Of Porcupines and Men


I know a few things.

For example, I know that with my instance of Parkinson’s disease, my balance is often times off kilter, and I tend to be even clumsier than I’ve always been, prone to trips and falls too frequent to enumerate.

I also know that dogs and porcupines can be a bad match, and that a snout full of porcupine quills can actually be fatal, that innocent curiosity can kill the canine.

Sure, I know plenty of other things, too. But it was these two little tidbits that rose to the forefront of my consciousness this afternoon.

Let me explain:

My sister and I both own pieces of property in Northwestern Wisconsin, our two cabins about one hundred yards apart on the same dirt road.  Across the road is a large farm field. Last weekend, my sister called me up and told me that while walking down the road she observed a dead porcupine in the tree line between the road and the field, right across from my cabin. I was concerned, because I and my wife and our two dogs were planning on spending a long weekend starting today, at the cabin, and as I’ve already mentioned, I know what a bad combination dogs and porcupines, alive or dead, can be.

So the first thing I did upon our arrival today was to make sure my dogs were safely secured inside the cabin while I, with shovel in hand, walked across the road in search of a dead porcupine. My intent was to find said porcupine and bury it before my dogs found it and answered a question whose answer is one of the many things I don’t know but would just as soon not find out: are a porcupine’s quills as dangerous when the porcupine is dead as when alive?

It didn’t take long for me to find the deceased porcupine, right where he’d breathed his last, in a small thicket of underbrush next to the trunk of a small tree. He was, I guess, an impressive figure, at least as far as I supposed when compared to other porcupines, about two or three feet long and thick. Actually, he was pretty much a non-descript combination of fat and quills. I decided to dig the hole for its final resting place out in the open, on the edge of the farm field, about fifteen feet from where its lifeless hulk lied.

I went to work, kicking the spade into the muddy and rocky and root-ridden clay until I had a hole deep and wide enough to cover the substantial girth of the deceased. Satisfied with my work to that point, I had one more thing to figure out: how do I move the body the fifteen feet from under the tree to in the hole I’d just dug? It occurred to me that I wanted to avoid any contact with the ex-beast, one, because I didn’t want to get a snout-full of quills any more than I wanted my dogs to, and two, it’d been dead for at least a week, and was probably riddled with disease-carrying maggots and or other deadly micro-bacterial monsters.

Then I remembered that in my garage I had a half-sheet of plywood, four foot by four foot that would be the perfect size.  I’d shovel Porky’s corpse onto the plywood and then carry it to its grave, where I’d drop him in, say a few respectful and profound porcupine-ish words over him, and then cover him with the blanket of earth that he’d soon dissolve into and become one with.

It was a good plan.  Off to my garage I strode. There was the sheet of plywood, only it wasn’t the four by four foot piece I remembered, rather, it was an odd size, about three by six foot. No big deal, I thought, and returned with the plywood to the lifeless mass of Porky.  I set the plywood down right next to him. I then put the spade on the other side of Porky and half rolled and half lifted him onto the plywood, where he sat, close to the edge but secure on the plywood so long as I held it level.

There’s the rub.  It turned out that holding the awkward dimensions of the plywood with the additional ten pounds or so of inert mass balanced on it level would be more difficult than I had planned, especially when I remembered what I knew, that my sense of balance these days isn’t all that great.

This knowledge was heightened when, while walking away from the tree and the thicket towards the hole I’d dug, I felt my left foot get caught on a root in the ground beneath me, and I felt myself lurch forward. I saw very clearly the mass of quills and decomposing porcupine flesh directly in front of me, and I felt my face surge forward, and I realized, even if I dropped the board, that if I fell forward, my face would end up in Porky’s quill-filled brisket. My life flashed before my eyes, as I’ve known with some certainty for some time now that whenever it is I die, whenever my number is up, it will undoubtedly be in the form of some bizarre and embarrassing death.  It occurred to me right there that getting killed by a dead porcupine would qualify on both counts.

