Archive for February, 2016

Weekend at Bernie’s

Posted in Theater of the Absurd with tags , on February 29, 2016 by onlookerslowdown

Sen. Bernie Sanders and his wife Jane O’Meara Sanders take the stage during campaign stop at the Verizon Theatre in Grand Prairie on Sat. Feb. 27, 2016. (Rex C. Curry/Special Contributor to the Dallas Morning News)

Sometime last Friday afternoon, an announcement came across my Facebook feed telling me that #BernieSanders would be appearing in the Dallas area the next day. I had never attended a political rally in all of my 44 years, but the Sanders candidacy is unlike anything I have ever seen. I can’t remember a candidate for either party ever talking about freedom in any terms other than carrying out a military campaign; about crime in any other terms than making sure that we are tough on it; about taxes in any other terms that they are evil and must be eradicated…at least enough to get rid of the programs that the candidate on the screen didn’t like.

But where the hell does Bernie Sanders get off suggesting that a public college education should be free for everyone who wants to go? How dare he suggest that the problem behind the huge number of African-American men in prison is anything other than their own unwillingness to follow the law? How dare he argue that we have, somehow, failed because the greatest nation on the planet has not figured out how to help all of its workers live above the starvation level (I said workers, not the unemployed — his argument that the $7.25 federal minimum wage is a starvation wage has been borne out time and time again).

That’s not what we do anymore, is it? That’s the sort of liberalism that Ted Kennedy kind of railed about but no one has listened to since Lyndon Johnson’s War of Poverty got pre-empted for that conflict in Vietnam. After all, President Clinton saved the Democratic Party by driving it to the center. Today, even if the Puritan witch hunts have become a curiosity, that Puritan work ethic remains, and the mere idea of having us pay taxes to help people who are having hard times causes shock waves all over this land.

But then I learned about Bernie Sanders, and here is why I wanted to make sure that my children got to hear from this radical exception of a candidate. Yes, he refuses Wall Street money. No, there isn’t a SuperPAC collecting millions of dollars to fund campaign expenses for him.Yes, he is turning the idea of what the government should do for its people into a moral question, rather than a phrase that sucks the oxygen out of the room.

So why are all of those young people turning out in droves to hear Bernie Sanders? Why are some of us who are a little older but who have dismissed all politicians as self-interested hacks now wearing buttons and hoisting signs?

It’s not the policies themselves. Yes, they are liberal, but they’re not that outrageous on the spectrum of ideas. After all, President Obama already suggested free community college, and Vice President Biden came out in favor of K-16 education for free as well. Sanders isn’t the only person agitating for a $15 minimum wage — the New York Times is too. Sanders isn’t the only one who wants comprehensive immigration reform. He’s not the only one who wants a fair criminal justice system.

However, he’s the only one who wants these things for the reasons he wants them.

You see, you had to stay until the very end of his speech to understand that. He had already gone through his policy proposals. Some people were walking down the stairs in the balcony to try and beat the traffic home. But the vast majority were still hanging on the edge of their seats, even 45 minutes after he had begun (and several hours after they had taken their seats to see the man they’d made so many memes about).

Bernie does not like to philosophize much. Interviewers have asked him why he took on injustice at an early age in life, and he said that he didn’t know, but that he had always thought that bullying seemed wrong. But he closed his speech with these words: “community trumps selfishness, and love defeats hatred” (yes, ever tweaking the Donald until the end).

But if you didn’t stay, you missed the whole foundation of his program. It’s not about pleasing donors; it’s not about building a personal fortune. It’s not about personal prestige; it’s not about the accolades.

Instead, it’s about a vision for our country. After all, the Puritan work ethic wasn’t all witch hunts and bootstraps. When people’s barns burned down, their neighbors pitched in and helped them build another one. When people ran short on their crops, their neighbors helped them out. We don’t farm anymore; instead, we Facebook. We have become so attuned to believing whatever comes out of the electronic device in front of us that we have forgotten the importance of community and the elegance of love.

If we really believe in community, then we don’t want any child to grow up in poverty. We can’t make everyone make the right choices as adults, but we can give all of our children an even starting point, and we can put together jobs programs that give all of our adults hope. Yes, it’s expensive, but so is incarceration. The problem is that jobs programs aren’t a source of profit, but the incarceration industry has become a privatized sector of the economy that makes profits — and those revenues go to fund lobbyists, and all of a sudden our representatives have a vested interest in voting against compassion.

If we look around us with fear, then our national fabric shreds. Donald Trump isn’t new, after all. There were the bigoted rants of Father Coughlin before World War II; there was the seemingly endless series of hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee led by Senator Joseph McCarthy. In the wake of the monstrous 9/11 attacks, what was initially an outpouring of American community became the Orwellian Patriot Act. The rise of Trump should not be a surprise.

So when I vote for Bernie Sanders, I’m turning my back on fear. I’m refusing to hate other people. Instead, I’m assuming the very best of them, while demanding the best of myself. You see, when I do that, I have a lot harder time thinking that the main export of my country should be precisely calibrated warfare. Instead, our main export should be what we say it is on July 4 — liberty and freedom. We should take our amazing ideas and our terrific people and build a society where hope isn’t something we laugh at — it’s something we really believe in. No one will ever have to call hope “audacity” again, because it will be the chief dynamic of our national life.

