Sharing Grief: Depression Takes a Snow Day

Depression Doesn’t Take a Snow Day

I don’t know why, but today started out really well. I mean so well, that I thought I was out of this mess. I described it to a friend as the eye of a storm, which I realize is not very literary, but when you can finally breath, who has time for anything but cliches? I was so ready to move the fuck on.

Honestly, part of the good feelings came from the fact that today was a snow day — and the fact that I got to put off, for one more day, having to face my friends and colleagues now that they know that I am a mess. They are wonderful, and they are accepting and gracious, but I constantly feel ashamed (not from them). Constantly. I constantly struggle with acidic self-loathing. Constantly. But whatever it was, I felt good. I even wrote a list of things that make me happy. It’s below because they made me happy this morning, so they are still honest.

I think.

And then, somewhere around noon, it started to settle. It’s like falling in love, this Thing, except the it’s eyes aren’t blue like the skies — they are blue like the color of a man who has choked to death and then settled in the brain, only to surface 15 years later. You can’t eat — just like falling in love. You can’t sleep — just like falling in love.

And you spend the day working so hard to stay away from the edge of the precipice — just like love. Except, with this, if you fall, there’s no one to catch you. This thing that I am fighting — with it’s concreteness and with my abstract explanations because I am just not ready yet to share all of it — this Thing tries its best to tear and crumble and destroy and project. And It. Is. Exhausting.

Beginnings and Endings

I am running out of energy. I need to wrap this up, because between the broken heart and the normal business of life, there is just not enough emotional energy in the day, and I want to have the energy for my children — for story, and song, and prayer. Regardless of whatever else, I am here to support them, and not the other way around.

So here is that list of things that make me happy. This was, as I said, written at the beginning of the day. By the end of the day, I had written another list — this one things that I hate about myself. But first:

The Happy Parts

  1. My partner
  2. Dancing on the back porch
  3. Romantic date nights that are so over the top sappy that they skirt the world of meta-romance
  4. My skin puppies
  5. Story, song, and prayer
  6. Not having fur babies
  7. Taking spiders outside even though I don’t like them because all life should be cared for (including fur babies — I don’t want pets, but I still love them)
  8. Stories
  9. Binging awesome TV whilst cuddling the heckity-heck out of my partner
  10. Sorted LEGO (by piece AND color)
  11. Graduation regalia colors
  12. Making gift baskets for people I love
  13. Perfect eyeliner
  14. Non-toxic, multiple masculinities
  15. Feeing healthy and strong
  16. The feeling of relief when the world stops crushing in on me
  17. Anything above a 10, by definition
  18. Roses. I fucking love roses. Getting any flowers is a treat, but receiving roses makes me melt
  19. Kisses at Disney World
  20. When my students run the fucking class and knock it outta the park
  21. Connecting to the Divine
  22. Walks in the forest
  23. The sea breeze on a tropical coast before sunset
  24. Camping but with mattresses. So basically if we could just stick a hotel in the forest…
  25. Circle bathtubs
  26. That moment when you walk outside, smell the air, and you’re like, “yup. It’s gonna snow like a mo fo”
  27. The pittering of snow six hours after the smell thing
  28. Misty walks in the coastal mountains of the Pacific NW
  29. Zombie burlesque
  30. Melodic death metal
  31. Tim McGraw’s “Blank Sheet of Paper”
  32. Podcasts
  33. Contemplating levels of infinity
  34. Graham’s number
  35. Prayer
  36. Escaping escape rooms
  37. My kids repeating healthy statements like “I need cuddling to nurture my relationships with mommy and daddy”
  38. Looking at my partner — we nod, and then give our last few bucks to someone
  39. ost-coital cuddles
  40. Feeing joy at my partner’s joy
  41. Avenue Q
  42. Any musical, really
  43. Tap dancing
  44. Ballet dancing
  45. Listening to Portuguese
  46. Braided poetry that compares and contrasts orgasms, pomegranate seeds, and death
  47. Fairy tales
  48. Feeling safe
  49. Feeling loved
  50. Nurse practitioners
  51. When someone touches my stomach scars and tells me they are beautiful
  52. Being told I am handsome
  53. Anna Adkins
  54. Gossiping about positive things
  55. Culturally relevant pedagogy
  56. Critical literacy
  57. Feeling wanted
  58. Soft kisses that wrap lips in lips
  59. Feeing sexy
  60. When my partner gets out of the bath and comes and cuddles and kisses me

