Protecting Our Children from the Trump Virus

March 24, 2020

I’m not sure what day of the self-quarantine this is. I know it’s the second day of Oregon’s “shelter in place” order but the streets of Portland have been increasingly empty for over the last ten days, since the governor ordered all the schools closed a week before spring break, dropping thousands of kids in the laps of trying-not-to-panic parents. We don’t know what’s happening. I wonder if they do.

Our Cozy, at 5 and a half, is pretty smart. She rides around the car with me, secretly listening to NPR (I thought she was staring out the window, thinking about unicorns). Like most, I’ve been a little too addicted to the news about the advancing Trump virus. “Hey, Coze, where do you think this coronavirus came from?” I asked, trying to gage her comprehension of the global slowdown.

“It’s from sick bats in China,” she calmly said. I was expecting some kindergarten-level theory about it coming from flying monkeys hiding inside rain clouds. She’s probably been checking the infection rates on the Johns Hopkins website.

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But the reality of the impending sense of doom as the Trump virus shuts down the world she knows lurks like a monster in the closet. Our spring break tradition includes a trip to the super weird and wonderful Enchanted Forest amusement park, south of Salem. Closed due to the virus. We had planned a trip to Joesph, Oregon to hike around the eastern part of the state. Prohibited. Play dates, ice cream shops, jungle gyms, The Old Spaghetti Factory, all her favorite things are off limits for now and we don’t know when they won’t be. She doesn’t care about the stock market, but the fact that she can’t hug her friends is a red flag that things have changed drastically.

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This might be every parents secondary concern right now (the first being how to protect their children from contracting the Trump virus). How do we keep the kids from being infected with our generalized anxiety? Things are about to get even worse, but I don’t want my small child to know. She’s got washing her hands to “Happy Birthday” twice down pat, but does she realize that she’s not returning to her kindergarten class? The next time she goes to school she will be a first grader (God, please) and everything will be different. I keep thinking of that 1997 movie, Life is Beautiful, where Roberto Benigni and his young son are in a Nazi concentration camp and he convinces his son that they are actually in an exciting game to keep him from being completely traumatized. Dad is murdered by the Nazis in the end.

I’ll be honest, this Dad has been struggling. The Trump virus has upended the economic stability I started to find in 2019. It’s put my 70-something parents at risk. I’ve got an old friend in the ICU in an Atlanta hospital with a COVID-19 infection, and the dumbass Spring Breakers at the beach are not exactly flattening the curve. I feel like I’m inside a Joy Division album. Cozy is frustrated that Dad spends so much time watching the news or checking in on line. What to do, as we slide deeper into the social distance?

As usual, my bad ass wife snapped me out of the funk. She reminded me of all the positive things that are happening in this moment, most importantly all the wonderful family time that we’ve been gifted that will have a huge impact on our daughter. We’ve gotten to be homeschoolers, play dates, and creative time passers. (Andi has already given Cozy a haircut, two (henna) cat tattoos, and lots of weekday attention.) We’re planning some family art projects and Cozy and I are committed to learning how to play chess before this thing is over. We’re also catching up on Disney movies (Thank you, Disney+ for releasing Frozen 2 three months early!) And we’ve got a daily calisthenics routine we do on the sidewalk, to the delight out our neighbors.

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I’ve been running daily (now that the gym is closed) and reconnecting with the music of my youth. (You can run really hard to Van Halen). In the process, I’ve noticed neighbors and strangers seem more friendly, waving from their bubbles. The explosion of live music coming in from my social media platforms has put me in the room with some of my favorite performers, including Patti Smith, Michelle Malone, and Ben Gibbard (every day at 4 pm!). Something is happening. It’s like a government imposed artist retreat (as Patti called it) that’s also producing some much needed civility. The Trump virus is the great equalizer, but beautiful things may emerge from it. Andi and I have even started on a screenplay project!

