Monday, June 01, 2020

Too Much


Video has changed the game. It, along with television, was the turning point in the civil rights movement. The technology brought visceral images to the nation, and to the world, of what was happening in “the land of the free.” There it was, right in our own living rooms. We knew about it, we heard about it, but for too many of us it was so far removed from our daily lives that we could turn a blind eye because we were, in fact, blind. No more.

Fast forward to the early 90s when the technology finds its way into the hands of everyday people. Camcorders were becoming cheaper and easier to use and one of them was trained on some Los Angeles cops as they mercilessly beat Rodney King after arresting him. Although instant access to distribution channels was not yet available, the recording was aired by a local news station and it quickly went “viral.” People were, again, appalled. This sort of police brutality was nothing new, as those who were subjected to it knew all too well, and although we had heard of such things, we were, until the King beating, blissfully blind. The “system” failed to realize the outrage acquitting those cops would cause, but that, too, came right into our living rooms.

So, lesson learned, right? We had a problem. The “racial problems” were not a thing of the past, not an ugly and unpleasant footnote in our history, they were still there lurking under the surface in our institutions. Get to work, identify the cause, craft solutions and eliminate the source of the rage that was a tinder box waiting to ignite. And although some steps were taken, it is clear that we are nowhere near “there” yet. As the technology has become so advanced that video is everywhere, one would think that the very threat of getting caught would compel those who are prone to violate the rights of others to stop. It would be better if their actual attitudes changed, if those in positions of power did the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, but that is naïve. It is puzzling, however, that the risk of getting caught is not enough to keep these cops from exerting unwarranted and excessive force.

It might be that the risk is not that great. Time after time we see those who have been caught in the video cross-hairs sent home, free, with minimal or no consequences. Even in this most recent case, the Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd was not even arrested or charged until days later. No one except a cop would be afforded that kind of grace. And the other three who stood by and allowed it to happen? So far they have lost only their jobs, and the police union will, no doubt, fight that. Here we have a case where virtually everyone agrees that this was a cold-blooded heinous crime and yet the standard operating procedure that applies to all other criminals who perpetrate this type of crime did not apply. Why?

We have given the cops too much. Too much privacy. Too much secrecy. Too much power. Too much autonomy. We have also not demanded enough from them. Not enough training. Not enough screening. Not enough professionalism. Not enough empathy. Of course, even with all that taken into account, we cannot prevent an occasional rogue cop from slipping in under the radar, but at this point it is becoming increasingly clear that there are way too many and, more importantly, the rest are not policing those who are not upholding a level of trust necessary for police to be effective in any community.

I wrote a piece on Facebook recently in which I argued “there are no good cops.” The premise is based upon the mythical, magical “thin blue line,” that veil of secrecy that binds cops to silent solidarity. I got some push back, some resistance – I knew I would – and while I readily admit that not all cops are bad and that most are not “dirty,” far too many will look the other way. Derek Chauvin worked for the Minneapolis Police Department for 18 years. In that time he had 18 complaints made against him, only two of which incurred any disciplinary action –  “letters of reprimand.” It is actually remarkable that we even know that much, considering the privacy that police personnel records get. There is no indication where those complaints came from, but I’d bet real money that not one came from a fellow officer and, furthermore, I’d bet no fellow officers were particularly helpful in the investigation of those complaints. This is a major metropolitan police department, not the Podunk PD.

This is not an isolated case, it is the latest in a long line of police killings, brutality and other major indescretions that have been documented and in most cases, nothing happened – the officers were found not at fault. And those who were still got special treatment. But wait, this is only the tip of the iceberg – these are only the cases that happened to find their way onto video and into the public domain. With that many that happened to find themselves on camera, just imagine those that have been summarily swept under the rug and behind the veil of a blue curtain – beyond public reach. Is it any wonder people are angry. I am white, male and have seen it myself, experienced it myself, been lied about in police reports myself. I have black friends who have stories that are far worse.

