Between Us

I’m a Troll

lies a painful wedgie!

Last week on Twitter I saw a nice little human-interest video from reporter Homa Bash in Cleveland. During my years in Cleveland, Homa Bash and her co-workers were the funny and light-sided take on the news (except for that Jay Z incident. That one still burns me). The video in question shows parents and kids stepping out of their front doors and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in unison. It was the typical cutesy video that you get from human-interest reporters, whose job is to find good things to break up the depressingly serious side of the news. I’ve seen Homa Bash, and Cam Fontana in Columbus, and Patrick Wright in Greensboro and many, many others do countless stories just like this one. So why do I feel the need to write about it?

Video Read the comments.

If you haven’t been living under a rock (or if you’re my age or older), you know that Twitter is a vast wasteland, where trolls run free and hobbits are in constant danger of annihilation (I’m kinda a hobbit-troll hybrid, but you know that if you’ve ever read my stuff). The trolls came down on this one furiously. This eighteen-second video spawned a firestorm of “racist” and “white nationalist” comments from the left. This kind of stuff happens everyday on both sides of the fence. What is it these Right and Left wing “do-gooders” don’t seem to realize? That the “fence” is miles away from either of their positions. A better analogy, there are two fences, and they are miles apart.

*

Think of the political landscape as a football field. Put the Right fence on the fifteen or twenty yard-line. Put the Left fence on a similar yet opposing yard-line (I’m over here). What you have is sixty or seventy yards between the opposing Wings.

Another analogy might be imagining (my apologies in advance, neighbors!) Canada and Mexico at war and America being caught in the crossfire.

And still another way to think of it is a circular firing squad, with the Right and Left are two halves of the circle.

Now imagine the Left side collapsing and opening fire on each other.

We are cannibalizing ourselves and NOBODY is winning.

*

So, what is fueling this extreme rage on all sides of the landscape? In my ten years of traveling this land, I’ve seen an exponentially increase in hypersensitivity and tribalism. This isn’t hyperbole. I’ve skewed pretty far to the left for a long time, but I could always see what motivated the good on the other side. What I’ve seen is a sharpening of rhetoric that drives us apart. The power brokers at the very top have weaponized some simple wedge issues and used a sledgehammer to drive them home. Normal folks are fatigued by the constant fighting.

“Seize the Guns” vs. “Background Checks” vs “Gun Control”

“Abortions for Everybody” vs. “Access to Women’s Health” vs. “Baby Killing”

“Medicare For All” vs “Affordable Care” vs. “Love My Insurance”

“Common Courtesy” vs. “Freedom of Speech” vs. “War on Christmas” 

“White Nationalism” vs. “It’s okay to love my Country” vs “Patriots”

The list goes on and on. The bottom line, for every staunch defender of a <name your position here> on either side, with most people stuck in between. The last five years or so, we have gone down the path where facts don’t matter. Every opinion is now taken as fact by someone, and the echo chamber gives credence to even the most ludicrous stances.

Is there an easy fix? No, there is not. I can only hope this virus and the aftermath bring us to a new era of civility, a time when we can sit down and have a conversation about something without turning it into a WWE cage match. In one of those, someone can always be counted in to be the heel.

Back to the video. Shortly after it aired, detractors on the left jumped on the video as an insidious plot by a group of suburban parents to indoctrinate their kids into some kind of white nationalist cult. Is that possible? Of course. Is it also possible that the parents wanted to get their bored kids out of the house for sixty seconds? Of course. The answer probably lies somewhere in between. To be honest, Each parent probably had their own motive for being out there at that moment in time. No person is as evil we give them credit for, and very few are a wholesome. We all fall on that sliding scale somewhere in between.

Someone, probably a close friend, is going to take offense to this post. I welcome it. I ain’t perfect. I don’t even play it on television. I’m just trying to be a good dude.

Fu*ck it, a boy must dream, right?

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Let’s Get Serious

A long-distance friend of mine reached out today. We don’t always see eye to eye, but we’ve developed a mutual respect over the years. She shared a story with me that I think you need to hear. She asked me to protect her anonymity, so I’m not going to get too specific. I was surprised and touched by her faith in me. I can be irreverent and snarky at times, but when the cards are on the table, I call them as I see them. I don’t pull my punches. Here is her story.

