Thursday, May 31, 2012

Interviews With Homeless Veterans Revisited

Last March, I started doing interviews with homeless veterans at a recovery/transitional house in our community. I never got to do as many as I wanted, but I did manage to publish a couple of them at I really wanted to retrieve those interviews and re-publish them, but the archives over there haven't been working properly for some time. Well, the archives are fixed and yesterday I dove in for a bit of nostalgia.

Today I am going to re-publish the first interview I did with the gentlemen from the Loyola House minus some fluff. When I first wrote the thing, I felt this strange need to describe the house, it's architecture, what the residents were having for dinner. Reading that opening again yesterday was almost embarrassing. I guess I wanted to convey to readers that the house was very much a home to these men, but the reality is that Will, my interviewee did it better with more meaning. Doric columns need not apply.

So, without further ado and minus some unnecessary adjectives, here is the interview:

My First Evening With The Homeless Vets and An Interview With Will

I met Jeffrey Smith in January. He came in to my place of business to buy some pots and pans and, like I always do, I asked where they were going to be used. He told me the merchandise was headed to a transitional house in Pembroke for homeless veterans.

Homeless Veterans.

I told Jeff that I wanted to help. I’ll mop the floors, I’ll do the dishes, what do you need?

Jeff: ‘Well, they do all of that themselves.’

Of course they do. I should have known better.

Me: ‘Well then, maybe there’s something else I can do. I’d like to let people know that there are millions of homeless veterans in need of help. Can I maybe come up to the house and talk to the guys? If it’s alright with them, I can publish some of their stories.’

Jeff: ‘Sure, come on up.’

So I went. The result is the first in what I hope is a long line of stories about and interviews with the men who come to the Loyola House in Pembroke.
Will showed the room where he lives full time. As soon as he opened the door I experienced a bit of deja vu. It was just like every dormitory I ever lived in when I was in the Air Force, a bed, a couple couches, a T.V. Small but cozy. Orderly, but well lived in.
As Will led me around the house, kitchen, quarters for fifteen men, three bathrooms, dining room, living room, he also filled me in on some of his experiences in the Navy and with Loyola as a recovering addict. I found myself hoping that Will would let me speak with him and he didn’t disappoint. After the tour, we settled in to the small office and talked for a little over an hour. Here is the result.

The interview with Will:

