Mindful Meditation: Save me, Ringo!

July 15, 2021

Let’s be honest, the pandemic has brought us some good things. For example, there are people who will deliver vanilla lattes to your home and text you when they are on your doorstep. The 2020-2021 lockdown was also a great time to work on ourselves and our relationships. Besides the long conversations with my wife about what I might need to tweak in my own psychodynamic, I read a lot that put me on a path of internal work. Books like Get Out You Mind and Into Your Life, and You Might Be a Narcissist If…, and (currently) Why Do I Do That? Psychological Defense Mechanisms and the Hidden Ways They Shape Our Lives. As an educator, I want to de-stigmatize the effort to do self work. Let’s be honest, we all could use a little help to be better people

But what really changed the game was meditation.

As a Beatle maniac, I was always enamored with how the practice of transcendental meditation changed the trajectory of the Fab Four’s career. John, Paul, George, and Ringo were in Bangor, Wales in August, 1967 attending a seminar in TM held by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi when their manager, Brian Epstein, suddenly died. Seeing how they handled his death with calmness was a bit shocking to Western sensibilities about grief. Those seminars and their extended trip to India the following spring to study under the Maharishi set them on lifelong paths of meditation (and vegetarianism). Ringo Starr just turned 81 and still meditates every single day. So does Paul McCartney.

My first personal experience with meditation was when I was about 12 and taking karate classes. As a child I suffered from intense insomnia, my mind racing with fantasies about dinosaurs and Spiderman. The meditation practice at the end of each karate class promised “astral projection,” but really taught me how to calm my mind and I’ve used it as a tool to get to sleep ever since. (I often focus on images under the sea, so when I started scuba diving in 2016, it was like I manifested my dream world through deep thought.)

This latest chapter was born from intense frustration. I could read all the “self-help” books in the world but my impulses were still getting the better of me. My need to be confrontational likely stems from my early family dynamic. I like to fight. Me vs. You. I could be a road rager, given the right traffic jam. Often in my marriage, while I “know” Andi and I are on the same team, sometimes I act like we are opposing forces. This is especially true in emotional moments. Even if it’s something stupid, like me wondering, “Why do I always have to be the one to wash the dishes?” My emotional self takes over my intellectual self and I say something stupid. There have been a thousand apologies after I get my head back on straight. I do plenty of trainings on implicit bias, but the greater challenge is teaching people to not let those “unthought thoughts” turn into bad behavior.

So, if some of this is hardwired into the subconscious, how can you ever get in front of it?

Starting a daily meditation practice has provided the answer. Just ten minutes each morning. I sit in the backyard, under an apple tree, and pop open a guided meditation video on YouTube. (The ones by Calm are amazing.) The focus is first on the breath, and seeing any incoming thoughts as clouds floating by, there and gone. The cackling crows and planes landing at PDX are just part of the ambient symphony of my environment. The rest of the time is focusing on not being my thoughts. Thoughts and emotions are not real. They don’t have to control me.

Today’s meditation focused on alleviating worry. Occasionally, I’ll get in a sour mood because of something stupid I did in the past, or something I imagine going on in the present or future, and it’s down a little black hole. The meditation focused on how there are three parts of this process. First is the image of the situation, like remembering some micro aggression I committed in the past or some upcoming event I’m not looking forward to. The second part is the emotion that thought brings up and the third is how that emotion impacts the body. The physical response could be the muscles tensing up or (worse) being more impulsive. Mindfulness says if you can witness this process, you can interrupt it before it gets to Step 3.

It was perfect timing to focus on this as just a few days earlier I totally did this spiral. It was Andi’s turn to prepare dinner but she stopped after work to have drinks and do some career planning with a mentor. Based on something that happened to me nearly 25 years ago, my head went somewhere stupid, I got frustrated and angry, and my fingers sent some pretty snarky texts. My subconscious kicked my ass. Again. If I had been more mindful, I would have identified what that emotion was about and it wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near the Send button. Meditation helped me to see that flow-chart so I don’t repeat the mistake.

The great thing about meditation is that you are literally retraining my brain to be more thoughtful. Andi has commented on the dramatic difference in my demeanor. I no longer start stupid fights (that I later have to apologize for) and center her needs as a part of my normal behavior pattern. I see challenging thoughts like leaves floating down a stream and then I hear Bono sing, “Let it go!” It feels like a rebirth. It feels like embracing thankfulness instead of anger.

Meditation has come into the daily practice of Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and LeBron James, who meditates on the bench in the middle of games. Our active culture has a hard time “doing nothing” for 10 minutes. Before the pandemic, my yoga class would end with 5 minutes of meditation, cutely referred to as corpse pose (Shavasana). There are always a handful of people who bail to spend that 5 minutes on the Stairmaster. They’re really missing out. Filmmaker David Lynch has a foundation that brings meditation into schools and seen mediating students become less violent and more productive. Meditation is being used to treat trauma and improve the quality of inmate lives in prisons.

I had hit a wall in my self work, battling with my subconscious programming. Then I thought, well, if Ringo Starr can mediate 10 minutes a day and be so “peace and love” all the time (and be married to “Bond Girl” Barbara Bach for 40 years), maybe I should give it a try. Starting each day with 10 minutes, quieting my mind and reminding myself that I am not my emotions has transformed the quality of my life in a palpable way. I can only encourage you to start your own practice under your own apple tree. And thank you, Ringo.

If You’re Hiring, Just Be Decent to Applicants, OK?