She was quick to remind that when all this is over, people might slip back to their 9 to 5 grooves, complaining about how they don’t have any time to do the things that they really want to do. As a sociologist, I’m hoping this is a paradigm shift. That once we taste this new version of our lives, we won’t want to go back to the rut. We’ll create a new synthesis, transformed by the quarantine into a new global community.

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So this is what we must share out with our children, that out of crisis comes opportunity. Not to make a fast buck, like those looking for a corporate bailout from the Trump virus aid package. The opportunity to create new things, that connect us in new and beautiful ways. Cozy wants to write postcards! The social organism is adapting. We might look on this moment in history like how we look at how the Black Plague in 1340s Italy paved the way for the Renaissance, as Europeans embraced a lust for life instead of endlessly pondering the afterlife. Let the Trump virus unleash our lust for life and let our children know all the beautiful things that are coming.

Let us come out of this a new version of us, connected and complete. And let the optimism of our children be our guide.

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

Taking Manhattan with a 4-year old

Oct. 23, 2018

My first experience in New York City was the summer of 1982. I was 18 and my dad and I were driving to Kennedy Airport from Stone Mountain, Georgia. I was heading off to go to school in London and we made it a leg of the journey. That first glimpse of the Manhattan skyline, with the looming World Trade Center towers and the Statue of Liberty floating in the foreground, injected me with an energy. So much bigger than the biggest thing I had ever seen. And somewhere in there was Lou Reed singing, “Take a walk on the wild side.” I would soon return to explore every corner.

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I’ve probably been to NYC fifty times since, but never like this trip. I was booked to speak at a forum on extremism in mid-town Manhattan and we thought, why not bring the kid? She had just spent a week in Mexico with Andrea and was fine traveling with one parent. Why not the Big Apple? I’ve been traveling so much this year without her I thought it would be fun to bring her along. So I called a travel agent and got her booked on my flight and we started planning what New York City with a 4-year-old and a 54-year-old would look like. No Russian bars. Can you tell me tell me how to get to Sesame Street?

Cozy is great on planes. She’s been flying since she was a baby. But navigating JFK airport was a challenge. I forgot how huge it was and she was tired of walking before we were anywhere near Baggage Claim. I should have taken that as a sign of things to come. Our first night was at an AirBnB up in Spanish Harlem and she fell asleep on the subway ride across Queens and Brooklyn. Once in checked in she was more excited by her bunkbed than the city streets outside. What to see first?

We took the 6 Train down to Grand Central Station and rode a pedicab to Times Square. Her eyes exploded. It’s a pretty overwhelming site for any first-timer, more lights, more people, more out-of-shape Spidermans than the kid could imagine. (And she’s been to Mexico City.) Fortunately, there were no drunk Elmos to contend with. We stopped in the Disney Store that I remember was a dildo store in the mid-1980s. I wanted to tell the kids working there but it seemed inappropriate. 

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Then we caught a train down to the East Village where I had a meeting with an old friend and his colleague who are turning a novel of mine into a stage musical. But first we happened into a diner on Broadway that just happened to be called Cozy Soup ‘n’ Burgers. “When I grow up, I’m gonna be a chef here!” said Cozy, munching on her grilled cheese sandwich. The kid seemed to immediately take to the city, bouncing with its energy, as I had in 1982. I wondered what it would have been like if I had gotten that faculty job at CUNY and this was our life.

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She slept through a noisy night in Harlem. That’s a lot in one day for a 50-month-old. The next morning we moved into our hotel in midtown and started another day of adventure that included going to the Met to where we had a date with Picasso, a trip to the Central Park Zoo, where she saw her favorite animal, the impressive snow leopard, and then dinner in Greenwich Village with some of friends who had kids who were super NYC-savy. Seeing Cozy run around Washington Square with her squad while nobody tried to sell me pot made me reflect at how much New York had changed since the Lou Reed days.