 Not bad for major clinical depression, right? Well, there’s more:

The Parts I Hate

I am not writing this list. Not here. I wasn’t supposed to write it in the first place. I was supposed to write a list of things I need to forgive myself for, and I figured I could first write a list of my flaws and then forgive myself for them in a sort of corporate absolution.

I did write the forgiveness thing, and my heart wasn’t in it. But I did it, and here it is:

I forgive you for treating me poorly. You are kind and you work to be loving, and no one deserves treatment like this. It is going to take time to internalize this, but I am here to remind you: I forgive you. And you are loved.

And that’s what I got. That’s it. I don’t believe a word of it. Hell, I don’t trust myself as far as I can throw myself. Not to be honest with or to myself, anyway. The self-loathing is strong with me.

It turns out that depression doesn’t take a snow day. But I am still breathing. And I am still committed to living, and for today, that’s enough.

It has to be. I don’t what else there is.

Sharing Grief

I’m in the middle of a mental health…not “crisis,” for that implies that I’m about to do something dangerous. And I’m not.

But I am grieving. I am in a bad place. The Bad Place, I call it, actually, but it’s way less funny than any motherforking shirtballs. I’m not going to hurt myself or others, but it’s rough. Hopeless. In some ways, even more so than before I committed to living, for now, I don’t have any direction in which to travel. I’m lost. And I’m broken.

For almost six months, I’ve been struggling with a deepening depression. In the past few weeks, some trauma from 20 years ago has surfaced that I can barely look at. I’m ashamed. I will share all that in time, but that will take time. My life is not the same as it was before I uncovered these this. And I can never go back, however much I beg for a ride in a blue box.

But in the meantime, I know four things for sure:

  1. I am a writer.
  2. I am a teacher.
  3. I want to love well.
  4. I want to be brave.

Next Steps

To be honest, I don’t know if it will get better. It’s bad. But if we, as a society, don’t start talking about these things, more people will die. I’m committed to life. But that’s a cognitive commitment. That’s not how I feel.

By God, I will be brave. I will grit my fucking teeth and make it through another day. Another minute, even. And in the midst of this viscous hell, my determination to get to the next moment is Rock-Fucking-Solid.

I’ll post here when I can. I want to share my story to show that we who are grieving are not alone. I want to share my story — maybe it will be cathartic. Maybe not. But maybe we will start talking about these things more openly. We offer sympathy and grace for broken limbs. We should do the same for broken hearts. Without the fear. Without the feeling sorry for someone. Without ostracizing them further.

We must recognize and validate our broken hearts, even as we work towards the healing that right now, seems 93 million miles away, in the center of the sun.

We can share our hurting hearts. This one is mine.

Welcome to “Sharing Grief: stories of a broken heart.”

Exiting the Deficit Dumpster

I recently came across the following article from Ruby Payne after speaking with an administrator at my college — someone who I respect a great deal. It turns out that she is coming to our campus this fall.

I have to admit — I am a little fascinated by her, not in an I-really-want-to-see-her-in-person kind of way, but fascinated by her, none the less – like a car wreck, or better yet, like watching a scorpion with 30 tiny scorpion babies on its back come out from under a rock in the backyard. I don’t think that scorpions are particularly evil, and I don’t think that I should be particularly deadly in my actions to them – all God’s creatures, and all that. But I watch from a distance. I wouldn’t seek to ruin their lives, but neither would I seek to attend a PD hosted by them.

