“There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”

— Desmond Tutu

Art and Craftsmanship

The Proper People summarize yet another expedition into a crumbling, roughly century-old building:

One reason I love this power plant so much is because there’s no reason it had to be built with all these intricate details and grandiose architecture. It’s just a power plant, after all; all it had to do was create electricity. I think that demonstrates a fundamental change of philosophy in the way we construct the world around us.

To me, the world is feeling more and more disposable. Everything is created as cheaply as possible, and it is simply a means to an end. But, when Port Richmond station was built, the builders thought they were constructing something that would serve future generations for centuries, and when we’re creating something permanent, it’s only natural for us to want to inject art and creativity and craftmanship into it. It’s part of what makes us human — and that’s what lacking from so much of what we build today.


In the style of Glennon Doyle…


There’s a time in your life when you’ll be striving, reaching, seeking. Every new subject, every new interest, every new person will crackle with the possibility of sparking and bringing alive a part of you that you didn’t know existed. It’s the kind of ride you’ll know you’re on when you’re on it. It needs no label. And what’s more: by definition, you’ll enjoy it. It feeds the ego. For most, it occurs in late teens, early twenties. For some, it’s delayed by loss but ignites later in life, when there is time and space. For still others, tragically, it never happens.

You’re going to go go go. You’re going to push push push. You’re going to do things, that, when you look back on them, seem superhuman.

Fire burns hot, but it consumes. You’ll burn days, nights, entire semesters, money, connections, friendships, loved ones, girlfriends, boyfriends, with fire. And you must, because you’re forging your tools, and you are casting the alloy of your Self.

You’ll be burning fuel — how much do you have? How much time, how many friends? Don’t throw everything in; this needn’t continue forever. Because after a fire, you build.

To grow a garden, to go out and pull the same weeds and add the same water each day, trading your time, your boundless possibility, for the kind of hope for gentle weather that a gardener must have — that’s building. To have a child, to change the same diapers and make the same food, trading your time, your boundless possibility for the kind of hope for a gentle universe that a parent must have — that’s building. The plant grows up, the roots grow down, and building requires a commitment to sameness that you must freely choose. Only if you wish.

Know when you’re burning, and know when you’re building.

Principle over Privilege

“I must honestly confess that I go through those moments of disappointment when I have to recognize the fact that there aren’t enough white persons in our country who are willing to cherish democratic principles over privilege.”

— Martin Luther King, Jr., Anaheim, 1968

“We were partially liberated and then reënslaved.” Although black people had been fighting for freedom “for more than a hundred years,” the only thing that was “explicitly certain is that the struggle for it will endure.”

— Martin Luther King, Jr., Carnegie Hall, 1968

“Perhaps even more than the death itself, the manner of his death has forced me into a judgment concerning human life and human beings which I have always been reluctant to make,” [James Baldwin] wrote. “Incontestably, alas, most people are not, in action, worth very much; and yet, every human being is an unprecedented miracle. One tries to treat them as the miracles they are, while trying to protect oneself against the disasters they’ve become.”

All of these, from Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.’s piece The History That James Baldwin Wanted America to See at The New Yorker.


I just said this tonight:

“Essie, I’m going out to vacuum the gutters, and I want you to have your jams on when I come in.”

And I have never sounded more… ADULT… in my life.

Honestly, if you had told me seven years ago I’d be talking about pajamas and gutter vacuuming, I’d have said — whose pajamas, and I don’t have any gutters NOR any interest in gutters. Life moves pretty fast.

Wesley Lowery and James Baldwin

Wesley Lowery writing at The Atlantic:

The power that is American policing has conceded nothing. Black men and women are still dying across the country as police unions continue to codify policies designed solely to shield their officers from accountability—such as rules ensuring that officers who kill can’t even be interviewed by investigators about it until their victims have been dead for days.

In the days since one of their own killed George Floyd, many American police officers have shamelessly brutalized the protesters whose chief demand is that the police stop brutalizing people.

James Baldwin, Down At the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind:

A child cannot, thank Heaven, know how vast and how merciless is the nature of power, with what unbelievable cruelty people treat each other.

The universe, which is not merely the stars and the moon and the planets, flowers, grass, and trees, but other people, has evolved no terms for your existence, has made no room for you, and if love will not swing wide the gates, no other power will or can. And if one despairs—as who has not?—of human love, God’s love alone is left. But God—and I felt this even then, so long ago, on that tremendous floor, unwillingly—is white. And if His love was so great, and if He loved all His children, why were we, the blacks, cast down so far? Why?

Something very sinister happens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their own reactions as deeply as they do here, and become as joyless as they have become. It is this individual uncertainty on the part of white American men and women, this inability to renew themselves at the fountain of their own lives, that makes the discussion, let alone elucidation, of any conundrum—that is, any reality—so supremely difficult. The person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality—for this touchstone can be only oneself. Such a person interposes between himself and reality nothing less than a labyrinth of attitudes. And these attitudes, furthermore, though the person is usually unaware of it (is unaware of so much!), are historical and public attitudes. They do not relate to the present any more than they relate to the person. Therefore, whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.

