I watched some of your testimony last week and want you to know that I thought you were amazing. You made sense out of something that was hard to make sense of, and you did it with elegance and good humor and decency.
It was easy to imagine you as a very popular and respected professor – when you alluded to concepts you teach, you did so in an accessible and welcoming way. I bet your students love you.
I’m sure your life has been so up-ended by this. I think I read that you had to leave your house, and that your family is all separated for their – and your – safety. That sucks. I hope you are not paying too much attention to people who have nothing kind or charitable to say about this or you. (Yes, that does include you, President That-Was-One-Shameful-Display and Press Secretary Shameful-Display-Enabler.)
I hope things get back to a new and better normal for you soon. Your display of courage and integrity might not have been enough to keep now-Justice Kavanaugh from being sworn in. But it was more than enough to provide fuel to fans of doing what’s right even when it’s not easy, but are really, really discouraged and hurting right now.
These things change slowly.
I was so ashamed of what happened to me (we were in eighth grade and it happened in school when a teacher sent us out to fetch something from another part of the building). I was sure that it must have been my fault somehow. I couldn’t possibly tell my mother (or heaven forbid, my dad!). So I never did. It was 1973.
But in the 1990s, I had a conversation with my daughters when they were middle schoolers, and when a boy tried pulling that on one of them, he ended up with a swift knee to a tender spot. And now, here we are in 2018. There’s #metoo, and there’s you, who came forward with nothing to gain but preserving your own sense of integrity.
It might seem as if it made no difference.
But it did.
These things change slowly, but change they do. Make no mistake. Eventually, the power of our stories will overwhelm the deniers hanging on by a thread to power that is eroding. It’s power they don’t deserve. When that happens, our sons & daughters and their sons & daughters will live in a world that doesn’t reward violence and belligerence.
I’d like to see it in our lifetime, but I’m a realist.
So many other things I’d rather be writing about today (eg: my new puppy or Argo, the coolest road-worthy amphibious Canadian export ever). Instead, I’m writing a cautionary tale about the hazards of being good at other peoples’ lives.
There’s hardly anything easier. After all, who doesn’t know better than someone who hasn’t dealt directly with an issue exactly how best to deal with it, right?
Outside Experts, an Inside View
Back in 1990, when my ex and I split, the good news was that I had a full-time job. The bad news was that my title was “Mom” and the highest-level full-time job I’d had (and left years before) was in a bookstore.
Nonetheless, I waived child support and, after 18 months of receiving the maintenance I’d been promised for three years, took a tiny buyout. I had no job and little in the way of prospects. From my family’s point of view, I’d lost the lone coconut-flake sized-shred of sense I’d ever possessed.
Decades later, after I’d lost track of how many times my mother, sister, aunts and bossy cousin (the men of the one-up generation were all dead by the mid-1980s) had leaned on me to “take that bastard to court,” Mom was still harping about what an idiot I’d been.
There were several reasons I opted out of chasing my ex around for money that I knew he’d never give me. There are tons of ways to shelter assets when you have your own business. He knew all the ones that existed (and several that probably didn’t). That was a big one.
My biggest and realest, though, to was become someone who didn’t have to. I had three daughters looking at me. I had to show them that you could make what you wanted to happen happen in life. Even when things get scary, as long as you don’t give up. Chasing my ex through the court system for what those women thought I was “owed” would have meant squandering the time and energy required to reach my goal.
What I didn’t know back then was this: That time and energy also consumed the awareness that it even needed explaining. Only now, as I write this, do I realize that some important friends along the way – who still mean the world to me – understood without any explanations. Their faith, belief and support made it possible for me to keep going in those moments when I wasn’t sure I could.
Gratitude aside, my main point here is how easy, when looking from the outside, it is for someone to judge another person’s life, choices and outcomes.
When Honesty is the Cruelest Policy
Which brings me to Amanda Lauren Kass, whose essay “My Former Friend’s Death Was a Blessing,” was published May 19th by XOJane. It’s a division of Time, Inc. that pays $50 for personal essays. (Writers get more when a post goes viral. The lack of a link is intentional.)
“Leah,” Kass’ former friend, died by suicide a few years after being diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. Leah’s sister, a high school classmate of Kass, died of cancer at 19. You can read Kass’ account of Leah’s spiral here if you’d like. (XOjane took the piece down and put an apology in its place after a few days of leaving it up (you know, hits = $). (The hyperlink in this blog is to an archived page on the wayback machine.)
