Monthly Archives: April 2020

Oh HELL … Maybe: Perspective Matters, Huh?

First Cat White posted this at me on FB. (I’m known to have issues with heights above, say, two feet, and my friends love tormenting me.)

heights 1

My response was the now-ritualized “Oh HELL no.”

Her friend Chuck was skeptical and went sleuthing, which revealed this:

heights 2

That’s still more height than my back brain will tolerate, but this angle tells a different story.

My compliments to the shooter who figured this one out…

The Five Best Things on Facebook

The Vault of the Atomic Space Age

Facebook is a discordant marketplace-of-ideas battle royale unlike anything in human history. Most of it is inane (or worse) dreck. But some of it is brilliant – enlightening, uplifting, empathetic. If we could get rid of the 99.99% that isn’t we’d have a foundation for a better world.

But we can’t. So for now we’ll have to make do with my picks for the best things therein.

Brandon Stanton

Humans of New York

Brandon Stanton is a photographer and storyteller supreme. Or rather, he’s supremely talented at getting people to share their stories. He walks around NYC (and these days he jaunts about the world on occasion, too), takes pictures of those he sees, and lets them talk about their lives. Sometimes it’s harrowing, sometimes it’s informative, sometimes it’s whimsical and funny, but it’s always authentic and 100% free of judgment.

George Takei

George Takei

Actor, writer, and now First Citizen of the Internet. Stanton avoids judgment, but Takei brings an up-front agenda to the table in his campaign to promote fairness, equality, hope, dignity, and basic human decency. You may not agree with all he has to say – he wouldn’t ask you to – but if you engage with him in good faith you’ll come away a better, more thoughtful person.

The Man Must Burn

The Vault of the Atomic Space Age
The Man Must Burn

I present these together because their yin and yang exploration of the Modern Era is, I think, an essential study of a critically important moment in our history.

If I might abstract a bit, The Vault of the Atomic Space Age is dedicated to a presentation of 20th Century Modernism more or less on its own terms. The About brief describes it as “Art, fashion, design, technology, mid-century style, architecture, etc from the Atomic Space Age,” and while that’s true as far as it goes it undersells the sophistication with which the curator presents the vision of a society ascendant, winner of the World Wars and a bit heady on its new status as world leader. Its fetishization of the nuclear sublime and the grandiosity with which it sees its destiny is critical for us today because of the story told by the gap between the vision and what we now know of the reality 70 years on.

There’s a temptation to say the artifacts are presented objectively and unironically, but what we know makes that impossible.

If Vault indulges the techophilia of a supremely self-confident (and self-involved) culture, The Man Must Burn takes a grittier view. Denver’s own Matt Boggs shares his love affair with the 20th century’s dark side, collecting and archiving a staggering array of artifacts from the 1900s (seriously, I have no idea how he finds some of this stuff), focusing on the Mid-Century Modern era – everything from art to celebrity photos to comic books to space and war photography to cars to the sparkling retro-futurism of the 1950s and ’60s. As I look at the page now we have 1940s warplanes, Elvis, a link to a History.com article on the Spanish Flu-incited spiritualism craze and then some. Describing its breadth and depth is nearly impossible, but its visual impact, its persistent raid on the collective psyche of our rage to military, economic, and cultural empire, is everything the Internet ought to be.

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Loosely affiliated with NASA, APOD is just what the name says. Each day we’re presented with a photo (usually breathtaking) of some corner of the cosmos, along with a well-crafted narrative telling us what we’re seeing. It’s hard to come away without being awed and informed.

We probably all have our favorites, and we like them our own reasons. These are mine, and I’d enjoy hearing about yours in the comments.

Astros Unveil New Logo

New-Astros-Logo

Houston Astros Executive VP of Brand Dewey Cheatham explained that the updated design leverages the club’s historical identity while updating the iconic star to better reflect their more recent World Series legacy.

Cheatham expects the new brand identity to accompany the team from 2020 through the end of time.

