Debate Night – Date Night #1

Tonight is the 1st Presidential debate between a candidate who has the qualifications to be President and a braying ass of an orange-toupéed fool. What to expect? FIREWORKS! JABS! HOT TAKES GALORE.

I’d live blog it, but I don’t think it’s worth the energy. However, you can follow me on Twitter: here.

Adios.

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Good to be home.

Silence, save for the sounds of leaves shaking and branches swaying under the influence of a light and lazy August breeze, greeted me as I returned home for the first time in nearly a year. Following an excursion that took me from Roanoke to Chicago, Cleveland, and Buffalo, silence was a welcome greeting. Silence broke when it was followed by my mother’s embrace – she was happy to see me! Why don’t I come home more often? The usual welcome that I get when returning home after an extended absence, so the usual welcome at this point.

I’ve spent my adult life running away from the rustic – some might say quaint – trappings of the homeland. Oh? Homeland? Yeah, upstate New York. No, not White Plains. That’s too far south. Albany? Nope, you’re still too far to the south. Keep looking north – keep going north on Interstate 87 until you hit the end. Seriously. A stretch of lonely villages that dot the Northern Tier of New York as it comes to abut Québec and Lake Champlain. Yeah. There. This time home was no different from any of the previous, save for my sister – my baby sister! – was getting married this weekend and I was in the wedding party.

Mom, I don’t go home because there’s nothing. Home is a shell of a place that is being left behind by a confluence of global economic forces and stubborn unwillingness of locals to move forward. Life back home is a perpetual snapshot of high school, senior year, now fifteen years removed. Those of us who had the sense or good fortune to leave did. Those of us who didn’t or couldn’t are sinking into a crowd of aging millennials drowning in a sea of narcotics and alcohol. So mom, I’m sorry I don’t go home more often.

It’s just too damn sad.

As a result, any time I leave my mother’s house, it’s with trepidation – fear that I will see the fleeting wraiths of the past entangled with a displaced, zombified present. A trip to the mall in the nearest city, twenty miles away, typically confirms that worry. This time did not fail. While at Target in the mall, my best friend from high school walked up to me, taking me by surprise. I hadn’t spoken to her or seen her in eight or nine years. We caught up. Her daughter was going to be ten years old, her daughter’s father an abusive alcoholic. Her mother was living in the same apartment complex she’d lived in when I last saw my friend. My friend told me about how she limits her daughter’s time with her daughter’s grandmother – my friend’s mother – because her grandmother is perpetually drunk. My friend’s brother? He had a terrifying experience because after he’d been clean for a year, he went on a multi-week bender, shooting and snorting every drug he could find until the drugs didn’t work any more and nearly killed himself after drinking a handle of the least expensive scotch he could find.

He said it was a wake up call.

The ghosts were all around. The shuffling of the gaunt and barely living skeletons, bound by the chains of drugs, time, and location. I told my friend that this was why I never come back. Everything’s gone to hell. And if it had already been hell when we were younger, the sleep was cleared away from my eyes and a newly focused set of eyes saw the ugly reality, able to perceive the desperation and the desire to be transported out of time and place. Some of us were lucky, some of us were able to leave physically. The rest have had to chemically transport themselves away from their environments. My friend told me that she would have left, too, but she couldn’t.

And that’s a damn shame. You see, by virtue of her environment, all of her talent was leached out. I remember that she could easily transpose anything she heard on the radio to piano. Literally anything. She was interested in history, science… But back home, family life, the area beyond the event horizon that is our shared black hole of a home, there couldn’t be a future for someone who couldn’t get out, regardless of the talent. If you wanted a good paying job, you were left with few options: the Border Patrol, the State Police, the Department of Corrections or the drug company. When the drug company left, options dissipated. Retail. Food service. Any job to pay the bills and live to barely scrape by.

Mom, this is why I don’t go home. Going home is returning to Roanoke.

