How I Became Not an Abuser

As all these sexually abusive men in positions of power get pushed from behind the curtain, for awhile I’ve been telling myself my voice is not needed. I open my mouth and I’ll be talking over somebody who deserves to be heard. I’ve never been sexually harassed. I’m a cis, white, straight, male, more or less elite East coast liberal. My job is to listen and learn. And I’ve been listening, and it’s been harrowing, and I’ve learned. But the more I hear, the more I want to do more than just listen. The assholes keep piling up until it begins to look like the ones who haven’t been shoved out into the light all ugly and slobbering and leaking pus just haven’t been shoved out yet. It looks like yes, actually, all men. And there’s something to that. Part of the culture of masculinity––not all of it––encourages abusive behavior, sanctions it more or less tacitly, dresses it up in humor or boyish exuberance to handwave it away. It’s a tradition, deeply written into our rituals and belief systems. It employs shame and violence and the threat of violence to self-perpetuate. It is, in large degree, still, unquestioned. I begin to feel it may be the job of every man who is sickened and cringing on behalf of his sex right now to do something about that.

So here I am going to try to trace the process by which I clawed my way up out of the toxic aspects of the culture of masculinity. To the extent that I have.

To be clear: I’m doing this for myself. To make me better. Acting like I have the moral authority to advise anybody else how not to make these mistakes would, I’m afraid, fall under the auspices of the same system that tells certain men it’s okay to grab ’em by the pussy.

The easy answer is that I have three younger sisters, a mother, seven aunts, eight girl cousins, three nieces and counting, all of whom I love and respect and admire, none of whom I’ve ever thought of as sex objects, who taught me how to care about women as people. And I had good male role models, like my dad, who encouraged me to be respectful of women and demonstrated what that looked like by example.

But I had bad role models too. And I made mistakes. Lots of them. I have thought of women as sex objects. I’ve treated them that way, to my lasting shame. This is not a simple thing. If it were, I have to imagine a lot more fathers would have taught their sons not to do even the low-grade, unprosecutable, stupid, degrading, insulting awfulness like catcalling women out the windows of their pickup trucks, let alone kinds of things currently getting assholes run through the wringer of public opinion, like dangling advancement in front of less-senior co-workers as incentive for sexual favors while maybe also dangling worse things in front of them.

So the mistakes then.

How do I do this?

Do I talk about the waterlogged Hustler my best friend scrounged from his older brother when we were eleven and we kept hidden under a rock in the woods until it disintegrated in the rain, how it introduced us explicitly to female anatomy if not to the mechanics never mind the emotional content of the act of love? Do I tell you how I actually found out what parts fit where, from the Physician’s Desk Reference, to which I was directed by my dad in lieu of The Talk? I love my dad. He’s a great, good man, and he’s taught me a lot about how to live. But what he taught me about love––which is a lot, thought it included absolutely nothing about sex––he taught me by example. Would you like to guess how long it took me to understand how to do the emotional component of the act of love? I’m thirty-eight. I think I’m starting to feel halfway confident about it now.

I did not learn, I’m sorry to say, how to love, how to fuck, tenderly and with consideration and solicitude and generosity and kindness, how not to expect or demand or try to take what I wasn’t entitled to (which is anything) by being taught. Love is complicated. Learning by example––and by trial and error––takes a long fucking time, and it can lead down a lot of wrong paths, especially if for examples you’ve got TV and film and video games and books to try and crib from in more volume than actual human relationships. Because for real people these are taboo topics in some ways––and not just the parts about sex. Especially if any of the actual human relationships you’ve got for examples have been influenced by that long, self-perpetuating tradition of masculine emotional detachment and privilege and entitlement and presumed physical and intellectual superiority.

“It’s okay to cry,” a kid in my boy scout troop told me once, incredibly unconvincingly, after he spent half an hour poking me in the back with a knife until I hyperventilated. I always figured the adults put him up to the apology. I always hoped he learned something from it. I learned something: not the right thing, but the useful thing, the thing that would allow me to function in a society of men. I learned it was not okay to cry.

