What’s on the Screen

The night before Waco, my mother had a dream about a head, that was also somehow a building, being invaded, having great holes punched in it.  She was disturbed by the dream, and so told us about it.  We discussed our dreams, in my family, quite often.  She had on her long plain night shirt, with sweatpants underneath, and her fiery hair pulled back, mostly gone to gray now.  The more layers she wore, the taller and thinner she looked.  She gestured with one hand, legs crossed and back straight in one of the cheap lawn chairs that we use for living room furniture, and held her small coffee mug in the other.    

Later, news of the ATF’s assault on the men, women, and children of the compound in Waco, Texas dominated the news channels.  This is back when we had TV, and we were all still alive, but my brother was off to college already.  My mother watched the screen, troubled, and said that what was happening in Waco felt just like her dream.

What did I feel?  I was sixteen, so I must have felt something.  I resonated with symbols of law enforcement, in general; it wasn’t like me to feel skepticism on that level.  I thought cops were mostly nice, and had to deal with quite a lot.  I wasn’t cowed by authority.  The people of Waco were portrayed as radicals, crazies.  They had stockpiled guns.  It was our right to keep and bear arms, though.  But just not too many, and not all in one place?  If it was legal to own firearms but not to stockpile them, who decided what the cut off was?  My understanding of the Constitution was hazy, as it had been mentioned in passing at school but I’d never been led through a study of it.  I didn’t remember anything about “stockpiling” from school, or the Constitution.  Most things seemed beyond my understanding, so I didn’t bother with them, but what a phenomenally bad day those people in the compound were having!  Everyone I knew lived in a little house and worked a little job, or something similar.  What were those people all doing together like that?  

I felt remote from their plight, or transgressions, or whatever I was seeing.  It was just something on the TV.  It was over soon enough, and the news cameras turned their gaze to something else.

Most of my life, I haven’t known what to believe about the causes and issues and problems being trebuchet’ed over the wall of my little life’s boundaries and into my lap.  Most often, I treat these things like a remotely-lobbed hand grenade and simply throw them back out, over the wall.  Let them explode in someone else’s face.  I am, and have been, frequently shocked that others actually believe in things they’re told, vigorously enough to act on them.  

I found my “cause”, let’s say, early, and not much could compare to it.  I discovered in childhood that meat came from animals.  This is not a fact subject to political interpretation, rhetorical posturing, jargon used to justify somebody else’s tragedy, far away, and you just see it on TV.  I knew animals.  Every child knows animals, their soul, individually and collectively.  They are literally magical beings, existing in a perpetual state of grace, and we are lucky enough to be gifted with their presence.  They are the little velcro kittens, the foreboding silhouetted owls, the contented grass-nosing cows, the libertarian-or-die wolves, the sturdy small brown birds, fluffed up against the winter and hopping around in our yard.  They were every animal I’d ever met and every animal I hadn’t.  I didn’t need some fucker on TV to tell me what animals did right or wrong or what they were accused of.  Their truth is as evident as a sunrise.  And the dogs are their primary ambassadors to the human race.  The obsequious happy retrievers, the street smart strays, the silky wiggling puppies, the stern and watchful protectors.  

Meat, on a plate, or the big brown vats from which the lunch ladies ladled great gobs onto our sickly green segmented trays, or the plastic wrapped cuts at the grocery store, ground or sliced or left in hunks, bleeding into their foam trays — all of that used to be an animal.  And so all of that: I wouldn’t eat.  My entire being said NO.  Various strategies were used to change my mind — their lives don’t matter as much as ours, or they’re bred to be killed, or they’re too big and stupid to feel what happens to them, or I’ll die without the nutrition they provide, or everyone will think I’m weird if I don’t, on and on and on.  Little Hannah, not even four feet tall yet, could not be sold ocean front property in Arizona on this issue.  

On all other others — how to know?  These people say this, those people say that.  Here’s what I did know: I intuited pretty early on that, if clarity was the goal, the news wasn’t impressing me.  I knew I wasn’t stupid and I knew it wasn’t my fault that the feeling of all those words had the effect of Macbeth’s “sound and fury, signifying nothing”.  There was a certain register of speech that I never encountered in real life conversation, but that seemed to emit from the TV almost exclusively.

