22 January 2016

Outdoor Workers

So, I'm back to biking to work in the winter. My students think I'm nuts. Lest anyone think I'm heroic for braving the cold, I want to offer a short list of people who work outdoors, year round, no matter the weather:

Mail carriers.

Delivery people. Some of them, like the UPS and Fed Ex carriers, get to sit in a truck in between having to go out in the cold and hump boxes around. Others get around on foot or by bike. Next time Seamless shows up at your door with lunch, consider an extra big tip.

Garbage collectors. I have to wonder if the heat of summer is worse than the cold, given the stench August produces.

Farmers. Animals and fields need to be tended, year-round, or you and I don't eat.

Traffic and parking enforcement officers and school crossing guards. Standing in one place, like the crossing guards mostly do, is the coldest winter job I can imagine. At least a lot of the other outdoor jobs involve moving around, therefore generating body heat.

Maintenance workers. You know, the ones who make the flowers look pretty in the summer, and shovel snow and spread salt in the winter. The ones who show up for work three hours before you do, to make sure the walkways around your office are clear and safe.

12 January 2016

Trump's Words Matter

I was minding my own business on the M14A bus yesterday afternoon when a man using a motorized wheelchair boarded. The bus driver asked the people in the disabled seats to get up so the new rider could turn his chair around. Except that's not what the driver said. What he actually said was, "You have to get up. He's going to keep us waiting for half an hour."

The driver didn't raise the seats for the rider, as drivers usually do; instead, he retreated into his seat area, and then followed the man toward the seating area, flicking his chin several times behind the man's back, in a clear gesture of contempt, if not profanity.  The rider raised the seats himself, reaching from his chair while bracing himself with one foot on the floor.

Several of the other riders started muttering. "Look, he can walk." "This is ridiculous." And so on. Finally I said, "You don't know how much pain it causes him, or how much exhaustion, to put weight on his feet." They shut up, thankfully. The man slumped over the handlebars of his chair: physical fatigue? emotional exhaustion? Who knows?

Back in November, Donald Trump mocked a New York Times reporter with a physical disability. "You ought to see the guy," he said, gyrating his arms in an apparent imitation of the reporter's stance. He said he was just gesturing, a claim few believed. And in defending himself, he dug a deeper hole, claiming political correctness is the problem: "a lot of us don't have time to be politically correct."

Trump has brought political discourse to new lows in his contempt for Mexicans, immigrants, Syrians, refugees, disabled people, Muslims, and women. Did this thing happen on the bus because of what Trump said? I don't know, but he's certainly cleared space for such disrespect to flourish.


Update: When I wrote this post, I also reported the incident to the MTA. Today (Jan. 13), I received an email message from the MTA saying they're going to identify the employee and follow up with his supervisor.

03 December 2015

We Need Gun Laws. Now.

More than 355 "mass" shootings already this year. Two, just yesterday. As of today, 12,223 people have died this year from gun violence and 24,722 people have been injured. Millions of friends and family members are affected.

But the NRA has convinced millions of Americans that any amount of regulation attached to gun ownership equals "taking away our guns." They give millions of dollars to people running for government at all levels to push the ridiculous claim that any amount of regulation is too much.

Hey, you know, we manage to regulate cars and alcohol and cigarettes and Sudafed without stopping people from acquiring and using any of them.

Hunters know that there are a bunch of rules about what you can shoot and when you can shoot it. In New Hampshire, deer season this year runs from October 31 through December 6, with different time frames depending on what kind of gun you're using. In Maine, you can't hunt on Sundays. You have to have a hunting license, and there are rules about how many deer you can bring home per year. No one is taking away anyone's right to shoot at animals with a gun, but the rules help protect the safety of hunters and other people using the forests, and they keep the deer population stable.

But it seems to be open season on human beings in the USA today.

I bought a car recently. I needed the Vehicle Identification Number of the car to get my insurance, so I couldn't get that organized in advance, and my insurance company closed before the car dealership, and without proof of insurance -- current insurance on the current vehicle, not last year's policy -- I couldn't drive the car off the lot.

