Thursday, November 27, 2014

Whew, but

Oh, boy, I am about to bring it down. 

I’m conflicted about Thanksgiving. Grateful, of course, for many of the people and things in my life—and trying to be cognizant of the luck that brought them to me. 

That'd be the hardest thing for me to understand if I were religious, I think: why me? Religion is most damaging, I suspect, when it provides its adherents with unassailable confidence that their advantages, when they have them, are intentional, and that others’ misfortune is part of a plan that’s out of their control. Similarly, the religious downtrodden are also to believe that their misfortune is visited upon them by design, but that they just need to get through this trial and glory will be theirs. (Those are poles, of course, and I know that religious experience is a spectrum.)

So the religious powerful believe they are meant to be powerful, and they see any sharing of that power as a change to the natural order of things. The loss of that power—or of any part of it—is grounds for war and oppression.

I’m an atheist, and I like to think that the closest I get to a religious belief is “shit happens.” But seriously, who am I kidding? I believe I’m chosen, too. Mentally, I remind myself that it’s luck; that I was born white and male to literate parents with good jobs in a stable society etc etc etc. But you live a life like mine for 45 years—and yes, I’ve done some reasonably hard work in that time to maintain my advantages, but it’s work that was available to me because of my advantages—the mantra of “hey, it’s just luck and a little bit of work” starts to sound like reality. 

Over time, “I’m lucky” can be just as insidious as “I’m chosen.”

You start to believe that because you’re lucky, things are supposed to be a certain way for you. You are unsurprised by others’ misfortune, even when you feel terrible about it. “Not lucky,” you sort-of think, and you feel sympathy. You donate to charities that purport to help certain categories of unlucky people. You do things to maintain your luck, like lose weight and get checkups and check out crime stats for potential homes, so it feels a little more earned. Even though, yeah, you have a measure of control over those things because of privilege. Privilege tends to be invisible when you have it. (As the young fish said, “what the fuck is water?”) 

Like “I’m chosen,” “I’m lucky” can also provide great cover for those moments of entitlement used to justify rule-breaking, selfishness, unkindness. 

People call this conflict I’m feeling “Privilege Guilt,” and seek to explain it away with that, kind of dismissively, like its cousin Liberal White Guilt. I suppose I feel sort of guilty—more for the bad things I’ve done (mostly when much younger) under cover of the unassailable confidence bestowed by “I’m lucky” than just for being lucky and privileged—but it’s more like awareness. I know I’m privileged by my gender, orientation, skin color and economic starting point, and I know it’s unfair, and it’s increasingly hard to swim ignorantly in that stream. But to acknowledge it reads like guilt to those who just don’t see it. Because it challenges them to acknowledge something they don’t want to, and what wells up in them is that same defensive anger that anyone feels at a challenge to their deep-seated worldview. I, a non-religious, privileged person that has done okay thinking “I’m lucky” (and therefore unconsciously feeling unaccountable for others’ misfortune), feel that defensive anger when I feel challenged about my privilege—“you can’t mean ME, of course; I’m well aware of how lucky I am, I’m regretful over past unkindnesses that I got away with because of privilege, and I donate and march over injustice and post correctly on social media. So take your criticism someplace else.”  

It’s almost the opposite of guilt, really. It’s justification. It’s like, I have already done my sacrifices to awareness of my privilege, so look elsewhere for sinners. I am not guilty. But I don’t know, maybe it’s just awareness. 

Anyway, that brings me to Thanksgiving, and finally to Ferguson and Newburgh and White Plains and New York City, and to Cleveland and video games and to Occupy—all places that matter to me peripherally or centrally—and all places where my kind have been sticking it to others, from casual disrespect through threats and intimidation to theft, systemic armed oppression and murder, for a long time.

As an atheist, Thanksgiving has always felt like “Whew!” as opposed to “thank you.” And for a time it’s felt like a somewhat tempered “whew,” like “whew, but…” And now, this morning, it feels more like anger. Anger that’s equally split between me and The System.

