Archive for May, 2011

05/29/2011

A Milestone in The War on Terror

It’s Fleet Week here in NYC, where for the next few days US military personnel will be in town. Typically a few of the US Naval vessels will stop in NYC, allowing people to go onboard as a part of a larger celebration and show of appreciation for what the military does both home and abroad to keep everyone in the US safe. Fleet Week typically marks the Memorial Day holiday – one of the most somber holidays in the US calendar (along with Veteran’s Day). Seeing all the sailors and other  US military personnel in uniform triggered a flashback to the most recent milestone on the war on terror: the death of Osama bin Laden.

As a part of my commute to the day job, I walk past the World Trade Center (WTC) site when I exit the PATH train to connect to the #4 train at the Fulton St stop to get on the NYC Subway. Most mornings I’m just another face within the sea of humanity flowing to and past the construction site as people head to their destinations (mostly work I think) in the Downtown Manhattan area. It’s typically a somber, focused energy one senses from the crowd as you walk the block alongside the WTC site. You will occasionally see people stop and look and take pictures (clearly tourists) against the blue tarp fence which advertises what The Memorial will look like once work is completed.

So it was a little strange for me going to work the first few days after news broke that US Navy SEALs had managed to take Bin Laden out. It brought a flashback for me of how on Tuesday 9.11.01 I had hoped out of bed and was getting dressed to go to class as a college freshman in Jamaica to a dreadful statistics course scheduled for 8am. My gut told me to turn on the TV before leaving the house and I was sucked in like many others around the globe, watching those events unfold that morning. I thought of my mom and was a bit relieved when I called her and she told me she was fine and nowhere near WTC. I saw how somber everyone was at school that morning and how it was such a gut wrenching day. I thought of my friend who lost a cousin in the attacks, especially the first time I was able to visit the site after the towers fell many months later. The emotion that came over me that was such an indescribable heaviness that I will never forget.

I was a bit angry, honestly, during the week when more details started to pour out about the Navy SEALS mission. I was angry at walking by the WTC site, seeing all those news vehicles taking up space and watching reporters cover the story ad nauseam. I would listen to my anger as it asked: why are they here? Why am I seeing more and more stories talk about every aspect of what Bin Laden’s life? Do I care to know was like for Bin Laden living in the compound, the details of the mission itself, his alleged sexual “impotence”, and  the political implications of how he was able to seemingly hide in plain sight not far from a key Pakistani military school – in a suburb of the capital no less? What about the families whose lives were shattered that day? Why aren’t their daily struggles for nearly the last 10 years being reported on with the same level of coverage as Bin Laden’s death? Why are we not hearing more about them because quite frankly they need all the help they can get in trying to move forward?

As I processed my own feelings it really made me aware at how raw an issue this is still is, and even though Bin Laden was brought to justice, for these families there will never be any closure. There may be a bit more comfort in knowing that the man who orchestrated the day that their loved one was taken away is no more, there is no true closure as that loved one cannot return. What struck me the most was passing by a spot in the blue tarp the Monday evening after the story broke and seeing this hand written comment in pen and very large letters: “Thank you President Obama”. There was such a sense of “what had to be done was finally done” in those words that at least for me, there was no room for joy, jubilation or a boisterous swell of national pride. It was just as somber yet emotional moment as I may ever experience.

The commute going back to NJ that Monday evening was interesting. I remember wading through the walkways with the news crews positioned by the Federal Building. I almost cursed a man out because he was too busy stopping to look at the news crews filming instead of paying attention amidst the wave of people flowing towards the PATH station, including myself directly behind him. I remember vividly looking at that blue tarp as I walked by, seeing cards, flowers and the hand written comment above. I never took walking by the WTC site each morning for granted, and I sure didn’t do that week. I guess that was where the anger came from, just understanding how hard it is to walk by such a place and not think about what happened there and all the people who were affected. Perhaps I may have felt that the news converged – while warranted – was still somehow not looking at the real story: the various struggles of the families who lost love ones that day.

