventionally-attractive suitors had to offer. Sometimes, she thought that she’d love to be with a handsome, responsible, confident young man, and then, she’d meet one, and realize how shallow he was, how hollow and uninspired he was, beneath his impenetrable façade.

And she could have most of these men. It’s probably true that no one can be what everyone wants, but nearly everyone did want her, at least until the most persnickety preferences came to bear.

But in fact, she’d made her choice. Maybe he’d chosen her, too, and sometimes, she wondered that. The fact was that he had so much power over her, emotionally, and that scared her. She tried to keep the fact from him, even though she knew that he was far too gentle to ever be inclined to use that information to hurt her – a neurosis of her own. But he made her happy. She wouldn’t want any other man, and she usually didn’t at all. He was quite special, she thought. He’d lucked into a beautiful, intelligent, generous woman, even if she could be belligerent and self-preserving.

He never forgave her because he never blamed her. He’d stopped blaming people, even if he hadn’t quite figured out how to stop blaming himself. Only that he had nothing to blame himself for. Not really. Of course, he wasn’t perfect, but most people, by his age, had done far worse things than he’d ever even thought to do. He was far too afraid of the repercussions of defying any social mores, and he was too terribly afraid of hurting anyone to ever do anything particularly damaging.

And she knew all this about him. How moronically, delusionally immobilizing that is, she’d thought. She wished that she could punch him, sometimes, right in the face, right in the mouth, even, or maybe in the nose. They say that the nose hurts more, but punching that stupid, pretty mouth might be more gratifying. And then, she felt awful for thinking these things. She tried not to show him how angry he sometimes made her. What if he wouldn’t put up with it? Probably, he would, but what if not? She might never forgive herself, if that were the case. And she’d been terribly mean to him, as it was. And she’d done awful things without his knowing. Sometimes, she wondered if she deserved him, but she never let her mind reside with this thought for too long. She was afraid of where it might lead her.

He spilled his tea, and began to quietly sob. He turned away from her, holding his face in his palms, looking directly at the floor. He hated how annoyed she got, sometimes. But now, in an instant, she went from irritated to worried. The skin between her eyes began to bunch up, and formed thin lines where her eyebrows curled up at their ends. She set down her book, and briskly walked over to him. She wrapped her arms around him, and began to rub his upper-arm. He’d slumped his shoulders, and hung his head, making himself appear far smaller than he actually was. He turned his face away from hers, and she asked, “What’s wrong?”

He gasped, and exhaled, loudly, forcefully. “What am I even doing? What am I doing to you? I’m so afraid of you, and you could be with someone who could make you so much happier. I’m all alone, apart from you. I mean, sure, there are plenty of people who know me, and seem to like me, but if they knew me, if they actually knew me, what would they think? I mean, surely, people look at us strange, and surely, people recognize that there’s something wrong in this. People look at me, and they think, ‘That’s that failure of a weasel of a man. He had so much potential, and he had everything that he ever needed.’ What about poor people? God, if I were poor, and I knew someone like me, I’d absolutely hate that guy. I’d want to punch that guy. Or maybe, I’d just want to shake the hell out of him, so that he’d realize that he had everything. How old am I today? Do you know?”

She felt guilty now, and she paused, not sure if he really expected a response. “Oh – uh, 44, right? The sexiest, loveliest, most pleasing forty-four year old, insecure, whiny bastard I know,” she said with a huge, mischievous grin. You couldn’t see her eyes when she smiled like this.

He looked in her eyes, the corners of his lips drawn up, and tight to his face. “You think you’re so damn cute.” She smiled at him, playfully. “I’m being serious,” he said.

Her mouth grew wide – “So am I!” Her mouth didn’t seem to move, despite the varied sounds coming from it. He feigned disgust at her. “Look –,” she said, “I know that you feel that you’ve failed, but the truth is that you’re really not so bad. Not at all. Beautiful, wealthy men hit on me all day, every day, and for some stupid reason, I still come to bed with you. Whatever reasons I have might be stupid, but at least they’re something, you know?”

Perturbed, he pulled away from her, and asked, “Beautiful, wealthy men, huh?”

“Well-endowed, too!” she responded, with a little, exuberant hop.

“You’re such an ass.” He started to pace to the other side of the room, stopping in the middle, and turning back toward her.

“You love it. You love my ass!” She turned, briefly, to demonstrate.

“How would you know if they’re well-endowed, anyway? And has feminism dictated that it’s alright to punch a lady, if she’s being particularly bratty?”

“Nope! Sorry! If this were earlier times, then you could probably slap me, and no one would make much fuss, but according to the old movies that you make me watch, it doesn’t seem like it’s ever been in vogue to punch a lady.”

“I guess that we’re calling you a lady, huh?” He started to pace to the other side of the room, stopping in the middle, and turning back toward her. “And happy birthday, to me, I suppose.”