For instance, in addition to my unpopular atheism, I’m also not much of a tv guy. But I’m at my family’s place and there are lots of kids around and we had the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on this morning. My friend tweeted “Looks like the theme of this parade is ‘EVERYTHING IN THIS COUNTRY IS FINE.’” He’s right, and watching the parade pisses me off. The willful forced grin of complicity. Looking at Facebook and seeing people sharing racist diatribes on stars-and-stripes backgrounds pisses me off. (Nothing you’ve posted, if you’re reading this on FB.) Reading the resentment of others’ suffering and desperation. Reading others' fear of non-whites or non-males encroaching on spaces that people took to be their own, unchallengeable, realms. 

So I’m angry, and yeah, maybe a little guilty. Because I’m still lucky! Because I’m home amid a large, loving family, on my way to my aunt and uncle’s house where there are even more of this far-flung tribe, and if someone came over and said “you know this is all stolen” I’d be like “you can’t mean THIS turkey, of course; I’m well aware of how lucky I am, I’m regretful over past unkindnesses that I got away with because of privilege, and I donate and march over injustice and post correctly on social media. So take your criticism someplace else. I have already done my sacrifices to awareness of my privilege, so look elsewhere for sinners. We are not guilty.” 

But still: a lot of it IS stolen. Not BY ME, mostly. But I’m in possession of stolen property. I’m angry at myself because I don’t want to give it back. I’m angry at the System because it’s shouting “EVERYTHING IS FINE, YOUR PRIVILEGE IS OKAY. Keep that stuff, don’t you like nice stuff?” I’m angry at people who don’t agree with me that we haven’t earned everything we’ve got. 

Kinda tough to formulate a sentimental but self-deprecatingly humorous Thanksgiving post when reflection on the things for which I’m grateful automatically reminds me of the 1:1 opposite-day loss experienced by those from whom those same things have been stolen and are still being stolen. I’m grateful/lucky to be with my family on Thanksgiving: protestors in LA are jailed for Thanksgiving if they can’t come up with $500 bail. I’m grateful/lucky to be with my kids: how many black families have an empty seat at their table? Etc, etc, etc. 

So here are some drafts: “If you recently compared mourners, protestors, or rioters to animals, I hope you die under a pile of toaster ovens this Friday.” “I’m considering shopping today as much as possible, out of spite.” “Let’s all enjoy our turkey but” —and can’t think of a closer. Those are NOT Thanksgiving winners. 

That’s why, if you’re still reading, you’re reading this. This is my attempt. The fact that I am struggling to express gratitude amidst the bounty and relative security in which I dwell is ludicrous. Yet, there it is. Maybe it’s this: I'm incredibly thankful and cognizant of my luck. But gratitude and cognizance of luck don’t necessarily make me happy.

Here are some people doing good work (among many others, no doubt, including lots of you): 

https://www.stlouis-mo.gov/government/departments/aldermen/profiles/antonio-french.cfm
http://www.theatlantic.com/ta-nehisi-coates/
https://twitter.com/spacekatgal
https://twitter.com/adrianchen
https://www.facebook.com/AnneLamott
http://rollingjubilee.org
http://www.woundedwarriorproject.org


Despite the foregoing, I am having, and truly wish you all, a very happy Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Walking Fool

My pal Mark E. Phillips walked across the USA 1.5 times. He brought a camera and a mic, and now he's making a documentary. (This is an appeal to fund it.)
Why will Mark's cross-country walk be any more interesting than anyone else's? Well, he created and starred in a hilarious NYC public access show in the 90s/00s (Playpants 4eva!), and he contributes to film projects and acts in TV and movies now. He's got a comic's pacing, a journalist's eye and a guru's knowledge about walking. Beyond his own footage and interviews with people who helped him along the way, he's featuring other cross-country walkers (a diverse and slightly weird set)—so it's not just about him, or about the cross-country walk phenomenon, but about bigger issues of meaning, motion, time, and progress. Plus: 'Murica. 
There's a strong team dedicated to making The Walking Fool - Documentary happen, which means your backing will actually result in a finished product you can enjoy and in which you'll be able to take pride. 
Join me in helping this pic get made, wouldya? You won't regret it.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Sharing Casino Wealth in Upstate New York

I'm generally opposed to casinos in New York State. Gambling concerns, in general, are inherently predatory and designed to consolidate wealth from many into few hands, which they do very efficiently. They come with associated social ills that tax the communities in regions where they reside. Their benefits to municipalities, existing business, taxpayers, job-seekers and workers are frequently overstated.