Tough it out. Shake it off. These were strategies my dad offered me as ways to suffer through pain. They worked, eventually, and I was relieved, until the numbing consequences became apparent in things like sexual performance issues and inability to process hurt. But for a long time I was not tough, and I was shown no examples of how to be otherwise and maintain much self-respect. So I didn’t have a lot of self-respect.

When I was thirteen, my family had a foreign exchange student. She was smarter than me, she spoke three languages, she was braver, she’d come all the way across an ocean to live apart from her family, she was beautiful, she was living in my house. I judged her unattainable. I thought so much worse of myself than I thought of her, and thereby fulfilled that prophecy even if it wouldn’t have self-fulfilled anyway, which it would have. We had a ridiculously small pool in the backyard where my sisters and I played an exuberant version of Marco Polo. They encouraged her to join us, and it came my turn to be Marco. After the fact, I used my closed eyes as an excuse to claim that I had touched her breasts “accidentally”. I hadn’t. Groping her did nothing for me sexually––it didn’t titillate or satisfy me. It just made me despise myself. I begged her forgiveness, she gave it, but we both knew it wasn’t an accident. I never did anything like it again. What made me do it at all? Did I need to experiment on another human being in order to find out how awful it would feel? I don’t remember what gave me the idea, if it was Hustler or something some friend had bragged about or what. Frankly, looking for an explanation outside of myself feels like a cheat. I can’t lay the fault on the culture of masculinity. I’m not going to pretend getting poked in the back by some little shit whose dad probably hit him made me need to grope a girl I admired. And I’m not going to blame my dad for failing to sufficiently instruct me how not to be an asshole. It’s my fault. I own it.

I guess I hope talking about it makes some difference for somebody else.

After that, I looked for ways to experiment without hurting anyone.

In my all-male D&D group in high school––encouraged at least somewhat by the source material but also not needing much––boy did we experiment with women as objects. Imaginary women, thank god. Imaginary pliable women with ripped bodices, imaginary powerful women with swordsmanship skills almost the match of our own. It was juvenile, it was hormone-driven and gross. It never went as far as rape as we’d have thought of it then, but our definition wasn’t broad enough. And yet I feel like this was a lot better way to proceed through a lot of pretty potentially fucked-up scenarios without actual consequences for actual women. I personally feel it helped me to treat real women better. Though I can’t say so for everybody I played with. There was a pretty unsubtle element of homoeroticism to all this––fictional women as proxies––that I was very aware of even at the time but not remotely able to process, let alone help anybody else do the same. Then an actual girl showed up to join us, and we had no idea what to do with ourselves; the group completely fell apart. So maybe none of us learned anything after all.

For awhile I frequented role-playing chatrooms, wherein I pretended to be a more or less romance cover brooding heartthrob and I think maybe seduced some lonely older women into my private chatroom. A few of them figured out I was by no means of legal age and made me realize how predatory I was being. I was grateful not to have done far worse, I was grateful that the consequences were limited to this incredibly shallow emotional scope in which I could play out scenarios. Anonymity let me say things I could never have said to anyone’s face, and they worked, and yet I did not then go on to say any of those things to anyone’s face. Because even anonymously, it was not without consequences. I hurt people, I got hurt.

I was and am shy, socially awkward, and I think that has both helped and hindered me. It stopped me being a bigger asshole than I could have been; it kept me from making more mistakes earlier and learning from them.

I have asked a real girl in person on a date only once in my life. It didn’t go well.

My first girlfriend was firmly of the opinion that sex was a tool of the patriarchy. We had one fairly in-depth intellectual conversation about this and one that was brief and final. In the first she made her interpretation abundantly clear; I initiated the second anyway. She characterized it as pressuring her for sex. Having nothing to compare it to, I took her word for it and was again ashamed. She broke up with me over it. I still think she wasn’t wrong to do so. But later, a mutual (girl) friend who’d heard both our stories told me I was just being a typical teenage boy and she’d been asking too much. I still don’t know what to think about that. I would have liked to be better than a typical teenage boy. But I don’t get to revisit that, I don’t get to go back and ask, I just get to go forward and try not to make anything like that mistake again.