Okay, so the scorpion analogy isn’t perfect, but by God, when I read about how “one of the few available jobs” in “high poverty areas” (Payne, 2015) is that of a drug dealer, I have to wonder if Payne is a scorpion with babies on her back, with words and phrases like, “but I am a nurturer! Can’t you see these babies on my back?? I just want to help the ‘Youths’ out of their poverty!”

One of my favorite thinkers counter to the deficit ideology of Payne in this area is Paul Gorski:

Gorski offers three ideologies when thinking about inequalities:

  • Deficit ideology (people in the worst places — academically, socio-economically, etc. — are there out of their own fault; it is about “fixing” the marginalized rather than fixing the structural conditions that contribute to marginalization);
  • Grit ideology (recognizes inequalities, but places the onus on students for climbing out of those inequalities — again, rather than fixing the structural inequalities themselves);
  • Structural ideology (addressing the systems in place that contribute to the underlying causes of inequality).

With that in mind, in Payne’s 2015 article on poor households and money, she makes the statement about dealing drugs and “one of the few available jobs” (she essentializes/stereotypes ALL poor neighborhoods); she places the problem squarely with the poor – and the solution with her (more on this in a moment); she states that “entrepreneurship, not management of money” should be our focus with youth.

This is how she laces her poison with sugar: she sets the problem within poor communities, and then sets herself up to be the savior. I never really understood the term “white savior” until now. And you know what else?

It’s not just her. I have done it – I do it too.

What a shitty thing to think. What a shitty way to behave. But that has, lately, started to change. Eu lieo Pedagogia do Oprimido.

“exposição-paulo-freire 02” by Um resgate coletivo da história is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 

Among other things, Freire discusses, at length, the humanity of Christ (Ferry, 1996) – the mission of social justice in the world – the Word Made Flesh – the Incarnation of God – this was God inciting social unrest for change in the world. This concept is, perhaps, at the heart of Freire’s conscientização – or more acutely, of liberation theology (I won’t go into how I believe that is twisted by conservative politics). As a staunchly liberal Christian, I believe that Freire’s conscientização – and the critical pedagogy and the theories that have developed along side of that are meant to offer counter-narratives to prevailing contemporary thinking, as were the narratives of Christ. In Matthew 25, Jesus gives a strong rebuke towards those who would be unwelcoming towards strangers. The Apostle Paul, who I think had a lot of issues with regards to misogyny, even said that the mark of a Christian is to share with “the Lord’s people in need.” And who are “the Lord’s people? That answer is in Matthew 25: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me…”

But the example of Christ moves beyond a one-on-one giving of oneself. It is a call to social action – a call to hear and listen – to, quite literally, walk two miles with the person who asks me to walk one mile with them. It is the idea that the poor have a privileged place in the Kingdom of God – and that we should seek to be like them because Jesus is one of them. In my last post,

I can’t separate politics and education; neither can I divorce politics and religion, because religion is political. Listen to Pope Francis speak about LGBTQ+ people: “Who am I to judge?” he says. Because I think that politics and religion and education are so intimately connected, maybe my place is not in a public institution. On the other hand, maybe this is how I can be a leader to those around me who subscribe to the soteriology of Payne.

If I consider how, as an elementary educator, I have learned to speak with children, that can also give me some insight into how to meet my students. And how do we meet children? How do we listen to them? We squat – we kneel. We look them in the eye. We give them some dignity. How do we meet anyone? We give them some goddamn dignity.

Deficit Ideology in Practice

I worked at a charter school during my first years as an educator: The Connect School.

Screenshot from ConnectSchool.org

How proud they were (are) about their successes in standardized testing. How proud they were (are) that they use a first come, first served policy of admission to the school. How proud they were (are) of being centrally located in Pueblo. How proud they were (are) of serving the poor in Pueblo, Colorado. How proud they were (are) of their successes in Science Olympiad and History Day. And how much do they do precisely what Milner (2013) warns against: they operate with no free and reduced lunch. They operate with no busses. They operate as a meritocracy, saying, “well, we are open to all, of course,” ignoring the fact that Pueblo is a city in which the majority of the population is LatinX, and the population of the school is 95% non-LatinX white. They ignore that children of doctors and businessmen and lawyers are the majority of the students. They ignore their commitment to the community because they ignore the systemic factors that limit a student’s ability to even attend the school.

