We The People: Latoya (New York)

Latoya and I used to work together at a wonderful community music school on the east side of Manhattan, Turtle Bay Music School. In between lessons and recitals, we bonded over our mutual interest in dance and science as well as music, and occasionally plotted our alternative bright futures as financial planners for artists (which neither of us ended up doing, but someone else did). When we spoke back in November, Latoya was preparing to start a new job, working in environmental education for an environmental protection agency, giving tours of a waste water treatment plant and developing curriculum and education programming around watershed protection and stewardship. Latoya is currently into Olympic lifting and crossfit, both of which made me feel fitter just hearing her talk about it. We talked about fitness, bodies changing as we get older, our reactions to the election, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson (not necessarily in that order).

How do you follow science news, and news about policy affecting the science community:

For math & physics, Quanta Magazine. For cutting edge research, New Scientist. Generally Scientific American and National Geographic are good. For mainstream news sources – well, the trouble with science news in mainstream news sources is that they take the latest study and base the analysis on just that, not on scientific consensus, not on the pattern of research. News sources no longer have dedicated science journalists, so there’s less questioning and analysis of what it is they’re reporting.

What’s your vision for America?

I envision a place in which everyone has not only the right but the environment to be who they are. Where variation from the white hetero male “norm” is accepted. Where it’s not so surprising that someone who looks like me [Latoya is African American] can be interested in physics and math. 

For instance – [among African American women] straightening your hair was – is -  a survival tactic – if you go into a job interview with straightened hair, you have a better chance of getting hired, because you look more Caucasian than with natural hair.

America should be a place where we’re encouraged to be who we are, whatever way, shape or form, as long as it doesn’t impede on anyone else being who they are.

How to work toward that vision?

One of the difficulties with current civil rights activism is that there’s a lot of nostalgia, people always looking for the “next Civil Rights movement.” Back then the focus was on changing legislation – striking down segregation, fighting for voting rights, women’s rights. Now it seems the goals aren’t as clear and specific and it’s harder to galvanize a movement.

I think in order for there to be progress, people need to put their/our egos aside to take in what the other person is saying.

We The People: An American Citizen (New Mexico)

My home state!

My home state!

 

It’s always a bit scary to have a conversation with someone whose politics aren’t congruent with your own, and more so when that someone is a dear, longtime friend. When we were setting up a phone date via messenger, he warned me that he didn’t want to talk about politics, and he reserved the right to bow out of the conversation if it became heated; we’re old friends and he doesn’t want to soil our friendship. Understood, gulp – no more do I.

Our call was delayed by a few minutes because his name came up for random drug testing at work. Having worked in the family business for years, he’s learned all the practical aspects of the work, and is now being groomed to take over the company in a few years. There’s a lot to learn on the business side that you don’t learn out in the field, he said. Boy, can I relate; the things I’m responsible for at work right now are not things they teach in music school.

We ended up talking for a half hour longer than intended, and one of the first things he brought up was journalism, describing a 101-level exercise of turning a thousand words into two hundred without losing any critical content. I’ll try to do the same with our conversation. And, for extra credit, I’ll do my best to distill an hourlong conversation into a 10-minute read without misrepresenting him – which apparently was not a requirement of the journalism assignment.

The question I ask everybody: What’s your vision for America?

Well – I’ve yet to meet someone that wants bad things for America. The president – he – or she – may carry more weight than maybe a janitor, but they’re still a single person, and politics are so very meaningless in so many senses. I enjoy the spectacle of watching it. Now there’s a lot of hysteria on your [left] side of politics. Eight years ago, people [on the right] were just as convinced that we were going to go down the road to ruin. The best gun salesman in three hundred years has been Barack Obama. The former president and the current one bear similarities if you know where to look for them – they both have complete control of the narrative in their own way, for instance – but their styles also seem so contrasted. I think there’s a lot of sensationalism because the change in styles is abrupt, and because news is entertainment now. Media is ultimately a product, it has to sell, has to get the clicks.

