Summer’s final gasping breaths

This morning I awoke to temps in the 50’s, a brisk wind, and the smell of fall starting to creep into the air. I went for a short walk this morning, and as I left the house I was thankful for my warm hoodie, while simultaneously trying to defy the weather with my shorts and sandals. I don’t even think it got much into the 70s today, with even cooler temps predicted for the week ahead.

Season changes can be both difficult and refreshing. There’s a newness to the changing weather patterns and the different smells in the air. Gone are the bright vibrant blooms of summer flowers, replaced with the rustle of tall grasses, reaching towards the sky, achieving heights unheard of earlier in the year. There’s a beauty in the season between blooms and the vibrant colors of changing leaves. The green things are reaching their apex, the fulfillment of all that they could accomplish in a season. The strain of growing so hard and fast permeates their slightly duller and brown tinged hues.

The air itself struggles with its identity. As we biked along the river last night we passed through alternating pockets of hot and cold air, battling against one another along unseen battle lines. Every 30 feet the temperature would change 10 degrees, providing relief, refreshment, or comfort. Constant turmoil between what was, and what is to be.

In a few weeks the summer air will all be a memory and the comforting embrace of fall, with it’s warm spices, will be all that remain. It’s important to stop for a moment and savor what is before rushing into what will be. To look one more time at the tall grasses, and the remnants of green that breathe one last gasp. The sun is not yet low in the sky, and so we life our faces to it, and its warmth, breathing in the freshness of a summer gone by.

Soon, I’ll put away the sandals. But not quite yet.

The privilege of my whiteness

I grew up poor, living with just my mother. My early childhood involved her working various teaching assistant jobs, before ending up on welfare, and eventually disability. The only reason we had an apartment in a duplex was because of the Section 8 housing program (government subsidy). Growing up, I knew that we didn’t have a lot of money, and I had to learn at a very early age how to be self-sufficient. I even remember helping to manage the family checkbook (starting around age 13), learning how to pay bills and balance a ledger.

We didn’t own a car until I was 15, and we were reliant on public transportation, and what rides we could get from friends. A friend took us to Duluth for a day trip once. I wasn’t able to go back until I was 17 and could drive myself. Our neighborhood was lower working class, with a few folks around who were trying to game the system, or getting hooked on the addition of the day. I still remember gunshots on a some occasions (some very close by), and all manner of poverty on display wherever I looked.

Yet, here I am today, a typical middle class professional with multiple college degrees. I own my own home and car, and have made a decent life for myself and my family. I had to start down this path when I was 18 and graduated high school. The Section 8 program wouldn’t allow us to keep the duplex once I was an adult, and my mom had to move into a small public assistance apartment in a high rise. I still remember the day I packed up my bedroom into the back of my used Plymouth Reliant and moved into a dorm room at college. Everything I owned in the trunk of the car.

I got through college, earning my B.A. in History, with plans to go on to Seminary. I worked part-time during the school years, and as close to full-time as I could during the summers. Because I had taken advantage of the Post Secondary Enrollment Options program in high school, I already had nearly two years of college credit under my belt. Thankfully, combined with various grants, I was able to get a degree at a private college, and come out of it with very little debt.

I spent some time in random jobs, and made my first attempt at Seminary, but eventually got married and took a full-time job working at the University of Minnesota as a copy cataloger. I was good with computers (because I had been given one when I was 8 years old) and managed to scrimp and save, and borrow money, for a second, better one, in high school. While I was at the UofM they needed a web programmer, and my life in the tech field began.

I’ve since bounced around to a few different jobs across the technology field, and made a career for myself. I was smart, had a good education, and a little luck helped along the way. But even more than luck, I had one advantage in my court that no one could take away from me.

I was white.

I hate the phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”. I especially hate it when people accuse poor people of being lazy or un-motivated. It is my firmly held belief that NO ONE pulls themselves out of poverty on their own. No one.

People look at my story and they say, “Wow, you’re really smart, it’s awesome you were able to do all of that yourself.” But the truth of the matter is? It wasn’t all me. Every single step along the way, I was helped. It might have been small things, like a family member buying me my first computer that got me started on this path. I might have been a friend from church who helped pay for that old Plymouth Reliant and made sure I had insurance on it. Or it was the friend who made sure that we could get to the grocery store every week so that we didn’t have to shop at the convince stores in our food desert neighborhood.

But here’s the even deeper key to it all. Every one of those people who helped me? They were white as well. They had good jobs, good educations, and had been given similar opportunities by those around them when they were younger. They built their lives on the legacy of wealth that was handed down to them through the generations. Wealth (even middle-class “wealth”) is built, and it takes time for people to be able to be comfortable enough to be able to help others. My story of being a self-made man, is a story of generations of a community coming together to make sure I was launched into the world right.

