On Trump and Libraries

I'm trying to remember when I first became aware of the notion, popularized throughout the Trump campaign, that intellectualism is "bad," a pustule on the ugly face of "liberal elitism." Embedded in this idea, of course, is classism, some deeply perverse misunderstanding that people with less wealth--seemingly simply by virtue of having less wealth--want simpler solutions, broader strokes, plain(er)spoken goals. The pervasiveness of this phenomenon has given us, just to name one example, Trae Crowder, whose "Liberal Redneck" persona has gone viral since 2016, precisely for its anomalousness. I have nothing against Trae Crowder. I just squirm under the assumption that poor white Southerners are "supposed to" support Trump--Trump, the man with zero political expertise, historical knowledge, military background, or diplomatic finesse, to say nothing of basic oratory skills--as the billionaire deity whose racist promises include making America great "again" (remind me when it was great for the majority of poor whites?) 

The growing disparity between the parties has become characterized by disdain vs fervor for intellectual exchange. To be a nuanced thinker, a president risks appearing "weak" or "passive," which were criticisms that Obama frequently endured. "Act now, think later...or never" is an apt summation of how Trump has treated his first 100 days. The objective of his campaign was to whip his would-be supporters into such a patriotic frenzy that they would forget to ask the crucial questions (such as, oh, "how" and "why"); they would be encouraged to relinquish any responsibility for their own research, dialog, and fact-checking, in favor of the jobs and greatness and hugeness and America-ness that would surely arrive on their doorsteps like so many winning Publishers Clearinghouse envelopes.

Desperate, disenfranchised, and sad human beings are very capable of complex thought. But complex thought is, um, hard: time consuming, uncomfortable, maddening, and often solution-less. When something shinier and easier is on the offer--even if it's a mirage--it *will* win, or I guess I should say, "win." It is a kind of ideological economics, and it is the same principle that underwrites nearly every aspect of any capitalist society. People don't eat Big Macs because they're healthy and promote long lives. They eat them because they're cheap and filling. Smarter and better-versed people than I have said it in myriad ways, but the bottom line is that we're living in a culture of rabid appetite, and Trump's campaign provided an all-you-can-eat buffet.

I don't know, guys

I don't know, guys

Now, full-bellied, the administration is making good on its platform of Zero Complexity. From education to climate change, we have been confronted by a cast of characters who seem hellbent on knowing as little as they can about the office they've been tapped to inhabit. We have, across the White House, more money than experience, more nepotism than intellect. Remember how slaves were denied access to books and education, so that they wouldn't figure out that they were human beings and not property? I can't help but think of this administration's abject rejection of intellectualism as a kind of slavery: just smile and nod at the "less government" rich folks, and pay no attention to what's happening in our schools; in Flint, Michigan; in Russia; or in Roseburg, Oregon, for example, where all 11 branches of the city's library system will be closed by June 1, because the majority of residents didn't want to pay a $6/month tax that would've prevented a funding crisis.

9 of 13 of Trump's "Broken Promises" as enumerated by Robert Reich,  Newsweek

9 of 13 of Trump's "Broken Promises" as enumerated by Robert Reich, Newsweek

The cutting of arts funding and shuttering of libraries would most certainly be the apotheosis of Trump's anti-thought modus operandi. The provocation of the senses, the expansion of the mind, the opportunities to participate in civic debates, workshops, and other special events--in other words, all of the stuff that's available to us not because we're of a certain class or color or creed but because we're human beings who yearn for connection and, yes, occasional transcendence--are not valued by Trump, and he is--according to me--showing us why: because they have no immediate dollar value, because they're not concerned with the dynamics of power, and because--most frighteningly, for him--they threaten to awaken his fan base to the errors and injustices of his personal politics. 

I grew up going to libraries; specifically, the Belmont Hills Library, the Bala Cynwyd Library, the Gladwyne Library, and "the big library," Ludington. The Belmont Hills Library was closest and smallest. I loved its starkness, the white wire chairs and tables, the bright cleanliness of the space. The Bala Cynwyd Library had the kindest and most helpful librarians. The Gladwyne Library had the best children's section, which was more or less in the basement, a low-ceilinged, wood-paneled room with cozy light fixtures and little nooks. Going to the Ludington Library was a treat. In my mind, it seemed to have everything. I learned to use microfiche there. I researched my first term paper, on the Berlin Wall, in the carrels there. I worked on job applications there. Before I could drive, I got dropped off and picked up there, and felt the early flashes of adulthood as I went off course, veering from the parameters of my prescribed topic to page through books with titillating titles. 

