What does the Bundy militia really want?

January 25, 2016

What does it mean to be a patriot? Does it mean upholding the laws of the land without question? Does it mean wrapping yourself in a flag and singing that dreadful Lee Greenwood song? Does it mean claiming an allegiance to the principles of the founding fathers and nothing else? Is Donald Trump a patriot? Is Barrak Obama a patriot? There are as many definitions of patriotism as there are flagpoles. That’s why the specter of the “patriot militia” is both comical and perplexing. I first interviewed militia members in Montana in 1998 and Oregon is now experiencing a new chapter in this both exciting and frightening American story.

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If you live outside of Oregon you might’ve missed the rogue group of militia MEN who took over a Central Oregon wildlife refuge on Saturday, January 2. Since then the Malheaur National Wildlife Refuge has been occupied by a small group of armed men (and the women who have come to cook for them), claiming they have a right to the federally protected land (that originally belonged to the native Paiute people).

Their goal is to “return” the land to the ranchers who can profit financially off grazing on an area that has been designed to protect wildlife, including threatened migratory birds. These men have begun to tear up the land for roads, they have disrupted Native American artifacts, they have prevented biologists from having access to their worksites and have blocked the land from use by the citizens they claim to speak for. So what do they really want?

Not the Dildo Militia

It’s easy for us city people to laugh at these rural activists, mailing them sex toys and branding them as “Y’all Qaeda.” We protest the government with clever signs and they protest it with rifles. Both sides sport beards but ours are worn ironically. While there is plenty of local opposition to the Bundy Militia, led by a “car fleet manager” from Phoenix named Ammon Bundy, there is also some local support. At the root of that support is the wording of the tenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution. I know you probably know the 2nd pretty well by now, but do you know the 10th?

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There is a great debate about the reach of the federal government into our lives that crosses political boundaries. Remember how the left pushed back against George W. Bush’s Patriot Act or how the right pushed back against Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act? This debate is as America as apple pie made from GMO apples that were grown with federal subsidies. If you take a literal reading of the tenth amendment, the federal government has no business doing either, and both the left and right are correct. Bundy’s group believes the federal management of this Oregon land for the American people is unconstitutional.

Also not defined as a federal authority is preserving land and protecting animals. Based on this rhetoric, the federal government has no business creating and operating national parks. If you want to march into Yosemite and start grazing your ironic sheep herd, you have that God-given right. I’ve been thinking about building a spa next to Old Faithful in Yosemite myself.

If that sounds crazy, it is. The Constitution was designed to be a living document. The first ten amendments, codified in 1789, are the backbone of our free society, but there have been seventeen amendments since then that give us the flesh and bones. (Although the 27th is pretty self-serving for the federalists.)

The problem is that many militia members (I don’t know if this includes the Bundy gang), don’t believe in anything that follows the original ten (aka, the Bill of Rights). That includes some biggies, like #13 (freeing slaves), #14 (birthright citizenship), and #16 (authorizing federal income tax). They talk about “Supreme Law” and the “Organic Constitution” because there is a belief that the 1789 document was handed down from God (similar to the 1215 Magna Carta and my 1962 Spiderman comic book). Now it’s certainly patriotic to think the U.S. Constitution is “sacred,” but it was written by imperfect men who disagreed as much as modern Republicans and Democrats. And most Americans would disagree with the Bundy militia’s extremist interpretation of the Constitution, making them a lot more like ISIS than they’d probably like to admit.

The Supreme Law folks don’t recognize most federal authority, including the FBI and federal courts. That’s why they think they can hold these “common law grand juries” to “indict” their opponents. They have zero legal power but they can make life hell for the targets of militia members by the filing of endless property liens. It completely subverts constitutional due process protections but the threat of the this action has kept many of the critics, including myself, wary from speaking out against them.

But as much as we might disagree with their macho tactics, this issue about the power of the federal government to infringe on our personal liberties is at the core of the American conversation. It was in 1789 and it is in 2016.

Conspiracy City

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After the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, we began to pay a lot more attention to patriot militias. One of the best books on the topic is Kenneth Stern’s A Force Upon the Plain: The American Militia Movement and the Politics of Hate (1997). Stern accurately describes the militia world as a giant funnel.

