Thursday, January 31, 2008

Surprise, surprise!

It’s not that I haven’t been following the goings on in this presidential race. My silence on the president’s State of the Union Address isn’t indicative of complacency or disinterest necessarily. No, it’s more of an acknowledgement that there have been no real surprises. Everyone involved, from the candidates to the pundits to the president himself have behaved entirely predictably… and as such, I have not been compelled to say much. I knew I would, for in this race, history will be made - I was just waiting for something a little more compelling than the painfully obvious to write about.

Tonight, it has happened. But before I get to the event the got my literary juices flowing once again, let us briefly look at what should have surprised no one - the race thus far. Actually, on second thought, that is a somewhat unfair characterization, for there have been numerous paradigmatic changes in this race compared to those of the recent past. However, these watersheds are not particularly surprising and inasmuch as there is a very good chance that a white male will not win the presidency, it was bound to happen sooner or later. For now, let’s let that stand on it’s own… we’ll come back to it shortly. Further, let us not dwell on the also-rans on the Republican ticket. There are often some of these secondary players hanging on at this point in the game - and after H. Ross Perot’s challenge and withdrawal in 1992, nothing short of that kind of showing is even noteworthy.

Although, I must say I like Ron Paul’s prodding of the Republican establishment…

I’m talking about politics as usual. It's the euphemism for “anything goes” in campaign mudslinging and right up to and through the January 30 Republican debate, there have been no surprises there. Even the withdrawal of Rudy Giuliani and his endorsement of McCain isn’t particularly shocking, however newsworthy it may be. Of course, the sniping between Romney and McCain wasn’t pretty, but it was certainly expected. Oh sure, it is interesting, exciting and even amusing to witness the turn of fortune in McCain’s campaign and the consternation it has caused those among the extreme right, but it’s not entirely surprising… it is still very early. Next Tuesday will likely be the end of Romney and the others on the Republican side, but don’t bet the farm on it - there are no sure bets.

It appears as though McCain might have served Romney a sucker punch before the Florida primary, but it is clear that he has the momentum to get away with it. Romney’s crying foul probably didn’t sway anyone. He called it a “dirty trick,” and you can be sure there’s more where that came from. And don’t believe for one minute that Romney is above that kind of race. This is a race for the most powerful office in the world - kicking sand in one’s opponent’s eyes is an accepted form of campaigning. Remember, negative campaigning works. And although it might be surprising that the Republican Party, or at least its candidates for president, would continually shoot itself in its collective foot, let us not discount the lure of power.

Which brings us to tonight’s surprise - a remarkably civil exchange between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at the Democratic debate. While it is true that there is precious little differentiating the two at the policy level, the predictable sniping of late between the camps - and particularly the very un-presidential like mudslinging of our former president, has become noticed. That is a surprise. Not so much that the press has picked up on it or even that “the people” are talking about it, but that the candidates themselves have taken note. And they have changed their behavior - at least for the moment. It was a refreshing change and if the d├ętente can be sustained, it will unite the Democratic Party like never before. Indeed, the most egregious slights came from the moderators themselves.

Now a little about the history-making aspect of this campaign: It is very likely that a woman or an African American will be residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue next January. It is all but guaranteed that one or the other will be the Democratic nominee. That speaks volumes, and if I might add, it’s about time we got past it. I can say I will not be voting for a man - no matter his color, or a woman… I will be voting for a candidate. Right now, it is likely it will be a Democrat, but it is way too soon to make that decision. The Republicans haven’t got any real idea what the people want. They were not listening to us in 2006 and I can say with certainty our voices will be even louder in 2008.

Surprises? Perhaps, and good news to boot, but when looking at the incompetence over the last eight years, not entirely so. The best part is the death knell of the neo-con. They had eight years to prove how right they were. We will be paying for their little experiment for generations. All that’s left is that pesky little legacy the Bush administration never talks about much anymore.

No surprises there.

Monday, January 21, 2008

MLK, Jr. Day

Although his actual birth date was January 15, 1929, today we commemorate the birthday of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. There is little argument about how much King did for the civil rights movement in the U.S. Through righteous non-violence, he coerced a nation into looking at its collective behavior, and to be ashamed of it. He put a spotlight on the inconsistencies that no one, white or black, was willing to talk about. He illuminated for all to see that not very long ago, in this one nation, under God - all men were not created equal. The shroud that hid the hypocrisy of what we said we stood for was stripped away by showing the world what we did.

