Dear Dunkin Donuts

I’m writing today to express concern about my discovery this morning that you have changed the way you make Apple Fritters.

Upon the merits, this managerial decision does not survive scrutiny. What we had before was an exquisite bumpy landscape of crispy donut and glaze heaven that erupted in delightful surprises of apple filling. What we have now is an ordinary donut dressed up sadly in dime-store Apple Fritter clothing. Before, every fritter was a different experience as one nibbled down from various angles in hunt of crunchy goodness parts and nipped at the soft underbelly spots of apple filling. Now, it matters not where one begins and ends. The new version is the lazy kid who throws a football helmet on and a couple of dark streaks under his eyes at Halloween to go out and bilk people for candy. Ah, but the old version is Alice In Wonderland, lovingly handsewn by Mom- and it charms the neighborhood.

What’s next? We have a demagogue for President, the disrespect of the world, domestic racial and judicial strife, political division bordering on Civil War, a Pandemic wildfire that is killing tens of thousands of our loved ones and wrecking the dreams of hard-working business owners and now you want to dumb down the Apple Fritter?

For shame, Dunkin Donuts. Please restore the original Apple Fritter, and, I daresay, the hope that some of the best part of America will survive these dark times.

Born This Way

It seems that people go to war in a manner almost entirely dictated by the accident of the timing and geography of their birth. If I were a young Afghan man in 1979, the odds that I would end up fighting against the Soviet invasion would be near total if I were in all other ways normally fit for Afghan military service. Conversely, were I a young Soviet man in 1979, I would have fought against the Afghans. Exceptions to this rule certainly exist, and they are interesting as hell, but they are not statistically significant.

Think of the young man coming into manhood in Germany in the late 1930’s. This incredibly unfortunate circumstance would have placed him in the German Army during World War II. And he would have been marching in a German uniform almost no matter who he was prior to 1939–and that’s the scary part. The fact that he was there, then, was dispositive. It almost never matters significantly to the building of an Army that any given Soldier was a nice guy, or a bad guy, a hawk, or a dove. The forces of culture, peer pressure, and generally innate local loyalty ensured that Napoleon, Hitler, and Westmoreland had all the Soldiers they needed to conduct war on a massive scale.

There is not much evidence that this will change; as recently as today Americans went to Afghanistan and/or Iraq because of where and when they were born. The guy who grows up on a farm in Iowa doesn’t decide that there is an African Civil War he’d feel better about being involved in versus America’s engagements unless he’s a mercenary. Mercenaries are few and far between. Instead, Austin Farmboy goes and fights in Afghanistan because he graduated High School in some nice little town in Iowa in 2018.

Let’s first distinguish between whether someone goes to war at all versus whose team they end up on. Lots of people don’t go to war at all for various reasons: unfit medically or mentally, too old or too young, ineligible due to gender, or just never conscripted and therefore preferred to do, and did, other things with their lives. Of course, faced with conscription, some get out of going to war due to corrupt reasons: with the help of connections, or fraud, or financial status. But these evasion of service cases added up don’t materially affect any war. (Someone is sent in their place, someone whose accident of birth is appropriate for the war.)

Focusing now on those who do go to war, let’s picture how it typically goes down. Let’s take an Australian guy in World War I. In Australia, 38.7 % of the male population aged 18-44 enlisted for service in support of the British Empire and against the Germans. Why? Because their uncle at the dinner table was blustering triumphantly that the Germans would finally get what they deserved. Because Grandpa fought with the British in the Boer War at the turn of the century and was wounded! (There’s his service rifle still over the fireplace right there; he let me hold it once.) Because all the young men have been walking about town looking importantly at each other and discussing which Regiment to join. Because, especially because, his Ma and little sister are terrified; and that makes you know that you are suddenly important. Because Regiments and uniforms and guns and ‘doing your part’ suddenly crystallize colorfully in the air over the drab landscape of crops being harvested and sent on newfangled coal-fired ships elsewhere. Because Australia pledged support to the British Empire and By God, the Australians won’t let them down. Because Governor-General Thomas Denman, 3rd Baron Denman Ronald Munro Ferguson is making an important radio announcement tonight and everyone in town will be gathered in groups near the radio. That’s why they went to war, and not because of any protracted thoughtful analysis of the morals, ethics and values involved. They simply went with the home team and reaped the respect of their peers and communities.

