Sunday, July 20, 2014

What White Folks Like Me Don't Understand About Black Folks Resisting Arrest

Late last month, an Arizona State University Professor named Ersula Ore, a 33 year old black woman, was forcefully arrested and charged with aggravated assault on a police officer as a result of this exchange. The officer began questioning Professor Ore after he allegedly saw her jaywalking. He claims she resisted arrest. 

Late last week, a black man named Eric Garner died after being placed in a chokehold by police officers in Staten Island, New York. He was suspected of selling untaxed cigarettes. The arresting officers claim he resisted arrest.

If you are a glutton for punishment, you might browse the comment sections of any number of web articles, blogs or Facebook posts about either of these incidents and you will hear many, many, many white people saying the same thing.

"Well why didn't he/she just cooperate with the officer?"

"Even if the officer is wrong, you only make things worse for yourself if you resist!"

"Why ask questions and demand explanations? Just follow the officer's orders!"

You see . . . we don't get it.

In our world, the cops are the good guys. They come sort out the neighbors when the music is too loud and give anti-drug talks at middle schools. The most unpleasant interaction most of us have with them is when we get pulled over for speeding. In that situation, we all know that sappy sweet friendliness is the best play. It's the only approach that has any hope of avoiding a ticket, which is the worst outcome the majority of us ever experience with police.

That said, if by some odd chance any of us ever had a police officer ask us to produce identification, or, God forbid, place our hands behind our back, we would do so immediately with the full confidence that this whole misunderstanding would soon be rectified. Heck, in a few minutes we'll probably all get a good laugh out of how the well intentioned cop got the wrong idea! No hard feelings Officer, have a great night!

That's what makes stories like the aforementioned so frustrating to white people. Sure we feel bad for Mr. Garner and his family, and sure we feel bad for Professor Ore, but gosh darn it, why didn't they just cooperate?

You see, what white people like me don't understand, is that black people - young black males in particular - have a fundamentally different perspective on interaction with the police. For young black men, police are not a problem solving resource to be called upon for help, they are something to fear. No matter how far back you go in U.S. history, be it 'Reconstruction era' South or modern day New York City, you will find stories of black men and boys suffering assault, battery and even death at the hands of law enforcement. 

As a white dude, the prospect of police interaction represents little more than an inconvenience in the worst case: maybe traffic school if I'm really unlucky. But if I were black, I'd have a whole lifetime of  frightening anecdotes to inform my fear. Not to mention the stories of all my friends and male family members reinforcing the idea that contact with cops, legitimately founded or otherwise, leads to physical pain, incarceration and death for people who look like me.

Cooperation as the best play is not automatic when you consider the prospect of being brutally arrested, interrogated (including being sodomized with a broomstick) and falsely convicted for hard time or death. If these are the prospects than run through your mind when you see the flashing lights, you will fearfully seek to avoid that contact. You will not want to answer questions, you will not want to identify yourself and you will not put your hands behind your back and wait to be rendered defenseless. 

You will not!

Instead, you might want the officers to explain themselves. You might stall and plead your case. You might become visibly anxious and feel threatened when 'backup' arrives and positions himself behind you. These may be your last moments as a free person after all. Should you go quietly and have faith in due process, or should you try to escape? I know what I'd do.

I'm not saying that resisting arrest is the best play. I'm saying it's a rational, historically validated act of desperation, motivated by well-founded fear. One need not be guilty to feel that fear. 

Young and black is enough.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Top 5 Ways to Tell If a Bull Elephant Seal Is Flirting With You

There's no question that the dating scene on the rocky Farallon Island shores is totally crazy, right?
We're all looking to make that perfect match, but what's a sophisticated beach cow like you to do when that smokin' hot bull wobbling in from the briny deep is shy? What if he's trying a little TOO hard to play it cool and you're just not sure if he's into you?
We hear you loud and clear sister! That's why we've assembled this list of sure fire clues that reveal exactly what's going on in that simple, yet mysterious boy brain of his (as if, right?)

