Tuesday, June 30, 2020

What It Takes

I don't know where my son is going, exactly, but I know that he'll be fine once he gets there.
I say this because he managed a couple of things: Completed his undergraduate degree in less time than either one of his parents. He replaced the engine in his car. When it comes to getting your hands dirty, he's the man. The motto of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo is "learn by doing," and if it were just the past five years that taught him that, all that tuition was well spent.
But I know that he showed up to those hallowed halls with great chunks of that ethos already in place. There is the story from his formative years, when his mother was rushing him away from sand castle construction on the beach and he begged for just a little more time. When he was done, he exclaimed, "See? Give a kid an extra fifteen minutes and he'll create a masterpiece." Probably the most impressive thing about that assertion was his own confidence in what he had accomplished. A masterpiece. By his own reckoning.
It was during these days that he was linked almost inexorably with his childhood home. It was a rare occurrence that took him far from his mom and dad, and the place where all his stuff was. He was most comfortable with the people, places and things that he knew. His parents didn't do much to keep this from being the case. We were happy to go everywhere together. When it came time to go to college. He was ready. I confess that I wasn't sure how this was going to work. Four hours away? I steeled myself for the phone call that would come, begging for rescue.
It never came. We got some calls, but not that one. A speeding ticket. Some requests for additional funds. He was doing his thing. He was ready. When things got tough, and the grades weren't there, he did the things he needed to do to push on through. I would be lying if I said that he didn't want to give up a couple of times.
He didn't.
He took all the things he had learned and put them to great use. He learned more, and he put those things to still more use. He terrified his parents by announcing that he was going to replace his own brakes. Not the part of the car that made it stop. That could work out so horribly. But it didn't. Then he announced that he was going to put a V8 in his Toyota Supra. The one he named Hobbes. He was sure he could do it. Over the course of weeks that drifted into months and into completing his degree and a global pandemic, he kept working. He learned by doing. I remember the phone call we got on the day that he finally got the engine to seat properly in his beloved car. He told us he was bouncing around the house. We didn't need to see it. We could hear it in his voice. I confess that I was a little jealous. All those extra fifteen minutes, he had created a masterpiece.
And he knew it.
I'm not worried about my son. He's ready for whatever this wacky world into which he is wandering out into. He has what it takes.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Little Moves

My, how things change.
Lady Antebellum has become Lady A, in recognition of the somewhat tarnished glow of the "old south." A similar fate came to the country-music band Dixie Chicks who will heretofore be referred to only as The Chicks. And they will no longer be whistling, in case you were curious.
Pretty solid cosmetic changes, but changes nonetheless. People are starting to question just how woke they care to be. Many of us have been asleep for a long, long time.
Which is why, when I read the news that Disney was going to rework their Splash Mountain attraction to a Princess and the Frog theme, I took notice. For decades now, Disneyland has kept their little corner of Critter Country an embarrassing little sore that featured characters from their 1946 live action/animated feature Song Of The South. Zipadeedoodah indeed. A movie that is all but completely disavowed by the house that the Mouse built will now be moved to the "remember when" pile of rides. Recent live-action remakes of such classics as Lady and the Tramp and Dumbo have excised some of the more egregious dollops of racial stereotypes. Gone are the Siamese cats from Lady. Away went the crows from Dumbo. As it turns out, all of that pandering to baser elements was just lazy storytelling. Writing real characters with human concerns and complications instead of low-hanging cliches makes it a little more work. But it's worth it.
Speaking of children, at this same time I received notice that the Oakland School Board had voted to dismantle their police force. "School Security Officers" will stop being a thing at the end of 2020. They approved the “George Floyd Resolution” which eliminates the school district's police force of ten sworn officers and fifty unarmed campus safety officers. Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell wrote, "Police in schools are ultimately a symptom of much larger issues. If we are going to really make progress, it is not enough to merely remove the symptom. We have to transform the underlying conditions within the school system that have brought us to this place in the first instance."
Little moves. You can't turn an ocean liner around in a parking lot, it takes a lot of sea. But it can be done. 
Keep watching. And applauding. And helping where you can. 

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Game On

Baseball is back.
In what seems like yet another desperate move to paint NORMAL over what is the most troubled and difficult year in recent memory, the powers that are Major League Baseball announced that games will commence starting in the last week of July. This year.
Never mind that every state that has opened their doors to kick-start their economies have suffered spikes of new cases of COVID-19. Never mind that there will only be sixty games. And don't even mention that the three weeks of "spring training" will take place in the dead of summer. Apple pie, Chevrolet and hot dogs can't be far behind.
Nor can the National Basketball Association. Their season will wrap up inside a bubble created in Disney World starting at the end of July. Those teams that have already been mathematically removed from playoff contention will be staying home. You might remember when basketball stopped. Suddenly. Two days before the rest of the country was sent home to wait out the pandemic, a flurry of positive cases were identified among NBA players. Then they closed Disneyland.
Everything changed.
Somewhere in there, I stopped missing sports. Initially I was caught with my rhythms disturbed. Without a game to anticipate, watch, then reflect on with my friends and neighbors, it seemed as though a chunk of my life had been forcibly removed.
Or maybe it was actually a relief. When my son came up to visit for Father's Day last week there was a moment where we pined for the hours of sitting in the stands, watching a game together. There are years of shared dad and lad moments connected to spectator sports. And at this point I feel the need to say that I fully expect to leave the door open a crack for what has been a shared experience for my family for decades.
But somewhere in the midst of the isolation, there came this other wave. The one that said that Black Lives Matter. All those players who have been trying to shine a light on those lives suddenly came into sharp focus because there were no games to distract us. We were faced with the reality of how we treat Steph Curry, George Floyd, Patrick Mahomes, Trayvon Martin, Bubba Wallace. Some of them are stars. Some of them are martyrs. I have thought a lot about this over the past three months. I am glad to have had the time to reflect. I don't want things to be normal if that means that people have to get sick and die, or be brutalized because of the color of their skin. These are games that no one wins.
They are not games.
This is not normal.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Casual Causality

Casual racism. No, not the kind you do on Fridays or while wearing khakis. We are talking about the sort of thing that happens far too often. This is usually the case when someone (white) lets fly with something that of course they "did not mean." These are the types of things that come just before an insistence that there was nothing racist intended and that the person who casually let their racist flag fly is not really a racist. How could they be? They have x number of black friends, where x equals a number from one to "lots."
Let me make sure we all get this, by the way: I work in a school with a predominately black population and there have been plenty of times where white guy (me) has felt uncomfortable haring or seeing how "my people" are viewed. I could take offense, and shout "reverse discrimination." I could feel hurt or frightened. Or I could realize that the system that has been in place for our country's history does not truly allow for this to have any traction at all. I accept the fact that I show up as white guy until I distinguish myself as a human being with any other traits that don't give rise to that cultural reality. Not a stereotype. White males own and run everything. They are the oppressors and the ones who made the system work for them for all these years. Little treats like Affirmative Action and the Civil Rights Act did not solve the problem.
This is how casual racism continues to exist. Carrying a Confederate flag and shouting racist epithets at the top of your lungs just makes you a cartoon. Very few, if any, humans of any stripe would allow these idiots to have more than their ten minutes of attention before switching over to something a little more subtle. And maybe a little more dangerous. The Karens of the world are generally horrified once they have seen or heard themselves. Karens of all genders. It's time to stop acting shocked and change the way we treat one another. Think before you speak is a little piece of advice I would like to pass along.
While we're on the topic of "casual," how about treating all women better? Casual sexism isn't casual sex, but it's probably a result of this sort of barely thinking. "She wanted it." "They all want it." Those are the sounds of a terribly insecure human being. What we want and with whom is not for anyone to assume. Providing any sort of gratification for anyone just to get through the world that white men made for their entertainment is no longer okay. "You should smile more." Maybe, but only if no one ever said those words again.
Once upon a time, I wrote An Apology For All Men. I did this as a response to being on the watching end of a world that didn't seem to allow people to be heard. Except white men. I wish I could say that apology made a difference. Not that I can see. So I'll stop apologizing and remind everyone that we will all be here together until the end of the world and so we need to get better at how we treat one another.

