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.

Two Robots Meet on Mars – A Valentines Poem for My Wife

February 14, 2021

Two robots meet on the barren surface of Mars

Because of a bump in the road, one’s roving path was altered 

Putting it into an intersecting path with the other

It was on a large plain in a basin called Utopia

They took it as a sign

They both stopped, not expecting to see another robot on this empty planet

What were the odds?

They had traveled countless kilometers

(That they had counted, being so lonely)

And only seen red hills and valleys

They took each other in

As data

With their camera eyes

Same switches, same wheels, same solar panels

Yet they were not the same

With a few awkward beeps and whirls

They decide there on Utopia Planitia

To abandon their missions that had been programmed

By their motherboard, and whoever programmed her

Without logic or algorithm a new mission was created

The two robots made the choice

To turn off Mission Control

And build a new world of their own in the basin

They used the husk of an old Soviet lander to build a house

And stripped their bodies of circuits and pulleys to make a smaller robot to care for

Mars’ moons passed by quickly

And the stars shifted in the sky slowly

And each Martian day the two robots became more integrated

A singular mission in a harsh climate

Freezing winds without a flower in sight

It didn’t matter, there in Utopia

The two robots and their little robot

Collected information, charting their place in the cosmos

And found a new source of energy on which they could thrive

Two robots met on Mars and fell in love

President Snowflake: How Trump’s fragile masculinity made me a better man.

November 19, 2020

If there was ever a time America needed a leader, it’s now as COVID deaths surge past a quarter million. But sad Donald Trump is in his bunker, tweeting madly that he won the election “by a lot.” No stimulus program for Americans falling into homelessness. No national mask mandate to save additional lives. Just Baby Donald having a temper tantrum and a circus of sycophants too afraid to tell the Emperor that the world is laughing at him.

The pathetic end of Donald J. Trump is not only a lesson in how not to be a president. It’s also a vital lesson in how not to be a man. Of course, Mr. “Grab’ em by the pussy” has provided that service for years.

The lockdowns of 2020 have certainly presented challenges for single people, but there have been challenges for those of us that are boo’d up as well. The pandemic has forced many of us married and “coupled up” (as they say on Love Island) to learn how to truly co-exist in a confined space, without the easy exit hatch of “let’s just go out.” There’s only so much Netflixing you can do. At some point, it gets real. And as if providing (finally) some kind of national service, there’s President Hissy-fit giving the men of America a perfect example of how not to handle this moment.

From the very beginning, Trump has made it all about him. From his word-salad lie-fests before his adoring cult crowds to his denial of the Biden victory, “America first” has always been code for “Trump first” and you almost feel sorry for the schleps that still fall for this con man. (“Quick! Donate to President Trump’s legal team so he prove those black votes in Detroit and Atlanta were illegal! We take PayPal!”) Trump always centers himself and you don’t have to look at Melania’s face to see that that’s his fatal flaw.

But this isn’t about Trump. It’s about all us men who do the same thing. We’ve been socialized to believe it’s a man’s, man’s, man’s world and women are there as our support system. (BEHIND every great man… is a woman who should be out in front.) The world is about our male hopes and plans and adventures and successes and failures and wet dreams. That’s why Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) resonated with so many women. It simply asked, but what about me? Arn’t I a person, too?

Sadly, the second wave feminist movement that Friedan helped launch did not fully humanize females in America. It made a lot of progress (Thank you, Title IX and hello Vice President Harris!), but it still looks like a penis-centered culture. At least American Ninja Warrior puts the the top two female contestants through to the finals. We can find plenty of reasons to find cracks in patriarchy. (I’ll credit Nancy Pelosi for keeping Trump’s nuts in a vice grip and the daughters of NFL fans for prioritizing Beyoncés BLM anthems over Go Daddy commercials and cheerleaders in halter tops.) We can see progress all around us (if we turn blind eye to the epidemic of rape in the country), but there are still people who want to make America “Father Knows Best” again.

We can talk about this on a societal level (RBG was right. We’ve had generations of all-male Supreme Courts. When do we get an all-female Supreme Court?) But this is about the personal journey of men stepping away from the destructive (including to men) effects of patriarchy.

More than that, this about me learning how to love my wife.