Can you tell me about Loyola’s program? What are some of the expectations of the residents here? What steps does Loyala take to help them meet expectations?
Will: Well, our main objective is to get them housing…this is a house for homeless veterans and we’re not going to send them out to be homeless again. Our main objective is to work with their case managers. We’re in daily contact with them and sometimes they come out here. We work with [the case managers] get a game plan, basically.
Are these case managers from the VA?
Will: Yes. We have case managers in Buffalo, Bath, Canindagua and Albany. We work with them. Each resident that comes here is assigned a case manager as a point of contact with us. We have one guy who got an apartment already. The VA will pay the securitydeposit, through the homeless division, to get them set up. They’ll help them get some furniture, you know, small things to help get them on their feet.
So that’s the main objective here, to end their homelessness and help them continue in their treatment plans as far as any medical issues, mental health issues or drug addiction issues.
When a guy leaves, they go into some type of continuing treatment, can you give me some examples of what that might mean?
Will: Well, once they leave here we want them to have their own place, that’s our main objective. From there, they’ll continue through the VA hospital to deal with their medical issues, their mental issues or their drug addictions. That’s maintained by the VA Hospital.
Does Loyola help with employment?
Will: We buy the newspapers. Residents have access to three computers that they can use to look for employment. In fact, two of the residents here work. They go to work, they come back here, have their dinner… They have their HUD vouchers so they’re actively looking for apartments. So, working on the outside? We encourage it.
Tell me a little bit about how you came to be here.
Will: Well, I’m 48 years old. I was born and raised in the South Bronx. I was in the US Navy and in 1983, Beirut, Lebanon…I was there during the bombings. When I got out I was working Emergency Medical Services (EMS) in New York City. I was involved in rescue operations on September 11th, 2001.
That incident there brought on my…I’m diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD.) I started having flashes when I was in September 11th. It was basically the same scenario of what happened in Beirut, it just brought on…old memories.
I got involved in drugs and everything. My dad died September 11th, of all days, 2005. From there, I was off to the races; I didn’t care about nothin’. I became a full time drug addict, using crack. My life turned around on May 26th of 2009. I saw a reflection of myself; I was down to 130 pounds.
So I went to the Bronx VA Hospital. I spent about thirty days there in detox and psych evaluation. Then I was transferred to Bath VA and I did a six-month rehabilitation program there. From there, I was transferred to Albany where I went to a VA transitional house and started working Compensated Workers Therapy (CWT). I was fortunate at that time that Loyola was making a detox unit in the VA Hospital, so I applied for housekeeper and I got the job.
From there, I worked housekeeping, but they also had me speak with the patients there about my recovery. It is possible, it’s not the end of the world. We understand people have relapses and stuff like that, and you just have to get back on your feet and try it again, you know. Don’t quit because it’s a bad demon…drugs, let me tell you…thank God I’m going on 21 months now. I haven’t had relapses. My family’s back in my life, my children, my grandchildren, my brothers and sisters, they all gave me the best support I could ever ask for.
So, back to Loyola. In November I was asked if I wanted this job here. I mean, it placed me further away from my children and my grandkids; I was used to seeing them every weekend, but now it’s like every six months, so it’s kinda hard…it’s very hard, but it’s worth it. It’s worth it. I got promoted to residential manager here. I live here full time. I interact with the residents here; they’re like my brothers.
So, as a recovering addict, is it hard to spend time with other recovering addicts, to talk about those experiences?
Will: No. It makes it easier. It’s therapeutic. I mean, hearing their stories…I have cried with some of the vets hearing their stories. They hear my story…I get strength from it and I’m pretty sure they do also. They talk freely about it, we don’t try to intrude in their personal lives, but we also let them know we’re here to let them speak. Sometimes when they speak they open up when they hear my story and…most of the guys who work here were military. I’m a combat veteran, my supervisor, Jeff, hes retired Army. Our big supervisor, Mr. Frank Ryan, he was a Navy S.E.A.L. in Vietnam. So, me? I’ve been through what they’re going through I know exactly what they’re going through, I went through it. It gives me so much joy and I’m proud to be working with them, to help them. Just like the VA and Loyola helped me get my life together.
Loyola took a chance on me when they hired me. I had less than a year’s sobriety and I was on probation.. They took a chance on me because usually they don’t hire unless you have full time sobriety. They took a chance, mostly [it was] Jeff and the Vice-President of Human Resources. They’re glad they did and I’m glad they did also.
How do you think things would have turned out for you if you hadn’t gotten this job or any job for that matter?
Will: Well, if i would have had NO job after CWT…I don’t want to dwell on things I don’t have to, but if I wasn’t hired by this company and given the support and love of a family…Loyola’s like a family to me…I think I would have relapsed. My chances of relapse would have been higher, but in Albany, the counselors, when I was feeling jittery or whatever; they were always receptive. They were always there, not only for the patients we had there at the VA detox, but also with their employees. From headquarters all the way down, if I needed to speak to anybody, they were always there. I’m telling you, this company is just like a family..not ‘like’…it is a family.
All of this here, this is veterans only. That’s something that only veterans know. So it’s like…it’s a unit, we all work with each other. It’s a fantastic place to be.
I’m a vet myself and one of the reasons this place is so important to me is that I consider myself lucky. When I got out, I had options. I had a place to go and a good job waiting for me etc.. so when I hear about homeless veterans, it makes me a little sick to my stomach. The Vietnam guys, the Desert Storm guys, the Iraq/Afghanistan guys…it makes me fucking sick…
We have a huge problem in the United States. Jeff goes in there, he looks at all the different states and stuff like that on the computer and homelessness among veterans is to damn high, It’s unacceptable. These guys fought, they wore this uniform for the security of our country. I love my country, I’m glad I love my country, but sometimes I feel like they let us down. There’s no reason why a veteran should be homeless.
Will and I engaged in a side conversation about the military’s treatment of returning combat veterans and the stigma of mental issues in the active duty military. That conversation turned into a discussion about about mental health issues in general and although he gave the VA glowing reviews throughout our interview, he did have this to say about the VA’s difficulty in quickly diagnosing and treating discharged veteran’s with PTSD:
Will: The VA hospitals… I mean…you go there and you ask for an appointment and you go, ‘This happened to me.’ Well, they changed psychiatrists on me so, I make an appointment. She spoke to me briefly just to get a handle on my record from the previous psychiatrist.She says, ‘Oh, we need to make an immediate appointment for this young man. Make him an appointment as soon as possible.’
You know what ‘soon as possible’ was? Four months later. Four months later to see my psychiatrist. Now, if I was suicidal or whatever? Then what? That’s the problem with the VA. They’ll give you an appointment, but…I mean, the VA is great, but they’re overwhelmed. They’ve got a lot of veterans and now a lot that are coming in with mental issues because the war in Afghanistan and Iraq…it’s crazy. It’s really destroying a lot of these young guys. Most the guys that go in there, they’re 17, 18, 19, 20 years old going into a war zone.. I mean, I was a little more prepared. Born in the South Bronx, gangs and all that. Killings? I was used to it. When I went in it wasn’t too big of a deal, but you’ve got these guys coming in from the Midwest who’ve never seen anything like that being shipped off to kill people and seeing their friends get killed. How in the heck are they not gonna have problems?
We’re supposed to be tough though right? You know how it is.
We’re human. Just because we put on a uniform doesn’t mean we’re immune to what we see. They never diagnosed me with PTSD in the beginning.
Will credits a sympathetic nurse at the VA for bringing him in. After six months homeless, living in the subway in New York City, he contacted the VA. The nurse he spoke with told him, ‘Come right in, do not deviate.’ He believes his time living destitute made him stronger and gave him the ability to help others who have shared his experiences.
Basically from September 2005 to May 2009 I was hardcore, high every minute. I sold drugs, did whatever I had to do so I could get high. If I had to go through all of that again so I could end up exactly where I’m at…for some reason I’m here. I think it’s to help other veterans to make the transition, that’s why this is a transition house. It’s to make the transition from a homeless veteran that nobody cares about into a productive veteran that everybody can be proud of. I can say my family, my children, they all can be proud of me.
That’s the whole interview minus some smalltalk and a discussion about what constitutes a boat and what constitutes a ship. If you’ve ever had a serious discussion with a Navy vet, you know what I’m talking about.

The word ‘catharsis’ is is overused. So overused, in fact, that I’m convinced it’s becoming cliche. Regardless of my own prejudice toward the word, I’m tempted to use it here, not just to describe my own experience with Will and my desire to go back and do it all over again, but to describe in the most accurate way how Will came to be the man he is today. Will relives his worst days, every day in order to help other men like him and to help himself. I’m convinced that he is no saint, but he is courageous.

