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Tuesday, October 24, 2017

What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky and Conscious Uncoupling

When Enebeli Okwara sent his girl out in the world, he did not know what the world did to daughters. He did not know how quickly it would wick the dew off her, how she would be returned to him hollowed out, relieved of her better parts. - Lesley Nneka Arimah, What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky
I love short story collections about as much as anything in this whole world, but I sometimes shy away from them because they make such hard blog posts to write. That's a bad reason to avoid something that I enjoy, but I've come up with much worse reasons to avoid other things that make me feel better about myself in general, so I guess it fits right in to my regular modus operandi. Did you know that's what MO means? I love it when people use acronyms that they don't know the root of. IE, we say EG to mean "for example" because I guess if I typed FE everyone would assume I mean the element iron. I never mean the element iron.

Running makes me feel good, but waking up when it's dark out and being cold does not. When I frickin go for it and do it anyway, I'm always, always glad, but here I am not having run for months. "As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly," is probably my favorite bible verse about blowing chunks and then eating it. Barf is so gross, you guys, but I'll be darned if dogs don't want to see just in case. That's me when I'm wasting time on things that make me furious instead of doing things that make me happy.

I had a moment last week where I thought to myself, everything I love is horrible now. Obviously that's not true, but it made me sit and think about the things that I think define me vs. the things I spend a lot of time doing. Exempli gratia, reading the news. I like to be up to date on the world, but also I know I'm being tricked and I go for it anyway. Here, I just looked up the top 4 stories on my news app.

None of that is news. These were the top four "stories" while Sonoma, my wife's hometown, was burning to the ground. All of these headlines are either reactions to real news (that Harvey Weinstein stuff is hot garbage for sure and further indications that the louder a man proclaims himself to be feminist, the more on fire his trash is), or the kind of fluff you'd expect to see on one of those soap opera magazines in the checkout aisle. The literal majority of the stuff on my news feed is the political equivalent of teenage girls icing one of their friend group because she flirted with the head mean girl's boyfriend accidentally.

A couple of weeks ago (writing these posts confuse me because I write them a week in advance sometimes) I had kind of a breakdown after the shooting in Las Vegas (that the news isn't talking about anymore because we're too busy clicking on links about Twitter feuds) where I couldn't read any books. Not even comic books! I was in full-on depression mode where I laid in bed and went back and forth between Facebook and Instagram and everything was horrible.

My church had General Conference and there was a talk that doubled and tripled down on the kind of anti-gay talk that has the potential to exacerbate Utah's higher than average suicide rate for youths aged 11-17 (in full disclosure, the Utah Health Department says they haven't seen a correlation between LDS announcements and the suicide rate yet, though those things are obviously hard to isolate), which resulted in my participation in a several days long Facebook fight with a stranger. So that was fun and definitely made me feel better (it didn't).

I caught myself thinking like some kind of dang inspirational meme about cutting out the things from my life that were bringing me down, no matter how important I thought they were, and did one of those checklist things in my head.

Things that make me genuinely happy:
my wife
my kids
spending real time and having real conversations with friends and family
the Greek Food Festival
my new Super Nintendo Classic
The Defenders on Netflix
reading books

Things that were contributing to feelings of hopelessness and horror:
Facebook (number one by far)
football (both fantasy football and the roller coaster ride of mostly nausea and fury punctuated periodically by thrills that constitute being a Raiders fan)
headlines about Donald Trump
headlines in general
The Iron Fist on Netflix
drinking too much soda

Then there were a bunch of things that were all muddled and complicated and made me both happy and sad in more or less equal measures. There are too many of these to list.

I was spending way too much time on the bad stuff, the vomit, the spew, the upchuck. It stank but I turned to it anyway. It would be still warm from my insides and already it looked delicious. Was it any wonder, reader, that I was sad? I was eating (metaphorical) ralph.

