#maga – Permission

We didn’t used to need someone to tell us what needed to be done.  We looked around.  A neighbor needed a new barn, we showed up to raise that barn.  We didn’t wait for permission, we didn’t look to a county permit regulator to say it was all okay.  Those houses and barns built 200 years ago with no reference to the 20-volume building code are still standing, too.  Why are we waiting for permission to do some good in our communities?

In this country, I am sure there are enough men and women who are currently out of work with the know-how to solve the water problem in Flint.  Or to deal with this lady’s problem with sewer water bubbling up in her back yard.  Or to take down the crumbling houses in Detroit and use the lumber and other materials from a structurally unsound building on one block to keep the elderly lady in the next block in a house that is structurally sound.
This need for permission is a relatively new thing to the American character, and you can’t tell me it isn’t related to our ability to distract ourselves to death with TV, video games, and internet.  Now the only people who claim the American contrarian streak use the attitude to justify littering, illiteracy, truancy, peeing in public, and coal rolling…
This guy talks about starting a deconstruction business.  Know some out of work people?  Do you have a hammer, a crowbar, and a truck between you?  Perfect.  Start with a crumbling eyesore of a crack house, end with a lot your city can turn into a community garden.
If you really want the elites of the world – the Walmarts and the Politicians that do their bidding – stop needing them.  Stop waiting for them to tell you what matters.  Stop consuming their endless stream of distraction which is purposefully designed to make you fearful because fearful people are 1) easily led and 2) easily manipulated out of their money.  You don’t have to turn into a prepper or a granola-crunchy tree-hugger.  Look to your grandparents and great grandparents.  They grew their own food, they canned their own produce to see them through winter, they helped their neighbors and made sure the vulnerable in their community had some place to sleep.  They looked around and did what needed to be done simply because it was there to do.  That’s in your bones.  You don’t need a job to have a purpose.  You do need to step away from the couch and get reacquainted with your community in a way that doesn’t require facebook.
*Standard Disclaimer: I don’t mean make America white again, I mean make America great/constructive/kind/alive/connected/grounded/proactive/independent again.
#maga – Permission

#maga – the WPA

One of the programs that emerged from the Great Depression was the Works Program Administration (WPA).  The Government set wages at the local average and paid the long-term unemployed to build projects for the community: schools, parks, bridges, museums, libraries.  Infrastructure that still supports civic life today.  Infrastructure that major corporations, which are taxed at a minuscule rate, benefit from.

For as much real good as the WPA did for our country, the federal government isn’t likely to agree to a similar project in this climate.  The GOP has been slavishly pursuing ideology over pragmatism and people for decades, and the Dems are functionally useless at this point, but like a zombie kept alive by funding, they keep stumbling around and knocking over any upstart idea that might make a difference.
But just because the federal government isn’t going to save us – no matter who you voted for, you probably know that to be true – doesn’t mean that the promise of the WPA is unavailable to us on a regional and local level.
The federal government is out of the sphere of influence for most individual Americans.  It responds to lobbyists and corporation and itself.  Maybe that’s okay, because if the fed were to sweep in and try to solve a local problem, they’d do it with experts from elsewhere and solutions that may or may not make sense because unless you’re living right there, you don’t really understand the problem.
There are a lot of us, and we have a lot of time on our hands.  Retirees who don’t (and shouldn’t) buy into the notion that retired = irrelevant.  People with disabilities that limit their movement, but not their common sense.  The long term unemployed who might be just as angry about a loss of purpose as they are about the loss of a paycheck.
Where is all that time and energy going?  Right now, no where.  We’re buried in Facebook with a hundred friends and not one person to invite over to dinner.  We’re glued to the TV consuming an endless cycle of news that goes absolutely nowhere, and accomplishes nothing but building frustration and helplessness at the same time – a mix that is toxic to ourselves and our families and our communities.
So what’s holding us back?  What’s standing between us and taking back our communities, not from people who don’t look like us, but from helplessness and decay?
Destruction is easy.  All it takes is an idiot and a sledgehammer.  Construction is hard.  Making something, renewing something, that takes a lot of work.  I don’t know how to turn any of this into a paycheck, but I know this can turn into purpose.  If your local building codes keep your community from doing common sense things to solve community problems, get everyone you know with real expertise in building and challenge your city, your county, your state to rewrite the codes.  Hell, do it for them.  Find counties with sensible building codes and make the argument.  Take those mofo’s on.
The secret of “the system” is the secret of bullies and society in general:  someone says “I have authority here” and people look around and notice that he’s standing in front of the room on a crate, so everyone says “well, it looks like that guy is in charge.”  All authority requires an agreement.  You can take away that agreement.  You can challenge authority.  Just because someone says “you have to do things my way” doesn’t mean you have to agree.  You can still form a union, create a collective, make the will of the community known to get things done.  The bigwigs might have money, but you have time and a lot more people behind you than they do.  You don’t have to wait for a boss or a politician to give you permission to make your life better by improving the community.  You can start your own WPA, right where you are.  You’re smart, you have practical experience, you have a library card and access to the internet…  If you’re waiting for permission, here it is.  You have permission to find purpose in improving your community for yourself and your neighbors.  You have permission to make America great again, starting with your neighborhood.
Please note: when I say make America great again, I don’t mean by engaging in the mean-spirited notion that a great America is a white America.  The greatest part of being an American is the idea that anyone can achieve anything if they are willing to put in the work.  The “you aren’t the boss of me” attitude can be helpful when it isn’t turned to coal-rolling and is instead employed challenging the authorities that make common sense complicated with a 20 volume book of building codes.  Or whatever the bureaucratic idiocy of the day is.  America at its greatest builds, fixes, solves, innovates, includes, improvises…  America at its worst is petty, judgmental, small minded, paranoid, selfish, and mean.  Pursue great America, not America at its worst.
#maga – the WPA

