Monday, July 21, 2008

Last night

I've been living in Bushwick for almost two years now and the first time I ended up with a knife at my ribs was in Berkeley, CA. Figures. The only time I was sort of mugged in Brooklyn it was by a hysterical middle-aged man who told me that if I didn't give him $5 for toilet paper, diapers, and milk he would stab me with a knife I doubt he really had. I offered to buy them for him on my credit card because I didn't have any cash, but my bus arrived while we were walking to the store so I apologized, handed him whatever change was in my pocket, and got on the bus.

I guess in a wealthy, progressive, mostly white college town that shares borders with a historically poor, violent ghetto it comes with the territory (not that the Oakland of 2008 quite compares with the Oakland of yesteryear). Still, I never thought I'd say I feel safer walking home from the Jefferson stop on the L, but I guess I kinda do. Walking home from the Ashby BART station I look for all the world like a rich college kid who won't put up much of a fight, and if you thought so you'd be at least a third right. Why wouldn't you hold me up for my iPod and the $25 in cash I'm carrying; my rich parents will probably feel sorry for me and buy me a new one. Unfortunately, I actually do work for a living, but it's an honest mistake.

I thought they were following me but there wasn't much I could do about it. All of a sudden there was an arm around my neck and the business end of a cheap switchblade poking me right above the kidney. He didn't look a day older than 15. Guy #2 came around in front of me and folded his arms in a poor attempt at appearing menacing. He looked a little older but no less nervous. I couldn't tell what either one said because I still had my headphones on (although I got the gist of it), so I took them off just as he told me to give him the iPod. Like I said, I'm not the type to put up much of a fight, although every time something like this happens I walk away wondering how much pain and risk my self-respect should be worth. This time, apparently, my middle-class instincts took over and I did as I was told without thinking about it first. Next he asked for my wallet. I told him he could have the whole $25 I was carrying but I didn't want to give him my ID or credit cards, since I would just be canceling them anyway. While I started pulling cards out, preparing to hand him a wallet with nothing in it but a Starbucks card with $8.67 on it, an expired rubber, and a few phone numbers, he asked what was in my bag. I told him, truthfully, that all I had was a couple of books and a half-eaten falafel sandwhich. Guy #2 opened it up as guy #1, seemingly losing his nerve, started to skip away, having forgotten about the useless wallet (he already had the cash), and then they both took off, yelling something about how I needed my books for class on Monday. I'm not sure if that was intended as sarcasm or nicety, but for some reason I felt compelled to correct them lest they go home thinking that they had judged me correctly, and with my one remaining shred of pride I yelled after them, "I'm not in school, I read those for fun!" Within moments I was running over scenarios in my head that involved fighting back, running, staring him in they eyes and telling him to fuck off, and telling him that if he was interested in continental philosophy or feminist theory he was welcome to my books but that otherwise he should forget about the bag. In retrospect, I wish he had stolen my copy of MacKinnon's Toward a Feminist Theory of the State and given it a read, since I only paid $6 for it at Myopic Books in Chicago anyway.

I could give a fuck about the iPod, and the fact that all I need to do is go on ebay, authorize the use of my credit card, and a brand new one arrives within days speaks to the complicated nature of inner-city politics and race relations. This wasn't a random act of violence, if anything it was probably (whether directly or indirectly) a response to social and institutional violence, for which I have inherited some of the responsibility.

This represents another event in a series of reminders that I am not, as my upbringing may have suggested, at the top of the food chain by virtue of intelligence and education. Despite the fact that I was mugged once when I was in high school (it's a long story, but suffice it to say that, relative to your average mugging, it wasn't particularly threatening) and that a certain amount of violent crime managed to spill over the borders that Takoma Park shares with PG county and NE DC, I feel that I was raised in the delusion state of belief that the "real" world is the world of bourgeois concerns, career goals, and enjoyable pastimes, and that the Hobbseian state of nature that exists beneath it all is a distant memory. It is a jarring experience to be confronted with the fact that all of that can be taken away, all of the Liberal Arts education, material goods, the hobbies, the emotional struggles, by someone who lives outside of that paradigm, but it is even more deeply unsettling to be reminded of the fact that most of the people on the earth live with the threat of immediate physical violence looming over their every action. But I'm not in the mood for polemics.