I spent two years trying to figure out how to be supportive of my future wife while she earned a women’s studies degree. I told people during and after this time that I must have learned some feminism by osmosis; I think I did, just not anything like enough. Part of why I proposed towards the end of that period was in some kind of muddled traditionalist reaction against the alternative lifestyles the wonderfully diverse social context of her degree program had exposed me to. I saw how it was okay for all these other forms of relationships to exist––but if I’d been ready to embrace them as they deserved, my reaction wouldn’t have been to reach for traditional marriage. We’ve been together twenty years, married for half that. I have been given the chance to revisit that decision with her, and to choose it again and again, for which I am immensely grateful.

Honestly, it’s only a few years since I turned a corner regarding my self-concept and my impact on other people in the world and have begun deeply and in earnest trying to understand the lasting repercussions of these mistakes, and more like them, and to make something of it. All the learning from mistakes I did before then strikes me as having taken place in some kind of fugue state, half-consciously reeling from one to another, driven by fear of getting things wrong rather than desire to get things right.

What changed? The women I love. Constantly, through all these years, they got better, stronger, they found the strength to be more vocal. I don’t know how they did it. Together, I gather. In spite of odds and obstacles. And assholes like myself.

One thing that hasn’t changed is my willingness to listen. I’ve been doing it all my life, through all these stupid mistakes, and it’s colored my reactions every time. I’ve gotten better at it. But it’s something nobody had to convince me of: that women are worth listening to. I might go so far as to call it my saving grace in all this. Because it wasn’t just my dad; there really were no men around telling me, or even trying to show me, any of these places I might go wrong. My dad, my grandfathers, my uncles, my friends. The vast majority of them, I think, are not assholes. I’m sure they all made mistakes somewhere in the ballpark of these I have litanied above––but they didn’t share. I guess they didn’t think it was their job––which is fair. I guess they felt the cumulative pressure of all the men they knew and had been raised by that these kinds of things weren’t appropriate to talk about.

That’s the pressure I’m trying to break. Is it helping?

I’m a new father. I can’t blame my dad or my uncles or grandfathers for not wanting to talk to me about all this. But I can want better for my son. I have a chance to do better. I’m going to teach him the golden rule. I’m going to teach him not to bite or pull hair or hit people. I hope everyone already does that. Eventually, I’m going to actually talk to him about romantic love and sex. And I’ll try to teach him some subtler lessons. I don’t expect him to get them all at once. I expect I’ll try to tell him and show him these things over and over, for years, decades, until he gets them or I die. And maybe I’ll get to do the same for my nephews, my cousins’ kids. If I’m incredibly lucky I’ll be given a chance to do a little part of this work for people my own age, maybe even older. I’ve been trying with my dad. Just this past thanksgiving I found myself trying with one of my cousins. He resisted. It’s not easy, but I’m going to keep at it. It seems important.

Listen to women. Believe them. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes––just try not to make these ones I made, which I’ll tell you about over and over until you get the lesson. Don’t transfer cruelty; don’t absorb it and then spill it out again later on people who don’t deserve it. Don’t just try to swallow it all either. Don’t go numb. Open up. Share. There is not actually any material benefit to acting tough; it may look like it protects you from mockery or ostracization, but you actually didn’t want or need to impress those assholes anyway. The people you really want to impress in the end, the people with the capacity to love you, will in fact be impressed by the opposite.

That’s how it worked for me, anyway.

 

On Not Punching Nazis: A Meditation from Personal Experience

If you know me, likely you’ve heard this story. I’ve told it a lot. Yes, despite occasional vows to the contrary, I am finally writing it down. This seemed like the moment. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Maybe now that I have, I can stop.

This is the story of that time I didn’t punch a Nazi in the face, and its consequences.

I joined chess club late in my freshman year of high school. The team captain was only a year older, a pale, skinny, intimidatingly brilliant, terminally aloof kid named Britt Greenbaum. Initially he refused to even play against me. Until I formally tried out for the team, I wasn’t worth his time. Even then, he took pains to make it clear he didn’t consider me a worthy opponent. He played the whole, painfully brief game with headphones on and his walkman turned up loud, barely looking at the board, making split-second moves.

