Hey Assholes, it’s August.

Listen, I know there are market forces at work initiating the removal of the camp chairs and tiki torches. But that doesn’t give you the right to move us all into late October. It’s still August, you assholes.

A quick celestial reminder. Summer ends on Sept. 22, when we are halfway between the longest and shortest days of the year. It’s called an equinox. In your giant store it’s always 72 degrees and fluorescent, so I realize this means nothing to you. But trust me, I have seen the latest sunset and it’s still fucking August. As in barebeques and beach balls and mojitos.

It’s still August.

And yet I notice your cardboard Frankenstein monsters and five-pound bags of Tootsie rolls and pink fairy princess costumes and plastic pumpkins and it’s not Halloween, you bastards. That’s October 31, and if you are checking the math, you are skipping two months there. Important ones, too.

I realize that August has no marketable holidays, which when you think about it is a gross oversight by Congress. But the first weekend in September has Labor Day. I can’t prove it at the moment, but I believe this was intended to recognize the essential workers who sell us things at stores on every holiday. Why degrade their one day of recognition by forcing them to sell us purple and orange stockings? Who benefits? Only you.

Also, Labor Day signifies the traditional end to summer vacation and the beginning of the school year. But you skipped ahead. You had back-to-school specials right after the Fourth of July, at a time when the only kids who going back to school were the poor saps the district suggested could use “continued learning.” Your rows of camo backpacks and yellow boxes Crayola of markers sent shivers down the spines of other kids who had been begging for s’mores supplies. I know because I was with a few of those kids.

No, for you pushy pricks, summer was back in April. Have you thought about what you are doing to us? You’re like a waiter asking what we’ll have for desert before bringing out dinner. Can’t we just sniff the carnitas of life before you shove flan under our nose? Is it too much to ask to be able to buy plastic pool toys all the way through the hottest month of the year? It’s August.

Since you have forced the discussion, let’s talk about Halloween. Culturally speaking, this is an Irish holiday falling just before the hallowed Roman Catholic holiday, All Saints Day. I say “hallowed” because it’s also know as All Hallows Day, a moment to remember all the pious women and men who dedicated their lives to serving others and their God. Before things got especially pious, one had to worry about the especially spooky. The eve of All Hallows Day was … put it together. You take the Irish, move them to America, they don’t carve turnips, they carve pumpkins, they knock on doors. Bada-boom.

I’m not even going to argue with you about turning holidays into cheap crap from China. I mean, we lost that war long ago. And at least Halloween got to be called “creepy” and “satanic” for a lot longer than Pride Month, am I right? The price of being accepted around here, I will allow, is having your culture sold as t-shirts (rainbow for Pride, black and orange for Halloween, pink and purple for Easter, and so forth). You aren’t mainstream if you aren’t on the display racks in the front.

I would like to ask you, on behalf of humanity, for the opportunity to observe the changing of the seasons at the time the seasons are actually changing. Just to pick a random example, take Christmas. I’m not even going to get into what this holiday about. Could be about the birth of Jesus Christ. Could be about the Roman cult around Sol Invictus. Could be about Santa Claus and Coke. I’m setting that aside. See me? I’m picking that who steaming shit pile and placing it over there. Also, that awful Halloween-Christmas-tree hybrid, which is an abomination. It goes with the steaming shit pile.

What everyone can agree on, my friend, is this stuff happens in the dark of winter. Not to badger you with more astronomy, but it’s kinda important to our species, so just remember that this is the time in our hemisphere when days go from being shorter and shorter to longer and longer. So, that’s the key factor here.

And yet you, you godless savages, I know what you are going to do. You’ve already made orders. Fucking shipping logistics have been worked up. About a week before Halloween, in the middle of October, you’re going to spring Christmas on us.

You assholes.

You can’t tell us that to purchase holiday merch is to observe the holiday, you can’t convince us all we aren’t doing Halloween right unless we buy your 18-foot tall inflatable Jack Skelington, and then keep us from buying said merch at the actual time of the holiday. That’s just cruel. We’re going to be excited to go get some high fructose corn syrup bombs, maybe a sexy pirate costume, a cinematic bloodfest, and you motherfuckers are going to yank it all out from underneath us. We’re going to faithfully visit the store, and it’s going to be full of snow globes and wreaths and shit. What a mind fuck.

