Notes from the Hegemon



I remember when the planes hit the towers. I was a sophomore in high school in Academic Support, the euphemistic name the district gave study hall, making up a Global History quiz I missed. My teacher, Ms. Zalewski, turned on the TV. One of the World Trade Center towers was on fire. She was somber. I assumed it was an accident and was astonished that the plane couldn’t miss the building.

I went the band room for the second half to practice clarinet. Soon, I was the only person in the hall. My (to this day!) dear friend Laura pulled me out and told me a second plane hit the other tower. It was then that I, and maybe everyone else, realized it wasn’t an accident. I remember thinking, “Our turn.” See, I’d spent my youth watching coverage of bombs in the Balkans, bombs in Israel and Palestine, mines in Africa and Asia, bombs seemingly everywhere. Violence seemed to be the way of the world. I’ve never met anyone who also had this reaction.

My countrymen were scared. Isolated by oceans and protected by the strongest military in the world, this sort of attack struck everyone else as unfathomable. We reacted. Oh, did we react. We swiftly went to war and we’ve been at war ever since, about half my lifetime.

I watched as we traded civil liberties for a chance at that fleeting feeling of protection. I watched as a group I rarely thought about before – Muslims – suddenly became the denigrated group. I watched as people approximately my age joined the military and hearing about how some of them never came back. I watched as my country opened a detention center offshores, and then another, and then another despite violating war crimes ethics and conventions. I watched as so many of the values I was taught we had as a child were undone in the name of safety and security. Dissenters were unpatriotic. It became thought reasonable to judge an entire religion based on its extremists. White Christians who never apologized for Timothy McVeigh (who is from my area) demanded apologies from Muslims for 9/11, contributing and creating a conventional (if inaccurate) wisdom that Muslims are violent. The surveillance state grew, buoyed by technological advances and the support of a scared population. I felt like I’d lost my country a bit, that this sweet land of liberty was tip-toeing towards becoming a fear-driven police state.

Getting older has been a disenchanting process realizing that we are not now, nor never have been, as good as I thought. As governor after governor (and some of my local politicians) try to block Syrian refugees from settling in their states, I realize this: We’ve learned nothing. This is textbook, exactly what we did with the Jewish refugees and look what happened to them. The terror attacks in France were horrific, as terror attacks always are. Horrific and apparently effective, as politicians are now shifting their rhetoric because they are scared, because they sense their constituents are scared, and exploiting fear is politically profitable. Never mind that this is more or less the goal of Daesh/ISIS.

I had already written letters to several elected officials asking they increase the refugee quotas. I live in a depopulated city near many refugees. My next door neighbor was one. A couple families down the street are refugees. A few blocks over and there are many more refugees. Some of them are Muslim. I love where I live and I have the absolute best neighbors. Then I called the governor, called my Congressman with my telephone as it seemed every public figure on Facebook’s comments were filled with people asking to drive the refugees away. No, no, no, no, no…. not this again.

Listen, I’ve known people with Syrian heritage. Heck, I have kin with Syrian heritage! Some are Muslim. Some are Christian. One is Jewish. Syrians are not a monolith. Everything I know about the Syrian war is that it is absolutely brutal. I can’t read about it. I work on problems of profound human misery for a living and I cannot read about the Syrian War or ISIS/Daesh because it’s too bad for me to cope. I get nightmares for days. I give money to refugee agencies, but that is all I can do as an individual. I rely on forces more powerful than I to make wise decisions and here we are closing the door because of the chance – the chance! – that someone from Syria could cause us harm. The chance that someone born in our own country could cause us harm doesn’t inspire us to more strictly regulate our weapons. The fact that cars are the most likely thing to kill us hasn’t inspired most of us to trade in our keys for public transit. We’re more likely to die from overindulging in our dinners and forgetting to exercise than we are in a terror attack but Syrians are the real threat, and please pass the butter.

Refusing to be afraid is a political act. Walking home at night when you are a woman is a political act when everyone tells you that you are assault bait. Not being anxious going into a “bad” (read: usually Black and usually poor) neighborhood is a political act if you are a white person and your society is structured on fearing non-white people. There is this vein in our culture that anything is justifiable if it could protect us from the people we dislike, as if safety were paramount. It’s completely based on prejudice. Crimes rates have been dropping? Whatever. Immigrants commit fewer crimes? Forget it.

