Health(care)

I am Obamacare. Even though that term is a deliberate politicization of the issue and we shouldn’t call it that (see the Jimmy Kimmel bit where people hate Obamacare and love the Affordable Care Act).

I know there is a lot of small print with this thing, and there are sob stories on both sides of the issue – families and small businesses whose costs may go up, for instance. But for me it is so important, and I really think there is something to be said about availability heuristics, and spreading the word about who really cares about and is affected by this stuff, so that the demagogues on the right can’t frame it as an issue of welfare queens and other moochers.

Actually don’t get me started on welfare queens. Racist mythmaking.

But I bring this up because a few weeks ago I was at my job, where a student of mine said he didn’t like Obama because Obama gave away stuff like healthcare and made other people pay for it. I couldn’t help telling him that it’s not free and the people he’s “giving it away” to are people like me who don’t get it because their jobs are too cheap to offer it.

Well, I avoided the word cheap. But he’s an impressionable fourteen-year-old and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let everybody else make all the impressions.

Today was the first day that the marketplaces are open for the Affordable Care Act. I have been counting down the days, ever since a few weeks ago when, for the first time in my life, I started having an actual health issue without insurance. As the New York marketplace kept crashing due to two million visitors in the first two hours, I started to write this.

After no longer being a teacher with benefits, I went back onto my parents’ plan until I was 25 (thank you Obama, part 1). Then they helped me get COBRA coverage, where you pay a lot to extend the benefits you lost. But every time they brought up researching the ACA or other options, I resisted. Most of this resistance was my own embarrassment over not having a job that gave me my own healthcare.

That, I realize, is silly. I was trying to not have my cake and not eat it, too. I had rejected the college-job-retirement straight line that I was on, but I was ashamed to no longer have the trappings. I had said goodbye to being a young suburban professional, because I was unfulfilled and unhappy, but I didn’t want to admit all that that really meant: I lived for a while with my parents; I gave up my retirement plan; I gave up healthcare; I gave up not having to worry about which gas station is cheaper.

Coming to terms with this, and I mean coming to terms with now being someone who has two part-time jobs and no benefits, who still relies on others to partially finance his life or his art, is for me a process. It leads to moments like I had this morning, where I freaked out over my Optimum bill (which I do every single time I get it) and then spent an hour on the phone changing and unchanging my wireless/cable plan. I ended, in case you’re wondering, by going back to exactly what I had at 8:57 AM, when my panic started. Because I fear change.

Now, I hate going to the doctor. Always have, insurance or no. But thanks to this health concern I had, which thankfully isn’t grave (okay okay it’s a RASH), I went to a neighborhood health clinic nearby. It is literally on the other side of the tracks, and I felt bad just being there. Like, even though I didn’t have healthcare, I didn’t have any business taking the sliding scale option that these other people, these truly poor people, were getting. Like I wasn’t poor enough for the poor clinic. In reality, as I know from registering as a patient and stating my income, I am perfectly poor enough. So that’s fun.

The real thrill started though when the doctor looked at my chart and told me my blood pressure was high. She looked physically pained by this. “Have you had high blood pressure before?” she said in her Eastern European accent. “No.” “And you’re not even obese!” she said. “Thank you.”

She freaked out and wrote me a prescription for a home monitor and ordered me to get an EKG to see if my heart was enlarged. I rationalized. It’s probably because I walked through public housing to get here and was surrounded by people I onto whose mostly uninterested faces I projected judgment and racial discontent. My guilty little heart probably was in overgear.

But at the same time I started paying way more attention to sodium content, and worried about my drinking, and my stress levels. I felt like Cookie Monster when he climbed down the food pyramid.

cookie-monster

I also found out that my parents both have high blood pressure. And take meds for it. “So why does this bother you so much?” my brother-in-law asked. “If you know it’s genetic and treatable.”

I hemmed and hawed.

“Is it because this is your first real ‘thing’ that’s wrong with you, the first thing that you have to deal with now, for the rest of your life?”

“Yeah! That’s it! That’s exactly it!”

He meant it as a throwaway, as something that shouldn’t bother me. But that does bother me. Because now, and for me really for the first time, I’m stuck in the world of bodies. I had already been sitting in the waiting room thinking about how we are all so scared of death that we just keep lugging these things along, putting up with suffering through banal waiting room TV squawking under mind-numbing soul-crushing lighting just in order to get pay outrageous prices for a little more elixir to limp a little farther down the line. I mean as an occasionally depressed person who sometimes romanticizes the literary suicide, I can’t always help feeling a little disgusted at people’s unbridled desire to keep going for as long as they can.

Cut to me in my little kitchen with my blood pressure monitor from Walgreens, not wanting to die young.

