Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Man's Best Friends

Lonnie and Flex (Astoria, Queens, NYC - 2010)

      I have a stack of books I might someday read. I have acquired these books from stoop sales, free-book piles, and then there are the ‘recommended reads.’ I do not discard book from this stack easily. I believe each is awaiting the opportune moment to intersect with my experience. Likely, I will not be able to read them all (especially as this stack continues to grow and change.) Sometimes, I begin one book but become disinterested, or distracted, and so decide to liberate it back out into the broader cycle for potential readers. Other times, the book is exactly what I am looking for - it comes into my life when I need advice or an alternative perspective. Books can be an escape, provide comfort, and can also teach empathy and understanding.
       I suppose, books are a lot like dogs.

      This fall, I found an old copy of Jack London’s classic adventure novel, The Call of the Wild - a canonic piece of literature I had (for whatever reason) yet to read. That afternoon, I read about, Buck, the sled dog while sitting on a Florida beach wearing shorts and applying copious amounts of sunblock to my pale skin. Although I was in the sun, my mind was right there beside Buck as he led his pack through the unforgiving Canadian Yukon learning the “law of club and fang.” I became so emotionally attached to this dog’s story that my skin broke out in goosebumps when I read about “the aurora borealis flaming coldly overhead” and wept quietly behind my sunglasses when arriving at the sad scene of Dave’s death. This simple story of a tame dog, kidnapped from his home to be sold as a sled dog is about a popular theme - survival.
       My reaction to London’s story of a dog’s struggle to survive in a brutal climate became cathartic. I attribute part of my emotional response to reading the book while visiting my mother - a woman who has always cared for dogs, seems to relate to them more than humans, and whose impoverished, uneducated life reminds me of just how unforgiving this all to human world is. 
       I also intimately related to The Call of the Wild because our beloved dog, Flex, had recently died. Flex a fifteen-year-old rat-terrier mix, was cute, had a lot of character, but also held a rather temperamental disposition. Flex was a small dog with a limp in his left hind leg. By the last year of his life, he mostly hobbled around the apartment, or just yelped for someone to pick him up to lay on the couch. I miss the way Flex slept between us at night. I was carrying Flex during the final moments of his life. I felt his body go limp in my arms as his heart started to fail and watched helplessly as he took his last breaths on the floor of our apartment.
       Our second dog, Lonnie, a pit-bull, lab, dachshund mix, was also having medical concerns at the time of my reading The Call of the Wild and would need to be put to sleep three months later. Lonnie was a loving, loyal, gentle dog. Timid, always smiling, and wagging his tale - Lonnie was the quintessential “man’s best friend.” His eyes were always there for you and his soft head was there to be pet. Lonnie never harmed a living creature. 
       Accordingly, Flex and Lonnie would have not survived the brutal Yukon. Both were rescued dogs who only lived the comfortable life they did because of the care, patience, and attention my loving wife provided them. I only met these dogs, Flex and Lonnie, because I became romantically involved with and later married to their “master.” At first, I was unenthusiastic about dating someone with dogs. I liked dogs. But dogs were an extra, unneeded hassle. Why would anyone want to willingly take care of something else? I grew up with dogs as a boy and knew the work they entailed. I decided I would never have dogs. I didn’t want to wake up when they wanted me to or to be home when they needed me to be. They were a responsibility I chose to forego. But love eventually showed my heart another way. 
      Dogs come into our lives for a reason. 
      Flex and Lonnie intersected with my life when I needed to learn some lessons. One lesson was patience (still learning…) I also discovered how important it is for these companions in life. Dogs need us as much as we need them. Flex and Lonnie required me to feed them and take them for walks, but eventually the feeling became mutual - I was the one who needed them, but on other levels.  I learned about leadership, dogs require a confidence and assurance from their owners (i.e., pack leaders). Dogs do not benefit from pampering or abuse. Dogs are attuned to our energy.  
       Now that they’re gone, I miss them and the way they would be here waiting for us when we return home. I have relearned the other reason to why I never wanted dogs - when they die it hurts.   
       Of course they are no longer here physically, but I still feel them while I am preparing food in the kitchen, cleaning the apartment, or just walking along the street where we used to walk, together.

   Rest in peace, Flex and Lonnie, we love you.
Flex and Lonnie series (2001, Astoria, Queens, NYC)

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Resist. Rise up. Rebel.

