Monday Madness [Friendship]

¡Hola! Everybody,
Yeah, it’s Tuesday, but it feels like a Monday to me. I was born on a Monday, so it can’t be ALL bad!

I wrote the following a while back and was reminded when the progressive campaign of presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, asked, “Are you willing to fight for someone you don’t know?”

During the Great Depression, it seemed as if the people of the United States adopted the attitude of helping one another — of paying it forward. After WWII, however, it seems we have become a nation more obsessed in our individual self interests.

* * *

11-05-19_ Friendship

Friendship and community are, first of all, inner qualities.
— Henri J. M. Nouwen

 

Real friendship begins as an inner quality or attitude before it can be expressed outwardly. As a young man, I wasn’t careful about who I chose as companions because I always thought I was too fiercely independent to be affected by others. Not true… Oh yeah, I was independent enough, but the power of the group should never be underestimated, my friends.

My father used to tell me “If you hang around the barbershop long enough, you will eventually get a haircut.” I didn’t fully understand what he meant at the time, but he was expressing an old truth about “birds of a feather… ” For Puerto Ricans it’s “Dirme con quien anda, y te dire quien tu eres… ”

As a young teen at 14, I sought friendship and popularity as a way of validating myself because I felt small inside. My response was to create a persona I thought people would like: humorous, crazy, charismatic, outrageous, fashionable. It worked! During high school and after, I was one of the “popular” kids, becoming part of the “in crowd” setting trends, and defining an experience. To this day, I still get people I don’t recognize coming up to me as if I know them.

But this all came at the price of losing my true self. Moreover, staying popular was work — there are rules, you know. Eventually, I would break all those rules, but by then I was too popular to escape the popularity. Breaking the rules became part of my mystique — the basis for even more popularity!

LOL!!! Ahhhh… to be young…

Today I realize how fortunate I am because I can count many, many true friends. People who have been there for me through the years in good times and bad, who tell me what I need to hear rather than what I want to hear, and who accept me as I am — a deeply flawed but loving man. These are people who help me be me, and not just the “celebrity” Eddie who is fun to be with, and who does and says outrageous things, but also the introspective — dare I say even shy(?!?!) — Eddie who cares deeply about the world.

Truth be told, I like to say I’m a “people person” but I’m really not. I’ll never forget the day my mother turned to me while we were watching the Jack Nicholson movie, As Good as it Gets, and said, “That’s you!!!” — referring to the Jack Nicholson character. Not the obsessive/ compulsive part about the germs, but the character’s penchant for saying and doing things everyone else is only thinking. LMAO! I could be mean at times. Today, I like myself a lot better than I used to, but there is a dark side lurking in here somewhere.

But to get back to my point: it is through relationships and community that we create and recreate ourselves. If we can create a space, both psychological and “real,” in which we can accept ourselves in a community or web of relationships that will accept us also, anything is possible. Ever notice how sticking to an exercise program is easier if you have a partner? Imagine building a community like that — where the participants involved encourage you to be the “best person you can be” on a daily basis and accept you when you fall short (and you will). Some people are quicker to latch on to the negative and create a Jerry Springer-like atmosphere. These very same people are the first to point out the pathetic quality of such an atmosphere, but the true irony is they are the perpetrators. They define themselves in terms of negativity. It’s all they know.

I am fortunate, I belong to a group of men and women who love me for me and who encourage me to realize who I am. The thing is that we can all do that, every moment of the day. Whether you are stuck in a traffic jam or walking down the street, this kind of life exists only as a possibility until you grab the opportunity by the throat and decide to be part of this insane world.

True friendship should exist as a mutual feeling of admiration, unconditional love, and a desire for fellowship. It should exist without demand. Sure, there are times some of my friends “fail” me in my expectations of them, but they’re human too — they are bound to disappointment me! LOL Shit, I sure ain’t no walk in the park.

The important thing is whether we can love each other unconditionally and without malice. Maybe one more aspect about friendship is to accept another’s friendship without trying to change him or her. That’s always an obstacle because sometimes our feelings make us believe we want one thing over another…

My name is Eddie and I’m in Recovery from civilization…

Obedience to Authority

Obedience to Authority

john_moore_crying_toddler_image

John Moore’s June 2018 photograph of a two-year-old Honduran girl watching her mother get searched near the U.S-Mexico border is up for World Press Photo of the Year.
John Moore/Getty Images

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.
— Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority

Looking at the above picture earlier today brought me to tears and they weren’t simply tears of sadness or grief — there was a lot of anger in those tears. Many will ask how as a nation we have arrived at such cruelty. Of course there are those who will say, “Well, her mother shouldn’t have taken such a perilous journey,” ignoring the fact that it was the US that destabilized the Honduran government to such a degree that it’s the murder/ rape capital of the world.

The question should be: how can such evil exist? Actually if you really want to know where that evil comes from, all you have to do is look in the mirror… we have found the monster and it is us.

Anyone who has taken any psych 101 course will have heard of Stanley Milgram, who shocked the world in the early 1960s with his discoveries at Yale while conducting what became known as the obedience experiments. In brief, he found that average, presumably normal, groups of residents of New Haven, Connecticut, would readily inflict very painful, and even deadly, electric shocks on an innocent victim whose actions did not merit such harsh treatment.

