Thursday, February 15, 2018

"If I don't make it, I love you"

A parent in Florida yesterday got the text message no parent ever wants to get: “If I don’t make it, I love you.”

I saw these words in a newspaper story this morning. At the safety of my dining room table, drinking a cup of coffee, they hit me like a kick to the stomach. Imagine how they hit the mom who actually received that text.

Her daughter did indeed make it. But 17 other people did not. They went to school yesterday as students and teachers and they left school in body bags as grim statistics.

How many times will we have to go through this same scenario before we as a country of voters exert our will and force somebody to do something about this? Which gun massacre will be the one that makes us all stop wringing our hands and offering our thoughts and prayers and writing impassioned letters to the editor about guns and instead band together, raise our voices, and use the one real power we do have.

We can vote.

And we can overwhelm anyone running for office at any level with demands that they work to get a grip on gun violence in our schools, in our towns, in our cities, in our counties, in our states, and in our country.

No single law or policy will end this uniquely American epidemic. It is going to take a lot of hard work and a lot of focus at each of the levels listed—from the hyper-local to the national; from the local school board to the House, Senate, and Presidency.

I sometimes ridicule single-interest voters who hold candidates to purity tests on a single issue. But I think nothing in this gun-loving, violence-worshiping country will change until enough of us become single-issue voters and force the issue.

You might think I hate guns and want to take them all away. That would be an incorrect assumption. I believe the Second Amendment gives law-abiding citizens the right to own guns and I do not want them all taken away. I also believe the Constitution allows local jurisdictions to pass and enforce restrictions on gun ownership. Justice Antonin Scalia said it best when he wrote

“We also recognize another important limitation on the right to keep and carry arms. ‘Miller’ said, as we have explained, that the sorts of weapons protected were those ‘in common use at the time.’ We think that limitation is fairly supported by the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of ‘dangerous and unusual weapons.’”

One of the most conservative justices in American history has argued that it is reasonable for jurisdictions to prohibit the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons. As voters, we need to elect only those candidates who agree that AR-15s and other semi-automatic weapons that are not traditionally used for hunting are indeed “dangerous and unusual” weapons. We need to write laws that say this. And then we need to pass these laws.

The worship of the strict gun rights interpretation of the Second Amendment can no longer hold sway over the politicians of this country. It has led to too many dead children and teachers.

Many Americans will argue that this is not a gun issue. To that, I ask a simple question: Why are Americans more violently, homicidally deranged than the people of any other country, then? If it’s NOT a gun issue then it must mean that we are a disproportionately violent people.

In either case, if enough of us become single-issue voters we can change things. Let’s vote only for candidates who are willing to devote resources to mental health services and violence prevention programs in our schools and towns.

Maybe the term “single-issue voter” is wrong in this case. “Double-issue voter” might be more apt. The twin issues of gun restrictions and mental health need to be what we focus on as voters if we are ever going to reverse this horrific and tragic trend of mass shootings in America.

Arguments that it is “too soon” to talk about this in the wake of yet another slaughter at a school ring hollow. With mass shootings happening with disgusting regularity, there would never be an appropriate time to talk about what we can do to simply become more like every other country in the world that DOESN’T have this same problem.

Arguments that any single proposal would not have stopped this particular massacre of innocent people and, therefore, any single law would be useless, need to be shown as the bullshit they are. Of course no single law will change things. It is going to take a fully-formed array of public policies to stop angry Americans from killing other Americans in large numbers with guns.

To say that this problem of gun violence in America is too complicated to fix with a single law is to condemn more children to death in their schools and more parents to receiving text messages like the one a mom got in Florida yesterday.

I hear on the radio the latest reports of yet another mass shooting and part of me is numb. I read the story online and some growing part of my brain and my heart have scarred over and it affects me a little bit less.

Seeing the text message that mother received yesterday broke through the callous and made me re-see what a uniquely violent culture we are right now in America. I refuse to give up. I am going to be a double-issue voter from now on.

Monday, January 22, 2018

A Call for Congressional Competence

If ever there was a chance for the legislative Branch of The United States Government to assert itself, that time is now.