  • At the top level are a lot of issues that many Americans can find common ground on, including gun rights, tax protests and land use regulations (which would include the debate over the best use of the Malheaur National Wildlife Refuge). People’s first contact with militia is usually rallying around these types of “Don’t tread on me” issues.
  • Then the movement becomes focused on anger at the “tyrannical” federal government as the enemy, not as a democratic form of governance by and for the people. Whether it’s old school “revenue collectors” or federally funded botanists, all federal agents are portrayed as enemies of the people (unless they are defending the country against foreign enemies or brown people crossing the border).
  • The next level is where the conspiracy theories kick in. Now that The X-Files is back on the air, these dark theories have whole new audience. The federal government is controlled by a secret cabal (The illuminati, Freemasons, aliens, etc.) working to deprive average Americans of their basic rights to life and liberty. The conspirators control the media, both major political parties, and the banks, so every time you use your debit card you are giving them data to run your life.
  • Below that, that conspiracy theory becomes a very familiar face, the Jews. That cabal is now ZOG (the Zionist Occupation Government), working globally to destroy white Christian society. The global banking system is the arm of their new world order and they have you eating bagels at McDonalds without even knowing it.
  • At the bottom of the funnel are the revolutionaries who believe a “second American Revolution” is needed to banish the Jewish occupiers and restore the supreme law of the founding fathers. This is where we found Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, the militia men behind the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 Americans (including 19 children).

There are fewer and fewer militia activists the farther your descend the funnel. However, Stern posits that the more folks who come in at the top on broad issues, like 2nd Amendment gun rights, the more who will make it down to the bottom and a see events like Oklahoma City (and the standoff in Oregon) as a call to violently overthrow the evil federal government.

End Game

What is their endgame? Well, it’s safe to say the Bundy militia wants a federal government that does little more than sail aircraft carriers around the oceans, but they’ll settle for the Bureau of Land Management handing protected lands over to any white man who asks. “I got some cattle!” Ammon Bundy’s father is Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who’s cows have been ripping off taxpayers for years.

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So it shouldn’t be that surprising that there is significant overlap between the federal government-hating militia world and the federal government-hating white supremacist world. Timothy McVeigh’s guidebook was The Turner Diaries, a poorly-written novel about Neo-Nazis killing “race-mixers,” bombing a federal building, overthrowing the government and launching nuclear missiles at Israel. They want to make America great again by taking us back to 1789, when the authority of (straight) white Christian men went unchallenged, before all this “political correctness” encroached on God’s chosen leaders. It all sounds like Donald Trump’s wettest dream.

It’s not clear what the racial beliefs of the white men hold up the Malheaur refuge are. One member has posted several tweets and videos about “Zionists” and nuking Israel. Their website. www.defendyourbase.net, had plenty of wild conspiracy theories (including some about Hilary Clinton) but was just taken down. I don’t know if they wisely unplugged it or it was the oppressive feds (or an anonymous Smoking Man), but it gave us a glimpse into their bent world views.

How to diffuse a stand off

After the disastrous standoffs in Ruby Ridge, Idaho (1992) and Waco, Texas (1993), authorities now know how to manage a siege with white activists (I’ll let others present the data on standoffs with black and Muslim activists). Those events showed the heavy hand of militarized federal law enforcement agencies and children were sadly killed in each.

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After Oklahoma City bombing, the 1996 standoff with the Freemen militia in Montana turned out very differently. While many called for authorities to arrest the men, the feds waited them out for 81 days. They peacefully arrested the eight man who were later convicted for various charges, including threats against public officials.

The siege at Malheaur could go either way. You get the sense the FBI is playing the long game and hoping these guys will just get back to managing car fleets. But they may also be itching for a showdown. The militia movement hasn’t had any martyrs in a while and more than one have expressed a desire to die for the cause. There’s an assumption that Ammon Bundy, who is quite charismatic, can control all these rogue men who are just hanging out in his very unregulated militia. If one the rogues goes rogue, well, they’ll get the battle with the “tyrants” they’ve long dreamt about.

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Malheaur occupiers Ammon Bundy and LaVoy Finicum have both talked to the media and presented their case in a very calm and articulate manner. They raise some important points about about the overreach of the federal government and the lack of the balance between individual rights and eminent domain. But their logic is rooted in a version on the Constitution that is not real. It’s a cartoon verson that cowboys cling to because it’s very simple and romantic. I can see how they are swept up into its poetry. But the real world is complex. We as a society evolve with this living document. Sometimes we decide that land is best used to preserve wildlife and usually we find a way to share it with law-abiding ranchers.