Long story short, her son is a Medical Doctor. He’s around forty years old, married with children and in good physical condition. He worked out every day, ate a low fat diet and did not smoke. He was a social drinker. About ten days ago he started feeling ill, but felt he had a responsibility to keep working. By the end of the week he went home early and headed straight to bed. He was feeling so bad he had to write himself a prescription for the current recommended medication. (I’ll get back to this later) Over the weekend his condition worsened. His family forced him to go to the hospital. He is now on a ventilator and fighting for his life.

Like a lot of people in my generation, my friend didn’t take this virus seriously. This is not an indictment of her. It’s more an allegory on the echo chamber that we’ve become. My friend is no fan of Trump, but she does tend to lean to the Right. I don’t think she would ever take Trump at his word on anything. In fact, I suspect she is leery of everything that comes out of his mouth. But the POTUS has been bloviating for almost three months about the virus being benign, inconsequential. He is a very convincing liar, especially when his sycophants back him up. So now, when the chips are down, we are wholly unprepared to limit COVID-19’s footprint.

Getting back to the son. I mentioned that our young doctor wrote himself a prescription on his way home from the office. When his wife, who is a registered nurse, took him to the ER, they turned her away at the door, told her to go self-quarantine with her children. But first, they wanted her to run home and grab her husband’s meds, because the hospital was critically low. This is totally against any hospital’s procedure. They want to know the source and efficacy of everything they put into someone. Let me repeat:

THEY TOLD HIS WIFE, WHO IS AN REGISTERED NURSE, TO RUN HOME AND GRAB HIS MEDS BECAUSE THE HOSPITAL WAS CRITICALLY LOW. Let that sink in.

My friend lives near a large and fairly well-to-do city. From the outside looking in, I wouldn’t think they would lack for facilities and services. Her son is a doctor, so I’m guessing he didn’t have to worry about delays of treatment or a lack of insurance coverage. And yet the hospital was out of the anti-viral medications and supplies they need to treat his case. This is not an isolated incident. All across the country, hospitals are running out of beds, ventilators, masks, gowns, protective gear, medications. EMT, doctors, nurses, admissions people, police officers and transit workers are being knocked down by the virus. Facilities are being overrun. And still we talk about it being “no worse that the flu.”

So who is to blame for all of this? Nobody is to blame for a pandemic. Once the virus escapes into the wild, the only thing to do is try to contain it. Limit the damage. We have failed in that. The days have passed when we could look to our leaders with confidence in a time of crisis. These days, everyone has an agenda. The media tells us what the corporate overlords want us to hear. The President has proven that he values his feelings over the best interests of the country. He is a small and petty man. He is not responsible. He has never been “responsible.”

The moral of this story: Don’t be a tough guy. This is a cautionary tale. Despite all of his training to the contrary, my friend’s son tried to tough it out. I can only pray that he pulls through. My friend told me this story in hopes that others would not try to “tough it out.” My friend was lulled into a false sense of security. No one is secure. Everyone is at risk. Be smart. Protect yourself. If you start to feel sick, use the online resources. If your condition worsens, go get a test. Do not let yourself die thinking that this is “just the flu.”

America has always had a tough guy mentality. We tell ourselves that we are the strongest and hardest working. The internet and the 24-hour news cycle have amplified this flaw in our national consciousness. There comes a time to say “Enough.” Protect yourself. I pray this young doctor makes it. And I pray the rest of us do as well.

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I Am A Unicorn

I am a unicorn. There, I said it. I’m going to make some confessions here that will shock you. Some won’t make it past the next paragraph. That’s fine. I have a complicated relationship with politics. I think a lot of us do. I’d love to say I’ve been a lifelong progressive, but that would be a lie. Over the decades, I have evolved many times in my beliefs and practices. In fact, I think it’s more important to evolve than to be consistent.

My first flirtation with politics came at a very early age. As a child, and this is no bullshit, my first man-crush was on Ronald Reagan. I’m not talking about his policies. Lord knows I was a clueless preteen, and later a stupendously hedonistic teenager. But gotdam that man had charisma. Folks who are not of the Boomer or Gen X generations will never understand the impression Uncle Ronnie had on young people before he became POTUS. In my earliest memories, Ronnie was a lovable cowboy and likable Governor of California. On the old black-and-white TV, I hung on his every word, even though I didn’t understand the implications of what he was saying. I remember being outraged by his loss in 1976 to Jimmy Carter. When I cast my first vote from Marine Corps boot camp, you better believe it was for Uncle Ronnie. So you can go ahead blame me for the last forty years of our descent into conservative hell.