Fortunately, I was able to right myself and remain vertical long enough to get Porky to his final resting place. I tried to think of something to say, something that a porcupine would appreciate, but it struck me that all of the porcupines I’d ever seen over the years (and there’s been a few) never did anything; about all I’d ever seen them do was sleep. It occurred to me that one thing I didn’t know was how to measure porcupine meaning, how to judge a good one from a bad one. I had no idea how to eulogize a porcupine. I placed my hand over my heart and muttered something about dust to dust, quills to quills.

Then I filled in the hole and went back to my cabin and released my hounds. They ran and played happily, oblivious to the danger I’d shielded them from, and to the ultimate sacrifice I’d almost paid to keep them safe.

Hero, you say? Well, if the shoe fits, so long as I keep the laces tied …

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The Doctor is In


(This is the first installment in what will be a regular public service, where I leverage my incredible knowledge of health care issues and concepts to answer questions that you the reader might have)

Dear Dr. Dave: I haven’t been feeling like myself lately, and I can’t put a finger on why. I wake up in the morning feeling heavy pressure on my head. I haven’t had any desire for liquids, and I remain dry even when walking outside in the rain. I’m really at a loss on this one, doc.  Signed, Dryer without a Washer.

Dear Dryer without a Washer: I’m pretty confident that what you are describing is a case of Shingles.  If you look in the mirror you’ll see that “the heavy pressure on your head” is a symptom of roofing materials that have been nailed to it.  Early signs of shingles include the nailing of plywood and having tar paper or a similar sub roofing material stapled to your head. If left unattended, like your symptoms suggest, this will lead to the eventual addition of overlapping, rectangular pieces made of asphalt or wood, that will start at both sides of the bottom of the top of your head and continue until the two sides reach the peak.
Short term treatment of shingles usually involves applying tar to the section that is leaking. Long term treatment includes several over-priced prescribed drugs with long complicated names that have horrible side effects. These medications have been wildly successful in driving up the stock values of the companies that produce them, while doing absolutely nothing to improve patient outcomes.

Dear Dr. Dave:  Recently, my knees and elbows have been bursting into flames for no apparent reason.  What’s up with that? Signed, Hot Under My Trousers.

Dear Hot Under My Trousers: You are clearly suffering from inflammable- ation of the joints. You might try carrying a bag of marshmallows with you at all times to best take advantage of the condition.

Dear Dr. Dave:  My best friend has been feeling intense pain behind his face, under his eyes and behind his nose. What gives?  Signed, Charlie Brown.

Dear Charlie Brown:  Your friend is suffering from a Linus infection. Tell his mom to wash his blanket.

Dear Dr. Dave:  Do the terms “stomach” and “tummy” refer to the same thing? If so, wouldn’t it be more efficient to call it a “stummy?” Signed, Madame Curry.

Dear Madame Curry:  You have a point. You should see a plastic surgeon about it.

Dear Dr. Dave:  I put the bread in and it never pops up. It just gets soaking wet and disintegrates.  What’s worse, it doesn’t lather up at all, and ends up clogging the drain.  Please help. Signed, Confused

Dear Confused:  You are confusing your decorative soap dish with your toaster, and you also appear to be confusing bread and soap. Bread has no place in the shower.

Dear Dr. Dave:  This is embarrassing, but I recently had some gastro-intestinal blockages and, to make a long story short, when I was finally able to pass gas, I killed 36 people and injured 62 more.  Signed, Oh, the humanity:

Dear Oh the Humanity:  Are you by any chance a large commercial passenger carrying rigid airship?  If, as I suspect, you are, then you’re incredibly sensitive to diet and have to watch what you eat.  Stay away from yellow cheeses and red meat and hydrogen, and turn to leafy green vegetables and fish or poultry and helium.  Helium might be a bit pricey and hard to find when compared to hydrogen, but I think you and your passengers will find it to be worth every penny.