We can make fun of these guys. We can see how they’ve trampled the rights of the people of Harney County while pretending to defend them. We can see them as little boy soldiers obsessed with guns and cowboy hats. We can see them as entitled whites who are the media savvy face of a racist underground. We can see them as armed terrorists who would be dead by now if the were black or Muslim. Or we could see them as sparking a discussion about our faith in and fear of the government and what we should do about it.

As a parent the images from Oklahoma City haunt me. There are now children inside the encampment at Malheaur National Wildlife Refuge, perhaps being used as human shields or perhaps, like in Waco, being set up as sacrificial lambs for their revolution. Let’s hope they feel they’ve made their point and will return the land back over to the birds and biologists soon. My sense is that Bundy’s gang wants to spark a civil war and this isn’t going to end before spring.

Regular updates on the Oregon siege here at OPB News.

 

I’m in charge of your butthole: The intimate world of parenting

January 20, 2016

This is a piece I’ve tried to figure out how to write for a while. It could simply be a meditation on something that every parent has thought about. Or it could be just plain icky. This could go either way. Here is something that every parent of a young child can relate to or here is something that screams for state intervention. Okay, here goes. There is a sensual element to parenting a child.

Before you get on the horn to DHSS, there is a difference between sensual and sexual. If fact, as I’ve written about before, being a parent can really interrupt the sexual. We’ve come to refer to our wonderful daughter as the “great cock blocker,” as we reminisce about the good old days when we were crazed weasels who, well, you can guess. All the time.

There’s still weasel action but there is also this other thing. Someday I will write about the increase in connection with a person you’ve had a child with, but this is the trickier area of the relationship between father and child. I was thinking about what to write about today when Cozy, now 17 months, started stroking my hair. I don’t know if she was doing it to be nice to her stressed-out dad or she was assessing how much conditioner I needed, but it felt nice. And I realized how many moments we have like that. Moments where we just snuggle or give kisses or just look into each other’s eyes and I wonder how bizarre it is that I’ve played a role in the existence of this beautiful creature.

It shouldn’t be creepy to be routinely humbled by how soft baby skin is. It’s like as if there was a freaking baby panda that was actually a cloud. I feel like like a chewed up piece of 80 grit sandpaper compared to even the bottom of her feet. There’s a whole industrial machine that sells “baby soft” products, but they can’t even approach my baby’s bottom. Since much of the time is spent holding or changing my daughter there’s a lot of skin to skin contact. Sometimes that’s depressing (“Honey, your father is not the Crypt Keeper, he just grew up in Georgia.”) but often it’s awe inspiring. Did we all start off so perfect and unblemished?

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My ethnic heritage on my father’s side is Czech. Czechs tend to be moley people. Cozy was born this wonderful Czech-Mex mix. Her blue eyes turned brown after about a week. And a week after that she got a little mole on her butt. It just appeared like a message from my ancestors. Every time I change her, I’m reminded of that genetic line. Also when she runs around the house bottomless. Hey, sometimes you’ve gotta air your business out.

I grew up in a weird time and space, the South in the 1970s. On one hand it was the Bible Belt so there were plenty of people who thought bodies were dirty things to be covered (because of that bitch, Eve). On the other hand, it was the height of sexual liberation and people were walking around their homes naked with copies of Playboy and Our Bodies, Our Selves on the coffee table. (My parents were from Ohio and midwesterners just ignore anything sexual.) I have to think those mixed messages didn’t do the psyche of my generation any good.

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Cozy bathes with her parents fairly regularly. She and I had a shower together this morning. It’s really just a way to be efficient. I can watch her if she’s in the tub with me and we can save water on the probably much-needed booty hose down. It is perfectly innocent but I am aware there are some very uptight people who would see it as inappropriate. I know at some point one of us will grow out it, but it’s a nice thing we share. I’ve got friends that showered with their kids into the double digits (in Georgia!), so maybe I’m too worried about the Bible thumpers and their cousins in ISIS.

It is funny when she waddles into the bathroom when I’m standing there peeing. She has this confused look on her face as she tries to figure out what my penis is. I always feel uncomfortable and sing this little song I made up.

What are you looking at Baby B?

What are you looking at, what do you see?