The doctor I saw ordered me to have some blood work done. I couldn’t do it that day because I had recently eaten. “Any day,” she said, as if those words would be comforting. I wanted to bolt out of the room and never come back. I have this desire, this anti-Woody Allen drive let’s call it, to not know what’s wrong. To not know that, oh yes, you also have sky high cholesterol, like everyone else in your family.

I want a little blissful ignorance, because I’ve had too much reality lately. I’ve fretted over bills and been turned down for jobs and had writing submissions rejected one after the other after the next. I’m 28 and everyone rolls their eyes when I say it but for the first time I feel older than ever. Even the nurse at the clinic, in between bouts of singing Taylor Swift, told me I need to hurry up and get married.

This twenty something(something) malaise is of course accurately and more pithily summed up in Avenue Q’s “I Wish I Could Go Back to College.” I did, in fact, go back, to get my Master’s, and it was as wonderful an escape as could be imagined, and now is over. So I doubly can’t go back.

To cap it all off, I went to the DMV yesterday. Insert tired joke here. I waited at a station that only had one employee servicing it. I wouldn’t have really minded except the man in front of me said, “Y’all only got one employee working here?” so I was inspired to indignation. When a second person eventually came, he spent a really long time setting his station up. We had been waiting for a while. I thought, here’s the problem. He doesn’t see us as humans. He sees us as a line of people, part of his job, which is dehumanizing in itself. If he saw us as people he would hurry up and try to be ready for us.

That’s probably being a bit purple about the whole thing, but I guess my real lesson is to see myself as a person, too. A person with a body that is imperfect and needs taking care of and help from others, just like every other person with a body out there. Sometimes it is easy to remember that we are all people with bodies. Other times, someone buts into your exit lane without properly waiting in line and for thirty seconds you lose your mind and honk and wish you had a tire iron under the passenger seat to beat that person with a body into an unpersonlike pulp.

But because I’m seeing myself as more of a person-body and not just a brain with fingers, I’m thinking more about health, physical and emotional. I’m going to have those blood tests done. I’m going to eat less Hamburger Helper.

And after I honked at that son of a bitch I remembered my blood pressure and ten minutes later let someone into my lane. Color me Mother Theresa.

So while I don’t know a lot about the ins and outs of healthcare, and like I said I’m sure there are loopholes and horrors all over the map, and I’m not trying to say that everyone should have to kick in so that privileged white kids like me can quit their 9 to 5 jobs and be Bohemian. I mean I get it: I too watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi and secretly wished my parents had kicked me out at age 9 so that I could have found the inner strength and dedication to be a master sushi artist.

But I hope that maybe all of this hubbub over healthcare will remind me to invest more in the health of myself and all the rest of us.

Yonkers (Racist?)

Lost_in_yonkers

Ever walked down a part of town and counted the white faces to give yourself a sense of how safe to feel, and also hated yourself for doing so?

Since leaving school I have become a public library junkie, and today on my day off I went to return two items to two very different libraries.

I live in Yonkers. It’s above the Bronx, if you don’t know. It’s sometimes called the sixth borough, although when voters had the chance in 1894 they opted to stay the hell out of New York City.

I can’t really afford the part and apartment of Yonkers wherein I live, but years of (what I now see as) fatcat living off a public school teacher’s salary has made me loathe to give up such bourgeois fixtures as my own washer/dryer, so here I am, drinking discount beer and eating peanut butter sandwiches twice a day.

Yonkers is where Sarah Lawrence College is, although as one of my professors put it, “the school has a Bronxville zip code so parents feel better.” Bronxville is a rich little town nestled within the Yonk where everything looks like Playmobil and thus has nothing to do with the actual Bronx.

Yonkers has a reputation for racial tension and segregation. In the 80s, the city wanted to use Federal money to put up new public housing settlements. The problem was they wanted to keep all of those settlements in a narrow little strip of land. In layman’s terms of course that’s a ghetto. A judge ruled that for decades the city had been involved in institutionalized racism, and ordered the city to build public housing on the east side as well as the west. Well, white panic set in, and citizens and race-baiting politicians kept the city in contempt of the judge’s ruling. The problem was that the ruling came with a $1 fine which doubled every day the city failed to comply. So the city started losing a lot of money in order to keep their poor elements well-contained. Finally the rookie mayor, in the face of massive layoffs and cutbacks, got the council to relent and build the housing. That mayor later shot himself.

So it’s not hard to understand how two of the city’s libraries can be in two very different-looking locales. My first stop today was the Yonkers Riverfront Library, on the west and traditionally poor side of town. However, because it also happens to look out on the Hudson River and is thus prime real estate, the city has been spending a lot of money to try and revitalize the area (the importance of diction: it’s all in the hopes of gentrification, that dirty word). So there are new buildings, like the library, new expensive restaurants, new condos. This is all well and good except if you happen to be sipping a whiskey by yourself in the lobby of the Yonkers Hampton Inn, as I was recently, you may hear the bartender talk about how she deplores the revitalization because “it just made it nicer for the crackheads.” She is a woman of color, for what that’s worth.

