Friday, August 22, 2014

Preach On, Malcolm

"As long as a white man does it, it's all right. A black man is supposed to have no feelings. When a black man strikes back he's an extremist. He's supposed to sit passively, love his enemy, and be non-violent. But if he stands up and tries to defend himself, then he's an extremist."-Malcolm X

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Runnin' Away, to Get Away

The public school system where I grew up has changed considerably. Now it is home to a substantial minority population of African-Americans and Latinos. When I was there, the demographics were somewhere around 90% white, maybe even a little more. Two years after my high school graduation, one young black man stabbed another to death in the hallway by the lockers. Both of the participants had been moved from the inner city to suburbia, seeking superior academics and fleeing the depressing lack of opportunity. The grudge they held against each other was somewhat well-known, but no one would have expected jock power plays to turn deadly.

It is possible to educate those who have grown up in the projects, but it is difficult to make up for lost time. It takes a particular kind of committed student willing to do it, especially when they are three and even four years behind grade level. Parental compliance and assistance with their child’s homework is essential to keep kids in school and out of trouble. The concept of year round school has often been suggested to prevent children from failing to retain what they’ve learned during the school year. Summer break on year-round school lasts no more than 4-6 weeks and has proven to be extremely effective for its intended purpose.

If only this situation could be easily solved by the easiest possible course of action. Public schools are finding it increasingly difficult to know how to enforce rules and discipline among problem students, many of whom are young black men from the inner city. Nobody said this was going to be easy. Work that spans and confronts racial identity, not to mention cultural expectations always is. Schools have become de facto parents for eight hours a day, five days a week. In the inner city, the priority is discipline, not education.

Responding to this, some whites have decided to leave and to go their own way. The motives of some are transparently tribal, a discomfort around people who are not like them. Others worry, rightly or wrongly, about a decrease in property values that would be created if the area grew rougher. Regardless of motive, this is difficult work, and many white people simply don't want to do it.

These are the reasons why white families have resegregated their children into private schools that are mostly white. My father’s high school alma mater is now nearly 100 % black. In the South and in nearly every single one of the United States, we are still responding to the unrest of 1968. We have never put behind us the urge to build a fortress and lock out the people who can’t afford the prohibitive cost.

Runnin' away
To get away
Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!
You're wearing out your shoes
Look at you foolin' you
Making blues of night and day
Hee! Hee! Hee! Hee!
You're stretching out your dues
Look at you fooling you
The shorter cut is quicker but
Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!
Time is here to stay
Look at you fooling you
         The deeper in debt
The harder you bet
Hee! Hee! Hee! Hee!
Need more room to play
Look at you fooling you
Another day
You're farther away
Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!
A longer trip back home

Sly and the Family Stone, 1971

And we wonder why Ferguson, Missouri, turned out the way it did. Part of the issue is money and funding. "Money is always there," said Gertrude Stein, "but the pockets change." What kept my school system affluent and myself well-educated was the tax revenue from a very large nearby shopping center. Inner city schools don’t have these resources available to them. But money alone is not enough. We have to be personally invested in the lives of children, especially those who are not just our own.

Failing schools are only partially a result of a lack of capital. In the Great Society, we learned that throwing money at a problem is no guarantee of its success. If we truly lived in a socialistic government, we’d fund education for everyone, along with universal health care. Though public school is supposed to be free, nearly every parent who takes their child to registration learns that there are always hidden costs. This might be an opportunity to know those unlike us, but we don’t want to know our neighbors, especially if their skin color differs from ours, and particularly if they were raised in a different social class.

I went to a college football game when I was five. It was the first time I had been around African-Americans in large numbers. The stadium was adjacent to a neighborhood that had been vacated by white flight. We parked in the front and back yards of local residents who appreciated the extra cash, and no doubt wished the opportunity came more regularly. I must admit I was terrified, having been told to be afraid of black people. I don’t know who told me to be fearful, but even at that young age, I was tempted to flee.

My father noticed my discomfort. He lowered himself down to my level and said a phrase I’ve never forgotten. Don’t worry. They’re just as scared of you as you are of them.