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Day 3 we had breakfast in bed and then headed downtown to hop the Staten Island Ferry for a gander at the Statue of Liberty. She wasn’t prepared for the cold wind off the water as we wandered around Wall Street and tried to compete with a huge crowd of Chinese tourists for a picture with the Fearless Girl statue in front to the Charging Bull at the U.S. Stock Exchange. I don’t know if the tourists understood its significance but Cozy got it. Later, during my keynote, an old friend whisked Cozy off for a matinee of Frozen: The Musical on Broadway and a trip to the M&M Store (apparently her highlight of the entire trip). We topped the day off with a trip to the top of Rockefeller Center and an ice cream sundae from room service.

Our last day we had breakfast with feminist scholar Michael Kimmel at Veselka in the East Village, picking up an order of pierogis to take home to Andrea. Soon we were in a cab for LaGuardia and beginning our journey home.

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I had so much fear about bringing a 4-year-old to the big city, but Cozy was amazing. She mastered riding the subway (including the Lexington line during rush hour). She also loved catching cabs, no booster seat needed, and always had a good conversation with the driver. “Do you like kitties?”  When I go to NYC I just like to walk most places, but after a day Cozy reminded me that her feet were smaller than mine and that I should carry her, “because it’s good exercise.” After a few blocks she’d ask, “Do you feel stronger, Daddy?” Sort of, not really.

Manhattan has evolved so much since I started coming to hang out in the 1980s. Did I ever tell you about the time I accidentally bought heroin in Alphabet City? I was hanging out with the Portuguese boyfriend of a college friend of mine when he saw somebody he knew. “Man, I don’t want to talk to that guy because I owe him money. Would you give him this $20 from me?” I handed the guy his 20 and ended up with a small white packet in my hand. Not cool. But I’m sure there’s a Starbucks on that corner now and we can be all romantic about the drug infested days of the Lower East Side. New York is now a city of families, and it’s not just the Disney-fied Times Square. As a parent, it’s nice to see so many kids inhabit the city and I can still cherish my memories of barfing in the toilet at CBGBs on the Bowery. I’m glad Cozy got this version, because she could see herself in the city.

John Lennon ended up in New York City in 1971 because it was the center of the world. He became a father and househusband here and died on its streets. NYC might not be the center of the world anymore, (Nǐ hǎo, Beijing), but the Big Apple still feels like the place to be. Even though much of it’s twentieth century character has been gentrified into oblivion (I mean, a Target in the East Village?), much of it is still iconic and I could see Cozy soak it up like a Sponge Bob costume in the Hudson River. She gobbled up Denino’s pizza on MacDougal and asked if we could spit on Trump Tower on Park Avenue and threw a mean right arm up to hail a cab. She’s 4 and has been to one more Broadway musical than I have. It’s already her kinda town.

Manhattan is life. It is the culmination of American grit and diversity. It is the world on one island. I’m glad my kid has begun her New York story.

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On becoming the working poor or How I robbed Peter to pay Paul

February 9, 2017

There is a Blazak tradition whenever I’m at a big Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner with my conservative family members in Chattanooga, Tennessee. While the dessert is being passed around my aunt, out of the blue, will just say, “All these people on welfare need to get a job.” All eyes turn to me and then I have give my lecture about how most welfare payments go to children, the elderly, and the disabled and the “able-bodied” adults who receive welfare are, for most part, working at low-wage jobs. (Fully one third of those working at Wal-Mart receive government subsidies.) They nod and go back to their pie and complaining about “aliens.”

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I’ve had a comfortable middle-class life. As a kid, I got pretty much everything I asked for Christmas. Went to a posh private university for college and grad school. Got the first tenure-track job I applied for (with an competing offer from one I applied to second). Paid off my student loans fairly quickly. Bought a house in my mid-thirties. Fattened my retirement fund. Started a family.

And then the shit hit the fan.

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When I was studying the rise of the racist skinhead culture, I developed an explanation called the status frustration theory. It’s certainly frustrating to have nothing in this land of plenty which frames the “American Dream” as one of endless economic upward mobility. I argued it is even more strain inducing to have some economic status and then lose it. My skinheads were the victims of Reaganomics. They witnessed their parents being downsized and laid off as America became a “post-industrial” economy. They saw the American Dream ripped away from them and hate groups gave them convenient scapegoats: minorities, immigrants, and, wait for it, the Jews.