Friday, June 26, 2020

American Idols

Someday they'll erect a statue in your honor.
And eventually, that statue will be taken down.
It happened to Saddam Hussein. And maybe, like Saddam, the same folks who took it down might want to put it back up again.
Statues have a funny way of not aging. Made out of things like bronze or marble, they tend to outlast whatever zeitgeist initially put them up. Statues are more of the fixture type of elements. This has a lot to do with weight. Not necessarily the historical version, but the physical. The monument to Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia weighs twelve tons. It is sitting on a forty foot pedestal and stands an additional twenty-one feet above that. Taking down that bad boy would take some serious vandalism and more than a passing interest in the acceleration of gravity. Wouldn't it be easier just to let it be? Probably. Cheaper, too.
But it would be wrong. Robert E. Lee was the commander of the Confederate Army during the Civil War. If you're not up on your American history, that was the side that was trying to keep things the way they were down south. Slaves. That was the side that lost. And even though General Lee personally felt that slavery was evil, he still fought to defend those who would see that institution continue. The statue in question is located in what was the capital of the Confederacy. I guess that makes sense.
Until we get to the part where the statue was commissioned in 1917, and dedicated in 1890. For you history buffs, that's more than twenty-five years after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. More than twenty-five years after Juneteenth. Why was the statue of a loser, and a mighty big one at that, erected in the center of the city that was the conquered capital of a failed uprising? I thought that history was written by the victors. Why isn't there a statue of Ulysses S. Grant riding high above the traffic circle in the middle of town?
Maybe because most of these monuments were thrown up long after they were tributes to the "heroes" of the Confederacy. They were placed in conspicuous places throughout the south, peaking during the early 1900's. Kind of like there were folks who didn't want us to forget the olden days. Or maybe they wanted to keep their thumbs on the racist button just in case anyone would want to forget that legacy. Care to guess what year Maryland decided to add statues of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman to their capital?
More than two hundred years after that whole Robert E. Lee mess. Debacle. Atrocity. The statue of Ms. Tubman stands an "historically accurate four feet ten inches tall." And even with that relative height disparity, I'm betting Harriett could topple General Lee any day.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Help Police

Those two words up there have plenty of meaning, alone or together. A lot depends on how you choose to assert them. Either word can be a verb or a noun. But perhaps the most regular occurrence of this phrase is a plea for assistance. When things go bad, who aside from Ghostbusters are you gonna call? Help! Police!
There is a moment in the movie Fletch, where Chevy Chase is confronted by Joe Don Baker who plays the crooked chief who is behind the heroin ring being run on the beach. With perfect deadpan irony, Fletch looks up and says, "Thank God, the police." Things have just gone from bad to worse for this investigative reporter. The cavalry has arrived, but not to rescue anyone.
This is what I keep thinking about as we wade through the weeks and days of tumult and questions about police reform. I am certainly old enough to remember playing cops and robbers without a stitch of Chase-ian irony. We knew who the good guys were. We knew who the bad guys were. Of course this was right about the time that a sitting American president felt the need to stand up in front of a group of press and a national television audience to tell them "I am not a crook." Well, as it turned out, Richard Nixon was a crook. The President of the United States was a bad guy. He got out of the White House just ahead of the cops coming to take him away.
At least that's how my twelve year old imagination had it.
It was also around this time that we found out just how bad a guy the Federal Bureau of Investigation had at the top of their ranks. J. Edgar Hoover was the head cop in the United States from 1924 until his death in 1972. For a long time, Hoover was looked upon as a national hero for all his crime fighting exploits. Presidents came and went, but Hoover stayed on. And by the time he was taken out of his well-feathered nest by the angels, he had become every bit as corrupt as any of the ten most wanted. He had a profound issue with the burgeoning civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties. Some of those presidents for whom he served were afraid of him. Even Richard Nixon.
Fear can be a pretty amazing motivator.
Along about the mid-seventies, the trope of one good cop was established. Frank Serpico, in real life and as portrayed by Al Pacino was one of the early whistleblowers. Frank was the one who brought down his fellow cops when he shined a light on the NYPD corruption. In the late sixties and early seventies. Serpico was a lone wolf, and for his trouble he was set up to be murdered by his fellow officers. Setting the stage for rogue cops to be the standard, both in real life and in media.
It is now 2020. The need to rely on old chops like "a few bad apples" doesn't fly very far when we are presented daily with new evidence of bad apples. Everywhere. Those in law enforcement who do not welcome reform of some sort at this time must have been asleep for the past fifty years. Or maybe they were just going to different movies than I was.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

The Anthropology Of Peace

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has." Those are the words of Margaret Mead. They have been applied to any number of events or coincidences in the fifty-some years since she uttered them. Come to think of it, I don't expect that Doctor Mead uttered those words. It was more likely a proclamation. 
I would like to assert that this moment in time is a prime example of such committed citizenry. I am not uttering this. I am asserting. The first example I would like to cite the peaceful march through Oakland organized by two nineteen year olds, Xavier Brown and Akil Riley. What started on Instagram ended up bringing fifteen thousand people together to remind us all that Black Lives Matter. 
Speaking of social media and teenagers, the bad rap that these two things often receive from farts of a certain age will be excused while we lavish praise on all those Tik Tokkers who ordered free tickets to the Trump rally in Tulsa over the weekend, causing all kinds of heightened anticipation among the MAGAts. There was wild talk about needing to make a second address outside to speak to the multitudes that were most certainly descending on the Oil Capital of Oklahoma. That was cancelled when it became apparent that the hundreds of thousands were more like a little over ten thousand, leaving a bunch of empty seats. The nineteen thousand seats in the Bank of Oklahoma Center were mostly unfilled. Fire department estimates of the crowd was around 6,200. It's difficult to say for certain whether teenagers with cell phones disrupted the "president's" plans for a comeback, but you have to appreciate the commitment.
Which is precisely what we need right now. You don't have to pull down a statue of some racist figurehead to make a difference. You need to be thoughtful and committed to change the world. Another great woman once wrote that "hope is the thing with feathers." For the first time in months I feel like I could finally stuff a couple of pillows.
Don't stop now. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Looking For Understanding

