social media

The Rhetoric of Blitzkrieg 

For some of us, the Internet is a kind of petting zoo - a gentle place where we seek solace and encouragement, high fives and "you go, gurl"s. We post our inspirational quotes and Successories-style memes and coil into a furby hug-pile of the like-minded and coo like Tribbles.

For the rest of us, the Web is a hostile environment where we go to dispute each other - a site of pajama pants blood sport in a colesium of hollering. I am very definitely one of these - I relish a good dust-up, I am prone to getting swept up in the truculent thrill of the skirmish, and I am naturally inclined to framing things in extremes. In fact, my show WRITE CLUB is predicated on the notion that opposition - in addition to providing a framework that is entertaining and fast-paced, urgent and involving - is a valid and productive organizing principle for one's ideas about the world. After all, when you're compelled to articulate WHY you believe as you do, if serves as much to reveal your own convictions to yourself as it does to make them known to your opponent.

In the last few weeks, I have had two experiences that have me thinking on this topic.

The first was a flame war on stupid facebook. A guy who hosts a storytelling show and I had what I took to be a disagreement on the subject of cultural sensitvity, cultural appropriation, and abuse of privilege. He took it to be an assault on him personally. Or, like, I don't know, a missle strike on his a bassinet filled with slumbering puppies or something. He lashed out. Calling me, among other things, a "cunt." While this represents a pretty significant lapse in decorum, obviously. and is an assertion that lacking in novelty or specificity, and demonstrates a pretty severe degree of tonedeafness and lack of gender sensitivity, taking place as it did on the wall of a mutual female friend, it was IN NO WAY GERMANE TO THE ARGUMENT WE HAD BEEN HAVING. I won't name him here - some of you know him, some will not, but it honestly does not matter.

The other incident was when I posted a couple tweets excoriating the NRA in the wake of the shooting in Oregon. Like you do. When you're gripped by depondency and the bleakness threatens to overcome. If it's of interest, my twitter handle is @writeclubrules and you can scroll through the horse shit yourself if you want - it's honestly not pertinent to this, though. 

In order for contentiousness to prove fruitful, though, there a number of rules that must pertain: 

  1. Stay on topic. An argument is not a stand-in to enact your revenge upon your childhood bullies; it is not the chance for you to demonstrate your exhaustive command of the many inconsistencies in several plotlines on Deep Space Nine; it is not your opportunity to re-fight squabbles with your ex. 
  2. There are limits. The scope of every subject - even a thorny, complex subject - is not infinite. Whatever injustices done you do not necessarily have a place within the context of an argument. When you are disagreeing about a subject, you are not fighting for your life, or even your own sense of worth. 
  3. Keep your response proportional. If I say "that assertion is bullshit," do not fire back with "FUCK YOU," if I devote a hundred words to expressing an opinion, do not return fire with a shrill 9,000-word manifesto.
  4. Remain as fair with your opponent as you are with yourself. Forgive them where they misspeak. Permit them to finish a thought. Hold them to a comparable standard of evidence-providing. 
  5. An attack on your ideas does not represent an attack on you. Your beliefs - even your most inviolate, most deeply held and cherished beliefs - do not constitute a phantom limb I'm attempting to hack off, or a ghost baby I'm trying to snuff out. They are ideas. Mine are different than yours. I'm happy to have a drawn out and heated discussion on the points of friction between our differing ideas. But if you expect me to jump the conceptual rails and have a name-calling fight to the death in the underbrush of insult, then forget it. That is not interesting. It never ends well. And it leads no place. And when taken far enough, it contributes to how goddamn disspiriting things can become.
  6. Answer the fucking question. If I pose a question in the course of our dispute - aimed at refining a point you've made, clarifying a belief you have, amplifying an assertion you've made - do not JUST go thundering along to your next REASON WHY MY DISAGREEMENT WITH YOU SIGNALS THE END TIMES. Part of my disagreement with you has to do with my inability to understand your position. If you remain unwilling to clarify, why in the shit would I come around to your view?
  7. Bloody face prints on a brick wall. Gun Guy From Texas, Storytelling Guy With Hurt Feelings Because You Felt Like I Was Calling You Stupid, Or Something: I am unlikely to change you. You, in turn, are not likely to change me - my convictions have been five decades in the making, and I am stubborn as fuck. But there is value, I believe, in the civilized exhcange of differing views. Belief is the accretion of layers of input, so though I will not pivot to your view of things right now, I may one day do so. Also, since most internet exchanges are publically visible, maybe the spirited exhange we have might attract the attention of somebody who's more on the fence than we are and who will find clarifying something we have said.

