condescending, certain, and incoherent

During the election I got into one of these social media debates. The topic was violent resistance to Trump. Protesters had gotten into some scrapes with Trump crowds. I said then (and believe now) that protesters have a right to defend themselves physically if they have to. A friend of mine went further. She said that beyond merely defending themselves, activists should be actively obstructing Trump’s message – pulling up yard signs, shouting down people speaking out in support of him, hacking Trump-supporting websites. The stakes were so high, she said, that we couldn’t spend time worrying about bourgeois concerns like freedom of expression. Because Trump was a nativist demagogue, because we were in a moment of incipient fascism, we needed to obstruct his message.

I then asked her if she thought that we should be physically preventing his voters from going to the polls, attacking them if necessary, to stop his election. She scoffed at the idea. She said I sounded like a conservative conspiracy theorist. Of course she didn’t think we should stop Republicans from going to the polls. Where do I come up with this stuff?

As I said at the time… that doesn’t make sense. If we were looking at the rise of real-deal American fascism, if we were (and are) facing the possibility of an American Kristallnacht, then we couldn’t possibly do anything but try to stop them from voting. She had already said without reservations that basic rights should be abridged in the effort to fight Trump. So why should the right to vote be materially different? It’s OK to muddle along – we all do it sometimes. What gets to me, and what made this minor argument indicative of something far broader, was that the internal contradictions and lack of clear theoretical footing were packaged with the aggressive presumption that the conclusions were obvious.

This is a constant condition for me: interacting with liberals and leftists who affect a stance of bored impatience, who insist that the answers to moral and political questions are so obvious that every reasonable person already agrees, who then lack the ability to explain the thinking underlying their answers to those questions in a remotely compelling way. Everything is obvious; all the hard work is done; only an idiot couldn’t see what the right thing to do is. And then you poke a little bit at the foundation and it just collapses. I suppose the condescension and the fragility are related conditions, the bluster a product of the insecurity at the heart of it all. You act like everything is obvious precisely because you can’t articulate your position.

I’ve been asking my friends on the academic left what rights conservative students have, in an era of a university culture obsessed with trauma. Two things are broadly true: one, they think that it’s ridiculous to suggest that there’s any reason to worry about what conservative students can and can’t say – there’s no questions here, no conflicts, nothing even to discuss. Two, despite the mutuality of this dismissal, no two of them have the same idea about what answers are stunningly obvious, only that they are. I am told that of course students can support Trump and say so, but that “Make America Great Again” is hate speech, despite simply being the slogan of the campaign that they just said students have the right to support. They say that it’s not permissible for students to identify with the alt-right, which is a hate group, but it’s fine for them to be plain-vanilla conservatives, despite the fact that the latter group has indisputably done vastly more to harm marginalized people than the former.

What are the rules? I don’t know, and I’m ensconced firmly in these debates. I harp on civil liberties and free speech a lot because, yes, I think they’re worth defending and that the traditional association between leftist politics and support for them was substantively correct on political theory grounds. But also because they’re a perfect example of the holes in current left theory. When does someone’s trauma outweigh the right of another to speak? Who can say what, in which contexts, when? I have no idea what people think the answers are. I just know that they think the question is so obvious as to not be worth asking. It’s an inverse argument from incredulity, not “I can’t believe you could possibly think that” but “I can’t believe you don’t already.”

A half-dozen emailers rose to the challenge and answered the questions in my post on cultural appropriation. Most of them expressed precisely the attitude I’m talking about here: disdain for the idea that these questions have to be discussed at all, a sense that my asking them has to be just trolling, like I can’t possibly be actually confused. They then set about answering them in flatly contradictory ways. Their answers were comprehensively and fatally incompatible. How can both these things be true? How can different people who share the same basic outlook on a political question be so certain that the answers to questions about that outlook are obvious and then answer them themselves in such incompatible ways?