And somewhere across town – in a neighborhood called the “Dogpatch,” in a school bearing the name of a woman who

took a walk around the neighborhood. She met her students. She met their families. She learned their stories. She found what they were missing in their lives. And then, she discovered community members who were willing to help her make a quality education accessible and important to these children and their parents (South, 2018);

a class of kindergarteners chants their phonemic awareness exercises, never allowed to move; never allowed to ask question: a product of the “Colorado Reading First” program.

We punish the poor with scripted programs under the guise of closing the achievement gap. We divide, according to affluence, in the very ways that Anyon (1980) describes. And that means that we divide by race as well.

I have read and watched and listened to educators speak about the connection between race and wealth, and I have fallen right into the trap that so many of my white friends fall into: one of “yeah, but, I have a net worth of something like negative $150,000.” I came from a very affluent family, and I was given nothing for college, but I had to care for my dad with my own money because his new wife stole his earnings from him. For years. Last year, I listened to one educator discuss black families who help their kids get to and through college – and they do so at income levels one-third that of white families.

I got afforded the opportunity to be well-educated because I was the “right” skin color. I have been poor for most of my adult life, but I was never poor and discriminated against. My God, I could go on and on.

Climbing Out of the Dumpster

My dad died last year of an awful disease: Multiple System Atrophy. This disease took his mobility and his quality of life and finally, his ability to speak, even. For a month, my partner, my sisters, and I sat by his bed and wished for him to die so that he could be out of pain. He didn’t want morphine. It messed with his stomach and it made him less-than-lucid. But one thing helped.

About a year before he died, my dad was in agonizing pain from a back injury that was due to a fall from a year prior to that. Nothing helped. Not being moved, not morphine, nothing. Until one day, a friend of mine asked me to meet her at her car, just off campus. She didn’t want me to be in trouble for the edibles she was giving me. Over that year, she probably baked many dozens of weed-infused cookies for my dad. A proud Native and Latina, she made sure that I got these edibles to my dad. When he couldn’t speak or swallow anymore, she made concentrates that we placed under his tongue in secret in his nursing home. He died on March 17, with so much weed in his system, he probably peed stems and seeds.

The last afternoon that I saw my dad, this wonderful woman gave me what would be his last dose. I cried and cried and cried with her. She gave me a prayer shawl that the ladies at her church had made. She held my hand as I spoke with the hospice folks on that last day. She helped me to see Christ in the face of what Payne might have called “a drug dealer with limited job options.”

I have a lot of bitterness towards a whole lot of things – wars and politicians and pain – but one thing I know to be true: that this woman was so much more that what Ruby Payne would have made of her. She told me something one time, years before my dad’s death – something that just created a switch in my thinking. It was one of the first weeks in my composition class, and she related a quote she had heard about poverty and privilege. This is one of the best examples of how this conversation can take place:

Millions of children will die, tonight, because they don’t have enough to eat, and you don’t give a fuck. But the worst part is that you are more bothered by the word ‘fuck’ than you are about the millions of children who will die tonight.

She taught me so much about how to view poverty and the poor and the sick and the dying: that I should treat them like Human Beings. “This,” she would tell me, “is the Gospel of Christ.” Pope Francis, himself a Latino Catholic in the Jesuit tradition, echoes this: “In the end,” he says, “we shall be judged on love alone.”

“Hate won,” Kirylo (2017) says, in reference to the 2016 presidential election, but we must “make every effort to ensure that love has the final word” (p. 597).

At least until my first of next week’s post, when love will certainly not be enough.

References:

Anyon, J. (1980). Social class and the hidden curriculum of work. Journal of Education 162(1).