Because of this community I was

  • Able to have a computer and learn a skill
  • Eat decent food and not end up with childhood diabetes (though believe me I tried)
  • Had a car when I was old enough to drive
  • Never had to worry about getting arrested for doing stupid teenager stuff
  • Got financial support from extended family through college
  • Got my first jobs with references from friends and family

But it could have been different. Everyday, it IS different for people of color, especially if you’re black.

Take any one of those things on my list away, and my life would be different. Take away 2 or more, and who knows where I’d be. That’s what has been happening in black communities for generations. Imagine if when I was 12 years old they decided to bulldoze my neighborhood and put a freeway through. Because of Section 8 rules, it would have been very difficult to stay in that neighborhood, and we would have lost touch with that community. I might have ended up somewhere else, and having to completely rebuild our network.

Or what if the people who were helping me didn’t have 80-100 years of family support behind them, but were having to restart everything 20 years ago? How does someone like myself get support from my community when the community I’m in is still trying to set itself right, or rebuilding itself over and over again?

When we talk about white privilege this is what it means. It means that because of the color of my skin, our neighborhood was allowed to grow and thrive. It means that my family wasn’t forced to move around the country to escape persecution and racism. It means I had successful role models to pattern my life after. It means that we could actually exist in a community, and be a part of something bigger than ourselves, and no one was taking it away from us.

In our fast-paced world it’s hard to remember that racial injustices are not a thing of the distant past. Just because the TV footage isn’t in full color, or people are wearing bell bottoms, it’s not ancient history. These events happened in the history of our parents. In fact I still have some old 8mm footage that my mom took during the 1968 Chicago riots. We’re not even ONE generation removed from these events. Or the destruction of Rondo, which took place only 10 years before I was born. Even Black Wall Street and Rosewood were a part of my grandmother’s life.

If your parents or grandparents can tell you stories about being a part of these historical moments… it’s not ancient history. It’s just as relevant as yesterday was in your life.

This is my privilege. I was born white, into a country and society that has historically suppressed others who don’t look like me. I’m the benefactor of that destruction. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for that privilege. It’s not fair that my black friends never had that, or if they did, they were one of the lucky ones. It’s time for change.

I know it may sound hard to be an ally, or fight for the rights of others. Not everyone is good at activism. But here is the absolute, drop-dead, simplest thing that you can do. Say that Black Lives Matter, and then shut up. No more “Ya, but…”, no more “But what about…” Just tell people you support folks trying to make a change, and then get out of the way of the people trying to make those changes. If you can do more than by all means, DO it. But at least put your privilege aside, and don’t be an armchair-roadblocker.

Let’s not pretend this is new

The current situation of inflamed racial tensions in Minneapolis is distressing and frustrating. The video of George Floyd being held down with a knee to his neck is sickening. The disregard for the life of another individual is the epitome of pure evil, and thankfully, charges have been brought quickly against at least one of the officers. 

There is hope that the riots and anarchy that has permeated the city over the past couple nights will start to calm, now that justice has started to turn its slow wheels. After all, what we really want is for things to go back to the way that they were. We want to get back to our lives and livelihoods. But, let us not for one second think that if the rioting stops that we’ve somehow turned a corner. Read this next sentence very, very carefully. 

This. Is. Not. New.

I grew up in Saint Paul, on the “Eastside”, which has never been known as a haven of prosperity and wealth (to put it mildly). I’ve been shot in the back with BB guns, been awakened by the sound of gunfire outside my house, and found passed out drunk people on the steps of our duplex. But even at age 10, there was one thing that all of us knew… we might have it bad, but at least we didn’t have to deal with Minneapolis Police. News reports of cops planting evidence on a suspect that they just shot, or roughing up people of color for no reason were not uncommon. Despite the fact that I’m a white male, it still gave me pause when my friend and I were pulled over just on the other side of the border for a broken taillight. I’ve lived my entire life with this central narrative about the MPD

Let’s take it back another step though. The history of the Twin Cities is not one that has been kind to people of color. Redlining was a massive problem here, as much as anywhere. Black people were required to stay in their neighborhoods, and were even protested when they tried to move into white ones. The black community also had to deal with institutional discrimination at all levels, which is most visible today in the destruction of the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul and the North Minneapolis neighborhood. 

