An Errand

Jack walked into the drug store not really remembering why he was there.  I really need to start writing stuff down, he thought.  I’m getting old, but he didn’t believe that was the reason.  He was only forty, still a little young for senility.

She was at the counter again.  She was the best looking woman, or maybe girl, Jack had ever seen.  He really couldn’t tell how old she was.  He assumed she was at least sixteen, since she was working at the store.  But he’d believe it if he was told she was anywhere between sixteen and forty.

He started walking up and down the aisles.  He figured whatever he was there for might jump out at him when he passed it.

She must be between eighteen and forty.  I’ve been seeing her in here for at least two years.  I wonder what her name is.  Of course he didn’t know her name.  He didn’t dare try to read her name tag and risk getting caught looking at her chest.  That would be especially bad if she were closer to the eighteen side of the age range.

Jack was sure he was there for something boring and unimportant, but it wasn’t coming to him.  Nothing was jumping off the shelves.  He considered just leaving, but that would be a waste of a trip.  There must be something worth buying.

I wonder what age I’d like her to be.  If she were too young, Jack would feel creepy.  But there was no point in wishing her older.  He chuckled to himself.  It’s not like I would ever ask out a store employee while she was working.  And girls who look like that don’t date guys like me anyway.  Still, it would probably make him happy if she were about his age.  It’s no good feeling creepy.

Shoelaces.  Shoelaces?  That doesn’t seem right.  Sure, a shoelace broke a couple of weeks ago, but would he have really made a trip just for shoelaces?  And would he have gone to the drugstore for them?  Whatever.  It’ll have to do.  Nothing else seems right and I don’t want to leave empty handed.

When Jack got to the front, he discovered, to his horror, that she was the only cashier on duty.  He realized that he had been thinking about her the entire time he was in the store.  He felt embarrassed.  He had an impulse to drop the laces and leave.  If I leave, I can never come back, and the store is right around the corner from my house.  I just have to play it cool and buy the shoelaces.  As if buying shoelaces can be cool.

There was one guy in front of Jack.  He waited and tried to look anywhere but at the cashier.  It’s rude to stare, but she’s so easy to stare at.

When the guy in front was finished, Jack stepped up and put the laces on the counter.  They look sad by themselves on there.  Or maybe he was just staring at them too intently.

“I haven’t seen you around for a while,” she said.

He looked up, a bit panicky.  After too long a pause, he said, “I’ve been going through a rough patch.”  Idiot, he thought.  She doesn’t care.  That’s way too personal.

She gave Jack a sympathetic smile, “Sorry to hear that.”

Does she care?  Of course not.  She’s just being polite.  “Thanks.”

“I was wondering what happened to you.  I was afraid you’d moved or something.”

“Would you miss me if I moved?”  God, don’t try to flirt.

She smiled, but didn’t say anything.  The silence was making Jack nervous.  Say something, idiot.

“How old are you?”  Not that!  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean it.  Don’t answer.  That’s incredibly rude.”

She smirked at him and said, “Are you asking me out?”

Oh god.  What’s going on?  She’s messing with me.  She must be. 

There was another awkward silence.  This time she broke it with, “That’ll be $3.17.”

$3.17?  What is she talking about?  Oh, crap!  The shoelaces.

Jack took out his wallet.  He handed the cashier a five dollar bill.

“I really didn’t mean to ask you that.  It just slipped out.  I know how rude it is, and you’re just trying to work.”

“It’s OK.  I’m twenty-seven.”

At least she’s a real adult.  “Still, it’s really embarrassing.  I’m forty, by the way.  Not that you asked, it just seems fair to tell you.  I’m a bit too old to be asking you out.”  Shut up.  “If I were younger. . .”

She laughed.  “Forty’s not that old,” she said as she handed Jack his change.

Just leave!  “Thanks.  I’d better go before I say anything worse.”  He picked up the shoelaces.  “Thanks.  And sorry about being an idiot.”

“Have a nice day.”  She smiled.

Jack turned and walked as quickly as he could without running towards the door.

 

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A New Life

Today, my niece Khalia was born. She came into our world at a healthy nine pounds, five ounces. She is my brother’s first child, and my first niece or nephew. I’m surprised by how excited I am at the prospect of being an uncle. I love kids- babies and children and even teenagers. I like talking to them because they tell you exactly what they think and feel. I like spoiling them and making them happy. I hate disciplining them, so Khalia puts me in the perfect position. I can give her all the toys and candy and attention she can handle, and when it’s time for the unpleasantness of parenting, I can let her parents be the bad cops. It’s a win-win, and I’m already imagining all of the great things me and her big cousin Gabriel are going to do for her.

Today is February 23rd, 2017. The world is vastly different from the one my brother and I were born into in the 1980’s. The sum knowledge of humanity is now available in the palm of your hands as long as you have a strong internet connection. We take this access for granted now, but take a step back for a moment. Invisible waves of energy have connected billions of people across the planet. When I was a child and asked my parents a question, sometimes the answer was, “I don’t know.” Now, my brother and I can say to our children, “I don’t know, but I can look it up.” Khalia may never need a driver’s license because cars will be driving themselves by the time she’s ready to start hanging out with her friends. The world is even different from the one my son was born into nearly a decade ago. Khalia will grow up with the right to marry anyone she chooses. The United States has already had an African American president.