Regardless, though it’s a little out of my way it was the only place in town where I could check out Loretta Lynn’s second autobiography (that’s a whole other story). But I like to go there anyway because they sell used books for a quarter and tend to have good stuff. Anyway I took a slightly different route and ended up in Getty Square, which is known to some in their infinite wit as Ghetto Square. So here’s paranoid white boy dilemma number one: do you lock the doors to your car while surrounded by people who might be offended by hearing the sudden click? (I once read an essay by a black man who heard the click and was offended, so there.)

I locked my doors and rolled up my window. I was playing Katy Perry’s “Roar” so the window was really just to prevent mockery, not theft.

Then I found public parking that was cheaper than the expensive new garage I usually use. Only thing is you have to walk through the less nice part of town, with the fried chicken joints and check cashing signs. I’M JUST SAYING THEY’RE THERE. Okay so I’m walking down the street and this car slows down and waves to someone. So the guy, who had been slouched against a wall, goes over to the car. I’m like in my head going, “Oh shit. Oh shit. I saw a season and a half of The Wire. I know what’s going down here. If that guy leans in the window but doesn’t get in, this is a Drug Deal.”

That’s just to let you know how my brain works. Racist? I routinely beat myself up trying to figure that out, but all the PC in the world can’t stop me from quickening my step or crossing the street to avoid a particular passerby. If it makes you feel better or dislike me less, walking back from the train in Bronxville  one night it was dark and I was going up a hill and there was a guy ahead of me, white, and I put my keys between my fingers like they teach you in lady defense courses because my fear knows no bounds. But yes, I was once “jumped” by a group of black kids, black young men, black teenagers, what have you. So I unfortunately have something in common with Obama’s white grandmother, whom he described in his famous speech as having “fear of black men who passed by her on the street.”

Guess what? I made it to the library without being attacked for the two dollars in my wallet. So there I am, browsing the 25 cent books, and I still can’t help but think about the guy in Union Square who, it appears, died because this black guy was looking to punch a white guy. Well, he punched a retired train conductor on his way to pick up a book on the art of Grimm fairy tales, and the guy cracked his head on the pavement and died. If you care to read it just gets sadder and sadder, and the article also includes another unrelated attack on a white man.

One story I read early on said that the assailant was going to hit the next white person who bumped into him and didn’t apologize. That sort of sounds like my dad, who has been known on occasion, while walking through Times Square, to say, “the next person who elbows me is going to enter a world of pain.” But of course my dad is mostly joking. Still, while sitting in traffic to get on the George Washington Bridge, where the inconvenience is compounded by the ugly landscape, I have lately wondered why there aren’t more murderous flare-ups among strangers. I mean living in this city, any city, can drive you fucking NUTS.

Anyway, this terrible news came back to me while I was picking up my used copy of Nora Ephron’s Heartburn (yeah, I like strong women, deal with it), mostly because it dealt with chance. If that man had walked through five minutes earlier or later, he would likely still be alive. If he had stopped at the Strand, say, to pick up Jane Fonda’s memoir (which is awesome, and I’m judging mostly by the pictures), then he would have his comic book and still be taking care of his 94-year-old mother.

So I just had an image of me being the victim of some freaky hate crime, lying on the pavement clutching my new hardback Siddhartha pushing my last words through bloodied teeth: “It was worth it…”

My second library was the Yonkers Crestwood. Here I was returning my DVD of Coal Miner’s Daughter. I first went here a few weeks ago, and it makes Bronxville look metropolitan. Sleepy, is really the only word I can use to describe Crestwood. It’s the kind of place where there would be an X-Files episode about Satan worshippers in the city hall basement purely for the irony.

This is the actual aww shucks library:

crest

I walked up the tree-lined street, walked in, nodded at the seniors book group having coffee to my left, slipped the DVD in, and went back to my car.

I thought, how can Yonkers be a city? I mean, how can the name mean anything when it includes such vast differences and wide disparities? It’s like saying there’s such a thing as a “New Yorker.”

What frightens me is how, when I first visited Crestwood I thought, I want to live here. I know I have within me that infamous white flight impulse. Fear of crime or fear of the unknown makes a part of me want to settle down in communities that will continue to pinch themselves off into smaller and smaller pieces as the country gets darker, so to speak. I come from such a haven: Milton, GA. It’s only been Milton for a few years, a new retreat with an old name for the wealthy Atlanta suburban, but it has earned national attention for the way it represents the tendency of the rich to hook or crook re-segregate themselves (Naomi Klein discusses it in The Shock Doctrine, for one thing).