COVID Stress Overload: Breathe and Respond Instead of Reacting

It was only a matter of time. COVID seems to ramping up the stress level all around and I’m starting to see that translating into … snippiness … at work. Not on my team, mercifully. But in close proximity and in ways that affect us.

So I posted this to my team earlier.

Just a reminder: breathe. Never reply while angry. And make use of a lesson I learned some years back from a guy I worked with: respond, don’t react.

Reactions are reflexive and emotional. Something happens and we step toward it. Reacting is inherently confrontational.

Responding means a step back. Assess, get past emotion, think about what’s driving the annoying situation, empathize with others involved, then craft a productive solution. Responding is collaborative instead of confrontational.

This whole coronavirus mess is going to find and exploit every crack, every weakness, every aggravation we have. But we’re all better than these artificial demons.

Think about it. Pass it on.

Ancestry DNA Results and My Mystery Grandmother

ancestry-dna

Fascinating. To me, anyway…

I just got the results back on my Ancestry DNA test.* I suppose mine are like everybody’s: they confirmed a lot of what I already knew and also threw a couple little curves at me.

A slight preface: My family has always been working folks and while official records exist, our oral history was longer on supposition than documentation. There are things we know, but a lot more we don’t.

What I Knew

A huge majority of my DNA traces to the British Isles. The population where I grew up is heavily Scotch/Irish and my family name traces to Scotland in the early 1700s at least. Other surnames, as well, are distinctly British and Irish (Marshall and Dillon, for instance, and Milraney). There’s a good bit more English and Welsh than I expected, although my grandmother (paternal) said she was part Welsh. And so on.

If you look at the map of where my relations – near and distant – live, it’s not too different from a map of Scotch/Irish immigration. Lots of Red country. Too much Ozark to suit me.

What I Didn’t Know

  • I’m 3% French. Kinda embarrassed about that.
  • Not much German at all. We had suspected we had a good bit of German and at one point there was even speculation that the Smith might be an Anglicized Schmidt. Apparently not.
  • I’m a wee bit Norwegian. No family insight at all into that one.
  • I expected some Central European. My great-grandfather was a member of one of the Moravian churches in the area. They’re a small denomination and they never seemed to recruit a lot, so my assumption is that many members are there through family tradition. The Moravians came from Bohemia in what is now the Czech Republic. But the test says no.
  • Most interestingly, I was always told we had a Native American grandmother a few generations up the family tree. Specifics were fuzzy, but there are some dominant physical traits running down the paternal side of the family that my relatives interpreted as Native-ish, and this was taken as evidence. But no – the test found not a drop of Amerind blood in me.

What it did find was a small trace of “Cameroon, Congo & Southern Bantu Peoples” – folks originating somewhere in the Southern half of Africa.

Given the small amount of said DNA, coupled with the absence of a perhaps similar amount of Native American, I find myself wondering about that mystery grandmother, who probably lived in 18th/early 19th century. Did she pose as Native for social reasons? Was she an escaped slave? Was the family in on the secret? Did they pass down the story that she was American Indian for safety reasons or, us being Southern and all, was it a scandal?

Or perhaps my Native grandmother never existed? Who knows where stories come from after a couple hundred years. Maybe she’s a myth and that little bit of African DNA comes from somewhere else entirely.

I can speculate all night here and probably will. I don’t imagine there’s anything remotely unusual about my family history, but I’m fascinated by these questions for the same reasons everybody else is. I want to know everything there is to know about where I came from, even though it makes not a lick of difference.

_____

* Yeah, I know. DNA companies work with the Security State. I made this decision informed of all that. If they use it to lock me up they can pay my rent and medical bills for whatever time I have left.

Wait. Michael Jordan Did WHAT?!

Ramona Shelburne’s story on how the much-hyped documentary series on the Chicago Bulls’ final championship season got made (after so many years) is fascinating stuff. But one thing really jumped off the page at me.

