Coffee Log, Year 2, Day 297

Hi.

Coffee: Americano, Caribou Coffee; smooth like two oysters rubbed together right out of the river, the way you knock the dirt off, and how the sand is mostly gone but some still gets to you; reliable, and good enough

This is the longest I’ve gone in two years without posting a daily Coffee Log, On Friday I was busy studying for my upcoming investment exams, and when I left the office I drove straight to Atlanta. Over the weekend, I was letting myself have the joy of participating in my life instead of taking a few steps back to look at it. Yesterday was more driving, and a bit of thought about MLK.

I remember we used to celebrate MLK day back in grade school. It was an excuse for semi-black songs sung in music class, the kind that have the culture toned down and not too much rhetoric of emancipation – Respect, or Lean On Me. There was a dream but we dozed through it, especially our teacher. And all us little white boys and girls felt equal in every way.

M watched ‘13TH‘ on Netflix yesterday while I was driving and told me about it, how a clause in the 13th Amendment about freedom’s contingence on criminal status had been manipulated after Jim Crow for the imprisonment of African Americans and the profit of everybody else. She told me how they showed Emmet Till two times on the show. Earlier, on Friday, when I first got to her apartment, she’d been reading this book about James Baldwin and they showed Till in there, too. So it was a weekend bookended by tragedies neither she nor I have to suffer directly, filled through the middle with our joy, a kind of American Oreo how you’ve got the black on the the margins, and this overstuffed privilege in the middle. At least we try to think about it, I guess, and let our hearts be haunted a little, but that doesn’t make it any clearer what to do.

I want to think of my joys as attainable and my sufferings as undeserved, but so much of my joy is bought on the backs of a wicked oppression, one that has its roots in my family tree. It keeps growing now matter how I’d like to trim it. Every year, it bears more fruit, so that the bitterness and hunger is belonged to me, an awful harvest, and one that, despite my clear-eyes and longing conscience, I continue to reap and continue to sew.

Currently Reading: Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin

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Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Article 1, 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution

Coffee Log, Year 2, Day 260

Hi.

Coffee:  Instant Coffee, Sitar Indian Restaurant; I asked the waiter for a cup of coffee and he said ‘okay, but there’s only instant,’; I told him that sounded perfect then went for my first pass at the buffet; in the back, there was a room marked ‘reserved’ with one man sitting at a white-dressed table in a white linen shirt, punching around his phone; he looked uneasy, like something holy; later, sitting down, the coffee came, a cup and a small silver carafe, I poured it out and drank it because I was tired and I needed the caffeine; Crete came back to me through the cup; they drink instant there, all of Greece, frappes; the coffee smelled like crushed pecans and went down easy as you’d expect

I heard a radio show about open source culture. It started at the internet, ended in a Chilean political experiment. They made an app, disseminated it to constituents, and invited members to publicly vote on issues. There was a political party. The representatives swore to vote with whatever majority had been had in the app. Shaking up democracy, making it open source.

Years ago, I studied Classics. I wanted to know what had put me here, where the gas first got in the car of our Western monolith. There were lots of stories about Athens. At it’s height, the city went to war with Sparta, having conquered much of the Aegean already either through coercion or force. Leading the charge was a man named Alcibiades, a demagogue, he had a quick tongue, he told the people they were oppressed and that political upheaval was the only option. Athens lost the war. Alcibiades was exiled.

I heard a different radio story about Hong Kong. There was a recording of the protests, a British journalist, petrol bombs blowing off in the background, a lot of screaming. The journalist said: “I don’t see any way this can end other than in violence.” From the reports, there’s been death and murder on both sides, the slender hand of subtle oppression pressing down on the pot of populace until it bubbles over. Who wins here? The protestors? The police?

I don’t have a better answer than freedom, and democracy continues to do a lot of good around the world. I’m scared, though, when everything cuts down to a majority. There’s good in everyone, but that good gets cloudy when we all come together.

Currently Reading: Another Country, James Baldwin

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What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or in the holy name of liberty or democracy?

Mahatma Gandhi

Coffee Log, Year 2, Day 135

Hi.

Coffee: Maxwell House Master Blend, Office Coffee

I was talking to the manager of the subway about problem customers.

“There was this lady an hour ago,” he says. “She sees me making four subs. I am the only one working. When I am on the second sub, she asks me what’s taking so long.” The guy pauses like he’s told a story before. “I think she’s joking, of course. But she’s not joking. I see it in her face. She says very loudly I’m making her late.”

“And? Does she get a sub?”

“No, she leaves first.”

We move down the conveyor belt. My sub’s done toasting and I tell him to add all the veggies. This guy’s from Ethiopia, gave me the name of a good vegetarian restaurant I haven’t had the chance to try. What I’m saying is, we know each other, but we’re on a last-name basis.