I don’t hate myself for wanting to live in a sleepy town, the kind of place where I don’t have to get mad at my senior citizen upstairs neighbor for consistently failing to lock our shared front door. But I don’t want to let prejudice fester in my brain, and I don’t want to let fear keep me from a full life. I taught at a school back in Georgia that was a curious mixture of north and south Fulton County students, which means it was economically and racially diverse. I don’t want to romanticize what were some tough years, but I believe I benefitted from teaching in a more diverse high school than the one I attended.

I need to keep reminding myself of that. It’s too easy to stay in my little bubble.

Hangover

ImageHangover was Merriam-Webster’s word of the day today. I was struck by the first definition: “something that remains from what is past.” Further into the email, the word is glossed as “something that remained or simply survived.”

I was surprised by how many people chose to share the last entry I wrote, it being so bleak. One thing I took from that is there are more of us than I realized, perhaps, who know that no matter what Merriam-Webster says, there is nothing simple about survival. There is nothing simple about continuing to embrace the will to live.

Personally I take comfort in that. Strength in numbers.

Last night I was at a friend’s house. I only get to see her on holidays, really, and every time I go over there lately the family is larger: someone has gotten married, someone has had a baby. Now one of those babies has become a toddler, a source of much delight. His grandmother held out an animal cracker for him. He took it, then decided to give it to me. He wobbled over and handed it to me. This became a game, as his grandmother would hold out a cracker and tell him to give it to a different person each time. He would wobble over, take it, and wobble over to the person, no matter how far away they were.

This was an inexhaustible game, as most toddle-games are. There was never a flicker of irritation on his face when he was told to be a delivery man again. Nor did he laugh or squeal about it. He just took it and gave it, every time the same way. It occurred to me that if he had been faced with those million matchbox bulldozers I spoke of, he would have picked one up, moved it, and gone back for another, over and over and over. Watching him was the first time I really felt I understood the Buddhist concept of “joyful effort.”

There is also a newborn in that family. Now. There’s an old joke that people have kids so they can have something to talk about at dinner again. And I’ve made about every argument in the book against having children in a world like ours. But I cannot escape the fact that I woke up this morning with a pretty strong hangover. By which I mean there was something that was making me want to hang around, to come over again.

I realized I’d like to know what she will be like when she grows up. I’d like to watch her grow into the fine qualities of her family. I’d like to talk theology with her.

One of the Newtown-related articles that I liked best was written by Ross Douthat. He used Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” sequence from The Brothers Karamazov. It’s a passage that puts exquisitely beautiful and painful language to that question we were all asking weeks ago: why?

I sometimes fall into the trap of thinking the 20th century invented true horror, but the stories collected by Ivan Karamazov chilled even my cynical blood. A similar thing happened the other day while I was reading Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. In her discussion of Confucianism, a single sentence stopped me in my tracks: “In 260 BCE, the army of Qin conquered the state of Zhao…massacring four hundred thousand Zhao prisoners of war, who were buried alive.”

I had to read that twice.

Faced with this sort of thing, Confucians went back to a tradition started by men who “realized that the only way they could end the intolerable misery they saw all around them was by a huge intellectual effort that began with the transformation of their own selves.”

The other day, a friend asked me if I had a reason to keep living. You know, just over coffee. I thought about it, said a few things, and then said that I’d like to keep working on being a person. Because when you come right down to it, there’s a lot of work you can do there, every single moment.

It’s like in improv, which I’ve been practicing. Improv is all about the present moment, and how much work it is, really, to be in it. My teacher has this wonderful way of referring to “Partner” in the proper noun sense. She’ll say, “You really have to learn that it’s about making Partner look good. It’s about supporting Partner.” What can I do to make Partner’s work easier?

The secret you find out is that when you do that, it actually makes your work easier and enjoyable, and it makes you more present. And yes, you can both be doing it at the same time. Somehow it just works.

And when you’re at a dinner table with 7 or 8 Partners, as I was last night, there’s a smorgasbord of work to do, of support to give, of brilliance to uncover, and hangovers to give yourself.

The other day I went and had a psychic reading. You know, just over coffee. And when it was over, my reader said, “It’s 2013. No one expected us to make it this far. We really have a chance this year to show what we can do.”

I resisted rolling my eyes over over the 2012 apocalypse thing. And I’m glad I did. Because I keep hearing her say those words.

“No one expected us to make it this far. We really have a chance this year to show what we can do.”

We have remained. We have survived. We are each other’s hangovers.

Now let’s go get drunk.

Bulldozer

kidsWhen I was a senior in high school, George W. Bush was laying the PR groundwork for an invasion of Iraq by lying about weapons of mass destruction. One of the idiots who sank his teeth into this bullshit was Thomas Friedman. Better safe than sorry, he said, even if there’s only a small chance that Saddam has the weapons.

I wrote a response and read it in my AP English class. I said I’d rather die. I would rather be a civilian casualty of a terrorist attack than be a participating citizen of a country that goes in and blows things to smithereens because of a CHANCE that someone MIGHT have a weapon that they COULD use.

