Short Stories and Creative Nonfiction Essays

Friday, May 29, 2020


As if Internet trolls were not nasty enough, we now have the Karens of the world demanding to speak to the manager whenever her latte is not hot enough, or too hot, or lacks the double counterclockwise pirouette of gluten free whipped cream pointing to the south-southwest that she very clearly ordered. Entitlement has never been more on display. The Internet has wasted no time correlating it with racial inequality, coining the terms ‘white privilege’ and #Livingwhileblack. It would appear everyone is outraged, all the time. Social media has become the perfect void into which to hurl insults, knowing there will be no repercussions. In the short term, anyway. This mentality is akin to flipping off the motorist who just cut you off on the freeway; he or she is surely not a neighbor you will have to face anytime soon. The ease with which many vent their rage at strangers—or outrage, as the case may be—signals a disturbing disconnect. A rejection of our interconnectedness and reliance on one another at best, the complete erosion of humanity and community at worst. Though we do have laws to keep order, they are far from foolproof at regulating human behavior; life is full of cooperation, all day, every day. But it seems to be a lost art. Many feel they have no obligation to regulate or curb their behavior (or cell phone conversation, for that matter) to accommodate others, an inclination once known as being considerate. The pervasive incapacity to make concessions is the very definition of entitlement. We all have the ‘right’ to do what we want, when we want, without considering the other. After all, this is America!
My recent essays on divisiveness have focused on the theme of changing the world from the inside out, the various ways in which we can deliberately mold our view of the world and how we operate in it, thereby healing the collective by extension. In them, I’ve identified a number of phenomena that fuel the current vitriol many find so distasteful, and what we could do to better understand them in order to train our thoughts and feelings, to self-create in defiance of the status quo. However, thus far I have overlooked and failed to address the obvious: anger. There seems to be a low-level anxiety that festers as rage, then explodes as anger in the form of road rage, school shootings, online bullying, riots, social media outrage, vitriolic political debate and even hate speech. Seems too much to tackle outwardly; better to go within. This article is not a course on anger management. Rather, I will make the case that society’s pervasive anger is the expression of a constant low-level anxiety, well cultivated and based in fear. Institutionalized fear peddled by none other than our very leaders and proffered the media. I am far from a conspiracy theorist; I regularly reject notions that Big Brother has a twisty mustache and pets his lapdog in a swiveling chair in the sky. The machinations of culture are just how things logically panned out, given human nature and the dialectic of history. Still, we can rise above them. We can choose our future.
More importantly, in the spirit of this collection, I am going to focus not on saving the world by solving a laundry list of societal ills, but how we can all become friends with the role of anger in our own lives. No one is exempt; we all have it. We each simply express it according to our respective personality type—our disposition and temperament. In accordance with what society or one’s immediate environment permits and what we’ve unconsciously learned by example, whether it gets results or not. Anger is crucial to our survival. The fight-or-flight instinct as a stress response is innate; its conversion into stress that we then carry around may not be. The idea of cellular emotional memory, or the ’pain body’ in certain circles, may be part and parcel of the human experience. But honoring it with a knee-jerk reaction in lieu of tempering it via our conscious observer may be a habit we could evolve out of. A deeper understanding of relationships between stored trauma, sadness and anxiety, and the mechanics by which they convert to anger is warranted. Several clinically agreed upon ‘types’ of anger (or more accurately, modes of expression) will make clear that no one is exempt from anger; it is simply easier to point to when overt. Other types go unnamed and unrecognized, but may well be at the root of much of the strife.
Anger is the flipside of sadness and disappointment. The theme of a great deal of my fiction is that of overcoming disillusionment. In a way, the word is just a synonym for sadness, that which accompanies all loss and the disappointment we feel when the world turns out not to be the place we once imagined. I personally don’t give much airtime to ‘grievances;’ doing so rarely serves any purpose. My sole mantra these days is ‘I would pray things come to pass just as they are,’ and ‘Today, Let me see in the world what I wish to see.’ Still, I have eyes and ears. I catch wind of the conditions and circumstances that have folks so unsettled at this seemingly unprecedented moment in history. In the way of perfect poetry—pathetic fallacy at its best, the potentially anxiety-producing sounds of unrest waft to my window as I type. It started with those in Italy who began to sing from balcony windows to combat isolation and forge solidarity and unity. They lifted their voice in song and spirits synchronized along with the sound vibrations. Here in LA, the joining together of strangers’ voices became a nightly howling at the moon, to honor and commemorate those healthcare workers who are sacrificing for the safety of all. Still, I can’t help but notice, as news outlets have noted, that the cathartic ritual is more and more a venting of frustration and rage and pent up energy, of grief, fear and anger. The chorus is the opposite of harmonious; it is discordant and ominous and—hostile, interspersed with ear splitting and constant police whistle blows that would qualify as noise pollution in any other context. The effect is nothing short of apocalyptic.
Yet more poetic, while I compile my thoughts on this topic and formulate them into the essay you hold in your hand, peaceful protests across the country are devolving one by one into riots, due to the latest high-profile incident of police brutality.

