So this is continued on from a recent post, in which I was listing a few positive moments I’d noticed of late. Wouldn’t you know it– the post was getting too long because there were too many nice things to write about… Must be the Nathan blog…
I'm sitting halfway back inside an E Line, comfy by a door side window looking out. Aurora has by some magic avoided some of Seattle's gentrification craze, and as ever carries the kaleidoscopic grit-grunge texture of the city we used to know, the unstudied grime that pushes a place outside of time. Just outside my window was a street denizen of the space, hair like a hungover rock star and scruffier than a prophet: Seattle's very own John the Baptist. What was he doing?
He was sweeping the sidewalk.
He clearly had no affiliation in doing it, either. This wasn't community service. He wanted his own disenfranchised stretch of Aurora Avenue to look decent, and he was doing a bang-up job of realizing it. No matter your station in life, the echoes of your mother's household chores...
I was reminded of seeing the same, years ago, underneath a freeway overpass in the International District, where a collection of souls had established an encampment. Somebody over there sweeping the sidewalk approach, no different from tending to one's porch and lawn. Appearances. There was a collection of Powerade bottles piled in a corner, each one with the lid screwed on tightly and filled with amber liquid. I realized it was urine, and that the inhabitants must have decided as a community that this was important. We're not going to soil our own homes, such as they are, but maintain a pee-free living space, even sans plumbing, that would on at least one point still pass muster with the Health Department. They had standards no less than you or I do.
Southbound on my 5: a passenger is unstable, mouthing off. She has hooded blue eyes, weathered, forty going on seventy. She's white, and she's throwing the n-word about as a black man steps aboard. He looks at her and sighs, shaking his head as he finishes paying the fare. She doesn't hear him say, "better watch your tongue, lady." I call out to her, saying something about we can't be talking like that on the bus tonight, we gotta keep that to ourselves. But it's hard for two people to communicate when they're on different planets.
Shortly thereafter she would punch the man sitting in front of her– a different fellow, a white man in a collared denim coat. He stood up with resigned confidence, more absorbed than threatened, more exasperated than afraid. He firmly instructed her to leave. "You can't hit people on the bus. You need to get off," he instructed. I opened the doors to allow it, grateful for his proactive attention. He knew I'd support him, and two people telling someone to do something is way more effective than just the driver. She knew she was out of options and did as he enjoined.
I admired his courage. There was something of the parent in his stance, the boss, and also of a citizen not so much shaken up as let down by their fellow man.
Only the optimist can be disappointed.
It’s the sole caveat of being an optimist, and one I gladly take on. He seemed to carry the belief and expectation that people were generally better than this, His air, disappointed but not angry, his actions stemming from a desire to maintain a balance he believed in. There is something so attractive to me, intoxicating almost, about optimism in the face of real life. It takes strength, and I admire it greatly. There was that in him, and something else: an unspoken but palpable solidarity with the black gentleman seated further back, who'd watched it all. The two men were similar in age, healthy forties, and there was something understood in their silences; a permission of support that need live only in the mind to be real, the knowledge that someone else on this bus feels the same way.
Stewardship. Six years ago I was told that would be the buzzword of the future. People would take care of each other, look out for each other, believing in the value of the common good and recognizing strangers as the family that they are. Stewardship. It lived in small towns before it had a name, and it was coming to the rest of us. You might say it hasn't really turned out that way.
Except when it has, and does.
Reality is what we make for ourselves, with our eyes and actions right here, within the breadth my arms can reach. This, here and now, is where I can effect change. And in the world I look for, the one I share with those around me, stewardship lives. I search for it, seeking its outline in the actions of others and myself, following the lead of those more adept than I, building for myself a reality rooted in events as concrete and undeniable as any pessimist's lament.
Okay, look. I know you come here for the bus stories. But this one only looks like it's about movies. It's actually about the same thing all my posts are about: point of view. This ten-part analysis(!) is a three-headed dog nobody asked for, and it is the biggest blog post I will ever write. Pardon the length! This stuff means a lot to me. I know there's shorter things you could read... but look at these fun bite-sized sections! And anyways, doesn't procrastinating just feel so good?
There is a disease spreading in movies today, and I want you to know it's not something you have to get on board with. If others want you to think hopelessness is sexy, and nihilism fashionable, this is the end-all, be-all essay I give you full permission to wave in their face.
[A PDF version is available here–]
Without further ado:
1. Oh, Those Oscars
When did the Oscars become the Grammys?
I don't mean, when did they lose relevance in identifying the actual best films of the year. That's always been the case. Everyone knows Citizen Kane, which lost Best Picture in 1941, is a better movie than How Green Was My Valley. Or that Rocky, the big winner in 1976, is easily the blandest, least artistically compelling of the five films nominated that year for Picture. Or that Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick are probably good enough to have won something, anything, at least once.
