Cherry-picking

Plenty of outrage this week. Not that there isn’t plenty of outrage every single day for those of us who are still foolishly hanging on to our addiction to the news cycle.

As if we needed one more issue to further foment vitriol among us, one more gift to the Russian internet trolls who sit in a bland office building in the Motherland, creating social media memes to further divide us, snickering at ‘Murica, land of the gullible.

Which specific outrage am I referring to? So many to choose from… I’ll take “Alabama’s abortion bill that’s ultimately headed for the Supreme Court in hopes of overturning Roe v. Wade” for $200, Alex.

For me, it’s not the label “pro-life” that’s the problem, as much as the hypocrisy and inconsistency that always seems to accompany it. If you’re going to call yourself “pro-life,” fine, then BE pro-LIFE consistently, across the board.

If you’re pro-life, why do you turn a blind eye to school shootings that occur practically on a weekly basis? One hundred people die from gun violence in this country every day. Where is the pro-life outrage?

If you’re pro-life, why do you support sending people off to war to kill and be killed? Where is the pro-life outrage?

When a black pregnant woman is shot by cops, where is the pro-life outrage?

When brown babies are ripped from their mothers and lost, hopelessly unaccounted for, or DIE in custody, where is the pro-life outrage?

Pro-lifers will fight tooth and nail for a fetus, but once that baby is born, they can’t be bothered. Quality, affordable health care? That’s just too hard. Quality education? Forget it. Safe, adequate housing? No money in the budget for that. Sensible gun laws so the kid won’t get shot in kindergarten? Sorry, can’t say no to the NRA gods.

Do you consider yourself pro-life? Great! Then BE pro-LIFE consistently, across the board. Because when you cherry-pick the one, solitary issue of abortion, ignoring all other life-sustaining issues, it’s not really about life, it’s about control.

 

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Real giving

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of self-care. I’m all for selfless giving to others, especially those who are less fortunate or marginalized. I’m all for adopting a “service” attitude toward my fellow humans. The picture of Pope Francis washing and kissing the feet of juvenile delinquents in a prison facility in Rome comes to mind. What an amazing example.

The difference between giving of oneself and allowing others to take from us is how each act makes us feel.

If we’re giving of ourselves because we feel like we have no choice (we always have a choice, by the way), or because we feel bullied into it, or because someone will “make us feel guilty” if we don’t, that spawns resentment. It’s not really giving, it’s more allowing others to take from us. We are truly in control of this process, but we like to think we aren’t. If we tell ourselves we have no choice in the matter, then we believe that absolves us from the responsibility to put a stop to it.

On the other hand, if we’re giving because we genuinely want to, the giving feeds us. That kind of giving nurtures the soul and feels good, without a trace of resentment or expectation. Real giving is the result of free will with no strings attached.

Self-care comes into the picture when we decide that we’re tired of that gnawing feeling in the pit of our stomach that we’re being taken advantage of. That others are continuously taking from us and taking us for granted and it’s time to bolster the boundaries. That it’s time to stop being complicit and take responsibility, to stop enabling our own eroding.

Is this selfish? Many would say yes. Call it what you want, but I call it self-care and I think it’s smart. I’ve experienced all of the above and it’s taken me years to realize there’s no law against taking a stand that will bring peace to your soul and allow you to sleep better at night. And there’s certainly no law against modeling self-respect for those around you. Being kind does not equal being a doormat; know the difference.

Escape

My husband and I have happened upon an anti-anxiety treatment that helps alleviate some of the angst that has built up every day from the hourly appalling buffoonery coming out of Washington for the last, oh… two years or so.

We’ve been watching The West Wing on Netflix.

When this series first began on network TV back in 1999, I didn’t watch it because I was married to my first husband at the time and he didn’t like to watch network TV, so I wasn’t allowed to either (that’s a topic for another day). The upside is that now, all the episodes are fresh to me. Or, as one of the networks used to crow: “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you!” when promoting their “encore presentations.”

The balm of The West Wing can be felt at the very beginning, with a brief, smart tap of a military snare drum. Dignified. Proud without a hint of arrogance. Makes me sit up straighter in bed. A quick recap of previous episodes dissolves into the soaring, majestic theme music, composed by the great W.G. Snuffy Walden.

