Who We Talk About When We Talk About Us.

What initially inspired this writing was the shooting at the Republican congressional baseball practice. At one point in my life I would have thought the bulk of question posed by this sort of shooting is how do we prevent a shooting like this from happening again. I might have said we should consider reinstating the ban on the weapons that were used in this shooting and at the Sandy Hook shooting and the San Bernardino shooting and at the Pulse Nightclub Shooting, to name only the shootings that you might imagine could have happened in your neighborhood, but not to mention the thousands of other shootings happening all over the country. We could establish a limit on the capacity ammunition magazines. Engineering a system to keep weapons out of the hands of domestic abusers. Things of this nature. But who wants to talk about real, material strategies for solving the problem of gun violence in America? Fuck that. I think I speak for everyone when I say I’d rather take a moment of silence, make a prayer, and go back to talking about my feelings.

I’m glad we got that out of the way. So on to my feelings. I think like most people I was stunned and instantly certain that this shooting was different somehow, yet unsure how to wrap my head around it. And so as I have often done in the past when unable to conjure up courage or articulate a particular thought, I dressed myself in the same fashions as those around me. We condemn this attack in the strongest possible way; there is no place for violence, political or otherwise, in our society; et cetera. But I couldn’t shake this lingering unease – this certainty that it was the same moral compass that told me this was an unjust tragedy as the one that told me these people can Eat Shit for all I care. I knew that if I couldn’t find a way to reconcile my belief (that I should aspire to live by a set of moral principles which have a universal truth) with this feeling I had (that a certain subset of people are completely fucked and I could not care less what happened to them), then I was going to have to quit my job and run for congress as a Republican.

How – I have asked myself too many times – could a human being pick up a firearm with the intention of using it on themselves or someone else? To take away one’s life. Steal everything from them. Steal them from all those left behind. It’s an image so far beyond the ability of my internal concept of evil, let alone my words, to contain that it make me physically sick just to picture it. How are we supposed to navigate a world of realities that are so far beyond our grasp? I think the answer is that we process and compress information from the outside world into abstractions and analogies that dull some of the images that would otherwise torment us. I’m not a psychologist, but I think this idea that our brains subconsciously scrap extraneous information is crucial – to everything from my physical ability to scratch my head as I’m pondering what to write, to my ability to stave off existential terror, and indeed, my ability to live in a world in which evil exists. You could say all of those things are a work in progress.

But it’s not just our brains that are doing the work of expanding this aesthetic distance; it’s also the institutions and practices of our society. For example, most people would not be willing to eat as much meat as they do if to do so they had to kill an animal and tear it flesh from bone. People are repulsed by this, and for good reason. There is something there that is impossible to fully reconcile: that in order for me to exist, something else must be deprived existence (and if you think no animal or human life is harmed in the production of plant foods, I suggest you talk to a farmer). The sane among us are connected by this sense life is sacred – not fungible and certainly not a commodity. That’s why if you’ve seen or taken part in the production of food, you will do your absolute best to minimize the suffering of animals, and be damned if anything goes to waste. But in our capitalist society, the institutions such as the farm and the supermarket are designed to externalize as much of these real human and environmental costs as possible, and isolate the consumer from that which might attenuate consumption. If only someone could find something positive to leverage in their accumulation of wealth and power – like maybe our shared belief in the sanctity of life? Oh… what’s that you say?

All of us want to survive, none of us want to kill, but most of us will if we have to. It’s just not very often that we can contextualize, let alone perceive such radical shifts in, the perspective from which we make moral judgements. This shift from secure to vulnerable, from hunter to prey. But I think these changes are happening fluidly and constantly. We’re all taught not to steal, yet we sympathize with Aladdin and his rascally old pal Abu when they steal delicious and healthy fruits from a street vendor. Moreover, we tend to think of the law that seeks to punish Aladdin for doing what he needs to survive as fundamentally unjust; to be railed against at all costs. Yet so much of the institutional framework of our society exists for the sole purpose of laying out and enforcing these distinctions between those who have and those who have not. Just like in Aladdin, these distinctions determine not only our material wealth and political power, but also where we can live, whether we can love and marry Princess Jasmine, and even our most basic physical safety. And again, just like in Aladdin, many if not all of these differences are ordained at birth.

