Pausing for a riddle

a retribution revolution,
confusion fusing,
surging, further loosening up
my grip not what it was.
lines etched in reverse,
places of peace now terse,
cursed with plagues and failure,
human nature neglected, nurtured
hate skilled at deconstructing,
our feigned efforts supportive of
darkness shifting, stalking, plucking
any sense of calm from where it sits.
the ubiquity of despair fits
far too well.

fear we sell –
fear insistent, fear persistent,
america as object lesson
community of stress in numbers.
the riddle merits pause –
nation declaring itself to be built on laws,
no laws built for our own sake.
no safety,
no freedom to stake
our lives upon,
our voice to song,
anthems of hope long past,
hymns of praise to cast
over those dark corners of hate,
our shared fear we’re too late
to do much of anything, to brace ourselves and clutch.
reassign our grip.
reassure our grip.

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Giving Thanks in America, 2015

We’re having ham tomorrow. Turkey on Friday. My sister, the doctor, won’t eat either, and that’s ok. The kids may eat nothing at all, and that’s ok, too. Family will feel right, will feel like home, will do me the solid of permitting me to avert my gaze from the otherwise captivating horror that is the state of things.

Beyond the grace that has settled over my immediate perimeter – enough to throw down a mighty gauntlet of humblebrag as I give thanks this week, if I were to so choose – it’s difficult to frame Thanksgiving in a way all that different than a funeral. I may have much by which to feel personally blessed, but if I open my eyes and look out, much more by which to feel utterly bereaved.

Today I give thanks for the opportunity to live in a nation that purports to be free, but I grieve its failures and the failures of its members to seek freedom for all.

Today I give thanks for the opportunity to live in a nation that purports to be safe, but I grieve its failures and the failures of its members to value the safety of all, always.

Today I give thanks for the opportunity to live in a nation that purports to be great, but grieve its failures and the failures of its members to seek greatness of thought, greatness of love, and greatness of achievement beyond the ringing delusion of superiority.

If there’s a God in all of this, in our midst and in our hearts, taking account of what we say and do and feel and hope for ourselves and for others, I often have a hard time considering the depth of God’s own grief. Sometimes I simply hope that God is not, so that there need not be any guilt at our failures that, for God, would be nothing if not uniquely personal.

America may have always carried more value as an ideal, than as an actual place. After all, the things we used to lay claim to as our strengths are barely discernible as qualities, let alone qualities at which we excel. So what is this place we call home if it has stopped being a place where bravery outlasts fear? Where freedom outlasts security? Where compassion outlasts selfishness? Where our collective commitment to the ideal – not because we chose it, but because it our fucking birthright – outlasts our commitment to ourselves? Where those that would seek our votes for the varied offices in our government, for us and by us, do so with due deference to civility, to democracy, to reason?

The heartbreaking conclusion I often come to is that our America, right now, is shell of its former self, or at least what it sought through the very fabric of its institutions. It is a reality to mourn with every Muslim called a terrorist and made to fear for her own life, every person of color beaten and kicked for daring to open his voice, every unarmed protestor sprayed with bullets or tear gas through the guns of citizens and the State, every woman struggling to make ends meet for her children while being told she’s a Welfare Queen, every corporate CEO that exploits another loophole to line his pockets and the pockets of his investors, every kid that goes to bed hungry far too often and once is too much come the fuck on, every family debilitated by medical issues, every person of color kept from the voting booth through sophisticated and unsophisticated methods of suppression, every child taught that they have a ceiling and that they must accept it or perish, every man, woman or child put behind bars as we breathlessly seek vengeance for crimes real and perceived, every education budget shouted down, every creative idea threatened out of existence, every face that looks out on what we have wrought and wonders how is this possible? How is this what it is?

We have much to mourn, whether we stand or sit or kneel or sleep through dreams ravaged by a simply unbelievable reality, and mourn we must. There is a difference between the humanity we have been given as stewards of ourselves and each other, and the inhumanity with which so many are callously treated under the boot of indifference, oppression and worse. There is a difference between the way things are and the way things ought to be.

Today I give thanks for being able to tell the difference.

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You hate Obama, we get it. What else do you have to contribute?

