It’s nice to find Okie-themed songs that aren’t by Woody Guthrie. Not that all of his were bad, but a lot of us have mixed feelings about him for all kinds of reasons both good and bad. (Mine are mostly around the fact he made a living off making fun of us as much as anything else. But tempered by the knowledge that is making a living in a situation where especially at first he had no guarantee of one.)Anyway as far as I know this is just a straight-up story from Merle Haggard’s life. I’ve always liked Merle Haggard’s music. He was one of the pioneers of the Bakersfield Sound, basically Californian country music, mostly Okie in origin, that sounded very different from Nashville either at the time or since. Bakersfield being one of the largest cities in the San Joaquin Valley where the Okies lived, and one of the big centers for country & western music in California. This is mostly about the way people from Oklahoma and surrounding states, largely but not entirely during the Dust Bowl and Depression eras, were lured into California with promises of a standard of living that didn’t pan out. A method of getting a cheap farm labor force into the state that hasn’t changed much. 😦 My family got lucky, after some time in the labor camps they were able to buy a series of small farms (one at a time, not owning several at once!) they spent the rest of their lives in debt over before being pushed out of farming altogether. Most Okies didn’t even get that.
At some point, my grandfather was involved in a Mason Williams benefit concert to save the Willamette River from damming. This portion of the Willamette ran right through where my grandpa lived, and my grandpa was very musical, so it makes sense he would’ve been involved. The upshot being that we had a bazillion records of Of Time And Rivers Flowing (a product from the benefit) kicking around our house, and listened to them a lot.
Anyway, the following song was probably the worst nightmare I could think of. I was fascinated by it and horrified by it and felt every part of it as if it was happening to me every time I heard it. Living without water is a terrible thing. Think about that when you hear of water shortages, water crises, people with no access to water, people sabotaging the water supplies of would-be immigrants, take this song to heart. I did, I always have, I always will, even when I was a little fuzzy on who Dan was (a pack mule, although I’ve heard some people say he could be a horse as well, but definitely originally a mule).
All day I’ve faced a barren waste
Without the taste of water
Dan and I with throats burnt dry
And souls that cry for water
Cool clear water
Keep a-movin’ Dan
Don’t you listen to him Dan
He’s the devil not a man
And he spreads the burnin’ sands with water
Dan can’t you see that big green tree
Where the water’s runnin’ free
And it’s waiting there for you and me?
The nights are cool and I’m a fool
Each star’s a pool of water
With the dawn I’ll wake and yawn
And carry on to water
Cool clear water
Keep a-movin’ Dan
Don’t you listen to him Dan
He’s the devil not a man
And he spreads the burnin’ sands with water
Dan can’t you see that big green tree
Where the water’s runnin’ free
And it’s waiting there for you and me?
Dan’s feet are sore
He’s yearnin’ for
Just one thing more than water
Like me I guess he’d like to rest
Where there’s no quest for water
Cool clear water
Keep a-movin’ Dan
Don’t you listen to him Dan
He’s the devil not a man
And he spreads the burnin’ sands with water
Dan can’t you see that big green tree
Where the water’s runnin’ free
And it’s waiting there for you and me?
Cool clear water
Also, always respect your environment if you’re headed somewhere like a desert because you just want to see its beauty or whatever other reason. If you’re going somewhere without easy access to fresh drinking water, understand what that means. Respect that you could die even if you know what you’re doing. That should go without saying, but so many people enter harsh physical environments unprepared and don’t understand what that means. If you don’t go in thinking you could die even if you’re prepared, you’re a fool many times over. “Nature” won’t automatically provide and save you, “nature” may chew you up and spit you out dead. Always respect the power of where you are, always respect your smallness in the world, always respect your fragility against the elements, always respect that if you get into trouble in such an environment other people may die trying to save you or locate your body (and still may not succeed). Understand your responsibilities, understand danger, have some frigging respect, don’t undertake such things lightly.
More about the concert and the album:
“Of Time and Rivers Flowing” was a concert I put together during the summer of 1982. The concept was to present, in chronological order, songs about rivers and water that have been popular throughout history. The intention was to show our long-standing relationship with rivers –that they run not only through the land, but through our hearts and minds as well.
The idea of an entire program based upon rivers and water came about in this manner. In May of 1982, the Springfield Utility Board announced plans to put five hydroelectric dams on the North Fork of the Middle Fork of the Willamette River, one of the most beautiful, wild, free-flowing streams left in the country, and also my favorite trout stream.
I went with several other citizens from Oakridge to a public forum held in the high school auditorium to discuss the matter. Everyone was adamantly against the idea of the dams. Feelings ran high.
However, one group at the meeting, the McKenzie Flyfishers, a small club of flyfishing enthusiasts from Eugene, Oregon, was organized with facts and figures about the negative effects this project would have on the river should it come to pass.
After the meeting, in spite of the fact that all felt they had done their best to speak on the river’s behalf, for me the idea persisted that if only somehow the river itself could have been at the meeting to speak for and defend itself at its own “trial,” so to speak, it would have made the most eloquent statement of all.
Music and water have much in common; rivers are like music and music is like a river. They speak well of one another. Both flow through time, purifying themselves as they go, nourishing life along the way.
Then it dawned on me that the river could have a voice, in the form of the songs and music it has inspired over the years. Music could bring the river to the meeting! I began searching for songs about rivers and water and managed to collect more than 400.
One of the people I met through the McKenzie Flyfishers was Jim Williams. An avid flyfisherman,he not only lives right on the McKenzie with a drift boat ramp in his backyard, he is a past president of the McKenzie Flyfishers and of Oregon Trout as well. He and his wife, Bonnie, became and continue to be my greatest allies and supporters.
In March of 1983, the McKenzie Flyfishers and I joined forces to present three benefit performances at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts. We sold out all three shows and the Flyfishers used the money earned to successfully lobby a bill through the Oregon State Legislature. On July 6, 1983, the governor signed a bill formally adding the North Fork and its headwaters, Waldo Lake (the purest lake in the world!), to Oregon’s system of protected State Scenic Waterways.
Only two percent of the rivers in America are still wild, free-flowing streams. Federal laws set up to encourage energy development have not adequately addressed the numerous other benefits rivers can and do provide. In the ever-increasingly industrialized world in which we live, the natural river becomes a rare gem impossible to value, possessing an intrinsic reality unrelated to economic profit.
