Saturday, October 21, 2017

Weekend Poem


We only know our bones by feel
Like skeleton keys on a shelf in the dark
And the locked rooms they reveal.
An invisible frame propping soft flesh:
Here is my ulna, my femur, my iliac crest.
Ashes to ashes we all fall down
Not as puddles that seep into your heart
But collapsed into stacks of calcified sticks
Like abandoned burned out campfires found
On early morning walks in the wood;
Slivers of gray smoke spiralling
Up through clawed branches.
But bones aren’t made of steel
Bend them too much or fall too far
The bones may break their seal
And expose the hidden red marrow,
The embers beneath the ashes
The soft soil of your blood.
So set those bones straight
Set them now---don’t wait until tomorrow---
And may all your broken ones heal


Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sunday Poem


The stink bugs had invaded the kitchen
With summer in flight
Flitting around like they do,
Whacking up against walls and windows.
The frosted bowl of the ceiling light
Is now an urn of upturned insect silhouettes

You kill them with a satisfying crunch
Under your shoe,
Or flicked with your nail,
Pressed between layers of junk mail,
Like an old catalog from J Crew.

The boy watching asked:
Could I get squished?
We paused, seeking
Clarification in our stunned silence.
Like that bug?

Well….maybe a wrecking ball….
Or a toppling wall.
An unfortunate end to a car chase.
My mind raced.
Yes you could, I thought.
But you won’t be, I said
You won’t get squished,
My little boy,
You’ll stay whole, body and soul
You’ll always fill your little space

I took the smashed flat carcass
Outside into the back yard.
I felt bad now, this needless death
(They don’t even sting or bite; they’re harmless)
But the odor takes your breath;
It had to be discarded.

I carried it deeper into the darkness,
Evanescent, ever diminished,
With the night closing in
Until all light seemed extinguished.

This is where it ought to have been relinquished.
The smells of the September yard mixed with its guts of coriander.
But I continued to meander
Along my meager patch of wet earth, .  
Clutching the remnants of wings.
And as the night squeezed tight like tourniquets
There was the encompassing chorus of katydids and crickets
Flittering past like ashes.
A funeral canticle of the starless darkness.
I stood there alone, enclosed by cantilevered, bone-like branches

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Principled Stand?

For those who aver that one is constitutionally obligated to stand for the playing of the national anthem lest ye suffer eternal hell fire, no matter what, I must ask that you try a little thought experiment.  If it is postulated that the principle of "standing for the anthem" is non-negotiable and sacrosanct then it should follow that one's conclusions should not be altered by particularities.   In other words, the circumstances currently stated to be insufficiently exculpatory for  not adhering to the over arching dictum of proper patriotic behavior, i.e. a collection of black athletes protesting police brutality and unequal application of the law, should be irrelevant to one's stance on the matter.  The principle is all that matters.  Standing for the flag.  No matter what.  The racially charged subtext is mere fluff and distraction.  One is simply being principled.

If this is truly the case then imagine the following scenario:

In response to the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting of 2012, President Barack Obama is able to harness enough public support and leverage enough political capital to push through a bill that bans all semi-automatic assault rifles from the open market, closes the gun show loop hole and enacts additional regulatory measures involving waiting periods and background checks in an attempt to decrease the number of mass shootings in America.  The country has had enough.  Something needed to be done.  On the whole, the new legislation is popular; polls show that 62% of Americans approve.  It is universally acknowledged by political pundits across the spectrum that President Obama has taken a terrible tragedy and effectively transformed it into a force for change.

But not all Americans.

Some are pissed.  The NRA is chastened by the defeat.  But many in the heartland, still stung by Obama's comment about "clinging to guns and religion" decide they need to make a stand.  This is the beginning of socialism, of government intrusion into our lives, the end of freedom, the end of America as we know it.

Six weeks later at the Daytona 500, several drivers band together and decide to protest the recent gun control legislation by remaining in their cars during the playing of the national anthem.  Afterwards, they express their undiminished respect for American soldiers and the sacrifices of the military but that this present attack on their 2nd Amendment rights as American citizens warrants and deserves an unyielding stand.

President Obama, feeling confident, perhaps even a bit cocky after his recent legislative triumph, re-affirms the incontrovertible justice of the recent gun control legislation and asks: what kind of American doesn't stand for the National Anthem?  Don't these drivers know that they are privileged to be able to earn millions of dollars per year?  Don't they realize that it isn't their own (now illegal) semi-automatic weapons gathering dust in basement gun cases that made this possible but the blood and tears of the soldiers of yesteryear and today who made this country free and safe for capitalism's prosperous advantages?

