Tuesday, June 19, 2018

This IS Who We Are

“This is not who we are.”

I have heard and read some version of this sentence dozens of times in the past two weeks—each time in reference to our actions at the border with Mexico. By “this” the speaker/writer means the separation of families and warehousing of children.

The people making this statement want so badly to feel good about the United States that they are willing to perform some sort of verbal magic by which they sever the things we as a country are doing from the country that we are.

When faced with the cognitive dissonance set off by seeing a country they love and want to feel good about doing something they hate and feel revulsion to, they make it okay for themselves by settling on “This is not who we are.”

I can’t do that verbal magic anymore. This IS who we are. We are a country that takes crying children from their parents thousands of miles from anything they know and places them in holding pens for days on end. In electing Donald Trump President and then allowing of members of Congress to get away with supporting him in his policies and actions, this is what we have become.

I appreciate the feeling behind the wish that this NOT be who we are. But the facts are undeniable. We are a country with a sizeable portion of citizens who LIKE what is happening at the border—who are cheering it on.

For much of our early history we were a country that sanctioned owing human beings, raping them, killing them, working them to death, and separating their children from them and selling those children off, too.

Even after slavery ended, we were a country that ripped Native American children away from their families and warehoused them in boarding schools where they “had the Indian whipped right out of them.”

Taking children away from their parents and siblings seems about as American as apple pie. It is in our DNA.

Whenever talk of reparations for African-Americans comes up in the national conversation I hear a million versions of “I am not the one who owned slaves, why should I pay for it?” When tribes push for an official national apology for the treatment of native children I hear “I didn’t have anything to do with that—it was 100 years ago.”

Right now---this very morning--=something is being done in your name at the US-Mexico border. If it is something you support then you should simply carry on. But if you are one of the people saying “this is not who we are,” open your eyes. Yes. This is who a chunk of us are. And while that chunk is in charge these are the things they are doing IN YOUR  NAME.
If you are outraged, show some outrage. If you live in a House district with a Republican representative, call their office and let them know this policy is unacceptable. Put the pressure on Congress. Donald Trump is proving to be as feckless and mean as I feared. He won’t change. The place to apply the pressure is Congress.

If you don’t know who your Representative is, click here  and you can find out. If that person is a Republican, call her/him and tell them this policy of separating families is not okay and you will hold them accountable in November. They fear losing elections more than anything. Hold them accountable today.

Do it now. It might take a little time to get through, but it is worth it. This is who we are, but it does not have to be who we are tomorrow. We can make it stop by letting Congress know there are more of us then there are of the people who support this heartless policy.

Monday, May 14, 2018

I think I make a good douchebag

My acting class had our end-of-semester showcase Saturday night.  We have been practicing for weeks, starting with simply memorizing lines without emotion or inflection and then slowly adding in actions and looks and pauses and shifts in tone. The process is fun and fascinating to be a part of.

The scene I shared with a very talented performer named Jess Dreiling was pretty straightforward on first read. But then as we started to think about the characters as actual people with actual histories and feelings and fears and motives, the number of choices we had to make as actors multiplied exponentially.

I did not get to see the final performance, which might sound weird, since I was IN it. But once I sat in my chair and the lights came up I simply switched into character and played the scene, reacting in the moment. I wasn’t aware of trying to elicit any particular reaction from the audience and I don’t know how it went.

I do know that I felt good about it when the scene was over. People clapped, my classmates said it went well, and I felt relieved. But I haven’t seen it yet, so I really have no idea what it looked like to the audience. I am finding that acting is funny that way—my experience of the moment is very different from the audience’s experience of the moment.

My experience of the moment, when things are working, is calm and almost quiet. Most of my brain powers down to Stand-by mode as the part of me that is the character powers up and takes over.  I rarely experience that kind of inner quiet in my regular life. Normally my brain is going a mile a minute, gauging every look, every word, every change in posture of the people in the room and of myself. I have a lot of social anxiety and for this reason being out in the world interacting with people tires me out.

I am finding that acting gives me a chance to short-circuit that endless loop of self-judgment and hyper-awareness that flood my head much of the time. I can step into a character and allow him to be out in the world while I am simply along for the ride. It is oddly freeing to be on stage in front of a whole bunch of strangers but to not really care what they think of me, since it’s not really me that is up there.

I think the guy that was up there, sitting in that chair with a black eye and the douchey attitude, had a good time being a real prick. I’ll have to watch the video to know for sure.

Then, once the showcase ended and I went to the cast party, all of my social unease kicked right back in and I left after 15 minutes of short, awkward conversations with people I don’t know very well.

Ah well, I guess THAT might be my next challenge. How do I take what I am learning in acting class and apply it to real life?

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.