Tuesday, December 31, 2013

William Gary (1967 - 2013)

William Gary was sitting at the security desk of 66 West 12th Street, eating dinner from a Tupperware container the last time I saw him. He looked up at me with his usual beaming smile and then extended his strong hands out to mine to greet me with a sincere handshake and wholesome pat on the back. William Gary was a strong man, who seemed to radiate enough strength and assurance to pick others up, he inspired us and gave us a reason to smile and feel good about coming to work and school. He made everyone at the New School feel welcomed and respected. 

“Have a great holiday Gary. You spending it with your son?” I asked.
“Sure am.” The doting father of a 10-year-old-son said smiling and waving at me for one last time… 

A week later, William Gary, 46, would (according to the Free Press) “suffer from a neck injury while lifting weights. The injury led to an allergic reaction to his medical treatment.” 

When we all returned from the Thanksgiving break, it was the bad news of William Gary’s death that welcomed us back to The New School, a grim replacement to Will's infectious smile and hearty laughter. For the first few weeks, the lobby was filled with tears, somber faces and hugs. The memorial table would blossom with flowers, cards and candles. Before Will's funeral, The administration of the university set up a GiveForward Memorial fund to help support his son. 

The outpouring of emotions and gratitude to this great man’s life, exemplify how important it is to always treat each other with civility, decency and respect. William Gary escorted students into the building when they may have needed assistance, he got to know our names and faces - rarely needing to ask anyone for their identification. As New School President, David Van Zandt stated in an email to the university, “William Gary exemplified what it means when we talk about ‘community.’ 

As we recall back on this year of 2013 in which we lost our dear friend, William Gary, we should try our best to continue living up to his positive and empowering example.

We miss you Will. With love and light to your son and family. 

Richard Wortman Jr. (1929 - 2013)

Richard Wortman was born into the Great Depression and grew up through the Second World War. As a young man, he became a member of the 101st Airborne Infantry in the Army during the Korean Conflict. Needless to say, Richard Wortman knew a thing or two about frugality and efficiency. “Waste not, want not” were words he often reminded boys of assigned to student home “Union” at the Milton Hershey School. Mr. Wortman (as we were expected to call him) taught us a lot – respect, character, accountability and manners. 

When I met Richard Wortman, I was an adolescent with an entitled chip on my shoulder and little respect for authority or rules. I thought, like many boys, only narcissistically about myself. I also (foolishly…) thought I could get around Mr. Wortman and his pesky rules; however, what I didn’t fully recognize at the time was that Wortman had already dealt with hundreds of punks like me – I was nothing new to him or his wife, Margaret, who had been house parents at the Milton Hershey School for over two decades.

Although I only lived in Mr. Wortman’s “Union” house for a couple years before he and Marge retired to their home in Middletown, I learned many valuable life lessons from them: hard work, honesty, discipline. I recall that Mr. Wortman would wake us every morning for chores at 5 a.m. His shoes were already on, shined and sparkling, like his eyes, which even at that early hour were also alert and vigilant to our every move. Or, “non-moves” for that matter - during chores, Wortman patrolled Union house to ensure none of us were derelict of our duties (e.g., taking a nap instead of cleaning the shower stalls.) 

Some might have called Mr. Wortman a bit of a “ball-buster” in that he was tough as nails and had no patience for nonsense or bullshit. Some may say that Mr. Wortman “gave us too much work and chores... Don’t you remember him making us do yard work on his new retirement home in Middletown?” I do recall working on yard work at Mr. Wortman’s home; however, I also recall him paying us for that work (modestly of course, but enough to ensure we recognized the value of an hour of our time and energy.) I also remember him driving us to the movies, buffet restaurants, the mall, etc.    

Mr. Mortman also knew how to have fun and had a sense of humor (usually safe, but too often, embarrassingly  about one’s heritage, e.g., Polish, Puerto Rican, etc.) Needless to say when Wortman wasn’t taking us on some sort of adventure, he would be sharing stories and jokes from his life at dinner. While listening to those stories around the table, I learned about respect and that our time spent around a table could be shared as a family (no matter whom you sat besides.) Of course, for many of us at the Milton Hershey School, this was our family. 