I’ll be the first to stay that I am not qualified to speak on this topic, as there are far more capable folks than I who can do so both eloquently and appropriately. Even when the Memorial is constructed I don’t think I will be able to look and see the final space. I suppose the image of how it is now, raw and under construction, is now so permanently etched in my mind’s eye I have chosen not to see anything else. I just think that I was reminded in a somber way that what happened at WTC – included the people directly affected – should never be forgotten.

05/28/2011

Similar Isn’t Always The Same

I took a few days off last week to address some angst (to some degree) and I’m now somewhat back on the saddle. It’s always interesting to see how many times we can find ourselves in the same spot making the same mistakes. Are we stubborn? Blind? Too stuck in our ways to make a change? Just so lost in the sauce we cannot sober up and get on the road to recovery?

Sometimes, the baggage we have just gets in the way, and we need to be better porters at handling our own luggage. Since “baggage handling 101” is in full swing, I’d rather take this post to reflect on how it’s importance of a favorite adage: “similar isn’t always the same”.

Ever had that know it all sage in your life? You know, that one person who anytime you mention an experience they jump in talking about someone they know (or they themselves) who experienced the same mess you’re going through? Every notice how they’re quick to throw out answers and pearls of wisdom that ultimately prove to be some real wash over gold nuggets of knowledge?

The problem with these folks is that even though they know so much, they’re never that far removed from the same experiences they’re so versed in. They sure seem like a “Johnny one note”, knowing only how to fit a square peg in a round hole – only one way to solve any problem: theirs. The funniest thing is when you call them for what they are, they thumb their nose at you, professing how ignorant and ungrateful you are!

While I cannot tell you how to escape from a situation it feels like you’re permanently wedded to, I can share this nugget. Sometimes getting out of trouble means first figuring out from whence comes your help. The best move one can make it not adding more drama to an already crazy situation. If it walks like a duck, looks like a duck but is trying to tell you it’s a chicken, stay clear. It means that’s not the breath of fresh air welcome the winds of change to your dilemma. That just might be hot air blowing blue smoke in your direction – the last thing you need.

05/27/2011

An Aging Star’s Plight

Being an avid sports fan, one story that caught my eye was the handling of the Yankees Jorge Posada, who allegedly took himself out of about two weeks ago. Even though people finding baseball to be boring sport – which is a different issue entirely – it was fascinating to watch how an aging star at the end of his career is being handled. The quick 411 was that the team basically reduced his role and are treating him like his time has come, even though he is in the midst of a very poor start. He was publicly thrown under the bus by the club when asked not to play one night as he needed time to “clear his head”.

This story caught my eye because it made me think of how as a wider culture we are still stuck on the allure of  youth. There is no graceful aging in our post modern society today. It is seemingly an endless fascination with youth and the next hot young commodity to capture our imagination. Teen stars and young people achieving mega success early is indeed a beautiful thing. But our attention span is so shortened that we rarely get a chance to appreciate them in term of both the hard work they put in to get to that spotlight, and what their lives are like once the spotlight has moved on.

It is the same thing that faces us all as we age – how to adequately transition into the various phases of our lives. Becoming one of the elders, a senior citizen in every sense of the word is seemingly something to be avoided nowadays. People are doing whatever they can to stave off aging: diet, exercise, Botox, tummy tucks surgery, anti aging creams and Rogaine are the order of the day. While I do believe firmly in staying in shape and a balanced diet, I think that is better for longevity than to merely stave off the effects of aging. The biggest culprit of aging is not father time itself but the rapid and ragged pace at which our society moves.

So how does one adjust? How do you tell someone who has been at a job for many years that their time has come to do something different? There really is no easy way to do so. You can only hope that they see the time to transition is coming near and to start making preparations. But the way our society advances you are young today and old tomorrow – such rapid eye movement is hard to take.

Still we must do our best to not only survive but thrive in such rapid seas of change, because to successfully done so is to have lived and have earned freedom of pace that is bestowed upon our elders. Stars never truly age; they just shine in different ways.

05/26/2011

Flippin’ The Bird

We’ve all had those moments where our fuse is lit and we hit that point of no return. A seemingly defiant teen (or child) battling to have their own way, the idiot boss who gives out too much work and knows only how to come in and take all the credit, that flaky friend who only comes around when it’s “damsel in distress time”, or that partner who just doesn’t pull their weight in the relationship. You just feel the anger, frustration, and disappointment and swell up in one stream of emotion and in that one perfect storm type moment, you lose it. You flip the bird. You drop the bomb. The floodgates open, and life after that is never the same.