There is so much wrong and so much work to do, but if we don’t focus on law enforcement as a priority, nothing else will matter. The trust that the police must have to do there job does not exist. God cops, good cops that don’t say anything about bad cops and bad cops all look the same. There are no white hats and black hats to tell them apart – I have no idea who I’m going to get when I call them, so I won’t unless it’s is absolutely necessary. That is the reality. The unrest, the anger, the dismay, the disillusionment, the distrust did not come out of a vacuum. The uprising on a national level is not some orchestrated, coordinated ploy by those trying to destroy this nation. It is organic. It is the natural extension of what happens when too many people are denied too long the freedom that this very nation promised them.

We have seen enough. We have seen far too much.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

In the History of Failures


I had four years of "funding" at LSU. That is, for four years, they would pay me to teach two classes, pay my tuition for the three graduate classes I took each semester that were required for a Ph.D., and some miscellaneous other contractual obligations and benefits. At the close of the spring 2015 semester, that contract came to an end. I finished my coursework, I finished my exams and I was one large hurdle away from completing my degree, but I no longer had to take any classes and only had to pay for doctoral advising hours. In other words, there was no reason to stay in Baton Rouge if I wasn't working there. And to stay, I had to work.
But the truth, at least part of it, is that as much as I wanted to permanently get the fuck out of Sacramento a couple of years earlier, the smoke had cleared - somewhat - by then (less than I imagined from 2,200 miles away, but that's another story for another time). I wanted to go back home, work there and work on my dissertation from there. I knew that would make a difficult project more so, but I did not care. That was not the only factor involved, but retrospect being both 20/20 and undo-able, it doesn't much matter anyway. That same hindsight tells me that my being home in Sacramento served some very certain irreplaceable benefits as well. Such is the nature of intangibles. That unfinished work towards my Ph.D. didn't get me nothing; it got me a shitload of experience I value quite a lot. And it got me another MA degree. But it did not give me reason enough to go back to LSU for commencement.
So it was on this day, five years ago that I turned in my office keys and walked out of Coates Hall for the last time. I've been back to Baton Rouge a few times, I planned to go back this summer and, depending on how this current pandemic plays through, I still might. I have friends there and I have family in southern Louisiana. I am a loyal alumnus. I was as proud as any Tiger could be to see our football team not only win the National Championship last season but also put together a perfect season and produce a Heisman Trophy winner in the process. And they beat Alabama, too. Even though I didn't come away with letters in front of my name as well as letters behind it, just getting there and hanging in there - with all that was going on while I was there - was a monumental long shot. In the world of "failure," especially in the history of my failures, that is a failure I can be proud of.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Beauty & Truth

It has been a couple of weeks since I’ve written anything more than a long Facebook post. It seems as though anything longer than a Twitter-length post is viewed as a long – too long – Facebook post, but that says more about the average social media consumer’s attention span than it does about social media itself. Maybe it’s the word, “post,” that predisposes all things categorically post-like to abbreviated info-bites designed for drive-through consumption… but I digress. This is not that even if it does find its way to both platforms. Indeed, this is about the polar opposite of satisfying our incessant and growing appetite for instant, easy and shallow discourse. This is about writing at length – real writing – taking the care, the thought and the time needed to compose words and punctuation into complex, multifaceted, textured and nuanced ideas that actually go somewhere. I’m talking about essays, short stories, books, poetry and even other nondiscursive artforms that communicate much more than filling a 280-character-size-box ever could.

I am not an English professor, I do not teach reading or writing, per se. But as a communication studies professor, I do assign (and read) quite a lot of student writing. One of my classes is designated a “writing intensive” course and, as such, the students are required to write several longer works throughout the semester. This, for many, is a challenge. Our students come from vastly different backgrounds; not all have had the same degree or quality of prior instruction and many have had to deal with outside issues that interfered with their studies. Oddly enough, it could be that those students are better prepared to deal with the outside issue we are all dealing with right now. As a “state school,” we accept virtually “anyone” and I make it my business to do everything I can to help every “anyone” in my class be a better writer when the semester is over. If a “writing intensive” class is to make any sense, that writing quantity must have a qualitative purpose.

