A Reckoning

I can mark the night of Trump’s earth shaking election as the point when my life as I’d known it really started to cave in. Not that it was that stable beforehand. There were plenty of visible cracks, and tremors giving pause. I just couldn’t quite accept how unsound the foundations truly were. I wasn’t yet ready to just give it up and flee to more solid ground, and held out as long as I could. Too long. But the house I’d built would not withstand the aftershocks, and soon enough, sticking around was no longer an option.

Around 2 am, a few hours after the results were announced, my wife woke me up keening like a wounded animal, grief stricken that Cheeto Hitler, the Mango Mussolini, had somehow taken over the western world – or so she and millions of others presumed. I considered her reaction overblown, but sympathetically patted her shoulders and stroked her hair like you would a child waking up from a nightmare, as I had many times before. Yet I had an amorphous sense of foreboding myself, as if an apocalypse was nigh. It wasn’t Trump. As much as I viscerally loathed she who must not be named, neither could I bring myself to check the box for the Donald, and in our so-blue-its-indigo district, it hardly mattered. His being elected was weird, no doubt, but I’d seen enough bozos get into office that it barely dinged my hide, much less got under my skin. I noted with some curiosity how relieved I felt, even a little excited to see things get shaken up from the insidiously benign malaise that had blanketed the nation under Obama, whose seductive affability always weirded me out, even as I took too long to grasp the true depth of his corruption, the ubiquity of which comes into ever-increasing focus as one chicken after another comes home to roost. No, my unease wasn’t just the election. Something bigger was stirring, and I was hardly alone in being forced to get up to speed.

Until a few months earlier, my wife had been mostly apolitical, or so I thought. We were both professional artists and pseudo-academics, and loosely held variations of the standard kinds of half-baked liberal ideas most of our friends and peers often more indignantly espoused. I was, and am, moderate by nature, which is to say aiming toward sane, with an avid if casual interest in history, global affairs, and the lost art of civics. I grew up in a semi-bucolic working-to-middle-class suburb of Denver. My parents were politically conservative. My Yankee dad, a salesman and vet, I referred to (mostly) affectionately as a full-on “right wing wacko” who’d fled socialist Massachusetts (as he saw it) for the Rocky Mountain west. He considered Archie Bunker his role model, Richard Nixon the country’s greatest president, and he owned well north of a thousand firearms. They were his art, hobby, passion, retirement account, and too much an obsession.

My weekends were mostly spent on skeet ranges and in gun shops. I was programmed from the time I could walk into a shooting machine. By age five, I was receiving dire lectures about how FDR had ruined the country, and how the Feds were coming for all our firearms. It was a well-worn tape I can still hear playing: “By the time you get to college, son, only the criminals will have guns.” I played football, hunted, and joined the Young Republicans in high school – for two meetings, my freshman year (I was mostly just into the preppie paisley bow ties, collar-kicked layered polos, and round tortoise shell glasses, I realized in retrospect. I was waking up Mod.) My elegant Texan mother wasn’t as fanatical as dad, but she worked in finance and Fortune 500 companies as the assistant to CEOS and corporate directors. They were all die-hard Republicans of course, and so was she, as far as I could ever tell. We didn’t really talk politics. Typically, like most teenagers, when I got the chance I rebelled.

