Friday, July 03, 2015

A drunk, an addict, a father and a journalist

David Carr's media column for the Times only became a regular stop for my browsing shortly before his death last February. As journalism struggles to find a way to pay for significant reporting, he tried to keep it real. The columns at the link are still worth reading: informative, tough, and compassionate.

I knew he had written a memoir of his years as an addict and drunk. I didn't want to read it. I've never been much interested in white, straight, mid-Western boozer males.

But after he died -- in journalistic harness, collapsing at his desk -- I decided to give the book a chance. It is titled The Night of the Gun: A reporter investigates the darkest story of his life. His own. As far as Carr's life story goes, I was right to avoid it; descent to the bottom is not interesting except to the participants.

But there's more going on here. Carr really did give his memories of multiple foggy episodes the full fact-checking treatment. The title derives from his discovery that his memory of his best friend pulling a gun on him during a particularly extreme binge was completely false. He was the one who had brought the gun into their quarrel. There's chapter on chapter of that sort of thing, including some woman beating and a lot of crack cocaine.

Still, why might anyone want to read this painful book? Perhaps because it is both wise and possibly truthful, or at least it expands a reader's apprehension of the categories of human truth.

Regular people, people who are not drunks or addicts, will drink too much, get a horrible hangover, and decide not to do it again. And then they don't. An addict decides there is something wrong with his technique ...

Somehow, twin daughters who needed him and a stalwart (second) wife helped Carr pull out of the pit he dug himself. Journalistic talent clearly helped too. Woes await the recovering drunk who isn't employable ...

And even Carr's description of his bottoms has its endearing moments. During one crazed moment, he describes himself alone, talking to his dog, Barley, a Corgi mix.

... I'd ask her random questions. Barley didn't talk back per se, but I saw the answers by staring into her large brown eyes.

Am I a lunatic? Yes. When am I going to cut this shit out? Apparently never. Does God see me right now? Yes. God sees everything.

Sobriety didn't come for a long, long time, but when it came, Carr relished being "normal." He concluded:

You are always told to recover for yourself, but the only way I got my head out of my own ass was to remember there were other asses to consider.

I now inhabit a life I don't deserve, but we all walk the earth feeling we are frauds.

I read this book by ear -- and I do not recommend that version. When I borrowed the hard copy from the library, I was delighted to discover it was full of pictures of people, police reports and newspaper clips that are not to be missed.

Friday cat blogging

I think Morty likes the heat from the lamp.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Love can grow larger

Newly elected Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry makes a point.

Yesterday the General Convention of The Episcopal Church -- bishops, clergy and laity making like a legislature -- brought our marriage ceremonies and definitions into line with the expansive expression of love that is sweeping the land. Good for them.

According to a friends I count on to know a thing or two, the new PB explained at his press conference:

"It's marriage. It's not gay marriage. It's not straight marriage. It's marriage."

That's done, thanks to decades of patient, urgent struggle, much pain and some joy. Now can my church gets its mind and heart around other justice agendas?

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Greece; Iran; terrorism; doors opening, maybe

Things I think that I think about the situation we're in ... some, guardedly, hopeful. While other events wrung me out over the last few days, I can't let pass three developments foreign and one domestic.

Tourist photo from Athens
1. Does it seem to anyone else that the German government and European banking elites are treating Greeks much as rural state legislators treat cities where people of color are the majorities -- as stupid, incompetent, foolish, lazy and incapable of self government? In Europe, are Greeks the blacks?

Nobel winning economist Joseph Stiglitz might concur:
We should be clear: almost none of the huge amount of money loaned to Greece has actually gone there. It has gone to pay out private-sector creditors – including German and French banks. Greece has gotten but a pittance, but it has paid a high price to preserve these countries’ banking systems. The IMF and the other “official” creditors do not need the money that is being demanded. Under a business-as-usual scenario, the money received would most likely just be lent out again to Greece.