Some states regulate guns. California, where one of yesterday's shootings took place. New York State. But violent people can buy guns with no background check, no waiting period, no regulations at all at gun shows in Georgia. From manufacturers like Glock and Men with orders of protection against them from ex-wives or girlfriends. People with a history of violence, people with criminal records. People with drug and alcohol problems that make them more likely to act and react violently.

If you own a car, you have to pay for insurance on it in case you get in an accident. If you drink and drive, you can lose your license. If you kill someone while driving, you might go to prison. No one is screaming that the government wants to take away our cars.

How we've reached this point when it comes to guns, I don't understand. Why the NRA wants you to think that any amount of gun regulation is unacceptable, I don't understand.

But it's beyond time for change. We need to show up at the polls and vote out the politicans in the NRA's pockets. We need national legislation that eliminates unregulated gun shows and closes the other loopholes to unregulated gun ownership.

We need national laws requiring regularly renewed licenses and insurance policies for all gun owners as well as rigorous background checks and waiting periods for new buyers.

We need them now.

24 November 2015

I Am Afraid of Donald Trump

In 1930, a lot of people thought an Austrian guy named Adolf was a buffoon who couldn't possibly take power and do any damage. His mannerisms were comical and his murderous fantasies would never go anywhere.

In the 1970s a lot of people thought an actor named Ronald who'd been in a movie with a monkey was a joke as a presidential candidate.

Ronald was elected and began a series of actions that turned American politics hard to the right. For one thing, his deregulation of broadcast media enabled Fox "News" to air misleading reports and outright lies under the tagline, "fair and balanced reporting." In that phrase, only the word "and" is accurate.

Fox and their yellow-journalist ilk are serving the same purpose that newspapers of that name served in the US in the 1920s, when people were comparing Jews to rats and Jim Crow laws were in full effect.

And in 2015, a lot of people think Donald Trump is a buffoon who can't be elected, but he's at the top of a pile of buffoonish candidates for the Republican presidential nominee.

And his rhetoric sounds like it's coming straight out of Nazi Germany.

His followers beat up a man at one of his campaign events who yelled, "Black Lives Matter." That sounds like Brownshirts.

He's been telling people he wants Muslims to wear identity badges. That sounds like Hitler.

He's been telling people Mexicans want to come to the US and take "our women."

He told Carly Fiorina to "quit interrupting" during the most recent Republican candidates' debate. Hitler's plan for women? Kinder, Kuche, Kirche: Children, Kitchen, Church.

If Trump is elected, he wants an America with only white men in power. He wants a society ruled by fear and suspicion. Stasi, anyone?

And he has a lot of supporters.

So did Hitler. A lot of people who said, after the Holocaust, "But we didn't know." "But we were told they were criminals." A lot of ordinary Germans who acquiesced in Hitler's program to round up Jews and gays, communists and Romani, the disabled and the chronically ill.

Meanwhile, here in the US, we rounded up Japanese people. People who had immigrated decades earlier, even their children, on the suspicion that they might be enemy spies.

It took a while for the Germans to figure out what to teach their children. When my mother started school in the 1940s, history ended before the Holocaust. But they've figured it out. Germany is taking 800,000 Syrian refugees. It's not going to be easy, and some people are complaining, but by and large the people are reaching out and welcoming them.

Maybe it has to do with the fact that Germany lived through a horrible war in their own country. Being bombed, having family members disappear, losing basic infrastructures, the stuff the Syrians are living through today, is part of living memory in Germany.

The US proposes to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees. A tiny quantity. Even if they all came to New York City they would be a tiny fraction of the population, not enough to fill even a square mile.

But Trump is stoking people's fears. Despite an incredibly rigorous process of review, taking up to two years, for every refugee, Trump is insisting that President Obama wants to let terrorists into the country.

Trump has a platform, and he has a lot of willing ears. And I don't have any idea how to persuade his followers that he is a dangerous demagogue being deeply irresponsible with his divisive rhetoric.

He is also peddling lies. He is telling his followers that Obama proposes to resettle 250,000 Syrians, a figure apparently invented out of whole cloth. He claims that 97 percent of African-Americans who die of gun violence in the US are killed by other African-Americans, a claim invented by neo-Nazis whose symbol closely resembles the swastika.