Twenty-five years later, after a bizarre collaboration between a psychotic skinhead inmate and a few union-busting university administrators, I was joining them in the ranks of the downwardly mobile. I resigned my tenured position to focus on raising our daughter and my fantasy of writing full-time, but the loss of the salary (and benefits) had a bigger impact than I expected. Suddenly I was the guy I had been talking about in my lectures on social stratification and poverty. Unemployment benefits (which ran out quickly), Medicare, and WIC were not bullet points in a PowerPoint presentation. They were my social safety net.

Fortunately, I married a Mexican and those folks know how to double down and work their asses off. So while I tried to figure out what our “next steps” were going to be, my new-mom wife worked at whatever job paid the best, while trying to nurture her art and family. Andrea told me not to worry too much about the financial situation. “You’re a white guy with a PhD.,” she said.

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Three years later, the pressure is on to get back to full-time work. The writing, consulting, and part-time teaching has been hugely fulfilling, but this 50-something needs a salary again. The whole experience has given me a window into the world of the working poor. Glimpses came at left angles. The first time I tried to use our WIC vouchers at the grocery store to “buy” my allotment of milk and bread the cashier helped me because she was also on WIC. Sitting in the free-dental clinic so Cozy could have her new teeth looked at and the social worker asking about my home life. There was a good chance he had been one of my students. Watching the debate over Obamacare and wondering if congress members, fully-insured by the taxpayers, we going to take away my own health insurance. Those glimpses became just looking in the mirror. I was them.

There’s a lot to consider here, but the main rude awakening was just the hustle. The hustle to get to the end of the month. Will the bills get paid? How much room is left on the credit card? Will I ever pay them off? Should I get another credit card? Can I make a payment for one credit card with another credit card? Where can I borrow some money? What can I sell? Can I combine errands to save gas? Do I have a coupon for that? Does anybody owe me money? Can I tap into my retirement account (again)? Can I qualify for a home equity loan without a full-time job? (No.) Can I find a gig that will pay enough to cover the cost of daycare while I’m at work?

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That last one is a big one. I could pick up a job while I wait for a real position to land in, but what do I do with my daughter? The average price of daycare in the United States is about $1000 a month. (We pay $510 a month to have Cozy in daycare two days a week, plus the occasional drop-in when I’m working, plus a baby sitter on Wednesdays to cover the period when Andrea is still at work but I have to commute to teach my night class.) It’s not surprising that the number of children living with a grandparent over the last 20 years rose 64 percent. I wish we had a grandmother handy. But that’s America now. Working families have less time with their children. And many, like some of my community college students, add school to their work and family responsibilities. It shouldn’t be surprising that most Americans owe more than they own. I have $13 in my savings account. If we have an emergency, I can buy half of a cheese pizza.

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On the lucky side, my parents taught me how to be frugal. (Hey kids, Google that word: FRUGAL). I learned to save my pennies. “Don’t throw that away, it might be worth something someday!” my mother would chant. So I’ve been “liquidating” some assets. It was hard to sell my first Spiderman comic book (autographed by Stan Lee). At age 13, I bought it for $200 and sold it 40 years later for $11,000. That could have been a much-needed kitchen remodel or a grand trip to Europe but it kept the roof over our heads, so thanks Spidey. The nest egg was for a rainy day, but it’s been a mild winter so I can’t help to (finally) feel optimistic about adding to it instead of all this subtracting.

Understanding the daily stress of this insanity (How many phone bills can you miss before AT&T disconnects you?) has helped me to understand how most Americans exist in this nation where the rich get (much) richer while the rest of the country counts the days until their (totally inadequate) payday. It justifies buying a few lottery tickets for the fantasy of paying off all the debts in one fell swoop. It justifies the anger at a neighbor putting in a hot tub while you wait another year to fix the roof. And it justifies daydreaming about putting a crew together for a jewelry heist to rip off people who will drop a couple of grand on shoes they will never even wear.