King was silenced by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis on April 4, 1968. He was just 39 years old. Some are prone to reflect on what he did, others lament that there is much is left to do. Still others wonder what the world would be like if he was not struck down in his prime. All are perfectly worthy means of reflecting on his life and consequently, raising our awareness - black, white or otherwise, about who we are and who we want to be. Indeed, did our founding fathers get it right?

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

If so, what is so hard about letting go of our identification with external appearance? We’re not just talking about the pigment of one’s skin, but hairstyle, clothing, weight, sex and even height. These external characteristics are irrelevant to who we actually are, and should not be taken into consideration when we dole out civil rights. But we do. Even though legislation has effectively criminalized the kind of overt racial discrimination that King fought against, covert discrimination happens everyday, day in and day out. It happens in ways that can’t be legislated against. It happens in attitude, in judgment and in society.

King wrote extensively and eloquently. His speeches are the stuff of legend. As a writer, I am ever in awe of his skill as a wordsmith. It was just one sentence in an essay he wrote in April 1963 that sold me on the power of the written word. The essay, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” was a response to an open letter written by eight Alabama clergymen that urged civil rights leaders to practice restraint and patience… to let the courts provide a remedy for “racial problems.” At the same time, these clergymen claimed to sympathize with the civil rights cause. King would have none of it. In the great tradition of responding with well thought out and extremely well written words, I offer you this, my favorite sentence of all time.

... But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross-county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness" then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

That, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, is one powerful statement. It is, at 311 words, one of the longest grammatically correct sentences around. Why so long? So King could show how smart he is, to give those eight clergymen some schooling? No, it is reflective of his lost patience. The length is symbolic of the length of the battle, the complete lack of empathy from those who claim to support his cause and how little their statement meant. And let us not forget where this letter was written. The entire essay is much longer and, if I may say so, riveting. Although I had read of it in various classes in school throughout the years, it wasn’t until 2003, 40 years after it was written, that I had occasion to read it in its entirety.

Google it, read it, live it. It’s a good way to remember a man who meant so much.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Irons in the Fire

It’s been a little while since I’ve done any “recreational” writing. Since finishing school less than a month ago, I have been wandering a bit. I thought I had a pretty good idea on where I would be going next. I was pretty sure I would be climbing up the journalistic ladder, writing for increasingly prestigious publications until I had the experience to land a job with a major market daily, preferably, the Sacramento Bee. However, my vision proved to be more than just a little myopic and did not provide the scope necessary to allow for diversion from the plan. Fortunately, I chose a major that does.

Government-journalism is a major unique to California State University, Sacramento. It is a combination of not only political science (government at CSUS) and journalism, but also spans across two separate colleges within the university, Arts and Letters (journalism) and Interdisciplinary Studies (government). Two faculty advisors, two department chairs and, if I so chose, two graduation ceremonies. Since my original direction was decidedly towards journalism, I identified most closely with the college of Arts and Letters, which contains the communications studies department and its off-shoot, journalism. I participated only in the college of Arts and Letters graduation ceremony, but my name was listed in the program under Interdisciplinary Studies. Confusing, but so am I.

Jobs in journalism are becoming few and far between. As major news organizations have become nothing more than a business unit of some multi-national conglomerate, their value is based upon the bottom line. The press, at least the mainstream press, has not been about serving the community for a very long time - it is about serving the stockholders. To this end, costs are continually being cut; newsrooms are staffed at a fraction of what they once were, and there is little relief in sight. Reporting and writing the news is a noble and worthy pursuit, but establishing oneself in the industry is an increasingly uphill battle. I am not abandoning that dream, but I am finding myself open to new possibilities.

Since I essentially have a BA in both journalism and political science, there are many more doors open to me, some of which I had not considered prior to graduation. I also have a number of post-graduate options open to me. An MA degree has been part of my plan since I decided not to attend law school, but I just took for granted that it would be in communications studies. There are, however, a number of other masters programs open to me and I have only just begun to explore the possibilities. Career-wise, working as a staffer somewhere in the state political structure is looking like a more viable career path and one that has not suffered the attrition present in journalism, especially print journalism.