The Belmont Hills Library

The Belmont Hills Library

These days, I take my daughters to the library at least once a week, and at least once a week, Beatrice says, I can't believe we get to take all of these books home for free. I know, I tell her. It's a miracle. It's the best of what humanity can offer. 

I think of all the free resources my libraries have offered, many of which I've taken part in: internet, a quiet place to work, a comfortable chair, umpteen classes from ESL to accounting, neighborhood meetings, voting booths, storytimes for kids, films, lectures, exhibits, to say nothing of the thousands of books and periodicals and movies and music. Before we could look it up online, we could look it up at the library. The original information superhighway, except since you have to wend your way there, learning bits as you go, it's maybe more aptly the information scenic route.

Programs will suffer, as will the people who rely on them. And I'm equally saddened by what it says about us and our national disposition, our values and priorities. America: big on wars, small on books.

My first book is coming out in two months. I know it will be exciting to see it on bookstore shelves, but the thrill of seeing it at the library will be next-level. A book at the library has nothing to do with numbers or royalties, the sorts of things that publishers need to be concerned about. A book at the library is in many ways the truest book, a book that exists for the library, for the sake of the free and open exchange of ideas and learning. 

Are we really going to let a bookless billionaire bully usurp one of the greatest institutions of democracy and egalitarianism? It feels like an eviction from a spiritual home.



On Having

Yesterday Simone and I went to Nordstrom Rack. Both girls need shoes for summer and I've had luck there in the past. I entered the store with a set jaw and a firm mindset: we were there for shoes. We were going straight back to the kids' shoe section, picking out one pair each for Simone and Beatrice, paying for them, and getting out. On the way to the shoes, we saw bathing suits, dresses, makeup, scarves, lingerie, chocolate covered gummy bears, candles, water bottles, Instax cameras, stuffed animals, Barbies, and children's clothes. Simone wanted all of it. She pointed at a bra and announced THOSE ARE FOR BOOBIES. I found zero shoes for Beatrice, and one extremely impractical, ill-fitting pair for Simone that made some kind of sense in the flurry of the moment, but that I'll be returning later this week, when I can steel myself enough to go back.

I have a fraught relationship with buying, because I have an even more complicated relationship with having. I have two pairs of underwear (among others, obviously), from the Victoria's Secret BODY Collection, that I've had since college. That's twenty-year-old underwear, folks. My underwear are millenials. I keep a pretty trim closet, and have given stuff away, inexplicably, that I really like, simply because I grew tired of having it. Most concrete items in my life weigh heavily on me--even the ones I love dearly--and eventually become a burden. 

The turbulence of the stuff-dilemma has intensified since having children. We kept our baby-stuff minimal--babies really and truly do not need much--and I was lucky to get a lot of hand-me-downs from my sister. Beatrice wears a uniform to school each day, and next year, Simone will do the same--this means that they can get away with having some play clothes and a few nice dresses and that's about it on the clothes front. It's difficult to "invest wisely" in the stuff of children, because they play hard and grow fast. A few times a year, we try to be ruthless in our paring down of the toys--especially before, say, birthdays and Christmas--but as many parents know, this is tricky, because kids become apoplectic over whatever toy suddenly isn't there. Sometimes we swap stuff out, putting a bunch in storage and then bringing them out so they're "new" again. But even when they're out of sight, they stay in my mind, bothering it, cluttering it.

I know that the key to not having a lot of stuff is to not buy it in the first place. Once it's bought, it needs to be placed. Once it's placed, the timer starts ticking: how long before this too is a piece of junk that I resent every time I see it? Kids love junk. Those party bags filled with cheap yo-yos and whistles and impossible-to-peel stickers? Those have sat on my kitchen counter for days, weeks even, before I throw them out and, when the kids ask, blame Brian.

Sometimes a vicious need to throw things out arises in me and I have to breathe through it or let Jesus/Brian take the wheel. At least once a month I want to get rid of every single thing in my house and go live in an ashram. I'm not kidding.

As for other people's clutter, or even other people's richly decorated spaces: I love them. I'm not being sarcastic. Somehow, being in the presence of other people's stuff is eminently calming to me. It's not mine, and I'll never have to deal with it, and therefore I can enjoy it for exactly what it is. Minimalism is less of a conscious aesthetic, for me, and more of a coping mechanism, a way to survive the savageries of my mind.