Substitute the time and place and we’ve seen this drama play out similarly for centuries. So, why point out this embarrassing fact? Because it’s time to talk about the Confederate Army in the American Civil War. Alabama, April, 1862: Fort Sumter has just fallen. Jedediah Farmboy from Alabama is going to wear a Confederate uniform for all the same reasons: His uncle, his grandfather, what Regiment should I join, Ma is worried but I’ll make her proud. Arguments over slavery, state’s rights, economics, and all manner of indignation over politics dominated the discussions at the General Stores, North and South, but these issues didn’t materially affect the makeup of the Regiments. A Georgian Regiment was made up of Georgia boys and a Maine Regiment was comprised of Maine boys.

So, if we accept all this, how can we tear down statues of Confederate Generals, and the states they represented, when we know that they did what they did by accident of birth and then generally tried to carry out their mission with all the honor and bravery they could muster? Especially when we know that Joshua Chamberlain himself would have fought for the Confederacy were he born in Mississippi instead of Maine? People usually give two reasons: Well, the Confederates were all traitors. But, our founding fathers were traitors to their country and we can’t get enough statues of them. Well, the Confederates lost. But, we lost in Vietnam and we haven’t torn down our memorials to the Vietnam War in every town.

Sure, slavery was so bad that we shouldn’t endorse it in any form. But, how far down that chain do we go? Do we abolish every knicknack, song, or favorite southern food that is reminiscent of the Confederacy? Trust me, the Civil War is barely over and insulting the history, honor and sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of people who went to war by accident of birth will probably backfire, and soon.

People who revere the statues and flags of the Confederacy due to their racial bigotry against blacks won’t convert because some of their favorite symbols are attacked. To the contrary.

And people who revere the statues and flags of the Confederacy due to southern military honor and family history will feel the caprice and hypocrisy of the moment and won’t forget it.

Too

I wish, for the life of me (pun intended) that the original signs and placards of the current movement had said “Black Lives Matter Too” and that the movement was called Black Lives Matter Too. The amount of stumbling around on the meaning of this short phrase has caused a lot of unnecessary angst; the worst of this is that so many people are accused of racism when they are simply the victim of an expectation to make a secondary level of analysis that they are readily capable of making were they aware of the expectation.

For example, let’s say that I wanted to start a movement and I called it “Alcoholics Like Ice-Cream.” Most people would find the phrase lacking in power or gravity because they would immediately realize that all people like ice-cream: children, Eskimos, college students, criminals, and mountain climbers. Many wouldn’t as quickly realize that the phrase attaches to a special struggle wherein many alcoholics in early sobriety efforts become addicted to sweets as a kind of ‘replacement’ addiction. They might even think that alcoholics might be just trying to carve out a special status for themselves by saying that they like ice-cream more than others, and are therefore more special. This morning, in my AA meeting, someone mentioned how they had a candy bar the other day and immediately found themselves thinking ‘Where is my next candy bar coming from?’ This remark caught us all just the right way and we all laughed longer and deeper than most people would because we identify so strongly-more than most- with addiction dynamics because we are alcoholics.

Similarly, I’m guessing most blacks didn’t stumble over the meaning of the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter.’ But many of us, my white self included, did stumble, and just didn’t get it until someone said to us, or it eventually occurred to us, that what the signs mean is that black lives matter too, and that American society and justice mechanisms currently discount the lives of blacks compared to whites. Then the light came on, and of course I recognized the issue quite as much as any sentient being would be expected to and I now get that it is a great slogan for this movement-just a little unclear at first grammatically. Not unclear racially. It wasn’t racism that made me think ‘Wait…all lives matter’, it was grammar construction.

I would like to have have been enlightened enough to have ‘gotten’ it initially, and there is a special reason why I should have: I am a poet, and have long known that poems carry special power, and that the first layer of power in a poem, before you get to the interpretation of the words, is the simple fact that the words and thoughts in a poem are framed in poetic format and therefore purport to carry poetic power. Thereafter, the poem may succeed or fail upon its merit, but the initial expectation is that there is going to be something special here that might want to be analyzed beyond face value. I approach, and indeed write, every poem with the expectation of a second level of analysis, and that a set of words arranged in a poem merit that. Therefore, since these three words-Black Lives Matter-were specifically ‘framed’, perhaps I should have asked myself why the emphasis is on black lives in the movement’s slogan when in fact it is obvious that all lives matter. Alas, I did not, and just knee-jerked to wonder how the movement’s organizers didn’t see that all lives matter. The super irony here is that the organizers not only saw that all lives matter, but that it is because all lives matter that attention must be drawn to the issue of black lives because they don’t seem to matter as much as other lives in America as judged by police behavior, incarceration dynamics, and racism in myriad forms that is stitched into our culture.

