99 New: Somebody’s Baby

Somebody had to flip the switch, pull the trigger, throw the canister, aim and fire, probably several somebodies. And it wasn’t on a computer screen that they did the pointing and clicking, there was nothing antiseptic about it. People employed by the American government fired tear gas at refugees seeking asylum in the United States including women and children, small children, children in diapers.

So who are these somebodies who have worked it out in their heads that tear-gassing refugees is personally morally acceptable because that ultimately is what we’re talking about – what is personally morally acceptable. They probably had time to consider it ahead of time. It is unlikely that the decision was a spur of the moment one, the tear gas had been ordered a while ago and, I’m betting, there had been plenty of tear gas drills to make sure everything went smoothly, without a hitch, except for the part where ace photographers were able to catch refugees’ trauma in real time.

The trap is thinking that the people who did the tear-gassing are freaks. This is what I used to think about the Nazis who ran the concentration camps, dropped the Zyklon-B in the gas chambers, rousted people from their homes, made them dig their own graves, and shot them one by one. I figured that Hitler’s crew had figured out how to find all the country’s screwed-up sadistic characters, put special outfits on them, and let them loose to torture and murder.

But it wasn’t like that. Each of those Nazis was somebody’s baby, each grew up to be somebody who looked like everybody else, and then became somebody who could bayonet a baby in his mother’s arms. They weren’t freaks, they were just everyday Joes that grew up and took root in a hothouse of hatred and white supremacy.

They were just following orders.

The Americans at the border who tear-gassed refugees were just following orders. We don’t know if there were one or two or twenty who said “no, I’m not doing this.” There might have been. We do know that there were enough willing to do it that it got done. And those Americans went home to their families, helped their kids with their homework, and went to sleep in their beds while families at the border were still struggling to breathe.

It’s really unfathomable until you think about it.

Vicious, horrible things are the meat of America along with its beauty, its freedom, and its dream. We indulge our pride and patriotism while pushing institutionalized cruelty – historical and current – to the back of our very big American closet. We have the potential is what I’m saying, we’ve proven that. We are not so very far from the bayoneting Nazi because, remember, they weren’t freaks. Each was somebody’s baby.

What would have happened at the border if every single person had said no to using tear gas? What if the designated tear-gas shooters saw the desperate people coming toward them and just said, “Nope. Not doing it.” Did they think it but not have the courage to act? Or did they not think it? Neither bodes well for us as a country.

Maybe what is needed is more visible moral courage. Like the 27 Methodists singing Amazing Grace who surrounded an ICE van to protect an immigrant from deportation. The pastor said to police, “We understand this is your job, but we need you to understand that as a matter of conviction we cannot move, and you will have to arrest us.” (The Hill, 11/26/18)

Let’s lift up the Methodists and be like them. Let’s stand and sing Amazing Grace instead of lobbing tear gas at babies. Let’s beat back our bad selves and our lazy, scared, silent selves and start singing as loud as we can. Nobody will do this for us. We have to do it, even if we don’t know the words. All together and really loud.


99 New refers to a writing challenge; this is 72/99 consecutive blog posts.

99 New: An Open Letter to My Dear Friend Hillary

Dear Hillary,

I daresay in this age of hyperbole and conjecture that it is entirely possible that someone without your best interests at heart planted the rumor that you are thinking of running again for President in 2020. They might have sown those seeds of your wanting another run just for the fun of seeing all the new trolls and memes emerge, new ones specially crafted just for you, wicked ones, best not to look.

So though it may be a great fiction that you are contemplating a third run for President, I still feel compelled to write. Knowing you as I do, a compatriot of age and temperament, I can say things to you that maybe younger people or people less traveled in the world of hard knocks might say. So here goes.

It’s done. The third time will not be the charm, it will just be the third time, the third time you knock yourself out, spend millions of dollars, put your real life on hold, build unholy alliances, make mistakes, work harder than everyone else, know more than everyone else, and lose. And it won’t be fair. Just like it wasn’t fair the first two times.

It is someone else’s turn.

I don’t say this because you’re old or your politics are bad (although some would argue both are true). It’s because you already lost twice. You smell like defeat. No one will tell you but I will. You reek of it. It’s in your clothes like smoke from a bad date. It smells used and musty like a mistake left to rot on the vine.

Here’s my advice. Take all your old stuff to Goodwill, the pastel pant suits, all of them, and go buy some new jeans. And after you get your new jeans, buy yourself some great boots. And after you get the great boots, find a new way to be great. Don’t go back to the place where you got fucked over. That’s crazy. Go somewhere entirely new – Go West, Young Woman – and claim a new space. Create your own world and be extraordinary there. And free. Be free there.

