Tag Archives: America

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The Headwinds of Change

Sailing is like wizardry, computers, or electricity to me. No matter how many times people have explained how it works, how much I’ve read about it, or how many times I’ve seen its observable reality as a means of movement and transportation, it’s still an utter mystery and I’m stunned it actually works. I acknowledge that the words used to describe the forces at play make a kind of sense, but in the inner part of my mind, let’s be real – it’s an amazing superpower we’ve discovered and pretend is normal (c.f. consciousness, the taste of tomatoes and cheese together, music, and the way we feel when making eye contact with animals).

One of the few things I understand intuitively about sailing is that it is a balancing act of precision and flux. When sailing into the wind, to move forward as efficiently as possible, you often have to find the place to put your sails that is as close to being straight into the wind as you can get, without going too far to the other side and having the wind blow back around behind the sail. It is a process of finding and creating the perfect arc, which depends on all kinds of factors including wind speed, temperature, water conditions, drag, but ultimately, magic. When you find that sweet spot and hold it, the boat snaps into place and literally sings – you can feel it soaring just-there, like humming in exact resonance with a pure pitch in music. It is as exhilarating as if you suddenly took flight because, in a lot of ways, you have.

When learning to sail into the wind, it takes a Sisyphean process of trial and error. You edge closer and closer, then hit a wake in the water or jerk the tiller a little too far and get a gust of wind that makes all your sheets blow around like mad (luffing), so you have to pull back. It is enormously tempting to overcorrect and pull back so far away from the wind that you fall off from it entirely, sometimes even accidentally making a tack and spinning in circles, so you not only lose ground but become convinced that the direction you were headed was impossible anyway. With perseverance, patience, and confidence in the boat and the particular variety of magic in the universe you’ve chosen to recognize, you can not only learn to sail into the wind, but find it is one of the fastest and most exciting ways to move forward.

I use sailing as an analogy all the time for vastly complex experiences of being human that I struggle to discuss in their own terms. Love, and our ability to care for other people (even those we’ve never met) is another form of magic that we often take for granted. I have never been able to fully explain the overwhelming emotional response I feel when I read about terrible things that have happened, cruelties and hurts inflicted on innocents, and injustices in the world. That visceral, raw feeling is a scary and seemingly too-powerful headwind, and I recognize that my inclination (and I suspect most people’s) is still toward self-preservation, to turn away from it and to adjust my course to something easier, if slower-moving or regressive. A nice distraction by switching to an article about fashion or a quiz about what 1980s movie boyfriend I might have had often eases me out of it.

This week we have been at the confluence of some dizzying, terrifying winds. So many times I have literally closed my eyes and said, “It’s just too much,” before retreating away from reality. That is the path of cowardice and selfishness, so I know I need to come back and face it.

I have not been able to wrap my mind around the scale of terror experienced by the residents of Grenfell Tower in London, nor the intense coupling of helplessness and rage that the families of the fire’s victims must feel. It is beyond trying to put myself in their shoes and imagine how I’d feel because they are occupying a headspace that no person should ever have to. To know a loved one’s life might have been spared if the building owners had sprung for the fire-resistant cladding, a sprinkler system, or repairing the faulty refrigerator that seems to have started the whole disaster is a scope of cruelty and dehumanization beyond the conscionable. In the decision between human safety and cost-saving, it was ultimately decided that these lives were not worth enough to justify the extra expenses. How can a person ever reconcile that fact with the unutterable scale of grief?

The targeted shooting of Republican members of Congress at an early morning baseball practice in Alexandria this week was not just a senseless act of violence by a delusional man. He was intentional and calculating in attacking what he believed were the advocates and crafters of inhumane policy. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise’s A+ NRA rating and open advocacy of unrestricted Second Amendment liberties is not ironic or coincidental, but it is also by no means a reason why any such act of violence should be seen as anything but the horror it is. The shooter was not lashing out against the system, but is rather a product of it, the inevitable extension of increasing tolerances of cruelty, hatred, and dehumanizing violence being perpetrated daily.