But, again, it’s not about the money. It’s about using “deadlines” to force Greece to knuckle under, and to accept the unacceptable – not only austerity measures, but other regressive and punitive policies.
2. Sometime in the next ten days, the U.S. and its partners in nuclear negotiations with Iran will or will not come up with a deal to prevent further bomb making for some period of time. If there is a deal, there'll be war in the U.S. Congress between the administration and the fully bought and paid for representatives of the Israel Lobby in both U.S. parties. Oil industry friends of the Saudis will be doing their best to scuttle the deal as well. It's going to be one of those times when people who care about peace will have to push for spine transplants for our legislators.

It is worthwhile remembering a little of the backstory of U.S./Iran relations. In addition to using the C.I.A. to impose the Shah's dictatorship over Iranians in the 1950s, the U.S. supported chemical war by Iraq against the revolutionary Iranian people during the 1980s. Robin Wright in the New Yorker explains:
Officially, the United States was neutral. But Washington did not want Iran to win, so U.S. intelligence provided satellite imagery of Iranian positions to Iraq, along with military options. With American and other foreign guidance, the Iraqis constructed a replica of Faw for practice runs.

Iraq also used U.S. intelligence to unleash chemical weapons against the Iranians in Faw. U.N. weapons inspectors documented Iraq’s repeated use of both mustard gas and nerve agents between 1983 and 1988. Washington opted to ignore it. At Faw, thousands of Iranians died. Syringes were littered next to bodies, a U.S. intelligence source told me; Iranian forces had tried to inject themselves with antidotes. The battle lasted only thirty-six hours; it was Iraq’s biggest gain in more than seven years. The war ended four months later, when Iran agreed to a cease-fire.

... U.S. intelligence estimated, at the time, that Iran suffered more than fifty thousand casualties—deaths and injuries–from Iraq’s use of nerve agents and toxic gases. A senior Reagan Administration official told me that he was ashamed of the covert U.S. role at Faw and during the final period of the war.
No wonder we're not buddies with Iran.

3. Last Friday, militants linked plausibly with ISIS killed scores of people in Tunisia, Kuwait, and France. Probably fortunately, most U.S. media where too preoccupied to notice. U.S. media have lately pointed out that, since 9/11, nearly twice as many people in this country have been killed by right-wing (racist) extremists as by Islam-tinged nutcases.

And 4, here at home: Some recognition that our legal system of mass incarceration and brutal punishment is off the rails seems to be infiltrating the rarefied precincts of the Supremes. And it is the "centrists" who are talking. First, out of the blue, Justice Kennedy questioned the constitutionality of unbounded solitary confinement in prisons. Then Justice Breyer raised the likelihood that application of the death penalty, in the words of former Justice Potter Stewart, is as random as being struck by lightening.
The problem, Breyer suggests, may be irresolvable. We can have executions without long delays, or we can have the procedural review necessary to avoid unfair executions, but we can’t have both. If the Constitution requires both, the death penalty may well be unconstitutional.
It's a start.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Can solo acts spark social movements?

The other day at Lawyers, Guns & Money, Erik Loomis, who I usually consider a sharp observer of popular organizing, wrote a post with a strange premise about Bree Newsome's wonderful direct action in pulling down the Confederate flag at the South Carolina capital.

The Role of a Single Activist
... This fantastic episode of direct action ramps up the pressure on South Carolina to get rid of the flag and continues placing the anti-flag movement in the public eye where it has been since the attack on the Charleston church last week. ...

What’s also interesting about this to me is the outsized role single activists can sometimes have in moving conversations forward, setting off new movements, and exposing the power structure that oppresses people. Most of us are simply not going to climb that flag pole. But we probably should. ...

It had not occurred for me for a minute to think of Newsome as a "single activist." Her brave step seems so obviously to arise out of organized demands, out of the wonderful eruption of justice energy that is the Black Lives Matter movement. She was undoubtedly aware of a community of sisters and brothers who would have her back. That posse would leverage the resources to support her. Her life matters.

Now Loomis is of course right that lonely acts can sometimes prompt vast movements. But lonely acts will often -- usually -- sink without a ripple. What's hard is to predict which actions will make enduring waves. What Newsome did certainly amplified a cresting tide already in motion. She's won an honored place in the long river of resistance -- but she is certainly not alone.
All that was introduction to this video which struck me as presenting a worthy, semi-solitary, effort to advance a movement. Walking for justice has many precedents. The guy has a big union at this back. Somehow I doubt his pilgrimage will fan many sparks that aren't already smoldering along his route. But of course I could be wrong. And when what you need is movement, you need as many solo actors as possible, hoping that one will raise a conflagration.