Or I can save you the trouble by riffing off another Time, Inc. publication, specifically “People,” for which I used to review books. At one point, we had to write “Bottom Lines,” one-sentence summations of our reviews. Here’s my Bottom Line-inspired summary of Kass’ essay.
“’Leah’s’ life looked hard and inconvenient so I fired her, made fun of her, judged her parents for not doing more – and her decision to die by suicide was totally the right one!”
Families suffer when the Ignorantatti go unchallenged
What I haven’t seen anyone write about is where Leah’s parents were in all this and why they weren’t more involved or helpful as their daughter spiraled deeper and deeper into what appears – based on Ms. Kass’s description – to have been depression and psychosis.
Ms. Kass calls them out in the story, and is (unsurprisingly) cruel and judgmental.
As a Family Educator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness since 2006, I have spent countless hours with family members who are terrified for their children, siblings, parents and friends. They’re also just plain terrified. Which is why they sign up for NAMI’s Family-to-Family class.
In three hour increments over 12 weeks, F2F provides information on what I have come to refer to as “the Big 7” (schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, major depression, anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder). It also touches on post-traumatic stress disorder and how it and the other mental health conditions affect the daily lives of people living with them.
F2F also gives family members the information they need to take care of themselves, ways they can effectively advocate for their ill family member or friend and a safe space. It’s powerful to see what happens to people when they get to tell their stories in a setting where the responses are nods of understanding instead of horrified stares. My favorite thing about teaching that course is watching people come in singly or in pairs and leave in groups.
Ms. Kass’ bald cruelty is not unusual. That she wrote and published it might be, but for anyone wondering about stigma and mental illness, that essay is Exhibits A-F. It’s also a textbook example of the reason we in NAMI describe these illnesses as “no casserole.”
Leah’s parents can probably speak to this way more eloquently than I can, but I bet that when her sister had cancer, the community rallied around the family. I bet they brought meals, provided emotional support and anything else needed. Doctors were forthcoming with information about what was happening and kept the family in the loop regarding their daughter’s progress and disease course, even after she was 18.
Leah’s disease course was very different, and I’d lay money that the same people who helped when it was cancer scattered like vampires at dawn when Leah got sick. Because of HIPA (Health Information Privacy Act), her parents probably got no information about what was happening with her. Because they didn’t know, they weren’t able to find out about a diagnosis, what it meant, what medication she might need and whether or not she was taking it. They had no power to do anything other than watch her spiral. The only thing that would have made a difference was Leah signing a release form authorizing her parents to receive information. Which, based on my experience with other F2F parents, is extremely rare. Most people with psychotic illness tend to act out against the people closest to them and who know them best. It also tends to onset in early adulthood, just as people are striking out on their own and striving to be independent. Call it tragic, call it a confluence of clusterfuckery. It’s that and then some.
When I read Ms. Kass’ essay, it was Leah’s parents I thought of; Leah’s parents for whom I ached. I’m sure that piece pulled the scab right off the open wound that is their daughters’ deaths.
Ms. Kass recently got married. One day, she may hold a newborn in her arms. She and her husband will look into their baby’s face and imagine the firsts. They will want to give their child everything. They will wonder who and what this little person will grow to be.
On that day, I hope Amanda Kass remembers Leah, and her sister, and their parents.
So, it’s been a few months. I could make up a whole raft of reasons for the radio silence, but the truth is job-related.
Last July, I was laid off from the job I loved, and not long after my last post in February, there were signs of a happy ending/soft landing. In a fit of holding off until I could share good news, I put off posting.
But I’ve waited long enough, and now I’m at that place where you just say “Now matters. Live here!”
So here’s a little story about the job I loved and lost. It wasn’t performance-related (the exact words of the HR official who hand-delivered my layoff letter). I was really good at what I did. But it was funded by “soft money.” Which is code for “grants.”
The particular grant I worked on for 10 years was funded through the Wisconsin State Legislature. The program was almost 40 years old, and provided a whole lot of bang for the $895,000 it cost state taxpayers. I could venture guesses as to why it was de-funded. But those would just be guesses.
