shaunterrywriter

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

18 August, 2016 — Espresso House Lund C, Sweden

I left the cafe to go check out the campus. It was one of those universities with fractures of campus strewn about town, but the architecture was old, and the landscape was green, even if the sky was grey. I walked about the Student Union, trying to find someone to talk to about doing grad work in this town, but relevant parties were absent, so I trekked back the couple hundred meters through a mild drizzle to retake my couch.

As I came down the spiral staircase, I saw an older man sitting in my seat, my things neatly displaced. But as I neared the couch, I couldn’t find the book I’d been reading. He peeked up at me, “Oh, are you looking for this?” He’d been taking in my copy of The Almost Nearly Perfect People, a contemporary book about Nordic cultures.

“Oh, yeah; thanks.” My level of irritation was going from naught to something just Nord of mild.

“Sorry about that,” he claimed.

“No, it’s okay,” I replied. His apology quickly dismantled my sudden mood. “Did you enjoy what you read?”

“Very much; yes. Thank you.”

I grabbed for my things before he started, “I’m not taking your place, am I?”

I waved my arm around the room like a game show host presenter, only without the commercially preferred female proportions and slinky dress, as I graciously pointed out, “There are plenty of other couches. Thanks.”

We smiled at each other, as I walked a few feet to the welcomed isolation of the couch on the adjacent wall. As I set my things in their appropriate configuration, I looked back at him and realized that he no longer had anything to read. I walked back. “If you wanna keep reading, I have lots of other books to read.”

“That’s very nice of you,” he replied.

“Yeah, it’s no problem.”

Society tells us that places like Las Vegas, Rio de Jainero, Tokyo, and the savannahs of Africa are the exciting places to go, and maybe that’s right; I don’t disagree. And when people think of where to live, America, Germany, Costa Rica, Australia, and France seem to be relatively hot choices.

The media inform us that Scandinavians are healthier and happier than we are, as they trade in taxes and diversity for dull, communal sensibilities and large, numerous public benefits. I think I’d like to move to boring Scandinavia. There seems to be tension between fostering people’s uniquenesses and creating social cohesion. This troubles me, but in the end, would I rather be healthy and happy or feel free to pursue my most narcissistic proclivities?

I’ll argue that individualism and competition share a close relationship, and in America, people see the evidence of this. Members of society often find society’s ruts, as they get waylaid by a system that asks for exceptional ambition in order to survive and grow. In Scandinavia, homogeneity seems to be the price paid for a smaller number of people slipping through the cracks.

Scandinavia could do better. Some parts of Scandinavia are surprisingly conservative. People really can be a little petty and judgemental, like in so many parochial societies. For all the advancements in things like gender equality, education, and environmentalism, Scandinavians can be victims of their own successes, failing to really push things forward where there are obvious shortcomings.

Still, perfection not standing in the way of the good, maybe better is still better. I hate the cold. Maybe there’s an obscure Norwegian commune in the Mediterranean (I doubt that there is). Life is hard.

I think kindness and altruism go a long way toward making people feel good, just as I appreciate the somewhat presumptuous, albeit sweet and crinkly, literary from the cafe. These things don’t come without costs, but for me, maybe the benefits are worth what’s being given up.

14 August 2016 — Between Slovenia and Germany

Riding the train through the Austrian Alps, reading the book of WWI poetry that Cleo gave me, I’m thinking of “The Sound of Music,” and it’s making me want to cry. I’m not kidding. Maybe I have a disease. I think that the German mother sitting across from me is starting to notice.

She and her husband patiently look after their one-and-a-half-year-old daughter. The daughter’s sleepy and hungry so she whines but only a little. The lady breastfeeds as she explains that the husband used to have a six-pack but that he looks better with a little bit of a belly. It’s all pretty adorable, really. He talks with me about Trump and global capitalism and we agree that the situation’s complicated and unfortunate.

