Flying Off at the Handle

Here’s a little truth-telling from me, the Queen of Oversharing.
 
I write a lot about my growing relationship with my anger after decades of being afraid to express it or even to allow myself to feel it. Anger and I are still in the early stages of what I hope will be a solid relationship that spans the rest of my life. I need her and appreciate her, but I am still unfamiliar with the full breadth of her range.
 
Saturday, I had a stunning flare-up of extreme rage, something that has happened a couple of times during quarantine, and seems directly connected to my struggle with months and months of isolation. Saturday’s flash fire was alarming in the speed with which it came on and its ferocity. It left me shaking and physically ill.
Each time I’ve experienced one of these rage flares, I have been shocked by their suddenness and ferocity, and distressed by the physical toll they’ve taken on me. As I write that, it occurs to me that my experiencing this rage so completely in my body is for-sure connected to the fact that I turned my anger inward during all those years when I was afraid to express it, swallowing it rather than letting myself feel it.
 
Saturday’s rage blew up and blew out fairly quickly. But even after the shaking and nausea passed, I was flattened for hours, not feeling like myself until I woke up Sunday morning.
 
So why is this happening? I blame COVID and quarantine because I’ve never experienced anything like this until now, until spending all this time mostly alone. I lose my temper, of course. That’s not new. What’s new is going from zero to critical mass in a second.
 
When quarantine started, I thought I was pretty perfectly suited for self-isolation. I’m extremely comfortable staying home, comfortable with my own company, comfortable being away from people. I have about 10,000 distractions in my house — hundreds of books, materials for at least four different crafts, coloring books, art supplies, notebooks and pens … Being home is easy.
 
I was pretty fine with self-isolation. I’m still fine with isolation … And, too, I miss the world. I miss people. I miss physical contact. I am a hugger, a hand-holder, an arm stroker, and I haven’t touched another human being since March 8th.
 
Yes, I am angry about what COVID has stolen from me, angry at the ways it has shrunk my world and my life. More, I’m angry at the way COVID has been allowed to ravage this country, angry that almost 145,000 people have died, angry that BIPOC are disproportionately impacted by COVID, angry that this country has no interest in protecting people and saving lives, angry that Caligula is more concerned about lining his pockets and destabilizing our democracy so that he can strong-arm his way to re-election than he is about a single human life, let alone the tens of thousands of human lives already lost and the millions more currently at risk.
 
I am angry. I am furious. I am so engulfed in anger that I haven’t been able to see it because it’s everything, it’s the air I breathe. And these rage flares I’ve experienced are maybe my system’s attempt at release, at lessening the pressure that has been building up in and around me since the start of our colossally horrific response to this pandemic.
 
I need a different release, a better one. The physical toll Saturday’s rage had on me isn’t something I care to deal with again. Time to ease back into that long-ago-discarded meditation practice? Maybe so.

Notes from a Slide into Totalitarianism

The snatch-and-detain situation in Portland terrifies me. This practice run for terrorizing Americans and seizing power is playing out in real time on our social media and in the news.

If the US had been invaded by a powerful enemy and was now under siege, I would expect to hear stories like the ones coming out of Portland. But, then, I shouldn’t be surprised because that is exactly what has happened. The US has been invaded by a powerful enemy … they just happen to be the ruling party in Washington. Caligula and his masters and minions are taking what little is left of our democracy and grinding it under their heels. Well, not really, though. They’re far too weak to do the grinding. They are happy to sit back and let the military do it for them.

Unidentifiable military police are disappearing people off the streets of an American city … and we all just go on with our days — place another Amazon order, wonder if the Key Food has toilet paper, hope we can get to the bakery before the baguettes sell out.

Not that I have any kind of idea about what to do. Yes, write to my senators, post rants on FB, rock myself to sleep in fear … beyond that, I’m at a loss. What can I do?