So here’s the deal — fuck you. You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to celebrate the shit out of something you don’t stock on the shelves. Maybe I’m going to be the damned king of Thanksgiving. That’s right, you bastards. You thought you merged it with Christmas, like it was a half-football, half-shopping pre-December fluffing of the American shopper. But maybe now I’m going to Thanksgiving it up. Hard core. I don’t give a fuck about what those people did back in the day. Pilgrims, Native Americans, cranberries. Doesn’t matter. What matters is some seasonal celebration. I will make myself a funky hat. I will put buckles on my shoes, my belt, my fucking funky hat and maybe my sleeves., too I will buckle up for fun.

And then, I’m going get myself a turkey. Ha! I know. The one thing you had on me was selling me a turkey for the only time of the year when anyone eats a whole damn turkey. But I’ll go kill one instead. How about that? Then what are you going to do? Sell me some handi-wipes for my bloody hands? Too late. I’ll lick them off.

But first, mojitos. Because, you ass holes, it’s still August.

Fuck this.

Maybe I should give to those I see

Never before 2020 can I recall handing cash to poor people waiting at street lights. I believed, and I’m pretty sure I was told, it’s better to give to the organizations that can help them find housing, food and employment.

I see weathered men with the handwritten cardboard signs that say, “Anything helps,” or “Need $ for shoes.” I think, you probably have shoes. You made it to this median, to stand next to a traffic light near a popular freeway on ramp. And now the shoes are in the backpack next to you. These days, though, I start to shift around in the drivers seat to reach my wallet, power down the window and hand over a few dollars. Because who the hell am I to know? The truth is there’s a person who is very clearly telling me they could use some money, and I am literally sitting on cash as I look at them.

Don’t get me wrong. We all should support the charities and nonprofit organizations that support the homeless and near-homeless. They get people in need what they need — warm food, warm beds, warm showers. My sister works for a food bank, and she will tell you writing a check to your local food bank helps people. Food banks can get more food for the dollar than you can, and they can more efficiently deliver it to the people — adults and children alike — who need it.

The person who got me to literally open my wallet, in addition to opening my checkbook, was Pope Francis, in comments that took a few years to sink in with me.

 “There are many arguments to justify oneself when you do not give alms. ‘But what, I give money and then he spends it on a glass of wine?’ If a glass of wine is the only happiness he has in life, that is fine. Instead, ask yourself what you do secretly. What ‘happiness’ do you seek in private? Or, on the contrary to him, you are more fortunate, with a house, a wife, children, which leads you to say, ‘Take care of him yourselves’. Help is always right.”

Pope Francis

I took it as a reminder that we shouldn’t anoint ourselves social worker, judge and financial advisor to beggars. They are people. A person asked something of you, and God considers your response to that fellow human, not your analysis of the causes of poverty.

It got me to thinking about who is in my mind when I do give. First, I’m not that generous overall. Something to work on. But on top of not being especially generous, I used to give only to organizations, not to individuals. Then I realized when I made donations online to do-gooders, maybe subconsciously I imagined I was giving it to a more trustworthy person. A person like me, with a house and a degree and pants that fit.

What I definitely was not doing was giving to the poor people I saw with my eyes in real life. I was not responding to the signs written in black Sharpie, or the words repeatedly directed to me on sidewalks and in parking lots: “Do you have a few bucks you could spare?”

What I would say is, “Sorry, man.” And yes, it’s almost always a man asking — not actually always, but nearly. But maybe what I meant was, “I don’t give money to people with missing teeth, or unwashed hair, or three coats on.”

So, I’m trying to change that. I’m trying to do something that’s hard for me, which is to physically part with my hard-earned cash. To give that money I got for doing my professional job to a stranger who will do whatever he damn well pleases with it. Because that’s what is being asked of me.

Just to be clear, I am not holding myself out as some kind of expert on donation, or even as significant donor to any cause. As my wife frequently remarks, I can pinch pennies until they scream. So you do what you like, fair reader. I’m not the judge. I’m just sharing a way of thinking about giving that has been meaningful to me. I think I’m not supposed to begrudgingly make my donation via the mail or Internet to an abstract good cause just so I can ignore the panhandler and still feel like I’m a contributing member of society.

It’s been dawning on me that I am probably supposed to be listening to the fellow humans who come up to me and ask me for a favor. I don’t have to do as they ask. I’m allowed to consider and choose. But I should actually consider. I should listen to the real voices reaching my ears, the signs my eyes behold out in the sun and rain.