I would like to rebut here the assumption that I’m blaming the victim by saying that there is a problem with the wording when I should be addressing racism itself. I recognize that many people might be saying ‘All Lives Matter’ in a racist way, or that white privilege might be driving some of the indignation against the slogan. Interestingly, I can usually tell by the demeanor of the person the intent of their objection. But, in my experience, I think most people that said initially, or still say, ‘all lives matter,’ do so over this misunderstanding that I am so painfully exploring in this piece. And that is good news. I wish merely to illustrate an exacerbation that need not be added to an already difficult situation.

And there is more good news. Whether the grain of sand in the oyster is intentional or not, it does produce a pearl: the slogan is an irritant that caused me to have some long conversations about racism in America and I hope that such conversations continue everywhere. It matters.

Marble Drop

A man is lying on his back on a surfboard far out on a dead calm sea. He is a bug on a glass mirror. He is tired, and looking vacantly at the sky. His arms are by his side and he grasps the edges of the board on either side near his waist; his balance is precarious enough that the merest wave will begin to tip him.

He is thinking. There is an ocean above him and an ocean below. He arrived here as through a carnival Marble Drop game; every time he hit a pin in life he could have gone left or right on the way down.

He hears again the marble hitting the pins and closes his eyes to mute it but the sound only gets louder. He wants it to stop and slides his hips slowly to one side. The board rocks to a tilt along its long axis. He turns his head, opens his eyes, looks at the water and sees himself looking back. He has seen enough. He tilts further, and slides into the water.

The cool water shocks him into tension and it is with effort that he exhales fully, makes himself limp and descends. He sinks. He rolls slowly as he falls and gets a last look up at the diamonds on the surface of the water in the sun. He turns again to the dark and the deep.

He inhales, and there is a great stab to his lungs and a peculiar desperation makes him bicycle and flail his arms for a moment. He screams one loud long burning scream and then it is over. He sinks further and the quiet embraces him, the dark embraces him, and the cold begins to take away the pain.

Now he feels the pressure of the water and it pushes upon him a feeling of safety like an infant swaddled in a blanket. He feels sleepy, heavy and warm in the arms of the dark; a calm overtakes him as he spirals slowly down and down and down.

In the black calm, his vision becomes spotty and he begins to hallucinate. He sees that he is skydiving at night and instinctively assumes a freefall arched position. As he reaches terminal velocity, he experiments with languidly dropping an elbow, bending his knees or straightening his legs. He is delighted at the turns, spins and movement he can control and learns that by bending his knees up he can even go backwards.

He continues to spin, tumble and play as he falls through the thick black night, utterly content. However, after a short while he notices far beneath him a lightening in the water. He has come to love the dark and is curious how this light could be and stabilizes his position to watch it grow more and more as he falls. The vague sense of light develops into a whole sky of light at the other end of the black. Finally, to his surprise, he punches through the bottom and drops into the surface of the ocean, furious and foamy, with the light of the sky above him once again.

He instinctively gasps and pulls in oxygen as fast as he can while he struggles to tread water in the white foam and he is lashed by the power, howling, and weight of the wind and the waves and the light of the sun; all his senses are attacked and in the confusion he is drowning. But the air has given him strength and he composes himself, slows his movements, and begins to float with less effort. The storm abates, and he waits.

After a while, a large boat picks him up, and he is on deck, being given water, food, and a blanket by the crew. He suddenly sees his surfboard on the deck and gives a cry of recognition.

The crew notices and one says “We found it a ways back in the water. Is it yours?”

“Yes.”

“Do you want it back?”

The Truth About Being Wrong

I think we can all agree that people ought “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” (If you don’t agree with this famous premise, you may stop reading now and you might want to go back to an earlier century where you’ll be more comfortable.) We’ll get back to the word ‘all’ shortly.

Given this premise, the presence of racism in the United States is vexatious–to say the least.