Dear Dr. Dave:   I live in the 16th century and have an uncanny ability to predict when people will suffer nose bleeds.  Signed, Nostril-damus.

DearNostril-damus:  Aren’t you special.

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Mechanical World


One of the coolest attractions in Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco is the Musee Mecanique.  It doubles as a museum of coin operated games and as a fully functional arcade, as each of the games have been restored to their original playing condition, and as long as your supply of quarters last, you can actually play them.  The pieces range from player pianos and other mechanized carnival attractions from the 1800s all the way up to the 1980s video game explosion, with titles that made my wife and I nostalgic for our early years, when we were newlyweds and when she was nearly unbeatable at “Space Invaders.”

We’d just eaten lunch and were strolling down the Wharf when we stumbled upon the museum. We stopped and played for a while, Pac Man and Ms. Pacman and Asteroids before finding the Space Invaders game. Deb became engrossed in it, while I quickly crashed myself nearly out of quarters on the various car racing games they had.  With only a dollar’s worth of quarters left and Deb returning to her championship Space Invaders form of thirty five years before, I left her and began wandering thru the other sections of the museum.

I wounded up in the part of the museum dedicated to the oldest attractions, the mechanized player pianos and baseball games and the recreations of late nineteenth to early twentieth century life. The biggest of these attractions was the mechanized farm, spread out on a four by six foot platform, with little wooden figures representing different people all set, once you put three quarters in, to come to life and perform different farm activities.  For example, in one corner some brawny men were loading bales of hay onto a wagon, while in another a logger with one of those long crosscut saws had a tree about halfway sawed thru, while not far away another worker was tending to the remains of a stump he’d apparently just dynamited. The whole thing was very primitive and cute, exuding a quaint charm and some real artistry in the images of people, animals, and the bucolic rural countryside they inhabited.

I browsed for another ten minutes or so until I thought Deb would have finally run out of bonus Space Invader plays and went to get her.  She wasn’t at the Space Invaders game where I’d left her, and I didn’t see her light gray jacket anywhere amongst the crowd that now occupied the 1980s arcade section of the museum.  I searched on through the rest of the museum to no avail. She was undoubtedly looking for me, too, two moving targets unintentionally moving in the same speed but opposite directions.  I stopped by the pinball machines and waited, figuring it shouldn’t be more than a couple of minutes until she finds me.

I waited for ten minutes to no avail.  I resumed my search for her, starting again by the Space Invaders game and ending by the pinball machines.  Nothing.  I waited there for another five minutes.  The late afternoon crowds were intensifying, getting bigger and louder, consuming more and more of the museum’s floor space, making it even more difficult to locate her in her light gray jacket, but I still pressed on.  After a half hour had passed, I went outside on the concourse, figuring she must have left by now, tiring of the crowd inside, and would be waiting for me out there.

She wasn’t.

I was beginning to panic.

After about ten minutes looking for her outside, I went back into the museum, figuring she must be somewhere amongst the crowd.

She wasn’t.

Finally, I came to the mechanical farm again. I just happened to look down and there, about halfway between the logger with his cross saw and the woodsman with his dynamite, I saw another miniature wooden figure I hadn’t noticed before.

She was wearing a gray jacket and had shoulder length brown hair.  Her clothes looked much more modern than the other characters. As I looked closer at the unmoving figure, there was no mistaking it for my wife.  The woman I’d been married to for more than thirty five years was now an inanimate wooden figure in a nineteenth century replica of farm life.

I looked around, making sure no one could see or hear me.  “Deb,” I said, just louder than a whisper, “can you hear me?”

There was no response from under the glass covered diorama.  Looking around, I gently tapped the glass above her, but there was no response from any of the miniature wooden figures, including my wife.  I quickly fished in my pocket for quarters and found I had only one left. It took three to bring the diorama to its mechanical life, so I quickly exchanged the five dollar bill in my wallet for twenty more quarters.