Cultural rage: Are things really worse than ever, or does it just seem like it?

It’s been said that the more things change, the more they stay the same. We have all heard the phrase ‘we must remember history lest it repeat itself,’ and ‘everything is cyclical.’ In fashion, twenty-year cycles are said to exist. My personal theory is that nostalgia compels those running the show at any given time to harken back to youth and reintroduce everything from penny loafers to flipped-up collars. And heaven knows in the ‘new millennium,’ anything goes; we borrow from all eras. Many point to Socrates’s lamentations about the spoiled ‘youth of today’ several thousand years ago as evidence human nature is slow to change, if it’s even capable. The moral dilemmas of the human condition incarnated in Greek myths later became those of the Greek tragedies that informed Shakespeare and evolved into the Western screenwriting principles behind the latest Harry Potter sequel or the five-hundredth installment of the Warner Brothers’ Spiderman franchise. I personally draw correlations between pendulum swings—the emergence from the Bronze Age into the more humanistic period of Greek Classicism mirrors the emergence from the Dark Ages into the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment. The legendary decadence of the roaring twenties could be compared to that of the eighties, the moralistic prudence of the thirties and its prohibition, to that of the conservative fifties in all its conformity. Today’s hipsters believe they invented freethinking, living ‘off the grid,’ and saying F-you to the man, when in fact the hippies arguably did it better two generations earlier and the bohemians long before that! 
In this spirit, it’s entirely possible that it has always seemed like the end of the world—that the locusts, meteors and pestilence of the apocalypse are always right around the bend. Everything from the Mayan calendar and Nostradamus’s predictions to the prophecies of Revelations and the cottage industry that was Y2K have promised our demise. My oldest sister was conceived in the middle of the Cuban missile crisis, when Castro had nuclear warheads pointed directly at us. My mother swears the night she told my father she did not want to bring a child into a world plagued with such turmoil was the night my sister was conceived; someone upstairs knew better. I was born in 1968, a moment rife with activism, political unrest and polarization, assassinations and radical change on the horizon. Many claim America lost its innocence with the assassination of JFK; for me the milestone of 9/11 was that wakeup call. Though Vietnam, known as ‘the first televised war,’ continued to rage during my childhood, my mother was smart enough not to turn on network news during dinner, in order to preserve a sense of security for her children. So the ongoing war was little more than an abstraction, beyond the occasional veterans we glimpsed who were treated by society as if they themselves had started the war. Further, nothing ever happened on our soil. So it was a false sense of security that was shattered in an instant with the downing of the twin towers before our very eyes on 9/11.
So why might it always seem like the end times, thanks to the doom speakers among us? To frame it in a positive light, it could be that the human compulsion to forge a sense of urgency is founded in a desire for positive change. We all know folks who wait until their deathbed to get ‘good with god’ in the final hour. If we had a limited number of days left to redeem ourselves, humanity, too, might be on its best behavior. The threat of fire and brimstone the Catholic Church proffers arguably represents the same ultimatum. At risk of understating the matter, many resist the call to change. It is well known we only transform through conflict resolution; in this way, global or even regional strife is a harbinger of further evolution. In my own life, the big, bad world without has always reflected the one within. There have been startling parallels between my own stages of evolution and what is reflected in world events. Despite the parallels, it is not the world around us that changes so much as the eyes through which we view it.
During the current health crisis that is the Covid-19 Pandemic, those who whine about the inconvenience of social distancing or having to wear a mask in public must be reminded that former generations have been through far worse. The concessions our grandparents had to make during the great depression dwarf any minor blow to modern convenience, the bread lines in which they were forced to stand dwarfing those in front of Trader Joe’s. The worldwide death toll of our current pandemic is a tiny fraction of the 50 million estimated casualties of the Spanish Flu. 
