Real Americans

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When Eric Jones, captain of Sea Valor, handed me that flag behind us to place in the flag holder yesterday, my first thought was “don’t drop it into the Bay.” The American flag means more to Eric than it does to many of us.

Eric’s story came to me from Tony Green a few weeks ago, as I sat across Tony’s desk at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland learning about his pioneering work with the new AP African-American History course. Tony invited me to join his group aboard Sea Valor, where Eric, Tony’s former student, would contribute to the course curriculum.

An invitation for a day sailing on the Bay is a no-brainer, but that invite grew dear to my heart when Tony told me Eric’s story, adapted here from http://www.SeaValor.org:


Eric grew up in the Bay Area, his mother a social worker, and his father an Air Force Colonel. Eric felt compelled to help people from an early age and became an EMT as soon as he turned 18. That led to him joining the Prince George’s County Fire Department, where he received additional training in firefighting, search and rescue, hazardous materials, and rescue diving. Eric continued by earning his Paramedic certification, and in 1998 graduated from The George Washington University (GWU) with a BS in Health Sciences, with a focus on Emergency Medical Services with a minor in Psychology.

On the morning of September 11, 2001 Eric was driving to class at GWU (he was then working towards a Masters in Public Health), and as he neared the Pentagon, American Airlines flight 77 had just crashed into the Pentagon. Knowing he had the skills to help, he pulled over and ran towards the building. He helped pull and carry five people from the impact zone, and then spent the next four days as a member of the Mortuary Affairs team removing the remains of those killed. On September 14, Eric finally left the Pentagon, and drove to New York Ground Zero, to join fellow members of his fire department who were already there assisting with the massive search and rescue operations. He spent another two weeks engaged in search and rescue, and then search and recovery operations. For his efforts, Eric was one of two people awarded the Medal of Valor from the Department of Defense, the highest civilian award issued for heroism.

Like many of the first responders during 9/11, Eric has struggled with PTSD, and additional traumatic events over the years have made it worse. He has tried all of the traditional treatment methods; therapy, medications, support groups, etc., and found varying degrees of success, however nothing has “cured” the depression and PTSD.

Over the years, Eric has known seven people who have taken their lives as a result of their depression and PTSD. In 2016, his friend Jason, an honorably discharged and highly decorated Army sniper, took his own life. Just a few months later, his friend Andrew Berands, an Oscar-winning cameraman, took his life. Both of these tragic deaths affected Eric very hard. He has known firsthand the deep feelings of hopelessness and despair that result from the inability to process traumatic events. Eric’s fate might have been the same, but believes that sailing and a love for the ocean saved his life.

Eric has always loved all things ocean; scuba diving, swimming, boating, exploring tidepools, but in 2010 he discovered sailing. First, on small sailing dinghies in the Potomac River, then on larger boats which ventured offshore. In 2011 Eric served as crew on his friend’s boat sailing from Miami, Florida to Annapolis, MD. This experience solidified his love for sailing.

For a week, as they cruised up the Eastern Seaboard, Eric felt happy for the first time since before 9/11. His depression was still there, but sailing and being surrounded by the ocean and all of its beauty, brought him a sense of peace that he had been yearning for. This was the first time he realized the healing power of sailing and the sea.

Over the next several years, Eric’s depression grew worse. After his mother died in 2015, followed by the suicides of his two friends, Eric was in a bad emotional state. The only time he felt calm and at peace was when he was near or in the ocean. He started sailing with friends, and over time, he realized that he felt better not only on the days that he sailed, but on the days before and after. Sailing and other ocean activities were helping. Eric founded Sea Valor to bring the same healing to others suffering from PTSD.


Yesterday, I joined Tony, a diverse group of his students, and a few other strays like myself at the Emeryville Marina, where Sea Valor is moored. I asked Tony how Eric might be feeling on the eve of the 21st anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. He said that we may or may not hear from Eric about that, and he reminded me to check out the display below deck of the triangular-folded flag that Eric rescued from his days of service at the Pentagon.