Monday, June 29, 2015

Pride pushing forward

For many gay people of my generation, the annual LGBT Pride bash evokes mixed emotions, if we even attend. We remember terrifying times. We remember so many causalities among our age group who dared to flaunt forbidden love when such conduct required heedless optimism -- and who are dead. A few were gay-bashed. Sometimes the drug and alcohol abuse which can be the refuge of outcasts did them in. In this city, HIV/AIDS killed a generation. We never imagined we'd see a majority of our fellow citizens affirm that our love could be just as good as theirs. The Supreme Court's marriage decision, even though the more politically attuned among us were confident it was coming, leaves us slightly stunned. Happy, yes. But still a little disoriented.

Lots of older people carried these muddled feelings to the San Francisco city streets today, mingling with crowds -- gay, lesbian, trans, straight and whatever -- whose celebration is not complicated by such tangled memories. It was a grand day.

On the BART train home from the gargantuan civic party, I noticed this tableau and ad. There's a pill called PrEP these days that protects uninfected people from the HIV virus, if they take it every day. Since that kind of rigorous health regimen is hard to sustain -- who does anything every day? -- the San Francisco Health Department via a program called Bridge HIV is looking for additional reliable methods to deliver the drug to protect sexually active people. Where better to recruit pharmacological volunteers than on the Bay's transit system?

One of the enduring consequences of the AIDS crisis that so decimated our community is that this appeal to ordinary people for help with expanding the science is now a more conventional practice.

Here's a good Center for Disease Control video about the PrEP drug. Knowledge is still power.

What is PrEP? from Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis on Vimeo.

Sunday, June 28, 2015


This has been a week of such grief and such joy, I'm just about wrung out. Both images in this post are true. We have a choice which is most potent.
Black church burned in Charlotte, NC

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Supreme Court gets it right

Nobody gets to vote on anyone's marriage any longer!

It's sad to see the Republican presidential scrum defaulting to the position that marriage equality should have been decided state by state. There's a history to that sort of appeal:
  • When the more populous and prosperous section of the nation turned against slavery in the 1840s and '50s, Southern slave interests turned to state nullification and then secession preserve their property in human beings.
  • Having lost their war for slavery, the same forces claimed "states' rights" for their imposition of segregation and disempowerment on their Black populations.
  • When the Black civil rights movement rose up against continuing repression in the 1950s and '60s, Southern governors claimed "states' rights" to exempt their region from providing equal opportunity and justice under law.
"States' rights" has been the last recourse of those who reject the full inclusion of all of us in the national experiment.

We might imagine and even hope that federalism could be something other than a shield that protects privilege and inequality. But that is not how our history has worked.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Yeah! Obamacare is here to stay

... at least if the next President is a Democrat.

“In America health care is not a privilege for a few but a right for all,’’ Mr. Obama declared in the Rose Garden after the Supreme Court decision.

It was nice to hear the Prez make the moral case for providing health care to all, in addition to the prudential and economic cases. It would also be nice if health care were available to all -- but the ACA is step in that direction.

The health policy wonks are chattering about a study of a naturally occurring experiment: Oregon lacked the funds to extend Medicaid to an entire group that would have been eligible, so it assigned the small number of available slots by lottery. Health economists thus could study the difference in health outcomes between the winners and the much larger population of losers. Guess what? The winners were not (over a short period) any healthier now that they could see doctors. But they were happier and more financially secure. Well duh ...

Ezra Klein points out the limits of this study clearly:

... the paper can't answer whether there are gains from giving people actual Medicaid insurance rather than leaving them to whatever patchwork, uncertain system of care they're using now. That is to say, it doesn't even try to estimate how much it's worth to be able to see a doctor when you need one, as opposed to when the situation is so dire you simply rush to the ER; it doesn't know how to value the long-term health benefits of stable care or the differences in the kind of care that the insured and the uninsured get; it has no formula for weighing what it means for John to be able to get treatment without begging his brother to lend him cash.