Roanoke’s got its share of problems, many of them not so different from the problems plaguing the area of my birth. However, we’re a community that has resources by virtue of its size. We’re a community that’s moved towards the future instead of haphazardly recusing itself from the future. As I drive down Elm Avenue and Hershberger Road, there are periodically homeless people, begging for help at the corners and medians, but these are the exceptions and not the norms. And yes, we have drug abuse, issues with violence, and significant issues with inequality. However, here, unlike my home region, people are present who care to fix those problems.

The morning after the wedding, I left at 5:45. The drive back home, to Roanoke, took just over twelve hours. It was still light when the Mill Mountain Star first appeared as I drove down 581. A smile grew across my face.

It’s good to be home.

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Scorched Earth

Lately, I’ve heard several acquaintances repeatedly state that if Senator Sanders doesn’t get the Democratic Presidential nomination, they absolutely will refuse to vote for the Democratic nominee or, worse yet, they are willing to sabotage this country and vote for the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump. This trend is deeply troubling. I’ve called out the myth of the Bernie Bro previously, because I don’t believe that there’s an actual gender aspect to it that’s beyond surface deep. I think, however, there is a deeper read available for us in many of Senator Sanders’ supporters’ minds – and, full disclosure, I am a supporter of Senator Sanders. This read transcends gender, race, and creed. It is the complete and utter distrust that many of the Senator’s supporters have of the status quo.

To them, the status is not quo. It is bad, very bad, and an election of Hillary Clinton is tantamount to an election of Donald Trump.

I’m not going to try dispelling that idea. I think Mr. Trump’s words can speak for themselves against Senator Clinton’s. Do I think that Senator Clinton has some deeply troubling ethical issues stemming from acts during her tenure as Secretary of State? Yes. Do I worry that for all of the talk that Senator Clinton has laid down, tacking to the left over the course of the primary, she will be as faithless to her base as Senator Sanders’ supporters are threatening to be to the country? Absolutely. I have no doubt that Senator Clinton will tack to the center and govern from a center-right, that she will continue to be a Wall Street Democrat, and that she will be more hawkish than the base Democrat will like. But against a candidate who has declared that his modus operandi is chaos, who wants the United States to behave as a rogue nation, who talks out of both sides of his mouth in total incoherence, who offers vitriol and rage without solutions, who seems to be out to prove that America was emasculated by the Obama presidency – someone who is utterly and totally unqualified to be President – Hillary Clinton is an infinitely better option.

A Donald Trump presidency is not a risk I am willing to take. Not now. Not ever.

Why this post? I think most people who know me know that I am a dedicated liberal, a progressive without question. I write this post to those who do not believe that I am an affirmed and proud progressive, those who feel compelled to question why I would support Senator Clinton in the general election versus Jill Stein or some other third party candidate. I am progressive, but I am also pragmatic. This election is the fourth where I have been an active participant. The lay of the land is clear to me. I could truly vote my conscience and encourage people to vote with Jill Stein with me, but there aren’t enough people to turn that into a win. The lay of the land is clear to me. I would rather swallow a bitter pill and sit through 4 years of a Hillary Clinton presidency, all the while working to get more progressive candidates into the House of Delegates, State Senate, and Congress, than I would ever deign the notion of a Trump presidency. The stakes are far too high to allow someone as tiny and petty as Donald Trump become the representative of our country.

I would welcome a Clinton presidency over a Trump presidency. Without question and without hesitation.

That being said, the Democratic presidential primaries are far from over. There remains a long slog ahead for whoever ends up being the nominee. My hope is that Bernie Sanders will be the standard-bearer for the Democratic Party this fall. But if Hillary Clinton is? So what? The choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump or between Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz is, to me, not a choice. I see it as an obligation of my progressivism to not let a Republican win. If the Green Party wants to have a chance, they need to start winning elections at the local level. Same for Libertarians. Same for any other third, fourth or fifth party. The work is hard, the work is endless, but the fruit of those labors is far greater than the work itself.

But right now, the lay of the land doesn’t support a national Green Party victory. Or Libertarian Party. The lay of the land is what it is. This hand is the hand we have dealt ourselves and we must play that hand.