I haven’t met many men in my life who have the guts to grip a demon by the tail and force it to do his bidding. Will does that and I stand in awe of him.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Read This Shit, Motherfuckers: The Path To Atheism (Part 1)

It's a working title, but it got you here, didn't it?

I am an atheist. I'm not an agnostic. I'm not 'spiritual but not religious' or whatever the hippie girls are calling it these days.

This isn’t going to be an angry debunking of religious beliefs or a history of Christian violence. I don’t hate religion or religious people. I do think they’re a bit silly and at some point I think I’m going to make a comparison between hard-core religion and drug addiction, so you might want to stick around for that.

No, this isn’t a hate piece even though I thought it was going to be when I started. It is too easy to just point at a thing and call it silly and archaic or to point out the hypocrisies within the world’s religions. Even the strictest adherents of religion know that certain parts if not most of their belief systems are silly, archaic and hypocritical. This hasn’t changed their outlook even a little, so why waste the time? I think it’s more interesting to revisit the process of questioning that led me to two simple, logical conclusions:

There is no God. That is OK.

When I was fourteen and attending a Catholic school I asked my religion teacher, "What if a person doesn't believe in everything the Church teaches us?"

She answered, "Those people go to hell."

I am, above all else, myself, so after that I started telling everyone I was a Buddhist and spent the rest of the year trying to convince the very attractive brunette who sat next to me in the back corner of the classroom to give me a hand-job in class. If I'm going to hell, so is everyone else.

The next year I went back to public school, but my time in the parochial education system had piqued my interest so I spent a lot of that summer reading books about religion. I love books, even the terrible ones.

If you ever want to meet the Creator of a universe, talk to an author of fiction.

I read the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and some of the Koran. I read the I Ching, as much of the New Testament as I could stomach and all of the Old Testament. (Angry God was always a much more interesting character.)

The book that changed my life that summer wasn’t a religious text, but it was about religion. It was called Sacred Origins of Profound Things. The book’s author, Charles Panati, managed to get about a quarter of his references wrong in one way or another, but the conclusions were, for the most part, undeniably correct.

What were those conclusions? Well, religious observances are almost always the result of socioeconomic drivers or current cultural phenomena. In other words, (mine, not Panati’s, he was very careful not to make a judgment) religion is fiction.

Religion, for better or worse, is made up.

My fourteen year old mind paused right there. You have to remember that I’d been brought up with a belief in God and though we didn’t go to church very often, religion was a part of my life. So, there I was on a summer evening sitting in my bedroom and finding out that it was all made up. I had suspected that some or even most of it was bullshit, but every time I peeled back another layer of ritual and belief I’d discover that it was fictional too. What did that say about the foundation of my religion? What would happen when I got to the center? Was God made up too?

I didn’t want to answer that question so I chose to ignore the subject altogether. I could have become a happy agnostic at that point, but something happened that caused a religious relapse in me.

In late spring the next year my Uncle Gary died. He was a high functioning alcoholic who worked at nuclear power plants. I didn't meet him until I was almost a teenager because he and my mother hadn't spoken to each other for years. I loved that man instantly. Everything about him made immediate sense to me and when he died in his forties of liver failure my mother wouldn't let me or his own children attend his funeral. She is a strange and horrible person but that's another story.

I wanted to have a chance to say goodbye to my uncle and I wanted his kids to have the same opportunity, so I called the priest who used to teach me Latin at that Catholic school I was talking about earlier. He agreed to conduct a funeral for no money because he was the sort of priest who understood and adhered to his own religion...that's a rare thing. I was so overwhelmed with gratitude and grief that I took my first communion at the funeral mass. I'll never forget the way that felt, I was full of non-belief and doubt and grief, old enough at sixteen to understand all of those things, but too young to properly deal with them. I sought what comfort was offered and it was freely given to me.

That memory is the thing I return to when I really start to hate religion and belief in a fictitious God. For a few moments back then, when I was being forced into becoming a man sooner than a boy ought to, I understood what comfort was and what belief could mean to a person who had nothing else. I wanted to have faith so badly back then and for a while I did. I remember sitting in class a few days before the funeral and daydreaming about Gary sitting on a cloud looking down at me, protecting me, being happy in Heaven and loving his nephew here on Earth. I know, it is the worst kind of clich├ęd and conceptualized idea of the afterlife, but it made me feel good.

Comfort for the sad and desperate is the most wonderful thing about God and religion.

Comfort isn't the end of reality, though. The Earth isn't flat.

I remember seeing a billboard around that time. It was just text, a quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson or Ben Franklin or George Washington: 'How can one look up at all the stars in the sky and not believe in God?' I thought that was nice and real and right. This was a thing that was perfect and unarguable, the way things must be. Then I went to chemistry class and everything changed again.

In chemistry class there were electrons for every proton, perfect little atomic solar systems. There were electromagnets dragging metal filings across a piece of paper and there was a day when the teacher told us that if you mixed certain acids with certain bases they would create a poison gas that would kill us all before we could leave the room.

I started to think about poison gas and religion.

There are layers to science in the same way that there are layers to religion, but the layers of science aren’t the machinations of powerful men and superstitious peasants, they are the result of facts stacked on top of one another. These facts lead to discovery, which in turn leads to more facts and more discoveries ad infinitum. When you peel back the layers of biology and sift through cell walls and mitochondria, you find chemistry. When you shake out the structure of an atom, you learn about the forces that hold it together and arrive at physics. When you attempt to understand those forces and finally reach the center you have math.