As I got older, I occasionally realized with dismay what a stereotypical Gen X’r I was – bitter pills dispensed for a generation of defiant individualists continually waking up to collective delusions. As a disaffected, romantic teen in the 1980s, I idolized Camus and Kafka, discovered the Jam and the Smiths on import EPs, then went to art school, where I became a big fish in a tidal pool. I grew my hair long but hated hippies, a proto-grunge hipster in puke-color ‘50s thrift store sweaters and tight black jeans. I worked for Greenpeace one summer, even setting records in the local canvassing office for the few months I could stand going door to door, spooking people about nuclear energy, Amazonian deforestation, and the plights of baby seals and whales. I was an ardent vegetarian for a hot second, macrobiotic even, and I’m sure I was insufferable at family holidays. But I realized it soon enough. Realizing any real solutions were spiritual and close to home, I got into Zen Buddhism, shaved my head, and shut up. I wasn’t an armchair Zennist, just reading books about it. I became a regular at a nearby Korean Zen temple, where I engaged in rigorous, monastic style practice which included doing thousands of rhythmic prostrations and sitting rock still for hours on end, days at a time. I became a maniacal minimalist backpacker, going out for weeks at a time in the Rockies alone, living on nuts, caught fish, and foraged greens. I gave up political concerns almost completely, for decades. When I voted, I voted not so much for Democrats as against the endless wars and transparent mendacity of neo-conservatives. It hardly seemed to matter in any case. The fix was always in.

After grad school (where I lived in a Zen temple for two years,) while hitchhiking in the American Southwest I met a Navajo family who sort of adopted me. I lived on the Rez for a year or two, throwing horseshoes, hunting deer, helping with ceremonies, and splitting endless piles of juniper logs. I moved on. I worked construction. I washed dishes. I sold books and art supplies. Between long stretches of celibate monastic life, I fell in and out of love with a series of bright, beautiful, ambitious young women. In my middle thirties, I started to bear down a bit, with art and life. A job in a high-powered Los Angeles art gallery serving the glitterati led to an artist residency in Dallas, where I met a vivacious, combative, very pretty young blonde (in an art gallery) who fit the pattern, and who soon became my wife. She said she’d consider kids in five years, which became ten, and then was amended with endless shifting “only if”s and “first you must”s. I taught and lectured in colleges and museums, occasionally sold some work, and wrote about art and culture for newspapers, websites, and magazines.

Like every marriage, the saga of this fifteen-year relationship is complex and involved, with its share of family dramas, cross country moves, sick old dogs, and an inordinate amount of art, artists, and cultural bullshit: trips to Europe and around the country, magazine features, endless gallery and museum exhibitions seen and done. I worked at a series of universities while she completed a worse than useless graduate art degree. Thanks in some measure to my now fully honed written academic pedagogy and editing skills, she landed a primo university teaching gig, and the winning academic lottery ticket: tenure. Happy to let her be the teacher and get the fuck out of a rapidly disintegrating academia myself, I stumbled into a curator job a respectable local museum. The wage was appalling, but I got to design and plan some major exhibitions, appeared on TV and in the paper regularly, and worked on a few books, finally publishing a couple in my own name. I hung in for five years, turning down job offers out of town, waiting for some other shoe to drop where I was, letting things play out.

I had a well-received solo exhibition of a prolific few years of painting, at the most respectable of the very few galleries in town. The show’s well attended month-long run closed inauspiciously the very day of the 2016 election, the insecurity of the moment insuring that absolutely nothing sold (this was rectified later as the economy rebounded under the new president.) Shortly after, my wife insisted on attending the post-inaugural Women’s March, then a protest at the airport having to do with not discriminating against Muslims, or something. Really it was all just an ignorant, aimless collective screaming, “Orange Man Bad!” and even they didn’t really know why. I now regret so blithely riding along for these things. But my wife and all her hysterical feminist friends and students were up in arms, and I went to bear witness, be supportive, take it in – detached, skeptical, and entirely too tolerant.

I was also leading a Zen meditation group as an ostensible “Soto Zen Priest.” That’s another long, involved story, but suffice it to say that if you are a so-called Buddhist in America, you’ll find yourself surrounded by hunched, fearful, “white” (WASPs and Jews mostly) hyper-leftists of the most tedious variety. That was true for virtually everyone I knew: at work, in society, in religion, in the media. Relentless, ramping radical leftism. I’d been relieved to get out of the direct orbit of my suffocating boomer “Zen Master” in Chicago, under whose auspices I’d set up shop as a facilitator of the art of sitting still. Over the years, he would sometimes proudly announce his atheism and communism, but I would brush it off, naively thinking, to each their own. I assumed I didn’t have to internalize his generational obsessions, his emphatic radicalism. I was just in Zen for the sitting. Raised nominally Christian, my entire operating framework with Zen could be summed up with one Biblical phrase: “Be still and know God.” No more. No less.