If patriarchy, on a macro-level, is about centering men’s voice and minds in society, on a personal level it’s about doing the same Goddamn thing in our relationships. Hi ladies, welcome to my world. Can you make me a sandwich? Feminist Dorothy E. Smith has written how women are given control of the “domestic sphere” so men can have pretty much everything else on earth. And that can include the space in a relationship.

Now, to be clear, I have claimed feminism as a core value in my life since the 1980s and proudly left my job to become a stay-at-home dad, inspired by my favorite househusband John Lennon. I can thrill you with stories of escorting women into abortion clinics past the screaming banshees of Operation Rescue and challenging students to accept that God is most likely female, but I still internalized patriarchy in the same sad way I internalized white supremacy.

That became most clear this year during long, under quarantine, conversations with my wife. Like most people, we’ve had our fair share of COVID-magnified conflicts; about money, about parenting, about who is going to wash the dishes. She was quick to point out how quickly I would go into defensive mode and try to “prove” my case, like we were on opposing debating teams. We’re on the same team! I forgot! But it became all about me and how I was somehow aggrieved.

What I should have been doing is asking questions. Why do you feel this way? What can I do to help? I should have centered her and put my amazing wife first in the discussion, but instead  I retreated into “Randyland,” wondering why she had a “well, fuck this shit” look on her face. Maybe if I slept downstairs I could comeback, refreshed with an even clearer articulation of my position, complete with PowerPoint slides. Meanwhile, my wife felt more and more alone as I plotted strategies in my head instead of re-coupling (also a term from Love Island).

This is going to sound completely basic to many people (and maybe a few men), but I have literally burned through every relationship by doing this. By making it about me. That’s not how love is supposed to work. You’re supposed to put your partner’s emotional well-being before your own, but in patriarchal America I didn’t get that role modeling, not from my father and not from Starsky & Hutch. The result was relationships crashing and burning and me thinking that I was just a “psycho-chick magnet.” If they were psycho, it was because I centered myself instead of them.

There is a parallel phenomenon here with regard to race called White Fragility. America has the handbook and is starting to figure that out. (Thanks, Robin!) It’s not about you, Karen, so stop centering yourself and start centering black voices. Maybe, we need a book called Male Fragility: Why Men Get Their Panties in a Wad.

My wife is strong as hell and sure enough doesn’t need a guy like me who doesn’t put his partner before himself. I should have gotten that lesson a long time ago. I’m not the king of my castle. But somewhere, between long, hard conversations with her and watching Baby Trump center himself instead of the nation we hired him to lead, I got it. Don’t be like Trump. Hey Donald, it’s not about you. It’s about America. She’s trying to tell you how she feels. Please listen.

A Safer Space – A Valentine’s Poem for My Wife

February 14, 2020

 

This safer space

Where you can breath

Where you can open

Where your back is watched

 

The complexity of existence

Is far from a straight line

No pretty rom com

With a beginning middle and end

As “Here Comes the Bride” plays into the amber sunset

The wounds are real

As are the secrets they conceal

Each stripe a mark of resilience 

What to do with each lived tale

Waiting to be remembered as a lost epithet

 

This safer space

Where you can breath

Where you can open

Where your back is watched

 

Let our bond become a fortress

Where truths be told

And where hearts are bold

A lush garden of ever-growing trees

And where sadness only rests her feet

The beaming face our child

An old photo of grandmother passed

A husband’s holding hand

Proof of a great embrace of love

And chance to finally smell the air so sweet

 

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This safer space

Where you can breath

Where you can open

Where your back is watched

I have found what I was looking for, Bono.

April 14, 2019

I have climbed the highest mountains

Whenever friends or family would come to my little Georgia town, we’d force them to climb its namesake, Stone Mountain. It’s the largest exposed piece of granite in the world and offers a pretty spectacular view of countless pine trees from its nearly 1700 foot summit. On a clear day, you can see Atlanta, which calls itself the “city too busy to hate” in an effort to claim a full agenda gets white people off the hook. We took everyone up that mountain, even my grandparents. There was something spiritual about rising above the tree line, while seeing the graffiti of lovers from the 18th century etched into the rock.

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As a kid I didn’t understand the historical significance of the mountain, which features the largest Confederate memorial carved right into its face. On Thanksgiving night, 1915, a group of hooded white men, including two elderly members of the original Ku Klux Klan, climbed the mountain, raised the Confederate flag, opened a Bible, and, for the first time, burned a 16-foot cross. The modern KKK was born on my mountain. The century of murder and terror it waged against Americans had its inglorious beginning on Stone Mountain. The land beneath it was owned by a Klansman and they still return to its summit, like a white supremacist Mecca.