There is comfort in math and science. It isn’t the comfort of choirs of angels singing your name or a warm and loving God welcoming you into His Kingdom when you die, but for the prepared mind, it is even better. It is the knowledge that one plus one equals two, every time. It is knowing that when two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom combine they will make a single molecule of water, every time. It is knowing that all events are predictable as long as we have the tools to measure them. It is the acceptance of knowledge, and faith in the fact that when your chemistry teacher tells you mixing a certain acid and a certain base will create a deadly poison gas, he is absolutely correct. It has been proven and those two chemicals will react the same way, every time.

Religion is the denial of knowledge. No, that’s wrong. Religion is the denial of the search for knowledge.

This is a thing that is unfixable within the confines of modern, monotheistic religions because, according to them, the order to turn away from understanding came from God himself.

There are two perfect, biblical examples that explain the origins of the religious culture’s denial of knowledge. The first is the origin story and the other is the post-flood tale of Babel.

The tale of Adam and Eve lies at the base of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Practitioners of modern monotheism view the origin story in many different ways; some see it as a morality play, a fable, and others accept it as fact. No matter how it is viewed the moral is the same: Knowledge belongs to God and you can’t have any. Do not eat the fruit. Do not be curious.

Later in Genesis comes the story of Babel and its tower that reached the heavens. Once again the religious will view the story as either allegory or fact, but the conclusion is the same. The post-flood residents of Earth and their tyrant king, Nimrod built a great city. These people, the entire population of the world all spoke the same language and worked to improve themselves and their city. They began to view their ability as something that belonged to them and not to God and so they built a tower in their city that was supposed to stretch high enough to challenge God directly. The Islamic version of the story has two angels, Haroot and Maroot residing with the people and teaching them ‘magic’ while at the same time telling humans that this magic was an evil thing that, if practiced, would anger God.

No matter which version of the story you read, God was angry enough to punish his people for seeking knowledge. Every version has God spreading the people throughout the world and confusing their language so they could no longer communicate with each other. Some versions have God smashing the tower and others end with God turning one third of Babel’s citizens into demons and banishing them to another realm.

Every iteration of both the creation story and the story of Babel has the same moral: Seek knowledge and you will be punished.

Those two stories lie at the crux of the belief vs. non-belief argument and I return to them often in my mind

As a sixteen-year-old boy, this is what I knew about God: If there is a God he doesn’t want us to seek knowledge. Seeking knowledge is a central part of being human; therefore, if God created us then he set us up to fail. This is an immoral act; therefore, if God exists, God is not moral.

As a sixteen-year-old boy, this is what I knew about the universe without God: There is an ordered system of physical law. Human beings are capable of understanding much of that physical law. Seeking knowledge is a central part of being human; therefore, we will continue to seek knowledge. Knowledge is neither moral or immoral, it just is.

That's the end of Part 1 folks. I promise Part 2 will have less bible references and more sex references.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Ranzenhofer's 'Personnel' Problem Is Not Going Away

Last Friday, Howard Owens from The Batavian published proof beyond a doubt that Erie County GOP Chairman, Republican rent-a hack Michael Hook, and congressional primary candidate Chris Collins were righteously pissed about the political activities of Michelle McCulloch.

McCulloch was employed as an outreach worker in State Senator Mike Ranzenhofer's district office until her employment was terminated. The firing came a day after she reported to her boss that she had introduced David Bellavia to possible primary supporters at a meet and greet in Wyoming County where she resides and serves as a GOP Committeewoman. She was fired despite having been a good soldier. She passed Conservative Party petitions for Chris Collins presumably at the behest of Ranzenhofer and reported her outside political activity to her boss as instructed.

Today, Ranzenhofer told the Batavia Daily News that he is remaining neutral in the GOP primary between Collins and Bellavia and that he won't be endorsing a candidate.

That was the point where my bullshit detector exploded. Here's what we know for sure:

Ranzenhofer's office staff, a small army of Republicans who also happen to be notaries public, passed Conservative Party designating petitions for Chris Collins. This is not an act of neutrality and although Ranzenhofer has denied that he directed his staff to pass the petitions, no one with a drop of common sense believes him. Here's a link to all the Conservative Party petitions turned in by Ranz's staff notaries. That's an impressive coordinated effort by a bunch of people who weren't directed to act....

According to Ms. McCulloch's text message records which she shared with The Batavian, Chris Collins' political consultant, Michael Hook, called Ranzenhofer after the Collins campaign found out about McCulloch's membership on the Bellavia Steering Committee. Here is the warning from her friend courtesy of The Batavian:

                                                                           Image Courtesy of The Batavian
That wasn't the only text message she received. ECGOP Chairman Nick Langworthy sent a few rage texts to McCulloch about her support of Bellavia.

                                                             Image Courtesy of The Batavian

After the texts came a warning to McCulloch that she must report any political activity to her boss. She followed orders and a day later she was fired.

Ranzenhofer insists that the firing wasn't politically motivated, but all of the evidence points in the other direction.

Enter the Republican version of the circular firing squad.

Wyoming County GOP Chairman Gordon Brown  told the paper:

“I am not pleased with Sen. Ranzenhofer’s response,” Brown said. “He claims neutrality, but I don’t think that neutrality is accurate.”

For those of you unfamiliar with political language, that statement translates roughly into English as:  "Ranz is a fucking liar. Liar, liar, pants on fire."

He also seemed underwhelmed by Chris Collins' ability to build bridges, saying, “You have to be able to build coalitions and consensus, with Collins, the question is does he have the right personality?”