This might not be my most outrageous admission. I won’t mind if you stop reading now. In fact I’ve probably just lost credibility with a lot of people.

The 80s were a blur for me. I can barely remember the Bush Senior presidency and the intervening years. It’s safe to say that I was a Grade A, genuine (rhymes with wine) fuckup. There is no other way to describe me. I was pretty much out of control. Blur might be putting it mildly. Around 1990, I had a serious fall from grace and moved back home to Columbus with my tail between my legs. This started a chain of events that eventually led me to where I am today. It all started with a newspaper ad.

I was unemployed, un-moored and uninspired. But the one thing I’ve always been good at is finding a job. Back then I put it down to luck. These days, I have no problem blaming white privilege for this ability. I can bullshit on a resume like nobody’s business. I’m also a world class talker. But I’m sure it helped that I clean up well, have lily-white skin, and even when alcohol infused, I’m an untapped wealth of trivial knowledge. So, I answered this ad. It was for a community organizer. I had no idea what this meant. At the time I was politically unaware. This was before the internet came along to change everything.

I was like a sponge. All the years of going to concerts, chasing women and drinking everything in sight had left me as a blank slate. I’ve always loved people and I LOVED the hippies that I worked with. I was a monster on the doors, talking to folks about toxic waste and utility company rip-offs. I could talk people into anything. I once joked that I could “canvass McDonald’s into buying Whoppers.” It was during this period that I fell for the second great love of my life. (I skipped over the first because she’s my one great regret and the source of my life-long self-loathing).

That year was idyllic. I was a fierce advocate on the doors. I had the fire in my eyes of a true believer. I trained dozens to do the same as me. At home I was nesting. There was no doubt in my mind that we would “social justice” our way to a picturesque life that you read about in the classics. But my belief was fragile and my ego more so. When she left me, I was once again unhinged. Picture a spinning top that has lost its grip on gravity and wanders drunkenly to its inevitable crash. I sank into the loving arms of my misery.

What followed was a twenty-year interlude. You could say I was retired from politics. I went through another descent into the madness of self-doubt. I landed in the service industry, where jobs are always plentiful for guys who look, talk and think like me. Target was starting to blow up nationwide and I hopped on the rocket. That lasted about five years.

After that, I had a brief stop at CompuServe, which back when it was the OG of the online world. I spent two years there. It was during that time that I went from being a computational luddite to a computer nerd. Better still, I became a Mac nerd. From the time they financed my first computer, it took me ten weeks to write my first novel, the one that shall never be read. Ten weeks, 100,000 words. Let that sink in. I climbed onboard the information superhighway in 1996, and I’ve been addicted ever since.

After CompuServe was sold and broken into pieces, I had my pick of low-level tech jobs. So, what did I do? I went to bartending school. I remember sitting in my car, talking to Benny, the guy who supplied the jobs, and he gave me two leads. It was literally a coin flip on which number to call. I chose heads. I landed at an airport, serving drinks at seven a.m. to folks traveling to Las Vegas. Within two weeks, I’d met the third love of my life. She was a recent immigrant from Africa and ten times smarter than I ever was. I fell love with her mind as much her face. But her family was a huge problem, and when she eventually left me, I felt that familiar falling sensation. My professionalism crumbled. When they finally let me go, I marked it as one of the best days of my professional life. The relief was tangible, like a ghost in the room. How pathetic is that?

Next, I went on a meandering journey that took me to New York City on 9/11 to Huntington, NY, where the rich folks live, to the upper middle-class enclave of Dublin, Ohio and finally to The Hilltop, Columbus, Ohio. Each location was a step down the economic ladder, and the jobs reflected that as well. I performed every function from cook to server to bartender to general manager. I loved these jobs, for a time. I thought I was good at them, for a time. The fact that I lasted so long in each is a mystery to me. Five years here, four years there, two years, five years, two years. When I finally decided to pull the plug on this chapter of my life, I was working as a delivery driver on the Hilltop. I should have asked for combat pay. If you live in Columbus, you know I’m lucky to be alive.

During this two decades of foundering, I became the unicorn that I am now. I’d never been a Democrat or Republican. Now I became a party of one. Let’s call it the Contrarian Party. I voted in every election except 2000. My votes in 1992 and 1996 were protest votes. My votes for Perot and Nader were a direct result of my disgust in the corrupt system. I hated Bill Clinton. (Much like Carter, I’ve since seen the error of my ways). In fact, until that ill-fated night in 2016, I boasted often that “I had never voted for a Bush OR a Clinton.” And yes, even when I spoke the words, I capitalized the OR. It explains where I am today, but I’ll get to that later.

