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This Sinking Feeling

I been up and down in prison; I’ve lived inside this cell.
Surrounded by these demons and the fiery gates of hell.
I blame my Mother and my Father for the man that I’ve become.
-I was born into this family; I was born the Devil’s son.
No I ain’t gonna see my freedom … ’til the day …
… they lay me in the ground.
-Ryan Horne, Terrible Tommy

Friends,

There’s this nuanced aspect of a more generalized existential despair which I would like to explore. It has to do with my inheritance from my parents, and since parts of this line of inquiry really hurt me to think about, I know that is where I must look.

In Sterquiliniis Invenitur – In filth it will be found

To be clear, I am learning to love existential despair, but every new encroachment of it on my life does take some time to get used to. And the more it encroaches the more clearly I see what has kept it at bay for so long. In fact, I realize as  I write these words that there are two bulwarks which have held back the despair,-for better and worse-for most of my life: The Strength of my Father and The Dreams of my Mother.

The Dreams of My Mother

Having been estranged from my mother for almost 20 years now, you might say this bulwark has been in disrepair for some time, but it would be more accurate to say I  have been chipping away at it even as I have been protected (suffocated?) by it.

Still, my mother was a big dreamer, and the magnitude of her aspirations made a deep impression on me.. There was always something, not exactly upward striving about her, but rather upward-desiring. More precisely, she wanted deeply and she had a way of externalizing responsibility for the fulfilment of her desires upon other people, including her kids (I was always meant to be a doctor after all). Still, in fairness to her, the Joneses weren’t going to keep up with themselves…

Two incidents from my childhood really stand out as perfect examples of the gulf between her life and her desires.

1) There was an affluent development we used to drive by on the way to visit my grandparents. The houses were mansions -like proper fucking mansions. My step-dad was a small business owner and he did okay for for us -we lived comfortably and had a beautiful house in the country, never wanting for anything. This one mansion though; it must have driven my mother nuts seeing it often as we did. I guess she felt entitled to that life -that of affluent Italian immigrants instead of the blue collar family she came from (hold that thought). In any event, one time we were driving as a family and she drew all of our attention to that unnecessarily, ostentatiously large house, too big even for us as a family of 7, and said something to the effect of, “We’re going to live there one day,” and while I don’t remember her actual wording beyond that, there was a way in which it was clearly indicated as a challenge to my step-father to give her the life she deserved. He, for his part, simply kept driving.

2) In March ’95 we took our first and only plane trip together as a family -two weeks in that storied paradise we’d all grown up wanting to go to, Florida! We spent the first week hitting the theme parks -a day at Magic Kingdom, a day at Universal, and (my favourite) a day at Epcot. We stayed in motels and had a very lovely time of it. But my mother, like Malory Archer, had a Trudy Beekman of her own -a rival who had to be on-upped at all costs; Cheryl D____. And so it was, when we got back to Canada we were instructed to tell everyone that we stayed at the Disney All-Star Resort.

Maybe if we had stayed here everything would have been ok.

Nothing about her life was ever good enough, and I realize that that same attitude has been a detriment in my life as well.

Now let’s come back to that thought I told you to hold -the one about my mother’s shameful, Southern-Italian, blue collar origins. See, I never saw it that way. As a kid, I always thought being Italian was the coolest thing, because that was what I was always exposed to. I guess it was overcompensation and correction for the racism my mother and grandparents had been subjected to as an immigrant family in the 60s, but there was never any question about the superiority of my Italian blood, and this delusion dovetailed nicely into the Oedipal-Messiah monoculture I was at the centre of as the first-born of the new generation. This over-correction, the aforementioned dreams of my mother, really fucked me up for many years. Her dreams and expectations, which I internalized to a degree I didn’t even realize until my early 30s, were worn around me like a protective cocoon with walls so thick I struggled to break free, suffering many years of stunted growth in the process. In my early childhood, this barrier had the effect of giving me an infallible sense of self-worth; in adolescence I lagged behind the other kids in social development; and at 17 I realized for the first time that in social situations where noone was talking to me, I might be the problem. Case in point: I remember the house party I was at in Summer 2002, sitting alone on a seat talking to no one (which was common enough), but for the first time it occurred to me that it was up to me to make something happen here (at the party and in life); I stopped assuming that other people’s priorities weren’t messed up because they weren’t talking to me. At that point I had already been estranged from my mother for two years, but in that moment I feel I truly breached and poked my arm through the cocoon -though the suffocating dreams of my mother– for the first time.