The experiment, supposedly dealing with the effects of punishment on learning, required that the subjects shock a learner every time he made an error on a verbal learning task, and to increase the intensity of the shock in 15-voly steps, from 15 to 450 volts, on each subsequent error (the “shock machine” was a fake, with actors playing the tortured learners in a separate room). The results: 65% of the subjects continued to obey the experimenter to the end, simply because he commanded them to.

Groundbreaking and controversial, these experiments have had enduring relevance, because they demonstrated with stunning clarity that ordinary individuals could be induced by an authority figure to act destructively, even in the absence of physical force, and that it didn’t take evil or aberrant individuals to carry out mass actions that were immoral and inhumane.

Milgram’s findings have had the effect of making us more aware of our malleability in the face of social pressure, in the process making us reshape our individual morality. While I’m sure most of you reading this would like to think that when confronted with a similar moral dilemma we would act in line with our conscience. However, Milgram’s experiments taught us — in shocking, irrefutable detail — that, in a concrete situation containing powerful social pressures, our moral sense can become trampled underfoot.

And this is how evil happens, we allow evil to happen through acquiescence, obedience, and not wanting to “rock the boat.” This how Black and Brown children get gunned down by police or corrections officers brutalize incarcerated people. This is how the twin Black and Jewish holocausts and the genocide of First Nation people are allowed to happen. This is how countless immigrant children are rounded up like animals, separated from their parents, and put in cages – many of whom (thousands!) are subsequently psychological traumatized and sexually abused.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

 

Sunday Sermon [The Long Farewell]

Hola mi gente,
In Western culture we tend to live our lives as if death doesn’t exist…

Lost Horizon

12-08-16_-lost-horizon-grief

A teacher once taught me the following lesson…

In the days before airplane travel became common, people traveled long distances on huge, ocean-going passenger ships. When a ship was about to cast off, the passengers would line the ship’s deck facing the pier, on which their friends and family stood. As the ship’s horn sounded its departure, travelers and their assembled loved ones would wave to one another. They would wave, blow kisses, and shout out their farewells and good wishes.

After a while, the ship would be too far away to distinguish who was who in that great mass of passengers, but they still waved and gazed. A few minutes later, they would remain on the pier looking at the slowly disappearing ship.

Eventually, the ship would reach the horizon and disappear completely. Yet, even though those assembled on shore could not see their loved ones anymore, let alone speak with or touch them, they knew they had not disappeared totally. They had just passed over a defining line — the horizon — that separates us from what is beyond. They knew that they would see them again.

This can be a metaphor for what happens when those close to us pass on. If we are lucky, we can be by their side as they transition, embracing them and saying our last goodbyes. They go off into that ocean journey that is death. They fade away from us. Eventually they reach the horizon, the defining line that separates this life from what lies beyond. After they have passed that line, we cannot see them anymore, let alone speak with them or touch them, but we know they have not totally disappeared. They have only passed over a line that separates us from our reality.

That lesson had a profound effect on me. I have come to believe that our lives are like a grand symphony and when a symphony is done do we lament its ending, or do we applaud its grandness? I have learned that those we love only cease to exist once our memory of them fades. In this way, those close to us who have transitioned live on as the reverberations of their actions continue to affect our lives.

So, yes, acknowledge the pain of loss because that too is real and must be honored. Remember, however, that the well that is filled with your tears is also the same well from which your laughter and joy rises.

And how else can it be?

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

The Hiroshima Maidens

Hola everybody,
Today is the 73rd anniversary of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On August 6, 1945, in Hiroshima, Japan, the United States dropped the first of two nuclear bombs, becoming the only country to use a nuclear weapon on civilians. In early 2016, this incident garnered some interest as President Obama, the first US president to visit Hiroshima since the bombing, called for nuclear disarmament. Despite his call for an end to nuclear weapons, his administration had been quietly upgrading its nuclear arsenal to create smaller, more precise nuclear bombs as part of a massive effort that will cost up to $1 trillion over three decades. The Trump administration has taken this foundation as its approach to international relations and has completely dismissed nuclear treaties.

I first came to know the truth about Hiroshima and Nagasaki when I returned to school and discovered the Hiroshima Maidens…

The Hiroshima Maidens

05-30-16_ Hiroshima Maidens (MAD)

The Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil/ Hiroshima Maidens, 60″x80″, oil on canvass/ wood, 20031

 

The Hiroshima Maidens was a group of twenty-five Japanese women who were horribly disfigured as young women as a result of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima on the morning of August 6, 1945. They dedicated their lives to telling the story of the Hiroshima bombings and the horror of nuclear war.

My curiosity piqued after listening to their talk while I was in college, I investigated further and what I discovered was not pretty. The accepted rationale for Hiroshima and Nagasaki has been that if the atomic bomb had not been used, the war would have continued and more lives would have been lost. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Many nations have tested nuclear weapons, but only one has ever used them. That nation, of course, is the United States; the bombs it dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 incinerated more than 100,000 residents and left perhaps twice that number dying slowly from radiation poisoning. However, politicians at the time and conventional historians still maintain that those acts were justified. Short of a full-scale invasion of Japan, its leaders would not have been convinced to surrender, and that, the reasoning goes, would have resulted in an even higher death toll.