So, to back up a second, talk to me about the dynamic of the president only being one person, and the relative importance of rhetoric vs. actions. What would you say about the people affected by the travel ban, or the lack of filter in speaking to or about foreign leaders who may or may not take his rhetoric as empty? (Hah, just a simple, multi-faceted question.)

President Trump is lacking in some of the decorum and customs that it has been decided are part of decorum on the world stage…but I wouldn’t put him in with Kim Jong-Un; he’s not threatening to blow up a missile test and then failing; BUT he doesn’t follow the norms/rules of international decorum on the world stage.

He’s certainly effective in controlling narrative. Maybe it’s his perception [as a businessman] that he has to control the narrative, because no one else is going to give that to him…I don’t know.

I do worry about the immigration thing. I employ a bunch of immigrants who’ve worked very hard to obtain legal status…have families in Mexico, go back & forth. Maybe it’s because we’re scrupulous in our hiring practices, check I-9 status, etc, that we get this type of people, but these people have a very strong desire to comply with the law.

I don’t want them to not be able to take care of family, not be able to visit their dying mother – like I have one employee right now who is – I don’t want him to have trouble coming back across the border to come back to job that he’s good at.  

I have a lot of compassion for the refugees and their difficulties. I never want my family to go through anything like that. I don’t want anyone to go through that.

But I’ll tell you a story. It’s a true story of economics; it’s also true for a lot of things in life. So: there was a malaria problem in Africa, and people with good intentions tried to solve it by giving away mosquito nets. The malaria actually got worse. Why??? When they went and looked, no one was using the nets over the beds as intended. They were using the nets for fishing, other household activities. So they decided, we’re going to charge for the nets. Very, very little – like one or two cents a net, so it’s not so prohibitive to the people who need them. Now the nets had value to the people who were going to benefit. They were used for their intended purpose, and malaria rates went down.

Uh-huh…

My point is, Americans have to value themselves. We have several mutual friends in Australia. Dustin for instance went through an eight-month process to get a visa to Australia to get married. The same way, Americans have to value themselves, and not give it away for free.

Ok, I hear your story, and I can corroborate it with stories of my own where people treat things with much more respect if they pay even a nominal fee than if they get them for free. However, if we’re applying this as an analogy to immigration, my understanding is that immigrants – particularly refugees from places like Syria – already undergo something like an 18-month to 2-year vetting process that includes health screenings, background and security checks, extensive interviews…what do you say to that?

 (Here are two contrasting columns about the existing vetting process refugees written by former immigration officers; the former was published right around the time we were talking)

I don’t know. I would have to look into that. Listen, my hope if the current vetting proecess is determined to be strong enough is that we pass no new laws, that we would enforce the robust set of laws that exist.

But Americans have to value themselves, and there are problems with immigrant crime near the border, mostly related to drug smuggling. For example, I know ranchers who have lost their herds, their livelihoods, when people cross the border illegally and cut their fences because they can’t be bothered to go around. So there are problems.

…So there was previously a 20-year immigration ban, around the 1960s, and the first-generation immigrants who came in after that ban was lifted have a really hard time with people who come here now and don’t assimilate, who wish it was Mexico.

Can you elaborate on what you mean by not assimilating? Do you mean not learning the language? What would you have them give up to assimilate, because I’m gonna go ahead and guess that you wouldn’t want to give up tacos.

No, I don’t want to give up tacos, of course. People can bring their cuisines, their traditions, fine. Learning the language is important, sure. Getting out beyond your little circle, learning about America, the place you live.

There needs to be fealty or loyalty to the country. I’m not going to say hateful things about my neighbor. If my neighbor is homosexual, or a different race, I don’t care, I’m going to love my neighbor. Why are we [universal we] so mad at each other for not adopting each other’s points of view? We are way more than the way the country is run.

There needs to be civility, and enough of us that have the same idea of what it means to be American to have that happen – identity not a wedge, it’s glue. But it’s better for entertainment purposes, clickthrus, for there to be conflict. But there has to be some agreement on the minimum to be American – when national identity goes away, we struggle.