When I got back to the display, everything was in motion.  A young couple, twenty-something years old, had put money into the machine and were at the opposite end of the display, smiling as they watched the charming reproduction of farm life come alive.  I quickly found my wife and now she was moving, mechanically, backwards, backing away from the worker, who was carrying a stick of dynamite and running toward her.  He was making up ground when the logger, cross saw in his hand, suddenly moved off of his track to intercept the dynamite guy who was now in full pursuit of my wife.  Then the action stopped, the time allotted by the three quarters the young couple had deposited having expired.  I looked up and they were gone.  I quickly reached into my pocket and put in three quarters.

The action resumed where it’d left off, with the guy with he dynamite in pursuit of my wife, in the heavily wooded corner of the display.  Just as he was closing in on Deb, from behind a tree, where he’d been hidden from the woodsman’s sight, the logger appeared, and with the element of surprise and his long crosscut saw, eviscerated the woodsman, cutting him in half. Bright red paint bled from the two halves of what used to be the woodsman.  Then Deb fell into the logger’s arms and they embraced, the logger still holding her as the time expired

I didn’t know what to make of it all. On the one hand, I was appreciative of the logger for saving Deb’s life, and more than a little jealous of him as he held my miniaturized and wooden wife in tiny arms that bulged with muscularity.

I put another three quarters in and watched closely as my wife and the logger kissed.  I pounded on the display glass, yelling, “No! No, no!”

Suddenly everything went silent. I was still screaming when of the museum attendants approached me. I was sprawled out over the glass, watching as the logger took my wife’s hand in his.  Then the time expired with the logger and my wife walking out of the woods, stopping just before reaching Main Street, and I became aware that the scene had changed, from the farm that it’d been up until that point to a small town.

The attendant said, “Sir, I have to ask you not to lean on the glass.”

I stood up, straight and tall, and told the attendant, “My wife is in there.’

“In there,” he repeated. “In the game?”

“Yes! I know it sounds crazy, but there she is!”

“Where?” he asked, looking around.

I pointed to where my wife had stood with the logger.  She was still there but now she was wearing a wedding gown and the logger was wearing a tux.  Somebody approached and started putting quarters in. I yelled for her to stop, afraid that the next thing that’d happen when the action resumed would be the wedding.

“Make him stop!” I yelled at the attendant. ”We’ve got to get my wife out of there!”

“Call security,” the attendant told a second attendant who’d emerged on the scene.

But the attendant didn’t stop the man from putting in three quarters, and the figures lurched into action.  In a far corner of the display a miniature 727 flew in and landed on an airport runway.  Then the plane un-boarded, the first three passengers being tiny replicas of my three adult children. They hailed a cab and got to the church just in time to see my wife and the logger exchange vows, just before the security guards put me in the strait jacket.

 

Posted in Fiction | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

What We Now Know


Here we are, three weeks into the Trump administration.  What we now know:

The right-wingers are hypocrites:  Classified information leaks and private servers and botched rescue missions were grounds for countless investigations and imprisonment when Hillary was the alleged perpetrator, but not an issue when Trump invites Putin in to hack the election, or when it’s revealed that several senior members of the Trump admin are using private servers, or when inadequate planning and preparation results in a failed mission in Yemen. There were also the unfounded accusations of pay for play funneling of contributions to the Clinton Foundation while Trump has yet to divest himself from his business interests and is actually funneling tax payer dollars into his family’s empire. The only sound more deafening than the hysterical calls for investigations into “crooked Hillary’s” alleged wrong doing is the silence of the same Republicans as Trump openly and brazenly engages in the same behavior and worse.