I didn’t know it until I wrote this post and looked up the Pope’s full comments, but Francis also reminded people to use their eyes — to look into the eyes of the poor. Here’s the rest of his comment.

“Certainly, it is not a good thing just to throw a few coins at the poor. The gesture is important, helping those who ask, looking them in the eyes and touching their hands. Tossing the money without looking in the eyes, that is not the gesture of a Christian. Teaching in charity is not about offloading one’s own sense of guilt, but it is touching, looking at our inner poverty that the Lord understands and saves. Because we all have inner poverty”.

Pope Francis

There’s a Robot in My House

Behold, my mechanical servant. He rolls with a pleasant humming sound, but not with a plan in mind — there’s no mind in that can. He’s got program on board that jogs his disc body 20 degrees left when encountering an obstacle. We were told by the manufacturer the disc needed a name. Son No. 2 said, “Sven.” Now the robot has pronouns (he/his/him).

The three year old (Son No. 4) likes to wake him up in the morning. He summons Sven with the remote control, pressing the button with crushing force. Sven beeps, whirs his brushes and emerges from the darkness under the couch, on patrol for breakfast crumbs. Son No. 4 believes he eats these, and they do end up in his “tummy.” Daughter No. 1 is skeptical. Son No. 3 wants to paint a face on him. Son No. 1 says, “How long before he makes us his slaves?”

Domestic robots were a nerd’s fantasy. Then they were the rich person’s luxury. Now, when we are working and schooling from home, this one is affordable. It’s awkwardly animate. It, Sven, gets stuck under the one chair, heaving it’s disc over and over without making it across a leg. Then we have to rescue it. If it gets lost for too long, it sends a distress signal to my wife’s phone. One more moving object to track in a house with a few of them already.

But Sven does get the job done. He sweeps up the debris twice a day so we don’t have to. He goes right to the edge of the stairs to get that stuff. His disc teeters on the cliff, an inch from toppling to the doom of his plastic housing. Then he backs away, obeying the sensors and the program, and heads off again, 20 degrees to the left.

Modern living, friends.

Why Portland Protesters Will Never Tire

The Battle of Portland rages still. Having worn down federal agents and local police, leftist protesters spent a recent weekend in gas-choked melees with a motley, right-wing “Back the Blue” rally. 

The remarkable endurance of these protests is subject to debate. The May 25 death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer sparked a historic outcry against police brutality and racism. Three months later, marches under the Black Lives Matter banner have faded away elsewhere, but protesters — mostly white — are still in Portland’s streets. Why? 

My take: Portland, uniquely, is home to a far-left branch of a warrior culture that exists mostly in conservative areas of the United States.

Well documented by historians of cultural geography, this group originated in the war-ravaged borderlands of England, Scotland and Ireland. Displaced by aristocratic landlords in the 1700s, they bypassed America’s coastal settlements to settle in the Appalachian Mountains, far from government regulation or taxation. They moved south and west, dominating areas like Kentucky, with some following the sunset through Missouri and across the plains.  

Wherever they settled, they brought their aggressive ethos. Overrepresented in the US Marine Corps, they have supported every war the United States has ever fought. The group has been credited with producing hard-charging American presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson and Lyndon B. Johnson.

In Oregon, Puritan-type New Englanders first arrived by ship and quickly took over the government. But they were outnumbered 15-to-1 by individualistic Appalachians who came along a certain famous wagon trail. In Portland, especially, the result has been a unique blend of Yankee politics and bare-knuckle tactics.

Today, hard-to-trace groups like Antifa and the Youth Liberation Front are active in recent protests. But based on my reading of history, there’s only one cultural group that — instead of clever signs and uplifting songs — brings skateboard helmets and baseball bats to a protest. 

Conservative heirs to Appalachian culture recognize these protesters like a Hatfield knows a McCoy. In May, would-be militia members with long rifles and body armor took to the streets of Spokane, Klamath Falls, Oregon, and Coeur D’Alene, Idaho. They were ready to stop what they believed was a pending Antifa invasion from Portland.

Turns out President Trump did the invading. In July, federal officers dressed in camouflage and without badges appeared and reportedly threw protesters into unmarked SUVs. Protesters shifted their attention to the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse. They used leaf blowers against tear gas and chanted “Stay together! Stay tight! We do this every night!”

Portland leaders, including some in the Black community, questioned what was being accomplished through continuous street combat.