What are you looking at, you’re looking at me.

You better not be looking at my pee pee.

You can’t not have an intimate relationship with a child after you’ve changed thousands of diapers. I know her vagina better than I know most of my family members. And that thing is as clean as a field hockey coach’s whistle. (Wait, that sounds rather dirty.) As a stay-at-home dad, I am the primary agent of her undercarriage management. I often joke that I am on “Butthole Patrol,” because you don’t want to let a kid sit in a dirty diaper too long or you’re gonna need a power sprayer to do the job. (How I envy the French and their clever bidets.) As much as I want the kiddie potty to take over my job, their is something bonding about the diaper change ritual. Eye contact and mutual trust, and a song from dad. (This week it’s been David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes.”)

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Freud, Foucault and Judith Butler all have written about the psychic damage done to boys who have to be weened from their mothers and switch their identification to their fathers. In this new age of stay-at-home dads there is the interesting question about daughters who have similar intimate connection to their fathers. How will Cozy’s psycho-sexual identity be affected by all this time we spend together, including the showers and diaper changes? Perhaps not at all, or perhaps she’ll have a solid sense of self that is not defined by one idea of gender or genders.

I do know it has affected me. Besides the protective “papa bear” mandate it fuels, I also feel more like an actual human being. This is a true connection between two people. She might not remember any of it, but I’ll never forget any of it. Before I put her to bed, we have a little dance to some soft music and she puts her head on my shoulder and I make a wish that this dance never ends.

How David Bowie Bent My Gender

January 11, 2016

This is a strange bifurcation point on our blue planet. From this point on there is no David Bowie to share the world with. Like people born after 1980 who claim John Lennon, or those born after 1959 who claim Billie Holiday (as they have a right to), every child born after today will never anticipate hearing David Bowie’s new song on the radio or changing their fashion to fit Bowie’s new style. It’s all just back catalog now. He can’t be truly their peer. Fortunately there’s enough there for future generations to mine for inspiration.

I awoke this morning to a message from my friend Roy in England that just said, “Sad day for music.” A sense of dread swelled up. I know that I am likely to witness the passing of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Patti Smith. What will the world be like without them? For the moment we share the same sunlight and oxygen supply. When there is a lunar eclipse, I know that Paul McCartney and Toni Morrison are looking at it, too. I know there is a chance that I could bump into Smokey Robinson or Elton John getting coffee in an airport somewhere in the world. We share this tiny globe together.

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But not with Bowie. He is gone so unexpectedly. I was in New York City all weekend and was waiting for today to get Blackstar, his heralded new album. The beginning of the next phase of Bowie in our lives. Would there be a tour? Would I get a new haircut to look like him? Again? I should have found him on his deathbed there in Manhattan to thank him. A kiss on his alien eyelids.

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For those of us that came of age in the 1970s, David Bowie was more than a “rockstar.” He was an avatar of our awkward young selves as gangly beings who had just fallen to earth, genderless and omni-sexual. I was an Apollo kid so it started with “Space Oddity,” and imagining the astronauts circling our troubled planet. But when Ziggy Stardust arrived, I could see clues to a third path, somewhere between male and female that was beautiful and personal. Glam rock was liberation, even if was just the thought of it. “Rebel, rebel. You’ve got your mother in a whirl ’cause she’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl.”

That was the beginning of me wanting to grow my hair long. Endless battles with my mother (“Boys with long hair are all on drugs!”) and my father (“Why would you want to look like a girl?”). Each half inch it grew, you’d get called “fag,” and “queer,” in rural Georgia. (Of course, once Willie and Waylon grew their hair out all that ended.) If word got around you were a Bowie fan, that was like declaring your homosexuality. “You must be AC-DC like him!” I didn’t really care. The music came from some place magical. His self-declared bisexuality created a safe zone for us as we engaged in our own space exploration. My sexuality was never an issue. The sanity of the world I expressed it in was.

All us misfit kids had Bowie. Before punk roared in, we had Bowie to speak for us and to tell us we were wonderful. “Rock and Roll Suicide,” must be an anthem for so many young people, both then and now, who feel zero validation from the straight world. It’s a reason to reject suicide as an option.