In three years, I never saw him lose a game. My senior year, after he graduated and I took over as captain, kids at chess meets in neighboring towns would shake in their sneakers when they saw us coming. “Is Greenbaum still with you?”

I found out he was a white supremacist in my sophomore year, when we shared a free period. (Britt Greenbaum, Nazi. His dad was Jewish; he hated his dad.) He came up to me in the library, his sidekick, a Pakistani kid smaller than he was whose name has escaped me because I never heard him say a word except to agree with Britt, at his heels. No doubt he’d noticed I was reading one of Zelazny’s Amber novels, in which flamboyantly dressed, flamboyantly heterosexual white dudes battle for the secret order of the universe and no people of color appear anywhere. (At the time, this was invisible to me–practically all the SF and fantasy I’d read fit that description.) I had my discman; politely, I took off my headphones. He asked what I was listening to: Queen’s A Kind of Magic. “Princes of the Universe is a great song,” he said, as enthusiastically as I’d heard him say anything. Princes of the Universe: the theme from Highlander, those movies about a secret order of white dudes battling for ultimate power over the human race. (Yes, he was about to employ the music of a band called Queen fronted by a guy named Farrokh Bulsara as a springboard for his argument for a white master race.)

As the above is in this day and age perhaps no longer enough to indicate, I was an outsider, a weird kid without a lot of friends. So was he. A reasonable guess, from his perspective, that I might be wondering why women and power weren’t falling into my lap they way they did for Connor MacLeod and Corwin of Amber, harboring a grudge against the world he could exploit to mold me to his will. So he launched into the spiel: about how white men had valiantly made everything good in this world despite the tenacious resistance of everybody who wasn’t. About the white man’s burden specifically, it being our responsibility to keep everybody else on the right path. About the secret conspiracy of Jews. Thinking back, it all was incredibly, painfully obvious. At the time, I’d never heard it before, but still it took less than a minute for me to start arguing.

In even less time, he shrugged his disinterest and took off with his posse of one. He never bothered me about it again.

I don’t know how many other kids he tried this on. Not many, I suspect. Nobody I’ve asked since. My high school wasn’t exactly the ideal breeding ground for Nazism. Tiny graduating classes, rich kids of educated parents, a fair number of them Jewish, fewer Indian and Pakistani, fewer Latinx, Chinese. A handful of Black kids who took a Metco bus in from Boston every morning. Plus, we’d all already been through a Holocaust unit in seventh grade social studies. We’d read Elie Wiesel’s Night and looked at pictures of concentration camps. We’d been taught about the Third Wave, this terrifying experiment a history teacher in California performed on his students, subtly indoctrinating them in fascist principles to demonstrate how easy it was. Did kids in other places learn that stuff? I’d always thought so. What did I know, entrenched in white privilege? As a result, without many obviously vulnerable targets around for him to oppress or try to delude, it was easy not to worry about the presence of this tactically brilliant, socially isolated baby fascist in our midst. Britt wasn’t an idiot: he had to be incredibly careful what he said to who, or he’d get the shit kicked out of him.

He did, in fact, get the shit kicked out of him, in the summer before my senior year. He’d made sure everybody knew he had a double black belt in taekwondo, but he was a hundred and forty pounds soaking wet, fat lot of good it was going to do against six jocks worked up into a righteous anger. When I found out about it I felt bad for him, honestly. A couple of those jocks had bullied me too, back before I figured out how to operate under their very limited radar. Which also gave me an excuse to think he wasn’t as smart as his chess record would otherwise indicate. It certainly seemed to confirm he never posed much of a threat.

I’m afraid I was wrong about that.

I know what happened to Britt Greenbaum after high school only from the internet.

He changed his name legally to Davis Hawke.

He went to a small, private Christian college in the rural South, where he joined a campus white supremacist group and climbed precipitously through the ranks, eventually breaking off and founding his own organization, until some of his fellow neo-Nazis figured out his real name and his Jewish ancestry and kicked him out. He dropped out of school.