Portland is just a test run, a dress rehearsal. There are, as I see it, multiple goals:

  • See if Caligula can get away with laying siege to a city within our borders.
  • See if this terrorism succeeds in shutting down protests.
  • See how easily people can be swept away … and what it would take to sweep up large numbers of people.
  • Make people think twice before speaking out about anything.
  • Testing the will/strength/capacity of the opposition party and the courts to see how the situation might play out in other cities, in November.

Is there anyone who doesn’t think Caligula has an encyclopedia of dictators in the residence … or, well, board books with one brightly-colored tome for each despot? He’s clearly been captivated by the volume on Pinochet.

I don’t think I’ve ever kidded myself that the US is the “more perfect union” the founders dreamed of in the Constitution’s Preamble, but I never thought we’d be here, either. Never thought I’d have to think seriously about dictatorial rule in this democratic republic I call home.

I’m puzzled by one thing, though. How are the military police okay with carrying out these orders? How are they not standing in support of the freedoms we’re all supposed to enjoy, the freedoms they’re supposed to have enlisted to uphold? How are they so comfortable and casual about enacting violence on their countrymen? How is this possible?

I am, actually, this naive. Yes, it turns out that I am. I wouldn’t have thought it so, but here I am.

Who fights for us, the fools like me who thought we had a firmer grasp on how things could work in this country? Who fights for us if the people who signed up to defend the country are now actively fighting against us?

Turns out, I’m even more naive than I just realized. After federal law enforcement attacked the BLM protesters in Lafayette Square in June, General Mark Milley acknowledged that he should have participated. And lots of folks saw that as a signal that we could count on Milley to side with the country and not the titular head of the country. I let myself be lulled, figured all those people who make a living analyzing this stuff must know what they’re talking about. And Mark Esper said some words, and those same thinkers papered those words over top of Milley’s statement and said we should all feel a little bit of optimism.

And I grabbed onto that optimism. So naive.

And here we are, on the knife’s edge, watching people who could so easily be any one of us grabbed off the street, bundled into unmarked vehicles and taken away.

As I said, Portland is a dress rehearsal. Not a full dress rehearsal, though. This is a first run, a chance to see how everyone reacts. The disappeared have been released (so far as we know), and they have mostly been unharmed. In the next run-through, there will be far more violence so that Caligula can see how we respond to that threat. And then, in the full dress rehearsal, we’ll see the kinds of for-real disappearances the people of Chile could tell us stories about. Where will the mothers of the disappeared gather in this country? Who will create the American version of Madres de Plaza de Mayo?

Yes, yes, yes. Maybe you’re thinking I’ve gone from dangerously naive to histrionic. But have I? Have I really? Does what’s being done in Portland seem like business as usual to you?

And I sit here, choking on my impotence. Because, really, what do we do? I have been able, until now, to convince myself that my pen is my answer, my weapon in this fight. But what can my pen do for me now? My minuscule readership isn’t likely to mobilize and take on the anonymous troops in Portland, and I wouldn’t want them to. But there has to be more I or any of us can do other than look on in horror.

Reverberations

So last weekend the news was about Elizabeth Lederer’s decision to stop being a lecturer at Columbia University Law School. It’s a little satisfying, seeing people put in the spotlight, seeing the (at-long-last-and-finally) negative impact caused by the harsh lens of Ava DuVernay’s Netflix miniseries about the Central Park 5, When They See Us. I am glad enough that Lederer won’t be a vaunted lecturer at Columbia’s law school anymore. I am, however, totally not here for her effort to control the narrative, saying she stepped down because she doesn’t want the distraction of publicity to affect the college rather than acknowledging that she has culpability. Notice that the weekend’s headlines aren’t about Lederer being fired.

I read a NYT article from a few years ago, an article written in 2013 after the airing of the Ken and Sarah Burns documentary about the jogger case, and after Frank Chi created an online petition demanding that Columbia fire Lederer from her teaching position. The article acknowledges that Lederer was involved in the perpetration of an injustice, but it clearly faults Chi for wanting her to have to pay any consequences for that involvement.

