Miracles and disasters
On dreaming big, falling short, and still being worth a damn
I am a terrible judge as to whether an essay will resonate with others or if it’s just something I needed to write for myself. To be honest, this one could go either way! It’s pretty damned personal! But maybe that’ll make it relatable! In either case, I’m profoundly grateful for you all. Thanks for finding (and helping others find) this space.
As always, an extra thanks to those of you whose paid subscriptions sustain this operation. For all those who choose to make the jump this week, welcome! We’re a fun little community. As for whether this will eventually become a non-precarious, full time job? Little by little, we’re getting there.
My oldest kid turned ten on Sunday. While I do write about parenting in this space, I try to not write too much about my kids; the better to let them eventually tell their own stories. Also, I’m probably not the most reliable narrator. What I will say is that my son’s birthday was lovely because he is lovely and it’s fun to celebrate lovely people. We ate mac and cheese pizza and kicked a soccer ball around in the park. There was mini-golfing and a truly excellent chocolate cake and the giving and receiving of a couple of much-coveted Lego sets. The sun was out all day in Milwaukee (not a guarantee!) and none of us got over-tired (also not a guarantee!). All in all, what a birthday!
The fact that I have a ten year old means that I have been a parent for a decade. As many of you know from experience, that’s not that long in the grand scheme of things, but it’s also not nothing.
Olof was born in a beautiful, chaotic, terrifyingly perfect moment. At first my wife was not in labor and then she was very much in labor and then I left the car parked in front of the hospital’s main entrance and then there was a blur of drama and pain and blessed relief and then there was a surprising shock of red hair and then the song we played through the whole affair ended up being the same one we used to get him to sleep for the first half of his life.
I don’t pretend that my parenting experience is all that novel, so I’m assuming that other parents would recognize the magically realistic reassurance I received in that moment. After years of being frightened that my own selfishness and imperfection would make me a terrible caregiver, in a literal instant there was now a human being about whom I cared more than my own ambition and insecurity. Surely the shear force of that love would make me more selfless, not just towards him but towards everybody in my life. Surely parenthood would snap me out of my least helpful inner monologues and free those around me from my more grating peccadillos. I had never loved this hard; how could that love not be transformative?
A bit more than three years later, I got a call from my wife. She had just arrrived home and discovered that our power was off. I suspected this might happen, though I was hoping it wouldn’t. I’ll save you all the details of my negotiations with various WE Energies employees over the course of the previous week. Suffice to say that mistakes were made by both parties.1 They shouldn’t have turned our power off, because a payment was on its way, but also we only got to that point because I had forgotten to pay my electric bill for multiple months even though we had the money. I was lazy, you see, and focused on other things— like writing self-aggrandizing anti-racism posts on Facebook and enjoying the attendant dopamine hits. And so now, because I was stupid, my family (including my now toddler-aged son, who you might remember I pledged would always receive my undivided care and attention) were staring down a long, hot Fourth of July weekend without any electricity. Bad scene, my fault.
But wait, there’s more. That “um, the power’s out” call came at the tail end of a week where I had been informed by my colleagues that I had not, in fact, evolved into the kind of boss whose compassion, care and emotional intelligence transcended entrenched societal hierarchies. To the contrary, I was a pretty classically annoying White guy boss. I talked over women in meetings, operated with the default assumption that my ideas were always the best, and nakedly craved others’ validation.
I left the office in a hurried, self-pitying daze. I was distracted by what awaited me at home, both my wife’s extremely justified annoyance, as well as a mountain of logistical puzzles (when and how would we get power back, where we’d stay over the weekend, what to do with the contents of our freezer, etc.). I was also filled with shame and embarrassment, which is to say that I was thinking even more about myself than I had been a few hours earlier. My inner monologue was now so deafening that there was little room for anything else, most of all basic traffic awareness.