She made a deliberate, sarcastic frown, “Oh, poor you! You’re getting so old, and no one will ever marry you! I highly advise that you just keep sleeping with me. I’ll tolerate all your whiny, annoying behavior for at least a few more weeks, I’ve decided, and it’s not like you’ll do any better any time soon. Further, I really love that chair against the wall, over there, and I’m right in the middle of this book, so, as long as you’ll keep feeding me, I’m happy to keep you company, assuming that you don’t demand too much of my attention.”

“What book are you reading?” he asked.

“How To Annoy Your Cute, But Pathetic Boyfriend, by Jean-Paul Sartre,” she responded.

“Sartre, huh? Even your sarcastic, made-up self-help books are pretentious?!”

She laughed. “Oh, you…”

“Why do you love me?” he asked.

“You’ve never loved a stupid, sheepish puppy before? A little cast-off mutt? You’re like this bourgeois, entitled, little, pathetic man-mutt, who never knew that he was a bourgeois, entitled mutt; one that did all he could to wash himself of his white guilt, but never washed off any of the white or any of the guilt. Here you are, having spent all this money, trying to save the world, trying to save yourself, and all you did was throw it all away. You didn’t learn much of anything, except how to not be arrogant, and how to be deferent. A lot of people would find it unappealing, but I’ve never been too into the macho sort. Macho guys can make for a nice dream, here or there; they’re a good fantasy, but then, you wake up, and their brains are all filled with limp noodles, tits – always big, stupid tits – and things like cars, gold, sports. I mean, they’re cute, but dating them would be like dating kitten videos on YouTube.” She paused.

“The benefits are limited, and then, of course, on the other hand, you realize that there are dim, unaware, old men, with wrinkly balls, and just enough money to always leave you wanting more. It’s enough to make any girl swoon. As a matter of fact, I do like your vast collection of incredible books, though. Maybe your mother had good taste in books. Surely, you’ve read five or eight of these.”

“So what I took away from that was that I’m not as stupid or shallow as some other men, and that I treat people better than a lot of others do. That is why you love me?”

He looked resigned. Maybe he’s losing motivation in this quest for validation, she thought. “Why do you have to make it sound so moderately appealing? I like it that you’re not arrogant; let’s try to not ruin that, okay, sugar-dumpling?”

“You know, I wonder if you’re good for me, in any way, at all.” He frowned, slightly, but still appeared vulnerable beneath his expression.

“Oh, stop… you love me. I tease you, but you like it. I’m sorry that you’re having a bad day. I dread this day each year.”

“You’ve only known me for twenty months!” he exclaimed.

She looked at him with exasperation. “What?! So because you don’t have any children, you have to infantilize our relationship? Who the hell keeps up with the number of months they’ve been in a relationship with someone?!”

“I’m like the relationship Rain Man – it’s both a gift and a curse.”

At least he’s finally showing some sense of humor, she thought. “What kind of gift is that? What’s its use, but to annoy and creep out your girlfriend? Maybe we’re moving up our breakup date. Let me see…” She looked up, as though to count.

“Josie,” he pleaded.

She couldn’t resist anything when he said her name. She couldn’t defy him, couldn’t even tease him, when he did that; she turned all soft and gooey. She could always feel it on her face, and she wondered how obvious it was. It felt, to her, like the surface of her face got ten degrees warmer, and sagged and smiled at the same time. Surely, he knew the effect that this had on her, but she couldn’t be even slightly mad at him for it. She loved it; she actually, very badly wanted him to exploit it.

“Yes, dear?” she said, in a voice that was several times smaller than the voice she had spoken in, up to that point. Suddenly, her voice seemed, to her, like an immeasurably small squeak, and not the commanding, brazen voice of the character that she so-often portrayed. She was a fearful lady, a vulnerable woman; sensitive, and apt to incurring pain, but her behavior so often demonstrated something quite contrary to that.

“Will you please just hold me? I love it when you hold me, and I could really use it right now.”

“Of course I will; anything you want.”

He grabbed her hand, and she slid her shoes and stockings off, as she followed him to the bed.

The Latency Between Lightning and Thunder

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You don’t ever have to wonder.

Your soul is a vessel – an old lemon-lime gatorade bottle,
wrapped in a dilapidated piece of informational literature,
so worn and abused
that one couldn’t make out a nutritional fact
or any lightning bolt.
Your beautiful flawed vessel,
with great caution and care,
holds and carries a part of me
that is invisible to the naked eye,
or even the unnaked eye.
It is the part of me that can only be seen by something that people deny exists;
the part that sweaty, old railroad workers, and proper, old businessmen clear their throats at,
the part that we all need, but we all intentionally forget is there.
Your soul is a vessel that graciously, gracefully, gratefully
carries my soul -
that part of me which would disintegrate in the wind,
if only it stood in a field for a few moments.

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