Periodically I find myself in a moment of compassion attempting to empathize with the so-called "silent majority" that the "president" insists will swoop in and carry him to another term in office. What is it that makes these Americans feel that they have to gain from another year of this nonsense?
Oops. Sorry. Forgot to turn on the empathy switch.
Maybe you're out of work and you're looking for a reason. You have certainly paid your dues. There must be something or someone else to blame. It might be that the job you used to do has been given away to another person. In another country. For far less than the wage you were making. Now you're making nothing and someone else is doing what you did for less. That's just wrong. And it couldn't be your fault. This is when someone steps in and tells you that foreigners who are not Americans are taking jobs away from Americans. This someone assures you that this will stop if you elect him or her to the highest office in the land. You want your job back, don't you?
Whew. There's one down. Notice that I didn't even bring up all the American corporations that made the choice to send jobs elsewhere in search of the almighty dollar. Corporations that benefit from enormous tax breaks given out by the same fella who says he's doing it all for American workers. Never mind the possibility that the jobs that were lost came about as an industry that was dying because it needs to evolve into the twenty-first century. If someone told me that if I just stood by and voted for them and I didn't have to do anything and everything would go back to the way they used to be, I might be tempted.
Not really.
Just like I would probably want to check out the numbers tossed out with reckless abandon about illegal immigration and crime, both of which have been going down over the past decade or so. Not up. So maybe it's the guns?
If you're one of those constitutional scholars who insists the Second Amendment assures you of the right to strap a grenade launcher to the side of your truck and to pack heat when you head down to Chipotle, you are probably terrified of those radical Democrats coming to your house to take your guns away. I have never had the sort of relationship with a firearm that I would consider intimate, so maybe I'm the wrong person to ask, but I do wonder about the need for automatic weapons when ordering a fast food burrito.
Which makes me think that there may be some fear involved in this whole Trump thing. Someone who reassures us all that we can all be great again if we just stop doing all those difficult things like hope and change. Resignation and fear are so much easier to maintain. And the tickets are free. The self-described billionaire doesn't want your money. He doesn't need your money. He'll do the job for free. Which kind of brings us back to that whole worry about losing your job. A lot of Americans share this concern. Maybe that's what's driving "the president" right now. Given his recent track record, who would hire him if he loses this gig?
Sorry. Not a lot of empathy here.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Lag Time

The "president" said n an interview with the Wall Street Journal last week that he made Juneteenth "very famous." Pretty solid Trumpian move, if not straight up white male privilege. His words were these: "I did something good: I made Juneteenth very famous. It's actually an important event, an important time. But nobody had ever heard of it." In case you missed it, this dullard is referring to the celebration on June 19th of the end of slavery. Not the Emancipation Proclamation, which had become law in the North two and a half years earlier. This was when sufficient Union soldiers landed in Galveston Texas, announcing the end of the war and carrying the charge of upholding the terms of the surrender. Slaves were free. This was, for many, the true Independence Day. 
Can I say that I learned all of that from my teachers in elementary school? Junior high? High school? College? Nope. In the version I learned in a classroom, Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery with a stroke of his pen in 1863. There was no mention of the two and a half years it took to bring about the actual release from bondage. There was no mention of how some consider that there may have been a delay imposed by those sympathetic to the "plight" of plantation owners who would have no way to bring in their cotton harvest if their labor force was suddenly unchained. That a messenger was killed en route to delivering the news and all was kept quiet until troops from the North came down to make an issue out of it. What was Abe going to do? Was he going to ride down south himself and tell loyal members to the Confederacy to knock it off? He could have been shot. 
No. It wasn't my formal education that gave me this news. It was a friend of mine with whom I worked installing office furniture. He asked me if I had plans for Juneteenth. I had no clue. He did. He and his family had a big barbecue planned and were going to spend the day educating white folks like me. Embarrassed and confounded, I took this to heart and remembered it when I moved to Oakland, where Juneteenth didn't need to be explained or "made famous" by some white guy. 
Every day is a chance to learn. Every day a new bit of information falls into our collective lap and we can choose what to do with it. There is a version of history that we need to know, and it's not the one that makes the happiest story. There is a celebration on June 19th, and it serves as a reminder to us all that we still have a long way to go. We're at least two and a half years behind. 

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Where Were You In '62?

I did the math. I will be one hundred years old in 2062. Okay, so it wasn't a really difficult equation and required no regrouping or scratch paper. But as an added bonus I should like to point out that this birthday will occur forty-two years from now. I know. That wasn't terrifically challenging either, but the gift of this nice round number 2020 allows a good deal of easy reflection.
I bring this up because it was on my forty-fifth birthday that I moaned to my wife, who was asking me a polite "how you doin'?" with "I'm halfway to ninety."
That was thirteen years ago. At that time, I had a ten year old son. Not even out of elementary school. Now I am the proud owner of one college graduate. Road tested and time honored. My own father died when he was sixty-one. I plan on hanging around substantially longer than that, since I want to live at least thirty-nine years longer than my old man.
See what I did there? It's like a puzzle, and all the pieces add up. Like I was thirty-three years old when dad passed. At the time, I really couldn't imagine what the next twenty-five years might hold. Like the way that I found my way into a career in teaching. It was dad's life insurance that put a big bump in our finances allowing us to buy the house into which my son was born. Twenty-three years ago. It pains me to think about all the things I might have shared with my father, not the least of which is his namesake, his grandson. He would have been eighty-six, taking in all the hoopla, and probably getting all misty at the thought of how time flies.
It doesn't really. Fly, that is. It's just that we go for long periods of time without noticing the steady churning of the days and weeks until years pass by. Which is precisely why I have decided to go ahead and just plan on sticking around until I see a century. George Burns famously made a date with his agent to have him scheduled to play Caesar's Palace on his hundredth birthday. "I can't die," he would insist, "I'm booked."
I want to be around to see my son's wedding. To see his children go about their paces. I want to attend their commencements and promotions. I want to see how things turn out. I do not think this is too much to ask. For now it's another year in the can, and I'm headed in the right direction. In two more years, I'll be sixty. But I guess you might have already put that one together.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Stereophonic Sound

I expect that I spent around ten hours installing the new stereo in my mother-in-law's car. I say this not because it took and extraordinarily long time, or that I was extremely efficient with my time. I don't expect either one is the truth. As usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The fact that I spent chunks of those hours in front of a computer screen asking for help from YouTube, and Googling wires and connections and support form various sources.
I didn't do it like in the olden days. Way back when, I would take the wires in the box and connect them to other wires that I was pretty sure would give me the result I was after. I had heard stories of diagrams that would produce understanding that might lead to and expeditious installation, but I had also heard that only wussies used wiring diagrams. After all, how hard could it be?
Plus is positive. Minus is negative. I was even pretty hip to the ideal that a straight copper wire would be the positive and zinc was the negative. That and a pair of wire cutters would keep me busy for at least a few hours. Getting that tape deck to sit just so in the cavity where there had once been nothing but an AM radio was an exercise in patience more than it was electrical engineering. When I put three-way speakers in the back of my Volkswagen bug, I used cardboard boxes filled with rags to hold them up to the deck behind the passenger seat. Not exactly elegant, but loud. Real loud.
Because that's what it took, way back then, to get me to hang upside down on the floor of my car, looking for the fuse that wouldn't blow if I ran an equalizer out of it. I would like to say that all that additional equipment and attention made me some sort of authority on sound systems, but mostly it just meant I managed to stuff more noise into the small cars I owned.
And then there was the Vega incident. The one where I purchased speakers that were far too large for the polite holes put there by the Chevrolet designers. No matter. I had a couple of friends who were more than happy to climb into the back seat with a jigsaw with a metal blade and when that tapped out, a pair of tin snips that my buddy the wrestler hacked and gashed until those Jensen Triaxials fit just fine.
More or less.
Because in my youth car stereo was a transitory state. There was always something to switch out or update. There was always one more thing that would make interior of my vehicle the place to be. Or so I believed. Eventually, I started to accept the stereos that came installed in the vehicles I bought. I was the market for those cassette adapters for external CD players. Why couldn't my mobile sound compete with that inside my home?
Fast forward to this weeks challenge. I learned about wiring harnesses and fuse taps. I surrendered to calling my son for more help than I care to admit, but he talked me through it. When it was all over, I had the faintest urge to try doing something similar to our family car.
That passed.
For now.

