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This Too Shall Pass-What’s Legal and What’s OK

Most Americans break a variety of laws each and every day. Around the country today, thousands of spouses were battered, thousands of consumers were cheated, and millions of speed limits were broken. And as the old Army ad goes, that was all before breakfast.

We justify the liberties we take with the law of the land in a variety of ways, but most justifications fall into two categories: indifference and moral equivocation.

While indifference is self-explanatory, moral equivocation can be a bit more complex. It generally takes the form of claiming that one’s illegal actions are not actually harmful: “I know how to drive safely at 80 miles per hour.” “I’m not hurting anyone by smoking this.”

Then there are darker equivocations, where retribution serves as a loophole to avoid observance of the law: “She had it coming.”

Regardless of how we justify our lawlessness, at least two overriding themes emerge. The first is that these justifications are rarely anything but self-serving. “If I feel like doing this, I’m just gonna go ahead and do it.” A classic American, individualistic stance. The corollary, the second theme, is that it’s not really illegal unless you get caught. We would not have such a cavalier attitude toward doing the deed if we thought the book was going to be thrown at us.

When I broke the speed limit last week, I probably didn’t mean to, but ultimately I was indifferent. I didn’t feel that my temporary lead foot was a complex moral issue, and I knew I wasn’t going to be pulled over.

Those people in our neighborhoods who assaulted their spouses last night were banking on the affected parties not calling the police and probably just saw it as part of the ups and downs of a relationship. All of us, justified or not, shrugged our shoulders and went on with our lives.

Let’s now do something radical and apply our own standards to someone else: when someone crosses the Mexican-American border illegally and comes to the U.S., what is their justification?

With the understanding that not all stories are the same, there are a significant number of people who come here, quite simply, for economic opportunity. The scrap wages that we “native” Americans (irony intended) tend to laugh off and reject are accepted by many of them as an improvement on the life they left, and some can even stretch their money far enough to send some back to their family back home.

This act of illegality—this act of crossing into the U.S. without permission—must of necessity be a carefully thought out decision, weighing the risks and opportunities involved. The goal here is improving one’s lot in life. This is a quality-of-life decision. Depending on circumstances, it can be a life-or-death decision.

This is not the absentmindedness of accelerating too fast in a vehicle weighing thousands of pounds. This is not a vindictive backhand to keep an unruly spouse under one’s thumb. This is a humbling and dangerous decision. It is an attempt at self-improvement, not just self-serving.

And if it’s all about not getting caught when we break laws, how much more should that be true for undocumented immigrants, given the gravity of the decisions they’ve made to improve their lot in life?

Of course, all of this justification means nothing if the lawlessness of undocumented immigrants were doing real damage to our nation. That would mean all the current immigration round-ups serve a greater purpose, helping making America great (again?).

The most common talking point among conservatives is that undocumented immigration is wreaking havoc on the American economy and workforce.

The whispered undertones, which we will only discuss briefly, are that the immigrants are destroying our way of life. Only the most ignorant will say this in mixed company. The more educated and thoughtful people (not always the same set of folks, mind you) understand that this excuse was played out in the 1800s when it was used on the Irish immigrants, among others.

But what of the economy? I’m not going to wheel in the statistics, because frankly, I don’t have to. An elementary understanding of economics and some basic reasoning skills are all you really need to debunk this argument that immigrants hurt the economy. (For those of you who don’t have those tools, consider this an invitation.)

An economic system has inputs and outputs, producers who produce the inputs, consumers who use the outputs. And all of us participate from both sides. When we go to work, we put on our producer/input hats. When we come home and use stuff, we put on our consumer/output hats.

Immigrants, regardless of legal designation, do the exact same thing. They work and they come home. They produce and consume. So even if one of “them” took “your” job, that job’s income allows them to become a potential customer for a business that you could start or work for. Millions of undocumented immigrants represent a consumer bloc that can (and does) support thousands of businesses that 1) employ other people (like you!) and 2) pay taxes.

If President #45 finds that there are exactly 13,483,561 undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and surgically extracts each one of them, here’s what will happen to the U.S. economy:

  • There will be 13,483,561 fewer consumers contributing to the U.S. economy. At $10K per person, that’s $134 billion less consumption annually.
  • Unemployment could very well go up. That sort of dent in consumption is the thing recessions are made of. The 5% of Americans who are actively unemployed are for the most part not looking to fill the jobs the undocumented immigrants would leave behind. The unemployed who aren’t counted in the unemployment rate will be even less motivated to take low-paying jobs—heck, they weren’t looking for jobs even when their only prospects were higher-paying jobs.
  • Industries that rely on undocumented labor will suffer. (No, we shouldn’t have created that sort of employment infrastructure, but wagging a finger won’t change the issue.) Industries suffering means production is interrupted, consumers get irritated, goods get scarce, prices go up, and all sorts of domino effects proceed from there.
  • Government spending required to sniff out and deport these people would be high. Given that there’s no economic upside, it’s a lose-lose-lose scenario.

