Hope and Fear

23 Apr

Flashin’ for the warriors whose strength is not to fight
Flashin’ for the refugees on their unarmed road of flight
And for each and every underdog soldier in the night
We gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashin’
— Bob Dylan

I have a couple friends who haunt me.

I’ve known my cousin Sam longer than I can remember.  Born within months of each other, we shared holidays from the time we were infants.  Our mothers were close, the fourth and  fifth of six sisters.  We spent nights at his house and he spent nights at ours.  We swung on ropes across the shallow creeks of the Detroit suburbs and shared the easy camaraderie of boys on the loose.  His mom put me up when I got my first job.  I was there for his wedding, and I was there for his Mom’s memorial service.  He’s a part of my life and always will be.

I met John when I was twelve.  My dad was transferred, and suburban Detroit gave way to the small town of Perrysburg, Ohio.  Eight miles south of Toledo, Bob Hope had stopped into Piatt’s bakery just days before we moved in, and in the Middle School classrooms I met both John and Will.  Smart and mischievous, they were everything I wanted to be.  Bicycling around that little town on the river, fueled by the freedom, we made our first steps into adolescence.  Girlfriends were found , parents lost, and the years rolled quickly by.  I have not seen John in something like thirty-five years, but not many days pass when I don’t think of him.

In the days after the last election I put together a mix-tape.   It begins with Springsteen announcing the 1988 Amnesty International Tour celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights, “a document signed by every government in the world forty years ago recognizing certain inalienable rights for everyone, regardless of your race, your color, your sex, your religion, your political opinion or the type of government your living under…  So, I’d like to dedicate this next song to Amnesty International and their idea.  So when we come to your town, come on out, support the tour, support human rights for everyone, and let freedom ring.”

It’s so damn hopeful, it chokes me up every time.

And then I think about John and Sam, who inhabit a stretch of the political spectrum far from my own.  I wonder if these words would move them as well.  I wonder if freedom means the same thing to them, for it’s a word easily manipulated.  The freedom of the individual ends where his actions hurt another.  But when the word is used in a political context it too often means freedom from responsibility to ones neighbors, to the world we inhabit, and the future of our children.

And then I think about underdogs, which we’ve all been, and continue to be.  It’s the gift of youth to see this, and an even greater gift to hold onto it as we age.  When I see a guy who’s left his home in Nicaragua, Honduras or Mexico, traveling thousands of miles to provide for his family, I can’t help but pull for him.  He’s my great grandfather.  He’s everyone’s great grandfather.  Do Sam and John agree?

I’m not a great joiner.  I don’t have a team.  I don’t have an alma mater.  I don’t think that America is the greatest country in the world simply because I was born here.  But I like people, and I think we’re all in this together.  There’s way too many of us, and we’re destroying the planet, and maybe as a group that’s all we’re capable of.  But individually, at our best, we’re breathtaking.

Hope and fear.  My buddy Wade dismissed this dichotomy as a straw man, but I think he’s wrong.  Hope drives us when we’re young, while fear creeps in with age.  Hope looks to the future, while fear is of the moment.  Hope builds, while fear shuts things down.

Fear is also universal.  It’s a given.  Hope takes courage.

I’ve always wanted this blog to be more of a barroom conversation than a drunken rant.  So, Sam, John, Wade, or anyone else out there who has something to say, I’d love to read your response.  If you’re interested, you can be the next post.

So sleep well, hug your families, and hopefully we’ll talk soon.

And let freedom ring.


A Guy’s Guy

3 Feb


What a piece of work is a man…  —  William Shakespeare

Monday morning in New York City and the snow is coming down, and just like the wind outside the windows, my thoughts whip and whirl.  Dylan Farrow’s open letter and Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s untimely death snapping like storm tattered rags, their harrowing images of tragedy and abuse a squalid backdrop to the morning’s storm.

And then there’s Chris Christie.