However, in New York, they seem to be a reality. There's a land-grab-money-rush-gold-snarfing thing going on in Orange and Sullivan counties that's not going to stop until something is built. And some of the proposals look like they might have fun elements. Who am I to say no? (I mean, I said no, when I voted against the proposal, but it still passed.)

So how do you mitigate the harm that may arise from one of these massive projects being built near economically sensitive cities or in a depressed region? How do you work to ensure that some benefits do accrue?

Some suggestions come to mind, like: Diversify the project so it's not totally gambling-centric. Make use of existing or traditional recreational areas that have some infrastructure to support the new facility. Site it reasonably close to New York City so that it is more likely to draw tourists from out of state instead of preying on locals. Require a high minimum wage for all jobs, good benefits, and similar requirements from subcontractors.

And, close to my heart, insist on New York State procurement. Not just for the construction and materials, and later for the employees, but also for the ongoing provisioning of the bars, hotels, restaurants, spas, recreational facilities, kitchens, gaming centers, cleaning supply closets, and everything else.

I used a popular search engine and my own experience to find some likely suppliers of value-added goods that are either manufactured in or largely sourced from within New York State. (Note that this list doesn't include farm vegetable produce, which is a whole other category that should be locally sourced.) While some of these concerns are boutique or small-scale producers, their products are thus all the more "New York," and a guaranteed volume of business from a casino customer could enable them to diversify their customer base and grow further. There are doubtless hundreds or thousands more.

Bostree Porcelain, Sugarloaf NY
Malfatti Glass, Beacon NY
Newburgh Brewery, Newburgh NY
Black Dirt Distillery, Warwick NY
Ulster Linen, Islip NY
Tuthilltown Spirits, Gardiner NY
Edgwick Farm, Cornwall NY
Stickley Furniture, Manlius NY
Crowley Foods, Lafargeville NY
Chobani Yogurt, New Berlin NY
Liberty Tabletop, Sherrill NY
You know they're going to have bottled water available. New York has decent water.

But take it further. What about tech assets? Server space? What about business services? Website development, marketing, design, legal services, even custom typography? How about energy? How much can be drawn from renewables generated in New York State? (And, off-topic, require some electric car charging stationsmaybe a Tesla supercharger.)

All of these could be sourced from within the Empire State north of the Bronx, to circulate some of the revenue back into economies that need it, even those far from the specific casino sites. That's how casinos can truly create jobs, allowing businesses to get established and scale to serve other in- and out-of-state markets, creating a positive cash flow into upstate New York's manufacturing, service, renewable energy, tech, and distribution sectors.

Any evaluation of proposals should give preference toor requireNew York State procurement commitments from these large proposed projects.


Getting On with James Urbaniak, Episode 19: "New Day, New You"

I've written a third episode of the actor James Urbaniak's podcast, named one of the 20 best comedy podcasts "right now" by Rolling Stone. In this one, which rewards the long-time listener, James announces the final episode of his call-in advice program. Guest starring John DiMaggio, Phil LaMarr and Judith Shelton.

 New Day, New You

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Getting on with James Urbaniak, Episode 16: "Buyer's Remorse"

I wrote the latest episode of the actor James Urbaniak's podcast, "a monthly radio drama wherein James navigates the darkly comedic recesses of his troubled yet charming mind." Give a listen as an impulsive art purchase provokes second thoughts. A particular auction house is referenced fictitiously.




Sunday, November 24, 2013

Hudson Valley West Holiday Shopping Gift Guide

If you want to give Hudson Valley gifts this season and don't live nearby (or if your recipients don't live here), here are a few candidates.
  • I looked for regionally produced items you can order online and have shipped. 
  • I also tried to find a range of item types, from the homey and traditional to the chromium-steel badass.
  • Yes, I would like your money to remain in, or enter, the region where I live.
  • No, no one asked me to do this. 
  • I kept my focus on the west side of the Hudson to the Delaware, from the Highlands to the foothills of the Catskills.
  • Suggestions? Please comment, keeping in mind ease of ordering/shipping specific items, produced on the west side of the Hudson River in Orange, Ulster, and southern Sullivan counties.
1. HUDSON VALLEY HARD CIDER MAKING KIT from WILLIAMS-SONOMA
I met Elizabeth Ryan on a recent country drive, tried some cider, and got to talking. She's got a lot of sense when it comes to apples and land preservation. Hard cider is good, and easy, and this kit makes it even easier. So buy it for the apple of your eye. (Williams-Sonoma also offers Ms. Ryan's Mead Making Kit, which you can buy for your honey.) (You can also help with Elizabeth's fundraising campaign to preserve Stone Ridge Orchard as a working farm.)