Trump is Putin’s puppet:  Trump is quick to criticize the U.S.A. and our allies but still has not said an unkind word about Putin.  Today it was reported that contrary to what he indicated before, that during the transition period, Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn had conversations with Russian contacts about the sanctions President Obama was planning on implementing. Earlier this week, the Washington Post and New York Times printed stories that intelligence investigations into the dossier filed by an English intelligence agent about leverage Putin has on Trump  have so far been verified to be true. So far they haven’t checked out the more salacious details in the dossier, and I personally doubt their veracity. What does seem obvious is the fact Putin has something on Trump, and if we ever want to find out, somebody’s going to have to subpoena Trump for his tax returns. But even if we never get to see the tax returns, there’s still plenty of other evidence of Russian ownership of Trump – take this quote from his son in 2008:

“Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” Trump’s son, Donald Jr., told a real estate conference in 2008, according to an account posted on the website of eTurboNews, a trade publication. “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

Trump is to be taken literally: This was one of the stupidest rationalizations for Trump’s insane rhetoric on the campaign trail, that when, for example, he spoke of “banning Muslims” from entering the country he was somehow speaking metaphorically.  We know now what was obvious all along – the man is too much of a moron to master such nuances as subtlety and context, and the reason for all the bat shit crazy things that leave his mouth is that he is in fact bat shit crazy. How bat shit crazy is he?  Crazy enough to think that more than three million illegal immigrants committed voter fraud, and that every one of them voted for Hillary, but not in key Electoral College states.  Crazy enough on the day after the inauguration to send his press secretary to angrily scold the press that the crowd that showed up to Trump’s inauguration was “the biggest crowd to watch an inauguration ever. Period.”  Never mind that this was patently false, it was also completely irrelevant. The ravings of lunatics shouldn’t be taken literally … that is, unless that lunatic is the most powerful man in the world, in charge of a nuclear arsenal large enough to destroy the world several times over.

Flooding instead of draining the swamp – The aggregate wealth of the twenty four people who serve on Trump’s cabinet is more than that of the bottom 100 million, or about one third, of the American population. And what a bunch: The new Secretary of Education has been the leading advocate of eliminating public school systems; the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency has been the loudest proponent of eliminating the EPA and has several open law suits against the Agency, the Secretary of State, the former CEO of Exxon, has implemented complex business structures in Russian oil that have helped make Vladimir Putin possibly THE wealthiest man on the planet. And in the ultimate “fuck you” to the American people, Trump has put the one man in the country who might be even stupider than himself – Rick Perry – in charge of the Department of Energy. Perry is a knuckle dragging climate change denier who now has responsibility for the safe and effective maintenance of our nuclear arsenal.  Traditionally, the post has been manned by individuals well respected in the scientific community.  Perry would be over his head in your four year old granddaughter’s wading pool let alone the department of energy, a department he once almost suggested shutting down, if only someone in the audience hadn’t waved something shiny in front of him, causing him to forget the name of the department.

The Republican Party has no interest in governing – and they haven’t for the past sixteen years.  They do have an interest in maintaining power.  Why?  So they can complete their fire sale of everything of value in this country to their rich and powerful donors and cronies.  They want to privatize social security and Medicare, not because these institutions are at risk, but because there is money to be made.  They want to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency, even at a time when oil spills and sinkholes and tainted drinking water are impacting more and more people. They want to sell off the National Parks to mining interests and real estate developers.  They want to privatize public schools and prisons.  They want to repeal banking legislation that was passed to prevent the predatory practices that nearly destroyed the global economy in 2008.  They want to eliminate all federal funding of the arts, because artists rarely vote for them.  They want to eliminate the minimum wage, paid overtime, even child labor laws.  They want to repeal regulations ensuring workplace safety.

The “evangelicals” are a bunch of narrow minded hypocritical assholes who believe in only one thing – that abortion should be illegal.  Although I am pro-choice, I can understand why someone might be pro-life.  But I can’t understand how that can be the only issue a person might vote on.  Even if access to abortions was wide spread and open (which it is not), only a relatively small percentage of the population would be ever impacted by the issue.  But the evangelicals gave their votes to Trump because he changed from being pro-choice to being pro-life during the campaign, despite all of the unholy vitriol he espoused, from his many disrespectful remarks and misogynistic language about women, to his advocacy of torture and killing innocent family members of terrorists, to his open mocking of disabled people to his open courting of racists and overt espousing of racial sentiments. Any true believer would have trouble reconciling such an amoral narcissist with the values they claim they hold dear.  So if you voted for Trump, you’d do well not mention Jesus to me anytime – no candidate in my lifetime has ever been the antithesis of everything Jesus of Nazareth stood for as Donald Trump.