Khalia is a black girl born in a country that has always treated black girls and women poorly. Black girls and women on February 23rd, 2017 face violence, sexual assault, discrimination and other persistent inequalities at rates much higher than their white counterparts. This violence often shamefully comes from us, black men, the very people who should be doing the most to protect and cherish black girls and women. Black girls and women don’t see themselves reflected in the media enough, or in the echelons of political and corporate power, or in their own community organizations and groups. Black girls and women often work the hardest for the least attention and praise, and carry the burdens of men in our community without receiving reciprocal support.

Khalia is also a black girl born in the best time to ever be a black girl in the history of the United States. That may be a sobering statement given the continuing challenges black girls and women face, but we do a disservice to those who fought for the progress we’ve made by not acknowledging it. As of February 23rd, 2017, Khalia can grow up to be a Nobel Prize laureate. She can be a senator. She can own a television network. She can be an astronaut. She can be a general. She can do things and be things that were literally impossible for black girls and women two hundred years ago, unthinkable one hundred years ago and improbable fifty years ago. Khalia will be expected to go to not only go to college, but to earn some kind of graduate degree as well. She can vote, own property, testify in court and serve in combat roles in the military. These are major strides forward, despite how ho-hum they may seem today.

History is not a straight line from point A to point B. The story of progress bounces around, retreats, and even moves in multiple directions at once. Two days ago, it looked like Khalia would be treated better if she grew to be a transgender student later in life, but that’s no longer the case. History is a constant struggle, an ebb and flow between progress and retrenchment for different  worldviews. The last eight years saw the triumph of a set of ideas which are better for a baby black girl. The next four years will challenge and attempt to undo that ideology. What happens in the four years after that? As I’ve written before, there is no moral arc to the universe. It’s up to us to make sure our ideas win, to protect Khalia and all the other babies.

Today, on February 23rd, 2017, a new human entered the world. She doesn’t know anything about it, except what we show her. Let’s show her something good.

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Star Trek The Next Generation

I recently re-watched Star Trek The Next Generation (aka TNG).  I enjoyed the experience.  I hadn’t seen many of the episodes since they originally aired.  It’s interesting how differently I view the show now.  It was a formative show for me.  I was twelve when it debuted.  There was a lot that went over my head at the time.

One interesting difference was apparent right off the bat.  I was either much more forgiving or much easier to please as a twelve year old.  The first season was just bad.  The stories were a combination of rehashes of the original series and sci-fi clichés.  The cast had no chemistry.  The characters were poorly defined.  I’m not entirely sure how the show lasted beyond the first season, and I’m baffled as to why I continued watching it.  As an adult, I had to keep telling myself, “It has to get better.  I know it gets better,” over and over to make it through.

The second season was better, but still not great television.  The single biggest problem with season two was Dr. Pulaski.  I remember hating her as a kid, and that hasn’t changed as an adult.  Before I rewatched, I assumed most of my hatred stemmed from my crush on Dr. Crusher.  But, now I know it is more than that.  Pulaski is just a terrible character.  The show started to show some potential, but every time she was on screen, it brought things crashing down.  I don’t think it’s Diana Muldaur’s fault.  She appeared twice in the original Trek and I didn’t hate her either time.  I’m just not sure anyone could have made that character work.

Seasons three through five are almost uniformly brilliant.  I sometimes think the MVP of the show is Riker’s beard.  From its first appearance, the ensemble gelled, the stories got more ambitious and everything clicked.  It was a thing of beauty and made those first two seasons if not bearable, at least a worthwhile cost.

Seasons six and seven were pretty uneven.  But the highs were quite high and the lows still had the cast doing a great job.  The bad episodes, except for Sub Rosa, were never unwatchable.  And the good episodes were great.  Episodes like Attached and Lower Decks are some of my all time favorite hours of television.

Re-watching TNG made me realize that I miss certain elements of the way TV used to be.  One in particular is striking a balance between serialization and one off episodes.  Deep Space Nine struck that balance better than any show before or since, but TNG did a nice job with it.  I like the way events in one episode affect the characters in future episodes, but at the same time each episode stands on its own.  I recommend anyone looking for a good episode of TV to watch Best of Both Worlds Parts 1 & 2.  It doesn’t matter if you’ve never seen Q Who?  It will still be excellent.  But if you have seen Q Who? it will be a bit extra enjoyable.  I like the way the show rewards the regular viewers without alienating everyone else.

The main theme music deserves mention.  It is extraordinary.  Easily the best music in the Trek franchise.  I love the way it starts with the original Alexander Courage Star Trek theme, but then Jerry Goldsmith takes it in a completely different direction.  The music itself is exciting and got me excited to watch the show every time.  You can’t ask for more than that in a television theme.  Now that I think about it, it was probably the theme music that got me through the first two seasons.  I knew that no matter how bad the episode was, I would always have some wonderful music to get me to a good place.

The real reason the show is so good is the characters, and the cast that played them.  You have the great Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean Luc Picard.  “The great” should just be part of the man’s name.  Stewart is one of those actors whose mere presence elevates every scene.  And Picard is a great character.  He is as real as a character can be in a science fiction show.  While it is an ensemble show, Picard is the main character.