Today the “Of Time & Rivers Flowing” concert has continued to evolve in content. A reflection of “the river” metaphorically through time, it is a chronological river of musical history spanning almost 400 years.
The songs tell the story of our long relationship with rivers. Rivers have been the routes of exploration, the boundaries of territories, the highways of commerce, and they have sustained us with water, food, recreation, beauty and inspiration. We sing of it, and in doing so, reflect ourselves. Some of the more recent songs, unfortunately, speak of the degradation the rivers have experienced in modern times.
The concert serves to draw attention to the universal experience that is the river. Of Time & Rivers Flowing makes the audience aware of the potential of our collective personality. By giving the river a voice – a chance to speak to us through the music it has inspired – it can remind us of what we mean to each other.
– Mason Williams
I grew up going to Oakridge (loads of family lived there) all the time, I (sort of) learned to skip rocks in its streams, and went swimming in Waldo Lake and all these places they talk about, so I know this river and the water and terrain around it intimately. Water mismanagement is rampant in the American West and even the parts that have not been hit hard yet will feel the effects before long. My father, like many Okies of his generation, is from the two counties at the epicenter of the California water crisis — this is personal as well as everything else it is. But Tulare and Kern counties are only the beginning for California and elsewhere. If you don’t pay attention, you won’t know what hit you. Listen to the song and think about what it means to be without water. Whenever you hear of water shortages, of people being made to live without water or safe water, of water and waterways and water sources being taken away or polluted or misused, anything, understand what no water means. Really understand it.
We all come to the world from a particular place. Each of us it’s a little different. Sometimes a lot different. Some of it is culture. Some of it is background and life experiences. Some of it is our families. Some of it is the way our body works. Some of it is location. There are so many things that influence our perspective on the world.
But we all have one particular perspective. And that perspective is important. Without many perspectives on the world, the world would be in a lot of trouble. We need people from different backgrounds, different thought patterns, lots of different things.
But every part of your perspective, everything that makes it up, is important. And that includes the things that seem to contradict each other. And all the things you’re ashamed of. Or afraid of. Or all the little details that seem to make things a little more complicated. Those things are all important to who you are, where you come from in the world, and what makes your perspective important.
I’ve talked before about being an Okie. I may have even talked about how ashamed I was and afraid I was for a long time of recognizing I was an Okie. There were a lot of reasons for this. But I could not understand myself, or my culture, or the things that made me different from my neighbors where I grew up. Not without understanding both that I was an Okie and what an Okie is. And the history behind Okies in California.
But it goes beyond just being an Okie. There are tons of specifics to it. There is how long most of my family was in Oklahoma and the surrounding area before coming to California. There is why each specific part of my family came to California. There is when they came to California. There is what opportunities were open to them and not open to them compared to other Okies. There is what states they came from both originally and before they came to California. There is who stayed behind, who came to California, and who went back. And why. There is the specific ethnicities of different parts of my family.
There is also the fact that we left that San Joaquin Valley and ended up in Silicon Valley. There is the fact that my father was a very specific kind of person who existed in Silicon Valley, even though their presence was rarely acknowledged. Which is he was an Okie techie. There were Okies who left what were usually farm jobs and made it into some part of the Silicon Valley tech industry.
In my father’s case, that meant he was an electronics technician. He, like many Okie techies, came from a small farming or farm working background. He grew up tinkering with electronics in the attic of his farm. His high school in Kern County had an excellent program. Every year, they built a house. The carpentry class would build it. And the electronics class, which my father was in, would wire it. And so on. They would sell it as cheap as they could to a family who needed a home, and use the money for next year’s house. My father got practical experience with electronics while still in high school.
He went to a two-year college and got a degree that allowed him to be an electronics technician. But like many Okie techies, most of what he learned in the world came from practical experience of some kind. His on-the-job experience gave him enough knowledge that he could do the work of an engineer without the schooling. He even trained engineering grad students.
This all meant that I was born in San Mateo County in the redwoods. Because this was very close to the physics research facility where my dad had a job when I was born. And it meant when we left the redwoods I grew up in Silicon Valley, mostly San Jose. I have also lived in the San Joaquin Valley, Santa Cruz County, Santa Barbara County, and other places. But that’s the basic area I was in.
And that means that while my culture was Okie, this was not the culture I was surrounded by. And I was exposed to a lot of things that most Okies would not believe in. Like all the stuff I call California dreaming. A large, destructive part of California’s culture where a lot of people try to live in a dream world. It’s most famous I guess as a Hollywood thing. Because it’s easy to see that Hollywood is based on a lot of people’s dreams about the world. But it’s around a lot of mainstream Californian culture. There’s a whole branch of the Silicon Valley tech industry where people live with their head in the clouds and don’t seem to have any idea that there is a basic physical world they have to live in. There are also the new agers who think you can wish physical reality into existence using only your mind.
And so I was exposed to all these ideas, even though within my family they got very short shrift. Because like anyone who’s done farm work pretty much knows that you depend on the physical world and you cannot wish it away. And any Okie with any sense remembers the dustbowl and how you could not wish or dream that mess away, and how people created that mess by ignoring the realities of their physical environment. So my cultural influences push me very far away from the sort of thinking that gives us dream worlds, and thinking the Singularity will save us or kill us or whatever, and things like The Secret and the Law Of Attraction. Which are a lot more connected within Californian culture than you would expect.
But exposure to those ideas while young led me to try them out. And I tried them out in a pretty spectacular way. And I never could shake a pretty iron sense of the real physical world, even though I did my best to pretend. And part of that is my cultural background kicking in. But I heard if you pretend something it’ll happen, so I tried my best to pretend reality didn’t exist. But I couldn’t pretend to myself at all. So these were these two influences fighting in my head. What I heard around me and what I kinda knew in my bones.
My exposure to those conflicting cultural values shapes my understanding of the world. If I had only been exposed to one or the other, or if I had come from a different direction, my perspective would be extremely different. And I do think my perspective on this gives me insight into things that are important.
