A Thousand Words

As far as I can remember, it began with Eric Gardner. The horrific video of his murder at the hands of New York police officers went public and sparked a national outcry. That was in July of 2014.

Less than a month later, Michael Brown was shot and killed by a cop in Ferguson, Missouri. There was no video for that incident, but witness accounts were enough to incite further outrage.

Thus began a terrible series of cases from all over the United States of police officers killing unarmed African Americans. Many of these killings had videos that went viral.

This led white Americans naively wonder, “Why is this happening all of a sudden? Why are so many cops killing so many black people lately?” As if police brutality was an inexplicable new trend that came out of nowhere.

But of course, there was nothing new about police harassing, brutalizing, and even murdering black people. It’s just that there wasn’t video of it before. White America was being forced to see it with our own eyes. That’s the part that was new.

I remember watching a segment on Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show concerning the murder of Alton Sterling in 2016.

“Thank god for fucking cell phones,” Wilmore said. “We would never even hear about incidents like this otherwise. In fact, part of what makes people in the black community so enraged about this is, for years, we never had evidence of these things.”

More and more African Americans began sharing their own stories of encounters with the police. They were consistently disturbing. And disturbingly consistent. I was embarrassed by how blind I had been.

It is understandable, if not forgivable, that so many white Americans (myself included) were taken aback by all of this. I think it’s human nature to assume that other peoples’ experience is more or less like our own, until we see otherwise. Of course, I’ve always known there was racism. I knew there were racist cops. I knew there was police brutality. But I never witnessed those things myself, so I foolishly let myself believe they were on the decline.

I had heard people talk about “systemic racism” plenty of times. To be honest, that term always kind of went over my head. It’s not that I didn’t believe it was real. It’s that I didn’t fully understand what it was.

It wasn’t until I saw those videos and heard those stories, that it finally started sinking in just how widespread and pervasive this problem is. I think this is true for many white Americans once we saw the evidence. We had finally been given Othello’s “ocular proof” and our eyes were opened.

So when the footage came out of George Lloyd being murdered – lynched really – by a cop in Minneapolis, the reaction was different. We didn’t need to be convinced anymore. We jumped straight to demanding justice. We jumped straight to demanding change.

I don’ mean to sound self-congratulatory here. It’s embarrassing that it took us this long. But for whatever reasons, this time does seem to feel different.

I hope this continues. I hope white America finally takes ownership of this problem and puts in the work to make things better. I hope we finally listen to what African Americans, as well as other disenfranchised communities, have been trying to tell us for decades.

Over the weekend, I wrote a new song called A Thousand Words. I shot a little video of myself playing it. You can click this link to watch it if you like.

Writing songs has always been a form of therapy for me. It’s how I deal with what’s going on around me. In this song, I was grappling with the fact that the lynching of George Lloyd was nothing new. It was just the latest example of a something that has been going on in America since before we were even a country. We’ve all heard the stories. We’ve all seen the pictures.

Are we listening now?

Weighty Issues

Since October of 2019, I have been working to lose weight. It’s been going really well so far. I don’t talk about it much, because I’ve been down this road before. I have struggled with my weight my entire life. I cannot recall a time when I wasn’t at least a little bit overweight.

In the past, I have had periods of success trying to lose weight, but they are always short lived. I will start a new diet and exercise routine. The pounds will start coming off. I will get very excited and hopeful, thinking that I have finally turned this problem around. Inevitably though, I will get bored or frustrated with whatever routine I’m following. I will slide back into my bad habits and put the weight back on, long before I even make it to my weight loss goal.

So even though my current efforts seem to be going very well, I’m hesitant to crow about it. In the back of my mind is the fear that this will all come crashing down, as it has so many times in the past.

My frustrations with myself in this regard are paralleled by my frustrations with certain people around me. Those who have never had to deal with a chronic weight problem, and they just don’t get it.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to restrain myself from choking someone who says, “What’s the big deal? Just eat right and exercise.”

