Cleaning the Kitchen the Last Time

When my parents died in June and then December of 2017, they left a meager inheritance to my three nephews and me. The greatest bulk of that is their home, which we moved into when I was 10 in 1971.

My young parents, younger sister, and I lived in rented houses in Enoree and Woodruff, South Carolina before they bought the largest lot on the newly built Three Pines Country Club just north of Woodruff.

Scraping by and paying off the lot, my parents wrangled a local contractor to build their dream house in his spare time. The loan was more than they could handle and a bit less than a car loan for me much of my adult life.

The house they left behind was, then, the house I associate with my formative years, having lived there in some way into my early twenties. Even when newly married, I lived there briefly, and after I did move out, my three nephews all grew up in that house with my parents providing a great deal of their rearing.

So the four of us—and on Saturday my former brother-in-law as well—spent this past weekend doing the final herculean push to clean the yard and the house for selling.

We had begun this journey trying to account for all my parents’ stuff many months ago, and I have been wrestling with watching their life being reduced to so much trash.

There is, however, a finality to this past weekend. The yard has been rendered nearly barren (compared to the jungle my parents spawned), and the house is almost entirely emptied—much of that waiting in the driveway, a dumpster filled with lives now past.

IMG_5562

Throughout Saturday and Sunday, the task was overwhelming, physically demanding since it seemed that no matter what we hauled to the dumpster even more appeared to be hauled away.

But until late in the day Sunday, I had not found the experience the emotional hurdle that a best friend anticipated when he offered to help.

The unexpected, I suppose, must be unexpected.

I showed up Saturday after a morning cycling ride not really prepared for the day of work in the yard; my mind had convinced me that I would help inside. Once the scope and weight of the task at hand—having the house ready to sell by the end of the weekend—struck everyone, we were past midday Saturday and had resigned ourselves to the only way to finish was simply to throw everything remaining away.

So after working outside all day Saturday, I returned early Sunday morning with the same stubborn resolve to clean the inside of the house.

I began vacuuming the side porch, and although I was summoned out a few times to help the remaining loads to be packed into the dumpster, I then moved to each room of the house, vacuuming floors again and again.

A few hours after lunch and some unanticipated impromptu pest control, we could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Last on the list was scrubbing down the bathrooms and the kitchen.

I vacuumed the front rooms and kitchen, saving them for last since we were tracking through them during the day, and moved to cleaning counter tops in the two bathrooms, ending with the kitchen.

And then the unexpected.

As I wiped the counter and sink in the kitchen, my youth flooded over me, and I had to pause in order to restrain a powerful urge to cry.

One of the great joys of my life was simple. We were a breakfast-for-supper family, a treat we allowed ourselves a few times a month.

I grew up, in fact, thinking that French toast was mainly a vehicle for bacon—not a cross between breakfast and confections. French toast began in my mother’s kitchen with frying an enormous pile of bacon, the grease then recycled for cooking the pile of French toast as well as a side of scrambled eggs.

For most of my life, I ate French toast without syrup and butter—certainly no powdered sugar or syrupy fruit toppings.

But none of this is why I felt a sudden urge to cry.

I don’t recall when it began, but I was tasked in the family with cleaning up after supper. I washed the dishes and cleaned the entire kitchen, diligently.

My mother heaped praise on me for being so meticulous; it was something I did well, and gave me status in the family.

I still feel something soothing about the process of making the kitchen space tidy, clean.

Mid-afternoon yesterday, with Clorox wipes in hand and leaning against the kitchen sink, I felt suddenly heavy, as if I was holding up my entire life lived in that house. I was cleaning my mother’s kitchen for the last time.

Tears made it no farther than the edge of my eyes, blurring my contacts as I breathed against that weight of memory and loss. I gathered myself, wiped the sink, and then moved on to the bar where I had stood day after day in my brace for scoliosis to draw from comic books throughout my teens years.