We know of these egregious errors, but we take them in stride. Blows like this are easy to throw, and we thank the Academy for generally rounding up an admirable crop of pictures each year. If every year you watch everything that gets nominated, as I do, you'll find yourself taking in a pretty good selection.
If you want the really trailblazing stuff, however, you'll need to go elsewhere. Try the Cannes fest nominees and winners. Or Berlin. These are the things you show people when they tell you modern film isn't creative anymore: The Square (trailer), or Winter Sleep (trailer), or Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (trailer). For an in-between, look up Venice, Telluride and Toronto, which have become the de facto Oscar season launching pads and often contain pictures in addition to the final nominees that were too creative, too challenging, or too, well, foreign, for the Academy's tastes. If Roma (trailer) wins Best Picture, it’ll be the first foreign film in history to do so. These festivals got over that hurdle a long time ago.
2. What We Do Like About the Oscars
But I bet you knew that already, more or less. You know what you're getting into with a list of Oscar nominees: above average quality, by and large. Often great quality. At worst you'll have a few too many actor-centric pieces (the Academy is mostly comprised of actors) that lean too heavily on script and performances for quality, rather than more cinematic means: directing, editing, cinematography.
Like The Queen. Or A Beautiful Mind. The King's Speech.
But rubbing shoulders alongside, you'll also find genuine masterpieces. There Will Be Blood (trailer). Birdman (teaser). Tree of Life (trailer). The Social Network (trailer). Uncompromising films of undeniable talent, with a singular authorial voice untainted by the studio system and often not made within it. In so many words, you could expect quite a few of the year's actual best films to show up.
You don't do that at the Grammys. You and I know the Grammys are a joke for a myriad reasons, not least of which being that they depressingly only focus on pop music, while somehow managing to ignore most any refreshing, forward-thinking or otherwise creative trends in... pop music.
3. Films in the Age of Extremism
This is the first time in recent history where I feel the Oscar nominations do the same. I don't expect hidden gems, personal favorites or cutting-edge works to dominate the list, but they're absent here in a way I find unique, and instructive.
Calendar year 2018 was a curious one for the movies. Films have always lagged behind popular culture by a year or two because of how long they take to make. They can instigate cultural trends, but they take a while to catch up with existing ones. This is the first year in which most of what we are seeing was greenlit for production after the 2016 election. How has cinema, both domestic and international, responded to the global push toward prejudice and nationalism?
Films this past year, both popular and highbrow, together fell, with a few exceptions, into one of two categories:
1) Totally Escapist, or
2) Everything Sucks.
Neither of those do much for me.
4. “Totally Escapist”
Black Panther (trailer), an example of the former, revels in its well-meaning bombast as it skirts our country's legacy and silence on its past. It ignores the complicated push toward isolationist thought propelling the aforementioned nationalism, sidestepping the strands informing that trend, such as the reactive nature of the 2016 election to the Obama years, the immigration crisis in Europe, and our peaking wealth disparity. The US's complex relationship with the atrocity of slavery is collapsed into a few lines from the villain. Black Panther reflects current concerns without actually dealing with them.
And more power to it, I say. It bears no mark of having such intentions, so I will not take it to task accordingly; but nor will I pretend, because of its very refreshing casting and much-needed normalizing of positive role models of color, that it is something more than what it is: a children's movie.
Like many of this year's many superhero movies, it is loud, colorful, and dumb, designed for the little(r) ones. It restates plot points, names and themes, just in case you forgot something you saw fifteen minutes ago, or weren't paying attention. And it has all the problem-solving diplomacy of a primary-school playground, where the noble intentions of its characters are realized, disappointingly, through numbingly staged scenes of computer-enhanced violence.
It shares these elements with most every superhero picture of late, and though it is by far the best Marvel movie yet, it is best appreciated as what it is, and not more. It is admirable; it is diverting; it is a culturally essential milestone of casting inclusion and in that regard an important event; but it is not art. It's entertainment.
5. “Everything Sucks”
The Favourite (trailer), Cold War (trailer), The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (to name three nominated films), Zama (trailer), and Happy as Lazzaro (to name two that aren't) all aspire to be capital A art. These 2018 dramas about human nature and humanity at large hail from around the world, are all spectacularly well directed, extremely well reviewed, and feature prominently in this year's Oscar lineup.
These pictures fall into the Everything Sucks category.
Narratives differ from life in having predefined end points, and it is from where narratives choose to end that they derive much of their meaning. In order to discuss how the films achieve their conclusions of hopelessness, I need to briefly discuss what those endings are. I won't name which film is which, but as regards the five films above, spoilers follow.
Fade to black.