You’re watching yourself but you’re too unfair

You got your head all tangled up but if I could only make you care

Oh no love! you’re not alone

No matter what or who you’ve been

No matter when or where you’ve seen

All the knives seem to lacerate your brain

I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain

You’re not alone

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In fourth grade, when the other kids were obsessed with the Captain and Tennille, me and my little goon squad were memorizing “Young Americans,” and “Fame,” (listening for John Lennon’s voice). It was like a secret society. You had to say, “Oh yeah, Deep Purple rocks!” and then find out what kid in the neighborhood had a copy of Diamond Dogs you could borrow, being sure to hide it from your parents’ gaydar.

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Bowie always defined gender non-conformity. Wearing make-up, dying his hair, wearing a skirt on Saturday Night Live. In a culture obsessed with a simple gender binary, what could be more rebellious than that? Boys keep swinging! For all us kids that didn’t quite fit in the butch boy/femme girl box, we had permission to mix and match and create something completely new.

My first sociology professor at Oxford College who radicalized me in so many ways had a bit of blind spot around queer issues. I remember him trying to make the case that we are all sexual but socialized to be heterosexual and if that process gets messed up we end up confused, “like David Bowie.” I remember thinking, Wait, that’s not right. Bowie’s not “broken,” he is just free and rebelling against social constructions of gender. He knows exactly what he’s doing.

So, yeah, I have every piece of music that Bowie has released (except Blackstar, which is sold out all over the city). I have b-sides and oddities. Have you heard the soundtrack to The Buddha of Suburbia (1993)? You should. I’ve seen him in concert several times. My favorite moment was at Live Aid in London in 1985. I was right front for the global event. All my favorite stars were there. I should mention that I really hated Bowie’s Let’s Dance album when it came out in 1983. It was such a commercial piece of fluff compared to 1980’s Scary Monsters (although it has aged better than I have). So I was supremely bummed when he opened with “Modern Love,” my least favorite Bowie song. But then he played “Heroes,” and it could not have been more perfect. We were there trying to feed the world, just for one day. There were tears everywhere. Bowie transformed us.

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He transformed us many times. He loosened us from our moorings. He made being smart and aging into your 60s look really, really cool and never stopped playing with our weird obsession with gender roles. All the kids that got beat up for being “Bowie fags” can have the last laugh (the ones that weren’t murdered, at least). Now that he’s dead, everybody will claim him as their own.

He’s never not been with me. His ex-wife, Angie Bowie, was my first guest speaker at Emory, delighting my students with tales of Ziggy and Iggy and the glam explosion. I courted my wife, Andrea, with mix CDs that linked Bowie songs to Nina Simone songs. When Cozy was born, I sang “Little Wonder” to her repeatedly (and “Space Oddity” when I strapped her in her car seat). And she’s napping to Station To Station as I write this. I want her to have the sexual and gender freedom that was so hard for us over forty years ago. But for all the goon squads out there, Bowie made it a lot easier and cooler.

A lot will be written this week about the Thin White Duke as a “chameleon” and all the ch-ch-changes he went through, the movies he made and the fashions he inspired. I just think about us kids who didn’t fit in who got to feel that we had a very special space boy on our side.

My Little New York Patti Smith Dream

January 9, 2016

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I’m sitting in a bar on West 72nd Street in Manhattan. This is John Lennon’s block. John Lennon, the househusband and patron saint of this blog. I often come here on trips to New York, a solemn pilgrimage to consecrated pavement, blessed by his blood, thinking I will see him and his death will all have been a bad dream, conjured up by Rosemary’s devil-eyed baby. I walked the block, past the Dakota and thought about how many times he did the same. I’m sure it’s changed a bit since 1980. The Starbucks and the tour busses (“And to your left you’ll see the spot where Beatle John Lennon was murdered.”) weren’t there during the last days of the Carter years. And when it happened we thought our love affair with guns was finally done. On this Saturday the Dakota is draped in sheets and scaffolding. At first I thought it was a Yoko Ono performance piece as she still lives in the Victorian castle overlooking Central Park. Turns out the old house is just being cleaned.

But most of this short trip has been spent in Greenwich Village (although I did hike up to the East Village this morning for some perfect pirogues at Veselka Café that happily took their time melting on my tongue). As long as John has been in my life, Patti Smith has been there almost as long. At least since I read about her in rock magazines in my teenage bedroom in 1976 Stone Mountain, Georgia; the wild woman, chanting, “Go Rimbaud!”