Context: Just talked with a man in a barbershop about Obama not going to France for Charlie Hebdo solidarity rally, and when I pointed out that there were security concerns and a thought that maybe his presence would unduly polarize the event (ironically enough since his absence was equally polarizing; perhaps it’s just expected at this point), and the guy’s face formed the most sarcastic grimace – as if he had just majorly psyched me out in the locker room of our middle school – and then he launched into “fucking disgrace of a President, he must love this shit.”

Response: Seeing it face to face is jarring, let me tell you. Birthers morphed into Benghazi into Obamacare stealing my Medicare into activist judges into a job-killing EPA into white-cop-hating into his daughter has that stank face into he didn’t fly to FRANCE – France! – to participate in a memorial/tribute to people killed in another country for work protected by Free Speech but that most people hadn’t heard about until last week.

Two things in play – Obamaphobia and the modern compelling need to insert one’s self into every tragedy, emote and blame. In this case, Obama’s refusal to play that game is, ironically (except not at all at this point), the sticking point. Had he participated directly in the grief-and-condemnation theater and hijacked the more organic, personal, and genuine grief being expressed in France, he would be taken to task for that.

Big shootings, bombings and attacks are difficult to comprehend, so to fill in the gaps, you go to your stand-by … Thanks, Obama.

Big picture: It’s all just so tired. So lazy, so predictable and so very tired. This is the contribution to the debate: an endless chorus of hate and disapproval, lacking any discernible focus on facts or the collective endgame. It’s the most unoriginal and powerful expression out there; it follows a script and ensures that the debate – the great debate that America always needs – is a festering pool of insignificance; of thoughtlessness.

Contribute something else or shut the fuck up.

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On a Train Home From the City that Killed Eric Garner

I’m not at a loss for words. I have enough of them. I have an onslaught of them. The issue is not lacking the words, but discerning which of the many completely appropriate nouns and verbs and adjectives are the most deserving and capable of carrying the burden of such sad days.

This is not the America we were promised, and indeed it’s nothing we have ever seen except in history books, subtly placed beside assurances that such horrors are passed. The privilege to believe that things have been resolved and sorted, because believing is a thing good boys do when things happen in such a way that routinely affirm the merit of their makeup and their get up and go.

Not all good boys believe because not all good boys are affirmed as routinely as that, well, at least not for their goodness. 

It’s hard to truly embrace the reality of the ongoing horrors and mutual, shared failures of American life when the implication is that we – people like me in ways apparently relevant, though why, it is not clear – get far, far more than we fairly deserve. No one likes to be told that they have things unearned; that they’re sucking on the teat of circumstance and happenstance. “Privilege” is suddenly a four letter word despite its persistence at nine. It is assumed to be a word with a malevolent purpose; that assumption quietly operating as a thorough affirmation of the truth that the universe is so desperately trying to impart onto us if only we would be so good to listen.

Truths, really. Like the words I could use instead of the ones you now see… plural. Varied. Frightening, maybe.

It’s not that I have it so good because of the color of my skin, although that would be a completely accurate way to say it. But words matter, and they matter to people who look like me a great deal when it comes to this issue in particular, so I won’t call it “good,” the life laid out for me because I’m white. It’s just … better?

Wait, no. Not “better.” That word doesn’t work as well as it might.

It’s “different” plus whatever word can make it all mean that we get a certain amount of wiggle room – space to exist without being stepped upon by the severe weight of judgment – for us to stretch our legs and survive mistakes that would have ruined the reputations and lives of men and women to whom we are similarly situated. To live in a reality where the idea of personal responsibility has fewer inexplicably deadly consequences. We get all of that and, if we want, we can pretend that our personal wiggle room doesn’t exist because, we plead, the people who have it worse don’t matter when there are people out there who have it so much better.

Yeah. Privilege is the word. There isn’t another that works quite as well.

But it’s not monochromatic. It’s not linear, and not exclusively white or male. At least not always.  It is persistent, and often diverse and widely relevant. And above all, the word does not necessarily accuse and assign fault so much as it is instructive and revelatory. It is the thing that allows so many of us (more often than we might want to admit, and despite the fact that we might feel quite the opposite from time to time) the opportunity to be apart from certain horrors that are happening somewhere else to someone else, and then choose to either feel relief or to feel justified that we are us, and not them; to choose to feel like we’ve been granted no small amount of luck that history has dealt us a more favorable card than some, or to feel that we really control our destiny in every way and deserve each sliver of favor that the universe serves us. And not them. 