My program was one of 16 around the state. We worked with adults – mostly women but some men, too – who had not been the main breadwinner in their households, but for any number of reasons found themselves in a position where they had to become the main breadwinner. My participants were divorced or separated from partners or spouses, married or partnered with someone who’d become disabled and unable to work, or who’d lost a job. In a couple of cases I worked with people who’d given up good jobs out of state to come home and see an elderly parent through his or her last illness. Those people had been supported by the parent’s pension or social security. One of them was paid through an agency that provided elder care to be their parent’s caregiver. All that ended with their parents’ deaths, and they needed to rejoin the workforce.
For 10 years, I got paid to listen to these people tell me who they were, then help them figure out how to reimagine their lives. Most days I went home feeling like the luckiest, most blessed individual on Planet Earth because, having already gone through my own version of the horrible realities my participants were living, I could serve as living proof that it was possible to come out on the other side.
It was something I would definitely have appreciated when I was where they were. Most were also completely inspiring – making courageous choice after courageous choice to make their lives better. (I’ve stayed friends with many of them, and that’s helping me now. As I said, luckiest & most blessed.)
I had a sneak preview this might be coming down the pike in 2007, when a state legislator (Jeff Fitzgerald was his name) decided to cut the program because, according to one of my then-colleagues, he figured that if it wasn’t at all the technical colleges, it didn’t need to be at any. (There was a 100-day standoff about the budget that year, and the 16 program coordinators from around the state took advantage of the time. We spent it informing our representatives about what we did. When budget was passed, we were in it).
“Your backup plans need backup plans.”
One of my mantras is “Your backup plans need backup plans.” My backup plans since the ’90s have been freelance writing, back-of-the-house for catering and anything else someone would be willing to pay me for.
It turned out, though, that I like having a steady gig with benefits and co-workers. When I looked at it through my Program Coordinator lens, the reality of my patchwork resume – a bachelor’s degree in music followed by journalism and project management experience – meant the average HR department would probably toss it for being too scattered. And there was the reality of my age – ie: not 30.
I needed something bigger.
I couldn’t do anything about my age (and didn’t really want to). But I could address the resume. So I started looking at graduate programs. I wanted something that would pull everything I’d done together and take it all to a different level. I also wanted something that would make me as fire-proof as possible for a 50-something woman whose work experience and college degree were at least as well matched as Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries.
Which is the reason I went to library school. It’s a terrific degree – really versatile. People with library degrees work in all kinds of settings – IT, corporate, legal, financial, academic – the list is pretty long. And maybe it hasn’t gotten me a job yet, but the skills I’ve added to my existing toolbox have given me a level of confidence in riding out this layoff that I never would have had without it.
So, while I wait for my Prince Charming job to come along (I’m straight, which is why it’s not a Princess Charming job), my library degree is working for me. It’s also working for others. I volunteer two mornings a week at a university library, in one of their digital units. I’ve added book indexing and dissertation editing to the freelance journalism, marketing and technical writing/editing/content development I’ve always done.
And then there’s this blog, which started as a gift to myself. Thank you for reading it, and especially thanks for reading this post, which is mostly a ramble/meditation to get myself back into my once-a-week posting routine. A whole lot has happened in the past few months, not the least of which was finishing my first knitting/quilting hybrid project.
If I ever get pulled over for “fitting the description,” the description will be “garden-variety middle-aged white lady.”
It’s been an accurate description for most of my life (with the exception of the age part, which is following the conventional trajectory and means that if I live long enough, I’ll be a garden-variety old white lady), except for one interval. I never felt more ethnic in my life than I did during three years residing in a city of 20,000 people in Central Flyover Country. I passed as white just as easily as you please. Until the second question.
The first question was “What is your name?”
The second was “Where do you go to church?”
The minute I said, “The synagogue 45 miles northwest of here (the closest one),” it was all over. I wasn’t black. But I wasn’t white anymore, either. There were about 30 Jews in Central Flyover Country. But as a reporter – and features editor – for the local paper, I was the first one many of the people I encountered had ever seen up close and personal.
Most of my experiences as a small town Jew were positive. People were curious, but also respectful. There were a couple of uncomfortable encounters, but I never felt unsafe.
This week, I learned what it feels like when no one needs to ask anything to know you’re different. All they have to do is look.