(Trump Doodle from Aug. 2015) #notmypresident

      In April, students left a "Civil Disobedience Training" flier for a Trump rally on my desk. I was inspired to see organizing against a man I see as a misogynist, racist, bully. How could voters choose a moneyed-thug with zero experience for the most powerful office? How could anyone who offended so many become the representative of this unique and influential country? I am embarrassed by my naive delusions. How could I be so blind to the true obscenity, cynicism, and arrogance of American politics?

        On Election Day, my mood was giddy. I was relieved this bitter campaign would be over. All that wasted cognitive energy could be focused on more enriching subjects. My egalitarian idealism was encouraged by the diversity of voters at my polling site in Queens. I was moved seeing a mother show her young daughter how to vote. But the United States, like politics, is imperfect. This election was supposed to be about the values I thought "We" all valued: reason, equity, justice. That "We" were better than the hate and ignorance dividing us. I was so wrong. 
        Like many people, I was certain Hillary Clinton would be the next President of the United States. As I went about my day, first, at the university and then teaching English to newcomers, I remained blissfully unaware of the political upset to come.
      To be fair, information I received up to that point only indicated to a Clinton victory. I listened to the pundits and political experts. I read op-eds and analysis. I watched Steve Kornacki manipulate graphics and present data on a “smart” screen that only offered scenarios of Trump losing and losing hard. A certain pompousness permeated the studios of 30 Rockefeller Center as the talking heads gleefully assured the audience that Clinton was well on her way to victory. But then, something went wrong - there was a glitch in the system. Kornacki’s screen froze. All the data and reasoned opines couldn’t curb the anger, resentment, and emotion so many Americans have decided to unleash. 
           Perhaps I was the one reading the "fake news"?