As a criminologist, that’s been one of the more fascinating psychological aspects of this experience. I get it. I get the temptation to commit the “perfect crime,” playing a self-serving Robin Hood. But also, as a criminologist, I know there is no such thing as a perfect crime and arrest only make poor people poorer. It’s a financial black hole. It might make a great book but one I imagine my daughter would rather I don’t have the opportunity to write. I’m just saying, I get it, and I’m guessing a lot of my not-private-school students do as well.

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The only human path that matters is the one that builds empathy for our fellow humans. I am on that path. And when I climb out of this financial hole (and I will), I will remember the daily stresses of the working poor. I will advocate for them. Don’t fall for the “trickle down” lie again. People need living wages that actually meet the cost of living in America. And I will tell my wife to feel free to quit her job. She’s been shouldering the economic weight of our family for three years. She deserves a break. As do most working Americans.

Cozy turns 3 in Fantasyland

August 22, 2017

“I like road trips.”

I can’t tell you how happy I was to hear my daughter say those words before our 990 mile drive to Anaheim, California to seek an audience with Minnie Mouse. My fondest memories of my family are all about loading my brother and I into the station wagon and hitting the road, often to Disneyworld in Florida. Later my dad bought a van camper (with a CB radio) and we would head off to visit my cousins in Colorado. Much of my childhood was spent watching America go by a car window, with stops at Howard Johnsons for ice cream. Andrea and I both love to hit the road, so if Cozy didn’t have the wanderlust gene we were screwed.

The baby was turning three and she was very clear about her desire to go to Disneyland and find Mickey, and Minne, and Elsa, and maybe Doc McStuffins.  It’s a never ending source of amazement watching her evolve into a fully formed person with her own opinions on everything. She spits out gold like Rumpelstiltskin with a haystack. “I gave a good idea. Why don’t you get me some ice cream and I’ll watch Frozen.” (This routine is worth it as the sugar rush is sure to inspire her death metal version of “Let it Go.”) She’s ready for adventure and whatever surprises the open road brings. As long as I pack her potty that is.

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So we hit the road. With a car full of snacks, an iPad loaded with The Secret Life of Pets, and stories of what awaited in Disneyland (“I’m going to see all my friends,” she said.), we took off on our last day of owning a 2-year-old. The first day was a 12-hour ride that took us as far as Stockton, California. The reward for putting up with mom and dad’s music (and Fabcast podcasts) was a giant pancake at IHOP.  When we woke up the next morning in our bleach soaked room in the La Quinta Inn, the rising sun was in the right position to blast through the peephole in the door, creating a cool effect on the wall. “It’s a rainbow hole!” she exclaimed. Our girl was three.

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We got into LA in time to hit the hot tub in our Hollywood AirBNB and meet some friends for an impromptu birthday party at the Hollywood Hard Rock Cafe. One our friends, former radio maven and current Disney queen Delia Rae Saldivar, brought a giant “3” balloon as a present, and Cozy roamed the Hard Rock with it. There was a cover band playing and Cozy went right to the stage (with her balloon) to watch them set up. I caught myself thinking, “She better be planning her own band and not a life as a groupie.” During a break in their 80s glam metal set, the guitarist took a moment to wish Cozy a happy birthday. “I wish I was three again,” he said. Then he dedicated “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” to my daughter, commenting that the song was about putting sugar on your cereal. Thanks, dude.

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Disneyland, the birthplace of princesses, is such a strange place. I was last there, at the original park, in 1969, when I was five. It really hasn’t changed much. But I certainly have. Part of the experience was like being five all over again. (The Peter Pan ride is exactly the same as I remember it.) But now I see it through a much different lens. Do all these people dressed in cartoon costumes get a decent wage with health benefits? Where were those Mickey Mouse ears made and by whom?  Child labor? What’s it like to be 62 and work in an amusement park? Does the It’s a Small World ride promote a colonialist view of the world? We were floating through the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, past the “wench auction,” and one of the guys behind us said, “We’ll take two and take them home,” to another guy. Their wives sat next to them. We took a picture of Cozy beaming in front of the statue of Walt Disney and posted it on Facebook. One friend posted, “Famed anti-Semite Walt Disney” and another commented, “Tear down that statue!” You can’t win.