The Oval Office is occupied by a man with no deeply-held policy positions. That same man is advised by people with little-to-none legislative experience. In the run-up to this weekend’s government shutdown, President Trump made it clear to all that he has no idea how to actually govern.

Congress has made this same fact clear for the past 9 years.

It does not have to be this way.

The next three years could be a golden era of bipartisanship if the rational middles from both sides of the aisle work together to craft moderate, reasonable legislative proposals. The bomb-throwers on the left and the right can vote against these proposals, but if 67 Senators and 291 representatives stay together, they can accomplish a lot in three years.

Once Moderation forces a seat at the table for itself, it cannot be beat. There are things most Americans agree on, even in this highly polarized age. Here are a few things that would have overwhelming support across the country:
  • ·         Rebuilding America’s infrastructure
  • ·         Reforming America’s immigration policies to recognize the need for a country to control its own borders AND, at the same time, acknowledge that immigration makes us a stronger country
  • ·         Agreeing to a process for creating legislative districts that is independent of political parties
  • ·         Addressing the looming crisis in both Social Security and Medicare in a way that sets both programs on firm footing for fifty more years.

The thing is, to really address these issues, members of Congress would have to actually sit down together and talk. They would also need to truly listen. And be willing to compromise. They would need to deliberate.

Government by, of, and for the Base is not really working. It is not sustainable. We, the voters, would have to stop making everything a purity test. We would have to accept that real legislators compromise.

As a whacko Leftist Liberal, it would mean that I would have to stop demonizing anyone who is opposed to single-payer healthcare. I would also have to understand that reasonable people can disagree on the idea of mandating an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. It would mean that my Whacko Rightist Conservative brother would have to make room for the idea that the Second Amendment allows for states to craft rational gun control measures. He would need to make mental room for the thought that not all regulations are bad.

President Trump has shown himself to be inconsistent in his policy stances—from month to month, week to week, and even hour to hour. If there is a solid contingent of Senators and Representatives willing to take a huge risk and step into the policy void left by an oddly uninformed Executive, Congress could reassert itself and make some things happen.

A little bit of competence demonstrated by at least one branch of the government would be really welcome right about now.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Learning to React

For a long time I suspected I might be broken in some fundamental way. I did not seem to feel things the way other people did. Other people’s emotional lives seemed to be richer than mine. I could fake strong emotions pretty well, but that is a thing sociopaths do, right?

It crossed my mind that I might indeed BE a sociopath, but then I did a little research and read that sociopaths have no regard for the difference between right and wrong and never feel guilt. These last two are not true of me. I definitely feel guilt—most of the time.

So if I’m not a sociopath, what is going on?

With the help of an acting class, I think I may have started to figure it out.

Early in my life I made a decision to be a person who is steady, reliable, and helpful. I always wanted to make things better, not worse. And one way to do that is to be a voice of calm. Big emotions scare me and make me feel unsafe—they always have. So I learned to tamp them down in myself and to pull others back to calmer waters when they were getting worked up.

It worked for me to be a calming, helpful presence. Turns out, people like that.

It also turns out that being a calming, helpful presence requires a LOT of self-management. I learned that if I wanted to be steady as a rock, I needed to ignore whatever emotions I was feeling and keep an even keel. Over time, it got easier and easier to forget that I even had my own reactions to things—I was always attuned to what other people were feeling and then adjusting myself to them.  

This is a great way to make the people around you feel safe. It is also a great way to lose all touch with the things you yourself are feeling.  After many years of living this way, I got to the point where I could not identify my own feelings unless they were so huge that they managed to break through my insulation and force themselves to be reckoned with. Smaller things went unrecognized and, therefore, unprocessed in any kind of normal, healthy way.

Realizing this about myself has helped me understand something that has puzzled me for years: From the age of 12, I have loved sad books, movies, and songs--the more deeply tragic, the better. I now understand that these books and songs and movies gave me a safe outlet for my emotions—they gave me a “legitimate” reason to feel powerfully sad and to cry without having to look deeper and see what was going on in me. They were a safety valve.