That one doesn't require any translation, we all know nobody can stand Chris Collins on a personal level.

This congressional campaign is quickly turning into another case of how badly can the ECGOP squander its chances of winning this seat. NY-27 should be a slam dunk for the Republicans after redistricting turned it from an R+6 district to an R+7. Of course, it should have been a slam dunk for them last year as well, but Democrat Kathy Hochul stomped all over them even in some of the reddest parts of the district.

Republican leadership in Erie County has been running the same campaign for years and everyone has finally caught on to the strategy. Pick a wealthy candidate, hide him/her in a bunker somewhere so they don't have to answer policy questions, feed the public talking points, keep the GLOW countys in line, win.

David Bellavia has thrown a serious wrench in their gears these last two election cycles, but Bellavia isn't the man to blame for the ECGOP's woes; Nick Langworthy is. Langworthy paid lip service to Bellavia in 2008 when he asked the Iraq War veteran to step aside for tranny-chaser Christopher Lee. Langworthy then promised Bellavia that when Lee vacated the seat, it would be Bellavia's turn to go to Washington.

Bellavia accepted Langworthy's word and stepped aside for the team, but when the time came for Langworthy to pay up, wealthy dilettante Jane Corwin was called off the bench instead. We all know how that turned out for the Republicans. Bellavia is doing the right thing running this primary. The ECGOP has proved to everyone exactly what their word is worth and Bellavia is providing Republican voters an opportunity to step away from the status quo.

Image and quote sources:

Monday, May 14, 2012

GLOW Fun With Chris Collins

Thanks to @BuffaloPundit and @HeyRaChaCha, we had a little fun on Twitter today with Chris Collins' clueless attempts at pandering to GLOW region voters. I'll keep this updated with the good ones. The hashtag is #CluelessCollins, enjoy.

Hey Hicks, Chris Collins Is Just Like You

Chris Collins bought some jeans last week and The Buffalo News just had to report on it. I never would have seen the blurb if my friend Alan Bedenko over at Artvoice hadn't picked up on it yesterday.

Since this is stupid is so many ways, I'm not going to launch into a thousand-word diatribe about how Collins is a dick and is wholly incapable of connecting with or understanding anyone outside of his circle of Spaulding Lake dilettantes. Instead, I thought it would just be fun to wonder what Chris Collins thinks of us, the hicks, rubes and hayseeds out here in the GLOW counties.

Without further ado: Overheard on the Collins campaign trail, GLOW region edition:

-- "Jesus, what's that smell? Is that the fertilizer stench they kept telling me about?"
    "No, Chris, we're in downtown Batavia, there aren't any farms here."
    "Hmmm, must just be the poor people. What kind of pants do they wear?"

--"You guys are farmers, huh? So do you have, like, a general store, or do you barter for goods at the fair?"

--"Hi, I'm Chris Collins and I need your vote so I can go to Washington.  Waaawwwww-ssshhhhinnnngggg-ttttuuuuhhhhhnnn."

-- "I just bought a brand new pick-up truck so I can connect on a personal level with Pa Kettle here. Let's fill it with heavy stuff and drive somewhere."

-- "Let's make this one quick. There is no way I'm taking a dump in an outhouse."

-- "Oh, this is your cousin? How many kids do you guys have?"

-- "Haha, look at these straw hat wearing yokels. Hey, Cletus, where's the rodeo? Wait, what? YOU ACTUALLY HAVE A FUCKIN' RODEO?!?!? Oh....My....God....what the fuck is wrong with you people?"

I could do this all day, but I won't because it's stupid. You know what else is stupid? Chris Collins' attempt to be 'folksy' in his hick costume.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

President Obama Gets It Right On Gay Marriage

Yesterday, President Obama told the nation that he supports the right of gay couples to get married. Welcome to the 21st century, sir, there's beer in the fridge.

I've never doubted the President's actual beliefs about this issue and I don't believe for a single moment that his point of view has been 'evolving' all this time. The man's central problem has always been that he's a human being in his heart and a politician in fact. He suffers from the same disease that every person whose ife is run by handlers contracts eventually. Waffling on the important stuff is like the common cold for political animals whose progression through the ranks of power depends on public opinion. We're just finally lucky enough that public opinion on this civil rights issue has finally reached 50/50 status and the President possesses that extra percent of guts required for a powerful person to finally take a stand.

Of course it's one thing to come out in favor of equal rights for citizens, Backing it up with legislation is another game entirely, and the President has shown no inclination to do any such thing. Obama continues to insist that gay marriage is an issue for the states and we all know how that's going to go. Individual states are more inclined to stifle the right of gay individuals to marry rather than encourage it and they've proven it with their perfect 32-0 record of shitting all over equal rights when the issue goes to referendum. The only states that have successfully granted equal status to gay citizens have been the ones with governors and legislatures courageous enough to take the issue out of the hands of reactionary and bigoted citizens and do the thing using the old-school method of politics: favor trading, back room deals and maybe a sprinkling of blackmail just to make sure things are properly cinched up.

I'm willing to put aside my usual distaste for the common political method for this issue. If showing State Senator X the never before seen pictures of his 'fact-finding trip' to Thailand is what it takes to ensure that every American  possesses the same rights as his/her neighbor to marry for love or money or social advantage, then I'm OK with it.