Flirt #1. Aggressively Inflating

You know those ridiculous probosces on the front of their faces that they all seem so obsessed with? Well if a guy starts inflating his around you to make it seem . . . um, larger? (giggle giggle) It's safe to say he's trying to catch your eye. If he's cute, throw a grunt in his direction, he may be 'the one'!

Flirt #2. Threatening Your Current Pup

Guys are really interested in propagation of their DNA and many are totally insecure when it comes to the fact that you bothered to have a life before he showed up. Nothing challenges your capacity to commit resources to his young, or threatens his oafish ego, more than your current progeny. If he attempts to gnarl your pup, you can bet your next paycheck he's trying to trigger your hormonal shift into estrus. In other words - he's interested!

Flirt #3. Flopping His Mass On Top of You

So many cows totally miss this one! It's a crowded beach. He's a busy bull with a schedule, so if he casually undulates his two tons of flesh on top of you as he makes his way from A to B it's probably nothing, right? . . . WRONG! We asked our anonymous panel of cute eligible bulls to reveal their favorite secret flirts and they all mentioned this technique.

Anonymous Bull #1: "If I like a cow, I usually try to crush her a little, just to get her attention."

Anonymous Bull #2: "Oh definitely. I'm secretly hoping when I smother her in blubbery flesh, that she'll snort in protest, yet roll over in a way that exposes her vent. Then at least I know I'm not wasting my time."

Be on the lookout for that secret flirt. I'll bet you're already glad you started reading this valuable shit.

Flirt #4. Bellowing Loudly

Did you hear that guttural howl? Do you smell partially digested fish in a foul, steamy cloud of bull elephant seal breath? If so, put down this magazine and smile because somebody likes you! When a guy bellows loudly in your direction, there's a good chance he's trying to strike up a conversation. It's inarticulate and crude, but as long as that bungling idiot is validating you, who cares?

Flirt #5. Slashing the Throat and Face of Another Bull With His Incisors

This one's a dead giveaway girls. If you notice two bulls rearing up and hacking the shit out of each other until they both resemble ground meat, you are definitely being flirted with. Congratulations, because that gruesome, bloody display is all about you! You can basically put it in cruise control and wait for the victor to emerge. But be nice to the loser, because he may be hotter next year if he doesn't die of infection or great white shark attack. It's a cows prerogative to change her mind! 

So there you go ladies! The top five mysterious signals of the coy bull elephant seal, successfully decoded. Now get out there and change yourself to accommodate them. Because you're worth it!!!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Punk Pilgrimage

The first time I became aware of Mike Watt was June the 6th, 1992. I was seventeen years old.

Actually that's not true. The first time I actually beheld Mike Watt's image was sometime in the mid '80s while watching an episode of MTV's "The Basement Tapes". A memory of the video for "This Ain't No Picnic" by the seminal L.A. punk band 'The Minutemen' exists in some tiny cluster of neurons in my skull, but that's it. My pre-pubescent brain stored the memory of seeing that video, but I think I was too young to have appreciated the music, so I can't really count that.

On that mild June evening in 1992 I found myself in the front of the pit at the Greek Amphitheater in Berkeley, California. I was a budding teenage bass player and I had made my way to the Greek that night to see Primus, whose frontman, Les Claypool, was what I believed to be the bearer of the bass standard. This was at the height of Primus' popularity as they had two decently rotated singles off their album "Sailing the Seas of Cheese" at that time and I was excited to see them live.

The two supporting acts were the band Cracker, who had a pretty big single with "Stoned", and another group called fIREHOSE that I'd never heard of. They were first.

Outdoor venues are cool at night. They're not too sweaty if you're standing down in the pit, and the lighting looks cool, but the opening acts don't benefit from that. They have to slug away at their songs in broad daylight, without the dramatic assistance of fog machines and fancy stage rigging. That was how fIREHOSE took the stage. The sun was in their eyes.

That was when I truly became aware of Mike Watt; though in that moment I wasn't completely convinced I was seeing a band take the stage at all.