How are these conclusions useful to me?
6. Cruelty, Abbreviated
And you thought those were bad. Even more revealing are the Academy’s selections for Live-Action Short. They’re presented as a package of five short films (trailer), and thusly seeing all five in immediate succession unavoidably highlights what themes, if any, they share in common. Let’s synopsize the five shorts, which of course are by unassociated filmmakers from around the world, and see if there’s any connective tissue in what gets selected and celebrated as great today.
Black Panther is sounding pretty good right about now.
7. The Last Gasp
Merriam-Webster defines sadism as “delight in cruelty.” The Collins dictionary calls it “a type of behavior in which a person obtains pleasure from hurting other people and making them suffer physically or mentally.” I’m not being unfair in calling the above filmmakers sadists. I’m stating the obvious. The intent is self-evident: to subject the viewer to pain, and not mere physical pain at that but the more insidious psychological pain of an idea:
That everything good is dead.
The systematic attempt to break a viewer’s worldview by misleading them into thinking hope and right action is futile constitutes emotional abuse. These films are Trojan horses. They're tragedy without catharsis masquerading as substance. Writes Bilge Ebiri for The New York Times, in his clear-eyed review of the live-action shorts:
“Emotional manipulation is nothing new to cinema, but it can be particularly repellent if a film’s story feels pointless. And sadly, some of this year’s live-action nominees … may seem cheap in that regard, with ghastly images and scenarios that appear designed to make us feel like we’ve seen something important and meaningful, without delivering on either import or meaning.”
How did we get here? Where works are praised for simply being “bizarre” (The Telegraph’s word for Buster Scruggs) and “startlingly original” (WSJ’s praise for Zama), without considering the impact of what the content might be?
8. The Rest is Noise
We just can't be amazed
Even if you pull the pin from your hand grenade
It is only because of the speed of contemporary society that we fail to notice what would be obvious in any other circumstance:
Extremes get boring quickly.
The Oscars only look like an event celebrating Art. We know that they, like the Grammys, are a vehicle for doing so in a limited fashion due to a more pressing agenda: media relevance. How is something relevant in media today? How is something heard in media today? By being the loudest and most didactic. Mr. Ebiri is keen to note the cheapness of cruelty for cruelty’s sake. In the 24-hour circus onslaught of nonstop media saturation, extremes are all that rise above the noise, and often those excesses get mistaken as actually having value.
Just because the President yells doesn’t mean there’s anything worth listening to. Just because these films shock us doesn’t mean there’s any substance in there. There might even be something false, damaging, instead: we might forget every positive thing that’s ever happened and fall prey to the suggestive and potent power of cinema, and start to think the world really is as bad as these anomalous, cherry-picked stories imply.
Lost in a sea of noise, we have fallen for the lie that goodness is boring.
Writes Ursula K. Le Guin:
“The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil is interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”
On occasion, we confuse pessimism with realism, even though we know better. It's hard sometimes. But we should absolutely know better than to confuse nihilism with realism. We've gotten so well-trained at ignoring when things go well, or neutrally, in favor of searching out the worst. Highlighting it. Assigning to it meaning and attention, and losing eyes for all the rest.
I’m guessing Telegraph writer Robbie Collin doesn’t read Le Guin. In his widely derided positive review of Detainment, he justifies that film’s celebration of child murder by quoting German-Jewish film theorist and philosopher Siegfried Kracauer: “Films mirror our reality.” Collin reveals his misunderstanding of Kracauer by following up the quote with an aphorism of his own, writing, “if we don’t like what we see, it takes some nerve to blame the mirror.”
I say: it takes some nerve to misrepresent Kracauer. In his 1927 essay Kracauer is actually referring to the subjective reality of our minds, or to use his own words, “what we think about ourselves.” We create that with our perspectives. If resorting to despair as a solution and turning a blind eye to the goodness all around us are the perspectives Collin finds most worthwhile, he and others like him are more juvenile than I ever imagined. Maybe he’s dwelling on how hate is the big social problem right now.
But the antidote to hate is not depression, silly.
9. Why I Don't Swallow Wallowing
Don't you think that it's boring how people talk
Making smart with their words again; well I'm bored
It's not enough anymore to deconstruct the hero archetype. We've done that. We've deconstructed the Joseph Campbell journey to death. We've figured out that morality is ambiguous, a spectrum. Popular culture has more than caught up to philosophy and literature in that regard; we understand now, at a basic level, what we didn't sixty years ago, that good and bad are relative, that things aren't black and white. People know what antiheroes are.
I am no longer surprised into appreciation by a narrative that upends expectations for no other reason than to prove that it can. Yes, I know things end badly in life sometimes. Believe me. But shock factor isn't enough of a justification to do anything in art, and it's definitely not enough when we already understand all of the above. It's not refreshing.