The five boys who’d been sent to prison were still trying to build lives after the justice system had done everything in its power to destroy them, and the writer of that Times piece was upset that anyone should point a finger at Lederer for her part in that heinous miscarriage of justice.

The writer, Jim Dwyer, says: “The petition against Ms. Lederer, in part, reduces her life in public service to a single moment, the jogger case. In fact, she has a lengthy résumé of unchallenged convictions in cold cases, having pursued investigations of forgotten crimes. No one lives without error. And designating a single villain completely misses the point and power of the documentary. The jogger case belongs to a historical moment, not any one prosecutor or detective; it grew in the soils of a rancid, angry, fearful time.”

Could he really have been serious? Does he really believe that, because she tried other cases that didn’t involve harming innocent people, that we should forget about what she did in this case, in this case in which she participated in the destruction of five innocent boys’ childhoods, in this case which impacted the families of each of these innocent boys? He says “the jogger case belongs to a historical moment,” as if we weren’t, at the exact moment he was writing that line, living in the reality of a system that regularly brutalized Black and brown people. Ferguson wouldn’t become a national flashpoint for another year, but it’s not as though anyone actually trying to look would have been able to miss the simple fact that the justice system treats Black and brown folks unjustly on the regular.

And even if we really could consign the jogger case to history, why should that mean the people who carried out that hideousness should be allowed to thrive and make money, in part because they point to their success in that case? Chi was absolutely right to call for Lederer’s dismissal. Columbia didn’t listen, though. Not then and not in the years since then when students at the school made the same call. Only now, in the wake of When They See Us being the most streamed show in Netflix history, are any dominoes falling — or, more accurately, are some dominoes falling and a few others removing themselves from the game.

 

I wasn’t sure I’d be able to watch When They See Us. I knew a) it would be painful, b) it would be enraging, and c) that I wouldn’t be able to sleep well after watching because d) my brain wouldn’t be able to stop running through the story, through all the moments when people in power could have decided another way, through all the moments when one or another of those innocent children was harmed.

I finally watched on Sunday. I went to a friend’s house and we watched together. We watched two episodes, took a short break, then watched the final two. She drove me to the train and I made my way home. I stayed up awhile, even though it was already late and I had an early meeting Monday morning. I was afraid to go to sleep, certain I would dream the worst parts of the show.

I didn’t dream the show, but I didn’t fall asleep right away, either. I couldn’t … because, every time I closed my eyes, my brain did what I’d known it would: began running through the moments of choice in the story, through the moments of casual brutality. I tried thinking about other things, tried reading a book, tried playing games on my phone. No good.

I did finally sleep. I had an equally hard time sleeping Monday night. I’m practically a zombie right now, running on a combined total of about 5 hours of sleep in 72 hours. I will probably have this same issue for several nights to come.

If I can’t sleep, and I am 100 percent not culpable of anything in this case, how do the people entirely responsible sleep? How have they been able to live their lives without remorse? I don’t make room for the possibility that they honestly believed they had served justice. There is no chance they aren’t guilty of pushing children into harm’s way to benefit themselves: to resolve a terrible crime … and to feed a popular narrative that enabled them to build and strengthen their own careers by showing how tough on crime they were, how skillfully they could win high-profile cases.

I don’t feel any kind of sorry for Fairstein or Lederer. I’m also not surprised that the primary fallout from the show (so far?) has centered on women. That’s predictable and problematic, but it doesn’t make me feel sorry for these two. Not at all.

Rather, I want everyone with dirt on their hands to suffer blowback. All the cops who beat and lied and terrorized confessions into those children.? The cops who decided to scoop up Korey Wise because he was 16 and they could do what they wanted with him without calling his mother. Every person along the way who saw lies being constructed and put their heads down and let it happen. Every prison guard and inmate who harmed Korey Wise during his years of incarceration. I want every single last one of the people connected to the criminalization and brutalization of those five children to face consequences. It’s good that Lederer and Fairstein don’t get to keep making money off the unforgivable thing they did, but it’s not enough. Do I sound like some raging angel of vengeful retribution? I am truly okay with that.

