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.

Mississippi Goddamn

So the lynch-mob cheerleader won her Senate race in Mississippi. 83% of white people in Mississippi voted for white supremacy. And all over Facebook and Twitter, white people are wringing their hands and saying, “America! This isn’t Who We Are!”

And I have to wonder, as I always wonder, what exactly these people think America has always been. Maybe what they mean to say is, “America! This isn’t who I have allowed myself to pretend we are!” That sounds  more accurate.

A few years ago, I recorded a comment for The Race Card Project, a project started by NPR reporter Michelle Norris. We were asked to record six words that summed up what we were feeling about race on that cold, January, almost-MLK Day. I found my six words quite easily. I stepped up to the mic and said, “White Supremacy is America’s middle name.” I meant it then, I mean it now, I imagine the I will mean it for the rest of my life.

The fact that there are still white people in this country who act as if they don’t understand that this entire nation was built on racism isn’t shocking to me. It doesn’t surprise me, but it does disgust me. It does depress me. It does make me lose faith.

It also makes me think a lot of those hand-wringing people are flat-out liars. They have allowed themselves the entirely white luxury of pretending they live in a post-racial world. I imagine they have told themselves that so they don’t have to do any work. If we’re post racial — whatever the fuck that would even mean if it were really a thing — then there would be no need to dismantle the structures of racism, no need to do any of the back-breaking work of rioting out racism at the root and eradicating it once and for all. No. If we are post racial, their fantasy of racism being a thing of the past is real, and they wouldn’t even need to speak foolishness such as claiming to be colorblind or that talking about racism is the real problem with race. So they have lived in their lie, skillfully ignoring or deflecting all evidence that threatened them with reality. And now here they are faced with the impossibility of living behind that lie, and suddenly they’re outraged and shocked.

This all sounds like a lot of bullshit. Plain and simple. These people know where they live. They may have done a good job of hiding from history, but they most definitely know where they live. So to see America’s true face on display over and over and over and over and over again can’t actually be surprising. And yet there they are, wringing their poor, sore hands, lamenting over the discovery of reality.

Yes, Mississippi elected Cindy Hyde-Smith. Yes. Elected her thanks to a landslide of white votes that pushed her comfortably past Mike Espy, her Black, Democratic opponent. Yes, of course, Mississippi is a red state. Of course. It was red before Hyde-Smith said how tickled she’d be to attend a lynching. Sure. Yes.

My request is that white people (and – please God – any non-white people who have jumped on this crazy train) stop the nonsense. Stop playacting amazement at things that aren’t in any way amazing. Stop pretending surprise when the exact thing that could be expected actually happens. Cindy Hyde-Smith said something hateful and threateningly racist. And then she was elected to the US Senate yesterday. And? Rather than wringing your hands and exclaiming your shock that this country has suddenly become some horrifyingly racist place.

White Supremacy Is America’s Middle Name.

The white electorate in Mississippi has offered up a bright, shiny affirmation of this commonplace fact, so guess what time it is. Time to stop wringing your damned, chapped hands and get. the. fuck. to. work.


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.

Magical Negresses, Robocalls, Ballot Boxes and American Greatness

A white supremacist group created a robocall for Georgia’s white voters. The call script is fascinating. Someone, doing what I’m sure they thought was an excellent and excellently funny impression of Oprah, talks about the plot to elect Stacey Abrams. Not-Oprah introduces herself as “the magical negress Oprah Winfrey” and talks about her own rise to fame being created by simple-minded white women and how that same constituency of simple-minded white women — “especially the fat ones” — will allow themselves to be duped into voting for Not-Oprah’s sister in struggle, the magical negress Stacey Abrams.

Well, this magical negress found herself full-on surprised by this ugly audio postcard … and surprised by her surprise. The campaign against Stacey Abrams as she runs for governor of Georgia has been nothing but bald-face lies, ugly snark, unscrupulous behavior, and disenfranchisement from the start. This call is nothing new and certainly shouldn’t be in any way surprising.

I don’t live in Georgia. I live in a racist northern state instead of a racist southern one. I don’t live in Georgia, but I’ve spent time and a tiny bit of money supporting Stacey Abrams. I would be thrilled to see her win today. She is one of what is — thrillingly — much more than a handful of Black, non-Black POC, and LGBTQIA Democratic candidates I’m pulling for this election. Their rise to the offices they seek wouldn’t be magical, wouldn’t mean the end of racism (see above, re: not magical). But their elections would each be important steps in a better direction than the one we’ve been headed the past 21 months.

I think my surprise with this robocall is in how comfortable the racists who created it feel. They are so comfortable, they don’t worry about alienating a large voting block of the Republican base. The call script is racist, sure, but that’s too basic a description. One that doesn’t do justice to the layers of hate and ignores the other ugliness on display.

First, the voice recording the call seems to be a man’s. Because of course. Because any Black woman who wields power and is proud and confident and talented is depicted as a man.

The script takes an old story and gives it an updated twist: as has ever been the white supremacist plot line, white women are held up as needing to be protected. The 2018 twist is that, in these modern times, rather than needing protection from the sexual rampaging of brutish Black men, white women need protecting from the cleverness of magical negresses (bearing gifts of free cars). Sweet.

The protection of white women in this call to action isn’t the protection of purity as we’ve grown accustomed to seeing. This script calls out the need to protect white women from their own stupidity. White women, apparently, are so addlepated they can be seduced away from the fight for White Supremacy by Black women and their magical negritude.

White women are weak … and the fat ones are weakest of all. The excess adipose tissue must put too much pressure on their wee little brains. Because, even if it has nothing to do with the subject at hand, if there’s an opportunity to throw in a little fat hate, why on earth would you let it pass?

It was the insult to white women that surprised me. White women have shown themselves to be pretty solid supporters of White Supremacy, gender inequality, and misogyny. Did the writer of this call script not see the results of the 2016 election, or the white women supporting Roy Moore or Brett Kavanaugh or any number of other candidates and ballot issues that were entirely against their own best interest as women? Given that voting history, why come for white women?

But, of course, white women are a safe target, a safe tool to use against Black women … precisely because white women have been solid supporters of White Supremacy and violent patriarchy. White women have chosen to support white men over and over again. No matter how much evidence can be shown of a white man’s guilt, vileness, basic unfitness for a job, white women will stand up in support of him. So I really shouldn’t be surprised that the creator of this call felt entirely comfortable painting his womenfolk so insultingly.

 

I don’t know what Georgia (or Florida, or Minnesota, or Michigan, or New York …) voters will do today. I hope they will send a flood of Democrats to local, state and national offices. I hope everyone who cares about human rights, human decency, equity, and the values we like to think this country was founded on understands the threat we’re facing and has stepped into this fight with both feet, stepped in fully-armed and prepared for the long slog. Because despite the legendary magic of negresses, this fight needs more than our votes alone.

We are people for whom and to whom America has never been particularly great, but who choose to believe that it could be great if enough people stood with us to hold the line, to force back the noxious sludge flowing in the streets. We will show up, because we do. We will cast votes aimed at protecting our families and communities and keeping this country from tumbling further into hell.

Who’s with us?


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.