But no good comes of the reductive, shrill, persecuted response to somebody who does not believe as you do. If I express an opinion - even a strongly held one, even if it is expressed provocatively - this does not mean I have called in a drone strike on that basket of sleeping puppies, nor does it mean I have enrolled as the foot soldier of tyrants. All you achieve but unleashing the rhetorical equivalent of the Doomsday Device is to reinforce the sense that the internet is just this teetering heap of the disgruntled, who are as infantile as they are persecuted, and whose brittleness is only matched by their pugnacity.

Bunch. Of fucking. Babies.



It's Only Wafer Thin

It was March of 1983. I was a junior in high school. As a consequence of this, I was desperately, elbaborately, inconsolably unhappy. The totality of my lonesomeness and misunderstoodness could hardly have been more complete. I was lost and forlorn, purposeless and fraught. I may not have been fully subhuman, but I was definitely a pretty piss-poor specimen - horny, joyless, pitiful.

I was unmoored and futureless.

My mom's boyfriend was a dour and pinch-faced asshole. Mom, who'd had my brother and me when she was way too young, was working all the time, and in a belated stab at the kind of soft-headed vision-questing in vogue during the 70s, she was either finding herself or self-actualizing. I cannot now recall. Our dad had been gone for like six years, and we'd seen him maybe a half dozen times for stilted outings to arcades where the good consoles were all on the fritz, and meals of spongy, savorless pizza. Dad would kill himself in another three or so years.

Given my state - one of perpetual and obdurate turmoil - I was an academic catastrophe, of course. I was behind in every subject, and could not muster anything like giving a rat's ass about the rapid onrush of consequences for my insolent torpor - not only would I not get into college at my current pace, I might not even make it out of goddamn high school. The one teacher who retained an interest, or who even took much notice of me anymore was Mr. Jacobs, my English teacher. He seemed to be able to see the embers of promise that glowed in the pit of me when others had written me off as a sullen wad of futility. 

I had to meet with Mr. Jacobs after school so I could serve him another helping of the thin gruel of my excuse-making for my many missing assignments. I was a confounding mess to him - I would show up every day, sit in each class, smart and capable, but resolutely refusing to participate in full-on Bartleby style. To outward appearances, I was staging a years-long sit-in, declining at every turn to do a goddamn thing. Mr. Jacobs was able to set aside his well-earned exasperation with me, though, to recognize my extravagent professions of boredom and disdain as the crushing depression that they were. For many of us, rancor and peevishness are expressions of distress. 

After supressing a laugh in the face of my bullshit excuse-making, Mr. Jacobs peacably, delicately interrogated me about what in the hell was going on with me. Having long experience as a high school teacher, he could plainly see that I was a baffled and ungainly animal in pain, and that the nature and limitations of the teacher-student relationship precluded anything like a direct and personal intervention on his part - he could not call my mom in to say "I understand your boyfriend's a bit of an asshole," or write my father to tell him that he needed to quit being such a selfish twat. I mean, there was likely some (shitty, insufficient, long-since discredited) protocol for him to follow if he honestly believed me to be a clear and present danger to myself. But in terms of emotional damage of a more or less garden variety for a teen, there's not really a ton a teacher can offer without blurring boundaries/skirting the inappropriate.

But Mr. Jacobs did, anyhow. He sent me to the movies.

As I furrowed my brow and pitied myself, he asked if I knew Monty Python. This was - for the particular form of nerd I was then and remain today - an insulting question, a question so basic, it amounted to "Are you a biped?" or "Is bacon delicious?" I endeavored nonetheless to answer it in a way that would disguise my indignation. He asked if I'd seen their newly released picture "The Meaning of Life." I had not. My poverty was another item in my litany of woes.