I remember the moment my opinion of Mr. Wortman changed from being a “ball-buster” to a leader: it was when I saw this strong and seemingly unbreakable man break – Mr. Wortman cried. When I saw him cry it was because “his boys” had failed him. (I will not go into the details of the situation itself, but it entailed some boys in our house being expelled for bullying.) When I saw Mr. Wortman cry, I realized that just below the tough shell was a man with much experience who truly cared about our future. He wanted us all to be great men and spent his life ensuring that this “next generation” would be as strong as his “the greatest generation.” Yes, he held us boys up to some high expectations, but they were fair and just ones that our world would do well to uphold.

Mr. Wortman wasn’t perfect (and of course who is?...) but he was a disciplined leader who loved his family (whom my condolences are with) and hundreds of boys whom he influenced and guided throughout his life. Richard Wortman’s memory and example will live on through the lessons he taught us all.

MHS, Union ‘97 

Saturday, November 02, 2013

On David Graeber’s “The Democracy Project”

Two years ago, this page was inspired by the social activism of the Occupy Wall Street movement. “We are the 99%!” was heard throughout the streets, college campuses, and shockingly, the pop culture and fashion industries. Working only a few miles away from, then occupied, Zuccotti Park afforded me the opportunity to experience lectures, workshops, and assemblies happening throughout the city. Although I never physically occupied the space itself, I did visit and joined in on forms of civil disobedience, most memorably the Brooklyn Bridge on Oct. 2nd. However I never clashed with police, nor pushed the limits enough to be hauled-off to jail. Not that that should ever be the goal; after all, what honest change could a busted head or time in jail bring to the movement?

Back then I was, as I am still today, working from paycheck-to-paycheck within a jaded, apathetic, and emasculated “professional managerial class.” Incapable of disengaging ourselves enough from the apparent comforts, conveniences, and pleasures associated with “Western” capitalism, we are unable to offer-up any real alternatives to the current social contract. So we find brief solace within the satisfying and fleeting illusions around us. Accordingly, like much of the American “left,” I left the real work of OWS to those more passionate, committed individuals with nothing to lose. These activists should be commended for at least trying to bring real change to this inequitable and, presumably, “democratic” society.  But instead, we mock the activists, while obediently working, laughing, and prattling-on about the same trivial, banal topics that constitute this hollowed-out and often meaningless existence. And yes, the status quo continues to be sustained as an oligarchic and exceedingly untouchable corporate elite continues to make record profits off suffering. 

What if we had contributed more to OWS? Or if the message itself had been effectively communicated to a wider audience? Would our world look and feel any different? Such questions are not explicitly asked in David Graeber’s “The Democracy Project: a history, a crisis, a movement,” but through his recounting of the early days of OWS, they are arrived at implicitly. Graeber takes his readers back to the beginnings of the movement, which the writer himself played a role in organizing. 

Before Adbusters posted a call to #occupywallstreet (i.e., “bring tent”), Graeber describes a New York activists scene “hit hard by the ramifications of 9/11.” One where “the level of arbitrary violence police were willing to employ against activists ratcheted up unimaginably; [for instance] when a handful of unarmed students occupied the roof of The New School in 2009, the NYPD is said to have responded with four different anti-terrorist squads, including commandos rappelling off helicopters.” 

I recall arriving to work that day and feeling like I had walked onto the set of “Dog Day Afternoon.” The police presence was absurd and almost laughable if not so frightening. Four city blocks became “frozen zones”-no one could go in or out. The subsequent videos of police pepper-spraying and attacking unarmed college students quickly became a public relations nightmare for the university admissions’s office and Board of Governors (who must have, at some point, questioned former President, Bob Kerrey’s decision to give Ray Kelly and the NYPD a green light on the aggressive operation.)

Student activism is a vital, healthy component of any vibrant, creative and socially just university. As an alumnus and working administrator of said university, I recall being angered and disappointed by former president Kerrey’s heavy-handed response to the student protesters. Admittedly, the students could have found more effective means of communicating their concerns of a lack of transparency and involvement in university decision making to the wider community, but I cannot find anything to justify the thuggish force used against them. 