Baldwin, again:

I cannot risk assuming that the humanity of these people is more real to them than their uniforms.

The brutality with which Negroes are treated in this country simply cannot be overstated, however unwilling white men may be to hear it.

Sometimes Fun Floods In

Essie wrote a song on our bike ride today: “Sometimes Fun Floods into Your Day.”

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Smallness and Finitude

I have no wise words to offer during a time such as this. I never dreamed of such a scenario in my life; I always imagined the more mundane disasters: hospitals, accidents, bankruptcy. I’ve had a brush with none, and yet here I am, with all humanity, in this disaster.

Have I, this whole life, been picking my way through a labyrinth, each choice sending me down another corridor of choices? Or was I launched from a canon, my trajectory unknowable, and yet fixed? Am I the latter, thinking I am the former? Do I write silly questions, straw men in dual, false dichotomies, the truth an ineffable middle-place?

Well, anyway. I played tag in our backyard with Essie today. She loves tag. She chases me and laughs. I chase her and laugh. She chases me and laughs. She loves to run, just like I always have. Her doll, Abigail from Spirit, found dandelions and then I had to find her. Find Abigail, find the dandelion. Kneel down, pull the weed. Repeat. Would I’ve done this on a cold spring Monday without a global pandemic raging in the wider world? I have no idea. I don’t even know if I chose to do it, or if it chose to have me experience it.

And tonight: uproarious laughter from Ess as Mykala tickled her in the tub, made funny faces at her wrapped in blankets afterward. Sweet, sweet, sweet.

To see the suffocating intoxication of agency, amplified by the unhinged id, to realize that we may steer the boat, but not control the squall… it is not to relinquish that agency, but rather to be humbled by finitude and smallness. I feel humble today.

COVID-19 and Dentisting

Well, life was quite a bit different the last time I wrote down anything here. Here we are, in the midst of the worst global pandemic since the Spanish Flu of 1918.

Forgive my poor writing, the parts of my brain that handle reading, writing, and higher order thinking have been exhausted. Here’s a synopsis…

As a part of my job, I take a drill spinning at 200,000 rpm and use it right next to the mucous membranes and oral tissue of patients. This whips up whatever bacteria and viruses are present into a large, invisible cloud. Doing this day in, day out, with many patients per day means I’m going to get exposed to high viral loads in the air. (Per recommendations from our national and state dental associations, I am not working right now.) So, when I return to work, the thing that worries me is this is precisely the kind of environment that hospital personnel are in right now, and it appears that this repeated exposure (when combined with immune systems depleted due to stress) causes a relatively high rate of symptomatic COVID-19 infections amongst them. But I am lucky to be young, here’s why:


This says it is highly unlikely I am going to die from COVID-19 caused by an infection with SARS-CoV-2. That’s good! But my lizard brain keeps telling me it is possible, so I bounce between thinking I’ll be fine for 50% of the time and worrying this will kill me for the other 50% of the time. That’s bad!

Another thing that bears repeating and repeating and repeating —- look up at that chart again, where its data originates. It’s not from the CDC. It’s not from the United States. It’s from China. And their neighbor, South Korea, is currently testing nearly as many people PER DAY as the United States has tested IN TOTAL. Here’s Derek Thompson writing at the Atlantic in a piece called “America Is Acting Like a Failed State”:

Finally, large nonprofit organizations are stepping up to fill the void left by the administration’s testing failure. Amazon and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have offered to provide testing kits to people in Seattle with coronavirus symptoms. Yesterday, the Jack Ma Foundation, a charitable organization established by the founder of the Chinese retail company Alibaba, announced a donation of 500,000 testing kits to the United States. Acute state failure has reduced the richest nation in world history to a charitable cause.

Taking into account total population and time since outbreak, that means South Korea is testing people at a per-capita rate about 200 times that of the United States. Testing is so SO important because it helps us track the asymptomatic people who are infected! And with this virus, those asymptomatic people exhibit viral loads comparable to symptomatic infected individuals. We need to know where (and when!) the asymptomatic infected people are!

Without testing, we don’t know where this is spiking, we don’t know the true number of cases, and we don’t know when or where it is going to spike next. We can’t see trends. We can’t see curves. We do not have the public health data we desperately need to track this. Our best hope to contain the first spike (what everyone is, accurately, calling ‘flattening the curve’) is to try to do what Italy did (drastic isolation and quarantine measures) sooner than they did (before our hospital system is overwhelmed). The United States’ inability to test for this is a catastrophic failure.