How many lives would have been lost in such an invasion is not clear. While President Truman threw around figures from 500,000 to one million, at least one historian wrote that the figures the military planners projected put the number at between 20,000 to 46,000. However, the disturbing issue here is not the discrepancy in numbers, but the fact that neither an invasion nor a nuclear attack was necessary to make Japan surrender.

By June of 1945, whole-scale bombing of Japan’s six largest cities had substantially wiped out Japan’s infrastructure and countless lives. In March of that year, as many as one million Tokyo residents were left homeless from the bombing raids. No oil shipments were getting into the country, which was utterly dependent on foreign oil, and by late that July, 90 percent of Japanese merchant shipping was destroyed.

While it is true that some Japanese factions were resisting the notion of surrender, the leaders in charge were on the verge of calling it quits. The only point deterring surrender was the Japanese concern that the emperor be allowed to maintain his title. The US forces, of course, eventually accepted this condition.

A US government report issued in 1946 concluded that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs did not cause a Japanese surrender. The report cited documentation that as early as May 1945, Japanese leaders had decided that the war be ended even if it meant complete acceptance of Allied terms. The document cites the conclusion that Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped and even if no invasion had been planned or completed.

Another 1946 document, a recently discovered secret intelligence study by the army’s top planning and operations group, came to the same conclusion: an invasion “would not have been necessary” and the A-bomb was not decisive in ending the war.

This view wasn’t some radical lefty bullshit; key military leaders echoed it. “The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender… In being the first to use [the atomic bomb] we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages,” said William D. Leahy, who was the president’s Chief of Staff and the nation’s senior military officer. The same opinion was offered by Dwight D. Eisenhower and Winston Churchill. As you can see, these were conservative people. Indeed, Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, went public with this statement: “The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace… The atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military standpoint, in the defeat of Japan.”

This isn’t hindsight as these assessments were known by US policy makers before they chose to drop the bombs. In fact, in July, American intelligence had intercepted a cable from Japanese foreign Minister Shigenori Togo to his ambassador in Moscow that referred to “His Majesty’s strong desire to secure a termination of the war… ”

There was no attempt on behalf of the Truman administration to demand surrender. No show of power by, say, dropping the bomb on an unpopulated island. There was no careful consideration. This wasn’t the act of last resort. So, if there was no true imperative to drop the bombs then why?

There are several theories, but the one I adhere to is that the US was about enter an unprecedented position of leadership in most of the post-war world and a demonstration of nuclear might was intended more for the Soviets than anything else. It was a show of power to the Soviets, a nation the US military feared. In fact, that the second bomb was made from plutonium, and not uranium as the first one, suggests that the Japanese people were the subject of a gruesome scientific experiment. The bombs were more of an opening shot in a Cold War predicated on the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD)2 that would last for decades.

I write all this because we should never forget. We all should know all those innocent men, women, and children didn’t need to die, as those in power would have us believe.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

Notes:

  1. The central image of this painting is a representation of The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The side panels were taken from displays in the Hiroshima Peace Museum showing the aftermath of the nuclear bombing of that city.
  2. Mutually assured destruction based on the theory of deterrence, which holds that the threat of using strong weapons against the enemy prevents the enemy’s use of those same weapons.

Resources

Alperovitz, G. (1995) The decision to use the atomic bomb and the architecture of an American myth. (New York: Knopf) [link]

Zinn, H. (1991). A people’s history of the United States: 1492-present. New York: Perennial Classics. [link]

Loewen, J. W. (1995). Lies my teacher told me: Everything your American history textbook got wrong New York: Touchstone Books. [link]

 

Affirmative Action is White

Hola Everybody…
I wrote the bulk of the following a couple of years ago. I revisit it in light of the college entrance exam “scandal” that recently came up. Hint: it’s not a scandal, it’s how things have been for centuries.

The Curious History of Race Preferences

Affiramtive Action

Their leaders seem more intent on vying with blacks for permanent victim status than on seeking recognition for genuine progress by Hispanics over the last three decades.
— Linda Chavez on Latinx people

 

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you no doubt have heard of the college admissions scandal that laid bare the elaborate lengths some wealthy parents will go to get their children into competitive American universities. In fact, federal prosecutors charged 50 financial elites on Tuesday in a brazen scheme to buy spots in the freshman classes at Yale, Stanford, and other big-name schools. In one instance, a teenage girl who did not play soccer mysteriously became a stellar soccer recruit at Yale. Cost to her parents: $1.2 million. All this reminds me of the decades-long anti-affirmative action attacks against affirmative action. Conservatives would have us think that Blacks, Latinx, and other people of color, are looking for handouts and preferential treatment. Ironically, it is they who have benefited professionally and financially by trading on their own white privilege.

Remember Abigail Fisher (aka Becky with the bad grades)? Using this same line of attack, Fisher1 filed suit against a Texas university which was eventually heard by a SCOTUS that ruled against her. Conservatives claim that segregation was defeated and white racism almost completely eradicated after Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Her defenders go as far as saying that it has been liberals that have derailed civil rights progress. I call those who deny the quantifiable reality of racism racial conservatives.