Respectability Politics

Respectability politics is a term most commonly used in or in reference to African-American interactions with society at large.  It proposes that there would be less racism in America if black men wore belts.  Or if black women didn’t have children without the benefit of a marriage licence.  It puts responsibility for external attitudes on the individual.  This is problematic in a lot of ways…  hoodie-wearing should not be a death sentence in the case of Trayvon Martin.  The problem in that case was George Zimmerman, not Trayvon Martin.  Respectability politics suggests that Trayvon could have controlled Zimmerman’s reaction to him by wearing a suit and tie.  Respectability politics is society’s equivalent of an abused spouse internalizing and owning the abuser’s assertion that the spouse is only subject to a black eye because they know better than to disagree with the abuser.  If you didn’t piss me off, I wouldn’t have to beat the shit out of you.

But this mentality is deeply ingrained.  And it isn’t just within the African American community.  We are a country with a skitzy understanding of personal responsibility.  Listen to the self-descriptions of people who are long-term unemployed.  They talk about all the things they should have done, as if any individual cog can control the big gears of our society.  An individual cog can move the big gears, but it has to be in the right place.  Like the head of Goldman Sachs.  Little cogs from the working class in Indiana had nothing to do with the global forces that have shaped our economy in the past 50 years.  You’d have to look to the politicians for that.
Collectively, there isn’t one former miner or factory worker who could have been respectful enough, educated enough, good enough, or well-spoken enough to save the jobs that provided middle-class lives to high school graduates.  You can’t look at the long-term unemployed and subject them to the same rational that drives respectability politics.
You should have tried harder.  You should have done better.  What do these statements even mean?  Better is not a measure.  It isn’t a concrete action.  We all do the best we can with what we have at any given decision point.  No one wakes up and says “I think I’ll fuck up permanently today.”
None of which improves the individual experience.  What is true collectively doesn’t hold up individually.  All it does individually is absolve someone of self-recrimination for the past, freeing them up to address the future.  Respectability politics wouldn’t have saved you, and they aren’t going to save you now.  I don’t propose anything criminal, but I most certainly propose those things that don’t require someone else’s permission.
Respectability Politics

What If…

My head is so full of what ifs.  What if I fail.  What if I suck.  What if they find out I’m not really qualified to sit at the grown-up table for Thanksgiving.

Seriously, that last one is a big concern.  Give me another 20 years and I think I’ll still feel that way.