Waiting in the parking lot as Eric and his crew prepared, Tony completed the class’ unit on “The Global Reach of the Mali Empire,” dropping knowledge and calling on students to contribute what they’d learned in his classroom, including the voyage of King Abubakari II, ruler of the Mali Empire, who in 1311 AD, led an African exploration to the New World, sending out 200 ships of men, and 200 ships of trade material, crops, animals, cloth, and African understanding of astronomy, religion and the arts.

Soon after boarding, Eric’s father, a retired Air Force colonel, gave a brief presentation on African-American contributions to our country and gave us each a newly minted quarter commemorating the Tuskegee Airmen. That set the tone for our voyage, mixing education, a celebration of Black excellence, inter-racial exploration, and the co-operation that sailing requires.

Eric put us under engine power until we cleared the Berkeley Pier. Students helped raise and lower sails and took turns at the wheel under direction of Eric and his crew–Heather and Nixon. We tied up at Angel Island, the “Ellis Island of the West,” where many Asian immigrants started their American adventure. There, Eric presented to the students about the technical aspects of currents and navigation, introducing a STEM element to Tony’s teaching and helping students understand what confronted both King Abubakari II and then 300 years later, those who endured the Middle Passage.

From Angel Island, we sailed toward and under the Golden Gate Bridge.

Then we skirted Alcatraz Island, where Tony and our new friend, Wanda, kept conversation real as we drifted past reminders of some other real Americans.

Eric kept us on the water for about five magical hours. Although we never heard from Eric about his trauma, many of us shared stories of our own. Wanda and I compared notes on the Black and Jewish experiences as both friends and foes in this country. Nixon, of Asian descent, explained that his father named him after the former President, dooming him to not only persistent questions about the origin of his name, but also being playground nicknamed “Tricky Dick.”

Exhausted and exhilarated, we arrived back at Emeryville, processing thoughts and feelings that arose from our conversations, none about how to make America great again, most about how to make America America again.

D.C.’s Hot Days and Nights

After dark on May 2, D.C. wasn’t overly hot, walking from my de facto headquarters at The Hamilton back to Hotel Harrington. The night held just a hint of humidity, a soft blanket that subtly alluded to the city’s notorious sweat soakings.

Nothing even happening at Harry’s, the often-rowdy dive bar in the Harrington, which is a dive hotel like the one where Robert Blake and Tom Ewell lived in the old Baretta TV series. But it’s worth staying there for the old-school “charm” at half the price of anywhere else such a short walk from the White House and even more importantly The Hamilton.

But up in my room, where the blackout drapes almost met closely enough to keep the light out, CNN let me know we’d feel heat the next day. The news broke about the Supreme Court’s draft opinion re: Roe v. Wade.

Sleep with CNN spicing my dreams segued into waking surrealism. The candidate’s team communications platform overflowed with internal messages, mostly of the wailing-and-gnashing-of-teeth variety. I would have to directly phone the candidate back in Houston to sort this out.

And it would have to happen while walking to the day’s destinations, familiar haunts from my past D.C. visits. I refused to forego the pilgrimages I’d planned on top of a two-day out-and-back from San Francisco to D.C. built around representing my client, Fit Kids, at the Aspen Institute’s Project Play Summit.

The call came at 10 a.m. from the candidate — Cameron “Coach Cam” Campbell, known for the #GridironGrit he brings from his football coaching career to his campaign to “go to state” as the representative for Texas House District 132. Yes, in Texas, it takes nothing less than #GridironGrit grit for a Black man to turn a red seat blue.

Between Coach Cam’s infant and toddler in his office and the street shouts and sirens that started to wane when I walked the gentrified U Street Corridor, we somehow managed to mostly understand each other. I would duck into Busboys and Poets, the progressive bookstore/cafe, for inspiration…

…and I would take my findings — which this time included The Trayvon Generation by Elizabeth Alexander and Create Dangerously: The Power and Responsibility of the Artist by Albert Camus — to a proper office to compose a statement on SCOTUS for Coach Cam’s consideration.