In high school during the ‘80s, my sophomore English teacher required that each student turn in a poetry notebook at the end of the semester. In reviewing them, she commented to the class that in all her decades of teaching, she’d never seen so many poems to do with nuclear war. How could this be? In previous decades families installed bomb shelters in their own backyards and watched countless propaganda films about what to do in case of a nuclear attack, all comical for their omission of the most blatantly obvious directive: kiss your ass goodbye. Perhaps my peers and I were experiencing a delayed reaction, giving ourselves permission to express what our parents could not—the low level anxiety of simply existing. The Cold War had come to a head in the late ‘80s. The toppling of the Berlin Wall was the climax of great tension, the undercurrent of unrest that always forges change.
This moment feels eerily similar. Leaving the Christian-Muslim clash out of the equation, political revolution has been widespread. The masses are fed up with the old guard. Oligarchies and dictators have been ousted in every corner of the globe, corrupt dynasties overturned and decimated. Unfortunately, the regimes that have taken their place are often more oppressive. But change is certainly afoot, whether viewed as progressive or regressive. Regardless of political leanings, the sentiment that things are more contentious than ever is hard to argue against. Due in part to the immediacy of the internet, I myself have commented that never before has terrorism been so brazen that one could Google and watch a beheading in thirty seconds with a few clicks, or a London citizen being butchered in broad daylight before a throng of onlookers. The images are hard to unsee.
It started post 9/11. Or maybe long before, but the impasse certainly kicked panic into high gear: each day, the Homeland Security Advisory System, commonly called the ‘terror alert scale,’ used color-coded levels to tell the public just how panicked they should be each day. Our administration, at the time, touted a policy of ‘never letting the terrorists get us down’ by stripping us of the personal liberty and freedom that defines our country. But it could be argued that a scale feuling panic and anxiety on the daily constitutes the very definition of terror effectively induced. Extremists like filmmaker Michael Moore would say that the measure was part of a conditioning process to rile anti-Muslim sentiment and justify the coming ‘War on Terror.’ And the measures ushered in by the Patriot Act only continued the tradition. Regardless of political leanings, I think we all can agree a climate of fear was created. And, I would argue, a culture of fear.
Since, incidents of road rage, school shootings, police brutality, and political clashes have only increased. What did they think was going to happen?  Simply put, anger gives people a sense of control. When we are gripped by fear and anxiety, especially unexamined, our bodies resort to the fight or flight response. Anger feels better than fear, in that taking action is always preferable to falling victim. A large scale manifestation of this phenomenon would be the civil unrest directed at injustice; without it society would fall victim to apathy and complacency. An active response allows for a reclaiming of power. And anger is a step up from both depression and anxiety, vibrationally speaking. The thing is, the young adults of today have grown up knowing nothing different, with no awareness of the (clearly tenuous and fragile) peace of mind and security of a world before 9/11.
It could be argued that the armor of a preemptively jaded worldview is synonymous with adolescence, but it seems younger generations have taken the practice to the extreme. Millennials and Gen Zers have known nothing other than this low-level anxiety, this state of fear proffered by nothing less than the government itself. It is only compounded by the habituation to violence normalized by interactive video games, the availability of potentially disturbing images and ideas the internet offers them, minus the context and life experience to assimilate it, and the growing isolation and erosion of social skills ushered in by technology. Taken together, it is no surprise that bullying and online trolling has been on the rise. That, and our attention to it.
All of us likely have our respective views on the various causes of perceived social ills. Personally, I have no desire to spend my time diagnosing some laundry list of grievances and waxing moralistic about them. Partially, because doing so can feel overwhelming at best, futile at worst. But more importantly, it’s about airtime. It is my contention, and the premise of this essay collection, that we have the power within to change the world at large. Rather than attempting to put a Band-Aid on the world’s perceived shortcomings, I would like to investigate what each of us can do to change the way we view the world without, and how we operate in it. How tuning out the noise and rising to our potential—being our best selves—within our immediate grass roots circles, might be an end in itself.  In theory, as idealistic as it sounds, if we all took this approach the macro would reflect our efforts and society would shift.

