If life seems more than a little unsettled these days, here’s one thing you can control.
We’re running out of time, so here’s the plan:
Put something in writing that epitomizes your life, your world view, your beliefs — a mantra, of sorts — for your family, friends, loved ones, even people you don’t know or never will meet, to read and ponder.
The catch? It must be 15 words or fewer, and whoever reads it must smile or think fondly of you long after you’re dead.
You can choose a phrase, a favorite saying, a colloquialism, an expression often used by a loved one.
My preference is that you compose something original, but a well-known quote, song lyric or line from a poem, or a variation thereof, would be acceptable.
Why the 15-word limit?
Brevity not only is the soul of wit, it won’t cost as much if it’s something you want on your tombstone.
Think about it, and whatever you come up with, please share it in the comments.
Your parting words, or perhaps your parting shot, could be serious or humorous or somewhere in between.
While I have yet to decide what to leave for posterity, the idea for this assignment came to me during one of my regular morning walks in the local cemetery.
For years I’ve walked past a tombstone for a family whose members died more than a century ago, but I had never paid attention to the epitaph (not an epithet!) until the other day — “Until the day break, and the shadows flee away,” a biblical verse from the Song of Solomon.
Then I revisited the gravesite of 19th-century activist Matilda Joslyn Gage, a contemporary of more famous suffragists who eventually distanced themselves from her because of her more inclusive and progressive activism.
Gage’s 14-word epitaph on her tombstone in Fayetteville, NY reads: “There is a word sweeter than mother, home or heaven. That word is liberty.”
My mind wandered to another gravesite I had visited more than 30 years ago, in County Sligo, Ireland, of poet William Butler Yeats. His epitaph reads, “Cast a cold eye on life, on death. Horseman, pass by.”
I don’t know how many Irish people smile at that or think fondly of Yeats, but I’m sure they argue about what he meant by those 11 words.
I considered choosing, “Time wounds all heels,” the title of a longish letter I wrote to my three sons many years ago in an attempt to dispense whatever wisdom — and to confront my failings — of my life at that time.
That clever turn of phrase comes from a former journalism professor at The Ohio State University, Walt Seifert, who began every class by writing (in chalk on a blackboard) an “Rx,” a prescription of sorts for life. Or at least for that day.
I can’t plagiarize a journalism professor, of all people.
I have a shortlist of other possibilities, but I’ll hold off on sharing them for now.
The clock is ticking. You have homework.
Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. He wants to be remembered fondly, but is tempted to leave a snarky parting shot, rather than something kind or inspirational.
In the days since the Uvalde massacre, there have been more questions than ever as to why America has more gun violence than anywhere else.
Having worked for 35 years as a professional treating alcoholics/drug addicts, I see some parallels between the rise in mass shootings and the opioid epidemic.
Per the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, addiction is defined as “a compulsive, chronic, physiological or psychological need for a habit-forming substance, behavior, or activity having harmful physical, psychological, or social effects and typically causing well-defined symptoms (such as anxiety, irritability, tremors, or nausea) upon withdrawal or abstinence.”
Some addictions are biochemical (substance abuse), many others are behavioral with no obvious chemical component (gambling, workaholism, eating disorders, sex addiction/pornography being several of many examples). All addictions have three universal criteria: continued use despite negative consequences to self or others, increased need for the escalating amounts of the substance/behavior over time, and marked distress/withdrawal when deprived of the opportunity to engage in the use of the substance/behavior to which the sufferer is addicted.
In 2022, there are many more definable addictions than when addiction was first recognized by the medical/psychiatric community: compulsive online shopping, internet and video game immersion, plastic surgery and spiritual obsessions. Advances in technology created new mediums in which addictions can and do occur, and addictions to behaviors made possible by these advances have developed, and in some cases escalated to catastrophic proportions.
Guns weren’t a big problem when the only firearms that existed were single shot muzzle-loaders. The development of assault weapons hadn’t been predicted when the 2nd amendment was written, but those weapons have created a new set of variables that our laws have not caught up with, but maybe the mental health community can.
It is time that the psychiatric community recognized a mental health disorder which has engulfed the nation with results at least as catastrophic as the well-known opioid epidemic — addiction to firearms.
Guns have a use, and a proper place and context in which to use them. So do hammers.
I own a hammer, occasionally have use for it, but I have no emotional reaction to my hammer. I don’t live in terror of someone taking away my hammer. I don’t amass hammers to the detriment of my or anyone else’s well-being. I don’t attend rallies of other hammer enthusiasts, form friendships based on common feelings about hammers, or plaster my vehicle with bumper stickers ensuring that you know exactly where I stand on hammers. I don’t belong to societies, public or secretly, based around hammer ownership, and I sure as hell don’t think of my primary identity as a proud hammer owner whose hammer will only be taken from me when pried out of my cold, dead fingers. If I did, there would be something seriously wrong with me, and you don’t need a college degree to figure that out.
The NRA spends millions of dollars to bribe (let’s call it what it is) politicians who prioritize the rights of the gun addicts over public safety; in the 2020 presidential race alone, it spent $4.5 million to support Donald Trump — and more than $12 million to attack Joe Biden. The gun addict’s mentality is so distorted by their obsessive terror of being forced to go through withdrawal that the insensitivity of holding an NRA convention within immediate proximity in both time and distance to the nation’s most recent massacre of children makes perfect sense to them.
For better or worse, people have a right to be addicted. They don’t have a right to break laws because of their addictions, but many, many addicts have banded together and used their financial resources to warp laws to their advantage, allowing them to practice their addictions with impunity. Predatory organizations have paid off politicians or watchdog agencies which are supposed to protect us so that they can financially profit off the addictions of others. The alcohol and tobacco industries have done it, big pharma has done it, and the NRA has done it. Comparable corruption in other countries might lead to an equal epidemic of gun violence there. Let’s hope we never find out.
The 2nd of the 12 Steps widely recognized as highly effective in recovery from addictions states that the addict can come to believe that they can be restored to sanity. Both the mental health professionals and our elected officials need to recognize the insanity of firearms addiction for what it is: a serious mental health disorder, and a public health crisis which has reached epidemic proportions.
Mike Donohue is a father, grandfather and friend who hopes for a better world for his family and loved ones to live in. He is a licensed chemical dependency counselor, former professional musician, political moderate, and has published articles related to local music, addiction recovery, and human rights.
For the past few months — has it been longer? — I’ve half-jokingly said that we should change the name of this website to “Sense of Despair.”
It pretty much sums up where many of us have been lately, whether it’s the pandemic that won’t go away, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, lies spewed by hypocritical politicians and television personalities, another mass shooting or the continued erosion of civility in society.
Some days — most — it feels as if we’re just waiting for rampant violence to run amok, for innocent people to run out of luck and find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. The general sense of safety, which of course not every demographic in this country enjoys, seems to erode day by day.
When the pandemic first hit more than two years ago, the catchphrase became, “Stay safe.” As someone wrote after yet another mass shooting a few years ago, the more appropriate phrase in today’s America is, “Stay lucky.” Which mass shooting was it? It’s hard to remember them all.
So what’s to be done?
How can a website with a small following change things for the better? Is it even possible? What can give us hope for the future? Or are things hopeless?
For guidance (and hope) I turn once again to a courageous man — Bryan Stevenson, civil rights lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala.
* “Incredible things happen when you’re proximate to those who suffer.”
* Change only happens “when good people are willing to do uncomfortable things.”
Stevenson told of a mentally disabled client whose appeal had failed, and he had to tell the man he would be executed. The client sobbed but thanked Stevenson for trying.
“Why do we want to kill all the broken people?” Stevenson asked after that exchange. And then he asked himself why he continues to do such incredibly difficult work.
“My answer shocked me,” Stevenson said. “I realized I do what I do because I’m broken, too.”
This kind of work, Stevenson said, “will break you. But it is in brokenness that we come to embrace others and feel connected.”
Not everyone can summon the courage of Stevenson — or the willingness to risk the “brokenness” of raw despair — but the rest of us can do something, however small. To the recipient of an act of kindness from someone willing to get close, from someone willing to be “uncomfortable,” it is huge.
Here’s a quick example from my recent trip to the US-Mexico border to volunteer with Team Brownsville in Texas:
Another volunteer told me about a man from Cuba who was among hundreds of recently released asylum seekers who came in one day to receive food, hygiene kits and other supplies.
The man asked if he could have a pair of underwear, since he had been wearing the same pair for five days before being released by the U.S. government.
I wasn’t there at that moment to see the man’s reaction or to speak with him, but I welcomed hundreds of others who were so grateful for a sandwich, a blanket, a toothbrush, sanitary napkins, socks, shoelaces, etc.
Asylum seekers endure incredible hardship, violence and trauma during the journey through other countries before they finally get through Mexico to reach the U.S.
But still …
The act of giving someone a fresh pair of underwear can be, as Stevenson said, “an incredible thing.”
Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. He wrote this a few days before the massacre of school children and their teachers in Uvalde, Texas.
News reports, photos and video of the suffering in Ukraine, images of innocent families dead on the ground, have infuriated us, sparked us to act.
We send money, food, supplies, weapons. We attend rallies to show solidarity with Ukraine and speak out against Vladimir Putin’s cruel war.
America’s empathy and compassion are on full display.
And yet …
Refugees from other parts of the world aren’t afforded the same empathy, and receive far different treatment by the United States. To name a few:
Haiti. Mexico. Afghanistan. Central and South America. Cameroon.
What’s the difference?
In other words, most people fleeing Ukraine have white skin.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an overt act of war being played out on social media for all of America to see, unlike the following: Cartel violence (rape, kidnapping, extortion, murders of journalists and others) in Mexico; “ethnic cleansing” in Myanmar; gang violence in Haiti; terrorism in Cameroon against English-speakers. Etcetera.
Al Otro Lado, a legal aid organization based in Tijuana that aids those seeking refuge, posed this question recently on Instagram:
“What’s the difference between someone fleeing violence in Ukraine and someone fleeing violence in Cameroon? The world’s explicit bias is on display (and) the message is clear, if you’re Black or brown, you don’t deserve protection. Humanitarianism must be extended to ALL people.”
Immigration attorneys, scholars and activists also point out that the U.S. often expels asylum seekers of color back into danger that America has created or enabled.
We don’t know how many people turned away at our southern border have been killed. Because we don’t see them. We don’t hear about them. We don’t talk about them.
Americans don’t post the equivalent of sunflower photos or change their social media profile photos in solidarity. No one flies the flag of Cameroon or wears the colors of Haiti.
This is not just an American problem.
Since Putin began his war, there have been reports of students and others of African descent in Ukraine who have been denied transport out of the country.
“Videos show Black people being pushed off trains and Black drivers being reprimanded and stalled by Ukrainians as they try to flee,” the Brookings Institution reports. “There are even reports of animals being allowed on trains before Africans.”
Groups of Nepalese, Indian and Somalian men told TIME magazine how they were kicked and beaten with batons by Ukrainian guards who later begrudgingly allowed them to cross into Poland — on foot. A 24-year-old Black woman said she encountered hostility from the Ukrainian military, who were dividing people into two groups — those who were white, and those who were not.
“Now the unthinkable has happened to them,” an ITV journalist said of Ukrainians. “And this is not a developing, third world nation. This is Europe!”
Apparently “the unthinkable” should only happen in what Biden’s predecessor called “s***hole countries.”
Please don’t misunderstand.
Refugees from Ukraine deserve our solidarity and our empathy, as well as political and economic intervention to stop the suffering and death at the hands of one evil man — a man who is admired by an uncomfortable number of Americans. Even now.
Ty Seidule never thought of himself as a white supremacist. He didn’t think about white supremacy at all. Growing up in the South, first in Virginia and then in Georgia, he had one dream: become a southern gentleman, like his idol, Robert E. Lee. He accepted without question the narrative of the Confederacy as a glorious lost cause, a defeat of right by might.
“I mainlined Gone with the Wind and overdosed on the Lost Cause,” he writes in his 2021 memoir, “Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause.”
But during a lifetime of studying history Seidule realized that he had grown up accepting a myth and that all he had been told and taught, all he had experienced as a white person, was part of a system dedicated to the perpetuation of white supremacy.
Now, he’s on a mission to correct the narrative of the glorious and virtuous cause of the Confederacy and especially the idolization of its heroes, starting with Lee. After spending a career as a soldier in the United States Army, Seidule does not look kindly on those who killed men like him and so refuses to honor the Confederate dead. The Confederacy went to war against the United States and before it was over, more than 350,000 United States soldiers were dead. Only in World War II were more U.S. soldiers killed. (If one counts the Confederate dead, the Civil War killed more American soldiers than any other war.)
Seidule says to make no mistake: The Civil War was first and foremost about the perpetuation of slavery. Many will argue the war was about states’ rights. Seidule agrees. “Sure, they fought for states’ rights,” he says. The states’ rights to perpetuate the enslavement of human beings.
He cites South Carolina’s given reason for seceding: “the hostility … to the institution of slavery.” Mississippi argued that it was seceding because “our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest in the world.” And he cites the speech given in March 1861 by Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy. Stephens said that the Confederacy’s “cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man … that slavery is his normal and natural condition.”
Seidule’s book follows his youth in Virginia and Georgia and then his 36-year career in the United States Army retiring as a brigadier general. As he studies history and begins to tear away at the fabric of the myth of the Lost Cause, he comes across innumerable atrocities committed against Black people for which there was no official memory. Statues and memorials to Confederate soldiers abound across the south (and the north) but there was little or no mention of the thousands of Black people who were murdered under a reign of terror that lasted well into the 20th century (some would say it continues to this day).
In the years following the war, the Confederacy was anathema to the United States. But toward the end of the 19th century, the myth of the lost cause began to take hold and a spirit of reconciliation and national unity fueled a new narrative. Seidule notes that this spirit of reconciliation extended only to white people and that the repression, terror and murder in the South continued unabated.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Army, which had lost so many soldiers to the South’s rebellion, began to honor many of those who fought for the Confederacy by naming forts after them. Forts Bragg and Benning are two of the better-known forts named for “unrepentant white supremacists,” Seidule writes. He takes special exception to John Brown Gordon, for whom Fort Gordon in Georgia is named. Gordon never served in the U.S. Army, but rose through the ranks of the Confederate army. After the war, he helped lead the Ku Klux Klan, calling it a “brotherhood of … peaceable, law-abiding citizens.” Much like those “ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse,” of whom the Republican National Committee recently spoke.
Other forts include one named for George Pickett of Gettysburg fame. Pickett, who executed 22 captured U.S. soldiers, was a war criminal, Seidule says.
And then there is Fort Lee, home of army logistics. At Fort Lee, “our most racially diverse post,” Seidule writes, “the army honors a man who wore army blue for three decades and then refused to stay when his nation needed him most. Instead, he fought so well and so hard to ensure African Americans stayed enslaved.”
But over the course of the 20th century, Lee had gone from traitor to hero. Even Franklin Delano Roosevelt praised Lee as “one of our greatest American Christians and one of our greatest American gentlemen.” As Seidule writes, “The South had lost the war but won the narrative.”
Having grown up worshipping Lee, Seidule is now unsparing in his contempt for the man. A great general, yes, Seidule says, but that makes Lee even more guilty for taking up arms against his country. “Because he fought so well for so long, hundreds of thousands of soldiers died. No other enemy officer in American history was responsible for the deaths of more U.S. Army solders than Robert E. Lee.”
In spite of his catalog of horrors, Seidule remains optimistic. He writes “never underestimate the ability of Americans to do the right thing – eventually.” He cites the gradual, grudging acknowledgement of the white supremacist legacy of the United States and the movement toward a reckoning of all of our history.
And he finds hope in stories like that of Ted DeLaney, who grew up attending segregated black schools in Virginia. He was offered a scholarship to attend Morehouse College, but was hesitant to move farther south and instead took a custodial job Washington and Lee University (Seidule’s alma mater). DeLaney’s intelligence got him promoted to a lab assistant job. In 1979 he began taking classes and graduated with a history degree in 1983 at the age of 40. From there he went on to a PhD in history and returned to Washington and Lee as a professor. He retired in 2019, 56 years after he started as a custodian, and died in 2020. “Ted DeLaney represents the America I love,” Seidule writes.
Seidule admits his passion for setting the record straight “can verge into righteousness,” but he is determined to keep on talking, teaching and writing in the hope that not only will we stop honoring traitors and white supremacists, but that we will begin honoring the stories of countless Black people whose stories remain untold and unknown. “The only way to prevent a racist future,” he writes, “is to first understand our racist past.”
Dennis Harrod is a co-founder of Sense of Decency, and in the spirit of full disclosure, he is a member of the board of the Cazenovia Forum. For more information on Seidule’s March 4presentation, go to Cazenovia Forum.
“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”
— Isaiah, 11:16
We should be ashamed.
Amanda Gorman wrote in the New York Times Jan. 20, 2022, that she almost did not recite her poem at Joe Biden’s 2021 inauguration because she feared for her life.
“I was terrified,” she wrote. “… at the inauguration I was going to become highly visible — which is a very dangerous thing to be in America, especially if you’re Black and outspoken and have no Secret Service.”
Friends “not so jokingly” told her to buy a bulletproof vest. Her mother was terrified as well. “My mom had us crouch in our living room so that she could practice shielding my body from bullets.”
“… what I found waiting beyond my fear was all those who searched beyond their own fears to find space for hope in their lives, who welcomed the impact of a poem into protests, hospitals, classrooms, conversations, living rooms, offices, art and all manner of moments.”
Is this where we are? A 22-year-old poet, not even five and a half feet tall, is fearful of reading her poem in public. She’s afraid because much of America is afraid of her. Afraid of her and her words. Words that, God forbid, might make us think.
We should be ashamed, all of us, and not just those bad guys on the other side of the political divide. It’s all of us, hating and fearing “the other” and refusing to stop and consider that someone whose views are anathema to us may have more than one dimension, may have something to say. It’s too easy to hate and be done with it. And as we’ve seen with so many of our “leaders,” hate pays. Hate’s easy. Far easier than trying to see the other side as anything but a one-dimensional villain. And you don’t have to think.
Part of the problem is that we mistake the loudmouths and bullies who make their living spouting division and hate for the people they are talking to. Maybe the people they are talking to are listening because they don’t think anyone listens to them. Maybe if we listened for a minute, we’d hear something more than what we’d expected from the caricature we have created based on one aspect of their lives.
It can be done. It has been done. Daryl Davis, a Black blues musician, has for more than 30 years befriended members of the Ku Klux Klan. And in those 30 years, more than 200 of the Klansmen have recognized the irrationality of their hatred and have turned their robes over to Davis. And all because he sat down and talked to them, knowing who and what they were.
Back in the middle of the last century, Jesús Colón wrote a short piece examining how society’s prejudice affects us all and makes us less than human. Finding himself, a Black, Puerto Rican man, alone on a subway platform late at night with a white woman who was struggling with packages and three small children, Colón wondered if he should offer to help her. Helping others was second nature to him.
“Courtesy is a characteristic of the Puerto Rican,” he wrote. “And here I was—a Puerto Rican hours past midnight, a valise, two white children and a white lady with a baby on her arm [badly] needing somebody to help her, at least until she descended the long concrete stairs.”
But he hesitated as he wondered what she would think if a Black man with an accent approached her in a lonely, all but empty station late at night. Would she accept his gracious offer without a second thought? Or would she succumb to the prejudice of the age (and now) and be afraid and scream?
“Here was I, way past midnight, face to face with a situation that could very well explode into an outburst of prejudices and chauvinistic conditioning of the “divide and rule” policy of present-day society,” he wrote.