Second, there is real cost — in anxiety and terror, as well as in money — to families scrambling to come up with the money to pay for heart medication or chemotherapy. There's real cost to parents who need to beg their local church group to help pay for their child's medicine. How do we value the relief a family gets — both emotional and financial — of knowing a child can get the medical care he or she needs? This study can't measure that.

Third, the study can't test the value we, as a society, place on everyone being able to go to the doctor when they need medical care. As an example, Social Security offsets a certain amount of support children used to provide for their parents. So a dollar in Social Security is not worth a full dollar to Social Security's beneficiaries, because it partially replaces support they would have gotten anyway. But as a society, we've decided it's really, really important for the elderly to have guaranteed income, and we are willing to pay the cost of that guarantee.

And there's another potential benefit from Obamacare's survival that I've written about here -- and about which I have not found much research. Before the ACA passed, a student of health economics who has made it his business to understand these things assured me that having health insurance was close to a complete predictor of being registered to vote. He didn't know why, but he'd seen the figures.

Well, millions more citizens now have and will have insurance. Might this not lead to increased voter registration? Certainly most people who can manage to sign up for a policy online are demonstrating the contemporary skills that might suggest they can navigate the various registration mazes set up by the states. Under the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA), the exchanges should be pointing their users toward whatever state facilities exist for registration. Just maybe, they'll use them.

Nobody could object to that ... except possibly Republicans who can't compete if everyone is included.

Friday cat blogging

I thought I was going to sit down to work -- but there was an obstacle.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Agist junk mail rant

I get mail. Not just email, either. Some of it provides employment to the letter carriers of the US Postal Service. I don't mind that; they need those union jobs.

Recently I received this oddly shaped gargantuan envelope. The New Yorker is included in the picture for size.

On the envelope was a personalized message.

There was a return envelope which will go back today, by snail mail, to "Max Richtman" with this note.

Dear Mr. Richtman,
I am fully in sympathy with the proclaimed goals of the "National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. These vital, earned, benefits are one of our country's great achievements. In too many respects, we in the United States do not seem to know that the only legitimate purpose of a country is to care for its citizens. All of us, not just the one percent.

Any politician who threatens these programs will be hearing directly from me as well as finding me supporting any worthy challenger. This is bottom line stuff. In fact, most politicians I support already back extending Social Security rather than cutting it.

But YOU are NOT going to get from me your petition and a donation, a "membership renewal." Your outfit has repeatedly sent me expensive direct mail packages designed to scare money out of older citizens. These communications treat us as credulous suckers.

To have any chance of getting money from me, you would have to explain that your efforts are part of a political strategy for extending Social Security and for protecting Medicare by extending a single payer system to ALL residents of the country. We need that sort of leadership from Washington advocacy outfits, not creepy direct mail appeals.

And you would reach me through modern communication media. I'm sure you have my email address. True, I won't get it if my filters decide you are sending spam because you fill the letter with attachments and other frills, but that is your problem. Stop wasting trees on junk mail. And please remove me from you direct mail list.

Indeed, sincerely,
One annoyed elder!

I do not expect this to stop the flow ... but I've tried.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

It's confusing ...

My ATM encourages me to celebrate gay pride.

I remain a little bemused by this development. Happy about it, of course. It is nice being affirmed.

But I remember all too well when to be visible as gay or lesbian was to risk verbal abuse and even violence.

These days, our visibility is a sign to urban U.S. liberals that, despite so many indications to the contrary, this country eventually gets it right. In San Francisco, we swim in a warm bath of loving approval and liberal self-satisfaction.

San Franciscans know there are intolerant regions out there somewhere in the U.S. hinterland. In those places, gay kids get thrown out of their families. (They still migrate to San Francisco; without money, they live hard lives.) In those places, it is still tough for gay immigrants and for gay couples of color (because most everywhere, it is tough for ALL immigrants and people of color.) In those places, trans-folk who are visible have a hard time getting and keeping jobs. (That's too often true here too, but we don't think much about it.)

We've come a long way; and the big "we" that really includes everyone hasn't yet come as far as it should. It's confusing and also good.
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