24 Hours: Do I Dare?

What is it with me and challenges? I can’t resist them. Cannot. I never used to think of myself as a competitive person, but I so am. And that’s part of the driver behind my saying yes to challenges. I’m competing: against the ridiculousness of the challenge, against myself.

I think it throws me back to taking a dare as a kid. Someone would thrown down some petty or foolish gauntlet, and I would immediately feel the pull to dive in and prove … who knows what, but prove it all the same. Clearly, I’ve never outgrown the inability to resist that pull.

All this to say I can’t resist. Generally speaking, the challenges I take on are fairly mild. They come in the form of, say, doing NaNoWriMo. Or the 30/30 poetry month challenge … and sweetening the pot by choosing a poetry form and writing that form all month long. Not easy for me, but pretty harmless.

The 24 Hour Project is one of the challenges that keeps captivating me year after year. It tests me on different levels:

  1. Can I stay awake and mostly functional for 24 hours?
  2. Can I find something or someone to photograph every hour of the day?
  3. Will I be able to imagine a story to write for each photo I post each hour (this is the “sweetener” I’ve added to the basic rules of the 24HrPrj)?
  4. Will I be able to get all the photos of people that I want without being spotted (I fail this every year, always get busted at least once)?
  5. Will I venture into neighborhoods I haven’t visited on previous 24HrPrj days?
  6. Will I post all my “leftovers” after the day — all the pics that didn’t go up on the challenge day but which I still want to make stories for (I haven’t succeeded with this one this year … yet)?
  7. If I’m going out alone, will I settle into the fun of the challenge and not let the worry and discomfort of being alone on the street in the middle of the night sour my good mood and make it hard for me to take pictures (this one is really a crap shoot and has as much to do with me as it does with who else is out on the street in the middle of the night)?

Is it any wonder that I love this challenge when it has so many challenges baked in?

I had a lot of fun this year … after I managed to succeed at Number 7, calming down about being by myself. Both of the friends who’ve gone out with me in the past weren’t able to do the Project this year. I did wind up running into my friend S, the person who introduced me to the challenge. I spotted him in Times Square around 4 am and hung out with him and a few other 24 Hour Photogs for a couple of hours then met up with him for another couple of hours in the evening.

I was rusty with the story-making. Not only was the Project Covid-canceled last year, being in quarantine for the last forever has meant not being out and about that much, not taking pictures, not having the catalysts/inspiration to make up stories.

So yes, quite rusty. But after a couple of hours it began to feel easier. There’s a picture from the two o’clock hour that was the turning point. I had found an all-night diner (key establishments for making it through the Project, to be sure) and took a picture of a police officer who was having dinner and a very involved conversation with his partner. In the picture, he is studying the menu. The combination of his serious face and the fact that he reminded me of a friend’s son and echoed her older brother who had been a police officer all clicked for me and the story just fell into my head. From that point forward, the stories came more quickly and smoothly.

*

I miss my city. Eighteen months in my room is a long time to be separated from people watching, grabbing a coffee at a favorite café, chatting with store employees, having random and excellent encounters with strangers.

That last one is one of the things that struck me hardest during the 24 Hour Project. I miss talking to strangers, something I’ve always done quite a lot of … but not since Covid came to town. Around 7:30 Saturday morning, having seen my way through the long midnight-to-dawn of the challenge, I was headed home to charge my devices and recharge myself. I stopped in my grocery story because I still needed a photo for the hour. I saw an elderly woman I wanted to take a picture of. I did take a picture, but she surprised me by starting to talk to me.

Not only did she talk to me, but she was funny and sweet. At two moments in our conversation, she reached over and put her hand on my arm. You know, the way you reach for a friend’s arm when you’re talking and you want to emphasize your shared feeling at that instant. And she did it twice.

I am a toucher. I like affectionate physical contact. Not with everyone, of course, but yes, I like it. Having this woman touch me in this conversationally intimate way — after a forever of almost no physical contact, when we were strangers, when she was a tiny elderly white woman and I a big, Black woman — it was absolutely beautiful. It made my heart smile.