After Chi’s online petition took off six years ago, Chi asked Ken Burns to sign on. That was a no-go: “Burns said […] he and the other filmmakers wanted nothing to do with the campaign. “It is just simple retribution, and we are appalled by it,” he said. “We don’t subscribe to any of it.”” It was simple retribution. Yes. Exactly. Why not? Lederer had used her success in that trial to burnish her reputation. She benefited directly from the harm done to those boys. Retribution sounds entirely correct. But Burns couldn’t let himself get too close to that. It might get in the way of his ability to keep making documentaries and winning accolades for his compelling historical narratives. (He’s made 10 documentaries since 2013. That isn’t a gravy train you’d want to stop.) I obviously have no idea what Burns was thinking when he made that comment about the “fire Lederer” petition, but how could he have dug into the case and seen what was done, yet not felt that Lederer and everyone else involved had a price to pay?

And now, in response to When They See Us, New York City’s Public Advocate, the Legal Aid Society, Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, and the New York County Defender Services have called on Manhattan’s District Attorney to a) fire Elizabeth Lederer, who continues to work as a prosecutor for the City, and b) reopen and re-investigate sex crime cases that were handled by Lederer and Fairstein between 1976 and 2002. The Manhattan DA has said that the jogger casewas a profound injustice” … but he has no intention of doing anything about it, at least not anything like holding “an attorney in good standing” on his team accountable for her part in that tragedy.

Lederer won’t get a bonus check for lecturing at Columbia anymore. Her choice. Columbia didn’t fire her. She still has her well-paid job with the City. She’s fine and she’s going to be fine. Fairstein can run around slandering Ava DuVernay, skating on the edge of calling that woman out of her name. Her books will still sell. She’ll write new ones and some publisher is going to pick her up. She’s pissy right now, but she’ll be fine.

Yeah. I mean, I’m not at all surprised, but I’m entirely disgusted.

Korey Wise, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, and Yusef Salaam. We don’t call their names at Black Lives Matter events. Of course not. They are all still alive. They have all managed to grow up and make lives. Thank God. But there’s no question but that the child in each of them was killed in 1989.

 


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

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It’s Slice of Life Tuesday! Click over to Two Writing Teachers to see what the other slicers are up to!

Six Years Standing Still

In six weeks it will be exactly six years since I had my first knee surgery. Since then, I’ve had three additional knee surgeries, shoulder surgery, and two procedures for my heart. I’m so over having surgery.

Except that I’m not over it because an unfortunate fact I’ve been keeping to myself for a while is that I’m about to have another knee surgery. In a week’s time, I’ll be back in the hospital letting my body be handled, cut up and re-stitched. I’m sad about it and mad about it and frustrated about it and defeated about it. It seems that every time I start to think I have my body back and can work on relearning how to do things pain and disability have forced me to stop doing, I suddenly don’t have my body back at all. Instead, it’s time for another operation.

This one has all the hallmarks of being easier than the other four knee procedures. It’s outpatient surgery, for one. I’ll be home by the end of the day because the procedure is touted to be super minor and barely invasive. Can you hear my lack of faith? Well, that’s because my most recent hospital experience was the miserable disaster of my rotator cuff surgery, when the surgeon told me I’d be good to go back to work the next day and probably wouldn’t even need to wear my sling … and I was foolish enough to believe that insanity and didn’t properly prepare for how debilitated I was going to be. Forget the huge, thickly-padded bandage that was like wearing a dog bed on my shoulder. I couldn’t get dressed on my own! And never once did he mention that I wouldn’t be able to lie down and so wouldn’t be able to get to sleep. I’m shuddering just remembering the levels of pain I experienced after that operation.

This procedure will be different, if only because this is a different doctor, and I trust this hospital so very much more than I trusted the one I was in last year.  It will also be different because I have so much knee surgery experience that I have an idea of what to expect.

