I had a strange sensation the other evening. Riding on the Bay Bridge at night always makes me think of the time that tanker truck blew up and I saw a section of the freeway melt. The bridge is covered, so we couldn't see the tanker fire until we were right on top of it, flames suddenly shooting fifty feet into the black starless sky. That stretch of the bridge makes me metaphorical because it reminds me that there are situations where even if the fire you're facing is enormous, it is possible not to see it until it is too late. It is possible to be barreling down the metaphorical freeway, going 80, with few signs of the catastrophe ahead. I was reminded that the empire I was born into is riding the crest of a crashing wave, a tsunami taking down with it the salmon and the sturgeon and the grizzly bears and the polar bears, etc.
I turned to the driver and in a dry voice I began to monologue about how lucky we are, not only to be born comfortably into the stack of nuclear weapons and Wal-marts that is the foundation of this nation, but also so lucky to have been born into this generation. To be born a hundred years ago in America would be to live before there were unions and women, men and children worked in unbearable conditions with no weekends for no end in site. But to be born a hundred years from now would be even worse: millions of environmental refugees, widespread ecological collapse, severe droughts and floods, starvation, famine—not to mention the largest extinction event in the history of the world.
As he was agreeing we had won the time-and-place-of-birth lottery, I was thinking of an unfinished poem I wrote years ago. The poem, like the bulk of my work, is about the contrast between privilege and the knowledge that one's privilege comes at the expense of other creatures' suffering. It isn't surprising. I spent the first fifteen years of my life, for as long as I could remember, wanting to be a writer. Then I went to college, and, as my favorite professor Larry Isaacs put it, I "stopped living my own personal narrative and started living history." I felt a real imperative to change the world, even if it was at the expense of pursuing my dreams. Unfortunately, I'm not very good at changing the world. It seems my only real gifts are impractical things: writing, dancing, drawing. Despite that, I spent the next section of my life raising my fist at marches, running social justice campaigns, meeting influential activists, and generally being a hell-raiser. Now I've circled back to focusing on my writing. I live in a state where my vote is irrelevant, because everyone thinks the way I do. I'm happy and life is easy. But I still feel the pull. I still know the fire is coming. And this conflict is what I try to capture in my fiction and poetry.
The poem that was running through my head ends:
The indymedia headline reads: THE ELECTION WAS HACKED. I read it and cry and then corporate radio machine plays "Video Killed the Radio Star" and I dance in the sweet happy-face sunshine that I know is melting the polar ice caps.
And then an odd thing happened. I realized the song playing on the radio was my favorite song from 2010. Immediately I perked up, yanked on the volume nob and started to sing. The very thing that I had written about in the poem actually happened: I was distracted from contemplating the terrible situation we've gotten ourselves into; it was a mere abstraction compared to the immediacy of a simple luxury: a song I loved coming on the radio. What was even stranger was that the song itself epitomizes my life of luxury. The song, "Very Busy People" is about the endless stream of pleasure and distraction I was contemplating:
We'll end up numb from playing video games and we'll get sick of having sex. And we'll get fat from eating candy as we drink ourselves to death. We'll stay up late making mix tapes, photoshoping pictures of ourselves while we masturbate to these pixelated videos of strangers fucking themselves.
The metaphor had become real. I was caught in a tangle of irony. I was caught in a loop, wherein no matter how hard the universe attempted to send me the message: Your luxury is an illusion, temporary at best, the message was always carried on the back of the illusion itself, ZOMG, I love this song, turn it up! Or perhaps it is the reverse: every moment I'm enjoying myself—knitting scarves, scrubbing my feet soft and masqueing my pores smooth, alphabetizing my CDs, laying in the orderly grass and drinking Saki—all of these things are clouded by the knowledge of my privilege. Even the passion for working in publishing is tarnished by the knowledge of the production cycle that produces millions of books every year. The experience was a reminder that no matter how hard we try, we cannot contemplate anything without seeing it through the frame of reference of our worldview. I felt like the cavemen of Socrates, realizing my reality was cast through the distorted lense of the shadows on the cave walls. And all this time, with the knowledge that I'd slipped back into the comfort of my lifestyle, I kept singing: my shoulders dancing, my mouth smiling, and the shimmering skyline of Oakland baring herself before me as we disembarked the bridge. I felt that I was wearing a mask. But which was the mask? The sulking me, that had so easily turned off when my song came on the radio? Or the smiling me, that dances in the sweet happy-face Oakland skyline?