But I wasn’t there for me or my political agenda. In 1989, I smuggled a quart of oil into the Disney Epcot Center in Orlando and dumped it into the fountain in front of Exxon’s Universe of Energy ride to protest their “propaganda” after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. So I was good. This was about Cozy. Although, I’ll admit, after a stroll through Fantasyland and the faces of kids from across the world, I was closer to five in my head than fifty. And even by the parking deck, Cozy was shining with excitement. We parked in Mickey, 5-G. “There’s Mickey!!”

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What is this wonder? All things are new and magic is real. Her face was and endless expression of joy at every corner. This radiance. It’s intoxicating. And now she has the language skills to convey it. “I want to ride the tea cups and get dizzy!” We made our way to Mickey’s Toontown in search of her favorite mouse. The lines were pleasantly short so when she saw Minnie’s house, she knew we were close to pot of gold at the end of this thousand mile-long rainbow. When she finally entered Minnie’s living room and saw her in 3-D (instead of just on Mickey’s Road Racers), she about burst, immediately hugging the giant mouse like they were life-long friends. When we told “Minnie” that it was Cozy’s birthday, she got a big hug and kiss and Cozy was just pure bliss. There was even a birthday cake in Minnie’s oven that was surely for Cozy.

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Mickey’s house was right next door (begging the question about Mickey being a backdoor mouse). He was also quite wonderful to Cozy, who, after two-living legends embracing her, was ready to explode. All the nooks and crannies of the Magic Kingdom provided moments of happiness for her, especially the Enchanted Tiki Room. The day ended with the Main Street Electrical Parade. I saw the first parade at Disneyworld in 1972 and this was the parade’s final weekend. It hadn’t changed a lick. Same 70’s Moog soundtrack, Pete’s Dragon, and (my lost love – long story) Alice in Wonderland on a giant mushroom. Cozy’s face was aglow and when it was over, she cried. “All my friends are gone!” We’ll come back Cozy. I promise.

The following day, after some podcasting and lunch with a friend who animates at Dreamworks, we hit the road north, trying to beat the eclipse back to Portland. Cozy would wake up from naps, singing the Tiki Room song and saying, “I want to go back and see my friends!” The happiest place on earth.

Now we are home with our three-year-old who has lots to say about the world, but it’s a world where there is still magic and wonder. There are flying elephants and Cheshire Cats and submarines that will take you “down, down, down” to see Nemo. While she was too starstruck to talk to Moana, she hugged Pluto like he was her favorite pet And of course it’s a world where she is good friends with Minnie Mouse. I hope this world lasts for a while.

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August 22, 2016: I found a 2-year-old!

August 17, 2015: ¡Cozy turns uno! Happy first birthday to our daughter!

Note: A sincere thanks to the Saldivars, Chases, and Sullivans for helping to make Cozy’s birthday so wonderful. We’re lucky to have such good friends.

 

 

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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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A Dad Love Supreme

May 11, 2017

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There’s a scene in the 2016 film La La Land (Yes, I’ve seen it twice. Wanna make it three times?) where Seb (played by Feminist Ryan Gosling) is trying to explain jazz to Mia (played by Superbad Emma Stone). Mia, like many folks, thinks of jazz as the boring background music you hear in elevators and therapists’ offices. (Just think of the musical bowel movement that is Kenny G.) Seb wants her to know that real jazz is far from boring. In the scene, set in front of a bebop quintet, he explains that jazz is built on tension and conflict, as each musician struggles to express him or herself, to make a solo musical statement, then come back to the melody in a blissful synergy.