“The bar is clean,” I told my nephews when they came into the kitchen, “but it is so stained and nicked, it doesn’t look like it.” They mentioned the oven hood, equally clean and terribly stained as well.

My oldest nephew had used the Magic Eraser on the bar, he said, but it still looked dirty.

Some things are indelible, I think, like the sudden realization you are cleaning the kitchen for the last time.

All of us are back at our separate lives today, and that dumpster filled to the rim awaits a truck that will carry all of my parents’ life turned trash to a landfill to be buried.

I left with my baptism certificate and the family dictionary, family names scribbled on the cover since the 1960s.

IMG_5556

At some point, too, this will be just trash. Someone else’s problem, maybe even something to fret over before tossing it into a dumpster.

Later in the day Sunday, my nephews took new flowers and a small urn of my mother’s ashes to my father’s grave. I didn’t go.

I had spent the weekend in a kind of graveyard already. I had grunted and sweated toward a sort of stasis that might allow someone else to own this house and land of my parents’ blood, sweat, and tears.

Nothing prepares you for the feelings that rush over you, cleaning the kitchen for the last time.

I am afraid I will never forget. I am afraid I will forget.

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Why I Am Not a Christian

She was a fool, and so am I, and so is anyone who thinks he sees what God is Doing, [writes Bokonon].

Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut

Born and raised in the Bible Belt, I have almost six decades of experience with the social anxiety associated with confessing that I am not a Christian.

The paradox of this anxiety, I suppose, is that the particular type of Christianity I have lived among in South Carolina is strongly grounded in witnessing and being very cheerfully public about one’s faith. “Let us pray” not as invitation but as directive.

As a public school teacher for 18 years, I was under the added weight of fearing that I would be outed in ways that threatened me socially and professionally. But when I moved to higher education, I really felt no more comfort in expressing my lack of faith—even as I was often directly asked by students, even though it was a professionally safe place to be honest.

In fact, it has always been far easier to share with students my communist/socialist/Marxist leanings than to say simply, “I am an atheist.”

The personal recognition wasn’t an easy journey, but during college, including reading and re-reading Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not a Christian” and a significant amount of existential philosophy, I came to terms with ethical and moral groundings as well as being entirely comfortable with those ideals being in no way connected to God or organized religion.

Since my college years overlapped with the rise of the Moral Majority and Religious Right, that disconnect wasn’t even complicated. The most passionately Christian people of my community growing up and then the most vocal Christians in the public and political spheres of the Reagan era confirmed for me that I had zero interest in such anger, hatred, and most of all, hypocrisy.

I have taken comfort instead throughout my adult life in literature—works such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, which directly interrogate all the ways I find religion, and Christianity, more apt to be a bludgeoning device than a balm.

Religious text as a tool for authority, religion as the opiate of the masses—as Emily Dickson wrote as a contemporary of Karl Marx:

Much Gesture, from the Pulpit –
Strong Hallelujahs roll –
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –

In 2018, with Donald Trump courting and maintaining the passionate support of the religious right, specifically evangelicals across the South, and with the South Carolina summer primaries in which Republicans run aggressive TV ads shouting “100% pro-life” and images of candidates in front of NRA rallies and holding (even shooting) guns, I have never been more confident in why I am not a Christian.

During this time of Trumplandia, as well, one of the most devout and moral people I know happens to be a Muslim—whose faith is routinely and grossly demonized by Trump and his Christian base.

Christianity is rarely about love and charity, but often about tribalism and the calculated use of higher authority to maintain or gain power.

The narrator in Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night argues:

“There are plenty of good reasons for fighting,” I said, “but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too. Where’s evil? It’s that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with God on its side. It’s that part of every man that finds all kinds of ugliness so attractive.

“It’s that part of an imbecile,” I said, “that punishes and vilifies and makes war gladly.”