The trouble is that what I also expect is for this not to work, for this not to solve the forever problem of my knees that was created forever ago when a car running a red light as I was crossing the street made me fall badly, left me sprawling by the curb wondering if I’d be able to walk again. Each surgery has held the promise of making me feel whole and functional again. And the fact that I don’t feel whole and functional again after all these years and all these operations makes this coming procedure seem like a cruel joke.

My title isn’t quite right. I don’t feel that I’ve been standing still exactly. And I’m certainly not back at square one, but I’m not really anywhere close to having the physical ability I imagined I’d have when I started this journey. And I’m on the clock here. I have serious plans for my old lady life, and I can’t keep putting them on hold because I have to go on sick leave one more time.

I am actually not in as bad a mood as I sound right now. I have doubts about how successful this operation will be, but I’m not willing to keep living with the wonky, painful joint configuration I have right now.

So. Operating theater, here I come. With luck and a benevolent universe, maybe this will be my last surgery for many years to come.


It’s March, so it’s the Slice of Life Story Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers! Twelve years and going stronger than ever. Click over to read a few slices, see what that eclectic group of bloggers is up to. And maybe write some slices of your own this month!

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And so, Liam Neeson.

Clearly, Liam Neeson was feeling all six feet four inches of his whiteness when he decided now would be the right time to tell the story of his past intentions of lynching a Black man. Maybe he figured everyone would let it pass. After all, he’s a popular guy, likable, still cosseted by public sympathy after the loss of his wife. Or he figured people would quickly overlook the hideous thing he was confessing and skip ahead to the part where he didn’t actually carry out his murderous plan (so far as we know — have we heard his whole story?). Or perhaps he thought we’d jump to the part where he changed his story and talked of curing his violent racism with exercise. Something.

And he was right, too, wasn’t he? All kinds of people defended him, said how brave he was to tell that story and how they understood his rage and pain. Blah, blah, blah. And I’m vomiting. Brave?! Where? How? Plenty of people were outraged and horrified and disgusted, and thank heavens for them, but there seemed to be almost as many apologists as there were folks who were appalled.

I wasn’t going to dive into the foolishness. Other folks were doing a beautiful job presenting the responses that were swirling in my head, so no need for me to send my blood pressure into the danger zone. But then I read this tweet from movie critic, Eric D. Snider:

“Liam Neeson had a terrible impulse that he didn’t act on, that he knows was terrible, and that he learned from. If we’re going to cancel people for being TEMPTED to do wrong, or for struggling with something before coming to the right conclusion … well, we’re going to be busy.”

I read that and realized something I should have understood all along: People are entirely comfortable talking all the way around the actual point, entirely comfortable pretending there is no point, entirely comfortable waving their hands in the air to distract from what’s really going on. I mean, I know that. I know it. But I was still caught surprised by it.

“Neeson had a terrible impulse that he didn’t act on”?!?! “TEMPTED to do wrong”?!?! What in the actual fuck is that? Well, it’s a lie, that’s what it is. As I tweeted back to Snider:

“He did act on his impulse. For a week and a half, he went out looking to murder an innocent person. The only reason he didn’t actually kill anyone is because he never got “lucky” enough to be confronted by a Black man during those walking-with-a-cosh nights.”

Because, really, we all have impulses, but most of us know that when the impulse is murder, we’re better off not trying to follow through on it. My second tweet to Snider went that way, too:

“Not acting on his impulse would have been: having the idea of looking for someone to kill … and then realizing that was sick and wrong and staying your ass home to comfort your loved one instead.”

Because we – the majority of the sentient public – know that you don’t just decide a good plan would be to kill someone, and certainly not some entirely random person who had nothing to do with the wrong that’s been done. We – again, this sentient public over here – know that you can’t just swap in another person for the one you want to do violence to and pretend that equals some kind of “justice.” And, finally we – now speaking for a much smaller subset of sentient folks who actually know and acknowledge the way race prejudice works and has always worked – we know how many Black men and boys, innocent of any crime, have been grabbed up and lynched simply because angry white folks wanted to lash out, wanted to kill “a black bastard,” as Neeson wanted to do.