There’s also the specifics of my family, like my personal specific family history. Three of my grandparents were Okies, the other was the daughter of Swedish immigrants. My mom’s family tended to be FDR Democrats, my father’s family were Republicans. Both of my parents had political and religious disagreements with their parents. There were frictions in the family over politics and religion. There is the combination of political liberalism or leftism and a sort of cultural conservatism or traditionalism that’s pretty hard to nail down in words, but that definitely exists in my family and in me. There’s a lot more diversity among Okies in this regard than you will ever hear. And these things factor into everything as well.
But all that, all those influences, all those oddly specific things about my personal, family, and cultural background. Those all and far more things that I could not get into, contribute to what my particular perspective is and what I have to offer based on that perspective. Even my weird little personal aversions to being an Okie, my attempts to hide from being an Okie, my attempts to become something I’m not, my final understanding that regardless of anything I am an Okie. All those things, all those twists and turns, are important to who I am.
It is all of these extremely specific things that are specific to each person that are very important in so many ways. And culture is just one part of what I am describing.
Like you can go into anything. And all the specifics matter.
Another example: I have a severe kind of inertia. So severe that in the medical world it’s been diagnosed as a form of catatonia since I was a teenager. First just as a description and later as an actual diagnosis. Severe enough that sometimes I need help with physical movement through physical prompting. But also not always that severe, fluctuating a lot throughout my lifetime. And fluctuating a lot based on a lot of things. And something that started out not as severe and became more severe over time.
That means that I intuitively understand a lot of the mechanics of how prompting works and does not work. I intuitively understand the vulnerabilities created by inertia. These vulnerabilities are not well-understood by most professionals or family. I understand how things can go right, and how things can go wrong. This is true of many of us who have this kind of inertia.
Some people have never consistently done a voluntary unprompted movement. Unlike them, I have had a degree of privacy to develop certain abilities. When I was a certain age, I was able to go on the computer, in a room by myself, and dial in to BBSs.
A BBS, or Bulletin Board System, was a computer system or network that you dialed into using a modem. At its simplest, it would have message boards where people can leave messages for each other. Kind of like if you’ve ever used a web board for some topic or another. It could also have email, whether within the BBS or with an Internet feed. Sometimes it would have Usenet which was again kind of like a web board in its way. Sometimes it would have what we now call chat rooms. Sometimes it would just have the ability to chat with the sysop, or systems operator, who is the owner of the BBS. Sometimes it would even have Internet relay chat. But not all BBSs connected to the Internet. Many were one computer. Some had their own small networks like NirvanaNet. Which I used a lot.
But my time on BBSs was a time when I could type anything into a computer screen, and watch whatever reaction I got back. At that age, anything I said or typed had a lot of echo to it. So it was not necessarily reflective of what I was thinking. Sometimes it was. But that was not consistent for me. It was formative to privately and anonymously type words into a screen and get words back. Even if the fruits of that experience were in no way immediately obvious. My communication skills would never have been the same without that.
And there are people who have a lot of inertia. Who have the same awareness I have of how it works and does not work. But who because of either their life circumstances, or their degree and type of inertia, have never had that formative experience of typing with nobody seeing what you’re typing. Or speaking without anyone hearing what you are speaking. And as minor as that might sound to someone who doesn’t know what that means, it fundamentally and hugely affects many things about how you communicate and even what you can communicate.
It also affects what you can safely communicate about. Because if you are dependent completely on other people for your communication, there are things that have consequences if you say them. And some of those consequences may be having your communication taken away forever.
But even aside from the risks, the lack of the experience of ever having communication privacy has an enormous effect on a huge amount of things. For me, having the ability to at least some of the time, and for me it’s most of the time, communicate or even just use words in private means there’s a lot of things I am able to say. Including a lot of things about the mechanics of inertia. And the mechanics of prompting. And the inherent dangers of prompting that cannot ever be erased.
And talking about those dangers is hard for people who depend on physical prompting to communicate. Some people do it, some people try. But they can’t always manage it. And when they do manage it, they may face very severe consequences.
So there are these dangers built deeply into any way of helping someone overcome inertia. And I can’t get into all of what they are right now. I’m not always actually that good at describing the exact nature of them. But I am able to say they are there. I am able to say that they can’t go away.
I am able to say that they are different from, vastly different from, the dangers that most people are aware of. I am able to say they operate in ways that have absolutely nothing to do with the fucking ideomotor effect. That human beings are not Ouija boards. That the fact that this takes place does not mean communication does not take place. But also the people who create, develop, and promote the many different forms of assisted typing do not understand this either. I don’t think some of them want to understand it. But others they just can’t understand if they’re not aware of what the actual problems are. And of course because of the stakes, there’s a lot of pressure to not even acknowledge there is a problem. Or to oversimplify the problem.
And the problem is someone like me is in a position to know and understand the dangers very well, and to be able to say hey there are dangers here. And that is so specific to my position in the world. Like my exact experiences with inertia. My exact experiences with prompting and assisted typing. My exact fluctuations in abilities. My exact background in this entire area, my entire personal history, the ability I had to experiment with language in private for years without anyone knowing who I was and what I was saying and why I was saying it.
And I’m also in a position to understand that even saying there are dangers carries dangers for those who rely on assisted typing of one kind or another. I know that anything I say can be used as ammunition to try and shut down attempts to allow people to communicate. And I take that very seriously, so if that’s your position on this is that all assisted typing is nonsense, I can tell you that is wrong. And I know exactly why it is wrong. Because I have used it.
So I exist in this borderland that is an extremely useful borderland to exist in. And all the twists and turns, all the little details, give me a perspective that is important to the world. I know other people with this particular perspective. Just as I know other people of my basic cultural and family background, both general and weirdly specific.
I’m not saying that I’m uniquely important in my perspective. We all have, each one of us, because of all the specifics of everything about us, an important perspective. We need every perspective we have. Even, or maybe especially, where our perspectives contradict each other or disagree. It doesn’t mean every single one of us is right. But every single one of us has something important to give to the world in terms of how we see the world and how we react to it. And when we try to hard to force everyone into the same perspective, we lose that.
Even weird things matter. Like being seen as high IQ and being seen as low IQ, both officially. Having gone from an early entry college to special education high school in that order. All of these things create understandings of the world that each of us has. Each of us has weird little specifics in our life that all matter.