He ends his speech by demanding that NASCAR team owners make their drivers stand for the anthem.  The oratory builds and builds to his climax:  "To all those drivers who refuse to stand, let me be clear:  Please step out of your cars, sirs!  Please.  Please step out of your cars for America!  Let us stand together as one, let us stand as Americans!"

Is hypothetical Obama being a righteous patriot?  Or is he infringing on the rights of Americans to protest a perceived injustice?  Which is it?  And how does your answer square with Colin Kaepernick and the current African American athlete protests?

Are you principled?  Or is it something else?

Sunday, October 8, 2017


While watching my son at a weekend hockey game last weekend I overheard a conversation an older, wealthy-appearing woman was having with her companion.  I pretended to be reading (I’m the bad dad who only watches the game when his own son is out on a shift) while she orated (in a faux, poorly executed, Mid Atlantic English nasal accent) a story she had heard from “down in Texas” about how a righteous high school coach had kicked two  players off his team who had the gall and traitorous audacity to kneel during the pre-game rendering of the national anthem.  

“Whaaaaaat are they eeeeeven protesting?” the Hepburn knock off sing-songed.  To which her companion shrugged her shoulders.  Who knows?  It’s senseless…

Today after whacking out another Sunday appendix I went to update the 60ish husband.  He was grateful and nice and laid back and we stood there in the empty family waiting area shooting the breeze a bit.  He was a cool guy.  Seemed successful.  We talked Buckeye football a bit.  I told him he could watch a little NFL pre-game while his wife woke up from anesthesia and the nurses would grab him in an hour or so.  He looked at me shaking his head.  You know I’ve been a Browns fan 50 years, through thick and thin.  But the other week when they did that black power thing down on the field, I clicked the damn TV off.  Never again.   To which I just sort of stared in awkward silence.  Yeah, uh, so anyway, your wife will be just fine.

And then today, our Vice President pulled a little stunt where he flew back to Indiana from Las Vegas last night, went to the Colts-San Fran game, and then announced via Twiter that he was leaving the game immediately because some 49er players kneeled during the anthem.  Then he got on a plane and flew back to California.  

What the hell, man.

Enough ink has been spilled, enough bandwidth has been filled on the internets already with hot takes on the controversy over NFL players choosing to protest police brutality against African-Americans and so I apologize in advance for another tired self-righteous rant.  But this is an issue that nags at my conscience.  I can’t seem to  just move on to the next news cycle.  I have to break it down, understand it completely, see it from all the angles, all the perspectives.  All you can do is ask a bunch of annoying questions.  

Why do the the players kneel?  Well anyone asking that question, at this point, is either being willfully obtuse or is just the most incurious person on the planet.  The players, Kaepernick above all, have never been coy about what it is the kneeling protests are all about.  

When asked last year, this is what Kaepernick had to say:

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick told NFL Media in an exclusive interview after the game. "To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."

The players are protesting a very specific thing: police brutality and the unequal treatment black Americans receive at the hands of law enforcement in this country.  The numbers likewise seem to support the thrust of the protests: Blacks are killed 3 times as often as whites by law enforcement officers.  Blacks are subjected to physical violence by over zealous cops 3.5-4 times as often as whites.  And unarmed blacks are 5 times as likely to be shot by a police officer as an unarmed white person.  Now the numbers aren't huge.  (Per year, 200-300 African Americans are shot by police every year).  But it is a real and ominous threat.  There is a reason why African Americans fear interactions with police.  And layered on top on this ever present fear of sudden death at the hands of those empowered to "protect and serve" are the various micro-aggressions people of color must endure, i.e. stop and frisk harassment and being pulled over by a cop for "DWB" (driving while black). Further, in the era of cell phone cameras and YouTube, these incidents of arbitrary state executions are etched in our documented lore.  The names of Walter Scott and Eric Garner and Philando Castile and John Crawford and Michael Brown and Tanisha Anderson and Freddie Gray and Tamir Rice will not be forgotten as maybe their forebears were in the Jim Crow era.

So anyone who sits there scratching her head in befuddlement over why players are kneeling on the sideline is not articulating a stance in good faith.  There was never a question about the why.  Attempts to chalk this up as an juvenile attention seeking stunt by "rich ungrateful blacks" is end-stage, pathological disingenuousness.