I’ll let someone else judge the veracity of the statement. Years later, in the wrong context, those very same fears might lead to a confrontation between myself and someone who is just as scared of me as I am him. We do not know each other, but that is no excuse. We can’t keep running away, to get away. It starts now, before another televised trial that does nothing more than ratchet up the debate and volume to epic proportions again, as if we’re somehow privy to watching a slow-motion reenactment of a lynching.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Plea for Mental Illness Research

Quakers were one of the first groups to clamor for decent treatment for the insane. We demanded that insane asylums were clean and the care of doctors dignified, not condescending or punitive. We crusaded against punishments like leg irons and restraints for mental patients. I hope we might consider redoubling our efforts starting now and going forward into time. Research dollars to come up with new treatments is not cheap.

Because of my struggles with depression, my mother has become very active in NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). She's directly counseled newcomers and regulars attenders to NAMI meetings. This is part of her specialized training, where primarily she tends to those who have children or close family members with mental illness. I've donated to the organization myself every now and again. If this is something you would find helpful to yourself or others, I highly recommend volunteering your time or contributing money.

What follows was originally written for my Meeting and for the several attenders and regulars who deal with chronic illness. Several of them thanked me personally for raising the topic. One woman in her late Fifties is undergoing chemo and radiation. Another is slowly ruling out potential problems before she undergoes a biopsy to determine the state and severity of her own illness. The two of them were thankful for the additional exposure and information that might improve their own medical condition someday.

"I want to thank you for your courage," said the woman undergoing treatment for oncology. I appreciated her compliment, and told her that everyone's struggle was related. I have something of an ulterior motive. Psychiatric studies are, as I noted above, expensive, and many drug companies have sharply curtailed the money for research and development. The 1990's were boom times for new treatments, but since then, not much has been developed.

I have a rapport with those who are struggling mightily with their own medical problems. Many of them feel that they have been passed over or discounted by the rest of the outside world. In the middle of terrifying uncertainty and few concrete answers, I see the weariness in their faces. Unlike some, I have what is referred to as an invisible ailment. I don't need to use a wheelchair. I don't have open wounds. My hair has not fallen out completely due to cancer treatments. If people can't see visible proof of my illness, they think it doesn't exist.

Many people my own age have approached me to speak about their own bouts with depression. One of them gave me a huge, powerful hug, to specify that she understood. It is pleasant to live in a time that, though there may not be a cure yet, people feel comfortable confessing their own struggles, or even the struggles of a spouse of family member. My mother's depression has been present since before I was born, which is partially why she's chosen to spoke to others with mental illness. For many years, she hid her own problems, but found that it was much healthier to work on behalf of others who might otherwise might not have no advocates and allies.


Though it has decreased considerably in the last several years, the stigma of mental illness is still prevalent. Severity of the case is the new baseline. I see it on street corners and at the bus stop. Nearby to where I live, a flower shop stayed vacant for years. A paranoid schizophrenic homeless person moved in and screamed non-stop incoherent gibberish at the top of his lungs. By the time the bank was built, a replacement for the flower shop, he was no longer there. I wonder how they forced him to leave. 

My grandfather, my mother's father, struggled his whole life with undiagnosed bipolar disorder. He was too ashamed to seek treatment. What he had was never to be mentioned by anyone, for any reason. There were periodic times where his depression grew severe enough that he had no choice but to take to bed for days. Two weeks later, he would emerge as though nothing had happened and resume his work. Family members knew to pretend as though nothing had happened.

Years later, I was admitted to a psych ward. One of the people on the same ward as me was a famous stock car driver. He was a local legend in his prime and had been a bold and fearless driver during his career. Now nearly sixty, the working class members of the ward lionized him for past triumphs. The fame didn't do him much good. No way to race if you're too depressed to turn the key in the ignition.

When asked what he was there for, his face took on a pinched, painful quality. I knew that he was probably there either for depression or had been placed on suicide watch. At any case, he could never admit to the nature of his being there, and no one pressed him for it. Many of us were already formulating excuses as to where we'd been and rehearsing them in front of the bathroom mirror during the time we were given to take a shower and for personal grooming.

My great-grandmother was probably schizophrenic, a condition that only worsened when her husband died suddenly and unexpectedly. She never recovered from the shock of his death. Only a few years later, she tried to drown herself in the water tank adjacent to the property, only to be fished out by a servant. Before long, she was sent to an asylum where she never regained her sanity. This, too, was a shameful family secret never to be mentioned.