I wouldn’t mind living on the side of one of these mountains. I really like Ljubljana, with its modern infrastructure, ancient architecture, and second-world food prices. It may be the best that former Soviet countries have to offer. These Slovenians go to sleep awfully early, though.

The snow wraps around the tops of the mountains, enveloping their frosty, jagged heads, cutting their tallest points off so that the mountaintops end in wavy, milky frontiers. In Ljubljana, I saw a sickel and hammer painted onto the side of a building, so I guess that the clouds are just keeping the mountains humble. Perhaps Zizek would approve. And so on and so on…

Two Serbias

Serbian Cornfield

Just beyond Belgrade,
a cornfield sprawls
from one edge of the horizon to the other.
Highways pass over it,
like anachronistic eggshell ribbons, hanging in the sky.

From the field,
farmers mostly ignore
the strips of serial art passing by,
as rancorous old trains transport Slavs back-and-forth
between the city and the North.

A few kilometers past the cornfield,
between other cornfields and uniform red brick apartments,
with their red clay roofs,
a bronzed, slightly greasy man,
wearing three-day old scruff and an ill-fitting t-shirt,
speaks with an old lady at a fruit stand.
His messy belly jiggles as he laughs,
while she clutches a pristine old Orthodox Bible in one hand
and a cane in the other.

Parts of Belgrade thrive;
ecru facades of modern, functionalist buildings,
with lighted Latin letter signs,
are erected between larger, more functionalist,
rusty, slowly-imploding Soviet relics, adorned by Cyrillic characters.

Outside the city,
Serbs eschew internet for bright yellow flowers
and familiar beers with lifelong friends and family,
as they wait for modernity to remember them.

A More Complete and Content Family

Today, storytellers in Latin America, Africa, former Soviet republics, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and “The West” are writing a redemption story. They’ll write tomorrow, too, because these sisters- and brothers-in-arms share the apparent delusion that the world and its constituents are good, and if only we can shine a light of intentional compassion, or maybe compassionate intention, on complicated agents, then all the world might share a glow of peace and love.

But we’re not picking daisies; no, our songs today are rebel cries. Our hands come together to form fists that punch upwardly, piercing the sky in solidarity with one another and with everyone who’s suffered some injustice.

We had various reasons for joining in this space, but what we shared was the seed of a revolution born of love, for the vulnerable among us, and it’s now grown into a seedling and we’ll feed it until it’s grown into a big, strong tree. This place, this transformative experience, made clear to us that hope is not a thing of preachy artists, Hollywood kitsch, or mere pretentiousness and esoteric ideals. We looked into one another’s eyes and saw the brave vulnerability that allows bold revolutionaries to say that they can spark a fire that consumes and rebuilds our world into a place that provides greater health, happiness, and love to its inhabitants.

We see that we have flaws, and we can imagine a more perfect set of circumstances, but this place brought would-be dreamers and heartened idealists into common and crossing paths so that we were able to see family where distant strangers had stood. And we saw the elements of ignition in one another and our hearts quickened and our eyes widened and our faces smiled at the prospect of spreading the thoughtful, inclusive freedom and justice of which we’d been dreaming.

In a land of so much beauty and such brazen ideas as peace and equity, I built the kind of family that one gets to choose, the kind of family for which I had long ached, and now I know that my family extends to the most remote corners and crevices of the oddly-shapen globe on which we reside. I am your brother, and I know I can yell it with confidence and pride. Thank you all. With love.

Please Mind the Gap: A Response to Chan, et al’s “Status in Norway”

In “Social Status in Norway,” Chan, et al assert that class and social status are distinct things, and that each affects people’s political leanings in a distinct way. Here, Chan specifically studies Norway, but he notes that the results in Norway appear similar to those in other countries, albeit contrasting in terms of degrees.