Oddly, sports acted as another kind of safety valve. By playing organized sports into high school and then by following professional sports very closely my entire adult life, I’ve had an outlet for other feelings. Anger and joy both find a way out when you are heavily invested in the outcome of a pitch, a play, a game, and a season.
Another obsession of mine is politics. The first time I ever got positive feedback as a writer was in a Political Writing class as a junior in college. I found I could express passion for my beliefs about politics without feeling like I was in any kind of immediate risk. And other people wanted to publish the things I wrote!

So, I had—more or less—three outlets for strong feelings: literature, sports, and politics. All three of these have been a huge part of my life ever since I discovered their usefulness.  None of the three of these serve to connect me to my own feelings or to the people closest to me. In fact, sometimes they get in the way because it is easy to convince myself that I am a passionate person with deeply-help beliefs.

I have recognized this as a problem for a while now. But I could not come to any kind of solution to the problem that worked for me. It is hard to give up an approach that has been “working” for years and years.

And then I enrolled in an acting class. It was a fairly impetuous decision that grew out of a feeling of boredom and a desire to shake up my life a bit. When I signed up I did not even think to ask about the methodology of the class or the philosophical underpinnings of the method. In retrospect, this is good. Had I asked, I might not have followed through.

The class I found was in the Actor’s Workshop of Ithaca. The classes at AWI are based in the Meisner Technique of acting, created by Sanford Meisner over his 55 years at the Neighborhood Playhouse. The foundation of the Meisner Technique is the ability to identify what you are feeling in the moment in reaction to the people you are sharing the stage with. Rather than memorize lines that you deliver with a preset cadence and emotional charge, you instead say your lines with whatever your emotionally honest reaction is in the moment.

You’re not acting, you’re reacting. And the reactions need to be authentic.

So, you can see how this might scare the living shit out of me and my carefully cocooned emotions. I have spent a lifetime assiduously avoiding tapping into my honest, raw emotions. And this semester I was asked to do just that, every Monday and Wednesday from 5pm to 8pm.

By the second week of classes I found myself coming up with all sorts of excuses for skipping class. But then I would go anyway.

I found the exercises terrifying—and I was not very good at them. They required me to turn off that inner voice that dominates my head—the one that is constantly sizing up the people around me and guessing at what they want or need from me. Far more often than not the words I would say came from that part of my brain rather than from somewhere more real, more honest, more ME.

BUT, there were a couple of moments when I was able to turn that inner voice off and simply react to the people in front of me. Those moments were magic and like a drug. Instead of managing myself and the other people, I simply reacted honestly. As I said, this did not happen often. But it was often enough that I have come to crave it.

It feels exactly like the emotional equivalent of learning to walk. At this point my emotional self is able to pull itself up to a standing position using the furniture and the legs of the people standing around me. Someday it will be able to toddle around. Then someday it might even run. I am still afraid of strong emotions, but I have a growing belief in the importance of letting myself feel them and whatever else is in there.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Old guy, doing push-ups

Eliza turned out the room lights and switched on the spotlights. I immediately dropped to the carpet and started doing push-ups. By the fourth push-up someone knocked lightly on the door. Without missing a beat I called out “Come in.”

The door opened but I did not look up. I kept on with my slow and steady push-ups as Ari said “Old guy, doing push-ups.”

I repeated “Old guy, doing push-ups.”

For the next ten minutes Ari, and then Eliza, continued to comment on me and my push-ups. I grew exhausted and by the end I was able to do only 2 or 3 repetitions in the final minute.

A week later, I spent the entire night in the emergency room.

Back in August it struck me hard that I used to be a person who would do adventurous things—things that scared the crap out of me and made my life exciting.  I gave myself a skydive for my eighteenth birthday during my freshman year of college.

I went to Yemen with the Peace Corps at 21.

I took a nine thousand-mile road trip around the U.S. when I got back from the Peace Corps.

I packed up my old Plymouth Valiant and moved to Maine and then to Montana on my own without knowing anyone in either place.

I got engaged after knowing Erica for just a few months.

And then we moved to Ithaca and had a child while Erica was in grad school. We counted on the income from my job as a teacher to pay our bills. Slowly, I became far less adventurous. It was not something I chose to do consciously. Over time, I self-censored my own wilder impulses.

So, back in August I decided that it had been far too long since I had scared the shit out of myself. I thought about what I could do, (short of going full mid-life-crisis and joining an ashram in India), to tap back into that part of me that likes to put myself out beyond where I feel safe and comfortable and boring. I quickly came to the idea of acting class.