Short editorial: I had to take a “writing intensive” class to attain my BA, too. It was absolutely pointless. It had no other purpose other than to produce pabulum, five-paragraph essays with frosting and a cream filling. It was a stupid, bullshit class that must have been designed to get students past this requirement with the least amount of effort. It was offered under the “Recreation and Leisure Studies” department.

I like to write. I know I have some kind of “natural talent” for it and I know that, through the kind of practice that only those who practice their art to ridiculous extremes would understand, I have honed that talent to a fine edge. I am also acutely aware that I am not the “rock-star” writer I aspire to be. There are those who can write circles around me – I will never be that good. But I don’t have to be. My point is that art in general, and the art of writing deeply, thoughtfully, and soundly, is being shoved aside for the fast-food of writing, sometimes with bacon, and a frosty. What’s worse is that it isn’t just the artistry that is being shoved aside, along with the beauty, we are losing the truth. The truth comes from thinking deeply, and that depth comes from not only writing that takes more than 280 characters, but people willing to take the time to read it.

I know I’m preaching to the choir. We are now nearly 600 words – more than 3,300 characters in – and you’re still reading. And I feel like I’ve said all this before, in some way or another. I was going to say, “I’m not even sure what inspired this.” But that’s not true. I know what it was. It has nothing to do with the sorry state of social media, it has nothing to do with my job or my students, it has nothing to do with artistry, beauty or truth (although, that linkage between beauty and truth, I must admit, I did not see coming). And it has nothing to do with imploring others to read or write more deeply. I felt an urge to write – not necessarily this – but to write something. I started to explore my book archives looking for something I wrote a few months ago about a viral apocalypse and who the survivors were, how they survived and what this new world was like. It’s nothing but a prologue and a sketch, but it is eerily similar to what’s happening now. I don’t mean that in a prophetic way – I didn’t know or feel anything, it was just an idea – but one that could be adapted to COVID-19, I think.

As many times as I have started to, I have not yet produced a book – not as one contiguous work, anyway. I have enough work to compile into a book – likely more than one – but I have not yet written one entire, single book with one beginning and one ending. I also have never published any fiction, which this last book idea certainly would be (at the very least, creative non-fiction, but that genre feels like a creative non-genre, I’m not going there). I was feeling a need to breakout this old-school keyboard and two-finger clickety-clack out some words and those words were really supposed to go that way, not this way. But this is where we are.

Summer break is about four weeks away. The stay-at-home directives will, hopefully, be eased up by then. In the summers I usually ride my Harley a lot, and far away – I want to do that. I want to write that book and I can see myself doing that on some lonely backroad sitting on the porch of some rundown motel with my iPad or my MacBook Pro on my lap, cigar smoke winding it’s way up towards the trees, a gentle breeze blowing and the only sound will be that of an occasional bird and the soft tapping of my keys as I write my novel of how Covid-19 changed everything. Maybe it will be prophetic. Maybe I will be the next George Orwell. Maybe I’ll just gain a little peace, think a little deeper and if I get lucky, leave some words behind that might inspire someone else.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

SSRSHTF

COVID-19 - Day 30 SSRSHTF (since shit really started hitting the fan):

Life went from pending uncertainty at the beginning of March to near worse-case certainty now, on the last day of the month. While the known cases and fatalities continue to rise rapidly, far more people are taking the crisis seriously and doing what is recommended, at least when convenient. There are still some overreacting and too many under-reacting, but we are a nation of extremes, it seems.

Personally, aside from moving from an actual classroom to a "virtual" one, my life is not overly complicated by this. Complying with the directives issued by the authorities as advised by the experts has not been very difficult. My gas tank in my car has been close to full for about two weeks. My supply of necessities has been adequate without over-stocking on anything, despite the temporary shortages caused by those who did and the things that are not necessities are well stocked as well.

I have not gained any weight nor am I eating my boredom away, probably because solitude doesn't bore me. The only thing that has changed noticeably is that, now that I can sleep later because I do not have to commute to work, I do - and that means I stay up later. And later. And later. I am falling back into my natural nocturnal pattern and, although I don't necessarily see that as a problem, if I let it get out of control, reeling it back in could be a bit of a chore. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.