Moreover, we've discovered something in the aftermath: yes, we've deconstructed heroes and self-reflexively broken down the units that comprise filmic narratives. Godard and others blazed that trail five decades ago. Wonderful. And you know what? People still need to tell each other stories. Catharsis, understanding, resolution– we search for these in our blood, our hearts, long after our minds think we know the answers.
Maybe these artists are disheartened by the global political climate and are expressing their dismay through art. Of course they are, you're thinking. That's exactly what some of them are doing, and several have even said so. Even for those who aren't, the resulting frustration of these narratives resonates mightily with the critical community, who unabashedly loves each of these pictures.
Controversial films are always extremely well made. If they weren’t, no one would give their objectionable content the time of day. It's instructive to remember that film critics historically know very little about filmmaking. They distinguish themselves from critics of all other fields, from literature to food to sports, in being the least experienced in the medium they’re critiquing. Accordingly, they usually fail to discuss aesthetic prowess in cinema; but now they seem to be falling for the bait of impressive technique, blind to the content they're often so good at dissecting.
That may work for them. But artfully throwing a fit isn't enough for me. In film school we all get bored of the rejected boy who keeps making movies about his girlfriend who dumped him, where the girl in the story keeps getting run over by a truck. We rightly describe that as infantile and wait patiently for him to realize he could be using the medium to do some actual processing. Tantrums and dirges don't become something else when they're dressed up in high pedigree. These talented, embittered artists pulled one over on the critical community, who, perhaps because of their inexperience or maybe just because of the sadness we all share, fell for it completely.
10. Break on Through (to the Other Side)
I understand the impulse toward escapism, but I don't find it constructive. I also understand the impulse toward abject despair, but I find it debilitating. I know there's more than what the films above purport: that life can be hard, unfair, despairing, that it can appear horrible and pointless. To all this I find myself shrugging my shoulders, as in:
There's more, is the thing. You've got to push further as an artist, as a person. You've got to be able to figure that despair isn't the end of the road. It's part of the journey. You push through it, around it, putting it in its place or trying to, and you eventually find your own way toward either marvelling at the world or laughing at it, or both, because we're alive all right, and while we are we need to get on with the business of living.
Total Escapism, or Everything Sucks. I don't know which is worse, except to say I'm disappointed by the options. What lies between such extremes?
In film, the thing that lies between Total Escapism and Everything Sucks has a name. It's a lot more useful than either end of the spectrum.
It's called hope.
And it's distressingly absent from cinema this year. I don't need films to be happy. But I appreciate when films do something besides broadcast the message that we should give up on life completely. I find that line of inquiry tiresome and unproductive. Call me crazy. And giving up– on life, on challenges, on possibility- is what Total Escapism and Everything Sucks have in common.
In Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth, Paul Dano’s character, an actor, says:
And I have finally come to a conclusion...I have to choose. I have to choose what is really worth telling. Horror or Desire? And I chose Desire. You, each one of you... You opened my eyes. You made me see that I should not be wasting my time on the senselessness of Horror.
It doesn't matter if the world is a good place or not. What's undeniable is the constructiveness of aiming toward the betterment of ourselves, of society, of understanding. Of pointing toward the light.
In an upcoming post is a list of my favorite films of the year. I didn't do a list for 2017, but feel compelled now. In the way this blog functions as a repository of positive truths exemplified in daily life, I feel a need to share the great films of 2018 which did the same. Some of them are happy, some of them heavy, and some are tragic. Catharsis can exist in tragedy too. But none of them take joy in cruelty.
None of them celebrate giving up.
SPIN Magazine. It’s Okay–The Grammys Are Useless and Everyone Knows It
An excerpt: Jordan Sargent on the Oscars vs the Grammys:
The Village Voice. Why the Grammys Don’t Matter.
Vulture. Drake Says Grammys Don’t Matter While Accepting a Grammy at the Grammys
Wikipedia. Cannes Film Festival: Palme d’Or winners, 1939-2018.
IMDB. Cannes winners in all categories, 1939-2018.
Esquire. The 20 Best Movies to Win Cannes' Top Prize.
Wikipedia. Berlin Fest Winners, 1951-2018.
Wikipedia. Venice Fest Winners, 1946-2018.
The Ones Who Walk Away From the Omelas, by Ursula K. Le Guin. This five-page short story from 1973 has more wisdom than most novels. Full text PDF here.
Imaginations: Journal of Cross-Cultural Image Studies. “Mirroring terror”: The impact of 9/11 on Hollywood cinema. By Thomas Riegler.
German Essays on Film by Richard McCormick and Alison Guenther-Pal. Continuum, 2004.