When I was in high school, my brother and I joined the summer track club.  Our favorite part was the distance competition.  At the end of every practice, we could run as many laps as we wanted, on the honor system, and whoever racked up the most laps by the end of the summer would get a trophy.  So we hiked up our striped sweat socks and ran, lap after lap, diligently filling in our running logs all summer long.

On the final day a group of boys, who took off every day the minute the coach was gone, swiped the awards right out from under us, having simply forged their entries.  The coach, embarrassed by our accusations, and short of any proof, let their victory stand.   They jeered as they walked away.  How could we have been so stupid, running a fair race when it had been so easy to cheat?

I think of those little bastards every time I see Chris Christie.    The attitude is exactly the same.  The swagger, the insolence, and the assumption that their dishonesty somehow made them both smarter and more masculine.  Fox’s Brit Hume defends Christie in the same terms:  “I have to say that in this sort of feminized atmosphere in which we exist today, guys who are masculine and muscular like that…run some risks… Men today have learned the lesson the hard way that if you act like kind of an old-fashioned guy’s guy, you’re in constant danger of slipping out and saying something that’s going to get you in trouble and make you look like a sexist or make you look like you seem thuggish or whatever. That’s the atmosphere in which we operate.”

Feminized atmosphere?

“Joe, do you smell that?”

“Yeah, it’s kind of like…gardenias.”

“Wait… what’s going on here, I’m growing breasts!”

“And I want to talk about my feelings!  Good lord, it must be…”


Please.  Men are awfully insecure, and they can get downright silly when they get called on their bullshit. It challenges their unearned prerogatives, and since they can’t defend themselves logically, they start dancing around and saying things like “feminized atmosphere.”

Look, I know lots of guys.  I happen to be one myself.  Go ahead.  Drink a beer.  Watch football. Fart. Tell an off-color joke.  Call your wife “the little lady” if she’ll let you get away with it.   I don’t think it makes you more of a man.  I don’t think it makes you less of a man.  But if you say something sexist, you’ve said something sexist.  And if you act like a thug, then you’re a thug.  And if you’re any kind of man at all, you’ll fess up to it instead of having the blow-dried likes of Brit Hume going on Media Buzz to justify your silly ass.

Which is to say that Christie is dishonest and he’s a bully.  Always has been.  You can spin that any way you want, but you can’t deny it.

So as the snow continues to pile up and the afternoon grows apace, I just want to say that gender means little.  We’re all human, and all flawed.  Some of us struggle to do good.  Others knowingly do horrible things, and then lie about it.  I was going to say most of us are somewhere in the middle, but that’s not true.  Most of us try to do good.  It’s just that the masters of the easy win seem to get all the press.

Pete Seeger said, ““The key to the future of the world, is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known,”  which I have done very little of today.  So let’s end with this:

Tonight I will make my way home through the new-fallen snow, snuggled close against my neighbors on the warm seats of the N train.  I will open a bottle of wine, chop mushrooms, eat a pizza, read to my kids, and fall asleep with my wife.  In doing so, I will lie to no one, I will cheat no one, I will love and protect my children and do no harm to myself.  I will also do my best to help others. Tomorrow I will get up and do it again.  Unless I’ve horribly misjudged all the people I care about in this world, they are going to do the same.

And we don’t need Brit Hume for that.

Safe home.



18 Dec


In one way or another, this is the oldest story in America: the struggle to determine whether “we, the people” is a moral compact embedded in a political contract or merely a charade masquerading as piety and manipulated by the powerful and privileged to sustain their own way of life at the expense of others.  — Bill Moyers

It’s a privilege to ride the subway.

It’s a privilege to be jostled and annoyed,

to be forced into a world of people who are different,

and to find a way to make it work.

It’s a privilege to deal with the crazy,

and to sometimes be crazy myself,

for I have been that guy on the train

and have learned, as a result, not to judge.

Not to judge the sour man who scowls at my son, only to lean in and whisper “He’s smart!”,

or the elderly woman who says no to a seat, grateful but proud of her strength,

or the tattooed young man who gives up his seat for the mother no one else sees,

or even the tourists in their too-bright clothes, the ones who used to be me,

clinging and stumbling as the floor moves beneath them, desperate for a place to land.