I was listening this morning to two prominent black Conservatives/Republicans on a radio talk show bemoan that so many blacks mistrust Republicans more and more even though less than 30% of blacks characterize themselves as ‘liberal’ while moderates and conservatives make up over 50% of the black population. The subtext of the conversation seemed to question why the Republican Party is viewed as being on the wrong side of so many issues that affect blacks/minorities and that they care deeply about. Further, they seemed to try to explain the behavior of the Republican Party as misunderstood, or even that the Republican Party has lost the ability to differentiate between right and wrong–due to a complicated political situation.

I think they’re missing the boat. Racism comes from a few different sources, and none of them is about being politically confused. People learn about others by drawing upon direct experience, or interpreting data, or are taught at home about other people (other races of people). All three of these input streams are reliably problematic, and, for some people, problematically reliable, indices of character.

Direct experience would be reliable, if only one could meet a class of people as a whole instead of in necessarily unrepresentative samples, and if one could use direct experience in lieu of data and other ‘teachings’ and not in addition to such indirect experience. However, look at this map of the US in 2010 which color-codes minorities in counties that have minority representation above the national average and are therefore ‘highly represented’:

If someone is not living in the Southeast (orange) or in a relatively few Northern urban centers, then it is difficult for most of the country to get significant direct experience of blacks since most people are living where blacks are not ‘highly represented’, or represented at all. Accordingly, most of us only get the occasional experience of interaction. (Incidentally, I spent most of my adult life in the military where minorities are ‘highly represented’, and in my experience all manner of decent character and also human quirks and foibles are represented roughly the same proportionally among all peoples. I found this experience encouraging and, though I realize I was only exposed to a population that self-selected for military service, the experience felt genuinely representative.) Even living in the Southeast outright, where presumably direct experience would be a much more reliable indicator of character due to sheer volume and variety of direct experience, is problematic in that now you are living within an area stained by generations of slavery, prejudice and the institutionalized view that non-whites are inferior. So, direct experience is not the panacea for enlightenment that it ought to be-but it is still the best path to understanding if filtered for historical context.

Data seems to be the largest information stream that many people cite to support their prejudices. Two examples: Look how many are in prison! Look how many are on welfare and have children out of wedlock! But I would argue that the statistics cited are often chosen with a confirmation bias. For example, who cites the fact that the crack epidemic was met with a war on drugs-resulting in mass incarceration-while the (largely white) opioid epidemic is being met with prevention and rehabilitation efforts? For the former, a prison sentence places felons returning to society at a great disadvantage while, for the latter, a trip to ‘rehab’ is becoming de rigueur. And this is before factoring in the socioeconomic factors that might drive certain populations more to drugs than others. As for children out of wedlock, how many people factor in the acceptance of contraception and abortion in society? By making the birth of the child the physical choice of the mother, the sexual revolution has made marriage and child support a social choice of the father. Shotgun weddings are gone, and women who want children can no longer count on pressuring the biological father into marriage under these circumstances; concurrently, the stigma of unwed motherhood has declined. And, welfare is not as related to out of wedlock births as people might choose to believe: welfare benefits could not have played a major role in the rise of out-of-wedlock births because benefits rose sharply in the 1960s and then fell in the 1970s and 1980s, when out-of-wedlock births rose most.

Finally, the weakest argument I have ever heard trotted out to support any position is “That’s how I was raised.” (Amazingly, it is often used to support one’s religious orientation-that incredibly important choice!) Unfortunately, many people are raised in households of prejudice, and don’t question it very much; it is as if supporting the beliefs of your parents is honorable, despite the dishonor of their beliefs. I always respond to hearing this with “Why don’t you do some independent analysis of all religions (or other home-taught beliefs, such as the disparaging of another race) and see if you arrive at the same conclusion?”

It seems like the thread running through all of these ways to arrive at opinion is the overt choice as to whether or not to indulge the instinctive pull toward cherry-picking beliefs that support one’s inclinations- whether those inclinations be beautiful or ugly. Why are we inclined to prejudice? Maybe it is as simple as fear of the different, or the primitive human impulse to feel superior to another.

Or, put another way, maybe it is because we won’t ‘all’ agree that people ought “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Many of us choose not to. For them, the color of the skin is enough to judge character.

And so, if you find yourself in a pickup truck with shotguns chasing a black man down the street while he is jogging, your analysis might be lacking. And that is wrong. Truthfully.