As I grow older, it becomes more and more imperative that I seek a moral and ethical life—something I equally recognize as incredibly hard to achieve as a mere human among humanity, as we are all so flawed, so fragile, so unwilling to sacrifice and risk in the name of the hypothetical Other, the faceless and nameless human we choose either to treat as our brother/sister or to leave mostly ignored in the basement closet.

Christianity, I fear, too often allows the worst in us to thrive instead of inspiring us to be the loving community we are capable of being.

Love, community, and holding sacred all humans’ dignity—these are what matter to me, and why I am not a Christian.

My Life in Trumplandia Began in 1961

My first jobs were at the country club where my mother worked and on the golf course where we lived—a working-class family of rednecks who saw building a house there as making it, achieving the American Dream.

On rainy and cold days, all the pro shop and greens-keeping workers mulled around the club house. I vividly recall one of those days when a member of the grounds crew explained to me in careful detail that black people (he preferred the racial slur) were the consequence of Cain being banished for murdering Abel and then mating with apes.

It’s biblical, he proclaimed.

This experience, I must emphasize, was not an outlier. This was normal for my life, having been born in 1961 in Woodruff, South Carolina.

Such blatant and casual racism was pervasive among my white family, friends, and community.

So Roseanne Barr’s recent racist Twitter rant and the entire rise of Trumplandia—these are not in any way shocking while they are incredibly burdensome, a heaviness that will never approach the weight carried by those who are the targets of racism and bigotry but that certainly drags me closer and closer to fatalism.

I also know fatalism quite well.

In my late teens and throughout college and young adulthood, my relationship grew increasingly antagonistic with my father, often punctuated with heated arguments spurred by his racism.

Over years of arguing, I simply gave up, became a quiet and passive visitor to my parents’ house. Increasingly, I called fewer and fewer times; I visited almost exclusively on required holidays.

The ennui was the tension between the natural love felt for parents—and the incredible debt I felt to the many sacrifices they made for me—and the inexcusable ideologies my parents espoused, often relentlessly.

My parents were Nixon apologists, faithful Republican voters their entire lives.

They also were increasingly strapped for money, and their last decades were characterized by heart disease and just surviving the consequences of being working-class children of the 1940s-1950s (smoking and eating as many Southerners did).

My parents were the poster-couple for self-defeating politics, decades before the mainstream media became obsessed with understanding the disenfranchised white voter. And finally, my parents paid the ultimate cost for grounding their political and economic lives in racism.

At the very least, a healthcare system connected to universal insurance and a robust social safety net would have extended my parents’ lives, lives that ended very badly and with their life’s earnings nearly exhausted.

The house that represented their achieving the American Dream is the very last thing remaining—a depressing monument to their stubborn self-defeating ideologies, their racism.

Our last decade together is the most depressing. My daughter dated, married, and then had a daughter with a black man.

I am now the grandfather of two biracial grandchildren.

It wasn’t a hard decision, but it was hard—to give up on your parents as you recognized this family of yours deserved your complete devotion. Passive and silent were none the less complicit.

Everyone in my immediate family, except me, became entirely estranged from my parents as I attempted to meet some extreme minimum obligations as my father’s health deteriorated dramatically, and then my mother had a stroke.

The last six months of my parents’ lives thrust them once again into the center of my life, the fatalism to which I had resigned myself set aside as their reduced circumstances demanded we all recognize their essential humanity despite their own role in having come to these unnecessary and desperate ends.

No one wants to admit their parents are flawed or even horrible people—just as most white people do not want to admit they are complicit in white privilege and racism.

My parents’ deaths during the beginning of the Trump administration carry an awful symbolism in the same way my parents’ house does now as we rummage through all my parents’ stuff—throwing away most of it—in preparation to sell this crumbling statue dwarfed by the desert of their tarnished beliefs.

I carry in my 57 years another layer of exhaustion at the mainstream media trying to understand Trump voters—white angst grounded in the racism that social norms refuse to acknowledge—and the current wrestling with Barr, including some who are calling for explaining her rant as somehow connected to her mental health.