I love you, Kat. My faith is more than my nationality, and my national identity is more than my politics. If I didn’t love you, I’d be a sorry example of my faith.

I love you too, friend.

Well, do you have enough for your project? Have I turned your stomach enough in the last hour and made you late for work?

Haha, no, far from turning my stomach. Certainly we’ve opened many cans of worms and we don’t have any more time to go fishing today. But this conversation gives me hope that our country might survive if more people like you and I can just fucking talk to each other like reasonable grown-ups! (Pardon my salty language.)

Epilogue:

My friend is a very private person, and asked to be identified simply as an American citizen. I have been left considering my own thoughts on what it means to be an American citizen. What are the baseline values the vast, vast majority of us in all quadrants of the political map can swear fealty to? Can we get back to working toward a more perfect union – i.e. a civil and reasoned debate about how best to practice and uphold those values? What is each of our responsibility – what is my personal, daily responsibility – in working toward that more perfect union?

We The People: Brandon (Tennessee)

Brandon and I have never actually met face-to-face. We know each other because he used to write and produce songs for the Songs of Love Foundation, a nonprofit that produces original, personalized songs, when I was the music coordinator.

I finished working there in 2006, so it had been a minute, but Brandon and I have been connected on social media for a while, at that osmosis level where I have a very vague idea of what’s going on in his life and presumably vice versa.

It was in fact a social media post and comment of Brandon and one of his friends that led to me choosing to start this We The People project. If you missed it, you can read about it here.

We started the conversation by reminiscing about Songs of Love:

Yeah, it was tricky figuring out how to pronounce those kids’ names sometimes, kids of family members; a lot of them were foreigners or had foreign names. It was nerve-wracking calling the family, because as soon as I’d say I was calling about the kid, they’d freak out, thinking something had gone wrong. ‘No, no…I’m just the songwriter!’ …Man, I always tried to make those songs just as cheerful as could be, for what those kids and families were going through.

WHAT ARE YOU DOING NOW?

Working for a healthcare company, administering a Medicaid program. [Did Obamacare, or all the uncertainty about its future have any effect on the atmosphere at work right now?] …No, Obamacare didn’t affect it adversely, and right now there doesn’t seem to be too much uncertainty for my job.

ARE YOU STILL WRITING MUSIC THESE DAYS? WHAT ELSE ARE YOU UP TO?

I don’t have too much time to write music these days [raising 2 kids with his wife], but I do occasionally. In fact, I just put together a new computer, with Logic & a little studio. I’m working on an addition to the house – much needed. We’ve lived in the biggest tiny house for a long time. We’ll finally have enough bathrooms, and my kids are excited about having their own space.

ARE YOU DOING THE CONSTRUCTION YOURSELF? ARE YOU GONNA PUT YOUR KIDS TO WORK?

I’ll have framers help frame it, then after that I’ll insulate & add the sheetrock and do the floors. The kids aren’t quite big enough to be put to work, but they’ll help paint and pick out colors. They’re excited, we’re all excited.

AND, THE QUESTION I ASK EVERYONE, WHAT’S YOUR VISION FOR AMERICA?

A place where anyone can be what they want to be if they work hard for it. And I think it is getting better; I lived in a trailer park and didn’t have that much growing up. And I’ve had an African American woman supervisor. So I think things are getting better, and you can get ahead if you work hard.

For my kids – to be what they want to be, sure. Right now, especially since the election, I’d be happy for them to get along with everyone. I want everyone to get along again.

Before we signed off, I asked if he wanted to write a song together, and he said “sure” – in that way artists have of having ideas they don’t know how they’ll do or how they’ll find time for it. Maybe I’ll write all or part of a song, and he can finish and/or record it. I asked what’s the best way to communicate something I write – sheet music, demo, chord chart? There are many different ways to communicate between musicians, as with people, and more than half of the task is figuring out what language the other person speaks and what that mode of communication is. Anyway, stay tuned for possible future collaboration…

 

We The People Project: Love Your Unfriends

working on a more perfect union, a #haiku:

what if we replaced
“unfriend me” with “let’s have lunch
and talk about life”?