Both of these neighborhoods were irrevocably changed with the construction of Interstate 94. The Rondo neighborhood was bisected right through the middle, destroying dozens and dozens of houses, and forever altering the character of a neighborhood and a community. North Minneapolis was also hit with a new freeway through its neighborhood because it was “just working class people and negroes” and was labeled by cartographers as “Slums”. So strong was the prejudice towards people of color, that it was simply deemed OK to crush their attempt at community building. But yet, when Interstate 35 got too close to a very wealthy (and less racially diverse) portion of Saint Paul, no effort was spared to lock the whole thing up in lawsuits until it was turned into “35E Parkway” and the speed limit capped at 45mph

Minnesota has always been considered progressive. It’s a “liberal bastion” of the great north. Yet, that progressive spirit shouldn’t give us a pass when it comes to racial equity. Minnesota is 84% white (79% when subtracting hispanic origin), and our African American community is only around 380,000 people (6.8%) (,MN/PST045219). That’s not a lot of diversity, and when you leave the Twin Cities area the percentages skew even more and more white. Yet, you would think that for as progressive as we’re touted as being, that our racial strifes would be minimal. That’s far from the truth, and it’s complicated by our “progressive” ideals and how we’ve responded to other races in our past. 

Minnesota and its progressive history is well known for it’s stance on refugees. In the 1970’s Minnesota took on a huge Hmong refugee resettlement initiative and now hosts the largest Hmong community of any metropolitan area in the United States. Again in the 2000’s Minnesota took on another refugee population and now boasts the largest Somali community in the US. We’re proud of what we’ve done for the world by helping these communities resettle in the frozen north. We wear it as a badge of honor, and we should be grateful for all the people who helped make these resettlements possible. But, when looking at our “home grown” minority populations, we’ve fallen way short. Particularly when it comes to our treatment of Native Americans and African Americans. 

Our “Progressive Pride” has made us blind to the fact that we’re no different than many other areas of the country when it comes to how we deal with minorities, many of whom are living in poverty. We think that because we have historically generous social safety-nets, long-standing union support, and a strong love of multi-cultural arts, that we must be taking care of every one equally. In fact, we’re not really that different than anyone else. We have a sordid history with desegregation and school busing. We are home to the largest mass execution of Native Americans in history. And, we continue to show that our police forces struggle to treat people of color fairly. 

The first step in any type of change, personal or societal, is coming to terms with where we’re at. Many times when people want to lose weight, it’s because they’ve looked long and hard in the mirror and don’t like what they see. The same goes for people suffering with substance abuse, eating disorders, or any variety of mental illnesses. We need to first recognize the problem, as a problem, before we can even consider how to make a change. 

We’re at an inflection point Minnesota. We’re being shown the mirror of racial injustice, and we don’t like that fact that it’s our face starting back at us. It’s time to put away the excuses. It’s time to put away the “ya, but…” that we add to all of our pithy social media comments. It’s time to admit that we have a problem, and it’s not a new one. It’s one that we’ve been avoiding, dismissing, or outright denying for far too long. 

We’ve been given this moment in time to consider how we want Minnesota to look tomorrow and into the future. Let’s stop, reflect, and take a breath. Unlike Mr. Floyd, we can still breath, and history will be watching what we do next. 

Political Discourse in the age of COVID-19

Lately it’s been harder and harder to participate in the social media sphere (and in particular Facebook). Because of the pandemic, and everyone having a lot more time on their hands, the amount of political discourse has gone up, while the quality of that discourse has often gone down. Too often I see deeper entrenchment on both sides of the aisle, despite the fact that we’re currently facing a crisis that doesn’t give a shit about sides.

COVID-19 is a science problem, not a political one. Science isn’t about conservative or liberal politics. Science is a thing unto itself, and when we try to shoehorn it into our political belief systems, it will let us down every time. That’s because science operates with a completely different paradigm than we’re used to.

In science you make a hypothesis based on existing data. You then test your hypothesis. You look at the results of that test, and the data, and then you either have proven the hypothesis or you need to restate it and try again. Or, you move on to the next step in the problem you’re trying to solve. It’s about trial and error, and most importantly… failure. Many things that people attempt in the scientific field fail. In fact, some scientists I know would even say that MOST things fail. The very essence of the scientific experience has a failure feedback loop built into it. It’s how it thrives. Many scientific and technological successes have come from building on the failures of what has come before. Without failure, those successes wouldn’t come to pass.

Politics operates in a completely different world. In politics we look to those in power to provide “the answer” to our problems (or we ask them to get out of the way if you’re a Libertarian). Politics does not respect failure, and in fact it punishes it. If a politician presents a message that does not resonate with voters they lose their next election. They fail. We don’t expect them to come back again and say, “Hey look, I found the problem in the data and I’m ready to try again, so let’s redo that election next month please.” They get one shot at it, and then if they fail they have to completely regroup, and may never be back on the scene again. Politics is about winners and losers and failure is not an option.