You might know of Linda Chavez. She once testified against Supreme Court Judge Sotomayor (who is of Puerto Rican descent) during Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings. Chavez has a particular dislike for Latinx in general and specifically for Puerto Ricans, but I will not explore that today. What you might not remember is that Chavez had to step down as a nominee for Labor of Secretary under the catastrophe known as the Bush II administration because, yes, she hired an undocumented Latina immigrant. She denied knowing said individual was here illegally though the person in question contradicted that denial. Later, Chavez herself would issue an admission of sorts and forced by her boss, Bush II, to step down.

It is interesting to note in light of this more recent “scandal” that racial conservatives would have us believe the United States has made more progress in removing racial barriers than liberals will acknowledge. The shift began, they argue, during the 1950s. And when the Civil Rights movement succeeded in abolishing Jim Crow, white racism had all but withered away. As a result, at least according to Chavez and her masters, affirmative action programs are unnecessary and in fact are a form of “reverse racism.”

Ironically, the current debate over race-based solutions assumes that the only beneficiaries of these policies are blacks and other racial minorities. In fact, the biggest affirmative action winners are white women. However, if we define affirmative action as “race and gender preferences codified into law and enforced through public policy and social customs,” then it is indeed strange and peculiar to suggest that affirmative action began when in 1963 President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 10925. Taking the above definition, often cited by opponents of affirmative action such as those who supported Fisher, it would be more accurate to mark the beginning date for this legal policy as 1641. That is when laws specifying rights to property, ownership of goods and services, and the right to vote, restricted by race and gender, were first enacted. In 1790, Congress formally restricted citizenship by naturalization to “white persons,” a restriction that would stay in place until 1952.

Understood in this way, affirmative action has been in effect for 367 years, not 40+ years. For the first 330 years, the deck was legally stacked on behalf of whites and males (Fredrickson, 1988). Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, in Dred Scot, didn’t mince his words when he said: “Can a negro, whose ancestors were imported to this country, and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community, formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all rights, and privileges, and immunities guaranteed by that instrument?” Justice Taney’s answer to his own question leaves no doubt. We the people, he stated, was never intended to include blacks, slave or free. The authority cited by Taney in his ruling? The Constitution, the courts at every level, the federal government, and the states — all having routinely denied blacks equal access to rights of citizenship (Harding, 1983).

It follows, then, that from the inception of the United States, wealth and institutional support have been invested on the white side of the color line. This preference, in turn, has led to an accumulation of economic and social advantages for European Americans. On the black side, it has resulted in the systemic exclusion of equal access to economic and social benefits, leading to a disaccumulation for blacks. When Kennedy issued Executive Order 10925 in 1963, he was simply attempting to pry open the doors that had been sealed shut for more than three centuries. Now, after only four decades of “racial and gender preferences,” racial conservatives have launched a largely successful attack against affirmative action programs that were instituted to reverse three hundred years of disinvestment in black communities. Yet when power and wealth were being invested on their side of the color line, white Americans registered hardly any opposition to the arrangement, nor do racial conservatives acknowledge this historical fact (Steinberg, 1995).

As some have noted, the real victims in this case are the hardworking students who don’t have the financial resources and normally attend sub-par schools who were displaced in the admissions process by far less qualified students and their families who simply bought their way in.

I will add that if you’re angry about the college cheating scandal, wait until you discover that public school budgets are determined by local property taxes and that the privileged cordon themselves off into “gated communities” in order to hoard resources from poor communities of who are inflicted with the savage inequality of subpar schools and predatory charters.

We don’t have to go back three hundred years to find the roots of current white privilege. We can look at more recent policies that have been instrumental to racial inequality. But that’s for another post…

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

References

Fredrickson, G. (1988). The arrogance of race. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Harding, V. (1983). There is a river: The black struggle for freedom in America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Steinberg, S. (1995). Turning back: The retreat from racial justice in American thought and policy. Boston: Beacon Press.

Notes:

  1. Though Fisher claimed she didn’t get in the school because African-American students with lower grades and test scores were admitted, her mediocre grades would have disallowed her from being admitted either way. Of the 47 students that were admitted with grades lower than hers, 42 of them were white. On top of that, 168 black and Latino applicants who had better grades than Fisher were also turned down, according to ProPublica.

Redemption Song

Hola mi Gente,
I usually post this around this time of year… because it never fails, someone will tell me that reading the following helped them, or they shared it with someone they thought it could help. So… here goes.

06-21-17_-dependent-origination_-002

My life is my message

 

The cliché that life is stranger than fiction is true enough. And believe me: my life has been pretty much strange. Thanksgiving Day has its own personal meaning for me, as I am certain it does for everyone. Actually, Thanksgiving Day has layers of meaning.

On one level, my development as a person of the Puerto Rican diaspora was marked by holidays that were always an opportunity to celebrate our music, our unique forms of dancing, and kinship ties. Therefore, we Puerto Ricans — or at least my family and the community I was raised in — subverted the mythical (actually genocidal) Thanksgiving and give it our own meaning. And as humans, that’s what we do best, we create meaning.

Thanksgiving Day is also now primarily identified as a secular all-inclusive day of expressing appreciation for life and having gratitude for the things we need to live a happy and healthy life. As a Latino, the cultural values of extended family ties and Thanksgiving evoke childhood memories of large (and often hilariously insane) family get-togethers.

