Make America What Again?

What with the shit-show we’ve got going on right now as a nation — concentration camps on the border, a wag-the-dog escalation to a war of choice with Iran, a serious bump in hate crimes and people identifying as Nazis and white supremacists, a climate crisis that will destroy life as we know it starting to kick in for real, a nationwide election coming up that will undoubtedly be fucked with by hostile foreign actors while the beneficiaries insist nothing’s wrong, and a legislature unable, thanks to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, to do anything but confirm hardcore conservative federal judges to lifetime sinecures, just to skim the surface — it’s easy to understand the widespread longing to go back to the way things were under the Obama Administration. To get things back to normal so we can all go back to living our lives without having to worry that the demented narcissist with the nuclear football will bring about Armageddon in a fit of pique or even just to avoid jail time.

I get it. I really do. I also would like not to live my life in a fog of existential dread, in which every action is pointless because, Rapture or not, the end is probably nigh for the American experiment and possibly human civilization and what can possibly matter anymore?

But even were it possible to return to whatever passed for normal before — and it isn’t — such a return is not even desirable, both on its own merits and especially in light of the challenges we face as Americans and human beings who live on the rapidly-warming, ecologically-imbalanced, and soon-to-be-downwardly-spiraling Earth.

I’ll explain.

Continue reading “Make America What Again?”

A Modest Proposal Regarding Abortion

Encouraged by the elevation of conservative Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, pro-birth zealots in Ohio and Georgia have introduced anti-choice legislation so draconian that it attempts to criminalize feminine contraception and even assert jurisdiction outside the boundaries of the states in question. Indeed the laws go so far as to mandate a medical procedure (reimplantation of ectopic pregnancies) that does not currently exist, and to criminalize the heartbreaking but naturally-occurring phenonmenon of miscarriage, on the off-chance the mother had some hand in it and it wasn’t just God’s will.

It’s a long way to go to prevent abortions, but I think we have to ask ourselves something.

Does it go far enough?

After all, as severe as these laws are, they ignore a full half of the problem: whether the act of conception was consensual or not, it takes a man to get a woman pregnant. Moreover, thanks to advances in medical technology, it’s both easier and more practicable to concentrate on the male half of the conceptive equation. Vasectomies are simple, painless, and reversible. There is even a non-invasive procedure which coats the inside of the tubes between testes and penis with a magnetized layer such that sperm are pulled apart and rendered unviable as they pass through, without any further effect on the patient. It’s cheap, easy, and can be reversed in a matter of minutes.

Just think how many unintended pregnancies could be prevented. Maybe not all of them, but a significant majority, I’d bet.

Is it draconian to mandate the procedure? Possibly, but no more so than the legislation already on the table. And in preventing the possibility of conception rather than using the demand said conception be carried to term no matter the circumstance or mother’s preference, it will be vastly more effective at our stated goal of preventing abortions.

In fact, I’ll go further, and suggest that not only should some such procedure be mandatory, it should only be reversible by approval, either by a body of women designated to appraise a man’s fitness for reproduction, or by a woman signing off that she actively wants to have that man’s baby.

Will this prevent all unintended pregnancies? No. But it will reduce them significantly. And, as a follow-on result, it will reduce abortions even more significantly, since the only intended pregnancies that end in abortion come about because of some heartbreaking medical necessity, an issue best left to the woman whose body it is and the doctor whose advice she chooses to take.

It is an imperfect solution to the problem of unintended pregnancy, and the choice to abort that sometimes results. And while I am steadfast in my support for a woman’s right to exercise bodily autonomy, and will ever be thus, I do join my anti-choice fellow citizens in hoping to reduce the number of abortions. I know from experience that it’s never an easy decision, nor one ever taken lightly. It seems best to me to see if we can’t prevent it from coming up in the first place.

A Woman For President

I’d much rather a woman for President this time around, and more women in positions of power in general. Particularly women of color. Sure, there’s a bit of knee-jerk in there, and some turnabout is fair play. But mostly I’d like our leaders to be the sort of people who’ve had to overcome a lot of challenges to get their seat at the table, and who remember what it’s like to be marginalized. People who had to learn early to take care and keep an eye out, because society granted them no wiggle room, no second chances if they made a mistake. I want people who understand that heroes might make for great stories, but that actual large-scale accomplishment in the real world takes community and cooperation and coalition-building, and is accomplished in halting, agonizingly slow steps (two forward, one back, then one to the side because somebody threw up a wall). People for whom patience and resilience aren’t just virtues to aspire to, but survival strategies that go bone deep.


Sure, life is hard for almost everyone. By design, because civilization has almost always been a pyramid scheme, where most suffer so a few don’t have to. But those against whom the deck’s most stacked have the hardest path from where they start to the table where decisions get made, and the ones who make it – and who remember where they started – tend to have, in my experience, the right combination of toughness, ability, and compassion to lead us into the next phase of humanity, where everyone gets their fair share and their shot at living a meaningful life.

Black History Month Book Report #2: American Street by Ibi Zoboi

I wasn’t going to read this one second (though it was on the list). But then I cracked the cover and read the first chapter, and, just like that, I was hooked.

American Street begins with a loss. Fabiola Toussaint and her mother, Valerie, are moving to Detroit from Port-au-Prince. Fabiola is American born, and passes through immigration with no problem. But now she’s stuck on the wrong side of the glass: her mother has been detained. Reluctantly, she boards her connecting flight to Detroit, hoping against hope that her mother will follow along shortly.