I don't know where to begin in terms of asking people not to believe his fear-mongering mistruths. If you believe Trump, and you don't fact-check his outrageous claims, why would you believe me?

I am not afraid of Syrians. I am afraid of Donald Trump.

22 November 2015

A Judge Just Ruled for the Environment

Eight young people -- preteens and teens -- went to the Washington State Department of Ecology last year and asked them to write carbon emissions guidelines that would protect the state, and themselves, from the effects of climate change. When the state refused, they sued, with the help of the Children's Trust and an attorney from the Western Environmental Law Center.

They won. They won!

Judge Hollis R. Hill ruled that the government has a responsibility to protect natural resources on behalf of the people of the future.

Judge Hill wrote:
... as Petitioners assert and this court finds, their very survival depends upon the will of their elders to act now, decisively and unequivocally, to stem the tide of global warming…. The scientific evidence is clear that the current rates of reduction mandated by Washington law… cannot ensure the survival of an environment in which Petitioners can grow to adulthood safely.
Judge Hill reviewed the Washington State constitution, climate science, and statements made by the Department of Ecology, and concluded:
the state has a constitutional obligation  to protect the public’s interest in natural resources held in trust for the common benefit of the people.”
He also commented in particular on the role of automobile emissions and the failure of the state to deal with them. If you're so inclined, you can go read the whole ruling here.

Who knows? I don't know how many other state constitutions make reference to an obligation to protect natural resources. I don't know what potential there is for this to set precedent. But for the kids of Washington State, it's a pretty big deal.

20 November 2015

Notes from Vienna

My former NYC neighbor, Elizabeth Danto, has for the past two years been living in Vienna. She wrote this in early October:


I live in Vienna and for the last few weeks, I’ve been walking up Liniengasse in the 6th District to look at the newly renovated train station called Westbanhof, at the intersection of Mariahilferstrasse and. Most of the “migrants” arrive there, and though I regularly read the newspapers flashing their neon headlines about the hordes and hordes, I generally find nothing of the kind. Now I saunter through Westbanhof and its parks almost every other day, sniffing the air and looking at the posters, and find myself not only less distraught but actually far happier than I expected to be. And finally, after weeks of disinformation about the refugees arriving in Austria after escaping Syria and other countries hostile to humanity, the N.Y. Times got it right.

I have been watching liberation in the making.  Some governments, especially Hungary, are behaving very badly. For lots of their people though, this exodus is a deliverance; it may be a geopolitical disaster but it is not a human tragedy. It is wonderful that people can escape tyrants and land here. Sometimes Vienna feels like the last safe place on earth. Certainly that was one of my own motivations in moving halfway across the globe.  It’s a socialist city; you can feel in the bones.

Vienna is a quiet city. We know that a group of arrivals have come in only when we hear ambulances whirring down Gumpendorferstrasse.  But as soon as the news broke that the immigrants were leaving the Budapest train station on foot, car pools formed to go pick them up. Those in trains come mostly into the Westbanhof or the Hauptbanhof. I visited the Hauptbanhof last Saturday, and the kids had toys and big teddy bears and were playing in the station’s "mini Kunstler" (little artist") child play area. Most of the adults were on their cell phones (Wifi and phone charging stations are free, yes for migrants too). They looked stressed but not miserable. No one is too happy, of course; it feels like any airport or railroad station where people have been waiting too long.

"Muslims and Refugees Welcome"
Men hang in groups and women in other groups with children. About those photos that seem to show only men, or only women and children? Well, most come from cultures where women don't much mix with the men. Young women are simply not seen. Most of the arrivals seem to be families who are given the option of staying in Austria or moving on to Germany, no questions asked. In the area where one drops off donations, the men, generally, line up for assistance. Tables are laid out with water, food, socks, soap/toothbrush packs and toys. Once in a while a server from a nearby restaurant will walk along the tracks and hand out Chinese food containers or slices of pizza. Groups also cluster in the small parks on either side of the station; many are reading the information brochures or working on forms, or simply sleeping. Finally. Some arrivals are sleeping out in the open at the makeshift camp in Traiskirchen. A local right-wing Blatt complained that people were turning up at Traiskirchen in order to "politicize" the issue but you don't read much of that anymore because not only do the Austrians turn up to politicize, they also bring their children to politicize them, too. By the way, all the residents of Traiskirchen now have accommodations.