In my booth at Ben’s, fueled by the vibe and an Original Chili Half Smoke, I wrote: The Supreme Court opinion that came out yesterday demonstrates the vast overreach and ruthless power grab of the political right, reaching right down into the most intimate and personal aspects of women’s lives. The right, embodied by the Republican Party, does this against the will of the people they are sworn to represent. It is up to us as individuals — politicians and constituents alike, starting at the local level — to use our voice and our vote to protect our legal rights. The Supreme Court stands poised to trigger the worst of what Texas Republicans already have decided. Our best defense against the violation of our civil rights and human rights is to remove Republicans from power, and I intend do so in HD 132.

With Coach Cam more or less signed off on that, a long, hot walk had me hit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian an hour before closing. On the way there, and then to happy hour at Off the Record in the famous Hay-Adams Hotel, glimpses of the Washington Monument, the U.S. Capitol, and the White House had me feeling some type of way.

The sight of the buildings themselves are so iconic, so burned into my brain as a patriot-in-training from earliest memory, that they raise a reverence. But knowing what their residents and honorees perpetrated is just as breath-taking.

Sitting in Off the Record — elbow-to-elbow crowd clamor drowning out CNN’s continuing coverage of the not-yet-24-hour-old SCOTUS news — I wondered who around me shaped policy in which ways. In those surroundings, politics feel real.

It was nothing a stop at headquarters couldn’t cure. So I walked back out into higher heat and humidity than the night before.

John Lewis

Just over five years ago, I joined Sojourn to the Past for one of its immersive Civil Rights history experiences for high school students. My son, Sam, took the journey along with 100+ peers from throughout the U.S.

In addition to serving as one of about 20 other chaperones, I was in charge of capturing and sharing media, along with official photographer Audra Gray. On the third day of our six-day journey, we had a private audience at The King Center in Atlanta with Rep. John Lewis, who passed last night of pancreatic cancer at age 80.

Rep. Lewis arrived late at our event. He was out the previous night celebrating his 75th birthday. He was worth the wait. A forceful speaker, his voice rose and fell to emphasize his points. You could still hear the hurt, even 50 years after he led the Bloody Sunday march across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, where Alabama state troopers cracked his skull.

Rep. Lewis sounded every bit as fresh and relevant as he did when he chaired the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and spoke at the March on Washington, in my view, even more powerfully than Dr. King in his “I Have A Dream” speech.

Sojourn tradition provides each person on a journey a private moment with guest speakers. Hugging Rep. Lewis, I thanked him for all he had done for our country. Then we shot this impromptu testimonial video for Sojourn.

Despite my decades of meeting “important” pro athletes, I had never experienced such gravitas. Although he rests in power now, Rep. Lewis will forever stand as the most important, impactful person I have ever met.

Firewords

Most Independence Days it would be time for fireworks. This Fourth of July, it’s time for firewords.

I have always loved this holiday. I was raised to be a patriot. One grandmother was born on the Fourth of July. The other belonged to the Daughters of the American Revolution, tracing her lineage to the Revolutionary War financier Haym Salomon.

I drank the same red, white and blue Kool-Aid that most of my peers did. I loved this country and celebrated it every Fourth of July.

Ordinarily at this time of night, I would lie back on a blanket beneath the fireworks at Klode Park in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, where I graduated high school and where my parents still live. I would have spent the day following a parade of stilt-legged Uncle Sams and cheerily oblivious families through the streets, drinking beer sold by Rotary or Kiwanis, and “dancing” to a Tom Petty cover band.

Tonight, July 4, 2020, fireworks sound distantly through my Foster City, California porch door. It’s not a scheduled show. Those are all canceled due to the Coronavirus crisis, as was my annual trip home. Air travel is unsafe while this virus rages, and anyway my parents fear infection too much to let me in the door.

So, any fireworks I hear now are set off by the people. By morning. we’ll learn that some of those fireworks were gunshots. Beyond the Coronavirus crisis there is anger in the streets and a reckoning still to come for the recent police murders of unarmed Black folks George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, and Rayshard Brooks.

