Why the American Legal System is a Cruel Joke: A Very Personal Reflection

Before I start, I want to acknowledge that what I am about to write pales (no pun intended) in comparison to the grave injustices perpetrated, often intentionally, against people of color. But there are too many people of every race, albeit not so much of every socio-economic class, who have been mercilessly abused and unjustly punished by the “justice” system. This is about one of them.

Marianne, my wife by the time many of you read this, is free now, her sentence of four months of weekends completed. Well, I say “free,” but she’s not free of the felony, which will haunt her for the rest of her life. She’s not free of the trauma she endured, by stigma, injustice, incarceration PTSD, nutritional abuse, financial ruin, loss of her nursing license and her home, virtual unemployability, separation from her children, and the death of her father. And now that she’s “free,” I am free to write that she did nothing, fucking nothing, to deserve that. You see, once a bunch of random assholes that nod off through half of the trial called a “jury” say you’re guilty, proclaiming your innocence will only get you punished more. You have to be remorseful, even if you didn’t do anything; you have to grovel, otherwise you won’t curry the favor of mercy. Once you’ve been convicted, you carry a greater burden to prove innocence than prosecutors ever had to prove guilt. While you are forced to admit mistakes, they really don’t like doing so themselves.

So, in case you’re unfamiliar, here’s what happened. (I’ll add the proviso here that this is my own interpretation just in case anyone wants to sue me, although I wish they would try. Also, in case other eyes are reading this, Marianne had nothing to do with its writing.)

Marianne was the supervising nurse on the floor of the nursing home in which she had worked for seven years, highly respected and with an unblemished record, when a patient died. She wasn’t even supposed to be there, she volunteered to take another nurse’s shift. It was said that the patient’s death was due to the failure of having her hooked up to a ventilator. Supposedly alarms were blaring for two hours and everyone on the floor just all separately chose to ignore it, letting the woman die. This included Marianne, who had, the very week before, directly and diligently attended to this patient, who at that time had not been required to be on the ventilator. She supposedly died during this time frame, but there was no visual evidence of an emergency during that period, while there was evidence that she was alive later. But no autopsy was ever performed on the deceased, who was morbidly obese with multiple ailments, as to time or cause of death.

Now mind you, Marianne had assigned three certified nurse’s aides to oversee this patient, one stationed inside her room, one right outside and one at the monitor. Aides were regularly stationed at the monitor as a result of a previous incident that first revealed the unreliability of the alarming system, and subsequent to the one with Marianne, yet another one occurred, causing the whole system to be replaced. And aside from the faultiness of the so-called “Bernoulli” system, on which the entire case against Marianne would be based, one only need visit a nursing home to understand that alarms are beeping all the time and nurses aren’t expected to run to each one. Even the prosecution’s star witness, a man who had reported the incident to cover his own ass, had to admit on the stand to that. On top of that, the deceased was known to pull off and chew on her sensors, which triggers non-emergency alarms. So Marianne went about her normal duties, checking the med carts, etc., which is standard practice, since nothing was happening. However, hours later, when the real emergency arose, she was seen doing just that, running down the hall. Do you see any reasonable doubts yet?

Marianne wasn’t even arrested originally. The State rounded up some of the workers but merely questioned Marianne. Apparently their case wasn’t strong enough, because, one, they had to pressure some of those arrested to flip on their colleagues, and, two, the investigator was directed to re-interview others so they might turn “State’s evidence,” too. Ultimately, the prosecution got one worker to testify for them (i.e. lie) under threat of deportation and separation from her child, a second who I was told had been hospitalized for schizophrenia and who was seen dancing by the monitor at the time in question, and, a third, that “whistle-blowing” star witness who had caused all this by not passing on to the relieving respiratory therapist the doctor’s orders about reconnecting the patient to the vent because it would have taken a few minutes of his time. As for Marianne, she had been re-interviewed and was asked if anyone had told her about the alleged two hours of alarming, to which she truthfully answered no, because, regardless of what the faulty and misrepresented print-outs that the prosecution kept waving during the trial showed, it didn’t happen. She was subsequently arrested for “falsification of business records in the first degree,” a felony, for not volunteering that she had supposedly heard them, too.

And that gets us to that charge that will hang over Marianne’s head for the rest of her life. The statute is that for someone to be convicted of first degree falsification of business records, she or he has to have knowingly lied AND (and that word was made very clear to everyone including the jury) the falsification had to have been made in order to cover up another crime. There was no other crime, there was no lie, and there is nothing in the statute about acts of omission (not saying something the investigator wanted to hear), only commission. What’s ironic is that Marianne just lost her final appeal, which was based on post-trial information about the alarm system, because even though the prosecution failed to disclose evidence they had about its faultiness, they weren’t required to turn over anything that hadn’t been asked for by the defense. But Marianne was convicted for allegedly doing just that. It’s a cozy little arrangement of hypocrisy and deceit.

The prosecution won by playing videos, over and over and over, showing Marianne walking past the monitors without running to the room where the patient was supposedly in crisis. What the videos did show, as stated before, was that when there was a real crisis with the woman later, after she had died according to the prosecution’s account, Marianne was shown running to the room. It was the typical strategy of overwhelming the jury with lots of repetitive “stuff” in the absence of real evidence that O.J. Simpson’s lawyers used to get him off. And once those idiots reached their verdict, which shocked pretty much everyone including court officers and prison guards, as every damned decision has, it was set in stone. And that gets us to the larger questions of what’s wrong with our judicial system.

Simply put, American justice is a game. This was a big win for the former Attorney General, who, I suspect, saw going after nursing homes as a good way of advancing his further political ambitions… until, of course, the scumbag was forced to step down for abusing four women. I’m not saying that there weren’t and aren’t legitimate matters of neglect in many nursing homes, certainly including this one. But they went after the best nurses, the ones that held the place together. One wonders if potential privatization wasn’t a considered motive. Our system is all about winning, not about truth or justice. It IS, however, the American way. It’s about spinning and dealing and manipulating and obfuscating. For the most part, the people who were at all neglectful, and certainly dishonest, never went to jail. Just admit you did it, whether or not you did, throw others under the bus, and supplicate yourself before the majesty of the court and you might get a break, but assert your rights and you’ll be made an example of.

And then there’s the jury system. A bunch of random, untrained people are brought in not by choice or interest but by lottery, and then whittled down to the most ignorant and manipulable of one’s “peers.” They get paid like indentured servants to sit there passively, often very passively, observing a performance whose rules often impede the search for truth and whose outcome remains subject to their own predispositions and whims. Clearly, there was an a priori bias against nursing home employees. The discussion boards of Newsday and News 12 were filled with calls to cage these women and worse before the trial even began. I know how ludicrous the jury system is from first-hand experience. When my ex-wife was going through law school I participated in mock trials. In one scenario, I was a jury member, and during our deliberations the most irrelevant, factually ignorant and pre-biased arguments were put forth – and these were law students! Another time I played the role of a suspected killer and, on the stand, convinced a jury of law students that my gun actually misfired due to twitching TWICE.

So Marianne had to be incarcerated for fifty one days, having previously served nine before we were able to get her out. I was able to appeal to the judge to let her serve weekends due to her physical and emotional health and family circumstances, and it’s a good thing. They serve swill to the prisoners, and Marianne’s diabetes would have been life threatening. How many people in jail are innocent like Marianne, and how many more should be getting compassionate treatment instead of barbaric punishment? On the whole, the inmates that Marianne encountered were more humane than the ones who have sat in judgment over them. But we’ll be okay. Once Marianne is able, hopefully with the help of a “Letter of Relief,” to get a job that fulfills her and brings in a little money (“falsification of business records” isn’t exactly great on a job application), as much as it aches her and is a disservice to her community that she will never be a nurse again, all of this bullshit will be in the past, and we will have the last laugh. So fuck the system and everyone responsible for this travesty of justice. Maybe we’ll write a book.