Other than some lingering questions about privilege and politics, the thing I've been left thinking about the most is how this sort of thing effects my sense of self-respect. The rational thing to do was certainly to hand over the money and electronics, and had I the presence of mind to carefully consider my options and do so, I probably would feel fine about it. But just like the time a schizophrenic threatened over and over to kill me - from a distance of no more than a a few inches - in retaliation for something he'd imagined that I'd done, and just like the time a truck-driver got out of his truck and grabbed me in the middle of traffic, I panicked and allowed someone to walk all over me, to own me. Maybe I could have taken them, maybe not. In this case, I'd say that the likelihood that if I managed not to get stabbed I still probably would have lost the fight and ended up losing my journal and cell phone as well as the iPod made compliance the smart move, but I didn't make it as a well-reasoned judgment, it was my gut reaction. To completely prostrate myself before anyone willing to make credible physical threats to my person. Cowardice. It's completely emasculating, and every time something like this happens my sense of self-respect dissolves. After the aforementioned incident with a trucker I was left thinking that with all those people around the worst that could have possibly happened would have been that I got hit a couple of times in the face, and I know my self-respect is worth at least that much to me. No matter how many fights I do get into or at least commit to (not that this happens all that often), or how many mirrors or windows I smash, something inside of me will always make me feel like less of a man because when push comes to shove my instinct is not to stand up for myself. How fucked up is that? I can read and debate all the feminist theory I want, but apparently I will always be controlled by the hegemonic concept of masculinity, and a part of me isn't so sure that's wrong. I believe that the state exists primarily to protect the property of the rich from the poor, and I'd be a lousy anarchist if I didn't have some faith that in a free society people would have more of an interest in helping than hurting each other, but unless you cede it to the relative monopoly of the use of force enjoyed by the police and military, self-defense is as much a natural right as anything else can be said to be (assuming that unlike me you believe in the concept of natural rights). Why shouldn't I value strength, so long as it's not at the expense of valuing compassion, why shouldn't I value the ability to assert oneself so long as it's not at the expense of considering the needs of others? I don't necesarily think that feminism asks of men (or women, or transpeople, for that matter) that we relinquish these values. Whatever, I guess I'm running out of steam.

Scared to death and scared to look
They shook...

Monday, July 14, 2008

Leaving Portland

Ok, first order of business: whoever left an anonymous comment on my last entry without signing it, I don't know who you are. If you have stuff you want to talk to me about, you should let me know who you are. Or if you prefer to maintain an air of mystery, by all means change nothing.

With that out of the way...

I'm leaving Portland in less than 24-hours. Through craigslist, I found a ride with a man named Gary, who is concerned with environmental issues, has an unidentified accent that sounds sort of French and sort of Middle Eastern (not that I'm an expert my any stretch of the imagination), and told me on the phone that though he wasn't vegan he could imagine himself spiritually converting to veganism. Ooookay. Should be an interesting ride.

I've been here now for just over two weeks. In the post before my last I talked about some of the things I had done up to that point; sadly, I've done almost nothing worth mentioning since. Well, maybe it isn't all that sad, because I tend to enjoy sitting around a living room reading, watching movies, and talking with my friends. But the lull in activity has reinforced the feeling that it's about time to get moving again. Not that I'm getting sick of my very good friends here in Portland, nor of the city itself, but 2 weeks is a pretty good amount of time to spend in a city in which one has no projects, goals, jobs, or activities. I could just keep renting moves and reading books, but I can do that (and I often do) in New York, where I can also work and pay down my credit card debt rather than amassing even more whilst sitting on my ass.