Blame the media. Blame the corporatocracy – or whatever neologism that you choose to coin describing the collusion of big money and politics. But accept some blame for yourself if Bernie doesn’t win. Politics is about getting people together to vote with you. If you haven’t gotten enough people together, you don’t win. The Clintons get that. Senator Sanders’ supporters need to understand that as well. Tossing around the notion of winning the convention by using superdelegates subverts the very ideas that you, supporters of Senator Sanders, claim to cling to about democracy. The Democratic Party’s presidential nomination process is not democratic, just like how the Electoral College isn’t democratic. But because you are not getting your way does not mean that you are entitled to subvert democracy. Leave that to the other guys. Win elections fairly. Win elections by convincing people that your candidate is their candidate, too. Similarly, petulance about Senator Clinton winning spilling over into either a) not voting or b) voting for Trump, subverts the work that you’ve tried to accomplish. Play the damn game. Play it to win it. And if you don’t, don’t be a sore loser.

Because it’s a long way to November.

-R

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In Catilinam (except replace Catiline with Trump.)

While this addresses one person in particular, consider this An Open Letter to all Political Candidates

This might be because I’ve gotten older and wiser to the ways of political candidates, this might be because I’m cynical about personal motives or this may be because of the current crop of candidates and slate of politicians who dominate headlines, but this is an open letter that needs writing.

With the leading candidate for the Republican Party’s nomination to the Presidency currently touting everything that’s special about him, I think it’s important for candidates and politicians to remember what serving in public life is all about. It’s not about you. It’s about everyone else. I see candidates in local, state, and national elections try to make elections a judge of their character or popularity, about who they are, not about what solutions they will offer for the people whose votes they seek.

I recall the famous words that John F. Kennedy uttered in his inaugural address: ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. This doesn’t apply to only the citizens whom he addressed, this applies to candidates and politicians as well. People began to see a system that was so rife with corruption that they lost faith in the capacity of the government to function of their behalf, so they began to vote for people who were against everything the government did. Voting for those people reinforced incompetence and then reinforced the perceptions of corruption when it was found out that these people were just as corrupt. This quickly became a self-perpetuating disease. People who were less and less competent at governance began to climb into higher and higher levels of power.

Enter Donald Trump. Six years after the rise of the Tea Party, which was at the time the height of right-wing activity, we have a man who has proposed to build a wall all along the Mexican border, saying that Mexico sends over drug dealers, murderers, rapists, and, oh yeah, sometimes good people; a man who has proposed expelling Muslims out of this country; a man who threatens to sue anyone who dare expose a falsehood he has told; a man who at one time renounced David Duke and then later couldn’t remember who David Duke was after Duke endorsed him for President; a man whose stories about his wealth and prowess at business are exactly that, stories; a man whose vilest and basest attacks on the most truly dispossessed have inflamed the passions of those who only merely feel dispossessed; and finally, a man for whom the truth is nothing but a footnote of a footnote, a trifle that needn’t be bothered with. Everything about Donald Trump is about him. It’s all about the brand, not the substance. And it terrifies me that when you dig into the substance of what he says, it either brings out the worst in people or brings the worst people out.

Donald, this election isn’t about the yuuuge things you’ve done in New York, New Jersey or wherever. It’s about what you are going to do to “Make America Great Again.” Your slogan is exactly that: just a slogan. There’s nothing behind it. You can rally behind “Make X Y Again,” but unless you have a real plan for action that exists in the world as it is and not the fantasy you’ve managed to delude both yourself and your adherents into believing, it means absolutely nothing. Just mere words. And for those of you who are going to vote for Donald Trump come primary election day or the general election, bear that in mind. This election isn’t about him. This election is about us.

Think about it: would you want this man making the decision to launch a nuclear weapon because of a slight, whether real or perceived? Would you want this man going across the world, representing the United States in its worst possible form: the one with so much swagger that it doesn’t care what it destroys, so long as it gets what it wants? Do you want to trust a man who claims to be incredibly successful at business, yet has managed to be, by his daughter’s admission, billions of dollars in debt? What is real about him? I can’t fathom a world where Donald Trump is the President and he doesn’t lead us head first into the first fully-armed nuclear war between nation states.