Mr. Jacobs reached into the back pocket of his rumpled off-brand khakis and produced his well-beaten wallet. He removed a ten bucks from it and handed the bill to me. In the shitty movie version of this - the cloying Robin Williams-makin'-a-connec-with-young-Will-Hunting version - the bill would virginal and crisp. Not so the real bill. It was old and friable as lichen. But it was a potent talisman anyhow.

"Take this," he said. "Go to see 'The Meaning of Life.' It is very smart, and raucously, inappropriately funny. It will furthermore offer you philosophical comfort." I reached for the bill, mortified and thankful. Mr. Jacobs didn't let go for a second and he held my gaze for a second of two of tug-of-war. "There are many other less sustaining ways you could spend this money. Ways less wholesome and useful. Don't. Use it to go to the movie."

So I did.

On my own. I used to love going to movies by myself. Did it all the time. And that weekend, I was so sickened by the company of other humans, I was grateful to have a half a row to myself as the lights went down.

As it got rolling, and I powered down the popcorn, the crysalis of my foul mood commenced to crack apart. I howled with laughter - a laughter in appreciation of the audacity and craft of the bits in the movie, for sure, but also a laughter of the kindred - the laughter of the one who's wandered far out in the wilderness and, after fearing himself lost, has found his way back to his tribe. I'm not ashamed to say I wept a bit during that movie - both from an overpowering sense of relief that I might, in fact, ultimately be OK, but even more because a kind human - one whose stake in my fortunes was ostensibly professional only - had extended to me a redeeming gift he was under no obligation to give. 

I paid Mr. Jacobs back the money. But I feel quite certain I could never repay him his kindness - a kindness rendered all the more singular because he obviously had no expectation that I do so. It may seem overblown to say that Mr. Jacobs delivered me that day from harm. But I don't believe it is.



Cultural Strip Mining

Warning: Extended Metaphor Ahead

In the hill country of Kentucky and West Virginia, they mine coal. Frequently, this extraction - in the interests of expediency and cost-cutting - entails dynamiting the top of a mountain off and accepting as collateral damage the clogging of creeks with the silt of these pulverized mountaintops. The men sent down into the bowels of these blown-open mountains are stricken with lung-blackening sickness, and crushed in cave-ins - these men are economic grist for this mill. And it is a brutal and dirty mill. A greedy and rapacious mill.

Recently, I had two experiences as a cultural cog in a comparable mill, albeit a more eggheaded and, on the face of it, more benign varietal. The first was as host of one of the Chicago Community Trust's On the Table discussions. These were meant to as a chance for every-day Chicagoans to brainstorm about making the city better. As goals go, a good one, to be sure - a good, if formless and non-urgent, open-ended and theoretical one. The second was presenting WRITE CLUB as part of the Chicago Tribune's Printers Row Lit Fest, which is an annual convening of authors and booksellers in the south Loop. Again, in theory a good and worthy gathering of the kindred to celebrate the written word, but it practice a heaving mass of directionless and slow-footed humanity that seems to have as much affinity and regard for the craft and practice of writing as the average sweat-streaked attendee at Taste of Chicago (which as anyone who has ever been can tell you could well be featured HERE) has for fine food.

Exploitation is a strong word.

Which is why I use it. I believe in strong words. They make your meaning known.

The owners of coal mines are exploiters - both of the natural world they pierce and plunder, and of the human beings they send into their pits to wield shovels and dynamite on their behalf.

I believe that the largest cultural institutions are exploiters of a different and more sly sort. Where the owners of mines exploit people using purely economic leverage, cultural institutions exploit artists using leverage internal to the artist, namely the fallacy of "exposure," the need to "put yourself out there." And, killingly, the need - the bottomless, unquenchable need - for validation. If we were not flattered to be invited, if we we did not succumb to the long-ago urge to eat at the cool kids' table in the junior cafeteria we - let's face it - never leave, then we would have the requisite clarity and self-respect to say to such invitations "Thank you, no. The 'getting my name out there' that this would get me is nominal at best, and is more than likely a fiction. I wish you well in your venture, but I have too much of my own work to do to devote any of my limited time to it." In short: I vounteer for enough shit of my own, I'm not gonna volunteer for your thing.

But no. 