Rep. Omar’s Words and the Backlash

Those who condemn Rep. Ilhan Omar and those who defend her are both wrong. The issues are far more complicated than that. I do not believe that her comments were intentionally anti-Semitic. Had they been said about pretty much any other group or lobby they would have been taken as relatively innocuous political analysis. Yes, money does buy politicians. Yes, Israel does receive special treatment and blind loyalty by many of its supporters (just as it receives special treatment and blind hatred from many of its detractors). And clearly it is not anti-Semitic to criticize the contemptible government of Israel. Moreover, it is unconscionable to deny its historic oppression of the Palestinian people. It is, or at least once was, in the spirit of the Jewish people to identify with the persecuted and dispossessed and to shun the blinders with which the world has looked upon they themselves.

But Representative Omar’s words struck a nerve, and it’s a real one. And I’m not referring to the reactions of many on the Right who are hypocritically exploiting her remarks for political purposes or answering her alleged anti-Semitism with Islamophobia. Nor am I referring to the reactions of many on the Left whose doctrinaire, black and white perspectives on Zionism and often Jews themselves more closely resemble National Socialism than Socialism. I am referring to the raw nerves of the descendants of genocide, who are still the victims of hate crimes and hate speech. We cannot ignore their legitimacy. Too many people seem to understand the power of words when directed at themselves but are easily dismissive of the offense taken by others to what they perceive as slurs or stereotypes. And if we are to be truly honest and even-handed, we must also understand the counter-reaction by people whose families have also been massacred, displaced and ignored, and who themselves also still deal every day with hate crimes and hate speech. Shouldn’t the parallels of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre and the New Zealand mosques massacre tell us anything? Shouldn’t they tell Jews and Muslims that mutual understanding is a means to their survival?

When Rep. Omar talked about “the Benjamins,” she was using an expression, popularized in a rap song, that I believe she at least mostly meant to refer to the influence of money in politics. Again, if the reference was to lobbying by the N.R.A. or the Fossil Fuel industry or Big Pharma, it wouldn’t have stirred much reaction other than typical Left-Right sparring. More to the point, had it been directed at Saudi Arabian influence on our government, it not only wouldn’t have set off much controversy, there might not have been much sparring over it at all. But the hateful historic stereotypes about Jews and money are too deeply rooted and felt to be ignored. They’re still with us. The code word on the Right these days is “Soros.” The code word on the Left is “Rothschild.” The verb “to Jew” is still in the lexicon.

Trump’s campaign speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition was filled with such stereotypes. He once said that he didn’t want Blacks handling his money, he wanted people with yarmulkes. His campaign several times used tweets from neo-Nazi groups, replete with Stars of David and dollar signs. Whenever there’s a demonstration, the Right is quick to claim that the protestors were paid for by “Soros.” Meanwhile, on the Left we see lots of willful confusion over what Zionism really is and sometimes even what Judaism really is. We find too many so-called “progressives” who have somehow bought into the Nazis’ big lie about an international conspiracy of Jewish bankers, one which controls American politics, seeing it as cutting-edge Marxism without any sense of its cutting edge. And despite all fact and reason, some reading this might still believe there’s some truth to the myth that was used to slaughter much of our ancestry, and it would be very tempting by now to tell them to go to Hell if Jews believed in one.

There’s also a long and painful history of questioning the loyalties of Jewish Americans. Catholics should be able to relate to that, were it not for the “special otherness” of Jews. Japanese Americans, whose parents may have been locked up in “internment camps” during World War Two should also be able to attest to the toxicity of such charges. And now, and not surprisingly given so many parallels between Jews and Muslims, American Muslims including Rep. Omar are being questioned about their allegiance to “Sharia Law” instead of the American Constitution. Sure, Jews have the right to immigrate to Israel and request citizenship, under “The Law of Return” drafted after two thousand years of wandering. But that’s quite different. European non-Jews with actual dual citizenship aren’t subjected to the same suspicions. And although it is fair and right to point out that this provision allows American Jews preferential status in Israel over its native Palestinian population, one simply has to take an objective and sensitive look at history.

Why would Jews want a Jewish state? Why do Palestinians? After two thousand years plus of persecution, uprooting and genocide, the safety and unity provided by a homeland should be easy to understand. Thus, Zionism should be easy to understand. One can certainly argue that the homeland should not have been in Palestine. Personally, I believe that instead of dividing Germany between the imperialist powers a Jewish refuge should have been created there. But there were those who believed that their God decreed that it be in their Biblical holy land, essentially the same thing that most Palestinian Muslims believe. Did some imperialists exploit the religious argument and lead desperate refugees there to gain a foothold in the region, sure. Can one make the argument that nationalism, whatever the legitimacy of its initial motive, is divisive and chauvinistic, yes. Can Zionism also be compared to the “Manifest Destiny” of the European conquerors of the Indigenous population of the Americas, of course. Could those desperate Jewish refugees, once arriving and seeing that Palestine/Israel was not a “land without a people for a people without a land” still have made a different moral choice, probably so. All of that is fair argument. What is not fair argument is tying Zionism to some singular, sinister international plot, and calling out Israel alone as a central source of evil in a world full of racism and oppression and terror and corruption. And it is equally unfair for some to believe that they can get away with bigoted innuendos about Jews that would not be permitted against almost any other group.

While Jews were fleeing from place to place, persecution to pogrom, for millennia, Palestinians were being ruled by one occupier after another after another after another. The Palestinian struggle for human rights and a homeland is a just one. But, unfortunately, just as some of the Zionist leadership was corrupted by imperialists, some of the Palestinian and Arab leadership were corrupted by Nazis. They conspired in the persecution of Jews, just as some Jews have persecuted the Palestinians. It’s understandable that a population occupied and abused in the name of a particular group of people will, without any further frame of reference, grow to embrace hate-filled views of that people. But young Palestinians are still being indoctrinated with the likes of the fake “Elders of Zion” alleged manifesto, answering bigotry with bigotry, stereotypes with stereotypes, and ignorance with ignorance, leaving no higher moral ground for anyone to stand on.

I am glad Rep. Omar listened to those who were hurt by her words, and am heartened that she volunteered an apology. I am also glad that the Democrats chose a resolution that condemned all forms of bigotry and stereotyping and did not escalate what is better to understand as misunderstanding. But I condemn those who, despite rabid anti-Semitism in their own backyards, wanted to (or did) beat her up to advance their own agendas, just as I condemn those who tried to undermine this potential learning experience by turning her into the victim. The efforts going on currently for Muslims and Jews to listen to and communicate with one another has been uncomfortable, sometimes painful. But it has to happen. There are many Jews who have shown support and solidarity with Palestinians and Muslim Americans, just as there are many Muslims who have themselves decried hatred of all kinds, including anti-Semitism. We are used and hated by the same people and institutions. If we don’t find understanding and common ground, who will be there when they come for us?

Please Don’t Wish Me a Merry Christmas

Okay, so you got your Christmas back. Praise Trump and Hallelujah. Nobody is going to make you say “Happy Holidays,” or display a menorah next to your tree, or take away your God-given Christian civil rights ever again. Hell, nobody is going to stop you from saying that word, or telling that joke, or evading the P.C. police anymore. Put that creche back in the town square. Get Santa back in the classroom along with Jesus. I mean, we non-Christians are going to hell if we don’t get converted and Christianized anyway, so why bother with those bygone ideas of diversity, inclusion and sensitivity? You’ve got your Christmas back, and not just December 25th, but the whole twelve days. Nah, why settle for just that when you can have the world? Get those lights and songs and sales started in November, or, better, October, the whole blessed Christmas “season.” After all, this is a Christian nation again, just like the politicians you listen to say. It’s the way the Founding Fathers would have wanted it, according to the news network you watch. I mean, if you can leave races and genders out when it comes to the rights of the national Constitution, what’s the big deal about leaving religions and non-religions out when it comes to the blessings of a national holiday?

Except that nobody ever made you stop saying “Merry Christmas” to everyone, nobody told you that you had to say or display anything that recognized the faith or culture of any customer or passerby or loved one that didn’t share yours, except maybe your boss or your mother. It was done out of consideration. It was done in an effort to balance the dominance and restrain the imposition of one subculture over others, just like we added holidays and months of recognition and statues and Constitutional amendments. The thing is that “P.C.” gets a bad rap. When I went to school there was no mention of Hanukkah, and we were all asked what we would be getting for Christmas. If you have ever felt marginalized or excluded or devalued, and many have experienced those feelings in far greater ways, maybe you’ll get it.