Often it’s the things we don’t want to know about ourselves, or don’t want to think about, that are important. It’s the things we’re ashamed of. It’s the things people give us crap for. It’s the things we’re afraid of. It’s the things that aren’t even true, but other people’s belief in them has changed our lives.
Painful as some of these things are to think about, the more we understand them, the more we accept that all these things are a part of us, the better equipped we are to understand where we’re coming from. The more you understand the perspective you’re coming from, the more you can contribute from that perspective. It lets you know your exact place in the world and that is a very powerful thing to know. It gives you choices. It gives you understanding. It gives you insights that you would not otherwise have. It gives you more of an in-depth comprehension of both the strengths and limitations of your particular point of view. It makes you understand your place within human diversity, and the importance of that diversity in all its forms. It makes you understand why and how it is that diversity can never be neatly summed up. It lets you know how you can use all of this.
So I’ve used a lot of examples of my own life here. But that’s to illustrate something that applies to every single person on this planet. Our culture matters. Our background matters. Our family matters. Our life experiences matter. Our physical body’s makeup matters. Everything about us contributes to this. And the less we can hide from the parts of ourselves that we don’t want to see, and the things about this that are so painful we don’t want to look at them, the more powerful we can be. And the more powerful our perspectives and our use of those perspectives can be.
So I guess the short version of this is: Know thyself. But know thyself in detail. Know thyself fearlessly or at least courageously. Know all parts of thyself. Know the parts of thyself you would rather not know. Know the parts of thyself that you are proud of, that you’re ashamed of, that you’re indifferent to, that you are afraid of, all of them. Know how they all fit together. Know the parts of thyself that seem like contradictions and like they throw everything else about you into question. If something scares or repulses you, look twice, and look harder, and overcome the fear enough to see whatever is really there. I guarantee it’s important.
This is not navel gazing. This is how to understand where you fit in the world, where your perspectives come from, what contributions this makes you capable of or even obligated to, and what you can do about it. And it will go on your whole life. But the more you understand, the more power you have to do something good in the world.
I was raised on stories of atomic bomb tests, witnessed from afar. My father’s family were California Okies who lived and worked on a series of farms all over Kern County and Tulare County, California. My father told childhood stories of seeing flashes on the other side of the Sierras, then watching the shock wave roll towards them. The shock waves were often strong enough to knock you out of bed, or knock water out of the irrigation canals.
I didn’t know this story, though, until my father wrote his memoirs in his late sixties or early seventies. He was born in 1941, and this seems to take place in 1952:
One afternoon, I came home from school and there was a strange man in the living room talking to Dad and Mom. He was one of Dad’s cousins and was home on leave from the Army. I sat and listened with wide eyes as he described his participation in the atomic bomb tests in Nevada. He along with many other soldiers had sat in a trench one mile from ground zero. They had dark goggles and ear protection that was their only special equipment. The bomb sat on a tall tower. They were told not to look at the tower or to raise their heads above the edge of the trench. Wen the bomb went off, Dad’s cousin saw a blinding flash, and was thrown backwards against the trench wall. He said that the blast was deafening and that a sheet of hot sand whistled over his head. We talked for a while and then he left. I never saw him again. Six years later, in 1958, I heard that he had died of leukemia.
That’d be my first cousin, twice removed. (I had to look that up.) Family history meets just plain history.
The American military carried out these bomb tests regularly, and often they tested the effects on American citizens. Quite often, these were low-ranking military personnel who were not told what they were getting into and given no radiation protection. This is besides the effects of fallout on civilians, which was a huge problem in Nevada, surounding areas, and anywhere else weather patterns happened to take it. And testing on unwitting civilians, which happened as well. And the civilians in the Pacific Islands who because of all kinds of racist and colonialist crap were even more disregarded by America and France and other places that nuked the crap out of the region than most people I just talked about.
Sometimes, they even had their test subjects stand up and walk towards Ground Zero after the bomb went off.
Many people, like my grandpa’s cousin, didn’t survive long.
But many people did. And many of them — and their children — had a lot of health problems that continue to this day, especially cancer. They were sworn to secrecy (sometimes under penalty of treason), but many began breaking that silence in order to protest lack of compensation or apology for being made into human guinea pigs for nuclear weapons.
Today, they’re known as atomic veterans. But most people don’t know, or only know in passing, that this happened, and what happened to them and their families. The following Retro Report video is a good overview with lots of interviews with atomic vets and their families:
It makes the point that while nuclear testing officially stopped, there are still atomic vets from after that era: People who were sent in to clean up earlier test sites.
This post may be late for Memorial Day, but on Memorial Day I always remember people like my grandfather’s cousin, completely forgotten casualties of the Cold War, killed by their own superiors in the military. They’re rarely given the recognition for this that they would be had they died in other military contexts.
Here’s a video shot by a guy whose dad died after being subjected to atomic testing in the Marines:
And he makes the also-good point that this is not a partisan issue, it’s a matter of basic respect.
So that’s what Memorial Day has had me thinking of. I have lots of vets both living and dead in the family, but the only one I know of who died because of something that happened during his service was used as a lab rat in Nevada without being told. My grandfather on the other side got a Purple Heart for a relatively minor injury in the Pacific Theater of World War II, but my other grandpa’s cousin got no recognition to my knowledge even though he died from the effects of the radiation.
Apparently they were usually sworn to secrecy under threat of treason charges, but he had no trouble telling family. I imagine that was common.
They’re still fighting for recognition and compensation, to my knowledge. The unfortunate joke among atomic vets — probably quite real — is that the government’s just waiting until most of them die.
And most people don’t even know they exist.
People react a lot to my hats.
Maybe it’s because I’m in Vermont. I don’t know. People come up with a lot of weird meanings for my hat. They think it’s a cowboy hat. Or an adventurer hat. Or some kind of costume. It’s not any of the above. It’s my father’s hat.
Maybe it’s an Okie thing. People wear hats. Wearing hats has specific meanings I can’t put into words easily. I can look back in generations of family photographs and find people wearing similar hats, similar clothes.
My father always wore a hat. But he wore them for different reasons.
One of my favorite memories of my father and his hats was the way he’d wear it when he was headed out to do something important. He might still be wearing his usual jeans and shirt, but the hat meant things were important and he was dressing up. You could tell by how deliberately he put it on.