Supposedly six of the approximately 200 people who showed up to the auditorium at the Large Midwestern Technical College Where I Work to hear guest speaker and Philadelphia resident Dr. Umar Johnson’s talk “Black to the Future: The Return of Jim Crow Justice in the Age of Post Racialism” were white. I never saw the other five.
The first thing Johnson told us about himself was that he is a Pan-African Nationalist. I didn’t know anything about Pan-African Nationalism before his talk. Taki Raton, a local Pan-African Nationalist, spoke later in the week at a smaller gathering. I learned a bit more there. Between the talks, I attended a screening of “Dream Big Dreams,” a documentary about Vel Phillips. Among other things, she singlehandedly opened the doors to Open Housing laws in my city and nationally during the Civil Rights movement. The screening and talkback was organized by One MKE, a local group whose mission statement includes the phrase “foster and retain a diverse pipeline of talent and improve cultural competence.”
There was a lot to chew on in what Johnson & Raton said, and I’m still thinking about it, especially having just read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah.” Her protagonist, Ifemelu, moves from Nigeria to the US. Among other things, she starts a blog. It’s called “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.” As much as I want to talk about how much I loved this book and how highly I recommend it, I’m going to focus on Johnson’s talk.
Some of it had me jumping for joy, some of it left me cold. In the jumping for joy category was his recommendation to read Carter G. Woodson’s 1933 book, “The Miseducation of the Negro.”
Woodson’s thesis is as true today as it was when he wrote it. Education as it currently exists is a form of social control, designed to ensure perpetual second-class status for black Americans. To counteract that, black people need to discover and learn the truth about their ancestry and about African civilization.
I loved that Johnson was an authentically proud black man telling a group of mostly young black men them to stop looking for approval outside themselves. I loved him telling them to love themselves and each other and to care for each other, in part by building institutions to strengthen themselves and their communities. I loved that he urged them to not rely on anyone else to make that happen. I loved his message of community and of taking care of each other first.
In the “left me cold” category was his disdain for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. He was referring to black boys being disproportionately misdiagnosed. I get that too many energetic kids, especially black boys, get labeled. But speaking as a white kid who spent my entire childhood undiagnosed (another story for another time), I can tell you that it’s real and it’s no fun to have it. So I get the overdiagnosis, but for the few kids who do have it, addressing it can be a game-changer. I speak from experience.
He also does not seem to believe in the theory of abundance. Maybe it’s the white privilege talking, but I’m kind of a “rising tide lifts all boats” type. If you have, I can, too, and more for you is not necessarily less for me.
His blanket portrayal of other communities as adversaries rather than allies competing for resources reminded me of a joke I heard when Governor Walker got elected in 2010. Walker promptly set to work bringing back the Middle Ages, complete with landed gentry, peasant and serf classes and minus the guilds. And not in a good way.
Here’s the joke: A union member, a Tea Party member and a 1 percenter are sitting at a table. There’s a plate on the table with a dozen cookies. The plutocrat takes 11 cookies and turns to the Tea Party member.
“I’d look out for that one,” he says, nodding in the direction of the union member. “I think he’s trying to take your cookie.”
It’s because I have a backstory to point to, to be proud of and to own that I am able to understand and clearly articulate exactly what it is about the idea of straight-up separatism that bothers me. It’s also the reason I can understand and clearly articulate the reason it’s so vitally important to be able to have a strong and separate group identity.
So here’s a shoutout and thanks to one of my ancestors – Rabbi Hillel, who said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not, now, when?”
Four Februarys ago, I attended two funerals in the same week. It was the first time that had happened. A month later I was in New York hanging out with my niece and nephew. My sister had decided to fly down from Edmonton during their spring break, and New York is always a great place for a family rendezvous.
Funerals must have been large on my mind, especially as our cousin Debbie (z”l) had died that January. We were (and still are) still more or less reeling from that one as a family.
Anyway, I was telling Elizabeth about the two-funeral week when this slid out of my mouth.
“I know a lot of people,” I said, “and that means that one day I’m going to know a lot of dead people.”
Elizabeth burst out laughing and couldn’t stop. I accepted the invitation and joined her.
Sure enough, it’s four years down the road and my dead people list keeps getting longer.
This past Thursday, our family friend Ruth Goldbas died. She and her late husband Moses loved my parents, and Ruth played a large and quiet role in helping to salvage what was left of my family the year after my father died.
