Eating Iceland

I am recently returned from Iceland, the land waddling puffins, roaring volcanoes, and horses that look like Justin Bieber.

It was my first time visiting, and before arriving, I didn’t know much about this nearly arctic island other than some vagaries about vikings and banking scandals.  So I had very little in the way of preconceived notions about the cuisine, and didn’t expect anything in particular.

It turns out the food was quite good.  There’s lots of soup, and I’m a whore for soup, so that was a good match.  Also tons of seafood, which is another favorite of mine, although it doesn’t quite drive me to walk the streets with a handkerchief dangling behind my shoulder. Read more »

Burning My Confederate Flag

1967 Summer of Love WardrobeTo be born in America in 1967 is, to some degree, to fall through the cracks.

The Baby Boom was most certainly over by then, its most senior elements old enough to vote and drink.  But the Millennials, now the focus of every drooling advertising executive and marketing guru, were naught but twinkles in the eyes of their Boomer sires and dames.

Bookmarked between bigger generations, being born in the late 1960s and early 1970s meant you were conceived and suckled amid the tumult of the Civil Rights and Vietnam protests; in (cloth) diapers when the moon landing occurred; discovering kindergarten as President Richard Nixon’s Plumbers were bumbling the Watergate break-in; and learning to read when the final U.S. helicopters evacuated Saigon.

To be born in 1967 means that when the late 1960s and early 1970s were becoming iconic, you were there, but you weren’t.  You didn’t get to partake in the Summer of Love.  You’re what it spit out. Read more »

Baltimore’s May Murders

murderAs has been widely reported, May was an exceptionally violent month here in Baltimore.  The city has witnessed dozens shootings and 42 murders.  That is the most murders in any one month since 1990.

Such a spate of violence is certainly worth reporting, and the national media has been quick to pick up on it.  However, many media outlets are also drawing lazy connections to the riot and protests that took place several weeks back.

The typical analysis, whether implied or explicit, goes something like this.

There was a riot in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries sustained while in police custody.  The riot amplified already troubled relations between Baltimore’s African American community and its police force.  The police, unhappy about the indictment of six officers in the Gray case, are staging a work slowdown.  The result is tremendous violence across the city.

This brand of analysis is not factually wrong. Some of those statements may be a bit vague, but they’re wrong in and of themselves.  However, when those those facts are strung together in this manner, the narrative they produce is just a bit too facile to offer a penetrating explanation for recent upswing in violence.

The problem with such an analysis is that it’s:
A) Too focused on the present and fails to account for historical forces, and;
B) Too narrow in the way it corrals all the immediate factors but fails to make room for larger structural forces Read more »

In Memoriam: David Letterman

David LettermanAside from the occasional sporting event, it’s very rare that I watch live television anymore.  Hulu often makes me wait a week for many shows, but that’s well worth the convenience of watching them whenever I want.  Meanwhile, Netflix makes me wait the better part of a year and charges me $4/month (I split it with a friend), but that’s well worth never having to watch any goddamn commercials.

Plus, you know, the joys of binge watching a series.  It’s like going face down into a bowl of chocolate pudding and nearly suffocating in the most wonderful way imaginable.

But last night I fired up the flatscreen and fiddled with the rabbit ears to catch David Letterman‘s grand finale.  And I’m glad I did.  Despite the commercials. Read more »

A Love Letter from Baltimore

Baltimore postcardLast Wednesday I wrote an essay on the Baltimore riot, not the protests that followed or the de facto police state Baltimore has become since then.  I grappled with the conditions in Baltimore that led to the riot, and talked about rioting as a form of social violence.

However, now that the most immediate tensions are winding down, the curfew has been finally lifted, and the soldiers are melting from our streets, I would like to offer a more personalized reaction to the events of the past two weeks: fragments of thought and experience amid the choppers circling overhead, parks filled with protestors, streets lined with soldiers. Read more »

What David Brooks Gets Wrong About Poverty in Baltimore (and Everywhere Else, for that Matter)

Daivd BRooksNew York Times columnist David Brooks wrote the kind of piece today that really infuriates me.  It angers me not because it’s completely wrong.  Stuff without any redeeming value is easy to move on from.  Rather, Brooks’ essay gets me in a tizzy because in some ways it’s very good.  However, at the end, it completely goes off the rails in ways that are not only quite wrong, but really damaging as well, despite Brooks’ sincere efforts to make a positive contribution. Read more »

My Baltimore Riots

Note: On Monday afternoon, several days of protest in Baltimore over the police killing of Freddie Gray transformed into a riot that lasted through the night.  As of Tuesday, there was no longer a riot to speak of.  Rather, it had become a military occupation of West Baltimore, which saw the return of protests, and de facto martial law in the rest of the city during the nighttime, which is scheduled to last until next week.  This essay concerns the riot, not the ongoing military occupation or protests against it.