And he wore these hats as if the hats grew out of his head.
I saw hats in family photos, hats on family members, I saw the way people treated their hats, the way they touched their hats, the way they wore their hats. Hats are important in my family and culture.
When my father died, he sent me a lot of his hats, and a lot of his shirts and suspenders. I began wearing his clothes, or his style of clothes, every day, including his hats.
People told me for the first time in my life I looked comfortable in my own skin.
It wasn’t a conscious thing.
But the clothes started looking like they grew on me, the same way they looked like they grew on him, the same way similar clothes look like they grew on many of our relatives who dress similarly.
I started feeling more connected to him.
It sounds like a cliché, but maybe some things are clichés for a reason: Wearing his clothes made me able to feel connected to him, I found the parts of me that he left deep inside of me when I wasn’t looking. It wasn’t about how I looked in the clothes, it was about how I felt in them. I felt connected to him, connected to my family, connected to my culture. I felt things that have no words, no names, more depth than you’d imagine from a set of clothing.
But then I always connected to the world well through objects and the connections between them.
And, it turns out, so did my father.
I continue to discover him inside of me in ways I could’ve never imagined.
I continue to discover the things he has passed down to me without word or instruction.
And those things, that love, are the most valuable things of all. They form connections and bonds between people. They’re important.
So when you see me in any of my dad’s hats. It’s not a costume. It’s not a cowboy hat. It’s not an adventurer hat. It’s a connection to things I didn’t even know were inside me, between me and my dad, between me and my family, between me and my culture. It’s remembrance and love but it’s so much more.
People are often taught to view clothing as superficial and vain. To view objects as just meaningless dead things. But clothing can tell you a lot about where you come from. It can connect you to your roots, however loving, uncomfortable, and complicated those roots might be. It can be a reminder of who you really are.
I’m glad I wear my father’s hats.
Developmental disability service agencies often teach each other a set of cultural biases about how emotions are meant to be displayed. Even if office workers didn’t come from that cultural background already, the agency molds them into that shape. And the shape is basically an agency-middle-class fear of feelings.
Sure, they talk about feelings. But they talk about them in the abstract. And they have specific ways they are allowed to be expressed, and certain ways they call inappropriate.
You’re not supposed to show emotion in the way your body moves, the tone of your voice, the words you choose. You’re supposed to discuss them in a detached, serene way and treat them like problems.
Clients run into trouble because of this. Quite often we are not from that particular agency culture. By reason of class, culture, or disability.
Front-line staff run into this as well. They are often poor or working-class. They often have a hard time looking like they’re not feelings things as well. This can lead to friction with higher-level agency workers who are trained in agency-middle-class emotional expression.
A friend of mine calls the culture in question — or the people who act like this — Nice Lady Therapists. It’s all about looking nice, never directly showing emotion, sounding bland and detached in a certain way, no matter what you’re feeling or thinking or doing.
Many people with developmental disabilities are gonna have a problem with this for a huge number of reasons.
Of course we come from all cultures and walks of life. But our disabilities themselves can make it hard for us to absorb these cultural norms. (Those of us who can, are gonna fare better in Nice Lady Therapist Land. And there are plenty of us who can, to some degree, do Nice Lady Therapist. I can’t. At all.) We often have different ways of relating socially, different ways of thinking, different ways of perceiving the world, and these things put us at odds with Nice Lady Therapist values.
Not to mention many of us come from actual cultures where those aren’t the values.
I’m an Okie. While I personally had a complicated class background (I call it mixed-class if I have to be brief about it), I come from generations of poor and working-class people as far back as anyone can remember. Culturally, I express myself in a way that’s typical of a working-class Okie.
That means that if I am angry, you can see it on my body. You can see it in the way I move. You can hear it in the sounds I make. You can tell from the words I choose. I don’t mean that I make no effort not to be rude, or that I try to be mean, or something. But if I’m pissed off, you’re generally gonna see that I’m pissed off. It’s written into my every movement. And I’m okay with that.
The same goes for just about any feeling I could have. It’s not that people can always read my feelings accurately. Because of biases and the kinds of disability I have, many people can’t read me very well at all. But even when they can’t read me with perfect accuracy, they can generally tell I am feeling something.
It shows in my movements. It shows in my voice. It shows in my word choices. It shows in my reactions. Even if you don’t know what I’m feeling, you generally know that I’m feeling, unless you’re one of those people so confused by my facial expressions that you assume things are ‘blank’ when they’re not. Which happens. But nonetheless, you can generally tell feelings are going on if you’re looking at all (and most of the time even if you’re not).
Nice Lady Therapists tend to be terrified of anger, but also terrified of emotion in general. They are terrified of it in others and terrified of it in themselves. Someone I know who has worked in the DD field (and Nice Lady Therapists are all over every kind of human services field, DD is just one of them) has wondered if it’s because if they felt emotion, they’d have to feel that what is happening to people with developmental disabilities is wrong. They’d have to feel what their conscience is telling them. I don’t know if that’s accurate. I was a little doubtful. But when I ran it by a long-time front-line staff person they said “Actually… that could be very very right possibly.” So it’s possible that’s one part of it.
There’s definitely class values in play as well. There is in general a middle-class and upper-class fear of emotional expression that is taken out on people who can’t conform to it. And there are cultural factors as well. Some cultures are more emotionally expressive than others, and have different levels of tolerance for it. But for whatever reason, working-class culture often tends to involve this disconnect with certain versions of middle-class culture, which is why I keep emphasizing class.
Disability is also involved. People with developmental disabilities may find it harder to pretend we are feeling something we are not. We might find it harder to detach ourselves from what we are feeling. We might find it harder to act as if we don’t notice something that is happening. We are sometimes more direct or blunt in our communication styles than usual. We might find it hard to act like someone is our social better, even if we are trying to be respectful. We might find it hard to speak indirectly or abstractly about something we are feeling right now. We might even find it hard to speak at all if we are feeling strongly and may communicate through other means. We might find it hard to pretend we perceive the world differently than we do. We might find it had to be abstract about something that’s very concrete to us.
There are so many ways that being disabled puts many of us at a disadvantage here, even if we are doing our best to appear meek and respectful and passive. There’s just a level where we have trouble stuffing ourselves into a corner sometimes.