When he, then the entire organized Soto Zen “church,” began declaiming that Zen was sine qua non for Antifa, Black Lives Matter, ending border enforcement and regular policing, instituting thought control, and “eliminating whiteness,” I gently suggested that maybe we were taking a bit of a wrong turn. Or not so gently. But I might as well have shouted at a tsunami. I resigned as a priest in protest. It had no larger effect, but then, I didn’t expect it to. The radical socialist coup was total. Closer to home, a coven of post-menopausal witches tried to take over my free little Zen group in the name of “overthrowing the patriarchy.” I acquired a disturbed pedophile communist troll-turned-stalker who somehow thought it would sting if he anonymously kept calling me a Nazi and threatening to ruin my life.

My boss at the museum (a self-proclaimed socialist who happens to be white, but gay, so special) said to me, in front of an intern, that if he ever learned I’d voted for Trump, he’d fire me. I didn’t get the chance. I was then denied even consideration for promotion, told directly more than once it was because I was white, straight, and male, i.e. not “diverse” (never mind that straight white male curators are already on the verge of extinction.) Another former intern, a Latina and leftist activist well connected with the new socialist mayor and his race-baiting minions, was predictably appointed to the job I’d been more than capably doing (at half its posted salary) for the previous year, despite possessing a fraction of my knowledge not only about the museum’s collection, but art in the region or modern period generally. When called late one weekend night and told who my new boss would be, I was also ordered to apologize to her for criticizing communism – presumably because she’s a communist – and intimidated to censor this blog where I’d done so. I quickly negotiated a book contract to get me out of that toxic miasma, and moved on.

A few months earlier, at a faculty barbeque in the summer of 2018, in response to a closeted alcoholic drug addict scum bag thieving artist named Larry Bob pontificating at length how Trump is Hitler!, I had the utter gall to calmly disagree. How dare me. Not only that, I hopefully said to some of these pampered tenured art teachers whining about the impending end of the world, with kids in their laps, that according to reporting in fringe publications like the New York Times and the Telegraph, the earth had indeed heated in the last couple decades, but a growing scientific consensus believe it correlates almost entirely with sunspot activity, man-made CO2 hardly at all, and we are in fact overdue for a mini ice age, which some statistics indicate is well underway. Oh my pearls and garters! The horror! A different, informed, fearless opinion! If reenacted as a Victorian dinner party, cutlery would screech on plates. Women would gasp and flee, weeping. Men with impressive mustaches would stand and shout, “I say, sir!” Instead, people just edged away toward the cooler, looking for another craft beer, or crept to the kitchen to soothe their jangled nerves with another glass of Two-Buck Chuck. Ol’ Larry later came to my house, sat in my chair, declared himself the Lord High Mayor of Art Town, and told me I needed to keep my mouth shut and get with the leftist program, or else. Through gritted teeth, I courteously invited him to depart, refrained from kicking him in the ass, and simply never spoke to him again.

Unfortunately, my wife kept siding with these awful pod people. I began to ruefully remember incidents from years previous that reflected attitudes I’d too glibly glossed over or hoped she’d outgrow. Like when we’d sublet a downtown Chicago loft in an old bra factory, owned by a mixed-race lesbian couple, academics who had taken teaching positions on the east coast and weren’t yet ready to sell. Maybe it was residual misandry radiating from the apartment’s walls, but I blamed the Feminist Lit class my wife was taking at the time. She had a habit of resisting domestic tasks she didn’t like, especially washing the dishes when it was her turn. She was being particularly obstinate one evening. I’d cooked. She was at bat. When gently reminded about it many hours later, then called on a series of lame excuses, cornered, she spluttered, “You…you…you are infringing on my agency!” It was such a ludicrous response, I burst out laughing. Then she did, too. She continued to occasionally have these breakthroughs of consciousness, realizing she was mouthing platitudes absorbed through the atmosphere. But huff on that intersectional PoMo/self-help psycho babble glue long enough, too many brain cells get cooked and there’s no coming back. Neither one of us was laughing much about these things later.