Apparently a lot of people wanted to make a doc through the years. Andy Thompson had somehow gotten permission to shoot hundreds of hours of all-access footage at the time, and that archive was seen by anybody who knew of its existence as something akin to the holy grail. The final year of the consensus GOAT? Duh.

Every few years, it seems, some producer or another (including some pretty big names) would make a run at it, but until now none of them even got a face-to-face meeting with Jordan, who controlled the rights, until Mike Tollin came along in 2016.

One of those pretty big names who never got an audience? Spike Lee. SPIKE LEE!

Mars-Blackmon

Oscar winner Spike Lee. The biggest hoops fan on Earth Spike Lee. The guy who did the most famous sports apparel ads in history – for Air Jordan – Spike Lee.

Mars Fucking Blackman himself couldn’t even get in the room with Jordan.

I know Mike keeps things close to the vest. I know he’s intensely conscious of his legacy. But just damn. Folks, when Spike Lee wants to talk…

you-say-yes

Mike’s gonna be Mike, I guess.

Nobody is ever going to want to do a documentary about my life. But you have my word, if Spike Lee ever calls, I’m at least going to let him buy me lunch…

 

A Toast to Scholars & Rogues

As my friends know I spent the last 13 years as Publisher of Scholars & Rogues, a team blog covering everything from politics to the arts to climate to sports to music to journalism to … well, whatever was on somebody’s mind. During that time we produced nearly 11,000 posts.

We were never big, but we were always smart, thoughtful and committed to some basic principles about fairness, empathy, human achievement and justice in our world. My colleagues were as amazing as any group of people you’ve ever been around.

I want to take a moment to say to thanks to all of them. I’ll never be on a better team.

To S&R:

Sam-Toast

 

So, How Are You Doing?

I want to check in and see how people are faring. Times were getting to us before COVID, and I’m guessing that nightmare hasn’t helped.

Things here are fine, more or less. Bored as fuck, especially on the days that used to be weekends. Getting together to watch Chelsea with my Rocky Mountain Blues tribe was always something I looked forward to, and not having that contact gives a sense of … alienation is too stiff a term, but there’s certainly an unsettled loneliness. Disconnectedness … wrongness.

I can’t even kill time watching sports on TV. This is typically prime NBA/Nuggets time for me.

And I’m really going bonkers on the photography front. There are several projects on the boards, but they all require me to be out and in contact with people. So I’m stuck here shooting flowers I get at Safeway, and as much as I obviously love shooting florals even that gets tired after a while.

I feel lucky, though. I try and imagine being the age of my gf’s kids. I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with being home through the years but when I was that age I was out literally every night.

The internet helps. As much as it’s to blame for much of what’s wrong in the world, it is a lifeline to friends, to family, to the world beyond the front door. I’ve had a couple of Zoom happy hours with friends, including an online gathering of some old Theta Chi brothers from Wake the other night. Those are more than just keeping up, too. I get to interact with guys I haven’t talked to since the mid-’80s. So maybe COVID will help us expand our networks a bit.

When I think about how this is on kids in their 20s, I sometimes go a step further and try imagining this happening in the ’80s when I was that age. No Net. No Scholars & Rogues email community. None of the incredible TV we have today. No. Fucking. Nothing. I’d read constantly, sure, but would bookstores even be open?

It’s not a comfortable thing to contemplate.

As is, life inside the walls is manageable. J and I are taking steps to make sure we stay on the same page and give each other extra space. No matter how much you love someone, what we have here is a divorce lawyer’s dream. When we “reopen the economy” they’re going to get swamped.

And when I go out I get to rock the badass mask my friend Cat made me. I want to beat people who aren’t wearing them, though. Fucking sociopaths.

Anyway, I wanted to say hi. How are YOU doing?

Sam-mask

 

If nurses are essential why are they being treated this way?

nurseWe’ve heard a lot lately about how America is finally learning who’s really essential now that we’re deep in a real crisis. I even chipped in. But are we treating our essential workers with the care and respect we should be?