At the same time, my grandfather Bup is dying in the hospital. He lived at home, the same home, since my mother was about five and of course for my entire life. He lived there until only a few days ago, when he was admitted to the hospital, with symptoms of dementia, delirium, and metastatic colon cancer in its most common form: multiple myeloma. He has a few days left. I can’t visit him because of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic; hell, we may not even be able to have a timely funeral because the current recommendations are against a gathering of greater than ten people… and on the coasts that has evolved into a recommendation against leaving one’s house unless absolutely necessary. This is, without a doubt, the strangest, most extreme, most stressful constellation of uncontrollable, bad, tragic, scary things that has ever happened in my life. I’ve been at home, not working, for just two days and I literally can not believe how the British people mentally dealt with The Blitz for 8 goddamned months. Oy.

And on the other hand: Ess just blossoms when we pay her attention. She loves to share whatever she’s doing or imagining or watching with us. These moments, watching a silly show on Netflix, or playing an invented marble game in the basement, or taking a walk as a family — these are the ones I hope I remember from this time. But hearing your five-year-old say she’s “tired of everyone talking about coronavirus all the time” makes you realize how impressionable, sensitive, and attentive one’s child can be. But she is loved, and I think, I hope, she knows it.

Patriotic Millionaires

Sheelah Kolhatkar writing in the New Yorker; The Ultra-Wealthy Who Argue That They Should Be Paying Higher Taxes:

In the U.S., executive compensation has increased, on average, by nine hundred and forty per cent since 1978, according to one estimate; during the same period, worker pay has risen twelve per cent. Income inequality hasn’t been this extreme since the nineteen-twenties. Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman found that, as a result of cuts to estate and corporate taxes, as well as the 2017 G.O.P. tax bill, the four hundred richest Americans pay a lower over-all tax rate than any other group in the country. In a Times Op-Ed, Saez and Zucman wrote, “This is the tax system of a plutocracy.”

First off: 940%. Wow.

Saez and Zucman’s research continues to provide evidence of the extent and damage done by runaway inequality, which is of course the aforementioned plutocracy. The hard, numerical reality of inequality was first presented to me by Paul Krugman, which made me very interested in the exhaustive review of historic, global inequality (and government’s role in curtailing it) by Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. My point: it is incontrovertible fact that inequality hurts societies. But here’s what the wealthy think about it all:

When I asked Payne how hard it was to persuade rich people to join [Patriotic Millionaires, a group of wealthy people who support hiking taxes on the rich], she said, “I think the last time I checked there were about three hundred and seventy-five thousand taxpayers in the country who make a million dollars a year in income”—there are now almost half a million—“and we have a couple hundred members.” She laughed. “If you ever needed a back-of-the-envelope calculation of how many of America’s élite are concerned about the basic well-being of their fellow-citizens, that should give you a rough estimate.”

Let’s do the math. That’s just over 0.06% of millionaires who see enough of a problem to join a group that asks for higher taxes. So I think it is very very safe to say that essentially all millionaires feel that they have, to use the old expression, earned every penny. And they intend to keep them.

After that, you get a series of tired old expressions to justify stupendously low taxes:

And then you get the books written by these people:

And the narrative corollary from those millionaires: “I earned so much money in my life, it must be solely because of the things I did and not at all because of my luck.”

Which reminds me of David Robert’s evergreen piece in Vox, “The radical moral implications of luck in human life”:

It’s not difficult to see why many people take offense when reminded of their luck, especially those who have received the most. Allowing for luck can dent our self-conception. It can diminish our sense of control. It opens up all kinds of uncomfortable questions about obligations to other, less fortunate people.

Nonetheless, this is a battle that cannot be bypassed. There can be no ceasefire. Individually, coming to terms with luck is the secular equivalent of religious awakening, the first step in building any coherent universalist moral perspective. Socially, acknowledging the role of luck lays a moral foundation for humane economic, housing, and carceral policy.

To rephrase Roberts: if we can not sit down and reflect on our lives and conclude the frightening degree to which luck has shaped our selves and our circumstances (to say nothing of our monetary assets) then we are completely blind to the role of luck in other’s lives.

And, honestly, read that piece from him. It include an outstanding discussion of genetics, epigenetics, nature, nurture. Here’s a bit more:

So, then, here you are. You turn 18. You are no longer a child; you are an adult, a moral agent, responsible for who you are and what you do.

By that time, your inheritance is enormous. You’ve not only been granted a genetic makeup, an ethnicity and appearance, by accidents of nature and parentage. You’ve also had your latent genetic traits “activated” in a very specific way through a specific upbringing, in a specific environment, with a specific set of experiences.

Your basic mental and emotional wiring is in place; you have certain instincts, predilections, fears, and cravings. You have a certain amount of money, certain social connections and opportunities, a certain family lineage. You’ve had a certain amount and quality of education. You’re a certain kind of person.

You are not responsible for any of that stuff; you weren’t yet capable of being responsible.

And of course Roberts includes the necessary rebuttal of those who would claim that assigning luck the large role it deserves undercuts our free agency. Of course it doesn’t. But! Understanding luck reorients your understanding of everyone else on earth and better prepares you to exhibit the compassion and generosity that people deserve.