The intention of “political correctness” was to create safe, comfortable, inclusive, non-biased environments for students, workers, customers and the like, free of racist jokes, hateful words, unwanted actions, denials of self-definition and thoughtless imposition. Obviously, people in their homes, neighborhoods and own businesses can’t be governed by such requirements, they have to do it consciously and voluntarily… even when they get permission not to. I light the kinara not because I’m African American, I put up the Christmas tree not because I’ve assimilated, but out of respect for my son and my friends. I light the menorah not because I’m religious, but because I’m making a statement about who I am, and who I am not. Admittedly I sometimes put up the Christmas tree grudgingly, ever aware of the pressure that Jewish kids, that I was under to give in and join the big celebration that doesn’t even pretend to be religious anymore, thereby allowing it to be nationalized, rather than staying in the lonesome shadows behind all of the Christmas lights and settling for the little presents of dreidels and gelt spread out over eight days. Sure, put Jesus back in Christmas, even if he was born in the Spring. At least that would draw the lines more clearly.

But I also think of the Islamic kids, the Buddhist and Hindu and Sikh and atheist kids, and, perhaps most of all, the Jehovah’s Witness kids. Where do they belong? I think of the depressed and suicidal kids during this time of family festivity, and the impoverished kids in this time of commercialism and gluttony, who in their own ways are also left out and for whom “Merry Christmas” can be a cold slap in the face. I think of the hypocrisy of all of the words about “peace” and “good will” and “sharing” and “harmony” that disappear along with the New Year’s Day hangover, when we go back to war and bigotry and greed and division, disparaging the poor, neglecting the sick, following the tyrant and keeping out the wanderer, just as Jesus would have wanted it.

I know, you’re probably thinking that I think too much, that it’s just some words and some fun. People in the dominant culture always minimize the arguments and the feelings of those on the outside looking in, because they don’t have to look out. “Lighten up, it’s just a joke, where’s your sense of humor?” “It’s just a word, your people use it. Get over it. Making an issue of it is reverse prejudice.” “We can call it a ‘civil union,’ it doesn’t have to be called ‘marriage,’ marriage means something else. It’s really the same thing.” “Why take down the statues? They’re part of our history. You want to wipe out history.” “We can’t change the name of our team. You’re being oversensitive.” “Now it’s men who are the victims.” “We didn’t use to have a problem before all this PC.” “What’s the big deal, Christmas is for everybody.”

It sure seems that “Christmas is for everybody,” since one can’t escape for months all of the Christmas music in the stores and the elevators and one’s favorite rock stations, or all the Christmas-themed TV shows invading one’s living room and interrupting the regular entertainment from which one seeks escape and comfort, or the fact that everything in the whole immediate world closes down on Christmas Day except for the Chinese restaurants and movies, our tribe’s congregation places. But I digress. So, anyway, please don’t wish me a “Merry Christmas.” That’s not who I am. Don’t even wish me a “Happy Hanukkah.” That’s really not who I am either. If you want to wish me something, wish me health and love and friendship and peace… every day equally… and I will happily and merrily do the same.

Isn’t It Ironic?

So I have almost no voice now. I don’t mean that in some political or existential sense, I mean it literally. I have a polyp on my vocal cords. Yes, the same vocal cords that became inexplicably paralyzed twenty something years ago, a condition which didn’t just change and compromise my voice, but left me with a dangerously narrowed airway. That’s why they can’t simply surgically remove it. So instead I’m being sent for vocal training, to not only reduce the strain but perhaps heal the polyp. There have been so many interlocking ironies.

Up until the laryngeal paralysis I had had two great passions (besides sex, of course), writing and playing softball. I had been writing since childhood, and had been giving readings of my poetry in my early twenties. But writing hardly seemed the basis for a money-making career. (As it turns out, it’s quite the money-killer for a post-retirement second career as well.) So instead I ultimately chose teaching. This in part stemmed from a fantasy I had during the Vietnam era of fleeing the country to avoid the draft and teaching at McGill University in Montreal. What I was at all qualified to teach at the time was beside the point. But I ended up avoiding the draft by having to remain in college an extra semester because my anti-war activities took away from class time. I, a socialist, then found myself working in a financial company down by Wall Street. I also found myself coping with anxiety. It was because of my anxiety that I got into teaching, thanks to a referral by my psychiatrist.

I expected to be teaching kids somewhere in the elementary to pre-secondary grades. But I landed instead in preschool, in part, I’m sure, due to whatever psycho-therapeutic benefits it may have had for me. Years later I would make the transition, almost accidentally, to college teaching, circling back to my initial vision, in order to train new preschool teachers. But whereas I was and am a natural writer, I may have become pretty good at teaching through hard, sometimes self-flagellating work, but I was never a natural. And standing in front of a room of adults would cause consistent performance anxiety and periodic panic attacks. So, ultimately, teaching, which resulted from my efforts to deal with my anxiety, would prove to be the greatest source of my anxiety.

Oh, and then there’s my voice. Every new year of college teaching would bring a temporarily hoarseness in readjusting to lecturing five classes. One year it wasn’t temporary. Doctors at the time didn’t really know much about laryngeal paralysis, and, so, I was sent for some vocal training, which at the time wasn’t the issue, albeit that it now is. I learned to teach with a microphone, which, as I managed to compensate for my loss of projection, became unnecessary in smaller classrooms. There’s no way I could do any of that now. But I don’t have to, since I’m now retired from teaching and focused on writing. So I don’t need much voice, except for the telephone. It would have been a disaster had this come earlier than my retirement date.

However, I do miss being able to sing in the car. I was a really good singer, especially before my voice changed, and, then, before it was damaged. I did learn to compensate for that a bit too, reclaiming some vibrato if not the air to sustain it, until now. I could have pursued singing, too. I even had had a band, for a couple of weeks at least, of which I was lead singer. I could still sing, though my voice had suffered a little from the coming of adolescence, as did many things. We did have a cool name, though: “Topaz and the Chocolate Albatross.” I was Topaz. A psychic later told me to stay away from crystals, but I won’t even get started with the many ironies involved with him. The band disbanded because we weren’t just untalented, we were way too white. Two years later I’d be working with the Black Panther Party, but fortunately not as a singer, although that might have been safer.

And as I had said, I had loved playing softball. I was a horrible athlete as a child, in part because I was quite overweight. It would be a massive crash diet and some resultant anorexia when I had just turned sixteen and was entering college that would bring my anxiety to the surface, leading to the psychiatrist, leading to the teaching, etc. And of course the medication led to self-medication led back to medication. But I was lucky enough to have grown up in a neighborhood of kids my age who played ball every day. So I became competent, and, eventually, a good softball pitcher. It didn’t just keep me in shape, it didn’t just make me a central star without having to stand in front of a room, but the stress of pitching competitive games was actually a perfect outlet for my anxiety… as writing is presently. I’m not sure if I would have stopped playing softball by now, but I had to stop way prematurely. And the rapid weight loss, as damaging as it was to my health, repercussions of which I continue to deal with, did benefit me greatly with that sex thing I parenthetically mentioned. It was also the psychiatrist who inadvertently led me to the singles bar scene. And I got pretty competent at that, too, as I have apparently always been at compensating. But of course then there was that performance anxiety thing that I mentioned, so there you go.

I don’t know if I’ll be getting my voice back. Ironically, it’s not that big of a deal. After all, I’ve got this. I’m probably too old for the softball and maybe even the teaching, and, for that matter, the sexual exploits. But after book number four is published in a matter of weeks, I have a fifth already begun, another short story starting to take shape, and the preschool education book waiting in the wings. And I do have one more thing that I didn’t have before. Not that I’m dismissing what I’ve accomplished as a writer or even teacher, but the one thing that brought the most meaning and value to my life was being responsible for and taking care of my son. He’s now grown. And he’s grown from an autistic child who struggled academically to an incredibly sociable and brilliant young man. But now I have someone in my life whom I am responsible to and take care of and who does the same for me. So as I, in this chapter of my life, deal with my greatest source of anxiety and panic, I know that I’m very lucky. And, you know, I probably always have been.