Fear as Anger
So, what to do about this low-level anxiety that becomes festering rage and fuels the cultural divisiveness that is the chasm between us? How does it translate into road rage, into the meanness and vitriol of online trolling many find so unsavory? What about the proffering of fear by demagogues who know the best way to control the populace is by keeping them in a state of perpetual fear? Firstly, as has been stated, fear and anxiety are easily transmuted into anger. Turning a passive state of fear into an active expression of overt anger gives us a sense of control. And the ego likes that. But fear is not the only emotion that transmutes into anger:

Sadness as Anger      
We’ve already considered that sadness accompanies all loss. But what is the role of disappointment, or disillusionment? Throughout life, it is indeed human to process disappointment through mourning—mourning illusions or expectations or shattered ideals. A buildup of disappointments can often create a sense of futility in which many stop reaching for their goals or aspirations and succumb to entropy. But it is also said that ‘hope springs eternal.’ Not only in our youth, but in our own hearts at any stage of life, every day. This understanding is why we are inspired by storytelling, especially by those stories that illustrate redemption. Screenwriting is said to be the art of playing on an audience’s hopes and fears—the hope that the protagonist (with whom the audience identifies) will reach her goal, the fear that she will not and the antagonistic force will have its way. The fear that the bad guy may prevail or evil may triumph over good. Understanding the mechanics of the human heart in this respect might be nothing less than panacea…imagine if we all promised ourselves to look for the ray of sunshine at tunnel’s end, to return to innocence by renewing hope! And in our own lives, in case the prospect is altogether new, it may be worthwhile to examine how, in our own lives, we might unconsciously be transmuting sadness into frustration, irritability, and outright anger.

Types of Anger
Society easily recognizes and demonizes overt behavioral or verbal expressions of anger, known clinically as aggression or volatile and retaliatory anger. At worst, overt expressions of anger can escalate to physical altercation or bodily harm. At best, they represent poor communication skills counterproductive to interpersonal relationships. However, less overt forms of anger such as passive aggression, chronic internalized anger, or even rumination can be just as damaging to both subject and object. Justifiable anger or righteous indignation, conversely, is sometimes revered by society and viewed as crucial for change in the form of civil unrest. We like it in our lawyers, politicians and activists, especially when it benefits our objectives and serves us. But most of the time, we point the finger at overt anger because it’s something consensus can agree is ‘inappropriate’ or ‘unacceptable.’ The designation is arbitrary and absurd, much like the designation of certain words as ‘profane.’ Regardless of intent, these special, often percussive words represent ‘crossing the line.’
Imagine for a moment a scenario in which passive-aggressive behavior is subconsciously unleashed in the context of a relationship. The passive-aggressive party gives the cold shoulder, ignoring his or her partner for a good week other than to issue the occasional sarcastic remark, while instigating at every turn and being needlessly contrarian. If the recipient of the passive-aggressive behavior snaps and exhibits any reaction that remotely borders on aggression, he or she is deemed the ‘bad guy.’ Across the board. The scenario is old as time, and the passive-aggressive among us bank on it subconsciously, perfecting the manipulation of appearances as an art form. The philosophical question becomes: which form of anger—the passive-aggressive or overt (direct) is more destructive to a relationship? Which is the greater offense? We’ve touched on the idea of justifiable anger, the kind we insist on in our politicians and activists. But the clincher is, even if nine of ten people would agree we are justified, we get to choose whether or not we are offended. Nothing is offensive unless we give it the power to be. With mind and ego running the show, the inclination to become Karen and take a stand of ‘outrage,’ remains unexamined and instinctual.
The ego has a strong need to win arguments, to be ‘right’ at all costs. This phenomenon is arguably at the root of most conflict. Beyond the need to protect ego lies the idea that most human suffering is rooted in the resistance of ‘what is.’ Circumstances and conditions are neutral; our overactive minds label them offensive, outrageous or unacceptable. Once we give up our resistance to ‘what is’ in any moment, we reclaim our power to choose how we feel. With surrender comes the melting away of tension, leaving room for wellbeing and inner peace.
Justifiable and righteous anger may well have their place. But as an alternative to misplacing aggression, when channeled productively anger is known as ‘assertive anger,’ the kind we want our lawyer to wield in court. Rage against the machine fuels the civil unrest that precedes social reform, activism, rebellion or revolution. When diplomacy fails, pacifists step aside and let the more militant among us get the job done. But how do we determine if our own expressions of anger are justifiable or righteous? Ego often compels us, after the fact, to rationalize our own expressions of anger as such, in order to remain in the ‘right.’
Take it from one who refrains from assigning value judgments like positive or negative on emotions, as one who resists operating on the ‘pleasure principle,’ who has long subscribed to Thomas Moore’s suggestion that we ‘embrace our shadow’ and instead touts the balance of both yin and yang in maintaining balance, the bottom line is this: we know how a vibration feels in our body, whether or not it is poison. Every cell of our body knows whether or not we carry emotional stress. In many rehabilitation programs, the determining factor of whether or not one identifies as an addict—of anything from alcohol or cocaine to sex—is whether the behavior interrupts daily functioning. Whether it is counterproductive or stands in the way of our goals for ourselves. Similarly, we must assess whether our relationships or goals are suffering due our habitual mode of expressing anger.
I have a hunch all of us could benefit from looking into the clinical research on anger—the various forms it takes and styles of expressing it. In this way, we might let ourselves off the hook a bit knowing how universal and valuable anger can be, but we might also learn compassion for those who express it differently than we do. This kind of perspective and insight could save a relationship.