That layer of exhaustion has the face of the grounds crew member explaining to me that black people came from Cain mating with an ape; it has the face of hundreds of white people in my family, my community.

I do not need anyone to explain this to me. It is my life.

A life already well acquainted with fatalism resting against love and deep appreciation, a life rendered heavy, nearly too heavy to carry, certainly too heavy to move.

Yes, I gave up on changing my parents’ minds, shaking their souls in the name of human dignity as I looked into the eyes of my grandchildren.

How, then, to make strangers see the inhumanity in their racism, see their hatred and bigotry as self-defeating as well as entirely unwarranted?

Fatalism is a powerful narcotic.

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Mama’s Boy: Aftermath

I have never liked Mother’s Day—as I have never liked any holidays, special days. The burden of celebrations and gifts.

This sort of ceremony and tradition has always felt forced, insincere, superficial.

As I grew older and my mother grew older, buying her gifts became more and more difficult because what do people in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and beyond need given to them?

It is Mother’s Day 2018. My first since my mother died in December 2017 just a few months after my father died in June of the same year.

This Mother’s Day feels even more burdensome than normal, of course.

As I have examined, we left living have been sifting through all my parents’ stuff, throwing away most of it—presents rendered just more trash.

As I have examined, I am a churning mess of anxiety, in part, as a biological and environmental gift of my mother.

She died over the course of about six months, slowly and fitfully after a stroke and then stage 4 lung cancer. The stroke took her ability to communicate, but worst of all, it supercharged her anxiety.

It was horrible to witness.

It wasn’t a fair thing for anyone to endure on the way out.

I don’t have much left to say except I am more convinced than ever that these holidays, these designated moments to celebrate and give gifts—this is truly a real failure of human imagination.

For gifts, I had begun to give my mother plants, living plants in pots that could be transferred and maintained. I just could not buy her another shirt she didn’t really want and certainly didn’t need.

When my father-in-law died 7 years ago, his daughters found stacks of gifts, mostly shirts, if I recall correctly, never opened, never worn.

Just resting in his dresser.

Somehow I thought the plants were a best case approach to gift giving, to this damned circus of stuff that we have reduced our human condition to in the name of love.

But they weren’t.

What my mother needed, what my mother deserved, what everyone deserves, was her human dignity.

Especially in the last years and then final months, she needed and deserved high-quality and affordable health care.

Instead, her deteriorating body and my father’s even more dramatic decline were hellish burdens on them and everyone around them. And this wore heavily on my mother who believed her stroked killed my father at last (in a way, it did of course, but mostly, his life was at its end and she had kept him alive longer, if anything, than his frailness really supported).

My nephews and I are still trapped in the calloused and mind-numbing labyrinth of bureaucracy surrounding my parents’ living and dying, the most evil part being the insurance system designed more to deny healthcare, to deny human dignity, than anything else.

Dignity, I suspect, seems too abstract, and health care, too mundane.

But if all we can must are a few designated days, some really awful cards, and then an endless stream of things people really never wanted or needed, we may be better served to consider the real value of human dignity and the essential role something as mundane as high-quality and affordable healthcare for everyone plays in that dignity.

To live as if everyday were a holiday, to live for others as if we all deserve the full fruits of human dignity.


Recommended

I Ask My Mother to Sing, Li-Young Lee

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“Your House Is Just a Place for Your Stuff”

The secretary’s desk is dark wood with a pull down door and one drawer beneath the main section, divided into sections for office supplies and such. It sits now in a very dark corner of my parents’ living room, and I am certain we had that desk in our house in Enoree, South Carolina during the 1960s, and then in the two subsequent houses after.

I spent part of Saturday afternoon taking three car loads of trash from their house to the nearby dump. But part of the time helping one of my nephews go through everything in my deceased parents’ house was spent cleaning out that desk.

Stacks of medical bills reaching back almost two decades, tax returns from the late 1980s and 1990s, unopened packs of pens and Rook playing cards—the desk was some awkward combination of mausoleum, careless filing system, and hoarding.