Hair

My fiancee and I saw a production of “Hair” today at the Cultural Arts Playhouse in Syosset. I was very surprised at how talented the entire cast was and how well it was produced. We had seen “Hair in Concert” at the Patchogue Theater a while back, and not only had we been disappointed that it was presented as a concert rather than a coherent play, but the performances were not nearly as good or authentic. But there was one thing I hadn’t realized.
 
The movie, which I had previously seen, a couple of times actually, and which I just watched again tonight, is completely different from the stage play. I had known the character of Claude Bukowski as an innocent Oklahoma farm boy who was on his way to volunteering in the Vietnam Era army when he met a band of hippies and was changed by their lifestyle. I hadn’t known, when I criticized the Patchogue production, that in the original version he was one of the hippies and was drafted. I’m still considering which is more effective, but that’s not the point of writing this.
 
I realize “Hair” is superficial, but it always affects me emotionally. Each version in its own way could have sent a bolder anti-war message, but each did, nonetheless, send that message. What they also all implied is that the youth are the ones who can save us. In the time of “Hair” I was one of those youth. It was an era when we fought against an illegal war and virulent racism. Youth mobilized and effected change, a lot of its values, opposing war, violence, bigotry, materialism, etc., becoming mainstream in the culture… for a while.
 
Today, the U.S. is involved in 134 wars at last count. Some are outsourced to private or secret armies, and most are hidden from the American public, so as to not fuel another massive anti-war movement. The U.S. has been at war 224 out of its 242 years. And tens of thousands more bodies of young Americans, and hundreds of thousands of civilians of other countries have piled up since “Hair.” Meanwhile, racism has been on the rise again as well. In many ways, from the mainstreaming of White Nationalists to increases in racial inequalities and re-segregation to the tolerated level of bigotry among the populace, we are back in “Great” pre-1968 America. So, ultimately, our generation failed. And it IS up to the youth. Many of us from my generation, including me I’m afraid, are too worn to keep carrying the fight anymore. The world we fucked up is theirs now. 
 
So I do choke up seeing a group of young people passionately singing “Let the Sun Shine In” at the end of the performance, just as I have been inspired to see millions of young people at the rallies against guns, bigotry, misogyny, anti-immigrant policies, war, attacks on the environment, oligarchy and Trump. History seems to move in twenty year cycles. A youth movement got started in the 1980’s but died out. And then an apathy bred of overload and hopelessness overran the natural idealism that society needs from its young people. It looks like that has finally changed, but will it last?
 
In some very real ways we sit on the precipice of fascism, with the electoral process, a free press, an independent judiciary, checks and balances over executive power, civil and equal rights, separation of church and state, marginalization of hate groups and truth all under attack. I hope when those performers I saw today so passionately singing and chanting and waving peace signs and clenched fists took off their wigs and sixties costumes, they went home, watched the news, and prepared to do it for real. Our “dying nation,” as the song says, desperately needs them.

Scratchy (2004 – 2018)

 

My cat died tonight. I hadn’t intended on calling her “Scratchy.” The plan was “Cat Mandu.” But I got her for my son, and he preferred to name her after the animated cat in the Simpson’s spin-off. Funny thing about plans, though. That was the last time he really had anything to do with her. She was my cat, for fourteen years. In the last year she became Marianne’s cat, too. We just buried her outside, under the window she liked to look out of. Let me tell you the story I sometimes shared with students, what I’d come to call “The Story of Scratchy”… or “Cwatzy,” as she became.

When I separated from my son Randy’s mother, in 2001, I gave up our house and moved to an apartment. Wanting to make sure he was as comfortable at my small place as he was at his mom’s, I tried to think of something special I could give him for us to share. That explained the Gameboy. But I also wanted him to have a pet. As some of you might remember, he was autistic, and animals are supposed to be good for that, right? But what kind? My first thought was fish. I had never had fish, so this was something we could discover together. I took him to several pet stores to get him excited about our new roommates. Finally, we bought three fish. They weren’t tropical fish, but they were pretty fish: a tricolor this, a neon that, a rainbow the other. Now I knew nothing about fish care, but I read the instructions carefully, then shifted the water to adjust the temperature, and finally slid them in. One came to the surface and took its last breath. One lay in a coma like driftwood until the morning. No one had told me that if you don’t know anything about fish you start off with sturdy ones. So that left Brendan, brave Brendan, the survivor, for whom Randy drew a tributory crayon picture. But he was all alone, and that’s not what we wanted. So I went back to the pet store, only to be told that we couldn’t add more fish then because of the ph balance and all, that the water would have to recycle to make it habitable for anyone but Brendon, who was used to it, and with only one fish that would take a long time. Back in the pet store, browsing fish for the future, I was told that goldfish are strong fish and can survive anything, but I didn’t want to put in any old fish, I wanted our aquarium to be special and pretty. Although by that point, Randy lost all interest.

 

Meanwhile, my ex had bought three fish to surprise us with, and left them with the downstairs neighbor. When we got home we were sure surprised. I knew that putting them into that tank would be like immersing them in soup, and Randy had witnessed quite enough carnage already. I remembered we had a lake nearby, which I knew they wouldn’t survive, but Randy wouldn’t know that. But no, I didn’t do it. I realized we had about fifteen minutes to return the fish to the store before it closed, so we grabbed the bag, hopped into the car, and drove French Connection style, making it just in time. So at least some fish made it out alive. But I was still sad (Randy couldn’t have cared less) that Brendon was alone. So I was in another pet store, seeking a different answer, whereupon I was told that there was this pump that could oxygenate the water and speed up the cycle. Exactly what I wanted, right? Well, I read all of the instructions, screwed it onto the glass, plugged it in, turned it on, bubble bubble… Brendan came to the surface, took his last breath and expired. We buried Brendan in a matchbox behind our apartment. No more fish.

So now I thought… hamsters. I always had hamsters when I was a preschool teacher or director, and I never killed any of them… except for the one that had gone missing and we found filled with maggots behind the soda machine. But that hadn’t been my fault. Really. So now I had to get Randy on board. We went to the pet store again, now to look at the cute and furry little hamsters. I finally got Randy somewhat interested, so to seal the deal I bought a rocketship habitrail. And when he was ready, we went rodent shopping. I had always had teddy bear hamsters. They’re very tame and friendly… except for the albino ones, which are vicious. Anyway, Randy became interested, instead, in the somewhat bigger, three times more expensive, cousin of the teddy bears, a black bear hamster. Well this was for him, right? So we bought him, took him home and introduced him to his spaceship. Randy named him “Jimmy” and drew another picture. And Jimmy was a fine hamster, playful and friendly, he would sit on your hand or climb up your shoulder… until tragedy struck maybe a couple of months later and Jimmy died, from what I don’t know. So we buried him next to Brendan, waited a respectful amount of time, and then went to get a new one.

Randy picked another black bear, whom he wanted to name “Jimmy.” But I explained that there was only one Jimmy, so he said, “Okay, James.” Fine. I had scrubbed the cage thoroughly to make sure there was nothing to harm James, and brought him home in one of those little black boxes, you know, the coffin-like things. It must have been a bumpy ride… no, he didn’t die. But once we got him home and put him in the cage he became completely uninterested in human contact, except for biting. I tried. Meanwhile Randy had lost all interest again. But we finally had to take him back and explain we needed a people-friendly, specifically child-friendly one instead. And one was brought out and placed into the palm of my hand. He was so sweet and cute and cuddly… except that I had forgotten that hamsters tend to be nocturnal, and he was that way only because he was half asleep. I had even brought the cage, so as to avoid the coffin-like journey home, but when he awoke he was no more sweet and cute and cuddly than James had been. Plus, Randy had grown tired of the Jimmy/James paradigm, so named this fellow “Darth Maul.” Thus, Darth had a monstrous reputation to live up to. I didn’t want to keep replacing hamsters. I mean, what kind of message was that for Randy. So I tried to live with and, over time, civilize Darth. But he would have none of it.

 

Then one day we were in another pet store, probably fondly watching fish, when I saw three baby black bear hamsters in front. They were awake, playing with one another, and seemingly very different from our previous ones. We were told that they had been hand raised and, so, quite people friendly. I asked the girl if they would allow an exchange, even though I hadn’t even gotten Darth there, and after going back to ask the manager, she said okay. So, with Randy’s okay as well, we jumped in the car and drove, French Connection style, home, scooped up Darth, cage and all, and headed back to the store. The girl said she would take Darth out of the cage, but I thought it was only right that I do it as a goodbye. And as I did, he bit the hell out of me. There bleeding, I knew, first, that he was sending me a message, and, second, that I had made the right move. So we brought Kibby, or Kib for short, home, and he was great, living an almost complete hamster life in our care… well, in my care. Randy had lost all interest.