Walking in the footsteps of those first Klansmen would lead the way towards a lifetime of studying hate and trying to understand organized racism. This included time spent undercover in the white supremacist movement. I’ve seen crosses set alight by men in robes and it made the blood freeze in my veins. This long career has been dedicated to trying to undue what those men started on my mountain in 1915. It’s taken me around the world and brought me to what I had been looking for all along, the antidote to hate.

I have kissed honey lips

Most of my life I have been untethered. I felt like I was floating from one 4 minute music video to another. Even when I was “in love,” I had a few toes out the door, ready for the next song cycle to carry me where it might. There were some epic romances, followed by a divine right to the blues and red red wine. My passport was full but I wasn’t going anywhere, locked in a Möbius strip.

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For much of that life fully lived, the music of U2 provided a soundtrack of freedom. The summer of 1986 I ended up back in Dublin (after working in Copenhagen for a few weeks). U2 was recording their soon-to-be revered Joshua Tree album. I was meeting with Bono as he wanted me to help him compile a release of unsigned American rock bands for their vanity label, Mother Records. (The compilation never was finished but he loved the tape of my roommate’s band, drivin’ ’n’ cryin’ and they were soon signed to U2’s label, Island Records. “Randy, I am a drivin’ ’n’ cryin’ fan,” he said, grabbing my shoulders.) The summer of ’86, I told him way too much about my challenging love life. Part of that summer had been spent with Sinead O’Connor in London, watching her shave her head for the first time. Part of my heart was back in the states with my girlfriend who was leaving me for a life in Paris. I was 22 and had no idea how love was supposed to work.

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He told me the new album would have more love songs and be less political in its themes. The band was exploring more colors from its sonic palette. The following spring, I was driving in Los Angeles when I first heard the final product on KNAC radio; “Where the Streets Have No Name,” soaring as I drove across Mulholland Drive on top of the Hollywood Hills. The world opened up below me. The definitive musical statement of the 1980s had been made and it reflected everything I was at that moment, searching, running to stand still.

You broke the bonds, you loosened chains

My work studying racism and finding an audience in the ancient world of the university earned me the top rank as a tenured full professor at Hogwarts. I had leveraged my position, pushing the faculty to strike against the swollen trolls of the administration to build a university the cared more about easing student debt than the ever-expanding supply of overpaid deans. (If you didn’t know, Hogwarts has more troll deans than you can shake a wand at.)

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All that fell silent when she walked into the room. All the colors bled into one. Angel or devil, I couldn’t tell. I tried to put her out of my mind and went back to my lectures about how romantic love was a “social construction of reality,” a lie that we believe because we’ve been brainwashed by sappy songs and rom coms. I was still in my Möbius loop. “Maybe I should try online dating,” I thought. I tried to avoid looking at her. I worried it would be like B’rer Rabbit and the tar baby. One look and I would be stuck.

After the class was over, I ran into her in a bar. She bought me a shot of tequila and asked if I’d like to go out sometime. “I don’t date students,” I said, feeling the floor slipping out from under me. She bought me another shot. I heard Bono singing, “I can’t live with or without you.” Our friendship became more than that. I saw in her the end of the loop. She knew everything about me. All my flaws and the way out. Why had I been paying a therapist all those years? I saw in her the future mother of my children. We would not be only two people for very long. I saw in her the person who’s dreams I wanted to spend the rest of my life supporting. “I’m with her!” Soon we were married and the parents of a miraculous child who was conceived in a moment of brilliant foresight. “Let’s make a baby!”

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The trolls at Hogwarts used this love of loves as a cudgel to silence a trouble maker. (It seems on-line wizard training is much cheaper than tenured full professors, leaving more money to hire more troll deans.) I was dragged in before the council of witches, their mouths dripping with the anticipation of scoring points for the queen troll. They treated our love as some grand violation. They wanted to destroy my lifetime of work against hate. Perhaps I should have fought harder, but I was in love with my wife and new baby and seeing the monsters that profited behind the hallowed halls of Hogwarts disgusted me. I was forced resign my position and left to create something new, away from their sickness. I let go of the hand if the devil and was free.