A couple of years ago, my own life story was published in a book by the author Mark Pinsky and was entitled Amazing Gifts. It was published by the Alban Institute. Mark's book detailed the life of many people with disabilities, not just mental illness, and I was proud to work with a professional like him. Through talking to him, I realized that what I'd experienced was hardly unusual. We all felt that we were the only ones out there with similar problems, but in many ways, we were anything but abnormal.

I am fortunate to live in a time where treatments are more effective and more profuse, but the practice of psychiatry is still very inexact. I take one medication that was developed in 1961. I once took another developed in the late 1950's. Pharmaceutical companies advertise in magazines, television, and on the internet about the latest breakthrough, but we're still not there yet. Research trials that provide nearly instant relief for depression get hung up in medical testing for decades, because of a thousand tiny complications. I gave up on expecting a cure many years ago. The nature of psychiatry is more to reach a sense of proper proportion than anything else.

I know I will always need to take medication the whole of my life, but at least I can manage my care enough that episodes like these are rarities. It's not a foolproof system, but the brain is an organ that reminds me of a map of Africa in 1850, largely uncharted by the Western mind and poorly understood. I could remain in a state of deep frustration and anger, but I've learned over time that this is wasted effort. If a cure isn't in the card, perhaps more effective treatments are. 

Should this be a cause that speaks to you, there will always been a need for your services, and I sincerely thank you. I will be glad to guide you along if you wish to assist. I don't usually ask anyone for money or their time beyond reading my diary, but I hope you will indulge me this time.


It's summertime and the living is easy
The fish are jumping and the cotton is high
Your daddy's rich and your mama's good looking
Won't you hush, pretty baby, don't you cry

One of these mornings you're going to wake up singing
Then you're going to spread wings and take to the sky
But 'till that morning ain't nothing, nothing going to harm you
With your mommy and daddy there standing by

It's summertime and the living is easy
The fish are jumping and the cotton is high
Your daddy's rich and your mama's good looking
Would you hush, pretty baby, don't you cry

Monday, August 18, 2014

Ferguson's Festering Is Nothing New

Ferguson, Missouri, reminds me more of the past than the present. Those of us erstwhile liberals want activists and ordinary people alike to turn out in great numbers for parades and demonstrations. We want pitchforks and lit torches. These events are extremely rare. We live in the United States, not Revolutionary France. We saw our American limitations in Occupy and the shanty town Hoovervilles decades before that were, in hindsight, more symbolic than any genuine threat to the political establishment.

Franklin Roosevelt was elected for his first term of office in 1932. Even his nominal Republican opponents thought that if FDR ruled as a dictator for a while, that would be perfectly acceptable. That's how dire the situation was. I can't imagine anything that radical like that being proposed today. Today's Republican Party would probably be clamoring for people to starve to death rather than receiving a government handout. At the same time, we have mostly avoided the economic crisis present many places elsewhere on the globe, those that have provided turmoil and poverty on an unprecedented scale.

1932 was eighty-two years ago. Between a third and a fourth of all Americans were out of work. And even then, with such uncertainty, riots and physical acts of violence were minimal and isolated to a few places here and there. I'll leave the reasons of why and for what reason to the political scientists, but my over-simplified answer is that fully direct democracy is somewhat foreign to the American character. We're not the kind to pick up a banner and put on our walking shoes.

We may have pushed a few tea chests into Boston Harbor and fought a largely defensive war where we were badly outnumbered, especially at first. The later Civil War was about slavery, yes, but it was also about the 10th Amendment and the perceived encroachment of state's rights by the Federal Government. We're still fighting the Federalist system, which was a compromise measure from the very beginning. It was a reaction to the absolute power of monarchs and despots.

If anything tears this country apart again, it will be an conflict between those who favor strong centralized power in Washington, DC, or individual state governments who want to do things their own way. Everything that happens inevitably gets reduced and boiled down to a few talking points. The Tea Party are one side, and those with Socialist sympathies like me take the other high ground. Everyone else can be convinced to vote for whomever seems like the right candidate.