Unfortunately, if the Nice Lady Therapists are hurting us, this can play out to our extreme disadvantage.
See, the Nice Lady Therapists may be doing and saying things that are causing direct harm to us. They may be denying us help that is vital to our actual survival. They may be threatening us with things that range from vaguely unethical to outright evil.
But they will be generally doing it sweetly, with a smile, and bland, neutral language that does not betray any ‘negative’ emotion, or really much genuine emotion of any kind.
If we respond with outrage — which a lot of us will — we come off looking like the bad guy. And they use that against us.
There was a time when someone associated with me — a working-class woman with a developmental disability — got pissed off on my behalf about medical neglect that was getting so bad I was in danger of hospitalization. She yelled and she said some things that made people uncomfortable. She said exactly what she was thinking. She looked and sounded angry. This was over the telephone. She wasn’t threatening, mind you, just angry.
We were then told that, despite the fact my agency is mandated to meet with me at least once or twice a week (which hadn’t been happening), they had two conditions upon which any meeting would depend. One, we had to not discuss anything that would be related in any way to the grievance hearing about medical neglect. Two, we had to not behave emotionally in ways that would make anyone uncomfortable. I forget how they phrased the second one, but that’s basically what they meant.
The problem was, one thing we urgently needed to discuss during this meeting was my medical situation. This was off-limits already.
Now they were basically telling us we weren’t allowed to be pissed off and show it.
My friend made an attempt to explain that they were imposing cultural norms on us that were not either of our culture, and also discriminating on the basis of disability.
They wouldn’t listen.
I tried to explain that they had a lot of nerve talking about us making anyone uncomfortable given that I could have died and that is really uncomfortable. I told them I would try to be civil but I could not guarantee I wouldn’t be angry and look angry because they were pissing me off. We got hung up on after they told us they wouldn’t speak to us until the hearing. (There was urgent medical stuff they needed to do before the hearing.)
So basically, they’d been putting my life in danger for weeks, but because they were able to be Nice Lady Therapist about it, then even the most threatening behavior they engaged in didn’t look threatening.
My friend flew off the handle about it once and they used it as an excuse to not speak to us about urgent medical issues that they needed to be helping me with. And by urgent, I mean I’d had doctors telling me I belonged in the hospital or the emergency room for months. I didn’t have the luxury of waiting until the hearing.
But their discomfort at our emotions was more important than the very real physical danger they were putting me in. This is the dark underbelly of the Nice Lady Therapist thing. They can be doing things that could result in your death, but if you show any emotional response, you are hurting them.
Personally, I’ve always been of the opinion that if someone is screaming for help, that’s never the time to correct their manners.
Also there’s this deal where DD agencies have to deal with people — as part of what they do — who are gonna be genuinely rude or even violent on a regular basis. As far as I know, they are still required to deal with us. They can’t actually say “I won’t meet with you until you behave” or there are people they’d never meet with.
So like, even if we’d genuinely been wildly unfair and insulting, they’d still have to meet with us.
But they can turn their discomfort into a weapon and use it to claim that if we make them uncomfortable they can avoid talking to us just because they don’t feel like being uncomfortable. Even if we desperately need something from them. And it is exactly when we desperately need something and they are not doing it, that we’re the most likely to get visibly angry with them. And that’s a totally valid reason to get angry.
Mind you, it’s not only anger that makes them uncomfortable. It’s most emotions, if expressed directly. I’ve seen them squirm when one of us expresses joy in a way they don’t find appropriate. I’ve been put on behavior programs for being excited in a way someone said was socially inappropriate. (Flapping and squealing and jumping around, if you have to know. It wasn’t like I was hitting people. In none of the things I’m describing here did I do any harm to anyone.) They’re genuinely afraid of emotion.
They train each other that emotion is wrong. They teach each other how to be, or look like, Nice Lady Therapists. They get both formal and informal training on how to redirect us away from showing emotion, how to punish us for showing emotion, how to hide or punish our emotions as much as possible so that they won’t become uncomfortable.
My file has something ridiculous in it.
It contains a blow-by-blow description of what I look like when I’m pissed off.
And literally all it says is that my fingers hit the keyboard I am typing on harder than usual. So I type in a way that looks angry when I’m angry.
Mind you, I don’t get angry all that often. Certainly no more often than the guy who wrote that file.
I have asked them how they would feel if they had a fight with their girlfriend or boyfriend, and then someone wrote down exactly what shade of red their face turned and how loud they yelled and which body language and cusswords they used, and put it in a file for strangers to read.
Because there’s nothing unusual about sometimes getting angry and sometimes looking angry. It’s just that some of us in this world have privacy and some don’t.
So back to the file.
It also contains instructions on how not to piss me off.
They basically amount to manipulating me.
They haven’t figured out yet that I can see through that kind of manipulation especially well.
They haven’t figured out yet that the fastest way to genuinely piss me off is for people with real power over my life to manipulate me into thinking or behaving how they want.
So they manipulate me more, figuring I’ll get less pissed off.
I’ve told them the problem here, but honest and direct communication is not something they’re willing to do.
And as much as they love to spout crap about cultural sensitivity, they’ve never been remotely sensitive to my cultural background when it comes to expressions of emotion. They act like these background differences don’t exist, for any of us. When culture, class and disability play such a huge role in how we show emotions. And when we are punished for showing emotions in a way that doesn’t go with Nice Lady Therapist culture.
So the Nice Lady Therapist can be saying “I am about to do something that will result in your death or serious illness.”
But the problem, then, is that we’re pissed and making the Nice Lady Therapists uncomfortable.
I beg to differ.
And mind you I will bend over backwards to be respectful when I can. It doesn’t mean I don’t look and act pissed when I’m pissed, though. And it doesn’t mean I will remain 100% civil when my back’s against the wall. And even if I said things that were horribly unfair, they still technically have to deal with me. But I didn’t.
Anyway, there are human service agency cultural norms around emotions and their appropriate and inappropriate expression. Somehow the way they apply these norms always ends up with agency management at the top, people with developmental disabilities at the bottom, and front line staff often damn near the bottom themselves.
And this can have consequences that are more than just an annoyance.