Take This With You

(The devolution of don’t-leave-home-without-it.)

The earliest people probably never left the cave without a weapon. A club, a spear, etc. -this was the first essential. There were enemies out there, and some of them were your neighbors! Next came some form of carrying one’s valuables. The oldest wallet was found on Otzi the Iceman who lived in 3300BC; this leather wallet contained flints, and some tinder, but no money! (How would you like to have been living in the Copper Age, and also been broke?) So, as society evolved and the weapon requirement dropped off, everyone still had some kind of wallet, or purse essential to grab before leaving the house. Millennia ensued. Then came keys. OK: wallet and keys, -check. Then came the cell phone. My god, the cell phone. OK: wallet, keys, phone -check, double-check, let’s go. Then came the pandemic and the requirement for face-coverings/masks. OK: wallet, keys, phone, mask -let’s go. Then came the armed protests against this mask requirement and the divide over how much inconvenience one should endure for the safety of another. Whoops! Time to bring the weapon back. OK, -going somewhere? Wallet, keys, phone, mask, and gun. There are enemies out there and some of them are your neighbors.

A Tale of Two Mutinies

President Trump today tweeted “Tell the Democratic Governors that ‘Mutiny On The Bounty’ was one of my all time favorite movies. A good old fashioned mutiny every now and then is an exciting and invigorating thing to watch, especially when the mutineers need so much from the Captain. Too easy!” The not-even-slightly-veiled threat was meant to tell Democratic Governors that he, Trump, would withhold Federal resources from Governors if they held the position that the Governors of the states will themselves control the ‘reopening’ of their respective states’ economies, rather than be influenced by any uninformed and cavalier declaration by the President. Trump’s tone says bring it on!

So much to unpack here. In short, Trump has heretofore attempted to shed responsibility for his inaction during the coronavirus onset and subsequent devastation by pointing to states’ rights in mitigation decisions within their states. (In the glaring absence of unified coordination from the top, Governors are acting as best they can to protect their constituents from the pandemic by imposing various social distancing and business shut-down measures.) Consequently, and unavoidably, the economy has since crashed. In an obvious effort to resuscitate the stock-market, and to keep his own reelection bid off of a ventilator, Trump is now saying that states must adhere to his ‘total authority’ as President, and his notion of when to reopen the economy–which he is wanting to do ahead of science, data, and Governors. Trump then will presumably reap the credit for ‘saving’ the economy. Of course, beside the garish hypocrisy leaping out of his trying to have it both ways, Trump is constitutionally, ethically, and morally incorrect and his pronouncements will not induce Governors to sacrifice their citizens’ lives at the altar of Trump’s transparently juvenile political machinations.

But, let’s get to the mutiny movies! First: Mutiny on the Bounty. Trump is either shockingly ignorant as to what the movie is all about and is arrogantly trotting out that ignorance while addressing a nation during a horrific disaster, or he is publicly confessing to his own inadequacies by way of a brilliantly apt metaphor. Captain Bligh, the Commander of the H.M.S. Bounty, was high-handed, imperious, and demanded that his subordinates obey his every command. He was tempestuous, he regarded subordinates as disposable, and his name has become synonymous with paranoia and despotism. Captain Bligh is, in short, a loser and the villain of the movie. His men eventually mutinied. But, Trump purports to love the movie, publicly invoked its dynamic as a threat, and I guess he either 1.) lied about seeing the movie and/or is too stupid to understand or remember its implications or 2.) he is confessing, by way of brilliant analogy, to his horrible character flaws by identifying with Captain Bligh. I’m betting on 1.): lying and stupid. We’ve seen plenty of that, daily, and we haven’t yet seen even trace amounts of humility or integrity. It’s been three years.

Interestingly, the only other ‘mutiny’ movie that the public might remember is The Caine Mutiny. In this movie, Captain Queeg, commander of an obsolete WWI era destroyer, loses the respect of the crew and loyalty of his staff through a series of incidents that expose him as cowardly and unworthy of his position. (Don’t get ahead of me.) Queeg slowly comes undone in plain sight as the movie progresses, and key staff begin to question his mental health. Finally, at the height of a storm, Queeg’s paralysis of action leads his second in command to relieve him of his position in order to save the ship.

I don’t care what movies Trump watches. But I do wish Pence would watch The Caine Mutiny.