I would love to tell you that this is restricted to my usual antagonists – vanilla partisan Democrats, media progressives, the Twitterati, the whole social world of sneering smart-kid coastal liberalism. But sometimes I also find it in the groups I’m more likely to agree with, the radical left, the dirtbag left, the socialist left. It’s a widespread problem.

Few things are more deadly to a broad political tendency than a eye-rolling assumption that there is no work to be done. You combine that with the way challenging questions have come to be seen as themselves offensive, particularly in academia, and you have a left-of-center that cannot do the work of figuring out what it is and what it stands for at precisely the time its mission is most important. Our opposition’s taken control of everything, so how do we respond? Race OR class or race AND class? Neoliberalism or socialism? Identity or economics or both? Wonk autocrats or the grassroots? I know what I prefer. But I don’t know what broad movement will emerge when everyone is so busy being certain about the answers that they cannot articulate or justify. I don’t know how we settle these things. Liberalism is a social monoculture that is busily eliminating the internal division and intellectual insurgency that are a necessary part of any healthy politics. The left (update: as distinct from liberals!) is smart but fractured, vibrant but weak, and has no institutional support. I am fresh out of ideas; it all seems bleak.

no one has the slightest idea what is and isn’t cultural appropriation

The noble purpose of moral critiques is to try and inspire better behavior. The destructive purpose of moral critiques is to elevate the person making them in relation to those being critiqued – “you are bad and I am good and saying so gives me power over you.” Most of the time, I sincerely believe people are operating based on the first purpose, even when I disagree with them about what right behavior entails. But I have never encountered an argument about cultural appropriation that does not fall squarely in the second group. Not once.

Read this complaint (in Cosmopolitan, which is funny a number of levels) [update: memory holed] about how a Nepalese woman being inspired by other cultures for Victoria’s Secret is an act of shameful  cultural appropriation. Then let’s ask ourselves: what vision of better, alternative behavior does the writer suggest? If this is indeed cultural appropriation, what would righteous inspiration from other cultures look like? In other words, what would it take to get to a place where you don’t get the righteous satisfaction (and clicks) of finding other people below your moral standards, but where people are no longer guilty of the behavior you say is immoral?

I think anyone who complains about cultural appropriation who actually cares about getting to a more just world, as opposed to getting the personal, social, and career benefits of sitting in judgment, has to answer these basic questions.