We've boxed ourselves into a dichotomy. Law continually defines the limits of state power and federal power, not Congress or the President. It didn't take very long to establish the principle of judicial review, where courts could overrule the laws and acts of Congress and the whims of Presidents. Judicial review was established precedent only a mere fifteen years after the ratification of the Constitution.

Aside from amending the Constitution further, which takes a very long time and is no sure thing, I'm not entirely sure what can be done. Even with the inefficiency of Congress, I see that it accomplishes more than many state governments do.

Growing up in Alabama, as I did, much made me want to hang my head in shame. Goat Hill, the physical location of the seat of government was based in Montgomery. In 2007, a fist fight on the floor of the Alabama Senate broke out between a Democratic state senator and a Republican state senator. It was captured live by a camera crew. Though it was swiftly contained, it continued to blacken the reputation of the state in the eyes of the rest of the nation.

I have minimal confidence in most politicians. Should Hillary Clinton run in 2016, she may understand the system enough to effectively grease the wheels of power. Though I like our current President, it will be a while before I vote for a political neophyte. Should Hillary Clinton win two terms, that will collectively be sixteen years of Democratic rule. I hope she will have the ability to swing the balance of power in the Supreme Court by replacing Republican appointees. The wars we fight now are neither in the Executive Branch, nor in the Legislative branch.  

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Quote of the Week

JANN WENNER: You say on your record (John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band) that “The freaks on the phone won’t leave me alone, so don’t give me that brother, brother.”

JOHN LENNON: Because I’m sick of all these aggressive hippies or whatever they are, the “Now Generation,” being very up-tight with me. Either on the street or anywhere, or on the phone, demanding my attention, as if I owed them something.

I’m not their fucking parents, that’s what it is. They come to the door with a fucking peace symbol and expect to just sort of march around the house or something, like an old Beatles fan. They’re under a delusion of awareness by having long hair, and that’s what I’m sick of. They frighten me, a lot of uptight maniacs going around, wearing fuckin’ peace symbols.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Doctor's Mess

I tend to trust doctors who absentmindedly spill part of their lunches on their clothing, day after day. It makes them seem real and approachable, not snobby residents of the ivory tower. When a neurologist showed up with ketchup stains on her loose fitting pants, I knew I had found a friend. The Jewish last name accentuated her facial features and grey hair was scattered periodically throughout her head. At the age of 41 she made no attempt to dye them.

With men, this approach is less enduring. One psychiatrist dressed like a slob. Every day before Noon he always managed to turn his shirt onto a combination of spilled onions and yellow mustard. I wanted to please him so much that I sometimes lied about the severity of my pain. The average stay in a psych ward is usually matter of days, not weeks. One day's difference will make little to no difference, but I took the pills as prescribed and wished to go home.

I was seated in an examination room, waiting, as we all do. The patient next to me was being seen, and the thin walls meant I heard almost every word in the exchange. The patient was complaining energetically about a recent surgical procedure. The doctor indignantly raised her voice in protest.

“What did you expect?! A magic pill?”

I’m not sure I could have kept my composure after being yelled at like that. It probably would have taken me whole minutes to not inadvertently take out my aggression on the next patient. The doctor was not at fault. Some patients become indignant at the drop of a hat. To be fair, some doctors are thin-skinned and not especially sympathetic.

My urologist is dainty and feminine enough that it’s hard to believe she has bodily functions of her own. Her attitude is that of crisp proficiency, a kind of unfailingly polite demeanor that sometimes is more show than substance. She has a temper she seems to control most of the time, but when challenged it shows itself. The first thing I had to learn as a patient is that she doesn't like compliments, regardless of how enthusiastic and genuine they are presented.

I made sure to side-step these problems. She responded to me cheerfully as though I’d been the first patient she’d seen all day. The urologist was nurturing and helpful, even with her own omnipresent condiment stain that she’d apparently spent several minutes vigorously trying to get rid of it. This one had fallen on her white doctor's jacket slightly less than halfway down the right side. There wasn't much new information to convey, and she was quick to grant sympathy for the slight complications from surgery.