My big mistake was maybe not taking a harder line sooner, or just not realizing the seriousness of the threats, the virulence of the infection all around me. The body snatchers were getting to everybody I knew. They seemed to be blathering through every media mouthpiece I tuned in to. I too had gone to a prestigious postmodern academy, but that was back in the 1990s. It was gross, pretentious, and dumb, but they weren’t preaching all-out race war yet, or saying men not only could be women, but should be women. It was more oblique, vague. Black clad budding intellectuals from RISD and NYU worshipped Foucault, spouting his debauched dogmas as inviolate doctrine. I just found all those French deconstructionists needlessly obtuse, debased, and depressing. When I later became a teacher in an elite postmodern academy myself, after years of resistance, I was often beloved by students for being relatively no nonsense, underscoring that art wasn’t that complicated. Just care, try, be curious, and grateful. I was no sage. But considering the bullshit that surrounded them, most of my students appreciated the relative refuge of my classrooms. It’s gotten so much worse since.

I started waking up more fully to this creeping leftist insanity, and began persistently pushing back. I slowly transitioned from using Instagram as a photo sketchbook of New Mexico skies, mountain vistas, cottonwood trees, and my contemplative abstract paintings, to occasionally posting satirical memes skewering the ridiculousness of the media, leftist activists, and the degenerating pundit classes. My own views are complex, and I don’t fall into any neat categories, nor do I want to. I’ve striven (not always successfully,) to consider issues individually, attempting to think for myself. I started getting attacked by a lot of people who couldn’t stand that I was not adhering to their tribal taboos, that I had a prominent voice but thought differently. It couldn’t be allowed. And I wouldn’t be told to shut up.

Conspicuously, many who tried happened to be lesbians. I have known a lot of lesbians in my life. I went to art school and studied sculpture, in a department which was split down the middle between gear head dudes from the Midwest in Zeppelin t-shirts who’d grown up working on cars with their dads or older brothers; and dour, mullet-sporting, hairy-legged sapphics in combat boots who’d probably been molested by theirs. I was an anomaly in the program. Sensitive, articulate, and avant-gardesy, I tended to get along great with lesbians. At first. The thing is, deep down most of them really do resent and dislike men, and it will suddenly flare up, out of nowhere. The first time I was turned on by a lesbian friend was in high school, though I didn’t realize this until later (people were just gay back in the gender fluid ‘80s; they didn’t go on about it, and no one cared.) There were many more reversals through my 20s – including a couple of torrid affairs with women who realized maybe they were missing out on something significant just sleeping with other ladies. Lesbosians also run rampant in the Buddhist worlds, but everyone is pretending to be nice, so the direct assaults were rarer, but not unknown. On social media, however, all bets were off, and after the Trump election, it seemed like mouthy righteous rug munchers were coming at me out of the woodwork.

No skin off my back. Sticks and stones. What did get to me was a 32-paragraph diatribe my wife emailed me after my response to one preachy lady-loving “community activist” I’d half-considered a friend. This crazy broad had responded to one of my Instagram memes with a series of long, insufferably self-righteous trolling comments that I couldn’t resist responding to. She admitted to lurking and tracking me and had finally popped a gasket. I didn’t respond in kind, but just with a couple of one-liners, like “Ok, good to know who the moral center of the universe is,” and “well, I simply direct you to the unfollow button at the top of this page.” That’s all. I got a lot of thumbs ups, hearts, and laugh emojis. But this exchange prompted my wife to stew for two weeks, then write said email to let me know in what utter contempt she held me, a terrible no good very bad mean man threatening her social standing and self-image as paragon of upbeat community virtue, ally-ship, and anti-Trumpness. Well, ok then. It was a final straw. I called for a separation.