  • What is “a culture”? What are the boundaries of “a culture”? Are they only national borders? Aren’t there very distinct cultures within national boundaries? Can a person from the Midwest appropriate Southern culture? Can someone from Guangdong province appropriate Sichuan cuisine? Are there varying degrees of appropriation based on your geographical proximity to “a culture”? When does “a culture” become sufficiently defined that it gains the right to demand that its cultural objects not be appropriated? What if someone is raised in two or more cultures, are they allowed to cross-pollinate them? What if they themselves were not raised in either cultures but their parents were?
  • What cultural objects are not appropriated, given the vague boundaries of the term? Where does righteous inspiration end and shameful appropriation begin? Jung writes that Victoria’s Secret is guilty of “breaking apart aesthetic references from wherever they wanted and stitching them back together again.” What cultural object has ever been created that did not entail exactly that process? What is the alternative? Does it matter if inspiration is explicit? How can we prevent being inspired by cultural objects from other cultures even if we wanted to? If I go to an art museum and view art from another culture, and that influence later on subconsciously influences my production, am I guilty of cultural appropriation?
  • Who is the arbiter of who gets to make decisions about cultural properties? People complaining about cultural appropriation often say that the problem is a lack of permission. But who gets to grant such permission, given that cultures are incredibly vast and necessarily house people who would disagree on questions of permission? Does it come down to a majority vote? Who would organize such a vote? If individual people get to act as representatives of a culture, who nominates them, and based on what criteria? White people doing yoga has been nominated as a form of shameful cultural appropriation. Does it matter that the Indian government deliberately spread the practice to other countries? If there is a dispute between different Indian people about whether yoga has been/should be appropriated, who should we listen to? Why do so many American writers assume that they have the right and ability to decide when members of other cultures have been appropriated? Aren’t college-educated liberals getting offended on behalf of other cultures themselves guilty of a form of moral and argumentative appropriation?
  • How long ago must a cultural object have been integrated into a given culture before utilizing that object is no longer appropriative? Before Columbus, Italians had no tomatoes, the Irish had no potatoes, and the Spanish had no corn. Those crops were taken directly from indigenous people in the Western hemisphere. Is it therefore appropriation for Italian cooks to use tomatoes? If not, why not? What is the statute of limitations? If someone has a particular culture in their heritage, how far back can they go without being guilty of appropriation? Can I go back three generations? Ten? Do we use genetic testing to prove it?
  • Do people from non-European, non-white cultures have agency in how their culture spreads? Don’t cultural appropriation arguments presume that the answer is no? Isn’t that indicative of a condescending and bigoted worldview that presumes all people of color merely have history enacted on them, rather than being agents themselves?
  • Does it matter if a culture that has been “victimized” in this way is itself guilty of doing so? Japanese culture is often claimed to have been appropriated. But Japanese culture is one of the most aggressively borrowing cultures in the world, with Japanese artists and chefs drawing liberally from all variety of other cultures in their own cultural production. Is this relevant to our questions? Can one culture be a righteous borrower, while borrowing from it remains an act of shameful cultural appropriation?
  • What defines the “relative power” of vast and complex cultures, when people claim that the problem is power imbalances? Given that any culture contains vast internal inequality in political power, economic power, social status, etc, what is the coherent meaning of a culture’s relative power? Is it perfectly congruent with the historical military and economic power of a given country? Is it simply an artifact of historical imperialism? Japan was both the victim of imperialism and guilty of imperialism. How does that historical complexity inform our understanding of its relative power? Do rising non-Western, non-European world powers like China count as appropriators or the appropriated? If the United States continues to decline in power relative to other non-Western, non-European countries, will it in time become a culture that is the victim of appropriation?
  • Doesn’t a world without cultural appropriation look exactly the same as a world envisioned by white supremacists and other ultra-nationalist groups, who decry cross-cultural influence as “contamination”? How is the vision of a world without cultural appropriation meaningfully different in its conclusions than the Volkisch movement that preached cultural purity and which inspired the Nazi movement? Didn’t social liberals and leftists fight for decades precisely for the concept that other cultures have value which we should respect and emulate? How can you simultaneously pursue a world of diversity while policing strict and harshly limiting cultural borders?
  • What is a consistent, practical, useful, non-contradictory, sufficiently broad, and livable-by-real-humans-in-real-life rule for how to avoid cultural appropriation while still permitting enriched and cosmopolitan lives that benefits from the vast diversity of human cultural production, rather than enforcing a drab landscape of restrictive norms and cannibalized, exhausted and mundane repetition?

These are not trick questions. They’re not a joke. I’m not asking them rhetorically. I’m asking for actual answers, for a simple reason: if cultural appropriation is an immoral behavior that should be stopped, then it’s the duty of people saying so to articulate a positive vision of how to avoid that bad behavior. I’ve never heard such a thing, and I’ve looked really hard.

I’ve asked some of these questions many times, of the people who complain about cultural appropriation. The answers I’ve gotten haven’t just been unsatisfying or unconvincing. They have been flatly contradictory. In other words, many people in the progressive world now complain about cultural appropriation, but almost none of them agree on what exactly it is, when and where it happens, who is guilty of it, what a world without it would look like, and how we can avoid it without living in a bankrupt, sclerotic, impossibly sad world without mutual cultural inspiration.

