As I grow older and the hour glass grows bottom heavy, I find myself reflecting upon my life. And although I have turned my back on formal religion, the concept of sin has never strayed far. I am a man, I like to believe, of both compassion and conscience, and perhaps this is why my sins continue to haunt me. None of us are pristine, and we all have blood on our hands to some degree, either through our own direct actions, or by others once removed. But the sins that haunt me the most are not the result of what I have done, but what I did not do. The worst of sins, for many of us, are sins of omission; those times when in the face of cruelty or injustice to others, we were passive and did nothing.
There are two examples from early childhood of sins of passivity, the memories of which never dim with time; they are always in my thoughts.
When I was six, I attended Imperial Grammar School, in South Gate, a city in South East Los Angeles County. I remember it was a school with no grass, and during recess the children played games on the asphalt, and adult supervision was nearly laissez faire. This was the Nineteen Fifties.
One day I saw an extremely angry group of children who had surrounded another child. As I moved closer, I saw a little Black girl in the center. The other children, all White, shouted and screamed at her, and I will never forget the hateful words of one of the more aggressive boys- “We don’t want you here because you’re a nigger!”And the face of the little girl showed fear and hurt; and much more. I saw strength, pride and defiance in her eyes. I do not know where she came from, or her name. I do not know what happened to her, nor remember seeing her again. But I remember her face and those eyes-they have become a part of me.
A few years later, my family moved a short distance to the city of Downey. Upward mobility. We lived on a cul-de-sac private street. There was a sense of privilege and superiority among both the adults and their children. Adjacent to our street was a large lot, vacant except for a very old, ramshackle house where the Tanner family lived.
They were a poor family, and the daughters, Carol and Eileen, wore old hand me downs that seemed to be from another era. Carol was the older, about eleven, and Eileen was about my age, nine. There was nothing wrong with those girls. They were sweet, pretty and intelligent. Both had red hair and cute freckles. And they were pariahs.
They were victims of class hatred. The kids who were my neighbors despised them because they were seen as a blight on our perfect, upper middle class neighborhood of custom homes and large yards.
One day after a rain, a number of the boys from the neighborhood, all older than me, were playing in the vacant field across from the Tanner’s house. Carol unwisely ventured over to them. She wanted to visit- to be a part of the neighborhood. After screaming names at her, Carol was chased and caught, and thrown into a large puddle. One of her shoes came off, and a boy gleefully put mud in it. I remember as if it were yesterday.
As she cried and struggled, Mr. Woods, one of the fathers and a principal at a local school, drove by on his way home. he stopped, and got out of his car. I breathed a sigh of relief; he would put a stop to it. And he did. He sided with the boys, and scolded Carol to never come to our neighborhood again; to stay where she belonged. And she limped home on one shoe, sobbing with every step.
Not long after, the Tanner’s house was demolished to make way for an apartment building. I never saw Carol or Eileen again.
What could I have done? Physically intervening would have required more physical courage than I had, certainly back then. But I could- and should have done something- even something small.
I could have approached the little Black girl, perhaps in private, and told her how sorry I was; that although I could not feel all of her pain and humiliation, I certainly felt some of it. I should have done something to show her she was not entirely alone. And perhaps I could have gone over to Carol’s house with a gift or note telling her that I always felt she was pretty and worthy, and that I was far more like her than the boys who had bullied her, and told her of the times when I was bullied by them as well. But I did nothing, and am forever haunted by the faces of those girls.
But I’m not dead yet. And neither are you. I try to be active in the face of injustice, but I often falter. The opportunities are everywhere to step in and defend someone. To give and take a risk, however small. To intervene; to stand up for someone else.
We don’t have to take a bullet for someone, but by doing nothing, in a sense we already have.
Of late there has been a spate of documentaries on serial killers (Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, The Golden State Killer and of course, the perennial favorite, Charles Manson and family). We are fascinated and repulsed by them; they are like road side carnage that, try as we may to avert our eyes, we simply have to gawk with morbid curiosity. They do unspeakable things; they are evil incarnate, and we absolutely love to hate them. But they are not without redemption. As the following thoroughly researched piece will show, they have, well, after their own fashion, an exquisite sense of humor.
In the nineteen teens and twenties, a man with the ludicrously benign name of Albert Fish terrorized New York City. This fiend, also known as the Brooklyn Vampire and the Moon Maniac, raped, tortured and murdered- and his demonic appetites focused on children. In addition to his other vices, he was an unabashed cannibal.
He wold abduct children, and after murdering them he cooked them, savoring their most delectable parts in stews and roasts. Well mannered gourmet that he was, he would then send his victims’ parents thoughtful, eloquent thank you notes expressing gratitude for providing him such tasty meals.