However slowly things progress, I'm confident that our society will eventually reach the end of this argument. The bigoted religious sects will continue to marginalize themselves even within the confines of their own theology. The men and women who are opposed to homosexuality because they think the sex is 'icky' will look themselves in the mirror one day and realize how stupid they're being. The generational shift in cultural norms will finally overtake whatever is left of the hesitation of our politicians to do the right thing. My generation and our children will be  the targeted demographic of politicians and we will not tolerate discrimination. When I am an old man, people my age will want our leaders to do the right thing because we know better and our kids will want the same because they never knew any different.

The road to equality has always been long and perilous, demanding sacrifice from those brave enough to travel it. National progress on these issues that seem so simple to some of us is slow and requires a tireless activist base along with that ever elusive creature: The Gutsy Politician. There is a reward at the end, though. SO many Americans, gay and straight, have walked that road in the hope that someday this thing we call 'gay marriage' will just be marriage like abolition became freedom and women's suffrage became voting. That day is coming. Be patient, be strong and be true, your reward is closer than you think.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Collins Gives Order To Fire Mother Of Four, Bellavia Benefits

The Buffalo News reported on Saturday that State Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer fired an office employee and mother of four at the behest of Chris Collins, a Republican candidate for the NY-27 Congressional seat. According to the Buffalo News report, Michelle McCulloch of Attica said her employment at Ranzenhofer's office was terminated because of her support of Collins' primary opponent, David Bellavia.

McCulloch, a mother of four, is a member of the Wyoming County Republican Committee which has officially endorsed Mr. Bellavia in the ongoing primary. The incident that reportedly got her fired was nothing more than a meet and greet in Wyoming County (also attended by Collins) where she introduced David Bellavia around the crowd.

Ms. McCulloch is also a member of Bellavia's campaign steering committee, an extracurricular activity that had previously drawn the ire of her boss. Despite Ranzenhofer's demands that his staff remain neutral in the primary, his state senate office employees were asked to pass designating petitions for Chris Collins. McCulloch told the Buffalo News that she had performed this task despite her support for Bellavia.

New York is an 'at-will' state meaning employees can be terminated at any time for any reason. Companies are not required to provide an explanation for personnel decisions like this one.

Chris Collins has a history of committing acts that force voters to question his ability to respect his fellow human beings. There was the rat thing in Buffalo, then there was the handicapped parking space incident, the reportedly fear-based working environment in the Erie County Executive's office, and any number of other transgressions that constantly lower the public's expectations of Chris Collins ever acting like a person who respects others. Asking a State Senator to fire a mother of four who has served faithfully for years under multiple bosses falls right into the pattern of typical Collins behavior.

David Bellavia is expected to address the allegations against Collins and Ranzenhofer today in multiple appearances around the district.

Bellavia, who has received the endorsement of Republican Committees in every rural county in NY-27 should see this as a windfall for his campaign. Primary elections can be difficult to run because voters often have trouble, for obvious reasons, discerning the differences between two candidates who generally espouse the same ideology. These typically low turnout races will always come down to money and organization unless a clear line can be drawn between candidates. Bellavia has an opportunity now to draw that line using Collins' borderline behavior to ask primary voters to choose the kind of person they want representing them in the upcoming general election. I don't imagine the man who ordered the revenge firing of a working class mother is going to be able to acquit himself well on-stage in a debate with Congresswoman Kathy Hochul.

Image courtesy of Tom Dolina at Tommunisms

Friday, May 4, 2012

Thoughts For Friday: On Love and Fear and Death

Maybe the hardest thing for a human being to do is tell the truth. I used to write this Thoughts for Friday piece every week or so at WNYMedia and it was always a frivolous thing. I'd drink too much beer on a Thursday night and vomit out whatever was on my mind. I tried to make it funny or poignant, but it was really just a letting of the blood, a way to extract the little poisons from the system. The Big Poison, though, that had to stay and a little relief was all I ever allowed myself.

Things are different now. Life is different. The people around me aren't what they were just a few months ago.

Thoughts For Friday was always a silly thing, but now I want it to be about the truth. If you're expecting politics here, you'll probably get it from time to time, but I'm going to indulge myself a bit as well. The Big Poison needs an outlet and once a week or so I'm going to give it one.

I just started writing again. It's been about eight months since I put anything together for public consumption and I'm going to tell you why. Truth. 

There was a brief period when the last site I wrote for was falling apart, but i wasn't in any condition to care. My uncle started his last vacation in October of 2011. That was also the last time I wrote anything of substance. Sometime in that month I spent a night with the Occupy movement in Buffalo. I wrote about the experience and I wrote it well. I was proud of what I did there and I think I deserved to be.

At the end of October my uncle came home from his vacation with what we thought was a bad case of pneumonia. He couldn't finish a sentence without coughing uncontrollably, but we all thought he'd get better with some medicine and a bit of rest. A week or so later he was diagnosed with stage four non-small cell carcinoma. Lung Cancer. FUCK cancer. Just FUCK IT! I'm crying now. Truth.

About a week after that he had an episode that landed him in Strong Memorial Hospital. Truth.

Two days after that, my grandmother, his mother, had an internal bleed that put her in the same hospital. Truth

Two days after that, she was diagnosed with mother-fucking stage four non-small cell carcinoma. Lung Cancer. Truth.

The cancer had spread to the spine and the kidneys in both of them. Truth.

My family spent the next two weeks riding the elevators at Strong Memorial upanddownandupanddownandupandown. Truth.

My grandfather would go from one room to the other, sit in a chair and hold their hands. I took a picture of his hand and my grandmother's hand locked together, but i had to be sneaky about it because I was embarrassed to want it. Truth.

I've always been embarrassed about the things I want. Truth.