I’m so sick of reading comments on my local news websites written by people using the fanciest technology that humanity has ever known, sitting in the wealthiest country of the world, begrudging letting what ends up being relatively few people to their cushy sphere of prosperity because they don’t want their taxes dollars spent on them. Or because they are afraid of “those people”. “Can you justify the risk” I’ve read, over and over again, “that you or your loved ones might be the target of a terrorist who slips in?” We justify lots of risks all of the time. Yet, here, the risk of one person doing harm to us is so great that we should let hundreds of thousands of people die in the process, because we won’t trust an thorough federal government over our prejudices. We value our lives more than anyone else’s. All of our foreign policies boil down to that. We won’t give up our hegemonic position and we’ll kill or let die anyone who we think might threaten that.

We are no better than anyone else, but we certainly act as if our lives are. At the time when “All Lives Matter” is the preferred dismissive retort to those advocating for African American rights, we turn our backs on refugees and bomb the Middle East. All lives matter indeed.

I often think back to September 11, 2001, and mourn, “It could have been so different.” If only we we’d been, or could be now, a bit braver. I hold on to optimism that we could find courage from common humanity, that we could be so brave as to be the moral example, that we could be the model of ideal humanity. I cannot make that argument as we close our doors and use our powers and privileges to ruthlessly prioritize our own safety. I cannot make that claim as our elected leaders attempt to push out the vulnerable.

We could do better. May we be brave enough to live with moral courage, instead of deferring to the impulse of safety at all costs. All costs have been too expensive and it is not going to become cheaper.

11/18/15-edited for grammar and typos.

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Filed under Class Warfare, Lessons Learned The Hard Way, Race, Social Justice Commentary

What does it mean when your state of emergency is a natural consequence of the economic system?

(Friendly reminder! I write my opinions here, and this blog doesn’t represent the agency that I work for. Got it? Good. Carry on.)

The mayor of Seattle, Ed Murray, and the executive of King County, Dow Constantine, declared a state of emergency regarding homelessness in Seattle and King County. From The Seattle Times:

Murray called homelessness in Seattle a growing crisis among the worst in the city’s history, while Constantine said the situation countywide is “just as devastating to thousands as flood or fire.”

They aren’t lying. From the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness:


For comparison sake, Western New York (Erie and Niagara Counties) had almost 8,000 people experiencing homeless the entire year. I lived in Seattle for three years. It was possible to witness the scope of Seattle’s problem when walking their streets, any streets, really. From bus windows looking past I-5, you see tents. On Broadway Avenue, or 2nd Street, Or University Way there are people whose clothes, backpack, and overwhelming fatigue betray that they’ve spent the last week sleeping outside. The bushes of the park a couple blocks from my first apartment startled me when I realized there were people in them. The youth shelter at the bottom of the hill from my apartment had a long line of teenagers weaving out its door every evening. To my Rust Belt sensibilities, Seattle otherwise felt opulent, but I’d never seen so many people experiencing this privation before.

Portland declared emergency too, as did Los Angeles. I see this declaration for what it is: a tactic. Declaring a state of emergency entitles a municipality to additional funds to cope with a problem; here, it’s homelessness alleviation. It’s a rhetorical tactic, and it lands awkwardly. Homelessness is an emergency to the person experiencing it. (My employer gets many phone calls from people seeking shelter who, erroneously, think we are a service provider. I’ll take the few minutes to direct them to an organization that will help, which is usually a conversation with a polite stranger whose voice has hints of restrained panic.) Of course, an individual’s emergency doesn’t constitute a state of emergency for the entire municipality until the scope overwhelms. Leaders in these cities have decided that homelessness has left the realm of banal and into suffering so widespread that it cannot be ignored.