Trust me, I’m right about this. I see things you can’t see because you’re still crying even though you’re pretending you’re not. Take your wounded feelings and your mad desire for revenge and shitcan them. Go find out what comes next.


Your devoted supporter, Jan.


Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

99 New: The Day After

It was unusual to win.

We got a new governor in Wisconsin after many long years of having a Republican governor, Scott Walker, who was not good – not good for women, families, education, environment, the whole list. For years, I’ve stood incredulous as Walker was elected, then survived a recall, and then was re-elected. One wonders if one’s view of reality is completely off if so many people could either not care enough to vote or could vote for such a person. But he seemed a fixture in our political environment, impervious to complaint, bullet-proof, as they say.

But Walker lost last night, well, actually it was this morning at about 2:00 a.m. as the last ballots were counted and, happily, those votes were from Milwaukee where there had been an enormous effort to turn out voters – new voters, women voters, African American voters, Latinx voters. They made Democrat Tony Evers our new governor.

Tony Evers is a humble, sincere, very thin man who was Wisconsin’s Superintendent of Public Instruction. He is what my former husband would call an “auditorium host,” an appellation given to particularly nerdy people that could be trusted to show people to their seats for the school play. He could be your favorite teacher from middle school. That’s his vibe. Patient, gentle, willing to stay late to help you understand a difficult chapter, that’s Tony Evers’ aura.

I met him just once. It was at a fundraiser for his campaign for governor earlier this fall. I used the opportunity to talk about homelessness.  I told him about the work of Street Angels. He listened to me, asked questions, conversed, never once looking over my shoulder for someone more important to talk to. If you know politicians, you know that is a unique thing, that level of genuineness, the absence of glad-handing. And it made me happy he’d won a primary against a bunch of challengers, each with more presumed charisma. His charisma, I discovered after meeting him, is his humility.

A rare bird, this one. And we are lucky to have him.


99 New: Truckin’

Once again I am ensnared in the plans of my friend, Karen.

This time I am to drive our truck through the city tomorrow, Election Day, along with a companion who will play music and shout out to folks who look like they haven’t voted yet. This is part of the Souls to the Polls effort and I am glad to help. Lord, I want every single person to vote because if they do, everything will turn out alright.

The genius-savant-car-sound-system guy is installing a loudspeaker in our truck at this moment. It takes a while and he isn’t to be disturbed so I sit back out of view. He tests the loudspeaker and the sound is deafening, even for me, which is saying something. Maybe we could evacuate Wisconsin with this thing, I don’t know.

He makes a special fuss about needing to install the siren component. But no! we say, don’t install the siren because we can’t run the siren, we might get arrested, and once again, the specter of trespassing and rule-breaking flares in my mind. Lord knows, I obey rules like a lobotomized five year-old.

While genius savant installs the loudspeaker system, I read a magazine, one of a dozen Smithsonian magazines he has on his little table next to a futon whose cushions have hosted untold overnight guests, waiting, I presume, for their cars to be finished. I sit on a stool by the counter that has tape on its cushion like every self-respecting stool has, showing its long utility to the world. I read about Scott Kelley’s reentry from space.

The bathroom is several plywood rooms away, clean but with no towels, and like I often do, I hit the back of my hand against the door jamb, realizing only later that I am bleeding so I grab Kleenex to stop the flow just as a woman comes in and plops down at the counter with bags full of Halloween candy. She pays her bill to the genius savant and he says she should be more grateful than she is that he did such a great job and should give him some of her candy, so she gives him a big bag full which he puts under the counter instead of offering me some.

And then he is finished with our truck and I drive away into the rain without finishing the next Smithsonian article about Antarctica which includes a reference to “The Worst Journey in the World,” a book which I resolve to get from the library after the election which has become the demarcation for so much. It’s only one day. And the day after that, the genius savant will take the loudspeaker out of my car and life will be as it was for better or worse.

99 New: Rumination

Anti-Semitism isn’t just the stuff of white nationalist Neanderthals. Some of your best friends have anti-Semitic reflexes.

Oh, your friends would never admit to this. They’re too intelligent, too socially conscious. They wouldn’t be caught dead showing bigoted or anti-Semitic attitudes and they’d take great offense to the suggestion that they are unconsciously anti-Semitic. But some things a person can’t control and one of them is the reflex of anti-Semitism learned when they were children.