It would make infinitely more sense to send the 13 million Americans who paid the highest effective income tax rates on a vacation to Cancun as a thank you for supporting the government. You’re still sending the same number of people south of the border, you’re creating goodwill with taxpayers and with Mexico, which would see a huge tourism boom related to the initiative, and there would be little or no spending on legal wrangling, law enforcement, or investigation.

Speaking of goodwill, we have not even started to discuss the intangible, non-economic repercussions of such a policy change, carried out to its full extent. The immigration hardliners will count our reduced standing in the world, our diminished relationship with Mexico and Mexican-Americans, and all the other awful side effects as part of the price we must pay to do the right thing and preserve the integrity of America.

Apparently, this vision of the integrity of America has everything to do with selectively enforcing our nation’s laws so that the most vulnerable are held to the strictest standards.

And for us regular citizens, it means indirect support of these measures by continuing to elect officials who decide how to enforce regulations like these in a way that destroy people’s lives and the nation’s economy.

Meanwhile, you can still explain away your lead foot and your neighbor can continue assaulting his spouse, because traffic accidents and domestic violence, we appear to believe, aren’t real issues that cost lives and livelihoods.


Clay County Blues

An article from The Tennessean appeared on my news feed a few months back. It was an article about how Donald Trump has captured the imagination of a county neighboring the ones where I grew up in northern middle Tennessee. Clay County. Although named after statesman Henry Clay, it seems apt that the “people of the earth” would live in a county so named.

I should have asked the question of myself earlier. But suddenly, as if startled awake, I asked myself, Why am I not like these people? I grew up around them, I had virtually the same upbringing, and yet I couldn’t be more different. Why is that?

It’s far too easy to be condescending. Too pat to say something mean or reductive or self-congratulatory. I’m smarter than them. I have always been open-minded. I am a fair person.

The better answers go deeper . The fact that I have used what intelligence I have (as opposed to just being smart), the fact that I have focused on “otherness” or divergence as a relative concept (as opposed to just being open-minded), and the fact that my idea of fairness takes place on a societal, national and global playing field—these are some of the factors that make me unlike my former friends and neighbors in the rural byways of Tennessee and so many other like-minded places in the South, the Midwest, and the Heartland.

We have all seen, over the election cycle, during the devolution of the Republican primaries in particular, that shrill accusations and finger-pointing, even when warranted, will not produce the desired clarity and insight.

The truth is that we have to meet people where they are if we are to talk with them and create a dialogue worth having. I’m not even going to say “reason with them,” because that by itself positions me as the “right” one and them as the “wrong” one. This makes the dejected, working-class whites furious, as they already feel singled out and shamed simply for who they are and what they stand for. Whether they are entitled to feel this way is irrelevant. They do.

Meeting people where they are isn’t easy. I do not claim that I even know how to do it. I am so far removed from that life that I would probably seem almost as foreign to them as the Mexicans, the Muslims, and the blacks they feel are taking over “their” country. I am one of the gays, in fact; you know, that other group that is stealing their way of life from them.

History teaches a clear lesson—that those in power (and make no mistake, this includes Trump) will seek to divide and conquer for their own purposes. Rank-and-file Republicans are furious that their elected officials make a few token gestures to advance their social agenda, then resume the real business of government—to move resources around to keep the rich people in business. Trump is already one of the rich people, so it’s obvious to them that he couldn’t care less about this shell game. He can devote all of his energy to the social agenda. (Or so he would like you to believe. He is nothing if not erratic, and so a President Trump would likely champion a smorgasbord of contradictory and probably unconstitutional policies, suited to his whims. But here I go telling folks about their hero again.)

What the people in Clay County, Tennessee, and all the Clay Countys all over America, need to hear from the rest of us is that We Hear You. You have been misrepresented, unrepresented, and then shamed for being over-represented because you belong to the racial majority, a majority status that is ephemeral on so many levels, but very real when you’re on the other side of it. What you don’t know that you don’t know because you haven’t been exposed is vast… for all of us. We can’t sugarcoat—some things you just won’t be able to experience in Clay County. But that doesn’t mean they are not real and they do not impact you in Clay County.

If it sounds complicated, it is. This nation is a bundle of contradictions: freedom and slavery, religious freedom and religious bondage, an enshrined tradition of non-violence juxtaposed with two military national holidays and a ridiculous defense budget, not to mention the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

White privilege and rampant classism, however, is probably the most insidious contradiction of all.

Poor whites have been baited for generations with the promise of white privilege while remaining in a clearly powerless position. To the extent that the government can’t make their circumstances better, it’s ostensibly because some group of non-whites is funneling off resources that would flow “naturally” to them. It’s never their own fault, and it’s never the fault of the sympathetic pro-white politicians. So the trappings of white privilege, which don’t directly cost anything, can be distributed freely by the government while conveniently keeping all the poor people poor. But this only works if you fall for it. I didn’t.

This is where I believe I truly diverge from my old friends and classmates in Gamaliel, Kentucky; in Lafayette, Tennessee; in North Springs, Tennessee; and in the neighboring Clay County that was featured in this newspaper article. I know that I can not be the winner of this American game while being offered the consolation prize of avoiding overt marginalization. I can have not losing presented to me as winning, but it’s up to me to interpret the events of my life. (The moral question of basing one’s success on the subjugation of other groups, however pressing, is going to go unexamined here.)