Graeber also sympathizes with the student activists that occupied The New School, and later, those in Zuccotti Park, as a generation “of Americans who were born in the late 1970s [and] is the first in U.S. history to face the prospect of living standards lower than their parents. By 2006, this generation received lower wages and less benefits, were more indebted, and are far more likely to be either unemployed or in jail.” This generation has, according to Graeber, “had every reason to feel they’d done exactly what they were supposed to do according to the rulebook-and got worse than nothing.” Agreed. But hasn’t every generation had its fair share of complaints and perhaps “worse than nothing” is a bit hyperbolic? After all, what makes the mounting problems and broken promises of generation Facebook so unique? I recall hearing people calling the occupiers “whiny, spoiled, privileged brats.” Nevertheless, we cannot dismiss the real reasons this group came out in such force: crushing debt, income inequality, a decade of war, the environmental crisis, the list could go on... Graeber’s book is inspiring in that it should actually allay any concerns that this generation has somehow just been “lazy,” or not worked hard enough. It is not about a lack of initiative, this generation is facing a lack of resources and opportunities like no other and, very likely, it will only get worse.  

Graeber’s most stinging assessment is toward the POTUS, and rightfully so. Obama would not be in the White House if it were not for young voters (likely some within OWS.) Yes, Obama could also have done more. “No part of the system was shaken up.” Graeber writes, “Obama robbed [this generation] of precisely the thing he so famously promised: hope-hope of any meaningful change via institutional means in their lifetimes. If they wanted to see their actual problems addressed, if they wanted to see any sort of democratic transformation in America, it was going to have to be through other means.” 

Fortunately, the ‘other means’ this generation embraced were non-violent (well at least from OWS’s side of the street fight) and even more significantly, created a place for people to experience genuine democracy in all its frustrating and messy glory. As anyone who has served on a committee or to an OWS "general assembly" can attest, reaching consensus to move decisions and actions forward is often a tedious and slow process, especially in large groups. But as with anything so important, it's rarely easy.

What Graeber also does through his retelling of OWS is guide readers to reconsider the way we organize our social lives. He writes, “Consensus is an attempt to create a politics founded on the principles of reasonableness.” And further, that genuine deliberation “requires the ability to listen well enough to understand perspectives that are fundamentally different from one’s own... It means viewing democracy as common problem solving among those who respect the fact they will always have, like all humans, somewhat incommensurable points of view.”
OWS succeeded in showing America how difficult real democracy is to achieve and maintain (something the “Founding Fathers” were also leery of fully embracing.) The movement exemplified the realities and potentialities of anarchist ideals to establish “a world based on equality and solidarity, in which human beings would be free to associate with one another to pursue an endless variety of visions, projects, and conceptions of what they find valuable in life...with only one proviso -they would be limited to ones that could exist without anyone having the ability to call on armed men to show up and say, ‘I don’t care what you have to say about this; shut up and do what you’re told.” 

Such a world may be labelled ‘utopian’ or impossible to achieve, especially with the lack of imagination and commitment from those either fortunate enough to be coddled by, or just tethered to the comforts and confinements of capitalism. Despite never fully achieving a full-scale world-wide revolution (at least not yet...), OWS did succeed in directing more of our national conversation to consider the dehumanizing and degrading affects of debt, the realities of economic inequality, imagining new definitions of “wealth,” and challenging the practicality of our very notions of democracy itself. 

Instead of regretting not doing enough two years ago, we must admit that these problems and frustrations have not gone away and will not until the current dehumanizing structure is subverted. Until then, we remain on a crash course to collapse. Our only chance is to continue to take the message of reasonableness, equity, social justice, consensus building, and democracy itself into our lives and communities so as to change our basic conceptions of how this society functions. Perhaps with some more concerted efforts, we can establish a better world, before it is too late...

"Education is Our Basic Right."