It’s just as well that I did not have a normal celebration today. We’re not free. We are captive to the Coronavirus crisis and the failed government that flouts it — at our expense and deadly danger — even while flying a fake freedom flag. We suffer from centuries of systemic racism, now fanned by 45.

Maybe it’s best that instead of my normal celebration, I spent today on my porch close-reading Frederick Douglass’ “What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July?” One-hundred-sixty-eight years later, his question remains unanswered. So, this Fourth of July, what’s to celebrate?

Coronavirus Diary: Re-Opening

It’s been more than two weeks since my last diary entry. The main reason is that news, thinking, talking, and writing about protests stemming from the murder of George Floyd have consumed my days and nights. I’ve also focused on selling copies of Az Der Papa and worked extensively with students from my “On Point” class at The Writing Salon.

I could not have imagined anything usurping my mindshare from the Coronavirus crisis, but because of who I am, where I’ve lived, and how my friends are, the anti-racism concerns take precedence. I won’t comment further here on anti-racism to keep this diary as purely as possible about Coronavirus.

As to that, signs (or lack thereof) indicate that much is re-opening. Most importantly, the stairs at my running hill shed their police tape and detour signs about a week ago. It has been a blessing to return to running, now mixed in with cycling as much as 20 miles at a time, to keep me as physically and mentally healthy as possible.

Some live televised sports have resumed, notably boxing, golf, and European soccer. More restaurants, shopping, and other services are now available. We have even seen a few friends in recent days as well as light at the end of the tunnel…at least for now.

Next post in series: Coronavirus Diary: Funeral

Series starts at Coronavirus Diary: Introduction

Black Out Tuesday

The Black Out Tuesday social media campaign makes little sense. At best, it’s an easy way for people, brands, organizations, and institutions to express solidarity. But it seems too easy.

Black Out Tuesday is a handy excuse for some people, especially white people, to avoid the necessary difficult conversations about race at the precise moment when those talks are most important. At the same time, perhaps some people, especially black people, need a break from the barrage of messages about George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, the Coronavirus crisis’ disproportionate toll on black people, and the President and some of the news media twisting all those stories to defend the racist systems underpinning “America.”

Even if grief moves people to engage in Black Out Tuesday, I hope others remember earlier messages in this current protest movement, such as “silence=violence.” So, today seems the perfect day to raise my voice. Below are links to my work on race, starting with a piece that explains the childhood roots of today’s message, followed by others roughly in reverse chronological order.

Comment on Donald Sterling and Doc Rivers
Opinion and memoir of my childhood in race and sports
Positive Coaching Alliance Blog, 4/28/14

I #RunWithMaud
Commentary, video and shoutouts for the reasons I ran

Speaking of Donald Trump
Video and poem used to introduce my poetry class to middle-school students I teach within the Citizen Schools program

Long Shot: Conversation with Craig Hodges
Video interview of former Chicago Bulls star and activist and author

Voices We Need to Hear
On watching “Black Panther” and the importance of black voices in media

First and Lasting Visions of the Late Jimmy Webb
Remembrance of my friend from Sojourn to the Past, an original “foot soldier” on the Bloody Sunday march over Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge (includes Jimmy’s hilarious remark from the pulpit at Oakland’s First African Methodist Episcopal at the 2:55 mark of this recording).

Our Sojourn
Narrative and photos from a journey with Sojourn to the Past, the civil rights education nonprofit

Speaking of Donald Trump

At the start of a Citizen Schools semester, we Citizen Teachers pitch the students on the Apprenticeship we will lead. Above is my pitch for my Poetry Apprenticeship.

Speaking of Donald Trump

Have you heard the new word
From absurd orange bird?