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The dirty, nasty world of CBGB’s on the Bowery is where I wanted to be, not in my Ted Nugent-loving southern suburbia, draped in pink and blue Laura Ashley curtains. At age 14, I got the Easter album after hearing “Because the Night” on the radio and tried to dissect the poetry imbedded in what was then considered “punk rock.” High on rebellion. Words can carry you. Maybe I can do that, my pimply brain thought. Maybe I can write a line that will take on a life of its own.

After my piano-playing mother, Patti was my first exposure to the energy of the goddess artist. There was a raw feminist power to her, unrestrained by gendered expectations. Her hairy armpits were mocked on Saturday Night Live when Gilda Radner did her “Candy Slice” character. It was all wild abandon to boy trapped in the suffocating Bible Belt. I’d sit in front of my stereo speakers like Hendrix kneeling in front of his burning guitar. Give me more, I’d beg.

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The first time I saw her play live, I was in a state of ecstasy. It was at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland in 2001 and when she played “Gloria,” I ripped my shirt off thinking I was being ushered into a Roman orgy. There’s track from that show on her 2002 Land album. She’s reading from Ginsberg’s Howl and you can hear me screaming like a banshee. The only drug I was on was transcendence. And now my artist wife is deep under her spell. Our own Frida Kahlo with a rock band and a return to Portland on Andrea’s birthday.

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After seeing her last Wednesday night with Andrea, performing 1975’s Horses front to back (including the prose-rhapsody of  “Birdland.” Oh, how long I’ve waited for you!), I decided to take her new book, M Train, with me to New York, where I would be interviewing at a wonderful university. It’s a brilliant free floating tome about travels and not being able to write this particular book. It’s like her version of a Seinfeld episode. By the time I landed, I had the first hundred pages dancing barefoot in my head.

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As it turns out, the book unfolds around the world but mostly in Greenwich Village, near where I was staying in Chinatown. Much of it begins at Café ‘Ino on 21 Bedford Street, just past 6th Avenue. I must go there, I thought on the plane, and have black coffee and toast at her table! Of course, in rapidly transforming New York City, Café ‘Ino is gone gone. It closed in 2013 and now is a lovely Italian bistro called Cotenna, where I had a sumptuous penne al fungi and a glass of red wine and imagined her sitting by the window, scribbling in her notebook.

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The other Patti spot is Caffé Dante, around the corner on MacDougal. They didn’t open until noon and it was 11 am on Friday, so I walked up the block to Caffe Reggio, an old favorite of mine. I was traveling light, just my laptop bag with the Mac, M Train, a few pens, the latest issue of Beatlefan and the new Village Voice with a caricature of Donald Trump as a fascist demagogue on the cover.

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I found a seat surrounded by fellow literary travelers all enclosed in the café’s red womb-like walls, waiting to birth some brilliant thought or first line. A young guy next to me was reading Kerouac, an older fellow (who I’m sure I’ve seen there before) was reading Lacan: A True Genius and kept putting the book down with a “Holy psychoanalysis!” look on his face. I had my copy of M Train and a cappuccino, keeping one eye out the window in case Ms. Smith walked by. But my singular mission was to spend some time in her world through the pages of her book.

As my year of writing winds down it’s time to put myself back on the market. Parenthood demands a stable income, but my mind is still floating in the ether. A winning Powerball ticket bought on St. Marks aside, I’d really like Cozette to know her father as more than the guy sitting on the couch writing while drinking endless cups of coffee. So on MacDougal I developed a fantasy about running into Patti before my interview with the provost. I’d grab a seat next her at Caffé Dante and mention our prior meeting at Powell’s Books in Portland when I showed her my Cobain homage in my book of poetry to her Dylan homage in her book of poetry.

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“So what are you doing here in New York?” She’d ask.

“Hoping to land a job. I was a criminologist at a university in Portland for twenty years…”

Her attention would zip up a few notches. As it turns out, Patti is obsessed with crime shows on TV.  I remember when I first heard her mention this, at a concert at the Crystal Ballroom, I thought, What? Patti Smith watches TV??? I thought she only read poems by doomed bohemians. I watch TV! I wonder what else we have in common. Does she buy wine based on what the label looks like? Because I totally do that!

I’d continue with the story of how I was forced into a position to choose between love or my job and I chose love without hesitation, resigning my tenured post to become a stay-at-home-dad.