As I walked up Lexington Avenue on my way to my part-time job at the 92y, I reflected on the day I had already had at my full-time job at The New School: meetings, mostly vapid conversations, excel sheets, emails...I was tired. I just wanted to go home, drink a beer, and watch the Giants (lose to the Bears.) However, by the time I got to the building at 92nd Street and saw the CNN trucks, NYPD vans, and metal barricades surrounding a corralled crowd of ticket-holders, I picked-up my pace and found my second wind. I flashed my staff card and brusquely walked through the metal detectors. Everyone would be scanned by security. Bomb sniffing dogs roamed the lobby, bags were opened, upper-lips stiffened. 

International correspondent, Christiane Amanpour would be arriving within the hour to  interview the defiant and heroic sixteen-year-old education advocate, Malala Yousafzai and her father Ziauddin Yousafzai

“What?!... You don’t know who Malala is? Disgusting!” A snide, fashionable upper-East Sider snapped in an entitled and sardonic tone as she pushed her way past a scruffy looking hipster trying to find his way to the T.C. Boyle lecture (also happening on the same night, but in the auditorium on the second floor.) “How can you not know who Malala is?! It’s just disgusting!” Despite the woman’s overreactive objections to the young man’s ignorance, she was right - How could you not know who Malala was? 

A year ago, on Oct. 9, 2012, a masked gunmen jumped into a van carrying Malala and other girls on their way home from school and asked the same question - “Who is Malala?!” When the Taliban terrorist discovered which one of the girls was the outspoken activist and blogger, he shot her in the face. Thankfully, Malala awoke a week later inside a hospital in Birmingham, England, where she gradually regained her most vital resource - her voice.

While Malala healed, we learned more about the struggle for women’s rights in Pakistan. The world also saw yet another example of the weak, violent, and cowardly methods the Taliban terrorists will take to silence the pursuit of free-inquiry and knowledge. 

The international outpouring of sympathy and anger to Malala’s attack was immediate. Madonna dedicated her song “Human Nature” to Malala at a concert in Los Angeles on the day of the attack. Angelina Jolie and Laura Bush both wrote separate op-ed pieces. (Jolie would later go on to donate $200,000 to the Malala Fund for girls education.) A few days later, former British prime minister, Gordon Brown, would visit Malala in the hospital and launched a petition with the demand that by 2015 no child should be left out of school. 

This past summer, Malala spoke at the United Nations on July 12th - her 16th birthday. The UN designated the event as “Malala Day.”  At the UN, Malala spoke about her attackers saying, “The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions, but nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born ... I am not against anyone, neither am I here to speak in terms of personal revenge against the Taliban or any other terrorist group. I'm here to speak up for the right of education for every child. I want education for the sons and daughters of the Taliban and all terrorists and extremists." 

Malala’s international stature is almost surreal. This week she has appeared on the Daily Show, was awarded Europe’s top human rights prize, and was one of the likely contenders for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Malala is now more than an individual, she is (as she herself admits) part of a larger cause. When asked by Christiane Amanpour how Malala deals with continued threats against her life, she bravely explained that “even if the Talib was to kill me, they cannot kill this cause, which will live-on long after Malala.” 

Those who attempt to criticize Malala as a symbol of “western interventionism” miss the fundamental point, which is the human right of education for all. Although the attack was widely condemned, invariably some fringe groups have fantastically gone so far as to claim the attack against Malala was staged by the CIA so as to further justify drone strikes against Pakistan. Thankfully, Malala would deflate these conspiracy theories by reasonably confronting (Nobel Peace Prize recipient) US President Barack Obama on Friday about stopping his use of drone strikes in Pakistan.  

I believe the Nobel Peace Prize should have awarded the prize to Malala instead of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Then again, with all Malala’s talk of pursuing a political career and persistence to get her voice heard, there is a strong likelihood that this little girl (who is so wise and mature for her age) will one day receive the prize for her truly noble and courageous efforts to speak-out on behalf of the under-represented and oppressed people of the world who lack the means of acquiring a true education. 