There’s such a rush when it happens – for some relief, others just an emptying of pent-up feelings. For some, if you catch them right, they’re flippin’ birds, chucking deuces and letting it all hang out in a wild raging torrent. For that moment, nothing is truly held back.

Sometimes what was said was meant to be a wakeup call – and perhaps a necessary one. Maybe you needed to shake the other person up before you shipped them out. Could be that you needed to stop and listen to your gut because you can no longer justify why you’ve been dealing with the source of your angst for so long.

Then the real work begins: whether it be damage control or just living with the fallout and moving forward. If we could spazz out and have no repercussions, society might be more destructive that some may claim it already is. Maybe it means that job is lost. Maybe it means that person changes. Maybe it means that friendship ends. Maybe it means you go to family gatherings a little less in the interim. Or maybe you see you’re the problem and it’s time for you to make a change.

That’s what makes flipping the bird so double-edged. Ever had those moments where you wanted to flip out in a controlled way? To just shake ’em up but not really go all the way in because of the consequences? Now someone might say: “forget that – they needed to see some deuces to get the message”. While that has its pros and cons, the one question I’d ask is: what do you do when you see that moment coming?

Truth be told, every flip-out has warning signs. Just as how every volcano gives out signals it’s going to erupt, people will let you know when they’re about to flip. You just have to pay attention and you will see the warning signs. Perhaps they want you to change or you want something to be different, but no true flip out was ever with some reason behind it.

Flipping the bird is just a part of life. It may not be the best way to handle a situation, but its one tool that’s surely in the toolbox. But before you plug the trigger, steal a moment ask yourself:

1. Is this my only option?

2. Can I handle the fallout?

3. Is what I’m feeling really related to the situation that’s causing me

If you feel you feel the same way, then hit switch and strap in for the ride. Remember: once words are said they can never be taken back. Friendly fire is always the most destructive form of personal injury.

05/25/2011

Law and Order: Prison Economics

Here’s where the legal system gets really interesting at the macro-level: prison economies. No, I’m not talking amongst the intimates themselves – which is another topic for another day – but amongst stakeholders at the community level. In some states such as New York, California and Texas, the correctional department is a major employer. There are towns in both states where if there were no prisons, there would be no towns. From keeping the prisons itself supplied, to meeting the needs of the guards and support staff working on site, everything is geared to keep the prison functioning. Some towns qualify for government earmarked revenues and cash in on the prison utility bill to fund local projects. You know who loses the most amidst all this economic activity at the end of the day: the inmates.

Taxpayers may complain of how their hard-earned cash is being funneled into feeding and housing criminals with three square meals. What they should really be bitching about is how inefficiently their tax dollars are being spent to help former inmates re-assimilate into society. If even a few of those dollars earmarked to build new prisons (or taxpayer savings if some prisons were run more effectively), then perhaps the correctional system might actually work in the way it should and be a little less commercial.

Some people will argue that the inmates shouldn’t have gotten locked up in the first place. Crime, death, taxes, political corruption, and social injustice are given “facts of life” for many folk. I can only speak of those who were wrongly persecuted or those who can be rehabilitated – don’t they deserve a fair shake too?

Yes – the justice system, like anything else in our society, is profit driven. If you’re still not buying the idea, check out Prison Town, USA– a PBS documentary talking the effect of a prison economy on a community in California (http://www.pbs.org/pov/prisontown/). Or take a look at what happens when things just go south in these towns when the prison closes (http://money.cnn.com/2009/09/04/news/economy/michigan_prison_closings/). Wouldn’t you rather the money to fund effective alternatives to incarceration or programs that help former inmates return to society that work?

I’m not for closing prisons. There are those who commit crimes that cannot be rehabilitated, and the nature of the crime states that for my own safety they should receive food and lodging from the State through my tax dollars. But in other to make prison economics work best for all involved, including the intimates, there must be some continuous legal reforms promoting alternatives to incarceration. Helping inmates by merely housing them is doing them no justice.