I have missed this type of sweetness my city has always given me. Yes, the city has given me some ugly moments, too, for sure. But I get much more of the random kindness and connection of that exchange in the chips and cookies aisle.

* * *

(My 24-Hour experience this year was a warm welcome back to my city. But what a difference a couple of weeks can make. I was out taking my pictures on July 24th … and now, Delta is threatening new lockdowns. I’m glad we got the Project in before the tide started to turn, and I really hope we can stay on the safer side of this variant wave.)

Do I dare? Well, I certainly always do when it comes to the 24 Hour Project. It’s such a great idea and a fun event, and I love following people from around the world, getting to see a day in their cities. This year I followed two Italians, a Pole, two Mexicans, one Turk, a couple of Australians, and a handful of people around this country. In a sense, I guess it’s a virtual way to have a random conversation with a stranger.

I need to get back to posting my leftovers … and some of the shots I’ve captured since the event. I’m already looking forward to next year!


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What I Would Give for Surprise

Officer Rusten Sheskey of Kenosha has returned from administrative leave. He will not face any disciplinary action for shooting James Blake.

And it’s Tuesday. A Tuesday like any other. Nothing shocking, nothing out of the ordinary. One more in the forever line of days of being at constant risk in this land of the free (whites) and home of the (trigger happy) brave.

* * *

Let’s talk about Golden Shovels, shall we? I’ve been so tired the last few days, I haven’t had time to think about how hard this form is for me. All I’ve been able to do is churn out a poem and get it posted. I posted a comment earlier that showed me at least part of what the road block is for me with these poems. Yes, having a prescribed set of words and word placement is restrictive. The bigger issue is that the lines I’m using as my source text are from Clifton’s poems. Using them feels rudely audacious and makes me even more self-conscious than I would normally be. So yes, the task I’ve set for myself for this month is specially designed to trip me up. Brilliant!

Despite all of this, I am actually starting to feel more comfortable with the form. Not snuggled in the way I was with the tanka. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel that cozy in another form, but I am feeling less like a combatant, less under siege. That’s a good sign, of course, and it’s kind of right on time. It’s usually around the middle of the month that I stop approaching my chosen form as if we’re cage-fighting. It remains to be seen if I can approaching something closer to actual ease with this.

Tonight’s source text is from “the times.”

No Charges

That confidence, safety, certainty is so white,
so very, blindingly white, and
the heat of it burns, glowing, as I
watch it dance, saunter, flaunt its might.
I understand.
I do. I might be the same, except
nothing in this unwelcoming birthplace has afforded me that
freedom, that comfort. Instead, I
have built every good thing I am.
And today what I feel is tired,
as again I spit out a bitter draught of understanding.

National Poetry Month 2021: the Golden Shovel

As I’ve done for the last forever, I’ve chosen a poetic form, and I’m going to try to write a poem in that form every day for the month of April. I don’t always succeed, but I always give it my best shot. The “Golden Shovel” was created by Terrance Hayes in tribute to Gwendolyn Brooks. I learned about it from my friend Sonia (aka Red Emma). I’ll be using Lucille Clifton’s poems as my starting point this month. Here are the rules:

  • Take a line (or lines) from a poem you admire.
  • Use each word in the line (or lines) as the end word for each line in your poem.
  • Keep the end words in order.
  • Give credit to the poet who originally wrote the line (or lines).
  • The new poem does not have to be about the same subject as the poem that offers the end words.

If you pull a line with six words, your poem would be six lines long. If you pull a stanza with 24 words, your poem would be 24 lines long. And so on.

Should be interesting!

Making the Heart Grow Fonder

When I have conversations about quarantine — which is, unsurprisingly, all the damn time — there is always a moment where I mention that I haven’t visited my family since February. (Presidents’ Day weekend, to be exact.) Whoever is in the conversation expresses some level of sympathy, and the conversation moves on.