I have a good friend who works in an emergency department in a mid-sized Midwestern city hospital as well as two nearby ERs in smaller cities and one community clinic. So four facilities and the issues she reports are the same in each. Let’s call her K.

K and I were trading messages today and apparently things aren’t rosy on the ground there. I won’t share the whole exchange, but here are some key points.

I work 24 hour shifts so I only have to go to work 6 days a month. But I can tell you it’s no joke. We don’t have the PPE [personal protective equipment] we should despite what you may hear. For the whole hospital we have about 150 surgical masks left and those don’t do s*** for anything! We’re given one mask to wear for the entire day. Goes against every infection-control thing we were ever taught. It’s like what we’ve heard about in developing countries all these years where they reuse masks and wash the gloves.

Obviously this is disturbing news to hear from a friend who’s “on the front lines.” I asked if any of her colleagues have contracted COVID.

Yep. One of the ER nurses and also his wife, who’s one of our flight nurses. And another frontline ER nurse. All three were hospitalized but have been released…

At least the hospital is doing what they can, though, right? Here K is started getting a little heated.

They’ve basically told us to f*** off and quit complaining.

They told us that if we can prove with 100% certainty that we became infected with the virus at work then we can file for workers’ comp. But if we can’t prove that we became infected at work then we’re on our own.

We aren’t essential, we’re expendable.

The conversation continued for a while, and you get the idea.

I’m not sure what to add here. I’m glad so many of us have realized what people like my friend mean to our society, but…

It’s like how I describe the career world generally. Companies love to talk about how much they value their people, but their actions – hiring practices, compensation, layoffs, and so on – belie the claim.

The don’t value you. They appreciate you. Which is different. Appreciation is a friendly pat on the back that costs nothing. Value is measurable.

It sounds like America really appreciates its medical professionals. And why not – they go to work and risk their lives despite the kind of treatment K reports. But until we make their workplaces safe and treat them – in all ways – with the respect their commitment deserves, we don’t really value a damn thing, do we?

Disgusted yet?

Democratic Socialism, Social Democracy, and Bernie’s Big Mistake

Sanders-democratic-socialism

In 2016 Bernie Sanders declared himself a Democratic Socialist, and in doing so assured he’d never be president. The issue, then as now, was the “S-word.” Why would you label yourself a Socialist if you want to run for office in America?

Especially – and this part is key – if you aren’t one?

There are two terms to understand here: Democratic Socialism and Social Democracy. They use the same root terms and they do, in fact, have much in common. But they aren’t the same thing. In brief, Social Democracy (SD) is “a political, social and economic philosophy that supports economic and social interventions to promote social justice within the framework of a liberal democratic polity and a capitalist-oriented mixed economy.” Democratic Socialism (DS), on the other hand, is “a political philosophy supporting political democracy within a socially owned economy, with a particular emphasis on workers’ self-management and democratic control of economic institutions within a market socialist economy or some form of a decentralised planned socialist economy.”

That is, both believe in Democracy. But SD believes in Capitalism and DS does not. In our present context, we might view SD as reformist and DS as revolutionary.

If you’re scratching your head, don’t feel bad. Even the Democratic Socialists of America seem confused. (For more on Social Democracy, I highly recommend Sheri Berman’s analysis at ForeignPolicy.com.)

So, which is Bernie? From where I sit he’s pretty obviously a Social Democrat (unless he called for nationalizing the oil industry and I somehow missed it). If he’d been running in 1972 he’s have been regarded as your basic, garden-variety Democrat. He’s very much in the political tradition of FDR, whose New Deal was more or less archetypal Social Democracy. I’d call him an SD, then.

Annalisa Merelli, writing at Quartz, agrees.

While it might not sound as dramatic, what Sanders is isn’t a socialist—democratic or otherwise—it’s a social democrat. Social democracy is a reformist approach that doesn’t do away with capitalism in its entirety (as, instead, socialism eventually suggests) but instead regulates it, providing public services and substantial welfare within the frame of an essentially market-led economy. Other leftist politicians such as Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also fall into this camp.