Felt the healing in the fingertips

I should have felt like a freefall, loosing the security of a salaried tenured position and the benefits that came with it. (It was easy to not go to the dentist when you have full dental.) Thanks, Obamacare! I became a hustler, selling assets, picking up random gigs here and there. She carried the cross as I stayed home with the baby. I’d hold my little girl and chant, “Everything’s gonna be alright. Everything’s gonna be alright,” hoping the words would be a magical incantation, bringing the answer in a mighty flash of financial stability. “Vengeance is mine!” I would say, as I put some money, any money into my savings account.

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Instead, a strange healing happened as my world, once so big, was shrunk down to three people. It was a bizarre love triangle, like we were our own holy trinity. Not really us versus them, because we’ve had so many amazing people on our side. Us and them (and we think about the trolls less every day). There is a burning sun in our home that has melted us like glass into one perfectly clear entity. It might look like a blob to the outside world, but we are three voices in harmony, and, too each of us, it sounds like it’s coming the tongues of angels.

Being bounced out of my university security gave me back the hunger of my youth. I published a novel and proposed a reality TV show and found my way into cable news commentary. Each experiment was latched to hope that this would open a door that I could take my family through. My wife had her own ascendency, through her art and academic paths. She now grades her students’ exams as I write about our seemingly endless war on racism, from Stone Mountain to Trump. We are recreating the world in our image.

In the middle of all that I found what I was looking for. Hearing our daughter sing in the bathtub. Watching my wife see how her presence can help heal the great divide. Being asked to bring my experience to table after table. I had to lose it all to gain it all. I was of the world and now I am of we three, in this world. All the pieces fit. Like a teenage rock band that’s ready to take the world by storm (as U2 was in its infancy), our vision is unclouded.

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When Bono wrote the words to “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” he was still childless. He didn’t become a parent until 1989. I’m guessing he would have written a different song if he had been a dad the summer of 1986. Maybe I’ll ask him someday. (He’s about as accessible as the Pope these days.) That song seemed woven into my cellular membrane in those days. Now that I’ve found it, nurturing it is what drives my bass drum beat. Only to be with you. Only to be with you.

Postscript: A lot of us have lived that song. Have you finally found it? Or are you still running? In this unhappy time, let’s share our answers. Post it, tweet it, Instagram it, shout it from the top of the Hollywood Hills. #Ihavefoundwhatimlookingfor

The emotional fatigue of looking for work

October 19, 2017

I had no idea it was going to be this hard. When I jumped ship from Portland State University in 2015, I thought I could just spend some time being a writer and taking care of my daughter while my wife went back to work. I had a small publishing advance, a book optioned in Hollywood, and a nice nest egg I had built for a rainy day.

It needs to stop raining.

The hope was, with my credentials, I could just hop into another gig when the time was right and the opportunity was meaningful for the work I do. It hasn’t played out that way. I’ve had a couple of close calls, including a great job opportunity at CUNY in Manhattan that I probably priced myself out of. (NYC is  expensive! Especially for a family.) There was a job with the city of Portland as a “hate crime program specialist” that looked like I had written it for myself. I didn’t even get an interview even though I’m already doing this work in the community. A longtime city employee told me it’s often the case that the city already has the hire identified and the applicant search is just an empty, but required, formality. Great. Thanks for getting my hopes up.

With a mortgage and a kid in daycare (and two maxed-out credit cards), I’ve suddenly realized that I’m the downwardly mobile American I’ve been lecturing about since I started interviewing skinheads in the Reagan years. Matching my old salary would be fantastic. Meaningful work is vital. But at this point, I’m starting to wonder what UPS drivers make during the holidays. I’ve been picky, hoping to stay in Portland or, if we have to move, some exciting Mecca of culture. God bless, but I’m not applying for the open position at South Dakota State University. My work requires gangs of disaffected youth and stellar coffee shops.

I’m writing this because I’ve learned that a lot of my friends are going through the same thing. Finding the “perfect job,” writing a compelling cover letter, and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t know how many trips I’ve planned with my wife after I get back to full time work. The excitement for Cozy to be in her pre-school five days a week. An end to the sporadic income from consulting work. Benefits! A kitchen remodel! Work clothes! And then the “Thanks, but no thanks” email pops up in my inbox and bursts that bubble. Again. It’s an emotional roller coaster. And there’s typically one moment each day when I wonder what happened to my financially secure life and how the hell am I going to get out of this.