He then became a major figure in the early days of the spam email wars. He supposedly made millions selling penile enhancement products to the sad and gullible. Apparently the FBI monitored him for awhile, afraid he was going to interfere in the 2004 elections. AOL sued him on behalf of its subscribers and won $12.8 million dollars in damages, which they never collected, because he disappeared. Last I heard, AOL was getting ready to dig up his parents’ lawn looking for gold bullion, and Britt had purportedly fled to South America, where I imagine him whiling away his days shooting coke, playing chess, trolling 4chan for the lulz, and paying people to pretend like they’re his friends.

I’m not trying to promote conspiracy theories here, I’m not interested in blaming Britt for Trump or for Charlottesville. Fuck I really hope he’s not the secret mastermind behind all of it. For years I have tried not to think much about him. Suddenly I can’t help it. I lie awake at night thinking about him. Hence this post. I’m just trying to get it out of my head, to find something to take away from it that doesn’t leave me feeling helpless and fatalistic.

Since Charlottesville, I’ve been asking myself what I would do differently if he reappeared in my life, as Davis Hawke or whoever, and tried to recruit me now. The difference between a sad, powerless white supremacist laughingstock in 1995, a rich, morally bankrupt asshole exploiter of his fellow sadsacks in 2003, and a terrifying wielder of paranoid, nationalist hate in 2017, it’s been pointed out to me, is the internet. In 1995, he was alone, except for one deluded toady. He had to change his name, hide his heritage, pick up and move hundreds of miles to find people who agreed with him, who’d listen to him. In 2017, identity doesn’t matter. Geographic limitations don’t matter. With a thousand gibbering anonymous redditors at his back, suddenly he’s a fucking internet boogeyman.

Back then, I had a chance to punch Britt Greenbaum in the face. Instead, out of cowardice or naïveté, a failure to understand or engage with the threat someone of his intelligence and hateful agenda posed to the world, I argued with him civilly for a minute before he lost interest, wandered away and kept on being an asshole.

And it’s only now that he scares me.

So what if it happened again? Would I punch him in the face?

I don’t think it would have helped. I don’t think it would have changed his mind, then or now. After all, he did get the shit kicked out of him, and he stayed an asshole, arguably became an even bigger asshole. I don’t think punching him in the face would even make me feel better. In fact, I’d feel worse. Because I’d be afraid I’d given him fuel for his misanthropy and rage and superiority complex. I’d be afraid he’d read it as follows: Once again DeLuca demonstrates his inability to contend with me at my own level, what a fucking waste of time.

Given another chance, I guess I’d rather try to play at his level. Maybe I could hatch some plot against him. Trying to outsmart him, to…use the internet against him, somehow? Fool him into banking on inherent human selfishness in such a way as to reveal the inherent human capacity for empathy, thereby undoing him forever? But that sounds like a Star Trek plot. A fairy tale, in other words. I’m pretty sure what would really happen, based on experience: he’d wipe the floor with me, because he’s capable of deliberate, premeditated evil and I’m not, because he’s a hell of a lot better at tactics.

But I guess Britt himself isn’t the point. None of my experience of him is relevant to this, to how I’m feeling right now, except that he’s the white supremacist I know, and I can put his face on the awfulness I’m seeing and try to understand it through him. Only I can’t. it’s not like I could predict his actions anyway, it’s not like I ever understood him. I can’t extrapolate from any of this to what is to be done, except maybe in the broadest and simplest of terms. Because I’m not actually pitting myself against a hypothetical Nazi supergenius boogeyman, a Red Skull, but rather against a great unwashed of faceless, generic, socially ostracized, downtrodden, hateful wimps. Who I couldn’t punch in the face anyway except metaphorically, by posting pictures of Captain America (non-Nazi edition) punching Red Skull in the face on the internet, to even less effect than actually punching anybody ever.

If that makes anybody feel better, fine. But it’s not working that way for me.

Individually, white supremacists are pitiful–not worthy of empathy or sympathy, but pathetic, tiny of mind, tiny of heart, miserable little self-pitying shits. I don’t think anybody could come to those beliefs from other than a very sad and lonely place. As such, I think it’s not worth punching them–not until they’re in a position of power, anyway. Are you an Indiana Jones, and will punching this Nazi prevent him from gaining access to a divine weapon of mass destruction? Then punch him. Will it, on the other hand, only make his jaw hurt, and you feel a little better for a minute, and then worse because you’ve been reduced to his level? Then maybe don’t punch him.