However, for me Thanksgiving holds its most significant meaning on a very personal level. You see, it was on this day twenty-eight years ago that I experienced the first of a series of awakenings that would drastically change my life. The exact date is November 26, 1990 and it often happens that it falls on or near Thanksgiving Day. A couple of weeks before that fateful day, on a cold, drizzly November day, I was so overcome with despair that I considered and attempted suicide. It is actually a little funny: As I climbed over the rail on the Brooklyn Bridge’s pedestrian walk (it’s not easy to jump off that damned bridge), I was so skinny from malnutrition and years of substance abuse that a strong Nor’easter wind knocked me back on my ass on to the pedestrian walkway. I saw this inability to take myself off the count as the ultimate failure which gives you an idea of my state of mind at the time.

I walked away from that only to opt for a more torturous suicide: the daily act of chasing heroin. Ensnared by my warped thinking, I had this fear that I would botch up my own suicide and merely succeed in paralyzing myself, condemning myself to pursue drugs from the disadvantage of a wheelchair. In fact, I remember another addict who was in a wheelchair. I decided I would make someone else put myself out of my misery.

And though I speak lightly today of that time, I was so miserable. I do not believe in a God in the traditional Christian/ Judeo sense — an anthropomorphic omnipotent super being. Yet back then I would pray each night that some Higher Power would find it in its mercy to take my life me my sleep. Still, every day I awoke to my pain and despair. I would always wake up sick and broke, but somehow manage to spend $300 by the end of the day, feeding a merciless heroin habit.

If you are wondering, eventually I would feed my drug habit by ripping off drug-dealers, never a safe proposition. One day a victim of one of my swindles threatened me with a gun. I grabbed the gun by the barrel, put it to my forehead, and begged him to shoot. All I asked was that he made sure to kill me because, “You would be doing me a favor, motherfucker.” This occurred in broad daylight in the middle of a crowded New York City street. I remember a crowd forming and people screaming; but what I remember most was thinking that this was my way out. “Do it,” I yelled. He pulled the trigger and…

Nothing happened.

I don’t know if the gun jammed or if it wasn’t loaded, whatever the reason, the gun failed to discharge. My would-be “assistant suicider” freaked out, yanked the gun from my hands, and walked away. I called after him, letting him know he could get another chance. That’s how much I wanted to die. And again, I thought, I could do nothing right.

That wasn’t the worst of it, my life continued to bottom out until November 26th, 1990 when I experienced an incident so traumatic it would change me and my world in an inexplicable way. Actually, most people would consider the events that transpired on that cold, dreary November day as a defeat. Very simply, after being released from New York City’s infamous jail, Rikers Island, for exactly fourteen days, I was re-arrested. It was also that last day of my active addiction — the last day I took a drug.

I didn’t know it then but it was the beginning of a new life: a life that today is far from perfect, that has suffering, illness, death – the full catastrophe of life — but also encompasses an invincible of joy at its core. This is part of the reason I do the work that I do. I know from personal experience that even the worst of us have the potential to liberate ourselves from socially constructed or self-made prisons. And let me be clear: we’re all “doing time” in some way, we all wear shackles. To a degree, we all enact patterns of behavior or carry the proverbial baggage.

No, I am not a religious person. My personal view is that religion is for people who are afraid of hell and spirituality is for those who have already been there. I simply try to be the best person I can be on a daily basis and oftentimes I fall short of the mark. However, my intentions are usually good and my direction somewhat orderly. I try to live a life centered on compassion for others, personal growth, self-actualization, and passion for social change.

On that day, twenty-eight ago, I had no way of knowing of the possibility of life as it has manifested itself for me today. These past few years have been challenging. Some of that that had to do with being unemployed. At one point, I almost lost all my property in storage, my cellphone had been cut off, I was living with my sister… well, you get the idea. Even now, my living situation is still tenuous though I have been working at well-paying job for some time. Yet, I still managed to maintain some measure of sanity and actually maintain some serenity. In the midst of all my problems, I never picked up a drug and was even able to find some measure of happiness. It’s a happiness independent of any person, place, or thing. On the surface I can be sad, happy, angry, disappointed, depressed, disgusted — I can be experiencing any number of attachments — but at the center, at the very core of me, there is an invincible joy greater than any drug-induced high I have ever experienced. And believe me, coming from me, that’s saying a lot.

On that day twenty-eight years ago, sitting there in the midst of total failure and utter humiliation, I came undone. And that was a good thing, because in experiencing complete obliteration I became open to something more than my small self. In emptying myself, I came to see that what I perceived as a void was in reality my innate and boundless potential as a human being.

I am genuinely grateful. As I said before, I have experienced sadness, frustration, happiness, love, rejection—all of it. I could easily surmise, if I were so disposed, that my life, that life itself, sucks. But that’s a coward’s lie. Life is a gift — probably the most precious of gifts. My life today is like a redemption song — a song of freedom. And at the very least there is nothing worse (or better) than that fateful day twenty-eight years ago. Today I woke up and I am… here… and for that I am most grateful.

May you all have as much to be thankful for.

My name is Eddie and I am in recovery from civilization…

Thanksgiving with the Rosarios

Hola mi Gente,
The following is something of an annual tradition here at the [un]Common Sense Blog.