Jonathan Frakes played Commander Will Riker.  I already mentioned his beard, but he brought much more to the role.  I like the way Riker and Picard are both good guys, both admirable, but very different.  Riker has a swagger that’s closer to Kirk than Picard.

Michael Dorn played Lt. Commander Worf.  Worf is the outsider.  He’s the only Klingon in Starfleet.  He’s excellent as the most intimidating member of the crew and he’s even better as comic relief.

Gates McFadden played Dr. Beverly Crusher.  I learned while re-watching that I never did lose that crush on the good doctor.  It’s funny that people always compare the captains in the various Treks.  The doctors are wildly different and (with the exception of Pulaski) all great.  Crusher is great as the doctor, but her relationship with Picard is about my favorite thing on the show.

Marina Sirtis played Counselor Deanna Troi.  It took the writers a long time to figure out what to do with Troi.  I’m suspicious that when the show first started, her job was to be sexy.  Like the show itself, she was pretty rough until season three.  Unlike the show, it took until seasons six and seven for her to really shine.  It’s when she started wearing the real uniform that her role on the ship and her relationships started to make sense.

Brent Spiner played Lt. Commander Data.  He’s another outsider.  And, like Worf, excellent at comic relief.  Unlike Worf, though, Data was often the audience surrogate.  Like the great Patrick Stewart, Spiner figured out his character early.  He simply is Data.  I can’t imagine any other actor in the role.

Levar Burton played Lt. Geordi LaForge.  Geordi is basically a big geek, in the best sense of the word.  Of all the characters, he is the most likely to be a Trek fan.  He’s great at his job, but he is very easy to identify with.

As I said at the beginning, it was an enjoyable experience.  I think I’ll have to dive into Voyager next.

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Let That Go (Play Excerpt)

I was an idiot when I was 16. I talked like I knew everything, but I had no clue about 99.9999% of the world that existed outside of my small high school. I didn’t understand how to put myself in the shoes of people who weren’t like me- girls, gay students, and others that didn’t really fit in (I had girl friends, gay friends and others, but being friends with someone is not the same thing as really trying to understand them). The only reason that I’m not constantly reminded of my embarrassing ignorance is because social media didn’t exist yet. I graduated in 2003; Facebook wasn’t founded until 2004, YouTube in 2005, Twitter in 2006, Instagram in 2010 and Snapchat in 2011. It was more common for high school students to have a car than a cell phone, and the first camera cell phone wouldn’t be released until November 2002, seven months before I graduated and way too expensive for regular high schoolers. Basically, there’s no evidence of my foolishness.

Today’s children don’t have that luxury. They can’t be anonymous morons like I was. They’re growing up in a world where everything they do is recorded and documented on the internet forever, and most of them don’t really understand the consequences of that (hell, many adults don’t understand the consequences of that). I’m fascinated by the idea of how young people will navigate a world of constant surveillance, not from the NSA or the CIA, but from their friends and even themselves. I started working on a play a couple of years ago to explore this idea. I never finished it, but I think there’s some decent writing that I want to share. I may even return to the idea if I can find the time, but for now, here’s an excerpt from that play.

———————————————————————————-

 

Title: Let That Go 

 

Cast of Characters

Malcolm- A boy in his mid-teens.

Huey- A boy in his mid-teens.

Rosa- A girl in her mid-teens.

Angela- A girl in her late teens. Rosa’s older cousin.

Fred- A boy in his mid-teens.

Harriet- A girl in her mid-teens. Malcolm’s younger sister.

Miscellaneous characters.

 

Act I

Setting: A run-down outdoor basketball court. Grass shoots up through the cracked cement. One of the hoops is missing a net. The children are playing under the hoop with a net.

At Rise: MALCOLM, FRED and HUEY are shooting around the basketball. They are laughing and rough-housing while trying to grab rebounds. The boys play for a few moments before HUEY calls a time out. FRED sits on the edge of the court. MALCOLM continues to shoot.

HUEY

Y’all started Mr. Olman’s Egypt assignment yet?

FRED

Not yet. I started thinking about what I want to write about though. I wanna do Egyptian gods.

MALCOLM

Man, that’s boring. Everybody’s gonna write about that. I’m gonna write about making mummies.

HUEY

You mean the embalming process? Yeah, that’s a good idea! I wish I’d thought of that.

MALCOLM

(Shoots the ball at the basket)

Don’t take my idea, you gotta find your own.

HUEY

I’m not going to! I just gotta think about it.

FRED

(stands up)

So what if other people write about the gods? I can pick different gods than they gonna use.

MALCOLM

What if y’all pick the same gods?

FRED

We won’t. I’ma pick some really different gods. Not like Rah or Anubis, something real different.

MALCOLM

(Sarcastically)

If you really want to be different, then pick a different topic.

(FRED lunges for the ball, and MALCOLM easily avoids him. The three boys begin playing basketball again. From the other side of the stage, ANGELA appears. She walks deliberately towards the boys, wearing ripped jeans, a fit t-shirt and sneakers.)

ANGELA

(yelling)

Hey, Malcolm!

(The boys stop playing basketball. FRED is holding the basketball, staring in the direction of ANGELA. HUEY takes a step back. MALCOLM takes a step forward, trying to recognize her.)

MALCOLM

Yeah, who’s that?