Ferry, C. (1996). When the distressed teach the oppressed: Toward an understanding of communion and commitment. JAEPL 2(Winter), 27-33. Retrieved from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/6fbc/197ac5fc699b46f5a41c140453caab895ed2.pdf

Gorski, P. (2015, October 1). Ideologies of Inequality: Toward a Structural View. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f8vYUBIDlmg

Kirylo, J. (2017). Hate won, but love will have the final word: Critical pedagogy, liberation theology, and the moral imperative of resistance. Policy Futures in Education 15(5), 590-601.

Milner, H. R. (2013). Analyzing poverty, learning, and teaching through a critical theory lens. Review of Research in Education 37, 1-53.

Payne, R. (2015). How do you teach kids from poor households about money? Retrieved from http://youthtoday.org.2015/02/how-do-you-teach-kids-from-poor-households-about-money/

South, S. (2018). Eva Baca inducted into Proby Cultural Heritage room. Retrieved at https://www.elpomar.org/blog/detail/eva-baca-inducted-into-proby-cultural-heritage-room/1914/

Steven Crowder and Public Pedagogy: The Propagation of Unholy Intersectionality

In the Washington Post today (Wednesday, June 6, 2019), Henry Farrell writes about the demonetization of conservative YouTuber Steven Crowder for the racist and homophobic content that Crowder has spewed across the video platform, targeting Vox producer Carlos Maza.

Maza, in a brilliant display of calling out the homophobia of Crowder, put the following montage together that allows Crowder to speak for himself:

There is so much to unpack here that it is almost impossible to know where to begin. That said, a couple of important themes have emerged as Maza has attempted, for years, to address Crowder’s hate:

Corporate Statements = Public Pedagogy

Public Pedagogy, that is, the education that exists outside of the formal classroom, is an important aspect to consider in this case. Not only are Crowder’s disciples subscribers doxxing and harrassing Maza based on the information in Crowder’s content, the allowance of that harrassment has been formalized: YouTube put out a statement that read, in part, “In the case of Crowder’s channel, a thorough review over the weekend found that individually, the flagged videos did not violate our Community Guidelines.” This was after Maza stated the following:

I’m not mad at Crowder. There will always be monsters in the world. I’m fucking pissed at @YouTube, which claims to support its LGBT creators, and has explicit policies against harassment and bullying…This isn’t about “silencing conservatives.” I don’t give a flying fuck if conservatives on YouTube disagree with me. But by refusing to enforce its anti-harassment policy, YouTube is helping incredibly powerful cyberbullies organize and target people they disagree with.

Maza, C. (2019, May 30, 7:16 P.M.)

The issue with this, which seems to me to be really obvious, is that YouTube, like Budweiser, et al (ad infinitum), has latched onto who they see as a particular market — LGBTQ+ folx, as in the following, which Maza has so graciously prepared [for this blog]:

Along with the content that YouTube creators make for their subscribers, the statement that YouTube made teaches the public (ergo, public pedagogy) that despite violating standards that state, in part, “if the primary purpose is to attack a protected group, the content crosses the line,” it is okay to continue to develop content that is hateful if…if what? For me, the answer seems to be obvious: if the solution is not related to interest convergence, the idea that the dominant group will only cooperate in dismantling oppression if it is in their own best interest, then Play On Bigots, Play On.

Racism + Homophobia = Intersectional Bigotry

Before I address the intersection of racism and homophobia, I want to address Crowder’s racism as a separate issue. There is no doubt in my mind that Crowder behaved like a racist pig (this is the guy who created the “Change My Mind” meme through his video on the Texas Christian University campus titled “Hate Speech Isn’t Real — Change My Mind,” in which he is simply just saying that there is no “legal” definition of hate speech — a misrepresentation of his efforts, at best). And yet, only a small handful of Crowder’s comments in this case have been repeated as examples of racism. That seems awfully suspicious…and I have a thought about why: it is easier to marginalize race than sexuality using underhanded means. We all know that racism is “bad,” but we still do racism — we toss out the overt racist, and then we clutch our purses just a bit tighter when a black man walks in. Racism is woven into our society to the point that we don’t even know when we are racist.