One day while driving I realized something pretty amazing. When I was young I didn’t have hamsters, I had parakeets. The first one was Spotty. Spotty was a friendly bird; he would sit on your shoulder or head… until tragedy struck and he flew out of a window left open. So we waited a respectful length of time and got our second, whom I wanted to name “Spotty,” but I was told that there was only one Spotty, so I dubbed him “Spotty #2.” But he wasn’t very friendly, flying up to the top of the door frame and keeping away from us, except to nip. So we exchanged him for another, whom, having gotten over the Spotty paradigm, I called “Jet.” But Jet was another ornery bird. We tried to keep him, so as not to send me a bad message, but finally gave up and got Tiny, the friendliest and longest lasting parakeet of all… the same exact pattern. Bizarre, huh?

At that point, I was ready for a cat again. I had had cats for most of my adult life. My first was a beautiful black cat I named “Blake.” Then there were orange tabbies called “Steppenpussy” and “Fetchitini” respectively. After that was a wonderful Siamese I named “Muse.” I had Muse for somewhere around 17 years I think, into my marriage. Unfortunately, my wife at the time had OCD and didn’t want to touch the cat or touch anything that I touched after touching the cat. So I probably  neglected him in his later years and have regretted that. After he died, some time passed, and when we bought our first home we got a kitten, “Catrina.” Many of you know that that house was burned down, and Catarina was lost in the fire. So I think it took me a while to want another cat, but now I was ready. Except that Randy didn’t want a cat. My ex and I had ended up with another cat after Catrina, “Catarina” (of course), but she was a bit overwhelming and crazy and Randy was kind of afraid of and didn’t much like her. I acknowledged this and told Randy that I really wanted the cat for him, that I thought it would be good for him, but I wanted one for me too, so this one time I would do something for myself anyway. This was an unfamiliar stand to Randy, so he had to draw his own line in the sand, too. “As long as it’s a boy,” because Catarina was a girl and because he was going through a major boy thing at the time. I assured him that that would be my intention.

I wanted a Siamese again. They’re really unique, mellow and friendly. So I answered an ad from someone who lived in a ritzy area. He led us down into his basement, where there were three kittens running around. Randy quickly looked at the cats, then cast his gaze on the man’s pinball machine, and that was the end of his inspections. I found a playful male, and showed it to Randy, who nodded between balls (no pun intended). When we were getting ready to leave, young Randy asked the question that I should have been considering, “How much?” I’m an old hippie, so I don’t think of such things. I believe the man said $500, to which I responded “okay, thank you.” He told us we could get kittens at the local animal shelter, and we drove right there, but there were only a couple of cats, no kittens and no males. However, the person there overheard our conversation and told me that Randy was right, males are friendlier. Okay, I told Randy, don’t worry, we’ll find you a boy.

The next day I answered an ad for Russian Blue kittens that had been brought to a pet store in Nassau county by a rescue organization. Cool, I thought, Russian Blues (as opposed to Russian Oranges and Reds, like Trump and his Republicans) are supposed to be beautiful, and getting a rescued cat even better. We drove all the way there, only to find out that they had no knowledge of such an event. I didn’t see any kittens in the store, until we started leaving and Randy spotted a house-like section with three exotic kittens. “How much for the male?” I asked. “$750” the clerk replied. “Thank you very much,” I muttered as we quickly exited. On the drive back I continued to reassure Randy that we would get the cat he wanted.

The following day I did what I should have in the first place, I looked in the paper under “FREE kittens.” I found one ad from someone in the neighborhood who had three kittens for adoption, one of them male. So off we went. When we got there, the woman told us that one had been adopted, but that she still had the male. She brought out a really pretty and sweet white one. I played with it a bit while Randy, disinterested, played with her grandson. Then I lifted it up. Nope, female. So she brought her in and got the male, who was the runt of the litter, but still very sweet and playful. And home we went… with Scratchy.

At home and after naming Scratchy, Randy fed and took care of and proudly carried around his new buddy. He even had me call his mother so she could come over and see him with the cat. After a while she took him, leaving just me and Scratchy. I was writing at the computer with Scratchy on my lap when, while petting her, I made a discovery. Scratchy was a she. The first cat the woman gave away must have been the male. Oh, no, I thought. I hesitantly called Randy. The conversation went something like, “You know how much you liked Scratchy, how you named and fed Scratchy, and how good that seemed to make you feel. Well, I just discovered something. Scratchy’s actually a girl. But it really doesn’t matter, Scratchy is the same cat you liked so much.” “Take her back.” “But Randy, she’s really a sweet cat who liked you and I think in time….” “Take her back.” “Okay, I promised you….”

At that very moment, I swear, Scratchy leapt from my lap and dashed into the closet. I called the woman, who said she’d take her back, managed to get her out of the closet, carried her to the car as she clung tightly to me, drove to her former owner’s house, pried her from my shirt, and sadly drove away. As I drove I called Randy and told him I had brought Scratchy back and we would find the boy cat he really wanted together. I arrived home and returned to the computer. At almost nine the phone rang. It was Randy. “I want the cat. Even though it’s a girl I want the cat.” It went right to my heart. He was feeling guilty. I quickly called the woman, who told me she had already gotten rid of her. After a pause she said she was teasing me and to come get her. And so I did, and after a happy reunion we drove home. I swung by his mom’s house so he could see the cat and get to sleep. Randy never showed any interest in Scratchy again. Part of it was wanting Scratchy declawed, as he was still skittish about cats. And part of it was, well, Randy.

I know I’ve been avoiding what has just happened. I felt this was all part of the story that I wanted to share, but now that I’ve reached this point the sadness has returned. She was my companion for fourteen years. She was born on July 4, 2004, at least that’s what it says on her carrying case, whether by knowledge or estimate. She was a beautiful long haired cat, white with grey spots, and a really pretty face that looked almost human, especially when she was a kitten. She had a cute, light, squeaky “mew,” really more of a “mouw,” that sometimes we would exchange in conversation. She liked to be sung to, and would mouw back. And she had a very feminine, butt swaying walk. She definitely had a cat personality. She was insistently independent and things had to be on her terms… just like Randy. She purred contentedly when she was being held and petted, but jumped off as soon as the grasp was loosened, as if to imply that she had only pretended to like it and had just been doing me a favor. No matter how many little beds or houses or cat trees I got her, she would never go where I suggested, she preferred to lay on paper. She would come, or jump up on the bed, when she felt like it, as long as I didn’t reach out so that she would have to admit she had done so, but she would always be at the door when I got home… then turn her back. And she would show affection, particularly when she wanted to get fed. Come to think of it, she was like a lot of women I dated, too.

She would never go outside. But we had to move a few times, from that apartment to the coop I bought, then upstairs to another coop briefly, and then to the condo I’m renting now. And when I’d put her into the carrier she would scratch and scrape at the bars, the first couple of times until she had cut herself up. She was definitely a homebody, like me. And she was probably afraid of being taken to the vet or maybe even given back again. The last trip to the vet was particularly depressing, because she was too weak to fight and it was so traumatic for her that she never recovered. She just wanted to be home. Fortunately, for the last year she’s had a bed buddy, my fiancee. I’m a light, sometimes hesitant sleeper and never liked to sleep with cats, which might have accounted for some of her distance. But with Marianne, the first living thing besides me she ever got close to, she would come and jump up on the pillow next to her and sleep beside her, on, as she claimed it, a real human bed of her own. I’m grateful that she had been lucky enough to have that experience, and a loving mother figure in her life. The way Marianne responded to her in her final days, how she cleaned and took care of her, how upset she was as she declined, how she stayed up at night to check on her, how she held her for hours in her last hours so she wouldn’t feel alone, how she cried when she died, was so touching for me and only further reinforces how lucky I am.