Once a week for that entire year, my sister and I would go to her house after school. Mom would meet us there when she got off work from her teaching job.
They had seven children, which I thought was the neatest thing ever.
Two were around our age, but way too smart and cool to pay attention to a couple of fatherless social misfits. To be honest, Debby and I probably weren’t great company at that point in our lives. That mattered not one iota to Ruth. She always treated us as if we were the most interesting people in the room, and always had a dinner prep job for us to do that made us feel welcome and useful.
When I went to represent the family at Aunt Bessie’s funeral this past September, I used some of my 36 hours in town to find out where Ruth was living and go see her. It was clear that she was not going to be around for a whole lot longer, but getting to experience her radiant smile again was a huge gift.
“I was sure that the Waldmans were in my past!”
We just sat there, happy as a pair of pigs in you-know-what and then dialed up Mom, so she and Ruth could have a chat. When her son David showed up, he snapped a picture of us.
Like his son David, Mosie was an attorney. He even merited a mention in Roger Kahn’s book “Good Enough to Dream,” about a season Kahn spent with the Utica Blue Sox.
I mention this because on Friday, baseball great Ernie Banks (aka “Mr. Cub”) died. He never played for the Blue Sox, but he did spend a night at the Treadway Inn. I know this because our dad took me and my sister there the morning Ernie and his fellow Cubbies were to play an exhibition game in Cooperstown at the Hall of Fame. We brought our autograph books and cameras. The autographs are long gone, but I have my memories of Ernie Banks, and of his teammate Ron Santo.
Ernie Banks isn’t the only athlete I spent this weekend remembering. Baki may have made it into the Baseball Hall of Fame too, if he’d gotten a chance to grow up.
I was at work the Monday morning he died. It was 2005, and Baki was 12. His parents Marge & Andy are two of my dearest friends.
He wasn’t sick. He’d spent Sunday afternoon and early evening snow tubing with a group from synagogue. He went to bed happy, sharing a bed his nine-year-old brother, the way they always did. Their 16-year-old brothers shared another room, with separate bunk beds. M&A tucked four kids into bed that night. The moment before Marge went to wake them up for school was the last before her family’s life took a turn into a place no parent ever wants to go.
More than 1,000 people showed up for his funeral. On Saturday, about 50 of us gathered at the same synagogue for a Baki-centered memorial. There was some singing, some study of texts from Pirke Avot, and a lot of great storytelling. We shared our memories of Baki and what of him we have carried forward with us these past 10 years.
Baki was an astonishingly graceful and talented athlete.
He was a middle child who navigated the shark-infested waters of sibling competition with the same elegance he brought to his soccer and softball games; he had a quiet sense of mischief he deployed skillfully and well. There was more than one comparison to Buddha, and those making it were people who had known Baki, but not one another.
His soccer teammates told of having started every game for the season after his death “one man down” for the first 10 seconds. Baki’s jersey number had been 10, and that was their tribute. The year they were high school seniors, their soccer team went to the state championships. They started their game “one man down,” because, as one of his teammates said, “If Baki had been alive, he would have been here with us.”
Everyone who spoke had beautiful things to say. His grandmothers read of adventures they’d had with Baki dating from shortly after he was born through to his last birthday, a month before he died.
The most powerful moments of the afternoon, for me, centered around Baki’s classmates, teammates, brothers and the family friends who had been peers. Now young adults, they had experienced his death and mourned his passing as children. Seeing them express, as adults, with adults, the grief they felt as children in a setting where their friend’s memory was the focus, was profound.
It was important for them in a way that was different for the rest of us, possibly because when you’re a child, adults are in charge. They may not be able to control death, but they control a lot of other things. So a kid experiencing a friend’s death may not really understand that the adults are as absolutely lost as they are in this particular situation.
What I saw happen in those young adults, all with the same particular searing hole in their psyches, is as close as I’ve ever been to a healing event in a spiritual setting. For them, being able to pull those feelings out and air them in a setting where they were not only safe, but welcomed and encouraged, was transformational in a very different way than it was for us adult mourners.
I know a lot of people, alive and dead. Yesterday’s event gave some things to chew on in terms of how it is and what it means to carry forward the memories of those we loved, liked and cared for.
Today, it also makes me realize that down the line, if I’m lucky, someone will be doing that for me.