I don't think I'm going to get through this, but it matters so I'm going to force myself. Vacillation.

They sent my grandmother home for Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving dinner was the last time I was able to communicate with her in a meaningful way. Truth.

She spent most of the rest of her life in a hospital bed that they brought to the house. I don't believe in God, so I stood next to that bed, held her hand and made my confession to her. All of it, every bit of pride-shame-hate-love-fear and I wished over and over again that I'd done it this way three years ago when maybe it mattered. Truth.

She died just before her birthday in December. The night she died I was at home. I had thought I might to go down to Crossroads House and sleep in the room with her, maybe talk to her one more time, but I was drunk so I couldn't drive over there. My father says she waited for everyone to leave before she let herself go and that she wouldn't have been able to do it if one of us was there. Truth.

I've always thought that was bullshit.

My uncle was too sick to attend the wake. He was able, with some help, to come to the funeral home the morning we buried her. I helped him out of the car and into a wheelchair. That was the last time I saw him outside of a hospital. Truth.

He went to her casket. He called her mommy. He said he wasn't afraid because she'd be waiting for him. Truth.

I don't believe in heaven, but I fucking wanted to. Right then, I would have traded anything in the universe to have the comfort of belief. Truth.

My uncle died in the hospital a little more than a week later. Truth.

When my phone rang in the morning and I saw my father's number on the ID I thought he was calling about work. Truth.

When he told me my Uncle was dead all I felt was rage and I let out a growl/scream that scared my daughter awake. I sat on the stairs and pulled at my hair. Right at that moment, because I am a selfish person, I wanted to die too. Truth.

The priest was good friends with my Uncle. The funeral sermon was about how Jesus wept upon seeing Lazarus' friends' and family's grief. Truth.

My Uncle wept openly upon seeing the fields of Gettysburg. Truth.

My Uncle was cremated. Truth.

I visit my grandmother's grave on Tuesdays. There's no headstone yet, but I know which one it is because there are always fresh roses there. I'm not sure which day my grandfather goes, maybe he goes every day, but he's the one who leaves the flowers. He doesn't just lay them over the dirt; he makes a little hole and plants them right in the topsoil. I think he considers every time he plants those roses upright that it's the closest he's ever going to get to his wife again. I sit there on the ground and think about that. I sit there and I make my confession over and over again. I tell her the things I've never been able to tell anyone and I wish I'd done it while she was alive so she could have nodded her head and said, 'Hmm... well Chris, your Gram has an opinion about that.' Sometimes it rains so I have to go home and change afterward. Nobody ever notices because pretty much all my clothes look the same. Truth.

So, there's a bit of the Big Poison. It's in all of us and it gets nastier the longer we avoid the truth. It gets stronger when we shed just a few tears instead of screaming out our sorrow and rage. 

Here is that picture that I was so embarrassed to take. It's beautiful. Truth.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

27 Things About NY-27

1: I still can't stop calling it NY26, just like I wrote 2011 on my checks until April. So, If I screw up and type NY26 trust me, Brian Higgins is safe.

2: Who cares about David Bellavia's water bill? Bob McCarthy of course and probably some voters. Bellavia played this well by employing the 'just regular folks' defense but tight-ass primary voters will take late payments into account.

3. Chris Collins is an asshole. I have never seen this point refuted.

4. Kathy Hochul's 'Yes' vote on CISPA was either the result of electoral politics or a complete lack of regard for individual citizen's personal privacy. Since the average voter in NY27 doesn't know what the hell CISPA is... Well, you do the math.

5. Oh look, there's a primary for the Independence Party line. Chris Collins vs. someone you've never heard of. This happens because of New York's fusion voting system. Fusion voting simply means that minor parties are allowed to try and play kingmaker so major parties need to find willing sacrifices to primary people like Collins on a ballot line that no one gives a damn about.

***UPDATE: Never mind about this, Collins couldn't get enough petition signatures to get himself on the IP ballot line. See thing number three.***

6. Summer is almost here and no one is going to pay any attention to this race until September.

7. Chris Collins ignored a rat infestation in Buffalo. If you want to know why, see thing number three.

8. David Bellavia was awarded a Silver Star. Silver Stars don't automatically make a person right for Congress.

9. Chris Collins doesn't have any Silver Stars, but he does sit on the board of a medical research company. The likelihood of some Collins mouthpiece telling us that the former Erie County Executive is working on a cure for cancer is high. Being on the board of a research company doesn't make a person right for congress, and the doctors in Australia are the ones who are actually working on a cure for cancer.

10: At some point during the primary, Collins is going to have to say exactly what I said in thing number eight.

11: If Collins says what I said in thing number eight, he's going to be painted as an uncaring anti-veteran candidate.

12. If things number ten and eleven actually happen it will be because Chris Collins is an asshole and he can't help himself. See thing number three.

13: Kathy Hochul has spent more time in the GLOW counties in half a Congressional term than both her predecessors combined.

14: Hey, remember when Chris Lee showed off his nipples to Washington DC's transsexual Craigslist users and then the nation? Man that was funny.

15: However the Republican primary shakes out, the general election may very well come down to how much NY27 Republican voters hate Barack Obama. There really won't be any other reason for them to leave their houses in November.

16: In 2008 the Erie County Republicans promised David Bellavia their endorsement the next time this congressional seat came open. Two elections later they still haven't honored that promise.

17: People in the Monroe County portion of NY27 don't have any reason at all to give a damn about this race. No one has seriously asked their opinion in years.

18: Chris Collins opened a Twitter account this week, but you should follow @DWICollins instead; he's more fun and more likely to tell the truth.