In the end, he walked quickly by the struggling woman.
“I passed on by her as if I saw nothing. As if I was insensitive to her need. Like a rude animal walking on two legs, I just moved on, half running by the long subway platform, leaving the children and the valise and her with the baby on her arm.”
And he never knew what might have happened.
“This is what racism and prejudice and chauvinism and official artificial divisions can do to people and to a nation!” he wrote. And he resolved that, if ever confronted with such a situation again, he would take his chances and be true to his nature and offer to help, whatever the consequences.
And Amanda Gorman decided to recite her poem. She stood before a nation because, she wrote: “What stood out most of all was the worry that I’d spend the rest of my life wondering what this poem could have achieved. There was only one way to find out.”
Now it’s up to the rest of us. Do we have the courage to lie down with the lions and the leopards and with those we fear? Do we have the courage to hear what they have to say and see if we can find common humanity? Do we dare climb that hill of which Amanda Gorman spoke?
“… to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside,” she wrote in her inaugural poem.
Dennis Harrod is a co-founder of Sense of Decency.
I won’t give you their names, but names shouldn’t matter anyway.
They are voices at the other end of a phone call, faceless men ages 18 to 48, who tell me their stories in 60, 90 minutes. We say good-bye, I wish them luck and I have no idea what happens to them after that.
These men tell me horrific stories of threats, beatings, guns, machetes, death, lost friends and loved ones. Sometimes they cry, these men often stereotyped as macho Latinos or “bad hombres.”
Who are these men?
Sons, brothers, fathers who break down when talking about the 7-year-old child they left behind, their mothers and sisters back home hiding from gangs, the newborn son they have yet to see, the family farm they had to flee when men killed all their animals and said, “You’re next.”
These traumatized men call me — actually, their captors call me and put the men on the phone — from detention centers in the U.S., because the captors who make a living this way are bound by law to allow phone calls for legal assistance.
The captors comply (most of the time). Is it out of the goodness of their hearts, their humanity?
Or is it because it keeps the watchdog advocates and prying journalists at bay, doesn’t jeopardize the revenue stream to the detention centers, the private corporations and stockholders raking in millions from government-sanctioned human trafficking?
I listen to the men’s stories. I try to visualize their faces as they tell me of pressure to join gangs, of participating in street protests against corrupt governments and police, of getting robbed in one Central American country or another en route to Mexico and to the locked-and-loaded southern border of the United States of America.
For the most part I focus on getting as many details as I can, facts that can help them in their asylum applications, crucial information I add to the forms I send to lawyers who work pro bono to uphold international and U.S. law, who value human rights more than billable hours.
As much as I try to visualize the faces of these migrants, I can’t. Maybe it’s self-preservation. These calls take a toll; their stories haunt me, as do the inhumane conditions they are forced to endure in detention.
The recurring image I have is of a faceless, brown-skinned man sitting at a bare table in a cold room under harsh fluorescent lights, wearing an orange or blue demeaning outfit they are forced to wear.
These men are incredibly polite, never show impatience with me despite the difficulty I often have understanding their Spanish and accents, which vary depending on their country of origin.
These men are desperate, and they hope I can connect them with dedicated lawyers who may take their case and, with luck, reunite them with their family or a sponsor in the land of the free. For most of these men, this literally is a matter of life and death.
Can you visualize these men?
Whatever your political leanings, can you stop for a moment and consider that there are tens of thousands of men and women behind concertina wire in American detention centers? And thousands of other men, women and children trying to survive in shelters and on the streets at our doorstep just over the border in Mexico?
Can you see them? If not their faces, can you at least picture human beings — not “aliens,” as our government calls them — breaking down in tears as they relive trauma they are trying to escape and forget?
If you cannot, you’ll never know that these men even exist.
And if you don’t know or don’t care that they exist, it’s not just their loss. It’s yours.
Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. If anyone is curious about volunteering for the legal assistance volunteer program described above, please e-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ten years ago, during the welcoming ceremony for incoming students at my youngest son’s college, a speaker read a poem that ends with a question.
Many of you will recognize it, perhaps have claimed it as a mantra.
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Since that day I have been a fan of Mary Oliver, buying and borrowing books to visit and revisit her poems — “Wild Geese,” “The Summer Day,” “The Journey” and many others.
How does one reply to Oliver’s question? (Or is it a challenge, a dare?)
Long before I had heard of Oliver, my answer was taking shape.
In 2003, I took three months of Family Leave to help my mother move into a nursing home. She would remain there for the next 3 1/2 years — existing, her emotions mostly flatlined by medication but mercifully no longer angry at the world, until she died peacefully sitting in her wheelchair.
I remember wheeling her in the first day and thinking, “Is this all there is?”
One of my siblings asked me then if our mother, in the throes of early dementia, knew that the nursing home was “her last stop.”
During my three-month leave of absence, I visited the nursing home 88 days, give or take. I say this not to boast or to seek praise, but to say that it was a privilege to be there for her and to see that world up close.
A memory seared into my brain on Day One. A 19-year-old, underpaid and overworked Certified Nurse Assistant, a tattooed young man not much older than my sons, wheeled my mother into the bathroom after she had soiled herself.
The religious among us would say CNAs do the Lord’s work, and I would not disagree.
My mom was well cared for there, although the food often looked gray. It’s all relative, of course, for there are plenty of horror stories at such warehouses of our elderly.
The $9,000 a month (2003-2006) drained all but maybe $20,000 of her life’s savings and that of her physician brother, a frugal bachelor who had bequeathed his estate to his sisters. My mother taught first grade, and my father, who died in 2000, was a postal clerk who took the bus to work every day.
During my three months of near daily visits, I sat with my mother and other residents at mealtimes, observing activities like bingo and beach ball toss, and enjoying performances by local musicians and singers. On nice days, I would take my mom outside in her wheelchair for the sunshine and fresh air — a luxury there, trust me.
Inside, I observed so many humbling moments, bizarre conversations and quiet acts of dignity and kindness that I took notes, knowing I had to do something with what I was witnessing.
I even tried to write a play, which I never finished or tried to publish, titled “The Unit,” a nod to the dementia floor.
The drafts are somewhere in my files, where they should stay until the next bonfire, but I did like one part of what I wrote (it happens occasionally).
One character was “Mr. Zip.” I made him a former postal worker who could name the Zip code of pretty much any city in the U.S.
“Mr. Zip” got a particular kick out of asking visitors, “What’s the Zip code for that big state university in Columbus, Ohio?” (It’s 43210). He would answer his own question, “4-3-2-1-BOOM!!” and laugh uproariously.
That was poetic license, mind you, but I had to create some levity where I could.
Like many on the Unit in real life, the man who inspired the Mr. Zip character could be funny and charming one moment, belligerent or violent the next — and sometimes remarkably reflective and insightful.
“Sooner or later,” Mr. Zip said in one of his quieter moments, “we’re nothing more than a dusty picture frame in our kids’ living rooms. Gone and forgotten.”
Those three months shaped me more than I realized. I still read the local obituaries online every day and look for familiar names and the ages of the recently deceased. If I see someone my age or younger — which happens more and more — Oliver’s question comes back at me with renewed urgency. Maybe it’s panic.
When COVID hit in early 2020 and claimed legendary singer-songwriter John Prine as an early victim, I watched a video of him in an intimate setting singing, “Hello In There.”
Almost immediately I signed up as a volunteer for Meals on Wheels, delivering food to senior citizens one day a week. In less than two years, six or seven of the clients on my route have died. They lived alone, but they were in their own homes or in senior housing, and they were wonderful, kind people.
I still think about them when I drive past their homes. Occasionally Prine’s lyrics find space in my head alongside Oliver’s question.
“You know that old trees just grow stronger
And old rivers grow wilder every day;
Old people just grow lonesome
waiting for someone to say,
Hello in there, hello.”
I don’t worry too much about how things will play out for me. It’s more productive, I think, to hone a skill Oliver cites in “A Summer Day” — knowing how to pay attention.
And having the courage to ask ourselves the difficult questions.
In “When Death Comes,” Oliver wrote, “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”
The poet died in 2019 at age 83.
Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. The headline comes from a song, “Three Wooden Crosses,” written by Kim Williams and Doug Johnson. John Prine’s family established the Hello In There Foundation in his memory. The foundation’s work of supporting people on the margins of society is inspired by his song, “Hello In There.”
The Facebook message from Julie at Minority Humanitarian Foundation arrived on a Wednesday afternoon.
“Hi Jim and Nina would you be available/interested in driving to Calexico tomorrow to pick up an asylum seeker? His wife just called us and he is being released today. … we were wondering if you could pick him up from the hotel tomorrow … and then take him straight to the airport and walk him through TSA.”
Nina Wickett and I had spent the day in Tijuana helping to prepare and serve a meal outside a health clinic with the wonderful people of Contra Viento y Marea community kitchen.
It didn’t take long for us to say yes to the 220-mile round trip from San Diego.
The coordinated effort to reunite this man with his wife, whom he hadn’t seen in 2 1/2 years, was remarkable.
This work goes on behind the scenes day after day, night after night.
While Nina and I drove across the California desert to El Centro, Julie messaged us with detailed instructions about the man’s paperwork and the process of navigating airport security.
We found him at his motel, his eyes smiling above his mask, and began navigating our language situation. He speaks some English, I can get by with mediocre Spanish and Nina speaks French. The laughter started pretty quickly.
A generous friend of ours, Amelia Nigro, had given us $100 toward our trip. We spent some of it on our new friend’s breakfast at McDonald’s, and then started the drive back to San Diego. We were on a fairly tight schedule.
The anxiety we felt about making sure we got him to the airport no doubt paled in comparison to the emotions of our friend as he sat smiling in the back seat of our rental car. He was ecstatic about his release and the reality that a four-hour flight would reunite him with his wife.
We made it to the airport two hours before his departure.
It took some negotiating with the airline, which allowed only one of us to accompany our friend through TSA. That was me, as I could more easily communicate with him in Spanish.
Going through TSA was the only negative part of the day — people released from immigration detention centers are given extra scrutiny, including an invasive “pat-down” — in public — of basically every part of the clothed body.
I grimaced as our friend endured that indignity, but he did his best to grin his way through it. (As another volunteer told me later, the pat-down is probably nothing compared to what refugees may have experienced “on their journey”).
We finally made it to the departure gate, and it was time to follow another request from Julie at MHF — to buy our friend more food for the flight.
He decided on barbecued chicken and iced tea, and as we sat there waiting for his order, he said something directly into his phone.
He then turned the phone toward me and showed me what was on his Google Translate screen. It read something like, “I am very grateful that you brought me to the airport and bought me food. Thank you.”
I didn’t know what to say, either in English or my halting Spanish.
So I just tapped my heart with my hand.
After the food arrived, we went back to the gate so I could tell the employee at the counter that our friend didn’t speak much English and might need help during the flight. The employee looked up his name and said the airline already knew he was Spanish-speaking (thank you, Julie!) — and that he could join the first group allowed to board (thank you, Delta!)
As we waited, I asked him, “¿Este es tu primer vuelo?” (“Is this your first flight?”)
Indeed it was, at age 48.
The announcement came to board, we hugged and I took more photos as he walked through the door to the gateway.
As good-byes go, this was a beautiful one.
This is one person, one husband, one human being. All over the world there are millions like him — men, women and children in desperate situations.
Asylum seekers and refugees leave their homes, their lives, their families, not because they want to. They do it because they have to.
Care to walk a mile in their shoes?
Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. The headline, ‘Humanity Knows No Borders,’ is the phrase Minority Humanitarian Foundation uses to sign off on social media posts. They pick up asylum seekers at all hours of the day and night and send them on their way, we hope, to new lives and new freedom.
After 18 months of pandemic emergency — with its shutdowns, quarantines, masks, hand sanitizers, panic buying, online shopping, online appointments, online gatherings, as well as no dining out, no going to the movies, no attending church, no concerts, no theater and no unnecessary travel — the landscape is awash with people headlong “getting back to normal.”
I’m in no hurry.
Confinement has allowed time for some unexpectedly pleasant discoveries. How comfortable my couch really is, for instance. From that perch — often while luxuriating in seasonal bathrobe attire — discovering the smorgasbord of streaming entertainment on TV with the likes of HBO Max, Disney Plus and Netflix.
Between episodes of “The Nevers,” “The Mandalorian” and “Stranger Things,” and all things Marvel, however, something else unexpectedly crept into my Fortress of Solitude.
I certainly wasn’t looking to carve out time to contemplate, evaluate or otherwise meditate on life. Especially so, given the grim daily witness of the pandemic’s outrageous — and, in my opinion, needless — toll.
It kind of snuck in.
Last winter, I came across an advertisement on social media raising money for animal rescue programs. As incentives to contribute, the ad offered posters, stickers and apparel with various pet-oriented slogans. One that immediately stood out was a denim ball cap that said, “I like dogs … and maybe 3 people.” My style of humor, for sure, and I thought about ordering the hat for when I would be back on the street again.
Not long after, federal aid started flowing to small businesses; great news for the many struggling restaurants in the coastal tourist area where I live. At the mention of once again being able to dine out, however, my instant thought was, “Do I really want to go to all that trouble?”
With the arrival of spring, I began joking with family members that I had begun mentally reviewing the long list of pre-pandemic friends, acquaintances, associates, and organizations I had been connected with and thinking about who and what I really want to be around again. Soon, it began to sink in how many social obligations I had previously tied myself to that no longer made much sense. From there, it was just a short couple of steps to asking myself why some of these obligations even had made sense in the first place.
It is amazing how many obligations cease to be obligations once those obligations cease. Or something like that.
All the while, I had been gravitating toward a couple of pursuits that have had central meaning in my life but over the years had little-by-little been buried under the messy tangle of work, family, health and, of course, social obligations.
Unable to indulge my penchant for overbooking my calendar, I could no longer ignore the plain fact that I had the opportunity to sit down and write the sort of things I had spent decades complaining that there was no time. Even more compelling was a reawakening to the sheer joy of playing music, a passion that sustained me through a very difficult adolescence and later took me to the threshold of a career.
For my wife and I, who have compromised immune systems, the latest coronavirus variants spreading their shadows across the country signals that our “new normal” will be one less of expectation than of caution and continuing risk assessment. Quite naturally, trust — already bruised and bloodied before the lockdowns — is now on life support.
Even as the pandemic emergency eventually fades, I intend to maintain the pandemic shopping strategies in which I developed a number of “sweet spot” times at grocery, hardware and big box stores when there are minimal numbers of shoppers. Observing the almost heedless return to old shopping habits — clueless old men clogging aisles, putzing shoppers funneled into impulse-item bottlenecks, people reaching in front of you to grab a sale item — have once again left me wondering why I ever put up with this in the first place.
Additionally, there are resources that arose in this life in time of plague that I hope can continue. Foremost, Zoom and its related technologies have been a revelatory convenience. Online medical appointments have reduced the time spent at routine doctor’s checkups by hours. Practice with these technologies also has ushered in a time of warm and overdue reunions with friends around the world.
At this point, of course, what will turn out to be truly normal in the coming new normal is probably anybody’s guess. It’s my bet that this new normal ain’t gonna be normal at all for some time.
And that’s okay with me. Just as long as there are some dogs around.
John Grau is a retired journalist living in Delaware. He is currently dogless, and lately wondering why.
Sense of Decency is soliciting personal stories of … well, decency. If you have witnessed an act of unexpected kindness, or benefited from it, we’d like to share it here. The anecdote below prompted this request. We hope to hear from many of you soon. — Dennis, Jim and Michelle.
By JIM McKEEVER
On a recent morning I stopped at a local coffee shop before getting on the highway to spend a few hours with my two grandchildren.
Only one barista was on duty and he was busy making a fancy beverage for the only customer ahead of me. I stood behind the customer, a man in a baseball cap, resigned to waiting a few minutes. I wasn’t in a hurry, so it was not an inconvenience — just a much-needed exercise in patience. And then …
Almost immediately, my thoughts lurched to negativity: Why can’t people just order real coffee instead of foofoo drinks with ice, flavored syrup and whipped cream? That’s not coffee. It’s dessert.
And why am I the only person in this place wearing a mask? A day earlier, the CDC had released information on a rash of breakthrough COVID cases on Cape Cod among the vaccinated. News already had been trickling out about virus hotspots, sparking angry refusals to wear masks or get vaccinated, this is tyranny, how dare you infringe on my liberty, etc.
(I am fully vaccinated and — liberty intact — I have resumed wearing a mask indoors in public places, even though as of this writing it’s only a recommendation in my county.)
In no time at all, I had gone from zen-like patience to irritated and then disgusted by the state of our country and many of the people in it.
Finally — finally! — the man’s shiny drink arrived and as he went to put his credit card into the reader, he gestured toward me and told the barista something to the effect of, “And I’ll pay for whatever he’s getting.”
Maybe “gobsmacked” is too strong a word, but I certainly snapped out of my cynical reverie. I asked the man to clarify that he was indeed treating me, and he confirmed it. “It’s the decent thing to do,” he said. “I made you wait.”
Of course, I thanked him profusely and at some point said something about random acts of kindness. I ordered my small coffee (hot, no ice, no sugar, no syrup, no whipped cream) and a day-old muffin and told the barista, “You don’t see that every day.”
But other than tossing a $1 bill into the tip basket that morning, I have yet to pay it forward.
Maybe telling this story takes care of that.
Or encouraging you to watch “This is Water,” a video based on excerpts of a brilliant 2005 commencement speech by David Foster Wallace, who implores graduates to resist their self-centered “natural default setting” and to be aware “of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us.”
But let’s take it one step further. Send us your personal stories of “random acts of decency” and we’ll consider it for a future post in Sense of Decency.
Check out the guidelines on our “How to Submit” page and send us your anecdote at email@example.com.
Pass it on. It could be contagious.
Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. Full disclosure: After decades of drinking coffee with skim or low-fat milk, he now prefers coffee with oat milk.
Debbie Urbanski writes with raw honesty about the choices we make as individuals and as a species. She examines the vulnerability of a woman who discovers she has inherited a BRCA1 breast cancer mutation (herself) and the fate of a planet whose inhabitants continue to make choices that are not sustainable.
Urbanski calls her fiction “speculative,” rather than applying a label of science fiction or fantasy. She also writes essays on climate change, species extinction, nature and her own physical and mental health.
She is a regular contributor to The Sun magazine, including her recent essay, “Inheritance,” about inheriting a mutation of the BRCA1 tumor suppressor gene, which increases the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Urbanski’s grandmothers and an aunt died of cancer, the oldest at age 61. Two of them had a variant, or mutation. In the essay, Urbanski writes about the emotional and physical toll of learning of her “inheritance” and her decision to undergo major surgeries.
Urbanski and her husband, Harold, and their two children (Jasper, 14, and Stella, 11) live in Syracuse, N.Y. Jim McKeever visited with Urbanski on the family’s backyard deck. Here are excerpts from that conversation, and from follow-up e-mails.
Q. Why don’t we start with your novel coming out next year, the whole process?
A. I’m editing now. I’ve been working on it seven, maybe eight years. Some parts of it have been published in The Sun — apocalyptic, environmental climate change stories, and the same characters are the people in the novel. It takes place in the future and I’m imagining humans going extinct as a solution to climate change. And it’s told backwards. There’s A.I. (artificial intelligence), as narrator, so there’s a lot going on.
Q.What was the germ of it? You delve into sci-fi a lot, and children are probably part of it.