June 11, 2021

We’re hearing a lot now about how employers can’t find workers to come back to their crappy low wage/no benefit jobs. Shocking, I know. We’re not really hearing how things are still rough for mid-range workers who are trying to return to salaried positions with some health care. I’m one of those people and there is no desperation to hire us. Slave labor, oh sure there are plenty of opportunities! A living wage that supports a family, not so much.

It’s no secret that I left my secure tenured position at Hogwarts when I learned the school had been taken over by trolls and goblins. It was time to try something else after two decades of institutional loyalty. So, as a stay-at-home dad, I focused on my writing and growing my consulting business. But that baby just finished first grade and it’s time to bring more revenue into the household. So scanning indeed.com and writing the cover letters began.

I’ve had some great experiences as a job applicant, including being flown to places like New York City to interview. I know it’s competitive and there are a lot of qualified applicants, some who are willing to work for cheap. I’ve had interviews in boardrooms and on Zoom and I get it if I might not be the right fit. I’m not a cookie cutter applicant. But that’s not what this about. This about one aspect of the hiring process that is a reason so many jobseekers are frustrated, the lack of contact.

I was on a lot of hiring committees at Hogwarts and here’s how it went. When we advertised for a position, we’d get a ton of applicants (usually around 50). We’d end up interviewing three or four people and hopefully having a “successful search.” (You’re hired!) But everyone of those  applicants got a call or email that said thanks for applying but you we won’t be advancing your candidacy. It was just being decent. Putting applications together takes a lot of work. Let those folks know they’re not in the running so they can move on and spend their job-seeking time wisely, instead of sitting by the phone like chumps.

The norm for hiring officers now is to be a dick. This has happened to me numerous times. My first sociology professor was retiring and he encouraged me to apply and step into his shoes. It seemed perfect. I became a fairly renown expert in my field because of the impact he had on me as a college freshman. I even flew in to have lunch with him and discuss how the college had changed so I could best frame my application. I prepared a solid package and began imagining moving my family across the country and becoming a sociology professor at Oxford College of Emory University, where I started in the field. And then I waited.

And I waited. And waited. Finally my wife said I should contact them. I sent an email to the chair of the department to ask about the status of my application and he casually replied that they had hired someone else.  I let him know that the CUSTOM (something sociologists should understand) is to let applicants know when they are no longer being considered. Asshole.

There are jobs I’ve applied to where I know it’s a complete long shot, like the position to be the equity director for Macy’s in NYC (Hey, I love a parade!), but even those should trigger a “Thanks, but no thanks” email. How hard can that be? Can’t you hire a bot to do that job if you’re too lazy to do it yourself?

So much of my work is built around how concepts like racism, sexism, and ableism dehumanize people. They’re not thinking, feeling people, they’re things to be used. While it’s not as historically traumatizing, jobseekers get dehumanized too, just a name on an online application. Just another PDF of a resume taking up data space. Not worthy of a, “Hey, this position is closed but good luck to ya!”

There’s an equity director position at my credit union that applied for. Twice. It’s still being advertised. They must have had a few failed searches, but they never bothered to let me know I was not in the running. Aren’t credit unions supposed to be “more human”? Do I have to be Arnold Horshack? “Oh! Oh! Pick me!”

This isn’t just me complaining. This is something so many jobseekers are going through. Even Toby on This Is Us! You totally think you’ve got an interview for a gig in the bag. You start imagining your new work life. You mentally pay off your credit cards. You buy pants. And then there is the roar of silence. Maybe their email is in the spam folder! Ah, shit.  It makes you appreciate when someone actually takes the time to turn you down, like this email that came while I was writing this paragraph:

“Unfortunately, at this time, we decided to proceed with our selection process with another candidate. The interview committee was impressed with your credentials and experience and it is a decision we didn’t make easily.

We will keep your resume in our talent database, and in case that we have a job opening that better fits your profile, we will make sure to get in touch with you.

I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors.” – Email received on June 11, 2021

It’s been a rough year. A ton of people have drained their savings accounts and maxed their credit cards. If you are in charge of hiring, or just on a hiring team, think of the people on the other side of that application process. Please. They are both stressed and hopeful. Don’t just let them dangle. It’s not cool. Mental wellbeing can be fragile, especially in a pandemic. If you don’t want someone on your payroll, have the decency to let them know.

Now back to Indeed.

Pandemic Nostalgia: Save a Mask, It’s Coming!

June 4, 2021

We social scientists love to come up with sharp names for social phenomenon. I’ve written a lot in this blog about anomie, Emile Durkheim’s 1897 term for the sense of normlessness that’s helped to explain the backslide into Trumpism. There’s been a lot of talk about Naomi Klein’s 2007 concept of shock doctrine again. But there are some phenomenon that still have no name, like when your walk into a bookstore or record store and immediately forget what you were looking for. Or when vintage t-shirts for a band that you know and love are being sold at Urban Outfitters to posers who never listened to the damn band. (“Name one Motorhead song! I dare you!”) There should be a name for that!

There’s another phenomenon as yet unnamed – feeling nostalgic for really horrible times. I just finished reading The Volunteer, Jack Fairweather’s epically researched 2019 book about a Polish officer who snuck into Auschwitz in 1940 and spent the next two and half years sending out reports of Nazi atrocities and organizing the camp resistance. Then when it became clear that the concentration camp had transitioned into a mass death camp, he escaped. When he was out, with good food and free from Typhus-infected lice and the stench of burning bodies, you know what he wanted to do? Go back! That world made sense, unlike the blasé attitude (that’s Georg Simmel’s concept) towards the Holocaust he found outside the camp.