Edie Beale in one of my favorite photos of all time. I am never not thinking about Grey Gardens. Grey Gardens is my resting state of mind.

Edie Beale in one of my favorite photos of all time. I am never not thinking about Grey Gardens. Grey Gardens is my resting state of mind.

It's rare that I'll buy ingredients to make a certain recipe. Usually I'll let what I have dictate what I'm making, and if I am following a recipe, I'll adapt it accordingly. My mom taught me this, by example. I rarely remember my mom ever using a cookbook, and her meals were pretty much always good. On the other hand: my mom has had closets, one in each of the homes I've known, the one I was raised in and the one they moved into here in Birmingham, filled with stuff she buys and intends to give as gifts. She'll buy potholders, dish towels, picture frames, etc., on sale, and then they're just there, along with gift boxes and wrapping paper, for whomever needs a gift. The closet's inventory never seems to dip. Every time she disappears upstairs, my stomach starts knotting: how do I politely turn down a kitty cat figurine? My dad, on the other hand, is as Spartan as they come--gift-giving occasions make him visibly uneasy. I am very much his daughter.

I know, for example, that I could spend money more prudently, by using my Amex to "get points" which would make it possible for me to get other things, via the points. I have done this and it has stressed me out. If I could pay for everything using cash I kept under my mattress (so to speak), I would. Credit cards scare me. And I'm not interested in making profits for vile corporations, any more than I have to. I do use credit cards for travel and other non-tangibles, and I'm pretty grumpy about it.

What's confusing are the moments when I walk into a store, a store like, say, Nordstrom Rack, and I go into a weird fugue state and suddenly feel holes in my life where stuff should be: my sports bras are threadbare, I should buy three; this looks like a good face mask; that dress is only $25; might as well look for new sandals; what are these sunglasses doing; am I a straw handbag person; should I try on this sarong. I have thrown myself into fitting rooms with armloads of stuff, only to sit in the middle of it, nearly hyperventilating, and walk straight out minutes later, having not tried on a thing. I have ordered things online and put the unopened boxes in my closet for days, sometimes weeks, because I can't deal with the material reality of the thing in my house, needing its own space.

I have also occasionally been an adult who buys things thoughtfully and deliberately, without any kind of accompanying nervous breakdown.

You reach a certain age and start thinking more about landfills. I think about landfills quite a bit. I read an article earlier this year about how, exactly, Goodwill stores process their clothing donations, and it's true, there are many opportunities for sale or salvage (i.e. textile recycling) before they wind up in the landfill. But make no mistake: a lot of clothes wind up in landfills. Last year I attended a brilliant lecture by Natalie Chanin about slow fashion, the true cost of mass-produced clothing, and the ethics of handmade/DIY. My friend Julie Maeseele makes beautiful garments from upcycled fabric, a few of which I've been lucky enough to purchase. I did so gladly, lightheartedly, even, because I knew I was buying art that I could and would wear for a long time. Why would I give my dollars to Old Navy when I could give them to a hardworking artist?

Image via HuffPo

Image via HuffPo

Honestly, the amount of stuff in America seems more pornographic to me than, say, porn. You go into Michael's, a craft store, and there is an aisle for snacks, reminding you that you might need to eat while or immediately after picking out your glue gun. There are about twenty types of Cheerios--twenty variations on one kind of cereal. There are stores so filled with junk nobody needs that they don't even know what to call them so they call them Tuesday Morning, as though any old Tuesday morning is a good time to buy a giant fake wood sign that says KITCHEN in Italian. I know this is everyone's dilemma. I know we all see it and do our best to navigate through it. I know there aren't many of us who wake up in the morning and just buy shit until sundown. But for me, every time I make a transaction, I go through about ten steps in my head. Most of the time, by the time I come to zero, I've convinced myself that I don't really want or need the thing, and as I fold laundry or organize my desk, I'm grateful that it's not there. I am grateful for empty drawers, space in my suitcase, zero debt, lightness. But good grief: protecting the void requires constant vigilance and a lot of work.

Schwarzschild black hole simulation, aka me in a store

Schwarzschild black hole simulation, aka me in a store

Another reason I'll always return to poetry: all the blank spaces. All the room to breathe, to unfurl.

from Mary Ruefle's erasure poem, "A Little White Shadow"

from Mary Ruefle's erasure poem, "A Little White Shadow"