Friday, June 19, 2020

It's Only A Model

I watched a documentary last week about flat-earthers. The title, cleverly, was Behind The Curve. The focus of the film is flat earth celebrity Mark Sargent. Mark is the host of a YouTube channel devoted to Flat Earth Clues. Each revelation of the vast conspiracies that drive this whole "the world is a ball flying through space" is a charge for him to move forward in spite of all the so-called "scientists" who might try and convince him of their absurd notions. Mark is, at first glance, one of those nuts that think the earth is flat and the moon landing was faked. But his enthusiasm is engaging, and it's a fun ride to watch him take on NASA and the powers that be. The conviction with which he speaks about the giant wall of ice that encircles the flat disc we are shown in models he happily displays is disarming.
I confess that prior to watching this documentary, I had little patience for this kind of wobbly conspiracy theorists. I'm a big fan of science, and NASA, and how these schools of thought have come together over decades, centuries, history. Skeptics that want to poke at things like gravity tend to wear on me. I understand that it involves math, and that the fact that Mark lives with his mother doesn't do much to dissipate the stereotype of this type of individual. Then I moved on to the acceptance of Mark and his flat earth friends. Who are they hurting, really?
That's when the psychologist shows up and tries to explain how folks might have fallen into this particular hole, and though their beliefs may be theirs and private by their nature it is possible that it begins to link up with other more dangerous ideas like denying climate change. And just when I was ready to push them all back into a that neatly designed corral for which I have designated such people, along comes another scientist. Physicist Lamar Glover encourages us all not to shun flat earthers and other minds that have taken different paths. They should be listened to and encouraged to question, which is the very basis of science. "When we leave people behind, we leave bright minds to mutate and stagnate. These folks are potential scientists going completely wrong."  Finding ways to bring that excitement and enthusiasm back from the fringe could benefit everyone in the long run. It also forces us who carry around duffel bags of dogma to connect with and reaffirm our own beliefs. Turns out we have a big enough world, no matter what the shape, for everyone to question and learn. It might take some more convincing, but wouldn't that be worth it? 
Now please feel free to apply this to any and all conversations you have with people you had recently decided were confused and close-minded. 
It's only a model. 

Thursday, June 18, 2020

That Was Then

Okay, here's the thing: My mother, the social justice warrior, has seen Gone With The Wind more times than she can count. She has a poster for that movie hanging in her house. Her sons got if for her. I am one of those sons. So, if there is a reckoning to be had here, then it is multi-generational. It should be pointed out that my mother was born in the 1930's, and she lived a life of dreams fueled by the movie magazines she read behind the counter at her parents' drugstore in Granby, Colorado. It was some fifty years into her life that her sons chose to join in her fondness for Margaret Mitchell's tale of the Antebellum south and how "This war talk's spoiling all the fun at every party this spring." 
Except it is a monument to another time. Not even the Civil War. Or the Confederacy. It is a sweeping four hour epic about the burning of the sets from King Kong. 1939 was a watershed for Hollywood, a year in which armloads of films that have become classics by most definitions: The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Stagecoach, Goodbye Mr. Chips, The Women, Of Mice and Men, Charles Laughton's Hunchback of Notre Dame. This list does not include Tarzan Finds A Son. This particular feature does not appear on HBO Max, but you can stream it on Amazon and Apple TV. Or you might wait around for Turner Classic Movies to dip into their vault and enjoy all that Tarzan has to bring to the discussion of racial equality and justice. 
1939 was not a time in America when things were better than they are now. While it is true that the Great Depression was in the rear-view mirror for most, there were still huge gaps between the haves and have nots. Blacks and whites. This was the year that John Steinbeck published Grapes of Wrath. The film version didn't come out until the following year. Shortly after that, the world was at war. This time America was fighting fascists. Nazis. It should be noted here that Hollywood like so much of the rest of the country spent a good deal of time before Pearl Harbor was bombed ignoring or making excuses for what was happening in Germany. For many, there was money to be made.  
At the end of the day, that's really the business part of it. HBO makes money by pulling a film from its streaming lineup as an exhibit of their understanding, only to return it a week later. Except now there is a lecture preceding the feature that will explain its historical context and significance. Meanwhile, Amazon reported that Gone With The Wind had vaulted to the number one position on their movies and TV bestseller list. 1939 continues to make money in 2020. 
And my mom could not be less interested, beyond a certain amount of chagrin for having introducing it to us all way back when. She has seen a lot of movies since 1939. She has new favorites now. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2020


I was whining the other day to my wife. Keeping in mind that I am not traditionally much of a whiner, but when I do whine, I do it full force. I was whining about normal. I was whining about how tired I was of the way things are and how I wish that I could return to that once upon a time when things were slow and oh so mellow.
It has been three full months of shelter-in-place, and for the most part I have been a good egg about following the recommended distances and masks and social bubbles and World Health Organization's stipulations. I never rinse my hands off anymore. Each time I turn on the water it is as if I were preparing to scrub in for extensive and delicate neurosurgery. I resist the temptation each time I stand in the little taped off box at the grocery store to pull down my mask and yell "What?" through the plastic shield as the cashier asks me some mumbled question.
At the same time, I am boiling over with anger and frustration with the way police across this country are brutalizing black lives. Each day brings a new outrage and while I feel compelled to speak out here and wherever I can make my voice heard, a new day dawns and I am delivered another fresh insult to our collective humanity. This war would be impossible to wage in the best of circumstances, but the fact that it is taking place during a global pandemic makes it all the more terrifying. It is a certainty that even more lives will be lost because we are trying to stand together as one when we would be safer at home.
Somewhere in the middle of this wild indignation came that weak voice inside my head that cried out for comfort. Something that felt safe and familiar. The trip to Best Buy with my son. A baseball game. A trip to the bathroom without worrying about the number of squares of toilet paper used or the song I would sing as I washed my hands. Having people over to my house without carefully screening their health records and cordoning off a holding area in which they could stand free of infection or infecting.
Whine, whine, whine.
We've got bigger fish to fry, metaphorically. We are currently being called upon to raise the stakes on how we live our lives. This too shall not just pass but create a lasting change in how we treat one another and how we demand to be treated. And into all this turmoil came the notice for jury duty. So I guess I should be careful about what I wish.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Let Us Breathe

As most sentient beings in the United States know, there were three additional Minneapolis police officers on the scene when Derek Chauvin put his knee on George Floyd's neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao have been fired from their jobs and arrested. They are now charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter. These men stood by and watched Chauvin kill another human being in what must be the most ugly and blatant opposition to the phrase "protect and serve" imaginable. 
Meanwhile, from the relative safety of his recently inspected bunker, the "president" continues to blast out inflammatory tweet after inflammatory tweet. Sure, he was censored once, when he decided to quote former Miami police chief Walter E. Headley, "When the looting starts, the shooting starts." Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter added a disclaimer, reminding users that the post went against their rule of not glorifying violence. Additionally, a few of the "president's" recent outbursts about voting by mail have been fact checked by the folks at Twitter. 
So here's what I am attempting to tie together here: No one is telling the "president" to get off America's neck. Okay, to be fair, Twitter seems to be doing their passive version of the job by pointing out to anyone watching, "Hey! He's got his knee of America's neck!" Maybe without the exclamation marks. Certainly no one standing next to the big orange clown is doing much to stop him. Ivanka was too busy carrying her daddy's bible across a park that had been freshly tear-gassed and rid of rubber bullet-ridden protesters to speak up. Her husband is far too busy mismanaging the Middle East and ventilators to be of much use. Mike Veepence wasn't allowed to take the walk much less get a seat in the bunker, so he can't do much to monitor the "president's" hate speech. And even though Fox News seems to be losing patience with their favorite impeached Cheeto, no one is actually calling on him to just stop. 
Stop making things up. Stop retweeting lies. Stop amplifying voices of hate and fear. Stop dividing. At this point, I would not even suggest that he do anything so brazen as to try and unite the country he so anxiously wants to make "great" again. Just get off our necks. Let us breathe. We can get around to arresting the lot of you come November. Let us breathe. 