21: Jack Davis mumbled something a few weeks back about starting a SuperPAC for David Bellavia. He'd better get right on that because Bellavia is having serious trouble raising money.

22: Elections are all about money.

23: Chris Collins has the most money so even though thing number three is sad, funny and true, it doesn't actually matter.

24: Chris Collins is unpopular in the GLOW counties because he's unlikable. David Bellavia has never done anything noteworthy in the GLOW counties other than live there. Kathy Hochul gets bills passed in Congress that streamline the labor hiring process for GLOW farmers.

25: Chris Collins lost his Erie County Executive re-election bid last November. Kathy Hochul has never lost an election. David Bellavia has never cracked the 'serious candidate' plateau.

26: I never thought I'd actually make it to twenty-seven things and I've been secretly re-writing the title of this piece inside my head since thing number six.

27: If you're reading this and you're a Republican, see things number three, seven, nine, ten, eleven and twelve. The last time we sent a wealthy, male business asshole to congress, we ended up having to look at his nipples on the national news. How many nipples is it going to take before you people learn?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Leaving Institutional Politics (It's Not Me, It's You)

My experience with institutional politics was wonderful, terrible, exciting, frustrating, embarrassing, was all the adjectives you can think of to convey emotion and now it's over.

In 2008 I decided I wanted to do something I believed in, something good and pure and right. I walked into the Democratic Party campaign office and asked if there was anything I could do to help. A year and a half later I was the Elections Chair, a position that I've come to call 'Blame Magnet.' It's a thankless job suitable only for egomaniac masochists with questionable tempers and a high tolerance for pain and grain alcohol. I fit right in.

I also took on the secondary responsibility of human torpedo. This is the thing I'll be most remembered for within that small group and probably the reason I burned myself out so fast. You see, a lot of conversations within these meetings start out with a person saying something stupid like: 'You know, someone needs to do something about...' or, 'It turns out that that legislator from the other side is a real scumbag both in his personal and public life, someone should...' and someone was me.

They're going to try and sell the nursing home, can you take the lead on this? Sure. Why not?

That Republican elected is turning county politics into Lord of the Flies, we have what we need to show folks what a disgusting human being he is, but no one quite has the guts to pull the trigger on this.... Give me the file and ten minutes to change my clothes; if I'm going for a roll in the gutter I don't want to be wearing these nice pants.

The Independence Party is bypassing local control and rigging endorsements through a high end elected official and our news outlets don't seem to care at all? OK, this should be good. If traditional media won't make these hog-fuckers famous then I'll do it myself.

That's how it went. Show me the bad guy, shove me in the tube and launch me headfirst at perilous speed. No one forced me to do any of this. I volunteered. I volunteered because nothing had changed in my own mind. I was still there to do some good and occasionally I succeeded in doing just that.

We won the nursing home battle, or at least we thought we did at the time. That legislator with questionable morality fought back hard, but he's gone. The Independence Party got away clean because one of my own decided personal comfort at work was more important than telling the truth. You can't win them all I suppose.

Who knows if winning even matters in these instances? After all, these are just the down-card fights, the minor skirmishes that get the audience screaming for blood before the Main Event of election season. They are just a part of the natural flow of politics that starts with issue advocacy and moves on to recruiting to balloting to campaigning to election night. It is a process that sucks out every molecule of your energy and will and on election night whether you win or lose, you feel like you could sleep for a thousand years just as soon as you're done laughing or crying or drinking. When you wake up the next morning you swear to yourself you're never going to put yourself through that again, or at least you're going to take a vacation first, but within a month or two you find out that that group of soulless, feckless cretins and morons the other side just got elected are preparing some new poison pill for their constituents to swallow.

It always happened that way. At least it did here. So I'd get my facts together and go to the next committee meeting, but the dynamic was changing. People were starting to treat me like a I was an angry cobra. Hell, I almost felt that way myself. I felt toxic and it was all self-efficacy. I was what these people said they wanted. I was the somebody who would when they couldn't and I was always upping the ante because when you pick fights with an entrenched power structure, detente is never an option.

As in most relationships, though, what people think they want and say they want is almost never what they really want. So many of these people liked the idea of what I was doing more than they liked the reality. Maybe the thought of someone stomping all over local politics shoulders hunched and scowling was fun at first, but when the time came for a real gut check no one else wanted to participate. I was still scowling, but it was at my own people and I knew I was going to have to leave soon.

The end came for me when I volunteered to help out with a local charity. I realized after I'd agreed to go that I'd be spending the whole night with people from the other side and I almost chose not to show up. This was an opportunity to do something good and pure, no sides, no battle lines and I felt like I couldn't go because of who I was. That was it for me.

So maybe now I won't have to drag my daughter to a campaign office on a Saturday, maybe I can spend some more time playing with my dog, maybe I can go on a date without worrying whether or not the girl is a damned Republican, maybe I can get drunk on St. Patrick's Day and not have to discuss school consolidation or the crooked IDA and maybe I can finally feel comfortable being critical of the people in my own party when we're the ones cooking up the poison pills (I'm looking at you Congresswoman Hochul, that CISPA vote was bull-shit,) and critical I will be.

There will never be another meeting with not-quite-gutsy-enough liberals who would rather save the whales than save their own neighborhoods.

I'll never be sold out again for thirty pieces of silver and a comfy office environment.

I'll never pay annual dues to organizations I didn't even know I was supposed to belong to.

And NO ONE will ever get to say to me, 'You know, someone should really...'