It’s a privilege to feel that discomfort.  

It’s a privilege to feel discomfort at all.

A gift of grit, necessary for the pearl.

And for those of you who will not ride,

who are above rubbing shoulders with the world,

let me tell you a little secret:

It is your loss,

and you are not missed,

for it’s a privilege you have not earned.


Painting by Lily Furedi


19 Aug

“They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworth’s, man. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over. ”                                                        — Danny, from Withnail and I

So they scattered Richie Haven’s ashes over Yasgur’s farm yesterday, and old friends came to remember the man, and sing him to his grave.   As someone who remembers when World War I veterans were thick on the ground, it is a harsh lesson in human brevity to see the grand old men of the sixties begin to fade away.

I was a precocious six years old the summer of Woodstock.  A budding prepubescent hippie in a working class suburb of Detroit, where the Russell kids across the street were still having their heads shaved every summer by their auto worker dad, I fought every haircut tooth and nail, absolutely understanding that my teenage neighbors, babysitters and cousins were on to something with their long hair, denim and fringe.  The girls were beautiful, the boys were fun, and the music was amazing.

I don’t know if there was much more to get.   Because the alternatives were pretty fucking bleak.  Suits, crewcuts, Perry Como, a tour in Vietnam.  I may have been six, but I wasn’t stupid.  From the small town kid in upstate New York who refused to cut his hair, to the hundreds who got the holy shit kicked out of them by Daley’s police at the ’68 convention, their courage was palpable.  At the time I wanted to be those kids.  Today I just love them.

I have little patience for Sixties bashers, those prim young things who wrinkle their nose at the word “hippies.”  They are the walking proof of their parents’ biases.  I am fully aware of the many ways in which the era can be denigrated, and in this age of $600 Stones tickets, where all the good seats are snapped up by aging hedge fund managers  who were too busy listening to their  Bobby Goldsboro albums to make it the first time around, it’s easy to pretend they never mattered.

But the thing is, they did.  If nothing else, those times, and the feelings they inspired, worked their way into the DNA of a six year old boy, creating a set of beliefs and a path through the trees to the life I live today.

I don’t like suits.  I recognize them for the costume they are.  I didn’t much like the people who wore them as a kid, I don’t much trust the people who wear them now.  They’re basically a lie in cloth form.

Money is necessary, but not important.

What is important are people, meeting their eyes, and always being honest with them.  If you get some affection in there, even better.  And, of course, love is the best.

So, you can mock the sixties, you can bemoan them, you can twist them to your own selfish ends.  But you do these things at your peril.  Because life is short my friend, and the money’s not going with you.  But maybe, just maybe, the kindness you’ve shown to others, and that shown to you; the beauty you’ve beheld, or god willing, created; and the honesty and love with which you’ve dealt with others, and all the successes and failures along the way…  Maybe these will bring you to a place of peace.  I hope that’s where they brought Richie, whose gift of  a voice opened my heart and whispered into it the secrets of being human.

And close your eyes, child, and look at what I’ll show you; 
Let your mind go reeling out and let the breezes blow you, 
Then maybe, when we meet, suddenly I will know you.
If all the things you see ain’t what they seem,
Then don’t mind me ‘cos I ain’t nothin’ but a dream .*

Godspeed Richie, and thanks.

* Words by Jerry Merrick

(Originally posted at Playing in the City with Trains)



Lies the Boy Scouts Told Me

22 May

Another rainy day in NYC.  Up at five, shower and shave.  Listening to NPR while we put together the kids lunches.  Seems the Boy Scouts are to decide today whether to allow gay membership.  It amazes me that any organization that still has to ask such a question even exists.  It’s a bit like learning that the Hitlerjugend are still active, and contemplating a more restrained attitude toward the Jews.