The platform Sanders is running on is reformist, and what he is proposing is a US that looks much more like Canada, or Europe—which certainly are not socialist nations. Whether he believes that the end goal is beyond what Europe has achieved (and the history of his political beliefs suggests so), he still isn’t proposing an actual revolution (not within his lifetime, at least) and should just label himself accordingly.

There was certainly nothing unreasonable about his message. His Facebook feed gave us a steady dose of basic humanity:

It’s not radical to suggest that in the richest country on Earth our doctors and nurses shouldn’t be forced to wear bandanas, scarves and trash bags because they don’t have enough masks, gloves and gowns.

Now, more than ever we must ensure that every single American receives the health care they need, regardless of their income of the color of their skin.

Millions of Americans are going to continue to lose their jobs and their health care through no fault of their own. The gross deficiencies in our employer-based private health care system are more obvious in this crisis than ever.

Thank you to the sanitation workers who continue to work everyday during this crisis to provide essential public services. Our job is to fight to ensure that they receive the hazard pay, child care, health care and safe working conditions that they deserve.

We must ensure we are getting food to the most vulnerable in our communities and guarantee no person goes hungry during this crisis.

Walmart, McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Marriott are all multibillion-dollar corporations that make obscene profits every single year. They can damn well afford to guarantee all of their workers paid sick leave.

Who can say what he was thinking as he tattooed the S-word on his forehead? Maybe, as Merelli suggests, he wanted to shock us – and we’re certainly a nation that could do with a little shocking. And given the practical concerns of reforming the American system it mattered not whether he called himself a Social Democrat, a Democratic Socialist or an ambisexual Martian. But from the perspective of winning, though…

In c. 2016 it would have been challenging enough to win by drawing a line to your candidacy from the New Deal, but it would have been considerably easier than dealing with the line your opponents were going to draw from Stalin. This is ‘Merica and labels matter a lot more than realities, more than policies, more than voting records, and Sanders had to know this.

For the love of Roosevelt, man, just call yourself a Social Democrat!

I was baffled in 2016 and still am, and despite my support for his candidacies I have to admit to a healthy dose of frustration. Sanders is a smart guy, so why would he do something so patently self-defeating? Is he playing eight-dimensional chess and I just don’t get it? Did he want to reframe the agenda and saw a Quixotean run at the White House as the best way of doing it? To be sure, much, if not most of what defined this cycle’s Democratic campaign revolved around issues he put on the table.

But … did he ever really want to be president?

I don’t have answers, but I suspect he did more damage to his bids than his opponents did.

I very much hope the younger cohort of SDs, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have been paying attention and learning. It’s time to rebrand.

Watching the Wheels

NOTE: I penned this a few months ago but never posted it. I’m now in deep enough to see some of the warts, and COVID certainly does northing to make you feel secure. But I was right. And that feels really good.

_____

Finally, I’m off the merry-go-round.

“Surely you’re not happy now
you no longer play the game…”

A couple years ago I got cast adrift.

First, I wound up on the wrong side of a company political battle (it wasn’t about me, but I put myself in the line of fire by backing the wrong horse – never mind that said horse was right) and wound up getting forced out. Not long after I stumbled into a severely toxic “opportunity” that went even worse.

Which kicked off 20+ months of “self-employment.”

It was sheer fucking terror. Every morning I’d wake in a panic and it could take ten minutes just to collect myself and calm down. I had several medical issues, no insurance, mounting debts and the few freelance gigs I landed came nowhere close to keeping my head above water. I was sure I would wind up dead.

The upside was that even after working on the freelance stuff and hunting for jobs (applications with literally hundreds of companies, some phone interviews and a handful of in-person interviews which produced little more than a set of outraged posts on age discrimination, counter-productive interviewing rituals, ghosting and applicant screening systems), I had time to reflect on the dumpster fire of my professional life and how it had happened.