I felt it then, when I was 18. I’m not sure, looking back now, if I really believed it, but I felt it, surely. And now at 27 I very much believe it.

Because I came home from another lovely morning at Sarah Lawrence and I saw the news about the Connecticut school shooting and I thought, okay, I don’t want to play this game anymore.

Like, you’re playing video games with your friend and you’ve been playing one for two hours and your eyes are dry and you’re antsy and bored and tired and you just don’t want to play anymore.

I don’t want to play anymore.

Last week a friend of mine posted something on Facebook, a graphic going around that essentially says if we’re going to regulate guns we should also regulate baseball bats. I found it, though I respect that person, to be completely fatuous. I responded. Others responded. He and I even apologized to each other and smoothed feathers later. No minds were changed. I probably further entrenched people who disagree with me in their own beliefs.

I led a bullying workshop in an elementary school last week. We had been told to prepare for hostile audiences, kids who were real troublemakers, etc. I in particular was sent to a class for the worst of the worst. And all of the kids were just amazingly angelic. They were all so beautiful. Heartbreakingly funny and kind and eager. Even the bad kids; they were so alive.

In researching the murder of Officer Mark MacPhail, who was killed in Savannah in 1989, I became obsessed with what bullets do to bodies. I wanted to re-sensitize myself to the idea of gun violence. What did each bullet do – to his jaw, to his teeth, his lungs, his vertebrae.

Death is something I forget about. I forget what it means to have something be alive and then not alive. I understand it as a concept but I forget really, really, what we talk about when we talk about death.

I have to remind myself.

Rachel Corrie is a hero of mine. She was a 23-year-old American activist who died in Gaza when a bulldozer ran her over. She did not believe the Israelis should have the right to bulldoze the homes of Palestinians. Say what you will about her politics, about her idealism, about her naiveté even. But sometimes I really envy her. Even her death. Because she had her bulldozer. She had it, she saw it, she knew what it was. She could stand up in front of it. And let it run her over.

And when you come home and you read about what we’re still just learning about in Newtown, and when you realize you can’t even keep up with all the shootings, and when you try to imagine what each bullet did to each little jaw, it FEELS like the walls are closing in, it FEELS like the ground is going to swallow you –

But it isn’t. The sun is shining.

You live in this limbo where you feel all of the bad things and yet cannot find a bulldozer to step in front of. Because most of the time it’s not one big one it’s a million tiny little Matchbox dozers, and you have to spend a whole lot of time and energy to get even one to change its course. And there is a nobility in that and perhaps that’s all there is and all we can do and should do.

It’s just exhausting and frustrating and sad, and a lot more tempting to throw down your controller and say, I don’t want to play this game anymore. What do you have for snacks?

Dialogue

I meant to post this before the election, and didn’t get a chance. But it’s equally relevant now, as there is a lot of gloating and glowering going around. I think we’ve all gotten tired of and perhaps been guilty of partisan snarking instead of actual dialogue. Four years ago President Barack Obama made a lot of people think he was going to put away childish things, as the scripture says (which he referenced), and get to bipartisan work.

This didn’t happen. Among the many factors, count his inexperience (and fewer favors to call in) and the Republican desire to recapture the White House, which led to Senator Mitch McConnell making that borderline treasonous statement about his only goal being the defeat of Obama.

In the last few days we’ve had a taste of that dreamed-for 2008 sunniness. Like how Chris Christie and Obama have been walking around New Jersey, getting to first base with each other. It’s unfortunate that it takes such devastation to get us to remember that we mostly want the same things. Can’t we just spontaneously remember that?

Unfortunately, Hurricane Sandy has also showed us the opposite of togetherness. You’ve probably heard the story of Glenda Moore, the Staten Island mother who lost her two boys. She knocked on doors for help as the waters rose, but was turned away. “I don’t know you,” said one person.

What sobers me about this is knowing that while I would like to think I’d help in this situation, I can’t be sure. And the truth is, for worse more than better, there are certain kinds of people with whom I am more comfortable, to whom I am more likely to offer help, for whom I will more readily open my doors. If Glenda Moore and her boys had been white?

Oof.

But here is one small effort in helping us remember that those across the aisle from us aren’t a bunch of drooling bigots or rabid socialists. I asked some friends of mine to write why they would be supporting Mitt Romney. I wasn’t baiting them or preparing to hold them up to ridicule. I was, and am, curious. Only one person took the time to really lay out his rationale. I share it here. I was surprised to see how much I agree with the sentiment behind it. I personally think those feelings could still lead someone to support Obama, but that’s interesting in itself – telling me that we support different people not because we have these wildly different views, but because we believe different men will do a better job at the same things.

So here it is, if you want to take a moment to pause and reflect, post-election. Obama said we are not as divided as this election has made us believe. I agree.

First things first, I don’t particularly like Romney. Paul Ryan has big ideas, but I’m not sure that they will ever see the light of day. So it isn’t really Romney or Ryan that I support.