Before Malala left the 92y on Thursday, she told the crowd “I am never going to give up... they only shot a body, but they cannot shoot my dreams.” 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


Started this July 4th, #freedom weekend in LaGuardia airport awaiting a flight to the Midwest that had been delayed from storms in the East. Instead of complaining, I breathed, then wisely spent the hour-and-a-half flight delay sitting at a bar in the bright terminal reading "Interviews with Martin Scorsese" while sipping on a couple of cool Bloody Mary's (that I had ordered from an iPad at the bar - kinda annoying.) I would (likely from the Bloody Mary's...) sleep for most of my flight to Philadelphia (where 237 years ago, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence.) As I sat, eating a Wendy's "Baconator" in the Philadelphia airport, I thought about those times and then looked up to the news screens above broadcasting scenes from Cairo, Egypt. The human "pursuit of happiness" races on.

This would be my first trip to the Midwest. I was here to visit one of my best friends, social justice activist, musician, and "man of the people," Jesse Villalobos, who (now living in Minneapolis, Minnesota) grew-up and went to school in Iowa. After Jesse picked me up at the Minneapolis International Airport, we drove for 3 hours through fields, more fields, and the occasional roadside outposts (e.g., MacDonald's, filling stations, and bbq joints.) We rambled and listened to music and Jesse's podcast; eventually, we stopped to grab some bbq, settled-up to the bar, and watched the annual Nathan's hotdog eating contest from Coney Island.

When we arrived in Des Moines, our first stop was to pick-up Jesse's friend, (and professional trumpet player) Carter Yasutake, at his hotel (Carter was in town for a couple days for the 80/35 music festival.) After we met Carter, we drove to visit Jesse's parents and then spent the evening at a local party (at Rich "Life is Good" Brown's) with Jesse's sister to watch fireworks over the open fields and humid sky of the American #heartland.

Later that night, we bar-hopped and spent a couple hours over more night caps at Jesse's friend, Jim Stamper's. Liberal portions of Wild Turkey and heavy conversations about politics, race, identity, etc. were had by all.

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The next morning, the Wild Turkey's and beer from the night before were lingering, much like the heat. We sipped coffee on Jim's back porch and listened to the silence of the countryside. We waved to Jim's father (getting ready to mow the lawn) who lives next door. I wish I could have talked to the man, but our brains were too beat-up for any clever conversation, we needed peace, and then nourishment. Jim suggested we go to a place called "Mullet's" for some food.

Mullet's is a pub with outdoor seating alongside one of Des Moines many bike trails. While sipping a Bloody Mary (a.k.a. "hair of the dog") and nibbling on a chicken quesadilla, we sat in the sun trying to gather our senses. Then, from along the bike path, David Byrne pulls-up on his bicycle and sat down on the deck under the shade. So cool! Jesse was the only one of us with enough energy to get up and speak with the music legend. He mentioned we were friends with Carter and Jason Disu (also part of Byrne's impressive horn section) and whether there would need to be a sound check for that night's show. Soon, Byrne was off on his bike again; subsequently, making men (half his age...) feel very unhealthy as they sat with their stupid hangovers.

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Later that day, we stopped off at Jesse's friend Denise's coffee-shop with Carter and Jason. We then visited with Jesse's "musical mentor," Jazz organist and music aficionado, Sam Salomone. Jason, Carter, and Sam played a little session in Sam's basement / jazz library / home studio. After a couple sets, we were off to take a quick dip in a pool and to drop Carter and Jason off at the festival to get ready for that evening's show.

Before the concert, Jesse, James, and I went to meet with Jesse's good friend, sports columnist for The Des Moines Register, Bryce Miller, at (Jesse's other friend's) Chef and Restauranteur, Anthony Lemmo's amazing Italian Restaurant where we had some delicious appetizers. The place is called Cafe di ScalaDefinitely go try out if you're ever in Des Moines. Good stuff.

After some laughs and food, Anthony drove us to the 80/35 festival, where we picked-up our backstage passes at will-call and stopped off to see Anthony's third establishment in Des Moines, Hot Shots, a "craft hotdoggery" spot in the downtown district, right near the music festival and the rest of the downtown bar scene. Before the show, we visited Carter and Jason backstage to wish them good luck on tonight's show and then went to sip on some beers in the VIP section beside the stage.