A. I love apocalyptic fiction just as a reader, but I think what always frustrated me was the entertainment value in it. I mean I love getting lost in heroic stories of the end of the world and survival, but I was interested in a non-heroic story. Humans are such a small part, a speck in the big picture. All species eventually go extinct, so that got me thinking, what if that happens sooner? And then I started reading more and more about climate change and species extinction, and started questioning whether we should prioritize humans vs. other species when we’re thinking about climate change.
Q. In your non-fiction, you put yourself out there asfar as vulnerability, your family and physicaland mental health.That’s really courageous.
A. I guess I feel like the mental health stuff, the depression, also for the BRCA1 mutation and the surgeries I went through, I feel like that’s important to try and verbalize or get out there. I wish there were more writers that I could have seen being OK on medication. I Googled and I looked and I looked, but I think a lot of writers are still uncomfortable about it. I myself was really uncomfortable about it.
And with the BRCA1 stuff, it’s kind of the same, it’s still kind of new, they’re testing more and more. I don’t see a lot of essays, there’s a lot of articles that are helpful, but it’s not about the emotional experience. Those topics felt important. That said, it is weird having that stuff published. Writing it is one thing, and realizing people are reading it, it’s different for non-fiction. I think the hardest part was going through it, to be honest, so writing gave me some nice closure.
Q. I detect some humor in your writing, self-deprecating or dark humor.Like when you broke your leg in a fall in the Adirondacks. I confess I laughed out loud at, “I asked my husband to shoot me. We didn’t have a gun, of course. All we had was Advil.” Where does that come from?
A. Good, I’m glad that comes through. I think partially the topics I write about are pretty dark most of the time, so I also think looking back at a lot of moments, they’re so surreal they are kind of funny. I jot them down. I can’t believe we actually said this stuff, but we did. The humor I think comes from it being surprising or weird or strange, so I don’t do it intentionally. I think it’s just how things in retrospect feel and sound.
Q. We have to laugh at ourselves occasionally.
A. Yeah, yeah, in some of the pieces about the BRCA1 stuff, I had my dead relatives come and question, “Why are you writing about yourself so much?” and the question about why I was making my — I was calling it suffering, and they’re like, “Whatever, that’s not even close to what we experienced,” so it gave me an opportunity to have a little voice in my head come out, in a funny way maybe.
Q. There’s a character Dana in one of your apocalyptic stories who has to record everything. She’s the witness, and it doesn’t matter if anyone else gets to read it. You obviously have an audience, but why do you do this?
A. I feel like often I find holes in genres or in stories. I’m interested in what I feel is missing. That’s why I’m interested in genres, in science fiction, fantasy. The idea of portals (temporary passages to another world) fascinated me for a while — what if somebody never gets to see those? It’s so often a story of someone who goes through a portal, what about the people left behind? Or can’t find their portal. That’s a fantastical example.
I guess some of my non-fiction, like the BRCA stuff, I feel I want more about the experience to be out there so if people go through it they feel like other people have gone through it as well.
With my novel — why am I writing my novel? (laughs) We hike a lot. I care very deeply for the forests around here, and other species. I do hope the novel gets people to think. I hope they also enjoy it as a novel, but I would love for someone to think about, “Are these the right choices we should be making for the entire earth rather than just ourselves?”
Q. I don’t know if you want to delve into the political realm right now. I saw in one interview, your concern about the rise of right-wing extremists out there …
A. I wrote a short story (“Long May My Land Be Bright,” in the New England Review) about envisioning the country as having two presidents. There was an even-day president and an odd-day president and the country splits off. It’s very fantastical. Your neighbor could be an “oddist,” I called it, and they have to pretend to be an “evenist” on even days. Eventually these rifts, these holes in the ground, started opening around neighborhoods and in cities and they got so wide people couldn’t cross them. So I guess that describes my feeling about what is happening. I love thinking of it as a physical distance between each other.
Q. In a 2018 interview about the writing process, you were asked how you know when you’re done. I think your answer was something like revise, revise, revise and if you reach a point where it seems like “I didn’t write the words at all, that these words have always been this way,” that’s when you know it’s finished. I found that fascinating.
A. It’s kind of magical when that happens.
Q. Does it happen every time?
A. Usually I don’t have actual deadlines, so this (the novel) is a weird experience for me. Generally I’m writing essays or short stories and I send them out so I can take as long as I want on them. I have the luxury of going over and over and over them until everything is like I want it. So it has happened. At The Sun they do a lot of editing, they send back their edits and when I’m reviewing them I think, “I would never have said that, had written it that way,” and I assume they changed it, but no actually I wrote it and I just forgot that I had. I hope it’ll happen with this novel.
Q. Your background and education — you’re from Minnesota?
A. I was born in Chicago. We lived in a suburb growing up, I moved to Minnesota for college where I met my husband. We went to Minneapolis for a couple of years and moved out here to go to grad school (she has an MFA from Syracuse University’s creative writing program). We co-own a letterpress business, Boxcar Press, so the presses moved with us and were in our house for a while. I ended up working with Boxcar Press during grad school instead of teaching. I ended up working with my husband for a long time after I graduated before I decided to write more and spend more time with the kids.
Q. Do you want to talk about the pandemic, and the effect on your writing, your life?
A. Our letterpress shop prints wedding invitations and nobody was getting married. There were a lot of scary things about the pandemic for a lot of reasons, but one of them was watching businesses really dwindling to nothing until the government was able to step in with all the loans and support. I’m a writer and I sold my book, but we still need our business to survive. So that was stressful. I did try writing in that time, when I was really stressed and nervous and wondering whether our livelihood was going to go away.
I remember walking with my daughter — we go on a lot of walks together — and we were walking maybe a day or two after things shut down and there were no cars on the street. We were walking down the middle of the road, no people, it really felt post-apocalyptic. Whenever I saw somebody I was so grateful somebody else was out there. But people are getting married again and the business is more stable, and the kids went back to school, the vaccines, things are feeling more normal.
Q. I remember one of your stories, it was in the Sun in 2019 and has to do with a virus —
A. — That’s my book!
Q. So you were prescient in regard to that. Did you think about that once COVID hit?
A. Everybody’s going to think I wrote (the novel) in reaction to COVID, right? But it is amazing how I feel like lot of novels and movies that are post-apocalyptic kind of nailed how things were slowly falling apart. I’m glad they stopped, in the books they keep falling. But at that beginning stage, they really understand what it’s like even though they imagined it.
Q. I started following you on Instagram. Does photography serve a particular purpose for you, as a human being or as a writer?
A. Lately I’ve been interested in trying to identify plants and insects since I got a macro lens. I love just putting the camera with the macro lens on the ground and taking pictures to kind of see what things look like down there.
Q. I saw some of your photos of ants and dandelions.
A. l feel kind of bad about the ant thing. I really want to write more about the environmental landscape, I feel like such an intruder sometimes — here I was lifting up this pot and then the ants had their eggs, some stage of eggs, they were trying to save the little white things, so it really disturbs them and I did it to get a picture.
I’m interested in the kind of choices people and companies are making on a larger level. It’s just me and my backyard and my ants, but a lot of times people make the same choices with bigger repercussions. So with photography I guess I’m excited by looking at things close up. I had no idea dandelions are so beautiful, or anything when you look at it close up.
Q. Are you optimistic about the way things are going,pessimistic, or do you go back and forth about our society, our planet?
A. I think I’m more — rather than optimistic or pessimistic, it’s more maybe just a sense of acceptance that (pause) I’m not sure I want to say it, I don’t think things will go great for the planet.
I think we’re prioritizing humans over natural spaces, over other species. I feel like there’s going to be a lot of extinctions. And I think that’s going to be a huge loss. All the stuff I’ve read, it’s about how we can keep our lives as close to how they are now, how can we use technology to make our impact less but still have everything we have now. I feel like there’s not a discussion about the radical changes we would need. I feel terrible saying that. So I don’t know … I think there’ll always be dandelions (laughs) and ants. They’re amazing! Maybe there will be a lot of loss, but we’ll find some new forms of nature.
Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. In the spirit of the quirky biography blurbs published by The Sun magazine, Urbanski would someday like to eat the ripe fruit of a mayapple, and she recently learned that everything is beautiful when looked at close up (except, perhaps, jelly fungus.)
The novelist, poet, essayist and activist has been in vogue recently, thanks in part to the 2020 re-release of the documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” and scholarly books such as Eddie S. Glaude’s “Begin Again.”
Baldwin, who died in 1987, was a brilliant writer and champion of civil rights and a lightning rod for criticism. As an outspoken gay Black man, he was attacked from every corner, including by fellow Black civil rights activists.
“I Am Not Your Negro” includes excerpts of a 1965 debate Baldwin had with conservative icon William F. Buckley at Cambridge University in England. The motion, or subject, of the debate was, “Has the American Dream Been Achieved at the Expense of the American Negro?”
The entire debate is on YouTube, and it is fascinating viewing. Baldwin is absolutely mesmerizing throughout his 20-minute argument.
The most powerful point he made, one that still resonates, was his empathy toward White racists in America, particularly in the Deep South.
He cites infamous Sheriff James Clark of Selma, Alabama, who led violent attacks on Black Americans during 1965’s “Bloody Sunday” on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, and other physical assaults on civil rights demonstrators, particularly Blacks trying to register to vote.
Baldwin tries to understand why Clark was so cruel, and said that no one, including the sheriff, can simply be “dismissed as a total monster.”
Sheriff Clark, Baldwin said, “doesn’t know what drives him to use the club, the menace of the gun, and to use a cattle prod. Something awful must have happened to a human being to be able to put a cattle prod against a woman’s breast, for example.”
Baldwin’s view of Southern Whites in general shows how he tried to find the roots of their racist behavior.
“They have been raised to believe … that no matter how terrible their lives may be, and their lives have been quite terrible, and no matter how far they fall, no matter what disaster overtakes them, they have one enormous knowledge and consolation, which is like a heavenly revelation — at least they are not Black,” Baldwin said.
“Now I suggest that of all the terrible things that can happen to a human being, that is one of the worst. I suggest that what has happened to White southerners is in some ways after all much worse than what has happened to Negroes there.”
It astounds me that Baldwin endured and witnessed such cruelty at the hands of Whites throughout his life, and still tried to find the humanity within.
Racism is not strictly an American epidemic, of course.
In mid-July I watched the championship match of the Euro 2020 soccer tournament featuring England vs. Italy.
The score was 1-1 at the end of regulation and extra time, forcing a penalty-kick “shootout” to determine the winner. In a shootout, five players from each team are selected and each team takes a turn with one player attempting to score on a single kick vs. the other team’s goalkeeper from a designated spot 12 yards away.
The English coach chose three young Black players among his five, and all three failed to score. Italy won the coveted title.
I immediately texted a friend, an avid soccer fan who I knew was also watching the match. I told him I feared a nasty racial backlash from English fans toward the three players.
Within an hour or so, he texted me back with a link to a news item about the trio immediately being racially abused on social media. “As you predicted,” my friend wrote, punctuating it with a frown symbol.
While some ranters faulted England’s coach (who is White) for selecting less experienced players to take “spot-kicks,” there was plenty of racist venom directed at the three players, ages 19, 21 and 23.
Bukayo Saka, the youngest of them, issued a statement a few days later, thanking his supporters and admonishing social media platforms. “I don’t want any child or adult to have to receive the hateful and hurtful messages that me, Marcus (Ashford) and Jadon (Sancho) have received this week,” Saka wrote. “I knew instantly the kind of hate I was about to receive and that is a sad reality …”
He signed off with, “Love always wins.”
Meanwhile, back in America, those who harbor the views of Sheriff Clark don’t need to resort to billy clubs and cattle prods to keep Blacks from voting. Some state legislatures are taking care of that without bloodshed.
In 1962, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, James Baldwin said it would be another 100 years before Blacks in this country could celebrate true freedom. We are more than halfway there.
If he were alive today, what would he say of that timetable?
A word has ignited a war of words on the letters to the editor page in The Sherburne News, a weekly newspaper in the next county over from where I live. The word that started the war begins with “F” and ends with “K.” It appears in very large letters on the main road into town. The “F word” is followed by “Biden.”
A letter to the editor a couple of months back objected to the F word, saying it was vulgar and not appropriate for school children to see as they pass by on the bus. The following week, the owner of the sign wrote her own letter and said that what was vulgar was the current deplorable condition of the country.
She said it’s becoming a “third-world cesspool.” Democratic policies are leading us down a dangerous path, especially the rolling out of a “red carpet” for immigrants. That’s what is vulgar in her opinion. And school kids learn far worse language than that long before they pass her sign, she added.
Letters appeared weekly on both sides of the issue. At one point, in what appears to be unintentional irony, the person displaying the “F*** Biden” sign tells her left-wing counterpart that “you really need to move on.”
While the war of words raged, Mark Golden was driving to work in New Berlin every day and passing a number of other signs of the F Biden variety.
“By the time I got to work, I was angry,” he said in a recent interview. A self-described “child of the 60s,” Golden doesn’t like to be angry. So he decided to do something about the decline in civility along the roadsides and in society at large.
Golden, CEO of Golden Artist Colors, an employee-owned company (and a story of wonder and kindness in itself) talked to an artist friend about designing a sign to encourage people to tone down the rage and keep in mind that we’re all human.
They came up with a yard sign with rainbow colors and #KEEPITKIND written on it. Golden took out an ad in The Sherburne News. Under the headline #KEEPITKIND, the ad said: “We have so many more things that bind us than divide us as a community. Please help us share a message of kindness by posting a ‘KEEPITKIND’ sign on your property. They are available at Golden Artist Colors….”
The ad goes on to request a $10 minimum donation that will be given to one of three local food banks, and concludes with: “Let’s plaster our community with kindness!”
Golden said his action was not specifically in reaction to the ongoing exchange on the letters page of The Sherburne News, but to the general decline in civility throughout our society. He did say, however, that although he disagreed with the tone of the F Biden signs, he admired the woman who wrote in for putting her name on the letters and not hiding behind the anonymity that makes so much of contemporary discourse so nasty.
In a 2019 interview with Syracuse.com, Golden said respect is a value he holds dear and it’s that loss of respect in contemporary society that he laments. The anonymity of the Internet has contributed heavily to that loss of civility. In the past, you “wouldn’t give someone the bird because you knew you’d see them later in the grocery store,” he said.
So far more than 100 signs have gone up along the roads in Chenango and neighboring counties and Golden expects to see more. Now, on his drive to work, he passes more signs saying #KEEPITKIND than the other kind. And he’s not angry anymore.
“Now, seeing the signs along the road, I arrive at work happy,” he said.
So if the state of debate in our country has you down, follow Route 80 into the hills of Chenango County to the Golden Artist Colors and pick up a sign. You’ll be helping to feed hungry people. And it’s a beautiful ride. And you might come back less angry.
Dennis Harrod is a co-founder of Sense of Decency.
#KEEPITKIND signs can be picked up at Golden Artist Colors, 188 Bell Road, New Berlin, NY 13411 Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. You might want to call ahead at (607) 847-6154 and make sure they have some on hand. Golden said they are going fast and he plans to order more. The requested $10 minimum donation will go to your choice of the following: New Berlin Food Pantry, St. Malachy’s Community Food Bank (Sherburne) or Hamilton Food Cupboard.
What must it be like to give up everything you have, especially if you are forced to flee your home and travel thousands of miles, protecting yourself and your children from harm?
Each day asylum seekers from various countries, as well as detainees released from a Texas immigration detention center, are dropped off at the bus terminal in Brownsville, Texas. Bus stations aren’t always cheerful or safe places, but Brownsville’s is clean, well-maintained and welcoming.
Through a cooperative agreement with the city and not-for-profit organizations, the new arrivals receive help with basic necessities and bus transportation to cities throughout the U.S. where family members or sponsors live.
I spent a week in mid-May volunteering with Team Brownsville, a not-for-profit founded three years ago by special education teachers to help asylum seekers, first at a makeshift camp in Matamoros and now in Texas as two or three dozen people per day are allowed to cross into the U.S.
Every day, Team Brownsville volunteers staff several tables and distribute donated and purchased items to the arrivals after they are given a hot meal and have secured their bus tickets.
My interactions with these men, women and children were both practical and profound. How best to explain that? Perhaps through a partial list of the things we gave them — and what we were given in return.
We gave men new underwear and T-shirts; we gave women feminine hygiene products and socks; we gave children stuffed animals and Hot Wheels cars.
We gave snacks, face masks, deodorant, toothpaste, shoelaces; we gave Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle caps that grown men were not ashamed to wear.
We gave bottles of water, essential in the Texas heat; we gave blankets for the air-conditioned bus rides to places like Virginia, Florida, Nebraska.
We gave a dwindling number of shoes, trying as best we could to find the right sizes for men, women and toddlers.
We gave pens and notepads, coloring books and crayons.
We gave backpacks to the liberated detainees to replace the demeaning, tattered mesh sacks they were given in detention.
Most important, however, were the intangible things we gave when these folks first arrived at the terminal. We gave of our time and talents, kneeling on the hard cement floor to play with a brother and sister, speaking our best Spanish, braiding the hair of a 5-year-old girl so her pregnant mother could rest.
From our tables or from the parking lot, as each group arrived, we stood and waved and smiled and called out one word.
Here is what they gave in return.
Immeasurable, silent expressions of gratitude and hope as their eyes met ours, spoken words of “Gracias” and “Dios te Bendigo” (thank you and God bless you), the gift of allowing us to share in their relief, their safety, their freedom from whatever horrors they had endured in Central and South America or the months or years they had spent in detention centers in the U.S.
We did not ask where they had come from, or anything that might remind them of why they had fled — gang violence, threats, rape, extortion, abject poverty, recent hurricanes, corrupt governments and police.
We didn’t need to know any of that. All we needed was to look at the children the moment we handed them one of the teddy bears that had been donated that week. They hugged the bears tightly and smiled at us and whatever fear they had disappeared, at least for a moment.
There are images from that week that I hold onto now, images of hope amid ample evidence of the cruelty of man and governments:
A child not much older than my granddaughter, comforted by a stuffed animal, ecstatic to see a bin filled with hair ties she could choose from … adult female detainees hugging each other after they emerged from a detention van and were freed from waist chains, handcuffs and ankle restraints by guards who glared at us… a 69-year-old Venezuelan man’s smile as he rather generously complimented me on my Spanish … a young detainee approaching me the morning after he spent the night in the station, asking for a sweater for the air-conditioned bus that would take him, eventually, to Florida.
I found one that fit. It was my last shift with Team Brownsville and as he thanked me and rushed off to catch the bus, I said for the last time that week, “Buena suerte.”
Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. The headline comes from 1 Corinthians 13:13: “And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. — Matthew 25:35.
On April 15, the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University hosted a dialogue, “Immigration Challenges and Choices: People, Principles, and Policies.” The hourlong presentation was recorded and can be viewed online.
The panelists — a Catholic bishop, an Evangelical minister, a journalist and a DACA recipient — offered their perspectives on immigration, refugees, xenophobia, race-based violence and asylum.
They stressed a humanitarian approach to addressing a global reality that is thousands of years old, and is drawing attention again at the United States’ southern border.
The current situation at the southern border with Mexico represents “a pivotal moment in our country,” said the Rev. Walter Kim, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, Presbyterian pastor in Charlottesville, Va.
The Rev. Kim, whose father fled Communist China for South Korea before emigrating to the United States, pointed out that the Bible “is a story of migration. … Essentially to be a Christian is to be a migrant. … It’s also a call to be hospitable, to extend hospitality to those who are migrating.”