At the sauce, he says: “The worst customer I ever had was two years ago. He was an old man. He was taking a long time. There were other customers. I asked him to move if he needed to decide, he wouldn’t move. Then he asks me if there is anyone else working and I tell him it is only me. And he says: “Well then I’m leaving because I don’t want my food being made by a foreigner.””

It’s the kind of moment you wish you had a stress ball to demolish but you don’t so you’re standing there, locking eyes with this guy, still smiling. I couldn’t stop smiling, like my muscles were in shock.

“That’s awful,” I told him. “And pretty damn un-American.”

But there’s a happy ending, or at least a silver lining: the customers in line behind the old man cussed him out. And the next day they brought the Subway manager home-baked cookies; and the day after that they brought him a giant cardboard card signed by a 150 people who work in the shopping center saying how happy they are he’s a part of the community.

“That card is still hanging in my home,” he said.

I paid for the sub and shook his hand. His fingers were strong enough to slice a hundred loaves of bread.

Currently Reading: Queen, Suzanne Crain Miller

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The need of the immaterial is the most deeply rooted of all needs. One must have bread; but before bread, one must have the ideal.

Victor Hugo, The Memoirs of Victor Hugo

Coffee Log, Year 2, Day 131

Hi.

Coffee: House Blend, Ithaca Coffee Company; It’s been a long time since I’ve ground my morning coffee; I’ve gotten in the habit of drinking the work stuff, or splurging for out-of-housers on my days off; today, I wanted to feel that old sensation of tiring my arms out, and I’ve still got some of these beans my friend gave me a month ago, so I put my all into it; the coffee came out tasting like green beans fresh off the vine

There’s a puppy in the apartment. His name is Gus. He’s my roommate’s brother’s dog and we’re watching him while they’re out of town. This morning, I was up before anybody and went to pet him in his sleeping-crate. He gnawed on my fingers with prickly puppy teeth.

I walked by the pool today and saw people sunbathing. Storm clouds came but they stayed there, bearing the heat and imminent rain, cooking on the grill, exposing their right to live here freely, embracing independence with burned bodies.

It’s the 4th of July – a celebration of America’s independence. I haven’t done much to celebrate. A friend posted a link to the Declaration so I read it. I saw how it said all ‘men’ are this and that, equal and free, etc, etc, and couldn’t help but remember my time studying Classics in college, ancient Athenian law, where there was a functioning Democracy with extensive freedoms for all citizens, only ‘citizen’ was a small category that included only Athenian-born men.

I grew up loving the sound of ‘America,’ and have grown old getting more and more skeptical of what I hear. When we celebrate, what are we celebrating? An old dim dream? Or something you can put your arms around?

There are children being caged on American soil. And I’m not just talking about the migrant communities. In a country of for-profit prisons, can we really celebrate freedom each year?

More work to be done.

Currently Reading: Queen, Suzanne Crain Miller

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We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…

Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence

Coffee Log, Year 2, Day 87

Hi.

Coffee: Maxwell House Drip, Office Coffee

I read part of an article about Camille Billops, an artist. I only read part because it’s been that kind of day – partial. I’m don’t know if I’ll ever finish it, but what I read left an impression.

Camille Billops was a prominent artist who started her work in the 60’s. She created and advocated for black art through and beyond the civil rights movement. But the point of the article was: at the cusp of her career, she took her four-year-old daughter to a Children’s Home and left her there.

There’s no way to know what someone else is thinking, even if they tell you. We hardly understand ourselves and rarely vocalize the parts we do. But at least publicly, Billops’s choice to give up her daughter was a drive for independence, a rejection of the mandate for motherhood that trapped and continues to trap women, and a choice to give up family in order to freely pursue her art.

It’s the last one that gets me.

I think a lot about balance – work-life, freedom-responsibility, healthy eating-loving chocolate – and in particular about the balance between everything else and art. Because the split really is that big, isn’t it? When you’re in the act of creating something, that’s all you’re doing. It’s all of you – all your life, love, blood and energy. You take people and places that are vividly real and send them through the woodchipper. If your art is going to have power, you have to feed it everything precious in your life for fuel. Billops fed it her daughter. Jury’s out what sorts of things I’m burning for fuel.

I was at the Nasher a few years ago seeing an exhibit on Southern artists. There was a piece, a vivid portrait, abstracted. My friend and guide told me the artist had a sad story. He’d gotten so caught up in his art that he’d withdrawn from his family, gotten depressive, and driven his loved ones away. My friend thought that was awful. I did too, but it made a lot of sense to me.