I was there when Scratchy took her final, labored breaths, her eyes widened and blind. I tried to pet her, she tried to purr but choked instead, and I couldn’t watch anymore. I came upstairs, and soon Marianne came up crying to tell me she was gone. We dug up a spot under the window she used to look safely through at the outside world, buried her, and transplanted a rose bush over her. I watered it, took a picture, and then we went inside, just the two of us. Goodbye, Scratchy.

 

Trump and Kim: Face to Face

Okay, I know a lot of liberals are tripping over themselves to give Trump some credit for the seeming breakthrough with North Korea, so they can show how non-partisan they are. But before we do so, let’s look at this objectively.

Yes, Kim has said that he will come to the table and meet Trump for direct negotiations. Now, why? Well, certainly the sanctions had something to do with it. The sanctions have existed for some time, by the U.N. and previous Presidential administrations. The Trump administration apparently ratcheted them up, hurting the North Korean people. But Kim supposedly doesn’t care about his people, right? So we move to factor number two, Trump’s threats.

Trump promised “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” The world has already seen Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Holocaust and the Crusades, napalm and cluster bombs and Shock and Awe. So what monstrosity could Trump have been alluding to? And would any result justify it? He essentially said he would wipe out the North Korean people. So if Trump, whom we know admires dictators and dictatorship, actually believed what his spokespeople have been saying about Kim’s treatment of his own people being a justification for our opposition to his regime, how would wiping them out free them?

Now, who initiated this peace initiative? Well, clearly President Moon of South Korea was the main catalyst. He was elected on a platform of peace talks with the North. He secured the invitation of North Korean athletes to the Olympics. He met with them. Only then was there any movement. One has to also assume that the Chinese had something to do with this, as they have the greatest sway over North Korea. Undoubtedly there were other actors involved behind the scenes, maybe Americans. But, so, why does Kim want to meet with Trump? Why, in fact, can’t and shouldn’t the South and North work things out between themselves, why does the United States have to be the final arbiter at all? What’s our business there?

For dictators, whether it be Kim or the Donald, most everything is about saving face. Trump wants to look tough and successful, although in reality he’s a coward and failure. Kim wants to look like he won something rather than conceded. It was the same with Hirohito, who had essentially acquiesced to the same conditions that ended World War II and just wanted to save face before we dropped two nuclear bombs on Japanese civilians. So Kim gets to be seen on the world stage as someone of equal weight and legitimacy as the President of the United States (as if that’s a compliment). But I suspect there’s more to it.

Kim has seen how impulsive and ignorant Trump is. Will Trump, in the very few months before this summit, rigorously prepare? Will he bring along experienced and expert advisors (instead of another real estate conman who also happens to know nothing but who also happens to be his son-in-law)? Kim undoubtedly believes he can get Trump to unwittingly agree to things no other President ever would. Right now, all North Korea is offering is to freeze their nuclear program, not to dismantle it. Sure, sane people would see that as an accomplishment worthy of meeting half way. But Republicans militarists are hardly that sane, and wouldn’t accept it, so we’ll end up with another fiasco wherein Trump will have to back away from whatever deal he said he supported, like with guns, and the United States will be made to look like liars and hypocrites (you know, like our fearless leader) who don’t really want peace. In fact, they might already be backing off the summit as this is written.

And what is it that we would have to give up in order for the North Koreans to agree to freeze their nuclear efforts? We’d have to agree to respect the territorial integrity of North Korea and not invade it or try to overthrow its regime. Um, isn’t that part of the United Nation’s charter anyway? We’d also probably have to agree to halting our war maneuvers with South Korea. In other words, all North Korea has really ever wanted is, if you leave us alone and don’t threaten us we’ll leave you alone and won’t threaten you. But that’s not easy for America. We play by special rules.

Remember the Cuban missile crisis? Why did the Soviet Union send nuclear weapons to Cuba? Maybe it was because we had already invaded Cuba and tried several times to kill their President? Maybe it was because we had nuclear weapons aimed at the Soviet Union from their doorstep in Turkey? The Soviet Union had to publicly back down. But privately, Kennedy promised to stop invading Cuba and to dismantle the nuclear weapons threatening the Soviet Union (one of the reasons, some think, that he was assassinated). Why is it that the United States gets to make up all of the rules? We have nuclear weapons, in fact we are the only country on the face of the Earth that has actually used them against human beings. How did we become the moral arbiters?

If the invasion of Iraq taught the world anything it’s that countries on America’s radar had better develop nuclear weapons and quickly if they don’t want the same fate. You know, it’s the nuclear deterrence (what’s politely known as “mutually assured destruction”) that we get to talk about. We didn’t hesitate to attack Iraq twice, but blinked when it came to North Korea, resorting only to sanctions and, with Trump, what has clearly shown itself to be empty, albeit dangerous, bombast. But what if countries do decide that they have to defend themselves against such threats? Well, now we have been given the justification for attacking them, a neat little no-win trick. We proclaim that they can’t be trusted with nuclear weapons. That’s true, but can we? We always make rulers of countries we want to blockade or invade appear crazy. We did it with Qaddafi, going so far as to doctor a photograph of him in a dress, when that was in fact considered “crazy” by Americans. I don’t claim to know whether the claims about what Kim has done to his people are true, anymore than we know about the claims that were made against Saddam. Trump isn’t the only one who makes convenient shit up. But the offensive use of nuclear weapons is, itself, clear insanity, just a different kind, a kind that we have no right to be preaching about.

Is a denuclearized Korean peninsula a good thing? Sure it is, if they’re thereafter left alone. But will Trump promise that? And even if he does, if we don’t like their ultimate solution or if they suddenly find oil, what guarantees do they have? I mean, don’t we talk about guarantees when it comes to other countries? We didn’t like that the overwhelming majority of Vietnamese would have voted for Ho Chi Minh (Eisenhower estimated it at 80%), so we stopped the election, put up a puppet dictatorship in the South, then killed and replaced them with a more useful puppet, then virtually obliterated the country. Ah, exporting democracy indeed. So, while I’m thinking it will be nice to get Trump out of the country for a few days, I’m just not quite ready to start doling out credit for anything. We’ll see.

Aim Both Barrels At the NRA (a timely re-post)

Aim Both Barrels At the NRA: A Radical Perspective on Gun Control

 

There was yet another school shooting yesterday, at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, where ten students have died.  This is the forty fifth school shooting this year alone.  When is enough enough?  How many children have to be sacrificed to the gun lobby?  How much blood money in the coffers of the gun manufacturers, in the salaries of their puppets in the NRA leadership, and in the pockets of the politicians they’ve bought is each child worth?  Forget all this crap about “sensible” gun control.  What we need are radical measures, like those in all other of the industrialized countries, whose gun deaths combined don’t equal ours.

Okay, let’s start where all unfanatical and uncorrupted people would hopefully agree.  Ban semi-automatic weapons.  One doesn’t need an AK-47 to shoot Bambi.  People who argue against this conjure images of a slippery slope.  So if we have an uninfringeable right to “bear arms,” why not let everyone have atomic missiles for recreational use?  The slippery slopers, and they are awfully slippery, make the same argument against limiting the number of rounds per marketable firearm, despite the fact that the mass murderers have generally been caught while attempting to reload. So enough bullshit.  And that goes for their other arguments, too.

How about we look at the Second Amendment and read what it actually says?  My copy of the Constitution reads: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  Come on English majors, what does that actually say?  The sentence is governed by the premise of “a well regulated Militia.”  This is what guarantees the right of “the people” to security.  No “strict constructionist” alive can offer proof that it has anything to do with each individual citizen’s rights.  Why is there a comma before “shall not be infringed” if that related directly to some universal “right?”

And if one is not a strict constructionist it’s even easier.  When this was written, people had one shot muskets that had to be painstakenly reloaded with gunpowder.  People needed to hunt for food.  The union, on the heels of a revolution, was shaky.  We actually had a popular militia.  Could the authors of this amendment have had even an inkling of the completely different realities of today’s society, and don’t we in other areas, such as equal protection and the right to privacy, interpret the Constitution based on projecting its principles to today’s circumstances and knowledge?