The people who are always on the lookout for cultural appropriation, most likely, won’t attempt to answer these questions. My experience suggests instead that they will roll their eyes, dismiss them, and act as though the answers to them are settled and obvious, even though different people within that group so often answer them in flatly contradictory ways. That’s because there’s no there there. There’s no bedrock to this moral complaint. There’s no coherent theory of cultural appropriation that can include all or most of the times that these claims are made that does not necessarily indict the people making the charge. No one will rise to this challenge. They can’t do it, and their attempts to do so will stand in direct and explicit contradiction with other people’s attempts.

You want a rule? Don’t mimic or perform being a type of person that you intend others to recognize as such, especially when that involves exaggeration or when intended to inspire contempt or humor. That is a rule about people, not a rule about culture. If you are knowingly attempting to look or act like a member of a group that others would recognize – if the point is to be recognized as doing so – then you are already guilty. That has nothing to do with cultural borrowing. It has to do with the mutual recognition of you and the people you are dressing up for that you are intentionally adopting another group as a role, costume, or similar. So no blackface, no Mexican “costumes” on Cinco de Mayo, no wearing a Native American headdress, no “talking ghetto.” If you intend to be seen as part of a group that you know you would not naturally be perceived as part of being, then it’s wrong. It’s not complicated.

You want to put a flower motif on your lingerie that is inspired by Japanese artwork? Go for it. Because no one – no one – can articulate a plausible, comprehensive vision of a world where you’re not allowed to do so.

Update: 

As was perhaps predictable, most of the responses I’m getting on social media to this post are classic motte and bailey arguments. There are plenty of absurd invocations of cultural appropriation (“it’s appropriation for white musicians to cover songs written by black artists”), then when someone like me challenges them, our challenges are met with defenses of very different arguments (“so you’re saying it’s OK to do blackface?!?”) And as is so often the case, admissions that some of these claims of cultural appropriation are ridiculous only come out in the course of dismissing my criticism; they are never made affirmatively by the people themselves when they emerge. If you acknowledge that cultural appropriation is often invoked frivolously (so that you can deny that these types are the stronger version), then… why don’t you say so yourselves when that happens? Unless, of course, the point is merely to stick up for your team.

you have to do this work

I live between two different intellectual worlds, in the academy and in political media. Often this divide is therapeutic; when the various absurdities of either world seem overwhelming, I can turn to the other. But when one bleeds into the other, the effect is disquieting. I am forever encountering in one world attitudes that I am assured in the other world do not exist.

The trigger warning debate is the perfect example.

The conventional wisdom within progressive media is that this is a phony controversy: trigger warnings are optional for professors, not mandatory, and they’re just warnings, so they can’t censor anything. I have heard this line more times than I can count. The fact that it isn’t true seems unimportant to the people who push it. In fact the initial wave of debate about trigger warnings flared up precisely because there were people calling for them to be mandatory and because there were arguments that classroom material that carried trigger warnings should be optional. Here is a UCSB student government resolution calling for exactly that. They are not alone in that call. “No one says students should be able to use trigger warnings to opt out of course materials” is simply untrue. It is a dodge, a very common one in this discussion. It is a means for sympathetic voices in the media to avoid precisely the difficult intellectual and political questions at hand. That this insistence that “no one is calling for” what some people in my world are explicitly calling for comes packaged with smug eye-rolling only makes it more aggravating.

I live in the whiplash of debating people on campus who make arguments that I am then told no one is making by people online.

This is the constant dynamic in these fights: people in the progressive media, wanting to undermine what they see as conservative arguments, cherry-pick and idealize the ideas and organizations they defend. We then have a phony debate about the idealized version, which inevitably leads to progressives in the media arriving at a pat conventional wisdom that leaves their sense of cultural and social connection to progressive students intact, even as they decline to engage with the actual arguments of those students. And to whatever degree they are forced to engage they tend to argue through appeals to irrelevance rather than to actually affirming the student position. “They’re just college students, who cares,” they say, an ostensible defense which is more insulting than my criticism and which entirely sidesteps the uncomfortable but necessary work of hashing these things out.