The Status Trap

Back in the early ’00s I took some career assessment inventories and among them was one that ranked professional priorities. It considered things like pursuit of wealth, the attraction of a challenge, etc. – basically, there are 10-15 things that motivate people at work, and you were force-ranked on what mattered most.

For me, #2 turned out to be status. This bothered me. I didn’t see myself as a status hound, but the test results raised ugly questions. Truth was, I did get hung up on titles and my place in the company. It was important to get promoted and to have people reporting to me. The gods forbid I should even wind up lower on the totem pole than (or worse, reporting to) someone younger than me.

These factors were visible indicators of the respect I had. I grew up Southern working class and deeply insecure on top of it, so status markers were tangible validation – the only tangible validation – of my worth. Even if I really saw myself as an artist, a scholar and a thinker, being an a executive director in a Fortune 500 making six figures with some direct reports, and even better, reporting directly to the C Suite, this meant I was winning by the incontrovertible rules of society. You might not care about poetry, but you had no choice to be impressed by the business card.

Status mattered in those other areas, too. PhD. Tenure. Publications. If a poem was rejected, it was a chip in the foundation of my worth as human being. So I lived life according to corporate/consumerist social rules, or tried to (even when I moved in academic or artistic spheres).

That hateful little test planted the seed of self-awareness, and while it incited a good bit of self-examination I never acted on it. I guess you could say I chose to live with the disease rather than seek a cure.

The answer

Despite a career which has seen me hold manager, senior manager, director and VP titles, those 20 months of futility eventually forced me to apply for work that was “beneath” me. And here, of course, was the CATCH-22 – it seemed that for every gig out there I was either not qualified or over-qualified.

When I did manage to land an interview for one of those lower-on-the-food-chain jobs I always – always – wound up hearing a diplomatically turned question that translated into something like “wow, what a resumé. Why would a guy like you want a pissant little job like this?”

It was a fair, if unwelcome question, and I experimented with a variety of answers. But the presumption lies against you in a job interview. There are very few right answers and a lot of wrong ones. Following the advice of a zillion HR experts probably only made it worse. But that’s what you do when you’re playing the game.

After all those months of failure I was compelled to face some realities about myself. I don’t love corporations. I don’t care about “career.” I find no personal or spiritual meaning working in the business world. I like money, of course, but not what you have to do to get more of it.

Instead, I love my wonderful girlfriend and my home life. I love playing with Trouble, the Cattle Dog from Hell. I love my photography and digital art. My writing? Well, some do it because they love it and others because they can’t make themselves stop, and I’m in that camp. But there’s value in it, whether it gets read by anyone or not. And nothing I could ever do in the corporate world would ever have that sort of meaning for me.

I finally broke down and admitted that I’m tired of chasing things that don’t make me happy just because other people say I should.

And that became my answer.

The new job

A few weeks ago I finally got the offer. Not for a Veep job. Not for a director job. Or senior manager or manager or any of the other things for which I’m qualified. Nope – my new position is copywriter – which is what I was doing in 1985.

And it feels so very nice. There’s less in the way of the pointless, manufactured stress that accompanies greater responsibility. (Pressure is how too many business managers reassure themselves that what they’re doing is important. It’s pressure driven by ritual, not reality.) My hours are reasonable. I’m not getting rich but I can certainly live on what I make. And I’m good at writing.

There’s some funny stuff about the situation, too, especially if you knew the old Sam. I’m probably the oldest guy in the group, for instance, and my boss is 30 years younger than me. Literally. She was born right about the time I was finishing my MA. She’s sharp as a whip and I really, really like her.

It’s early

I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round
I really love to watch them roll

Sure, it could all go to hell. Sometimes situations are good early on and a few months later you want to murder people. No guarantees – not now, not ever.

But it feels different. It’s like a tremendous weight is off. I can breathe. And I know for certain that if this job doesn’t work out I won’t go back to the kind of joyless life I was pursuing before.

It took a while, but I now get it. I’m off the merry-go-round and I couldn’t be happier about it.

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