But I haven't done nothing, just less than in my first week. So, here are a few things I've done in the last week:

-Played a lot more pool.

-Spent a few hours tanning with my feet in a public fountain, the likes of which I've never seen. There is a very fountain downtown with several levels and artificial waterfalls, and in which swimming is not only allowed but encouraged. The water in each area is only a couple of feet deep, so there are no lifeguards. Just a sign that advises the citizen to exercise caution. On a day as hot as that one, it is pretty crowded, but there is still plenty of space to sit in the sun with one's friends in naught but sunglasses and boxer-briefs. The real miracle is that no one has yet fallen and been seriously injured or killed. The upper-level pools are separated from the 15-foot drop to the lower ones by a ledge that stands about as high as the water level and is about half a foot wide. No railing, no pathway, nothing. Sitting on the bottom I watched 4-year-old after 4-year-old stand on a slippery ledge, back facing a potentially fatal drop, and jump into the pool. Perhaps Portlanders are more coordinated than the rest of us.

-Sitting in the cafe at Powell's, reading. Powell's, which I've probably mentioned in previous posts, is the largest used-book store I've ever seen. It occupies an entire city block and has 3 or 4 floors. I am somewhat of a bibliophile, and I could wander around the stacks all day thinking about books I'd like to have read, things I'd like to know more about, and how impressive my bookshelf could look. This time, however, after an hour or two of browsing, I made an uncharacteristically financially sound decision and decided to sit in the cafe with my friends reading the book I already owned - Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow - instead of buying several more. My reading queue is already miles long and getting longer. Some day I'll know everything.

-Wikipedia-ing rappers, housing projects, gangs, philosophers, and writers, for a total of 4 or 5 hours in 2 days. It all started with being curious as to the educational background of Lil' Wayne, but once you get started clicking links, you can go for days. Did you know that Lil' Wayne and Tupac were both drama geeks in middle school?

-Driving in Matt's car, running other peoples' errands, for 3 or 4 hours one day. I've always really enjoyed driving, and now that I do it so rarely it's even more fun.

-Celebrating my birthday. We bought Pizza dough from Hot Lips, Temptation Cheese from Food Fight, and Stewart's root beer from New Seasons. Jake made pizza sauce and Sean, drawing upon his previous experience at a pizza shop, spun the dough in the air. Justine topped everyone else by making s'mores cupcakes from Vegan Cupcakes Take Over The World. Excellent birthday.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Happy birthday to me (tomorrow)

On the day I turned 22, I took the last ever final exam of my undergraduate career and said goodbye to a lot of people that I [correctly] expected never to talk to again (despite nearly universal insistence that we tooootally needed to hang out). When everyone found out that it was my birthday, they promised that we would all go to dinner or a bar or whatever to celebrate, but I knew that they would all forget because it was the last night in Madrid for most of them and they had more fun things to do. The only person that remembered was my friend Stephanie - incidentally the only person to whom I ever spoke again - and we went out for dinner, her treat. I didn't hold it against anyone; I didn't make a big deal out of my birthday and told people that they didn't need to either. I ended up being very thankful, however, that Stephanie was concerned, because it turned out to be a really nice way to spend a birthday. After we ate, we wandered around old Madrid, stopping occasionally to sit on a bench or ledge for a bit and running into odd packs of drunk NYU kids, until 7am. The next day I left for Barcelona.

This has been an interesting year. Discounting the semester I took off between Vassar and NYU (during which I claimed not to be sure whether or not I would go back to college but knew all along that I would), this year has been my first without any externally imposed structure. No more parents paying rent, no more excuses for putting off making decisions (not that that stopped me), no more health insurance, no more assigned reading or homework. In the immortal words of rock god Tom Petty: into the great wide open; a rebel without a clue. And I choked big time. As soon as I returned to the gleaming alabaster city of all gleaming alabaster cities, I plunged headfirst into what I'm starting to now realize was a serious rut.