“The focus has been moved from where it is supposed to be and made to be a spectacle, a debacle,” said the president of the Portland NAACP, the Rev. E.D. Mondainé.

Ferocious portesting is dangerous. A leftist videographer was beaten by a group of men on suspicion of being a police informant. Another man was pulled from his pickup, kicked in the head, and left unconscious on the street.

Ferociousness is overwhelming.  Federal officers made a “phased withdrawal” from Portland. Protesters turned to police union headquarters — first attempting to break down the doors, then running a hose into a window, then attempting to burn it. Next came the “Back the Blue” confrontation, complete with bats, fireworks and pepper spray but no intervention by law enforcement, local or federal.

Dakota Means, a former Marine of mixed race, was knocked out when a pro-police protester shot him in the head with a paintball gun. But the day ended with the Back-the-Blue crowd retreating and Means standing his ground.  

“They’re not welcome in the city. I’m gonna make sure they are run out,” he said.

When will it all end? Based on the history of Appalachian culture, I would say they won’t stop fighting. The best you can hope for is that they find someone else to fight.

The “III” Symbol (Car Decals Decoded)

This interesting and cryptic symbol includes the Roman numeral three, “III,” and usually a ring of stars.

What III means

The three refers to the 3 percent of the American population that supposedly fought in the American Revolution against the British. We should say “supposedly,” because I don’t get the sense this was an especially well-researched figure, approved by historians. But maybe so.

The stars are a reference to the American flag during the Revolutionary War, often referred to as the Besty Ross Flag. It’s often shown along with various other symbols, such as period-specific muskets and the like.

If you are displaying these, the idea is you are part of the noble but tiny minority of people who will actually put your life on the line to defend freedom.

What actual battle you are fighting or what “freedom” or “liberty” mean in these instances is up for grabs. These stickers definitely seem to be linked to Second-Amendment-type sentiments, as in, the freedom to own firearms, and the threat being the United States Government, not foreign powers.

In some areas, the “Three Percenters” are numerous enough to form actual organizations and chapters, hold rallies and participate in paramilitary activities like marksmanship training. They recently made headlines in Washington State, where members appeared at the state Capitol in Olympia heavily armed, in support of a lawmaker accused of participating in domestic terrorism.

The Punisher Skull (from the Field Guide to Car Decals)

A few years ago a long-toothed white skull began appearing on the back windows of pickups on my local highways. Always curious about the symbols people display, I looked it up. It’s the Punisher skull, and it has traveled from Spider Man comic books to the killing fields of Iraq, to your local Trump supporter’s trunk.

Identification of the Punisher Skull

The Punisher skull or logo is easily distinguished by its elongated teeth (four of them) and lack of a bottom jaw. It’s always shown face-on, with empty eye sockets conveying menace.

Habitat of the Punisher Skull

The logo frequently is found on pickups, a vehicle of choice for members of the military who popularized it. Consistent with its fan base, it is also frequently found near firearms-related symbols and other conservative causes. The photo above shows it displayed on a sedan, with a patriotic red-white-and-blue color scheme and “Trump” printed on it, near a National Rifle Association sticker.

History of the Punisher Skull

The skull is the symbol of the comic book character the Punisher, a Vietnam veteran who takes the law into his own hands after his family is killed in mob violence. The Punisher is described by creator as an “anti-villian,” some one who does the wrong thing, like torturing his victims, for the right reasons.

Although the Punisher was introduced in 1974, his icon surged to fame after 2014, when joint Iraqi/U.S. forces were fighting a brutal enemy, ISIS, for control of parts of the country. The same year, biopic “American Sniper” told the story of Chris Kyle, who belonged to a military group that called themselves the Punishers and painted the skull logo on everything they could.

“As a poorly-guided vigilantes, the Punisher is a well-suited icon for the Iraqi security forces and Shi’ite militia that have been accused of looting towns, burning homes and murder in their fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).”

Time Magazine in 2016.

Meaning of the Punisher skull

When used by soliders fighting ISIS (which was known to burn captives alive) the skull was clearly meant to symbolize their own bad-assedness. That is, they literally dealt death to their enemies.

On sedans parked near grocery stores, the meaning is less clear. Certainly it conveys toughness, and a sense of deadly resolve, especially when near other symbols of weapons. It seems to say that the owner is armed and dangerous.