And while we’re here, let’s look at a quiet detail of this vigilantism. Neeson says he went walking in Black neighborhoods to find his victim, walking and walking in these neighborhoods because he assumed that was all he’d have to do to have a confrontation with a random Black man. Because Black men are so volatile, are such beasts, that all it would take would be the sight of a big white guy and someone would be up for a fight – I’m guessing he wasn’t swinging his cudgel and making his intentions known. But seriously. How deep is this man’s bigotry?

So tired. So sick to my stomach.

Listen, I’m the first one to say that I will be dead or in prison if one of the women in my family is ever attacked. I understand catalysts of murderous rage … but I also know that when I say I will be dead or in prison if one of the women in my family is ever attacked … I am just talking, just trying to find the most emphatic way to express what the level of my rage would be like. But I know I’m not a murderer. I know I’m not going to pick up a weapon and go after anyone. I would for sure use every non-violent means of hunting and harming the guilty party, and I wouldn’t feel shame or guilt about one minute of that. But notice that I said “the guilty party.” If Neeson had been out in the streets looking for a particular, very specific person – namely, the actual man who attacked his friend or family member – his story would have been very different. Still shocking and distressing because we never like to know that folks are capable of murder, and we really can’t condone revenge killing because … moral society and the fabric of civilized life.

Isn’t the difference stunningly clear? If Neeson had said that his loved one had positively identified her attacker as Brock Rapistman and that he had then gone out with his cosh looking for that particular monster, we would have heard him differently, we would have seen ourselves in his actions. We might still have recoiled, but we would have understood him. But saying he just wanted to kill any Black man he saw? That’s something else altogether. And pretending that the nights he spent walking through Black neighborhoods with his cosh in hand was him not acting on his impulse is obscene. (A few people I’ve spoken to have likened Neeson’s story to Charles Bronson in Death Wish. No, my friends. No. Even if we could give a pass to vigilante spree killers – which, as I’ve noted, we cannot – there is the central difference I’ve just described. Bronson plays Paul Kersey, who goes on the hunt for actual killers, for people who had committed violent crimes. Neeson just wanted a good old-fashioned lynching. Guilt or innocence mattered not at all. So don’t come in here with your Death Wish mess, thank you.)

I had a few more tweets for our friendly, neighborhood obscenity-spewing film critic:

“Giving [Neeson] a pass simply because his revenge rage burned out before he got the opportunity to beat an innocent man to death is offensive. It also focuses on the wrong thing. He was willing to be a one-man lynch party, willing to kill any Black man he saw. His behavior is an example of the dehumanization that racism creates and sustains. The victim had no idea who raped her, only that he was Black. So taking the life of any random Black man would have been okay because we’re all interchangeable? In none of [Neeson’s] comments does he address the deep racism of his behavior. So there’s nothing to praise here. Nothing noble or redeeming.”

Neeson’s morning-after, let-me-whitesplain-my-violent-racism appearance on Good Morning America was another obscenity.

First, he changed his story. In the original interview, he said he’d gone out hunting Black men for more than a week. On GMA he said he went out maybe four or five times. Because that would make it better somehow? Oh, you only walked the streets as a killer for a few nights. Oh, okay. No worries. Move along, folks. Nothing to see here.

He says he learned something from the experience. Learned what, exactly? He certainly didn’t learn that his revenge-murder plan was 100 percent racist. He didn’t learn that he, in fact, is racist. So what did he learn? Please help me understand.

And then he came through with the magical cure: Power Walks! Yes, he got some help, he says, talked to some people — maybe a therapist, with any luck? — and then he said that power walks helped. Power fucking walks. If only we’d known! We could have ended slavery early, skipped the horrors of Redemption and Jim Crow and slid right into our bright, colorblind, post-racial society. Power fucking walks. Damn. Thank you, Mr. Neeson.

Definitely feeling like I need a power walk right about now.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.