“That’s horrible,” she’d say. “I’ve heard professors can be targets like that.”

“It turned out for the best. I’ve had time to write and be with my daughter. But I’m ready to go back to work. I’ve got a meeting with a university here at 2 o’clock. Do you think you could give me a special blessing? It would mean a lot to me and my family.”

“Well, I’m not Pope Francis,” she’d say, “but okay.”  Then she’d make the mark of the cross on my forehead like she had holy water on her fingers instead of coffee and I’d be Joan of Arc, ready for battle. And that’s how our long friendship would begin.

A friend on Facebook reminded me that Patti was performing in Los Angeles the next night so I wasn’t likely to see her strolling down MacDougal, eating a falafel from Mamoun’s. Still, I felt her there, standing on the corner of 6th Avenue and Houston, sending me on my way as I mis-sang the lyrics to “Kimberly.” Give me your starry eyes, baby.

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I don’t want to mention the name of the university for fear of jinxing my chances (or the greater fear that evil conspirators in Portland will catch wind and work their black magic on it), but the interview went really well and the university administrator, as providence would have it, was a Patti Smith fan. On top of that, the AirBNB where I stayed in Chinatown had an autographed copy of Horses outside my room. All the stars of the northeastern cross were aligned.

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After the interview and lunch where Café ‘Ino once was, I went to Caffé Dante for coffee and a dessert that I felt I’d earned. I needed some writing time and got a few scenes for the new book down, including one deep discussion between the two main characters about farting in airport men’s rooms. (I’m not pretending to be Fredrico Garcia Lorca here.) I tried my rusty Italian on the waiter and he told me in slightly less rusty English how expensive this city had become but that there are still small places for artists.

New York seems warm for early January. Yesterday people tossed their Christmas Trees on to the sidewalks to be sent God knows where, but Christmas decorations still hang above Columbus Avenue and in Little Italy, near “my” flat. This morning at Veselka a group of young Russian immigrants came in and sang Christmas carols. The Russian Orthodox calendar must be different than ours, I half remembered. Maybe this would be a magical place to raise a child, I thought. The carolers wore wonderful costumes including a Grim Reaper. Joyousness!

My fantasy of New York has always been the dirty boulevard of Lou Reed songs. Trash and Vaudeville. But now as the parent I have to reimagine that fantasy. It’s horribly expensive and the school situation seems impossible, people tell me. And what if I lost Cozy on the A Train or in the Museum of Modern Art? (Although there are worse fates for a child.) But then again, she could grow up in the absolute center of the world and sit in cafés on Saturdays in the Village, maybe bumping into Patti Smith. Or John Lennon.

Addendum: I finished M Train on the flight from Newark to Seattle. I was laughing and then crying and then I just wanted to write. Read this book, but be sure to find a good café in which to do it.

Afterword: Well, the job ended up going to some kid fresh out of Harvard. I guess I could have used the blessing from Mother Patti after all.

 

The Kid’s First Trip to the ER: Anatomy of a Panic

January 4, 2016

Happy new year! You probably figured I’d be writing about the militia standoff in Burns, Oregon today. Well, some things are more important than domestic terrorists trying to bring down the U.S. government one federally owned gift-shop at a time. Cozy had to go to the hospital last night!!!

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If you’re not from Portland you might not know that the El Niño god gifted us with a beautiful winter storm yesterday. It was Cozy’s first chance to really play in the snow and she loved it. Wrapped in my scarf from 1976 (notice the bicentennial colors – Patriot!), she was a joyful snow bunny. We had to drag her back into the house. She could have walked around in it all day. It was a magical Sunday and we were careful not to let her slip and dislocate an elbow.

Later the snow turned to freezing rain and the whole city became a skating rink. So I walked up to the Thai restaurant to get some dinner. (The pineapple fried rice at Thai Noon is worth taking over a federal building for.) I had just placed the order when my phone rang and it was Andrea in a panic.

“We have to take Cozy to the emergency room!”

“Why? What happened?”

“I’m so sorry.”

I felt like I’m about to vomit at this point. “What happened?” I asked again.

“I was just playing with her, swinging around and she can’t move her arm!”

Okay, first some relief. She didn’t guzzle any Draino or fall out of the window on to the frozen ground. Dislocated elbows. These things happen. So I hot-footed it home on the cold ice to figure out how bad it was. I could see Andrea in the window as I got close to the house. She had baby wrapped up in a blanket and there was no screaming. Maybe it was a false alarm and I could go back and get the food.