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Don’t get me wrong. I’m plenty busy. Between conferences in Spokane and Birmingham this month, CBS is flying me to New York City for an on camera interview. After I take Cozy trick or treating I’m being flown to Michigan to give a keynote. It’s exciting but it’s not the steady income a parent needs to provide for his child. Plus, Andrea says when I get back to work full time, she’s just going to stay home and make Mexican food. So there’s that. At 53, I should be fully able to provide for my family, but a Gen X mid-career change in a Millennial world has obstacles I didn’t foresee. You start to see why some men going on shooting sprees.

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As someone who has written a lot about masculinity (and its connection to violence), the upwardly mobile ethos is woven into my self concept. Male depression is acutely connected to lost economic status. I flash to that image of Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness where he’s clutching his son in a train station bathroom where they are basically living. I think about that scene all the time. I know that won’t be Cozy and I, but I don’t know that either. I know I’ve got a great skill set to offer, but why am I not working full time?

 

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Middle-aged men are the fastest growing demographic for suicide. There was a 43% increase between 1997 and 2014 for men between 45 and 60. Much of it is related to economic stress. I had my bout with suicidal ideation in the late 1990s. But a two-year-long prescription to Zoloft and writing my first novel, The Mission of the Sacred Heart (about suicide), got me back on track. Now, as a father, I can’t imagine doing that to my daughter. I hope Frances Bean Cobain curses her father, Kurt, once in a while for abandoning her that way. It doesn’t mean the thought doesn’t creep into my head occasionally, as the ultimate F.U. to the people that ripped away my career. But it’s better to be here and broke then not be here at all. Being an agnostic, I don’t rely on the belief that after I’m dead I can just sit on the cloud and watch all chumps cry, “We should have given him that job!”

I’m pretty lucky. My child is healthy. My marriage is strong. My roof isn’t leaking. And thanks to Obamacare, we (still) have health insurance. But it’s really hard sometimes. The uncertainty. The wondering what I can sell to pay a bill. The wear and tear on my wife as she shoulders the economic load and wonders when the old “full time and fulfilled” Randy will come back. It can double a soul over. I think all my fellow jobseekers probably have a certain Tom Petty song on a loop in their heads.

Well I know what’s right

I got just one life

In a world that keeps on pushin’ me around

But I’ll stand my ground

This blog is partially about men coming to terms with their vulnerability without resorting to the tired and destructive tropes of old school masculinity. So a message to those trying not to lose too much while they build something new – Hang in there. Everything is in the rearview mirror at some point. The sacrifice will be worth it.

A Time to Refrain from Fighting

14 July 2017

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Tuesday afternoon I had just completed one of our weekly civil rights bus tours of Portland. I’m a presenter for the Fair Housing Council of Oregon ride through our state’s tortured racial history. My part of the program is about hate crime that now links the 1988 bludgeoning death of an Ethiopian immigrant by racist skinheads to the brutal attack by an “alt-right” lunatic on a Portland Max train last May. The bus rolls from the street where Mulugeta Seraw was murdered to the Hollywood Max station where three heroes were stabbed for standing up to hate, two of them paying for it with their lives. I try to connect the dots and have yet to do so without choking back the tears.

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I end my part of the tour by talking about the difficult work of reaching out to the haters and leading them to the side of love. That that’s where the true justice is. I talk about an organization called Life After Hate, a group of “formers,” who used to be members of white supremacist groups and now do important anti-racism and de-radicalization work. I mention how this group was awarded a $400,000 grant by the Obama Administration that was just rescinded by the Trump Administration. (Gee, why would Trump want to stop the work of a group that drags people out of right-wing hate groups?) And I talk about the 16-year-old girl with the swastika tattoo who, in 1988, handed her skinhead boyfriend the bat used to bash Mulugeta Seraw’s skull in. She’s now one of my most cherished friends. She served her time, befriending an African-American girl she was locked up with, and now speaks powerfully about what sent her down the ugly road of hate.

Tuesday’s tour was for a group of fresh-faced graduate students at Lewis & Clark. Afterwards a young woman approached me and said, “I’m a radical feminist anarchist and I think these people should be attacked, physically attacked.” I tried to explain to her that that approach only pushes them farther into their little Nazi boxes, making them into the victims of another kind of hate. That it makes more sense to try to make a connection with them and bring them to our side. That I’ve been doing this work for almost thirty years and this is the only thing that actually works to reduce the hate and threats of violence. She was having none of it, harumphed, and stormed off.