I used to run from the fact that I’m an Okie. Hide from it. Pretend it wasn’t there. This is understandable: I associated this part of my heritage with a massive collective, generational trauma kind of situation. It was easier to pretend it didn’t exist. But it still existed. And I feel a lot more whole once I stopped running from it. I’ve learned things about myself, my family, and my culture. And I’ve learned what this history — even the bad parts — can teach me about the world, about what I take for granted, what I don’t, and how that differs from other people. And that’s valuable information to have.
So background if you don’t know what an Okie is: In this context, it’s a bunch of people who fled economic and environmental disaster in Oklahoma and surrounding states mostly during the thirties but some before that and some after that. A lot of us, including my grandparents, came to California and worked the fields in the San Joaquin Valley. (The major agricultural center of the state.) We weren’t welcomed. If you’ve heard of us at all, it’s probably from the Grapes of Wrath, which paints a limited picture. We’re from pretty diverse backgrounds and have pretty diverse opinions. By now, we’ve sort of blended in — sort of — and the open hate is mostly behind us although there are subtle reminders, and even a lot of Californians only vaguely know about us. (Especially since a lot of Californians think the San Francisco area and the Los Angeles area are California, but I’m getting off track here. Suffice to say California has its own version of flyover country and my father was born there, raised all over Kern and Tulare counties.)
So okay. One thing I have always understood is that resources are limited. That you can’t fuck around with the physical world around you and not have it fuck you around right back. That you can’t live without water. That no amount of denial, no matter how sophisticated a form it takes, not even any amount of money, can ultimately get around that: You can’t live without water. And you can’t fudge these things. You can put off the inevitable by moving things around, but you’re only making things worse by using up resources faster instead of using them more wisely.
I grew up in and around Silicon Valley. A place with a lot of people in it whose form of denial takes the form of wealth and technology. They think throwing a ton of money, intellect, or technology at a problem will solve it. When they aren’t busy just imagining that the limits of the real physical world will go away if they transcend their physical form using the power of positive thinking or bullshit along those lines. In extreme forms, I’ve seen the technology thing take the form of “Resource shortages will stop existing if we pour all of our effort into creating a superhuman computer that will know how to synthesize elements from scratch.”
Guys, you still need raw materials to synthesize things from, even if that were possible, which I doubt it actually is. And your belief that technology will simply continue accelerating, getting more and more sophisticated and amazing, into the indefinite future, is not born out by history. At all.
And yeah we need people thinking about how to solve these problems. And we need people inventing things to help us solve these problems. But throwing all your energy and money and time into a supercomputer that’ll probably never exist, is not the way, guys. And all of your thought, all of your invention, all of your innovation, it all has to be grounded in certain basic aspects to reality. And there’s a lot of people in Silicon Valley and other technological hotspots who live in a dream world where they can’t even see the people working the assembly lines in the next room over, let alone the people digging up and refining the materials, growing and harvesting the food, the complex physical web of physical actions in physical reality that exists in order to prop them up in their technological dreamland.
My dad was a type of person I actually saw a lot of in Silicon Valley: A rural Okie techie. They acted, looked, and dressed different than the other techies, came from different roots, approached problems differently. My father wanted to be a farmer, but small family farms were being driven out of existence by the horrors of corporate farming that’ve taken over large parts of California. His grandfather, who never graduated junior high, believed strongly in education and had saved up to subsidize an education for his grandchildren. My dad got a two-year degree and became an electronics technician. He moved to the Bay Area to find work. There’s lots of people like him. People who, like him, grew up tinkering with electronics in the attics of their farms in their spare time, cobbling things together from radio parts. People who combined inventiveness and practicality.
And he took that to his job. Technically his job was to build electronics for particle physics experiments. In reality his job was a lot more complicated than that. He might be doing engineering, even though his job title and pay were technician because he had never been to school for engineering. He might be teaching grad students in engineering who knew less than he did. He might be digging ditches and setting up equipment. His job drew really well on the skills he had and he was very valued there.
And like a lot of the Okie techies I’ve met, he had that streak of practicality, that understanding of the hard physical limitations of reality, that a lot of other techies seem to lack. His parents came to California fleeing drought, dust storms, hard times, and the biggest manmade environmental disaster the world had seen at that point. He grew up and worked on farms. He knew where things came from. All of us knew where things came from. And we knew what happens when things run out. And what happens when you run them out too fast.
Okies have been warning of a second dust bowl since at least the fifties. The solutions found for the dust bowl have involved piping water around in ever-increasing quantities without changing much else. Aquifers — underground stores of water — that had been around forever, that had huge quantities of water, are now being depleted. The fields my family worked existed in a converted desert, water piped in from elsewhere. Tulare and Kern counties are now the epicenter of the California water crisis. I’ve seen the change in my lifetime. And it’s only going to get worse.
You can’t live without water.
You can’t produce water by magic. Not even technological magic.
You can run out of water.
You can’t play musical chairs with water, moving it around from one place to another, hoping you won’t be the one dehydrating to death or living on arsenic-tainted water when the music stops.
I’ve always been disturbed by the stock market. I used to think it made no sense because I was dumb or hadn’t been raised by people who invested. And who knows what all makes it hard for me to understand. But I’ve realized part of it is it’s like a giant game of musical chairs where there’s not a lot of chairs and everyone’s running around moving the chairs around trying to conceal how few there are.
But at least stocks are sort-of imaginary. Like they take a level of abstraction to even believe in. They have serious consequences, because symbolic as they are, the things they deal with are based in physical reality, like everything, you know, actually, real. But they’re really just ideas, immensely powerful ideas. (This is one reason I’ve always found them hard to understand.)
Right now there’s people speculating on water like it’s a fucking stock.
Here’s the thing about water: It runs out.
You can move it around in circles and use it and use it and use it and make money off it… and if you try that, you’re gonna kill a lot of people because we all need water. You will run out of water if you do this. You will. There are no questions here.
I understand the specifics of California because I grew up there. But this is affecting the entire world. I live in Vermont. I live next to a giant lake — almost but not quite made one of the Great Lakes. These water speculators have been very interested in buying our water and making money off it. This is going on all over the world. It needs to be resisted whenever and wherever it happens.
You can’t live without water.
The real physical world has real physical limits.