Who killed Jesus?

It starts there. Every kid in Sunday School learns that ‘the Jews killed Jesus.’ Later, when they grow up, they sometimes sort out who did what with Jesus; grown-up minds can deal with complexity if so inclined. If not so inclined, the original notion that the Jews were to blame for the agony of Christ’s suffering on the cross gets embedded in people’s psyches. Hence, the reflex business. And the Inquisition.

Added to this Sunday School horror story is separateness. Many people live their entire lives without knowing a single Jew, without knowing anything really about Jewish history, Judaism as a religion, or the role of Jews in America and the world. I remember a friend remarking that being a Unitarian was just like being Jewish, you know, because of the lack of focus on Jesus, his death, and resurrection, the implication being that Judaism was a religion notable only for its lack of Jesus. Of course, the truth is that Judaism is extraordinarily nuanced and complex with layers of philosophy and belief dating back thousands of years, the rules of life that governed the life of Jesus himself.

I’ve heard it remarked by a Jewish friend that ‘everyone is okay with hating Jews.’ That seems extreme to me since I rarely see true hatred but then again I’m not the target of people who hate Jews since I’m not Jewish, I just love several Jews, including my husband of 35 years. I can feel it when the hair stands up on the back of his neck because he is walking or talking in an anti-Semitic minefield but I won’t say any more about that because how he has navigated those minefields is his story to tell, not mine.

Black people I respect have surprised me by elevating Louis Farrakhan. When I said something to one of them about Farrakhan’s horrible statements about Jews, I was shamed for not understanding the black struggle and not seeing the powerful force Minister Farrakhan was for the black community. And I stood wondering, okay, can’t he be that force without hating Jews, but then I realized no, he can’t, because getting people to hate other people is such magic when building a base, a phenomenon we are cursed to witness again with our current president.

I am not Jewish but I have been a Jewish wife and mother all these many years. I studied Judaism for a while, took my children to Sunday School and Hebrew class. I sat, the only non-Jew in a sea of Jews, and was made to feel welcome and respected. I stood on the bimah at my children’s Bar/Bat Mitzvahs  and I spoke about them to the people we had invited to their celebrations. Last week, I found their old practice tapes – the blessings they had to know, the reading from the Torah they practiced – and I remembered playing the tapes in my car driving them from place to place.  I am not Jewish but I know some Jewish things.

I know about thinking it could all happen again.


Photo by Ben Ostrower on Unsplash

99 New: Flagging

I went to a big veterans breakfast this morning because Street Angels, the organization I work with, was getting an award. There were maybe 150 veterans there, most very old and most white men. They represented a dozen veterans organizations – the Marine Corps League, Disabled American Veterans, and so on.

The program started a little late which surprised me it being the military and all but it felt good like a family waiting at the table while Mom finishes the gravy in the kitchen. We were patient and glad to be there, all of us Street Angels in our garb – Hope Dealer on the front of our shirts and the Street Angel logo on the back. Wings, yes, but tough wings.

An older guy – I think he was one of the higher-ups – came to our table to congratulate us. He riffed a bit on how tough it is to deal with homeless people. He said he’d watch the cops do it and well, it’s really tough stuff. “It takes a lot of balls to do what you do.” I love a good compliment, especially early in the morning.

At the speaker’s end of the very large room hung an enormous American flag. I feel sick about our country in so many ways but I love the flag like a nine-year-old Boy Scout (I’d say Girl Scout but we never much dealt with the flag, we were busy sewing badges on our sashes).

At the beginning of the program, we all stood to say the Pledge of Allegiance. And in that moment, I really did pledge my allegiance to the intention and the concept and the philosophy of my country. And I felt a belonging to a country that I needed to feel this morning even if the room was not filled with the broad beauty of the country we have – the races and ages, the genders and ideas.

Street Angels won an Americanism Award. They won it for doing street outreach with seriously tough homeless people which was something, for some reason, these old veterans thought was worthy. It made me think very highly of them. Also winning was a motorcycle group called Guardians of the Children who take their bad selves and their big black Harleys wherever a child is being threatened or abused and they stand vigil. Picture an abused kid scared that his abuser will return to hurt him again. So the Guardians of the Children are a pretty bad ass group and sure looked the part (they’re probably all accountants in real life) and it felt good to be a Street Angel hanging with the Guardians hanging with the ancient military veterans, some in walkers, moving so slow. We were, at least temporarily, comrades in this life.