That all came to a halt in 2004. I volunteered with the League of Young Voters during the Kerry campaign. It wasn’t Kerry the man who inspired me, it was the youthful vigor of my compatriots, some of whom are still friends today. The idea of social justice that was planted in my mind way back in 1990 began creeping in, like fresh blood reanimating a desiccated vampire. I even went so far as to drive to DC to protest the third Bush inauguration. I could write a whole post about that weekend. Maybe I will someday. Kerry folded like a cheap suit, but I firmly believe it set the stage for what happened next. I was still in the throes of restaurant hell, but it was all beginning to wind down.

We all know what happened in 2008. Despite my excitement, I was regretfully silent during this campaign. Sure, I voted, and I talked up Obama every chance I got. His win was one of the happiest nights of my life. As my restaurant career wound down, my political re-awakening was stoking up. The election in 2010 would be last I would sit on the sidelines for a long time. But yes, I was still a unicorn…

To be continued…

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Interlude: The Same as an Old Girlfriend

Back when I was in the restaurant biz, I developed a reputation as the guy who could handle the problem children. (Translation: I developed a reputation as a sucker.) In retrospect, that has probably been a factor in the downfall of a lot of my jobs. I would take the worst worker of the bunch, give them way too many chances, and get screwed every time. They say the definition of insanity…

I could have nipped it in the bud. Back in my earliest days of management, I went to my HR manager with a request for a re-hire. She said,

“Now T, I’m not going to tell you that you can’t rehire G. I will tell you this, rehiring an old employee is like getting back with an old girlfriend. The longer you are spit up, the less like you are to remember what caused the break. But the troubles will always return, and usually worse than before.”

Don’t you know it’s true? It’s easy to re-hire someone who you’ve worked with before. You don’t have to train them. But if they left under bad circumstances, they will likely do so again. And it’s just as painful every time.

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Interlude – It’s the Prairie Dogs, Dammit!

I spent the majority of 2012-13 in Denver, Colorado. I could go on and on about the weather, the mountains, the spirit of the Great American West (and I probably will at some point). But I want to tell you about a particular night I spent in Aurora, Colorado. 2013 was an off-year election. There wasn’t a lot going on politics wise in Colorado. That being said, we never stop doing what we do. Aurora was holding a city council race and a union guy was on the ballot, so we decided to put him over the top. When you think of Aurora, the first thing that comes to mind is probably the theater shooting. Most folks don’t realize just how large Aurora actually is (350k people).

We had a very tiny crew that year, so I spent some time canvassing. I was out in Aurora knocking on doors when I walked up to a house whose yard was inundated with gopher holes. I nice woman opened the door and stepped out onto the porch. I introduced myself and told her why I was there. Then I asked her the same question that I ask everyone at the door.

“What is the biggest issue for you and your family?”

She didn’t hesitate. “The prairie dogs. I know your candidate and I like him. But his opponent actually knocked on my door and told me that she’d take care of my problem.”

Yeah right, I thought. A politician is going to personally come out and eradicate a thousand prairie dogs from this neighborhood. I gave the standard talking points on why we chose our candidate and what made him better, then moved onto the next door.

I turned the corner and started working my way down the next street. About ten doors away I turned up a driveway and made my way onto a porch. One of the great things about being out on the street in beautiful weather is that you can take in all the sights. This house had hella sights to take in. The yard was full of hippie shit. I love hippie shit. There were dreamcatchers, streamers and windchimes dangling from the porch. I peered through the screen door and saw a middle-aged man walking around. I gave the door my signature “shave-and-a-haircut” tap and he hollered,

“Let me grab a beer and I’ll be right out.”

We exchanged pleasantries and I sent my opening salvo. “What’s the most important issue for you and your family?’

“It’s funny you should ask that.”

“Why is that?”

“It’s the prairie dogs, dammit!”

“Really?”

“Yeah. I just wish people would leave them alone. They’re my friends.”

It was a ‘holy shit” moment. And it just goes to show you that there are two sides to every story, and that one of them isn’t necessarily wrong.

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Chapter 4 – What The Hell Is A Senate Bill 5?

I was just about ready to jump back into politics. Unbeknownst to me, things were about to get very real.