The choice of how to react to the myriad horrors, well, it doesn’t really feel like a choice anymore. With so much overwhelming evidence displaying just how our institutions of criminal, civil and social justice value us more than them, it feels like a necessity. Can we really pretend that we earned much of anything? Can we really pretend that we are in a position to judge that they are simply getting what they deserve? Can we really ignore the complete travesty of suffering arising out of nothing more than the ignorance of some among us?

As the beneficiaries of social systems built to benefit their own architects and people like them, can we still pretend that there is no obligation to bear witness to how incredibly screwed up it is that truly lovely, dynamic and civil people can all too easily become others struggling under the weighty boot of American injustice?

So I won’t kid myself. We don’t necessarily have it all that “good,” the people I identify with – but it’s a goddamn tremendous privilege all the same.

The words may not have been right, and maybe I’ll choose different ones tomorrow, but some choices are hard.

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Meanwhile, in Arizona…

News heats up, and alas, so should I, I suppose. 

I wanted to be a lawyer for about two hours in middle school. I was watching a movie not really appropriate for my age – thanks parents! – and Andrew Beckett was this sweet guy, super smart and suddenly thrust into an almost unimaginable situation of unfairness. Co-workers colluded against him, and for what? Being gay didn’t make a ton of sense to me at the time. The film provided enough snippets of seediness that I could grasp that the guy wasn’t 100% pure, whatever that meant, but I was also on my way to discovering what sex was at that point (albeit in a very preliminary sense), so it wasn’t all that hard to sympathize. Beyond that, it all just seemed so fucking irrelevant to the question of what kind of lawyer Beckett was and whether the way he was being treated had any basis in fair play.  

So when he decided to fight back and enlist the help of another lawyer, and when he died but still won, I sat there, enthralled at the prospect of doing so much with words and argument and the presentation of thoughts. It was all immensely interesting because there was purpose; there was good being done. 

Then my mom, upon hearing my piqued interest in what I believed to be an illustrious career path, informed me that being a lawyer means long hours and hard work and being away from your family, in addition to the opportunity to do the kind of stuff I saw in Philadelphia.

So, unsurprisingly, I chose laziness and gave up that dream, held ever-so-briefly.

I am, however, now a lawyer. Nearly six years out of law school and admitted to practice in New York State for five, I do this thing for my living, and from time to time I get the chance to do some good while throwing my craft about in moments of intellectual sport. It is fun as hell.  It is rewarding.

And, yes, it is fucking maddening very often. But never so much as when the profession I chose – for many of the same reasons that I felt when I was 13 or so, plus some other more pragmatic ones – is, on a fundamental level, bastardized and made into mockery. Those moments when law is transformed into lawlessness, up becomes down, and those of us who care to give a shit are wondering how the fuck it could have gotten so shitty. 

Practically, the law is often bastardized and made into mockery.  One need only look into the courtrooms of New York City to see weird perversions of justice via over-packed courts and careless advocates. But, on a fundamental level, fairness and justice and right is lingering, underpinning the system with rules and codes and statutes borne out of reasonable debate and reasoned care for the outcome. 

And then there’s Arizona – and to a lesser degree, thankfully, Kansas, which has nipped it’s insane legislation in the bud – which has taken law, swallowed it, and shat it out in a gesture as arrogant as it is abhorrent. Arizona, which has now, pending its Executive’s signature, codified hateful discrimination in the guise of religious freedom.  Arizona, which has now chosen to take America’s darkest moments of prejudice and bigotry, dress it up with a modern look and reboot it for the next generation.

Jim Crow is back, and he looooooks fabulous!

This is beyond shitty. Not only does this piece of garbage legislation, in its very essence, encroach upon the freedoms guaranteed in the 14th Amendment – that quaint constitutional add-on that guarantees every citizen equal fucking protection of the laws of his/her state and, by way of federal case law, requires that a state choosing to treat someone unequally better have a damned good reason to jump into the mire of “well, yeah, we don’t like THEM as much as we like US, so fuck THEM” – but it does so with as much insidiousness as one could imagine. RELIGIOUS FUCKING LIBERTY?!? Is that the religious liberty that is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution, which also expressly forbids the government from making any law concerning the establishment of religion? That establishment clause, generally speaking, that forbids the government from passing a law if it (a) does not have a legitimate secular purpose, (b) advances or inhibits religion, or (c) results in excessive entanglement with religion? 