Here is a question I have been asking friends of mine who work in universities. In a classroom situation in which a student has been allowed to say “I supported Hillary Clinton because I’m With Her,” does another student have the equivalent right to say “I supported Donald Trump because he will Make America Great Again”? 10 years ago I would have been sure that almost all professors would answer yes, of course they do. The idea that professors were out to silence their conservative students was a conservative canard. Today I’m less sure that the average liberal professor would answer that way. That concerns me; it concerns me as an educator, it concerns me as a citizen, and it concerns me as someone who has watched state governments defund public universities using appeals to political bias. I’m not begging the question. Perhaps the liberal academic commitment to student political freedom is as strong as ever. Or perhaps we really should be silencing our conservative students, though you know where my assumptions lie. But we have to hash that out; we have to do the work. Dismissing the idea that there is any work to be done is a form of bad faith.

I have perfectly conventional progressive views on social policy. If I were king my progressive critics would get almost everything they want, when it comes to abortion, to affirmative action, to reparations for slavery, to parental leave, to equal pay laws, whatever. Yet I am accused daily of being a reactionary, because of my conviction that these debates have to be had. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for me to have a conventional career as a liberal political writer. It would have been effortless for me. I know just when I could put my head down, just how to be loud when my perspective is popular and quiet when it isn’t. I think instead we should do the work. Politics isn’t supposed to be comfortable. Politics is supposed to hurt. And I would argue that so many informed people woke up shocked the morning after Election Day because they had built this wall of convenience between themselves and that work, a wall they couldn’t see over.

 

there’s no conflict here

I see a lot of people going on about a supposed conflict between something called “identity politics” and something called “economic populism,” which is strange because I doubt any of them thinks there’s an actual substantive conflict. Instead there’s just a liberal managerial class that has essentially abandoned any interest in economic justice at all and so has cooked up a phony pretense that these things are somehow contradictory. Liberals talk constantly about “class first” or “class only” leftists, but with my very large network of left-wing connections I can name not a single actual person who holds that position. Instead I see a lot of class-never liberals who clearly have no particular interest in fighting poverty as such, inequality as such, or the 1% as such and have ginned-up a phony fight as a distraction.

The elementary divide in politics remains as clear as ever, even as the two creaky coalitions called “liberalism” and “conservatism” slowly die and people with limited imaginations scramble to understand the new world.

The basic idea is this: that all people deserve equal rights, material security and comfort, and human dignity by virtue of being human and for no other reason. These things are not deserved, nor can your right to them be fairly taken from you, regardless of what you’ve done, what you believe, and whatever culpability we imagine you might have for your condition. My analytical position is that people are almost never actually responsible for their own immiseration, though our culture is set up to get you to think otherwise. But even if that were not my analytical position, my moral position would be that it’s irrelevant. You cannot lose your moral claim to food, shelter, clothing, medical care, equal rights and participation in government, or human value through any action or inaction, or through possessing any belief, no matter how ugly or retrograde. If you believe that some people deserve their hardships, you’re my enemy, and it doesn’t matter what color tie you wear.

Naturally and of necessity, the left has spent a lot of energy focusing on people in traditional marginalized groups, as these groups are those most likely to be denied those basic human entitlements I named above. If you believe that all people deserve equal rights, you will necessarily be a feminist, because those rights are so routinely denied to women. If you believe that all people deserve economic security, you will necessarily fight against racism, because economic security is so routinely denied to people of color. If you believe all people deserve to live lives of human dignity, you will necessarily fight for LGBTQ people, because dignity has so routinely been denied to them. Any political platform that fights to guarantee the rights that I have enumerated here is necessarily feminist, anti-racist, and so on, because the people that suffer from bigotry are those who have been denied them. That such a platform would also help a white straight man in the destitute corridors of Appalachia could only be perceived as a flaw by those who have fundamentally misunderstood the essential question of contemporary politics. Racism and sexism and homophobia are uniquely pernicious and require our special attention; that special attention presents no conflict at all with our absolute need to help those white or straight or male people who suffer too. Anyone who sees a contradiction between the two halves of that sentence is someone who is not actually committed to the fight for human progress.