Thanksgiving, for reasons I won’t get into now, is one of my favorite times of the year. Yeah, we should call it Thanks-taking for the crimes against our First Nation brothers and sisters. But Puerto Ricans are the ultimate fusionists and we make everything our own. Thanksgiving in our home was a celebration of our culture — our food, our music, and family ties. I love Thanksgiving most of all because all the great childhood memories.

In any case, I love the ritual of breaking bread together and honoring gratitude — giving thanks. I’ve heard it said gratitude and sadness cannot coexist and that’s been my experience. And right now, I need a lot of gratitude, man. And with that, I offer the following story…

Frankenstein’s Turkey

11-23-16_-thanksgiving-with-the-rosarios-frankensteins-turkey

[Note: an animal was harmed in the making of this post]

It really was too much — embarrassing beyond anything. Everybody on that bus was staring at us and the best my uncle could do was laugh that fuckin infectious, jolly laugh of his. He thought it was hilarious and, sensing my embarrassment, he laughed harder, causing the other passengers to stare more intently.

There it was again, a movement from the cause of my embarrassment. You see, in Puerto Rican neighborhoods, it wasn’t uncommon to purchase live poultry from el vivero — a marketplace selling live fowl. Usually that entailed picking or asking for a particular chicken and the proprietor would take it out of its cage, go to the back, and “prepare” it for you.

But this was the day before Thanksgiving and my mother had insisted I accompany my uncle to the nearest vivero to buy a live turkey. At the time we were living in the then mostly African American Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York Avenue (right across the street from the back entrance of the famous Pitkin Theater) and the nearest vivero was a bus ride away. My uncle Onofre, Tío Nofrín as we called him, was already in his cups though it was still early in the day, and he insisted in a live turkey to take home. This was unusual I thought at the time because normally we would tell el vivero to prepare the bird for us. But my uncle insisted we take the fucker live, so el vivero, with a look that seemed somewhat peeved, put the turkey in a large brown paper grocery bag, and off we went. No sooner than we sat down on that crowded bus, the turkey, perhaps sensing this wasn’t going to be a good day, began making a fuss and engaged in repeated and often violent attempts to escape the paper bag. This in turn caused all the passengers to stare, which made my already slightly inebriated uncle to laugh out loud.

He obviously thought it was hilarious, the passengers were alarmed at the tipsy Puerto Rican with a live turkey in a large brown grocery bag, and I wanted to die from embarrassment. You see, part of growing up in a society that sees ones culture as different or alien, is that there’s an internal tension between the very strong pull to assimilate (and escape alienation) and the tug of cultural pride. I was raised to be proud of my Puerto Rican heritage, but I decided that I drew the line at live turkeys on the B60 Wilson bus.

My uncle Nofrín, already a happy-type person sober, became even happier the more he drank. And the happier he got, the more he laughed. He had this patented outburst, “Ayyyy Coo-Coo,” an idiomatic expression that didn’t mean anything except that it usually followed a punch line to a joke/ prank or when something outlandish happened. For example, if grandma fell on her culo in front of everyone, you can be sure Tio Nofrín would follow that up with a hearty, “¡Ayyyy Coo-Coo!” and start cracking up. So here I was with Tio Nofrín, wrestling with a live turkey on a crowded New York City bus laughing his ass off and yelling out, “Ayyyy CooCoo!” every time the turkey attempted to break free of the paper grocery bag. Embarrassing.

But I’ve been a little unfair to you, my dear reader, and I need to backtrack just a little at this point because I’ve started this story at the wrong juncture. This particular Thanksgiving actually began with my sister winning a raffle at the local Catholic Church where we took our weekly catechism classes. The prize? She won a large truckload of groceries. We were so happy! The fact was that, while I can’t say we never starved, there were times when we were growing up that food was scarce. I guess this is what advocates now call “food insecurity.” I know all about food insecurity. For example, “wish sandwiches” (mayo spread on white bread accompanied by a wish for meat) weren’t uncommon in the Rosario household and it was rare that we had enough capital to do food shopping for a whole week. My mother often had to scrape up dinner on a day-to-day basis. So the prospect of having a whole truckload of groceries was something my siblings and I saw, as Martha Stewart would say, “A good thing.”

My mother is a proud woman. Even as a child, I often marveled at how my mother could walk down the worst ghetto street and still manage to appear regal. To borrow the South African phrase (used in the Paul Simon song), my mother walked as if she had diamonds on the soles of her shoes. She had a way of holding herself, an attitude, so natural it didn’t offend people. People just assumed she was entitled to that regal bearing. She walked straight, with perfect posture, and her manner, though imposing, was unaffected: head held high, her perfectly sculpted nose, and those cheekbones to die for, adding a sublime beauty to that imperial pose. When she barked out an order, people listened and though she was in actuality a petite and small woman, she always seemed taller than her actual size. And while it was true we were poor, my mother would dress us in the best clothes — clothes bought at a fraction of their original price at used clothing stores and Salvation Army centers located near upscale neighborhoods. And she taught us to walk in that same way. In fact, to slouch in front of my mother was sacrilegious.

That’s why, perhaps, when my mother saw all these groceries being carted into our third-floor tenement walk-up, she became enraged thinking it was charity. She managed to insult the priest and was about to order the delivery boys out of her house before we could convince her that my sister had won all that food in a raffle.