2. A REAL, FRESH NEW YORK PIZZA SHIPPED ANYWHERE IN THE US
Prima Pizza, of Cornwall NY, has been shipping pizzas around the country for years. As they say it: "Your pizza is cooked to perfection and sealed in a special package using a unique process. It is then ready to be shipped via FedEx (or other overnight delivery service) right to your door the next day by either 10:30am or 3:00pm. All you have to do is heat/cook the pie to your preference. Buon Apetito!" I haven't had one of their shipped pizzas, but I've had dozens of their oven-fresh ones, which are true high-quality New York pies. December 26th dinner, anyone?

3. ORANGE COUNTY CHOPPERS MEN'S SLEEVELESS WORK SHIRT
There's no shortage of cool gear available online from the nation's best-known custom chopper designers and fabricators (their new show premiered on CMT last week), but this particular shirt is modeled by patriarch (and secretly nice guy) Paul Senior.

4. WOODCARVING by CLAY BOONE
Custom woodcarving by a true master. This is a consultative purchase with prices in the high three figures (and up, I assume), which will make sense when you look at the pictures of Mr. Boone's work.

5. THREE thingCHARGERS
It's a plug-in charging station for your devices that looks like an outlet and leaves your outlets free for, like, blenders and whatnot. Switchable "power tips" make it work for any device (the tips store in the back), it has two USB ports on the bottom just in case, and there are NO WIRES. Your phone, tablet, etc., stands directly on the thingCHARGER. You can even plug them into each other to charge more than one device on the same outlet -- again, without taking up the outlet! Invented about a mile from where I'm typing this, by some nice people I know. It's launching on indiegogo (having reached 800% of its funding target), and pre-orders will ship in 2014.

6. A MASK from INTO LEATHER
Sugar Loaf, NY, is an artisans community making everything from soap to furniture. If you can't get there, many of the manufacturers, like Paula and Elie Aji of Into Leather, ship their products. If you're into leather but not into masks, you can also get a jacket or a cool bag or a belt or other clothing and accessories. You're into leather, right?

7. THIS COOL BRONZE BIRD FEEDER from BRIDGES OVER TIME ANTIQUES
Bridges Over Time of Newburgh, NY offers its inventory through 1stDibs, which will ask you to create an account to view prices. This piece caught my eye, but there's plenty more where that came from.

8. A PRINT from HUDSON VALLEY GALLERY
Order by phone for prints of original paintings by Hudson Valley artist Paul Gould, like this vibrant view of a local scene.

9. GO ARMY BLACK KNIGHTS IPAD CASE
For the sports fan/patriot/aspiring officer on your list, the West Point Black Knights lend their distinctive team identity to all manner of cool gear, clothing, and more.

10. A US NAVY SHIP CAP from MILITARY GIFTS
Hint: if you're shopping for me from this Port Jervis concern, here's the ship to specify.

11. 2014 CALENDAR from MOHONK IMAGES
Give your family and friends the chance to look at the beauty of the Mohonk Preserve year-round, wherever they are. (The photos are ridiculously gorgeous.)

12. MOISTURIZING LOTION from HUDSON HARMONY
Based in New Windsor, NY, these soaps and lotions are a favorite at area farmer's and craft markets.

13. A PAIR OF MUCKLUCKS from ROCK RIDGE ALPACAS
Furry friends from Chester (home of Neufchatel cheese and the legendary horse Hambletonian) have been shorn to provide your loved ones with these comfy high-top slippers.