Put more directly, I am deeply concerned with the erosion of the social contract of the sanctity of life. In many conversations about escalating police violence and extrajudicial executions, I am flummoxed by those who are able to justify these warped and brutal actions with thinking along the lines of, “The rules of law and order are clear, and if you break them, your life is forfeit.” (That is an actual quote from last summer that made me physically ill with disgust.) I guess on the very surface it seems like sound or defensible logic, and it gives people comfort to believe that the system is fair and those who die at its hands broke the rules, but… that is not actually what our society stands for. The deal is not “Follow all traffic laws or you may be executed.”

Last summer, I was shaken to my core by Philando Castile’s death. Everything I read and saw about the traffic stop – from both sides – had me honestly shocked that a man could do nothing wrong but end up shot seven times in front of his girlfriend and her child then left to bleed out and die. I asked those among my friends and family who are the strongest proponents of Second Amendment rights and responsible gun ownership what he could or should have done differently. We debated it for an uncomfortably long time, and the best rationalization one person came up with was that sometimes police officers just get “jumpy” when they are afraid. I don’t want to alienate everyone I know who disagrees with me, but I was so frustrated that our conversations kept turning toward the loss of police pensions or reduced pay as a reason why less qualified officers are on the force, or how maybe the media is actually to blame for constantly portraying men of color as the bad guys in fiction. And yet, I don’t think I successfully convinced anyone that a police officer killing an innocent man should be as alarming to them as it was to me.

No one enjoys confronting the ugly realities of racism and prejudice in America. We are a nation that was built on the massacre of Native Americans and the mass enslavement of African and Caribbean people. There is no history of America without subjugation, violence, and dehumanizing cruelty. We can’t pretend that’s not what happened, we can’t attempt to justify it by saying, “Yeah, but lots of people had slaves then,” or the most bafflingly racist argument I hear a lot, “You know there was slavery in Africa before white people, right?” The ongoing violation of the sanctity of lives of people of color is undeniably real, and it can be traced in a direct line through reluctant abolition, Jim Crow laws, desegregation, and our current iterations of institutionalized racism.

I realize that the deflection tactics and denial I see around me (and in myself) are driven by fear. It is easier to believe that people who lose their lives because of implicit racial biases had a failing of personal responsibility or behavior than to confront such a massive and terrifying headwind of normalized racism and violence. We want to believe that our system is set up fairly to protect people and respond with justice to crime because it allows us to feel basically safe and sleep at night. If we (white people here) don’t do anything obviously wrong, then we should not expect to be shot dead in our cars or in the street. We tell ourselves that we’re not criminals in the capital-C sense (a little jaywalking, some underage drinking and weed in college, or low-level white collar crimes aside), so when people of color are killed in extrajudicial executions, they must have done something wrong, they must be criminals, and there must be more to the story. Facing full-on that our society treats the bodies and lives of some as lesser, or that the system was established to protect property over lives, or that the militarization of police forces is a cynical scheme to maximize profits for weapons manufacturers that has nothing to do with public safety, or that so many of the forces that are endangering our fellow Americans are in place out of greed, and not humanitarianism – that’s a gale-force terror.

I don’t need to have been in the courtroom to know what went wrong in the miscarriage of justice that acquitted the man who killed Philando Castile. I already know what happened and why, and I am once again outraged and disgusted at a soul-level. It hurts my heart that his is another name to add to the list of lives taken carelessly for no reason, with no justice. But it just plain breaks my heart that people of color are told once again that their lives matter less than others. I will never stop fighting against this reality – but that means facing it first.