Live Action Shorts
The New York Times. ‘The 2019 Oscar Nominated Short Films’ Review: Heartbreak, Abbreviated by Bilge Ebiri.
The Boston Globe. This year’s Oscar live-action shorts nominees paint a pretty grim picture by Ty Burr.
Film Criticism vs. Film Theory
RogerEbert.com. Please, Critics, Write About the Filmmaking by Matt Zoller Seitz.
What We Look For
With the saturation state of culture and media being what it is, modern life has become, more than ever, the act of editing. There is simply too much to process, and you have to be selective. Life is short. You'll never have the time to get to every article, cable channel, every worldview and suggestion. In ways we don't realize, we shape our outlook with all these micro-decisions. You end up mostly only seeing what you look for.
I forget exactly when in my childhood I realized that one of the easiest ways to be happy was to be thankful, and the easiest way to do that was to be grateful for ordinary things. To recognize how easily it could be different, and appreciate what's here.
Here are a few moments I've noticed of late.
On my 5. My backpack and other belongings were behind my driver's chair, and upon our hitting a bump in the roadway they somehow collapsed behind me, making a loud crashing noise. I knew it was no catastrophe, just my bags settling, but it sounded worse than it was. In my periphery a man stood up, leaning in helpfully in what appeared to be his natural impulse, ready to assist.
A man fell down on my 21, slip-collapsing in the articulated section. Bald guy with a backpack or two, and more belongings in his hands. Instantly, the remaining passengers stood up as one, prepared to help. They didn't know him from Adam, but they wanted to step in, improve his circumstances. Looking out for our fellow humans. It was second nature to them, being alive to the moment in a kind way.
A similar moment but deeper in the night, ramped up a notch: here is a streetwise female passenger I know from before. Usually she’s fine, but tonight is not her night. A soft, sunburned older face with plastic frame glasses, Caucasian, always ever either cheerful or aggrieved, never in between. Third and James: she faceplants on the ice-slick sidewalk, her cane flying. A man and a woman spring out of the shadows to assist. They're both people of color, much younger than she, but nevermind the differences; as above, it’s second nature to them. It takes me a moment to realize they're strangers not just to her but to each other too.
People always look like friends when they're helping out.
Inside the bus and finally seated, she's unable to stand and exit at her stop because her tattered jeans are falling down, pooling around her knees. She asks for someone to help her pull her pants and others assist. I'm pleasantly nonplussed,* given her state. The pale, exposed flesh of her midsection is stringy and pungent, putrid if we’re being forthright here, the consistency of damp dough, and it's enmeshed like rotten clay into the fabric of her clothing. Can you imagine her shame? Can you imagine her fifty years ago and blonde, the windblown object of some young man's desire? No, tonight is not her night. She moans in torment and ignominy.
The first person to step in another street person, and I'm not surprised. As a friend of mine once told me, "when I was homeless, you know who always helped me first, before anyone else? Other homeless people." This guy is dressed for the elements and half her age. Would you understand if I described him by saying he looks like he must've often rode my 358 up and down Aurora, back in the day? Posture and texture, gruffly. Tough guy in an oversized black hoodie, taking off his headphones.
There’s a tender grace in his actions now, as he tries to hold our weak-kneed older friend upright, half hugging her and half reaching down to raise those jeans back up, her stay-at-home underwear in plain sight. The main issue preventing things is that she’s spilling out over her pants, the cloth of which has fused to her skin. That and she’s having trouble standing. Mr. Headphones needs some help.
And he gets it. A well-dressed gent returning from Chicago (who by amazing coincidence played an extra in my upcoming film!) steps in. In attire he’s the polar opposite of the other helping man, clad as he is in polished dress shoes and a dapper black collared wool coat. Can you imagine a more beautiful sight? The best-dressed and worst-dressed men on my bus doing the very same thing, avidly reaching out to help this older soul, even if the going was messy. I reached in myself, following their example– I couldn’t just sit there at this point– and together the three of us made things right. I took her arm then and we walked out of the bus slowly, carefully across the big sidewalk, through a throng of waiting passengers, one of them clearing a spot on a bench as we approached (“Can we have a seat for the nice lady, please,” I barked), two pieces of stardust settling at Third and Virginia.
But I didn’t start the chain reaction. I was following in the lead of the others, thankful for their example.
*Nonplussed means surprised. You’ll hear people use it to mean the exact opposite. It’s a curious circumstance of the slang usage of a word being the exact opposite of the original meaning. Go figure.
This was going to be one post, but it has to be two! There were too many nice people doing nice things to recount in just one writeup. Check back soon!