This, of course, is not a welcome message for some. In 2017, a Kentucky police department stopped using the skull logo on its cruisers after complaints. And in 2019, Salon.com published an article titled “The Punisher skull: Unofficial logo of the white American death cult.”

Our Politics Aren’t As Red vs. Blue as You Might Think

After the 2016 presidential election, I decided I didn’t understand America as much as I thought. So I spent the last few years readying American history. And you know what? Despite the many, many news stories saying otherwise, there isn’t a red/Republican America and a separate blue/Democratic America.

It’s true that we are deeply polarized politically. A recent in-depth poll by Pew regarding the impeachment of President Trump found 86 percent of Republicans think the Senate trial should end with Trump remaining in office, while 85 percent of Democrats thought he should be removed — exact mirror images. But we shouldn’t take findings like that to mean there are Republican and Democratic Americans sprinkled evenly across the country, torn in half like two sides of an open book. It does not imply we have each carefully considered our own philosophies of the proper role of government, the meaning of freedom and the goals of public policy.

In reading history, I noticed one state kept popping up in the text — South Carolina. You don’t read much about South Carolina, at least where I’m from. More than anyplace else, it seems to pop up in politics, especially during the presidential primary. But it’s not Texas, New York or California, dominant in economics, pop culture and politics. Once I realized South Carolina seemed to be disproportionately historical, if you will, I began to notice a sort of echo in the history books — Massachusetts. If you see one mentioned, you can expect that nearby in the chapter there is an answer from the other.

Following this intriguing thread of regionalism in political history and perpetual power struggle, I found Colin Woodard’s work American Nations (actually first in a NYT op-ed, but this was based on the book). Woodard will lead you to David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed. These two works do more to explain the American polictal dynamic than any others, in my experience.

I wish there was a snappy name for their approach, but I haven’t come across it. The premise is simple, however. America was not a single culture, founded on Plymouth Rock and spreading west to Waikiki. England and other European powers colonized North America more than once and in more than one place. Each one colony, even those from the same mother country, had its own cultural approach to freedom, government, power, labor, class, religion — all of it.

Massachusetts and South Carolina represent the seed beds of the two most dominant of those cultures, the former founded by priggish Puritans, and the later by slave-holding planters from Barbados.

Most of us have a place on the political spectrum, but that spectrum is set by the culture in which we live. A Boston conservative is not necessarily in much agreement with a Charleston conservative. When we look at the map, we see that there isn’t a blue America, in which everyone mysteriously agrees with the Democratic Party. Rather, the Democratic Party has it’s power base in the land of the Yankees, and to the degree it can flex to attract dissidents in other regions, it creates a map of blue America.

Likewise, the definition of what it means to be a Republican has evolved to resemble a prototypical patrician of the Deep South.

The upshot is this: America hasn’t been pulled apart into red and blue camps of liberals and conservatives. American political parties have been pulled back into alignment with the oldest and deepest divide in America itself — North vs. South.

What this is all about

I’m launching this blog to advocate for seeing American politics and society differently.

All politics are identity politics of a kind. I say this as some one who has spent his adult life working in and around politics. Some of it is beneficial to society (“We’re the kind of people who care about kids”) and some is harmful (“Those people want to hurt our kids”).

For some time now, the harmful species of identification has been growing in the ecosystem. While much of it is well-intentioned, an effort to erase longstanding injustices, or create new levels of acceptance for marginalized people, some is definitely not. All of it has side effects. For now, I’ll just paraphrase Alan Abramowitz by saying more and more, we see people of a different political stripe not as people with whom we disagree, but a different kind of person all together. In identity terms, we could see the other side as belonging to the same national group as we do, but a different political sub-group. Instead, most of us see the other side as a whole different tribe. We see them as “them.”

To me and my reading of American history, this is dangerous ground.

What I would like to do here is start questioning our hardened political identities. I want to talk about what are actual differences between us, and what are perceived differences. What are the strong, deep divisions, and what are the small differences that happen to be apparent on the surface. I want to start a conversation that starts from the premise that we are people with differences, not different peoples.

That does not mean we have to check our values at gate of the public square. It doesn’t mean we declare ourselves “united” and quit talking about imbalances within our unity. This isn’t about preserving the status quo.

What this conversation is about — and I hope it becomes a conversation — is talking with respect and integrity. It’s about talking about different views with passion, and caring. Its’ about zooming out a little bit to remember every one of us has many identities, but we are all — all — human.