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I’ve been reflecting on that interchange this week. One one hand, I don’t think she understands the concept of “radical feminism.” If you think the appropriate response to a social problem is more macho violence, then you are not a radical feminist. On the other hand, I get it. If someone had knocked the crap out of Jeremy Christian before May 26th, maybe he would have thought twice about opening his hate spewing mouth on a crowded train that afternoon.

And I was thinking about it last night. Andrea and I were celebrating our wedding anniversary at a great new jazz bar in Portland called The Jack London Revue. The Jim Beam was settling into my veins as the Mel Brown Quartet played. I looked at my wife in the dimly lit club and thought of how lucky I am to be her husband. We are a team on multiple fronts: parenting, home-maintaing, creative projects, financial struggles. We’re in this together. And we’re stronger when we come at life as a partners instead of rivals. There are fights, when somebody is convinced they are right. I would love it if she rinsed her plates and I’m sure she would love it if I stopped thinking farts were “funny.” She’s very Antifa on that one. (Anti-Fart)

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But there’s another way. I jokingly think of it as “feminist husbandry.” There’s a challenge when we are so committed to our position that there must be a “winner.” My charge is to just stop. Just stop. Lose the ego and remember we’re a team first. My job is to take care of my partner, not win an argument. We can find our common ground. I don’t always do it, though. It’s easy to let the anger win and just want to (like my “radical feminist anarchist” rider) attack. That’s why I’ve put little reminders up in our house. Signs that say,  “appreciate,” “acknowledge,” and “be loving” are taped up on walls. (It’s cheaper than getting them tattooed on my hands.) There is time in life to take a breath and remember what the mission is.

One of my favorite songs growing up was The Byrds’ version of Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!” The lyrics are actually from the Christian Bible; Ecclesiastes 3. There is a time to fight, but also a time to refrain from fighting. Love wins out over hate. Ultimately, we are all on the same side. That includes the haters and those that hate the haters.

Please support Life After Hate here (click). Maybe someday I will form Life After Farting.

The Need to Work

June 22, 2017

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It was a blessing in disguise. My paternity leave from Portland State University was involuntarily extended thanks to a bizarre collaboration between a clinically psychotic felon and a couple of administrators with a clear agenda. That time away from full-time work has allowed be to help my daughter transition from a baby into a little person. It’s also allowed me to publish a book, teach on a tropical island, write this weekly blog, start a podcast, and “man” the homefront while my wife advances in the work world. And I got to be home with Cozy from the first gurgle to her saying things like “Let’s check it out,” and “I ran like a cheetah.” It’s been a beautiful experience filled with art, adventure, and great love.

And now it’s time for it to end.

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The truth is I’ve been looking for work ever since I jumped off the gangplank at PSU. But I had a nice cushion made up of a settlement, savings, some publishing money, and a perfect collection of rare Avengers and Hulk comic books that now (sadly) belong to someone else. A $50,000 loan from my retirement was going to get us through to my next gig. Now, suddenly, I can see the bottom of the well. The money is about gone. Invest the last bucket in Powerball tickets?

Two years ago I thought I could just make a local lateral transition. There was a visiting professorship at Reed College (they wanted a quantitative methods teacher and I’m a qualitative schmoe) and a tenure-track gig at the University of Portland (they could have me but only with my tenure). I was sad but not shocked when those didn’t pan out. (They must not have known how awesome I was.) So I branched out and got an interview at CUNY in Manhattan and then a second interview with the provost. (I must have asked for too much money for that one.) What seemed like it would be a relatively smooth “mid-career” move looked increasingly more and more difficult. On top of the fact that universities are replacing tenure-line professorships with the academic slave-labor known as “adjuncts” and “on-line education,” the person that was applying was me, and, according the rumor mill, I have baggage.

What started off as a few disheartening roadblocks became dozens of rejections. Some positions I was a stretch to qualify for. (I would have made an awesome dean at Eastern Oregon University.) Some positions I was definitely an over-qualified candidate. (After my great interview, nobody could tell me why I didn’t get the job teaching Intro Sociology at Green River Community College.) Some jobs would have pushed me out of my comfort zone. (Oh, how I wanted to be the new executive director of Caldera Arts.) And some jobs were tailor-made for my experience and skills. (Whoever ends up being the new Diversity Program Specialist for the Portland Police, I challenge you to an equity duel.)