There have been collection points around the city for a few weeks now asking for clean clothes, shoes and backpacks. Almost all the food and clothing stores are running donation systems. My neighbor Claudia who teaches kindergarten said she's getting new arrivals every day. A huge pro-immigrant march was scheduled for October 3rd and our adored transgender winner of last year’s Eurovision contest, Conchita Wurst, was to lead the rally in song. [Update: Thousands rallied.]

Remember, the Viennese have been through this before. They’ve learned that support is to be shared by the government and the religious organizations. The Catholic organization, Caritas, has been superb. But each major religion has a state-supported organization, a "Kultusgemeinde" like the Islamische Glaubensgemeinschaft. The Israelitische Kultusgemeinde had an interesting article (in German, sorry, but parts of their site are in English) defending the Austrian Chancellor, who had recently been criticized for comparing the present situation to the Holocaust. A new portal, How and Where to Help, connects all the major charities and the government services, with opportunities to provide clothes, serve food, offer rides and beds and so forth. There are daily requests for specific kinds of assistance. Yesterday it was for interpreters. Today the requested donation was men's winter clothing. And toys, always toys.

Much of the police effort is going toward chasing down the traffickers, most of whom seem to come from Bulgaria and Romania. People turn over their life savings to the "schleppers" as they are called in German, only to be stranded, starved or killed on their way to safety.

And yes, Germany is taking on hundreds of thousands of the refugees because the country is desperate for workers. The birthrate is the lowest in Europe despite the kind of family benefits that would make Bernie Sanders blush. On the other hand, Germany just stripped Greece of its remaining financial infrastructure, and Merkel's demand for privatization meant that a company based in Frankfurt now owns all the airports in Greece.

What I do find appalling is the endless stream of horror photos of the arrivals. How exploitative can you get? Competing for the Pulitzer prize at the expense of human suffering is cynical and dangerous, and smells of the self-serving ambition of politicians who thrive on resulting false narratives. One of the more infuriating narratives is the distinction between the "good," the "political" refugees as opposed to the "bad," "economic" refugees. This alleged political dimension does not interest the Viennese in the least.

No one knows what the situation will be in six weeks. Municipal elections in Vienna will take place on October 11, and depending on whether the pendulum has swung to the racist Right (as the media predict) or to the supportive Left (which I think is much more likely) the need for moral support will have altered. And much else as well. [Update: Social Democrats remained in power.]

Meanwhile there's the area by the tracks themselves, where the men stand around, waiting, and women in hijabs are sitting here and there. Two signs, one in Arabic, one in English, explain that food and water are available, as well as medical help and translators.

The signs say:

We are doing our best to help you.

You are safe.

The City of Vienna.

19 November 2015

I Fear the Politicians, Not the Terrorists

I grieve for Paris, having visited there last December, and fallen in love during nearly a week of long walks, fabulous art and architecture, and an awesome playground for kids of all ages. I grieve for the Parisians, who will develop the sixth sense that New Yorkers have had since 9/11, knowing when terror threats are up just by the posture of the police officers.

But I'm more frightened by politicians like Donald Trump and Chris Christie than I am about the possibility of another attack on New York City. I'm terrified by the fear of the foreigner that they're stoking, by the fact that they're telling the American people that we should be afraid of Muslims.

I've been trying to write this post without waving the flag of the personal, but I can't seem to get beyond it. My grandfather fought on the wrong side of World War II. He may have commanded a Nazi tank, but the family stories are vague and full of conflict. I could go to the archives in Berlin, but I'm not sure I'm ready to face the truth, whatever it may be.

But this I know: I can not sit silently when people demonize an entire religion, an entire race, an entire people. And I can not sit silently, because of who I am. Because for my whole life I have lived with inherited guilt, with the nagging fear that fascism is somehow part of my genetic code. At the same time, I have lived my entire life feeling a sense of responsibility to speak out against bigotry of any form.

But how to speak out against Trump and Christie and the twenty-odd other governors who have said they don't want any Syrians in their states? I don't even know where to start. I try to think in words and I can only hear a keening in my brain, a mad banshee scream of terror.