It’s pretty clear where this story is going, but one mistake begot another and suddenly I wasn’t just the White guy boss in love with the sound of his own voice, nor was I just the negligent partner/father who was too lazy and distracted to pay his electric bill. I was all that, to be clear, but I was also the bone-headed and potentially-vehicular-manslaughter-committing driver who made a right turn without checking his mirror. This was another of of those moments where everything happened in a blur. There was a thud and a piercing shriek and before I could even process what happened, I saw a bike messenger flying over my hood and onto the concrete. I parked the car and ran to check on him. A crowd of onlookers assembled, immediately yelping for vigilante justice against me. For a few seconds, the biker didn’t move. There were a hundred possibilities, none of them good.
And then, oh my God, oh my God, oh my God. The messenger got up to his feet… and he was OK? A little sore, but nothing too terrible. I apologized a thousand times and fell over myself offering anything he needed. The crowd dispersed, grumbling about how I still sucked. Eventually he’d ask me to pay for bike repairs, a new helmet and a couple cups of coffee. We met up a few weeks later to settle the bill and trade a few refrains of “holy crap I’m so glad it wasn’t worse.”
I moved forward, a privilege I wish was afforded to all of us after our worst days. Eventually there was power in my house and I set up a new system to remember all of our bills. I did my best to become a more caring, less emotionally needy boss. I drove less and did a better job of checking my mirrors when I was behind the wheel. Before long, I was coming home to not just one but two children for whom I wanted to be better.
If you are the kind of person who critiques systems of violence and domination, you have likely been ridiculed at some point for your naïveté. I don’t have to write that as a hypothetical, actually. I am that kind of person, and that’s exactly the criticism I receive quite frequently. They’re not unfair, those critiques. We live in a world where people are choked to death on the subway in front of a crowd of onlookers. We live in a world where online Nazis shoot up malls. We live in a world that is burning, a world that we have burnt.
I understand why, in such a world as this, that we are told that we are too selfish to deserve any economic system other than capitalism. I understand why we are told that police and prison abolition will never work because too many of our neighbors are rotten to their core. I understand why it’s difficult to believe that those of us who are White, wealthy, male or straight would ever tolerate any threats to our power, position and comfort.
On days like that Friday, those critiques are especially resonant. On those days, I’m fully convinced that I am nothing more than my most selfish, hypocritical impulses. I’m a two-faced environmentalist who runs over cyclists with his car. I’m a fake feminist and anti-racist who doesn’t even realize that he’s filibustering women of color at the office. I’m even disingenuous about my love for my family, since I apparently don’t love them enough to do something as simple as pay a bill online. And if I can’t trust myself, how can I trust the rest of you?
The thing is, I am the self-centered, hypocritical mess who caused so much pain and annoyance on that cursed Friday. I am also, however, the young father cradling a newborn baby, his heart bursting with unconditional love. So too am I the beloved child who himself filled (and fills) his parents’ hearts in much the same way.
James Baldwin once wrote about human beings as both miracles (unprecedented miracles!) and disasters. I have been and will continue to be both. I love believing that I get to share that with you all as well.
If you ask neurologists, social psychologists and evolutionary biologists whether there is evidence for our collective self-centeredness or for our empathy, the answer to both questions will be “yes.” We are packed full of self-consciousness and care. We crave both belonging and status. We’re real pieces of work. Baldwin’s actual phrase was “‘the disasters we’ve become,” but for me it’s never been a pure, linear devolution. We are all things, at all times. Today, I’m writing this essay with liberation in my heart, but after I publish it I may very well get distracted by an errant critical comment or an ego-boosting page view count. On my best days, I offer grace to both the most miraculous and disastrous versions of myself.
We are, I truly believe, both in love with one another and in need of one another’s love. But there are so many things that get in the way— not just garden variety self-consciousness, of course, but generational trauma and systems that separate us by caste and teach us to maintain those divisions at all costs. We are the helpers that shower our friends with casseroles and warm embraces when they suffer a loss, just as we are the bystanders who watch wordlessly while one man chokes another on the F train. We are the most loving parent and the most insufferable colleague, often on the same day. We are the source of laughter and tears.