After three weeks, anyone who voted for Trump and still enthusiastically supports him is an idiot. I’m sorry to be so blunt, but how much more egotism and incompetence will it take to admit you made a mistake?

All of the anti-Trump protesters had better be ready for the long haul, because it’s going to take a lot more than waving a sign for an hour or two to create change.  Right wing nut jobs have taken over all branches of the federal government, they have control of more than 35 state governors and legislatures, and they have all the money.  And the Democratic Party is in shambles.  I have no idea how to best fight this, but I think the first step is to take an accurate and honest inventory of where things are and how much ground needs to be made up.

This is not and never will be normal. We cannot accept what’s going to happen, inevitable as some of it might be, as the way the system works, because our system has been taken over. Where we are now is not a function of American democracy, rather, it’s the result of a slow and eroding occupation of our country by a rich and powerful and radicalized minority, while the majority, fat and lazy, slept.

Don’t look to history for comfort – This has never happened before, at least, not here.  There have been similar Fascist take overs in the past in other countries, but never in the world’s greatest and dominant super power, never with these armed forces and this nuclear arsenal, never in the age of information, of the internet.  We’re heading into unchartered waters.

So, to quote that great political philosopher Bette Davis, “Fasten your seat belts – it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

 

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Hidden Things


Tonight my wife and I went to see the film, Hidden Figures, the true story of three brilliant African American women and how they overcame the institutionalized racism and sexism in their workplace, which happened to be NASA in the days of the pivotal launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit. It’s a wonderful and inspiring film, straight forwardly and honestly told.  And while it celebrates the triumph of the women over the intolerance of the time, there is one major problem – not with the movie, but with how white audiences will react to it.

That problem is that it is the type of story that a white man like myself can too easily feel comfortable watching.  It pushes the right buttons, the “boy, it had to be rough to be a black woman in the south in the sixties,” which, to borrow from the mathematics that is at the heart of the film, can lead us to the incorrect conclusion of “we sure have come a long ways since then.” This isn‘t the fault of the film – it tells a story that needs to be told in a way that will reach the most people – rather it’s the fault of the audience and the nature of institutionalized racism, that it’s too easy for those of us in the majority to assume we have any idea what racism is, what it must feel like, and oversimplify the incredible complexity that makes racism the tangled web that it is. Ultimately, Hiddem Figures has the unintended effect of making us more comfortable with the deeper prejudices that remain undisturbed and unchallenged deep inside.

Again, this isn’t any fault of the film – to shine a light on these brilliant and hitherto unknown women is inarguably important.   The film does have a couple of incredibly powerful moments which I won’t divulge any details about so as not to spoil anything for those yet to see it. It is a very moving and thought provoking film.

Yet something still gnaws at me. It occurs to me that though I walked out of the theatre moved and touched by the story of the women, I really didn’t learn anything new about myself in the process. This is what great art and great films do to me.  For example, after watching No Country for Old Men or There Will be Blood, I felt drained and in some unidentified way, changed. Those and other  films I’ve seen burned themselves into my psyche, became a part of my subconscious, and a part of the internal vocabulary  that I’ll use to describe the world from that point on.  That Hidden Figures doesn’t do that isn’t meant as a criticism; few films have that effect on me.  It’s an inspiring and well-made film, but don’t count on it to blaze any new ground or illuminate any new truths about racism.