ANGELA

Who do you think it is?

(MALCOLM takes a few more steps forward, then recognizes ANGELA)

MALCOLM

Oh, Angela! Yo, what’s up! What are you doing home from college?

ANGELA

I came home for my mom’s birthday this weekend. So how’ve you been? Anything new?

MALCOLM

(shrugs)

You know me, same old stuff.

ANGELA

(steps closer to MALCOLM)

Really? That ain’t what I heard. I heard you got a new hobby. You into photography now?

MALCOLM

Photography? Who told you that?

(ANGELA takes out her cell phone from her pocket. FRED edges forward. HUEY stays still.)

ANGELA

You take pictures, right? And you like to show people the pictures you take. Like this one?

(ANGELA shoves the phone into MALCOLM’S face. He leans back to see the picture that has been floating around the school for the last week. He looks worried for a moment, then defiant. He slaps her hand away from his face.)

MALCOLM

Get that outta my face. How’d you get that picture?

ANGELA

From Rosa, stupid. You sent it to everyone on your friend list, including her. She called me the day after saying that everyone at school is calling her a slut, that even the teachers are treating her differently.

MALCOLM

I didn’t mean to do that! I only meant to send it to one person, I messed up and-

ANGELA

Shut up!

(ANGELA pushes MALCOLM to the ground. MALCOLM looks up at her angrily, but doesn’t try to stand up. FRED rushes over to help MALCOLM, but ANGELA shoots him a look and he stops cold. HUEY moves closer, but keeps a distance between himself and MALCOLM.)

You think because it was an accident that makes it okay? Did you “accidentally” take that picture in the first place?  Did you “accidentally” decide to send it to one person?

MALCOLM

(sits up)

She shouldn’t be doing that stuff if she don’t want no one to know about it.

ANGELA

(kicks MALCOLM in the leg. MALCOLM clutches his leg, screaming in pain.)

She was doing it to you, you stupid asshole! Are you that dense? Or are you so much of a coward that you can’t even admit you messed up?

FRED

(Stepping forward)

Come on, he said it was a mistake. He didn’t mean to-

ANGELA

I don’t know you, but you need to shut up and back up before I whoop your ass too. Your boy wants to act like he’s the man, let him act like it with me. I been beating his ass since before his little dick could even get hard.

(FRED backs off. MALCOLM releases his leg and staggers to his feet)

MALCOLM

You want to fight me over this? As long as I’ve known you, and you take Rosa’s side?

ANGELA

I want to kill you over this. The only reason I didn’t really hurt you was because Rosa asked me not to. You don’t get it, do you? That picture is on every cell phone in that whole school now. Some of your boys probably showed it to some of their boys, and then they showed it to some more people. It’s out there forever now. And all those people who saw it? They ain’t asking who the nigga with the little dick is in the picture, they asking “who’s the girl?” “Who’s that bitch?” You’re too much of a punk to put your face in the picture, but you put hers. Matter of fact, I am gonna kill you right now.

(ANGELA lunges for MALCOLM. MALCOLM dodges her and runs behind HUEY. FRED steps in between ANGELA and MALCOLM, his hands up).

FRED

Look, what Malcoln did is messed up, real messed up. He was trying to send the picture to me, and shit got messed up.

ANGELA

So you wanted it? That’s what gets you off, looking at your boy with another girl?

FRED

No, you think I wanna see this dude’s dick? I deleted it as soon as he sent it. Rosa’s my friend too. We didn’t mean for this to happen.

ANGELA

(Yelling to HUEY)

What about you, being all quiet? Was you a part of this too?

HUEY

(Takes a step back and puts his hands up)

I promise, I didn’t have nothing to do with this. That was all Malcolm, he did that on his own.

ANGELA

(Straightens up from her lunge, and rubs her hand across her hair to flatten it.)

Yeah right. All y’all are innocent, everyone just made a mistake, no one meant for shit to happen. And here you three are, playing basketball and laughing, while Rosa’s hiding inside her house to get away from all the dudes who keep harassing her. I’ll be back for all three of you. It’s your turn to hide.

(ANGELA turns to walk away. She turns back around and kicks the basketball off stage, the exits on the far side of the stage. The three boys regard each other silently for a moment.)

MALCOLM

Shit.

 

ACT I, Scene ii

Setting: The hallway of the local high school. The linoleum tiles are cracked and worn. Paint is chipping off the lockers which line the walls. An EXIT sign sags from the ceiling.

At Rise: ROSA is standing in front of her locker, flipping through a stack of papers in her hand. The hall is deserted save for ROSA.

 

ROSA

(Fumbles through the papers again. She tosses the papers into her locker and slams it shut. She hurries off STAGE LEFT. The stage is silent and empty for a moment. ROSA re-enters from STAGE LEFT, going to her locker again. She opens it and grabs the pile of papers again. She begins to read the first piece of paper out loud.)

“Rosa, your conduct has violated the terms laid out in the Student Handbook. The sharing of inappropriate images on school property is forbidden, and this rule is strictly enforced by the administration. A copy of this letter has been sent to your home address. You must return this letter and the accompanying conference schedule, with a signature from your legal guardians and a time to meet with school administrators, no later than this Friday…”

(Stops reading the letter. ROSA allows her hand to sink slowly. The bell rings, and the hallway is flooded with students heading to their next class. None of them notice ROSA as she stands next to her open locker, motionless. The hallways clear, and ROSA is alone again.)