#notahaiku:

As I fly to our nation’s capital this post-election Veteran’s Day, I’m thinking my family and friends who have served in the military, and about how I personally can serve this country I love, these United States of America.

Now: I’m gutted that Trump won, for reasons that I’m happy to go into when I’m not trying to make a different point. The biggest one, and the only one I’ll mention here is that his victory emboldens some people – and it only takes one – to commit acts of hatred and violence on their fellow Americans who they perceive as different, separate.

But. I am equally dismayed at seeing hateful words and actions come from my own side. In the past year or so, I have often seen the words “love wins” and “unfriend” come from the same person in one post. Confusing, because I have loved ones on both sides of this political divide that is prompting the unfriending epidemic. Confusing, because “unfriend” and love are incompatible.

Love is hard work. This is why love is a commandment in spiritual practices, not an option, for extra credit points if you’re flunking Communion or mindfulness. Love is the central mandate (sorry, Leviticus).

Back to these United States of America. United? We the people do not resemble that remark right now. The “E Pluribus Unum” (“out of many, one”) on our money is wishful thinking. Our nation has always been fractious, multi-faceted, full of people with different needs. The spirit of compromise that any long-term relationship requires has ebbed and flowed throughout that history, but for the past few years has been lost in all-or-nothing rhetoric tinged with hate.

The same amazing technology that brings the entire world into the palms of our hands also makes it possible for our worlds to be more insular than ever before. Smartphones, ATMs, GPS, self-checkout at the supermarket, delivery apps – make it possible for us to find our way around and go about our business without ever having to interact with someone we don’t already know. What’s more, our devices give us something to look at other than another human being. We avoid eye contact and – God forbid! – small talk in line, in the elevator, on the sidewalk or parking lot. It’s so much easier to check those very urgent texts, emails, and instagram-filled news feeds from people in our social circles. Even if those social circles are politically diverse, an algorithm curates the posts that appear, and if the echo chamber it creates isn’t sealed tightly enough, we can further curate the posts: unfollow, unfriend, block. I am guilty of unfollow, if not of unfriend.

When did “unfriend” become a word? The noun form of the word would be “enemy.” Meet Chester, my un-friend. Unfriend: v., to make an enemy of someone

Ok, if you must unfriend, draw boundaries, I get it. But if you’re also posting about how love wins, remember that the kind of love that excludes one’s enemies – the people you might wish to unfriend – only wins the consolation prize. Why does everything have to be so hard?

I wish it were easy.

I wish it were different.

I wish there were more empathy people of different backgrounds, beliefs, population densities. More rational communication, especially more listening to different points of view. Even points of view that make each other’s skin crawl. That takes courage. I wish there were more courage.

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

Which thought leads me to, “be the change you wish to see in the world:”

I wish I were different. Empathy. Courage. Willingness to listen.

I’m a musician. I started out taking “regular” piano lessons as a kid, ie, learning to play from sheet music. Since I’ve branched out into improvising and playing jazz and other styles, every mentor I’ve ever had has told me “listen more.” In any style of music, the silences are as important as the sounds, and playing in a band or any kind of ensemble depends on listening to the other players as much as you’re thinking about what you play yourself.

So, to that end, I’m committing to having a conversation a week – via phone or Skype, or in person, not on chat or text – with friends or acquaintances who are 1) people who look like me and have different lifestyles and political beliefs to my own and 2) people who don’t look like me and have similar lifestyles and political beliefs to my own.

Not with an agenda or intention of changing anyone’s mind; without a manifesto of my own except as above: courage, empathy for someone whose life is different from mine in some broad way, listening.

I have no idea what to expect. I hope I’ll find opportunities to learn and maybe even collaborate, as believe it or not creative people come in all political stripes. At least maybe I’ll get to catch up with some people I haven’t been in touch with for years except with social media tidbits.

Talk with me?