The prospect that THIS - this gig or panel discussion or special appearance or whatever - THIS will be the thing that brings me to the attention of the PHANTOM PATRON WHO WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING FOR ME. Given the starry-eyed idiocy of this conceit, the Power Ball-hitting astronomical length of these odds, it becomes plain that for the artist participating in the Large Scale Cultural Happening/Street Fair/Festival, there is little to no benefit to be had. Whereas the cultural institutions get to demonstrate their capacity/willingness to engage in "outreach" (to the margins of culture, i.e. the hard-working poor), or their interest in "staying current" (i.e. co-opting what vestigial coolness can be got by glomming onto the small-scale, the authentic, the homespun), or in hopping on some bandwagon or other, or in merely providing their massive audience with buffet-style variety - the aristists/producers/makers get to spend their finite time on a gig that with a dubious/ambiguous payoff. 

If it sounds like I'm being petulant or ungrateful, I don't believe I am, and here's why: 

  • The time I must devote to such a gig (booking, coordinate with event producers, etc.) is not comparable to the time I must devote to my own shows/events, in this respect: it is not targeted; it is scattershot, by which I mean the the audience I'm likely to reach in such a setting is entirely random. They have no context/intro for what my collegaues and I do, they therefore are better able and more likely not to engage with it fully/wander along to the next booth/tent/juggler/food truck. 
  • Each time I accept such an engagement, I tacitly endorse and ultimately reinforce this climate of exploitation. As an experienced artist and show producer - when those newer to the field witness me accepting such gigs, they themselves grow more likely to accept such gigs in future. And the large cultural institution is both absolved of its reliance upon the uncompensated skill and time of artists, and is granted greater license to do so in future. From both sides - it becomes a feedback loop that consists, for artists of "I can't even ask for a fee/stipend - there's people lined up behind me for the prestige/exposure of this opportunity. Plus - who knows where it might lead?" and for cultural institutions of "We are doing good by showcasing the work of small organizations/local artists and may remain secure in our virtue."
  • Audiences, for their part, get a randomized collection of the willing - a too-frequently uncurated collage made by committee. It therefore takes the highly intrepid and discerning audience member to make out and appreciate the aims and achievements of any one performer/producer/artist, and to do the requisite followup to find more of their work in future. 

For my show WRITE CLUB, for instance, there is a demand implicit in the experience of the show that you pay your full attention, as you are required to assess and pass judgment on the merits of the writer/performers you see. It therefore does not lend itself to the festival setting "poke your head into a tent and keep wandering" model of consumption, like you'd nosh on items from a passed hors d'ouerves tray. I recognize that the principle at play is "given the chance to check out your stuff, they might track you down at your regular venue," but in practice, it's far more likely that people attending such things will regard attendance as an end in itself, not as some scouting mission to augment their upcoming cultural calendar. It is WAY more likely that a festival attendee will end their association with WRITE CLUB where it began - "Saw this neat/weird thing at Printers Row where they kind of argue with each other."

And there is nothing wrong with this. As a consumer of culture myself, I recognize that it is extraordinarily tough to get me up/off my ass/out of my routine to engage with your work/project. I am very busy, and I am very lazy, which creates a high hurdle to clear. So I don't begrudge audiences. I almost never do. But I DO begrudge institutions who offer vague/likely fictional deferred modes of payment - "exposure," "audience development," "higher profile" or however they frame it - in lieu of some modest fee or stipend.

Mine is an economically tenuous life. There are weeks, it sucks to say, when fifty bucks would make a substantive difference in our house. In exchange for pursuing work I believe in, I concede stability and prosperity. ABOUT WHICH I AM NOT COMPLAINING. I will get bulldozed into a pauper's grave. I know this. I mostly accept this. There is the impulse to respond to any such sentiment with some variation of "Fuck you pal, because capitalism." 

I know. Capitalism. Fully aware.

But - accepting capitalism on its face - which large cultural institutions must, as they pay their staffs and operating expenses, etc. Then some voice within the marketplace has assigned value to my work. Some curator/booker has become somehow aware of me and has determined that my presence adds value to the experience of their audience. Yet these cultural institutions - in contravention of capitalist principle - expect me and scores of others to accept a wholly ephemeral and theoretical form of compensation. If you sat across from the HR person at your job and they said "We really dig your stuff, and we're prepared to get your name out there if you'll carry on working for free," you would not go "Thank you so much - I will DEFINITELY hype the company to my networks," you'd scald him with your coffee and flip his desk.