Life long penal system recidivist Gary Gilmore had gained fame for insisting to be executed for a pair of senseless murders he committed in Utah in 1976. He was interviewed by Playboy Magazine shortly before being dispatched by an eager firing squad. The interviewers asked him why, after the second murder, he carelessly shot himself in the hand; allowed himself to be sighted near the crime scene by someone he knew; then, called his cousin, describing his predicament and asking for a ride home. Instead, she called the police. When the interviewers asked if shooting himself then calling his cousin suggested a subconscious desire to get caught, he replied, “Accidents can happen to psychopaths as easily as anyone else.”
In the summers of 1976 and 1977, David Berkowitz, a.k.a. the Son Of Sam, believed his dog was exhorting him to embark on a murder spree. He murdered six people and wounded several others on the steamy streets of the Big Apple-terrorizing Queens and the Bronx- paralyzing with fear the neighborhoods of Flushing and Yonkers. He mocked the police between murders in the form of enigmatic letters. But ultimately, his luck and elusiveness ran out. When finally captured, a search of his car produced a machine gun.
“Where were you going with that machine gun?”, asked the arresting officer.
“To the Hamptons”, The Son Of Sam blithely replied. “To the Hamptons.”
When I was a lit major a few centuries ago, women authors were perennially short shrifted in favor of the men. This old fashioned rhyme poem is my homage to the great women authors, with a bit of karma for the chauvinist male.
Bondage Games With The Great Women Authors
They’re all out to get me, like banshees in heat, I’m trembling in terror, I’m white as a sheet.
Why do they do this- where did I stray? Was it in college, back in the day? I read only male authors, never was I bored- but when it came to the women, they were completely ignored.
Now they’re seeking revenge- my total devastation- and their method of choice- bondage and humiliation!
And so it starts, and so it goes, on a lovely Greek island- I believe it’s called Lesbos.
A poet named Sapho (she’s powerfully built) has me bound and immobile, tied to a stilt. I swing back and forth, in a pendulous sway, then I’m released- because I don’t swing her way.
What’s up next, on my pathway to doom? I’m in a strict patrician woman’s drawing room.
I can’t move a muscle, I’m flat on my tummy- I’m bound and I’m wrapped, like an Egyptian mummy-
as I wiggle and squirm and flop on my belly, into the room walks Mary Shelly. I’m wrapped up so tight- so in a bind-what else to expect from the author of Frankenstein?
I’m feeling faint- a nervous wreck- thank God the electrodes, don’t fit in my neck!
Where am I now- the fog is so thick- it’s cold and bleak and really quite Gothic. Then they appear, and I’m filled with dismay- “Salutations”, they say- “we’re the sisters Bronte!”
“I’m Emily- and you look like Heathcliff, that treacherous squire!” “And I’m Charlotte- don’t raise my Eyre!” “And I’m Ann, the one you never heard of!” And with that, she gives me a terrible shove.
I feel a wave of dread- this isn’t fair-as a rope tightens quickly, my foot in a snare.
“We know you’re acrophobic,” they scream with delight- then they hoist me upward, to an absurd Wuthering Height!
I’m now in the states, and what do you know, from out of the bushes comes Harriet Beecher Stowe. She’s stern- she’s righteous-a devout Abolitionist- in addition to which a wild exhibitionist.
She yanks down her knickers, and I panic and flee- but she catches up and subdues me, oh so easily.
“Naughty boy”, says she, “I’ll fix your wagon”- Then I’m forced to wear diapers in Uncle Tom’s Cabin
I jump through the window, banging my knee, then I limp toward the daylight- am I finally free? But the Fates won’t have it- what more can be wrought? Then I’m tackled from behind by Louisa may Alcott!
She’s strong and she’s strict, a staunch disciplinarian, taking no nonsense from a chauvinist contrarian. I try to break loose, but to my chagrin, I’m completely restrained -by an army of Little Women!
I’m stripped and spread eagled, and staked to the ground- resistance is futile- I’m hopelessly bound. I try to be brave, this too will pass- then the entire assembly, surrounds me en masse.
There’s Sylvia Plath, in all of her wrath, and Erica Jong, in a fish net sarong. I’m scolded soundly, by Joyce Carol Oates, “Why you didn’t even read our Cliff Notes!”
And Emily Dickinson, no longer reclusive, she’s decked out in leather, and is oh so abusive. “Did you make an effort”, she says, “To even glance at my compendium?” Then she answers for me with a kick to my pudendium. There’s even Agatha Cristie, looking so rough (I’d never have guessed, she’d be into this stuff!)
“Enough is enough- I’ll read all of you-cover to cover!!”
They listen intently, as they circle and hover- will they consider my pleas, and placating offers?
I’m finally exposed, to the great women authors!
In recent times, I hear with greater frequency people asking how did we become a divided country? The question, perhaps, should not be how did we become divided, but were we ever united.