In 2010 the Republicans pulled off a nationwide coup that was nearly as devastating as Pearl Harbor. The Lefty crowd was still patting ourselves on the back for electing Barack Obama, choosing Hope over Fear. Rather than wringing their hands, the Republicans went to work. They targeted State Houses and Governorships across the country. Few states felt the sting as badly as Ohio.

I still view it as kismet. I walked into the job interview with high hopes. I had requisite experience, a passion for the work and, as I told you before, I’m a wizard at job interviews. The Field Director and I hit it off immediately. It was like we were brothers from another mother. He too had spent some time at Citizen Action, albeit years after my tenure. Within the first minute it was clear that I would get the job pending a second interview. The conversation progressed to how I could become a Field Director. I’m pretty sure I threw my hands up in the air and said “Whoa, wait a second.” I hadn’t escaped from twenty years of management jobs to go right back to being someone’s boss. At the time, I still had delusions of being an award-winning crime writer. Dreams die hard.

“I know what kind of hours you have to work, B. Time is more important than money to me at this point in my life. In fact, I’d like to do this job four days a week. You see, I write books.”

He got this stern look on his face, one that I’ve seen maybe three times in the eight years that we’ve been friends. “This work is too important, T. We expect everyone who takes this job to be on-time full-time. We’re going to pay you a good wage plus bonuses and pay for your health care. All we expect you to do it be here forty hours per week and to do a good job while you’re here.”

I thought I had overplayed my hand. I said, “I can do that.” And that was that. I walked from the dark side into the light.

sI had my first union job, fighting for worker’s rights against some of the same corporations I used to work for. About six weeks later, Governor John Kasich signed a bill into law that would seriously roll back those right in the state. The bill was so hated that only one state senator would publicly sponsor it. The so-called Senate Bill 5 would restrain the rights of unionized state workers to collectively bargain.

COLLECTIVE BARGAINING: When a group of workers negotiates with management as a unit, typically for wages, insurance, benefits and working conditions. This bargaining unit usually takes the form of a union and must be ratified in a democratic vote of the proposed unit’s members.

Specifically, Senate Bill 5 allowed for the negotiating of wages, but eliminated any other bargaining rights. This was particularly troublesome for first responders and teachers, who already had to go into their own pockets for supplies and safety equipment. Roughly a half-million workers were affected by the new law. Mass protests erupted at the statehouse. I was there on day one.

In Ohio, the citizens have the right to repeal any law, but only if they can muster enough statewide support to get it put on the ballot. At the time the bill was signed into law, the threshold was 400,000 verified signatures to put the repeal on the ballot. In addition to that, a minimum number of signatures needs to be distributed among 44 of the state’s 88 counties. Progressive groups, including my own, set a goal of 500,000 signatures in the next three months. My team crisscrossed the state, going to all the tiny hamlets that were off the beaten path.

I mentioned early that only one senator would sponsor SB5. She was from a rural “safe” district where she’d won by a large margin the previous November. We took the fight directly to her home town. I can recall canvassing on her street, her husband following close behind, trying to explain away her heinous act. We got a chuckle on the ride home that night. In the end, 1.3 million signatures were collected, 900,000 being valid.

I estimate that I talked to over 4000 voters in that election cycle. It was a nightly education in what people really want and need. I had people from the Right and the Left tell me they expected bloody revolution to break out. I heard from voters who said their single biggest issue was the city not fixing the potholes on their street. I also heard the litany of “birth certificate, Muslim, Kenya” bullshit from the burgeoning Fox News crowd. It was alternating hope and despair. I loved it.

In November of 2011 we went back to the polls to vote on Senate Bill 5. It was a resounding win for the good guys. We got more votes than Kasich did when he was elected. It was also a foreshadowing of things to come.

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Lessons From The Road – A Long-Form Confessional

In February of 2011, I began a nearly eight-year journey that took me to eight different states and 11 different cities. I saw the Rocky Mountains, The Rust Belt, New England and The South. I worked with hundreds of vibrant young people, who in turn knocked on hundreds of thousands of doors. The quest: to spread the good word of progressive values and reach into the core of the American psyche. The pertinent questions can be boiled down to: “Why does fear overshadow common sense?” and “What can we do to pull the country kicking and screaming back to the American Dream.” Enclosed are the lessons I’ve learned along the way. You’ll also learn more a lot about me than you ever wanted to know.

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