The Strength of My Father

Jordan Peterson is fond of saying that a good thing to aim for is to be the strongest person at your father’s funeral; the person everyone goes to; the person everyone can lean on. There’s nobody I love more than my dad, and his passing will wreck me, but I have nonetheless thought a lot about it and what it means for my fractured family. I know I have it in me to be the strongest person, to deal with things level-headedly, and (most importantly) not get sucked into arguments with my step-mother, Anita. But therein lies the problem: Once my father passes I can have no expectation of civility from her. When he passes and his unwavering devotion to me and my sister (his kids from his first marriage) passes with him, the centre of gravity of his family with Anita and their kids together will slip away from me entirely and I anticipate her roundly rejecting any help I try and proffer with the funeral or anything else. I will be out in the cold. Still, I can comfort my relatives and siblings, and if that is all I can do then that is enough.  There has been a long cold war fought between me and her and I know how scared she must be to lose him even though to lose him would be to have me out of her life once and for all. It’s quite the Catch-22 for her and maybe for me as well.
I have really tried to put myself in my step-mother’s shoes in earnest over the last year. Though I didn’t formally articulate it at the time, I guess I started with the assumption that she hated me and had legitimate grounds for feeling that way. So, what were those grounds?
Well, best I could figure, I am a 35 year-old wastrel whose guilt-racked father was never judgmental enough. His resultant indulgent treatment of me contributed to an overall shortage of self-reliance, and I still enable this treatment from my father by asking him for help (doing my taxes & collecting my mail while I travel, etc.) because that relationship –having my dad be my dad– is the best memory I have from my childhood.
Still, I get it, it’s not charming to be a 35 year-old child and I’m working on it.
But even today, I had my dad on the phone while he was in his basement going through my boxes looking for stuff to bring up to Barrie for me. I don’t like having stuff in his basement as I feel it is a psychological provocation to Anita, but he insists its not a problem and since I’m just re-establishing myself in Canada, it stays there for the time being.

Just the same, I know he has had mobility problems over the past couple of years and that going down in the basement and looking through my boxes is not easy.
I know he’s coming up to Barrie to visit his parents whose health is failing and who are struggling much worse than I am.
I know he still works as many hours as ever, now shouldering the extra burden of paying for my little sister’s university.
And knowing all this I have the audacity to ask him for help?
It makes me feel like shit, honestly, but I do it nonetheless.

Why?

Well, the sad reality is that if he didn’t come up here and help me I simply wouldn’t see him. After all, if I went to visit him at his home it would get his wife in a mood and then he’d be left living with her which I think is overall worse, so maybe its better this way.

And that is the ultimate irony of mine and Anita’s cold war over my father: HE is the casualty and he suffers from our inability to reconcile. How much does he suffer? I don’t know but I have this image in my head of Anita and I standing across from each other at his funeral as they lower him into the ground, unable to look at each other, both full of guilt and shame for the role our mutual disdain played in depriving him of peace on this Earth.

The queen and the prince unwittingly conspiring to kill the king. It’s poetic and almost reassuring that we could work together toward a common purpose.

Epilogue

Looking at the ground around me, I see the sloughed-off bits of that maternal cocoon that I have been trying to shed for the latter half of my life with ever-growing consciousness and awareness. The torn, now useless bits of it, once my constrictive shell, represent the unfulfilled, unrealized dreams of my mother, and those vain aspirations seem shabby to me now where they once seemed sublimely influential -as does she.
I like the shabbiness though -she always wore humility well and in those moments where she took joy in her lot in life and appreciated what she had,  she could be the best mom in the world. So there’s value in these broken bits of cocoon I’ve shed if I accept them for what they are.

As I look up ahead of me I see the wall of my father, still standing, a veritable dam holding back the despair of the world as best it can. I can see the leaks though. Every year, more of the world’s ugliness makes it past him and pools toward me like a flowing tide. Eventually he too will crumble.
Can I brace the wall before it gives way? Maybe … to an extent. But maybe I’m not meant to.
Maybe the continuity of his strength –of his kind of strength– rests with my little brother; in some ways more like my dad than I will ever be. My little brother, Zach, had the one thing I always wanted more than anything in the world -to come home every day and see my dad. I don’t begrudge him this. It’s shaped him into a man of primary importance. A man like my father who takes care of the business of survival and keeps society running.
By comparison, I suppose I am a man of secondary importance: it is my lot to make things beautiful after men like my father and my brother (my brother especially as he’s an electrician) have made it habitable. I embrace that responsibility -secondary importance is still importance- and I have fierce respect for the people who make my work possible.

If I’m honest, I don’t think my dad ever wanted me to be like him. I often attribute his lack of fatherly judgment to his feelings of guilt for splitting up mine and my sister’s childhood home, but maybe it was more than that. Perhaps he had a vague idea of something I could strive toward but which he didn’t know how to guide me toward. Instead, he did what he could while I figured it out on my own.