Eventually, David Byrne and St. Vincent put on an amazing show for the audience in Des Moines. Of course, Byrne would play some of his great hits from the Talking Heads days (e.g., "Wild Wild Life," "This Must be the Place," "On the Road to Nowhere," and -of course- "Burning Down the House.") However it didn't take fans unfamiliar with his new music long to hop and nod along to the heavy horns, guitar, and hauntingly epic vocals of Annie Clark (a.k.a., St. Vincent.) Again, David Byrne proves that his age is not slowing him down (of course keeping healthy riding his bike everywhere helps), but is instead refining his art, writing, and music for more projects.

After the concert, we went backstage (which, of course, at a music festival is on the other side of a chain-linked parameter) to stand outside the band's grumbling buses, where we congratulated our friends and St. Vincent on the great show. Suddenly, Byrne popped out of his bus, walked over to his bike and begin wheeling it away. We briefly thanked him for the performance and joked about his dance moves before Byrne peddled-off into the night on his bike.

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We spent the night taking it easy at Jim's place ("taking it easy" of course, being at least two drinks.) The next morning, we had breakfast with Jesse's parents before hitting the road again to drive two-and-a-half hours to Iowa City, where we would stay with Jesse's friends Diane and Jill.

Iowa City is a small college town, where the University of Iowa Hawkeyes play. This weekend, Iowa City would be hosting their annual Jazz Festival. The headliner for the night would be Dr. Lonnie Smith, but we were there to see the return (after a year-long health sabbatical) of Sam Salomone, who was playing the Jazz Festival with the Steve Grismore Trio. Salomone is a master Jazz organist and played two strong sets that afternoon in Iowa City, the Jazz world is thankful to see this master back behind the keys.

Later that night, Dr. Lonnie Smith blew Iowa City's collective musical mind with an amazingly psychedelic set. Then, we bar-hopped through the college town, where Jazz musicians from the festival were still playing sets in bars throughout the city. Music was everywhere, even the streets, Iowa City has public pianos for passers-by to jam on while drunk girls stumble, laugh, and dance.

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The next morning, we had a great breakfast and conversation with Diane and Jill. Then, it was on the road again, this would be the longest trek - four and a half hours to Minneapolis.

Once we arrived in Minneapolis, we napped and showered. That night, we would eat the best damn hamburgers over some whiskeys, and then took in one more show. Tonight, we would watch former Prince drummer, Michael Bland perform across the street from Jesse's building. At the bar, we met with Jesse's Minneapolis friends, Miguel and Verononica G. Ochoa.

The next day, we toured around the city of Minneapolis before Jesse dropped me off at the airport. Thanks for the hospitality Jesse, (and everyone else I had the pleasure of meeting this weekend in the Midwest.) Peace from the North East. #freedom #merica!

"They can tell you what to do
But they'll make a fool of you
And it's all right, baby, it's all right
We're on a road to nowhere" - David Byrne

Sunday, May 05, 2013


“You can have my money, but you can’t have me.” - M.I.A.

"Human society will never escape the problem of the equitable distribution of the physical and cultural goods which provide for the preservation and fulfillment of human life." - Reinhold Niebuhr