Cozy seemed a little dazed and when I tried to get her to lift her left arm it just hung there, limp. My heart sunk and I feared the worst. How can my daughter get that softball scholarship with a bum arm? When an MC says, “Raise your hands in the air,” how is she going to feel with just one arm up? And will this ruin her chances to win American Ninja Warrior and fund dad’s luxury retirement home? So we had to get straight to the ER and see if George Clooney could save our child from a lopsided life. (A special shout-out to all my lopsided friends. As a stroke survivor, you complete me.)

I should say that I once had my arm pulled out of its socket. I was 18 and living in London. I went to see the Lords of the New Church play in a hotel ballroom in Hammersmith and was slam dancing when I went one way and my right arm went the other. You can’t imagine the pain. This bloke in the pit with me said, “Hold on mate, I’m a paramedic! Let me fix that for you!” And in the middle of the crowd he shoved my arm back in, more pain and then just fine. Back to slam dancing. Punk rock!

So I know my 16-month-old girl was in pain but the fix was just a quick drive away. The problem was that by that point the roads were iced over so bad, we might all die on the way. And there was absolutely no way we could make it down the Alameda Ridge to get to Providence Hospital, where we are fully insured. So we decided to take a slow and steady drive to Legacy Emmanuel Hospital (insurance covers emergencies) and hope we didn’t get t-boned by a zamboni (any other night that would be fine). Andrea sat in the back, repeatedly apologizing to our daughter and me. I was secretly thankful that I wasn’t the one who had done this. It so easily could’ve been me.

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Legacy Emmanuel has a new space-age Children’s Emergency wing (think the 1970’s version of Tomorrowland. Portland is that post-modern) and the folks there were amazing. After I slid into the parking lot, we bundled baby up for the next step of the adventure. Would they have to operate? I expected to find a waiting room filled with kids who slipped on the ice or had their tongues grafted to frozen poles, but it was empty and Cozy went right in.

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The condition is called “Nursemaid’s Elbow” or “Babysitter’s Elbow” (yeah, Dad’s not getting the blame) and it’s as common as macaroni on the floor. (Radial head subluxation for you medical students.) The elbow ligaments of kids under 3 are really spongey and it’s not difficult for a tug on the arm to pop the elbow out of it’s groove. Sort of like a slot car going off the track. You just have to put it back on. The nurse said it happened to her brother while eating Cheerios, five times. (Maybe those weren’t Cheerios.) So the doctor would work her magic and by kindergarten we wouldn’t really have to think about it.

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The nurse worked at distracting Cozy with colored lights. (Note: Cozy loves colored lights. Plan trip to Vegas soon.) The doctor was very gentle with her and let us know there would be a little bit of pain and then she should be good. Andrea held Cozy, who seemed confused by all the fuss, and the doctor gave her forearm and little tug and twist. Some screams and then a look that said, “Holy shit, that feels better,” and in two minutes she was lifting things with her left arm and acting like it never happened. Amputation averted.

But what an emotional roller coaster. We both felt horrible that this happened to our precious child. As I’ve written about in my numerous “Dad Love” posts, I couldn’t be more emotionally attached to this little bean butt. She’s the thing I got the most right in my life and I have one job and that’s to keep her safe. Andrea feels the exact same way and that’s why she was in tears in the Emergency Room. Fortunately the doctor had seen this scenario a hundred times and said, “I’ve seen this scenario a hundred times.” She told us how common it was and that parents always feel like the most horrid parents each time they bring their limp-armed kid in. It all works out.

Afterwards I thought Andrea might say, “Please don’t tell anyone this happened.” She really is an amazing mother to our girl. Instead she wanted me to post my picture (I was trying to play photo journalist dad) and let other parents know that  a) you should be careful swinging your toddler around, b) this happens all the time, c) it can easily be fixed with no lasting or chronic effects, and d) you are not a bad parent because you popped you kid’s elbow out. You don’t have to hide from Child and Family Services in a wildlife refuge in rural Oregon. (See what I did there?)

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So we are just going to be a little more careful with our peanut butter. She doesn’t get swung around for a few more years. There’s still throwing her up in the air and dragging her across the wood floor in a laundry basket. What could go wrong?