We were standing in the living room of my sister’s house when my 16-year-old niece (who will never be smarter again in her life than she is now) said, “C’mon, tell me you wouldn’t want to be 16 again.”
What I wanted to say was “*#^K NO!!!! ARE YOU CRAZY????”
What I said, instead, was “Not for all the money in the world.”
What was going on inside my head looked something like this:
The marriage part of my first marriage
The unemployed/bad relationship part of the aftermath of my first marriage
Being working poor well into my 40s
What I was thinking about those times can most easily be expressed using some imaginary xml tags:
<cower><cringe><shudder>The marriage part of my first marriage</shudder></cringe></cower>
<cringe><shudder>The unemployed/bad relationship part of the aftermath of my first marriage</shudder></cringe>
<shudder>Being working poor well into my 40s</Thanks but no, thanks>
Now is definitely better.
Anyway, back in my cringe-worthy high school days, I was an orchestra geek.
Orchestra was a bright spot in a dark time. No matter how bad the rest of my life was, eighth period meant I got to play music and be part of something larger and far better than myself.
Also, our urban public high school had no defined ruling class and a really great performing arts department. In 1975, music and theater faculty wrote and received a grant to create an original musical work celebrating US Bicentennial in 1976.
Here’s a description from a document prepared by New York State:
“As an outgrowth of a Pilot Project Search program to develop an interdisciplinary approach to cognitive learning, the students and faculty of Utica Free Academy decided to create and produce a rock opera for the bicentennial. Vocal, instrumental, drama, art, English, social studies and audio-visual students and faculty have used classroom and extra-curricular time to create, write, design, plan, organize, build, and produce ‘Revolution.’ Through music, dance, drama, and the visual arts, the sense of the American Revolution rather than the revolution itself is conveyed. Aspects of local history are included.”
It’s probably more realistic to contemplate keeping 200 frogs in a wheelbarrow than trying to get a bunch of high school kids to write a musical. But Mr. Barone, Mr. Hanosh and Mr. Hebert (theater, choir & orchestra) and Mrs. Schmidt (dance – yes, our urban public high school had a dance teacher) pulled us together. Every Wednesday night that fall term we met in the orchestra room. Anyone who showed up was welcome to pitch in.
My sister and I ended up with co-writing credits. My song was in the first act, hers in the second. I remember how jarring it was the first time I heard the brass section belting out the notes I’d been hearing as guitar chords.
Our friend Jeannie wrote lyrics. Prodigies like Sam & Sar wrote music, lyrics and did their own orchestrations. Mike wrote lyrics and designed the logo, which appeared on the stage curtain and on the T-shirts we wore for performances. Joe worked on lighting and tech design. I could go on, but I won’t.
Fast forward 40 years. Through a series of events I can best describe as serendipitous and confusing, I am part of a three-person planning committee with Jeannie and my high school stand partner, John. Along with ex-officio members Mr. Barone & Mr. Hebert – now Bob & Ron – we are in the midst of planning a Revolution Reunion this coming summer. In the spirit of our high school, we’re throwing it open to anyone who was part of the performing arts department, whether or not they were in high school for that show.
I don’t remember when I last spent more time laughing with other people while getting real work accomplished. The three of us haven’t interacted in any meaningful way since high school. So it has been a joy to discover how much we still like each other, how compatible we are as a work team and how closely aligned our ideas and expectations are for the reunion.
We’ve been meeting via Skype on a quasi-monthly basis across three different time zones (Pacific, Central & Eastern) since October. We bought a domain name and John (a professional web designer) created a splash page. We wrote a letter and designed a survey. Bob locked down a location, and we’re now collecting data – via survey – on how many people to expect and what sorts of activities other than the afternoon event we’ve taken on people might want to see occur.
For me, though, the best part of the reunion has already happened.
Call it one of life’s minor miracles. Or some sort of reassuring sign from the cosmos that maybe the world isn’t a completely terrible place. Which, based on my experience, is what happens when you suddenly reconnect with people you liked a lot in your teens and they turn out, in your fifth decade, to be people you like even more now.
Someone’s probably coined some snappy one-word definition to sum up that feeling. But I’m old school. So I’m just going to say that being on Skype with John and Jeannie is a non-stop flight to that zone where nothing bad can touch you and your next big laugh is never more than 30 seconds away.