In retrospect, these are some of the reasons I felt so uneasy speaking only to condemn the shooting at the Republican congressional baseball practice. It’s because I had to in the same sentence condemn the institutionalized violence – indirect/abstract and direct/concrete – of which these men are guilty. How is shooting a gun into a crowd of people any less an act of violence than ripping away healthcare from millions of people, many of whom will as a result be deprived the care they need to survive? These congressmen and senators are crafting a plan that will cause even more people to die for no good reason, not less, and all to pile more money into the pockets of those who already have everything they need. They are the gluttonous shopper, roaming the aisles of the supermarket, delighting in all of its glorious bounty, congratulating himself for all these things he can choose, too much a fucking coward to go and have a look where any of it came from, or to look the man in the eye who will bag his groceries but can’t afford to shop there. I cannot condone violence in any form. But I will only condemn those who commit acts of political violence at the same time as I condemn those in politics who are complicit in the day-to-day violence against those without the power to protect themselves.

I am wary of the sort of disingenuous expressions of solidarity and civility that might allow those of incompatible ideas to set aside their differences and play a game of baseball, while people die from poverty on the streets of that same city; the capitol of the wealthiest, most powerful nation on Earth. When Paul Ryan said in response to the Republican baseball shooting that “an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us”, he echoed Benjamin Netanyahu in his response to the Paris Attack of 2015, “An attack on one of us should be seen as an attack on all of us”. What these two shitty men really mean is that there is a class of people, defined by privilege and status, who should be insulated from the violence that is all but inevitable in someone else’s home. That this “we” and “us” implicitly includes you and me, but excludes the dangerous outsider from whom we must protect each other. And lastly that this man in power, this man expressing his solidarity and benevolence toward the group, is the man for the job now more than ever. But this is nothing more than leveraging identity politics to convince us to hand power over to a smaller and smaller group of people. “I could never better stead thee than now”, Paul Ryan says, “Put money in thy purse.”

Of course a reason to be wary of political violence is that it almost never serves its intended purpose – usually quite the opposite. But another important thing to at least consider is that Steve Scalise, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, Mike Pence – these are all human beings, as hard as it may be to believe given what worthless sacks of shit they all are, and how much better off we’d all be if they quit politics and never ventured into the public sphere ever again. But, if I’m going to believe in my heart that some man sitting in jail for murder or some other heinous crime should not be killed by the state, or allowed to rot in inhumane conditions, but given a chance to live and to be redeemed in his own heart, I must hold this belief for all. But as long we’re being honest, I haven’t convinced myself that this latter reason is the more influential on my thinking.


On Surfing

When I started getting really into skiing late in college, I became comfortable on difficult terrain quite quickly. I picked my runs to help isolate and develop skills – perhaps the most rudimentary of which is how to stop or bail when shit got too real. I worked on short, tight turns in bumps and trees; broad, sweeping carves on smooth terrain; pole planting and forward lean; and how to react to the feedback my ski edges were giving me. I fell instantly in love with the sensation of releasing myself from fear and simply being in that moment completely in tune with myself and the snow underneath me.

And so when my brother moved to Southern California, surfing seemed like something I had to try. For those unfamiliar with how it works, here’s a basic rundown on how to catch a wave: you’ve got a board that’s attached to one leg by a leash. When you see a wave coming that you want to catch, you turn to face the beach and lie on your belly, head-first on the board. As the wave comes close to you, you start paddling toward the beach, trying to pick up speed in the direction the wave is moving. As the wave begins to roll underneath you, it picks up the rear end of your board first. If the face of the wave is steep enough, and you’ve paddled hard enough, you and your board will begin skim on top of the water. This works exactly the same way sliding on snow works. You’re on an incline, and gravity is pulling you down. When you feel the wave begin to carry you, you can stand up on the board and begin maneuvering.