Homelessness is a consequence of capitalism, a human-made system. The way the market regulates prices on all things ensures that some people will go without. Some people will go without a job, as the market sorts skills and demand allows sought-after skills to command a high price and lower demand reduced ones. And the structure of the market determined that only people in certain circumstances (for instance, lacking a mental illness that impairs everyday function and perception of reality) will be able to participate. We decided, as a society, that you need money for housing, and if you don’t have the money, by and large you don’t have housing (but we are working on that; in WNY we’ve housed all but 37 people experiencing chronic homelessness(!)). Declaring a homeless state of emergency says, on some levels, we cannot tolerate the scope of our human-made consequences. That there are levels of homelessness that will tolerate, and now we’ve exceeded it. I’d prefer poverty and homelessness have perpetual urgency.

I know that the only solutions we currently have to homelessness have to be capitalism-compliant: we’re not providing guaranteed housing to everyone, we are stitching together a better safety net. This is a worthy endeavor (I do it for a living!), and I’m not knocking it. The state-of-emergency money will fund shelter beds and prevention programs. We’re fighting the consequences, not the causes. We’re not undoing the underlying assumptions of our economy. We’re not questioning the economy at all. We are just making it a bit less brutal to its inevitable victims. It’s the same line of thinking that treats poverty as a matter-of-fact constant in society. Courtesy of capitalism, that’s not inaccurate. Most states of emergencies are the consequence of forces of nature. We can’t redirect the wind, so we only deal with the consequences. This one is a consequence of our own economic system. Lost in the rhetoric of emergency is the structural role of our economy in creating this suffering. I wish we’d be so brave to see this, and braver still to effect change. As long as housing is a spoil of capitalism, we will be doing this work in perpetuity.

In any case, I wish Seattle, with Portland and Los Angeles, nothing but success in their efforts to diminish the suffering of people experiencing homelessness.

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Filed under Class Warfare, Social Justice Commentary

Lost words, lost places

There was a tall building on my route to work that was imploded last Saturday. It was a former hospital whose operations pre-dated my time in Buffalo. Now open sky and a pile of rubble greet my on my way to work. I hear it’s going to become a grocery store.

I was at my former university a few months back, and there are buildings that didn’t exist when I was there. Engineering buildings. Dormitories. A traffic circle. All new. The university of my memory changed shape.

Most of the changes to the landscape are subtler. Signs change. Someone paints a room. The decorations become more fashionable. Cars conform to a different aesthetic. Nothing stays the same. I expect this.

I navigated to a website I used to read religiously half a decade ago. The URL was there, but the page was blank. As far as I could tell, it simply stopped publication. A bit of searching, and I found that it ended publication on my birthday. Otherwise it is gone.

Actually, a lot of the blogs I used to read are gone, or the juicy parts disappeared from the internet. The authors chose to discontinue them, or shield their life a bit more, or maybe the burning part of their life story has cooled to embers, and instead of providing warmth, they just provide a hazard to injury. I went to read these in an attempt to remember what I used to find so compelling. I am in such a different phase of life, it’s hard to remember exactly what the world looked like through my younger eyes. The perspectives are distorted, or clarified, by the lens of age.

I didn’t save any copies of these blogs, the way you keep a copy of a compelling book. For some reason, I expected the internet to keep its sense of place, and this is not the case.

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Thinking about faith and the sacred. Thinking about my increasingly secular life.

Or is it? What distinguishes a religious UU from one who isn’t? I am an irregular church attendee, but my values system has not changed. I feel like I am acting in my faith more than I have before. That values system that inspired me to become UU is the same one that inspired me to enter my current line of work. Being religious, on some levels, feels like the degree to which one submits their self to a religion. But the religion I’m affiliated with is a grassroots one that values the democratic process, that operates from the bottom up, and so it’s designed itself not to follow. This is a faith that still feels like it is mine, even as I have not taken part in any rites, and even when my community membership has diminished.

I was recently involved in Green Party organizing. I’ve taken a step back from it, mostly because all of the other steps in my life are a frantic and wonderful run of family and work. So, Green Party. They have ten key values! And the Unitarian Universalists have seven principles. And I sit here wondering how many other liberal progressive organizations that I can become affiliated with that also have lists, careful crafted by committee, declarations of belief made from a grassroots organizing effort. Delicious democracy, the leveler of power. Debatable democracy, relying on the wisdom of the masses for best practices. And I remember that both entities are human institutions, existing only because other humans similar to myself decided they should be that way. They could have decided something else.