You see, my family moved to the United States from the Soviet Union 22 years ago to escape religious persecution and find economic freedom. My parents took enormous risks because they wanted for their children what they could not have themselves.

Just over two decades later, my father is a successful leader in business and in the community. Three of my siblings are Georgia Tech grads, in industrial, aerospace, and civil engineering.

My point is that I am a firm believer in the American Dream, in the idea that those who come here legally, like we did, who work hard, follow the rules, avoid shortcuts, and live below their means, can reinvent themselves and experience success on a level that is literally impossible in most of the world.

I also believe that the United States is quickly becoming a nanny state, where effort, not results is what counts. We give out awards for participating in stead of winning. We are an entitled generation that believes we are due that for which we did not work.

And our government is more then willing to give us what we want but have not earned. Entitlement programs and social welfare all have a place in society and that is to help those who legitimately can not help themselves. These programs are not supposed to be a crutch for those who are unwilling to work hard.

That sounds cruel, but if my parents can move here in their late 20’s without knowing the language and go from living in a basement with a popcorn machine for heater to building a nice house in a prestigious neighborhood, all in the span of a decade, then those who were born here, learned the language from birth, and had the opportunity to get an education and work hard, well they don’t have much of an excuse to stand on.

Therefore, when our government continues to make excuses for this growing segment of our population and demands that successful people, people like you and me, people like our parents, pay our “fair share,” it makes me sick. We do pay our fair share. We go to school, study hard, and make good grades and good decisions. We work 65+ hours a week to be competitive in a global economy. We take financial risks to launch our own businesses or fund others’ ideas. We give generously to our community and to those in need. And when we reap the fruit of our labor, we are villeinized for our success.

I’m supporting Romney and Ryan not because I like them, or because I agree with them on every issue, but because I think the American Dream is dying. It isn’t dying for a lack of opportunity though. It is being smothered by the very politicians we elect to represent us. Now I don’t think that the Republican ticket will reverse this course. I’m not that foolish or naive. I do believe, however, that compared to the current administration, Romney and Ryan will at least slow the damage.

If you’d like to leave a comment in reply, please do so thoughtfully and politely.

Both sides are now giving lip service to the idea of cooperation, as we approach the so-called fiscal cliff. But we need to hold their feet to the compromise fire. For me, hearing from my un-like-minded friends helps inspire me to do so.

Sissy

I don’t care to defend myself: I watch reality TV.

I’m a writer, and I know that reality TV is not good economics for writers, and I still watch it. I know it’s partially or totally staged and edited and I don’t care. I’m fascinated by the truth of it, and it does contain a kind of behavioral truth that exists nowhere else (or everywhere else, perhaps): we all know this.

But where I’m going is to the recent episode of Project Runway. This is a show that I resisted for some time. Then I got hooked: Bravo was hip to binge TV watching even before Netflix; it’s no accident that they frequently play 10 hours of their reality shows back to back. TNT does this with Law and Order too, of course, but that show doesn’t have the competition thru-line to grab you.

And reality TV is based on competition. Even Real Housewives – I was hooked on that for a while, trying to see if the Orange County girl who was married to the cancer guy was going to get away with it – has a kind of competition. We root for certain people and not for others. And as much as I like to watch Top Chef or Project Runway for the tidbits I learn about cooking and fashion, I also very certainly enjoy seeing who rises and who falls, and seeing if I agree with Heidi Klum or not.

It’s fitting that I write this trash TV confession as the Olympics draw to a close, since I find myself watching those events and hoping for any and all American athletes to grind the Chinese into the dust. I am not a patriotic person, so this fervor confuses me in part, but a lot of it boils down to that unforgiving medal count that NBC loves to wave in front of your nose. WE MUST WIN.

This week on Project Runway, however, not one but two contestants decided that, actually, one does not have to win, in order to have an adequate life, even as a fashion designer.

And then the show devoured them.

Michael Kors, responding to the first dropout, announced, “Fashion is not for sissies!” The word sissy has a clouded etymology, but seems (logically) to have derived from sister, and thus to be particularly insulting to men. Wikipedia has a delightfully raw description of sissyish, effeminate behavior: “e.g., saying ‘mua mua’ before hanging up the phone or using creams.” Using creams? Who wrote this? Fez?

Andrea was the first dropout. She is a teacher, somewhere, which was further used against her – she’s setting a bad example by QUITTING. In the previous week’s episode, she had been paired with one of this season’s two bitchy queens, and he had, in his own words, thrown her under a bus during the critique session. And you could watch her come to the realization – thus the fascination with reality TV, it happens right in front of you – that she didn’t give a shit, really.

I looked at it a different way than the carping designers, being the 27-year-old retired teacher that I am. I thought, if I were a teacher and went on that show, I would have a lot more “fuck you” in me when it came to the judges. You know? Andrea was older, she knew what was up, she knew which way was which, and she wasn’t going to bend over and ask Nina Garcia for another.