But I differ on this point from proud Eagle Scout, Governor Rick Perry, who feels that the Boy Scout’s “…values and principles have worked for a century now, and for pop culture to come in and try to tear that up because it just happens to be the flavor of the month, so to speak, and to tear apart one of the great organizations that has served millions of young men, helped them to become men and to become great fathers – that is just not appropriate.”

So, if I’m getting this right, Governor Perry is defending the values and principles of homophobia and intolerance, while further maintaining that the desire to end discrimination based on sexual preference is being driven by “pop culture” and is merely “flavor of the month.”  And of course, the implication that gay men will be less than great fathers.  I don’t know why this kind of happy-horseshit continues to surprise me.  But sadly, it does.

Now I’d like to point out that,  aside from the casual bigotry and overt sexism, I have nothing against the Boy Scouts.  Honesty, integrity, self-reliance.  I love these things.  And what young man hasn’t been attracted to the idea of testing his mettle against the wilderness: building shelters, starting fires with flint and steel, surviving a blizzard with nothing more than a can of beans and a jackknife.  I would have joined myself if it hadn’t been for the uniforms.  And the taking orders part.  And the fact that there were no girls.  But I digress.

What I do have something against are the lies we tell ourselves, and the ways in which we harm others in an effort to conceal our own uncomfortable truths.   So let’s clear some things up.

Lie #1:  Gay men are a threat to boys.

The truth it hides:  You fear homosexuality.  Why you feel this way is your business, but it’s also your problem.  It should have nothing to do with some little boy who wants to build a campfire, or the adult that wants to teach him.

Lie #2:  Homosexuality is against my religious beliefs.

The truth it hides:  See Lie #1.  But also, open your heart for a second.  Because if you believe in a God, he’s talking to you that way too.  And if religion is ultimately about loving one and other, that may be the best way to hear him.

Lie #3:  Gay people are different from me.

The truth it hides:  They’re not.  No more so than any other person on this planet.  They are your neighbors, they are your family, and if memory serves, they’ve certainly been your scoutmasters.

So, with that in mind, Godspeed, Boy Scouts of America!  Check your rations and hoist your pack!  Got your compass?  Map?  Good.  It may be a long  journey, but the 21st century is out there.  I hope you can find it.

(Originally posted at Playing in the City with Trains)



My Great Good Place (Part One)

5 Oct

At the age of eight I threw my leg over the banana seat of my brand new bicycle, and with my brother David, five years old and only recently off his training wheels, set off across the street and down the sidewalk, following the quiet curves with their wistful British names: Trafalgar, Smethwick, Tottenham and finally Willesdon Square, to the very edge of our known world.  There, breaking our mother’s most fervent commandment, we blithely turned left, and, paralleling the four lanes of traffic she so feared, made our way past the Ethan Allen Furniture Store, the A&W, and the barbershop before turning into the small parking lot of our ultimate destination, the Qwik-Pik.

If you were a kid in my neighborhood in the early seventies, and you had a pocketful of change burning a hole in your pocket, Qwik-Pik was the place to be.  Marathon bars, Pixie Sticks, Hubba-Bubba, and just about any flavor of Faygo you could imagine.  (It wasn’t the only place to be.  A slightly longer trip north lead to the Farmer Jack’s shopping center, where, hidden away down a wide, dark alley carpeted in red AstroTurf, you would find The Pit Stop.  Leaning more to the Wacky Pack-bicycle repair-cherry bomb crowd, it was never my place, drawing a slightly older and more dangerous element.  But I sensed its allure, and had I gone wrong, It could very well have been my fate.)

Having successfully negotiated what my mom claimed to be the almost certain death of Van Dyke Avenue, we bought our treats and, carrying our little brown sacks with one hand while steering with the other, began our journey home. Turning back onto Willesdon Square, I felt a stubborn pride in having proven her wrong.  “See!” I’d tell her, as I calmly took another bite of my foot long  stick of apple-flavored bubble gum,  “It’s just like I told you.  ITS NO BIG DEAL !” 

That’s when my brother went down. 