I harbor a deep frustration with my homefolks. I grew up in a conservative, “God-fearing” fortress, with a harping chorus of disapproval around government handouts, villifying those lazy “other people” expecting the government to provide for them instead of being willing to work and make a living.

The irony is that now many of these same people claim that the government took their jobs from them, as if it were divine intervention that first planted the local tool and die shop twenty miles away or the garment factory in the nondescript county seat. These machinations (no pun intended) are purely the result of greasing the wheels of government and bringing “artificial” jobs to areas where people needed a way to earn money. If the government took away, it also gaveth in the first place.

Any high school economics textbook published in the last two generations will tell you that agriculture and factory work is becoming more automated and that we now live in a service economy. Any textbook published in the past one generation will mention the technology sector shift and globalization. Was anyone in Clay County reading these textbooks?

“Small government” conservative politicians want to refuse handouts to the needy because they have failed some arbitrary litmus test of “trying really hard” to find a job. At the same time, the expectation is that they, as the government, should be working for their constituency to land vanishing blue-collar jobs, relics of a prior century. I don’t deny that most of the citizens of Clay County are hard-working, but is there a condition? Are they only willing to work if it involves doing what their parents and grandparents did for a living?

Citizens of Clay County, I hear you, and I know that change is hard, but it is also inevitable. We live in the information age—you can take essentially free classes online to learn computer code. You can find clerical work as a remote personal assistant. And when all else fails, don’t forget that you belong to a local community of several thousand people. Theoretically, you could all work for each other and provide the services you mutually need. To think otherwise is to buy into the big government you say you hate.

My parents moved me to Nashville. They made sure I had a chance to go to the magnet high school. I needed little encouragement to realize that I didn’t want to work in a factory (and I sure as hell wasn’t going to work on a farm—that would have been a disaster!) I struggled with low wages out of college as part of the service economy—I worked at an ice cream shop and a mailroom and the back office of a restaurant. I then set my mind on a professional career and made it happen. But even if I hadn’t succeeded on that path, I would have persevered and would likely be doing OK right now with a management position in the service sector.

What I didn’t do was sit in Lafayette and wish that the auto parts factory would come back. If my parents had acted that way, I would have left them there and visited on the holidays.

Change is rough. The blue-collar Republicans have asked the blacks, the gays, and everyone else who has had a rough time to bite the bullet and stop whining about their circumstances.

Now it’s your turn. And when you are ready to stop whining, there may be a place for you in the economy of 2016. I’d like to have my former neighbors back in the same century with me.

What a Real Conspiracy Looks Like

I would like to describe an incident where the media, the American public, and the political establishment were in cahoots to tear down an American personality for no good reason.

In 2004, Justin Timberlake exposed a great deal of Janet Jackson’s right breast during the Super Bowl halftime show. The fallout from the “wardrobe malfunction” was swift, certain, and laser-focused. Janet was disinvited from the following week’s Grammy telecast. Her records and videos were yanked from rotation at all media outlets. Janet was compelled to deliver a humiliating video apology which did absolutely no good in restoring her to anyone’s good graces. Then-FCC chairman Michael Powell laid the condemnation on thick, declaring the incident to be a “classless, crass, and deplorable stunt.” Janet spent a decade in media exile while the firestorm blew over. Now that she’s 50, pregnant, and modestly dressed at all times, she has been informally deemed worthy of our respect again.

This, my friends, bears all the hallmarks of a media and government hit job.

Here is why I believe this to be true:

  • Marginalized status. Janet Jackson, despite her fame and seemingly infinite public goodwill at the time of the incident, was, at the end of the day, a black female.
  • Clearly differential treatment from others who don’t share said marginalized status. White females such as Madonna, Courtney Love, and Cher had cultivated boundary-pushing media images for years prior to the 2004 Super Bowl without anything approaching the media blackout to which Janet was subjected. Even more directly, Justin Timberlake was the one who actually made the infamous reveal, and he, a white male, suffered virtually no fallout AT ALL. For his participation in the exact same incident.
  • Inconsistency of conduct. If Janet had a history, like Courtney Love in particular, of recklessly disregarding broadcast standards, then the outrage might be a bit more understandable. If she had a history, like Madonna in particular, of explicitly challenging social taboos visually, then the behavior could be construed as deliberate. It is true that Janet had spent over a decade carefully cultivating an overtly sexual image, but she was always careful to play by the rules. As a pertinent example, she often self-policed her speech on TV talk shows; she would often ask the host demurely if she was allowed to say something a little risqué before coming out with it. When the Super Bowl incident occurred, it was completely unlike anything she had done before, and completely unlike anything she has done since. Yet no one in any position of authority spoke out about her three decades of exemplary public behavior prior to this incident or possibly giving her the benefit of the doubt because of it. No one.
  • Admitted government pandering. Michael Powell stated in 2014, “I had to put my best version of outrage on that I could put on.” The government wanted to know that the offended conservative housewives of the Heartland felt they had been heard when they called in their thousands upon thousands of complaints over less than a second of nipple.
  • Circumstantial evidence of government pandering. It should be mentioned that 2004 was a presidential election year, that the pressing issue of the election was the Iraq war, and that Michael Powell is the son of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell in the Bush administration. There’s nothing like a hollow moral crusade to distract Americans from more pressing issues. I will leave my argument at that.