Journalist Sabrina Rodriguez said the Biden administration had pledged to create a fair and humane immigration system, but “saying it and doing it are two very different things. There are very real challenges to accomplishing that.”
The administration has made some changes, including discontinuing the Migrant Protection Protocols. About 6,500 of the 25,000 MPP enrollees, some of whom have been waiting for more than two years in Mexico, have been admitted to the U.S., Rodriguez said. Other groups of migrants from all over the world, including Central America, are fleeing their countries for various reasons — crime, lack of jobs, the pandemic and the devastation of hurricanes.
Rodriguez said the number of migrants arriving at the border has increased since April 2020, but there are nuances that are often overlooked. Most families who attempt to cross are sent back to Mexico, she said, but often the next step is to send their children across on their own. This inflates the numbers of apprehensions cited by government officials and has resulted in an increase in unaccompanied minors — many of them who have relatives in the U.S.
Bishop Mark Seitz, who has been in El Paso for eight years, noted that politicians “fall into place” and say the same things every time the border is in the news. “Maybe it’s time to stop politicizing these issues and begin Christianizing them,” Seitz said. “People are at our door and they are begging to come in for refuge.”
The bishop urged people to learn why migrants are coming to the U.S. southern border, what countries they are coming from and what situations they are fleeing, especially in Central America.
Bishop Seitz was asked about the August 2019 mass shooting in El Paso, in which a white nationalist drove hundreds of miles to El Paso because he was upset by the “Hispanic invasion of Texas.” The 21-year-old shot and killed 22 people and injured 26 others, many of whom had Latino surnames.
“I don’t think there’s any question that racism plays a role here,” Seitz said. “One message we often give to politicians is watch your language” and stop using fear-mongering words like criminals and invasion that appeal to fear, as well as to the racism that has been a part of this country since its beginnings.
“This attitude is death-dealing,” Seitz said. “It has an impact.”
Loren, a Georgetown University student and DACA recipient, said her family came to the U.S. from Colombia when she was 3. The economy was bad, and it was dangerous where they lived. It wasn’t until she was a freshman in high school in Boston that she learned of her immigration status and that of her parents. She has younger brothers who were born in the U.S.
“I constantly struggle with being stuck between two countries,” Loren said. “I want to tell my story as often as possible, to let others know they’re not alone.”
Two months ago, Loren’s parents contracted COVID as front-line workers in the food industry. They have since recovered.
Rodriguez, who writes about immigration for POLITICO, urged people to listen to people who live and work near the border and to listen to immigrants who have been in the U.S. for years as well as new arrivals.
“It is really essential that we humanize this reality,” Bishop Seitz said. “That we listen to those who are experiencing it … to hear the stories, to understand that these aren’t just numbers, they are real human beings, brothers and sisters.”
Ultimately, Seitz said, we’re going to need the courage to think beyond “the narrow confines of, ‘How do we enforce our law?’ without really asking whether the law and its consequences are moral in the first place.”
Moderator Kim Daniels asked Rev. Kim to discuss the recent increase in physical attacks on Asian-Americans. He cited the case of the woman assaulted in New York City, when three men at a nearby luxury apartment did not help the woman and a security guard closed the doors.
Such “bystander apathy” happens too often, he said. “Do not close the door and turn away. …
“No one can do everything,” Kim said. “But everyone can do something. So choose some thing.”
The Rev. Walter Kim, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, Presbyterian pastor in Charlottesville, Va.
The abolition of slavery in 1865 through the 13th amendment, together with the 14th amendment (citizenship for all people born in the U.S. including formerly enslaved people) and the 15th amendment (the right of citizens to vote) ratified soon thereafter, supposedly laid the foundation for racial equality in the United States. If this is true, then why is it that, a century later in the mid-1960s, the struggle for civil rights began almost as if it were starting from scratch?
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. answers this question in “Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow.” Gates sheds light on how the institutions of white supremacy, hardly deterred but instead inspired by their defeat in the Civil War, systematically dismantled the civil rights gains of Reconstruction through widespread violence, suppression and rescinding at the state level of civil rights granted ineffectually at the federal level, and through mass saturation in literature, advertising, and other public imagery of alleged inferiority of African Americans.
Gates places emphasis on this cultural battlefield because it has been largely out of sight. He also documents the rich history of courageous efforts by African Americans to right the wrongs committed on this battlefield.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in 1968 that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” While we have to hope this is true, Gates’ book reminds us that this arc does not bend gently, but instead lurches in accordance with whether white supremacists or racial egalitarians have the upper hand in the long-term struggle.
And that is precisely why “Stony the Road” is so important at our current juncture in history. With the failure of the “Second Reconstruction” in the 1960s to create a decisive shift toward justice, and with white supremacy emboldened and unleashed by the Trump presidency, it is vital that we understand our cultural history well. To see how deeply rooted supremacist thought, culture, and action is in history is to appreciate how virulent and dangerous it is now.
It is especially important for white people to learn these lessons, for two related reasons. First, the historical underpinnings and dynamics of contemporary racism are far more opaque to the oppressing race than they are to people of color. Second, an unstated lesson of the Gates book is that bending the arc of the moral universe decisively toward justice will require far greater participation of white people than has been the case to date.
“Stony the Road” is a difficult read because it spotlights the depth and breadth of white supremacist thinking in the decades after emancipation. But the knowledge gained provides useful guidance for understanding our ugly current impasse, and inspiration for helping to smooth the stony road.
William D. Sunderlin is a researcher, professor and activist living in Fayetteville, N.Y. He is affiliated with the State University of New York – College of Environmental Science and Forestry (Syracuse, N.Y.), the Center for International Forestry Research (Indonesia), and the Rights and Resources Initiative in Washington, D.C.
“Stony the Road” are words describing the struggle for freedom and justice in “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often called the African American National Anthem. Composer and pianist Jon Batiste performs part of the piece during an interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” with an introduction at about the 11:30 mark.
A few summers ago, as our Sunday morning running group mingled and stretched before our weekly long run, the subject of Ultimate Fighting or Mixed Martial Arts came up.
I think there had been a highly publicized fight on TV the night before.
One runner, whose well-muscled physique indicated a serious dedication to weight-lifting (unusual among distance runners), shook his head and said something like, “I think all those guys were beaten by their fathers.”
I bet he’s right. Of course there are other factors that lead to men having or developing a liking for violence — genetics, poor coping skills, bullying, overexposure to violence in person or videos glorifying it, etc.
If it’s a learned behavior, it starts early.
I don’t mean the adolescent aggression common in contact sports. The satisfaction of a hard tackle or an effective body check is something that most of us outgrow at a certain point in life, because we know at the time it served a purpose in an athletic contest.
In college I could never understand why a particular acquaintance of mine would hit the campus bars on weekends, basically looking for a fight. He was intelligent, a good athlete and had a wicked sense of humor. And not safe to be around.
He was far from being the only guy on campus who seemed to enjoy it, whether alcohol was involved or not. It was depressing. What was I missing? Is not enjoying fighting a “man card” violation? The men I associate with now are not anything like that, and I doubt they ever were.
Where am I going with this?
The hyper-violent and fatal Jan. 6 insurrection on the U.S. Capitol, of course.
That horrific display wasn’t a beginning, but a spike along a continuum of violence that has left an indelible stain on our history.
All one has to do is take a hard and honest look at our nation’s past — especially at white-on-black violence and murder — to know what men are capable of. There’s no shortage of well-researched books and fact-based documentaries that hammer that point home.
More than 150 years after the rise of the KKK and its celebration of violence and murder, right-wing extremist groups such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers are front and center. White hoods have given way to body armor, military fatigues and a range of weapons. Were they all beaten by their fathers? Bullied? Are they genetically predisposed to violence? Easily manipulated by a racist authoritarian leader?
Of course, some will go into full “what about” mode and point to Black Lives Matter protests in some cities last summer and beyond. But there’s a huge difference between violence and property destruction. Yes, there were some bad actors and looters at those protests, but no one was attempting to prevent a peaceful transfer of power in American government by threatening to kill the vice president or members of Congress.
Arrests of more than 300 insurrectionists notwithstanding, right-wing mob violence will continue.
These violent actors, mostly white men, see themselves as the embodiment of patriots, martyrs and aggrieved victims — a lethal combination. They feed off of each other.
Even that pathetic 17-year-old misfit who killed two Black Lives Matter protesters with his AR-15 style rifle last summer in Kenosha, Wis. is hailed as a hero in that world.
There have been warnings of further violence to come, as conspiracy theories about the “stolen” election won’t die. Expect more trouble this month when the trial of Derek Chauvin begins.
Chauvin is the former Minneapolis Police officer who knelt on the neck of African-American George Floyd for more than eight minutes last May after responding to a $20 dispute at a convenience store. Floyd’s death, and that of many other African-Americans at the hands of police, sparked last summer’s protests.
There likely will be more protests in Minneapolis that start out peacefully, and then get ugly — perhaps when the Proud Boys and other right-wing sympathizers arrive in their puffy camo glory.
When they do show up — to do what? Defend the honor of former Officer Chauvin? — just remember that this is the mob that attacked cops and used the “n word” against Black police officers as they tore through the Capitol, broke into offices and smeared excrement in the hallways. The same crowd that had special “MAGA Civil War” T-shirts printed for the occasion.
So what do we do about these guys who’d love nothing more than to punch us in the face? Or, perhaps, use a gun or other weapon on us to make them feel like real men?
We can’t do much about their propensity for violence, but we can deter some from acting on it. Our weapons:
Keep spreading truth to counteract lies that incite violence.
Keep a cell phone handy at all times, especially at politically charged events, and be ready to hit “record.”
Encourage people to turn over to authorities the names of violent offenders seen on cell phone videos, and in photos and video shared by photojournalists. The Jan. 6 mob did one thing well — incriminate themselves with their cell phones. Many of them were identified by friends and acquaintances (and one ex-girlfriend) who were disgusted by what they saw.
Hope is the last thing you’d expect to find in the faces of people trapped in the border city of Tijuana. They’ve traveled from all over Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and beyond in hopes of finding a life in the promised land of the United States. They endure hardship, suffering and loss. Stuck at the border, some for months or years, they wait. And hope.
Bill McLaughlin captures that hope in a series of portraits he made late in 2019 before the Pandemic shut the border even tighter and challenged what hope the migrants and refugees still had.
McLaughlin left his home in Chenango County, took a train to San Diego and then the trolley to the border to meet and photograph people a world away from the rural landscape he calls home. He is passionate about the land and talks reverently about the bonds one forms by planting and cultivating. He’s primarily a painter but began photographing landscapes in and around Chenango County, which connected him with people, and he expanded into making their portraits. He became fascinated with what he calls “the power of the portrait, people looking right back at you.”
Meanwhile, McLaughlin was hearing about the humanitarian crisis at the United States southern border and was upset. Photos in the media “showed migrants as dangerous, threatening, in the worst possible condition,” McLaughlin says. “It was a terrible misrepresentation, combined with hateful rhetoric, a formula to otherize people.”
Not for McLaughlin. “I wanted to put a face on the tragedy; take what I’d been doing about making portraits and apply it to the greater good.”
For McLaughlin, the atrocity that moved him to act was the drowning deaths of Salvadoran Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, as they tried to cross the Río Grande in June of 2019. The photograph of their bodies, face down in the shallow water, was seen by millions and sparked outrage. But people soon went back to their lives and the outrage faded.
So he went to Tijuana. Once there, he connected with Hugo Castro, who led relief efforts in Tijuana for Border Angels, a San Diego-based volunteer group that provides aid for migrants on both sides of the border. Castro helped put him in touch with shelters providing support to migrants stuck in Tijuana as they awaited an opportunity to cross legally into the U.S. He rented an apartment in Las Playas, on the coast west of the city where the border wall reaches the sea. From there, with the help of Castro and others, he was able to go into Tijuana each day and connect with people in shelters. He even stayed a couple of nights in one of the dozens of shelters in Tijuana.
McLaughlin was impressed by the warmth and compassion he found among people who have nothing. “Here they are, 1,000 miles from home,’ he says, “food insecure, future insecure, they can’t go back, they can’t go forward and the camaraderie among them was really inspiring.”
He doesn’t speak a lot of Spanish, so communicating his aims in making the portraits was not easy. The difficulty was compounded by the fact that many migrants are fleeing danger at home and in Tijuana, and do not want anyone to recognize them in a photograph. But many were willing to pose for portraits and when they did, they showed their resilience, faith and hope.
The portraits show people of all ages, from children to grandmothers. In most of them, there is a slight smile, tinged with sadness but not self-pity. McLaughlin only identifies them by their first names. Ruth, a mother from El Salvador, looks away from the camera with a slight smile, and a face that shows wisdom without resignation. In another striking family portrait, a. young Mexican mother holds her small son in her arms. He is looking at her, but her young daughter, perhaps five years old, looks straight at the camera, cautiously, curiously. The mother also looks directly into the camera, a slight smile showing hope. And faith.
One young man from Honduras thought long and hard about whether he should have his picture taken. After pondering it overnight, he approached McLaughlin in the morning and said yes, he’d like a portrait of him and his family. His family turned out to be him and his wife. The portrait shows a proud man, looking directly and confidently at the camera, as if posing for a formal portrait. McLaughlin compares it to the formal portraits immigrants to America traditionally made upon their arrival in a new land. The young man’s wife is also looking directly at the camera, but a little more apprehensively, as if the journey and the experience weighed more heavily upon her. McLaughlin would like to give them a copy of the. portrait, but he doesn’t know what happened to them and cannot find out anything about them.
But it’s the photograph he missed that haunts McLaughlin. One night, after the daily religious service at the shelter, he sat talking with a young woman in the dark. “She was maybe 19,” he says. “It had taken her months to get to the shelter and she was pregnant the whole time. She had the baby in the shelter but lost it a month later.”
He was struck by her attitude. “There was a sadness about her, but it wasn’t a neurotic sadness. She was not being a victim. She struck me as still hopeful.”
She agreed to have her portrait taken the next day, but in the morning, McLaughlin couldn’t find her. He has no idea where she is now or what happened to her.
What has happened to her, and the young family man from Honduras and all the others who look out from these moving, affecting portraits? Some may have made it to America. Others may have lost hope and gone away. Others are still waiting in Tijuana. Wherever they are, McLaughlin’s portraits remain as a living reminder, at once static and vital, of lives lived on the border of hope and despair.
Note: An exhibition of McLaughlin’s portraits, “Living in Limbo, Portraits from the Border,” was on display recently at Hamilton Center for the Arts in Hamilton, NY.
No other shows are planned right now, but a photozine is available for purchase.
Dennis Harrod is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. He was among a group of volunteers who went to Tijuana to provide humanitarian aid a few months before McLaughlin’s visit. The poem by Gina Valdés uses the word “frontera,” which means “border” in Spanish.
On November 22nd, 1963, shots rang out in Dallas, Texas, that ended a life, a presidency, and an era in which we as Americans believed in so strongly: an era of hope, of dreams, and the illusion of a safety in which such things could happen elsewhere, but they could never happen here. The world mourned, but none so much as we did.
This was our horror, in our home. Grief washed over the nation, and it lingered. Christmas passed barely noticed. New Year’s Eve celebrations were non-existent. It seemed almost blasphemous to allow ourselves to experience any joy after the magnitude of what had occurred.
And then, after six long weeks, four young men from England landed at the newly renamed John F. Kennedy airport, and with an explosive sigh of relief, Beatlemania was unleashed. Like a shaken Etch-A-Sketch, the oppressive pain of the nation seemed erased overnight as the country exploded in joy at this new musical phenomenon. Their music and images were everywhere. The country could not get enough of the Beatles. After what we had been through, we needed them, and we needed what they allowed us to be.
Volumes have been written about the impact of the Beatles on this country. Most, if not all, mention the timing of their arrival, finally giving our country permission to shake off the shackles of grief that had paralyzed us after our national tragedy.
Which brings me to Bernie memes.
After the most painful year in our lifetimes, a year of more than 400,000 lives lost to a pandemic, thousands of businesses lost, millions of workers left with significantly reduced income, if any at all, the trauma of the most controversial American presidency, racial protests set against the glorification of white supremacy, and terrorists invading the Capitol, the lone image of Senator Bernie Sanders, sitting by himself in a folding chair, clad in a practical winter coat and mittens, has become the 2021 version of Beatlemania.
Within hours, a phenomenon spread like wildfire across social media. People have seized on Bernie’s image and had a field day inserting it everywhere: album covers, classic paintings, movie scenes, locations ranging from the Last Supper to local pizzerias.
After the trauma of 2020, it’s so good to breathe a sigh of relief, laugh and just have fun.
Even old curmudgeons like me have joined in and laughed out loud at the creativity, the humor, and the plain old absurdity of the craze.
By next week, I’m sure it will have worn out. I doubt very much that Bernie memes will have the lasting impact on our culture that the Beatles did.
But God, we needed this right now. We really needed this.
Mike Donohue is a father, grandfather and friend who hopes for a better world for his family and loved ones to live in. He is a licensed chemical dependency counselor, former professional musician, political moderate, and has published articles related to local music, addiction recovery, and human rights.
On Jan. 7, the day after pro-Trump insurrectionists invaded the U.S. Capitol, my West Coast brother went on his regular shift driving for Meals on Wheels.
The first client he spoke with, a man in his early 80s, asked how my brother was dealing with the shock of what had happened at the Capitol, where five people, including a Capitol Police officer, died in the violence.
“I’m sad,” my brother answered.
That’s when the 80-plus-year-old man started bawling.
My brother then met with another client on his route, a man in his 90s who flew bomber missions in the Pacific during World War II. His reaction the day after the Capitol was breached?
“He’s pissed,” my brother said.
Then my brother asked me, “What can we do? What can people like us do?”
By “us,” I think he means people who understand the gravity — and the truth — of what happened that day, and who respect the principles of democracy and peaceful governance.
My brother and I share a pessimistic outlook about the future of the country, and a profound sense of sadness mixed with contempt for the perpetrators and enablers of the violence of that day.
My only answer to “What can we do?” at that moment was to continue to offer some degree of comfort, understanding and empathy to people like the two older gentlemen my brother told me about.
Of course we can pressure elected officials — as was done leading to Trump’s second impeachment — and try to share factual information and rational opinions from respected journalists and thoughtful leaders from across the political spectrum.
Beyond that, I don’t know.
Last week after the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Trump for the second time — amid rumors of further violence before Joe Biden is inaugurated as the 46th president — I asked more than a dozen people I know: “What can we do?”
Below is a random, edited sampling of responses.
My 95-year-old dad was in the Normandy invasion, and said he never imagined he’d see a day like this. On the day of Pearl Harbor, he enlisted. As simple as that. Our nation had been attacked.
Last week, my daughter told him to turn on the TV, and he and my mother were shocked to the core to see our nation once again under attack, this time from citizens.
The first goal is to attempt to accomplish something. Help raise money and/or donate to the best candidates. Pick up a pen, phone or computer and praise the corporation, restaurant chain, big bank and individuals who do the right thing. And if one of your favorite retailers has not acted yet, politely suggest doing something good. You don’t need to be a golfer to understand one of the quickest and hardest hits, post-Jan. 6, from the PGA.
On voting, work on registering others, fighting voter suppression. On election days, if you or your team have a car, give folks a lift to and from the polling places. And in between elections, show up: attend online meetings for now, and post-vaccine, consider joining a community effort to do good things.
On the day-to-day front, try to actually listen after you ask the cashier at the checkout line how it’s going. Maybe take an extra five seconds to pass along a positive thought if you sense someone’s not having the greatest day. And if you’re chatting with someone on the other side of the political fence, consider that they might have a good idea or two, and, by providing a thoughtful audience for them, perhaps you’ll have a good opportunity to discuss, disagree or weigh in with ideas of your own.