Monday, June 15, 2020

Tree Fall

It was me, the Yard Ape, versus the plum tree. Initial returns suggest that the Yard Ape won.
I know better.
This was the little twig that was battling a stand of bamboo in the corner of our front yard when we moved in. One of the first battles I endured with the flora and fauna of our property was to eliminate the bamboo. Little did I know that this would serve to be my undoing.
A little background: I am not a "plum guy." There is an apocryphal tale about plum jelly that describes my antipathy for this fruit. Rather than repeat it here, I will simply state that I prefer apples and grapes. Plums somehow seemed to have attempted to insinuate themselves somewhere between these two favorites.
I don't care for plums, but somehow I still have to.
That tree has grown some twenty-five feet since it was initially allowed to breathe free. If grapes or apples were falling from its branches, I might welcome such tenacity. Instead, we are inundated each year in June with a yard, sidewalk and neighbor's driveway full of yellow plums. Mirabelle plums if you're keen to know even more. My wife likes them. Not enough to consume them by the bushel. Our dear departed dog Maddie was known to eat a few from the ground, but not enough to come back from the dead to help us clean up.
This year it was all about the beefy limb that had found its way into the phone and electrical cables coming into the neighboring apartment building. This was exacerbated by the sheer weight of the fruit dangling from the branches. The initial harvesting shake of the tree gave us our usual ridiculous amount of of produce, shared somewhat effectively via an email alert my wife sent out.
But there was still the matter of the wires. Once again, my wife's ability to mobilize the community came in handy, as she invited a neighbor down the street to share his thirty foot ladder to help us tame the beast. He came and set his ladder in such a way that I could scamper up and begin trimming with a reciprocating saw. At no time during all these arbor acrobatics did I consider all the ways things could have gone wrong. I just went about my business, disciplining the tree as plums continued to drop as tiny insults to all my endeavors. Cutting into a cable full of electricity. Dropping a branch on me or an passersby, especially the gentleman kind enough to hold his ladder while I hung in the air. Maiming anyone or anything with the power tool I used with one hand while clinging desperately with the other.
And none of those things happened. Instead, I filled a green bin with plum lumber and leaves to be hauled away. And I know that all I am doing is encouraging the beast. Like the anecdote about the cockroaches who will be outliving us in the event of a nuclear war, I hope they like Mirabelle plums.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

In The Evening

The mountain finally came to Muhammad. For the past couple of weeks, my wife and I have tried to take part in various marches and gatherings to protest, but somehow we have not been able to sync up our calendars with those of the organizers. We had a near miss last weekend when we hustled down to Lake Merritt where we were certain that we would find a gathering of some sort. We did encounter a great many people there, many of whom were carrying signs, but mostly seemed to be carrying on in a way befitting a warm weekend just before summer. Then, on our hike back to our car, we came across a rolling flotilla of cars, passengers hanging out of the windows, standing up through sunroofs, horns honking and banners waving. It was a mini parade for Black Lives Matter. We stood and hollered our assent and raised our fists in the air. And then they were gone.
Which is why, a few nights later, we heard a rumbling coming from outside. It started in low, and started to grow. There was a march headed our way. We gathered ourselves, my wife taking the time to cut a piece of cardboard large enough to support her slogan: "Defund the Police - Refund People." Hustling just a block over, we found the street filled with a sea of people all headed in the same direction.
Our march was here.
We jumped in the line and made our way, quite consciously, down the middle of the street. It was a big enough group that there were a number of different chants, led by those with the most impressive "outside voices." As we traveled through the heart of what we know as our neighborhood, my wife and I took in the sights and sounds, pleased to be out of the house and on our feet, voices raised.
And then, it was time to drop out. Not because we changed our mind. Not because the problem was miraculously solved, but because we both became aware of our proximity to other humans. Social distancing was not a luxury that could be afforded by this mass. Our county has become a COVID-19 hotspot over the past couple of weeks. Right about the same time that my wife and I have been anxious to head out and join in the marches. So, with some shame in our hearts, we peeled off and headed home.
Somewhere along the way, we saw a guy waving from a passing car. I looked over and couldn't recognize him, but he was asking, "Are you going home?" This only added to our guilt.
"Yes." I was going to staple an excuse on the end of it, but it wasn't there.
"Can I take your sign?" he asked.
"Sure," my wife raced out hand off her carefully lettered message. The march had begun to climb the hill in the distance. These cars were the last of a group that would eventually and up in front of the mayor's house. That's where they lit candles and asked for the mayor to come out and speak with them as darkness fell. That didn't happen. So most of the protesters left their signs on her lawn.
I would imagine that's where my wife's sign landed.
These are strange days indeed.

Saturday, June 13, 2020


I used to work late night at an Arby's in Boulder, Colorado. This provided me with money to subsidize my parent's generous gift of putting me through school as well as a series of life experiences that have put me in good stead for lo these past forty-ish years. Hungry drunk boys who came in looking for "food" who could barely speak the words "Beef 'n'Cheddar." Lost pilgrims looking for A) Mork's House or B) The Boulder Dam. But one of the Arby's moments that sticks with me the most did not occur on one of those hazy late nights. Sometimes I worked the lunch shift. An entirely different beast.
Working the counter at a fast food restaurant during the hours of eleven in the morning to one in the afternoon is no sprint. It's a marathon, and you have to pace yourself. Most days, it was hard to see the five booths we had for seating in our lobby because the crowd was so thick, lined up for their meaty treats. Two to three customers in two to three minutes was our expectation, and the best of us could do even more if we were in our best form. And eventually, the siege was over, and it was time to wipe things down. "Dave, go grab a lobby," came the order from my manager behind the slicer. I grabbed a sponge on my way through the back room, out and around to the lobby where the debris was piling up. Wipe this, that, and check the trash bins, making sure that there were no large chunks of "roast beef" left beneath the tables. Nope. Good.
What's this? A business card? Some IBMer left his credentials as a lopsided thank you for that speedy service? No.
"You have been patronized by the KKK," read the card. I stopped my hustle and bustle and read the card again. This was Boulder after all, recently described by Newsweek magazine as the place "Where the hip meet to trip." This was not something I expected to find while scouring a fast food lobby and scooping waste in the direction of the trash.
Trash. The Invisible Empire. I carried the card with me into the back room, set down my sponge and made a point to pin the card to the bulletin board above the manager's desk. It stayed there for a week or two, inviting a good deal of comment from my fellow employees. It also stayed on my mind each time I found myself on the other side of the counter, trying to imagine the face or faces of the person or persons who dropped that ugly reminder. I had heard stories from old-timers about how they had been held up and how their initial terror had become a story to tell young Tuna like myself. I wasn't terrified, but I told the story to anyone who would listen way back then.
And I'm telling it again here because the Ku Klux Klan continues to exist. Announced appearances of this hate group continue to draw many times the number of counter-protesters than those in the bed sheets and pointy hats. Those are the ones we can see. The frightening thing is that they continue to exist at all, and continue to spout their racist screed to anyone who will listen. And there are much worse groups showing up in their wake. Imperial Wizards and Grand Dragons have given way to Proud Boys and Boogaloos. These idjits don't want to be invisible. They want to be the news.
That's scary.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Safe And Sane?