Leadership via democracy is a tricky business. Someone has to distinguish their self and their ideas first. Someone needs to spend some time as the minority faction that is otherwise ignored for a time, until the powers of persuasive change the balance of numeric support. And so if religion is a business of meaning-making, and progressive politics are a business of improving society, the grassroots variety assume that meaning and insight from from the masses themselves. So there is a lot of room to act and believe. It’s not a great place for those without a rudder to be.

I have a rudder. I have a direction, and a clear-eyed perspective on what my priorities are. I learn on faith in times of struggle when I need a sign, or a friendly person pointing, to give me a sense of where to go. That is not now. I have a strange relationship with religion at the moment. I belong to a faith whose strong suit is “community” but in practice this generally means the community that meets within its walls. There is nothing wrong with that. It is not necessarily what I seek right now. I’m still trying to figure out how to be in communion with humanity. I’m trying to imagine a society-wide beloved community. I am trying to create a just society.

I don’t need religion to prescribe my relationship to society as much as I am still seeking the scared. And I forget this, as I am surrounded by sacred things now. Infants are sacred. The earth is sacred. And so forth. That is what my atheist self is seeking right now: ways to connect to sacred things. Ways to reassure myself I am connected and a part of the broader web of sanctity. And the largest obstacle for me is the understanding that religion is a largely human institution, and if God exists, he’s only tangential to religion. I cannot deny that the need to belong is the backdrop of all my religious pursuits.

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Filed under Unitarian Universalism/Faith

Kelly On My Mind

We all die. It’s a matter of when, not if, though I cope with this terrifying fact by pretending it isn’t a predetermined thing. Every single person I’ve ever met, including all of the people I love, will perish. Yikes. So my inclination is to savor every day, and to enjoy the presence of my loved ones as much as I can. Life is precious. Everything I do in my life has that understanding behind it. Life is precious. Every life is precious.

Morbid? Perhaps.

Twitter’s becoming a hard place for me to wander every time there is an execution. I’m against state execution, broadly speaking. I loathe war, though I understand the need to maintain some boundaries, I’m saddened by the casualties, and the ease of which war expands its misery. State executions are as completely pointless as they are bankrupt. We’ve isolated the person we perceive as a threat. On a practical matter, what more needs to be done? Research has suggested that it doesn’t dissuade. We’re a people who seeks vengeance. I grew up on Star Trek, and one of the more disillusioning parts of being an adult is watching the way that my country’s culture isn’t inclined to be the better person. We strive to be safe, and we’ll go off the deep-end to do so.

Twitter has a nasty, but useful, habit of bringing uncomfortable things in front of you. Like protesters who interrupt your brunch to inform you that terrible things happen to them, who interrupt your peaceful complacency to tell you a truth, Twitter trends the names of the soon-to-be murdered. Debates about the ethics of death penalty, and news of the development of this person’s end of life filter through. Murder is about to happen. I can only avoid it by putting the phone down and walking away. It happens as my eyes turn away.

I didn’t know Kelly Gissendaner was a Unitarian Universalist until she was already executed. It’s irrelevant to whether the death penalty is ethical, but it was perhaps one of the first times that I had something in common with a person on death row. There aren’t a lot of us. And I watched on Twitter, the drama of temporary stays, and then I logged off to find out she was killed when I woke the next morning. And she’s gone.

Most crimes are things that never should happen. Murder’s different. It robs of time. We’ll all die, but life is precious so we hold onto life as much as we can. And life is sacred because it is our existence. It is beautiful. We have harsh penalties for murder because life is precious, because while we will all die eventually, we decided that we should not die sooner. Killing does not respect the sacredness of life. It is offensive and it is wrong whether done by citizen or state. I remain saddened that the state does not model being better. I am further frustrated that the immorality of the death penalty is compounded by its application to people who did not commit the crimes they are executed for. We do not have to do this, and yet we do.