To clarify, I did do a lot of awesome stuff this year. I built my own bedroom in a new intentional living space, got overpaid to work full-time as a courier for a company that is hemorrhaging clients like a beeper service center, got a bunch of bitchin tats, embarked on a cross-country bike/greyhound trip, made a lot of new friends and strengthened relationships with others, and, in all of the confusion, managed to misplace my v-card, shortly before what would have otherwise been yet another in a long string of depressing New Years, insofar as I tend to view most chronological milestones as opportunities to reflect on my failures (I've been accused of being a pessimist).

But this trip has helped me to realize how fully in a rut I was. I think I was dimly aware already, but a fresh perspective and a handful of reminders of things I used to care about have elucidated it further. If I had spent the last year hanging out, having fun, working, and being creatively unproductive with the intention of it merely being a break before I got started on The Next Big Thing, there would have been no problem, but I've been stalling just to stall and that has facillitated the development of my nihilism. When I'm not distracted by projects and short-term goals I spend too much time stewing about my lack of long-term goals, which inevitably leads to the conviction that such things are illogical and that meaningfulness is an illusion. I'm not saying I'm wrong about this, but I hate to have been in a position to dwell on it so much. I haven't been writing music or devoted to an active band; I haven't been pursuing my academic or even intellectual careers (other than reading a lot more fiction than I have in years); I haven't been involved in political or social activism (even using the term loosely). The only venture into which I've been putting any effort is dating, and that's gotten me just a hair beyond nowhere. I guess I lost motivation when I lost momentum. I've forgotten what it felt like to really care about accomplishing something. I've convinced myself that nothing matters to me.

Tomorrow I turn 23. Hopefully this year I can find some of that motivation again - find a reason. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


Other than the show that Attrition played on our tour 2 years ago, I'd only visited Portland during the rainy season prior to this trip, and my opinion of the city has done a 180 in the last 9 days. In the past I've always gotten the impression that Portland is pretty dead. I've never seen a lot of people out and about, nor did I feel the kind of energy that I look for in an urban setting. Granted, New York is a pretty unreasonable standard against which to hold anywhere else except maybe Tokyo, but Boston, Philly, and DC all feel more alive than Portland in the winter. However, in the summer Portland is a totally different story. People are everywhere: walking around, shopping, looking hip, riding bikes, discussing sustainable home gardening and green capitalism, and being white. Sardonicism aside, I like the vibe, I like the vegan food, I like the people I've met, and there are a lot of attractive young people just waiting for me to move here and sit inside reading instead of being social and meeting them. I've been taking considerably less thorough notes here than I did while on the road, and I have neither the memory nor the desire to attempt a meticulous play-by-play of my time in Portland. My noteworthy activities have included the following (in no particular order):

-Seeing Ruiner at a house show. I haven't been to a house show in a long time, and despite the fact that Portland has a reputation for having a lame hardcore scene, it was actually pretty fun. It's also nice to see people you know in different contexts, because when you are out of your comfort zone people that you only sort of know become really good friends. Also we got to hear the saga of Rob Sullivan and Justice's falling out, which took at least 15 minutes but was nonetheless engaging. We were expecting a shorter answer but it turned out to be quite an interesting tale. I love Baltimore drama... at a distance.