It had been building, obviously. Around the same time, I’d been somewhat furtively watching a few minutes of those heinous Kavanaugh hearings on my iPhone, with earbuds in. I certainly didn’t talk about it. I was being carefully monitored for ideological contagion, and didn’t want another confrontation. My wife walked by and saw his tiny crying pinched Irish face on the screen and started slamming doors and stomping around the house. I said, uh, you upset about something, honey? Red-faced and wild-eyed, she teed off about #metoo, Trump, abortion, feminism, I don’t know what all. A litany. This is the classic sign of ideological possession, and sublimated issues. There’s supposedly one matter on the table, but you get immediately deluged with an intersectional laundry list of political (or domestic) sins. Dear lord, I thought. My wife’s a full-blown NPC. She’d certainly not seen any of the hearings herself. She got all her news and opinions about it from her dumb radical feminist friends on Facebook, which she was plugged into almost constantly. Later she’d shout in our last pointless stab at couples’ therapy, “Who did you vote for in the last election!?” (This would have been the 2018 midterms.) I realized that she was more interested in making sure the (boomer, hippie, Jewish, leftist) therapist couple knew which one of us was the more politically virtuous than in actually salvaging our marriage. Those sessions were like being forced to watch the nails get meticulously driven into the coffin of someone you’d loved, who had been sick for a long time, but was now gone. It was agonizing.

I also started getting the predictable concern trolling from leftist friends. They didn’t care about the discrimination I was facing, the loss of my religious calling and community, or the collapse of my marriage. They were worried instead about the things they presumed I might be thinking from my social media posts. Utilizing those legendary leftist mind reading powers, they didn’t ask questions. They posted or sent cowardly messages saying that my opinions (gleaned presumably from the centrist Quillette articles I’d repost on Facebook, which was as radical as I got) disturbed them. My attitude was if saying that the academies are unbalanced, or that it’s ok to be white disturbs you, then you deserve to be disturbed. I don’t think it is ok to be white, in fact. Because “white” is mostly a fictional tool of oligarchal control. But see, there I go again. #triggerwarning. I also got plenty of emails and DMs from former students and colleagues thanking me for my bravery for daring to say revolutionary things like, hating any group, even white men, is bad. But they invariably told me they couldn’t afford to speak up; they were too afraid. My sympathy for that kind of attitude wore very thin, very quick.

This war is everywhere now. It’s right here, right now, the dividing lines often running through our homes. The sides aren’t left and right. It’s about the choice between hatred and love; reason and insanity; order and chaos; God and 1000 devils. Love isn’t the mushy-headed, doctrinaire, resentful nonsense of the so-called left, and it’s not the rigidity and defensiveness of the rule-loving right – though the former poses by far the greater threats today. I’ve totally given up on institutional Zen. Art is completely subsumed in leftist polemics. I never believed in politics, although apparently it believes in me.

Somewhat inexplicably, I’ve turned toward traditional Catholicism and the Latin mass lately, but haven’t pushed all my chips in quite yet. The last thing I need is a rebound religious marriage. I still sit quietly every morning, listen, and pray. I’m trying out the rosary, which between my mystical Buddhist and anti-iconic protestant backgrounds, makes more sense than it ought to. I’ve attended about 30 churches in the last year; ten times that if you count all the cathedrals and abbeys I visited in Ireland during the month I just spent there. In that land palpably vibrating with the ghosts of saints and scholars, I climbed sacred mountains and circumambulated small islands and shrines devoted to Our Lady and umpteen saints, often brought to tears, hearing the voiceless voices of 1000 ancestors. As a preacher I like says, it’s a spiritual battle, not an ideological one. It really is truth versus lies, good versus evil. It takes discernment. Logos is rising. Now, now is the time to grab its hem, and hold fast.

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