I first experienced this weird feeling about a year after 9/11. The 2001 terrorist attacks had unified the nation. Republican and Democratic congress people stood together on the steps of the Capitol and sang “God Bless In America.” I was in Atlanta where locals covered their “Yankees Suck!” T-shirts with “I Love New York.” Sure there was some serious Islamophobia and a spike in xenophobic hate crimes, but there was also a powerful sense that we were all in this together. I miss that. Do we need another slaughter of civilians to get that feeling back?

As the COVID-19 pandemic wanes, I can already feel that old itch coming back. As of today, 136 million Americans are fully vaccinated (About 41.5% of the US population). Kids are wrapping up the last of their remote learning and we even saw a movie in a movie theater last weekend! There are nearly 4 million souls worldwide to mourn (with deaths spiking in India and Vietnam) and a mental health toll that will take generations to fully see, but, at least here on the home front, you can lay off the mask-making, feverous hand-washing, and crossing the street to avoid a panting jogger. Happy days are here again.

So what’s that tinge? The dread of having to jump back into the endless rush hour commute or the race to get the kid to school on time? Not having an excuse to not hang out with boring people? Having to find your pants? (Or buy new ones because you were binging on Love Island while devouring countless mole burritos, delivered by GrubHub?) The earth got a year-long break from us as the drop in our carbon footprints let us see the horizon for the first time in a generation. (“I didn’t know the Himalayas were right there!”) Although, I imagine landfills exploded with take-out containers in 2020. Are we ready to say goodbye to those random whiffs of fresh air?

Around mid-March 2020, when it started to be clear we were going to have to hunker down for a while, I said goodbye to some life-sustaining activities, like seeing live music and being belly-up to the bar with a whiskey ginger and set of great songs cued up on the jukebox. But I also thought of the things I’d have time to do, like read for fun and work on fixing up the house. Andi and I even started writing a screenplay. Most of that fell by the wayside as we found solace in the endless stream of Hulu and Netflix. Maybe we’ll finish the screenplay during the next pandemic. (Jinks!)

So I never got around to reading War & Peace (but I did spend way too many hours dissecting the new Dylan album). However one wonderful thing that came out of the lockdown was the opportunity to work on my marriage. There was really no escape, so it was either that or build myself a shed in the backyard. With ample supplies from the thank-god-it-stayed-open liquor store, we stayed up late into the nights, talking about how to build a stronger connection that was as beneficial to her. Zoom therapy sessions helped me identify some useful tools and Andi gave me a reading list. The book You Might be a Narcissist If…: How to Identify Narcissism in Ourselves and Others and What We Can Do About It turned my whole head around within two pages. There were some rough moments when I thought Donald Trump wasn’t the only thing that was going to get canceled by COVID, but she encouraged me to do the work and not fall back on old lazy habits. Without the 9-5 and the call of the nightlife, I could focus on what was and is important.

Perhaps everyone found a silver lining during this mess. So many of us, fearing for older family members, brought people together through Zoom sessions. I talked to my mother on the phone this year more than I have in the last 5 years combined. Neighbors began looking out for each other, making masks and hot meals and checking on that crazy old man nobody ever talks to. There was an explosion of book clubs and cocktail parties on Google Meet

As I craved live music, online concerts from home became a lifeline. (Ben Gibbard and Kevn Kinney, thank you.) And all the free webinars plugged me into global community of peers. We spent plenty of time over the last year in the streets, but there was plenty of activism that was happening in front of laptops. Just the fact that† my first grader spent this past February digesting amazing stories for Black History Month gave me hope that consciousness raising can happen on a keyboard. I know I wasn’t the only one who used the down time to plug into the whole wide world via webcam.

No doubt around 2030 they will start throwing 2020 socially distanced parties, and people can go to the costume store and buy face masks, sweat pants and “Got My Fauci Ouchie!” T-shirts. We can not invite anti-Asian hate criminals and the phony militia men protesting public health mandates, as we dance alone to oldies by DaBaby and/or Lil Baby and pretend we don’t know what day it is. Me at this moment, I’m just trying to come up a name for the strange feeling that I’m a little sad this nightmare is ending. Just a little.

I’m Vaccinated! Am I proud or am I ashamed of it?

March 24, 2021

I got vaccinated about a week ago and I don’t know if I should shout if from the rooftops or keep it on the down low. Never has getting a shot more been more fraught with social complexity. As of today, 127 million Americans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and about 14% of all Americans are now fully vaccinated. Is everyone who is vaxed as vexed as I am about how to respond? Let’s weigh this out.

On the one side, after a year of living in fear, according to the scientists, I am fully protected from the coronavirus and, apparently, the more infectious variants.

On the other side, those scientists can’t tell me if I can still pass COVID on to others.

On the one side, the more people who are vaccinated, the fewer hosts the virus has, slowing the pandemic down to something that starts to look like the mythical herd immunity.

On the other side, it’s really clear that the social inequities that marked higher infection and death rates for some populations are all reflected in who has access to the vaccine. My white privilege pays off in white life expectancy.

On the one side, I can stand as defender of science and encourage other intelligent people to get their shots as soon as possible.

On the other side, I’m aware there are a large number of idiots, including at least 50% of Trump voters, who said they won’t get the vaccine because they think COVID is a hoax. And those un-immunized idiots will birth mutant variants and put immunocompromised people (2.7% of Americans) at risk of infection and death.  (Dear idiots, Trump has been vaccinated and has said you should be, too.)

On one side, I don’t have to panic if I actually use a pen from the “dirty pen” holder when I’m signing the check at the coffee shop.