This May Day, as students converged on Cooper Union Sq. to speak out on the high costs of education, I was being interviewed by RNN reporter, Dominic Carter, about my own student debt. As students and teachers offered free classes to the public and engaged in open discussions about the role and costs of education in our capitalist society, I explained to Dominic that even though I am fortunate enough to have a full-time (and two part-time...) jobs, my wife and I are still unable to both “make a living” in New York and pay back my student debt. Each month, we are frustratingly forced to juggle expenses and try to determine who will, or will not get paid? Some months it’s ConEd, others, Verizon, rarely Time Warner, and never the landlord, the MTA, or our stomachs.   
  It is aggravating to hear the myths associated with the indebted: we’re lazy, wasteful, whining moochers, incapable of balancing our budgets. But in all reality these are simplistic, spiteful generalizations that rarely speak to the true complexities of those burdened by the current global economic stalemate.  
       I suppose there will always be ignorant, indolent bastards in any society; however, this minority should not determine, nor define the overall policies and principles for the majority of industrious, hardworking individuals who proudly do all they can just to get by. (I should mention here, that I do support social welfare programs and feel our government could do more to invest in our communities.) But I wonder about those not on assistance. Sometimes, especially while on the train, I wonder how many commuters, whom I may assume are “successful” are merely faking it to make it? Likely, there are others who are also living paycheck-to-paycheck: disciplined, competitive, punctual, and desperately doing their best to avert life’s unexpected crises. 
  Arguably, the one thing that remains equitable for both the have’s and the have-not’s, is that all our lives continue to tick by at the same frenetic pace. However, for those burdened by debt, life is rarely an enriching or fulfilling experience. For the indebted, carefree, relaxing, and/or enjoyable experiences can be something of a luxury. (Always annoying to sit through someone else’s stories of European Tours, ski weekends, or glamourous trips to Asia.) Existence for those in debt is rarely a celebration, it is instead one consumed by frustration and a growing anger at not being able to truly achieve freedom. Some become so consumed by their debt that they obsessively fixate-on it, asking, “How can I ever pay this off?” Stop worrying, you won’t. Arguably, most of us will die with our debt; accordingly, I determined long ago that it is better to just accept it and move on.  Life is too damn precious and short to obsess on something I have little control over.
  I have done the math, cut expenses where I can, and budgeted my monthly intake and outtake. I am currently able to just make it; meaning, I can pay for the essentials of this twenty-first-century life, but nothing more. Unfortunately, paying for these essentials, means I am rarely able to make my student loan, credit card payments (which can both begin to add up and seem impossible to pay overtime), let alone put any money aside into a savings account. But I work hard and often. Accordingly, I will continue to do so, but I will not let this vicious cycle bring me down, I will enjoy life while I can. 
          Sure, all the while I may remain like the others - guilty of chasing that proverbial cheddar always hoping that the chase will one day lead to a private Caribbean Island, where the sun is warm and the drinks are always cool. Ultimately, such goals are never certainties and utopian at best. So what? I continue to (as 50 cent advised) Get Rich or Die Trying; nevertheless, reminding myself of what Seneca also said (long before "fifty"...), that “It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, who is poor.” Good point, better to live a satisfying, frugal life, than one burdened by the chase of fleeting materialism and greed ( i.e., the rat race.) 
  Yes, for now, as it has for so long, “making it” in America, is about seeking to live as comfortably as possible. Much of what we “own” or control is based on the credit system: homes, cars, degrees, etc. We hear that the whole economic system is “sluggish” and seems to be teetering on the precipice of collapse. But the job outlook is... good? And the stock market continues to climb. For those of us lucky enough to have food, clothing, and entertainment -luxuries much of the planet’s population so often goes without- we should not complain when taking so much for granted. We all want to work, but not all have jobs. We are all people who want recognition for positively contributing to our communities.
  Before Mr. Carter concluded his interview with me on May Day, he asked: “Don’t you think this debt you have is just un-American? I mean, what if you want to buy a house? Or raise a family and need a car?”
  I laughed and responded that it is in fact totally ‘American’ to live a life crippled by debt and credit. The entire country is in debt! In America, credit culture is just assumed. I told Mr. Carter that I strongly believe the way we look at wealth and success in this country must change. 
  In order for the human species to survive on this planet, we must begin cohabiting with it. Sure we may owe money to the banks, but we owe everything to the natural world that surrounds and constitutes us. Our definitions of 'making it', must change; otherwise, we must face and live-up to the harsh realities of our current inequitable and unsustainable system. True reward can come through creative collaborations that can be both enriching and enlightening for both community and individual alike. Life should be more for the cerebral and mental and less for the material. 
       Perhaps, brother Chris Hedges is right when he warned last spring, that “Growth is the problem.” Yes, growth at the expense of the environment and human equity, ‘is the problem’ but not growth itself. Growth need not be equated with consumption and waste, growth can be learning, speaking, feeding, sharing.
  I don’t claim to know how to pay off my student debt, but I will likely die trying. I also don’t claim to have a doctorate in economics and/or know how to solve any of our many problems; however, I do see a lot of pointless and wasteful practices happening all the time. I want us to ask the difficult questions, not avoid them. How can we rationally respond to our current environmental, economic, and social political crisis?
  Debt is something that can -if we let it- consume our lives.  For some, it is a debt to the bank on a house or a student loan, for others, it is debt to a relative or friend. But for all of us, we are indebted to the planet and life itself. Thus, we are not alone in that we are all indebted. But there are solutions to these problems; however, we must work together and be willing to change ourselves in order to subsequently change them.