I don’t think I’m spoiling much if I say that her mother does not. Instead, Fabiola (shortly Fabulous) joins her cousins Chantal, Princess (‘Pri’), and Primadonna (‘Donna’) and her aunt Jo in Detroit, where Fabiola must find a way to navigate this strange and dangerous territory while holding on to who she is and trying to find a way to bring her mother through the gateway and into America.

It’s a neat trick, establishing empathy with a character you’ve just met, and Zoboi does it flawlessly in those first pages and then never lets up. Fabiola must find her way through not only the culture shock of moving from Haiti to America, but also the discrepancies between the America she expected and the America she experiences, all while trying to build a sense of family with her cousins, who were only voices on the phone til she arrived, and restore the family she’s known her whole life by getting her mother through immigration. Add in the dangers of high school, the drug trade, and the particular precariousness of life in Detroit, fallen symbol of the 20th Century American Dream, it’s no wonder Fabulous feels lost. Luckily, she has her vodou practice, her cousins, and her memories to carry her through.

This is one of those books that just grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go. At least it was for me. Tautly-plotted and written in prose that manages to be visceral, poetic, and windowpane-clear all at once, I chewed my way through most of this book in a single day. I can see why it won the National Book Award.

Immigrant stories are an American perennial, both because of the long and mostly positive history of our lifted lamp beside the golden door, and because we can see it most clear through fresh eyes, both in its ideal form (both foreign and domestic) and its actuality. Here that actuality takes many forms: the injustice of splitting Fabiola from her mother, the Faustian bargain she’s offered by a local police detective, and the fruits of that bargain, too, which I won’t spoil but will have you nodding and saying ‘yeah, that’s about right’ even as you wipe a tear from your eye and read on, hoping Zoboi will take it back. But of course she doesn’t, because even though Fabiola is eminently root-forable, this is America, and she and her family – and everyone near their home at the corner of American Street and Joy Road – are black.

That’s not to say this book is a bummer. Much of it is so ebullient and alive that the reader will forgive the inescapably complicated state of things by the end. It is, perhaps, as happy an ending as can be asked for, and one that satisfies even if you don’t get all you root for.

Either way, this is a fantastic book, and one I’d recommend both for its all-too-relevant subject matter and its stunning fulfillment of the promise it makes in those first few pages. Go ahead, pick it up. I’m willing to bet you won’t put it down.

Black History Month Book Report #1: Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

First off, this is a great book that succeeds on just about every level. If good books is your jam, here is one.

A woman escapes slavery in the Gold Coast in the late 18th Century. She leaves behind one daughter, goes inland to freedom, has another. One daughter marries an Englishman, and lives out her life in a castle by the ocean. The other is captured, and taken there as a slave, to be sold on to the American South. The novel follows their children and grandchildren down the generations, alternating between the lines, as they live their lives embedded in our history, both African and American, until more or less the present day.

It’s a worthy conceit to hang the novel’s structure on, though not without its dangers. Characters rarely appear in more than two or three successive chapters, and each chapter has a new protagonist moving through a significant chunk of their lives. Each has their arc, though thanks to the history we’re following, arcs do not so much as close as find a way to keep going under immense and unfair restrictions. In less deft hands, a novel like this might fail to resonate, but Gyasi does such a good job with her characters that most all of the chapters are satisfying, to the reader if not the protagonist, and when characters reappear in their children’s lives we can see what those children can’t, that their parents were people in their own right, trapped in unkind history, and doing what best they could under the circumstances, even if that best wasn’t great.

Gyasi’s gorgeous, evocative prose helps the project along immensely. She has a knack for framing that conveys a rich, deep world in the background, the kind of world you could wander off and get lost in if you weren’t careful. But you never do, because the narrative carries you forward, through decades and centuries of lived history, of heartbreak and small victories just great enough to keep it all going, all of it rendered with flawless grace and economy.

My intent is to keep things spoiler-free, so I won’t go into individual characters and arcs. Telling truth, I think it best to encounter them with fresh eyes, even if you know your history well. What Homegoing excels at is melding that history with story, with the stories of lives lived swimming in history’s currents in the wake of the African slave trade. It is, all of it, complicated, with sympathetic villains and humanizing moments to spare, and Gyasi doesn’t spare the reader that complexity in the service of easy answers. This is a work of art, not polemic, after all.

I’m disinclined toward numerical rating, or trying to give my subjective experience a gloss of objectivity. Suffice to say, if you are a person who enjoys moving, beautifully written, well-constructed literature (with or without a capital ‘L’), you will find Homegoing to be all that and more. If you have the interest (and fortitude) to take a long and often painful look at the ramifications of human chattel slavery, in a well-researched  and -rendered (albeit fictional) form, you could do a lot worse than read Homegoing.

It’s one thing to know something intellectually, say that Jim Crow laws in the post-Civil War South led to all manner of abuses. It’s another to engage with a firsthand account, or a first-rate artistic engagement, one that plays to the full human spectrum, rather than seek emotionless shelter in facts. To my mind, it’s one of the highest purposes of human creative endeavor, an accomplishment of serious magnitude when well-executed. Yaa Gyasi has done that, and then some, with Homegoing.

You should read it.