Learning to Let Go
In ‘The Laws of Spirit,’ Dan Millman uses models from nature to illustrate spiritual principles humanity might benefit from—the present moment awareness of a lounging cat or the stalwart balance of an egret standing on one foot in a windstorm. A bird might lash out to protect his brood. But very quickly he brusquely shakes his wings and moves on, as if to shed the residual energy we humans are more apt to carry as emotional stress. Many of us, rather than allowing ourselves a brief outburst of fight or flight response as a protective measure, do anything but move on. We brood, hold grudges, perseverate or beat ourselves up about our reaction, turning the frustration inward. Pride compels us to replay the tapes, imagining what we might have said or done differently. When carried forward, the emotional stress can become chronic anger, manifesting as rumination (negative self-messaging) which in turn manifests as self-destructive behavior or physical ailment. Many autoimmune disorders result from inflammation said to be linked to emotional stress. 
In the context of cultural divisiveness, I would posit that the inability to find socially acceptable or productive ways of managing and channeling anger correlates with an overall erosion of social skills. Not so much decorum, but communication skills, both verbal and non-verbal. It may be too easy to blame the usual suspect—technology (the ever-present smartphone or device to divert us from interacting with the flesh and blood before us at Starbucks or the bus stop.) The dinosaurs of my generation and my parents’ are quick to point the finger at those who have not known a world before phones were surgically attached to ears right there in the delivery room. But the lamentations of stilted social skills come from Millennials and GenZers themselves. Having taught college for 20 years, I take my cues from students’ testimonials about their own feelings of isolation, not knowing how to simply smile at someone across the room or (even more terrifying) approach and attempt to engage them in conversation. It is well known that a good question (forget about pickup lines for the moment) can engage a new acquaintance, but far more effective at creating rapport and affinity are body language and non-verbal communication. Study after study reveals that verbal exchange is secondary to other cues like facial mirroring, which only result from regular interaction.
And yet again, Covid-19 has us rethinking all our presumptions; this pandemic seems to thrive on irony. As much as the dinosaurs among us have blamed technology for the erosion of humanity and social skills, when a tiny virus came along and forced us to separate, that very technology became our sole mode of connection! Similarly, for the past decade it has traditionally been frowned upon to ask for either a paper or plastic bag in the grocery store. Now thanks to the aforementioned virus that has unraveled so much of society, bringing one’s own germ-infested bag into the store is out of the question. Up is down, down is up.
 Technology is not going anywhere, and the convenience it provides is indisputable; I am reminded of the fact each time a Google search yields, in seconds, accurate information I need that would have taken an hour to find in the local library, sorting through microfiche. Still, while evolving with technology, returning cultural value to face-to-face social interaction, the village, the marketplace, community and interconnectedness seems a logical remedy for divisiveness. Not to mention the fact that brick and mortar outlets would stop going bankrupt daily due to online Amazon orders delivered by drones or driverless cars. By placing value back on quality human interaction, communication skills, conflict resolution skills and anger management skills would surely benefit. More would be capable of ‘passing the talking stick’ when differences arise rather than going straight for the jugular. The prospect might lead to less bullying in schools for our children and less of it online for even us dinosaurs to fall victim to and adopt.
Rodney King said it best: ‘Can we all (just) get along?’
Differences, even cultural divides, have always existed and always will; subsurface range has fueled all social reform. But it is a common sentiment that toxicity in daily life has never been more pervasive. The problem is a multi-headed beast, but overarching all may well be the low-level anxiety that transmutes into anger, individually and societally, and the lack of social skills to manage it when it rears its ugly head. The former, curbing the anxiety, might require saying no to the man by changing the channel, turning off the news, choosing what we give airtime to. Refusing to elect fear mongers with a divide-and-conquer mentality and not tolerating the peddling of fear from our media outlets. The latter might be remedied by simply placing value back upon face-to-face interaction while resisting a cultural addiction to the dopamine flow that comes with clicks and ‘likes’—the one Mark Zuckerberg so depends on. We can be smarter. The current state of affairs that has forced us into solitude may be the perfect opportunity to wean ourselves off our bad habits and addictions. The question is, will we take it?

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