The guys who walked out into that sunlight didn't look like rock stars. They looked more like groundskeepers and janitors. Watt was a thick dude wearing a flannel shirt and some tattered, ill-fitting jeans. He was also fully bearded (mind you this was 1992, before the hipsters starting doing it) and he walked out to his amp with his index finger stuck in a half-empty bottle of Budweiser. All he was missing was a janitors key ring hanging off a belt loop. I honestly thought he was a roadie.

They tuned, got their levels and started playing very gently. I still wasn't sure if this was a sound check or an actual act at this point because it just wasn't happening the way I'd seen other concerts start. The bearded guy with the bass walked up to the mic as the guitar and drums just flowed textural sounds to the still sparse crowd.

"Badges?" the bass man said, "We don't need no badges. We don't need no stinking badges"

I knew this line from "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre", so I still half suspected this was a roadie having a laugh, then he changed tack.

"But what we do need . . . is a REVOLUTION!!!"

Then he howled into his microphone like a werewolf and the band broke into the song "Revolution Pt.2", which was a legitimate punk rip. They caught my attention. I spent the next hour pretty much mesmerized by fIREHOSE and specifically Mike Watt. He was just what I needed to see.

To understand why, you'd have to have some familiarity with Primus and Les Claypool. Primus' music put the bass way out front as a lead instrument, and Les played it with a wacky unconventional style that had a hypnotic effect on my impressionable young mind. I didn't really know anything about music or the role of the bass, but I was sure Les was doing it the way it needed to be done. Lots of triplets and thumb work and fast 'bippity bippity' type stuff . . . The trickier the better.

I don't mean to take anything away from Les or Primus. I still have a soft spot for all of that stuff, but from the perspective of a youngster learning the fundamental value of bass it was exactly the wrong thing to fixate on. It made me aspire to play a mid-rangey lead instrument and re-invent the wheel. That was the wrong idea.

Watt was not demonstrating superior skeletal muscle control by manipulating his bass with deft precision. It wasn't about doing tricks or executing the hand acrobatics that send teenage boys like me running off to the woodshed with bass in hand. What he did was impossible to copy. He was cooperating with his bass. He was working it like a tool. There was a proletarian honesty to his style and you got the feeling he was expressing himself completely with it, while somehow never asking it to be something other than what it was.

Les Claypool dazzled by tapping crazy themes all over his fretless six-string, but Watt made the case for clubby plumbers fingers, pounding the throaty low end out of a no-frills, standard P-bass. It was what I needed to see.

I saw fIREHOSE again a few months later. This time it was across the bay at Slim's. Watt was playing a Gibson Firebird instead of the P, but aside from that it was the same deal. It was honest work and a great show. That was the last time I saw him.

In 1997 Watt released a solo piece called "Contemplating the Engine Room" which he described as a 'punk rock opera'. I describe it as fucking brilliant.

With "Engine Room" Mike chronicles his own life in the emerging L.A. punk scene and draws parallels to his father's life working in the belly of a Navy ship. I don't want to over-describe it, but it brought tears to my eyes for different reasons.

In 1992 I was a careless teenager. In 1997 I had a wife, a mortgage and a baby. My band from my teenage days had long since disintegrated. My musical footprint did not extend beyond my CD player, my one bass and the small amp next to my bed. Hearing "Engine Room" just floored me. The honesty I saw that day at the Greek was there again. It was simple themes and pure textures layered upon each other and composed in a way that made a lot out of very little - like a painting done only in primary colors which is no less complete than one rendered in a million hues.

It was a story of a father, a son, a band and an engine room. It was about struggle and being hidden away in the basement of a larger thing and never getting to see the sun. It was about friendship and exuberance and drunkenness and loss.

It was what is beautiful about music. It communicated a story through a feeling that doesn't have a name. Not purely happy nor purely sad nor purely anything except for honest. It made me feel proud of Watt for having accomplished such a noble feat and it made me wish I had the wherewithal to do the same.