I realized the other day that saying I haven’t visited my mother, brother, and sister since February doesn’t mean anything. I said it in April, said it in June … But some of the people I talk to maybe visit their families once a year, so my lament doesn’t hold any weight in their understanding, while it’s huge for me.

For the last several years, I’ve been visiting my family once a month. I’ve missed a month here and there, but generally, I’ve held my schedule. I visit because I love them and they are a few states away from me, and I miss them. I also visit because they love me and my being in the same place with them eases some of the tension in the air there. It gives us a chance to have conversations we don’t have over phone or email, let’s us do the regular maintenance requires on those ties that bind, gives us opportunities to laugh at foolish inside jokes, to look at old photos … and just be alive in the same space, together.

And I haven’t been to visit in five months. It’s starting to feel like a year. And the virus is still rampaging, and my job is staying virtual for the fall semester, so it might really be a year.

In these five months apart, I’ve missed each of their birthdays: first my sister’s early in lockdown, when we thought it might not last too long, then my mother’s, and just over a week ago, my brother’s. In about 6 weeks, my own birthday will be coming up. It’s on a Friday this year, so I would definitely have been spending it with them. My mother turned 84 last month.

Yes, I sound whiny. I am whiny. I know that I’m incredibly lucky. I am safe and healthy and working from home. My family is safe and healthy — even though my brother and sister are both officially “essential” and still have to leave the house and work. Our broader circle of immediate family are mostly safe and healthy (our Texas family is in the hot-zone with the virus creeping closer every day). I’m lucky. But that doesn’t mean I’m unscathed. I don’t make a lot of noise about what COVID is stealing from me, about the ways my life has changed since the start of lockdown, but that doesn’t mean I’m not feeling it.

Absence is purported to make the heart grow fonder. I suppose. But I’m already supremely fond of my family. All this absence is adding up to sadness and frustration.

I need one of my mother’s hugs.

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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Your Privilege Is Showing

I was walking down Seventh Avenue in Manhattan, headed for Penn Station. I was in a good mood: I’d just come from a good Girls Write Now workshop, and I was on my way to a coffee shop to meet a dear friend for a writing date. It had been raining in the morning, but just then the sun was warming things, and the rain seemed past. Good mood, not thinking about the dumpster-fire hellscape we live in, just happy in my little, personal bubble.

I stopped at a street light. And a couple stood beside me. They were pretty in that sharp, shiny way of models who graduated from Abercrombie and Fitch ads five or six years ago. They are both white, their accents don’t sound like this city, but they could be from anywhere.

Him: The thing is, we know politicians lie. We know they lie some percentage of the time. Some lie a greater percentage than others.

Her: They are politicians.

Him: Right. And we know they’ve all done things that aren’t strictly legal. But the things is, they spend so much time talking about all that, they barely have time to govern, to get anything done.

Her: Good point.

Him: And that kind of works in our favor, right? It’s ridiculous, but it’s good, too. They have so little time for the real work that they don’t have time to mess things up too badly. So we just need to hang in there.

Her: That’s great. Thinking of it that way is so helpful.

No. I didn’t actually start throwing up at that moment. That would maybe have been the kindest thing I could have done, however. It would have created a distraction and would likely have made them shut the entire fuck up.

Sigh.

Never mind the nonsensical idea that politicians don’t have enough time to get anything done because they’re too busy cleaning or covering up the messes from all their lies and illegal activities.

Never mind that this man’s idea hinges on an assumed pendulum-swing that would land us back in some mystical, never-existed time when all of us were safe and happy.

Never mind that this shows just how little these pretty, pretty people have been paying attention to much of anything that’s happened in the last 26 months.

Ugh.

I want to bypass all of that and zero in on the idea of things not getting messed up “too badly.” Too badly. What, I wonder, does this mean?

Are things not messed up too badly for every Muslim person who has been impacted by the travel ban?

Are things not messed up too badly for all the DACA youth and adults who are now at risk of deportation?

Are things not messed up too badly for every family that’s been separated at the border?

Are things not messed up too badly for every child lost to trafficking and illegal adoptions because no one ever intended to return them to their families?