Finally, a bit of perspective on the question of whom to support in this historical time. My father was a prisoner of war in WWII after being shot down on his 43rd mission. He said his decision to sign up was quite easy. He was risking his life daily to overcome the evil of a master propagandist who ruled by lies and murder. In recent years, I’ve heard of another masterful propagandist who in 2015 made this remark — on camera — about ex-POW John McCain of Arizona:
“He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
In closing, one footnote: my dad escaped.
I saw that veterans (wrote to) the Eagle Bulletin (weekly newspaper), expressing dismay … the raw emotion and sense of betrayal seems palpable. A friend who was an intelligence officer was saying that we have to fear domestic terrorism and a civil war like the conflicts across Afghanistan, where allegiances are fractured and there is great confusion about alliances. But we cannot let anti-Semitic and racist values join forces with those who worry that government officials are corrupt. I feel like veterans are in a good place to highlight this.
My niece is an immigration lawyer and has introduced me to a young man from Honduras who has been in ICE custody. He holds down three jobs and supports family back home, including his father who is battling COVID-19. My niece is helping the young man in his asylum hearing, a long, torturous process. I have been sending money to support him. When I feel overwhelmed by events and think, “What’s the point?” I try to remember that HE is the point. He deserves the same advantages as any other young man.
Everyone needs to avoid stereotyping, snap judgments and arrogance, putting aside calculations of winning, being ahead and demonizing those with differing opinions, beliefs, skin color, class status, etc., and regard each other as fellow human beings and fellow Americans.
Also, attention must be paid to the problems that led to the grievances that propelled Trumpism. Can things like a living wage, available jobs, affordable housing, available health care, etc., help people who feel abandoned by their leaders? Can progressives refrain from looking down their noses at Trump supporters?
On a personal level, can we engage in a respectful way with those we disagree with, keeping the lines open, not taking or offering the bait for a fight, and maybe talking about subjects other than politics and online stuff? Can we bridge the gaps through sharing a recipe, petting a dog or saying how nice someone’s yard looks?
This is not going to be fast or total — there are still people who say Nixon did nothing wrong.
A strong dose of humility and humanity, avoiding any cruelty, should be the drivers personally and politically.
For both sides it has become about power and not about the people. I do not feel there is a desire or ability to unite our people via the parties or politics. It has become a country of “YOU against ME” instead of a country of US. I don’t believe that responsibility lies with one person, one party or one entity (politics, news, even the world of entertainment, etc). I do believe the responsibility does lie with all entities and in every person.
I do not believe anyone is listening to anyone else. I don’t have any more faith in the new order voted in, then I had in the old order leaving. I know very good people on both sides of the fence and their feelings are all valid. I think there are more like me, who have no faith in the parties/the politics/the agendas and are stunned by all of it. But I have faith in people. As much as people frustrate me, they also inspire me, encourage me, embolden me. When we the people start talking to and listening to one another, that is when changes for the good will occur.
I’ve got a friend in her 80s who thinks she’ll never in her lifetime see our country free and at peace again. I imagine people who study history can talk about how we emerged from dark times before.
I think it’s crucial Trump be held accountable. I’ll bet the agents who work in counter terrorism never imagined they’d be investigating such a big group of Americans.
This is not a one-off, but an ongoing struggle that will be years or decades in resolving itself (no guarantees which way it will go). I remember well that the coup plotters in Chile staged a trial run to gauge public sentiment. So a loud public rejection of this can help push back any military who might be thinking of hopping on the bandwagon next time.
Stop talking about American exceptionalism. It can happen here.
As the nation prepares for the inauguration of Joseph R. Biden Jr. as its 46th president, many of us struggle with often debilitating and conflicting emotions — anger and despair, empathy and hope. Anger and despair come easily; empathy and hope do not. I believe the cult members who fell victim to propaganda and their own misplaced sense of victimhood and reality are beyond reach. I fear what the more desperate and violent among them will do. They are terrorists, and terrorists plot, as they did leading to Jan. 6. As one of my good friends said the other day, “Some of us are going to die.”
All of us must do whatever small thing we can to make the country safer for the vulnerable among us, for our children and subsequent generations. I think often of something my friend Carlo from Tijuana told me when we teamed up on a volunteer effort to help migrant laborers at the U.S.-Mexico border: When it seems overwhelming, and it feels like you’re not making a difference, remember that you’re making a difference in the life of that one person.
Please feel free to add thoughts and suggestions in the Comments.
As I sat down the other morning in the phlebotomist’s chair, I noticed a plaque on the desk behind her.
“Good Vibes Only,” it read.
I typically babble during needle-related procedures to distract myself, so I told her I liked its sentiment. She thanked me and said life is too short to be miserable or mean to one another. I guessed her to be a few years younger than I.
And then we discovered we share a hobby — we regularly check the local obituary page. Each of us also takes note of the ages of the deceased, who too often are in our demographic. I told her about the recent obit of a guy my age (63) who I used to pal around with but hadn’t seen in 40 years.
Of course, as soon as I got home I went online to check the local obits only to find yet another person I knew — my favorite English teacher from high school, who nurtured my love of writing and reading.
Ever since we reconnected on Facebook almost a decade ago, she donated $100 in my name every year to the St. Baldrick’s Foundation for pediatric cancer research. We caught up in person one year at the annual head-shaving event in Syracuse, and I joked that I should introduce her to my friends by saying, “We went to high school together.”
After I saw her obit, I checked her Facebook page.
On Dec. 14, the day before she died, she shared a meme that read, “Don’t waste your time looking back on what you’ve lost. Move on, because life is not meant to be lived backwards.”
Always the teacher.
The timing of her homework assignment couldn’t have been better.
For a long time now, even before the pandemic, I’ve been restless, struggling with an omnipresent sense of urgency tinged with dread.
The same phrases run through my brain in a vicious loop.
“Time is running out, I’m another year older, I still haven’t done this or that, I won’t be in good health forever …” Blather, rinse, repeat.
It can be debilitating, especially the regrets.
A few days ago I remembered I had written something about this on my personal blog, so I went looking for it.
I was convinced I had posted it just last year or the year before.
Turns out it was 2015, just after I had turned 58.
In that post I cited a few examples of my distorted sense of time, of my grasp of when certain events had occurred in my life. I was incredulous that the years and decades had passed so quickly.
Older folks will get this — life used to be at 33 rpm, then 45. Now the turntable is spinning at 78 rpm all the time. Is there a faster speed? I hope not. As my daughter-in-law says of the time-lapse blossoming of my 20-month-old granddaughter, “Please slow down!”
At the risk of looking back (apologies to “Coop,” as Ms. Cooper was affectionately known) so much has happened in the world, and in this country, since I wrote that “sense of urgency” post in 2015.
We are closing the books on one of the most traumatic years in history. More than 300,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, jobs and homes have been lost, and our trust in government and in our fellow Americans hangs by a thread.
The rollout of the vaccines is cause for optimism, of course. When science, medicine and beneficence eventually put an end to the pandemic, we can hit the re-set button.
I’ve been one of the lucky ones. The pandemic postponed a humanitarian trip to the southern border, but it hasn’t affected my health and has caused only a few relatively minor hassles.
Now, the prospect of finally reining in the virus has ramped up my restlessness. I need to get back out there in the world, to play catch-up, to make up for lost time. There’s so much I haven’t done, Coop. But I’m trying to do the homework you assigned and just look ahead, I really am.
How much time do I have?
How much time does any of us have?
Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. Nothing and everything has changed since his 2015 blog post, “Why the Sense of Urgency? The Numbers Don’t Lie.” Thank you for everything, Caryl Cooper, 1945-2020. The photo above is of the author’s brother Joe looking out at the Pacific Ocean, from Crystal Cove State Beach, California, in 2011.
As our book club sat around a cozy backyard fire one evening in the summer of COVID, a member used a metaphor that has stuck with me, and I think with the group as a whole.
We were discussing ways of communicating with — and to be honest, persuading or convincing — people with whom we disagree.
He said something like this: “We need to focus on people who are on the 10-yard-line. We’re never going to reach those who are 80 or 90 yards away from the end zone.”
The context was the extreme polarization of America, a divide that has widened and deepened — or perhaps has just become more visible — in the past four years.
People with vastly different beliefs about everything from climate change to mask-wearing can get sucked into their own echo chambers fed by social media and their preferred broadcast outlets.
Many folks seem a lot more than 90 yards from the end zone. They may as well be in a different stadium far, far away, not even playing the same game, by the same rules.
Much has been written about how to bridge such disparate views — finding common ground, using active listening, having “radical empathy” for those whose views and behaviors that we not only disagree with, but find abhorrent.
Nothing is working.
Will anything change after Jan. 20, 2021?
In an editorial titled “The Decency Agenda” Dec. 6, the New York Times lays out a rough roadmap for President-elect Joe Biden for his administration to unify the country.
“Speaking to the concerns of Mr. Trump’s supporters, without condemnation or condescension, will be crucial to Mr. Biden’s unification efforts. … In pursuing his governing agenda, disagreements will arise over deeply held beliefs, and the arguments are bound to get heated. But, unlike his predecessor, Mr. Biden knows the difference between opponents and enemies.”
It’s not a stretch to say our nation’s future depends on that distinction. But where to begin?
At the risk of oversimplifying Rosenberg’s very nuanced, non-judgmental approach, here’s an example of how it works:
You observe that your friend Sam recently has taken to using racist language, including the N word. You identify the feelings around your observations, and determine what you need for your well-being. Then you make respectful requests (not demands) of Sam. If that conversation goes well, it gives Sam an opening to examine his feelings and his words and maybe even change them.
The flip side of this is even more challenging — putting yourself in Sam’s shoes and trying to determine the feelings and needs that are behind his words.
While Nonviolent Communication can work with a friend or family member, Rosenberg’s technique may not succeed with many who have succumbed to the barrage of disinformation and lies of the outgoing administration. Or with those who fervently embrace the attitudes and behaviors of the departing president.
While I am in favor of respectful communication with my opponents, and would like to feel empathy for them, I cannot respect their views. I am trying to win a fact-based argument. As the New York Times editorial board said, “Forget shared values. Americans cannot agree on a shared reality.”
We are running out of time, and out of patience with one another.
We need to do something.
Should we give up on those who are, at best, at the other end of the field? Do you know anyone hovering near the 10-yard line? What techniques have you tried to get them into the end zone? Maybe Nonviolent Communication can work. Perhaps you have another idea that holds promise.
I am at a loss, frankly, and welcome any suggestions.
Self-taught poverty is a help toward philosophy, for the things which philosophy attempts to teach by reasoning, poverty forces us to practice.
By DENNIS HARROD
Ed Griffin-Nolan scares me.
Maybe scares is the wrong word. Let’s just say he makes me uncomfortable. He reminds me of all the things I haven’t done and probably won’t do in this lifetime. Griffin-Nolan doesn’t just talk about things he hopes to do: He goes out and does them. He’s in touch with the world and puts himself out there and makes himself a part of it and it a part of him. And at the age of 61, he hitchhiked across the country. And then he wrote a book about it.
Nobody Hitchhikes Anymore (Rootstock Publishing) is his account of a trip he took in 2018 that in general outline duplicated a hitchhiking trip he and a high-school friend took 40 years earlier. After a life of a couple of marriages and one divorce, three kids, the loss of loved ones and enough adventures to fill a dozen books, he wanted to know if the world he had encountered on the road in 1978 was as different and dangerous as we’ve come to believe. Are we really so separated today that the collective we of America no longer exists? Griffin-Nolan thinks not.
“Unless I’m the outlier,” he writes in his introduction, “I think that deep inside, most of us want to connect with each other.”
What better way to test that hypothesis than to put himself on the road, starting at his home in Pompey in Central New York, sticking his thumb out and aiming west?
People try to talk him out of it, telling him, “One, nobody hitchhikes anymore. Two, it’s not safe. Three, things have changed too much.”
He doesn’t listen. On his first day, he is stopped by two Onondaga County Sheriff’s Deputies who repeat that it is too dangerous to hitchhike. He will be killed, one of them observes. The reporter in Griffin-Nolan asks them what in their experience as law-enforcement officers leads them to that conclusion. What evidence do they have? Turns out they don’t have any. But they believe it nonetheless.
Griffin-Nolan’s book is about the infinite experience of the road, of a trip whose destination is vague and changeable. The mystery inside every car or truck that stops, the leap of faith it takes to enter a stranger’s vehicle and commit one’s life to that person. A car stops, Griffin-Nolan enters and: “Then we meet, and something new begins. It’s like starting a new job or moving to a new town or kissing someone for the first time every single day.”
From Pompey to San Francisco, Griffin-Nolan is picked up by too many people to count. Each one defies categorization and Griffin-Nolan gets to know them as best he can in rides that last a few minutes to many hours. They are no longer faceless drivers speeding by on the road, but human beings with lives and concerns and worries of their own and, judging by their willingness to stop what they are doing and open their cars and lives to a stranger, they are also seeking connection with their fellow travelers.
Lydia, a mother taking her four children to the zoo, stops and picks him up. So do Mike and Kelly, a middle-aged couple on their way to visit Mike’s 93-year-old mother in hospice care in Ohio. They fear it might be their last visit, but they stop to pick up a hitchhiker along the way.
Scott, a Mennonite father driving two hours to take his daughter to a basketball tournament she can’t even play in because she’s injured. Griffin-Nolan asks Scott why he picked him up: “People need help,” he answers. Before the tournament, Scott and his daughter had gone to church, and the pastor encouraged them to be “‘doers, not just hearers’ of the gospel.”
And there are many, many others, many of whom have little to share but are willing to share what they have. Many of them are carrying profound grief with them, as is Griffin-Nolan, looking for someone with whom to share it, unburden themselves, much like the Ancient Mariner. Griffin-Nolan’s own grief travels with him until, in a moment of absolution, his grief transforms itself and him.
Griffin-Nolan doesn’t just talk about the drivers who pick him up (but there are enough of those to fill a short Russian novel). He also tells us of the people who work in the gas stations and convenience stores and fast-food places and hotels along the way. Their stories blend with his and the shared experience of being human unites them.
Griffin-Nolan does not discuss politics with many of his benefactors. A few bring it up, a little on both sides of the great divide. One guy, a generous and grieving guy, goes hundreds of miles out of his own way to get Griffin-Nolan to where he’s going. Politics doesn’t come up on the ride, but Griffin-Nolan later discovers via Facebook that the man is something of a right-winger, or at least a Facebook purveyor of some of the less reputable ideas that pass for conservatism today. Griffin-Nolan says he has a hard time reconciling the man on Facebook with the kind soul who picked up a hitchhiker.
He doesn’t go too deeply into it, but it’s food for thought. What do we do with people who are good and kind and a godsend on the road but who have ideas different than ours, sometimes ideas we find reprehensible? Do we ignore the good they have done and focus on the bad? Or do we look at the entire person, good and bad, try to figure out what it is that makes them the way they are (and what makes us the way we are) and see if we all can’t change for the better. The only way to do that is to get to know one another. And a good way to do that is to pick up the next hitchhiker you see. You never know what you might learn about your passenger and yourself.
Not likely, I know. Nobody hitchhikes anymore. But everybody should read this book. It will go a long way toward reviving your faith in your fellow human beings.
Dennis Harrod is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. He has been a reporter, editor and critic for newspapers and teacher of Spanish at Syracuse University. Ed Griffin-Nolan, who believes we’re all on the road sometime, also has a blog, titled “Nobody Hitchhikes Anymore.”
On the day Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election was announced, I saw a sad sight that affirmed something I’ve suspected for a long time. I was driving through the country and passed a large house. A man, the owner I presume, was up on a ladder, taking down an extremely large American flag that had been hanging on his house. The timing was suspect, to say the least. On the day that the most controversial president in our nation’s history has been confirmed as defeated, this man’s display of the flag was no longer necessary. Why?
Henry Rollins said, “You always know the mark of a coward. A coward hides behind freedom. A brave person stands in front of freedom and defends it for others.” Cowards and hypocrites have hidden behind the American flag during the last couple of years, using the exercising of “their rights as Americans” as a poorly veiled disguise for their hatred, their bigotry, and their tyranny.
Something has changed here in America. I first noticed it when “Married With Children” hit prime time. As a child, I watched blowhard Ralph Kramden get put in his place by his wife Alice time and time again on “The Honeymooners.” She wasn’t mean or cruel, she loved him, but when she saw him getting too big for his britches she delivered a well-timed one liner to point out his grandiosity, not to wound, but to correct, to help him get right-sized again. “All In The Family” pushed boundaries addressing more controversial themes, but the point of the jokes was always to expose Archie’s bigotry. Innocent people were never the target of the humor. The targets of previous TV humor were people whose behavior had crossed a line, and they got put in their place for it.
“Married With Children” demonstrated a change in the target and the spirit of the humor. Suddenly, audiences began laughing when Al Bundy made crude jokes about his daughter’s sexual behavior, and no one spoke up. “America’s Funniest Home Videos” followed soon after, and audiences laughed uproariously when people fell and got embarrassed, or hurt. Kids going headfirst over bicycles, tables collapsing under people dancing on them, multitudes of crotch injuries caught on tape became the norm. People laughed, and I didn’t hear many people asking what I was asking: “What’s funny about people getting hurt?” I cancelled my cable and read more books.
It was only a few years down the road that a man running for the highest office in the land visibly mocked a reporter with disabilities on national TV. It should have ended his candidacy right there, but it didn’t. Far from it. His outrageous behavior escalated, and his supporters became more excited, more zealous, more fanatical in their support of him, and the reason is simple: Donald Trump has given people permission to be proud of things about themselves that they should be ashamed of, and they’re overjoyed for it.
Not all Trump supporters are bad people. Not by a long shot. I know many who, by all accounts, are good, decent men and women. They seem oblivious to the significance of his evil, which I cannot fathom, but they don’t seem evil themselves. Not all Trump supporters are ignorant, vile racists, but every ignorant, vile racist I’ve ever met or heard of is a Trump supporter, and it’s easy to see why: he validates them, and in doing so they no longer have to cave in to the societal pressure to act like decent, civilized human beings. Free at last, free at last, in the most perverse bastardization of the spirit of freedom this country was founded on.
I have always loved my country, but have become sickened by what I have seen it become. I have come to cringe at the sight of an American flag. I have seen more of them the last few months than after 9/11, when our country displayed them proudly as a symbol of unity, and love of our fellow men and women. Now, it seems like it has become a badge of honor among bullies, whose “Fuck Your Feelings” on a Trump poster speaks volumes about the lack of respect for others they so pride themselves on. When did not giving a damn about others become fashionable? Under a president who makes no secret of feeling the same way? Or is he a symptom, the culmination of years and years of our society becoming more and more OK with things that just aren’t right?
Am I absolutely sure that the man who was taking down his flag was removing it because Trump lost the election? I am not, but I am sure of this: It’s time for decency to become important again. I want to feel pride in my country, and to not feel fear when a group of trucks decorated with American flags rolls down the street. We have a long way to go, the narrow margin of victory in this election proves that, but we have begun, and we must keep moving to undo the wreckage of our past. Love America, but love the people in it, too. If you love this land of liberty and justice for all, then display your flag with pride, but don’t be a hypocrite. If you take your flag down, if you don’t need it anymore because Donald Trump lost the election, then you’ve proved what I’ve sensed all along: all that flag meant to you was “bullies welcome here.” Well, you’re not welcome anymore.