I've been keeping up with Watt via his web page and his Facebook page as attentively as my weird life schedule permits and I noticed he was touring Europe in support of his latest opera "Hyphenated-Man". Since I live in Europe now it seemed that I might have a chance to catch up and see him for the first time in 22 years. There were no dates in Holland, but I don't mind a pilgrimage.

Once I had a first world internet connection I bought "Hyphenated-Man" and took to it straight away. It is the real thing. This is what 'punk' means. It's not about turning the distortion up to 11 and donning eyeliner while singing pop themes, it's about honesty. Sometimes the guitar is clean, sometimes it's dirty. Sometimes the melody climbs angrily through a minor key and sometimes it basks without shame in major key happiness, it doesn't matter. It's all legit. Most of the songs are under 2 minutes, which is enough time for a verse and chorus, or a primary and secondary theme and that's it. Next song.

Throughout it we hear the signature accessible elegance of guitar, bass and drums rightly composed. Watt's words are just frames that give shape to the texture of his voice. The listener is free to make sense of them, or not . . . as it should be. This is punk after all. I like it. Once again I am made happy by Watt. I was 17 the first time, I'm 39 now.

I've been either busy or outside of Europe for most of the tour but that all ends tomorrow. I'm hopping a flight from Amsterdam to London, then taking a train down to Brighton where Watt and his 'Missingmen' are playing in a club in the basement of the train station.

This is what it's all about.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Afghanistan: The Irrelevance of Race and Nationality in the 21st Century (The Tattoo Question)

I spent some time in Afghanistan...

I read somewhere once that if you could create a single human who is most representative of the entire human race, based on the prevalence of all phenotypes throughout the global population, you would have an Afghani. 

For those who don't know, Afghanis are not Arabs. They are separated from the Arab world by Persia (now Iran . . . which is also not Arab) and are wedged against Pakistan (Indian subconinent) the "-istan" countries (all central Asian, former U.S.S.R.) and China. There are fair skinned, blue eyed Afghanis, distinctly Tibetan-Asian looking Afghanis and very dark, Punjabi looking Afghanis. Of course there are also interesting combinations of all of those.

The complicated racial and tribal composition of Afghanistan has definitely been a challenging factor for anyone who has ever wanted to get anything done there. In the context of my recent whirlwind of travel I find it indicative of a global reality. Race no longer means anything.

We identify with people who look like us. We gravitate toward the familiar. 

The thing that we call "race" is not really a scientific term. The clusters of phenotype expressions that we recognize as race (African, Asian, Latin etc.) are really just strains - variations within a 46-chromosome chassis that all humans share, regardless of how different they may appear.

Why are we so different? 

We're different because for the majority of human history, populations have been isolated to specific regions. Inuit people of the polar North tend to be short, heavy-set and eastern-Asiatic in appearance. Watusi people from the arid plains of Africa tend to be tall and thin. These characteristics are shaped by climate, geography and diet to name a few. Basic evolution dictates that shortness and stoutness will be prevalent among the Inuit because those qualities favor heat retention and the ability to easily convert sparse carbohydrates into fat. The tall, thin Watusi, inversely, are able to easily dissipate heat, and their light construction is well suited to hunting over great distances on foot.

Human strains are products of these simple environmental inputs. For the majority of our history it was impractical if not impossible for people separated by great distances, oceans, mountains and deserts to fan out and contribute to distant gene pools. Therefore, specific geographic regions tended to produce populations whose prevailing characteristics were more and more stark.

Watusi aren’t just tall, thin and black – they’re very tall, very thin and very black.

Since people sharing those characteristics were living among one another - the common appearance, the common language and the resulting common experience lent themselves to the perception of communality. When it all takes place in a specific geographic area, communality becomes nationality.

We identify with people who look like us. We gravitate toward the familiar. It is perhaps an unspoken understanding that those who look like us share our fate, and that conditions which are good for them will be good for us as well. We're cautious and uncertain when it comes to those who do not look like us.