I shrug and nod my head humbly at such a remark while thinking, “Oh fuck off, asshole.

It was maybe fifteen years ago, when I was living in Los Angeles, and I started seeing a new doctor. During my first exam with him, the inevitable awkward conversation about my weight occurred. He asked me to describe my diet. I did, as best as I could.

“Have you ever considered changing your diet?” he asked with great sincerity.

I wanted to slap him.

Oh shit, Doc, I never even thought of that! You’re a fucking miracle worker!!!

Those of us who are chronically overweight are not that way because we’re stupid. It’s not that we don’t understand what we should and should not be doing. We get it. But there is a psychological and emotional disconnect between knowing what to do and getting yourself to do those things consistently.

For anyone reading this who has never had a weight problem, I ask you to consider it this way. Think of something you don’t like about yourself. Some bad habit or annoying personality trait that you wish you did not have. You know it’s bad and you’ve tried to change it, but you just can’t quite seem to get a grip on it.

That’s being overweight. At least, that’s what it’s like for me and I suspect that’s what it’s like for many people like me. The way we eat, our relationship with food, is one of those things that gets carved into our psyche at a very early age. It is forged into our personality by events that occurred so long ago, we often don’t even remember them.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do our best to improve, just as you should do your best to improve whatever shortcoming you just thought of. You have your issues to grapple with and I have mine. It doesn’t make either one of us a failure or a bad person. We’re both doing the best we can within our limitations. Please consider that the next time you feel the urge to make a fat joke. Ask yourself if there might be a better way to address the situation.

In September of 2019, Bill Maher did a segment on his show, Real Time With Bill Maher, in which he essentially blamed fat people for the problems of America’s health care system. Rather than getting bogged down in all the ways that premise is unfair and absurd, I will like to zero in on two specific points that he made.

At the 2:50 mark, he mentions footage from the 1960’s that recently aired during the anniversary of Apollo 11. He marvels at how skinny everyone was in 1969 and wonders why America doesn’t look like that anymore.

Well Bill, it might have something to do with how radically the production and marketing of food has changed in America since 1969.

The rise of factory farming, processed foods, and fast food over the last fifty has transformed the way America eats. These industries make a fortune mass-producing food that is cheap and plentiful, but also unhealthy and often addictive. These companies market their wares to children in an effort to get people hooked at an early age.

I’m not saying this absolves anyone from taking responsibility for there own health. It does present a significant obstacle though. Many people struggle to find healthier options that are affordable in a marketplace flooded with this junk. Unhealthy food is a cheaper, easier habit that is difficult to break.

Which brings me to my second point. At the 6:03 mark, Bill claims that, “we shamed people out of smoking.”

No we didn’t, Bill. That statement is complete horse shit.

I have never smoked in my life, but my father and my brother both did. Anyone who has ever lived with a smoker knows that shaming them is the absolute worst thing you could do. Shame makes people feel bad about themselves. Often these unhealthy behaviors are something people lean on to comfort themselves when they feel bad. So shame only makes them want to do it more. Compassion, patience, and positive reinforcement are much better tools for helping people improve.

Bill is correct that national attitudes about smoking have changed, but shame had nothing to do with that. In the 90’s, as we learned more and more about the dangers of second-hand smoke, state and local governments started passing laws banning smoking in public places.

(Maher had a show on ABC called Politically Incorrect at the time. I seem to remember him being very critical of those new laws, claiming they infringed on personal freedom. I suppose it would be too big of a concession for him to simply admit that those laws worked.)

Also, in 1999, the federal government launched a massive lawsuit against the tobacco industry. It targeted Big Tobacco for lying to the public about the addictive nature of nicotine, working to make cigarettes as additive as possible, and marketing their products to children. Sound familiar?

Public awareness, changes to our laws, and the consequential shifts in societal norms are what made the difference when in comes to smoking in America. We need a similar push against the bad practices of today’s food industry. Changes to the law and public pressure can work together to incentivize a healthier approach. That’s the lesson we should be learning from what happened with tobacco.