Class is defined here by the type of work someone does, and ostensibly, by the associated income. In contrast, Chan describes status as consisting of people’s cultural consumption and being primarily based on the ascriptions of a person and their partner and whether they work in manual or non-manual industries. It may be worthy to note that this ends up meaning that the manual/non-manual dichotomy affects both class and status, with the distinction being that class has to do with the type of work a person does and the income that they make while status is more reflective of the industries that a person and their spouse work in and their levels of education and not with their incomes.

That Chan defines status by these two, not-so-obviously related things is interesting and implies possible correlation between them, and we’ll get to more of that later.

First, social class seems to be a good predictor for whether someone leans left or right on economic issues, with wealthy people preferring economically liberal policies and low earners choosing more leftist policies. To put this more simply, poor people tend to prefer wide, robust social safety nets, while rich people tend to prefer lower taxes and less regulations on business.

On the other hand, social status is a strong determinant for where people fit on the authoritarian-libertarian scale. People of high status tend to prefer socially permissive policies while less-privileged people prefer stricter measures of authority and more social homogeneity.

Chan notes that the UK experiences greater inequality, but that much of that inequality is concentrated at the more status-poor end of the spectrum.

OLS regression of left-right in Norway

Some interesting findings in Chan’s study include that older, female, less educated, and poorer Norwegians tend to prefer greater redistributive measures. Put the other way around, younger, male, better educated, and wealthier Norwegians prefer less wealth redistribution. In regard to social issues, women, highly-educated people, and people with high status tend to be tolerant of homosexuality, and older people, highly-educated people, and people with higher status tend to be more supportive of immigration. Further, Chan finds that people who vote left on economic issues include women, income-poor people, people in the bottom two social classes, and people with high status.

In Chan’s conclusion, it’s pointed out that status plays a bigger role in society in the UK than in Norway. British people more frequently partner with people of more-or-less equivalent social status, which, again, is defined mostly by the industries within which people work, their ascriptions, and the levels of education they attain. Norway’s decreased partnering by social status pairing may be explained by shorter social distances between people or it may be that, because Norwegians tend to have more egalitarian views, they partner with less concern for status. If differences in Norwegians’ perceptions of people, based on ascriptions, work industries, and educations, are less than that in Social Status in UK and Norwaysome other countries, this may explain why there is less difference in people’s
social choices and cultural consumptions, and greater support for income redistribution and social programs in general.

But the reality in Norway is more complicated than any utopic notion. In fact, Chan’s assumptions indirectly point this out. If it were the case that people’s ascriptions determined social status, and by proxy, status’s constituent aspects — education and whether people choose to work in manual or non-manual industries — then that would seem to necessarily imply that there would be no correlation between societal differences and differences in hierarchies of social status. Clearly, this isn’t the case. Instead, countries that are reputed for subscribing to more egalitarian views and for invoking more egalitarian policies tend to attain smaller differences in social status. Based on this reasoning, it may be the case that Norway could do more to make things equal between people born into different situations.

Consider a possible link between education and the manual/non-manual dichotomy: were there a genetic explanation for whether people went into manual or non-manual jobs, then correlation between social mobility and egalitarian policies would be more difficult to explain. Instead of assuming that people sort into jobs based on in-born preferences, perhaps Merton’s “Self-fulfilling Prophecy” provides a clue. In highly-stratified countries, it wouldn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that ascriptions could lead to biases and discriminations on the parts of institutions, which might lead to conditioning of children such that some gravitate toward manual industries and others to non-manual industries.

But is it unreasonable to think that Norway might be subject to the same sorts of discriminations that you might find in the UK, the US, or other less-equal societies? Recent studies in social psychology show a tendency in some people to show subconscious preferences based on race, just as an example.

This doesn’t mean that we should let perfection be the enemy of the good; indeed, I’m inclined to applaud Norway’s efforts in creating one of the most equal and equitable societies in the world, but Norway didn’t achieve this distinction by being complacent in the face of apparent injustice. And this injustice isn’t trivial.