The music alone is enough to transport me, mercifully, to another time. A previous era when men and women who served in high public office had integrity and a basic drive to do the right thing based on their core values. They actually HAD core values, which is refreshing in itself. A time when the back-and-forth of politics and behind-the-scenes deal-making were civilized and steeped in negotiation and compromise. Sure, there was bickering and mistakes were made – an inescapable side effect in any endeavor that involves human beings – but in general, the overall tone of the White House was composed and decorous.

Some nights I almost cry, the pull of nostalgia is so strong. Seriously. I miss being proud of my country. I hate being utterly embarrassed by the shenanigans in Washington that are beyond outrageous every single day. As if the 2016 election yanked down America’s collective pants and we’re all standing bare-assed in front of the world.

Once in a while on social media, I read comments from people in other countries saying they sympathize with the majority of Americans, and they know this current ridiculous, jackass regime is only temporary. They are waiting for the America they knew to return. God bless them for their patience.

I sincerely hope that The West Wing reruns are shown around the world so that, like me, people can be reminded of what American governance once looked like. It doesn’t matter that the administration on The West Wing happens to be a Democratic one. I don’t even care about that; who can afford the luxury of caring about stuff like that anymore? At this point, I’d be thrilled if the occupant of the Oval Office was a trained monkey. Regardless of party affiliation, it couldn’t do any worse.

For now, an effective coping mechanism for my crippling anxiety is to escape into the halls of the TV White House, and remember… And try to hang on for the next 22 months.

 

Gym class: Survival of the fittest

From the Archive: Originally posted February 2016

My niece plays on her school basketball team this year and I’ve been attending her weekly games, literally on the edge of my seat every minute. If anyone had told me that these young girls would pound out a game of basketball with the level of passion, skill, and intensity that they do, I wouldn’t have believed it. The games don’t last very long – only four 6-minute periods – but they get the heart racing, the hands raw from clapping, and the hair grayer from watching rim shots in slow motion, and the lightning-fast passes that barely escape interception.

As I watch these girls work together as a team, I can’t help but be mystified, as I always am, by the concept of a sports team and what it must feel like to be part of such a small, fiercely focused group. I’ve never played sports of any kind. Hell, I barely survived high school gym class, which is probably why I’ve never played sports of any kind. Middle and high school gym classes effectively cured me of ever wanting to even try out for a sports team.

Oh, Gym Class, how I hated thee, let me count the ways…

Our school colors were green and white, so of course, some style-conscious administrator thought it would be fabulous to order these little green-and-white-striped onesies for the girls to wear during gym. These cruel jokes were not flattering on anyone, but did provide plenty of fodder for the inevitable battle between our gym teacher and the tough girls who were “too cool” to change for gym. If there was ever a time to envy the Mennonite girls, it was in gym class because their religious convictions prohibited them from changing into those god-awful horrors.

Once we used up all of our three minutes to get from our previous class to the gym, into the locker room, find our locker, dump our books, backpacks and other gear into the bottom, undress in front of each other (no awkwardness there), put on our onesie, change socks and shoes, stuff everything into the locker and slam it shut before it exploded, and get out to the gym floor…. we awaited the day’s torture our evil overlord had planned for us.

My personal favorite was dodge ball. This is where the strongest among us could really take out their aggression on the girls they didn’t like by hurling a rubber ball at them with the intent not just to “tag” you out, but to break bones. Those of us who were uncoordinated and therefore unpopular, usually left gym with red welts on our arms and legs after a harrowing game. Survival of the fittest, thy name is “Dodge ball.”

In a perverted way, dodge ball was an easy game for me because I knew what was expected of me and I could deliver. I was like the unfortunate stranger who’d been captured by a tribe of heathens, dancing and whelping around me while their fires grew hot enough to cook me. As I stood in the middle of the circle, outnumbered by my cocky, hostile classmates, I waited for the inevitable end, which usually came mercifully quick with the sharp, hot sting of rubber.