Popular Posts of 2018, & More
What I have to offer are the details of my own experience. The more specific a story is, the more universal its applications, oddly, because it becomes more relatable, contextualized, and comprehensible. This is most notably true for stories with very little obvious relation to our own lives. Most of the audience for Brokeback Mountain isn’t gay cowboys. But who doesn’t relate to the crippling loneliness Heath Ledger feels in the last third of that film? We feel it because his circumstances have been rendered with great specificity.
In this way, I hope the details of my experience and those of my riders, as I record them on this blog, have some relevance to others. To quote one of the better overlooked films of recent years: “I am all I can offer.”
With that in mind, here are a few posts summing up my 2018. What a year it’s been. I’ve never had one like it. A film shot, a book published, various TV and radio events, a workplace award that’s a first in several ways, printing my heart out in the last color darkroom, and being knighted– whoops, named– by Seattle Magazine as one of the city’s… I still don’t believe that one. I can’t say it. I’ll let other people say it, but I’m not gonna say it.
This isn’t just a recap of the year’s most popular posts. It includes things you might have missed (like grumpy Nathan on Comcast!), moments that are more personal, and some explanation on why there’s a certain type of post I write more than others.
More on the Telly
Six years later, I have a more clear understanding of how understandable it is to be frustrated, disappointed, jaded or otherwise dejected as a public service worker– whether regularly or from time to time. It's okay to be unhappy as a bus driver. It's okay to be unhappy walking down the street. I get it. I just try for the opposite.
We're human, in other words. But we make the effort. Because why not.
All my posts are personal moments. But here are three in which I'm not a bus driver:
Despair is the problem we all live with, especially now. The question of how to wrestle with it is also what my book climaxes on. When I say these posts deal with despair, what I really mean is that they are about hope:
2018 marked one of the last dying gasps of color film photography, which is weird, because film is unquestionably the fastest growing trend in photography right now. Evergreen College apparently didn't get the memo.
On Leaving the 7, and Returning to It
The 7 is my baby. It's the big-chested, many-headed, top-of-the-food chain, eye-of-the-pyramid flagship bus route of Seattle. Rolling that thing up Third Avenue feels like nothing else.
The Type of Post I Love to Write
I love all the posts I write. But I find myself writing a certain sort of story more often than others. I do it unconsciously, without a political or socially oriented motive. I just feel compelled to share these moments. Something about doing so feels at once essential and joyous.
I have many different categories of peeps. There are the Art Peeps. The Film Peeps, as detailed above. The Street Peeps. There are Friend Peeps.
Then there are Straight Up Peeps.
Straight Up Peeps are my fellow bus drivers. It’s an unfortunate fact of American life that whether you like it or not, the people you most see on a daily basis… are your coworkers. Hence the nomenclature of Straight Up Peep. Doesn’t it really improve things when they’re people you actually enjoy being around? I love my coworkers, even in the rare moments when I can’t stand them.
On the 5/21
Why am I driving the 5 and 21? Why indeed. I still don't know. It has to do with boring contract-related reasons that led to the reblocking of a lot of shifts, and a bunch of forced overtime on the nighttime 7 and 49. With the amount of artmaking I do, I don't have time for overtime. The start and end times of shifts take particular precedence for me, and thus I'm temporarily visiting, substitute-teacher-style, on the 5/21.
And finally. This is the one you read before going to bed. Just a quiet moment at the end of a quiet night, Abdi and I chatting under the amber sodium streetlights.
See you in 2019!
[Photo by Celia Berk]
*Trigger warning: discussions of street harassment and sexual assault.*
A female friend of mine once got on my bus while being chased by a volatile and unstable man. He was big and tall. She wasn't. He yelled inarticulately.
She was waiting for a bus at a stop different than that of my route. There were other people around. This guy came up and started leering, shouting inches from her face and blubbering in tongues.
Most homeless people have friends. This guy doesn't have any. Because he's really, really really far gone. It doesn't matter who you are; you don't want to hang around this guy. When I see him about, he's always alone. He needed help a long time ago.
She ran away from the bus stop, missing her last bus home for the night. The ugliest part of this story is that there were plenty of other people waiting at that stop. They did nothing. She ran away and he ran after her. By incredible coincidence, my bus appeared and she ran onto it. I tried to close the doors quickly so he couldn't come running in after her. But I couldn't, because somebody at Metro decided the doors on all the new buses should close extra slowly. Once the bus doors are opened, they're programmed to stay open for two seconds before they close. A "safety" feature.
Because of that, he bounded easily in, right after her, and hounded her at the top of his lungs. He was American, but I couldn't understand a word. It was brain-swaddled jibberish. Was it hateful? Was it sexual? I'm actually not sure. But it was terrifying.