I grew up on jazz music. My mom played saxophone and hung out with Louis Armstrong when she was a teenager. Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” is woven into my DNA. I could go on, but I’ll just say I saw Miles Davis play live twice and last year got to hang out at the Village Vanguard in Manhattan for a Christian McBride show. I deeply love jazz, so, say what you will about the honky-ness of La La Land, Feminist Ryan Gossling got it right.

Meditations on jazz have been common for the two and half years I’ve been home with Cozy. I’ve had time to think about that moment of soloing and then coming back in to the group right on the beat. There’s bliss in that moment. It’s some type of metaphor. The tenor sax is screaming and the bassist is waiting for the eternal return and suddenly the sum is greater than the parts. There’s some wisdom there for our little trio and the world.

There are lots of new emotions associated with parenthood. It’s genre where divas and rockstars are definitely not needed. I’ve written about the intense fear that is constant. (As I write this I realize I should make sure my daughter is still breathing.) There’s another emotion that is pure jazz bliss, the eternal return.

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Cozy has been in daycare for seven months now, two days a week, Thursdays and Fridays. Those two days each week I try to cram as much soloing in as I can. Some of it is “work” related, including some legislative work down in Salem,  Oregon’s capital. If I have some time, I’ll go to my favorite local bar and have a beer and commandeer the jukebox. Any stay-at-home parent will tell you that this time is vital. But our Cozy is never far from my mind. “I wonder what she’s doing right now? Painting? Napping? Having a secret meeting of the Minnie Mouse Club under the slide?”

So here’s the thing. I’ll pick her up at around 5 pm and the walk up to the daycare, an old church the Black Panthers occupied in the 1960s, is like waking up on Christmas morning every damn time. The anticipation feels like an endorphin rush as I approach the door. Sometimes I sneak in quietly. I don’t want to surprise her, I just want to watch her at play at the end of the day. And that moment she sees me, bam! Everything else stops.

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“Daddy!” she’ll scream. “You came back!” sometimes she’ll say. My own abandonment issues aside, I want her to know I will always come back. I will always come back just for this moment; the moment where there are only two people in the world, my daughter and I. It’s like we are suspended in a purple cloud of happiness. Sometimes I hang out for a little sociological observation. I’ll watch other parents in the same moment. Last week I saw a dad close to tears as his toddler threw herself into his arms.

This must be a universal truth, how parents feel when reunited with their children. It might even be true that Donald Trump could have actually felt that way about his children (before they were old enough to talk about how he would date them). Right-wing and left-wing, anarchists and cops, jazz fans and everyone else with a child has had that moment. As smooth jazz stylist Sting once, during the Cold War, sang, “I hope the Russians love their children too.”

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There’s another great movie scene, the opening sequence in Love Actually (2003). It’s a series of real life shots of people meeting their loved ones in an airport terminal. Boyfriends and girlfriends, grown children and their grandparents, long separated siblings. It’s one of the most powerful things ever captured on film. Actors could never recreate that emotion. Director Richard Curtis had his film crew at Heathrow Airport for a week capturing countless reunions. I remember the audience in tears and the movie hadn’t even really started yet. I know that when I see my dad after a year (or more) apart, in that instance there are no political divisions, just love.

We are so divided right now. We are soloing in our echo chambers. Some of it seems like avant garde shrieking, music to the maker, but baffling to others. (All love to Sun Ra and Pharaoh Sanders.) I wonder when we will get back to the melody, when the chorus of “A Love Supreme” returns to anchor us in our common place in the cosmos. I’ve been wondering if that parent-child reunion might be the lure. That moment. How do we bottle that moment for the world?

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Probably a better jazz film than La La Land is the recent John Coltrane documentary, Chasing Trane. Coltrane was on a spiritual quest through his music, continually pushing boundaries, trying to connect harmonically with God. Just before he died, at only age 40, in 1967 from liver cancer, he was soloing for hours, literally, trying to find transcendence, a musical offering of complete submission to an ultimate reality. His short quest still captivates the world. As I was driving home from the theater I realized what he was going for, that moment of pure love. I have it every Thursday and Friday around 5 pm.

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