And is that pie in the sky? I used to think so. But now, I don’t think so anymore. #FeelTheBern


The Church at the End of the World

Posted in Thoughts about the Next Plane with tags , , , on February 16, 2016 by onlookerslowdown

As a teacher, there are few things you can hear that are sadder than that a student of yours has passed away. I’m also a dad, and the idea that one of my children would ever pass away before I do is unthinkable. But as a teacher, I’ve always taken pride in the idea that the students I have worked with are now out in the world, bringing change and hope and excitement and passion to whatever they have decided to do. Now that I teach seniors, I give each of them my home e-mail on the last day of school, ask them to reach out if they need a recommendation for a scholarship, if they need advice about school, or just to let me know how college and life are treating them.

Last week I heard about the passing of a student who just graduated in the spring of 2015. Her name is Karla. She had missed some time during her senior year with some health issues, but she had worked hard, a lot harder than some of her classmates who missed no time at all, to make sure that she stayed up with her work. When she came back, she took a lot of pride in the progress that she had made — and she should have.

You never want to speak ill of the dead, but I don’t have to make up any platitudes to tell you that Karla was a very cool kid. She worked hard to improve her writing. She had a sweet disposition — not the sort of sweet that becomes a pushover, but the gentleness that you only see in people who are secure in themselves, who have already decided what kind of person they are and what they want to be. She did not have as many friends as some, but the ones that she had were clearly close friends to her.

But then another illness came and took her with it. And so I found myself heading to her funeral on a Monday morning, a time when churches are only open for sad occasions. No one gets married on a Monday morning. We only say good-bye to loved ones on a Monday morning.

The church is a little to the west of where I live, in a perplexing suburb of Dallas that sits less than 10 miles from the city center, called Cockrell Hill. The streets here are narrow, worn, cracked. The water tower could have been brought in from a tiny town in West Texas. When I finally found the turn-in for the church, which sits at the end of a bluff, the trees stretched off to the west, the February-brown branches blowing in that strange wind that, once you get west of the Trinity River in Texas, never really stops blowing. And so not 10 minutes from the downtown skyline of Dallas, I really was at a church in the middle of nowhere.

The yellow church and the patio before it told me that I was getting even further away from Dallas. When we go to say good-bye to our loved ones who have passed, I can see why the Greeks thought that there was a ferryman who would meet them, collect the souls, and then row away into a mist. I felt not four miles from my house, but hundreds, even thousands, and I felt that inimitable hourglass turn on its side as I went in for the ceremony.


Karla grew up in a family where everyone spoke Spanish; her funeral Mass was conducted in Spanish. I don’t speak very much Spanish at all, but the service reminded me of what going to church must have been like back in the era when the priests only spoke in Latin, so none of the people in the congregation had any idea what was going on. I prayed for Karla and for her family, but I was also taken by the priest’s occasional burst into song, which the congregation would follow, swelling into hymns that brought comfort in minor keys.


The apse of the church faces west, and on the day when I was at this funeral, each of those cubes you see was a vibrant blue, giving the etched-glass triptych the look of a gateway into the beyond, into the presence of whatever plane you think comes after this one. I believe in the gospel of Christ’s grace, but I have a feeling that the afterlife is going to be a bit different than what the legion generations of ministers have told us to expect.

On this day, I was sad, mourning Karla’s passing at such a young point in her life, sorrowful for the grief that clearly shook her friends and had her family weeping. There are some who like to step in at this point and talk about the beneficence of God’s plan and the greater glory that awaits her in God’s Kingdom, but for those of us who are still on this side of the door, losing someone hurts in a way that this sort of salve makes us want to punch, at least until the pain eases.

As the service progressed, though, in a tongue alien to me but so familiar to the rest in the church, I was struck by the way that, even though Karla is (the way I see it) home with her Father, there is still so much of her here. Her image — on the T-shirts that her family and friends had made and wearing. But most of all the mark that her spirit had made on all of us. So even if you envision (as I did) her spirit passing through that blue apse that looked less like the end of a church than the gateway to what is next, I could also see that so much of her was still here, will always be here, as long as we are here, and will be even after.

So when I left the service, I knew that for her family, and for those of her closest friends, grieving would continue. When I returned to school, I would notice the chair where she had sat last year, the table where she had done her writing, and where she had sat in thought before making those infrequent but insightful comments about what we were reading in class, what we were discussing, sometimes about nothing much at all, but still interesting to hear.

So I drove away from the middle of nowhere and slipped back into the city, those February-brown branches replaced more quickly than you would expect with the leafy green trees that live in that dark, rich soil on the other side of the Trinity.

From John Lennon to #Bernie2016

Posted in Uncategorized on February 10, 2016 by onlookerslowdown


I was looking through some old binders in my sons’ room the other day, and I came across a collection of drawings that one of my boys had started in the first grade. At the time, he wanted to keep his artwork in a binder and keep adding to it. His drawings are not the stuff of a budding Picasso, but they represent his way of seeing things, his visions of the world around him.