The trouble is, whiteness is already a position of power, affording thousands of ways to hurt people even without malicious intent. Ways I completely failed to accommodate for or anticipate back when I was given the opportunity to punch Britt in 1995. I never saw or heard of him threatening or oppressing anyone, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t. If I’d been standing there when he did, and punching him might stop him, that one time, I’d like to think I’d have fucking punched him. But I don’t get to second-guess, I don’t get to go back. I get to go forward. I don’t get to make the decision whether or not to punch Britt or anyone in the face until the opportunity presents itself. This is what I have to keep reminding myself.

I don’t want to punch Britt in the face; what I want is to get way the hell out in front of ever needing to punch him or those like him and prevent them from coming into existence in the first place. I want to go back in time and kill Hitler. But failing that, I want to take what action I can, now, to prevent people around me from turning into new Britts and Hitlers. Which means talking about it. Talking about fascism, talking about Nazis and what they did and what happened to them and what’s happening now. Trying to get kids in school to read Night and Anne Frank’s diary and read history, and talk about it, and pay attention to the world and employ critical thinking skills to figure out what’s the same and what’s different, and not to oversimplify any of it down to matters of good vs. evil, to fairytales. It’s not that simple, it’s never that simple. People are still people, not faceless fascist boogeymen, and it’s my responsibility to treat them as such. Britt Greenbaum and everybody else. It’s frustrating, it isn’t easy, but that’s what there is, that’s what I get. I get to go forward.

And eventually, if I keep at it, I feel better.

By the Brook Today: A Foraging Adventure

By the brook today, I had such a fruitful and thoroughly representative comedy of errors I decided it was worth more than the usual tweet.

I arrived at the brook with my foraging kit (bag, basket, camera, knife) not expecting much. It had rained a bit that morning, not enough to get my hopes up.

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So I started with a visit to the nettle patch. The brook is Paint Creek, so called because the textile mills used to dump industrial dyes in it. That was 150 years ago; it has been cleaned up–but not so much that its environs don’t remain very obviously a post-industrial landscape. The Grand Trunk Railroad used to run a stone’s throw away; now it’s a bike path. The nettles are native—they’re native practically everywhere—but here they’re fighting a pitched battle with invasive garlic mustard, acres of it, so much there’s no hope of getting rid of it. Still, the nettles hold their own. I help as I can, ripping up the garlic mustard by the roots before I harvest the leaves, harvesting only the top few leaf pairs of each nettle so they’ll grow back bushy. I get stung. I don’t mind.

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Then I climbed over the brook along this branch. I had figured out this was possible (and really very satisfying, though it’s touch and go there in the middle) back in the fall. I’d never done it with my foraging kit, but I wasn’t worried. There’s another way back, hopping across the graffitoed bridge ruins a quarter mile downstream; I always go back that way, it’s less acrobatic, and safer, as long as the water isn’t running too high. Much less risk of losing any found riches.

I forayed upstream a bit, then cut uphill to the top of the ravine and then back downstream again, not looking very hard for mushrooms because I didn’t expect to see any. I never expect to find morels. I’ve never even seen one in the flesh. And like I said, it was relatively dry. So I made it to the bridge ruin, I skipped across, dropped off my nettle and garlic mustard harvest at my bike, then lingered by the brook a bit more. And that’s where I came across the dryad’s saddles, growing in profusion out from under this old, burl-ridden willow log dragging its roots in the brook.

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Polyporous squamosa, lovely, tawny-textured on top, hexagonal-pored white underneath. Considered a poor consolation prize for the morel hunter, but I love them. They’re best when young, which these were, brand new, some no bigger than a quarter.

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Gleefully, I reached for my knife…but it was gone. Lost! The precious! It had fallen from my pocket somewhere. A sinking feeling. Then a stubborn resolve. You have no idea how often this happens to me. I drop things in the woods. Important things. Wedding rings, garage door openers, phones. I’ve had remarkable luck finding them. I retrace my steps. I search, keen-eyed.