Afghanistan is unique because people from that place look like everyone. It sits at a historical crossroads between east and west. A literal crossroads.

Today, descendants of Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great drive around in wildly painted Chinese flatbed tractor-trailer trucks; speaking Urdu and Dari and praying to the God of Abraham. This is a place where geography allowed people to mingle. That's why the Afghani is the quintessential, generic human.

Leaving Afghanistan I was dropped into Dubai. Suddenly surrounded by families and children. Dubai also sits at a crossroads; a crossroads of ancient shipping lanes whose old port infrastructure still handles everything from palm oil to bats of raw silk. 

Dubai is still a convenient stopping point, but now it's a conduit for people going from Australia to London, Johannesburg to Amsterdam, or Chicago to Lagos. As you pass through the terminal you see just how completely those old barriers that gave humanity it's distinct strains are no longer relevant. People from anywhere can now go anywhere else in a matter of hours. Mountains and valleys no longer confine populations. A shepherd from Wales can meet a shepherd from Morocco at a sheep herding convention in Auckland. This is the way it is. 

Invariably, as people travel unlimited distances, they will meet other people, relationships will form, sex will be had and babies will be born who look a little bit Moroccan and a little bit Kiwi.

Back in the days of compasses and tall ships this happened in small doses, but now the floodgates are open. Now the whole world is a crossroads.

The Inuit and Watusi can meet in a breakfast buffet at the Days Inn by the airport in Charlotte, then run off and make a baby. You know what? . . . The kid will probably be gorgeous.'s downright silly for me to ascribe just about anything to my bloodline.

I have been debating a tattoo for quite some time. I think a tattoo should have some meaning. It should suggest something about you. 

When we take stock of who we are we tend to run through some familiar categories. Hobbies, work, family, meaningful experiences and of course . . . ethnicity.

A casual stroll through the Benson-Hurst neighborhood of Brooklyn (or a few episodes of "Jersey Shore") will showcase all of the tattoo options for Italian-Americans. Apparently, this is me. Unfortunately, I am not at all partial to golden bull-horns or Lamborghinis with red, green and white paint schemes so none of those would ever do.

A few years ago, Kasey and I went to Europe. When we were in Rome, we noticed the initials 'SPQR' were stamped into various things like manhole covers and lamp posts. I wasn't sure if it was the name of a foundry or a concrete company at first, but I eventually got the skinny. SPQR stands for "Senatus Populus Que Romanus" or "The Senate and the People of Rome". A Caesarian declaration! It's a remnant of the Roman empire! Cool!

It's smart, it's a little mysterious, it's essentially political, it looks cool as hell in a bold Roman font and it's indicative of my Italian heritage without being too guido. Perfect!

"SPQR" right across my clavicles!

But as is the case with me, certainty led to more questions.

I started really thinking about the whole "Italian heritage" thing. 

Do I love my grandma? Of course. Do I love meatballs? Yes. Would I love to retire in Tuscany? Absolutely Would I love to park my Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano on the glossy white marble floor of my garage, which is behind my retirement villa in Tuscany? Yes, yes, yes!!!

But what about you? Do you love your grandma? Do you like meatballs? How does the villa in Tuscany with the Ferrari on the impossibly clean marble floor sound to you? Are you Italian?

Maybe you are and maybe you aren't, my point is this: Being Italian is not a prerequisite for any of the above, therefore it is silly for me to ascribe my penchant for these things to my bloodline. In fact it's downright silly for me to ascribe just about anything to my bloodline.

Does my family have a distinct character? You better believe it, but how much of that is truly a product of something endemic to the Italian peninsula vs. the natural vibe that emerges due to overlapping generations of unique personalities? What about those who are adopted or are absorbed into the family by marriage? Are they outsiders? Do they struggle to fit in because they can't trace their DNA back to Italy?

The very notion is absurd. Of course they fit in. Of course they're family. If they yell, gesticulate, eat cannolis and swill red wine like an Italian, then I guess those behaviors ultimately have nothing to do with genetic predisposition. I guess those things are learned over years of Sunday dinners and Christmas Eve's at Grandma and Grandpas house. 