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Filed under Social Justice Commentary, Unitarian Universalism/Faith

Make Yourself Useful

Do what you love” is terrible career advice. The aforementioned linked article discusses how it reinforces the myth of meritocracy and is unproductive. The advice bothers me, mostly because I love living in a world where we have the sanitation that sewers and garbage collection offer us (with the people doing the unglamorous work behind it), the convenience of mail (and the monotonous positions in the Post Office), and I do prefer tidy floors of the public places I work and frequent. I don’t know people who necessarily like those jobs, but they do take pride in them. It’s honest work, it’s work that contributes something to society, and at least in the first few cases, pays a good wage (and in the latter case? Really should be paying a good wage.)

When leaving graduate school, I didn’t have any career goals except 1) Find a Job and 2) Make more money than a graduate stipend (which, at $13,000 a year, wasn’t hard). I decided to pursue job seeking as an adventure and applied to everything from Metro driver to social science consultant. I applied to non-profits, for profits, really anything that I could shoehorn my work experience into a narrative of utility. Every day I imagined a future life with that job. I decided that lousy jobs would be fodder for writing. This was an adventure. I ended up working for Plymouth Housing Group, an organization that houses single now-formerly-homeless people in housing units in what was once of the first implementations of Housing First interventions.

Sometimes I am asked if I have a personal connection to homelessness. I honestly answer, “Not really.” While I have friends and extended family members who have experienced it, having friends and family members experience homelessness isn’t all that atypical. Everyone generally knows someone.. Doing the math of numbers experiencing homelessness and population, about 0.7% of Erie County’s population experienced homelessness last year (about six thousand people). It is not so rare that it doesn’t touch people. And that’s HUD-defined homelessness, excluding the more common instances of housing instability (couch surfing, etc) that also fit the lay perception of the problem. It’s a problem, but it’s not a problem that affects me more than the average person.

I work in homelessness because this is the problem that benefits from my collection of skills and talents.

The jobs I’ve been best at were jobs where my usefulness was readily apparent. I’ve had too many positions where I felt like I was inventing work, or the necessity of my labor was questionable. I find that I need to feel useful to be happy, and that usefulness is generally located in the broader context of the economy and society at large. It’s not that I want to work at a non-profit, it’s that I want to work on a non-profit trying to solve a very real and tangible problem. It’s not that others don’t to good work, it’s that I want the work I do to be essential.

Many of the successful people I know don’t necessarily love their jobs, but they take pride in being good at it. A lot of them really love it too. I know a few Boeing engineers whose eyes still light up when they see airplanes, despite being around them constantly. I know writers who delight that they get to practice this craft and ministers who feel most fulfilled being pastoral. I consider them the lucky ones more than the standard bearers. And I love my job too – I take pride in the fantastic work the organization does, my coworkers are fantastic, and it keeps the gears turning in my head. Plus, it permits work-life balance and provides me with enough money (we all work for money). But I consider us more the lucky ones than the standard bearers. It’s also worth noting that I fell into this work not when I sought work I loved, but when I sought a way to be useful.

Will and I were at a wedding and we saw a friend we hadn’t seen in entirely too many years. What are you up to, we asked. He graduated with an engineering degree the last time we saw him. Windows, he replied. Windows. Our eyes lit up. Yes, yes… everyone needs windows! We then picked his brain about windows, and it turns out his job is really interesting. Another friend works for a company making custom wires – another dire necessity when you live in an age of electricity. Will’s and my jobs fit that description too – not because we were wise enough to make this connection, but because we were lucky enough to fall into circumstances where it was the case. We had skills that could solve some problems.

Do the work where the work needs to be done. That is what I will tell my kids. Look around you. What are the things indispensable to your world? What are the problems that you need solved? What are the problems other people need solved? What are you good at? Choose among them. Odds are that the things we love most do not pay well. Pursue those with passion anyway, for its own sake, and if you can be profitable that will be readily apparent in the time you’ve taken to subsidize your craft with some other form of economic participation. A job is one way to participate in society. It isn’t entirely about you (as the “Do what you love!” implies). Also, there is more to life than work if you choose to live that way.

That’s what I will tell my kids, once they are old enough to be looking practically at the matter. Make yourself useful.