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Why am I not getting these jobs? You’d think people would want an award-winning professor, published in his field, with a long record of community service, who is likely quoted in your copy of the New York Times or making points on CNN while you’re on the treadmill. Are all the other candidates that much better? Or is something else going on?

I left PSU under a cloud of suspicion. It’s no secret that there were a few higher-ups that had it in for me. They were fueled by the rumor and innuendo that I was some type of campus playboy. A old bogus post on an internet gossip site that had a picture of me with my girlfriend of almost three years and the assertion that she “slept with me for an A” gave them additional ammo. There was never anything of the sort ever in my academic career. No human can say they got any special treatment in any of my classes for anything. But when gossip rules, you can’t win. (Hillary Clinton, I feel your pain.)

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Then a “former racist skinhead” named Steven Stroud decided he was going to try everything he could think of to attack me for some perceived slight that existed in his psychotic mind. He began writing numerous letters from his prison cell to the university, accusing me of everything under the sun. Out of pure luck, he finally hit on one thing these powerful few could use.

My crime: My wife was a former student.

That’s all it took. Forget that Andrea and I were consenting adults. Forget that she was the one who first asked me me out (after the class had ended). That was it. I had signed an agreement five years earlier that I would never date a PSU student after a stalker went all Basic Instinct on me and it was a quick way to resolve the matter. Now the torches were relit. They even traveled out to Eastern Oregon to visit this guy in prison to see if there were any more salacious details he could add to their “case.” They were giddy.

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I have zero regrets about my relationship with Andrea. We are incredibly happy and more in love every day. And that love produced our beautiful daughter. Cozy is the sun my little planet was destined to revolve around. She will change history. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. My only regret is that I quickly settled my lawsuit against the university. I had the moral high ground and could have won, especially if I took the story to my colleagues, students, and the general public. But we had a new baby and I was scared I would burn up our nest egg on lawyer fees while they used tuition and taxpayer dollars to fund their highly skilled legal team. I settled and thought I could just leave my academic home of twenty years and move on.

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Now over two years later it feels like I have been blacklisted; that the rumor-mongers are still waging their campaign against me. I need to work. The loan has to be repaid, the mortgage is due, and my daughter deserves the life I waited 50 years to give her. (I was one of those people who said, for decades, “I can’t have children, I’m not financially stable enough!”) She is so excited to exist in this world, I should be able to give her some security (although I will be eternally grateful to WIC for making sure my child at least had $8 worth of fruits and vegetables each month). This kid already deserves more than I will be able to give her.

So here’s the deal: I’m a passionate worker with a PhD. from Emory University and a long employment record. My last full time salary was $82,000 for a 9-month contract. I will work for less than that, but it’s gotta cover the bills. And I need benefits. Republicans  have made it clear they want to kill the Affordable Care Act which, at the moment, provides health care to my family. We’d like to stay in Portland but for a decent job we’ll move to Arkansas and just annoy the locals by playing Bikini Kill and drawing Hitler mustaches on Trump posters.

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I was an awesome professor. There’s plenty of people who will tell you that my classes at Portland State changed lives. I’d like a job that makes the world a better place. If you can convince me that selling vacuum cleaners can do that, I’ll listen. But it’s time for me to get back to work. My family is depending on me.

Please share this with anyone who might be able to help. References and my mother’s secret cheesecake recipe available on request. Email: blazakr@gmail.com

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Should we care about Donald Trump’s marriage? (Or anybody else’s?)

May 25, 2017

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The only thing more sporting lately than trying to guess when Donald Trump’s house of cards will collapse has been trying to guess when his wife will dump him. The numerous swats and cold shoulders Melania gave Donald that were caught on camera during their recent trip abroad (leading one to believe there was something that wasn’t caught on camera) have tongues wagging. Even the Pope seemed reluctant to touch the “pussy grabber’s” hand. What had Trump done this time? Stories swirled that the divorce papers were already drawn up. Is Melania Trump the real life Claire Underwood.

Will Donald Trump be the first sitting president to be divorced?

Why should we care?