It is Spring Break this week. Ordinarily, I'd be off doing something. I planned to be off riding my Harley all week with no destination, itinerary or plan. While a solo motorcycle ride like that is, by definition, a socially isolating affair, it is not totally completely so. Unless I planned to camp (which, unless absolutely unavoidable, I don't - ever), I cannot guarantee I will remain distanced enough from people who I have no idea where they have been or who they have been in contact with. I'm less worried about getting the disease than I am about spreading it, but either way, I am responsible for keeping my distance, too.

Today I have some loose ends to tie up for my students and I am getting some things in place for when class resumes next week. The weather this week is going to be gradually warming, but even today, with the temperature hitting in the upper 60s, with clear skies, it is perfect for a ride. And I will ride sometime this week for sure. I can go at least 150 miles without stopping for gas, food, a bathroom or anything – I can be 100% isolated on the road for 150 miles that begins and ends right here. But not today, In addition to a little bit of work, I also will do a little bit of work on my motorcycle. It’s also a damned fine day to do that. No reason to “pass the time” with TV, Facebook, sleep, or food. Boredom isn’t real, it is a state of mind – it is a choice. Life goes on, it’s just another day and another adventure.

Peace.

Monday, March 30, 2020

We are Strong


Today is the first day of Spring Break, 2020. It’s a little cloudy outside, about 63 degrees at 1:00 p.m. – that’s about as warm as it’s going to get. There is no rain forecasted and the weather is going to gradually warm all week to the 80’s by this weekend. It is perfect motorcycle riding weather and ideal for what I had planned this week – a five to seven day solo ride throughout California and possibly neighboring Arizona, Nevada and Oregon. My “plan” was to stay on the road all week and travel 2,000 to 3,000 miles with no destination, direction or itinerary – just ride. I am also part of the “Tour of Honor” for the first time this year and I wanted to try to visit some of the tour stops once they were released on April 1st. They are still being released, but they aren’t being scored in “lockdown” states, rightfully so, and, because I live in California, anything more than a day ride is out of the question anyway.

So, yes, boo-fucking-hoo, poor me, cry in my beer, I don’t get to do what I want to do. Those who know me know I am not a whiner. There are too many good reasons for that, not the least of which is that is doesn’t do any good – whining has never made a bad situation better. Never. But beyond that, in this case, what is there to whine about? It’s not as though my life-long dream has been snatched out from under me, never to be had again. I’ve ridden. A lot. A long way. Many miles. Many days. Many times. It’s no accident, I’ve done that because I really like doing it, but not being able to this one time isn’t the end of the world. I have a much, much bigger ride planned for mid-July to mid-August that is a “bucket-list” ride for me, a coast-to-coast, border-to-border month-long, 10,000-plus mile odyssey that, even if this initial crisis has crested, will in all likelihood become just another two-week ride to Sturgis and back. Say it fast and that sounds like a chore - just another…

So many people are being affected by this in ways I cannot even imagine, ways that they will not easily, if ever recover from. And that is to say nothing about the people who have perished or the people who will – a number that is still rising alarmingly fast. I wonder how many people were complaining about being inconvenienced during World War II, when day-to-day staples were rationed in a nationwide effort to win a war. I wonder if anyone was worried about their vacation plans in 1942 when Germany occupied most of Europe and Japan was a constant threat in the Pacific. While there were some detractors and naysayers, the vast majority of this nation banded together in a common effort to defeat a common threat. We were not a nation of whiners.

The Lord of the Rings - The Two Towers
And despite the commotion coming from a vocal minority, we still are not. Though it took a little time for the skepticism to fade, by the time the crisis became real, most of us became real along with it. There is an undertone of that grit that defined this country during World War II, a grit that resurfaced, for a while, right after the attacks of 9/11, and it is getting louder. We aren’t fucking whiners. We, most of us, do what we have to do and we do it without bitching about it. It is getting louder and it is getting stronger. In The Lord of the Rings – The Two Towers, after Gandalf frees Théodin from Saruman’s spell, he tells a weakened Théodin, “Your fingers would remember their old strength better — if they grasped your sword.”