Allow me, Dear Reader, to explain why I believe this issue matters now. As a white, queer person, I understand that I have blinders on. I get that there are things that I do not know and can’t understand. But I came to a particularly interesting turning point yesterday when I saw this:

“20170303TransUpFront085” by sierraromeo [sarah-ji] is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

Of course I recognized that I am privileged. Of course I am aware that racism exists. But when I saw this, I understood something on a much more personal scale, which kind of sucks: why the fuck do I take so long to understand?

The issue with Crowder’s hatred is not just that it is homophobic — it is that it is also racist — and the combination of the two creates an unholy intersectionality that WE AREN’T TALKING ABOUT. #BlackLivesMatter. #BlackTransLivesMatter, and I wasn’t even paying attention.

If I feel guilty about this (and I do), what good does that do? By itself, it does nothing, but theologically speaking, guilt is the feeling that comes from understanding that which separates us from God — from the Divine — from Love. If I feel guilty, and then I do nothing, then I am culpable for my continued blindness — that is, I become increasingly complicit in my own racism. However, if I am willing to grow from this experience, then I can connect back to the divine through action — theologically speaking — through repentance. That repentance, Dear Reader, finds its voice in my teaching and in my learning, which is a continual process: Paulo Freire’s conscientização.

In the Classroom

Admittedly, I am working on my teaching and learning, a process that will not stop any time soon — nor should it. Lately, I have been working on meeting my students wherever they are — seeking their literacies, in particular, to address a concept in the class. Lately, this has manifested itself in using LEGO to communicate various writing concepts. Tonight, in my technical writing class, I asked my students to create the same three models, but for different purposes. With permission, I am sharing one group’s designs, based on their interactions with the perception of how law enforcement in the community presents themselves to various members of the community (the descriptions are theirs):

When I first asked them about these models (sans descriptions), they told me that they “did some political shit.” I said that I appreciated that, and I invited their descriptions. As they presented their models, I shut up, and I listened. They finished, and I spoke:

“I had no idea,” I said.

“No offense, professor,” one student said, “but most white folks don’t.”

And they are right. Most white people just don’t understand.

The Final Word

A great deal has happened since I even began this post. YouTube has demonetized Crowder, backlash has ensued because Crowder makes his money through his t-shirt sales and through Patreon, and Maza is still (rightly) pissed. I think the last word belongs to Maza, here, whose most recent Tweet was 30 minutes ago (around 10:30 PM EDT):

Before Toxic

She climbed couches and broke wrists. Once, she hung on the ropes at the bank. The brass stand holding the ropes in place buckled and fell, and her scalp split open. I ran her to the ER, where she received three staples, never even wincing. But yesterday – Sweet Mother Mary – she sat and she thought and she responded. “Yes, daddy?” She responded when I said her name. No raised voices; no bedtime tears.

But still – and always – a badass woman. The horns of her bull have been ripped off and shot into space through powerful arms and steadfast justice.

“You know something, daddy?” she asked me. “Trump is a very bad man.” And then she wrote down her reasons.

My three-year-old followed: “When someone says stop, we stop,” he said.

“That’s why Trump is bad,” she said.

An Argument for the Elimination of Second Place.

My opinions do not reflect those of this institution.

They gave me 30,000 dollars. They gave me 30,000 dollars and I left home at 17 and I learned how to carry a gun. And it was fun.

On my 18thbirthday, I threw grenades. And then I wept. I wept because I saw what a round, green thingcan do. I threw the grenade and then I wept into the arms of a brawny man and a round brown hat, like Smokey the Bear, except Smokey helps us prevent fire.

Learning how to be kill has been so much easier than learning how to love. I was ashamed to love.

 

The obvious: The white man in the white house with the white staff building up a white America: he’s kind of an idiot. For so many things. But relevant to this piece, he’s an idiot because he tried to stop queer people from killing. He can’t stop that. Lemme tell you:

I was queer and they let me kill. I am queer, and queer people have been killing since the first recruiters snaked their lacy green fingers around our throats and embarrassed us till we broke. Till we joined. Till we killed. Till we died.