Mike Donohue is a father, grandfather and friend who hopes for a better world for his family and loved ones to live in. He is a licensed chemical dependency counselor, former professional musician, political moderate, and has published articles related to local music, addiction recovery, and human rights. He also created a video montage that was shown at the 2017 and 2018 Women’s March in Seneca Falls.
If I had a nickel for every house with at least one sign supporting Democrats or Black Lives Matter on Allen Street in Syracuse, I’d have at least $1.50. If I had a nickel for every house with a Trump sign, I’d have … well, a nickel.
“Being a Republican around here,” says Walter Scammell, “doesn’t amount to a flea fart in a hurricane.”
Scammell’s house at 506 Allen Street is festooned with banners, bumper stickers and signs supporting the incumbent president. Large blue banners flank the upstairs windows and say TRUMP MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN and POLICE LIVES MATTER. On the porch pillars are vertical banners that say TRUMP and 2020. A lawn sign with a picture of a grimacing Joe Biden says: “SAY NO TO CREEPY JOE.” Along the top of the porch is another message: HELP! # NO COPS # CALL A CRACKHEAD. On his back door a bumper sticker says: “I’m a Happy Deplorable.”
His neighborhood thinks otherwise. In the half-mile stretch of Allen Street between Euclid and East Genesee streets, more than 30 houses have lawn signs and banners promoting Democrats or Black Lives Matter or both. The surrounding streets boast only one lawn sign for a Republican (Sam Rodgers for state senate).
Of all the houses on Allen Street showing support for BLM and/or Democrats, the loudest is directly across the street from Scammell at 515 Allen. Across the front of the second story of Jeffry Mateo’s house are large banners saying BLACK LIVES MATTER and FLUSH THE TURD NOVEMBER THIRD 2020. Another banner suggests that one perform a sexual act on or with the president. Metaphorically, one hopes.
Mateo says he initially put up a banner in response to Scammell’s “Trump” and “Police Lives Matter” banners. Then, Mateo says, Scammell put up more, so Mateo did also. “It was kind of tit for tat,” he says. In spite of their visual sparring, the two have never spoken to each other. Mateo says he figures he will one of these days. Scammell answers “Probably not,” when asked if he will try to talk with Mateo. “I gave up on this area as far as trying to change anybody’s mind.”
Allen Street’s lean to the left is due in large part to the influence of nearby Syracuse University, Scammell says. And he doesn’t think highly of the university itself. A few years back, he says, he was at a coffee house on Westcott Street. “There was a professor of sociology … expounding all this wonderful crap and he said, ‘We should get rid of the military.’ I couldn’t take it and looked at him and said, ‘Why are we getting rid of the military?’ He said, ‘Nobody will ever invade us,’ and I said, ‘Why wouldn’t anybody invade us?’ and he said, ‘They wouldn’t be able to run our economy.’”
Scammell throws up his hands in resignation.
“I had no response,” he says. “I mean, OK, they’ve dropped the bombs, they do the artillery and then they’re going to send in the accountants?” He shakes his head. “So that’s what Syracuse University is all about: They’re so far out there that they’re hard to talk to.”
His opinions have gotten some pushback.
“They put three paintballs into the Donald Trump sign and threw a couple of eggs onto the porch, but nothing else has happened,” he says.
A while back, he put a sofa out on the curb for pickup. Then, “just for the hell of it,” he spray-painted “Biden” on the sofa. “I wanted to see what the reaction would be.” He placed it so it was perpendicular to the house so drivers on Allen Street would see it. Someone at night turned it so the “Biden” faced Scammell’s house. Scammell turned it over so the “Biden” was hidden. Next day, it was right-side up again, with “Biden” for all to see. Scammell saw it all as good fun. “It beats the hell out of getting your house paint-balled and egged. If they were going to do something, I’d rather have them tip the couch over. It’s a low way to resist, I guess.”
Scammell, an open and wiry guy of 71, agreed to chat on a recent evening and laid out his ideas and opinions across a picnic table in the back yard of the house he’s lived in since 1983. He says there are a few other Republicans (“maybe one each block”) in the area, but none of them are making it known by way of lawn signs or banners. He grew up a Democrat and only switched parties in 1980 when Ronald Reagan ran for president. He’s been a committed Republican since.
Not just a Republican, though. He is a whole hearted supporter of the president. “Best thing that’s happened to this country,” he says. He sees Trump as having followed through on his promise to “drain the swamp” of Washington. All the other politicians are crooks just getting rich off the American people. He dismisses criticism of the president as either fake, exaggerated or inconsequential. The U.S. media has been out to get Trump since even before the 2016 election, he says, and never lets up or reports anything positive about the president.
He believes that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. He saw a Power Point proving it. “Defund the Police” is a gift to the gangs. He agrees with the president that John McCain was a “loser” but doesn’t fault the president for not serving. “Nobody wants to go to war,” he says. The performance of Obama and Biden when the N1H1 flu struck in 2009 was worse than Trump’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis. The Biden family is corrupt and in cahoots with China. And so on.
Scammell says he doesn’t listen to or read news produced nationally. For his news, he principally relies on RT news. That’s a television and news network funded by the Russian government, according to Media Bias/Fact Check. RT news gets a “Very Low” rating on Factual Reporting and “presents news that is generally in line with the narrative of the Russian Government. … They are highly biased in favor of Russia,” according to Media Bias. Columbia Journalism Review has called RT “a propaganda outlet” for Russia.
He also likes Al Jazeera and says they cover the president more objectively than U.S. media outlets.
Asked if he thought the country would be able to pull out of its current malaise and get back on track in the future, regardless of who wins the election, Scammell answers: “Not in my lifetime.”
In spite of his views that run contrary to those of the neighborhood, he says he gets along with most of his neighbors, other than one person across the street who no longer speaks to him, and his former dentist who Scammell says crosses the street to avoid him. As he and I say goodbye in his driveway, a young couple has paused on the sidewalk to look at Mateo’s house across the street. Scammell says hello to them. The young woman walks on as if she didn’t hear. The young man looks at Scammell and then he, too, walks on without saying a word.
More violence — and deaths — seem inevitable with the approach of the Nov. 3 elections, widely viewed as a referendum on the current administration and its policies.
Anxiety and tension have risen with more videotaped incidents involving police officers and Black men, threats of voting fraud, warnings of armed conflict and inflammatory statements and lies by those with a public forum.
But violence — and deaths — in the streets can be avoided.
A June 19 incident at a Black Lives Matter protest in Fayetteville, N.Y., provides insight into ways to avoid violence. That situation was not as volatile as many other protests, but it shed light on de-escalation methods that can be useful in any heated situation. (June 19 is Juneteenth, an important event in African-American history marking the day in 1865 when enslaved people of color in Texas learned of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863):
Note: We encourage readers to use the Comment space below to share experiences that were successfully de-escalated by police or by others — or stories of conflicts that spun out of control — and the circumstances involved. This post includes an edited transcript of an interview with two Town of Manlius police officers who helped de-escalate a potentially violent incident.
Black Lives Matters protesters in Fayetteville held daily actions for several weeks following the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis. Dozens of protesters – I was among them — stood in front of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Center along busy Route 5 for 90 minutes every afternoon, holding signs and waving to passersby.
Most people were supportive, but some objected to our presence and our messages, including a neighbor of the Gage Center who engaged protesters in a heated argument. He had briefly shown his opposition at earlier protests, but on June 19 he wouldn’t let up, coming close to protesters on the sidewalk and proclaiming “This is white country in front of my house!” and “You’re all being paid by George Soros!”
Someone called the police, and three officers arrived – an Onondaga County Sheriff’s deputy and two Town of Manlius police officers. They spoke to protesters and to the man on his front porch for about 20 minutes, and then left.
I was certain that as soon as the officers were out of sight, the man would be back at it. Instead, he didn’t budge from his porch. As far as I recall, he didn’t appear at any of the remaining days of protests.
What did those officers say that kept the man quiet?
I contacted Manlius police chief Michael Crowell, who agreed to an interview and arranged for me to talk with the two Manlius officers involved, Alicia Hibbard and Julia Quinlan.
Crowell, who was a Manlius officer for 17 years before serving as chief in North Syracuse and returning to lead Manlius’ department, was eager to talk about a communication style known as Verbal Judo. Crowell learned of the strategy more than a decade ago in a class taught by its founder, George Thompson, who was a police officer, college professor and martial arts practitioner. Thompson died in 2011.
Verbal Judo includes communication strategies for police to use in tense situations with people who may be agitated. For example, police may ask rather than order the person to do something. They may also give them options as opposed to threatening them.
“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” Crowell said. “I had 15 years a cop, and I realized a lot of what I was communicating was wrong. It was a revelation.”
Crowell brought the technique to Manlius, where all 38 officers go through annual training.
“Ninety-nine percent of what we do is communication,” Crowell said. “All forms of de-escalation (use) listening, paraphrasing” and avoiding confrontational language.
After officers master the technique of Verbal Judo, Crowell said, they can resolve difficult situations calmly and leave a positive impression on the people involved. “And it helps morale and the well-being of the officers,” Crowell said.
Here are excerpts from my Aug. 21 conversation with officers Alicia Hibbard and Julia Quinlan, who discussed the June 19 incident and how police — and protesters — can use de-escalation techniques when such confrontations occur. Their recorded comments were edited for length. Hibbard has been an officer three years, Quinlan more than two years. Manlius is the only department where they’ve worked.
Quinlan: A lot of what we do and are trained to do is just talk with people. Like a family member, try to understand where they’re coming from and not judge them … it’s hearing them out on what they say, and a lot of what we do is finding points on how to relate to them. Officer Hibbard did great (with the angry neighbor). She made a connection with his hometown and calmed him down from the get-go … it was a way to get him off the topic of what he was upset about and yelling about at the protesters, to get him into a different place where he was more calm and relaxed. When he was (calm), we said, “They’re doing nothing wrong by standing out there protesting in front of the Gage House and you have to respect that. You have your own opinions of what should or shouldn’t happen in life.”
Hibbard: He was (agitated). I recognized him from my hometown … He was upset, and as soon as I said, “Are you from there?” he came down. We were just talking about our hometown. As Officer Quinlan said, as soon as you get someone down from that angry state of emotion, that’s what you run with. When you’re up here (raises her hand to show an elevated emotional state), you’re not really thinking clearly at the moment, but as soon as you bring them down to a level of calmness, you can relate to them more. Once we established he was ready to hear us out, Officer Quinlan did a great job of saying, “Look, you both have your First Amendment rights but you have to be respectful of one another.” … That’s part of Verbal Judo, relating and getting that person from that highly emotional state to a place where they’re thinking more clearly, so that nothing escalates. It’s all about de-escalation. We didn’t want anything to happen to you guys and we didn’t want anything to happen to him either.
Quinlan: Venting is a lot of Verbal Judo, and it’s a lot more listening than talking. A lot of it is just talking to them in a monotone — you’re not screaming at them. Screaming at one another doesn’t help. If anything, it makes it worse, but you want to talk to them with a soft voice. I have a quiet voice, so people will (lower their voice) just to hear what I’m saying.
Hibbard: People will match your voice level. If you’re screaming, they’re going to scream as well and obviously that gets the blood flowing a little bit faster and the heart pumping.
Quinlan: It’s not 100 percent, but our first go-to move with any call regardless of what it is, is to use our words, to de-escalate the situation — just talking to them, not with just commands, communication first. Worst case scenario, resort to our duty belt, which is not where we want to go. Our belt is a tool for us, but it’s not something that we’re looking to use. It’s just an accessory to help us do our jobs better. Our words are what we use every single day, every single call and (they) help us get through the day and help us get home safe at night, just being able to talk with people.
Hibbard: Obviously, during this time (in America) people want to be heard. … We can sympathize with them and respect their First Amendment rights. We take no sides. We try to resolve situations. … I’m hoping the protests still continue to see the change that needs to happen, or that people think needs to happen. Reform is a good thing when it’s benefiting the protection of people.
Quinlan: The hard part responding to a call like that, there’s so many people, trying to figure out the issue, who is the instigator, different things we’re focused on, keeping everybody separated. That day specifically, Deputy (Helen) Sorrento was already speaking with the gentleman on the porch. We tried to tell the protesters to ignore him, not engage with him, and that really helps. When you give him the satisfaction of engaging with him, it’s just going to fuel him more to come after (protesters). That helped a lot, because with him not getting the attention —
Hibbard: — It’s not fun anymore —
Quinlan: We want to protect you guys … we already knew you guys had numerous complaints about people being rude and obnoxious and harassing you guys, whether it’s people driving by or whatever. We want you to feel safe enough to demonstrate your First Amendment rights. You resort to your training to keep everyone calm, so no one’s hurt and everyone goes home safe. It’s no different. … Deputy Sorrento had told the Black Lives Matter people to ignore him and not give him attention.
(Do you have any advice for protesters?)
Hibbard: It’s very hard to have that type of (self-)control especially when you’re that passionate about something. Besides listening and sympathizing, say … “I hear you, but this is what I’m doing and this is what I believe in. And it’s my First Amendment right.” Always keep it at that calm level, try not to yell. Try to sympathize, listen and use a calm voice.
Quinlan: Some of it is to try to find avenues that you can both benefit one another … show them you’re trying to not only voice your opinions and rights but you care about people in the community and what’s going on in their life. … It’s easy to react with emotion and anger. You’ve got to step back and think of what you’re going to say and be cognizant of how your words are going to impact somebody else and how they could impact whether this gets into a physical altercation or agree to disagree and head in our different directions.
Hibbard: There’s always common ground somehow. Talk and listen to get to that point, but not if you’re always talking and not listening.
Quinlan: Right now we’re also in a tricky time period, it’s tricky with COVID. “Domestics” have gone up, people are stuck at home, they get on each other’s last nerve and sometimes take it out on each other, let out some steam, push the real issue aside and nit-picking with what’s in front of you … it’s easy to point fingers at someone else. We see a lot of that, too. … A lot of people remember the little things we do, the kind gestures. Even people at their worst point, you do a kind gesture even taking them into custody — we’ve had people we’ve arrested thank us because of kind gestures we’ve done during that process.
Hibbard: That’s where that trust comes in. If you’re up front and say, “Hey, here’s what’s going on and we’re going to do this together. It’s not the end of the world. We’ll do it together and we’ll get through it.” That’s better and builds that trust and rapport. … not “because I say so.”
Quinlan: I don’t know any officers who go that route of, “You’re going to do this because I told you to.”
(How could that situation at the BLM protest have gone bad? What factors make things go wrong?)
Hibbard: We’re all trained the same. It’s kind of up to the person we’re talking to if we end up going a different route. … It’s up to people. If he (were) charging at you guys, we might’ve had to detain him to get him to calm down. We want to protect protesters and protect him. if it escalates, we’re trained enough that it’s not something we did, it’s something we had to get to the point where it’s because of the subject’s actions, not ours. … It’s difficult. Everybody’s different. … If you don’t know people on a personal level, you don’t know (if they might have) weapons when we walk into a situation. We have no idea about that stuff.
Quinlan: We all try to treat people with respect. Once they have a bad experience with an officer, they take that to the next officer regardless if it’s same officer or not. It’s important to show respect to everybody, no matter what kind of crisis they’re going through. … Show them respect and they’ll give respect back, is mostly what we see around here. Even if they don’t show us respect, we have to show them respect. That’s our job to remain calm and handle the situation.
Hibbard: There’s nothing saying you can’t make the wrong right. Say you made a mistake, just apologize. … We’re never perfect. This job’s about learning and adjusting. On a call, we realize what we said may trigger some people and may make others feel good. Everyone’s different, especially with mental illness. You find something that makes them get down to that level. If we say something that brings them back up, OK, that’s a red flag, don’t bring that up.
Quinlan: That’s a lot of the trick of our job. You don’t know people’s history. It’s about getting to know the person and getting to know a little bit about them to help us do our job better and keep them safe.
Since our interview in August, the list of incidents involving police failures to de-escalate situations has continued to grow — especially those involving white officers and Black men. The most well-known recent example is the videotaped shooting in Kenosha, Wis. of Jacob Blake, shot seven times in the back. Video has also emerged of Rochester police using a “spit hood” for two minutes over the head of Daniel Prude, a naked man having a mental health crisis on a street last March (Prude lost consciousness and died seven days later after being taken off life support). And, in Syracuse Sept. 14, a city police officer was videotaped challenging a man verbally and then shoving him in the face.
I asked Crowell subsequently how he and his officers react to watching those videos and what they can learn from those incidents. Here is his Sept. 16 e-mail response.
“We do usevideos for training but today they have become prolific and we could not possibly address each and every one. In addition, the officers know that videos are often one dimensional; meaning, they alone cannot offer all of the factors one would need to consider before forming a proper opinion.
“Some videos however, offer enoughinformation for officers to discuss and compare our various laws, guidelines and procedures which we are all sworn to follow here in NY. This allows for healthy debate and/or discussionamong the ranks which often spills over into roll call and other training sessions.
“Video can be used to play the ‘what if’ gamewhich is a daily training exercise for many of us. I’m certain the officers would agree that if any one video tends to cast a police officer in a negative light, we all feel hurt and or disappointed.
“Often we are judged by the perceived poor performance by any policeman in any uniform in any area of the country. Also, they know that perception is not always reality. This is why we use tactical communication always – we always assumewe are being recorded and do not want to be the one who tarnished the badge.”
Note: After the Black Lives Matters protests in Fayetteville ended in July, a group of protesters — many of whom had not known each other previously — decided to continue the connections they had made by forming a book club. The first title the group discussed was“Nonviolent Communication,” by Marshall Rosenberg.
A character in Linda Britt’s play, “American Dreams: Immigration Stories,” delivers a searing monologue challenging the sanitized view of American history, its omission of brutal European colonialism and the centuries of suffering it caused people of color who were here first or brought here as slaves.
The character, a young woman who emigrated to the U.S. from Nicaragua, points out that Americans are taught their ancestors came here, worked hard and succeeded — facts of stolen land, discrimination, rape and murder are omitted.
“You never question your good fortune,” the character, Alicia, tells the audience. “You take it for granted.” She says she has had to study and work hard in America, yet is told to go back home, that she is “lucky” to be here.
Alicia concludes her monologue: “So I ask you, how did you get here? What did you do to earn what you were born with?”
Those words come to me frequently these days.
A new, part-time job takes me into neighborhoods in Syracuse that I would not otherwise visit, simply because I haven’t had to.
There, a 15-minute drive from my comfortable middle-class suburban life, I see poverty and despair that cuts across racial lines. I tell my friends and family that the living conditions for some in these neighborhoods are far worse than what I have seen in migrant shelters in Mexico — mold, bug infestations, syringes and condom wrappers in hallways, foul odors, litter.
Inside a tiny apartment strewn with trash, a young man tried to smile when he said to me, “My family is kind of broken. That’s why I am the way I am.”
A friend asked me the other day how the new job is going. I told him some of what I have encountered, the blatant disparities between my life and theirs. His response provided crystal-clear historical context.
“Laws exist so that we don’t have to care about them.”
It is something so obvious, yet I doubt it occurs to the comfortable among us.
Yes. Laws, written and unwritten, in place for generations, have allowed many of my suburban neighbors to “not have to care” about anyone other than their own kind.
School district funding systems that ensure unequal education. Housing red-lining that keeps people of color out of white neighborhoods. Employment-based access to quality health care. Eminent domain. And so on.
These are the walls that have already been built across America, invisible barriers to “keep people in their place.” Out of sight, out of mind.