What about the way the players are going about it?  Is their protest overly disrespectful or disruptive?  And should that even matter?  Who says that political or social justice protests have to be done in a way that is deemed proper and acceptable by the very same people at whom the gist of the protest is directed?  Change and civil disobedience is always disruptive and discomforting.  It's not supposed to be a warm and fuzzy communal event.  It's supposed to make the targets of the protest uncomfortable.  Social justice protest never is popular "in the polls".  The Freedom Riders and MLK were roundly denounced by the majority of Americans.  Marches on Washington to protest the unlawful Vietnam War were overwhelmingly unpopular.  Even marches to draw attention to the AIDS epidemic and gay rights hovered around 20% in the national polls.  Civil protest movements are never going to be popular.  By definition, it is an attempt by the minority to alter the perceptions of the oppressor majority.  The initial instinct of the status quo majority is to shrink from the inconvenient demand for change.  Remember, just 9 years ago, the 2 Democratic candidates for President were both on record stating that marriage ought to be restricted to a man and woman.  Life moves fast. Things can change quickly.  

But is the protest really disruptive?  Are any of the players ripping down the flag or running over to tackle the singer of the anthem?  No.  Initially Kaepernick sat on the bench during the anthem but, after consultation with former Green Beret Seahawks safety Nate Boyer, he henceforth carried out his protest by kneeling.  Respectful, quiet, solemn.  Boyer stood beside him in support as he kneeled.  And the majority of white America is losing its collective mind over it.  Even our very dumb, very self absorbed president can't stop tweeting about it.  

Another thing I keep hearing from the "Defenders of the Flag" contingent is that, by kneeling, one is disrespecting and dishonoring the sacrifice of soldiers and military officers who gave their lives to provide the very country and laws and rights that allows these "entitled, disgruntled players" to complain.  This rebuke has to be taken a bit more seriously.  But one finds that many actual military veterans, both active and retired, are supportive of the players' right to protest as they see fit.  Many veterans interpret the sacrifices of their brethren not as selfless acts carried out merely to ensure that all Americans dutifully, mechanistically stand when the Star Spangled Banner rings out but to guarantee that an American may choose to stand or sit, to choose to sing along with hand over heart or raise a fist in the air.  The "military"is not a monolithic bloc.  It is, like any large organization, comprised of heterogeneous personalities with variegated opinions.  Some find the protests inappropriate or even despicable. But many have surprisingly gone on record supporting the players' right to kneel.  Like this guy.  And this guy. And these guys.  And this terrific 97 year old vet.  And hell, just spend some time following #VeteransForKaepernick.

More commonly, the kinds of people most strident in their condemnation of the kneelers as "dishonoring soldiers and the military" are people who never served themselves and who have backed foreign policy decisions that have unnecessarily risked the lives of the tens of thousands of young men and women who had the courage to enlist.  It's as if this hyper-nationalistic patriotism acts as a thin veneer to baldly cover up the rot of Vietnam and the Iraq debacle, of widening wealth and income inequality, of a nation that spends more on military adventurism than the next ten countries in the world combined while remaining the only advanced Western democracy without universal health coverage.  One wonders: Where was this outrage when our government sent young men and women across the world to fight unjustifiable, illegal wars of conquest and domination for no discernible national security reason other than the enrichment of the military-industrial complex?   Are many of them overcompensating for a guilty conscience?  Is it really about concern for "military respect" or is it more a demand for racially charged compliance?  Either way, the ladies doth protest too much, methinks.

And what function does the playing of the anthem and the displaying of the flag serve?  Isn't that the essential thing we need to get at?  What is it really all about?  What is this place called America?  The flag calls forth a notion of collective being.  It's supposed to unite us in some sort of shared purpose and identity.  That's why we have symbols.  We need those occasional visual reminders.  I carry a stethoscope and wear a white coat mainly for the symbolism, the ritual act of performing the duties of doctor.

If you feel the need to stand and doff your cap for the national anthem then, by all means, stand!  If the initial martial strains of the Star Spangled banner rouse you to rise, hand over heart, go for it.  It's ok.  No one is going to look askance at you.  (Patriotism being one of the last bastions of earnestness immune to irony and all.)  If, for you, the anthem blaring as the Stars and Stripes ripple in the breeze represents something crucial, something that brings you to a full stop---- pause, set down your beer, cut off that inane conversation to reverently spend two and a half minutes of your day focusing on something other than the banal humdrum of existence filtering through your head then DO IT.  If it symbolizes for you the sacrifice of dead soldiers and American military might, and you feel obligated to physically enact a ritual of public honor, then for god's sake get on your feet and sing those damn verses as loud as you can (just be careful of the third verse of Francis Scott Key's ode to American power, the one about offing rebel slaves).

But know that as soon as you admit symbolism into the conversation you've crossed a rhetorical Rubicon.  Subjectivity is always a multi-edged sword.  Once it enters the equation you open up a wide gate for the hordes to invade.  And invade they rightfully will.