ROSA

So do I tell my parents about the picture, or wait for Mrs. Adams to do it? Fuck.

(HARRIET walks in from STAGE RIGHT. She is wearing her school uniform and a large backpack. She sees ROSA and hesitates for a moment. ROSA doesn’t seem to notice her.)

HARRIET

Uh, hey Rosa.

(ROSA looks over at HARRIET, but doesn’t say anything.)

How have you been?

ROSA

Great, just great.

(ROSA places the papers behind her back and closes her locker.)

HARRIET

I’ve heard some of the stuff going around school. I just wanted to make sure you’re okay.

ROSA

Well I am. I’m okay.

HARRIET

You don’t seem okay. What’s that in your hand? I could hear you reading it all the way down the hall.

ROSA

Then you know what it is, don’t you?

HARRIET

I wasn’t eavesdropping, I just heard you saying something. Come on, don’t be like that.

ROSA

Be like what? What do you want to say to me? We don’t have nothing to talk about.

HARRIET

I want to say I’m sorry. I want to say more than that, but I’m not sure. Like I wannna help, but I don’t know how.

ROSA

You wanna help? Leave me alone. I don’t have time for you stumbling around with your words and feelings. You got something to say to me, figure it out and come back.

HARRIET

I didn’t do anything wrong, so stop treating me like I did. That was my brother, not me.

ROSA

So I still gotta be cool with you, is that it? ‘Be mad at my brother, not me?’ You ain’t worried about how I feel, you’re worried about how YOU feel. You got the nerve to tell me how I need to treat you?

HARRIET

I didn’t mean it like that. I’m just saying, we’ve been friends for a long time.

 

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The Passive Voice Should Be Appreciated

The passive voice should be appreciated.  Nay, the passive voice should be celebrated.  The tyranny of the subject is perpetuated by the active voice, but it can be stopped by the passive voice.  Objects can be accentuated, highlighted, shown off by the passive voice.  Variety is created by the passive voice.  The passive voice should be used by everyone.

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The Difference Between Political Tactics and Political Strategy

My girlfriend told me a story about a guy she went to college with. This young man was a typical student at her school- a white male who came from alot of money. He was rude and dismissive, and engaged in explicit racism and sexism on a constant basis. He called her a nigger during their freshman year. His behavior was so out of control that his friends forced him to take a class on racism. The class was a transformative experience for him: he contacted my girlfriend and apologized to her for his behavior, and earnestly tried to learn as much as he could about racial injustice in the United States. He became so immersed in his studies that he changed his major from economics (the go to major for well-to-do white men at her school) to sociology. He wanted to learn, and then put that education into practice.

The story demonstrates that education can have a profound impact on people, and that even the worst of us can change if we want to. As appreciative as I was of this man’s transformation, I couldn’t help thinking that maybe we don’t need another racially conscious sociologist; maybe what we really need is a racially conscious economist or Wall Street financier, someone on the inside who knows about systemic racism and can make changes from the inside, or become ridiculously wealthy and start bankrolling leftist causes the way the Koch brothers help to fund the right. A hedge fund manager dedicated to advancing racial justice could have a kind of long term impact that is often missing from leftist and progressive politics. We need those kinds of people to alter the strategic balance of national politics, which is not favorable to progressives right now.

Even as marriage equality marched forward and movements like Black Lives Matter brought attention to the police brutality African Americans face daily, “Make America Great Again” carried the day last November. A literal white supremacist is the closest advisor to the President. We’ve achieved tactical victories, but there has been a lack of strategic planning to hold those gains in the long term. During the eight years of the Obama administration, Democrats lost over 1,000 elected seats at the state and federal level. This includes the presidency, a net loss of nine Senate seats, sixty two House seats, and crucially, over 900 state legislature and governor seats. While the federal losses garner the most attention, the state legislatures are where congressional districts are drawn. With Republicans in control of 32 state houses, we could see more of the gerrymandering which will lock districts into predictable voting patterns for the foreseeable future. Non-elected positions, such as judges and bureaucratic appointees across state and national politics will be packed by Republicans,  who had the numbers to block Merrick Garland; Democrats don’t have the muscle to do the same to Neil Gorsuch.

The difference between being tactical and being strategic is this: Black Lives Matter can mobilize thousands of people across the country to protest the deaths of African Americans in police custody. Meanwhile, there is a president and an attorney general who both support stop and frisk policies, which increase the encounters between police and communities of color, for perhaps the next four years (depending on how long Jeff Sessions serves). BLM is in the disadvantageous position of being forced to be reactive to police brutality, while long-term policy is set which may increase instances of police brutality. The Woman’s March drew more visitors to Washington, DC than Trump’s inauguration, but the global gag rule against abortion services has been reinstated and Planned Parenthood is in real danger of being defunded. The resistance to Trump and the Republican agenda is broadly reactive- Americans came out in force to protest the administration’s Muslim ban, but couldn’t do so until after the order had been issued and Muslims around the world were stranded while attempting to enter the United States. The pressures of waging these tactical engagements over and over again will grow, as we’ve had two major protests against Trump in the first three weeks of his presidency. That level of engagement will be difficult to sustain. We need to shift our thinking to strategic aims to counter the challenges we face.