Yeah, that one.

On their face, laws that carve out space in our civic life for religious groups to exist are pretty problematic, since they’re typically lobbied for by similar groups that want space carved out for similar reasons … here, the reason being that some Christians don’t like icky LGBT types and YUCK GROSSSSSSSS.  So Arizona wants to carve out space for the expression of this religious idea to take place, but in doing so gives a not-so-subtle nod to religious groups that choose, as one of their central tenets, the idea that some people are better than others and, more to the point, the those lesser people don’t deserve, under civil law, the same stuff that the good people get.

Arizona has established, as its state-sponsored religion, a branch of religion that reveres its people as holy and considers difference evil to be scorned not just with a sneer or a hiss, but with the denial of public services. Arizona has established a religion that separates and divides, and all for the sake of some vague sense that the intolerant must be given state-sanctioned liberty to be as intolerant as they fucking choose; that allowing free exercise of prayer and liturgy and belief that seeks to condemn homosexuality is not nearly enough … people must be permitted to condemn homosexuality with every single thing they do.

This is disgusting public policy, and even more disgusting religion.

Don’t want to serve everyone you don’t like who comes into your establishment? Open a private club or don’t own a restaurant. Don’t want to provide prescriptions or medical care to people you don’t like? The ethical standards of your profession say otherwise, so perhaps you should do something else.  Give me a fucking break and don’t be a dick.

A person being gay is not an affront to your belief that it’s wrong, nor is the requirement that you serve him coffee that he pays for, nor is the requirement that you respond to his 911 call just the same as you otherwise would. Your religious liberty does not give you special privileges in a society necessarily founded upon the liberty to not be religious and to pursue happiness in whatever way you feel is right. Your right to be an intolerant prick does not somehow give you license to prioritize it over the fundamental rights of others, christ that’s beyond selfish and it’s not how we do it. You may feel uncomfortable having to accept homosexuals into your business or your community, but tough fucking breaks. America isn’t meant to be comfortable. It is meant to be fair and it is meant to be free.

For all of us.

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It isn’t about them. It’s about us.

I’m reposting myself here because I’m vain and all, but a scribbled thought on a comment thread is just as good as an original scribble here, especially when I can copy and paste.

Governor Cuomo has proposed a plan to provide a college education to New York’s prison population. In the ballpark of $5,000 per year per inmate. Not a terribly novel idea, but the fact that it’s progressive relative to New York and many parts of America makes it all the more crucial. Education is the answer, we’re told, so it’s entirely sensible to explore whether it could be the answer for prisoners, particularly if we hope a prisoner won’t find his way back to a criminal conviction.

The biggest and most annoying retort to the idea deals with two overlapping concepts: prisoners don’t deserve a thing (higher ed) that we pay out the ass for in the real world, and fuck if I’m going to allow my tax dollars to help a prisoner get what I’m steeped in debt trying to achieve.

I’ve read and heard this refrain probably upwards of fifty times in the past few days. It’s enormous bullshit.

The “I have it rough so I’m opposed to anything that might make someone else’s life better until my life is perfect” doctrine is pervasive, divisive and, in many cases, wholly counterproductive. Asking “why do I have to pay for college when this dirtbag gets it for free” ignores (a) the college you’re paying for isn’t paired with strip searches, the crushing loss of freedom, and daily fear of violence and, worse, sexual violence; (b) the quality of the education you’re paying for is exponentially better than what a guy would get in prison due to quality of instruction, the school community and the lack of highly intense stresses as noted above; (c) the high price of college is an issue independent of this discussion and is a legit source of frustration that is in no way cured by furthering the notion that higher education need not be provided to each and every segment of society; (d) we ALL benefit if we can find a way to stop recidivism, and at this point we have to be willing to try every option, since we’ve proven ourselves to be pretty terrible at imprisoning people and releasing them as a better version of themselves; (e) we generally have no problem, as a society, with long incarcerations, sometimes administered by private penal corporations, no matter the social and economic costs, and no matter that the private companies have a financial incentive to NOT rehabilitate the prisoner populations; and (f) the scumbag you don’t want to help in any way is a person. A person. A person who made a mistake and maybe regrets it and, based on statistics, serving a mandatory minimum for drugs and maybe never hurt anyone but himself. He’s a fucking person. Hell, he may not have even done the crime for which he is serving time.