I have taken to heart something a friend said when I was texting him tearfully in the middle of the night last November wondering what was wrong with my country. “If you didn’t even talk to your own friends and family about the issues you’re so upset about, who should have? I know you didn’t want to get in fights, but was it someone else’s job to help them see another perspective?” He was not born and raised in America, so maybe he is able to see it more clearly than we can, or maybe he is just way smarter than me, but his words echo for me often. I live in a city where the majority of the people I encounter every day share my values and espouse more progressive, humanitarian ideals. I don’t believe it is a coincidence that this same city is one of the most culturally and racially diverse on the planet, so I have had countless opportunities to know and understand people with different experiences in life than me. New Yorkers are generally solidly good, kind, and fair people, no matter what fearful tourists may feel, and I think it comes from living harmoniously with such a vibrancy of beliefs, backgrounds, and sheer volume of interacting with others that we have to learn patience, tolerance, and compassion. So how do you bring those lessons and that respectful open-mindedness to people who have never met a Muslim or Jewish person in their lives and genuinely believe they are evil? How do you help people who live in economically, racially, and ideologically segregated areas of the US understand the commonalities of experience and humanity that bind us all worldwide? How can empathy be cultivated where it’s lacking?

I similarly do not believe it’s merely coincidence that a greed-driven mass loss of life in London, a terroristic shooting in Virginia, and the acquittal of an innocent man’s killer should all fall in a row in the same week as the two-year anniversary of the Charleston church shooting, one of the more grotesque modern-day hate crimes. The universe is not ironic, but purposeful here, and the winds are gathering force. We are at an inflection point in history, where we can choose to face them head-on, to confront the harsh and unsettling realities of the erosion of the sanctity of life in the face of greed in our society. We can decide to make massive and essential changes in forward progress because we are unified in our common humanity and belief in the sanctity of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all. Or we could turn away from the wind, retreat into partisan squabbling and the distractions of constant corrupt administration scandals, declare we are exhausted of politics or “divisiveness,” and lose ground.

I am not giving up on America or the sanctity of life. I am not letting the people I love avoid reality or accept unjust inequality rooted in hate and ignorance. We can’t close our eyes or look away, and we must not abandon ship.

All human life is sacred. No human life is inherently better or more valuable than another, especially on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or ability. Human life is more important than profit, property, or power. We need a new social contract that unifies us in the sanctity of life; this change only truly happens in the hearts and minds of our fellow humans when we can see each other as equals. I will never stop facing into this wind and steering as hard as I can toward positive change.

Learning racism is present-tense




We were about this age.

I vividly remember when I learned that racism was not just an historical problem. We were driving from New Jersey to Virginia to visit family for Thanksgiving. After several long hours in the car, we stopped to get gas in Manassas at a station with a market attached. There was a queue for an available pump, so my mother took my brother and me into the market to get snacks and drinks. We were elated when she said, “Get anything you want, but just one thing,” and we took our time carefully selecting packets of cookies and chips, with the plan that we’d split them and effectively each get two snacks (we were in first and second grade, this was the height of cleverness for us). As my brother hemmed and hawed over whether he actually wanted chips (which he knew I did) or maybe beef jerky instead (yuck) my mother got drinks and hustled us along to the register queue about a half dozen or so people deep.

“Ma’am, you come on up here, I can ring you up,” the cashier said, waving my mother ahead of everyone else waiting. She looked around confused, and it slowly started to sink in that he was waving her ahead of all the Black customers waiting. She shook her head, said, “No, I’m not next.”

I saw a shadow cast over my mother’s face as she realized what we hadn’t yet, as the cashier insisted, “Oh yes you are, come on up.”

Another customer turned to my mother and said, “Just go. He’s not going to ring any of us up until he’s done with you.”

My mother was aghast, grabbed everything out of our eager hands, and plunked it all on the counter. “I don’t want any of this anymore,” she said in a measured tone, “and I don’t want to do business with anyone who treats their customers like this.” She gestured toward the queue and finished, “You should be ashamed of yourself, man,” then pulled us out the door.

We caught up with my father just before he was about to start pumping gas and she insisted we leave. He protested that he didn’t want to stop again in holiday traffic, and she gave him that hell-hath-no-fury-like-an-Irishwoman-scorned look we all know so well. We all got back in the car and left, stopping at the next exit we saw for by then badly needed gas.