More difficult were games like volleyball, in which everybody was supposed to participate and contribute to the team’s victory. But keep in mind that making a mistake, missing a shot, or otherwise failing to contribute to the effort would result in hell to pay. Being the consummate klutz that I was, I got derided a lot. Beginning with the classic eye-roll when the team captain had only me leftover to choose for her team, I knew to expect dirty looks, if not open contempt. It was bullying at its finest in a green and white onesie.

The first time I saw professional athletes get high-fived or patted on the ass after a major screw-up, I was astounded and more than a little confused. Why all this support? This is not how it’s supposed to work! I always thought when a teammate made a mistake, you emotionally tar and feather them. You’re supposed to ridicule them and make them realize that their inept gawkiness is the affront against all humanity that it is!

So yes, I admire my niece, or anyone who even considers joining a sports team.

I guess I just never saw the point of gym class. Physical activity that makes you sweaty and smelly for the rest of your day? Sure, that’s every school kid’s dream. And the alternative is taking a community shower, naked in front of your classmates with whom you will share geography class later and the stage at graduation? No. No! A thousand times, no!

In the attack sports like dodge ball, I simply waited for the end. In team sports, my strategy was to hang back as much as possible, probably appearing aloof and uncaring. But in fact, I knew that any attempt at participation on my part would result in complete humiliation for me, and most likely a loss for my team. So I took the global, altruistic approach and did as little as possible, then kept my clothes on afterwards. To my former gym classmates: You’re welcome.

Scotty’s story

By Malcolm Ivey, Guest Writer
I just assumed Scotty was a diaper sniper when he moved into my dorm. He fit the mold; 5 foot 5, big bifocals, quiet and never far from his bunk. Operating under this assumption, I dealt with him accordingly. Which is to say I didn’t deal with him at all. Different prisoners have different approaches to child predators. Abuse, extortion, exploitation… Karmic law can sometimes be a violent force. My approach is to let it do its thing. So I was pleasantly surprised when I learned that Scotty was, in fact, not a cho-mo. He was doing life for murder.

Back in 1985, when Reagan was just beginning his second term, when breakdancing was still in style and artificial intelligence was only a plot point in a sci-fi novel, Scotty found out his old lady was cheating. The arrest report says he shot her lover six times after leaving a Lakeland bar. He doesn’t remember any of it, but he was pretty drunk. While he was telling me his story I kept doing the math in my head. Thirty-three years. I’ve been gone for 14 and it already feels like an eternity. When Scotty fell, I was only 11 years old. My life was really just beginning as his was coming to an end. (Although I’m sure the victim’s family would argue that the only life that actually came to an end that day was their loved one’s.) Sad situation, all the way around. If life is really just this flow of atoms through time and space, this endless waterfall of moments, each fading into the next, it’s amazing to fathom how a single drop, a solitary frame in an infinite sea of pixels, could have such far-reaching effects.

At age 20, Scotty was found guilty and sentenced to life with a mandatory quarter. Back in those days, Florida still had a parole system and this sentence ensured that he would serve at least 25 years, day for day, before being considered for release. This is what both legislature and the court intended. Then came the 90s when the measure of politicians on both sides of the aisle came down to how tough they were on crime. Humane ideas such as empathy, forgiveness, and second chances were viewed as weaknesses and quickly pounced upon by political opponents. The parole system was abolished, the prison building craze began, and life sentences suddenly meant exactly what they sounded like… life.

But there was one problem: people like Scotty who were sentenced according to a different set of laws. This is why there is still a parole commission in the Sunshine State despite the fact that it’s been almost three decades since the parole system was axed. But to many of these dinosaurs, the system is a cruel joke.

Scotty limped to the finish line of his mandatory 25 years in 2010, legally blind from retinopathy (hence the enormous bifocals) along with a host of other medical complications that come with the territory of being a type 1 diabetic at the mercy of a starch-laden prison diet. When he met with the parole examiner that year, he presented a stack of certificates; everything from vocational classes like cabinet making to small appliance repair to residential wiring (which he took and taught), to the Christian program “Kairos” to various anger and stress management programs, to the state-mandated Compass reentry course, along with both parenting pilot programs, from which he was the first in the state to graduate.