What is the actual substantive conflict here? What policy are we meant to think hangs in the balance? What specific, material dimension of a political platform is this fight over? Answer this for me: what do the two camps who are supposedly fighting this fight disagree about in terms of what we should actually be trying to do?

The social conflict that has developed online political spaces is just that, a social conflict. “Class vs. race” has no ideological grounding whatsoever. It is substantively empty; there is no content there. What people are fighting such fierce battles about is purely affective: it’s a fight about what we prioritize (or “center,” if you must) not in terms of actual substantive policy but in terms of social and linguistic cues. Typical of contemporary progressivism’s obsession with the symbolic, the fight over what we center isn’t connected to any meaningful dispute in actual material strategy. To act as though we must constantly define one group or another’s interests as a higher priority, even in political messaging that is intended to attract as many people to our cause as possible, is like a parody of liberalism’s inability to simply develop a program and implement it. For weeks thousands of people have said to themselves “I want to take part in pretending there’s a conflict between these two values and engage in a solidarity-destroying fight about it even though I can name no specific issue on which there is a meaningful difference.” This is the response to incipient fascism. It’s breathtaking.

Which would I choose, if I thought I had to either fight racism or fight poverty? I don’t know, if both your children were hanging off a ledge and you could only save one of them, which would you let die? If you could cure cancer but the cure killed all the pandas would you do it? Who would win in a fight, Jaws or the Ghostbusters? It’s an asinine, juvenile question, bullshit dorm-room sophistry, an empty bit of moral posturing wrapped up in virtue signaling and the smug self-satisfaction of those for whom political questions are entirely academic. Please. Save your absurd hypotheticals for Reddit or conversations with your weed dealer. Here on planet Earth we have actual problems to worry about.

The supposed political conflict is also no conflict at all. How do you get the white working class to vote for your politicians? Show them you care about their problems and will work to help solve them. How do you get the support of a diverse electorate? Show them you care about their problems and will work to help solve them. A huge part of politics is simply being able to credibly say to voters that you hear them, that you take their problems seriously, that you acknowledge them as problems. Bill Clinton, as odious as I find him, was masterful at this. And Barack Obama has been even better, appealing to both diversity and economic populism effortlessly, and to the effect of two huge electoral victories. I don’t pretend that he’s delivered on either real diversity or real economic justice, but his political messaging synthesized both easily. It’s not complicated. Yes, yes we can. Si, se puede. The example of the current president completely undermines the notion of a conflict between these values. That suggests that those who claim there is a conflict are really just trying to prevent any substantive economic reforms. That’s all that’s happening here: some people who consider themselves liberals or progressives out of inertia and cultural comfort are butting up against their fundamental political conservatism and are acting out about it.

Up from below. For universal rights or against them. In support of egalitarianism or in support of the vicious inequalities of “meritocracy.” These are the conflicts. If you’re a conservative who thinks that black people in poverty in Detroit deserve it because of a supposed culture of dependence, you’re my enemy. If you’re J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, and you think white people in poverty in the Cincinnati suburbs deserve it because they don’t take initiative in their own lives, you’re my enemy. If you’re Donald Trump and you think undocumented immigrants deserve to be kicked out of the country, you’re my enemy. If you’re some wealthy liberal aristocrat writer, sneering down at the rubes and condemning them to misery because you’ve decided they’re all bigots, you’re my enemy. People deserve their suffering or they don’t. I say they don’t. That’s it, that’s all there is.

may you live long enough to be an old dog

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Sometime in the past couple weeks – I’ve never known a precise date – my dog Miles turned 10 years old.