Black man killed by white cop. It’s a scenario we’ve seen way too often this year in US cities.
Here in Milwaukee, where I live, that story has a particularly sad and horrible twist. Dontre Hamilton was 31 when he died last April. I never met him, but his situation falls within my slice of Tikkun Olam Pie.
Tikkun Olam is a Jewish concept. When the messiah (for whom we’re still waiting) shows up, there’s no rapture. We stay here and heaven gets established on earth. In the meantime, we’re supposed to clean up the house, as it were, and make it ready for Big M’s arrival. That’s Tikkun Olam.
I’ve come to think of it as a pie. There’s an overwhelming amount of misery that needs to be addressed and a lot in need of cleaning up. No way can any reasonable person take that much on. It would be like trying to eat an entire pie in one sitting. So I’ve chosen mental illness, which comes with a la modes that include stigma, access to medical services, shelter, employment and criminal justice.
Dontre Hamilton’s story touches on all of it. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, he was homeless, and not on medication. He had family members who cared about him and were struggling to advocate effectively for him as best they could. The day he died, he was napping in a Downtown park, where he could be seen from the window of a coffee shop. Employees there called police, figuring their customers didn’t want to watch some homeless guy sleep while drinking carmel macchiati.
A squad responded. Hamilton was deemed not a threat. The officers left. Then Christopher Manney arrived, unaware that a couple of other officers had already checked things out. A physical fight ensued; Hamilton was shot. Fourteen times.
Between that April day and October, when Manney was fired for not following protocol during the encounter, black men killed by white officers in other cities were a constant reminder of what had happened in Red Arrow Park.
Peaceful demonstrations took place amid calls for justice, calls for Manney to be identified by name (he wasn’t for months), calls for his dismissal (he was, and is appealing) and that he be charged (a decision is under review by the District Attorney’s office).
On Friday, protestors shut down the Interstate during rush hour. Several were arrested, the rest gathered in front of the main police station, just across the street from where I work.
I thought about joining them. I didn’t. I’ve been asking myself why all weekend, and have come up with some reasons, but nothing that feels like the complete right answer. So I listed them to see if some coherent theme would emerge.
Why Taking Part in Demonstrations & Protests is Not My Thing
I do not like crowds. I handle them okay if I have a press pass, a notebook and a deadline. But it’s been years since that was my reality, so unless it’s something I really want to see (ie: Neil deGrasse Tyson, Phantogram or King Crimson), don’t bother trying to find me in any mass gathering.
I have trust issues, particularly when it comes to groups. They can turn on you, and I don’t mean physically. I mean that the herd mentality, when combined with high emotion, can result in bad decision-making. I prefer to do my thinking and reasoning about high emotion issues on my own or in groups of five or less.
It doesn’t feel like I’m really doing anything worthwhile or meaningful when I’m standing there chanting the same thing over and over. I’d rather try to come up with solutions, or gain access to people who have the power to effect change and share or brainstorm solutions with them. This might be a function of a feeling – real or imagined – that I have privilege – the ability to figure out how to get to the people who can make things happen. I might. Or I might be delusional.
I’m not much of a joiner. My first instinct (See #1 on this list) at the sight of a crowd of any substantial size is to move as quickly and discreetly as possible in the other direction.
That said, I’ve been working on community mental health issues in various capacities for a long time. That’s one reason I know exactly how big a deal it is that one response to Dontre Hamilton’s death is a recent decision by the Milwaukee Police Department to provide all officers with special Crisis Intervention Team training to help them to identify and respond appropriately to people with mental health issues.
So it’s not really that I’m not outraged enough to be out on the street, holding a sign and yelling for change. It’s that I prefer to eat my slice of Tikkun Olam pie in the kitchen, not at the picnic.
Update: This morning the announcement was made that former Officer Manney will not be charged. It’s too early for me to make any sort of intelligent comment because I’m reacting and not processing. But my first reactions are shock, disappointment and great sadness for Hamilton’s family, who have just gotten the ultimate in Christmas lumps of coal. As to Manney, this decision is not going to make his life any cakewalk, either. It wasn’t a win/lose situation as much as an elevate/diminish one, for my money. And this decision diminishes everyone involved, directly and indirectly. May we strive for and find better ways of being as we are carried forward by time, the thing that does not stop.
George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).