I couldn't help but remember an article I'd read (probably on Facebook) about Aziz Ansari "deleting the internet."
I was reading all this Trump stuff, and it doesn't feel like we're reading news for the reason we used to, which was to get a better sense of what's going on in the world and to enrich yourself by being aware. It seems like we're reading wrestling rumors," he said. "It's like reading about what happened on Monday Night Raw. When you take a step back, it all just seems so sensationalized. Trump's gonna get impeached! No, he's not. None of that sh-t's happening. But you are going to read all the articles. So if you take yourself out of it, you're not infected with this toxicity all the time. Also, guess what? Everything is fine! I'm not out of the loop on anything. Like, if something real is going down, I'll find out about it.
So I suspended by Facebook account for a week. It's back up now, but I haven't looked at it at all (hopefully this is true still by the time I post this. Please let it be true (update: it's not true)). I've got it up so that I can share blog posts and be available to people who need me and have no other way of contacting me, and there's the refugee thing coming up. I haven't left Instagram because there are so many babies on there that I love watching grow up and also I guess there are adults who I like following, too (mostly the babies).

It's funny, because I used this amazing super computer in my pocket to do essentially three things: check Instagram, check Facebook, and google actors while I'm watching a show to find out what else they've been in because they are so familiar you guys. With Facebook off of my phone, Instagram takes like 3 seconds to check up on and then I have the muscle memory to look at more stuff but there's no other stuff to look at. So I put Kindle on there. When I have that idle feeling of wanting to look at my phone because I'm in a waiting room or a passenger in a car or whatever, I can close it and be present (ideal), but if I need an escape, I can read a pulpy detective novel without feeling guilty about not reading the Big Important Books (BIBs) that I've challenged myself to read.

But Howie, you've said before that the answer to the unceasing amount of horror in the world is not to hide your head in the sand. Remember your amazing metaphor about rivers? Man. That was good. You've written some good blog posts, Howie. ARE YOU GOING BACK ON YOUR RIVER METAPHOR?

No one asked what he thought of River, but someone should have known that you do not take small things from small men.

Listen, I am not. I'm just stepping back and assessing what I have the capacity to handle, and more importantly, what I have the ability to impact. I am finally convinced that it doesn't matter how clever my Facebook posts are, or how much of a slam-dunk the think piece I just read about the correlation between gun ownership and gun deaths in the United States is, they are not changing anything. My vote can do that. The way I spend my money can do that. Personal conversations with people who respect me enough to really listen can do that.

I feel like I have more impact sitting with a rape victim in an emergency room while he or she endures the traumatic and invasive experience of evidence collection than I do citing statistics, even though those statistics are vitally important to public policy. These victims are so brave, you guys. They are in physical pain and emotional agony and still they decide to spend 4-8 hours in a hospital room so that maybe, maybe, the bad person gets caught. They do this even when the odds are against a successful conviction. Because, and the overwhelming majority of victims say this at some point in the process, they don't want it to happen to someone else.

If I can make that process even a tiny bit easier for them, maybe they'll convince other people to do it, too. Maybe it will give them the courage to speak up in a terrifying courtroom and look into the eyes of the person who took so much away from them and speak up into a microphone and tell the world that there is a monster who lives among them, goes to church with them, plays basketball with them. And hopefully the people who hear their story will teach their kids better, hold their friends accountable, and believe that it's a problem.

It seems to be working, by the way. Since the Wasatch Forensic Nurses team got added to my county, we've seen a sharp uptick in victims opting for evidence collection. I don't think this is because rape is on the rise, rather the word is getting out on A: what to do if it happens and B: that the people involved with it will do everything they can to make victims feel comfortable and supported.

Ansari said, "If something real is going down, I'll find out about it." Real to me doesn't mean eulogies about dead celebrities or immediate reactions to tweets and talk show monologues.