 

We The People Project: Introduction

I’m late. I’m behind on this project for the usual reasons a writer is behind on anything: 1) I’m busy with other Very Important Things 2) I’m terrified.

Not long after the election, I saw this meme on facebook, posted by one of my relatively small number of moderate-to-conservative friends:

I chuckled ruefully, and my left-leaning heart bled a little extra, especially when I read a comment from one of his friends, remarking on the hateful vitriol coming from people on the left, and the hypocrisy of same. It inspired me to devise a project.

The premise of the project is simple: interview acquaintances of various identities and political leanings, and paint a word portrait of them. Create a mosaic of Americans. Or a quilt. Patchwork quilts are quite American.

That’s all I know for now. How explicitly political the posts are will vary, by how well I know them, what we end up talking about. Conversation is a priority, conversion is not.

I posted on facebook stating my intention with this project back in mid-November (busy, terrified). The uncharacteristically long post received plenty of ego-boosting likes and loves, as well as a couple comments from friends who may agree with my politics but not my approach in this project.

So, a note on why my activism in favor of equality, liberty, and justice takes the shape of reaching out to my so-called enemies – people who are “separate” or “different” from me, either ethnically or politically:

As challenging as it is to forge and maintain relationships with people with different identities or opinions from one’s own, giving in to polarization is a tactical error. In such soil grow dictators and corruption. Divide and conquer. Divide, DISTRACT, and conquer.

One of the many times I was doubting myself with this project, I read this Washington Post editorial about the rise of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, and the last three paragraphs in particular resonated and spurred me onward. Turns out I’m rather fond of democracy, now that it’s under threat.

Once the dictatorial weeds invade, they’re hard to get rid of. Now seems like a good time to be finding common ground with my fellow Americans, so that we together can demand that our government officials return to being public servants – operative word serve. May they be held accountable for serving a diverse populace and for continuing to strive toward liberty and justice for all.

 

Haiku #387 - Samba Samba Samba!

me (right), Quenia, her partner Nick who is a percussionist and plays for her classes, and my dance buddy Jessica

dance from the feet up

tsunami of sexiness

that's Quenia's advice!

The Ailey Extension is my favorite place to dance in the city, and Quenia's samba class is my favorite class there - check out her

website

!

what SWEETHEARTS! - Indiegogo Contributors 2/2

Thank you to the people listed below for their generous contributions to the fundraiser to record a demo for The Sweethearts of Swing! The demo is now up on the website - click here to give it a listen!! There are other wonderful people whose haiku were posted previously - hope you enjoy!


Stephanie Wilson-Wagner
Bernie and Colonel
are living it up in the 
City By the Bay

Madeline Ruskin
independent girl
she dances to her own tune
and others join in

Nicole Paloma Sarro
ev'rywhere she goes
she brings the party with her
positivity

Tiago Iturbe
stomp your feet and clap
sing "we will rock you" again
you're a rock star now!

Bo Santomauro
taking a deep breath
letting it out in a song
the best stress relief

Jennifer Rogers
if it's a game day
you know Jennifer will wear
the blue and orange

Shane King
something old or new
something good to listen to
something red green blue

Ryan George
work hard at the gym
the effort will pay you back
in six-packs (not beer!)
Gayle Shay
sing a melisma
to express what's in your heart
via Rossini

Marisel Polanco
she's got the rhythm
in both music, and the words
that she is writing
Greg Smith
dividing his time
between New York and Denmark
that's doing life right

Malika Samuel
always be prepared
she has many characters
ready for stage time

Cheryl Krugel-Lee
summer near the waves
creative folk all around
finishing their hats

Emily Croome
in science fiction 
and musical theater
found serenity

Diane Oram
deep, changing colors
a New Mexico sunset
has its own music

Mick & Carol Coon
play a violin
tell a tale of joy or woe
use the entire bow!

Christy Witt-Hoffman
out there in Texas
a little more room to breathe
more time to sing songs

Bill & Sandra Szilazi
the house lights go out
and another world begins
under the spotlight

David Sitler & Carolyn Popp
he's such a nice guy
though onstage he can make you
believe anything

Diana Benedetti
she's making movies
in Munich, California?!
no, in Germany!