Over time, he stopped drawing and took up sports, as many boys will do. Baseball. Basketball. Soccer. Football. Now, his vision is a future as a general manager in the NBA or the NFL. What’s important is that he still has a vision, a dream ahead of him.

Keeping a vision and a dream in front of you is what keeps you young. It is what keeps you energetic. It is what makes you compelling. The vision and the dream can change, but losing those is the only thing that can push you “over the hill,” not turning 40 (or 50, these days).

When I talk to people my age (I’m 44) about the rise of Bernie Sanders, my friends talk about how there’s no way that his ideas can come to pass. No way the health insurance industry will go gently into that good night, even if some of its workers could stay in order to run a compromise in which elective procedures and cosmetic surgeries could be covered through private insurance policies on top of what people are now calling SandersCare, a general care system overseen by the government.

They’re saying that there’s no way that Bernie Sanders has any idea how to handle foreign policy. The villains in the Middle East will run roughshod over the aging VW Bus that they imagine would be Bernie’s motorcade.

They’re saying that there’s no way we can afford free college for everyone. After all, they’re saying, not everyone needs to go to college. There are plenty of trades that people can pursue — and earn even more than degreed professionals make.

For me, the most important part of Bernie Sanders’ candidacy is the fresh perspective he has brought to the idea of government. We had almost accepted that the government was an entity we couldn’t trust — after all, Ronald Reagan told us that, and he ended the Cold War, right? And so after 9/11, we began to accept the possibility that government was there to oversee us — not to work for us. We accepted the growing tendrils of government surveillance of us; we accepted the metastasis of war from something we do to fight evil to something we do to bolster our economy. And so what had once been a frightful tale came closer and closer to reality:


We even came to love the dystopian novel. We adored Katniss’ salute; that little Mockingjay pin became so popular that several other authors decided to pen their own awful visions of the future and use a symbol that looked just about the same. But the implicit message was this — that this was what the future would be like, and there wasn’t a thing we could do about it.

But to accept this missed the real message of 1984 and all of those other books that came after it, warning of an awful future if we didn’t change:


Orwell, and those like him, didn’t want us to settle for the future that was coming for us. Instead, the hope was that there would always be truth-tellers, and that they would represent our conscience, keep us moving toward what is right, what is good, away from what we know to be just good enough.

Because “good enough” soon becomes awful. It becomes toxic. How do I know this? Because of the water in Flint, Michigan — which was “good enough” for the people in Flint because it made life easier for the government functionaries. Because of the water that comes out of the ground near “fracking” locations throughout the United States, rendered dangerous by the natural gas emissions that are necessary for that cheap gasoline that we all love. All of these things are “good enough” for now, and they end up costing us dearly.

The difference between what is “good enough” and what is “right” is compelling for those who are tired of settling, tired of compromising. It’s one thing to compromise for the greater good of everyone. It’s another thing to compromise for the interests of those who don’t have anyone else’s good in mind except their own.

How do I know that this difference is compelling? Because of the raw energy at work in some of the art that young people are posting about the Sanders movement. Some of it is silly, some of it is stupid, but it is all a sign that people are thinking, people are hoping, people are believing that this year, this year, things can be different. Take a look:

Yes, some of it is silly (these are from a Facebook group called Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash)::


A lot of it is inane:

But a lot of it is sincere and heartfelt:



A lot of those ideas scare people who have locked their visions and dreams away, or who have simply forgotten about them. After all, it’s a scary world out there. There are immigrants coming to take our jobs; there are terrorists coming to blow us up; there are poor, lazy people who want to spend our hard-earned money.

But those aren’t the things that should really scare us. It’s not like ISIS or al Qaeda poisoned the city of Flint. It’s not like Saddam Hussein destroyed the I-35 bridge through Minneapolis. We poisoned our own water because we were too busy watching TMZ to advocate in our communities. We let our bridges, roads and schools crumble because we’re too busy moving into gated communities and shopping on Amazon and worrying about what’s happening down at the southern border of the United States.

Guess what? The corporate interests will let us. Because none of those causes bring them profits.

So what’s the difference between #Bernie2016 and Hillary? It’s the difference between dreaming and settling. It’s the difference between changing the nation and believing that the items on that list up there are just pie in the sky. Who needs privacy rights when the terrorists are coming? (And how many companies are willing to donate huge money to make sure that our representatives don’t believe in privacy rights) Who needs veteran care? That’s just money down the toilet, because those servicemen and servicewomen knew what they were signing up for. Who needs equality? All of my friends look like me anyway.

So if you support Hillary, that’s fine. If she wins the Democratic nomination, I’ll most likely agree that she’s a better choice than whichever lunatic emerges from the Borg cube that is the modern GOP. But you’re not supporting America’s possibility if you support Hillary. Instead, you’re supporting what we can get to work. And what will sneak through Congress. And what will likely evaporate once Hillary no longer has Bernie Sanders reminding us that a progressive believes in just that — in PROGRESS. In moving toward a better society, not finding ways to entrench the shoddy ways of living, of thinking, of voting, of dreaming, that we’ve accepted…because they’re “good enough.”