There’s the old adage that politics isn’t personal. But to Donald, everything is personal. He attacks people critical of him, tries to talk over those who dare disagree with him, and creates a mythology of the reality that surrounds him. The Donald’s is a cult of personality. He commands the incredible loyalty of those who buy into what he says. He attacks those who don’t. What happens when this man becomes President and someone from the press dares investigate him? For every time Republicans have declared that President Obama has demonstrated contempt for the Constitution of this country, Donald Trump has done so at least four times over. He wants to do things by force of will. That’s the terrain of despots, dictators, and tyrants. That is not a feature of the republican democracy that was constructed, flawed though it may be, by the likes of Adams, Jefferson, and Madison.

This is a mistake not worth the consequences. Electing Donald Trump to be President is not a mistake that you can fix with an eraser. Elections have consequences.

For everyone who claims that they respect the Founding Fathers and want to go back to the way it was, I suggest you read the Constitution and understand the context from which it grew and then compare those words that claim to purport liberty; the right to speak freely from one’s conscience; the right to practice (not impose) religion; the right to due process; the right to a speedy trial, the right to not be punished neither cruelly nor unusually; that being necessary to the security of a free state, a well-regulated militia, that the right to bear arms shall not be abridged; that no religious test shall be required ever as a qualification to an office of the public trust of the United States; and that while power is reserved to the states for many circumstances, the increasing interconnectedness of our country’s fabric requires that the commerce clause be invoked by the Congress.

Being a politician, maybe more specifically, being a governing leader, is about more than the self. I don’t believe that Donald Trump sees the Presidency of our nation as anything more than the final step of his self-aggrandizement. He offers no solutions, he offers only the Donald. And surely he may say what he feels – and what he feels seems to change with the wind – but do you, as an employee, as a family member, as a friend, always utter the first syllables that pop into your head? I try not to. Donald neither gives the appearance of trying or caring.

We deserve better than that.

-R

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Football

This week is the last week of the regular season for NFL football and “my” team, the Cleveland Browns, play against their ferrous city foes, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Rumors abound that Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam will fire Browns coach Mike Pettine after the conclusion of today’s game against the Steelers.

I don’t think Mike Pettine deserves to be fired. I think Jimmy Haslam doesn’t deserve to own a team whose fans have endured decades of hardship and since the return of NFL football to Cleveland in 1999, the head coaching position has been a revolving door that lasts between one and three years. Nothing remains static at the bench, the only thing that remains static is the front office at the very top of the chain.

Now, the Browns have had a total of two winning seasons since their return, a 9-7 finish in 2002 under Butch Davis and a 10-6 finish in 2007 under Romeo Crennel. Davis resigned in 2004. Crennel was fired after the 2008 season. Since 1999, the Browns have been coached by Chris Palmer, Butch Davis, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur, Rob Chudzinski, and Mike Pettine. That’s 7 head coaches in that span. Two owners.

And what this looks like to me isn’t incompetent coaching, but rather impatient ownership. And impatience is tantamount to incompetence. It’s as if the ownership want to just pull a magical season out of thin air where the Browns win the Super Bowl. But instead of fostering a sense of stability, the tendency is to let chaos run ramshackle over the team, to the detriment of its players and its fans.

I know, I know, I say this at the end of every season. And this time I will probably mean it as much as I did the last time I said it, but it bears saying: I’m done with the Browns (if the ownership fires Pettine.) He gets one more season. If they suck again, then you can write him off. But there needs to be stability and not chaos with the team. If you can stick out a couple rough seasons with stable leadership on the field, you should be able to cultivate success. But this 7 head coaches in 16 years isn’t cultivation of success. It’s punting for the hope that next year will be better with different people.

And that’s not team building. That’s team destroying. That’s keeping Cleveland as the laughingstock of the NFL.

And that’s terrible ownership.

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A final goodbye.

Growing up in a household divided by divorce conveys a multitude of different experiences to a child. Of course, there’s the readily apparent competition between the parents, and luckily my sister and I didn’t really deal much with that, there’s the tension between former in-laws, which we did see some of, but there’s also something much greater. When my parents divorced, my sister and I were welcomed into a new family.