On the other side, these vaccines came out awfully fast. As a scientist, I’m bothered when corners are cut. And am I going to need another booster shot in a year? And when can my kid get vaccinated? And any info about long-term side effects? And…

I got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on sunny Saturday afternoon at the Portland Airport Economy Parking Lot. It was an impressive set up, like driving into Disneyland, with hundreds of volunteers donating their time to help put a dent in this pandemic that has killed nearly 3 million people on the planet (most here in the dirty USA). My first thought was about how people who didn’t have cars were going to get their shot in this very car-centric vaccination effort. (I didn’t even have to get out of the RAV-4.) Actually, my first thought was how lucky I was to get a spot so soon. K-12 educators are just getting vaccinated now. I think college educators like me are scheduled later, somewhere between Jiffly Lube workers and TikTok dancers.

A friend in the military had a vaccine opening and was already full of Moderna, so he offered it to me. I passed up on one of these “jump the queue” openings a month ago because I knew there were more deserving recipients. But, after hearing Dr. Anthony Fauci say, “If you have a chance to get a shot, get the shot,” I decided to play my educator-parent of a young child-I’m probably older than you and therefore at risk-card. This decision was made easier by the fact that there are reports that large numbers of vaccines have gone unused because of a disjoint in the demand and supply chain.

But it’s been clear that there is massive inequities in this vaccine rollout. African-Americans, who make up 12% of the U.S. population, are only 8% of those who have received a vaccine, according to the CDC. Since most vaccine scheduling is done online, the technological divide is hitting the offline hard. This includes the elderly, poor people, people with physical and mental disabilities, the unhoused, and those that live in rural areas with limited internet access. Those low vaccination rates will translate into higher infection and death rates.

I thought about this as I was on the wild ride of my “one and done” Johnson & Johnson poke. Eight hours after my shot, I was hit by the Corona Express, a quick trip into the “this what you get” black hole of side effects. I had the chills so bad I thought the teeth were going to bounce out my head. It all passed later the following day, and I felt ten feet tall and bulletproof. I had a great support system to hold my hand. The rumors of heavy side effects might make some folks who live a lone a little more vaccine hesitant. I know I was lucky, but it didn’t feel like it while I was sweating bullets.

I lecture a lot about privilege and how privilege should engage a sense of responsibility, not guilt. But there is a part of me that feels guilty that I got the vaccine when I know there are more deserving people who don’t have a friend who can put them on the immunization guest list. But maybe my shame should be reserved for the system that creates so many institutional injustices that play out in human suffering. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, in America, the best predictor of your life expectancy is the zip code you live in. I’m ashamed of that.

Ultimately, we’re all taking it on faith that the mass vaccination experiment will solve this new health problem. It’s already done a good job of adding to an old one.

Envisioning Our Renaissance at Home: Life After the Pandemic

March 8, 2021

A year ago, we were in a panic. I remember walking into the grocery store on February 29th, and seeing every roll of toilet paper gone. (I bought a 6-pack of Corona and went home.) Now, after over half a million deaths in America, the light is at the end of the tunnel. Things are beginning to open, like a late-winter purple crocus. Thirty million Americans have already been vaccinated. (I’m scheduled for my Pfizer vaccine on Saturday!) Schools are making plans to reopen and restaurants are starting to seat diners. The insanity of March 2020 is being answered by the hopefulness of March 2021. There are still incredibly high rates of infection (Don’t you dare take off that mask!), but the future looks bright.

I’ve done several trainings on racial and ethnic inequities related to the COVID-19 infection and death rates (and now immunization access) over the past year. I always try to balance all the doom and gloom with a “silver lining” ending about the power of resistance and resilience. Looking back at history, the explosion of cultural creation that began in the Renaissance of the 15th century was a life-affirming response to the “black death” of the 14th century’s bubonic plague pandemic. The “Roaring Twenties” were a celebratory pivot from World War 1 and the influenza pandemic that wiped out nearly 100 million people a century ago. Maybe this pandemic will give us a new Renaissance, I would offer my bummed-out audiences.

So let me throw an idea into our grand re-opening.

We’ve survived this year-long pandemic in various ways. Mainly retreating from bars, clubs, restaurants, block parties, and family celebrations, as we socially distanced from each other. We’ve retreated into our phones (Tik-Tok as therapy?) and endless binges on the small screen. (I’ve seen every iteration of 90 Day Fiancé and am now bingeing The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.) We’ve become anti-social. The majority of my college students mute their videos during our Zoom classes. I’m not sure if they are human beings or Russian bots. Can I get a human interaction??? So the response to this year of isolation is to become SUPER SOCIAL.

People of America, let me reintroduce the once popular pastime known as home entertainment.

When I was a kid in the 1970s, my parents were always going to parties. My brother and I were either stuck with a babysitter, or peaking under the bedroom door wondering who all the laughing people in our house were. My mom hosted bridge parties, my dad hosted poker parties. My parents belonged to a gourmet dinner club and, when it was their turn, cooked and decorated the house for disco-era foodies. I grew up thinking every weekend was a house party. Complete with a wet bar. To this day when I hear Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass my mouth waters for leftover hors d’oeuvres.

What did the swinging parents of the Seventies have that we don’t?

Well, for starters, they didn’t have social media sucking their eyeballs in an endless doom scroll. They also had better wages that allowed them to keep the wet bar stocked. But post-pandemic, we have a greater desire to be in a living room together, reading faces sans masks. (Did Ms. McGillicuddy just lick her lips while she handed me that Gin Rickey?) If there ever was a generation that was desperate to sit on a sectional couch and complain about kids and parents and government, it’s Generation Zoom.