So what did my mother do? Did she squirrel away the food, making sure we would have groceries for, like, evah? No! First, she gave away two of the (three) Butterball Turkeys to neighbors in bad straits and then proceeded to call all of our tribe for a big, family Thanksgiving dinner.

And that’s when she charged my uncle and me to “go get a turkey from el vivero. When we finally arrived with the live turkey, a great clamor ensued. First, my mother wanted to know what had gotten into my uncle that he would be crazy enough to bring a live turkey to her house. Her instructions were clear, she enunciated in tones usually reserved for intellects hovering at the idiot level. I feared she would task us with returning the damned thing, but then my grandmother insisted that she could “prepare” the turkey. After all, my grandmother reasoned, she had been raised in small Puerto Rican town, and slaughtering and preparing food wasn’t something foreign to her.

A quick, impromptu family meeting was held in order to decide how to go about preparing the turkey and soon a full-scale heated debate broke out which culminated in my grandmother rushing out, grabbing the poor turkey by the neck, and spinning it violently above her shoulder. According to my grandmother, this was a sure-fire way of killing the turkey, a technique apparently used for generations in Salinas, the town she was born and raised.

Unfortunately for the turkey, this twisting only resulted in a wicked crook in its neck, which became immediately noticeable as soon as my grandmother let go as it started running wildly around the apartment seeking a way out of its predicament. I felt so bad I almost opened the door for it, but the turkey was doomed, and with his neck now at a right angle to its body, I doubt it would’ve been able to exploit an escape opportunity even if it recognized it. At this point, half the family was in determined pursuit of our potential meal and the other, younger half was screaming traumatized. I’m sure some of my cousins still have nightmares of screaming turkeys with crooked necks. The only one who was clearly enjoying himself was Tío Nofrín who was yelling out “¡Ayyyy Coo-Coo!” as he joined in the chase of the wayward turkey.

Eventually, someone caught up to the turkey and it was then decided that the best, most merciful course of action would be to slit its throat, an action that my stepfather, Vincent, promptly committed. However, all this accomplished was that the turkey, resuming its valiant quest for life, ran spraying great splotches of turkey blood everywhere. More screams ensued from the children. Eventually, the turkey was finally subdued and apparently murdered and a large pot of water was set to boiling in order to plunge the turkey in for the removal of its feathers. No sooner than the turkey was plunged into the boiling water that it quickly jumped out and again made one last attempt at life. This time, everyone was traumatized, screaming in horror. Finally, my grandmother, clearly upset at losing face when her fool-proof turkey killing technique was shown to be ineffective, grabbed the poor fellow, and with one last pull on its deformed and mutilated neck, finished him off.

Suffice it to say the turkey no longer gave anyone trouble and before you knew it, it was de-feathered and prepared in the pavo-chon Puerto Rican style (a turkey that tastes like a lechon). Soon all the aunts, all high-strung drama queens and creative culinary geniuses, were busy preparing the dishes they were best known for (and getting on each other’s last nerves in the process) and the rest of the family settled in for fun and games.

You have to understand that I come from a family of cheaters. For example, my grandmother, bless her soul, was a notorious card cheat. Mind you, she wasn’t a good or adept card cheat, in fact, she was quite bad at it. But a card cheat she was, and in our family cheating at games is actually allowed. What isn’t allowed is being caught at cheating (the sole exception to this rule being my grandmother). People who marry into our family have a difficult time understanding our ethics, but I assure you we have our moral standards, they’re just somewhat nuanced and, well… “complicated.”

We’re also a family comedians and pranksters and if you happen to commit a gaffe, or do something particularly embarrassing, you will forever be associated with that action/ event. For example, one friend of the family had the tenacity to stick her finger into some food an aunt was preparing and she was quickly chastised with a whack to the head with a large metal ladle. From then on she was known as “La Lambia” — the greedy or starved one. I have an aunt who’s predisposed to exaggeration (actually she’s compulsive liar) and part of “family fun” was asking her questions about events we all knew she would exaggerate and then make fun of her for her exaggerations. One part of the family, my mother’s sister’s brood, were known for their bad tempers and were called the “Pissed Offs.” Another part of the clan was called the “Mini Munchkins” because they were all short.

Individuals were similarly stigmatized. For example, I was affectionately known as mal tiempo. Literally translated as “bad time,” it is a phrase normally used to describe natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods.

One of my sisters was called “La Princesa” (The Princess) because of her beauty and pretentious airs. Also, if you were an unfortunate victim of an accident, that too was fodder for humor. One cousin, who accidentally shot himself in the foot, was ragged on for that for years. Even something as mundane as taking a shower during family get-togethers was fraught with danger, as a cousin would invariably rush in with a Polaroid camera to snap a picture, or a brother or mother would dump a pail of iced water on an unsuspecting bather.

Suffice it to say that fun and games in my family was in actuality an excuse to engage in all manner boundary trespassing, psychological torment, cheating, hysterical and inappropriate demonstrations of affection and anger, and ridiculing. And you know what? It was hilarious! As long as you weren’t the butt of the joke, of course. And every year, there would be a different theme and a different butt of the holiday joke.