Anyway.  All of these what ifs.  The funny thing is that every what if I’ve ever taken out and shown to someone else has elicited this exact result:  me too!  And here’s how I came to the radical notion of absolute acceptance.  While I read it in a bunch of books and intellectualized it, it took having raw conversations with trusted friends about the most frightening of my boogeymen to discover that even when the boogeymen didn’t overlap, no one pointed a finger at me and laughed.  I had to get dirty with the concept to really get it on a kinetic level.

I don’t know that I’ve arrived just yet, but I’m close enough to see how incredibly beautiful the people in my life are.  Not just physically, but in all the things they do to bridge the gap between who they are and who they want to be.  How badly they want to be able to give the whole world to their kids, to their loves.  How hard they will work to make everything alright for someone else.

Really, just try to walk around with a hyper-awareness of how much energy it takes for all of us to get out of bed some days.  It starts to hurt, all that beauty.   I only get to witness it when I stop obsessing about how I fall so short of everything that I think I should be.  So maybe it’s selfish, this radical acceptance thing, because what it gets me is the room to see what I think most people miss.

Still, I have those what ifs.  I don’t think they will ever go away and that’s okay.  I’ve just added some new what ifs to my list for when they gang up on me.  Call this my list of spies and traitors seeded in with the enemy:

  • What if no one is looking?
  • What if no one is keeping score?
  • What if the voice that keeps telling me I’m not good enough is a dirty rotten liar?
  • What if I don’t need permission?
  • What if showing up is the only standard that matters?
  • What if good enough isn’t even part of the measure?
  • What if things just are?
  • What if I judge good and bad by useful and gets in the way?
  • What if I don’t have to deserve love to be on the receiving end of it?
  • What if I go with what I’m sure of instead of what I’m afraid of?
  • What if I let go of what happened and start with where I am?
  • What if everything behind me is okay because I was doing the best I could with what I had?
  • What if I give myself permission, even if it is just for five minutes a day, to be where I am and not be angry at myself for not being further along?
What If…

Working Doesn’t Work

I read a book called Working on Your Marriage Doesn’t Work when I was in the midst of my divorce.  It didn’t save my marriage, but it helped.  From the book, I got the following maxim:

what you resist, persists.

In other words, the harder you fight something, the more energy you give it, and the bigger it gets.  So, for example.  If you’re obsessed with losing weight and the inner dialogue goes like “I really should give up cheese,” or “I’m not going to eat sweets,” you’re keeping both cheese and sweets in the forefront of your mind.  And then, because you’ve been thinking about them and resisting the want, when you’re confronted with them, you put them in your mouth anyway because you’re so sick of fighting.  Well, the truth is that there was neither cheese nor sugar at your desk, but you spent all that time when the problem wasn’t even in front of you to solve fighting, and fighting valiantly   No wonder you’re tired when you get to the temptation.  You’ve committed all of your energy to those two objects which, had you been focused on something else, you might have never noticed.

There was a Fiona Apple interview on NPR when she says, and I paraphrase: I’ve given up.  Not the bad kind of giving up, but the good kind.  I’ve given up on expectations, on being mad when things don’t turn out the way I wanted them to.

So, to myself as much as to anyone else, I offer the following benediction:  you have permission to give up.  You have permission to quit fighting.  Let those demons do their own thing unsupervised while you start doing what you can from where you are.  Let’s face it.  The demons are only there because you pay attention to them.  Like your intuition, if you ignore them for long enough, they’ll go away.

Working Doesn’t Work


About a year ago, I read Seth Godin’s Lynchpin.  In it, he talked about permission.  The anecdote was Richard Branson getting stuck in an airport and, instead of sitting around helplessly, he found out how much it would cost to charter a plane, then put up a sign advertising seats to the destination of the plane that had been cancelled.  People bought seats and off he went to his destination.

I know my backside wouldn’t have done it.  I would have been thinking that I didn’t have the permission to put up a sign, it might be perceived as weird, or that there was some rule written down somewhere that explicitly said that I was not allowed to do such a profoundly sensible thing.

Ever since then, I’ve been thinking about permission.  Who is qualified to give me permission?  What can I do that doesn’t require permission?  What permissions are mine to give myself?  If habits are the key to everything, then I might be making progress.  I now habitually ask myself what I can do that doesn’t require permission.

Next, I just need to work on doing that thing more consistently.