So let’s bring it all back. Card games, Monopoly, charades, dinner parties, album listening sessions, jigsaw puzzles, Twister, fancy cocktails, inappropriate party games. All of it. Except the misogyny. We can leave that in the Seventies. (No key parties!) If the women want to smoke cigars in the backyard and complain about how their men are crappy at laundry while the men clean up the spilled Chex Mix, let ‘em. The kids can be locked in the bedrooms, watching the Wizard of Oz (or Ozark), while the parents crack open another bottle of pinot in the kitchen.

We’ll be back in the clubs and bars, seeing bands and getting Ubers home soon enough. But let’s not go back to normal. Normal sucked, too, if you remember. I don’t want 2019. Nobody wants 2019. If it’s Saturday evening, either you are going to somebody’s home for dinner, or you’re having somebody over for dinner. And then maybe an apéritif (Look up that word, loser) and a nice game of Parcheesi or even Cards Against Humanity. We need this! We need to sit across from each other, at a card table, and reconnect.

Great things can come from this. During the Enlightenment, salons became all the rage in Paris. People turned their living spaces into community meeting places, called salons. In apartments and front rooms, people would gather to discuss art, politics, and the meaning of existence in a post-Dark Ages Europe. German sociologist Georg Simmel invented the field of small group dynamics by observing interactions of salon participants. The next generation of grand ideas is not going to come from hunched-over trolls, sliding though endless posts on Instagram. It’s going to come from the collision of ideas that occur during a game of rummy, fueled by Whiskey Sours.

During the quarantine, we decided to take on a kitchen remodel in our 1909 Portland Craftsman home (with a very out-of-date 1960s kitchen). We want to turn our home into a welcoming place where people can bring a bottle of wine and stay as late as they want. No TV, we’re adding another couch to the living room for relaxed conversations. I’m going to re-learn how to play poker. (Seventh grade was a long time ago.) We want to start a circle of friends who feel comfortable inviting each over to their homes, even if it’s for a cocktail before heading out to the movies.  (Remember going to the movies? And friends?) Enough take out. Let’s cook in! And invite the neighbors! Home entertaining could be the great salve we’ve secretly craved. You’ve spent a year cleaning your place, for godssake.

Our culture is so divided right now. Let’s get to know each other again. Let our homes become safe spaces to argue and discuss and figure out what our Roaring Twenties should look like. I want you to dress for the occasion. I’ll bring the deviled eggs. Cheers!

Dad’s Top 20 Discs of 2020

December 28, 2020

My joke about this year has been that 2020 will make 1968 look like 1954, but without the soundtrack. That’s not quite true. There has been a lot of great music this year, including full albums recorded while on lockdown (or “rockdown,” as Paul McCartney called it). Unfortunately, a lot of us where not in the mood to search out new music this year, especially when all live shows were cancelled. I found my muse in creating numerous Spotify playlists, like chronologies of Prince and The Kinks. My music highlight of the year was Beyoncé’s musical film, Black is King, released during the summer. Visually stunning and perfectly timely as the streets were filled with Black Lives Matter protestors.

The truth is that my most listened to album in 2020 was released in the summer of 2019. Lana del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell was on repeat play through the year. It’s 67 and a half minutes of epic soundscape offered endless layers of discovery. Like an arthouse film that reveals a different interpretation with each viewing, Norman Fucking Rockwell was an expansive chasm of wordplay and music pulled from the dreamworld.

Similarly, some of my favorite albums of 2020 came out at the very end of 2019 (Harry Styles, The Who).  Others were the casualties of COVID (Toots Hibbert, RIP) or commenting on the meaning of it (Bob Dylan’s sweeping tome). The death of George Floyd gave us the most clear musical moment, including powerful releases from Run the Jewels and Black Thought. But nothing sounded more like 2020 than the third album by the British band Sault. Untitled (Black Is) brought the themes of being locked down and tearing down racism into a hypnotic swirl that was both backward and forward looking. I didn’t quite get the Taylor Swift album but the Sault album seemed to be the right album at the right time.

Flipping back through the new music I dug in 2020, here’s my top 20 albums of the year. I expect that, with massive vaccinations, 2021 will kick off our swinging ‘20s.

1. Sault – Untitled (Black Is)

2. Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways

3. Harry Styles – Fine Line

4. Black Thought – Streams of Thought, Vol. 3: Cane & Able

5. Drive-by Truckers – The Unraveling

6. The Who – Who

7. Paul McCartney – McCartney III

8. Shelby Lynne – Shelby Lynne

9. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Reunions

10. Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters 

11. Bruce Springsteen – Letter to You

12. Paul Weller – On Sunset

13. Run the Jewels – RTJ4

14. Toots and the Maytals – Got to Be Tough

15. Lido Pimienta  – Miss Columbia

16. Various Artists – PDX Pop Now Vol.  17

17. Pearl Jam – Gigaton

18.  Haim – Women in Music Pt. III

19. Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud 

20. Neil Young – Homegrown

And a special mention of The Chicks “March, March” single, which gave us the most needed video of the year, and Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage,” which the girls in the neighborhood mimed endlessly this summer.

The Dream Life of 2020

December 16, 2020

When we wake from a dream, half remembering the details and then immediately losing them, we only know what we don’t know. Keith Richards once wrote in his detailed autobiography, “Memory is fiction” as a way of letting himself off the hook for constructing a picture of his life that may have diverted from facts. But all history is a construction. George Washington told a lie or two. When I remember something in my own life, am I remembering it as it happened, or merely remembering my last memory of it? A picture of a picture, losing sharpness with each copy.

That’s sort of how I reflect on 2020, a year of years, as if a dream that I am just now waking up from. Did all that happen? The clouds of CS gas may have affected my cognitive ability. If I’m not mistaken, everything collapsed. Reality as we know it ended and I’m a bit foggy on whether that was a bad or a good thing.