The cock of the walk
Who can squawk
But can’t talk

Who frowns
On the brown
Holds them down
What a clown

Whose wall-building bombast
Blasts outcasts
He thinks he outclasses
But can’t outlast

Vile defiler,
The liar, denier
Of climate fire
Heats our air
Doesn’t care
It’s not fair

We can’t bear
But we swear
We will tear
Your orange hair
If you dare to declare
You are heir to the rare

You are square
So prepare
And beware our despair
When it’s time to compare
We’re the real billionaires

Front Row at the Shitshow

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Athletes’ autographs long ago lost their meaning for me. But authors’ autographs still have value, as though the signature itself, and perhaps a personal note based on a moment’s discussion, affirms my connection to the writer’s work.

“There There” by Tommy Orange is such a work. You’ll never read anything else like the brilliant, brutal 10-page prologue, which alone stands as capital L Literature, crashing the canon with its naked depiction of all that has befallen Native Americans.

The San Francisco Public Library named “There There” its One City One Book selection for 2019. The library’s website says, “One City One Book: San Francisco Reads is an annual citywide literary event that encourages members of the San Francisco community to read the same book at the same time and then discuss it in book groups and at events throughout the City. By building bridges between communities and generations through the reading and, most importantly, the discussion of one book, we hope to help to make reading a lifelong pursuit and to build a more literate society.”

I couldn’t wait to discuss this book with Tommy Orange. He so thoroughly inhabited all dozen or so of his chapter-named protagonists that the chance to ask him how he did it could supplant a lifetime of learning how to write.

Held in conjunction with Litquake, the event was scheduled for the library’s main branch on Wednesday, October 16 at 6 p.m. Given the mass public’s appreciation for literature and concern with the Native American plight, plus the sidewalks near the library being littered with needles and human feces, I figured I could show up and get my book signed at 5:59.

But all seats were filled, and so were the aisles until the ushers said we could sit on the floor at the foot of the stage. After some pomp and circumstance, the MC introduced San Francisco Poet Laureate Kim Shuck, herself a Cherokee citizen, “in conversation with Tommy Orange.”

Minutes later, it was apparent that this event was no book group writ large. Between long silences and Kim wondering aloud what to talk about, it was an awkward, meandering non-conversation, covering such topics as their discomfort on-stage.

An audience member raised her hand and was called upon. She rose from her seat to suggest they discuss the book. “That’s some privilege,” said a voice from over my shoulder.

Tommy Orange asked her what she wanted to know. She mentioned that the book’s prologue was hard to read and wondered why he chose to write it that way. His head collapsed into his open palm.

Someone else asked if he could repeat the question. “No,” he answered. “We don’t need to repeat the question. Her privilege is showing, and she just needs to cover it up.”

The woman who asked the question and some others who looked like her left the building. While we waited for what was next, another woman raised her hand and was called on. She chastised the author, saying he had “shat” on the first woman. Tommy Orange asked for a moment of silence in memory of those women’s shattered beliefs and “Please, no more white hands raised.”

A few more people walked out. I felt criminal for being white, which kept me mindful of how everyone red — or yellow or black or brown — had suffered so much more for their skin. I genuinely wanted to discuss the book, but if Tommy Orange did not, that was his privilege, and of course it should not be my privilege to determine his privilege. That was part of the point of his book.

For another forgettable hour, the authors muddled through until the MC mercifully called time. I learned little of what I’d hoped to know, but I thought a lot. I thanked Tommy Orange for that from my seat in the front row of the shitshow, and I asked him not what I wanted to know but simply to sign his book.

Long Shot: Conversation with Craig Hodges

The loudest noise I ever heard rose in a roar toward the top row of the old Chicago Stadium, thanks to a dagger to the heart of the hated Pistons from the hand of Hodge late in game one of the 1991 NBA Eastern Conference Finals. More than a quarter century later, Craig Hodges makes news and noise of even greater importance.

In Long Shot: The Triumphs and Struggles of an NBA Freedom Fighter, Hodge recalls his life of activism — fully woke from the jump — that led to his being blackballed from basketball. Following Hodge’s appearance on a panel discussion at the Socialism2017 conference in Chicago, we sat for this interview, thanks to Long Shot publisher Haymarket Books.


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