Mimi Row
on the internet
wasting time or maybe I'm 
finding childhood friends

Caroline Nagy
work with good people
meeting deadlines, reaching goals
more fun on the way

Walter Thompson
meeting up with friends
no such thing as free lunchtime
but we keep trying!

Gerry G. Gold
happy sad faces
the icons of theater
how they never age!

Angela Thon
many languages
they all make sense in music
or to Angela

David Remley
find the words to tell
a tale of sunshine and grit
in the Wild, Wild West

KJ Strange
we share a first name
K-A-T-H-R-Y-N
so many nicknames!

Adam Zaremberg
being a writer
hours of paying attention
word by word by word

Ruth McPherson
have another song!
music will quench your thirst so
take one for the road

what SWEETHEARTS! - Indiegogo Contributors 1/2

Thank you to the people listed below for their generous contributions to the fundraiser to record a demo for The Sweethearts of Swing! The demo is now up on the website - click here to give it a listen!! There are a few other wonderful people whose haiku were posted previously, or will be posted tomorrow night - hope you enjoy!

Leigh AKA Line O' Sevens
across the planet
you're made of words and pixels
a far-away friend


Cherie Tay
some of her talents:
professional life hacker
fine ukulelist


Alex Colby
i'd like to meet more
people who dare to see life
through a diff'rent lens


Ayumi Okada
following your dreams
the places they will take you
may be 'round the earth

Eileen Sanderson
delicious cookies
tastes and smells make home feel near
when it's far away


Theresa Rose
what you have to say 
may not seem that important
but it is, it is


Samantha Watson
where should I be now?
I need a stage manager 
in my daily life


Joel Martin
hungry while you work?
you will be struck down unless
you order by phone!

Joshua Smith
mi mi mi mi miiiiiiii!
Joshua's singing his song
somewhere in Boston


Gregg Akkerman
a truly great man
makes New Year's resolutions
to eat more cookies

John Lopez
a renaissance man
to the city after work
shh! don't tell mama

Lynn Sanderson
surrounded by books
a good librarian sees
stories ev'rywhere

Jessica Sarles-Dinsick
Brazilian rhythms
syncopation makes you move
as she plays and sings


Suzee Dunn
hey, California!
don't underestimate the
girl from the mitten

Hanley Smith
i may write haiku
but Hanley can impress with
double dactylic

Darryl Garcia 
he is ev'rywhere!
he must be a master of
teleportation

Andrea Cirillo
several thousand words
can tell a complex picture
worth another grand


Shannon Sherrell
mem'ries with cousins
concerts in the living room
we charged admission!

Mona Sherrell
a bumper sticker:
education cuts don't heal
sticks with me always

Paul Sherrell 
trav'ling and hunting
for quail, dove, or compact disc
are fine adventures

Anne Sherrell
she likes life to be
allegro ma non troppo
make it andante


Jason Sherbundy
when you need a break
here's the open road and sky
rhythm in the wheels

Kathy Trezza
keep your eyes open
to the wonders around you
look for joy each day

Tamara Sherrell Murayama
collecting stickers
ev'ry purchase earns you more
Mister Donut swag!

What SWEETHEARTS! - Yaremis, Sara, Adam, Gretchen, Shahla

Thanks to Yaremis Felix, Sara Wildavsky, Adam Reich, Gretchen Amstutz, and Shahla Atlas for their generous contributions to the fundraiser to record a demo for The Sweethearts of Swing! The demo is now up on the website - click here to give it a listen!!


Yaremis:
laughter's contagious
an epidemic of mirth
is what the world needs

Sara (in honor of her brother Dan):
hear tunes with Sara
eat some burgers by the sea
perfect day for Dan

Adam:
a life in the arts
the magic is in doing 
when all else is loss

Gretchen:
she is living proof:
if you follow the music
music follows you

Shahla:
just look at those boots
if you need fashion advice
she's the one to ask