But that was only one interaction. She could be very kind and very testy. Her bedside demeanor, prior to surgery, was impeccable. She showed up at the tail end of winter in an ivory-colored pea coat that suited her features well. Though some might differ, to me she was beautiful. After I was done with the procedure and situated in the recovery room, I had no filter, no way to limit my topics of conversation with the rest of the staff. Highly opinionated by nature, I try to be very careful in how I express my desire for licensed professionals.

There is one problem. No one has the ability to mind what they say in the recovery room. Not at first, at least. The first thirty minutes you are beyond loopy, barely conscious, droning on about no particular subject, waiting for the drugs given you to lose their effect. I believe I called the doctor very good looking in the company of a nurse who was monitoring me. The nurse was was not convinced. She said, Eh, well, she’s cute.

Prior to the procedure, I’d been slowly bleeding through the thin hospital gown they make everyone wear. Many people undergo a surgical procedure ignorant of what is about to happen. They don’t have visible proof of something being wrong. They might know of the internal pain, but they have no means of observing more than that. Strangely, the pain was minimal, but the blood was beginning to soak through my gown into the sheets of the hospital bed. Recognizing this, I’d spoken deliberately to the anesthesiologist, which meant that the procedure would not be delayed a single second longer.

I woke feeling numb and confused, expecting to still be in the operating room. I’d been asked to inhale a plethora of noxious chemicals to put me under, rather than have them administered through an IV. Every time I go under the knife, my head always throbs the moment I fully rouse and it keeps up for another hour. A parade of visitors check on me, the patient, now resting semi-comfortably in new surroundings. The first two who speak to me are only wasting time because I can never remember what they said. Hot doctor, which is what I have taken to calling her, and never to her face, always comes last so she can check in with me before her other rounds.

Sometimes I ask her unnecessary questions to prolong her stay in my company. She obligingly answers them, but then implies through body language that she has other obligations. I am not jealous. I never exceed my limits, but I think each of us, male or female, has a particular look or a personal person towards which we naturally gravitate. Most of my doctor’s appointments are boring, dismal affairs with boring, dismal people.

To have something to look forward to makes all the difference in the world. This is a secretive affair. I would be shocked if any doctor, male or female, were to make a pass at me. They have entirely too much to lose. They would be liable for malpractice and lose their certification. The only situation where that would be even plausible would be if a doctor became a drug addict and began to lose good judgment and to take foolish risks. The only other problem I can think of is if a doctor had bipolar disorder and, in a manic phase, was acting entirely impulsively, even unethically.

These things almost never happen. Male fantasy alone, the most likely outcome in a doctor’s office is a consistent problem with insurance companies and prescription drug coverage. Speaking of impulsive sexual behavior, I never knew anyone who was part of the Mile High Club, either, aside from the bad jokes featured in Playboy. Every man with such a rich fantasy life is better off partnering with another man. The shared genitalia and mutual brain structure means that any dream along those lines is far more likely to actually happen in reality. They will not transpire in an immaculately cleaned and sterile room with a consistently full jar of tongue depressors, gauze, and a sink.

Saturday Video

It could all be so simple
But you'd rather make it hard
Loving you is like a battle
And we both end up with scars

Tell me, who I have to be
To get some reciprocity
No one loves you more than me
And no one ever will

Is this just a silly game
That forces you to act this way?
Forces you to scream my name
Then pretend that you can't stay

Tell me, who I have to be
To get some reciprocity
No one loves you more than me
And no one ever will

No matter how I think we grow
You always seem to let me know
It ain't workin', It ain't workin' (No, it ain't workin')

And when I try to walk away
You'd hurt yourself to make me stay
This is crazy, this is crazy (This is crazy, uh-huh!)

I keep letting you back in
How can I explain myself?
As painful as this thing has been
I just can't be with no one else

See I know what we've got to do
You let go, and I'll let go too
'Cause no one's hurt me more than you
And no one ever will

No matter how I think we grow
You always seem to let me know
It ain't workin', It ain't workin' (It ain't workin')

And when I try to walk away
You'd hurt yourself to make me stay
This is crazy, this is crazy

Care for me, care for me!
I know you care for me!

There for me, there for me!
Said you'd be there for me!

Cry for me, cry for me!
You said you'd die for me!

Give to me, give to me!
Why won't you live for me?!