Which brings me to another phrase that I cannot get out of my head.
It’s from the courageous attorney Bryan Stevenson, author of “Just Mercy” and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Birmingham, Ala. Stevenson says with urgency, “Be proximate.” Get to know “the other,” their struggles, their hopes and their dreams.
Do this, and you may tap into a vein of empathy, of humanity.
Change only happens “when good people are willing to do uncomfortable things,” he said.
Stevenson’s words, for me, dovetail perfectly with those of Alicia, Linda Britt’s character from Nicaragua.
“What did you do to earn what you were born with?”
While that question was directed toward people born into opportunity, if not privilege, its full scope must be considered:
What about the poor person, the person of color in America, the person born into poverty and violence anywhere in the world . . .
What did they do to earn what they were born with?
Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency.Editor’s note: The headline, “You have seen their faces,” is borrowed from You Have Seen Their Faces, the 1937 collaboration between Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White. Their book, written by Caldwell with photographs by Bourke-White, documented the plight of the poor in the depression-era south. More than 80 years after its publication, we are still looking at the face of poverty.
Weeks after several other Black Lives Matter signs on a fence in my village had been ripped down, one remained — “No Freedom Till We’re Equal.” Its creator had taken some care with it, using different paints, tape and plastic ties to attach the sturdy foam board to the fence.
Its message is clear and positive. Some may see it as a threat, but I don’t. And it is not a retort like “All Lives Matter,” which is so often hurled at Black Lives Matter activists. “All Lives Matter” entirely misses the point. Of course all lives matter; “Black Lives Matter” doesn’t say “more than yours” after it.
When I drove by the fence these past few weeks, as thousands do every day, I looked at the sign and saw hope — the hope inherent in the message, but also in the fact that the sign remained unscathed.
That’s when a pro-police passerby felt the need to superimpose his or her views and block the original message from view.
My first reaction was anger. Then frustration.
The vandalism is a perfect example of our country’s seeming inability to heal itself.
Why not place the pro-police sign next to the original, instead of gluing every inch of the paper to the sign underneath? Does your act of censorship help bring people together in any way? Do you even want to bring people together?
If your goal was to convince people to value the lives of police officers, it failed. If anything, it likely validates the anger felt by everyone who was appalled by the video of George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer (to name just one incident).
No, I’m not anti-police. I know and have encountered a lot of good cops. I taught a couple of them as high school students in the ’80s, and had one as a neighbor for years. A high-ranking member of the New York State Police is the godfather of one of my sons.
Are there people who have no business being cops? Yes, as is the case in all professions. But with law enforcement, the stakes are obviously higher. And it’s not just a few “bad apples.” There are way too many bad actors and silent enablers backed by powerful unions that protect their own, no matter what. Think of how many Derek Chauvins were on the street using their guns and badges (and knees) to exorcise their demons before the advent of cell phone videos. And it hasn’t stopped.
Ideally, there would be conversations among people who have different views on this and other issues that cause so much anger and divisiveness. But we have a long way to go.
To the person who vandalized the “No Freedom Till We’re Equal” sign, I hope your view is more nuanced, that you have an understanding of the systemic racism this country was built on, an awareness of centuries of oppression and violence based on skin color alone.
You and I likely will never have that conversation.
But I am curious about something — did you vandalize the sign in broad daylight? Or did you sneak up to it under cover of darkness?
I ask because I have a “Black Lives Matter” sign in my front yard, where I often sit in the evenings, hoping passersby will stop and talk — even if they don’t share my views.
Whether we believe in Heaven, the Great Beyond, the Other Side, the Rainbow Bridge, or nothing at all, we fear death most because its one certainty is that it will come. Everything else about it is a gaping unknown.
In our most comforting vision about how it may come for us, our closest loved ones surround us, holding our hands as we breathe our last.
This wish is one that we’ve been blessed to help grant for our mom, Florence Cavuoto Gramza, and our baby sis, Julie Gramza (Jewel), both of whom made it clear they did not want to die in a hospital.
It’s a wish and a comfort that has been denied to many dying people and their families during the quarantine restrictions of COVID-19 — a denial that has amplified survivors’ grief, magnified their feelings of guilt and been portrayed as one of the most horrible things about this pandemic.
Yet lately we’ve been revisiting our own wishes about where and how we want to die — and we now feel compelled to retract them.
Our mom passed away at age 75 at the home of Joyce and her wife, Z, who thankfully is an RN and gerontology specialist, on Sept. 23, 2013. As death came for Mom, Joyce was lying next to her in the hospice-provided hospital bed, Janet was in a chair holding her hand, and Z was alongside Janet.
We had all fallen asleep when Janet awoke at about 1:45 a.m., feeling someone had tapped her on the shoulder. Mom was barely breathing. Janet woke Joyce and Z, saying, “This is it.” Z bent over her with her stethoscope, hearing her heart’s last beat at about 2 a.m., and pronounced her.
With the same gentleness and dignity that we provided in her last weeks, we washed Mom and dressed her for the hospice and funeral home people to see to.
Our presence throughout had helped ease her fear. Her death was peaceful, aided by morphine, and it was a huge blessing, even a major accomplishment, to have it happen the way she wanted.
But it was devastating for those of us who were there. Seven years later, we have still not fully recovered from the ordeal, and our family members who weren’t there don’t understand, after all this time, why it remains so hard to process.
More recently, we were there for our baby sister’s death at her home in St. Augustine, Fla., at about 5 p.m. on Feb. 5, 2020, one week shy of her 55th birthday.
Jewel had a rare type of gallbladder cancer and we had been obeying her requests that we take turns visiting her — until her husband summoned her three siblings and two daughters because the end was near. Janet, Joyce and Jewel’s friend Becca kept a vigil keeping her comfortable, and with no medical professional there, the hospice nurse advised us to start the morphine and call her when Jewel was gone. We held her as much as she could tolerate and loved her through her last breaths.
Treating her with the gentleness and dignity we tried to provide during her dying, we bathed her, combed out her beautiful hair, and dressed her in her husband’s chosen outfit for the hospice and mortician people to see to.
It seemed a huge blessing to be with Jewel for her death — but it was devastating for those of us who were there.
Despite caregivers’ best efforts, death isn’t often quick, dignified or pretty. For loved ones untrained in comfort care and who do not know what to expect, it’s a recipe for trauma.
An NPR story on hospice care shared the stories of people who did their best to give their loved ones “a good death,” and why some are now reconsidering their own last wishes. Families who helped loved ones die at home said they weren’t prepared for the amount of nursing care that would fall on them or the exhaustion and helplessness they felt in the last days.
“I do think that when they are at home, they are in a peaceful environment,” said a palliative care doctor. “It is comfortable for them. But it may not be comfortable for family members watching them taking their last breath.”
Was being there for our mom and our sis something we are glad we did? Absolutely. Is it something we would ask of our own spouses and children? No way!
Our last memories of our mom and our sister are in death, eyes and mouth open, their bodies empty shells — and that’s not how we want to be remembered.
The experiences have left us thinking that when our time comes, as afraid as we may be, even if our loved ones want us to die at home, we wouldn’t wish it on them.
Looking back on our mom’s and sister’s deaths, we also realize that we were likely more present and focused on their dying moments than they were. Both were on morphine at the end, which dims awareness, and both seemed to be elsewhere well before their physical bodies shut down.
Many people who have had near-death experiences describe being outside their bodies and being pulled back reluctantly. After our mom’s death, we wondered why we woke up just in time. We felt like she was behind it — like she had already left her body and stopped to wake us before she departed. We now believe she wasn’t even in the building for the part that pains us to this day.
If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that our frontline medical workers are true heroes. We have heard story after story of people who died “alone” — without their families present — but who had professional providers by their side, comforting them and caring for them with the devotion and expertise that befits their vocation.
We know that, odds are, if we can’t have our favorite nurse, Z, holding our hands when we go, we’ll be totally blessed if some other nurse is there. We’ve decided we will likely choose to go to the hospital or a skilled nursing facility rather than die at home. We want to die knowing that some kind, competent, knowledgeable and calm caregiver is there for us. And then, they’ll be there for our family.
Janet and Joyce Gramza are identical twins who both grew up to be journalists — Janet in newspapers and other publications, and Joyce in science media. They reside about 20 miles from each other in Oswego County, N.Y.
The very idea that someone thinks calling me a bleeding heart is an insult is at the heart of our inability to understand one another.
If my heart did not bleed for the pain of others if it did not boil hot inside my chest at the sight of a child being separated from her mother if it did not send thick blood rushing pulsating throbbing to fill my head with a deafening static at the news of shots ringing out in a sacred place
Then I would wish my heart simply to stop.
Because after all what is the alternative to a bleeding heart?
One made of stone? or ice? or paralyzed by a hard shell of hatred?
My heart may bleed but it continues to beat and as long as it does …
I will bind up my wounds so I can tend to the wounds of others I will get close enough to the cold-hearted so that my heart’s warmth might melt their own I will cushion the landing as others fall on hard times so that hearts of stone cannot crush them.
Yes, I am proud of my bleeding heart.
Maybe I’ll even wear it on my sleeve.
From the author:
I wrote “Bleeding Heart” during a time when the news was filled with images of kids in cages, separated from their parents, lying on cement floors, unable to be touched. My heart was already so full from news of daily atrocities, from the stoking of so much hatred, from so many lives lost or destroyed.
One day, I pulled a T-shirt from my drawer. I had purchased the black shirt at a recent talk by John Pavlovitz (author of the blog “Stuff That Needs to be Said”). On the front is a red anatomical line drawing of a human heart and the words: “I’d rather have a bleeding heart than a dead one.” As I pulled on the shirt, I got to thinking about how the phrase “bleeding heart” is so often hurled as if it were an insult. And I was moved to respond.
Debra Rose Brillati received her BA in Literature from Bard College, a Master of Arts in Teaching from Tufts University, and a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Andover Newton Theology School. She is enrolled in a 2-year Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. She lives in Auburn, NY, and is involved with the Social Justice Collective, Celebrate! Diverse Auburn and the Harriet Tubman Boosters. She is a certified spiritual director and a lay pastoral minister at St. James Episcopal Church in Skaneateles, NY.
A good copy editor is hard to find. If she’s a great copy editor, you never even know she’s been there. Instead of leaving tracks, she erases them, leaving a trail of words that’s easy for the reader to follow. She smooths the bumps in the road, removes the debris and paves the potholes. After a good copy editor is done, the reader has an open road ahead and can settle in for a pleasant ride.
I’ve had the good fortune to have known and worked with some great copy editors. I’ve worked with some great writers, too. But all writers need copy editors like pitchers need catchers. In the end, the pitcher gets the win, the save, the glory, but it’s the catcher who called the game. Behind a mask. Like a copy editor. The better either one does the job, the less you even know they are there. You don’t believe it? Name any of the seven catchers who caught a Nolan Ryan no-hitter. No cheating.
Copy editors come to mind because one of the great ones died recently. He and another great copy editor with whom I worked were both quiet, unassuming perfectionists dedicated to their craft. They never bragged about how they made a story better and were rarely credited with having done much of anything at all. They were viewed by many writers the same way factory managers view OSHA inspectors. Picky pains in the ass. But they saved a lot of asses.
Quiet and unassuming and avoiding the limelight are not in vogue now. We celebrate those who yell the loudest, who shout “Look at ME!” and it doesn’t matter if what they shout is true or not.
Yet the vast majority, the silent majority, if you will, are just that. People who are not on the front lines, putting themselves out there for the cause. They are going quietly about their lives as best they can, many doing good when no one is looking. And they don’t brag about it. But they are there. Like copy editors and catchers and supply chain managers and a million other jobs that go unnoticed, they do good work for the sake of doing the work and get little or no credit and often not much pay.
Many of us are blind to what is happening and it is good that the national dialog is opening eyes to the ills that surround us. But just because someone isn’t putting themselves out there doesn’t mean they are not doing good.
The pandemic has made us more aware of the millions of “essential” workers we have taken for granted. Let’s hope that a lasting side effect of the Corona crisis is that we don’t forget them when the virus is beaten.
Dennis Harrod is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. He has been a reporter, editor and critic for newspapers and teacher of Spanish at Syracuse University.Below is a segment of the author’s rendering of a fictitious news story in the hands of a diligent copy editor.
By the summer of 2020, America seemed to be roiling in escalated conflict after an unrelenting Spring of Coronavirus sacrifices. From the Friday the 13th shutdowns in March, the pre-pandemic planning failures, crisis healthcare responses, sluggish research, inconsistent governmental policy decisions to the widespread commercial and educational interruptions, there seemed to be little relief to our existential struggles. The growing economic crisis and tragic mortality tolls set a grim stage when the temperatures began to rise, and the tumult of civil unrest began.
Americans had been asked to bring functioning society to such a screeching stop that the ripple effects will take decades to comprehend. The hallmarks of modern life were unceremoniously canceled. No school. No work. No church. No public transportation, No social events. No weddings. No graduations. No sports. No salon visits. No leisure shopping and no clear sense of when the restrictions would lift.
For a couple of months, a wave of charity seemed to unify Americans around service to offset the terrifying daily numbers of infected, dead and intubated. People spent their days researching preventive measures to battle the deadly virus, socially distancing and stockpiling cleansers and paper products. The mental impact was devastating, and the collective consciousness turned to admiration for the most valiant among us.
Towns posted signs cheering on healthcare workers. Shoppers in surgical masks and rubber gloves tipped their grocery cashiers. They dusted off grandma’s forgotten sewing machine and got to work mass producing face masks to distribute to their neighbors. Internet groups formed to connect people with needed items that were in short supply. Families began connecting by digital screens in order to avoid spreading the virus. The nation’s school children recorded musical performances by Zoom to soothe our grieving souls.
But as months passed, the realities of widespread hardship under a record-setting unemployment rate and a slowing ticker of both deaths and the spread of disease fomented a call to return to work. Loud voices called to reopen the American way of life. In phases, communities unlatched their doors to invite the public back into their marketplaces with a few requirements. The avoidance of closed, confined spaces unless each customer wore a protective face mask and maintained a six-foot distance, certainly seemed a small request if the alternative could contribute to an increase in deaths.
You would think.
As it turned out, the time that had been spent sequestering people into a forced isolation with nothing but fearful news alerts and the toxic friendship only Twitter can provide had taken a toll on the emotional well-being of too many Americans to count. As people stepped out of their shelters, there seemed to be daily cellphone videos documenting abusive interactions between people who appeared stunted and frozen in the anger stage of their grief for the “normal life” that had been placed on pause.
Then, at the end of May, when a cell phone recording of a Minneapolis police officer killing George Floyd in a nine-minute show of sadistic brutality emerged, the dam that had held any reservoir of civility broke. The other deadly epidemic of black deaths by cop had tragically claimed another life.
In the fog of reactive protests that were mostly peaceful, some found a new combat theater to act out on all the frustrations of the past months. When riots and looting in cities broke out, the foundation of American lives cracked at all the well-worn politicized fault lines. Raging intolerance kept communities segregated in parallel ways to those that had been unjustly red-lined. Political parties bunkered to their sides ready to pin blame for the unrest on the opposing ideologues. Those most marginalized by the lasting effects of America’s racially oppressive history were, by far, suffering more severely under the lock down measures. The virus had been ricocheting through densely populated communities that had less access to mitigating services. Daily demonstrations were being met with increasing push back and under the leadership of President Trump, military tactics were used to disperse public crowds.
I like to think that the choice to open vacation resorts and bars in states like Florida, Texas, Nevada and Arizona was less a failing empire’s attempt to distract the plebs, and perhaps a hopeful invitation for raging Americans to go out, pour a cold one and take a stress break. At least, the economy could advance some first rehabilitative steps.
You might think.
Unfortunately, Coronavirus had other ideas. Throughout the summer, infection numbers continued to rise, and the country sprouted new epicenters of the pandemic. Defiant citizens who seemed to have had enough of other people, in every possible way, took to social media to announce what was canceled. This time it was not just Junior’s two weeks at summer camp but also greedy corporate brands, bloviating public figures, racist monuments, and generally anybody who disagreed with a burgeoning Tik Tok star.
The way this mood manifested itself in real life was not to be believed. People engaged in heated public arguments, invoking Jesus Christ about how wearing masks was a loss of their civil liberties. Others joined white supremacist human shields under the auspices of rising to defend fully riot-armed police forces. Organized boycotts spread in all directions and cell phones recorded more outrageous behavior around the map. All the while, the virus infected more than three million people and claimed upwards of 135,000 lives.
The nation stayed stuck in the ANGER stage of grief.
By July, fireworks events were canceled but tensions around Independence Day felt combustible. Those of us sidelined by caring for the vulnerable in our families despaired of a return to decency. If the pandemic had exposed the places in our society in most urgent disrepair, where had that original spirit of sacrifice and heroism faded to now that the cure relied on a communal sense of responsibility? The virus hitched rides on young people to wreak havoc on the frailest among us and the country was sorely lacking a moral voice to unify the mission.
In the absence of more contemporary counsel, I found solace in the advice of American scientist, George Washington Carver, who was born into slavery, survived the 1918 flu pandemic, contributed to the field of environmental sciences and died in 1943:
How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life you will have been all of these.
It is my hope that Dr. Carver’s wisdom reaches new minds, now when we need it once more.
Ana Morley is a freelance writer and editor living in Fayetteville, NY.
I took my dog on a reflective walk this morning. I left our house, a recently renovated bungalow standing in contrast to the dilapidated rental properties home to my neighbors, most of whom are black.
Some people have lived here for generations. My husband and I moved into this house two years ago because the rent was affordable and it had a backyard for the dogs. This morning as I set out on my walk, like almost every other morning, I crossed the street from my neighborhood into the upper-middle-class neighborhood of Ardsley Park.
After hundreds of these walks around my and adjoining neighborhoods, I’ve started to notice that no one else seemed to be crossing the street into my neighborhood or vice versa.
Bull Street is just a street in Savannah, Georgia. But if it is just a street, then riddle me this: Why do the people on either side of it not cross to get to the other side? There is a barrier here, and it is reflective of the more significant racial divide we have in America — and have always had.
Gentrification is My White Housing Privilege
My neighborhood is called Bingville. If you ask any Savannah resident where Bingville is, I doubt they would know.
From the stories I’ve gathered from my neighbors, Bingville has been a historically black neighborhood. I have no explanation for the fence with enormous bands of razor wire encasing our backyard. Either someone installed it to keep intruders out, or to keep someone in. Clearly, I have a bleak understanding of where I live.
My white privilege is in having enough economic mobility to move into any neighborhood that I want to live, without having to have a historical understanding of that place or what it means for me as a white person to be living there.
Our landlord, and we, are a part of the gentrifying force of this small neighborhood in Savannah. Or maybe it’s the other way around, or perhaps it’s cyclical. If our names on the lease application had sounded more ethnic, more “black,” would we have been accepted as renters?
My white privilege is in being trusted to be a good renter based on the whiteness of my name on an application and the whiteness of my skin during a home tour.
The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) has student housing units that take up massive swaths of land on Barnard Street, which happens to run directly through the center of our neighborhood. This plays a significant role in the gentrification of this neighborhood as well. Since I moved to Savannah to attend SCAD in the first place, to attend a prestigious graduate program that I could only afford due to the inheritance of generational wealth, that is also my white privilege.
My white privilege is having access to generational wealth that allowed me to get my undergraduate and graduate degrees, debt-free.