OK, so why rehash this 12-year-old incident?

For those of you who know me as a fervent Janet fan, there’s the obvious personal affront to me and to my hero, who spent a decade as a pariah and was thwarted from breaking even more music records because of the comparative standstill imposed on her music career. I have not let it go.

But for the purposes of this particular blog post, it is an example of how this can happen In Real Life.

In Real Life being contrasted with the murky amalgamation of thoughts that has vomited forth from Donald Trump’s mouth over the past week (and for many months prior, truly). He states that he is being subjected to something similar. He says the media and the government establishment are all conspiring against him to ensure that he loses the election, trotting out alleged victims of his unwanted sexual advances at this convenient time immediately prior to the election.

Aside from the mounting evidence that the Russian government, in possible collusion with WikiLeaks and the Trump campaign itself, is coordinating precisely this type of attack on the Clinton campaign (which dovetails with my theory that Trump’s only line of defense is projection), this accusation is so hollow that Trump’s voice involuntarily echoes every time he makes these claims.

In reference to the prior bullet points about actual coordinated smear campaigns:

  • Trump, as much as I hate to include him in any group with me, is a white male. He was born into a successful family, and he used his father’s wealth as a crutch to overcome his glaring lack of business discipline until he got lucky and managed to make profits based on his perverted Darwinian business philosophy (i.e., screw them over before they have a chance to screw you over, which is also his philosophy of governance). His entire career has been predicated much more on unwarranted positive press than any native business acumen he possesses. The media built him into a superstar businessman, labeled him the de facto authority on training budding businesspeople, and anointed him a special expert on presidential birth certificates. He earned none of those designations, but since he was a blustery, obnoxious white male with money, people listened to him.
  • All of the allegations against him are entirely consistent with his prior conduct and speech. He has consistently objectified women on the record; he has consistently called women demeaning names on the record. Now, with the Access Hollywood tapes, he has been recorded admitting to a pattern of sexual assault. Now that possible corroborating evidence has been brought forward for this pattern of comments, he wants us to believe that it is all a coordinated effort to discredit him. How has he not discredited himself through his unrelenting, consistent chauvinism?
  • As regards the government establishment’s alleged role in this Trump smear campaign, I can only shrug and say that political groups get together and decide who they are going to support. That’s quite literally how politics works. For him to complain of this treatment is to underline his fundamental misunderstanding of how to leverage the existing political system. To think that this political skill is irrelevant (which is what his supporters appear to believe) is to assume what he has intimated in numerous other campaign comments–that he wants to dismantle the existing government altogether to suit his whims. In that event, he shouldn’t have even bothered going through the formality of pledging to a party and participating in the process.
  • Donald Trump was not a registered Republican. If there was a conspiracy, the party could have effectively shut him out from competing in the primaries. If there was a corresponding media conspiracy, they could have declined to give coverage to his campaign. Both groups were overly welcoming and generous because they knew that his celebrity would generate much-needed buzz that would benefit them. Trump has trafficked in and basked in the undeserved attention of the sensational for at least four decades. Now that the monster he has hitherto harnessed for his own benefit has turned against him, he is whining that the whole thing is fixed. The truth is that his very fame and notoriety, the fact that we even know who Donald Trump is, is one colossal fix: the elevation of a mediocre business mind to worldwide prominence because he knew how to make a spectacle of himself.

Of course, I know that I am only one of a million voices crying in the wilderness, trying to   convey the urgency of the situation to the obscene 30-to-40 per cent of Americans who are supporting Trump for president.

I am only one person with one opinion, and I am not the arbiter of political truth. I can only point to what I feel to be the inevitable conclusion that Trump’s last stand in this election is to convince people that all the awful things that are easily available for Americans to know about him are in fact untrue, and are instead the result of a carefully coordinated plan to steal an election from him that he is utterly unqualified to win. And that last stand is a flimsy house of cards that falls under the slightest examination.

And, finally, as someone who acknowledges marginalized lives, it is personally offensive to me that a rich white male who has held a national platform for his thoughts and ideas for over a generation is claiming the mantle of systemic victimization as he stands in front of millions of Americans daily with repeated opportunities to string together a coherent sentence to explain what he believes in and how he proposes to translate those beliefs into action as President. And failing miserably each time.

That’s not a conspiracy. That, at long last, may actually constitute justice.

This is Not a Cruise Line Advertisement

I disembarked from a five-day cruise two days ago. And I have one thing to say.


Said cruise was my fifth in three years, and I have a sixth lined up in six weeks. As you might imagine, I have developed a thing for cruise vacations.

And now it’s my turn to indoctrinate you.