But maybe it’s all a trick. Maybe that reclusive tendency to sacrifice your friends and family to some myth of ‘genius’ has darker motives. You’ve got to have something in the first place in order to give it up. And if you can give up damn near everything and still survive, that implies you’re living with a modicum of success or comfort backing you. The artistic rejection of the world is always an act of privilege. It’s something that says: “I don’t need you.” You might climb the mountain, but you do so without making room at the summit for anyone else, and with some sense of security that you’ll make it there. The ‘starving artist’ is a myth. No-one has time to both starve and make art.

Anyway, that was all a long and rambling way to say that art and ethics sometimes collide and that’s not easy. Today was also a rambling day.

Currently Reading: NOTHING! Couldn’t get back into Bourdain, no matter how much I tried; will pick a new book soon

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In the nearly 60 years since Camille Billops made the decision to give up her daughter, she has become an internationally recognized artist and filmmaker.

Sasha Bonet, The Artist Who Gave Up Her Daughter, published in Topic Magazine

Coffee Log, Year 2, Day 26

Hi.

Coffee: Maxwell House Drip, Office Coffee

I heard a woman talking on the NC State University radio about wanting to go vegan and straight edge because choosing to reject what the world tells you to put into your body is the purest form of rebellion. I see her point. However, something about that notion – the rejection of the world – makes me sad. It means the world is worth rejecting.

I watched the Google press conference on their new games streaming service, Stadia. They talked about architecture and data centers and how you’ll eliminate the need for any kind of hardware requirements on the user. Music’s streaming, movies are streaming, why not games? It sounds like a democracy, like it’s giving everyone the opportunity to do something only a very few could do before. But the hands holding that democracy are the most bloated, ubiquitous tech and data giant in the world.

Ever been to Rome? Did you see the colloseum? How about any other handful of ancient monuments? Well, most of those were built by Emperors. In the ancient world, a surefire way to hold your power as a tyrant was to build lavish public works. Everyone’s happy and equal. Unless you disagreed with your lord, then you lose your head. But I can’t stress enough that it was the TYRANTS – not the Roman Republic or Athenian Democracy – that placed protections on the livelihood of the lowest common denominator.

That’s the rub, eh? We all want to have our cakes and eat ’em. Forks at the ready. We want to be free to rule ourselves, but when we vote together, it’s so easy for the majority to manipulate things into existence like ‘segregation’ or ‘apartheid.’ We want the security from injustice, but when we place our hopes in the righteous fist of absolute power, it’s so easy for that fist to crush the people at the margins who just won’t play ball.

What’s right? What’s wrong? It’s not so simple.

I don’t think I’ll ever become a vegan. Long gone are my high school days of being straight-edge. And I’ll probably buy into Stadia if it’s a cheap, easy solution. At the same time, I know I’ve got a golden lap, a wine-drunk fountain, the fortune of American dollars and white skin. I can participate in the oligarchy or autocracy in equal easy measure. For me – and people like me – there’s never been a difficult choice. That’s the real injustice.

Novel Count: 30,740

Currently Reading: The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes

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The heaviest penalty for declining to rule is to be ruled by someone inferior to yourself.

Plato, The Republic


Coffee Log, Day 356

Hi.

Coffee: Sumatra Medium Dark, Trader Joe’s Brand

I read an article in the News & Observer about an art exhibit at the Cary Senior’s Center. Not exactly the Guggenheim, but no less important.

Anyway, here’s the short of it: Bing Weng is an artist from China. She comes to Cary last October to visit her daughter. While here, she gets a gig to show 38 paintings at the Senior Center. A couple weeks before the show, the center pulls three of the paintings. They display Xi Jinping with a dark hand over Asia. They are political, overtly. The rest of her work is mostly floral. It’s apolitical, overtly. The director says the works weren’t ‘consistent’ with her other pieces. And of course there were two public complaints.

America, right? Land of Freedom. You can say anything as long as it doesn’t say anything. But life’s not all roses. It’s the sun, the soil, the bugs that eat the roses, too. And why would you want to think about that?

It’s a popular line to say we’re too politically correct in 2019. And the opposite’s got some traction too, that our rhetoric is vile. I think those sentiments come from the same place: fear. We’ve been sitting comfortably for some time (those on the fortunate fringes, anyway). No need to worry about crushing poverty or oppression or global war. Those things happen where you can’t see them. And our culture wants to keep them there, because the minute you’re made to see the wretched green animals stalking around your garden, you’re damned with cowardice or apathy if you don’t stand up to do something about them.

But what do I know? I’m just another flower-painter.

Novel Count: 23,930

Currently Reading: Killing Commendatore, Haruki Murakami

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“When I am in China, I have no freedom of speech, so I couldn’t paint political work,” she said.

Bing Weng, quoted by Joe Johnson, ‘Chinese artist’s exhibit in Cary is missing 3 paintings. The town says they’re too political.’