Are things not messed up too badly for every child who has been sexually abused or assaulted while in detention?

Are things not messed up too badly for every person raped on a college campus now that there are fewer protections and avenues for recourse for them to protect themselves and ensure their attacker is held accountable?

Are things not messed up too badly for every transgender soldier who can no longer pursue their military careers?

Are things not messed up too badly for every transgender person whose personhood isn’t considered valuable enough to be respected and protected?

Are things not messed up too badly for Puerto Rico?

I’ll stop, though there are so many more of these questions I could pose.

Even if it’s true that the Trump administration and Republican lawmakers don’t have time to do all the hateful things they want to do, can there really be a question as to whether they have already succeeded in doing a shit-ton of patently horrible things? Really?

If you can look at the things that have been done and undone since Trump was sworn in and think that things haven’t been messed up too much, it’s past time for you to examine your privilege. Clearly, none of the things that have been done since January 2017 have affected you, or haven’t affected you much, not enough for you to feel particularly inconvenienced.

But you have work to do. You have so damn much work to do.

First, you need to read more, and more broadly. You need to follow the social media of a whole bunch of Black and brown and indigenous people.

And then you need to make some new friends. You need poor white friends. You need gay and trans friends. You need Black and brown and indigenous friends. You need gay and trans Black and brown and indigenous friends. You need friends who work blue collar jobs. You need friends who never attended college and maybe never graduated from high school. You need friends who work in the service industry. You need friends who live off their tips. You need friends who are Muslim. You need friends who are Jewish. You need friends who’ve been stopped and frisked. You need friends who’ve been incarcerated. You need friends who aren’t you, who aren’t anything like you.

Yes, I know this is a lot to demand. It’s hard to make friends. And it’s especially hard to make friends from groups that aren’t part of your existing circles, who don’t live in your comfort zone. And sure, maybe that means you need to think about your comfort zone. In the meantime, if you can’t make a whole set of friends, if you can’t make any new friends without asking them to explain structural racism or poverty to you, if you can’t make new friends without using them as proof of your wokeness or non-racist-ness, then you have that much more reading and following to do.

I know we can’t spend all of our time suffering on behalf of people other than ourselves and our loved ones, that we can’t spend every waking moment working to improve everyone’s life. I mean, look at me. I was walking down Seventh Avenue not thinking about anyone else. I spend many, many hours and days of my life focused on my own needs. At the same time, I am aware of the realities around me, and I try to learn about realities I don’t know so well. I am neither as comfortable nor as safe as that couple on the street sounded, but I have my privileges, the truths about me and who I am able to be in the world that make my life leagues easier than the lives of a staggering majority of people. The thing is, I know that. And the other thing is, I know those other people exist and I know my life and my hope for the future are entirely tied up with those people’s lives.

This isn’t an I-am-my-brother’s-keeper situation. This is a my-brother’s-life-is-connected-to-mine situation. This isn’t complex math.

Not only did I not vomit when I heard that couple’s conversation, I didn’t engage with them. I’d been in a good mood, and I wanted to be in a good mood. I’ve already said (again and again) how uninterested I am in doing folks’ homework for them, but in this instance, it was more a case of not wanting to yell at strangers in the street. That’s really never a way to get people thinking or teach them anything, anyway.

I kept walking. I promised myself that I’d sit down and write all of this out so I could release it and not carry it on my chest for the next forever. Done and done.

Or … ? I mean, doesn’t someone need to take and shake these people? Not just that couple, but all the comfortable people who think things can’t really get too bad, that things aren’t already too bad.

Sigh. “Someone” needs to take and shake them, but it really can’t be me.

Right. Whose job is it, then?

So many of my questions come back to the same answer, an answer that will surprise no one: white people, you need to get your people. For real. You need to. And this is a full-time job, so that’s going to be pretty exhausting. Yeah. Entirely exhausting. You’ll need to squad up, make some schedules, figure out shifts. All of that. But really, the work is steading increasing, so the sooner you get started, the better.


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.