I guess what it comes down to is that Hidden Figures shows us three exceptional African Americans trying to overcome obstacles and succeed in the white workplace.  And while I don’t for a moment doubt the veracity or accuracy of the film, I can’t help think that too many people who look like me will walk out of the theatre with the wrong reactions: one, that if these women can overcome such obstacles, there’s no reason others can’t roll up their sleeves and make it, too, and two, that white culture is superior to black culture and is a goal that all African Americans should aspire to, should assimilate themselves within, and be measured against.

These are both widely held tenants that are at the heart of our institutionalized racism. For example, I live in Wisconsin, and I am a Green Bay Packers fan.  About thirty five years ago, I found myself watching a packer game on television with a bunch of blue collar white guys. The packers weren’t very good at the time, and their star player was a Stanford educated African American named James Lofton.  One of the guys watching had a second home in the Green Bay area, and knew a lot of residents of the small town and how they frequently interacted with the players. “They all say what a great guy Lofton is,” he said, “and how well spoken and articulate he is.” It was funny to hear, because I’d known this guy for some time, and never once heard him use terms like “well-spoken and articulate” to describe a white man. But here he was, trying to show off how open minded he was by paying what he thought was a compliment to a black man, while instead revealing the depths of his ignorance and intolerance in intimating that most black men didn’t speak well and were inarticulate. You hear the same logic in the stories of other African-American sports stars who overcame incredible adversity growing up in the inner city to make it big in the NFL or NBA, leading to the next logical statement, “if they can overcome that, why can’t the rest of them?” forgetting what rare and exceptional physical talents anyone has to possess to make it to the level of professional sports. It’s the old, “why can’t they pull themselves up by the bootstraps and make something productive of themselves?”  (By the way – a major clue in identifying whether language is racist or not is the frequency of the words “they” and “them.”)

The second tenant, that white culture is superior to black culture, that the suburbs are superior to the inner city, is a tougher egg to crack. As one who’s lived most of his life in the quiet comfort of suburbia, I recognize that I probably believe this.  But I also recognize that I have no proof to base this belief on, because I simply don’t understand African American culture. What I have to work on is resisting the urge to assume because I understand white culture and don’t understand black culture that white culture is inherently superior.

I am a fifty eight year old white male who’s lived his entire life in the small towns and suburbs of Wisconsin. Growing up, all I knew about black culture was music, Motown and blues, and sports stars. The first books I read were about Willie Mays and Bob Gibson, both favorite baseball players of mine, and both men who’d grown up in low income, inner city neighborhoods.  Reading their biographies made me sensitive to their backgrounds, but it didn’t really give me much more than a snapshot into what African American life was really like.  And to this day, I still don’t know.  I don’t understand hip-hop or rap – I’ve tried, I know it is a legitimate art form, but I just don’t get it. It just doesn’t sound like music to the cranky old white man I’ve become. I don’t understand the clothing or the jewelry or the language. But then I realize, how could I understand these things? I’ve never spent a minute in anything except for white skin – and even if I could, that minute spent in black skin would mean nothing without possessing an ancestry of hundreds of years of being black.

When I wonder what it must be like to be black, my best-intended liberal fantasies take hold, and I try to imagine being stopped by police for no reason, or white people reacting with fear upon the site of me, or being discriminated against looking for employment or advancement or whatever.  Of course, there is no way I can know what these things feel like, but when I really think about it, I realize these are the wrong things to try to imagine, that they are clichés and stereotypes that are just as broad and racist as the myths perpetuated by white supremacists.  We need to understand that the heavy baggage of racism is buried deep within each of us, and we have to learn how to best react when this baggage surfaces, when it is exposed.  I know, for example, that the term “inner-city” immediately conjures up images of drug deals and gang shootings in my head, because that is about 90% of what I hear and read about it entails. The truth is that families and hard work are probably just as much a part of the fabric of life in the city as it is in the burbs. In fact, statistics tell me drug use is more prevalent in the burbs – yet still the images of needles in the gutters fill my imagination of inner city life.