Looking at the crumbling wall in front of me and the broken shell below me I think maybe I’m meant to pick up some of the pieces of each and fashion them into something new. Maybe not another wall to shield me or another armour-like cocoon to protect me, but perhaps a boat to buoy me.
This idea comforts me –and that makes me immediately suspicious of it– but it also makes sense and I can’t easily disprove it, so I will entertain it.

************************************************************************************************************************

So what are the gifts from my parents that I want to bring forward into the construction of my ark?
Well, wherever she happens to be, my mother acts as if she has a right to be there; she owns her presence in any situation (if not her actions).
My father does the things right there in from of him which need to be done. He takes responsibility.

I’ve been doing like my mother for most of my life: Confident and defiant at best; presumptuous and entitled at worst. I’m pretty good at this.
It’s only more recently that I’ve started to integrate the behaviours which have made my father the mountain of a man he is in my imagination: Staying humble, doing the thing right in front of me that needs doing, etc.

I guess if I had to put it in an easy to follow rule: “Walk around like you pay the bills in that motherfucker –but pay the bills, motherfucker!

Thanks, Mom and Dad.

Love
-Andre

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Pyramid of Truth

Friends,

When it comes to human perception and comprehension, I think absolute truth is mostly unknowable. We tend to float around the truth with approximations of it shaded by our own biases, perspective and rigor in pursuing knowledge on that tack. If there is a fixed, universal truth, we may as well consider it an unreachable, imperceptible ideal which we strive toward in what is essentially an act of faith. We simply don’t have the faculties to perceive/comprehend it, though we can get closer and infinitely closer approximations of it.

Honestly though, we could almost consider this inability to reach/perceive/comprehend truth a mercy, for imagine how much difficulty we would have if, grasping the complete truth we tried to communicate it to our fellows. Rare is the individual who can communicate the truth of something without bias and rarer still the one who can listen and hear without objection.

Instead, I think that human perceptions of truth in any realm are like looking up at the top of a pyramid -where you stand around the base might give you a view of the north, south, east and west-facing aspects of the top (and that might be considered your politics/religion/school of thought/prejudices on that issue). But the higher you advance upward from that position at the base, in that linear mindset? Your view of the truth/tip stays the same (though maybe the fine details get clearer)

Think about it; the only way to gain a more complete view of the tip is to walk around the base. To carry the analogy further, this is akin to holding, and perhaps even arguing, different positions to experientially understand their truth. A simple example, might be a lifelong Marxist vs. an someone who became Marxist after spending most of their life as a Rational Choice Individualist: in this scenario, who might be said to have a more complete view of the truth? I would say the latter. It matters little how you move from position and stance throughout your life, what matters instead is how much work and effort you put into understanding each position as you adhere to it.

If you think about each position, you walk around the base.

If you talk about each position, you walk around the mid-portion of the pyramid.

If you do/live/act each position, you traipse about the upper portion with a closer view of each side of the tip.

And whether circling the pyramid at the bottom, middle or top, what happens when you see the pinnacle, the ideal, the tip from all directions? Well, if you can remember accurately how it looked from each perspective you can put together in your mind’s eye a composite image of the entire tip -something that can only be seen in real-time from above as if you were aloft above the pyramid looking down at it. And knowing what the entire tip/truth looks like is at least as good as, if not better than, seeing it.

Isn’t this a transcendence of that particular issue/question/pyramid/hierarchy?

I would say yes.

What I said earlier about the absolute truth being unknowable notwithstanding, there are many microcosmic domains whose pyramids of truth we have ascended and transcended in our individual lives. These are the domains where we might be said to have achieved mastery, or at least something functionally close to it. And even if the idea of inequality implied by ascending the pyramid troubles you due to a commitment to social justice, you can’t deny that as we build up our skills and aptitudes and knowledge, it certainly feels like we are ascending above others.

***********************************************

The pyramid never ceases to amaze me and enlighten me as a a conceptual tool for understanding the world and complex ideas. If only ancient people had erected pyramids everywhere on the planet to signify how key they were to understanding universal truth.

Best,
-Dre

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The Shape of Integrity: Thoughts from the 18 MAY 2018 Munk Debate

Friends,

Is it possible to look at someone and tell if they have integrity?

I think yes. And this was illustrated quite beautifully in the recent Munk Debate between Michelle Goldberg and Michael Eric Dyson on one side, and Jordan Peterson and Stephen Fry on the other.

Just look at the dais:

Do you notice anything?

If you guessed that 3/4 of the panelists are addicts, you are absolutely correct.
Now, is this a problem? I think so.
Why? Bit of a difficult answer.