I found handwritten notes my nephew had left for my parents to wake him on time; also his assorted certificates from school along with school pictures of my other nephew when he was on the basketball team.

In the single lower drawer was a hefty stack of newspaper pages and clippings—all of me.

There I saw a jumbled cataloging of my hair, facial hair, and glasses (or not) styles, and then on the bottom, I found a dark yellow page crumbling at the edges.

The date was 1968, and staring out at me was my first-grade school picture beside a brief story about my surprise seventh birthday party.

My childhood at that moment holding a crumbling yellowed newspaper seemed especially foreign, as if not in a different time but a different world. A child’s birthday party and picture in a small town newspaper.

I felt like the brother and sister must have in Pleasantville after being transported into a TV sitcom from the 1950s.

My nephew and I were on a second weekend of going through my parents’ stuff, in hopes that we can over the summer sell the house. The finality of my parents’ death can only come through the total eradication of their stuff, in the wake, of course, of all the legal complications of deceased people, their stuff, and those who may have claims against them and that stuff.

The process has developed into determining if everything is either something someone in the family would want, something for a yard sale, or trash.

Almost everything from the desk I shuffled through went into a large box that I loaded into my SUV with as many garbage bags as it would hold to toss mostly without any thought into the giant and relentless trash compactor at the waste site.

The main compartment of the refuse receptacle has criss-crossing bars over the top to control the size of what people can toss in. The near side is a large angled metal surface that bags and trash slide down violently into a smaller area where a giant plunger pulls back and then compacts the trash into a surprisingly small storage area to the right.

All this stuff my parents had kept, much of it paperwork documenting all the stuff of their lives—this machine thoughtlessly pounded into a uniform rectangle of just trash to be hauled to yet another refuse facility, probably a landfill.

When we die, people go through all our stuff and throw most of it away.

The stuff we just had to buy, the stuff we made ourselves miserable to attain, and the stacks and stacks of paperwork documenting all that stuff and all the payments of our monied lives—all of it comes mostly to trash.

But before it is trash, it must be handled one last time, christened trash, sometimes thoughtlessly and sometimes with the hesitation of placing it in a stack as if it should carry on—until in a flash it too is tossed into a box or bag as once-stuff-now-trash.

Three times carrying my parents’ stuff to my SUV, three times unloading bags and boxes to be tossed into the giant compactor, three times driving to and from the waste site—this mini-ritualizing of my parents stuff into trash was yet one more thing I could not have anticipated about the terrible thing that is any person’s death.

Just common flawed people, my parents both died in ways no one really deserves—clinging to bodies that simply had run their course and laboring under the dark cloud of how much everything would cost and a medical care system reduced to a mechanistic nightmare by the insurance industry.

As I paused a few times watching the giant trash compactor work—steeling myself against the smell and the din of this machine grinding on and on—I recognized an unintended metaphor for what my parents had experienced in their dying.

Or to be brutally honest, their living also.

When we die, people go through all our stuff and throw most of it away.

During one trip back to their house from the waste site, I thought about George Carlin’s routine on stuff:

“The whole meaning of life, isn’t it: Trying to find a place for your stuff”—so when you die, it is all in one place, easier to sort through and mostly haul off as trash: “They don’t bother with that crap you’re saving. Ain’t nobody interested in your fourth grade arithmetic papers.”

I put yellowed and brittle paper from 1968 to the side while I finished sorting through the desk. I picked it up, thought about being seven and recalling my parents as a young couple, and then could not bear the thought of taking this newspaper page to my house for someone to look at and decide it was finally trash.

All of that stuff mattered the wrong way, and then it became in a flash stuff that doesn’t matter at all.

When we die, people go through all our stuff and throw most of it away.

Twenty-first Century Smoking Gun?

My mother died of stage 4 lung cancer in early December 2017 after fumbling through life reduced by the weight of a stroke in June of the same year.