A few days ago I was wondering if I cold be funny anymore. Now I'm not sure if anything will be funny anymore.
There has recently been a fuss stirred up by a new series of Bugs Bunny cartoons. While it has often occurred to me that Bugs and his sexual identity may have something to rankle the conservative masses, I have not spent a lot of time worrying about the way mayhem is meted out in his adventures. This sort of thing falls solidly and definitively in the category of "cartoon violence." People and associated mammals tend to get mashed, squashed, boiled, blown up or shot in ways engineered by the friendly folks at ACME, eviscerators of Roadrunners since 1949. It is part of the cathartic joy of watching those bits of animation.
Well, it's 2020. Elmer Fudd has been defunded. He will no longer be carrying his trusty shotgun while hunting that wascawy wabbit. He will chase him with a scythe. Or some other means of dispatch that won't fall under the category of gun.  “We’re not doing guns,” said Peter Browngardt, executive producers of the series, “But we can do cartoony violence – TNT, the Acme stuff.”
Executives at ACME breathe a deep sigh of relief. 
Does anyone remember that one scene where Elmer Fudd ends up with a sucking chest wound, or blows half his face off with the now discarded shotgun? Did Bugs ever bleed out as a result of a gunshot wound? The effects of dynamite and anvils are generally more consequential to the momentary health of the Looney Tunes gang. They are quite resilient in fact. 
And before the outcry of desecrating the memory of our childhood favorites begins, let's remember for whom these cartoons were originally created: Adults. These were short films intended to run before Warner Brothers films in theaters. Gangster films and westerns that included a whole lot of actual humans shooting other actual humans. It was only in the sixties and seventies that they found their way to the small screen and in many cases were trimmed for their excessive violence and unsavory references. Like the horrifying racial stereotypes found in so many films made seventy years ago. 
So, will it be funny to see Elmer Fudd chase Bugs around with an ax, or a pointed stick? I suppose it depends a little about on how you feel about rodents tormenting humans. Like Wile E. Coyote and that Roadrunner, it sure makes you worry about priorities, since they are obviously in it for the sport, and not the meat. 
And isn't that funny? 

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Mother Knows

How do you know that you're doing the right thing?
Robin Williams once said, "What's right is what's left after you do everything else wrong." If that seems a little trite, consider where we are now. All those people who threw caution to the wind four years ago and voted for Donald Trump saying, "Well, what could go wrong?"
Briefly? Everything.
Even the billionaires aided by tax cuts lost some slim percentage of their ridiculous fortunes. The National Rifle Association is currently on lockdown, and CNN beat Fox in cable news ratings for the first in nineteen years.
My mother, who has lived long enough to see a few twists and turns on the road of life found herself once again surprised at just how awful things had become in such a relatively short period of time. Even though she is my voice of reasonable doom, she continues to marvel at just how many days have trended anywhere but up. Hers is the so-called "silent generation," but I don't recall a time when my mother lived up to that label. She was the one who was ready to climb on the back of my older brother's motorcycle with him to ride to Canada if the draft board ever came looking for him.
They never did, so she came in on the first wave of the women's liberation movement. It was my father who used to fuss about "Equal Rights." He would insist that he would be fine if there was a constitutional amendment that ensured equal rights for bald-headed printing salesmen. Dad didn't always get it.
My mom did. Does. Always has. Incredibly patient, but not willing to take any serious malarkey. Well, from her sons periodically, but certainly not from anybody in elected office. She raised us to be conscientious members of our community. Do not litter. Do vote. Do not act like a sheep. Do question authority.
Do the right thing.
The good news is this: Right now, figuring out what the right thing to do is easier than ever. If you see a bunch of red baseball hats all headed one way, go in the opposite direction. Over the past few weeks we have seen characters such as George W. Bush and Mitt Romney make choices that made them appear clever or courageous. It's pretty absurd company to be keeping, but as I mentioned earlier, these times are curious, and getting curiouser. But when it comes to mom, don't bet against the house.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020


September 29, 2001, Saturday Night Live came back on the air after a three week hiatus brought about by the terrorist attacks three weeks earlier. The episode was introduced by New York City's mayor, Rudy Guliani. At one point, producer Lorne Michaels came out and asked The Mayor, "Can we be funny?"
Guliani replied, "Why start now?"
Nineteen years later, things are about as awful as they have ever been. The folks at Saturday Night Live were doing a Zoom variation on their "live" show for three weeks during late April until the first week of May. Were they funny? Opinions vary. They were, at the very least, a distraction from the moribund sameness of the first month of quarantine. The May ninth episode was the season finale, with the cast and crew released to go about their summertime plans which probably didn't include the standard vacation or movie production. My guess is that they are all at home feeling much the same way their counterparts from two decades ago. Cane we be funny?
I feel that too. I know precisely how dark and troubled my writing has been over the past few weeks. Even my always reliable nostalgia machine has left me high and dry. I have drifted past the point of satire and cynicism to full-on troubled. I wake up in the night feeling despair that I cannot push into the corner of my mind. The focus of my waking hours seems to be the ongoing pain and suffering felt everywhere. Unrelenting.
There are still folks recovering from COVID-19. There are still birthday parties taking place. There are moments of joy, not the least of which was experienced on the streets of Oakland last week when protesters danced on past the curfew. Only one arrest was reported that night. Which is happy, but it's not funny.
There is a sea of angry comments out there being directed at the powers that be, some of which could be described as "funny." Not "funny ha-ha," but "funny sad." A contradiction in terms, it seems to me. But contradictions seem to be playing a big part of our collective lives these days. What we are told and what we see are two very different things. "Things are fine, go back to work!" No thanks. Not until people aren't dying by the thousands. "There is no systematic racism problem in law enforcement."
Um. No.
It's not funny.
I miss funny.
I miss a lot of things right now, but funny is right up there at the top.

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

All Apologies

I don't know about your inbox, but mine has been littered over the past week with companies with whom I am either directly or indirectly connected telling me how they are going to deal with the institutionalized racism in our world. My son highlighted and sent an article to me about what LEGO is doing: A four million dollar contribution to  “organizations dedicated to supporting black children and educating all children about racial equality.” It may not have come as any kind of surprise to anyone that Ben &Jerry's had their own statement to make: We Must Dismantle White Supremacy. Great. Ice cream and building blocks. 
Now what else?
Amazon put a big banner on their web site that read, "Black Lives Matter," and billionaire Jeff Bezos defended that choice to an angry customer thus: “‘Black lives matter’ doesn’t mean other lives don’t matter. I have a 20-year-old son, and I simply don’t worry that he might be choked to death while being detained one day. It’s not something I worry about. Black parents can’t say the same.”
Okay. Next?
How about the video posted by a group of NFL players telling their fans and owners that Black Lives Matter? These voices were being heard at about the same instant that New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees was having his own reckoning with the voices in his head and his heart. After initially coming out stridently against those who might kneel during the National Anthem, he reversed course and apologized, saying "I stand with the black community in the fight against systemic racial injustice and police brutality and support the creation of real policy change that will make a difference." The "president," no fan of kneeling or apologizing, tweeted "I am a big fan of Drew Brees. I think he’s truly one of the greatest quarterbacks, but he should not have taken back his original stance on honoring our magnificent American Flag."
To which Brees replied, "Through my ongoing conversations with friends, teammates, and leaders in the black community, I realize this is not an issue about the American flag. It has never been. We can no longer use the flag to turn people away or distract them from the real issues that face our black communities." 
Something was in the wind, because later that same day, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell issued his own apology. “We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. It has been a difficult time for our country. In particular, black people in our country. First, my condolences to the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and all the families who have endured police brutality.” 
"We were wrong." 
Meanwhile, the "president" retweeted one of his minions who insisted "Leaders lead. Cowards kneel." These folks seem to believe that tear gas and rubber bullets are a sign of strength. 
And though they will most likely never apologize, they were wrong.
There will be a lot more of that before this is all over.
More apologies. 
All apologies.