What we do and how we treat him while he is a ward of the state after being prosecuted by the People isn’t about him. It’s about us. Do we want to be a nation who doesn’t give a shit about prisoners and is willing to forfeit their life out of some bizarre sense of justice mixed with rage and a side of feigned superiority? Or can we be better?

/mic drop

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The Crushing Weight of Our Distress

(NSFW, slightly, if you care… I do not. I am angry. This is catharsis as per usual.)

A something happens to force your head firmly into a tight grasp of your hands, fingers pressing down on temples, your hair tightly stretched back, symbolic perhaps of your mind reaching its outer limits as it tries to understand things complex and infuriating and persistent. Events play out before our eyes and as we try to process these things for ourselves, but others beat us to the concluding thought and feign to make up our minds for us. Media conglomerates urge us to step in line, giving few facts but myriad end points.

This past weekend, a woman performed on television and she was kind of a trainwreck but whatever, MTV is known for trainwrecks. But the woman was wearing underwear and little else and she danced sexually and grinded up on on a male singer, one who incidentally has a hit single about a woman being an animal…. so, as we have before, we have shifted to a grand gesture of sanctimony and protecting “THE CHILDREN” and we do it in such a unanimous, quick way, via twitter and cable news and the like, that we never stop to breathe in the complexity and the contours of what it is we actually saw and why it is that our first inclination is to call Miley Cyrus a whore for what she did on television over the course of a few brief minutes.

This is the same storyline we’ve seen before. Woman gets overtly sexual to make a point about art or culture or just to have fun – GASP – and suddenly she has to account for her behavior in a way that a man, frankly, rarely does. Fuck, I hate Miley Cyrus – her music is terrible, for one – but shouldn’t she be able to perform like that without having to answer to an army of angry moms and dads and news anchors and internet commentators who have nothing to say about her music being bad but everything to say about how she’s being a bad example?

How exactly is she being a bad example, generally? Is it making millions before she’s even 18? Or having a career that she can shape with her own choices and in doing so explore her identity in a way that the rest of us simply never will?

We’re willing to accept a lot as a culture … gun deaths and national debt and crippling urban poverty and acquaintance rape and men who write songs about subjecting a woman to his sexual will… but dancing in underwear and making a mockery of the sexual culture which we allow to persist on TV, that somehow crosses the line.

Because she’s a woman. Don’t bother arguing. Don’t put up some objections as to her gender being the biggest reason that her career has specific, preordained limits and that we’re talking about her performance making Robin Thicke’s wife embarrassed rather than a Robin Thicke hit that likens a woman to some anthropomophized beast, asking her to accept that the man she is with won’t “make her,” (because a woman’s self is dependent on being made by a man, duh), and asking her allow him to liberate her… with his dick, probably.

This is the kind of music we accept. Miley’s crime, perhaps, was not playing her part sexy enough.

A female performer has to be able to – she fucking has to – be allowed to take chances with her art, such as it is; to take chances by playing the part weird or freaky or outside the preordained limits within which we would prefer to exist. She has to be able to do it without being held to account in this way; without a million people calling her a slut for what she did during a fraction of her weekend.

This kind of paradigm has played itself out before, publicly – Janet or Marilyn or Rihanna or Madonna or Tori … women who from time to time are sexual in their art, just like we prefer them, right?, but who from time to time crossed that ever vague line into unacceptable. What happened after we saw Janet’s breast? Where did her career go? And then, inevitably, where did Timberlake go?

Can we find a place where we can dislike what a woman does with her sexuality without, as the only publicly acceptable response, putting her in a place where she’s a whore or an animal or dirty, and instead just accept that it wasn’t our cup of tea but that doesn’t mean she isn’t still a fucking person. Not a whore. Not a slut. Not a skank. A woman, simply.

We have to do better with this stuff. More patient, more discerning, more forgiving and more accepting. Maybe a performance like Miley’s isn’t acceptable. But maybe it’s simply because it was bad, but not that Ms. Cyrus, in any fundamental way, is.

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