      As of this writing, Hillary Clinton has gathered 2.5 million more votes than President-elect Donald Trump. Green Party candidate, Jill Stein, continues to press for recounts in a handful of states. Nevertheless, the out-dated, un-democratic, legal mechanism of the electoral college ensures there is little anyone can do but protest, shout, and watch Trump assemble his nepotistic and inept cabinet. Trump’s administration is also poised to control a Republican House of Representatives, Senate, and there are the looming court appointments. The future looks grim for anyone showing up for social, environmental, and economic justice. 
         Those disrupting Trump rallies were right to speak up and are so now as they continue the protest into the streets and to the fights ahead. People are angry, afraid, and concerned about the real threats of a Trump presidency. To be fair, those who voted for Trump will also have legitimate concerns. Those of us who didn’t disrupt before the election are going to have to start catching up to those who have been. When we do this, we will need to do so in a more effective, intersectional, and holistic way. Effectiveness will mean having conversations with people who voted Trump. The time has come for the hand-wringing, navel-gazing, ineffectual liberal class to admit it - we have been apologist to power for too long and will now suffer retribution for our inaction.
         I voted for the experienced policy-wonk, the establishment candidate, the centrist, neoliberal, Democrat. Hillary Clinton wasn’t ideal and perhaps her public perception was flawed from the start. But often (especially in politics), one must check their idealism and just comprise. Clinton would have been a pragmatic and effective leader. She would have protected women's right to choose, she wanted to expand social security, supported voting rights, believes in climate change, etc. Unfortunately, reason and truth were not animating forces throughout this election.
      The Clinton campaign pushed an optimistic message of America being a great place already. Our differences made us “stronger together.” We were a diverse nation of decent people. The real villain was Trump and his divisive and deplorable bullying. Unfortunately, this warm and fuzzy hand-holding was not what many Americans felt. Neoliberal economic trade deals and the expansion of a growing prison / military industrial complex have adversely affected our very humanity. Human abuse of the ecosystem is now being felt. The grievances and hardships are the same for many, yet somehow the Democrats could not speak to this real hurt. Trump did, through anger and strong bombastic assertions. This election may have revealed deep divisions between our coastal states, urban centers, and rural countryside, but it also revealed a glaring hypocrisy between what we consider civil and decent.
       Trump spoke to a base that grew tired of thinking, pontificating "PC" politicians, and academics long ago. His supporters got much of their information from "fake news" sites. They said, ‘fuck it’ and voted accordingly. Trump was the closest thing to a middle-finger running for President. “Be obscene!” Disrupt the status quo! Why be measured or cautious? Who says you need to be apologetic to your own crimes or even those from history? Trump is unrestrained. He encourages racism and sexism. These aspects of his behavior should not be tolerated by any civil society. Yet we have accepted them, so what does it say about this society? How can conservatives stand beside this tawdry, lewd man? Because he is also their strong man who promises change.
        Part of Trump’s base is labeled the “alt-right.” Trump’s special advisor, Stephen Bannon, has been integral to the success of the "alt-right" message, which rejects egalitarianism, universalism, and multiculturalism. They consider civic and social values a threat to their "white" identity. Essentially, the “alt-right” is a nationalist movement that sees accelerating immigration and globalization as diminishing their “white culture” in the US. But they are not Trump's only supporters.
         Trump also recognized that emotion outweighs truth in politics. He manipulated people’s despair and gave them a story to believe in - even if one rife with lies. Truth is something you feel it to be. Trump utilized “False Evidence that Appears Real” (FEAR). For instance, hyperbolic statements of lawlessness and people being "gunned down in the streets" did not speak to the reality that violent crime has actually gone down. Xenophobic rhetoric was also central to the FEAR campaign. At numerous rallies Trump claimed Muslims in New Jersey were "cheering in the streets on Sept. 11, 2001." Untrue.
        Of course, why should we expect anything less than lies from the carnival barker? Trump’s views and opinions have always been situational. He is no more than a common opportunist. He doesn't hold any true position (other than the obvious - privatization of our social services.) Unfortunately, this shifting, hyperbolic, reactionary stream-of-conscience plays to Trump’s favor. In a sense he is a blank canvas for people to paint whatever dark, twisted, or even noble picture onto. Many of Trump’s supporters admit they took him seriously, but not literally. Which is perhaps why folks who once voted Obama, and then Bernie Sanders, were able to somehow vote Trump in 2016? I don't know. We live in confusing times. 
             Trump managed to turn the presidential primaries and general election into an absurd and disturbing reality show. (I’m embarrassed to admit I watched the first season of “The Apprentice.” I am now embarrassed for watching this election, and for my country…) As with most reality TV - Trump cultivated a persona in which cruelty was entertaining. Clinton expressed her concern about Trump’s “temperament.” Obama called him “unfit” for office. But on reality TV, assholes are rewarded for dishonest and extreme behavior. Arrogance and blind-confidence are just tools of the game. Empathy, nuance, and understanding are seen as weakness. All traits Trump now brings to Washington.
     Ultimately, desperation may have inspired people to vote Trump. But let's face it - the hyperbolic reactions to a Clinton presidency on both the left and right were absurd. I am tired of the blame, the whining, and cynicism. To be fair, the Democrats have a lot of soul-searching and planning to do ahead. They must recognize this as the failure it is. But reflection will need to also take place within the ‘centers of power’ (the media, the academy, celebrities.)
         I can no longer afford to be arrogant. I cannot be blind by emotion - too much is at stake. I recognize the fragility of society. The fabric of civilization is a delicate thing to keep intact. This fabric can be torn by extreme acts, natural disasters, war, and can cause the threads we feel between us to fray.
            Perhaps the USA deserves Trump? 
            Those who voted for him, got him.
       The rest of us must defend our values and not give in to despair.  Now is the time to resist, rise up, and rebel. 

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Bernie: Too Big to Fail...