And then another contestant left: Kooan. In the first few episodes, this guy was so weird, he was like a mix of a Tamagotchi (yeah, you had one, you big sissy, so did I) and William Hung, the American Idol “She Bangs” freak of years past. I call him a freak because that is what American Idol offered him up as. We’re all too cynical to buy the subsequent success story that they tried to hatch around his broken shell – look Ma, a record deal! He was carved up and put on a platter for us, and we ate him. And I thought Kooan was a similarly savvy choice by the producers. In the same way that The Glee Project chose to have a transgender contestant, a paraplegic, a blind man, and a girl who looked like Justin Bieber, all on one season.

But Kooan quickly retreated from his wacky persona and became very moody, especially after Andrea left. And then, despite cajolings to the contrary, including one from Tim Gunn (and it must take moxie to say no to those pursed lips), he literally bowed out of the competition. He said he knew there was another way to make it as a designer, and he was going to pursue that way.

All of this struck a chord with me since right now I have forked over money and time to put up a show at the Fringe Festival. There are all kinds of competitive instincts that come with that. There are basic ones that come up any time with the theater, and then Fringe ups the ante by offering “Best Of” awards, and “Audience Favorite” ballots for you to harangue your spectators with. Those poor folk who have already surrendered their time and money to watch you express yourself.

You can easily get caught up in it. Perhaps you should, if you want a career in this business, or any business. Or maybe that’s just a New York mentality.

It’s made me think about the one act competition that I watched as a high schooler and then participated in as a teacher. It felt awfully good to collect a second place trophy after all that toil.

But you can also look at it like Kooan did. And decide that there is another way – not only to gain success, one assumes, but also satisfaction.

Ah yes. Satisfaction. Win all the awards you want, you can still be hollow at the core. Just ask Meryl, that poor skeleton of a woman.

No but really. This is building a house with a foundation of sand.

It’s true that Andrea probably would have shown more grace and class (and perhaps integrity, the way Didion describes it in “On Self-Respect”) by announcing to everyone that she was leaving, like Kooan did. But I still think the contestants, and Michael Kors, did her greasy by treating her like a coward and a sissy. It was an abuse of the term. He should have said, “This little competition isn’t for every asshole on the street!”

Unless he was thinking of the way sisters can be, like when your big sister gracefully exits stage left and lets you have your moment. Sometimes being a sissy can be great.

As for competition, the M-W etymology for compete is enough to make you weep:

Late Latin competere to seek together, from Latin, to come together, agree, be suitable, from com- + petere to go to, seek

To seek together.

Ah, dear. We have lost the original sense. And I think that’s what the other Runway designers were responding to, when they found themselves a bit psychically dizzy from the double quittings. Why were they so upset – in reality TV competition, it’s a good thing to lose other contestants – if not because they peered into the center of their enterprise, and realized it was hollow?

I am going to finish my run in this theater festival with the words “to seek together” in my mind.

Retarded (in Georgia)

For a brief period, Georgia was the best state in the US to be retarded, at least if you were a murderer. Now it is the worst.

Drawing headlines lately, and an editorial from no less than the New York Times, is the case of Warren Lee Hill, Jr. This is what the Times wants you to know: in 2002, SCOTUS ruled that the execution of the mentally retarded violated the 8th Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. The problem is how to establish mental retardation. As anyone who’s ever seen Forrest Gump knows, having an IQ below 70 is typically one of the benchmarks used.

Warren Lee Hill’s IQ has been tested at 77. If only he had Sally Field as a mama to offer her services to the parole board and knock his score down a few points.

However, the Georgia legal definition of mental retardation is more complicated than Hollywood’s, and Hill indeed was found to have “significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning.” (It does seem that his IQ has been tested multiple times, with different scores.) But the sticking point became the second prong of the definition, which requires that this subpar functioning result  in “impairments in adaptive behavior.” It has been offered against him that Hill has been able to hold a job, save money to buy a car, serve in the military, and have friends.

The jokes write themselves – for instance, are we to believe there are no retarded drivers out there? – but the fact is that the man’s life is at stake, and Georgia is being a bit of a stickler here in terms of the burden of proof applied.

There are two common burdens of proof that you hear about – proof beyond reasonable doubt, which is required for criminal convictions, and proof based on a preponderance of the evidence, which is used in civil cases and Grand Jury proceedings, among other things. Reasonable doubt means that no right-minded juror would vote to acquit; it does not mean that you are absolutely sure (you can have unreasonable doubt, so to speak), but that you’re pretty damn sure. But a preponderance is like two scales – retarded and not retarded – and even a feather more on one side or the other determines the ruling.