05/25/2011

Different Laws for Different Folks

Over the course of the last week to 10 days I’ve been talking with a colleague of mine who is pretty active in working with people affected by the justice system and her comments have reminded me of one key fact:

“Even though the law is written the same for everyone, it’s really interpreted and practiced as different laws for different folks”.

Now, someone might say: “What? That’s some inflammatory statements there! So you mean to tell me in our great 2011 that stuff still happens?” Of course it does.  I will take Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the now ex IMF chief facing sexual assault charges. I covered him in an earlier IMF driven post last week, but his story is still relevant in the following way. Let’s say he was tried and found guilty – we would say that the justice system worked. Now ask yourself this:  would his conviction really be based on the effectiveness of the system itself or how much media attention the case brought?

Let’s be honest with ourselves here. People break the law all the time. It SHOULDN’T matter who breaks the law – but it does. It wouldn’t have surprised me if a man such as Strauss-Kahn fandangled his way out of these proceedings if the victim had decided not to press charges. Certainly, everyone has a price and for some of us, that price has a certain number of zeros attached to it. We’ve all heard stories of affluent people making their connections work to get off the hook when the legal system should be the one to take its course. Strauss-Kahn may have thought it was “a simple misunderstanding” even when charges were filed and it would be taken care of quickly. Betcha that time in Riker’s Island on suicide watch shook him up completely. I wish I could be sympathetic for him, but alas, I cannot. A working class person as your friendly barkeep would have been made to “do the time if he did the crime” with no media coverage and even less fanfare. There are countless other non rich folk who are dealing with life in the justice system in its many forms that don’t have the wealth or political clout to bail them out. Their nightmares are more along the lines of court dates, appeals, and prison visits. Their loves ones behind the wall – well, their focus is just to “do the bid” and when they’re “coming home”.

If Strauss-Kahn is cleared, I will bet that he won’t look back and be moved to help out those folks like my colleague who are trying to make a difference. Nope, if he beats the rap then he’ll be just glad to stay out of jail – that in itself would be such a crime. You would hope that some of these rich folk who’ve had some brush in with the law and can donate to would invest some time and effort into a cause like this. They cannot, and won’t, because it might cause some unwanted attention. So people like my colleague are left with limited resources to do a yeoman’s task – which first starts with deprogramming the stigma and inputting the positive. I will leave describing both the struggles and successes of those families to folks like my colleague and her peers who know it best.  If you want to know more, go here:  (http://piasmission.wordpress.com/) and (http://itsnotlawandorder.wordpress.com/).

There will always be crime and criminals to be prosecuted.  But for those who are convicted and can be rehabilitated, they deserve a real chance to make it too and not be socially bound by prison walls when returned to society. Any criminal attorney worth their salt will tell you that recidivism is a big problem – one that will take more than just the efforts of people like my colleague to properly address. We should all be seen equally and protected as such under the law – that’s why this “different laws for different folks” must stop.

05/24/2011

Baggage Handling 101: Good Porters Know Their Bags

“Dance ah yard before yuh dance abroad” is one of my all time favorite Jamaican proverbs. There is nothing that talks about getting your house in order before trying to assist others so succinctly than this phrase. One of the most difficult things we have to do when we try to improve ourselves is handling our baggage.

Porters – whether at the airport, hotel or similar venues – are adept at baggage handling. Experience has taught them to know their bags – to be able to size them up accordingly. They can see how much work it will take to get them where they need to go, and will use their energy smartly to transport them. Sure, it probably took them years of experience to figure out how to do this, but one really has to appreciate their skill.

Now, someone might yell out: “what are you talking about? They just lift and move bags – there ain’t no skill in that!” Perhaps, but isn’t there the need for a similar skill in handling our own personal baggage?

Knowing your baggage means partly identify what your bags are. In my own readings and talking to elders, this is often the hardest first step that needs to be taken in order to be a better person. Everyone has baggage – that is as much of fact of life as is death and paying taxes. Yet, it’s amazing to see how one can get caught up in situations where if they clearly knew what their baggage was the outcomes would be different.