The year for me really began on March 11. Before that it was the usual drama; war in the Persian Gulf, Democratic debates, stock market and helicopter crashes, and me trying to get my kindergartner dressed for school. The news about the “novel coronavirus” had been spreading fast and I remember telling my students in February that this was probably going to be the story of the year. Little did I know it would be a tsunami that would wash over every person on the planet. March 11 was the day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. It was also the day that we were supposed to see Patti Smith in concert. We had tickets for show at the Seattle Paramount and were going to drive up after my Wednesday classes. That afternoon the show was cancelled out of fear of the virus spreading (Washington was the first state to get hit) and I had a feeling that it was just getting started. The following day Tom Hanks was was sick. As goes Tom Hanks, so goes the world.

The year now exists in a series of half remembered moments that may have been scenes from a movie and not my life.

I remember fleeing Portland because the wildfires in Oregon and California had clogged the air with smoke, making breathing impossible. We headed as far west as possible, ending up in Newport, Oregon, which was a mixture of smoke and fog but at least you could breathe. You couldn’t see the ocean and the escape it promised. We camped out in the Sylvia writers’ hotel, where we found sanctuary in old books as our daughter played with Shelly the Cat. (I am back at the Sylvia Hotel now, sitting next to my wife who is writing her book that will change the world. I can see the Pacific Ocean and it can see me. I’m finally starting Patti Smith’s The Year of the Monkey.) When the rains came back to Oregon, Cozy and I danced in the streets, thanking Gaia for protecting our house.

I remember Andi and I being in the streets of Portland as the revolution ramped up. Trump’s federal troops had come in to quash the Black Lives Matter protests, which only brought more anti-fascist Americanos to the fight. By that week’s Battle of Portland, we already had a few tear-gassings under our belt. There was a moment this July night (really morning) when I was hiding behind a concrete pillar on SW 5th Avenue as the DHS troops fired rounds at unarmed protestors. Was this Argentina, 1979, Mexico City, 1968, Belfast, 1972, Cairo, 2013? What country was I in and would I be killed by a hastily assembled gang of federal forces whose only mandate was to show that Trump was tough on “antifa”? Andrea and I made a mad dash across the street to a safer alcove. In 1994 I had tried to get to Sarajevo from Austria and was blocked at the border. In 2020, I was in the middle of something equally as historic. A group of protestors came marching eastward, chanting “No cops, no KKK, no fascist USA” and the federal forces fired rounds and them and then chased them down to attempt mass arrests. “Oh my God” Andi screamed. Was that America or was that a dream?

I remember having to move my college classes to a remote set-up and hoping my students, laid flat by deportations, lay offs, depression, and the virus itself, would show up. Weekly Zoom meetings became more like therapy sessions and I found myself longing to see their two-dimensional faces. Most typically kept their cameras on mute, making me wonder if I was dreaming them or they were dreaming me. Did they even exist? A name on a role and on a screen. Had the virus erased them, as well? While my daughter found community in a neighborhood “pod school” with four other first-graders, I was stuck in my living room, whiskey in my coffee, pretending I was a college professor.

I remember watching the body count. 1000 dead. 50,000 dead. 250,000 dead. 294,535 dead, just in the U.S.. All while the president played golf and held super-spreader rallies, proclaiming it would magically go away after election day. (Didn’t he get the virus? And his wife? And his kids? And his greasy-hands-in-pants lawyer?) I remember thinking that I had COVID more than once, including this morning. (That was just a hangover from drinking Gin Rickies in the F. Scott Fitzgerald room at the Sylvia.) I remember worrying I wouldn’t be able to say goodbye to Andi and Cozy with a ventilator down my throat. My parents, in their seventies in hard hit Georgia, stayed in my mind. Would I get to see them again? Would anything be anything again?

I remember a gameshow president trying to imitate his dictator pals, even after he lost the election BY A LOT. I think about his cult-like followers caravanning into Portland in pick-up trucks, shooting paintball guns (and real ones) at protesters, oblivious to the 1922 March on Rome that brought fascism to Italy wrapped in a national flag and the cry, “Kill the communists!” I wonder where those people are now. Training for Civil War II, I imagine, their orange lord encouraging to them face the bullets while he snorts Adderall in his last moments in the White House. Donald Trump was cancelled like Coachella, but the specter of his idiocy hovers like a toxic cloud from a sewage plant fire.

I remember a planet convulsing with the burden of having to carry the human race for another year. So many hurricanes they had to start the alphabet over again. Endless fires and floods and people wondered, “Is Tiger King on?”

And I remember black people begging for their lives to matter. Not begging, demanding. Tired of this shit 155 after the end of slavery and yet it continues. The signs said it all, “Enough is enough!,” “Black trans lives matter!” “Stop killing us!” and a thousand others. A hundred nights of protests in Portland. Americans being gassed in Lafayette Park so Trump could hold a prop Bible. White People reading White Fragility and then looking in the mirror. A racial convulsion of a nation that had too long denied its sins. Was this an awakening or were we still asleep?

But I also remember the more personal moments, like my wife being awarded her masters degree and then landing a teaching gig at Reed College, or my daughter learning how to ride a bike or communing the the lemurs at the Zoo. Those moments seemed more real than watching the death throes of the American Century. Deep, quarantine-time conversations with my wife about how to make our marriage a friendship meant more than worrying about Melania and her celebrity apprentice.