14. A POUND OF COSTA RICAN TARRAZU COFFEE from MONKEY JOE
"One of the world's greatest coffees - light, clean flavor, wonderful fragrance. Silky, full bodied with rich acidity. Well-balanced with a lingering aftertaste." Rain Forest Alliance certified, and roasted in Kingston, NY.

15. SEEDS from the HUDSON VALLEY SEED LIBRARY
"Ken Greene started the Seed Library in 2004 while working as a Librarian at the Gardiner Public Library. Having developed a strong interest in preserving heirloom seed varieties, he decided to add them to the library catalog so that patrons could 'check them out,' grow them in their home gardens, and then 'return' saved seed at the end of the season." They've since branched out in their Accord HQ, offering apparel and artwork in addition to seeds.

16. BALANCING BAMBOO WINE BOTTLE HOLDER from STYLO FURNITURE & DESIGN
Your mother-in-law likes a nice bottle of wine, doesn't she? This holder, hand-made in Cornwall-on-Hudson by Randy Hornman, makes a great conversation piece and offers a beautiful way to display your favorite vintage. Keeps the cork wet, too, if your MIL's not cracking it open right away.

17. PINT GLASSES from NEWBURGH BREWING COMPANY
When I started this list, the guys at Newburgh Brewing didn't have an online store to share their great logo designs with the wider beer-loving world. Their beer and ale is served for miles around (as well as in their incredible taproom) and now you can get the right glass to enjoy it at home -- or make another brew feel better about itself.


Monday, November 18, 2013

The Most Valuable Skill

Outcomes are easy to visualize. Process, less so.

When my parents moved into the house I mostly grew up in (I was two), my mother apparently said "first thing we do is change this kitchen around," which they did 20 years later.

Readers of this blog will remember that in 2007 I wrote an AWFUL LOT about fixing the drainage around our foundation, which we did in 2013.

I know how the launch party for my first novel goes. You are invited.

Yesterday men came and ground our road up into pebbles, then laid the pebbles back down and shaved and graded them and rolled them flat in preparation for laying down new blacktop. (This was to replace the dug-up roadway where the sewer and drainage lines had been installed back in January and February.)

(Yeah, we had the drainage project done in January and February. When it started, it was going to be a ten-day job—because outcomes are easy to visualize—and the ten-day forecast was for temperatures in the 40s. It wasn't a ten-day job. Temperatures were not in the 40s.)

One night a few years ago, around New Year's Day, a logical, disciplined woman who lives with me and I went out for a date and took a notebook and drew a timeline of our lives. Things like college dates, anniversaries, milestone birthdays, retirement &c. (There was an asterisk at the bottom indicating that all future events were speculative and conditional.) Since then each year we've collaborated on a big brown sheet of craft paper capturing all the stuff we want to pay attention to that year. Outcomes, mostly.

But what I love is what happens on that paper throughout the year. It gets rolled up and put on top of the washing machine in the alcove in the front room (we call it the parlor, because fancy). It gets unrolled, usually by me, okay, during stressful moments, just to make sure we're on track. We amend it. Check things off. X out stuff we don't care about anymore, or that we've written off as eggnog-driven delusions. Sometimes we write in interim steps toward a goal. We see the year unscroll. Process.

The thing I'm trying to show myself, when I pause, is that even the goals are process. Late tonight, feeling an urge, I sat down to write something and faced the usual wall of dull facts staring at me about blogging: it's not important; it's not advancing your career; it's not your best work; it's not your novel; your big revelations were captured in English in the early 1800s and by the ancient Greeks before that and by you in 2008; &c.

But, outcomes. The first thing we do is change this kitchen around. Someday I'm going to get that water problem fixed. Gonna publish that book. You can't do an outcome. You can only plug away. That's where I think I meant to be going with this. An easy message that had to be approached obliquely, worried at, whittled down to, before it could be reached: Plugging away is the most valuable skill. I've highlighted it for the kids. Outcomes don't even matter, really, when you plug away.

Said all this before, of course. Nothing new here. Except, in a day or two, someone's going to repave my road. And after, I'll unroll the big sheet of craft paper labeled 2013 and I'll check off "repave." I'll tweak a scene in that manuscript. I'll look back at the sheet and see that "insulation" is next and I'll look at the life timeline and I'll see we're right where we hoped we'd be: alive. Doing things. Plugging away.