-Seeing On, Have Heart, and Verse at Satyricon. All the bands were raving about how much better that show was than any previous Portland show, so apparently the Ruiner show was no fluke. One of the opening bands, Life and Limb, had a really great set; their local fan base was enthusiastically participatory, their singer prefaced each song with a (verbose and unfocused but well-intentioned) rant about a political subject, and, unlike many of their colleagues in the world of political hardcore, they were technically solid and played a tight set. They sounded sort of like The Suicide File + Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent-era Refused, with a new-school melodic vibe. I don't actually like The Suicide File that much, and less so bands that try to sound like them, but Life and Limb was at least good at what they did, if not exactly my bag.
On's set was overall pretty solid, and punctuated by two songs which I thought were really good and a cover that I believe was Quicksand. I hope their next record is more along the lines of the two exceptional songs. Have Heart and Verse were pretty typical, with the addition of a lot of kids spin-kicking in a fashion I haven't seen at a non-metalcore show on the East Coast since around 2004. I wish Have Heart still played songs from What Counts; I think they were at their best when they were shamelessly ripping off Chain of Strength, because, as is indicated by the name of this blog, they are easily my favorite youth crew band.
After the show I had a nice time catching up with some more tour friends and then wandered around downtown Portland with On looking for vegan food, ultimately settling for VooDoo Doughnuts.

-Seeing Wanted. It sucked.

-Playing video games at a bar called Ground Control which, for those of you who have been to Brooklyn, is what Barcade wishes it could be, and then playing more video games a different day at 5 cent arcade called The Avalon. With his ski-ball tickets Ian landed a sweet inflatable baseball bat with which he promised to hit random passers-by on our ride home. He reneged on this promise, as he did on his promise to approach a stranger walking into the video store and recite the scene from Titanic in which Leo insists, while removing his boots and jacket, that if Kate "goes in" (referring to jumping off the back of the boat), he'll have to go in after her. YOU ARE ALL TALK IAN SHIVER!

Real talk: jklolz I love u bro!

-Going to Sassy's, which is a strip club, and the first one I've ever been to. One of my friends with whom I'm staying here works there, so Ian and I went to meet her after work last Wednesday and popped in for 15 minutes before she got off; I've been back to meet her after work a couple more times since. This has sparked a series of discussions concerning the patriarchal implications of strip clubs, none of which have been particularly conclusive. As far as I understand, feminist responses to strip clubs range from vehement condemnation to enthusiastic support, and even among the feminist women whom I know personally and whose opinions I generally respect there seems to be no agreement. I tend to think that if I were to reach a conclusion it would be fairly neutral if not slightly positive, but the bottom line is that I don't feel uncomfortable being there, so though I have no intention of becoming a regular, going by myself, spending lots of money, or EVER getting lap dance from anyone (because the very idea of it makes me feel awkward), I have no problem with going with a couple of friends 30 minutes before my friend gets off work, shooting a couple of games of pool, drinking a Shirley Temple, and watching girls dance naked to Dashboard Confessional, Pat Benetar, and Journey. If you have any thoughts on this matter, please feel free to make them known.

-Picking raspberries, losing the initial volley of a raspberry war, and then taking the fight to the ground, which resulted in a successful rear naked choke/raspberry smash on the bare stomach.

-Learning how to make Jam.

-Playing pool on a free table at a bar called The Mash Tun for almost 4 hours and ending up dead even. Phil, who insisted that he has only played pool a handful of times in his life, convinced me to give him 4:1 odds on $5 games, but the odds evolved as we played, ending up at 1:1 on $10 with me spotting him 2 balls (odds which I think he gave me because he knew it had started off in his favor and he wanted to give me a chance to win back my money). The final score was 11 games to 7, and we may have agreed on 2:3 with me spotting him 1 ball for any future games. I'm NOT a gambling addict, shut up.

-Discussing, at length, a reconciliation of a radical interpretation of the Christian faith, held by my friend Benny, with anarcho-primitivism, a political conviction which he holds and defends more admirably than most. He contends that a lot of the writings in the New Testaments are attempts to repair the patriarchal and homophobic tendencies in the Old Testament and the seemingly inconsistent ones which appear to support and uphold patriarchy and hetero-normativity are in place simply to pay lip service to the laws of the Roman Empire in an attempt to avoid religious persecution. He had a lot of other very interesting points in defense of his personal faith, which is Christian only in the loosest sense.