Until that happens, and even after it does, we all just have to keep doing our best. We also need to be kind to each other.

Four years ago, I started seeing the doctor I go to now, here in Portland. During my first exam with him, I once again had to have that awkward talk about my weight. I explained to him that I have always struggled with it. I described my past attempts to change and how they had failed. He responded with the words I wish someone had said to me a long time ago.

“I would rather you keep trying and failing than not try at all.”

Every doctor in America should have those words tattooed to the back of their hand. They should be required by the AMA to speak those words every time they consult with a patient about their weight or any other unhealthy habits. Those words have been so much more useful to me than any shame or fat jokes or feckless bits of advice from people who just don’t understand what I’m going through.

In the last four months, I have lost 36 pounds. That’s about halfway to my eventual goal. It feels great, but like I said, I don’t want to crow about it. I am painfully aware that six months from now, I could easily be right back where I started. I hope I’m not. I hope I can keep this going. But history has shown just how hard this is for me.

It will probably always be hard. I may never be perfect when it comes to managing my weight. There is a degree to which we all have to accept our flaws, even as we do our best to improve upon them.

But today, I have a much better understanding of what drives this behavior in me. And I know that there is a value in trying. Even if I never quite get it right.

Superheroes, Aging Directors, and the Academy Awards

“I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

These are the words of Martin Scorsese, from an interview with Empire Magazine in October of 2019. It is a bit ironic that he made this statement while promoting “The Irishman,” a film which relied heavily on the de-aging special effect that Marvel Studios helped to perfect.

As an unabashed fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and an admirer of Scorsese, I was not sure how to feel about this quote when I first read it. Initially, I thought his statement was unfair and ill-informed. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered if he had a point. Was the MCU really the great film-making achievement I considered it to be, or was I a sheep who had been suckered by clever marketing and shiny objects?

Sometime around Halloween, I was at home, watching a movie called “Short Term 12.” It had been sitting on my Netflix list for months. On an evening I had free, I finally decided to push PLAY on it. The film stars Brie Larson as a counsellor at a short term care facility for at-risk kids. This was a couple of years prior to Larson’s Oscar-winning performance in “Room.” Before “Short Term 12,” I think she was mostly known for supporting roles. This is the first movie I’m aware of that features her as the lead.

She’s excellent in it of course. It’s a very touching film dealing with weighty issues, including the impact of sexual abuse on a person’s psyche. As I watched it, it occurred to me that this is probably the sort of film Mr. Scorsese would consider to be true cinema. That “cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences” he extolled. Moved by the film as I was, I began to concede that maybe he was right.

Then I remembered something.

The night before, I was driving home from work. I passed through a neighborhood where some children were trick-or-treating. Cute kids in cute costumes, making their way from door to door, amused parents in tow. One child stood out to me. A little girl marching proudly down the sidewalk in a kick ass Captain Marvel uniform. Self-confidence fiercely on display as she embodied the persona of Carol Davers.

When you see that, how can you say that Brie Larson’s performance in “Captain Marvel” is any less important then her performance in “Short Term 12?” Or even “Room,” for that matter? Try telling that little girl – or the millions like her that were inspired by “Captain Marvel” – that it’s not real cinema. That it’s just a theme park ride.

In November of 2019, Scorsese wrote an op-ed that appeared in the New York Times, seeking to clarify his original remarks. He only convinced me that he has this all wrong.

Scorsese complains, in part, that there is a sameness to these super hero franchise movies. That they lack a genuine sense of risk or revelation. Remember, this began with him saying he does not watch these movies. How can he make such a declaration about movies he hasn’t seen?

If those of us who have seen all of the MCU movies are being honest, we would have to admit that his critique is on the nose for some of these films. It is certainly not true for all of them. Within the Marvel cannon are films that I do consider to be true works of cinematic art. There are also some that are pure dreck. That’s true of every genre though, including the gangster films that Scorsese seems to love so much. (More on that in a sec.)