As a teen in the 1950s, she was taunted by her own mother for not smoking—and eventually caved, becoming a heavy smoker for decades, including while my sister and I were babies, children, and teens. We lived in the ever-present smoke of my parents, filling the house and the car.

My father resisted peer pressure when he was a teen and a four-sport letterman in high school. He used to tell us about sitting around socially with his friends smoking and drinking beer while he abstained from both, drinking milk in defiance instead.

He told these stories and others while sitting in our living room smoking and drinking Crown Royal Canadian whiskey. My father also regularly told us not to smoke or drink.

But by the time my parents married, my mom 19 and my dad turning 21 on their wedding day, they were a cool 1960s working-class couple, smoking their way toward the American Dream.

As a child, I remember being at my paternal grandparents’ house and all the adults were smoking. They even handed us cigarettes to try and laughed as we gagged.

We were children.

Another enduring memory of my childhood is my sister and me in the backseat of our family baby blue station wagon, no seat belts and the car filled with the smoke from both parents smoking.

This was early and mid-twentieth century America where media was saturated with alluring smokers on billboards [1] and TV, in magazine ads smiling, and romantically in films.

Product placement was in full swing, and at least part of the tar-and-nicotine-stained American Dream appeared to be several packs of cigarettes a day.

Paul Newman, set of The Hustler (1961)

When I was in high school, my father stopped mid-cigarette on the drive home from work one day, never smoking again. His death, a couple weeks after my mother’s stroke, from heart failure, like hers, certainly can be traced to years of smoking, a habit that during their early lives seemed not only reasonable, but the cool thing to do.

But my mother persisted for many years after I moved out—even though during our childhood my sister and I often collected all her packs of Kool cigarettes, hiding them or writing imploring pleas for her to stop all over the packages.

I never smoked, or even felt compelled to smoke. I was a hopeful athlete so cigarettes seemed anathema to my faltering efforts to be the sort of athlete my father had been.

I abhorred smoking, cigarettes and the pot common among my peers during the 1970s, and throughout my teens and into adulthood, I became vigilant about non-smoking environments even though the world was by default a place for smokers for a good 40 years of my life.

Non-smoking sections in restaurants often required walking through the smoking section, the larger main area, to get to non-smoking. One chain restaurant had a lattice partition between non-smoking and smoking; the smoke drifted through the gaping holes rendering the division symbolic only.

Even in South Carolina and North Carolina (home of tobacco), this seems archaic today, even fantastical. Smoking now is prohibited in restaurants, and smokers have clearly been relegated to minority status.

The default of the second decade of the twenty-first century is non-smoking—a new normal that has come about from both free market responses and government mandate. In fact,many states still do not legislate smoke-free areas as one would think considering how common non-smoking environments have become.

I am in my sixth decade, and in my life time, cigarette smoking and Big Tobacco went from cool and powerful to shunned and unmasked. It wasn’t easy or quick, however.

Part of this cultural shift can be linked to the tobacco industry being exposed in 1994 by Congressional hearings and a major law suit a few years later.

Hindsight is 20/20, but my perspective on how the battle for non-smoking environments was won is captured well by Mike Campbell’s explanation for how he became bankrupt in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises: “‘Two ways….Gradually and then suddenly.'”

While I am not prone to optimism, I have been contemplating the shift from a smoking to a non-smoking culture in the US as some solace for those of us resisting fatalism about America’s gun culture.

I genuinely believe the smoking culture in this country, aided by Big Tobacco and negligent political leadership, killed my parents prematurely.

Today, I also believe the gun culture in this country, aided by the NRA and negligent political leadership, needlessly sacrifices countless lives for a hollow symbolic gesture that aligns guns with freedom.

But as the 1990s proved to be a tipping point for the rights and lives of non-smokers, I wonder if Parkland, Florida will prove to be equally important in hindsight for the fight to end mass and school shootings, to end pervasive gun violence, to end gun-assisted suicide.