Michael Marmot’s research has become so widely accepted that its conclusions are largely taken for granted: we accept that differences in status lead to worse health outcomes and shorter lives. But others have taken this line of thinking and expanded on it. Richard Wilkinson recently came into public consciousness when he, with help from Kate Pickett, demonstrated that OLS Social Problems on Inequalitygreater social equality leads to better health outcomes not only for people at the bottom of society or even those in the middle, but for those at the top as well. This may come as counterintuitive to those who might assume that the attraction that inequality is sold on is the promise of the greatest possible life, but the data show otherwise. You might be better off being wealthy in a more equal society than being one of the richest people in the world and living in a more unequal society. But in economic terms, Norway has been getting more unequal over the last few decades, as has been the trend with OECD countries over that time.

Thomas Piketty’s assertion that stratification is an essential characteristic of capitalism was controversial for its forcefulness but well-demonstrated. The acceleration of global capitalism in recent decades has made the world smaller and sorted winners and losers with increasing rapidity and expanding devastation. When we consider Marmot’s distinction between absolute and relative poverties in a global context, it becomes clear that all poverty is relative in some sense. In an ever-shrinking world, it’s evident that absolute poverty is the product of disparate access to resources and that solving relative poverty necessarily entails solving absolute poverty. To be clear, absolute poverty is distinct from relative poverty and absolute poverty’s problems are clearly more acute and in need of redress, but to take the argument to its end, a solution for absolute poverty likely requires the kind of thoughtful redistributive measures that one would expect in an egalitarian society, but applied within a global framework, i.e. intentional, intelligent investment from wealthy countries to those over-exploited countries most in need.

To double back to the article, this means that there can no longer be the divorced argument that has been neo-liberalism’s failing; libertarian rhetoric is hollow without the efficacy of leftist economics. So it’s important to see that Norway performs better than most other countries in terms of social mobility and earnings mobility, but there are still opportunities for Norway to improve.

Marmot’s research shows that even small amounts of relative poverty have devastating effects on people’s health and mortality outcomes; i.e. any inequality results in suffering and shortened lives.

The uncomfortable, but seemingly true, end is that any differences in people’s class or status lead to people’s suffering, poor health, and shortened lives, and that goes for both within individual countries and between countries. To put it bluntly, Norway and her Scandinavian fraternity may perform well relative to other countries, but so long as unnecessary stratification persists, wherever it exists, nevermind grows, there’s clearly work to be done.

Sources:

Chan, Tak Wing; Birkelund, Gunn Elisabeth; Aas, Arne Kristian; Wiborg, Oyvind. “Social Status in Norway.”

Friedman, Thomas. The World is Flat.

Marmot, Michael. The Status Syndrome.

Merton, Robert. “The Self-fulfilling Prophecy.”

Pickett, Kate and Wilkinson, Richard. The Spirit Level.

Piketty, Thomas. Capital in the 21st Century.

The Direction of Sunlight

Norwegian Sparrow Purple Flowers

The farther from the equator,
the less directly the sun shines;
you’ll notice at High Noon,
when the shadows of trees jut out from their hosts.

Nordic countries must be perfect to survive,
but perfection breeds few friends,
as Norwegians and Swedes well know.
It’s lonely close to the extremes of what Earth allows,
but it’s a galactic gift that the edges are inhabitable.

The glacial ice dissolves
to dispense clear, clean water.
Sparrows, with dichromatic helmets,
sing from between phosphorescent fuchsia flowers.
And drunken descendants of vikings
yell with friends over football matches and leftist politics.

Christmas in July

She was long and elegant, strong with a vulnerable mouth and big, brutal emerald eyes that turned up on the corners of her high cheek bones. She walked like an overconfident dictator — her proud shoulders defying gravity, hanging far over her long back, her wide sturdy hips, and the heels of her feet. But her ostentatious mannerisms betrayed her deepest unspoken fears.