Back around through the nettle patch I went. Had I left it when I went to pack up my basket? No. Two other possibilities: I’d climbed a black cherry tree up above the ravine on the far side. Or there was that branch across the brook. But if I’d dropped it there, wouldn’t I have heard the splash?

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In fact it appears I would not have. Yay! Finding of lost things streak sustained.

On my second trip up and over the ravine and down, I paid more attention. I was tireder, slower. I saw this:

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False morel, Gyromitra brunnea. Easily distinguishable from true morel by lack of a hollow central cavity in the stem.

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Never seen one of these before either. Wouldn’t have, if I hadn’t dropped my knife. I call that a win.

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Broken arrow. Took it home for propping up tomatoes.

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Sweet woodruff, Galium odoratum, naturalized European ground cover; flowers widely used in Germany for flavoring May wine.

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And then again across the graffiti bridge and back to harvest the dryad’s saddles.

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Quite a gratifying and productive day in the woods, I must say. And that’s not even counting the wild mint I picked up on the bike ride home.

The Poison Mushroom: A Cautionary Tale

After eleven years hunting mushrooms, eight of those since I built up the confidence to actually eat some of what I found, yesterday I had my first bite of poison mushroom. It put me in the emergency room.

I was shown no revelations about how all life on earth is intimately connected in a profound but delicate web (though of course I knew this already). I did not see David Bowie. For four and a half hours I felt completely normal. Then, over three hours, my body voided the entire contents of my digestive system between brief stints of shivering on the bathroom floor. Then I sat in a hospital bed for three hours with a saline drip in my arm while a series of medical professionals asked me, “WHY?”

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A Penance in Verapaz

Verapaz means “true peace”. The neighboring Guatemalan departments of Alta and Baja Verapaz are so named because of the warlike Achí Maya, who like the Apache in the US stubbornly refused to be conquered until long after the rest of the country. When they finally did submit, it was because of the spread of religion, not the sword.

This is a story of breakdown and redemption, in which I strive again and again to interrogate and dismantle my assumptions only to find more awaiting beneath, until finally, mental and physical resources spent, I give up hope, only to be lifted up and saved by human kindness.

Before the dawn of January 25th in the mountainous jungle town of Lanquín, Alta Verapaz, I cursed out a small crowd of self-important American adventure tourists packed into a rickety minibus bound for Antigua. That evening, I danced goofily (the only way I know how) with a small crowd of teenage Achí Mayan girls to a marimba band at a saint’s day fair in the desert valley town of Rabinal, Baja Verapaz, then fell asleep on a cardboard pallet on their kitchen floor long past midnight on the 26th. These were serious breaches of character for me. I get angry, but I never vent it at other people no matter what kind of assholes they are; I bottle it up, then expel it into exertion or prose. I dance in public only under duress or the influence of strong drink, and I open up to people under more or less the same circumstances.

Understanding the cause of these transgressions perhaps requires a little backstory.

I’ve read much on the subject of Guatemala; I’ve written stories, blog posts; I’m working on a novel. I don’t consider myself any kind of authority. I’m a hobbyist, a tourist. But I try. I love Guatemala, and I want to do it justice, to treat its people and culture with empathy and respect. This is where the assumptions come in: privilege, whiteness, entitlement. I’m trying to see through these things to the truth, trying to understand what it is to be born to the opposite of those things in a place I love because of them.

At the end of this, my fourth and latest visit, I’d planned three days to myself. This concept was anathema to the white kids on the minibus, who with shrill laughter equated the notion of an afternoon alone even in Antigua, a city full of English-speakers, to waking nightmare. For me, though, those three days alone were a promise of release, a getting back to myself. Disinclined though I’d normally be to resort to Christian metaphor—particularly since the motivations in question include no small pagan influence—I thought of it as a penance. Penance for the cushy, full-bellied vacationing I’d done with my family up to this point; penance for the cushy, full-bellied living I’d been doing at home.

What I sap I am, I know. And this is long. So I’ll forgive you for not clicking….

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