The following is going to be an intensely personal post, so if you don’t want to read it, go ahead and close the window. You’ve been forewarned.

My mother is an incredibly lucky woman, I think. Although she and my father didn’t work out, she managed to work her way into a long-term relationship with a genuinely good man who has a fantastic family. James and I didn’t always have the best relationship, as you might expect from a teenager who’s dealing with divorced parents and having to figure out who this new guy is, beefing on your old man’s turf. But I always felt welcomed by James’ family. His mother and father, brother and sisters welcomed Lisa and I into their family as if we were one of their own.

I know that in the previous post I wrote about looking through the past either without enough criticism or with too much criticism, but having maintained a relatively regular relationship with my mom and my stepdad, I think I can eliminate the biases, both positive and negative. I was privileged to know James’ mother, Jeannine. If I said that I remembered the first time I met James’ parents, I’d be lying to you, so I won’t. But I do remember definitively watching the 1998 Winter Olympics with Carl and Jeannine, sitting in the front room where Carl and Jeannine each had their recliners and there was a sofa underneath a bookshelf filled with old bottles, like those you might find tonics and remedies in.

And I remember Jeannine, always asking how I was doing, when I’d come home from college and then even after I grew into being somewhat an adult.

And I remember the last time I saw her a couple weeks ago. In spirit, she was the same woman I remembered from nearly twenty years hence. But her body had finally thrown in the towel. She seemed to be at peace with her situation. She was to be discharged from the hospital and returned home within the day – and she was. Seeing her for the last time reminded me of seeing my dad’s stepdad for the last name. Incidentally, he was also named Carl, a man who I grew up with as my papa, a grandfather in all but blood. I got to see papa for the last time at grandma’s and his home a week before he passed, and the final memory of seeing him sleeping in a recliner struck me because of how normal it was. There was nothing special to it, it was exactly as he had always been. Seeing Jeannine in the hospital was a little different, because I hadn’t seen her in the hospital before. However, everything else was the same.

Much as I felt the love from the man who wasn’t biologically my grandfather, I felt the love from this woman who wasn’t biologically my grandmother. And it was the same love I had always gotten from her and her family for the last two decades. And, Jeannine, that’s all I can say about you and your family. Once I grew up, I understood the love from family, even if it wasn’t from the family that we expected when we were born. And I can’t ever express adequately how grateful I am for what you and your family gave to me – to say nothing of what you’ve done for my mother. You will always be a flame that burns brightly for those whose lives you touched.

And I know that you probably didn’t understand, know, or perhaps cared why I decided to leave the Catholic Church and become Jewish, but there are a ton of beautiful traditions in Judaism that make humanity more divine. And I think the ending of the Friday night service with the mourner’s kaddish and the following phrase is the reason why it strikes me so deeply.

Jeannine Duquette LaFontaine, may your memory be for a blessing. I will probably not be able to make it home to say goodbye one last time before you return whence we all came, but I would rather have my final memory of you be that hour in the hospital that my mom and I spent with you. If there is an afterlife, I know that you will be in the company of the good.

There will be a lot of people saying this, many of whom who were closer to you than me, but I will miss you. Just as I miss my grandfathers. Because, again, you were family to me.

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Hard Shift

“Shades of grey are all that I find, when I look to the enemy line. Black and white was so easy for me, but shades of grey are the colors I see.”

Something I miss about being a kid is that the world was a relatively simple place. Growing up in a privileged location, in a privileged socioeconomic background, in a privileged nation, the world was something where things were rarely bad. I never asked for much, but I think my parents spoiled me. This isn’t to say that they were bad parents or anything like that, but they sheltered me a lot from some of the harsher realities of life.

It wasn’t until a couple of semesters into college and then definitely moreso after college that the world I grew up in was shown to be, for lack of a better way to put it, false. Certainly, my parents worked full-time jobs, my step-dad worked multiple jobs, they plugged and chugged away at trying to give us – my sister and me – the best life they could possibly give.

But somewhere along the line, all the bright colors that defined how I saw life, which gave clear definition and meaning to everything, all of those colors began smudging. And I remember the night it happened.