Before I went on my first cruise in November 2013, the whole concept was quite amorphous. Something about the word “cruise” connoted opulence to me, and so I did not seriously entertain the notion of going on one.

I am reminded of when my family first started going to Red Lobster as a kid. My mother, although very smart, was not a sophisticated diner and wondered aloud whether we even belonged in a restaurant of that imagined caliber. Over the years I’ve chuckled at her perception, but there I was, 40 years old and under the impression I could not afford to go on a cruise. Just like my mom.

That first cruise was an eye-opener. It was a pre-planned wedding cruise and I was simply tagging along. When I saw the price tag, my jaw dropped. It was reverse sticker shock. It was cheaper than the price of a lowball hotel room for the same length of time. And it included food… really?

My innate frugality was further egged along by the cruise experience itself; it was fun, it was relatively self-directed, and it was chill. I love chill. So I was hooked.

So that’s my addiction story in brief. Now to tell you in detail why cruises are the best vacations in existence. (Somehow, I think the cruise lines have missed a lot of opportunities to sell themselves, because their marketing materials never pointed out all these wonderful things in a way they resonated with me.)

  1. They’re cheap–but only as cheap as you want them to be. Of course, I cruise discount. Discount cruise line, cheapest cabins, and don’t spend a lot on the ship. That’s great for me, because I enjoy the motion of the ship, the comfy beds, the included food, the shows, and looking over the deck at the water. When in port, I enjoy the views and walking the streets casually. I actively prefer the free stuff, and not just because it’s free. If your tastes run more expensive, you can certainly be accommodated. Cabin suites with balconies, $15 drinks and $20 steak add-ons, $100-per-person shore excursions, onboard shopping and gambling, art auctions, and so on. This creates opportunities for back-end sticker shock, but any vacation can turn expensive while you’re not paying attention.
  2. Your choices are pleasantly limited. The most exhausting part of any vacation is planning. If you love to plan an itinerary in advance, you have to arrange to hit all your marks once you arrive. If you don’t, you wake up each day in a hotel room and face the dreaded question: what are we going to do today? Then there’s the laggard on every vacation who wants to sleep until 1pm, which results in splintered vacation parties or frustrated sightseers. While you can’t eliminate these stressors completely, being confined to a 1000-foot vessel for half of your vacation certainly reduces them. While on the ship, there’s usually about one interesting thing happening at any given time. You can do that interesting thing, or you can eat, or lay out, or take a dip, or take a nap, or get a drink, or shop. It’s just enough to keep you from feeling trapped, but not enough to overwhelm you. And that late riser can just get up and join you when he’s ready–you’re never more than a three-minute walk from anywhere on the ship.
  3. You can only get dragged around so much at your destination. File this under spinning a negative into a positive. The most common complaint I hear about cruises is that you don’t have time to really get out and explore the ports of call. The customary time to be back on the ship is 4:30pm, although there are cruises (usually the longer and more expensive ones) where you can spend the night in port and explore the nightlife. For me, though, this limitation is a pro instead of a con. My sightseeing attention span is somewhere very close to the eight hours allotted off the ship. If you have travel companions who have no concept of time, this helps immensely. It’s not nagging on my part if the ship can literally leave you high and dry if you miss the re-boarding time.
  4. Your vacation is curated, with a beginning, middle, and an end. The cruise director plays a large role in successfully curating your cruise. He or she needs to hit the right notes at the right time: excitement at embarkation, wonderment at the ports of call, and a touch of melancholy and even reflection on the last night. Even if he or she fails (and our last cruise director was pretty ineffective), the itinerary is always right there, and even the most out-of-touch passenger has a general sense of the anticipation on the way to the ports and of closure on the return/destination stretch. It’s downright poetic compared to the let’s-plop-down-in-a-hotel-room-and fly-back-after-five-days stagnancy of a standard vacation.
  5. Dining is an integrated part of the vacation experience. Left to our own devices, we harried travelers revert to our home dining routines. How many times have you stopped at a convenient McDonald’s after an exhausting day of sightseeing just because you couldn’t imagine dragging the family into so much as an Applebee’s to put forth the time and effort (not to mention the extra cash) it would take to actually dine as opposed to stuffing your face? The cruise lines place a premium on dining, providing a free and formal-esque dinner experience each evening. In addition, although it’s often a tenuous connection, there is at least a cursory effort to echo the cuisine of the last or next port of call, or the vacation region in general. And for those passengers that just don’t give a damn, they can get a sandwich or a pizza or room service whenever they want it.
  6. The service staff is accommodating and attentive. I cruise Carnival, so all of my observations here are to some degree generalizations from my experience with that one cruise line. I have a couple of friends who have informally verified these generalizations, but service is different; it’s an intangible and subjective quality, one that leans heavily on the culture of the cruise line. That’s why I specifically qualify this point. Carnival, on the whole, does an excellent job hiring and training the service staff. They do such a good job, it’s jarring to step off the ship into the ports of call or to return home from vacation and adjust to the low bar of customer service at most other establishments.
  7. The ship is a floating cocoon of vacation fun. This last point follows directly from the preceding one. The cruise ship exists in a different dimension from the rest of the world. If you go on vacation to Orlando, you’re going to run into regular Orlando folks on their grumpy daily journeys. Same in Jamaica, Amsterdam, Australia, or Hawaii. On a cruise ship, the only people working on the cruise ship are the staff, and that barely counts because (1) their business is to make you happy; and (2) they themselves are on a finite stint on the vessel; they work several months onboard and then take time off, after which they may be assigned to another ship. It’s far from a vacation, but it’s dynamic enough to avoid the sort of rut most of experience in our employment. No one on staff is going to say, “I’ve been working on this ship for 15 years, and I’m sick of it.” If you inquire, the worst you’ll hear is something like, “I have five months left, and then I get to go home to my family.” I am not making the case that their working conditions are easy or even altogether fair. I am only saying that while you are on the ship, you are insulated from the stagnation and the drudgery of what has become known as “the real world.” Everyone is on a temporary journey and enjoying it while it lasts. It’s sort of a joyful microcosm of life.