Where and when you start learning to surf, and what equipment you’ve got, has a big impact on your experience. High buoyancy boards like longboards and fun boards are the best to learn on because they are easier to paddle and don’t require big, steeply-pitching waves in order to work. My brother, not knowing much at all about surfing at the time, took me for my first time to Mission Beach in San Diego during ~6’ winter storm swells. I had a 7’6” fun board. The guy at the rental shop had said this was a good beginner board. He was right, but it’s more complicated than that. Because long boards like this are so buoyant, you can’t dive underneath the crashing waves on the way out past the break. That’s another reason it helps to start at a beach with more gentle, rolling waves. Not only are they easier to catch, they’re easier to paddle over when you’re trying to get to deeper water. It makes so much sense thinking about it now, but I literally had no concept of this at the time. So after about an hour of getting the absolute shit kicked out of me by crashing waves, drinking about a gallon of salt water, never making past the break, and freezing my ass off in a baggy rental wetsuit, I left, as thoroughly defeated as I could have been short of drowning.

What makes surfing so much harder to pick up, in my opinion, than skiing or snowboarding, is that the waves in the ocean are coming at you at a constant speed. You can’t stop for a moment and collect yourself, build up courage to continue. You need to put together a number of skills all at once to be able to ride the wave at all, let alone maneuver. I nearly drowned myself several times before my older second cousin – more like an uncle – took me to an easier beach and put me on a 9’ board, and I finally figured out how to stand up and ride the foam into shore. After that I went to Costco and bought myself a Wavestorm 8’ soft top board, and actually started learning how to ride the face of the unbroken wave.

I have a healthy amount of skepticism of the idea that the more work you put into something the better the payoff in the end. But in this case it was absolutely true. The moment I dropped into my first wave and turned to see the green, unbroken face stretching out in front of me, time seemed to dilate, while at the same time gently impressing upon me the moment’s most urgent callings. For that moment everything behind me did not exist. I relished in each juncture as I came to it but never dwelled in indecision or regret. There was only my awareness of how to trim and lean to stay on top of the wave as it carried me along the break and in toward shore. And over time, as these reactive movements became more deeply engrained, I could feel in real time my awareness and calm and agency expanding in the face of what once felt like uncontrollable chaos.

When I look back on the early stages of my learning to ski or mountain bike – both sports I became heavily involved in as an adult – I can mostly picture and rationalize the progression of my skill. Sure I brought with me my experience doing those things as a kid, as well as any general balance and proprioception I might have had. But for each noticeable gain in ability, I had a pretty well-formed internal sense of what the actualization of the next level of my potential would look and feel like. Learning to surf just wasn’t the same. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I didn’t so much as touch a surfboard until I was 24, while I had skied and mountain biked a bit as a little kid. Maybe it’s because ski slopes and single track trails don’t form and transform underneath you in a matter of seconds like waves do. Whatever it was that clicked for me and allowed me to drop into and ride the waves at Mission Beach, instead of tomahawking inside them as I had become accustomed to, it sprang from deeper inside me, and more spontaneously, than anything else I can remember. Something doesn’t come from nothing, so whatever that thing was that allowed me to create reality from potential had been there, dormant, all along, but it had been a much more elusive little bastard than I had previously known.

To be clear, I’m still no expert surfer, and I don’t know if I ever will be. The waves don’t need to be all that big for me to think better of getting in the ocean at all. But I did learn how to ride a much smaller more aggressive board, a 5’11” hybrid fish. It’s more maneuverable and better suited to bigger, more steeply pitching waves. I’ve also learned how to read the incoming waves a lot better, and for the most part how to not get absolutely pummeled by them… for the most part. Most importantly, I still see a path forward. But it’s very important to me to remember the tiny glimpse I have had into the unfathomable power of the ocean. For the breadth life it gives, it has as much power to take away. To put a point on the end of each of the unlimited branching paths of who I might but never will become, as well as the one, perhaps neither glorious nor glamorous, that is and will become me.