With the vaccine and Inauguration Day on the way, I’m ready to wake up and see how this year will be remembered. But I’m happy to wait for the grand historical recap to be told. Or the post mortem. In 2021, when we open our eyes, there will be a dance where we once again embrace and celebrate the joy of life, vowing to not go back to sleep.

Saying goodbye to 5-year-old Cozy and hello BIG 6!

August 17, 2020

One of the cliche adages that parents get handed (all of which are appreciated) is that every stage of a child’s life are great. Our daughter, Cozette turns six today. By the way, she’s made it clear that she prefers Cozette to Cozy. And as exciting as it is, I’m really going to miss my 5-year-old. She was a rockstar. I couldn’t get enough of her wit and wisdom and spontaneous dance routines.

Five is such a growth period. Physically and mentally. Physically she’s been stuck at 50 pounds for months, but growing like a weed, stretching from babyfat 4 to skinny 6. And the first loose tooth is seconds from falling out. But it’s been the intellectual growth that’s been so stunning. She still loves her stuffies, but she is completely plugged in to the world. Seeing her take on the Black Lives Matter cause as a personal crusade has been breathtaking. How many 5-year-olds can tell you, in detail, why we should remember George Floyd and Breonna Taylor?

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My father is convinced we’ve “indoctrinated” her, but this is all on her. She’s not writing “BLM” in chalk on the sidewalk because of me, she’s doing it for her African-American friends and neighbors. She has an empathetic connection with them and wants to protect them from racism. I didn’t do this. She figured inequity all out on her own. She knows her black friends are hurting and, in her own way, wants to let them know they are safe with her and loved.

The fact that all this growth has happened during a global pandemic has been remarkable. The last three months of her kindergarten class were a disaster. Trying to corral a bunch of 5 and 6-year-olds to focus on Zoom for 40 minutes, four days a week was completely pointless. All COVID-era students, K through Law School, are getting screwed, but the little kids are getting it the worst. I don’t know if we were the best homeschoolers or if Cozy is now behind where she should be entering first grade, which is hard because she’s so smart.

Cozy’s great skill set is in her ability for social navigation. There is a complex social dynamic of kiddos in our neighborhood and it has a racial component. Our Cozette is the great peacemaker, like a little Freud, understanding the baggage that each child enders the playing field with. I was like that in high school, having friends in the various silly cliques. (Jocks! Preps! Freaks!) I was elected senior class secretary but Cozy already has her eyes set on the White House. (You heard it here first.) She knows how to speak to her audience and it is sincere as it gets. We won’t have to teach her empathy. Why “Y” is sometimes a vowel, yes, but empathy, no.

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For her birthday weekend we took a trip up to Orcas Island in the San Juan Islands. (Americans are currently prohibited from leaving the country so that was as close as we could get to the border.) We decided to go after watching Free Willy. She was crushed to learn that Keiko the Whale had passed away so I promised her we’d go see if we could find some orcas in their habitat. As we stood on the empty Crescent Beach, watching for whales, I told her, “Cozy, I’m rally going to miss the 5-year-old you.” She replied, “Daddy, I’m going to miss the 56-year-old you.” She knew that we were both moving through life together, growing and changing.

You can never step in the same river twice. I will never have Cozy, 5, to discuss political affairs and L.O.L Dolls with. But the 6-year-old Cozette is going to change the world. I’m just honored to be in that world with her.

Cozy and Me

My Old Face

January 18, 2020

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The life expectancy in the United States in 1920 was 58.8 years, so if you met someone who was sixty, they were “elderly” and living on borrowed time. In 2020, the American life expectancy is 78.9 and there are approximately 80,000 Americans who are over a hundred years old. I’m 55, so a hundred years ago I would have been ancient and now I’m wondering if I even qualify as “middle-aged.” Wilfrid Brambell, the actor who played Paul McCartney’s comical grandfather in The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night (1964) was 52 at the time. Beatle Paul is now 77 and heads back on tour this spring, headlining the Glastonbury Festival on June 27.

So who’s old now? “Old.”

And when someone tells you to “act your age,” what does that even mean? What does it mean to a 17-year-old or a 55-year-old? I remember during the previous impeachment, there was a general feeling that 52-year-old Bill Clinton was not acting his age with Monica Lewinsky.  (Harvey Weinstein, 67, redefined the relationship between age and douchebaggery.) And if he were not the leader of the free world, the infantile antics of Donald Trump, 73, might be endearing. “He’s an old man, but he’s so childlike!”

As I write this with my reading glasses on, I can tell you there are a few clear markers of aging besides the fact that the smoothness of my skin seems to be evaporating. The aches and pains creep in and the extra pounds tend to hang on a bit longer, no matter how hard I hit the gym. And it’s just harder to hit the gym since there’s something awesome on TV tonight. I always hated when my elders would complain endlessly about the chronic pains of life so I’ll keep my mouth shut, but if I drive more than five miles, my right knee hurts!

There’s also the constant reminder of the passage of time. As a teacher, aging is particularly profound. The majority of my college students were born in the twenty-first century. I’ll say something like, “Remember how the nation reacted to 9/11?” and they’ll say, “OK, boomer, I was 3 days old.” And I’ll say, “I’m not a boomer, depending on how you chart birth rates. I’m a Generation X elder.” (My five-year-old daughter has taken to saying, “OK, boomer X.”) Regardless, I am constantly reminding my students what the world was like before the internet. Last week I was explaining what a “travel agent” was. “A travel asian?” one asked.

The value of all the mistakes I’ve made is that I can offer Generation Z endless pearls of wisdom, like “avoid credit card debt at all costs,” and “figure out ASAP that women are people,” and “don’t mix wine and whiskey,” and “take a literature class or something.” Then I can sit back and put all my hopes that the world doesn’t blow up on them. It is nice knowing a few things about how reality works even if I have no idea how I’ll be paying for the chronic health issues that are surely around the corner.