Monday, June 08, 2020

Stop. Police.

The past few days I have spent what feels like far too many hours staring down into the abyss. Millions of Americans, equipped with high definition video cameras are posting ugly encounters with police. Some of them are given the tag "viral."
Which is funny, since we're still in the midst of a global pandemic. A hundred thousand plus Americans have died from a virus.
Okay. Maybe it's not funny.
Maybe it's tragic.
The image of a seventy-five year old man being shoved to the ground by Buffalo police in riot gear is one that won't go away. The officer who pushed him just kept walking. Just. Kept. Walking. Another officer paused as if to check on the fallen man was urged to keep moving. Two medics walking with the group of officers stopped to attend to the man who made the mistake of being in front of this unstoppable blue wave.
All of this was captured, not by cell phones or security cameras, but by a local news crew who was on the scene.
Now it's time to get to the ugliest part: This old man was white. He wasn't carrying a sign, or screaming epithets. This old man was standing directly in front of a local news camera crew. Additional footage was taken by others across the street. Not in Selma, Los Angeles, or Minneapolis. This happened on the mean streets of Buffalo, New York. So if the police will do this in Buffalo in front of TV cameras, what makes anyone believe that their behavior is any better in any other city when the cameras are not present? How many black men, women and children have been pushed to the ground and left behind by police who just kept walking? How many black men, women and children have been killed by police who just kept walking?
The answer to the question about what about all those cops taking a knee and fist bumping protesters would be this: The exception that proves the rule. This realization comes as a great shock to me, as I have known a great many law enforcement officers and I have never considered any of them to be bad people. Exceptions do not make a rule untrue. Which shakes the foundations of my life. Visions of cops and robbers as distinct groups and how we used to know who the good guys were fade away. How could this have happened? When and where did it all begin?
I do not know.
But I do know it's time for it to end. Now.

Sunday, June 07, 2020

What's Left

Father's Day is coming, and I have failed.
I have failed my son. In spite of all my best intentions and efforts to the contrary, the world is not as I had hoped to present him as he becomes an adult.
I wanted to hand off a planet that was in better shape than I had inherited from my father. I know he tried too. It was from my father's house that I watched the fires burn on the University of Colorado campus. I was born into a world where political assassinations were part of a campaign to quiet the voices of freedom. I watched it on TV. I listened to it on the radio. I heard it in the music. I saw it on the movie screen. I began to hope for a world that would see that arc of history bend all the way to justice.
It's still not there. Voices still cry out in pain and fear. Wars are being waged because one world just doesn't seem to be enough.
I am deeply ashamed of the lack of progress my generation has been able to create. Somehow, I still feel like I'm part of the resistance. How can this be?
Black Lives Matter.
Climate Change Is Real.
Pro-Choice and Pro-Life shouldn't be two different things.
This is a nation built on dreams and dreamers.
When I was nine years old, I painted peace symbols all over, well, everything. I grew up in a summer of love, and I don't know where it went. Maybe it was never really there. Maybe it was just a cleverly poised ad campaign that made me think that I really could buy the world a Coke.
When I moved to Oakland, I was already on my way to being an adult. I was ready to take my place behind the wheel of Spaceship Earth. And I'll be darned if I didn't manage to run it into a few ditches along the way. Meanwhile, my son was watching. He is the voice I heard when I made bad choices. He's the one to whom I tried to explain the murder of Oscar Grant. He was twelve when riots tore through his hometown. He watched it burn from my house.
I am sorry, eleven years later, that I still cannot explain how far from the world I had hoped to present him is.
I am happy, because he is the one who is teaching me. Leading me.
It's time for me to listen.

Saturday, June 06, 2020

Black Lives Matter

For eight minutes and forty-six seconds, three other law enforcement officers stood by as their fellow officer killed George Floyd. Go ahead and set a timer if you'd like an idea of how long that is. Or maybe you have seen the video enough times by now to know exactly how long it takes to asphyxiate a man by putting your knee on his neck. It's not like there was a lot of other action to distract them. Four adult males standing over the man in the street.
None of them considered checking the condition of the man face down, handcuffed behind his back. Scared? Confused? Stupid? Not one of them had the presence of mind to say, "Hey Derek, why don't you get off his neck?" None of them shouted at the top of their lungs: "Hey man! You're killing him!"
As so many people before me have pointed out, this time there were cameras. And let's take a moment to remember what all that surveillance is about: Catching bad guys.
There aren't always cameras. There haven't always been cameras. And even when there is video evidence, an "investigation" takes place. There were no cameras four hundred years ago. One hundred years ago. When the cameras showed up, it did not stop the brutality and the killing. The system wasn't set up for that. The system was set up for Black Lives to be institutionally less than white lives. It was written into our Constitution. This is what is meant by "institutional racism."
When slaves were finally freed, we couldn't even make good on our promise of forty acres and a mule
Another hundred years passed, and someone got it into their head to create a Civil Rights Act. In 1964, one hundred eighty years after the writing of the Constitution, legislation passed that outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, required equal access to public places and employment, and enforced desegregation of schools and the right to vote. Magically, racism disappeared overnight.
No. Legislation passed and was systematically countered, overturned, and ignored. Black Lives were minimized and cut short by institutions that had been in place for centuries. Forty years passed and we elected a Black President. Problem solved!
No. The same forces that kept Black People from voting, getting jobs, walking the streets without fear were the forces that Barack Obama wrestled with for eight years. And his replacement? The guy who insisted that his predecessor was not born here. 
A few nights ago, as people across the country gathered to insist that Black Lives Matter, this guy ordered a path be mowed through protesters with rubber bullets and tear gas so that he could stand in front of a church, holding a Bible. He did not pray. He did not go inside. He just wanted the picture. No one standing nearby said, "Hey, sir, do you think this is a good idea?" Not a one of them walked away in disgust. Scared? Confused? Stupid? 
The time it has taken you to read these words is less than half the time to kill George Floyd. Time to think. Time to breathe. So with the little time we have left, let me give you these words: Black Lives Matter. 

Friday, June 05, 2020


The group I sat with in Fourth Grade was a bunch of clever boys. There was myself, Ron, Kent and Warren. We were held in special regard by our teacher, Ms. Stuart. There was little we could do wrong. Best at math, spelling, reading. Warren and Ron were athletes and Kent was a four-square wizard. I was a burgeoning author. Which is why there was such a hush when the door opened and our principal stepped in.
"Are those the ones?" The principal was nodding in our direction. Me, Warren, Ron and Kent. The kid standing next to him pointed.
At us.
The kid was a Third grader. His name was Marvin. He was also the only African-American student at our school.
"Ms. Stuart," the principal said, "Can I please see these boys in my office?"
There was a pause of incomprehension, then she replied, "Certainly Mister Schwartzvegger."
Warren, Ron, Kent and I got up slowly from our desks, looking at one another with jaws agape. What was going on?
We followed Mister Schwartzvegger and Marvin out into the hall and began the long walk down the hallway past the fifth grade classes, around the corner and all the way to the Office. None of us had ever been inside the Office before. We had only stood outside the glass window to hand in attendance or receive notices to send home. Now we walked into The Principal's Office.
The chairs had been arranged so that the four of us sat in front of our principal's desk. Marvin sat at the end. Mister Schwartzvegger settled into his. "Boys, I brought you in here today because Marvin told me about something that happened today on the playground."
My mind reeled. What had happened on the playground? The same thing that happened every day. What was different? What was wrong?
"Marvin, would you like to tell your side of the story first?"
Marvin started by looking at the floor, slowly his account began to roll out. These boys had come up to him and shoved him off the merry-go-round. These boys kept him off. Then they called him the N word.
Kent, Warren, Ron and I did not look at each other. We knew we were "these boys." But we had no idea what Marvin was talking about. There was stunned silence until Mister Schwartzvegger turned his attention to us. "Well?"
It was Warren who spoke first. "It wasn't us." Pause. "It couldn't have been us."
For the first time in ten minutes, I breathed out.
Warren continued, "The merry-go-round is way over on the little kids' playground. We were on the blacktop."
"I was playing four-square," offered Kent.
"We were playing basketball," Ron gestured at Warren.
I wasn't playing four-square. Or basketball. I was doing what I usually did. I was standing around watching Kent, Ron and Warren. I looked at Marvin. He had gone back to staring at the floor.
From there, it was only a few more minutes of tension before we were turned back out into the general population. It was never made clear to me or Warren or Ron or Kent what had actually happened across the playground on the merry-go-round.
Was it some other kids? Somebody in Third Grade? Fifth maybe? How did he pick the four of us out of the entire school?
Marvin didn't come back to our school for fourth grade. I do not know if it had anything to do with what happened on the playground that day.
I can only assume.
If he were here today I would apologize. I wish I had found my voice way back then. No, I didn't push Marvin from the merry-go-round, but I know he was angry. And scared. And he needed a friend.
I'm sorry Marvin.