Sometimes, light would reflect off tiny particles in the air, forming long, straight columns that moved about in odd patterns as the wind blew the leaves outside. The dancing light would eventually land on her tender olive skin, and it felt appropriate because everything about her seemed beautiful, even if some things were bright and some things were dark, and even if there were discrete but unstill delineations between the things that she allowed to be clearly seen and the things which one had to discover for oneself.

She had acquired a moderate collection of friends’ things, not because she wanted any of those particular things, nor because she wanted to deny anything of anyone, but because she wanted to have small pieces of her friends’ lives close to her at all times as conspicuous daily reminders of those people whom she’d loved so dearly, albeit often briefly.

She spoke rapidly, with a gleeful, subtle lilt in her voice. She could dominate a crowd, relying on improvisation which she used to deflect penetration beneath the foamy surface of her cultivated persona. Her eyes could gently arrest you and refocus you on the captivating mysteries of her history; they utilized a balance between tenderness and the surgical incisiveness of her warm gaze. Her face smiled often and naturally, and she was quick to pay people’s way and to buy small gifts when appropriate occasions arose. She sacrificed of herself to such a point that she didn’t always know what she wanted. This time, she knew what she wanted.

She was a curious woman, and her curiosity led her to indulge in reading, working out, alcohol, and eventually, sex. Her family lived in Albania, so she basically was from there, though ever less so. In fact, she’d rarely ever fucked an Albanian. She preferred tall blondes and could find herself lost in iris-cascades of cyan and sapphire and she could love the surfaces of these viewing lenses, preferring to not dig deep into the roots and pools that formed beneath them.

That wasn’t the case here, though. This was different. She loved his voice, she loved the careful attention with which he said the words that he carefully chose. It’s easy to fall in love in the endless visages of a Northern European city, as so many of them playfully balance between beautiful very old things and beautiful futuristic things. They’d walk for hours: talking, flirting, smiling at each other, wondering whether this was something substantive or whether it was simply the ripe fruit of a temporary affair. Sure, they could meet again some day, but there was liberty in the timeframe that constricted their tryst. The answer was yet to reveal itself.

The day after their first kiss, she invited him to her room with ease, casually asking if he had a condom and hoping that he’d have at least one for each day that they were to spend together. The sex was good, but they both rightly knew that it’d only get better as they continued to discover each other’s bodies.

A few days later, she remarked, “I really like when you finger me before you fuck me. You know why?”

“Tell me.”

“Because it’s like Christmas Eve and then Christmas.”

He smiled in satisfaction.

21 June 2016 — On the Way to Iceland

Very early morning

This morning, I saw the most beautiful thing I think I’ve ever seen.

Pale clouds of magenta and coral and the blue of irises all bled into one another, creating a chromatic gradient; indifferent puffs of sweet, light, bright cotton above an otherworldly landscape.

The mountains were like dark chocolate chunks, with coconut fragments sprinkled conservatively across their tops. Between some mountains ran a frozen, hardened river of foggy blue gemstone, slowly, gently breaking down the mountains, as tiny glacial chunks floated on the periphery to one side of the mountains and an ocean of snow began to consume the chocolate peaks on the other side.

Eventually, the snow would stretch to either horizon, the consistency and color of freshly whipped cream. The mountains occasionally poked their heads above the surface like sharpened flint: earthen arrowheads penetrating the cream.

In the end, the little chocolate stones fall apart in the icy aquamarine ocean.


Slightly less early morning

My eyes did a funny thing. After reading my book for a few minutes, I looked up, out of the window. When I saw the image outside, it appeared wavy, and I figured that maybe the glass was cheap or somehow weathered, causing distortions. But then, for no reason that I could explain, I suddenly realized that it wasn’t the glass causing the illusion and I focused on the waves themselves. I could pick out the faded shapes of indecipherable words I’d been reading, thanks to the early morning light coming in through the glass.

We’re All Sansan

Agario Sad Puppy Dies

I, a 30-something man, was playing a children’s game, pretending to be a woman. I found myself yelling at my computer, “EAT YOURSELF, THUG!”