I.

On Monday afternoon I was at my dad’s nursing home here in Baltimore.  One of the residents, Miss Annie, was celebrating her 108th birthday.

You read that correctly.

Despite her daunting age, Miss Annie stands straight as an arrow in her crocs and pajama pants.  She has no need of a wheelchair, walker, or even a cane.  Born ten years before the U.S. entered World War I, she is, so far as I’m concerned, Baltimore royalty.

This nursing home is just over a mile from Mondawmin Mall, where the first riots broke out that day while I was finishing my visit with my father and admiring Miss Annie.  Read more »

On Failed Punchlines and Silence: Adam Sandler’s Dumb Indian Jokes

Adam SandlerA friend asked my thoughts on the recent controversy surrounding Adam Sandler’s new movie, The Ridiculous Six, which is currently in production.  In case you haven’t heard, it’s a comedy, a spoof of Westerns (a reference to The Magnificent Seven, get it?).

It seems about a dozen American Indian actors, mostly Dene (Navajo) walked off the set because they felt the script was racist, costumes were inaccurate, and that their concerns were not addressed.

My friend, who like myself, champions equal opportunity offense in comedy, wanted to know if I thought their concerns should be addressed or if they’re being overly sensitive about what are just some bad jokes.  My email reply began getting a bit long, so I decided to post it here.

I think this issue stands at the oft overlooked intersection of comedy and cultural capital, which is a fancy term for being able to throw your weight around in society.  Let’s start with the comedy.
Read more »

Considering God’s Plan

Oprah quote“It’s all part of God’s plan.”

That’s bad enough.  But I go a little nuts whenever someone says: “Everything happens for a reason.”

After all, if you actually believe that we’re all just mortal puppets dancing on a divine string, then there’s really no point in us having an adult conversation about cause and effect.

But unlike God’s plan, “Everything happens for a reason” does not suggest a deep detachment from reality, which is precisely what makes it far more exasperating than assertions of, say, childhood leukemia being an important cog in God’s grand machinations.

Rather than embracing wild delusion or concocting a fantastic blend of paternal benevolence and cruelty, “everything happens for a reason” suggests a far murkier and depressing version of surrendering reality.  Like the “God’s plan” adage, it indicates the speaker just can’t live up to the horrors of life, and is wont to soothe oneself with the balm of inevitability.  But it also leads me to suspect that while the speaker is sane enough to dismiss sadistically intricate divine plans, s/he has been reduced to hiding behind the gauze of unstated and unknowable “reasons.”

Everything happens for a reason.

In other words, the worst of it can be justified, even if we don’t know how.

To say childhood leukemia is part of God’s plan is to give that reason a name.  Specifically, God’s plan is how one justifies the horror.  That’s pretty awful.

But to say childhood leukemia happens for a vague, unnamed reason is to accept that it’s justified in some way, but to not know what the justification is.  That seems even worse.

Both proverbs, to my mind, are patently dishonest sentiments.  But while I can easily dismiss the former as delusion in the face of pain, the latter reveals just enough self-awareness to anger me.

God’s plan is the refuge of those who, unable to face up to harsh realities, opt for fantasy.  But to recognize that childhood-leukemia-as-God’s-plan is a form of lunacy, yet hide your own weak-kneed desperation behind claims of “reason,” is really insulting.  It’s one thing to dismiss rational thought altogether when attempting to face life’s horrors.  It’s quite another to bastardize and mangle rational thought to create a shield against life’s horrors.

Or so it seemed to me when I first considered these aphorisms. Read more »

Execution by Firing Squad

Cuban Batista Fire SquadYesterday, Utah became the first state to bring back execution by firing squad.  Once a common method of state execution, firing squads gave way to electrocution during the early 20th century, which in turn gave way to lethal injections later in the century.

However, some of the chemicals crucial to lethal injection are manufactured by European companies, and the European Union bans capital punishment.  These companies have stopped selling relevant drugs to state governments in the United States.  Half-baked efforts to find substitutes have led to a series of gruesome, botched executions.  Thus, Utah embraces the firing squad as an alternative.

My own feelings on the death penalty are complicated.  In an abstract sense, I don’t actually have a problem with killing someone who intentionally commits a brutal, unjustifiable murder.  But at the same time, but I do oppose state executions.

The vagaries of a U.S. justice system, which is plagued by institutional racism, classism, and occasional incompetence, is enough for me to say there should not be a state-administered death penalty.  Furthermore, I don’t actually think the state should be in the business of killing its own citizens, even its most reprehensible members.

But if there is going to be a death penalty, then we as a society should confront the violence of it instead of pretending that we’re “civilized.” Read more »

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