On June 7th, Hillary Clinton will likely win the California primary, essentially securing her the Democratic presidential nomination. For the former first lady, senator of New York, and secretary of state, this has been a surprisingly arduous political contest. I have said (and still believe) Hillary Clinton is the most qualified candidate for president; however, an impressive resume doesn’t automatically make her electable. Full disclosure, I support democratic-socialist, Senator Bernie Sanders, and believe in the political revolution his campaign has inspired. Moreover, I think Bernie Sanders stands the best chance of beating the Republican nominee - Donald Trump. Accordingly, I continue to support Sanders until he officially suspends his campaign (which I begrudgingly realize is coming soon.) So as we approach the conclusion of this energetic primary (and before directing our attention to this summer’s conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia), let’s reflect on why anyone would still support the long shot candidate from Vermont. 
     For one, Bernie Sanders has ignited a “political revolution” and backing away from any revolution, especially after becoming so invested, is not so easy. Perhaps the cynical will invariably scoff at such hyperbole, but what else to label this inspiring movement? The Sanders campaign can rightfully label itself a ‘revolution’ because Sanders has influenced and changed the minds of millions of young and newly-registered voters to actually engage in a political process that many had all but given up on. A number of Sanders’ supporters are also first-time Democrats. Thus, even if Sanders loses California, he has already won a number of delegates, captured 20 states, and raised $210 million in funds. The DNC must acknowledge that Sanders has effectively changed the game. If and when there is a transitional moment for Sanders to publicly endorse Clinton, it will need to be at the convention, or before; otherwise, a number of Sanders’ emotionally-invested and passionate supporters could become finicky with party procedure (especially, realizing their candidate is not going to win) and become further disengaged and totally turned off by politics altogether.     
     Sanders has changed the conversation, raised our consciousness, and reinvigorated the Democratic Party in exciting ways, but it is now up to his supporters and the DNC to continue carrying this enthusiasm into future movements. As Sanders reminded us at the start of this campaign, “No president can bring about the changes working families deserve.” And “No president can do what needs to be done alone.” This is important - an ongoing revolution will take millions of courageous and compassionate people to achieve, which would still be the case if Sanders has a comeback, clinches the nomination, and becomes president.
     Throughout the campaign Sanders has forced Clinton to defend her presumably progressive stance on a number of issues. Sanders has criticized Clinton’s support and ongoing relationship with Wall Street banks, inferring this makes her ill-equipped to enforce any real regulations. She has also taken contributions from fossil-fuel companies, making her equally weak on climate change. And, of course, Clinton has been unable to shake her 2002 vote authorizing the war in Iraq.  
     On the other hand, Bernie’s message has remained consistent - get money out of politics and out of the pockets of the billionaire class (i.e., the 1%). The most significant value that sets Sanders apart from any candidate is that he is not owned by the banks, nor the lobbyists who place profit before people. Sanders has not received contributions from any super pac. He should be commended and emulated for this. In fact, it would behoove Clinton and the Democratic Party, to promote and work to repeal Citizen’s United for good.   
     Most refreshing, Sanders is doing something long overdue - holding the Democratic Party and our political process itself accountable to the values it purports to uphold. There are millions hungry for a new kind of politics. But can the Democratic Party speak to those Bernie has brought into the tent and to do so in a genuine way? I hope those who have supported Senator Sanders will realize the importance of staying involved in politics. If Bernie can hold the Democrats accountable, what prevents us from continuing to hold ourselves accountable? We can carry on this political revolution. Newly-registered Democrats now have the ability to support candidates who uphold the values Senator Sanders espouses: renewable and sustainable energy alternatives, environmental justice, prison divestment, criminal justice reform, a humane and sensible immigration policy, universal healthcare, tuition-free college, etc.
     So we arrive at the question that may keep some in the Clinton camp awake at night - will Sanders suspend his campaign respectfully, encouraging his supporters to fall in line with the rest of the Democratic Party and vote Clinton? And if Sanders does this, who can say his supporters will vote Clinton? Is Clinton able to get people excited enough to get out the vote and do so with the same grassroots fervor? I doubt it. Which is why we get back to why I am still supporting Bernie - he is the only candidate who could possibly beat candidate ‘Trump-enstein’ in the general election. For instance, I have even anecdotally heard people say they would go so far as to vote Trump so as to “guarantee a revolution.” However, what these voters fail to comprehend is that politics is not a zero-sum game. Just because you’re candidate doesn’t win, shouldn’t mean you give up on everything.
     I am not ashamed for sticking with the “socialist Jew” until the bitter end. This is all part of the primary process, and part of a healthy democracy. (As we may recall, Hillary Clinton was also still in the race at this point back in 2008.) The major differences that separate Sanders from Clinton are significant and should cause us all to advocate for real reform, but these differences are not large enough to completely ignore our collective responsibility come November - to get out the vote. 
     If you’re not convinced to vote for Hillary Clinton, fine - that’s her job to do (besides, the game is not over, yet.) But please any reasons for not voting Clinton should not be because Bernie didn’t go all the way. I don’t think Clinton needs to come off as America’s best friend, just reasonable enough to run our country, which I think she is. Our ideal candidate may not be the one to run in the general election, but I am excited to see more people standing up for progressive values. I believe if we keep at it, and continue to hold ourselves accountable, our day will come. But only if we keep up the fight and stay in the game. 
    I know Bernie would.