Just the thought of being in front of people, exposed and alone on a stage, made me shake a little. I quickly found the Actor’s Workshop of Ithaca (AWI) and gave them a call. Before I could change my mind, I committed to the Monday-Wednesday class for the entire fall semester. And I have not regretted the decision for a single moment. I am learning a lot about acting, about auditions, and about myself. I have even gotten a leading role playing a small-town priest in a student film being shot by an Ithaca College student. I already know that I will continue with the class next semester.


And that is how I found myself on the floor, doing push-ups and engaged in an activity called Repetition. Repetition is one of the fundamental activities in the Sanford Meisner acting technique that is the basis of classes at AWI. (I will not describe it here—you can read all about the Meisner Technique here if you wish to.) Suffice it to say that I was fully committed to doing as many push-ups as my body could in those ten minutes.

I have no idea how many I actually completed, since I was forced to interact with Ari and Eliza and therefore could not count. My arms were sore for days. And then my right arm ballooned up to a disgusting size. I was worried because that is the same arm that developed a blood clot 32 years ago and I knew the clot was still in place and my axillary vein has had a much-diminished diameter ever since.

A week after the push-ups I was getting ready for bed at 11:00 when Erica saw with alarm how big my arm had gotten. She convinced me to go to the emergency room to get it checked out. I ended up staying there until 8:30 the following morning. They drew blood twice, looked at the veins of my upper arm and shoulder with an ultrasound wand, injected me with an iodine dye, and did a CT scan of my chest, neck, and shoulders.

Long story short: my acting class activity led me to develop rhabdomylosis. The muscle fibers in my right arm were dying and releasing their contents into my bloodstream at a rate faster than my kidneys could deal with. The arm was swelling because my body was pumping the arm full of fluid to wash out the bits of dead muscle cells, but the fluid was backing up since my vein could not drain it all away.

The definitive test for rhabdomylosis is the creatin kinase test. My blood test that night showed a creatin kinase level of  3500 U/L---anything above 1000 U/L is considered a positive test for rhabdomylosis.  Normal levels are anywhere from 50 to 150 U/L. The doctor was a bit alarmed and hooked me up to an IV drip of saline solution right away and asked me to stay the night.

Four times that night I had to tell the story of how acting class gave me rhabdomylosis. The triage nurse, the night nurse, the CT scan technician, and the ER doctor all shook their heads—in judgment, disbelief, or both. My arm is better now and the rhabdomylosis has gone away. I have four weeks of classes left this semester and I am still scared every time I walk into the studio, but I know already that I will be back for more. Like they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.


Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thanksgiving 2017

I am feeling grateful today for my family and my friends and my dogs and my life in America. But I want to acknowledge that my happiness is tainted by the headwind blowing in the faces of so many others in this country. To be grateful for what I have without recognizing the advantages I have been born into is a hollow kind of gratefulness.

I was born in 1965 in the United States to a white mother and father who were of European descent and spoke English as a first language. I am a white male. I am now 52 years old and I live in a comfortable house. My wife and I both earn a steady income. We have been able to give our daughter a life full of opportunities and plenty.

My life has been easy.

And for this I am feeling especially grateful today.

At the same time, I am feeling especially aware of the fact that my entire life I have had a tailwind helping me along.

People have not watched me carefully in stores; they have not kept an eye on me when I walked or biked through their neighborhoods; they have not clutched their bag a little tighter as I walked by; they have not wondered if I was admitted to my college or hired for my job because of my skin color; they have not refused to rent their apartments to me; they have not reached out to touch my hair uninvited; I have not had to work extra hard to put people at ease and make them understand I am not a threat.

All I have had to do is go through life being myself. Being myself is not always easy—I am a bit stunted emotionally, a bit anxious around people, a bit awkward in social situations---but being a white male American in the 1960s through the 2010s has meant that I have not had to worry about an entire layer of problems that many other people DO have to worry about.

As I said, I have had a tailwind pushing me gently forward every step of my life. It is a life I love, yet I want to live in a country where everyone has the same opportunities I have had. Sadly, that is still not the case.