So if I declare something about my "heritage" across my clavicles, what am I really saying? I'm saying, 

"This informs my world-view and my perception of truth. This is a component of who I am. This is one thing you don't have to learn about me because I am writing it on my skin."

In a few hundred years, the ability to distinguish yourself as a member of one group or another will become more and more difficult and equally pointless.

I don't suppose there is any real harm in that, but when I consider the merging paths of all strains of the human genome  I fail to see the value or the point.

What we perceive as "race" has always been an affectation of geography and human logistics - two forces that have been overcome with global travel and instant communication. As our gene pools get wider and deeper, these little fantasies that we maintain about the unique cultural experiences that supposedly make us who we are will become less and less plausible. 

Eventually, the differences between the Italian experience, the Irish experience, the Nigerian experience and the Japanese experience will all be revealed as minor variations on the same theme. In a few hundred years, the ability to distinguish yourself as a member of one group or another will become more and more difficult and equally pointless.

Some may say, "But I love the diversity of the human race!"

Well don't worry. It's going to take more than a few generations to manifest itself, but make no mistake - it is the natural course.

Some may say, "My (insert ethnicity here) background is a major component of who I am and it will be a major component of who my children are as well. It's important to be connected to your past."

Your ethnicity is as much a component of your personality as you want it to be. There are members of every ethnic group that defy the stereotype and must constantly field accusations that they are not being true to who they are. In fact, they are exemplary models of being true to oneself. As far as connection to your past is concerned, you will hear no argument from me if you are extolling the virtue of knowing your history and gleaning wisdom from those who have come before you, but if you are suggesting that it is critical to embody something that a previous generation embodied you are wrong.

Who was your maternal great great great great great great grandfather? You can skip the stuff, I don't mean name and occupation, I mean who was he? What was he like? When did he first fall in love? What was his favorite color? What was his dream in life? When was his first kiss? What did he fear most?

Okay, so you really don't know him do you? Do you speak the same language he spoke? How do you think he would feel to know that his great great great great great great grandchild was speaking a foreign language in a foreign country? Does it matter?

How likely is it that your great great great great great great grandchild won't know who the hell you are or speak the same language you speak? Pretty likely . . . and honestly, who cares? 

Some may say, "I am a pure (insert ethnicity) and I can't stand the idea of my pure race being mongrelized!"

You aren't a pure anything except for a pure asshole. You are what's wrong with humanity and you are doomed. Your ilk exist in every strain of the human species and you all labor under the same infantile, simple-minded, ill conceived fantasy that propagation of your phenotype is tantamount to eternal life.

Well too bad you dunce! You're gonna die and your ideas will die with you.

Right, the tattoo...

So even though "SPQR" would look cool, I will refrain from calling upon my ethnicity because I am confronted with the reality that my race doesn't REALLY say anything quintessential about me.

I prefer to take full responsibility for who I am, without attributing anything to a place I've only visited and long dead relatives that I never had a chance to know.

So my new tattoo idea is this:

In bold, Romanesque font across my clavicles I will get "EGO SUM NON CERTUS"

Translation: "I AM NOT SURE"

Person: Is that a tattoo?

Me: Yes

Person: What does it say?

Me: It says Ego sum non certus.

Person: Hmm . . . What does that mean?

Me: I'm not sure

Person: You don't know what it means?

Me: I know exactly what it means.

Person: What does it mean?

Me: I'm not sure


It will be in latin, so it's a little pretentious (like me). It essentially suggests uncertainty and an eternal receptiveness to alternative versions of reality (that's totally me). It's 100% smart ass (me) and I will have my own private Abbott and Costello joke that I can enjoy at other's expense for the rest of my life.

This will say more about me than any golden bull-horn or red, green and white Murcielago being driven by Super Mario ever could.

Beside, like-a I say . . . I like a de Ferrari on-a de white marble floor in Toscana!!!

Whatsamatta you no listen!?!?!?!?