Today few people have to hunt for food or clothing.  Those who do can be otherwise supported in their need.  Hunting now is done for sport or tradition.  Sorry, but that’s not good enough.  Personally, I think that killing animals for sport is a sickness, not unconnected to why we have so many killings of people.  And past cultural customs often have to give way to the general mores and welfare of the society as a whole.  But even if one can justify hunting, is that “thrill” worth parents having to bury their children?  Can’t people find another way to satisfy those alleged primal urges for adventure, perhaps by using it toward some form of freeing or rescuing rather than stalking and destroying?

So if not for hunting, what about for protection?  More bullshit.  Guns in the home are thirty four times more likely to result in unjustifiable homicide, suicide or accident than in any protective action.  Gun owners are forty three times more likely to kill a family member than a dangerous intruder.  People with guns in their possession are four and a half times more likely to be killed by gunfire.  Those with guns in the home are at three times greater risk of being killed.  And those guns are at least twice more likely to be used by the intruder against the homeowner than vice versa.  A hundred children a year die from accidental gun deaths.

One hears, in response to a massacre like yesterday’s, that if only someone there had been packing it could have been averted, that we need more guns not less to prevent tragedies.  More bullets flying “old West style” would make bystanders safer?  Does anybody see a problem with putting guns in the hands of school personnel, mall guards or theater ushers and hoping they stay cool under pressure, aim well, judge clearly, guard them safely, don’t ever have any mental episodes, don’t ever inaccurately interpret threat or self-defense, and haven’t evaded anything in their background checks?  We don’t even have reliable background checks as it is, now we want to use our schools and public places for such a social experiment for which we can’t call on a single one of those cases where it’s been successful?

There’s only one argument that, in my opinion, has any reasonability, although it carries its own kind of dangerous irrationality.  It is the fear of having an unarmed population.  If we give the government the right to disarm us, we potentially enslave ourselves.  Okay, but even considering the high unlikelihood that we’ll be facing outright fascism here in the foreseeable future, if there were armed insurrection we’d be massacred.  And considering the political mentality and insight of the average American and how much more likely, in that eventuality, they could be driven by politicians and media to turn on scapegoats and each other than on the government and plutocrats, are we really safer with, say, a well armed North Dakota or Texas, or will we have to shoot it out with them first?  Yes, police brutality is still alive, but we saw what happened when the Black Panthers asserted their right to bear arms: they’re not.  And this is all gross speculation.  Meanwhile, real children, seven a day in America, are dying.  You know how they say that regardless of laws criminals can always get guns?  Well, in the midst of an outright revolution, desperate insurgents can always get guns, too.

But let’s examine that mantra about gun control taking guns out of the hands of “the good guys” while the “bad guys” can always get them by virtue of being “bad guys.”  In this context, what exactly are “good guys” and “bad guys,” other than comic book caricatures?  They tell us we need to focus on “sick people,” not guns, because “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”  And of course we need to devote more money and care to people with mental illness.  But those with pre-diagnosed disturbances make up only a tiny percentage of armed killers.  Most gun deaths are not premeditated or motivated by some ascertainable “evil,” they occur in “the heat of passion” or rage, during some kind of unpredictable psychotic break, in some irrational perception of self-defense, unintentionally or accidentally.  But even if we tightened background checks, which we of course have to do (and the NRA fights even that), even if we had the best system of mental health care in the world (instead of one of the worst), it would only begin to chip away at the epidemic we face.  If guns are available, they’re more likely to be used, it’s as simple as that.

When the victim of bullying starts to seethe, when the depression of the teen starts to deepen, when the man thinks he sees his wife with another man, when the spousal abuse begins worsening, when the fight continues to escalate, when the immature fool wants to show off, what does common sense say about whether it makes a difference whether a gun is readily available or not?  If they even first had to go out and get them, how many lives would be saved?  How many more would be saved if they couldn’t?  We see this phenomenon in research.  Those with guns are more likely to taunt and bully, to engage in road rage and reckless behavior, to escalate and not back down.  So how the hell do they make us safer?

We need a war on guns.  Bottom line: they have no place in a civilized society.  Gun violence is a national health and child welfare emergency.  We talk about it for a couple of days after a tragedy like this most recent one and then let it die, just like we let the next group of kids die.  A new study by the Boston Children’s Hospital confirmed that the states with the strictest gun control measures tend to have the fewest gun fatalities, as if that wouldn’t be self-evident. But then there’s that pesky problem of neighboring states.  In the news just today, surveillance tapes were released capturing a gun runner bragging about how he had bought an arsenal of weapons down south, in states with weak gun laws, and then sold them on the streets of New York. We need to expose the many politicians, more than half in Congress as of the last accounting, who put their NRA contributions before common sense and common decency.  We can disagree about how far to go, although how far is far enough when it comes to our most vulnerable and precious resource?  But at very least, it’s time we stopped talking, and then stopped stopping talking, and began to act.

P.S. It has just come to my attention that the reason the Second Amendment was drafted had nothing to do with the individual right to bear arms. It was written to protect the slave patrol militias in the southern states. That’s why it reads “State” and not “Country.” So, like everything else, from the National Anthem to Trump, it IS about race.

Taking a Knee

Colin Kaepernick is a trailblazer and a hero, and I’m waiting for some team to have the the integrity and balls to break the ironically dubbed “blackball.” But he certainly wasn’t the first to not stand for the National Anthem. With the exception of a brief time when my son was young and I didn’t want him in uncomfortable situations, I, for one, have refused to rise my entire adult life. For the record, I don’t salivate on command either. There are those who call such defiance disrespectful to the principles that the flag stands for, to our military and our way of life. This charge is usually met with knee-jerk (pun intended) denial and deflection. I stand, or, rather, sit, guilty as charged.

It only came to my attention during this current debate, although it should have been no great surprise, that the National Anthem was written by a proud slave owner. In fact, one of the original stanzas applauds the death of slaves fighting to free themselves. This issue is about denial, but not the pressured denial of those who protest. It’s about the denial of our history and present, the denial of life and liberty, and the denial of the right of free thought and expression that, among its stains, the flag allegedly stands for.

The Anthem is a celebration of war. As detestable a human trait as I believe war is, I don’t dispute the existence of just wars. There are times, when all else fails, that call for self-defense or the defense of others against tyranny, invasion or genocide. It’s just that I have seen no such American wars in my lifetime. Wars to install dictators or puppet regimes that will serve American corporate and geopolitical interests, whether in Latin America, Southeast Asia or the Middle East, simply don’t count. And as for the others, could we have become free of England without massive bloodshed, like the Canadians for example, and was the Revolutionary War all that freeing for African or Native Americans? Could we have avoided armed conflict and virtually indiscriminate bombing in Serbia by supporting the strong non-violent resistance instead of some shadow army likely CIA-connected, and have we stemmed the tide of terrorism through our wars throughout the Muslim world, or, rather, created, armed, inflamed and perpetrated it?

We are told we must “support the troops.” To the extent that “the troops” is defined as the collection of individual soldiers, the reply should be to stop waving the flag and bring them the hell home. But an ex-serviceman who visited our College a number of years ago made a more precise distinction. He said he does not “support the troops” because that implies supporting the mission. Rather, he supports the soldiers individually and selectively. Some perform acts of heroism, some atrocities, many just survive. In general, though, he offered, they are not heroes as the chicken hawks in high places like to call them, they are not villains as some of us during the Vietnam era treated them, they are victims. They are victims, often, of a system that has given them no better means to pursue the illusion of the American dream by being able to afford College and earn a decent living. And they are victims, too, of the incessant indoctrination they have been subjected to, by self-serving politicians and the controlled media, and through the imposition of “The Pledge of Allegiance” on captive audiences of children and “The National Anthem” on unquestioning audiences of football enthusiasts.

To remain seated, or kneel, or raise a clenched fist, is defiance against hypocrisy. It is an act of the free and a stance of the brave. It’s a response to the legacy of denial of freedom to African Americans, from historic slavery, Jim Crow and lynchings to modern racial injustice, police killings and bigotry used as a political wedge issue, and to the moral cowardice our society continues to show in being unwilling to face, acknowledge and end it. Protest has always been attacked, regardless of the form or timing. Lest we forget, as so many prefer to, in his time Dr. King was vilified and punished, ultimately lethally. Any attempts to dismantle, or even discuss White privilege is seen by the majority as a threat against something God-given and unquestioned, to be met with denial, of its legitimacy and its right of expression. Yes, regardless of what too many owners and millionaires now feel compelled to say, this is indeed a protest against what the flag has, in reality, in too many people’s realities, stood for. And that’s why we must continue to kneel, especially us White folks, until all can rise.