Cruising is one of the single most fulfilling experiences I have had in life. If you haven’t done it, I highly recommend it. If you have and you didn’t enjoy it, what’s wrong with you? No, actually, it isn’t for everyone. If you’re an unfettered free spirit or an extreme claustrophobe, it can seem like prison (or so I’ve heard). If you are inordinately prone to motion sickness, it isn’t feasible. But other than that, I can’t find any good reason not to try it.

Counting the days until the next one (43!).


Why Rhythm Nation Should be the National Anthem… Seriously

Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest has sparked a series of discussions on different topics. Most focus on the appropriateness of his actions weighed against the issues where he is attempting to shed light.

A side topic, one that pops up every so often in pop culture and social media, is whether “The Star-Spangled Banner” is even worth the reverence we are supposed to afford it in the first place. It was written by a slaveholding amateur poet who set his amateur poem to a British social club tune that was widely bastardized and had lots of other lyrics tacked onto it. Its more obscure verses (there are four altogether) have some unsettlingly normalizing references to slavery.

So–in short, our national anthem was written by a hack, the music was stolen, and it’s hopelessly out-of-date. (I dare any of the folks burning Kaepernick’s jersey to tell me what a rampart is.) Further, while it memorializes the resilience of our nation in the face of adversity, it also sort of glorifies war in the process and speaks to an American experience that most of the people singing the song can’t relate to. The America we live and breathe in does not generally have bombs bursting in air.

In 1989, Janet Jackson had a nifty idea–create a reboot of the national anthem, updated for what’s important in the U.S. in the latter 20th century. She even went so far as to codename the album she was working on “The 1814 Project,” so named because that was the year Key wrote the other anthem. That name carried through to the final title of the album, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814. (To my mind, this is still the most awesome, spine-tingling album name of all time.) The title track, written by a trio of actual songwriters (Jackson, Jam & Lewis), became the second single from the album, reached #2 on the pop charts, and was accompanied by an eye-popping video that is singularly iconic in its stark, gestural choreography–half pop-locking, half military drill routine.

The album just celebrated its 27th birthday this past week. And, as it happened, I was discussing the Kaepernick protest with a good friend on Facebook when I, to lighten the mood, mentioned offhandedly that maybe if we had a better anthem, I’d be a little more offended about people protesting during it. “Can you write us one?” my friend asked. “Janet already did,” I replied.

It’s been a ha-ha-funny joke for the past 30 years that I take Janet Jackson WAY too seriously and that my ultimate fandom dictates that I lobby (against all good sense and reason) for “Rhythm Nation” to be the national anthem.

For the first time today, I wasn’t laughing.

I began reviewing the lyrics in my head. Each and every line is universal and speaks to the heart of what the United States of America has always, at least in principle, aspired to be. The musical genealogy of the song is brashly American (as opposed to Key’s British rip-off), with equal parts funk, R&B, pop, and hip-hop. As noted above, it’s nearly 30 years old, so it can now rightly be called a classic. And perhaps most importantly, the people who grew up listening to the song and being inspired by it are now middle-aged (or in my case, approaching middle age–ahem), so whatever we say has to be taken seriously.

So I’m dead-frickin-serious. This needs to be our national anthem:

With music by our side/to break the color lines/let’s work together to improve our way of life

Our nation has usually at least paid lip service to equality and inclusiveness. That needs to be institutionalized in our anthem. Explicitly acknowledging the role of music is another no-brainer; if we didn’t think music had the power to unite people, why would we go to the trouble of singing the same damn song before every sporting event or assembly? And people have historically come to the U.S. from other places to improve themselves, and in the process, improve us all collectively.

Join voices in protest/to social injustice/a generation full of courage come forth with me

Our nation was founded in protest of the injustice of British colonial rule. Nothing more American than that (except maybe magically switching gears and calling protest un-American when it makes us uncomfortable, which is the point of protesting in the first place). A good old fashioned rallying cry is also inherently anthemic.