Many Americans have clamored for a true third party option, and turn towards long-shot candidates such as Jill Stein, Gary Johnson and others. We need to wake up to political reality: we currently don’t even have a second political party. Democrats have essentially waited for demographics to deliver the country to them politically, but 2045 is still thirty years away, and even then the electoral college will ensure that the largely white interior of the United States has as much say as the black and brown coasts in national elections. The Clinton campaign strategized poorly against Trump and lost. Some progressives argue that Bernie Sanders could have beaten Trump in a general election, but ignore that the primary cause of his loss to Clinton was not the “finger on the scale” from the DNC, but his own poor strategizing in the primaries. After Obama’s victory in 2012, Democrats had four years to prepare a presidential slate for 2016, and the best they came up with was two seventy year olds and a guy from Maryland no one had heard of. That’s bad strategy, and now the Democrats barely exist as a national force.

History is not a positive force, and there is no moral arc to the universe. The United States has not become more inclusive simply due to the enlightening effects of the passage of time. Riots occurred, political coalitions were built, and laws were passed. A right or protection which exists today is not guaranteed to exist tomorrow. The leftist, progressive agenda has to be implemented AND defended, both with short term tactical actions and long term strategic planning. Otherwise, it will be rolled back and replaced with an agenda of nativism, fear-mongering and attacks on women, people of color and the poor.

Protesting must continue, but that’s only the first step. We need to build true progressive, leftist organizations to influence policy and politics. The ACLU, despite being the current darling of the left because of its opposition to Trump, is NOT a progressive organization. It is a civil liberties organization- that’s incredibly valuable, but it’s mission leads it to defend causes and groups that many left-leaning people would take exception to. We need think tanks, grassroots neighborhood organizations, lawyers, judges and bureaucrats  in addition to professors, journalists and the other progressive stereotypes. We need to rebuild the Democratic Party from the ground up. The leadership of the party is not reflective of the country today: Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Diane Feinstein, Chuck Schumer, Harry Reid and Nanci Pelosi are all white and at least sixty six years of age in a country where half the population is under thirty eight years old and increasingly people of color. There are only nine senators of color out of one hundred senators; the House is better with 83 out of 435 members, or 20%, being people of color. The only way for this to change is for progressives of color to do the dirty, hard, compromising work of running for and winning elected office. As the Tea Party managed to move the Republican party to the right, progressives need to work to drag the Democrats to the left, and now is the time as the party reorganizes. My political science professor once analogized political power by comparing it to the Ark of the Covenant from Indiana Jones. He said the key to wielding the power is to open the ark only as much as you absolutely need to, but it will hurt you and the people you care about. We need to be willing to accept that cost and endure that pain, instead of simply complaining about a lack of diversity. We have to vote, every single time we’re able- in referendums, in primaries, in midterm elections and presidential elections. The candidates we want need our support.

And in the end, we’re going to need money. Alot of money. For all the handwringing about the Citizen’s United decision, President Obama opted out of public financing back in 2008 because he recognized the strategic advantage of being able to outspend John McCain almost three-to-one, We need to fight fire with fire, so we need progressives and leftists to enter the private sector and make alot of money. We need to change the culture of banks and hedge funds, and pour money into our causes the way the right does. I’m proud of my girlfriend’s classmate for genuinely changing his ways, but it would be really helpful for him to be able to cut a few big checks someday.

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Stigma

There is a stigma attached to mental illness.  I think virtually everyone knows it.  I also think that most will say that there should not be a stigma attached to mental illness.  Stigmas are tough to shake, though.  I don’t know that I have any answers to this problem, but I’m trying to tell myself the right things to lessen their impact.

I should start by saying that I hate terms like mental illness and mental health.  It is a philosophically dubious position to separate mental and physical.  It’s a shame that particular piece of Cartesian philosophy has had such a lasting impact.  But that’s not really why I hate the terms.  I hate them because they instantly separate certain illnesses.  The flu is an illness.  Depression is a mental illness.  It is a short step from there to saying that the flu is a real illness and depression is not.  Just like an injury is an injury whether it is a toe or the brain that is injured, an illness should be an illness regardless of what part of the person it attacks.  Giving something not only its own name, but its own category, won’t help people treat it as normal.

One thing I’ve often heard from others who suffer from mental illness is that it would be easier if it were a physical illness because then other people could see it.  The only problem with that line of reasoning is that most physical illnesses are invisible.  Of course some, like chicken pox, have tell tale physical signs, but most do not.  I can’t look at someone and know they have Alzheimer’s or hypertension.  For some, I can look at behaviors.  If I see someone sneezing and coughing, I can guess they have a cold.  But it is never more than a guess, and it doesn’t work for illnesses like Crone’s Disease or an ulcer.  Most physical illnesses are just as invisible as mental illnesses.

There are also stigmas attached to physical illnesses.  If people think you’re contagious, they treat you differently.  People make judgements about a patient’s lifestyle and habits with a bunch of physical diseases from HIV to warts.  The more chronic the illness, the worse it is.  And the rarest physical diseases have the worst stigma.