Georgia is the only state which uses reasonable doubt as the burden of proof for establishing mental retardation. Many human rights advocates are saying this is unfair and even unconstitutional, and they have a point about Georgia’s burden being exceptionally high. But it seems the retarded forest is being lost through the mentally challenged trees.

Consider, please, some facts of Hill’s case, as provided in a 2011 US Court of Appeals decision:

In 1990, while Hill was serving a life sentence for the murder of his girlfriend, he murdered another person in prison.   Using a nail-studded board, Hill bludgeoned a fellow inmate to death in his bed.   As his victim slept, “Hill removed a two-by-six board that served as a sink leg in the prison bathroom and forcefully beat the victim numerous times with the board about the head and chest as onlooking prisoners pleaded with him to stop.”  …Hill “mocked the victim as he beat him.”

This is not the stuff of which Forrest Gump is made.

Um, unless you remember the part of the movie where America’s Favorite Slowpoke ruthlessly beats the shit out of that douchey anti-war guy who got rough with Jenny. But in that case the honor of a white woman was at stake, and it’s well-known that white women rule the world, from beyond the grave at least.

And in fact, two non-profit types were on Georgia public radio two days ago, arguing that Hill only bludgeoned his fellow inmate to death because “he had been threatened and bullied and was really in fear for his life.” Oh shit, the b-word. Those wishing to spare the life of Warren Hill have to try to paint a picture of him as some kind of atavistic primate who doesn’t know right from wrong and blindly reacts to stimuli.

Atavistic and stimuli in the same sentence: ten points.

I don’t think the facts of the case support such an argument, and I don’t think an argument against killing someone should be founded on one either. Now, you cannot fault Mr. Hill’s lawyers for trying every conceivable approach in order to save their client, and Georgia’s super-standard of mental retardation does cry out for remedy, but it seems to me that turning anti death penalty activists into the boys who cried retard may do more damage than good. It’s the same reason that many of the millions who cried innocent with Troy Davis also missed the larger point.

There is a tide in the affairs of capital punishment, and it looks like in this country that tide is slowly rolling away from executions. Perhaps the biggest factor is the economy, since the death penalty is so expensive, but it could just be that the evolving standards of decency are making their crawl to the life without parole finish line. It is only decency, and not a better definition of retard, that will put an end to execution in this country. It will only be when we – even as victims ourselves – decide not to strain mercy but to let it fall as the gentle rain of heaven; only when we decide to recognize that every human being is more than his or her worst act.

And while we’re speaking of superlatives such as worst, I’ve always had a problem with the idea that death is the crime that deserves the worst punishment we can give. Compare Hill’s potential saving of his life with a slick tax-sheltering bastard who claims to be a job creator and abuses the English language by “RETIRING RETROACTIVELY” so as to fudge his outsourcing record. And that is only one tiny example out of a sea of white collar atrocities that we could fish here for days on end.

I don’t think Mitt Romney should be killed either, though perhaps he deserves to be tickled incessantly for a few decades. It’s the inherent flaws in any human system that sets out to rank good and bad deeds that I’m after. It’s certainly also possible that death might not be the worst punishment possible, and that life without parole is more painful, in the long run. In which case, go ahead and ask Warren Lee Hill, Jr. if he wants to live or die.

Just keep in mind he may not be fully equipped to answer the question in his right mind.

And you see I don’t just mean because he may be legally retarded. You may not have liked that I used the r-word in this post, although it is the one still used in Georgia’s laws. The CDC and others tell us that the more appropriate term these days is “intellectually disabled,” but I wanted to use retarded for another purpose.

David Dow is a Texas lawyer who recently gave a Ted talk about the death penalty. In it, he pointed out that 8 times out of 10, he can write you the biography of a death row inmate simply by knowing his or her name. He can do this because so many of our murderers share a kind of history. Abuse, neglect, early exposure to drugs and violence, juvenile detention centers – time and again these are the preconditions for murderers.

Retard is a very old word, from the Latin tardus meaning slow, and even though it is not politically correct because it is used as a slur, I think it is no exaggeration to say that the vast majority of people on death row are retarded, in that their development was slowed by a number of aggravating factors. And while this is no excuse for their behavior, we as a society will not make progress in our fight against crime until we get a better handle on just how many retards we have in this country.

The truly retarded in this country never develop a proper respect for the lives of others because they are so frequently encouraged to ignore the value of themselves. Sister Helen Prejean gave a speech in Georgia that I listened to, and in it she described how Jerome Bowden, a past Georgia death row inmate, was tested for intellectual disability. Before the test, he was counseled by friends on the row not to do too well. But he said he’d never passed any test before in his life, and this was one time he was going to show he was good enough. So he did. He got a 65. And we killed him.

And that’s retarded.

Warren Hill Jr.’s execution is currently set for Monday, July 23. An emergency appeal has been filed with SCOTUS. Georgians For Alternatives to the Death Penalty is probably your best source for last minute actions and vigils.