Scorsese goes on to lament the fact that big franchise films are all that Hollywood seems to care about making these days. On this point, I agree with him 100%.

The studios have become obsessed with building multi-film cash cow franchises. As a result, they are not putting their resources into smaller-budget films the way they used to. Scorsese is right to be concerned about this. But to single out one specific genre – one specific studio, really – and demonize it like this misses the point. There needs to be room for everything that the art of film making has to offer.

I have seen movies in every genre imaginable. From low-budget art house films to big-budget blockbusters. All along that spectrum, I have seen brilliant works of art that thrilled, inspired, and educated me. Films that made me feel, made me think, and made me ponder important questions. Films that broke my heart and films that lifted my spirits.

All along that spectrum, I have also seen movies that are completely irredeemable. The stink of over-commercialized crap is not exclusive to one particular corner of the industry. Cinema is a vast and broad art form. There is potential for great art and embarrassing failure throughout its entire realm. Our culture as a whole is stronger when movie theaters can offer a rich diversity of stories, styles, and points of view.

Which brings me back to “The Irishman.”

With Oscar season upon us, I am trying to see as many of the nominees as I can before the big ceremony. Yesterday, I watched “The Irishman.” All three hours and twenty-nine minutes of it.

It’s a fine film. It’s well made and tells an interesting story. The performances are as impressive as you would expect from the likes of De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci.

It’s just… I feel like I’ve seen this movie before. Multiple times. From the same director. It is odd to me that a director who complained about the sameness of franchise films, has made so many movies about thugs and tough guys struggling through the cold, violent world they inhabit. Seriously, how many times does a man have to film Robert De Niro scowling and shooting someone before it stops being a directorial style and starts being a fetish?

This style of gangster movie was edgy and exciting – revolutionary even – back in the 70’s when they first started cropping up. At this point, they’re such well-worn territory though. Unless you can offer a fresh take on the subject (which “The Irishman does not), why bother?

But hey, he’s Martin Scorsese. He’s a legend. So the Academy gives him a Best Director nomination for turning out the same movie he’s made five or six times now.

But this time, it’s longer!
And Robert De Niro has blue eyes for some reason!
And that’s… not creepy at all! Trust us!

Look, I’m not trying to dump on Martin Scorsese here. He is without question a brilliant director who has made some of the greatest movies in history. But in this particular instance, I just think he’s wrong. Wrong in a way that is out of touch with the times.

He seems like a grumpy old man whining about how things have changed without reconizing that maybe he needs to change too. He’s trying to crank out the same old stuff that made him popular in his youth and not understanding why the kids don’t dig it anymore. If the old guard of Hollywood can’t bring any new ideas to the table, perhaps it’s time for some of them to step aside.

I would prefer that the Academy turn its spotlight to the likes of Greta Gerwig or Taika Waititi or Noah Baumbach. All of them have movies nominated for Best Picture. None of them were recognized in the Best Director category. That’s a terrible oversight.

These filmmakers have created works of art that clearly meet Mr. Scorsese’s lofty definition of cinema while bringing a fresh perspective that Hollywood desperately needs. They represent that diversity of viewpoints I’m talking about. They stand as evidence that the film industry is not as limited by the franchise phenomenon as Scorsese makes it out to be.

It should also not evade anyone’s observation that each of their films included female characters that are – ya know – actual fully-formed characters! I’m sorry, but the women in “The Irishman” are treated like they’re part of the set dressing. Why the fuck to you hire an actress of Anna Paquin’s caliber just to have her stand around and stare at people? What a waste! Get with the times, Marty.

I love movies of all kinds. It is an art form that has enriched my life and I hope it continues to do so for many years to come. Like any art form worth a damn, it needs to evolve over time. That evolution will bring some great innovations and some unwelcome changes. Ultimately, it will always be better to push that evolution forward than to try and hold it back.