Thursday, June 04, 2020

Where Have I Seen This Before?

1773. The colonies are feeling oppressed. An out of touch monarch is ruling from a distance and demanding that his distant subjects continue to bend to the whims of his arrogance. In order to fix the budget crisis across the sea, it was decided that taxes levied on the colonists of this New World would fix the debts run up by years of war and poor spending habits. After the Stamp Act of 1765 had taxed colonists on virtually every piece of printed paper they used, from playing cards and business licenses to newspapers and legal documents, the Townshend Acts of 1767 went a step further, taxing essentials such as paint, paper, glass, lead and tea. 
The tea. That was the deal-breaker. These were, after all, British subjects. Mess with their playing cards, but not their tea.
Oh. And the Boston Massacre. In 1770, those same colonists were fed up with the ubiquitous presence of British soldiers in their streets. A group of unruly types threw snowballs at a sentinel guarding the Customs House. Reinforcements arrived and fired into the "mob," killing five and wounding six. 
Maybe tea wasn't such a big thing after all.
If they were British. 
These were Americans, and they called themselves the Sons of Liberty. Others called them tea smugglers, getting around that heavy tax by avoiding the King's hefty taxes. Men such as John Hancock and Samuel Adams. As an act of protest, a large group of protesters voted to refuse to pay taxes on the imported tea. To make their point more clearly, a group of men dressed in native garb boarded three ships and threw three hundred forty-two chests of tea into Boston Harbor. Men such as Patrick Henry, Paul Revere, and the aforementioned Adams and Hancock. No one is really sure who actually did the deed, since they were "in disguise." They hacked open the chests so their contents would be spilled into the water. It took more than one hundred men more than three hours to destroy forty-five tons of tea with a current market value of nearly a million dollars. 
We refer to these men today as "patriots." 
Not terrorists. 
Not thugs.
They knew how to change things in a way that has become known as "revolutionary." 
In two hundred fifty years, I hope that's how they talk about what happened in the spring of 2020. 

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

What's The Deal?

All we are saying is "give peace a chance."
Except that's not all we are saying anymore.
No justice. No peace.
That seems like a clear enough deal.
Because it's easy enough to sit up on the hill and look down and wonder how this all went so bad. Aren't we supposed to be staying inside and keeping safe and socially distant?
There was a virus that was killing people and we were united in our attempts to survive this global pandemic. United for the most part. Except for those demonstrations surging up from the frightened, angry and confused Americans who were trying to find a way to straighten out their confusion by putting things back to they way they used to be.
So here's the trouble with that: Before mid-March things were not that great. Divisions between haves and have nots, rich and poor, black and white. Nothing was being done to mitigate any of those tensions. Quite the opposite.
Remember that question about justice and peace? If you haven't been keeping track for the past four years, or the past sixty, or the past three hundred, then maybe you feel that we are just fine on both of those counts.
In the United States, the response to COVID-19 shined a light on the way we treat ourselves and each other. This is a country that has tried to talk themselves out of being less of a cauldron of racism and more of the melting pot. Not a lot of justice gets meted out under that kind of heat. Add to that heat a considerable amount of pressure.
The kind of pressure that would kill a man if you knelt on this neck.
This is not justice.
Therefore, no peace.
If you want to give peace a chance, how about a little justice first?

Tuesday, June 02, 2020


On Saturday morning, American astronauts lifted off from these United States for the first time in nearly a decade. The launch comes at a time when anything resembling good news is a welcome relief. For a generation of humans who were raised on the hope of missions to the moon and Star Trek, this is a reminder of how things could be. Not how things are.
It should be noted that during the sixties when wars and race riots were making life hard down here on earth, there was a cretin in the White House. Richard Nixon is the one who made the call to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin as they sat in Tranquility Base. Never mind the fact that he was the man who ran against John F. Kennedy and lost. Kennedy was the man who laid out the grand plan to send men to the moon. Nixon, the challenger, sent more men to Vietnam.
And eventually, going to the moon became a bore. A very expensive bore. A "why don't we save some of that money to fix things down here?" bore. Just a few years after the Eagle had landed, the last man walked on the moon.
1972. The year that Nixon won reelection. The year of the Watergate break-in. It would be another decade before the Space Shuttle program would put Americans back into space. It is no coincidence that the first shuttle was named Enterprise. Their decade long mission was to boldly move payloads to space and to repair broken satellites. Not exactly strange new worlds, but it was paving the way. Americans astronauts were no longer white, crew-cut sporting test pilots. Men and women of all backgrounds had their chance to slip the surly bonds of earth. Finally, space looked a little more like Star Trek. 
And what about earth? How did it look? 
Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell probably put it best: “You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.”
Maybe when Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken come back from their trip they'll do just that. 
It's time. 

Monday, June 01, 2020

Day By Day

Friday was a sad day. Sad because once again I was saying goodbye to a colleague whom I hold in the highest regard. By our school's history, I should point out that losing just a few people is a victory of sorts when it comes to turnover. And yet, there we were. Once again stuck with these awkward moments near the end when someone had to be the last one hanging around the office. Someone was going to have to leave first.
As is my custom, I was nearly the last person out the door. In previous years, I have had the excuse of leaving to rush home to prepare my house for the year-end bacchanal that traditionally takes place in and around our back yard. There would be none of that this year. In spite of our best intentions, and a Zoom connection, our staff got together one last time before we sailed off into the uncertain future. From the same little boxes that we had occupied for so many different meetings and webinars.
Meanwhile, out in the streets of America, there was no joyous sigh of relief as another school year came to an end. Protesters hit the streets and gave voice to the pain and suffering felt by everyone affected by the deaths of Geroge Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and the list goes on.
And on.
And on.
Oakland is one of those communities that has burned. Not from the protests and demonstrators, but from the double standard of justice that continues to plague our cities. I teach black and brown children who are continue to grow up with a question mark hanging over their future. Wrong place, wrong time? Wrong color.
There's nothing wrong with color. There's something wrong when anyone bypasses the content of a person's character to focus on color.
I am a white guy who teaches in a school where I am most definitely a minority. And nobody makes me feel like it. Okay, from time to time it becomes a bit of an elephant in the room, a big white elephant, but the fact that I am there as part of a community to build things up and not tear them down is something I cannot take for granted. I will continue to go back there, until I am no longer needed. Because this is what I do.
The halls felt very empty when I finally left on Friday. But I know that I will be back, and we will work together to make something better. Day by day.