 

I got $30,000 for college, and it was not free. I did not serve my country. I served myself. I served my embarrassment. I swallowed it down with the bile and the blood and the blue of a man’s face who choked to death under a truck in the middle of the desert.

I killed people for it. That money that I earned for college cost families their children and and Abdullah his daddy and Asif his brothers. 

I would spend every fucking penny and a great deal more to bring them back. Nothing is worth that. 

Not 30,000 dollars. Not a gun. Not a goddamn M16 or an AR-15 or any fucking amendment, especially not one in second place.

My opinions do not reflect those of this institution.

Punch Line

Lance Corporal David Motari and Private First Class Nicole Westerland, before they are caught screwing around in the latrines, drive their gunnery sergeant on a mounted patrol in Fallujah. As they round the last checkpoint, which is always a bottleneck, an explosion rockets the Navy SeaBee in the truck in front of them out of the gunner’s hatch.  LCpl. Motari films it from the truck behind.  He posts it on YouTube and it gets 40 thousand hits in the first hour. The SeaBee, naturally, gets pissed about the video, but he can’t do anything about it, because he’s dead, so the just stays there and everyone thinks that war is about an explosion and how it messes people up.

And people think they get it.  They think they get it because they see a man get blown out of a gunner’s hatch or they see a Motari throw a puppy off of a cliff, and sure that’s horrible, but they think that this defines war. It doesn’t even come close. War is mostly about fear, though there are people who don’t admit that, or want you to function anyway. They will tell you that everyone has fear, and that courage comes from recognizing fear and doing it anyway.  They tell you to do it anyway, and you don’t even know what it is.  They tell you to do it like you’re gonna go out there and tell your guys crazy movie lines like “Let off a few rounds—let them know we’re still here!”  And because those lines are supposed to make you face the fear, you will say those lines. Lines like “If you live through it, someday you’ll thank me for it” and “Give ‘em hell, boys!”—those lines are supposed to make you change.  But they don’t.  They don’t make you face fear because fear can’t be faced.  There are no courageous people in war; there are just the too-dumb-to-know-any-better people, and then there are the I’m dead people.  I was the first kind of person before I realized what kind of shit I was in.  But after Baker and Ortiz were killed, and just before Lt. Maynard choked to death on his flak vest, pinned to the ground beneath 2.5 tons of deuce and a half, I became the second: a dead man. That was good.  When you’re too dumb to know any better, you curl up and cry.  But when I become the second—that’s when I could finally function in Iraq—after I changed into a dead man—and I finally knew it.

#

On the day that I die—well, really, its Baker and Ortiz, but I might as well be along for the ride, so there you go: on the day that I die, it is April and I am not on the streets of Ramadi.  Rather, I am on the base, running.  Before I leave for this run, Melendez asks me why I want to run in the first place.

“I don’t know,” I say. I really don’t.

“I don’t get it…and I swear to God, Steel, if you make a joke…”

“Queen for a year.”

“Fuck off, Steel.” She shows me her middle finger, and proceeds to moisten her dry lips with a tube of Chap Stick and her finger

“I don’t know what I am supposed to say, here.

“Probably for the best, anyway.”

“Why the best?”

“You’ll definitely see. Sooner than you would want.”

“I just want to run.”

“I get that,” she says.

I leave for my run, and from up ahead, I hear a squad of soldiers coming; they are singing cadences:

“A Yellow Bird,” Motari sings. The squad following him repeats.

“With a yellow bill.” Repeat.

“Was sitting on” Repeat.

“A window sill” Repeat.

Blah blah blah, yellow bird still sitting there.  This is war (or Army, maybe): No one can do anything (give orders, talk, dance, fuck, drive) without rhyming.

“I lured him in,” Motari sings. The others repeat.

“With a piece of bread.”

“And then I smashed”

“His fucking head.”

