Complexity Makes Suffering Invisible

In 2016, I saw a child die in the street. That’s not a metaphor. It was a violent crime that actually happened. I haven’t talked about it publicly for two reasons. The first reason was that it didn’t feel right to do so while his family and friends mourned. The second reason was that the event entered into a complex stream of events in my life that have been dramatically changing me. It wasn’t so much that I watched a death; it was that the death was framed by other experiences reacting together on my insides. And all those things took a while to fully catalyze.

Over a year ago, my kids and I left our home of twenty years to move to Seattle. It was mostly my decision and entirely at my behest. My son was getting set to graduate and my daughter had been in the workforce for a few years. It’s no newsflash that Michigan has struggled with a structurally damaged economy for a couple generations now. While I love the state and want to see it pull its way out of these troubles, I needed something better for my kids as they started to build their lives. I wanted them to have a larger variety of options available.

I also wanted to leave behind daily reminders of terrible memories. Both of my marriages ended horribly in Michigan. The first divorce was difficult but manageable. The last one was… messed up in ways that left me changed forever. But the changes were largely positive.

By the time we boarded that plane, every fiber of my being was about building on the long game. I was completely focused on building a life of choices for my children and a life of service through art and commerce for me.

We spent the first summer with family in North Idaho, where I worked as a lifeguard. Most of it was pure monotony. But the interesting thing about lifeguarding is that it’s the inverse of what most people consider meditation. Instead of turning inward, you’re constantly focused on the world outside. But you’re not suppressing the inside. Instead you are actively connecting your inner thoughts to outer events in a very active, information-rich way. The more you practice it, the easier it becomes. Scientists might say that I was rewiring my brain to be a better observer. It’s a practice I think we can all benefit from.

That summer, I assisted in a few rescues and pulled off my own double rescue. And because my mind was primed for complex webs of externalities, I accidentally became a documentary filmmaker. Those of you who read my other pieces know the story already. But to summarize, I went to the World Science Fiction convention to film interviews of writers for a much more basic project. I saw patterns in events unfolding around me at the time that echoed other events outside the science fiction world. I suspected something bigger was going on. Even later events would prove me right and the project changed its focus. But that’s not what this piece is about.

Let’s fast forward to September of 2016. Moving to Seattle was a major project. Because of the stagnation of Michigan wages and the predicament, my divorce had put my kids and I in, the only way we could make the move work was to strip our lives down to the bare bones and launch, like an Apollo Moon shot. Thanks to planning and hard work, the only real damage that did to our lifestyle was that we had no car and we had to land in a cheap apartment. Don’t get me wrong, the apartment was big and pretty nice, but it was in a bad neighborhood dominated by an uncaring corporate real-estate outfit. The neighborhood has more than its share of misery. The majority of its residents are elderly people on a fixed income, disabled vets suffering from PTSD, and I suspect a lot of addicts. There are also a lot of blue collar families with kids. Everyone who can work here does. The Seattle economy is job-rich compared to Michigan. If you don’t like a job, there always seems to be another one around the corner that will take you on in less than a week. Even for unskilled labor, lateral moves are easy. For me, it’s been a pretty steady story of upward mobility even while I go to school full time. But employment is only one working piece in a community. America is more complex than job statistics.

The dark side of the economy here is the real-estate market. Renters are in a constant footrace with landlords over the percentage of their income rent sucks up. It’s an unfortunate downside to an environment where there is enough prosperity to drive prices up. Not everybody in America gets their share of prosperity. Even if they’ve earned it. Different places have tried different solutions and my new home has tried its share. But real estate is essentially a fixed supply with a fluctuating demand and when demand is high, people lose out. It’s a story as old as all history. To make matters worse, some companies around here use tactics that prey on the challenged.

In September, I was sitting at the bus stop unintentionally eavesdropping on a large group of my fellow tenants who were telling a familiar story. They were swapping stories of how the management company had been charging them late fees, even when rent was paid on time. When they go to the office with checkbook carbons or money order receipts, the office workers will apologize and tell them to ignore the mistake. But then the tenant would have another late fee notice on their door a few days later. Some of them just gave up and paid the fee, fearing eviction. This is all hearsay that I have no evidence of. But I’ve had landlords try the same trick on me in the past. Fortunately, I’ve worked for a good understanding of the law and have the tools that a lifetime of public speaking gives one. I learned over time that if shady people realize you know how to access and use the law, they tend to cut their losses and leave you alone.

When I listened to that conversation at the bus stop, it seemed evident that none of these people felt they had access to a legal system that would be fair to them. In every conversation I’ve had with this rental office over maintenance issue, the workers try very hard to work the idea that the company is a “very large corporation with a lot of resources at their disposal” into the mix. I’m not kidding, it’s like they’re working a carnival ride safety spiel.

Being a little check in the revenue stream of a large corporation can often a strong bargaining position. It’s super-easy to point out how much cheaper it is to just fix my sink than to deal with me in court or deal with health inspectors. But if you are a learning disabled adult or struggling through the PTSD you got serving your country, it’s pretty easy to be made to feel helpless by orchestrated spiels like that. It’s especially easy when you live in a system that is constantly trying to structure the world to ignore you at best or at worst, use you as a scapegoat. The pump to helplessness is already primed. Just flip up the tap and the overwhelmed are easy to manipulate.