Then along comes a pandemic. An event in the natural world that can only be solved by science. This new thing has entered the world and to understand it takes rigor, discipline, and yes, failure. To find a cure for a disease you have to spend countless days and months studying and understanding the disease, and then hypothesizing treatments which then get tested over and over again, failing multiple times. It takes time. It takes patience. It requires failure.

Politics can’t handle this. It wants answers, and it wants them now. Policy decisions cannot wait until science has everything figured out and fixed. Politicians are forced to do the best they can, with the data that science has given them. Yet many times, the data changes as more hypothesis are tested, and success and failures chart a path to the truth. This means that when policy decisions end up needing to change, as the science changes, we don’t see “good” scientific failure, we see “bad” political failure. As a society we simply can’t wrap our heads about the idea of “evolving” policy decisions. Everything is either black or white, up or down. If you’re not giving the right answer, then the correct answer must be the opposite of what you’re saying. Because we live in a duopoly of political spectrums, we don’t have the benefit of more nuanced and multi-faceted political sphere. However, even if there were multiple spectrums, the nature of politics means that we’d all still be clamoring for one side or another of the multiple spectrums. It’s how politics and policy works.

This is a good time for everyone, as a citizen, to pause and take a moment and acknowledge where they are on the political spectrum. Then stop, pause, and take a deep breath. Ask yourself a question from a science point of view, “What if my political view on this turns out to be wrong and a failure?” What does that do to you? Can you accept a more science oriented view that allows for grace and understanding? Can you accept that we sometimes need to re-think our approach to policy? Can you accept that when dealing with a foe that only science can defeat, maybe we need to learn to adapt our worldview and allow for a more failure-based, experimental approach to our policy?

I make no secret of the fact that I’m on the liberal end of the spectrum. I’m a believer in universal health care, strong social safety nets, huge investments in public education, more government involvement in regulation and policies, and many other left-of-center ideologies. But I also understand that I live in a world where these ideals are not shared with everyone I come in contact with. I live in community with many different people, and I need to accept that reality and chose how to live in a conflicted world.

I would love to change the world and make this pandemic go away. As someone who grew up in extreme poverty, I know how devastating this time is to those who struggle every day to survive. Poor communities are being ravaged by the pandemic in ways that many of us in the middle class see as just minor inconvenience. I want to say that we need to end all of this lockdown craziness because of how incredibly destructive it is to those in poverty (of whom people of color are disproportionally affected). The liberal in me wants people to be able to survive and thrive, and this lockdown hurts so many people in so many ways.

But, I need to put that aside and let science happen. It’s so incongruous to my worldview to knowingly let people suffer, but I have to trust that science will get us to an eventual answer. It takes time and it takes failure. That failure leads to adjustments that often feel like they’re in opposition to what we thought we knew. It’s frustrating. It’s incredibly frustrating. It requires that I change, and that’s never easy.

My challenge to everyone is to take a deep breath. Comparing our situation to fascism or calling people murderers doesn’t help. We’re in territory we’ve never been in before in our lifetimes (most of us anyway). We need to let science do what it does best, and understand that, because of this, politicians may not always be able to meet our expectations. Things will get better, but it’s going to take time. Science takes time. What we can’t afford, as a society, is to let this continue to deepen the wounds we’re inflicting on one another.

Help those who you can. Give grace to those you disagree with. Be good to one another and tomorrow will maybe look different… maybe even better.

A quick blog check-in

One may think that because of the pandemic and working from home full time, that you end up with all kinds of extra time to tackle all those big projects you’ve been planning. However, in reality, I’m still working, just as much as I did before. I have a little more time from not commuting, but I’ve already eaten up most of that time with daily runs and bike rides (today is 40 days in a row of biking).

I haven’t forgotten about being more active on the blog, I’ve just been distracted with other things. Namely, some new toys that I’ve gotten to play with. I’ve got a slew of product reviews that I need to work on, I just need to sit down and spend the time to bang them out. I recently upgraded my computer, got new running shoes, and have been playing with a bunch of new software. All of which I need to tell you about. It’s coming soon, I promise.

I did was to take a moment though to check in and write something, so that I can share that I hope you are all well, and able to live your best life, despite the circumstances. It’s hard to believe that it has already been two months since everything went crazy. It seems like forever ago, but at the same time, it feels like this is simply how life goes now.

The picture attached to the top of this blog is of a female cardinal who molted her head feathers recently. Right now she looks like a Skeksis from the Dark Crystal. It’s bizarre and frightening to see a bird like that at our feeder. You want to call the wildlife rescue because she looks like she’s seen some serious shit. But just give it a couple weeks. She’ll be back to her old self before you know it, with a whole new set of coverings. That’s where we’re at right now.

We’re frightening bald birds, just waiting till we get our plumage back.

Make sure you do what you can to show kindness and respect to others. We’ll get through this and it’ll all be OK on the other side.