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The bottom line is that I don’t feel old. I still want to be at the front of the stage when a hot young band is blowing the doors off of some basement club. I was in the front when I was 17 seeing The Ramones and I was right up front seeing Velvet Q scream through a set in Seattle a few weeks ago. (Check them out, Grams.) I try not to wonder if the kids are thinking, “What’s that old guy doing here?” Because that’s what I would have thought back in the day. But, to be frank, the reality is that I find more comfort in spinning an old Yes album, than knowing the next big underground thing. (I’ve taken to consuming critics year-end lists to find music I should’ve already known about. Big Thief!)

The Baby Boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, got old. Boomers like Donald Trump and Dolly Parton, both born in 1946, are 73. The good news is that generation changed what it means to “get old.” If 73 is no longer “old,” 55 definitely is not. Ringo Starr will be on tour this summer for his 80th birthday, and Trump probably already has his sights on his post-indictment wife. (Sorry, Melania. Be best!) They made “thirty-something” cool in the eighties and they’ll probably make “eighty-something” cool in the 2030s.

So, lines on my face aside, there’s still a lot of life ahead. That includes mistakes, child-like moments of wonder, new paths, and nights pressed against the stage, remaining hair shaking to the beat.

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2019 in Review – 22 Snapshots and an Impeachment

December 31, 2019

I guess I’ve been a crummy blogger this year. When Cozy was a baby, I could squeeze out a couple of blogposts a week on everything from housework to feminist cowboy movies. In 2019, I only managed 22 posts. To be fair, I actually taught full-time the entire year. It felt good to be back at work. My wonderful students got to be the recipients of my random thoughts about the state of the world. And now that Cozy is a kindergartener, typing up cohesive essays is more of a luxury. Plus, I’ve spent much of my spare time chasing squirrels out of our attic.

I was excited that my writing still had an audience even though every single post wasn’t about Trump’s racism. My tribute to my late friend (and Atlanta punk icon) David Dickens had the most reads (1,900). My piece on the Christchurch killings was reprinted in The Peace Chronicle, which was a great privilege.

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2018 was a year of global travel. For 2019, I managed to stay mostly on the West Coast, with a few weeks in Mexico to give a couple of lectures in my favorite anthropology field school. I still managed plenty of world media appearances (especially CNN International), but my favorite media interview was when a rare tornado came right down our street. Under my name, instead of usual “HATE CRIME EXPERT” it said, “LIVES NEAR DOWNED TREE.” Much more exciting than an appearance in Turkish TV (which I also did in 2019).

Of course the driving theme of the year was growing blackhole being created by our idiot president, culminating in his impeachment on December 18. By that point I had written so many posts about his inevitable impeachment that the actual thing was anticlimactic and I didn’t even bother to comment on it. (I do wonder what will happen to all the ITMFA t-shirts that are so common here in Portland.) I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say as the divide widens even further in 2020, with Trump loyalists promising civil war if they don’t get their way. It’s like the country is being taken over by hordes of fascist babies.

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For me, the focus of 2019 was on my family. Working steadily gave me a better foundation to be grounded in the real and not the endless yammering on social media. My classes Portland Community College and my CLE trainings for attorneys gave me the professional connections I craved and I got to work on a few murder cases that let me to put my skills to work in very important arenas. This allowed me to not worry too much about financial issues, and focus on being present for Andrea and Cozy. Maybe the best moment was taking Cozy on a surprise trip to Disney in LA that included a stop at their animation studios where a friend showed her the work he was completing on Frozen 2. There was also a trip to Las Vegas to see The Beatles’ LOVE, twice! Family times was its own reward.

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The coming year will have plenty challenges. I imagine I will be commenting directly on the rise of anti-Semitic violence and the Trump cult’s threats to peace and equality. But my personal agenda will be focused on making good educational choices for my daughter, showing my wife how much I cherish her, and finally getting the squirrels out of the attic.

2019 WTW Posts

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“Thanks, punk!” (For David Dickens) (January 10, 2019)

Watching fragile men freak out over a Gillette ad (January 17, 2019)

Raising Honest Children in the Age of Trump (January 25, 2019)

A silly love song for my wife (February 14, 2019)

The Wisdom of Double Nickels: On Turning 55(February 22, 2019)

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On not dying youngish(March 5, 2019)

He Killed My Child: Meditations on Christchurch and the Sociopathy of White Supremacy (March 19, 2019)

I have found what I was looking for, Bono.(April 14, 2019)

Globalization and Nationalism: Get Ready for More Fascist Violence(April 28, 2018)

This War on Women and a Strategy to Defend Choice (May 20, 2019)

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Just Open the Damn Border (June 18, 2019)

Female Role Models For My Daughter (and all those boys) (July 7, 2019)

How Do You Solve a Racist Problem like Donald? (July 17, 2019)

Lita was one cool cat.(July 26, 2019)

Your loved one was just killed by an angry white man with a gun. OK?(August 4, 2019)

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Matterhorn not withstanding, we have a 5-year old (August 29, 2019)

Your biography is history: Taking in the Trump impeachment (October 3, 2019)

White People: If you aren’t actively anti-racism, you are pro-racism (October 23, 2019)

I was 5 once, too!(November 27, 2019)

Reelin’ in the Tens: What was this decade about anyway? (December 29, 2019)

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 Dad’s Top Discs of 2019 (December 30, 2019)

2019 in Review – 22 Snapshots and an Impeachment (December 31, 2019)