Some day, I hope some day soon, I hope in what remains of my life time, that we will, like Mike Campbell, declare that our country’s corrosive gun lust ended gradually and then all at once.


[1] An early poem of mine:

billboard

(You! Driver) “Come to MARLBORO COUNTRY”:
a cowboy’s face looming over passing
cars with passengers racing, just lighting
like the cowboy’s massive fist; flat, paltry,
and weather-beaten, the billboard stands tall
and proud—a god-head begging for money,
promising a land of milk and honey.
He pushes both regular and menthol.

MARLBORO COUNTRY: Do come. Cough and gag
in the blackened swirling smoke, walk on low,
lifeless plains where tobacco once would grow
and light your decorated cancer fag.
Go ahead! Read the big words and inhale
the clear, clean manhood—the photographed smell.

The Existential Itch: “It’s the most human thing we can do”

Hindsight gives those of us with writerly instincts the fodder of a script—as if everything is packaged with intent that falls together like a play or a film with a twist.

It was nearly impossible for me to avoid falling in love with science fiction—first, the blended SF/horror films of the first half of the twentieth century, and then, SF novels, often prompted by films—because of my mother’s influence.

That boyhood romance with a genre blurred into my teenage addiction to comic books, Marvel superheroes; I was mostly unaware that this fascination branched into reading, drawing, and the most powerful heroine of all, collecting.

And then by college, I found myself often sitting alone for hours, in the library or my dorm room, reading existential philosophy.

To me now, approaching 60, that all makes perfect sense, although it likely doesn’t to many others.

Insecurity and low self-esteem mixed generously with searing anxiety—this was my cocktail for a frantic pursuit of who I was since mostly I felt an acute awareness that I was unlike most people, most humans.

Crawling out of the heaping ignorance that was my upbringing, simply the facts of my culture and home norms, I consumed SF, comic books, and then philosophy uncritically. In some ways, this allowed me to fall in love without the pressure of acknowledging all the problems I would come to recognize in these seemingly unrelated texts that shaped me.

Let me work backwards.

Existentialism immediately resonated with me; again, in my ignorance, in my true state of being unlike most humans, I never read existential philosophy as some negative or dark portrayal of the human condition.

In fact, existential explanations for the human condition were a tremendous relief since they echoed how I mostly viewed the world (although in a much cruder way).

To feel passion is to suffer; and thus, to seek a life without suffering is to seek a life without passion. As Sartre dramatized, then, hell is other people.

To love deeply is necessarily to hurt deeply, and this math of being fully human, for me, reinforced my commitment to seek passion and love, to resist the urge to avoid suffering (since it is unavoidable).

Sartre’s No Exit as well as Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus” and The Stranger remains powerful texts for what being human means to me.

SF and comic books, I realize now, prepared me for this as they both had been salve for my own struggles with questions about the human condition.

It seems fitting, then, that one of the seminal SF loves of my life was Blade Runner (1982). I was 21, and still naive enough to fall in love with its SF brilliance while not yet critical enough to recognize that, like most SF and comic books (and pop culture or literature), the film presented some real problems about whether or not the work reflected or endorsed sexism, racism, and other regrettable norms of the modern human condition.

I saw Blade Runner in the theater, alone and during the day. Nearly everyone else who attended left during the film, but I sat entranced. I have watched it dozens of times since.

And now, finally, I just viewed Blade Runner 2049, a much delayed sequel.

BR 2049

Robin Wright and Sylvia Hoeks in Blade Runner 2049 (2017) [Photo by Stephen Vaughan – © 2017 Alcon Entertainment, LLC.]

Both films remain grounded in the ideas of Philip K. Dick without remaining strictly true to Dick’s characters and plot found in Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep?

As Dick explained:

The two basic topics which fascinate me are “What is reality?” and “What constitutes the authentic human being?” Over the twenty-seven years in which I have published novels and stories I have investigated these two interrelated topics over and over again.