This would be a milestone no matter what, but for me it’s especially poignant because of his many months of medical woes. I never thought he’d make it this far. Now he’s a part of my new life in New York. It’s a bigger hassle to get him in and out of the building than before, and there’s a never-ending supply of chicken bones on the street for me to worry about choking him, and I cannot believe how expensive veterinary care appears to be out here. But overall things really have never been so good for me, not ever, and he’s around to share it.

There’s been this amazing development, in the past few months. He’s started doing what I can only describe as this perfect, endearing old-man noise. It’s this kind of guttural, groaning sigh, a whistling, deep note of weariness. It’s not a sound of pain or of anxiety. He makes it when he settles down to curl up on the floor, which is something of a production for him these days, and he makes it when I have to move him around because he’s taking up too much room on the bed, and he makes it in the middle of the night when he gets up to toss and turn. If an old friend of yours ran into you right after you had made some terrible life choice, and they still loved you but found your bad judgment terribly wearying and had to express their exasperation in a sound a dog could make, it would sound just like that sound. I love it. My old dog’s old dog sound.

I don’t think it’s ever been any of my business, when other people choose to put their pets down. Everyone has their own reasons. For me though I’ve always thought it was best to hold on as long as possible before the animal was in truly deep pain, because most animals, like most humans, want to live. People, I’ve found, are very forthcoming about their opinion on whether or not you should put your dog down. Especially strangers. They stop me on the street and they ask me about him, about his weird gait, about his distended belly. And I tell them the story. Sometimes they just come out and say “I would have put him down.” Sometimes they ask if I think I made the right choice. Sometimes they just say, “do you think that he’s suffering?”, and I do my best not to take it as a loaded question.

Well, he has a hard time of it, some times. He struggles to get up onto the couch with me. Sometimes his medicine makes him nauseous. He creaks his way up the stairs, when circumstances force us to avoid the elevator. He is always hungry. I am afraid to cut his nails because of the fear of bleeding, which sometimes just won’t stop. He is afraid of the white tile in the atrium of our building for reasons I can’t divine. Occasionally his motor control betrays him, in his post-stroke state, and he will suddenly fall flat on his face, legs splayed out in front of him, until I come and lift him up and hold him steady for awhile. Mostly he just can’t get around like he wants to anymore. He’s a hound; his nose wants to drag him for farther than he can possibly walk. We can make it out to Prospect Park and back OK, if I’m careful, but a couple times he’s laid down on the sidewalk on the way back and I’ve huffed and puffed the way home, carrying him in my arms like a baby. He’s also never been crazier, which for him is really saying something. Completely harmless, immensely sweet, and totally, totally crazy. It can be a lot to handle on my own.

So, no. He’s not suffering. Not in the way they mean. He labors. He labors with the work of staying alive.

I realized, at some point, that the way you know you’re getting older is when your jokes about your age stop being jokes and become real. You still tell them for awhile but they’re kind of strained, and the next thing you know you’re just talking about being older with your friends. The joke part comes off. Sometimes it’s easier; I found turning 30 felt like taking off a tight shoe. Sometimes it isn’t. Look, I’m still not old, of course. But I’m older than I was, and it isn’t a joke.

Sooner or later I will lose Miles. His medicine is immunosuppressive, and it keeps his condition from killing him, but it also leaves him vulnerable to every bug he might come across. Late this summer he got e. coli bad, and we gave him a series of more powerful antiobiotics, and he finally beat it. Less than a week later he was diagnosed with staph. And I thought, this is it. But he made it, again. Sooner or later, he won’t be so lucky, and one of these infections will finish him. And if and when he really is in real pain, I’ll know what to do.

Until then I have no intention of hurrying anything along. It’s one of the things animals teach us, their fierce dedication to staying alive. As long as I can, I’ll help him keep going. He has the time he has left, and so do I.