The division was never so overt as during the Civil War. The North and the South were at loggerheads, slavery being the primary issue. The war was horrific; the carnage unimaginable. A war between the states. This was a time when borderlines were not apparent to most citizens. Families and clans were often spaced between warring states. In most wars, the enemy is clearly defined- the “Other” can be identified with little difficulty. In our civil war, the enemy was us.
After four years of brutal fighting, the Confederate States, under their army’s leadership of General Robert E Lee, agreed to surrender. But the Civil War did not truly end with Lee signing the surrender documents at Appommatox in 1865. The Confederacy was broken, but it’s spirit lived on. It thrived under the banner of States’ Rights, and many of the horrors of slavery resurfaced in the form of Jim Crow laws, chain gangs and lynchings. The hatred for Blacks and the Northern aggressors who forced radical change in the old South never dissipated. And when the sons and daughters of the Confederacy migrated North and West, they took their hatred with them; the hatred is in their bones.
And I see it today. The forces that propelled Trump into office may have been in part an enthusiasm for a man who paradoxically has, for most of his life, been antipathetic to his supporters’ values. This is the grim reality we must face- the possibility that Trump’s minions are not inspired by a love for him, but indeed by a hatred for us. At first there may have been conscienable outliers; people so disgusted and disenchanted with the status quo that they gravitated to someone who would smash that status quo into a million pieces. But there have been two years to consider and reconsider their choice. If at this point, after being exposed to the hateful pettiness of their man; his contempt for science and institutions; his authoritarianism and his unabashed admiration for other authoritarians, then perhaps we should no longer waste time hoping for some divine union between them and us.
We should focus our energies on solidifying our coalitions, and not changing the hearts and souls of the opposition. We must stand apart, then stand together.
I think of the men and women who marched and died for some small measure of justice; of the struggles and sacrifices of the past. Progress is slow, but regression can move at blinding speed. The rock Sisyphus toiled uphill slipped from his grasp so easily. The gains made for justice have come hard.
We must be forever vigilant- if not, they will take it all away.
As of today (yes, votes are still being counted) 98 women were elected to congress last Tuesday- the vast majority of the non-incumbents progressive Democrats. But for me, far more remarkable – and positive- is their stunning diversity. The majority of the House is now Democratic, and many of the victorious progressive women are newcomers to politics. And the diverse swath is stunning. There are now Muslim women serving alongside members of the LBGTQ community; there are women who are veterans; military pilots; teachers; nurses; attorneys; entrepreneurs and moms- as well as one who is a beacon of diversity (Sharice Davids) who is a young Native American, Gay, mixed martial arts competitor and an attorney to boot. I salute them all. What an incredible mix of experience to add to the gumbo of politics.
But with power comes responsibility. Just a brief peek at history reveals the corrosive and corrupting nature of power. Now the new arrivals will soon have to deal with the odious process of deal making and negotiation. They will partake out of necessity the making of the sausage, and the best of them will learn that attaining part of a goal through compromise is better than coming away empty handed. They will face adversaries who are unencumbered by principle and gifted in the art of treachery. And the best of them will never betray the ideals, strength and temerity required of mothers, pilots, nurses, warriors and teachers.
They will persevere- and for the survival of us all, they must prevail.
I originally wrote this piece several months ago and read it at “Dimestories” in Costa Mesa. Dystopian to be sure, but as time goes by, it becomes sadly more plausible.
It was the third year of the drones.
Winston was still in a state of shock. There were rumors, carefully spoken, of a secret resistance forming, but he was skeptical.
The ruler was initially mocked- a tabloid clown- a narcissistic reality show buffoon. He was entertaining, good for the ratings. It was absurd to think he would go anywhere.
Slowly, the sense of absurdity changed to fear. He understood the ancient hatreds that simmered beneath the fragile veneer of society. The hatred festered, waiting for someone like him. He was their dark messiah, and he gave the haters license and legitimacy. There were far more of them than Winston had imagined; enough of them with their fevered intensity to put their messiah in power with at least a facade of credibility. And then the unravelling began.
The country was renamed New America. Old alliances fell and new ones formed. New America allied with Russia, which had annexed the nations of the old Soviet Union. China and Saudi Arabia joined the alliance as well.
Europe would not go down without a fight- brave Europe- outnumbered and out gunned. The leader of The Free World, Angela Merkel, held fast, against all odds.
The laws and institutions crumbled and the regression was swift and ruthless. The Supreme Court, deemed obsolete, was replaced by a tribunal of Evangelical extremists. The Constitution was suspended, and laws and edicts were based on Old Testament scripture, upon the approval of the oligarchy. Under the “Woman Subservience Restoration Act”, all abortions were illegal. Women died by the thousands as they were driven by desperation to back alley quacks with rusty coat hangers.