This is where art can come in – it can shine a light on unpleasant and unexpected truths and make us react and maybe even change us.  There are two examples I can quickly think of that exposed some small but elemental truths to me – one was the Spike Lee film, Do the Right Thing, particularly the moment when Lee throws that garbage can through the plate glass window, and the second is in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when Huck decides that he will accept going to Hell rather than turning his friend Jim in.

While Hidden Figures doesn’t fundamentally change my perception of things the way those two moments did, it’s still an excellent film that I’d strongly recommend everybody see.

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Ostriches


Today, January 27th, 2017, was International Holocaust Remembrance day. It also happened to be the day that President Trump signed an executive order shutting the door to the United States on all refugees from all countries.

Trump is an incompetent madman, and his die hard supporters are morons.  But as bad as they are, they are not the worst.  The worst are those who accept all of this madness as a new normal, who dismiss the discourse as nothing more than the usual partisan bickering.  Admittedly, often times the dialogue fails to rise above the lowest levels.  But the stakes are so much higher now. There are literally lives at stake.

Trump’s decision today violates the best interests of both American values and American interests. It violates the values of freedom and compassion that we’ve tried to live up to ever since they were written into our constitution, and it goes against our interests in that it will only give rise to the very extremism the order is intended to protect us from.  Of the thousands of people we turn away and condemn, it’s inevitable that hatred for America and Americans will rise. American people, soldiers and tourists, Republicans and Democrats, will become targets of retaliation both at home and abroad.

To those of you out there in Facebook land who are tired of all the political posts, who wish that social media would get back to just being pictures of cute little kitties and the such, to those of you who are sick of all the hate and think you’re above all of the fray, go ahead and stick your head in the sand.  You won’t be the first ones to tune out the cries of innocent people dying.

Today is a reminder that we have to remember the Holocaust because we can no longer hear the crying of six million innocent lives. But if you listen closely, you can hear the same silence that emboldened another small man who become the architect of the perversion of another great nation in 1933.  It grows louder with every order Trump signs, and the shadows of guilt spread over the souls of those who remain silent like a cancer, black and bitter and cold.

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December


(I’ve been stuck on writing the final three chapters of my novel in progress. I’m hoping that last night I broke through – here’s the fist couple of paragraphs that’s got me started again)

The weeks that followed all blended together. Days bled and blurred into nights, and some nights lasted for days and others just for minutes. The daytime skies were a constant and solid cement gray, the sun lighting the landscape despite never being seen, never revealing itself.  Occasional snow flurries would float and fall and tumble from the skies but never amounted to anything, never accumulated, the ground as flat and gray and hard as the impenetrable sky.

The breeze carried with it a foreboding sense of gloom, of death.  Death was in the cold air, in the clouds of breath that’d emerge from breathing mouths and nostrils only to dissolve and fade, consumed by the unrelenting grayness. Days in bed and days outdoors, unending nights awake in the darkness, consumed by fever, joints cold and aching. There was cold death in my bones, I could feel it, I could feel the bones and dirt of an unmarked grave in the sightless dark of the unending nights. Fever dreams became indistinguishable from unreal days, visions of insulated wooden boxes placed on the lawn of a section at the bottom of the hill in Cornish Park, lit up at night by hot lights plugged into extension cords, blended with dreams of burning corn fields and the smooth  coldness of ice-covered lakes.  The mechanized hum of a diesel engine, a giant backhoe ripping into the thawed flesh of the ground, ripping and tearing it apart, a clear plastic sheet with mud and clay caked on it folded around something three dimensional, Angela and Nancy Cornish and Jim Musgrave and Mel Fleming from the television, their faces intermingling with the faces of my mom, and my dad and Frank Cornish and Sam Richter and Death himself, in his long black robe and pale skin, and the sharp unfeeling mechanical teeth of the backhoe and the thawed mud at the bottom of the hill in the grey and lifeless trees of Cornish Park.

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