Coming from the Detroit area, I‘ve known good kids who’ve been V’d in and out of gangs because they lived in places that the moneyed world ignores twenty-nine days out of the month. These are places where water supplies are toxic, where every car barely runs, where electric wiring is a fire hazard, where predators can get away with everything because the good-hearted don’t have the strength to stay vigilant. They are places where the unlucky land and where the ignored get trapped. They are places that deprogram you of the nasty belief that you have any choice or agency in the world. When the cleansing of hope is complete, you submit to any choice a perceived authority figure presents you with. It could be that you can have a job that ties up your schedule for five days a week but offers only fifteen work hours in that week that are subject to daily rescheduling. It could be that medical insurance and any sense of safety is not something you deserve because you are poor and therefore lazy. It could be that being born some shade of brown means that you can’t wear certain articles of clothing in public. It could be that the only way to not be preyed upon by criminals is to become one.

None of these ideas are new to any of us. The sheer number of crime shows on TV alone have drilled them into our head to the point where the stories seem inevitable. Unavoidable. Invisible.

In mid-October, I was spending my morning watching videos my law professor had assigned us, (on the 13th Amendment of all things) when I heard a car start up in the parking lot. It was one of the barely-functioning cars with a loud exhaust system that I’d become accustomed to. So I barely registered it when the car backfired four times as I heard it pull into the street.

But then the engine started to whine as if a belt had slipped. And the sound hung around where I imagined the street under my window was. I immediately realized the car had flipped from the barely functioning status to the not functioning one. So I got up and walked to the window to see which neighbor I was going to have to help push a car back into a parking spot.

I opened my blinds and looked down into the street where the car was sitting. It was completely stalled out now, not making any noise. A woman rushed across the street and went directly to its driver’s side window. She asked if he was okay.

Then she screamed for him to hold on.

“Just hold on baby. Stay with me.”

It took a full three beats for me get my phone and call 911. I can’t tell you how long that really was. I honestly don’t know. I usually don’t freeze. I didn’t freeze when I jumped into the deep end of that wave pool, on full churn to pull out two toddlers. I didn’t freeze that one time I jumped out of moving car to help a kid who had been run over in Ann Arbor. But I froze now.

By the time I had told the dispatcher what was going on, they had already received another call. I remember mumbling to her that I knew first aid and CPR and that maybe I should go out and help. But I was told to stay put for my own safety.

I immediately thought of my kids coming home from work, stepping off at the transit stop not more than thirty feet from the unfolding crime scene. And then I thought of them getting off the bus to not one gunshot victim, but two. One of them being me. And I understood why I froze. The first thing I did when I got off the phone with the dispatcher was to text my kids and tell them to hang out where they were until I said it was okay.

The police arrived very quickly. The officers on the scene split duty between pulling the victim out and securing a perimeter. The officer securing the perimeter was wielding an automatic rifle. The victim coming from the car was completely limp and very young. I learned later that he was only sixteen. There were two large, wet irregular circles of blood seeping through his white t-shirt.

The officer did a few things that I couldn’t see before starting in with rescue breathing and CPR. He did this for fifteen minutes as more cops and EMT’s arrived and a pool of blood slowly grew on the pavement. The EMT’s tried to resuscitate him with a defibrillator, but it was too late. Somebody pulled yellow plastic over him and the investigation began. It went on for most of the day.

The boy’s body was under my window for four hours. I didn’t leave my window for most of those four hours.

All I could think about was that impromptu bus stop meeting I overheard and discussions in my law class about the problems people have in accessing the protections of the law.

When you are lifeguarding, the self washes away and all you think about is everyone in the pool.

Everyone. All at once. How they relate to each other.

How one big kid ignoring their surroundings could swim right over a toddler and push them under. How a mom drinking too much outside of the pool won’t notice how far out their kids are swimming. How dust in the air can keep someone from seeing the big wave headed their way. How a thousand little factors can gang together to create a big problem.

It’s not a comfortable state of mind. But I think we cower from it far too much. It makes us feel more in control to pick single reasons for complex problems. Or even worse, it’s more comforting to flat-out ignore complexity when we encounter it. As long as we can make ourselves safe in the moment, why worry about the oncoming wave?

And maybe that’s all we can realistically do on our own. We’re not all-powerful people with limitless resources. And it’s so hard these days to feel like even the bonds we create with each other can last long enough to do any good. I’ve been struggling with that one for years now. I’ve been struggling with the sense that any bond I forge in life can be strong enough help me protect people from the bad waves I happen to spot in this big, complex swimming pool.

I’ve tried. I’ve really tried. But honestly, I look back and feel that I’ve failed.

But it’s the first day of 2017. The year behind us is already looked back on as a fucking tsunami of reasons why letting complexity equal invisibility is a bad choice. The state the water left us in is all we can talk about these days. We’re all exhausted and in shock. I’m just sort of treading water with the rest of you.

But I’m also, still standing here, on point at the deep end, watching and connecting with my faulty, human eyes. I’m still ready to jump in, even if I do it alone. Even if I fail. I can’t do anything else now that the boy under my window is no longer invisible.