All same sex marriages were annulled, and gays were required to undergo conversion therapy. Those who resisted were branded as “Abomination People”, and a movement took hold to allow public stonings.
Conscription to build “The Great Wall” was mandatory for all males between 15 and 65. The purpose now was to keep people in, as millions sought refuge below the southern border.
Water levels rose, causing massive floods and the average Summer temperature was 110 degrees. Believing in “Man Made” climate change was heresy, and the floods and fires were deemed to be the will of God.
The media had early on been branded as the enemy of the people. Now they were gone, except for the official state station whose logo was the head of an immense, ravenous fox.
Health insurance was gone. Only the oligarchy could afford doctors. Social Darwinism and eugenics were encouraged as a means of eliminating the old and weak.
The drones were everywhere, blocking the blue of the sky. They surveilled, looking for suspicious behavior.
Winston lowered his head in shame and defeat. If only the rumors of a resistance were true- more than a pipe dream.
There was a flash. A rocket shot from the ground. The first drone went down, followed by others.
It was the opening salvo from The Resistance-
The Rebellion had begun.
As a Baby Boomer, I have developed a deep respect for Millennials. As flawed as Democracy may be, it remains for me the best of all systems for governance. This piece originally ran as a commentary in a local paper, and is especially pertinent now, with the most recent gun carnage against Jews and Blacks. It is a clarion call to Millennials, and to my fellow Boomers to go out and vote next Tuesday.
Baby Boomers. We were so certain of our uniqueness- of our destiny to defy the inevitability of history and change the world.
There were so many of us; we would overwhelm the forces of evil that spawned the senseless Viet Nam War and the brutality of racism. It was as if we were meant to be young at an ordained time in order to meet the tumult of injustice head on and usher a new era of peace and equality. But oh how flawed we were: never trust anyone over 30; dismissing our parents for having a stake in the system and buying into the American Dream- a dream so frail and perhaps illusory. But we fatigued so quickly in pursuit of our ideals.
After Kent State, realizing that the protective womb of the campus ruptured and that they could actually kill us, we receded from the struggle and forged a new strategy- the long game stealth coup- take the system over from within. But oh, how readily we caved- co-opted by our own greed and narcissism, and one day we awoke and found ourselves towing the line as obedient company men and women. But finally, change is in the air.
A new generation is here- the Millennials, and their slightly younger brothers and sisters, the Post Millennials- or, as I like to call them, the young people.
They are an emerging force. I deal with them daily- at the gym, where I am old enough to be their grandfather but am treated like a bro; in the senior center where I volunteer as a driver delivering meals to seniors less mobile than I, and the twenty-something coordinators are endlessly congenial and respectful to all; and the young retail workers who are ceaselessly courteous and patient. Where does all this “fragile as snowflakes and rattled by micro aggressions ” nonsense, of which they are accused, come from? Perhaps from curmudgeonly Boomers who swore they would never become like their parents and never grow old. Yes, never trust anyone over 30 went the Boomer mantra, but it seems all are welcome within the inclusive Millennial tent- all races and creeds, young and old, gay, straight, trans- come one, come all! And I have not even gotten to conscience and guts yet.
After the shooting massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in which 14 students and three teachers were slaughtered by a sick student with an all too easily obtained assault rifle, the expected and sickeningly redundant response by NRA beholden politicians was issued as if by script- “We extend our prayers and condolences.” The slaughter was characterized as a tragedy, tantamount to a natural disaster, followed by the customary litany of improved school security, screening for red flags raised by potential assailants, arm the teachers, ad nauseam. Everything but, of course, ban assault rifles. In the past after such massacres, the cries and pleas for gun reform would raise a tepid debate, then after a few weeks there would be a return to status quo. Not this time. Those very young people stepped up to the plate without flinching.
We Boomers demanded that the world be changed- now! The young people, wisely narrowed the scope. Spearheaded by the Parkland shooting survivors they coalesced quickly with one demand obvious in its simplicity- the right to go to school without fearing for their lives on a daily basis. High school students, barely beyond childhood, standing up before millions with pride and conviction, speaking with a strength and eloquence forged by trauma that belies there youth. They have seen death at their feet; the blood of their friends spilled around them. They will never be children again.
And they grow in number. They were an army at the “March For Our Lives” rallies. Uncorrupted and unyielding.
Some say we are sliding inexorably toward totalitarianism. I think of the old saw, “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men (and women) to do nothing.” Our young are doing something.
And so, for you fellow Baby Boomers who may be reading this- we’re not dead yet. Don’t let a joint replacement or bypass keep you from reconnecting with your old passion and ideals.
And you Young People? Keep moving forward. Vote; organize. The fight will not be easy; the march may be uphill. You can handle it. Look at what you’ve already done. You are the new vanguard. Finish the job we started. You are young; you are the future; the future belongs to you.
Now go out and take it