The Lord of the Rings is, of course, the age-old tale of good, against all odds, conquering evil, of bravery and sacrifice, of character and soul, of heroism. These are the themes that are beginning to emerge. This pandemic has shocked us into action the likes of which we haven’t seen before. We have been entirely too comfortable. We are awakening from a long, dark and deep sleep. We have grasped our swords, we are remembering that we are strong. We can do this. We are not fucking whiners.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Apocalypse-ish


I am not a so-called “prepper,” but that is not to say that I am not, generally, prepared for life’s inconsistencies. When the COVID-19 craziness began a little more than two weeks ago (in the US, but in California in particular), I was prepared. My normal supply and resupply routine had me well positioned to weather at least two weeks and, if stretched, much more. As luck would have it, I did my regular shopping – which I do every two to three weeks – right at the beginning of the “scare,” just as it was turning to panic. I figured the panic would pass, the crazed lunacy, the unbridled procurement of random items, the outright hoarding of things that make no real sense, all of that would quickly fade. The big warehouse stores where the huge inventories are stockpiled were hit first, but my much smaller (but still good sized) neighborhood Raley’s Supermarket had plenty of everything and I bought what I usually do – enough for my household. I could have purchased their entire stock at the time, but why would I?

Apparently there is an answer to that question, not one that satisfies me, but one that justifies a whole lot of others, especially when panic strikes. Within a week that panic spread to my local Raley’s and every other store. It also spread to other items besides paper towels, toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Things that make some sense were disappearing – nonperishable food items and such – but also things that do not last over long periods of time. People had carts full of gallons of milk and loaves of bread, produce to feed an army and even with enough freezer space, how much freezer burned chicken will they tolerate over the coming non-apocalyptic months?

My food stores and most other supplies are still good due to my regular supply and resupply routine. I did have to go hunting for paper products today, but although both my neighborhood supermarkets are still out, the local warehouse supermarket has some. As I predicted, the supply chain has started to catch up as the panic is dying down. Even canned goods are reappearing on the shelves. There never was a supply issue. And, as far as paper products go, with so many now owning a lifetime supply, the availability might not be the initial issue next time – it will be some other random “necessity.” Maybe it will be shaving cream, who knows?

And there will be a next time. This time, as bad as this pandemic is and as much harm as it can cause, has caused and will cause, it has revealed something much more damning. Human fear. Mass hysteria. Panic. We did not hit the tipping point… this time. A virus that is a little more deadly, one that moves a little faster, something more mysterious or anything unknown that poses even the slightest existential threat will flip the mass hysteria switch and, if on a national or global scale – that’s Armageddon. Will it happen? Possibly, I have no faith in mass humanity to stop it – this little trial run has shown that. A better hope is that sort of disaster does not darken our national or global door at all.

The “preppers” out there are, as the term implies, prepared for the absolute worse. They are prepared for the collapse of government, of civilization as we know it. They are prepared to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. While I am not at all convinced that sort of preparation is warranted, this little dry run of a widespread emergency has shown me that counting on humans to act rationally when scared is folly. A lot of otherwise intelligent, reasonable people were caught up in their own individual toilet paper wars – it was not pretty. I am, however, stepping my level of preparation up a notch or two. Once this blows over, I will enhance two distinct areas. Stock and defense. While my current position is fine for this scenario and more, I clearly underestimated people.

That does not mean I’m going to dig a hole in the ground and fortify it into a bunker. It also doesn’t mean my home will be some sort of armory or storehouse. It does mean that in addition to my level of day-to-day preparation that was already adequate to cover minor interruptions in daily life, I’ll extend it to preparation that covers major ones – bigger than what we are facing now. I’d like to say I can count on my fellow humans, and under normal and even slightly stressed conditions, I certainly can, but when people are afraid, they do irrational things. The response to fear, more than the thing feared, is often what kills us. I’m not about to let your fear kill me.