My brother and I were perplexed and tried to make sense of what all that had been about, when my father said quietly, “I just can’t understand racism. What a hateful thing.” I remember piping up, “Daddy, what do you mean racism?” and my parents started a conversation that has been going on in our family ever since. He is a big Civil War buff, so he started with a refresher crash course on slavery and how some people in the South or other parts of the country still mistreat Black people.

“Because they were on the other side of the war?” I asked naively, and he backed up to clarify that no, the abolitionists in our family fought against slavery, that it was never white people versus Black people, and my brother asked, “Then why did we make them slaves if they weren’t our enemies?”

God bless my parents, they kept on unflinching through our onslaught of questions and confusions for the rest of the car ride, tackling white supremacy, the KKK, the Civil Rights movement, and Affirmative Action, which was all over the news in the early 1980s as people were bitterly calling it “reverse discrimination.” We kept coming back to the question that started it all for us, “So why was that man waving Mommy ahead of everyone else?” We literally couldn’t wrap our minds around the idea that he was showing preferential treatment not because my mother was young and pretty with small children – as there were Black mothers with even younger children than us waiting – but he wanted the Black customers to know he thought less of them than us. That he wasn’t being polite, he was being pointedly hostile because he had hate in his heart. We were appropriately stunned.

Once our eyes were open, we started to actually see racism around us, to notice the way people of color were treated compared with us, to hear the names they were called and the way people spoke about them or made them feel threatened. We were raised to have empathy and recognize people of all races as just like us, but we were also made aware of the unfair privilege we sometimes had for being white and how that was used against other people. We tried to follow my parents’ example of speaking up and not supporting people who were racist, and I wish I could say it was easy, but I still fail to do enough to this day. I’m trying a lot harder now.




© Michael Galinsky, Malls Across America, via RUMUR

Later on that same trip, my mother took my brother and me to a shopping mall to get school clothes at the post-Thanksgiving sales (this was before Black Friday was such a huge thing as it is now). As we approached the entry to the mall, we saw a Black woman with a stroller and two small children, struggling to get through the door without letting go of the children’s hands. A parade of white customers walked by her through another door without helping, some pointing at her, laughing, and talking to each other about her. A mall security guard stood nearby looking on with amusement. As we got into earshot, we saw two women shove by, sneering loudly, “If she can’t manage them all, maybe she shouldn’t have so many children,” then letting the door slam on the stroller.

“That woman looks like she needs some help,” my mother said, and we rushed over. My mother helped pull the stroller through while my brother held the children’s hands to keep them close by. The woman looked sadder than I’d ever seen an adult look in public and said to my mother with her eyes downcast, “Thank you, ma’am. You didn’t have to do that.” My mother just said breezily, “Oh come on, every mother needs help sometimes. I can’t believe everyone else was ignoring you.” “Oh, I guess you’re not from around here,” the woman said. They shared a meaningful glance and wished each other a good day.

As we were walking away, I said something cheerful and self-congratulatory like, “I’m glad you stood up for that lady, Mommy! And I’m glad we held the door for her because she’s Black.”

My mother was quick to correct me, “No, baby, we hold the door for other people and help them when they need it because it’s the right thing to do.”

Orange cheese in America

I often come back to the colors of dairy products as a tidy example of human nature. It was observed that when cows ate richer grass higher in carotene in the summer, their milk took on a yellow-orange hue, and when concentrated down, the richest cheeses appeared light orange. This is also why butter from grass-fed cows is usually yellow. Realizing cheese could be colored with annatto, the extract of seeds from the achiote tree, industrious dairy farmers began dyeing cheese year-round to imitate the more nutritious, better-tasting summer cheeses. Naturally they went overboard, past any color found in nature, to the ultra-orange color of Cheddars and American cheese that we see today. In a similar history of margarine, now known to be loaded with trans fats from hydrogenation of vegetable oils, we made a food product that looked like butter, but was stark white until yellow food coloring was added, in increasingly neon saturation, passing it off as the real thing for so long that people believe butter is normally bright yellow.