A pebble, a twig; something ridiculously small was the cause.  But there was blood, there were tears (mostly over a scratched watch), and there was a call to my mom.  Upon her panicked arrival I found her less than receptive to my argument that it was really David’s own fault.  He didn’t know how to ride a bike very well.  I don’t know.  Maybe I played it wrong.  But I don’t remember seeing much of the Qwik-Pik after that.

It was a seminal moment.  Adrift in the auto battered suburban waste’s of Detroit, even as a child, I needed a local; a convenient destination for camaraderie and refreshment.  For an eight year old, that means dragging your kid brother to the nearest candy store, which I honed in on like a pointer to a quail, and then risked both our lives and my mother’s not inconsiderable wrath to attain. 

In the end, I failed.  But I find the instinct remarkable, for I realize now that it has shaped my entire life.

To be continued…



Negotiation, Wisconsin & Elaine

25 Feb

A Brief Primer on Negotiation in the Form of a Parable: 

A samaritan is walking down the road.  A man approaches and draws his sword, saying “I want to kill you.”

Startled, the samaritan says, “Please, don’t.  Here, take this pouch of gold.”

The man says, “No, I want to kill you.”

The Samaritan says, “Please, I beg you, take my sandals as well.”

“No, I want to kill you.”

“For the love of God take my cloak too, it is all I have, and let me live.”

The man kills the samaritan.

OK.  One person here is negotiating.  The other is a Republican Governor from Wisconsin.

So as various state governments attempt to deny collective bargaining rights to their employees, I’m reading in the New York Times about a woman named Elaine.  Elaine  works at a Dollar Store in Columbus, Ohio and she feels the public employee unions in her state, battling for their right to negotiate, are “getting a little bit out of control.”

Now if anybody needs a union, it would certainly be Elaine.  But, setting that aside, I still cannot get my head around her logic. 

If I have this right, she is dismissing the employees’ right to negotiate, and in addition feels that their desire to maintain this hard won right, is “a little out of control.”  I guess that means they should stop their protest, give up a significant say in their lives, and accept their employer’s terms without question. 

We’ve seen this world.  Hell, Elaine’s living in it as we speak.  And of course, she’s being encouraged, by the Koch brothers and others, to believe that public employee unions, having managed to maintain a weak grasp on the standard of living that was once the norm for the American working class, are now somehow cheating her by failing to have been downwardly mobile enough over the last thirty years. 

But still, is this the world she wants? 

Unions, like all human institutions, are fallible.  They can be shortsighted, they can be corrupt, they can fail to represent the interests of their members.  But a union, in it’s purest form, is a beautiful thing.  It is a group of people saying,”My work has value, and, if I band together with others, we can have a say in how we are compensated for that work.” 

Why would any working person have a problem with this?  Why would they not find this inspiring?  Why isn’t Elaine busily trying to organize her fellow cashiers at the Dollar Store? 

Well, she’d be fired, to start with.  And she’s probably exhausted from trying to make ends meet on minimum wage. 

But I’m betting she also has a problem with the phrase: “My work has value.”  She probably doesn’t believe it.  Why would she?  She’s not hearing it anywhere.  Not in the news, not on T.V. or in movies, certainly not from her employer.  She is, in fact, almost invisible; a background player in a world where the wealthy have value, and those less so should best keep quiet and be thankful for those good Dollar Store jobs. 

Elaine, I am sure, negotiates a very difficult life , and to her the pay and benefits of a teacher or a bus driver must seem outrageously generous.  Imagine.  Food on the table, a roof over your head, healthcare for the family. What are these people getting so uppity about?  They’re living the dream. 

Only it’s not a dream.  It’s the way it should be.  For everybody.  And you get there by forming unions and negotiating. 

As a small caveat, let me add a couple points:

Public employee unions did not cause the current financial crisis.

Nor did Elaine.

And I have nothing against fiscal austerity.  I practice it every day. 

So in honor of the Republicans and their much vaunted adherence to this practice, may I suggest a new slogan:


If you have a problem with the wording, I am willing to negotiate.