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: 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.


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.


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.


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.


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”?


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.