In my (stellar) river analogy, here's what I said:
When massive rainstorms and snowmelt come, the manipulated river can't handle the power. Banks get blown out and entire chunks are washed away and hauled downstream. It's just too much for the stream to handle. In a healthy system, that water is redistributed. Tributaries take some of it, floodplains do, too. Plants along the bank hang on to the soil to stop it from being washed away. Rocks in the stream reduce and reroute the sheer force of rushing water. 
I think a healthy society does the same thing. Some of us are damaged. And that damage makes it impossible to handle all the water that the storm sends our way. We need to spread it out sometimes. Many of us who manage to handle our own storms can take on a bit of someone else's when our lives are calm.
I tell family members of victims that they are like a reservoir. When one reservoir is full, managers release the spillway and send the water downstream to the next one. I tell them that they take on some of that trauma for their loved one, but that their reservoir can fill, too. We have a hotline just for them. They need people to talk to, also.

Here's where I'll talk a little about What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, by Lesley Nneka Arimah. This is perfect because the title of the whole book is also the title of the story that I think makes my point so well. The whole story is there in that link. It's amazing and I think you should read it first. It's not that long (that's why they call it a short story), but it makes a point that I don't think you could make in any other way.

If you didn't read the story (because you're lazy) it's about a woman in a semi-apocalyptic future who works with a mathematical formula that allows "mathematicians" to take on grief and hurt from others. The main character specializes in wealthy families who have lost a child. Her ex was one of those do-gooder types who helped refugees process pain. There's a scary thing that can happen when you take on too much, though, which guess what that's a real thing.

There is a cost to taking on other people's hurt. It doesn't mean it isn't worth doing; a lot of things worth doing have a price. But you need to do it carefully. There's also a cost to filling ourselves up with anger and fear and hopelessness. Like reservoirs can be useless because they are filled with heavy metals and toxic chemicals, so can our emotional reserves. There's enough human suffering out there for us all to max out on it without filling ourselves up with trashy rumors.

If you're in a position where you have to be someone's support at the drop of a hat, you need to keep those reserves full, which means that sometimes you consciously uncouple from the things that fill you up. Self-care is a real thing and it's not selfish to do it. Think of it as carb-loading before a big athletic event. You're not being a glutton for eating all that tortellini if you know you're going to burn it off tomorrow. That's just preparation. If you're the type of person who is regularly approached for emotional support and that's something you're willing to do, do something nice for yourself on a regular basis.

There was a time when fantasy football was a way for me to relax and focus on something that doesn't matter as much anymore. But now it's all a mess in my head. The list of players I don't want to draft because they've hit their girlfriends or wives, or been accused of rape and had the case covered up by local law enforcement is getting longer and longer. So I skip them during the fantasy draft and don't have any of them on my team, which is sort of a cop out if I continue to support the organization as a whole, but OK. But then those same players who shouldn't even be not in jail end up playing against my fantasy team and destroy me. I hate losing anyway, losing an imaginary game because of a domestic abuser who looks like Wicket from Return of the Jedi is one million times worse.

What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky is a pretty amazing book from top to bottom. I got distracted with fantasy football (story of my entire fall-winter) and forgot to talk about it. The story I shared is a little sci-fi/speculative fiction, and there are a few of those. It also has some contemporary stories. One of my favorites, "Who Will Greet You at Home," feels like a traditional legend passed on from generation to generation. Also it's a pretty cracker jack scary story. And also also it's full of profound implications. I really loved it. I can't wait to see what Arimah does next.

So there's that. See? Writing posts about short stories is hard. For me it is. Staying off of Facebook is... well, it hasn't been hard yet. I don't miss it right now. I feel better. I watched about 15 minutes of football last weekend and turned it off and played Super Mario World instead. That felt great, you guys. When I lost it was my fault, and I could try again. And Super Mario World is a masterpiece.

Here's one more quote that reminds everyone that this is actually a blog about books and feelings and trauma and a lot a lot of other things: "I would never ask a person who hasn't tasted a dish whether it needs more salt."