All resources can run out if used badly.
These are things I know because I’m an Okie.
These are things you need to know too.
When you stop running from a problem, you can face it.
We need to face something about this: It is already a crisis. People are already dying. In California, in the rest of the world.
Everything we do to destroy water destroys ourselves.
Speculating on water to make money is basically playing a gambling game with the future of every life form that depends on water (which is all of us): This is evil and needs to be stopped.
The things that many corporations and wealthy individuals are doing to water and other resources are not things that will be solved by taking few or no showers, not flushing the toilet, drinking as little as possible, and not watering the lawn.
And all those farm laborers in the San Joaquin Valley who are having to buy water or drink arsenic-tainted water? Let me just illustrate this for you if you don’t realize how fucked up it is.
The only real job I ever did and got paid for was on a horse farm in the San Joaquin Valley. It involved a lot of hard physical work in blistering summer heat. The San Joaquin Valley gets really frigging hot in the summer. Easily 110 degrees in the shade, hotter in the sun. So hot that where I lived, all the stores let you take your dogs inside because leaving them in the car would kill them, end of story.
You need a lot of water to do that kind of work in that heat. And the corporate farms are using all their water on plants — often plants that get them a lot of money — and leaving none for their farmworkers. The farmworkers have to buy their water or use tainted water. People are dying. This is obscene. It’s also part of the nonsense reality lived in by people who seriously think that their money will protect them from drought and famine when their crops can no longer grow, or no longer be harvested. Maybe for individuals, that’s true to a limited extent, but collectively, they’re even screwing themselves over in the long run. And even if you live nowhere near California or the other real centers of this ongoing crisis, they’re screwing you over too. If you have to eat and drink, you’re getting screwed over. Money can cushion you for a little while, it won’t cushion everyone forever.
It alarms me how little many people understand the physical underpinnings of their own survival. Where food and water come from, how they get in the ground, how they grow or are raised, how they’re pumped or harvested or slaughtered, how they’re gotten to you, all the people and animals and plants and fungi and bacteria doing their part in all this. How fragile this is. How our biggest obligation is to protect it because without it we have nothing. And I mean nothing.
Anyway — as I said, lifestyle changes by ordinary people won’t do damn near enough. Hell, even if everyone in California got their act together, and used water as wisely as humanly possible, at this point you’ve got more people there than the natural level of water there can possibly support indefinitely and you’re already dealing with the consequences.
I’m not saying this to make you hopeless.
I’m saying this because I hope someone with the power to do so will wrest control away from the people who are hell-bent on destroying basic physical things that nobody and nothing can live without. Before things get even worse. Things are already bad, going to get worse, but we still have a choice to change things so that they aren’t the worst of the possible worst. (And if you think the worst of the possible worst is human beings not surviving, you haven’t grasped the enormity of the problem.) And we have an obligation to do what we can. An obligation to every person and every living thing who stands a chance of surviving even a little bit longer and suffering a little bit less if we change things. Which is all of us, and our descendants, and all other living things.
I’m just a mostly-housebound disabled person blogging this from bed. I’m saying these things because I have some hope that an Okie perspective on resource shortages may spur some people — people who can leave the house — into understanding what’s at stake, and figuring out what to do about it. Figure out solutions but ground your solutions in practical reality, or they are no solutions at all. And part of the solutions has to be — has to be — stopping various extremely wealthy people and corporations from literally ripping the ground out from under our feet, and our water and other necessities beneath it.
For a brief understanding of the water situation in California, you could do a lot worse than the documentary Water and Power: A California Heist which last I knew was available on Netflix, and for rental on Amazon and YouTube. Here’s a trailer:
If you want to know about the history of the Dust Bowl, its causes, its consequences, and its later implications which are beginning to come true as warned, there’s a longer documentary series by Ken Burns called The Dust Bowl. I learned things from it, and I’m an Okie. But it’s that cultural foundation, learned without being formally taught in any way, that’s allowed me to have the perspective I have on the meaning of resources in general and water in particular. If that or something similar isn’t in your background, you could learn a lot from watching it. Most people have no idea how bad it was, and how much worse it eventually will be. The story’s definitely told from a certain perspective that leaves a lot of people (like the original inhabitants, still there) out, but the basic physical facts are told in glaring excruciating detail by interviews with people who were there. And that’s what you should get out of this: What it was like, how it happened, and how the solutions aren’t solutions, and the likely consequences.
Here’s a trailer for that one:
Most Dust Bowl survivors are dead now. They can’t tell you what it was like except as recorded voices in documentaries like that one. And many survivors were already dead when it was made.
I feel like as an Okie descendant it’s my duty to pass on the knowledge that was passed on to me: What resources are, what misusing them does, the fact that reality has hard physical limits that nobody and no thing and no amount of money or denial or fake quick fixes can ultimately outrun. And why we need to work creatively within those limits and really damn fast, to build the best possible future for as many people as possible.
And as a Californian who lived through Enron, why privatization isn’t the solution (Water and Power gets into it in more depth, there’s devastating information about Australia).
And as a disabled person who’s experienced severe dehydration (from not being able to get enough water, from fluid loss, and from conditions that made it impossible for my body to properly use the water it had, at various times). Like everything from can-barely-manage-it-at-home dehydration, to ER-level dehydration, to hospitalization-level dehydration, ICU-level dehydration. To tell you, at the most visceral level possible, that is not how you want to die.
And this is already happening. If it’s off in the future for you it’s only because you’re really lucky. It’s happening right now. All we can do is throw on the brakes and find a way to truly change how things are being done to the best extent possible within the limits of physical reality and not some distant dreamworld.
If you’re reading this, and can do so, please do more than I can do. If you’ve convinced that things are so terrible nobody can do anything so why try, please read my last post, “We’re doomed, so we can do whatever we want…” and then try to get your head out of your ass before you hurt someone. Despair will kill more people faster and more cruelly than anything else we could possibly do. It’s important to be able to stare reality straight in the face, without flinching away or denying it, and then stand up and say “I’ll do what I can, because it’s the right thing to do.”
We owe this to each other. Hope doesn’t mean ignoring reality. It means facing reality as honestly as possible, finding the point where “What I can do” and “What needs to be done” meets, and doing it, because it’s right.