That flag and that impossible to sing on key national anthem you love so much doesn't necessarily mean the same damn thing to everyone on main street. This shouldn't be that hard to internalize.   That visually pleasing, damn fine, cool ass looking flag doesn't symbolize goodness and honor and human exceptionalism to the extent you think it does.  Don't believe me?  Ask the Native American descendant, the elderly African American red-lined out of good neighborhoods and schools as a younger man, the alcoholic Vietnam veteran limping on a prosthetic, the PTSD ravaged Operation Iraqi Freedom infantryman beckoned back to the desert on a stop-loss order, the young black male racially profiled by cops on his way to the 7-11, the down-sized, off shored middle aged male now working appliances for $10/hr at Home Depot, the young millennial living at home trying to figure out how to manage payments on student loans of $150,000 while still budgeting enough cash for a chintz engagement ring for the love of his life.  Those folk may have a different perspective.  Instead of wide-eyed, militant enthusiasm with the first bars of Oh say can you see... maybe there is instead a mournful bittersweet pause.  Which isn't necessarily any less patriotic. Blind allegiance to an idea of America that doesn't exist is far more detrimental than a quiet melancholic awareness of the ways we fall short of our ideals.  

Oscar Wilde called patriotism the virtue of the vicious.  Samuel Johnson described it as the last refuge of the scoundrel.  Patriotism needn't always be seen so cynically.  It is good to acknowledge the slow incremental progress of our homeland, the struggles of our ancestors; to be thankful for the blessings and privileges we were merely born into.  Patriotism is gratitude, yes.  But it also requires a concomitant honest moral reckoning.  Malcolm X said: "You're not supposed to be so blind with  patriotism that you can't face reality.  Wrong is wrong, no matter who says it".  The sports figures we see kneeling for the anthem are doing so because they seek equal protection under the law.  They recognize that the fundamental principles of this nation---- life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness--- have not always been guaranteed equally to all Americans. 

Colin Kaepernick basically sacrificed his career for this act of civil disobedience.  Like John Carlos and Tommie Smith, who were tossed from the 1968 Olympics for raising fists on the medal stand, Kaepernick's actions have resulted in deleterious consequences for his own material well being.  Colin Kaepernick is the best kind of American patriot.  Like Carlos and Smith and MLK and Cassius Clay before him, he has put righteousness over personal advancement.  It is the kind of patriotic example that can help make America good again.  

Birth Control is Essential

Listen, birth control was never "free". This is a fucking lie.  Since Obamacare became law, no one with standard employer-based health insurance got their monthly oral contraceptive prescription for free.  If you have health insurance, that means you pay a premium every month.  You pay money.  Actual real live currency.  In fact, you don't even get a chance to decide; it just comes directly out of your paycheck before the federal government can tax it.  That's employer-sponsored health insurance.  It has been that way since WWII.

What changed with Obamacare was the creation of the concept of "Essential Health Benefits".  EHB's are a list of ten categories detailing basic, essential services that all health insurance policies (employer, individual and small group plans) now have to offer.  By law, the category of EHB's deemed to be "preventive care services" have to be offered free at the point of delivery, i.e. without an additional co-pay.  All American adults get 15 preventive care services.  Women get 22 and children 26.

And what are these services?  Basic medical shit: colorectal cancer screening, cholesterol blood work, tobacco and alcohol abuse screening.  You goddam yearly mammogram.  Your kids' freaking vaccines.  And, holy mother of god, contraception prescriptions for all women.  Because contraceptives are actual medications.  Not just some proxy signaling  device in the wider culture war.  Being able to determine when one wants to have children in an era when it costs $250,00 to send your kid to goddam state school is a critical advance in modern medicine.  And some women use contraceptive for non-procreative reasons.  Conditions like Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome, PMS, heavy and irregular cyclic uterine bleeding are managed solely with oral contraceptives.

The benefit of preventive care is such that you make up on the back end any lost revenue from forcing patients to pony up with a co-pay.  Catching a breast or colon cancer early in the game is a lot cheaper than surgery and expensive adjuvant chemotherapy.  Not to mention opportunity costs of early deaths of working age Americans.

This is obvious and intuitively good medicine and reasonable public health policy.  People who argue the moral side?  That companies should be able to pick and choose which medicines they want to pay for based on some phony, archaic religious rationalization?  Fuck them.  Hobby Lobby can go to hell.  These women have paid for the right to get these medications via exorbitant monthly premiums.  Taking that away is an unnecessary and vindictive kick in the crotch.

This is infuriating.  Allowing this benefit to lapse would be self defeating and, in the long term, more costly.