Why am I naming names, here? Because exploiters - however good-hearted or well-intentioned they may be - never change course unless compelled to do so.

And I'm not biting the hand that feeds. Because the hand fails to feed.

And I also am naming good names: when WRITE CLUB has been invited to gig at MCA, or the Poetry Foundation, or the Chicago Humanities Festival, or the Smart Museum - all these places have paid us for our trouble. And WRITE CLUB, in turn, pays the artists we invite along.

And don't hand me the "but we're a non-profit" or the "but our company/industry is hurting" argument, either - all the institutions in the above paragraph are non-profits. I've worked in and around the non-profit world for over a decade, and know that it's as much about the values you espouse and priorities you advance as it is about the size of your bank account. And if the Tribune is hurting so bad, then maybe a conspicuous dog and pony show is maybe not mission-critical. And Chicago Community Trust - as neat an idea as your On the Table might be - is it honestly anything more than a PR blitz for you? Are you seriously intent on making manifest any of the strategies that arose from the hundreds of events you had no hand in creating?

And, no WRITE CLUB does not pay its artists. MYSELF INCLUDED. There is equity from top to bottom - shitty, stress-inducing equity, yes, but equity nonetheless. 

To continue torturing the metaphor:

I'm not even a cultural coal miner. I'm not sent down into a lightless shaft and told where to swing my pickaxe. As an individual artist, I'm at best a cultural prospector - knee deep in an icy river, peering into my dented pan in search of the stray nugget among the pebbles and grit that is of greatest interest to me. Nobody directs my gaze. Nobody guides my calloused hand. But when the exploiters up the mountain throw a fair as a cheap way of keeping their miners docile and they ask me to play my fiddle, I will expect them to pay me to do so. If they attempt in vain to dazzle me with the fantasy that my fiddle-playing at their coal-country fair will put me before the footlights of vaudeville or get me in the moving pictures, I'll offer them my back and turn my attention back to my dented pan.

And I hope that the rest of you sunbaked prospectors will do the same.


Guts & Glory, Final Show - The Need of Suffering, 5/19/15

Men, as a rule, do not suffer well.

We cannot cope with the sadness that threatens always to overtake us. We are always afraid, and cannot put a name to being so. We are chronically confused, but are incapable or unwilling to acknowledge this reality.

Mostly, I think, we do not like the admission that we are sad, and confused, and afraid.

That’s what all the fuckin’ and fightin’ is about. And how sports have come to consume us.

We are persistently sad, and deeply confused, and badly afraid. So rather than attempting to grapple with these, we lash out with our fists and our dicks. Or guns, which is really just a dick-fist.

And all this inciting of chaos, obviously, fails to provide us any relief. So we continue to grow worse.

Till we collapse. Or change. Adapt or die. Which is actually not an easy choice. Because the misery you know is infinitely preferable to the change that remains opaque.

For me, the avoidance of suffering takes the form of ingesting alcohol. In quantities that are dangerous and swinish. But then I stopped. A while ago, now.

This April, I reached twenty-one years of refraining from drink. Which is not an achievement. It’s just the ongoing reestablishment of common sense.

My last drink was a shot of Irish whiskey at the Waveland Bowl on Western Avenue in the early hours of April 26th, 1994.

You know that shudder you get when you toss back a slug of booze – that last one of the night that you know is a shitty idea? That jigger of poison that causes your gut to constrict and roil behind your belt and the entire front of your head to pucker so hard it threatens to collapse in on itself.

For most us, that last hateful dose of battery acid we pour down our gullets causes us to wise up and go easier next time. For some of us, though, that last hateful dose is not the last at all. It is only the dose we’re able to choke down before we pass out or run out of money. Or die. Then we get up the next hateful day to begin the sorry cycle again. I was one of these. But at about 3AM on April 26th, 1994, I knew I had to set the whiskey down for good, or I would die stupidly.

So I did. And so far, since then, I have wished to live more than I wish to die. Which, as I say, is actually not an easy choice.

But, before I stopped pouring poison down my gullet, I did shitty things. I was selfish and beastly.

My then girlfriend – the woman who would one day become my wife – bore much of the brunt of my self-loathing and rages, my disappearances and indifference.