Me At Work

I have a job. Like we all have to for some reason, have jobs. I’m not crazy about it, but I have rent to pay and I’m fond of eating, so there it is.

One of the ongoing issues I have with my workplace is the noise. The place where I work is an industrial building converted into an office space with a vast collection of cubicles. One big box containing many little boxes. From 8:30 am to 5:00 pm, Monday through Friday, I occupy one of those little boxes. As I labor away under florescent lighting, I am surrounded by numerous other office drones laboring away in little people compartments of their own.

And they talk.

They’re not doing anything wrong by talking (usually). Talking – on the phone and to each other – is necessary for their jobs to one degree or another. It’s just that some of them are so LOUD. I can hear some of these people from five or six cubes away! I guess their parents never taught them about “inside voices.”

One of the defining characteristics of introverts is the way we handle external stimuli. There is a great book by Marti Olsen Laney, Psy.D. called The Introvert Advantage. In one chapter, she writes about studies that have been done to better understand the neurological differences between extroverts and introverts. It turns out, our brains really are wired differently.

The neural pathways and neurotransmitters that extroverts tend to rely on are ideal for reacting to a piece of information quickly and easily. Their brains are wired to react to the world around them in real time.

By contrast, the introvert brain is set up to take that same piece of information and internalize it. To think it through, commit it to memory, and then respond to it.

(This explains why it is a mistake to try to “cure” oneself of introversion. It is not a pathology. It’s a facet of one’s personality that is hardwired into the brain. Laney argues that the goal is not to change, but to learn how to work with your tendencies, rather than struggling against them.)

Anyway, you can see why introverts can feel drained by too much stimuli. That stuff doesn’t just bounce off of us. Our brains are constantly trying to process it. Too much, for too long, can be exhausting, even when it’s something we enjoy. Imagine how much worse it is when it’s something that annoys us to begin with! Imagine how much worse it is to deal with while we’re trying to concentrate on something, like doing our jobs.

The other day, I had an incident. It’s the sort of incident that used to occur many times throughout the day before I asked to be moved to a desk in a quieter area. Thankfully, these events are less frequent now, but they still happen from time to time.

My cubicle is at the end of a row. On the other side of the cubicle wall to my left are some folks who work in a different department than me. On the other side of the cubicle wall behind me is one of my co-workers. To my right is an aisle, on the other side of which is my boss’ cubicle.

There was some sort of hubbub about some technical issue in that department to my left. It had everyone over there chattering away about this and that. In the cubicle behind me, my co-worker was chattering away with someone who had come over to ask her a question. In my boss’ cubicle across the aisle to my right, two people were chattering away with her about something of great importance to the three of them. All of this, in combination with the usual background chatter that always permeates the workspace.

Sound, piling upon more sound, piling upon more sound, coming at me from multiple directions – this is a scenario that stresses me out like few other things can.

Again, none of these folks were doing anything wrong. They were just having the conversations they needed to have to get things done. They had no way of knowing that while they were doing that, I was sitting at my desk with my head in my hands, grappling the anxiety attack they had unwittingly triggered. It was all I could do not to get up on my desk and scream, “SHUT THE FUCK UP!!!” at the top of my lungs.

But I didn’t. I just sat there and waited for that feeling to pass.

There are so many days when I wish I could just stay at home and hide from the noisy working world. Unfortunately, I can’t figure out a way to get paid for that.

The Town I Chose

I have lived in the Portland area for 11 years, 6 months, and 15 days. When I first arrived here, I did not know the city at all. Exploration and discovery quickly became my favorite hobby as I eagerly endeavored to acquaint myself with my new home. So many cool little neighborhoods. So many great restaurants, bars, and coffee places. So many picturesque settings. I fell in love with the place and its endless possibilities.

As with many love affairs, the excitement waned over time. I tell people that Portland has changed a lot over the last 11 years. It has, but truthfully, I’ve changed as well, at least in my approach to living here. I’ve become more of a homebody; more set in my ways. Somewhere along the line, I stopped exploring.