Now I’m older and I still look for the common sense in things, I listen for something that sounds real.  I’m still confused and mostly alienated by the jargon of apparently sophisticated discourse.  And I still receive these unwanted hand grenades of media information and lob them back over the wall.  I flirted briefly with voting, in my 20’s and 30’s, but I can barely understand what those ballets even say — and I have a Master’s degree in English.  I was trained by the academy to read and write and speak clearly, for what that’s worth. As for thinking clearly — well, that’s a lifelong pursuit.  According to many of my peers, I’m unfit to participate in democracy.  I venture into Facebook storms upon occasion, but I venture the fuck back out again — not with my tail between my legs, but with my brows knitted together more often than not.  

I’m lucky, I suppose, to experience this global pandemic and economic shutdown as an adult, able to receive the full benefit of this perspective-clarifying experiment.  I haven’t thought about Waco in decades, and I still have no idea what it meant, besides a sense of sadness and dread.  It seems that most of the churn about rights and sanctions and civil liberties and arrests and freedoms occur on a dimension more exaggerated than the one I occupy.  I’m like a mouse, I suppose, running for a crack in the wall rather than marshaling an army to tear it down.  There’s room enough in that crack for me and my loved ones.  

I’m exhorted by both sides to rise up and oppose the other morons — the ones over there.  My intellect is maligned for not immediately aligning with either of two, or more, opposing, mutually exclusive perspectives.  Liberals are seething that conservatives are only now responding to attacks on personal autonomy, while having ridiculed efforts towards access to birth control and abortions, or a football player’s right to kneel during the National Anthem.  Conservatives are outraged that their concern for bulldozed civil liberties is mistaken for some kind of failure to grasp the basic concept of a viral outbreak.  All of them are munching dead animal bodies like it’s their full time job — kind of like how the old time Catholics and the upstart Protestants disagreed on just about everything except burning thousands of women at the stake. 

To the extent that it’s been possible, I’ve done what I felt like doing, during this shutdown, and have even felt liberated on some levels.  I flew to Hawaii on March 16th, rendezvous’d my partner there on the 18th, stayed for two weeks.  We surfed, hiked, met people, hugged people, went out to eat, got massages, worked out, tooled around in our rented convertible, did all the things we like doing.  News from the mainland was increasingly dire, but Hawaii seemed unwilling to lose its cool.  Even when the beaches closed, the surveillance ceased at 5pm and everyone, the authorities included, continued resumed water sports.  

We flew back to the mainland just in time to be handed a mandatory quarantine for air travelers entering our home state.  We blatantly evaded this quarantine by changing our connecting flight for a rental car.  We then proceeded to unpack, re-pack, and hit the road with our animals for a cross country trip.  The roads were as clear as if it was Christmas Day.  All the way from New Mexico to North Carolina, we barely even passed someone or got passed, on the interstate.  We camped along the way and had a fantastic time.  We continued to talk to people and say hi and exchange pleasantries at locations across the country.  We arrived at Wrightsville Beach, where we have been walking, jogging, working out in a home gym situation we negotiated, and taking the boat out.  

I suppose you could say I’ve become incredibly optimistic about my own personal thriving, amid the changing realities life, and incredibly jaded about society’s moral and intellectual compass at large.  More often than not, I find myself further towards the conspiracy theorist end of the spectrum when it comes to matters of large scope, but not because I have deeply internalized trust issues I’m projecting out onto the world, or a desire to beat the drum of some perpetual disenfranchisement.  It’s because mainstream intelligibility feels, to me, like a tiny miserable box that keeps getting smaller and stupider and angrier and more disconnected.  My desire is to be, and remain, “sober” from patterns of thinking and behaving that most resemble fetishistic insanity.  We don’t have very good answers, often, because we aren’t asking very good questions.  

So, there aren’t any morons over there.  To the libs I say: maybe you should recognize a Constitutional-rights hack when you see one, whether or not this one is justified.  To the righters and alt-righters I say, maybe you should have given a shit about other people’s liberties too.  To the worshippers of science I say, your God has been made the whore of a thousand diabolical agendas.  To the terrified and afflicted I say, maybe it’s time to acknowledge that industrialized meat production, and the standard American diet, is a karmic debt whose price you will pay, one way or the other.  And to the victims of Waco I say: looks to me like you just didn’t stockpile enough.       

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