In addition to all these accomplishments, he also arrived at the quarter-century mark without a single disciplinary report. Just to add some perspective here, I’ve been incarcerated since March of 2005 and I’ve had eight DRs. Eight. And I consider myself a model inmate. Florida prisons are rife with drugs and gangs and undiagnosed mental illness. Even when one is committed to living righteously in these places, shit happens. Your bunkie hides something in the cell that you’re not aware of, you’re attacked and forced to defend yourself, you talk during count, you miss a call-out… Or you somehow manage to sidestep all of the above, but you have the misfortune of crossing paths with the wrong guard on the wrong day. Bogus DRs are almost a cliché in here. This was especially true during the last two decades when institutional abuse was at its height. The fact that Scotty was able to avoid every pitfall and keep his nose pristine is a minor miracle. Even now, on the doorstep of his 34th year in the joint, he still has a clean disciplinary record.

And yet…

The parole commission set his presumptive release date for 2030. And every few years when some formality of a rubber-stamped kangaroo-court hearing pops up, they pretend to consider all the facts before banging the gavel and denying his release. Again. This despite overwhelming evidence of his rehabilitation, exemplary conduct and deteriorating health. The parole examiner who conducted that initial 2010 interview even recommended to the board that he be released. Didn’t matter. Denied.

This begs the question: why? Scotty is not the first person I’ve met in this situation. There are a handful at every institution (though I’ve never known anyone with 33 years DR-free). It almost seems that the state is bitter that there was once a time when sentencing laws were fair and provided a mechanism where men and women could earn their way out of prison with good behavior. So even though the parole commission is required by law to have these hearings, for the most part, people like Scotty are just set off until they die. The few that do make it out are those who are lucky enough to have friends and family to make phone calls and show support. This is more an exception than a rule. The reality is that people serving long prison sentences usually serve them alone. Like I said, sad situation all the way around.

This post originally appeared on www.malcolmivey.com

Unique Nativity

I discovered this artwork on social media yesterday and while I have no idea who created it, I love the artist’s vision of Christ’s nativity. It is simple, real, and peaceful.

Looking at Mary, who most likely would have been a teenager given the marital traditions of the day, I feel such empathy for her. Giving birth to your first child is arduous, scary and messy under the best of circumstances. Imagine having to endure the process in a stable. But then, it is completely fitting for the baby Jesus — all sacrifices were born in a stable.

No other women around to guide her through the long hours of labor, or to provide comfort, a helping hand, or any of the typical baby, new-mother needs. Certainly no doctors, midwives, or nurses present to answer questions or to reassure a young girl that, yes, this is normal, you’re doing just fine. Only Mary’s new husband and some animals. Mary’s faith in her God was obviously strong, but when you’re pushing a baby through your body for hours on end, surely there were moments when that faith could have been bolstered by some good drugs and knowledgeable medical professionals. Nope, not for Mary.

And think about Joseph. The father, and yet not the father of this child. It’s one thing to raise another man’s son; imagine raising God’s Son. If that’s not overwhelming… I admire Joseph’s obedience and willingness to participate in God’s plan, putting aside whatever his own aspirations might have been for his child, and yet, teaching his son his own skills of carpentry, as any father of that time would do. Joseph’s role of just being a normal dad was good enough for God. God doesn’t ask us to be super-human or all-knowing. We can be exactly who we are and He’ll work with that just fine.

When I think about the Nativity in terms of the normal people involved, it makes it that much more astounding. You’d think that God would have orchestrated a bigger production for the birth of His only Son, the Messiah, the Savior of the world. At least chosen Christ’s earthly parents from among the religious elite of the day. But I think God’s choice of a teenage peasant girl and her new husband to bring Jesus into the world was deliberate — to show us that anyone can play an important role in His plans, as long as we have the faith to submit to them. When the angel first contacted Mary about becoming pregnant with Jesus, she was understandably surprised and a little confused. She didn’t understand how any of it was going to take place, but still, her response was, “Okay, I’m game, let’s do it.” And God took care of the rest. A great example for us all.