I asked her if this man was bothering her. I needed her to confirm this verbally before intervening, because as a civil servant I represented Metro and I'm not supposed to be making assumptions about people based on appearance. She happened to be white, and he happened to be black. She did confirm it and I called for help, feeling a little useless; the man left before help could arrive.
A 2018 study finds that 81 percent of women have experienced street harassment, and a 2015 report shows that nearly every woman has taken steps to avoid it, from choosing alternate modes of transport to changing jobs. Let's not even get started with rape. In the United States alone, there are 87,000 rapes a year.* That's a crime with lifelong trauma for every victim, occurring at a frequency to be measured not in months, days, or even minutes, but seconds. For sanity's sake I won't mention the astronomically, several-orders-of-magnitude more dire statistics for India or South Africa, two of the worst places to be a woman, ever. Compared to much of the rest of the world, we've got it good. But we've still got those 87,000 rapes. You know and I know almost every one of those cases is that of a man against a woman.
There is the leading cause of death for pregnant women being murder by their male spouse. There are the statistics for Native American women (one in three get raped; nearly all incidents occurring on reservations are by non-Native men, who choose that venue so they can have legal immunity). I don't need to go further. You get the picture.
Shall we pretend these are isolated incidents? Shall we pretend violence isn't gendered?
Most men are good. Kindness exists across the spectrum. It isn't that most men are violent. It's that most violence is male. Guns are available to everyone, and yet 93 percent of murders are committed by... Well, you know the rest of that sentence. The continuum of online intimidation, workplace belittling, street harassment, domestic violence, assault, rape and murder... Let's at least admit there's a trend here, as regards which gender identification does all of those, almost all the time, to which other gender.
We can start there.
Let's acknowledge that street harassment, which is what I'm focusing on because this is a bus blog, is a bad thing, a form of control and violation of personhood, and should be addressed.
There are a lot of suggestions out there for what women should do to avoid getting harassed. Wear demure clothing. Avoid eye contact. Take a different route home. Avoid going out.
There’s a problem with these well-meaning but ridiculous suggestions. You know where I'm going with this. Each assumes that the male impulse to destroy women is unchangeable. They take as a basic constant that men are evil, and here's how to deal with that.
I see things a little differently. I think it makes more sense to get men to stop assaulting than to teach women how to hide. How to censure and limit the quality of their lives.
The root of this problem isn't female. It's male. And problems are best solved at the root. I'm not writing this for my female readership. You ladies already know. This is old news to you. No, I'm writing to you, friend, you who are male and who, like many men, are not violent, respect women, and know that violation of personhood and the willful control of another is a bad thing. You're one of the good guys, and strangely, good men are hard to find. Because too often they stay in the shadows. When something's going down, something like the above, ugly and wrong, on your bus, at your job, outside the bar, on the train platform...
Men respect the opinions of other men. You have an unfair advantage women sadly don't get enough of. Use it. By involving yourself you also make him a minority in the equation; you've just turned it into two against one. You'll say, how you guys doing tonight. Is this guy bothering you? At this point, she won't answer, but he will. He'll tell you to mind your own business. You'll say, let's see what she thinks, and you'll ask her if she wants to be alone right now. Maybe she'll say yes. You'll say, see, it's nothing personal. She just wants to be alone. That’s one way to do it. But subtler can be even more effective: often you don’t have to say anything. Just offer your presence. Or be indirect. Ask him for directions. The time. Trust your gut. Research how to take a stand in ways that work for you (links below).
And with just that, you'll have started a trend. Everyone around you will have seen what you just did. They may even have joined in to help. Or they'll be inspired to follow your lead in the future. Or they'll think, wow.
Am I trying to say that women can't solve this problem on their own? Of course not. I’m saying maybe we can all play a role. Harassment and worse of women is a problem for everyone. It concerns me, because I live in this society and I want the best for all its people. Second, if we say only women can solve this, we're right back at square one, reinforcing the notion that men aren't the problem. They can help themselves. They can be raised better, educated in a different light, taught to be in touch with their emotions, encouraged to respect women as equals. They can possibly be capable of growth or empathy. They're not just wild, apathetic monsters, and we don't have to tiptoe around them to figure this out.
I believe that in the rape, abuse or harassment of a woman by a man, the problem is the man. And you solve problems by getting at the root. By giving women a voice, and letting the men and women who get it go to work. Education is the unsexy solution with the longest-term benefits here, and intervention is one way we can continue to emphasize what used to be commonplace: the notion that we should behave as a community, looking out for each other.
I write these words because of the times I’ve intervened and it worked, but more potently because of the times I wanted to and failed, because I was scared, unprepared, and ashamed that I lacked the resolve to do something. I’d like to get better.
Let’s do this together.
Further ideas for dealing with harassment from stopstreetharassment.org.
More detailed suggestions for bystanders and associated research, some of which I’ve appropriated for the post.