“I Don’t Trust Bunny, But I Trust Bunny to be Bunny”

At the risk of sounding crude and mean-spirited: Would you trust a junkie? I imagine the answer is probably “no.”
Why? Well for me it’s because its difficult to trust someone with no self-control. If someone is feeding an addiction it becomes difficult to tell when they are being truthful and when they speaking only to preserve their access to their drug of choice.

Fame is one such drug. And it directly affects integrity when people don’t have as much as they want.

With regard to the picture above, Jordan Peterson (second from right) is the most famous of the bunch and so arguably has enough access to the ‘drug’, if he is indeed addicted to it. In the case of the others that is not so certain and they are actually leeching some of his fame by appearing with him. Michael Eric Dyson refers to and admits to this many times throughout the debate and actually tries to goad Peterson into plugging his book. His referring to Peterson as a “mean old white man” is, as well as being incredibly bad form for a debate, a transparent attempt to increase his own profile through controversy. Goldberg and Fry may have attempted to engage in this kind of attention-whoring too at a smaller scale, but I didn’t really notice if they did because Dyson was so egregious and pathetic in trying to get his ‘fix’.
He is a fame-whore, and Fry to his credit, calls Dyson out as a snake-oil selling huckster in his stage presence and manner.

In all honesty, my own distaste for Dyson’s position aside, I truly don’t know where the line draws between his (attempts at) rational arguments and his ideologically-motivated silliness.

But fame is not the only drug that these panelists seem addicted to, so let’s address the elephant in the room: Food.

Goldberg, Dyson and Fry have a problem with food. Food, unlike fame, doesn’t directly affect someone’s integrity unless that person is starving, and I think it’s clear that Goldberg, Fry and Dyson are not starving. Rather, their food addiction is such that it indirectly affects their integrity by betraying some internal conflict within them. After all, health doesn’t just exist in the physical body, isolated from the mental, emotional and spiritual bodies. They are all connected and a disturbance in one has ramifications on the others.  I would guess that there is something traumatic that these people are holding onto and not dealing with. Instead they are treating this internal problem with food as their drug of choice and they wear the evidence on their bodies like five-year-olds who got into the cookie-jar wear evidence around their mouths.

“What cookies?”

 This whittles away my trust for them in a way that I won’t be blamed for because they look sick and unhealthy to my perceptions.

Is that unfair? No. Actually it’s in fundamental agreement with what they (Goldberg and Dyson) say throughout the debate: Maybe Dyson has indeed suffered at the hands of whites. Maybe Goldberg has indeed suffered at the hands of the patriarchy. And even though he is ostensibly on the right side of the dais (my side 😉 ), Fry too may have indeed suffered at the hands of homophobes.

But to quote Fry, “So fucking what?!” Does that make them right? I think trauma and suffering CAN give you valuable perspective once they have been incorporated and integrated into your psyche in a healthy way -but ONLY then. For Dyson and Goldberg, if their obesity and general unhealthy appearance attests to real suffering, then it also attests to their inability to thus far deal with said suffering productively and healthily. At best, it is difficult to tell how ideologically possessed they still are by their own pain. At worst, they are the aforementioned five-year-olds who got into the cookie jar and are now trying to see what lies they can get away with telling.

And for the record, I’m all for people working their half-baked, personal-suffering-based ideas out in a performative way –that’s art! But such performances are no more a road-map to a healthy future and a productive life than the The Marshall Mathers LP was back in 2000. Trust me, I tried to lived that album, and my life reflected it 😦

A+ for working through one’s own demons. F for providing a guide for how to live our lives.

Dyson’s performance was better-suited to a high-brow poetry slam while Goldberg delivered a relatively tasteful Vagina Monologue.

Fat Shaming?

It’s worth clarify my feelings about fat. Fat is not the problem. Sumo wrestlers are fat. The best actors in the world get fat for roles. But these two groups share a common quality: Discipline.

And this ain’t what discipline looks like!

That’s a photo of excess, not discipline. That’s what happens when you live too comfortably without feedback from the natural world. It corrupts your body and your mind because you have no reason to be strong and lack the mental fortitude to keep yourself so.

Now if I’m feeling charitable, maybe Goldberg gets a pass because she is not as obese as Dyson, and of course, males and females are different right down to the hormonal level. But in this case, all that pass would equate to is a marginally greater initial assumption of integrity from me irrespective of what ends up coming out of her mouth.

But Dyson? That jowly, Cochran-esque fuck?

“Brotha, me and my people are starving….sha bama lama ding dong!”

For the life of me I don’t know who could actually put stock in what that man says, except perhaps the most atrophied of spirits and the most gullible of intellects.

I digress though; I could shit on Dyson for another 1,000 words but I’d rather tie this up with the corollary argument, which incidentally also amounts to 1,000 words:

Best,

-Andre Guantanamo

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