In the cadence, they kill the bird because they think it’s a joke—soldiers are fantastic at jokes like the poor bird. Just the other day, SFC Cyfers told me a joke:

“What happened to the man who went home from the war?” he asked. I think he was actually waiting for my response. “Not a goddamn thing,” he says. “They never fucking come home.”  When I repeat that joke to my doctor in America, he asks me this:

“What do you mean they never come home?  I see you,” he says.  “You’re home, right?”  What a dumbass.

“Naw, man.  I’m still running, crying my eyes out for Russell Brown and Baker and Ortiz.  That’s where I live.  That’s where we all live.  Ain’t none of us ever coming home.”

“But I see you,” Dr. Marquez says.  You’re home, right?”

#

So I die this day in the heat and in the fine Iraqi sand – we call it moon dust, because the moon seems a lot closer than home. And then, a few moments or days later, when I die, I can finally function. I get it: I don’t know if I can get back alive again. My wife, Daley, she tells me she gets it, how Iraq did weird things to me, like made me invent Baker to cope with the difficulties of combat. The difficulties, she says, like I can take a Tums and chalk it up to a rough day at the office.  But she doesn’t get it.  I am already dead.  I am fairly sure it’s not metaphorically, either.  I died that day, and you can die too, for all I care.

#

And then, a few months later, I get back to America. Sure, I am dead, but I can see things differently.  There is the obvious, like how I appreciate a sunset or how rocky road ice cream tastes more fucking delicious than ever.  There is that, sure.  And the too-dumb-to-know-its think that rocky road is all there is.  But there is much more.  Because in real life, I am dead, and I find myself sitting in my car crying for Baker and Ortiz.  I want go back to the before time—the time when I had no army in my life, and no Daley, because she doesn’t get it, and I can’t because I am in a very different place today.  And so, sometimes, I just ignore my deadness, and I grab my pills and I fucking weep before class and I weep when I read Psalms 18:29 and I weep when I travel to Southern California to visit my grandmother in a nursing home and there are dust storms near Barstow and I have to pull over. Someone steps out from behind a small shack, his robe concealing something that he brings to his shoulder. He fires, and I swerve off the road into a field, aiming for the fucker who just shot an RPG right at my fucking head.Problem is, hes just got a hose, and he trying to settle the dust on his driveway, which is surely more legal that rocket propelled grenades in the high desert of Southern California.

So is the problem: I am a dead man. I had accepted this absolute, undeniable, praise Jesus, hallelujah, I got over the wall truth. After dying, I could function. And everyone wants to be dip-top in Iraq, or they are gonna kill you. So I die. I am dead. I am not almost dead.  And it is fucking hard to get back alive again, once you’re dead.

#

Today, Baker will be killed and I will die from it. But for now, he sits in our HMMWV, and I am outside, playing tic-tac-toe in the dirt with six little Iraqi kids.  I keep trying to draw a tic-tac-toe game board, but the Iraqi kids just keep copying me. I draw in the dirt. They draw in the dirt. This happens for a long time, until I finally get across that they are supposed use the dirt as a game board and not a drawing. When I finally communicate this to the Iraqi kids, I draw an x in center square. The kids start copy me, with their own board and their own x. Eight eternities pass us today, until, finally, I get across the concept of three in a row, there you go, and we play our first real game.

So there we are, playing the beginnings of a tic-tac-toe game, and along comes a man in a tan shirt and a white robe that goes all the way to the ground.  I have seen him before, most recently arguing with his children about   He walks up close to the soldiers and the kids and he puts one hand inside his robe and poof, the kids are gone.  But the two soldiers stay, because they were already dead to begin with.  An explosion makes no difference, one way or the other, not to dead people.  It has some effect on the living, but even then, it takes a lot to change somebody, and mostly, you don’t change.

So these guys, who aren’t dead again, are pissed.  Guy one, who was playing tic-tac-toe with the kids, says to this guy two: “Aww man, that fucker blew those kids up.”

“Why do you care?” guy two says.

“Because he blew the dust away too,” says guy one. “Now we don’t know who is gonna win.


This story was originally published in Dirty Chai, a literary journal in which “Punch Line” can be found at https://dirtychaimag.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/dirtychaiissuethree1.pdf
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