Sunday, March 31, 2013


"Guns" Andy Warhol (1981)

"I am a big man yes I am and I got a big gun." - Trent Reznor

In a recent post, Firmin Debrabander writes “An armed society...is the opposite of a civil society.” Agreed. And like Debrabander, I disagree with a popular gun rights saying that foolishly, fearfully claims “an armed society is a polite society.” No, when everyone is armed, they’re scared, and thus, never able to truthfully speak out of fear of getting shot. Guns are truly anti-cosmopolitan (arguably the reason Americans love them.) Accordingly, guns do bring people together -often, crazy people- but nevertheless people. Accordingly, those who hunt, collect, or just enjoy shooting-up beer cans consider guns a “way of life” and may just do everything in their armed power to protect it. 

The gun has isolated and fragmented our society into militias, gangs, doomsday preppers, and active shooters. All represent what Debrander suggests as “a fatal slide into extreme individualism.” Arguably, an isolated individualism that enables larger power structures to better manage and control an increasingly fragmented, fearful population into more manageable pockets of exclusion. When considering the successful revolutionary movements of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, I see non-violence and the will of an organized collective as successful modes for achieving change instead of by armed insurrection. 

Gun advocates refuse to admit that their guns do not liberate them. If they did, then we should also rightfully begin considering what other objects or items “liberate" us: marijuana, sex, rock-and-roll. Guns do not liberate. Guns isolate us into pockets of fear.

One can support the Second Amendment, or the Right to Bear Arms, which states, 

“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.” 

Recognize that the sentence starts with an important phrase “well-regulated.” Yes, Americans have the “right to bare arms” but not without regulation. And why not? Of course, the sentence also concludes paradoxically with the reminder that this right “shall not be infringed.” And so how we interpret “Arms” technology today against the “well-regulated Militia” days of muskets and bayonets is a frustratingly outdated point of contention.    

Predictably, the gun lobby has been insistent on painting President Obama as a tyrant hellbent on “taking our guns away.” No. Obama is making proposals to address the proliferation of military style assault weapons on our streets (similar to those made by former Presidents Reagan, Bush, and recently by Mayor's and local officials.) Hopefully, real legislation will be brought to vote in Congress. If Obama was a tyrant, he wouldn’t be asking for anything - he would just demand it. 

If gun owners were really concerned with values of liberty and freedom then they would turn their misguided attention to some of the more invasive forces controlling our society such as from the surveillance and security state. Or, more specifically, the complete and utter inequitable and unjust criminal justice system that continues to incarcerate a growing number of Americans often, for non-violent offenses or petty drug charges. Ultimately, how can a society define itself as ‘free’ when so many are kept in cages (more than any other country in the world)?

Nicholas Kristof asks “do we have the courage to stop this?” Our elected officials have presented some very clear pieces of reasonable legislation. But what now? Can Congress ever even begin voting? And even if they could, once it got to the floor of the Senate the bill would be stripped-down of any real legislation. Congress continues to accommodate the demands of the gun lobby. Depending on the polls you look at, Most Americans agree on universal background checks, re-instating the assault weapons ban, and banning the sale of extended magazine clips. Of course, we need not look only to our government for real change - there are steps we can all take to reduce violence (and expand love...) in our society now.

After all, what do we really need these guns for? Since Newtown there has been this many deaths in the United States from gun violence. 

I question if this country will ever be ready to shake its gun addiction? We really do, love our guns and no amount of suffering seems to ever undermine this unhealthy relationship enough to make us break it. I suppose as we wrestle with this difficulty in our understanding, we must realize that this is not only about Gun Safety it is also about preserving our civic responsibility to freely exchange and express ourselves without living in fear of our thoughts being silenced, permanently.