I’ve never believed that we are perfect, blameless creatures, for I am very clearly not a perfect, blameless creature. But I do believe that we’ve all had that feeling— perhaps at the birth of our child, or when we first fell in love, or said goodbye to somebody close to us, or watched a perfect sunset light the sky on fire— when we’ve wanted, more than anything, to be the most caring, compassionate, communal version of ourselves.
If that is true, then it follows that we owe one another a politics that acknowledges that desire and that is realistic about all the ways we have and will keep falling short. Even more so, we owe each other a politics that makes shrinking the gap between those two extremes a little less onerous. That’s why I care about policies that eliminate not just poverty but the stress of poverty. It’s why I believe in the universal provision of all the elements necessary for a dignified life— housing, healthcare, education, caregiving in all its forms. It’s why I oppose the carceral lie that retribution and punishment can bring peace to our wounded souls. It’s why I don’t believe that “identity politics” is a distraction from materialist concerns. Just as rapacious capitalism keeps us from being unabashedly loving humans towards one another, so too does racism, patriarchy, heterosexism, transphobia and all of their bedfellows.
It’s also why I believe not merely in better systems, but in better means of building those systems. It’s why I love unions and all other forms of local, participatory democracy. It’s why I love multi-racial/cross-class public schools. It’s why I love organizers who actually believe in the potential of the people whose doorbells they ring. It’s why I love daily reminders that our world is full of wonders — your oldest friends’ dumbest joke, your hometown’s most beloved regional sandwich, those three transcendent staccato beats at the beginning of “1 Thing” by Amerie. It’s why I love writing essays that feel embarrassing and overly vulnerable and then trusting a community I’ve never met to hold me with both accountability and tenderness.
Late Sunday night, after all the wrapping paper was picked up and chocolate cake was wiped off of faces, I did what any sappy, nostalgic parent would do on their kid’s birthday. I looked back at pictures of a red-headed baby who was and is perfect in his parents’ eyes. Like I said, I’m not a reliable narrator. Objectively, I know that neither of my children will live unabashedly virtuous, selfless lives. They will harm and be harmed, in ways that are both unique to their own stories and heartbreakingly similar to the patterns of other White boys and girls. They will be as lovable and lamentable as their parents. But I will never lose the feeling of believing them to be perfect, which means that I will always have a connection to the the moment in all of our lives when somebody stared at our newborn face and saw pure perfection.
Loving all of us, I’ve learned, no longer means believing in deliverance from my numerous failings. It’s about the daily act of welcoming one another (my kids, your kids, you, and even imperfect, broken me), into a world that is both full of hurt and that we get to try to make better. It’s about building a miracle alongside a community of beautiful disasters.
Song of the week:
Want to know what song we played, first when my son was born and then for thousands of consecutive nights in his room? Let’s just say that if Olof grows up to form an early-aughts Swedish indie-pop nostalgia act, you now know why.
“Innocent boy, beautiful girl” by Loney Dear
This week’s community discussion for paid subscribers:
In addition to my son and my mom’s birthdays, my May is also full of lot of niche annual rituals. There’s registration day for our neighborhood’s weirdo bike race, the NBA playoffs (which means the return of a mind-blowingly perfect NBA playoff email chain), and, of course, the Eurovision Freaking Song Contest (our family, led by the aforementioned ten-year-old, are avid fans). Pretty damned fun, to be honest. And a pretty good excuse for a “what’s a very specific annual niche ritual that you look forward to every year?” prompt.
Also, last week we whittled down the finalists for The Inaugural White Pages Most Annoying Corporation Award, which means that this week it’s time for the much anticipated throw-down in the thunder-dome: Health Insurance vs. Facebook. Voting opens tomorrow. Oh God they’re both so annoying!
Finally, as always, if you would like in on the fun but don’t have the cash for a paid subscription, all you have to do is toss me an email (email@example.com) and I’ll comp you, no questions asked.
This is putting aside the question of whether electric utilities should ever shut off power because of non-payment (for the record, I think they shouldn’t). Regardless, in this situation I knew that shut off was a possibility and I still played fast and loose.