Then, a girl (I assumed) named Sansanpapy or Sansandady — I couldn’t tell from the font — said that she was sad. She didn’t want to talk about it at first, so I offered her my work email, mostly just because I wanted her to be able to talk and I didn’t want to reveal to the other gamers that I wasn’t really a woman. She said that animals should live longer lives. She said that she’d been depressed for a while, that it was still causing her to cry a lot, even though it’d happened back in September. I told her that I wished that Earth would just keep getting bigger to accommodate all the new animals and she agreed.

I told her it’s good to be sensitive. She asked if there’s such a thing as being too sensitive and I told her that there’s not. Fuck no! If you find yourself in the midst of a thriving career and you feel like crying in front of your millionaire boss’s face, you should be able to cry in front of your millionaire boss’s face!

She explained that she had woken up one morning to her father and sister crying in the kitchen and to her dog, Millie, lying motionless on the living room floor. She said that her dad had explained to her that Millie wasn’t going to get better, and how she’d skipped breakfast, instead going up to her room to get her guinea pig. The guinea pig had purred that Monday morning. She doesn’t like Mondays anymore, she says.

So I told her about how when I was a kid, my dog once had puppies, and one time, one of the puppies started to run from the garage as my sister had pressed the button to cause the big wooden garage door to slowly descend from the ceiling. I’d yelled the whole way as I’d run. I was screaming and everything seemed to be going in slow motion. Why can’t she tell what I’m saying? WHY ISN’T SHE PRESSING THE DAMN BUTTON AGAIN?! I couldn’t get there fast enough. The tiny puppy had bounded from the middle of the garage to just under where the garage door was to have met the ground.

I’d run as fast as I could and the best I could manage was to wedge my foot between the door and the ground. It wasn’t enough. I screamed as tears slid down my salmon cheeks. My sister had only just figured out what I’d been saying as the door had collided with the pup. My dad was running toward me. He was big and powerful and he was very athletic. It wasn’t enough that day. The garage door lifted again to reveal the yelping, badly injured puppy. Dad pretended that he was taking the puppy somewhere important to be mended. It’s probably the sweetest lie my dad ever told.

So I explained to Sansan that I’d lost a puppy once and that it had made me cry. I explained to her that it’d been the worst day of my whole life and that it’s sad when animals die and that it’s okay to cry over it. I explained to her that it’s okay to be sensitive. We just learn how to deal with our feelings.

ThugLife chimed in, explaining that he’d lost his 7-year old great dane, Phoebe, to doggy cancer. ThugLife had told me earlier that he had no friends, so the loss of his dog must’ve been hard on him, I’d guess. He and Sansan were both eleven. Holy shit. Eleven.

ThugLife was pretty good at the stupid kids’ game, but Sansan thought that we shouldn’t team up because it was unfair to people who didn’t team up. I agreed with her and told her that I felt a little bad that we’d been unfair to others. “I usually don’t team.” Apparently, I was defending myself to an eleven-year old. I told Rooster that I was going to kill him in the game but that I thought he was a nice person. He laughed and later declared that dogs are like humans because they die.

Maybe it’s a little weird for a 30-something man to be pretending to be a 24-year old woman while playing a kids’ game on the computer. But I was glad that I got to tell a little girl that her feelings are okay, even if I later felt a little stupid for having offered her my email. She’d explained that her parents wouldn’t let her email me, anyway, but she offered that we should talk the next night when she played on the same server. So then I felt a little stupid for wanting to do so and then I felt a little stupid for feeling stupid for wanting to do so.

Leftover Prey

Human Meat Stew

Boiled flesh lies,
nearly fermented,
in a bowl of broth.

Her spoon fills with gelatin, cartilage, and filaments of musculature,
as she giggles at a strip of Calvin and Hobbes
in her daily paper.

She sucks up the corpse, the memories, the emotions,
the tao that cannot be named.

Slurp

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