Like the original, Blade Runner 2049 depends a great deal on atmosphere, which may allow the casual viewer to ignore some real problems, or at least questions that need to be answered.

Anna Smith reported:

“Blade Runner 2049 has a women problem,” cried the internet this weekend, as the critically praised sci-fi sequel hit cinemas. Tweets and blogs cited the fact that female characters were treated as sex objects, and that the narrative was almost entirely driven by men, including Ryan Gosling’s replicant-hunter K and his predecessor Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford). Outrage quickly spread, including from those who had not yet seen the film.

Smith later concedes that the film at the very least presents a mixed message:

And, indeed, there are a number of [female] characters. Robin Wright is terrific but underused as K’s slick, strong, black-clad boss, Lieutenant Joshi, and Sylvia Hoeks’s icy baddie Luv is great fun, but in thrall to her male boss (sinister replicant-creator Wallace, played by Jared Leto). Mackenzie Davis’s Mariette shows initial promise as a strong character who can give as good as she gets, but she is also a sex worker who is literally used as a puppet. Visually, sexualised images of women dominate the stunning futuristic cityscapes, from pirouetting ballerinas to giant statues of naked women in heels looming over K as he goes on his journey. Of course, one of the themes of Blade Runner 2049 is a world littered with artifice, from replicants to sexbots – but these mainly seem to cater to heterosexual males. A hint of a woman considering a “pleasure model” is brief and unexplored. Meanwhile Wright’s Joshi appears attracted to K, but she is not permitted to use him for her sexual pleasure. Where is her holographic lover, her Joi?

In the original film, Deckard (Harrison Ford) falls in love with a replicant (and may be one himself); and the sequel introduces “K” (Ryan Gossling) with a hologram girlfriend (one who hires a prostitute, Mariette [Mackenzie Davis], so the hologram and “K” can experience “real” sex).

So these works of SF use android women to make a commentary about idealizing and objectifying women? Or are these works themselves idealizing and objectifying women?

Evidence for the former may be that two women utter directly some of the essential Dick themes of the film:

Mariette: More human than humans.

Freysa: Dying for the right cause. It’s the most human thing we can do.

Blade Runner 2049 continues the debate about what counts as real and what makes humans human. The sequel includes the rise of replicants, fighting against their slavery in a quest to be “[m]ore human than humans,” and teases out the possibility of androids reproducing.

I recognize this time around the problems with the sequel, ones that occur in the original, but I will come back to this film again and again. I must find a way to resolve for myself why I flinched when “K”‘s hologram girlfriend is destroyed—although I suspect we all want love, and see in those who have it a thing to be treasured.

But this film, and all its existential meanderings, comes as I myself am struggling with an existential itch, trying to reassemble a puzzle that I once held dear, a puzzle scattered and I feared permanently ruined.

After about 13 months of self-exile from one of my passions, road cycling, I am now able to stand back and realize the loss that comes with trying to find ways to avoid suffering.

In the last week, I have ventured back onto the road with my cycling friends. Despite the rides being relatively brief (a couple hours each) and typical winter casual rides, I felt the same elation I may have allowed myself to ignore after thirty-plus years riding, may have been unable to recall after the accident that shook me into admitting I was done with road cycling.

Certainly, life provides no guarantees, and we can seek a life as free of unnecessary suffering as possible; we should be making that true for others (and here Blade Runner 2049 does makes a case for how unnecessarily awful the world is for children and women).

Deckard tells “K,” “Sometimes to love someone, you got to be a stranger,” a confession or justification for never seeing his child with Rachael, his replicant lover.

Later when Deckard is being used to find that child, Niander Wallace offers a key point about Deckard’s quest to avoid his own suffering and the suffering of those he loved: “It was very clever to keep yourself empty of information, and all it cost you was everything.”

To live is to risk everything. To avoid risk is to avoid life. And love.

Maybe few things are more fully human than our need to be reminded of this over and over as long as we are fortunate enough to have the options.