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Sketches of the Web

I taunt the cats with crinkle sound of dried mint being pulled off the stalk, as I squint from the too-bright light over my kitchen sink. They’d been hanging upside down in the kitchen, off the curtain rod, for days. The cats stared, wondering why temptation was so high up, spending a weeks swinging their paws at it. I put the leaves into a container. I harvested these leaves for tea. As my fingers ran down the stems, I thought of the people I should give mint tea too. I am nursing, it won’t be mine this year.

I wandered through the backyard M’s yard next door, holding my son against my chest and shoulder. He peeked over my shoulder at M’s garden, the ping-pong table, the swing, and the tables set up. A breeze cool enough to be refreshing but warm enough to feel like air’s embrace swirled between the very close-together houses. I saw M, and was promptly introduced to a longtime friend A – the reason for the party – visiting from North Carolina. M looked at A, and said, “Remember the garden we raided last night? It’s hers.” “Oh, great!” A smiled, “He showed us the garden and we had another fantastic M meal.” I practically beamed – we’d been telling M to help himself, as we had more than an abundance, and we were happy to share. He keeps sending tomatoes over from his garden – thick, juicy, and so ripe they’d almost burst. Our tomatoes are not so numerous, but our greens and herbs are. I’d been giving away Swiss chard to everyone I knew. It delighted me to know our garden feeds many.

A couple days later, Will would glance through the window and see of our landlord showing his wife how delicious our German Blonde cherry tomatoes are. There should be a word for the pleasure of benefiting others with your success, of sharing a happy experience that is delicious garden food.

I returned from a meeting of a political organization. It was past 9:00PM, and as I walked into my apartment, my father-in-law was walking out. He came to visit to make my attendance of this meeting easier, and in pursuit of much desired time with his grandchildren. We exchanged banter in the dim dusk-light, and he left. I had consulted him for advice with this group, sensing some difficulties. He gave me good advice; I used it. Now, with the meeting done, with the tasks I had accomplished well-enough, I walked into my home. My daughter ran out of her room. She was supposed to be sleeping, but the excitement of the day had her awake. “Mama!” she cried out, smiling. “Mama nap!” She grabbed my hand and dragged me through the dark hallway to her room, into her absurdly oversized bed so she could snuggle me as she fell asleep. “Mama nap.” She gives me a kiss, holds me with both her arms, and then falls asleep. My son is asleep in the other room. My husband is getting ready for another day. “This is happiness,” I think to myself. I’d underestimated the joy parenthood would bring me.

My son wakes me up most nights. I change his diaper, snuggle him, and bring him into bed with me. Nursing him has been feeling like taking a sleeping pill. No matter what time of day, no matter my position, I nurse him and fall asleep. We end up snuggled, together, for a big portion of the night. And I love it. I love him, I love cuddling him. I never thought I’d like babies, and I do think I like them categorically, but I’m crazy in love with my own. I did not see this coming. I’d be cooing him at the playground at Outer Harbor State Park, while my daughter ran around with her dad, and I cannot fathom how large he is in a few months, or that he’s only been around a few months. He might as well have been a part of my life forever.

My husband and I have been married six years now. We celebrated it by going to a fancy restaurant while my parents watched the kids. We strategized our menu choices. We talked about our jobs. We sipped cocktails and reflected on life and we’ve lived a lot of it together. We started dating at 19. We talked about how life has been so different than we expected, the struggles we had were not the ones we expected, but here we are. We’ve lived a lot of life in six years. We’ve moved around a lot. And for all the people I met, and all the jobs we have, and the addresses we lived at, we’ve constantly had each other. That has made all the difference.

My life is the joy of being completely tangled in this interdependent web. I am tangled up with family. I have fantastic friends and neighbors. I have a job with purpose and I have a husband who supports other pursuits. The greatest joy I have right now is that I belong. I belong with my family. I belong with my friends. I even feel like I belong on my street. Even as I try to discern the best way to serve my community and family, I am doing it from a position of knowing I am where I should be, and I am not alone. Oh, the tangled webs we weave. Consider me gratefudl and lucky.

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Filed under Parenthood, Personal