I was home for winter break, driving home from Plattsburgh doing god-knows-what thing there was to do in Plattsburgh at that time. It was late-ish. Given how northerly the latitude is and the time of year, it may have well been 5:30 pm. But at that point, it was already pitch dark outside. Driving up 87, I remember being somewhere between Beekmantown and Chazy and I looked out the windshield, as one does when one drives. But something caught me that never caught me before: I could see the stars going on and on, seemingly without end. It’s not that I’d never sat and looked at the stars before – once upon a time I could name constellations and identify planets. This time, however, this time was different. As I cruised northbound on 87, I felt something that I had never felt before: small. Insignificant. Cosmically meaningless. And I think that it’s important to recognize our place within the vastness of everything as that. There’s a giant f*cking ball of plasma with temperatures that can spike to millions of degrees Kelvin in the solar corona. And that massive ball of hydrogen, helium, and other basic building blocks of everything heats this planet to a range – from an average distance of 150 million kilometers – that has allowed life to thrive on this planet.

It’s hard to feel big when in our cosmic backyard, there exists the reason for life on this planet, burning brightly, giving us day. And then the other planets. In theory, Venus is more suitable for conditions for life to develop. However, we know that isn’t the case. Despite sharing many similar physical characteristics, the Venutian landscape seems to be a version of hell, buried underneath clouds of sulfuric acid. And then looking outwards, we have our baby brother Mars, which may have at one point harbored an atmosphere and may have had the potential to harbor life.

But here we are. And there I was, driving up along interstate 87 on a cold December night. All of that, logically, should have made me pound my chest and think, “yeah, we’re damn special and we own this joint.” But the opposite happened. I saw the spaces in between the stars – the emptiness. And I thought about that. Can it really be empty? What’s the nature of the universe? At that point, I had learned enough in high school physics to gather that there were ideas that the universe was expanding. And that’s a strange concept to wrap your head around. It’s not like the universe has a border where can go out to the edge and yell across the chasm into something else. That isn’t what cosmology has taught us. The universe is like a balloon that started off as something as small as an atom (maybe smaller, we don’t know) and then something happened. That’s the big question – what happened? What flipped the switch to create fundamental particles? Did the fundamental particles already exist and then there was an unexpected interaction between these fundamental particles to cause, literally, the universe’s largest explosive growth that hasn’t stopped since time literally seems to have not existed roughly some 13.8 billion years ago?

I sat there as my car gradually decelerated, I having lost the ability to focus on driving while thinking about how incredibly vast the universe was and how incredibly small I was in that context.

And for a solid two years, I couldn’t see beyond that box. It was me versus the universe. And I was on the losing side of that battle. Until one day I met someone who has been a friend to me since. We had a weird relationship at first, but it developed into something meaningful, confusing, and sometimes frustrating. But meaningful. And on a spring morning in 2006, we were hanging out underneath a tree and my eyes opened to the reality of life. It isn’t me versus the universe. It isn’t even us versus the universe. It’s us in it together to survive on this planet with what little time we’re given. By dint of biology or godhead, humans and life have a finite shelf life. Interestingly, so does that large ball in the sky which provides the conditions necessary for life. But we’re all here together, each of us messed up by circumstance of life, being fed lies about the nature of things, being tormented by bullies, being taken advantage of. And when she and I sat under that tree on that beautiful spring morning, I stopped feeling alone.

Don’t get me wrong, I was still an ass, but I didn’t feel like my life was a lonely trek anymore that no one could possibly understand. I’m not going to mention names, because I think if the guilty party reads this, she will know who she is. But thanks to her – and nearly a decade of growing up – the colors of life are smudged together. And it no longer makes me uneasy. It gives me confidence to know that there are people who day to day face challenges of mere survival and that it is our species’ obligation to ensure the survival of the species. We are beacons of life in a universe that looks empty of it. And while on a cosmic scale, we are incredibly tiny, nothing but motes floating in the wind, to each other we are invaluably important. We provide the support to each other to maximize our worth as humans, be it to explore the cosmos to increase humanity’s realm to being someone who will listen and care for another in time of need.

See, the truth is that we are tiny. The secret is to be great in our smallness.

-R

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