Although there is a fair amount of bureaucracy that must be navigated, I have proven that I am more than up to the task. After all the reading and research and writing I have accomplished over the past several years, these obstacles are not insurmountable. But they are still obstacles. I am still freelancing (for the same organization that chose not to hire me as an employee - another story for another time) but now I have several more irons in the fire. It’s only a matter of time before something pops… as long as I keep moving. Stay tuned… I plan to get much more proactive. There is a bright horizon just a short way away.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Grief

On New Years day, I wrote a little bit about the first day of the new year. It was titled “Cold-Hot-Cold,” the first term referring to the brisk morning temperature and a short motorcycle run with about 55 other (mostly) Harleys. The middle term was a metaphor for the camaraderie and the fellowship enjoyed by this odd but close group of extended friends. It also alluded, literally, to the beautifully sunny day we were so fortunate to have on this ride for the second year in a row. The last reference in the title was due to the pall that settled over many of us as we learned of the tragic drowning death of a toddler that many of us knew or knew of.

I am among this second group. I know the mother in passing and the child even less so, but many of my close friends were much, much closer. I am somewhat closer to other immediate members of the family, but to say that I have been touched in the same way as those who were intimate with the child would be a lie. I couldn’t be and to profess that I am is disrespectful at best. Today there was a public memorial service. There were many, many in attendance and all were connected in some way to this tragedy, as I was. It was not, however, about me or my grief. I am sorry for their loss and their heartache. I have all the empathy in the world for those who were close and the outpouring of love profoundly touches me, but I am not the one who is suffering.

This next part might hit a little close to home to those it may resonate with. All I can say is I mean no offense to anyone, but if the shoe fits…

There are those who will let no tragedy go without somehow turning it back upon themselves. In this case, there are a finite number of individuals whom this is about. They know who they are and if I might add, they did a damn fine job of not allowing the service to become a circus. There are others, however, who must be feeling left out. The spotlight is not shining upon them and for whatever reason they feel it necessary to claim some piece of it. Ironically enough, I am sure it is a “light" those involved would surely give up if that were an option. I am not talking about those who are quietly suffering - perhaps those who are more profoundly affected but not part of the inner-circle. They know it is not about them and they know how to stay on the sideline.

I am talking about (and to) those who claim to “know just how they feel.” No you don’t. No one can. And please don’t use this tragedy to re-grieve the passing of your loved-ones… you had your time, leave this for those who are going through it now. Don’t offer advice - if they want it they’ll ask you for it. Don’t despair when they don’t, because they probably won’t. Remember, it’s not about you. Don’t invade their privacy; don’t “help out” when none is asked for. Leave them alone - they know what they need to do, you don’t. You can’t possibly. They will ask for what they need when they figure it out and once again, no, you can’t help them do that either. You don’t know what they “need to do.”

I am not made of stone; I felt this and it hurts. But it is nothing compared to what those directly related to this child are going through. At the service, the baby’s mother said a few words. The pain she is feeling is palpable. Towards the end of her remembrance, she said no one could possibly know the pain she is feeling. I believe that to be true. Even those who have walked through identical circumstances would probably agree. It is uniquely personal - it has to be.

I saw a family come together when they needed each other most today. They have had to walk through more than I could imagine and probably more than I could bear. The past 10 days must seem like an eternity and I refuse to interject any personal desire for attention at their expense.

Go in peace, little girl.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Samson

It’s done, and it wasn’t all that traumatic. After more than three years of growing my hair out, I cut it off. I did it for a number of reasons, but ultimately it was time for a change. I have had long hair or been in the process of growing it out all of my life. Ever since it has been my choice, I have never had any sustained periods of short hair. My mother allowed my to make that choice at a relatively young age, and I have never changed my mind.

But at various times for various reasons I have cut my hair. As a die-hard non-conformist, I have always struggled with the decision and in that respect this time was no different. However, circumstances are such that for me to maximize my potential as a writer, for employment - as a messenger … as an agent for change - conformity is a necessary evil. There are other reasons for this seemingly drastic change in appearance as well. There is also one direct benefactor… more on that in a moment.