The simple fact is that one of our deficiencies as humans is anything that varies from normal makes us uncomfortable.  That is where stigmas come from.  You see stigmas with people who are extremely tall or extremely short.  Extremely smart or extremely dumb.  Extremely heavy or extremely light.  You see them with unusual physical features and unusual lifestyles.  It’s shameful, but it seems that one of the few constants that runs through humanity is these stigmas.

When it comes to mental illness and stigmas, I think the real problem is that the illnesses themselves reinforce the stigmas.  This isn’t blaming the victims, it is just how it is.  With illnesses like depression, there is a ton of self doubt.  It is isolating.  It is common for sufferers to feel worthless, anxious and even a little paranoid.  Those things make it easy to assume that others feel the same about the sufferers as the sufferers feel about themselves.  It is a vicious circle.  The stigmas help justify the feelings which make the sufferers sensitive to the stigmas.

This is certainly something I’ve been fighting while dealing with my depression.  It is almost like I want people to treat me differently.  That would be the perfect excuse to push them away, to run and hide and be by myself.  I know isolating myself is about the worst thing I can do, but it doesn’t stop me from wanting to do it.

While acknowledging that stigmas are real and harmful, I keep reminding myself that part of the depression causes the stigmas to feel worse than they are.  I keep reminding myself that depression, in one form or another, is relatively common.  And I keep writing these little posts to help myself, and anyone who happens to read them, get past being stigmatized.

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I’m Scared

As of January 20, 2017, Donald Trump is the President of the United States of America.  To say I’m scared is an understatement.  I’m terrified.  Our country has had stupid presidents.  We’ve had incompetent presidents.  We’ve had evil presidents.  This is the first time we’ve had all three in one president.  That would be bad enough, but my fear goes so much deeper than just that.

I’m scared because we have a misogynist president.  We have a bigoted president.  We have a racist president.  We have a xenophobic president.  We have an intolerant president.  We have a selfish president.  We have an arrogant president.  I could go on.  Again, we’ve had past presidents with some, or even most, of these flaws, but never have we had a president so out of step with his own time.  And never have we had a president who is so proud of his own odiousness.

I’m scared because the system doesn’t work.  The 2016 presidential election was our nation’s first real test of the Electoral College and it failed miserably.  I’ve always been a defender of the Electoral College.  Whenever people say that we should get rid of it, I always point out the dangers of populism and my fears for those of us living in small states.  But, if the Electoral College can’t protect us from a grossly unqualified, stupid, incompetent, evil president, our Constitution has a serious, probably irreparable, flaw.  And checks and balances can’t work when Trump’s party controls all the branches of government.  Especially since they have shown themselves to have no integrity and no interest in doing what’s right.

I’m scared because a foreign power successfully meddled with our electoral process and the country as a whole is pretty blasé about it.  This is partly the press’ fault.  But it also shows that we have become way too cynical.  It’s like we just assume that everything in politics is bad so we can no longer distinguish between normal and completely, outrageously bad.  This is scary because if the country as a whole can no longer be outraged, nothing is going to get better.

I’m scared because we no longer have a functioning press.  And I’m not talking about the leftwing press or the rightwing press or the mainstream press or the alternative press.  They are all equally broken.  The press should have two basic jobs.  They should report what happens and they should hold the powerful accountable.  They do neither.  The mainstream press can do little more than repeat what they’re told.  And the rest of the press outlets are simply pursuing an agenda.  Of all the things that scare me, this may be the scariest.

I know it’s early to say that Trump is the worst president in our history, but I can’t shake the feeling that he will be remembered that way.  There is just no indication that he is capable or prepared for the job.  And there’s no indication that he’s willing to prepare or even try.  I can’t imagine how any of us come out of this mess okay.  I’m really, really scared.

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Writer’s Block

I know it’s distastefully ironic to write about writer’s block.  At least I’ve thought so since college.  I was taking a writing class, and we had to read a general audience book about writing.  I chose one called “On Writer’s Block” mostly because it was what I saw when I went to the bookstore.  It was a pretty typical self help book.  I thought it was garbage and basically said so in my paper about it.  Now I’m suffering from writer’s block and I find myself thinking about that book.  I still basically think it’s garbage.  But, this is an attempt at applying some of its lessons.

I’m pretty sure my writer’s block is related to my depression, strangely the fact that my depression is a bit better.  That’s not to say I’m anywhere near where I want to be, just that I am feeling a little bit better.  When I was at the bottom, it was awful, but it did have some benefits.  I didn’t care as much about what I put out.  In fact, putting something out that I wasn’t happy with felt right.  It was like a confirmation of my thoughts and feelings.  And it was easy to disassociate myself from what I wrote and whoever might read it.  Depression is isolating and I was able to take advantage of that.

Now that I’m feeling a little better, I find that I’m much more self-critical and that I care about what other people think of me (Like I said, I’m not where I want to be).  That’s a deadly combination for a writer.  I keep starting things and not finishing them.  I have a few things that I forced myself to finish, but I’m too embarrassed to publish them.  This is no way to keep content flowing.

So, here I am, trying some advice I got from a self help book twentyish years ago.  I’m forcing myself to write every day.  I’m giving myself deadlines (at least one post per week).  I’m giving myself prompts, this week’s is writer’s block (I’m open to prompts from others if you’re so inclined).  And when I finish something, no matter how much I dislike it, I’m forcing myself to publish it.  It’s not going to be fun, or pretty, but I’m hoping it will be good for me and help get me to where I want to be.