So here it was Thanksgiving Eve and the music was blaring, the home warm with all the cooking, fogging the windows, and you could smell all the great food being prepared. Family members were all engaged in the joyful activities of family holidays when the men decided they would all venture on a “Boy’s Night Out” outing, much to the expressed dissatisfaction of the women. One of my earliest lessons as a young man was that one should never anger the women on my mother’s side of the family, for they are a ferocious group of women-warriors. In any case, the men went out and they took me along with them because they wanted to school me in the ways of men. Going out, for the men, meant going somewhere where there was liquor, loose women, and illegal gambling. Apparently, being man meant being able to hold your liquor, no matter how much of it you imbibed, and demonstrating your virility by flirting with/ picking up women my mother would kill for even thinking of looking at me.

And this particular night, the night before Thanksgiving, there was a lot of gambling going on. At first, my stepfather, Vincent, was making a killing. One thing though, while sober, Vincent was a model of stability, however, once inebriated, he lost all self-control. Instead of quitting while he was ahead, he instead lost all his winnings and his paycheck to boot. This I knew was bad news, but Vincent was beyond listening to my appeals. Eventually, he convinced my uncles to lend him money and in that way help him win his money back, and he went on another winning streak, only to commit the same error, managing to lose the money loaned by my uncles.

It was 5 AM in the morning before the men began to sober up and come to the realization that they would eventually have to go back home to a group of assuredly angry Puerto Rican women waiting for them. So they came up with the following plan: they decided it was best for me to go upstairs first in order to scope out the situation. No sooner that I walked into the apartment that I realized things were worse than even I expected. Most of the women were sitting at the kitchen table silently seething, waiting for the men to return. You could actually see the waves of anger emanating off their bodies, distorting the air like heat waves.

I went back downstairs and dutifully gave my status report and most of the men balked at going upstairs, thinking (quite wisely), discretion was the better part of valor. But Vincent, who seemed to not have sobered, guffawed, got out of the car, and with a swagger announced he would show everyone who wore the pants in his home and proceeded upstairs. I followed, fearing the worst.

There was this long flight of stairs that reached up to a small foyer-like area to our apartment, and it was there where my mother confronted a clearly incoherent and inebriated Vincent. Somehow she surmised (perhaps from experience) he was gambling, had lost his money, and was drunk, and she became so incensed that, out of anger, she pushed him. Vincent, still drunk from the huge amount of rum he had imbibed, didn’t stand a chance and he went down that long flight of stairs landing in a way that no human body should land, his neck now at an angle eerily similar to the turkey’s neck the day before.

I turned to my mother, said, “You killed him.”

My mother, “I did not!”

Me, “Ma, I saw you push him. Look at him I think his neck is broken.”

My mother, “Don’t you say that! I didn’t push him, he was so drunk. He fell on his own!”

Me, “No he didn’t mom, you pushed him!”

At this point my aunt, the compulsive liar, who up until now had been asleep, appeared out of nowhere and said, “I saw everything and Lydia didn’t push him, he fell!”

Before I could continue, several of her sisters and my grandmother came out and all stated, though not one of them had witnessed anything, that Vincent had fallen of his own accord and they all gave me this look that clearly indicated it was dangerous to persist in this line of reasoning.

By this time I resigned myself to the reality that the whole conversation was a moot point and went downstairs to check on Vincent. I was certain he broke his neck, but no sooner that I called his name that he opened his eyes, smiled, and managed to get up. I guess it’s true that White Jesus loves children and drunks because to this day, I don’t know how he survived that fall.

Right then, I felt rather than saw something fly over my shoulder and land with a loud crash. My mother, in her anger, had thrown the turkey, which had been slowly roasting in a low-heated oven for several hours, down the stairs and it crashed, pan and all, and broke into several large greasy chunks of turkey parts. Thanksgiving, which had begun on such a high note, had now been ruined and we didn’t even have a turkey. My mother and her sisters quickly dressed and left the house, the rest of the men probably getting similar treatment outside.

My sisters, and some of my younger cousins, immediately gathered and started an impromptu choir of wailing and crying because Thanksgiving had devolved into a dysfunctional madness and the turkey had now died — yet again. And I was so upset with Vincent that I told him he was responsible for all the crying and for the ruination of Thanksgiving dinner.

Upon hearing this, Vincent seemed to sober up a little, pulled himself up, said, “I’ll fix this,” and began picking up the pieces of the turkey.

I was beyond shocked, said,

“How the hell are you going to fix this, Vincent, that turkey is done!”

Vincent,

“You’ll see,” he mumbled as I left to go outside for a walk, unable to take it anymore.

When I returned, Vincent and my sisters were busy trying to sew the turkey back together again and it was so funny, I had to laugh and we all started laughing. I mean, this turkey was all discombobulated, legs akimbo, stitched all together like some horror story monstrosity. And true to family form, we christened the turkey, “Frankenstein’s Turkey,” and while attempting to put it together, one of my sisters chuckled and intoned, “It’s alive! It’s alive!” and we all started laughing in earnest.

Eventually, when the rest of the family finally returned, my mother saw us all laughing, took one look at the turkey, and she started cracking up. I mean, it was impossible to look at this thing and not laugh. And that’s how we spent that Thanksgiving, eating a horribly tortured and reconstructed turkey. And believe it or not, we often reminisce about that day, thankful that we have these stories to tell. And while we have had “richer” thanksgivings, under better economic conditions, that was still one of the best turkeys we ever had because we had it together.

May you have much to be thankful for… Happy Holidays!

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…