In life, there is an ongoing cycle of seniority. We are constantly clawing our way to the top of the heap only to start at the bottom of the next heap. We go from grade school to high school… then to college or career, but always there is a pinnacle beyond which is another ladder. I have just reached the top of one heap and now must start at the bottom of the next. Although my accomplishments at Sacramento State are noteworthy, even impressive (final semester grades just in: Three “A” and one “A-” for a 3.925 GPA), they are only footnotes on my resume now. I have to prove myself all over again.

I can’t do that unless I get my foot in the door and although I don’t know for sure if my hair would get in my way or not, there is that chance and past experience tells me it is a pretty good chance. It might not be fair, but it is nothing new. These are the rules and if I want to work in the professional arena, I must look the part. I know how to play the game; I’ve been here before. Once I am established and I am judged on my work, I can grow my hair as long as I damn well please - now is not that time.

Like anyone else, my appearance reveals much about who I am. But it does not define who I am. If that were true, I would have become a different person the moment the scissors cut off those 13+ inches of hair. Nothing has changed. The sun still rises in the east, dogs still chase cats and I am still the same person I was yesterday. Those who know me know this, but those who do not will now give me a chance; that is the difference. I am talking about employers, publishers, politicians and policy-makers. It is a world I must infiltrate and now I am cleverly disguised to do just that.

How, where and even if I will benefit from having short hair is and always will be unknown - at best an intangible. But there is one absolute benefactor; I will be donating 13+ braided inches of healthy hair to an organization known as “Locks of Love.” Their mission statement:

Locks of Love is a public non-profit organization that provides hairpieces to financially disadvantaged children under age 18 suffering from long-term medical hair loss from any diagnosis. We meet a unique need for children by using donated hair to create the highest quality hair prosthetics.

Most of the children helped by Locks of Love have lost their hair due to a medical condition called alopecia areata, which has no known cause or cure. The prostheses we provide help to restore their self-esteem and their confidence, enabling them to face the world and their peers.

It will not be simply swept up and thrown away. This is, in my humble opinion, reason enough to cut off my hair and although I will certainly benefit personally, the truth is I already have. My hair will live on… it will help some child who is suffering from the same irrational judgment from hair loss as I was from having too much.

Game, set, match - we win.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Cold-Hot-Cold

There are few things that make one feel more alive than a brisk morning ride on a Harley-Davidson. When that ride is on the first day of the New Year with about 50 like-minded souls, it feels as though all is right in the world… or at least our one little piece of it. Such was the case this morning as those of us from Sacramento rode up to Auburn to meet up with our Grass Valley, Nevada City and Auburn compatriots. By the time we left Auburn, the weather was perfect; about 45 degrees, no wind and the skies were clear with only patches of billowing white clouds dotting the horizon.

But all was not well in the world. Indeed, all was not well even in our little piece of it. Although all of the riders today do not necessarily “know” each other, we all are from the same community of folk. We all know of each other and we all are at least connected by mutual friends. It is a close-knit bunch. It was not until the ride was over and we all had gone our separate ways that we discovered a tragedy had darkened our day and put a damper on the jubilation on this, the very first day of 2008.

The daughter of one of our own was found in a swimming pool today. Not yet three years old, she could not be resuscitated. January 1st, 2008 would be the end of this toddler’s short life. Although I do not know the baby or her mother well, I know many who do including other members of her family. Word has it the family is in seclusion trying to grapple with this tragedy, and that is certainly their right and prerogative. Who could blame them? However, many of our extended family met up at our favorite coffee shop tonight to hold a vigil and remember the little girl and show solidarity not only for her family, but for all of us.

We tried to make some sense of it all. Why did this have to happen? Of course, no one knows. A little girl has passed; a family is grieving like only those who have experienced the loss of a child can know and an extended community of friends is there to help. It’s all we can do, for them and for ourselves. Has she gone to a “better place?” Define better. Quoting Neil Young, “There’s one more kid that will never go to school, never get to fall in love, never get to be cool.” And let us not forget about those who would have been along for that ride. Her mother; her family; and an extended community of friends who have been touched deeply - even if we did not know her well.