People of the world today/Are we looking for a better way of life/We are a part of the rhythm nation

Hello!? Can’t you just hear thousands of people singing this in unison? So much more interactive than listening to Christina Aguilera apply super-deluxe histrionics to the word “glare.” [Editors Note: I adore Xtina, but she is an easy target when it comes to national anthem singing.]

People of the world unite/Strength in numbers we can get it right/We are a part of the rhythm nation

Unite! Strength! Right! Nation! What part of this is not screaming anthem?

This is the test/No struggle no progress/Lend a hand to help your brother do his best

This completes the checkbox for acknowledging difficulty and overcoming adversity. This is just about all the current one-note national anthem does. Janet dispatched it in one line. Plus, as a bonus, an ostensibly Christian virtue, helping one’s brother, is referenced without showing religious preference. Win-win.

Things are getting worse/We have to make them better/It’s time to give a damn/Let’s work together

OK, fine. These last lines are a little problematic. Problem one–we can’t have an anthem that forever has us bemoaning things getting worse. Simple fix–add the word “when” in front to make it conditional and therefore universal. “When things are getting worse, we have to make them better.”

Last problem is the word “damn,” which I suppose some people don’t want their children singing. I think that bit of prudishness is rapidly vanishing, though. It’s really almost a regular word nowadays, and usually excusable if used for emphasis–like in a rousing verse of a national anthem.


I admit this idea seems ludicrous in first imagining. We’re just so accustomed to the pacing of the maudlin battlefield melodrama of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” slowly building to a high note none of us can actually hit, resolving with a swift denouement. “Rhythm Nation” is a dance-pop record that some us can remember dancing to in our rooms when we were teenagers.

But it’s a song we can all sing. The message of the song is direct and speaks to things we can actually do after we leave the football game to show ourselves as good American citizens and world citizens. It also doesn’t require a dip in the energy of the events where it is sung–it can be reverent and rousing at the same time.

And to Colin Kaepernick’s point, it leverages and recognizes the value of protest in patriotism. Apparently a lot of Americans need a lesson in that.

Navel-Gazing: Part 468

This post is not so much for public consumption, but if it goes viral, I’ll accept it. I’ll be embarrassed, but I’ll accept it.

It’s fascinating how each of us has a universe that exists in our own minds. We all draw our own conclusions, make our own intimate connections of fact, of cause and effect, of punishment, reward, and indifference.

Sometimes, when we feel comfortable with another soul, we will leak our personal universe out, one conclusion at a time, often prefaced with “You’re gonna think I’m crazy, but I’ve always thought…”

When I was a kid, I distinctly recall one night while I was in second grade. My father took me and my mother on a Nashville dining adventure. We went to a sprawling complex called Cajun’s Wharf, an elaborate restaurant-cum-spectacle with multiple nooks, crannies, set pieces, video games, etc. I had a blast and was celebrating life.

That was my last night as a carefree kid.

When reconstructing our autobiographies, I believe most of us are wont to make reductive statements such as the immediate above. It’s all part of our personal universe construct.

But I truly believe there was a sea change in my personality following that night at Cajun’s Wharf. On the hour-plus car ride home from the restaurant, my jubilation was stopped cold by a sudden feeling of illness. We pulled over by the side of the road at least once because of my raging nausea, which didn’t consummate until I got home.

I spent an icky night at home, before backtracking most of the way back to Nashville the next morning to see my pediatrician, who diagnosed me with strep throat. I don’t recall much about my recovery. I only recall the emotional devastation of being so happy and then having it snatched from me arbitrarily.

In the face of such powerlessness, I constructed a large part of my personal universe in response to that night. I needed to at least create the illusion of control, so I made a deal with God: if I promised to not get too happy, I would be spared that sort of experience in the future. I became a stoic child overnight.

Somewhere in my mind, there was something much more rational at play than a deal with God. Practically speaking, if I didn’t get too happy, I wouldn’t have as far to fall if I became ill or otherwise unhappy. I hedged my bets, sacrificing unbridled joy to prevent a breathless fall into misery.

From then to this day, I’ve always expressed my happiness in carefully measured increments. As an adult, I’ve allowed myself to experience happiness without guilt, but I have remained measured about expressing it, and there’s always a voice in my head telling me to beware of the next awful thing lurking behind the joyful moment I’m experiencing.

This sort of brings us to the events of the last month. I was feeling content and in control of a great deal of my life about a month ago. I had instituted a life-priority plan which would allow me to focus on personally important things rather than getting jerked around by deadlines and lack of focus. I executed two weeks on this plan and was getting the hang of it. As a serial self-improvement buff, it would be a meaningful accomplishment for me to launch a plan and stick to it.

Another piece of my personal universe is that I feel like I am a divinely ordained target for petty annoyances and sabotage. The way I put it, nothing truly tragic ever happens to me, but any way the universe can find to annoy the heck out of me on a day-to-day basis, it will find and execute.

As an example, I find that I can visit a shopping mall at 8pm on a Tuesday night when there are only a handful of patrons in the entire place, and somehow, someway, I will find myself maneuvering around three other people who have converged at one bottleneck near a stairway or escalator, making it a challenge to just walk from point A to point B in a deserted public space. Infuriating.