For example, love is a wonderful thing; knowing who you’re falling in love with makes the whole thing better. Sometimes we get so hung up on the initial rush we feel from being with someone new that the idiosyncrasies and larger flaws of their personality gets airbrushed away by our feelings of bliss. Those feelings are so strong it blocks us from seeing clearly how things may fit if a long-term relationship is the ultimate goal. For some that’s ok, because all they really want is the initial rush – that high of being with someone new. But what happens when the same person wants to the long-term relationship? They might lose someone they love because they cannot see how what used to be a preference has now become baggage.

Ever had that one friend who is always in a relationship – no matter how bad the break ups are from the previous one they jump into another relationship pretty quickly afterwards? Or that cousin who likes to live above their means yet their come cannot support their spending habits? Or that student who can never do his work on time but is brilliant under pressure? All of these situations could be signs of carrying around bags without knowing what they are on some level.

No one said identifying baggage is easy. But knowing what’s in your bags makes carrying them easier. It is better to pack your own luggage knowingly than to be forced to pay the price for pieces you didn’t even know you were carrying around.

05/23/2011

Hair and The Makings of a Black Woman

Two weeks ago, I was watching my girlfriend getting stressed and stressing me out by proxy as she completes her last week in seminary school, at the end of which she will be a graduate with a Masters in Divinity. While it’s been a real treat over these last few years is seeing her grow as a seminarian, I must say that my favorite moments are our discourses. We’ve had many a serious intellectual dialogue, whether on a couch while she writes a paper, on a drive to a family member’s house, or strolling along one of the foot trails in the expanse that isCentral Park.

 We often talk about various elements in “black identity”. I often find such discourse enriching because as a seminarian in training her intellect has become highly surgical in the precision at which she presents her perspective. In my own defense I think I’m holding my own even though I have to dig deep within my own views and knowledge base to be able to keep our conversations as a true discourse as possible and not a seminarian teaching segment. While she has a clear understanding of her own black identity, her journey through seminary has highlighted some of the elements of what goes into the makings of a black woman.

 In what is still racially driven society, it is incredible to see the fluidity and lengths at which women, particularly those of color, have to undertake in order to shape their sense of identity. I’ll never forget how appalled I was at this middle aged black male who claimed to be lawyer attempted to “educate” a woman of African descent on a NJ transit bus one evening as I headed home. This man was a blowhard that I has exchanged intellectual barbs with a few months earlier on my commute to the day job when he tried to single me out as fodder for his “enlightenment of black people” rant that lasted for 25 of a 30 minute bus ride. While there may be some validity of even usefulness in some comments expressed in his very loud one-sided conversation with his companion on both occasions, you can just tell there was much baggage surrounding him.

 So the gentlemen in his infinite wisdom decided to admonish and chastise the woman on of all things her hairstyle – from a historical and symbolic context no less! Now, I thought I knew a thing or two about the symbolism of hair for a black woman, but my girlfriend has turned it into a constant tutorial during the course of our relationship. So I was floored at how he proceed to talk at her about European based and tied to slavery her hair style was – especially since she was wearing braids. The woman and the few people around her how had enough good sense to put him in check for a moment before we went back muttering to his companion who could only nod and say “yes” in agreement to his comments.

 See, this is one example of the type of crap that many black women have to deal with on a daily basis: the constant attempts to dominate and influence their own autonomy of a big part of their identity – their physical body. More often than not it is the battleground the ideological intents for others and not the domain of the owner of the body – the woman herself. Now, there are women who I have met that have for example, made changes to their hair where you could say “her old look was such a better fit for her”. But at the end of the day, my opinion shouldn’t and doesn’t matter – its’ up to the woman and what she chooses to do with her own body. It’s not about being intellectually ethnocentric; it’s about respecting and celebrating the power of a woman’s choice.

 It is the constant battles like these that contribute into the makings of a black woman. It is how she is able to handle such adversity and to be able to shape her own identity into the diverse and yet cosmic entity she is today, black women don’t have it “easy”; all women have difficult time of  securing true equality in such a rigid societal construct. It’s a task the should never have to undertake in the first place because they truly are a man’s equal; yet many do and do a fabulous job of meeting the challenge and forming such a powerful identity.