Athletes take a knee when they are hurt and tired. We should all be.

 

Let Me Tell You About Kenny White

Last night I went to see Kenny White perform in Manhasset. It’s the third or fourth time I’ve seen him. He is one of my favorite musical performers, and in my opinion one of the best singer-songwriters alive. And you haven’t heard of him (unless you’d seen my previous blog), right? I wish I could explain why. He’s very well respected in musical circles. He’s produced Peter Wolfe’s albums, has worked with David Crosby and has toured around the world. His albums have received spectacular reviews, as they should. So why is he still playing small venues and has he struggled so much for air play?

I think the only explanation is that his music isn’t commercial, which is ironic since he began his career writing musical commercials. Not only doesn’t he write and perform the kind of standard ditties that have two, maybe three verses with repetitive choruses, he actually wrote a song, “Gotta Sing High,” which parodies such a non-artistic approach. His songs are stories, laden with poetry, humor, emotion, politics, romanticism, vulnerability and genius, touching inner truths. Amidst the drek of much of today’s music scene, how about a lyric like, “Even shards of glass can pass for diamonds in the sun?” On top of it, he’s a brilliant musician, especially keyboardist, his melodies spanning from folk to jazz.

I’ve emailed and spoken with him a number of times. He’s also one of the nicest, humblest people I’ve met. And maybe that, mixed with his penchant for generosity and charitable performance, and what I have come to assume are some experiences with insecurity and pain, could be involved, too. (Our pains do seed our artistry after all). I say “assume” because, while I don’t really know him or his non-musical story, it seems like I, along probably with many others, can know and relate to him on many levels through his music. But who wants to say something so cliched and creepy-sounding to a celeb?

My history with Kenny White is another story, or should I say several. The first time I was introduced to him by way of his performance was on a pseudo-date. I had met this woman on a dating site and we had gone out once, but it was not a match, made in Heaven or “Cyberspace” (one of the best songs on his new album incidentally). For some reason, months later she contacted me and told me she had bought two tickets to an expensive benefit for the Japanese Tsunami victims, and asked if I’d like to accompany her. I could hardly turn that down, right? But I would have to buy her dinner, right? We were to meet by Penn Station, and I figured a local Chinese restaurant would be fine, but she really wanted to go to a favorite of hers across the street. I checked it out before she arrived. It was in a hotel, and when one walked in one confronted a bar teeming with loud businessmen coming off work. Pink neon lit my way to the back, where there was an ultra-pretentious little restaurant whose menu was so overpriced that I met my companion at the door and tried to block entry, ready to offer other suggestions. But she slid through, and proceeded to order the most expensive thing on the menu, filet mignon. I was going to ask if they had melba toast and water, but I figured, why deprive myself just because I couldn’t afford this? So I went for something I had seen on Gordon Ramsey and had enjoyed once before, Chilean Sea Bass. Mmmm…. Only this one wasn’t nearly as good as the much cheaper one I had eaten before, and it was accompanied by some tasteless asparagus and a little pancake of unknown composition. And then, after plunking down about a hundred bucks, we were off to the show.

As we were walking we passed an Applebee’s, and I commented that I remembered it, that I had taken my son there. She scoffed and replied with something like she wouldn’t be caught dead in such a place. When we turned the corner and headed up Eighth Avenue, we passed a row of parking lots, inviting desperate cars to rest awhile for about $70 a second. I was beginning to realize why I could never move back to New York and why I had never anticipated reuniting with this woman. We came to a side street, and then to a basement door painted black. When we entered, I was thrust into a Woody Allen movie. The night-crawling New York nouveau riche were out in force, basking in yet more neon and pretentiousness. There were to be some musical acts and an auction, so we took our seats. The first act was promising. It was someone who had crafted and played his own African-style instrument, but he only did one number. Following him were two forgettable acts, except for their awfulness, who were allowed two and three respectively. And then someone appeared at the piano, and within minutes I was writing down his name: “Kenny White.”

Following his three song performance was the auction. Two women took the stage and unintentionally brought back memories of an old Saturday Night Live skit involving two shills on the Home Shopping Network who were clueless about their lack of humor. They were auctioning off autographed guitars, one signed by Eric Clapton, one by Will Lee, the head man of the “Faux Four,” a Beatles knock-off band who were the headline act and the reason for my companion wanting to come, and the rest by cousins-in-law of other celebrities. Sitting two rows in front of us was someone who was obviously in the Russian Mafia, who had brought his arm candy, for whom he would bid on everything. But he had competition, a woman sitting on the other side who had apparently decided that her precious little daughter deserved not one, but two ultra expensive autographed guitars. I continued to squirm in my seat. When that was over, out came the Fab Faux, or whatever they were called then. And they were terrible. By the third song I was ready to leave, and asked my “date” if she wanted me to walk her to the train. She decided to stay, and I left, with distasteful memories, but for that slip of paper with the name “Kenny White.”

The next time I saw Kenny White, intentionally, was in a library auditorium in Westchester. This library ran Wednesday afternoon events for the seniors, so I was there, at what I seem to remember was also a benefit for something, seated in the front row and surrounded by people who had no idea whom they were about to listen to. There were two highlights of that day for me, which would be one more than on the previous occasion. First, I had the opportunity to make a request, “Out of My Element,” which he accommodated, even switching from guitar to piano for me. The other was when I gave him the “White Diamonds: The Greatest Hits of Kenny White” CD, which I had compiled and burned, for him to autograph. He didn’t even know he had a greatest hits album, as he commented.

I could swear I saw him another time between then and last night, but what I do remember were two near misses. The first was when he finally returned again to his home town, where he was playing in this fancy joint that he had told me he felt as out of place in as I expected to be. At the time I was pseudo-dating someone, formerly a supervisor and flaming hot redhead from a quarter century in the past, whose birthday was the same day. I had arranged for a ringside table and orchids to be delivered… but I got sick. So did the relationship. (God, I hope these women aren’t reading this. Nah, no one does.)

The other time was January of this year. Kenny was playing in Massachusetts, and I got tickets and a HomeAway rental to surprise my now girlfriend, not even telling her where we were headed or why. When we left, the weather report called for a dusting to three inches of snow. When we reached the ferry it was three to six inches. As we drove through Connecticut to Massachusetts it became six to nine, and by the time we were watching the TV in the bar-restaurant I had unfortunately picked out for brunch it was “run for your lives.”  I have to add that while she ordered sensibly, I never miss an opportunity to try something new, so I partook in their “Dad’s Favorite,” which turned out to be a greasy burger patty with a hunk of canned chow mein buried in crispy noodles. Mmmm….

Hoping for a miracle, we returned to our rental, a beautiful little house which was recessed a mile in from the road. The concert was scheduled for the next day, and we were starting to wonder if, a., we would die in the snowstorm, as no one would be able to reach us through a foot and a half of snow along a narrow mile-long path in the woods, b., we would die trying to make it to the concert, or, c., worst of all, the concert would be cancelled. I won’t bore you with the details of the dinner fiasco (you can read about that in a previous blog), but when we returned in the evening I finally checked my not very smart phone for any email updates. Going backwards chronologically, I ran my eyes over one from Kenny White, which started, “hope the postponement wasn’t too big a drag for you….” Then I ominously went further back and came upon one that had been sent at the precise moment that we had first set foot in the house, informing us that the show had been cancelled. If I had only checked, or if my damned phone had notified me, we could have turned around and driven back in the light of day, while the snow hadn’t accumulated much. As it was, we decided to wake up really, really early (and no, that wasn’t noon, as “really, really early” means to me now) and catch the first ferry back, blowing the vacation stay and losing another opportunity to see him perform, which we finally made up for last night.

Anyway, my reason for writing this is obvious. If you insist on not buying my books (ahem), at least buy his CD’s. I promise you that you won’t be sorry, unless, of course, you don’t have a particular fondness for music, poetry, humor, pathos, politics or love. I’d put up a portion of one of his songs, but I don’t think that’s up to me to do. So here’s a link: kennywhite.net. And no, I don’t get a commission.