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Academic Language and Barriers

I work at a college where I manage the school’s curriculum. As part of my job, I have to review and correct spelling errors in course descriptions, which led me to come across a few courses which completely baffled me. The first course description reads:

In this course, we will engage in intensive embodied research through a collection of training counter rituals aimed at releasing enculturated oppressions in the body. Going to the edge of our physical limits is important for this release and we will enter through a combination of rigor, rhythm, and recuperative practices. We will “pump” various rooms (dance studio, club, and grassy knoll) to sense how place/space affects our research materials.

Through training in (e)feminized movement modalities, sparring scores, solo states, and group provocations, we will address the body and performance space as a site for transgression, transcendence, and transformation. This course is part of the Creative Campus Initiative. ​

Here’s another example:

This course will address the sociology of medicine, health, and illness from a range of critical perspectives and theoretical vantage points, including feminist social constructionism, actor network theory, the governmentality literature, queer theory, neomaterialist feminism, and disability studies. We will examine current manifestations of medicalization, health and illness, and biosociality as social products of the neoliberal context and will pursue both illness and disability as sites of social struggle. We will consider the promise and limits of social constructionism in understanding the sick body and the disabled subject; we will address the medicalization of impairments as well as trends in psychiatry; we will look at the emerging transnational trade in organs, cell lines, and bioinformatics and consider how sociological frameworks can contributing to understanding these.

To be clear, I don’t have a problem with any of the ideas these classes might present. I just have no idea what those ideas are, based on these course descriptions.

Admittedly, these are extreme examples, but they aren’t as outlying as one might think. Course descriptions, syllabi and course readings can sometimes become forests of specific terms and ideas. This is a necessary evil at times; there’s no way to briefly describe the ideas behind dialectical materialism, so we gave it a name. Academic jargon can take on a life of its own though, and that is where the problem lies. Academics do important work, and then often lock that work behind a wall of specialized, opaque language which can keep knowledge from the very people who would benefit the most from it.

I took a great class as an undergraduate student called “Race and Urban Space,” where we learned about how the physical structures of cities often segregate people by race and class. This class was invaluable for someone like me. I have very poor spacial understanding, and it’s hard for me to understand how physical space works. I’m not exaggerating here- I get lost all the time, I can’t estimate height or weight with any semblance of accuracy, and my physical space is often cluttered because I can’t arrange things efficiently. Reading about how physical space is organized along racial and class lines is the only way I can understand such a concept, because I can’t simply look at a sidewalk and understand what its physical dimensions mean. Yet the reading was often borderline incomprehensible. I would write notes as I read, trying to make sense of the messages, and then toss those notes out after the professor explained what the author was actually saying. The concepts themselves were difficult enough for me, but the academic jargon the author used compounded my lack of understanding.

In one of those essays, the author used the word “anglophone.” That’s a word I understood, but its use frustrated me so much that I had to stop reading for a moment. If you Google the meaning of anglophone, you get a very simple answer: English speaker. The word “anglophone” does not communicate any special meaning that the phrase “English-speaker” doesn’t. This isn’t substituting “blue” for “periwinkle;”  while a potentially annoying distinction, those are actually two different colors. There is no practical or useful distinction between anglophone and English-speaking, except that the former sounds more academic than the latter. “Anglophone” is not clear, direct language for most people, and thus presents a barrier to understanding. True, it is a barrier which can be traversed with a dictionary, but why erect any language-based barriers, especially when there is a simpler phrase which conveys the exact same meaning?

Those language barriers made it difficult to share the essay I was reading. After having the meaning explained to me, it was clear that this was important research that might make a difference in someone else’s understanding the way that it had for me. I wanted to share the essay, but I couldn’t explain it to anyone who had any questions about it because I’d barely understood it without a professor’s help. That professor’s help cost $5500, the cost of the course. Without my scholarship, I would have never been able to decipher that essay, and all of its important information would have been lost to me.

When you read the course descriptions above, can you honestly say you know what they mean? You’ll learn about “actor network theory” and “group provocations,” but do you have any idea what that means for your daily life? I sure as hell don’t. I consider myself fairly knowledgeable, but these terms are dropped into, of all things, a course description with no context, explanation or other means of grounding them. This is the kind of language which discourages parents and young adults not only from applying to college, but to exploring new ideas if they do attend. Language is supposed to convey ideas and create understanding. If I’ve read your words and have more questions than answers, what was the point?

College and education are important, but we know full well that not everyone can afford college. Even if we can’t provide the credential to every person who might need it, we can at least strive to provide the information to those who crave it. That requires access, and the most basic level of access for information is the language which conveys it. Words matter, and they can be a welcoming hand or an intimidating maze. When academics write with jargon-laden sentences, they can end up talking only to each other- other academics and students who have access to their specific language and its context. Plain language is the easiest way to democratize access to knowledge. It can certainly be fun to piece together the meaning of a new word or phrase when reading for pleasure, but when the research being conducted has to do with race, class, health and other crucial issues, people are often reading for their lives. Language shouldn’t be another hurdle people have to overcome to empower themselves with knowledge.

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