Suggestions for assertive responses when being harassed.
I can vouch for this self-defense class, taught by a friend of a friend in Rainier Valley. Master Ahn knows her stuff!
*The rape statistics stem from Rebecca Solnit’s 2014 essay collection, Men Explain Things to Me.
Third in a three-part series. Part I here; Part II here. Above photo by Brittany Hammer.
I felt the charge in the air rising, sitting on the sidelines with my co-conspirators Jacqueline and Tom. Editor and designer and me, hiding in plain sight: we partners in crime, feeling the hush that lay underneath the noise, anticipatory, the blood-run high of knowing and not knowing all at once. Every moment of my not surveying the crowd was a decision; I knew you were there, wanted to talk to you, but I needed to let the swirling thoughts settle.
I saw myself at sixteen, standing in line to talk to Michael Crichton. I was by far the youngest person there, and I remember being the only person he stood up and shook hands with. Why, I wondered. I'll never know. I had asked him about first and second-person voice in writing decisions.
Seeing the book, my name and title, Tom's design, a thing we had built in private now on display, not once or twice but prominently, in key placements throughout the store, in the Bestsellers, the Staff Picks, in the window. All this, and I'm supposed to be poised enough to answer questions!
The size of this crowd. The room, bulging to capacity. Being told Springsteen was just on this stage. Someone bringing out more chairs. The walls filling with standing figures. Don't think about it, Nathan, the enormity of the fact of their having came, don't think the thought, and let it throw you completely off the rails–
They came here for you.
Don't think about that or you'll be frozen stiff, too grateful to speak. Stay focused. Turn it around: I came here for them. "It's a kind crowd," a passenger had told me the night before, when I shared my trepidatious anticipation of tonight. David; that was his name. There he was now, in the audience.
Things made sense as they make sense in dreams– too much and not enough, pleasantly, something other than logic organizing the magic of this night. How did every part of this happen, in this uncertain universe? We got the perfect parking spot, directly across from the main doors... on Capitol Hill in the evening. What? I miraculously got the day off, and almost didn't. How much of life is Just Barely, and we don't even know?
At some point you have to stop thinking so much and just react, trusting yourself. The Summit was the shape of being up there with Tom, and sitting behind the desk afterwards, looking at that long line that once had me in it, waiting patiently to ask about first and second person.
I've switched places.
The thought sent me reeling. In the age of cynicism we confuse pessimism with truth, and we become practiced at doubting reality when it is beautiful. Was this really happening? I felt outside of myself, the moment too surreal to process, too incredible. As I age I learn the world is more terrible, but also more beautiful, much more beautiful than I ever knew it could be. Let me not lose the magic of having eyes for beauty, goodness, the simple miracles I write about on this blog and the massive ones too, like tonight.
I remember specific faces. My man Doug, representing in uniform. His mere presence was a gesture, giving truth to the time he'd spent driving clear down here from North Base. Others too from the furthest reaches of geography and time; Liz, who knew me when I was this tall, who encouraged me to explore bus driving in the first place. Here's a boy looking at his girlfriend, checking to make sure she's having a good time. Intensely beautiful people, attentive. Thoughtful expressions. A face here and there, jotting down notes, humbling me more than they know.
Jacqueline, the eagle-eyed editorial genius who knows my book better than anyone in the room, absorbed in the front sidelines. I looked at her and I looked at Tom, my co-collaborators in arms, and understood I was in the presence of giants. That these skilled craftspeople wanted to have anything to do with creating something with me?
I noticed all this but it aside because questions and thoughts move faster than light, and you didn't come here to see me stumble. I prepared for this. I rode the high-wire wave of improvised concentration, public speaking that's directly engaged with a live audience: every second a gamble in the dark, only moreso.
Adrian and Angela, faces from long ago. The way we used to kick the soccer ball together, the fraught and dusty weekends of childhood. Did we know it would lead to this?
You had brown hair and a friendly name. What is it about a half-smile walking out the door, that contains such multitudes? Or the fellow with the checkerboard grey slacks and discerning eyes. Faces I wanted to talk with further, but for the buzzing chaos of the room and that line, the long line that felt like it still had me in it, the shy junior-high youngster who went to his favourite author events alone.
These were the highlights of the night from my view– not me. I was not the star of this show. The star of this show was an idea we all believed in.
That was why it felt like a summit, good and complete and real. In our troubled and ridiculous times, this dark, sharp-edged period that historians won't realize even we didn't understand... We came out together, came because we believed in something possible, exciting even, the idea that respect and love are more than just platitudes. That my work and art to a small degree give texture and example to our hopes, notice of a goodness we know exists, but sometimes need a reminder for how to see.
You got through to me. Thank you.