A few months before I took that last hateful dose at the Waveland Bowl, I deluded myself that I had fallen out of love with her. That it was over. Because I was, I claimed, smitten with a woman from my work. And while it is indisputably true that I was attracted to this woman from my work – that I lusted after her pretty desperately – it was nothing like love.

My then girlfriend-now-wife and I had been together since college. And at that point, we’d been with each other for like seven years. Had lived together for five; had been in love from the start. So when I gave my weak break-up speech, I did not merely break her heart, I pulverized it. I shredded it. I roasted it and ate the pieces.

And my best self, my truest self, wished to remain with her forever. Which is what I wish, still, tonight as I read this.

But I am a man. And am no good at suffering.

So. Instead of confronting the great sadnesses that befell me, I drank liquor. In swinish and dangerous fashion. And raged. And despaired. And mistook my own turmoil and heartsickness for a waning between myself and the woman I loved. Or, more precisely, the woman I should have recognized that I loved, but failed to.

So there was this new, other woman. At my job. And she was blisteringly attractive. And she made known that she found me compelling. She thought me artistic and clever. And she was so, so hot. Like ridiculous.

Because, listen – I didn’t always look like this.

And there was such suffering in me. But I am a man. So could not suffer, not directly. And so the miasma of my squalid pain and her heart-stopping physical beauty conspired to convince me that I was in love with her.

Which I might have been. If I was a different kind of man. But I am not. I am… this.

Because – as is the way with physically beautiful people – this woman was, through no fault of her own, just as boring as she could be. Physically beautiful people, they live in an untroubled state, a blithe and unconcerned condition, secure in their magnetism and expansive prospects.

So because I am a man, inept at suffering, I jilted the woman who would one day become my wife in a brutish and cruel way. And I took up with the new woman. I will not name her. She was not at fault. Her intentions were good. She deserved better than me.

This new woman was decent to me. And kind. And the sex was phenomenal. Like spine-cracking. Like the fillings might shiver right out of your teeth. Which is a price you’d happily pay for sex such as this – awakening on a pillow scattered with your fillings dotted with blood.

So. On the face of it, I should have been happy – I was having mind-blasting sex with a crazily beautiful and uncomplicated woman. For somebody who claims to be an American dude, I was living the dream.

Yet still I remained sad, and confused, and afraid.

Because when you are in the pit of addiction, a pit you have clawed your way all the deeper into because you lack the courage to suffer, happiness is impossibly remote, and your every dream curdles into night sweats and menace.

Somebody once said:

The only way out of Hell is through.

I have found this to be true. Whenever I have attempted to snuff out my suffering, whenever I have tried to defer or diminish it, it remains coiled in a corner, ready to overtake me. There are no end runs around Hell, there is no bargaining with anything that has the patience of the infinite.

So she – this new woman – had only one rule. Which was that I not show up at her apartment drunk. She didn’t attempt to forbid my drunkenness, she just didn’t want it at her place.

So one night I’m hunkered at the bar where I worked, pounding whisky.

The woman arrives, gives me a once-over, and calmly requests her keys. In the distillery behind my eyes, I took her to mean that we were through. So I dug her keys out my pocket with thick-fingered hands, avoided her gaze, and handed them over. I spun on my stool with the intention of draining every bottle behind that bar.

And that night is when I began finally to sicken myself and to curse my cowardice enough, to develop suspicions, at least, that I might wish to climb up out of this pit. And begin properly to suffer.

Because in all the Pandora’s box of the human heart – is there any feeling more putrid than self-pity? I don’t believe there is.

I drank for a while after that. But it was that last-gasp chase of the addict, the idiotic scrambling of the ghost that doesn’t know it’s dead.

That woman deserved better than me. I deserved better than me.

And, the only way that I could win back the woman I then loved, and love still, was to become something other than I was. I had to adapt. And to adapt – to really adapt – is to suffer.

If ever you have betrayed someone, then you know it’s a long way back to them. You have dug by your meanness of spirit and your selfishness a gulch between you. And there is no grappling gun. You must braid the strands of a rope bridge – hour upon hour and day upon day, you must continue twisting like a spider the strands that will connect you once more, like Charlotte, weaving her web – unconcerned with self, uncertain that you are deserving, unsure if you can ever make it back across.