So, in a series of events that feeds this paranoid piece of my universe, after two strong weeks on my new plan and three relaxing vacation days from work, I was struck down with fever and chills, followed shortly by a red, sore spot on my leg. I had a skin infection, and it upended my world for two weeks. The very thought of reading or blogging (two primary components of my plan) made me panicked with stress. I was struggling just to keep current with my work emails and not fall behind paying my bills and other subsistence activities. So I dropped the plan cold. I needed to survive. [Note: the infection was not serious, and I believe I was only suffering mild malaise from the infection and the antibiotics. I’m just not accustomed to feeling unwell and I overreact.]

On another level, I gave up because I felt like I was being punished for being happy again. For daring to think that I could outmaneuver life and prioritize activities that were important to me.

I am well aware of how dysfunctional this sounds. But this is part of the personal universe I have created. In addition, being aware of these thoughts brings up other questions about my illness. Did I create the conditions internally that allowed the infection to take place? Did I sabotage my own well-being because I was scared of succeeding?

On a certain level, I want to believe that I sabotaged myself. First, self-sabotage would indicate that my natural resistance is too high for me to have gotten sick in the absence of said sabotage. Second, albeit in a perverse way, it demonstrates that I do have control over what is happening to me, that it’s not “God” or “the universe” that inflicts these obstacles. I only need to truly believe and be fearless in my pursuit of my happiness and I stand a better chance of getting there.

There’s a lot of labyrinths to all of our personal universes, and I thank you for traveling with me down a few of mine. There are no absolute answers to be had, but the mere awareness of some of the dynamics at play is inherently valuable.

It could be that the biggest takeaway here is that my personal universe (and yours) is the single biggest prism through which I (and you) see our actions and the larger world we share. It stands to reason, then, that “creating your own happiness” is far more than some New Age-y mantra. Instead, it’s a reality-based assessment of how we use our minds to process the world around us.

I’m feeling better now. I didn’t even mention the two wisdom teeth I had extracted a week ago; that was an added physical impediment to my personal focus. All seems to be resolving, and now I have allowed myself the luxury of the reflection you read here.

With any luck this post is one of the final pieces of my recovery and a step toward the rededication to the path I set out on last month.

PC: causes, symptoms, and treatments

Donald Trump has a number of pet peeves, real or adopted, that he has articulated (using the term loosely here) during the current presidential campaign. One of them is political correctness, which is enjoying a revival as a discussion topic due to the Republican nominee’s focus (again, loose usage) on the issue.

Since conservatives want to treat PC like a disease, it may be helpful for the purposes of this discussion to use the paradigm of epidemiology to organize my observations on this understandably volatile topic.


Political correctness is the display or attempted display of sensitivity toward marginalized groups by steering clear of offensive labels, descriptions, or implications in one’s speech and actions. An act may be described as offensive due to its pejorative, stereotypical, or subhuman descriptive content, or it may be an act that communicates a generalization about a marginalized group.

The immediate question regarding this definition that presents itself is why PC is presented here as a disorder. The answer is far from exact or satisfying, but it relates to a perception of excess. Notably, other activities or actions performed to excess are re-classified into disorders such as compulsions or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Oddly, political correctness, when diagnosed, is taken as its own unique disorder, regardless of degree. Hmm.


The most common symptom across all types of political correctness is empathetic outbursts. These may manifest as correcting another’s speech or actions, or pointing out potentially hurtful messages or labels.

Other symptoms, which usually co-exist with these outbursts, include thinking outside of one’s personal experience, and chronic identification with marginalized groups. These congruent symptoms may culminate in an inflamed liberal political outlook.

It must be noted that actual members of marginalized groups are not classified as politically correct when they point out hurtful comments or actions directed toward their own identities. They are simply complaining and making excuses. (Please see entry for “hypochondria.”)


Political correctness is either contracted communicably or it is self-inflicted.

When contracted communicably, it is the result of exposure to other politically correct individuals who present the core ideas of the disorder in a rational and/or persuasive manner and pass it along to the affected individual.

When self-inflicted, it is the result of one’s own rational thought and inherent, although sometimes dormant, sense of empathy.

Risk Factors

There is no consensus on the risk factors for PC behavior. Growing up in a diverse environment involving contact with marginalized populations is often cited, but some individuals develop the disorder without a high degree of heterogeneity in their environment.

A controversial theory links political correctness to intelligence.


There is no known cure for political correctness. As has been cited by folk wisdom, once one’s mind is open, everything can, in fact, fall out. The pervasive human predilection toward empathy also reinforces the often irreversible impact of political correctness.

The most potent treatment is recruitment into white nationalist groups or other such bastions of homogeneity that seek to reinforce identities that are already central or predominant in the individual’s social context. (Some people are saying that Donald Trump’s rallies are anti-PC-geared events using this treatment method. I don’t know… you tell me.)

Secondary treatments include verbal harassment by conservatives, shaming by one’s overbearing mouth-breathing uncle, and large doses of Fox News coverage.


Planting one’s head in the sand and operating in a world devoid of context and nuance have proven to be invaluable tools in the prevention of political correctness.