Now when cheese or butter are white or a natural creamy color, Americans are more likely to ask why they aren’t the characteristic yellows and oranges we’ve come to expect in dairy products. That is to say, we’ve become so used to the way things have gotten through distortion in the aim of greater profits, that we’ve forgotten how they are supposed to be.

To me, this is the problem with human nature. We take our creativity, intelligence, energy, and industriousness, and instead of using it to help one another, we trick each other for profit, stretching materials further to cut down on costs, manufacturing sensationalistic news rather than report honestly on global events, and trapping healthy, beautiful bodies in soul-sucking jobs because we’ve outsourced all the meaningful work they can do to others overseas who enslave and exploit their workers on our behalf.

What if we used all that ingenuity and cleverness for good? What if egalitarianism were not idealistic, but an expectation? What if we prioritized getting everyone safe, sheltered, fed, healthy, and with a secure future before we dug into nationalism or making profits for billionaires? What if instead of industrial farming, we could go back to a semi-agrarian economy, and all the out-of-work hard-working and good-hearted people living in cities and suburbs could work a plot of land if they’d like and be paid what their time is actually worth? What if housing were actually affordable? What if we didn’t subsidize food corporations, and instead used that money to make real, organic produce affordable? What if we eliminated our dependency on fossil fuels so we could stop destabilizing entire regions of the world to maintain access to oil? What if we spent even a fraction of our military budget on investing in education, paying good teachers what they’re worth and helping students find meaning and joy in learning instead of just a path to a job?



I am aware that magical thinking is one of my greatest indulgences, but there isn’t actually any reason why we should be trapped in this economic and sociopolitical system, except that it’s what we’ve become used to, and we’ve forgotten how things are supposed to be.

A shocking amount of the people I’ve spoken to since the extrajudicial executions of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile last week have sought to justify or excuse the murders of black men, saying a variety of absurd things ranging from, “Well we don’t know all the facts yet” to “I realize more black men are killed than white, but maybe it’s because more black men are committing crimes that cause the police to intervene in the first place.” That’s actually not the worst of it, but I can’t even wrap my head around the others, like labeling Black Lives Matter as a terrorist organization. Most heartbreaking is the tone of normalcy I keep encountering, the complicit acceptance of racism and inequality as just a thing that happens, in America, in 2016.

We’ve become so used to institutionalized racism and lethal injustice for black Americans that I fear we are forgetting how things are supposed to be.



Maybe, I think, in the moments where I am ready to sink under the waves of cynicism and give up, the police were only ever around to protect property and the financial interests of our oligarchy. Maybe the military and the whole government isn’t for us at all, and this whole charade is a glorified way to keep rich people secure, with all the rest of us benefitting by happenstance, if we’re in the right place at the right time. Maybe I am deluding myself in the belief that my congressman (or his staff) cares at all what I think or have to say, however frequently or passionately I write to him, because I am not an NRA lobbyist group contributing to a reelection campaign in his party. Maybe corporations are people. Maybe my fellow Americans truly are so absorbed in their own material concerns that they really do care more about saving a few dollars a year in taxes than helping others and the environment. With our attitude of selfishness and tuning out with mass entertainment, maybe this is the America we deserve: fluorescent orange cheese and fake butter.



But I also think that my heart breaking is evidence I still care, and the pain and sorrow we feel in weeks like the past few is proof we are human and capable of love and compassion. It is so tempting to be jaded and cynical and tune out what’s happening to other people in the world as long as our favorite show comes on television that night and isn’t preempted by a special report on the news, but we can do better. We can use our vast resources, talents, and abilities to make real, lasting change that improves the lives of many and not just ourselves in the short term. We can act from our nobler nature, instead of from fear, isolationism, or all the other names we use to justify cowardice and self-interest.

I’ve been having a crisis of conscience over the past few years because I felt I was feeding the machine of materialism and greed, and I’m trying to change my entire life to do better by people, animals, and the earth. I can’t get used to the way things are, and in some primordial instinctive way, I remember how things are supposed to be. I think we all do. This week has shown me once again how urgent and necessary this change has been.