Last Sunday morning, on something of a whim, I drove across town to have breakfast at Zell’s Cafe. During my early years in Portland, breakfast at Zell’s was something of a regular occurrence for me. I hadn’t been there in ages though, since I moved farther away from that part of town. When I stepped through their door, I immediately remembered why I used to like this place so much.

Zell’s Cafe sits and the corner of SE Morrison Street and SE 13th Avenue in a neighborhood known as Buckman. It’s a relatively small restaurant, but the large windows lining the two walls that face outside make it feel bright, airy, and open. It feels like a bigger room than it is. It is warm and welcoming from the moment you enter.

I took a few minutes to reacquaint myself with the menu before zeroing in on one of their mainstays – the German pancake. Thicker and fluffier than a crepe. Denser and more eggy than a buttermilk pancake. I ordered it with seasonal fruit, which in this case was a mixture of fresh peaches and berries. It was sweet, but not too sweet. Decadent, yet somehow healthy. Completely satisfying without weighing me down. Of course, I also had a side of bacon, because… bacon.

After my meal, I took a walk. I had driven through this part of town several months earlier and noticed some changes that I wanted to check out up close. Gentrification of Portland neighborhoods is an upsetting topic among many locals. Personally, I have mixed feelings on the matter.

On the one hand, yes, gentrification often displaces people who have lived in these areas for years. It drives up housing prices to a point where only people who enjoy a certain level of affluence can afford them. I have seen the artistic community that used to be a fixture of the east side pushed out by tech industry types and trustafarians, as one friend of mine likes to call them.

On the other hand, this type of development, some say, is an unavoidable by-product of the economic growth and population explosion this area is experiencing. If that is true, then I definitely prefer Portland’s approach to what I’ve seen in other parts of the country. Take for example my native Northern Virginia.

There, gentrification is epitomized by the construction of what they call “town centers.” These are basically outdoor malls designed to look like cool little downtown areas. But they’re not. They’re just malls, partnered with overpriced apartments. There are several of them in the region. They all look more or less the same. They all house the same national chain stores and restaurants. It’s banal consumerism trying to masquerade as something hip.

At least in Portland, when a neighborhood gets gentrified, the emphasis is placed on bringing in unique local businesses. You will rarely, if ever, see chain stores. A place like Zell’s can continue to exist, because that’s the exactly kind of place developers want anyway. The cool little mom-and-pop joint, not a TGIFriday’s or an IHOP.

In this case, the new development existed on the block of NE 11th between SE Belmont and SE Taylor. They put in a very nice Market Of Choice (a local high-end grocery store), a very chic-looking coffee bar, a tap room for one of the local cider breweries, and a handful of other small shops and businesses. And yes, also the overpriced apartments.

Even that though manages to fit in with the existing architecture of the neighborhood. Walking through the surrounding blocks, I still saw many of the beautiful old houses I remembered being there in the past. Proof that Old Portland can, and should, coexist harmoniously with New Portland .

As I strolled the aisles of Market Of Choice (I don’t know what it is about a really nice grocery store that makes me so happy), I thought to myself, “Yeah, it would be nice to live in this part of town. I doubt I could ever afford to, but still.”

For the rest of that Sunday, I was in a great mood. I love going out for breakfast, but I don’t do it that often anymore. Trying to save money. But starting off my day with a nice meal in an old familiar place, followed by lovely walk in the surrounding environs really set a great tone for the day. I was upbeat and energetic from that point on.

I might make this a regular thing. Take some portion of each weekend to get back out and explore. Revisit some old haunts and find some new ones to enjoy. Take some time to walk around and appreciate all that has changed alongside all that has not. Rekindle my love affair with this strange, quirky, ever-evolving city.

Tomorrow, I’m thinking blueberry pancakes at Sanborn’s, followed by a stroll through the Brooklyn neighborhood. Also bacon. Care to join me?