And across that gulch, sometimes, when you are really very fortunate, you may gaze while you weave upon a person with the grace to forgive you. A person whom you loved all along, and who will have you back if you will only accept the need sometimes to suffer.


Havin' a Dick, Bein' a Dick

So we live across from this college campus. It's not a prestigious institution or anything - it's the kind of place where non-ace students and first-generation immigrants and beleaguered working people go to try and claw their way up the economic ladder. As it is grassy and passably quiet, I frequently walk our dog through there. One of the students I pass with some frequency is a young Muslim woman - she has shy eyes a tentative gait, dresses in a head scarf and ankle-length dresses. Whenever we approach, she grows clearly very apprehensive - smushing up against the fence as we pass, or stepping off the sidewalk into the street to avoid being too near us.

Now - I am not sure whether her cringing away from us is cultural (laws of modesty precluding direct contact with a man unknown to her; some prohibition on contact with dogs about which I'm unaware) or personal (she's petrified of dogs, or cannot abide my bacon smell or whatever). But here's the thing: it doesn't matter. Whatever her reasons for shying away, whatever her motivation for not being cool with our placid dog and myself being near to her - these are none of my business. My obligation - as a passably decent person sharing a public walkway with her is to make every reasonable effort to accommodate her. I keep the dog on a short leash as we make our way toward her; where possible, I will turn a corner or cross the street. I have never spoken to the woman, and do not foresee that I ever will. But if she and I are to peacably coexist on this patch of territory, I can offer this small concession without hardship or inconvenience.

The other night, as part of the Chicago Community Trust's annual "On the Table" initiative, I convened a small group of Live Lit producers and performers to talk craft, the challenges of the work and producing shows on shoestring (read: "nonexistent") budgets, etc. It was on the whole a lively and worthwhile conversation among thoughtful and interesting people. It was a cool meeting about a form of work I've devoted much of my creative energy to for the last five or so years.

The next day, my partner (in WRITE CLUB, and in her venture Pixiehammer Press) sent a kind email pointing out that I'd been interrupting the women there. More than the dudes. She included a link to this piece about what is apparently a widespread dynamic.

Now - my motivations for doing so, in my subjective experience/belief, were rooted in my excitement about the topic, my addiction to inserting a joke wherever I'm able, etc. When she emailed me this gentle observation about my conduct - and that's all it was, it wasn't even a corrective or calling out or anything - my kneejerk response was something like "fuckingfuckingfuckingFUCK - I totally didn't MEAN to be a Tool of Patriarchy or whatever," and to feel peevish and defensive.

But upon reflection, the standard that must apply is the same one I try to adhere to with the young Muslim woman whom I encounter with my dog. Namely, that it doesn't matter what my motivations might be. If the effect of my conduct is oppressive - even a little bit, and only to certain of the more sensitive parties there present - then I'm in the wrong and I need to adjust. Now - can I claim that I'll pass every Bechdel test applied to my future conversations? Nope. Do I reserve the right to make fun of everything you hold dear? Yup. Will a large part of me - maybe the majority, even - continue to eye-roll at all forms of ideological purity and excess of self-seriousness? Absolutely.

However - since I am not the subject of a lifetime of getting manterrupted all the goddamn time, neither am I qualified to assess the relative validity of the phenomenon or its objectionability. I'd have to be a lady for that. And I furthermore want the world my daughter will inhabit as a grownup to be (marginally, at least) better and less fraught with avoidable forms of bullshit. Therefore, when a trusted and valued colleague who is a lady calls to my attention my own transgressions in this arena, my obligation is to pay serious heed, and - as with my dog when we're headed through campus - make reasonable accommodation.

If you're a dude, I doubt you've read this far. But if you have, then this is at you: evolving sucks. It involves sustained effort (which blows), empathy (which does not come naturally to us), and mindfulness (which - honestly - fuck that). But if you recognize the current shittiness of too goddamn much of our world - a world we are forced to share with other people very different from ourselves - then at some point, you have to acknowledge (however begrudgingly, falteringly) your own role in the shittiness. If we as a species are to diminish our prevailing shitiness, we must accept our own contribution to it and mitigate it.

Which means, essentially, quit being such a dick.