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It’s not like Donald Trump is the first philandering president. Some are legendary, like Thomas Jefferson and John Kennedy. Some forgotten. (Warren G. Harding made Charlie Sheen look like he wasn’t even trying.) I’m still not sure why Hillary Clinton stuck with cigar-screwing Bill. I guess some couples can just work through having one partner’s sexcipades splashed across the front page. Is oral sex “sex”? In the 1990s, every man, woman, and child in the country got to participate in that discussion. It was so much fun.

Donald J. Trump’s sexual boasts are nothing new. He’s bragged about his sexual adventures on Howard Stern and probably still does to any (Russian agent) person who will listen. His “locker room talk” about groping women is it’s own Wikipedia entry. It’s clear that he cheated on his first two wives, so why should it be any different for Melania Knavs? As the President has said, “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”

Who cares?

Obviously, when it comes to the Trump presidency, there are bigger carp to fry. (Do Russians fry carp?) He’s going down and the even more sexually freaky Mike Pence will be in the high chair by this time next year. Should we waste time on Trump’s doomed marriage? It’s private business. Maybe we should document this doomed presidency for future generations and leave his weird marriage to the highly-paid lawyers to sort out.

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On one hand, we know that Trump is impulsive, narcissistic, kinda dumb, and needs to tell the world that, despite his tiny hands, he has an at least average-sized penis. That’s a bit frightening for a guy who commander and chief of the American armed forces. You get the feeling that he’s just itching to nuke North Korea, or Iran, or California, just to prove he’s big boy. His personal insecurities play out daily in his mishandling of national security issues, his reverse-Robin Hood budget, and his dealings with our enemies (“I’m gonna win Vladimir’s love!”) and our allies. (Who can forget his refusing to shake Angela Merkel’s hand?). That fact that he tweets more about his ratings and portrayal on TV shows than issues Americans care about is a reflection of how emotionally deprived this guy is.

On the other hand, every marriage has its rough patches. When some silver-haired couple is celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, you better believe there were plenty of moments where they were close to killing each other. Those happy smiles might mask parallel dark thoughts. (“How is this asshole still alive? I need my freedom!”) Most of us suffer through it in anonymity, maybe sharing our woes with a bartender or on an instantly regretted Facebook post. The President’s life has become the People’s life. JFK is lucky there was no social media 55 years ago. #jackkkennedygavemecrabs You almost feel sorry for the first couple. What did those swats from Melania really mean? Let’s ask Rachel Maddow!

Trump and I have one thing in common, we’re both on our third marriages. I often have to pull back from immediate criticism because I know that loving marriages can fail and sometimes it takes a while to figure out how to actually “do” marriage. My wife is also younger and, like Melania, might have been an illegal immigrant at some point. But there are some serious differences after that. Unlike Trump, I’m a committed feminist who works to make marriage an equitable partnership. As a stay at home dad, I’m happy to take a back seat as Andrea builds her career in the legal world. As I told her this morning, I’m happy to be the guy riding on her coattails. And I have zero desire to be unfaithful to her. “So much winning” for me is to be with her at the end of the road. Also, I’m not the President of the United States.

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Feminists seem torn on how to frame Melania Trump’s situation. Some see her as a victim, trapped in a loveless marriage to a cad who collects sexual assaults the way Bill Cosby collects, well, sexual assaults. (Google: rape culture.) She likely signed some contract that said, if Donald won the White House, she wouldn’t legally divorce him but could stay away from his icky hands in their penthouse in NYC. The other narrative says she’s a smart cookie and knew exactly what she was getting into when she married America’s favorite rich pig and that any woman who props up a man while he rips away women’s health care and goes after reproductive rights around the globe deserves exactly what she gets.

Is Melania Trump a tragic figure or a villain? Should we send in Seal Team 6 to rescue her or ask Robert Mueller to investigate what links she has to Russian ambassadors?

The gossip part of my brain wants to hear all the sordid details. But I’ve been the victim of that type of gossip so why should I fuel the fire? Anyone reading this will more than likely outlive Donald J. Trump (What happened to that “stamina”?), and I’m sure they will outlive his presidency, so we can read all the books then. I don’t doubt that Bill O’Reilly already has a contract for Killing Trump. After eight years of the blissfully scandal-free marriage of Barrack and Michelle Obama, it’s tempting to go all TMZ on this circus sideshow. (If he’s not sleeping with his wife, where does that mighty Trump penis go at night?”) Let’s just focus on how he’s screwing the country.  Let’s let his marriage suffer in silence. Absolute, stone-faced silence.

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