Barriers in Crossing From East to West
Many of the streets where I live don’t have sidewalks, which is probably the result of historic city planning that prioritized vehicular traffic over pedestrian safety. Yet after all these years, these streets have not been updated with sidewalks to protect pedestrians. Why is that? Our street is one of the only ones with a sidewalk, and it is a recent addition that is only on one side of the road.
So why would anyone from the east side of Bull Street want to risk their safety by coming to walk on streets with no sidewalks?
That’s the rational explanation. But there are others.
Culturally, white Americans have been conditioned to view people of color as more dangerous than whites. Of course, the white person wouldn’t cross the road to get to the blacker side.
And so – no one crosses Bull Street from the East to the Westside.
Barriers in Crossing from West to East
In comparison, all of the streets on the east side of Bull Street have sidewalks. They not only have sidewalks but lush green pocket parks where white people can bring dogs to frolic in the joys of this alluring historic city. My husband and I got married in one of these parks a few months ago. I walked in my wedding dress across Bull Street to the park where the ceremony was held. Cars stopped, honked, and waved at me as I hobbled in my high heels across the road.
Why don’t I ever see my neighbors from the West side of Bull Street walking across the street to enjoy these beautiful public spaces? This is probably because underneath the charming Spanish moss dripping with morning dew and gorgeous Live Oaks draped with resurrection ferns, they do not feel safe there.
As a woman, I always bring my largest dog with me on long walks – even through the wealthiest Savannah neighborhoods. In the morning, in the afternoon and at night. I look around at these affluent neighborhoods, and I see safety personified, but I am always on guard.
Whenever a man walks down the sidewalk toward me, I cross the street, whether he’s black or white. And I know when I cross the road away from a black man that he sees my racism in action, and so sometimes I will stay the course to smile and say hello.
But as a white woman, if anything were to happen to me on one of these residential streets, it’s safe to say that another white neighbor would come to my rescue and call the police.
However, if my black neighbors were to take a leisurely walk across Bull Street into Ardsley Park, I imagine their fear would be much higher than mine. They would get peered at through windows and surveilled by predominantly white homeowners. Some of the more entitled neighbors might question them as they walk through their neighborhood.
They might ask, “Who do you work for?” – mistaking them as gardeners, landscapers, or house cleaners.
They might ask, “What brings you here?” – assuming that they’re “up to no good” or about to commit a crime because, in our culture, people of color are perceived as more dangerous than whites.
Or they might not ask anything at all, and instead call the police to report “suspicious activity” from the safety of their homes.
And so – no one crosses Bull Street from the West to the Eastside.
Reckoning with my White Privilege
My white privilege is being able to cross this street.
My white privilege is being able to rent a house in a predominantly black neighborhood while having unencumbered access to public spaces in the mostly white communities adjacent to us.
My white privilege is being able to cross the street and be welcomed into a neighborhood that is not my own because I am white and not viewed as a threat to the white homeowners.
When we first moved into this neighborhood, it seemed we were the only white people on our street. We bought a Ring security system to protect us and our belongings from the unknown. We have never had any break-ins. However, our security alarm went off on multiple occasions because we forgot to disarm it before opening our front door. I’m sure our neighbors had a great laugh at the young white people who moved in and continuously set off the security alarm at their own house.
I’m embarrassed that we ever purchased it.
The unknown, it turns out, was a street filled with kind neighbors who always say “Hello!” or “Good morning!” and ask about our day – even though we are actively a part of the force that is gentrifying their neighborhood.
They’ve checked in with us during the Coronavirus pandemic, they’ve invited us to have beers outside with them, they’ve let their children come over and say hello to us and play with our dogs, and they congratulated us as we walked back from our wedding in the park across the street.
We don’t need a security system, because we have good neighbors who spend their time hanging out with their friends in their front yards, having eyes on the street. They know us, and we know them.
So what am I to do now, with all this insight? I don’t know yet. But I do know that insight without action is wasted, and so I will figure it out.
Jenna Bower is a designer and writer living in Savannah, GA with her husband and three dogs by way of Rochester, NY. She holds an MFA in Design for Sustainability from the Savannah College of Art and Design. When she’s not writing, reading or marketing for her day job, she serves on the board of Keep Savannah Beautiful and feeds baby raccoons at a local wildlife rescue.
When Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that shopping Malls in New York would not be allowed to open until they cleaned up their air supply, I immediately thought of Che Guevara. I’m sure you did as well. Che, the Argentinian Doc who fought in Fidel Castro’s guerrilla war to overthrow a Cuban dictator, didn’t coin the phrase, “el hombre nuevo” (the new man), but he gave it a certain sexy (and sexist) twist that turned the heads of utopian thinkers and idealistic young people around the world half a century ago.
The “new man,” Che told the Woodstock generation, would be a selfless, introspective, socially conscious citizen dedicated to the socialist principles that Fidel preached, the ideals that Che fought for in Cuba and Angola, and in Bolivia, where it got him killed. The revolution, Guevara believed, would not only transform our social structures but our very essence as people, redirecting our motivations and our passions, from service to self to promoting the common good.
Around the same time, less idealistic American capitalists were creating a new man and a new woman, shaped not by a revolution or an ideology, but by an enormous enclosure and a slapdash collection of cash registers, plate glass windows, food courts, boutiques, arcades, parking lots, and stale air – the Shopping Mall.
Since the 1950s, the essence of what it is to be American has been to shop. Not too long ago, when shopping involved procuring necessities, it was called going to market. It was done as infrequently as possible and with the minimum expenditure permitted by law. For most people in the United States of today, shopping has become a pastime, a hobby, entertainment, and an addiction.
Shopping in lieu of living is a soulless pursuit. Like most addictions, it produces no fulfillment, only a greater hollowness that begs for repetition of the experience, in hopes that the next exhausting trip to the big box that holds all the big box stores will give us a lasting jolt. Failure is as predictable as indebtedness.
Onondaga County in Central New York is a beautiful piece of land dotted with lakes and drumlins and parks, golf courses, ski slopes, and picturesque neighborhoods. It is home to a city with sports arenas, libraries, museums, theaters, a world class zoo, and more. Yet the No. 1 reason that people visit our county is to shop at the Mall. Buses cross the border from Canada to buy our wares. We are a city on a lake but most of us never visit the lake; we’re too busy finding a place to park near the Best Buy.
And then, in a flash, the Coronavirus caused us to quit our Mall habit cold turkey. Many of us turned to online purchases to fill the void. A good number of us, however, found this unfulfilling. We turned to other pursuits. Reading. Conversing. Learning a language. Picking up an instrument. Taking children on hikes. Riding bicycles. Making masks. Supporting the front-line workers. Saving money. Protesting racism. Painting our houses. Living.
The virus and the Governor may have conspired to remind us that we were not just born to shop. Those stale air facilities known as Malls have sucked up the days and the lives of too many people over these many decades. I wonder, now that Cuomo is allowing many Malls to re-open, if maybe we will just be over that phase. Maybe we will have found that we have evolved, moved on to other pursuits. Maybe that next pair of shoes or earrings will have lost some of its appeal in a world that confronted death at close quarters.
Sixty percent of people polled recently say they are still too worried to go to a Mall. I would say that’s a healthy fear. The Governor’s demand that Mall owners remove the virus from their air supply is a fantasy –- I hope he knows that. There is no technology yet proven to remove the threat of breathing in the virus in an indoor space that recirculates the air we breathe.
I am secretly hoping that instead of chasing the virus from the air conditioning vents, the virus may have chased from our psyches the notion that only by constant consumption can we live fulfilled lives. Maybe Che, like Oscar Wilde before him, was on to something with that sexist notion of a “New Man.” But the joke is on Che -– it won’t be a socialist revolution that led to his “hombre nuevo.”
It was a tiny bug that made us look at the world and our lives in a new way.
Years ago, Ed Griffin-Nolan managed a restaurant and a toy store in a shopping mall. More recently (in 2005), he was arrested at Carousel Center, now Destiny USA, for suggesting to two police officers that they stop beating up a young Latino. Ed lives, writes, runs and sails near Syracuse, NY.He wrote this essay a week before Gov. Cuomo decided to allow malls outside of New York City to open. Ed’sbook, “Nobody Hitchhikes Anymore,” is forthcoming from Rootstock Publishing.
The color of the sun, perky and plentiful, the dandelion evokes emotion, usually a negative one. Brought to America by European settlers, the once prized dandelion is now perpetually rooted up and sprayed with chemicals. In a culture where curbside appeal equals the two-inch grass of a golf course, the starry shaped dandelion has become a symbol of neglect.
In upstate New York, I walk around my yard and watch the chubby, wild rabbits feast on the bright yellow “lion’s teeth,” as bumblebees and butterflies clumsily pollinate the early spring flowers. Chipmunks eat wild strawberries as robins and Carolina wrens wrestle worms and grubs out of the soil.
I wonder at the life all around me. In a time of worldwide environmental vulnerability, I feel peace with the biodiversity flourishing in my yard. I don’t think of the sturdy, deep-rooted dandelions as troublesome weeds, but as fertilizer for the grass, food for wildlife and first aid for my family.
When my husband and I moved here from New York City 13 years ago, we weren’t sure how to take care of our new yard. We saw the neatly trimmed lawns of our neighbors, heard lawnmowers going from morning until night, spring until fall. We weren’t excited about mowing the lawn every week, but we definitely felt a pressure to maintain the standard look of the neighborhood, and I admit I was ashamed of the quickly multiplying dandelions.
We watched as lawn care companies patrolled the neighborhood, knocked on doors, sprayed lawns with chemicals and put up yellow signs warning passersby to stay off the grass for 24 hours. As our toddlers played outside, and tumbled off bicycles and scooters into neighbors’ yards, I felt worried about the pesticide signs.
I knew enough about science to know that chemicals don’t break down right away. They can aerosolize, drifting across the lawns, or wash into storm drains, nearby creeks and the water supply during a rainstorm. But even if they remain put, the chemicals do more than kill weeds: they destroy the microorganisms that live in the soil, affecting the health of the soil and ultimately everything that depends on it.
At the grocery store, organic food sales have reached almost $50 billion in the United States. Consumers spend extra to buy fruit, vegetables and grains grown without pesticides yet paradoxically they buy 59 million pounds of pesticides for the lawn. The most popular and heavily applied is glyphosate, which is used on more than 100 food crops and is the active ingredient in many weedkillers, including RoundUp.
Introduced in 1974, glyphosate has been considered a low hazard to mammals for decades, although in 2015 the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) re-classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” based on epidemiological, animal and in vitro studies. Other agencies, such as the EPA, have stated that “there are no risks of concern to human health when glyphosate is used according to the label” but admit that glyphosate-based formulations (GBFs) may be more toxic.
It’s not easy to figure out the ingredients of weedkillers. Aside from the active ingredient, all that’s listed on the label is “other ingredients.” In several studies glyphosate-based formulations have been shown to negatively affect mammalian biology. Exposure has been associated with kidney and liver damage in rodents, arrhythmias, endocrine disruption and electrophysiological changes in rats and rabbits.
There have been many studies on the effects of GBFs on humans, and despite a couple of studies that found a statistically significant positive meta-RR for B-cell lymphoma, the consensus is that there is no determined causal relationship. Despite this, tens of thousands of lawsuits have been filed against Bayer, the company that sells RoundUp. On June 24, Bayer agreed to pay around $10 billion to settle the cases. RoundUp remains on the market.
As a result of herbicide use, lawn care companies and homeowners often use synthetic inorganic fertilizers to bring nutrients back to their lawns. Unfortunately man-made fertilizers containing nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium are risky to the environment. Not only are they often derived from oil products, but they are then mixed with ammonia, urea and formaldehyde.
While the EPA says synthetic fertilizers are safe to use as directed, overuse and runoff of nitrogen and phosphorous into wells, lakes and oceans have led to oxygen depletion. Babies exposed to contaminated well water can literally be starved of air by developing a condition known as methemoglobinemia. Lakes and oceans can develop “dead zones” where fish cannot breathe because the overgrowth of blue-green algae consumes oxygen faster. Cultural or human-induced eutrophication is due to an increase of phosphorus mainly, but also nitrogen, as it builds up in fresh waters from fertilizers and sewage treatments.
While individual use of weed killers and fertilizers on the lawn once or twice a year isn’t the sole cause of damaged ecosystems, sick wildlife or cancer, it’s the cumulative effect of many individuals and big agriculture that is worrisome. According to the EPA, the U.S. uses over a billion pounds of pesticides a year. We should all be concerned that there are pesticides in our water, on our food and inside our bodies.
In a study conducted by the EPA, 46 pesticides were found in groundwater in 26 states due to agricultural applications. The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy group, deduced that around 70 percent of U.S. produce contains pesticides. According to the National Institute of Health more than 90% of the U.S. population has pesticide biomarkers in their urine or blood. With so much chemical exposure outside of our control, the question becomes why add more chemicals to the mix by spraying our lawns with toxic herbicides?
There’s 40-50 million acres of private lawn in the United States — that’s a whole lot of potential for creating healthy ecosystems. Without pesticides in the grass, lawns become a safer place for children, who are more susceptible to chemical exposure, to play with beloved pets. It’s true that dandelions will flourish, as do strawberry plants, clover and all kinds of native plant species, but consider the insects, birds and mammals who will benefit.
Let’s think of the sunny dandelions as a gift, a reminder that there’s a whole lot of work to be done in learning how to care for our green space naturally. With the future health of the Earth and ourselves in mind, the dandelion can once again be a symbol of patience, love and healing. But every once in a while, feel free to manually pull out a particularly big one or squirt it with a dose of vinegar.
Tips to keep your lawn healthy without chemicals
Cut the grass more frequently at a higher setting (don’t remove more than one third of the leaf).
Return grass clippings back to the lawn to add nutrients like nitrogen.
Aerate turf when soil is moist, not wet, to allow air to into the soil, to improve drainage and breakup compaction. Better aerated soil has more microbial activity reducing thatch and stimulating root growth.
Add garden or leaf compost, topsoil, sand or charcoal to the lawn for extra nutrients when soil is dry during growing season. Take care to brush it in evenly so you don’t smother the grass.
Intermix native perennial plants and flowers with the grass to enrich soil with billions of microorganisms (fungi and bacteria). Legumes such as clover attract nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which convert atmospheric nitrogen to fertilizer.
Check your soil’s pH. You can buy a test kit at the hardware store or contact your local Cooperative Extension Service. Slightly acid to neutral pH (6.5-7.0) is good for most grass types. You can add sulfur to make the soil more acidic, lime to make it more neutral.
Water consistently or don’t water at all.
Risks of glyphosate-based products
The pesticide glyphosate is the active ingredient in many weedkillers.
The EPA has set the glyphosate limit at .75 mg per kilogram body weight per day, but there is no safe limit determined for chemical mixtures. A recent study by the National Toxicology Program at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found genotoxic activity in glyphosate-based formulations (GBFs) with diquat dibromide, metolachlor and mesotrione.
It’s not just glyphosate-based herbicides that have disturbing health risk associations. Another popular one, 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D), has been linked to a higher bladder cancer risk in dogs and risk of Parkinson’s disease, immunosuppression, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, hypothyroidism and lower sperm counts in humans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that the human health effects from 2,4-D at low environmental doses are unknown but that it has “low acute toxicity.”
Allison Sklaney teaches design and digital illustration at Syracuse University. Passionate about the environment, she thinks dandelions get a bad rap.
Jamal Johnson, 63, is a retired postal worker and Marine who lives in Philadelphia but travels wherever his activism and passion take him. He’s been to Mexico to deliver food to migrant shelters; to Minneapolis, Seattle and Birmingham, Ala. to support Black Lives Matter protesters, and to California where he took part in a desert water drop for migrants crossing into the U.S. (The three Sense of Decency co-founders volunteered with Johnson in California and Mexico last September.)
Each of the past four summers, Johnson has walked from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., on his Stop Killing Us (SKU) march to call attention to the disproportionate number of killings of Black people — by people within their own communities, and by police.
He wrote this essay June 25 as he neared the end of this year’s march.
By JAMAL JOHNSON
I am on the next-to-final day of the march that began June 5 from Philadelphia Police Department headquarters to address the ongoing police brutality that the Stop Killing Us (SKU) organization has been marching and bringing to the attention of lawmakers in DC for the past four years.
Of course, with the untimely death of George Floyd, it seems to have more support and recognition than in the past three years. But this has also been the most disappointing of the past marches and I would like to share why.
We black people in this country are in a moment of change like no other. The whole world is now claiming to feel our pain. They have come to realize, at least on the surface, the pain, abuse, humiliation, and degradation that we have been victims of for over 400 years.
As a result, those who don’t look like us and are the majority in this country are leading protests, tearing down statues, and are getting in direct physical confrontations with police. And that’s all well and good, except for one thing. Where are we?
Our numbers in most of these marches don’t compare to the 14% of the population that we comprise in this country. I’ve participated in marches across this country and stand alongside people that don’t look like me. These same people are occupying and burning buildings, setting up street communities, and setting the narrative of our struggle against police brutality and systemic racism.
Meanwhile, what are we seen doing across television screens every night? Looting the stores that our parents and grandparents patronize and continuing our self-genocide in our communities by decimating our own communities with continued murder and mayhem.
Our so called self appointed leaders, kings, and protectors of the black race are nowhere to be seen or encouraging the looting which will only hurt those who use the stores and now can’t. The computer cowards and armchair activists are telling others what’s happening, why it’s happening, and what to do about it, but they are not on the streets leading anything.
But they don’t hesitate to share their conspiracies from their self-imposed thrones. They talked revolution and now when the atmosphere is ripe for it, they are nowhere to be seen. As a result, those who have become woke by their knowledge are sleeping on the job of changing things.
We need to lead this, whenever possible, because when it’s over, it’s over. Stop Killing Us (SKU) has been presenting standards of police reform for the past four years, in person and after walking over 140 miles, to the Department of Justice and the Congressional Black Caucus, and has gotten nothing but a deaf ear.
If these standards had been attended to and put into law since 2017, those like Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and George Floyd may never have been murdered. But if we let others lead our fight and don’t participate in changing things and holding others accountable, then we are no better than the officer that kneed George Floyd to death.
It is time to take the reins of this moment and make it a movement, and continue this fight until laws are passed preventing the death of us at the hands of others. We must also take charge of our communities and stop our hypocritical cry of police brutality while we continue our silence of the murders of each other, by each other.
People are watching how we address this moment in time and if we don’t capitalize on their assumed empathy and concern, not only will we be disrespected further, but our sincerity of our complaints will be questioned, which is why it has taken so long for this to happen in the first place.
“… the only means of fighting a plague is — common decency.”
— Albert Camus, 1947
Sickness surrounds us. It’s more than the physical and emotional assault of the pandemic that afflicts us; we suffer daily under a spiritual assault of conflict with and rejection of those with whom we disagree. The onslaught coarsens us, wears us down, makes us reduce our enemies to something not human, but something to be ridiculed, crushed, and destroyed. And destruction begets destruction and in the end there are no winners.
We’d like to try to change that by offering here a free and respectful discussion of contemporary life, on any subject that shines a light on who we are. Common decency will be the common denominator. By decency, we mean taking the time to listen to others, seeing things through their eyes.
We’ll still disagree. But we will listen to and hear those with whom we disagree and take a moment to think about their interests, their dreams, their desires. Why do they think like that? Why do we think like this? What is it we have in common with all people? How can we move forward?
If we can talk to one another rather than about one another, we may be able to look beyond our faults to find our common virtues and from there move toward a better world for all of us.
More than 65 years ago, Joseph Welch famously asked Senator Joseph McCarthy: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” Should we ever be asked the same question, we hope to be able to answer in the affirmative.