I started 2014 knowing I was going to need surgery to have a torn ACL repaired. Clearly, this is not me…if the shoes didn’t give it away.
I started 2014 knowing I was going to need surgery to have a torn ACL repaired. Clearly, this is not me…if the shoes didn’t give it away.
Inspired by Enron and the other utility company corruption that produced rolling blackouts throughout California in 2001, I made this film starring my partner in cinematic crime, Jean Mazzei. Here we are 18 years later, dealing with PG&E’s bullshit, yet again. The rallying cry stays the same, #supportmunicipalpower. Click below to view
I started writing this a few months ago and, as certain events occurred, the piece evolved. After looking at a first final draft over the weekend, I realized I had more to say and have been revising but am ready to lay it rest, at least for a while. This is a subject that is really open ended. The friends we make throughout our journey are part of who we are, even if they’re no longer part of our lives. I guess this is a tribute to all of you, and others I’ve met along the way.
I’ve been hearing more women discuss how, after 50, their friendships with other women become more important. Since I’ve been living 3000 miles away from New York for so many years, my friends have long been my adopted family, but there is no doubt that in the last few years, a number of my friendships, not only with women, have deepened. There is a handful of people who I love like siblings, others more like cousins. We’ve been through all kinds of times together – births, deaths, business openings and failures, new partners and breakups, laughter, arguments, trips to Ocean beach, trips to Europe. I don’t take these relationships for granted and realize that even though we’ve known one another for decades, they still require work.
This makes me think about a one and a half year hiatus I had with someone, which really was a bad miscommunication, mostly on my part. We got back in touch a few weeks ago, talked it out, and I felt relieved yet also sadness about time missed. We find ways to distract ourselves from loss and pain, but people cannot be replaced, and I felt a sense of grief not having her in my life. Even during the period of radio silence, I never doubted my love for her or the validity of our friendship. It is hard to have a rift with someone who you feel this way about and resuming our friendship has given me greater peace.
Which leads me to another friend, someone I’ve known since college, whose had some struggles. Despite her issues, she’s been there for me through some tough moments, most recently last winter when I had a pretty severe case of SAD (seasonal affective disorder). We speak all the time but hadn’t seen one another in probably ten years. Last month, she timed a visit to see her family in New York for when I was going to be in town. It didn’t go as we expected, not that there was tension between us, but she was having a hard time. It’s upsetting to see people you care about suffer, especially when you know there is really nothing you can do. I realized that what was going on wasn’t about me and that even if it altered our plans to see one another, my priority was being her friend. I felt I needed to set a boundary at one point but reiterated my love and support. Afterward, she apologized and was afraid I would want nothing to do with her. That was not the case, at all. I actually feel that our friendship became stronger because while I put a stake in the ground, I clearly stated that I wasn’t going to abandon her.
So what does it mean when you say you are not going to abandon someone? I think what we really mean, what I meant anyway, is that I wasn’t going to abandon the friendship. It is a relationship built not just on an embedded history but honesty, and on a profound level, we get one another. Knowing that she is in this world, just a phone call away, gives me comfort, even if she can’t always be her best self. This friendship is as close to shatterproof as they get but sometimes we do need to abandon friendships, and ending any relationship is seldom easy.
Earlier in the summer, I met up with someone who I hadn’t seen in 22 years. We first crossed paths when I was 20 and doing a semester abroad. Despite the vast differences in our backgrounds, we had a pretty instant connection and kept up with one another for some years afterward but as so happens, our lives drifted apart. After a mutual friend found me through Facebook in 2018, we got back in touch. I was delighted and at first, didn’t feel estranged.
When we finally saw each other, it just didn’t work. I felt disappointed, slightly depressed, and depleted as I felt I put most of the effort into rekindling the friendship but the real problem, I think, is that I didn’t realize our dynamic changed. In retrospect, there were warning signs, but I was too blinded by the memory of what she meant to me 30 years ago to take much notice. Knowing that written correspondences can be tricky, I dismissed the disconnect. I’ve wondered if perhaps the closeness I felt all those years ago was more of a mirage than a reality. We can’t go back in time so who knows, but what makes for a deep connection and meaningful friendship when you’re 20 is different from when you’re 50.
Getting back in touch with people brings up nostalgic feelings but the longer the lapse, the more likely it is that people grow apart and the void might be insurmountable. Some relationships are best being kept as a good memory and left at that. Their significance at one time in your life may have been genuine, and it is part of the story of who you are now, but, painful as it may be, you need to let it go.
There’ve been a couple of old friends I’ve rediscovered and found that while our lives zigzagged, a fundamental sympatico remained. Even though we missed out on sharing major life events, we hold the same basic values, and genuinely appreciate each other and the people we’ve become. At the same time, these relationships serve as a reminder that there is a kernel of who we are that goes unchanged and it is reassuring to have people from your past recognize this piece of you.
Our tried and true friends love us whether we’re up or down, elated or depressed, in a fucked up place or on top of the world. So long as we respect the relationship and value one another more or less equally, there is room to air differences and grow. Despite arguments and disagreements with some people, they have literally been at my side when I’ve been too depressed to open my eyes. When you’ve been friends with someone for a long time, you’re bound to see their ugly sides, and they are going to see yours. Respecting that no one is perfect is part of maturity and allows us to have more honest relationships. You can say this when you’re young but it takes living life’s lessons to comprehend our humanity. On one hand, we might become more patient with others because we also recognize our own fallibility but on the other, we realize time is precious. Out of necessity, we make choices.
That is what people mean when they say their friendships become deeper in mid-life. Recently, my sister said that every day we have with our parents is a gift. I feel that way about my friends, too. Before I hit 50, the prospect of losing people seemed a long way off but now, as I continue to hear about people I know who are not much older than me getting sick – like really sick – or dying, I don’t want to squander whatever time I have left. As is the case with many of us, I’m very busy, often juggling more more balls than I should, but will always make room in my life for those who I hold, and who hold me, dear.
Back in June, I passed by a protest in front of Manny’s, a café in the Mission that calls itself, “A people-powered and community-focused meeting space.” Several groups, including the Palestinian Youth Movement, Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism, the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, and Critical Resistance, run the boycott. They claim that Manny’s is “woke-washing,” in other words, despite its progressive rhetoric, it is no more than another tool for gentrification. Nevermind that there was a sushi bar in the space before. I heard second hand that Manny, who is Jewish, felt unfairly attacked and that while he is an observant Jew, he wasn’t on board with a lot of Israel’s policies, as is true of many Jewish Americans, those who identify as Zionists or not. I didn’t really know what to make of it, or how he feels, and didn’t give it too much thought until I came upon the protesters a few months ago.
On this fateful day, I asked one of the women, “Hey, what’s this all about?” She gave me a flyer that attacked Manny’s for gentrifying the Mission. OK, I’ve been living in San Francisco since 1992 and people were complaining about the Mission gentrifying then. So I asked her something to the effect of, “Why are you singling out Manny’s when stores are selling $100 yoga pants, $8 lattes and $10 juices all over Valencia Street?” That’s when the woman handed it over to a man who got on his bullhorn and started telling me to check my white privilege. At that point I just said, fuck it, I’m not going to engage (with these idiots).
Urban displacement has profoundly affected a lot of long-time San Franciscans, myself included, and I’m sure disproportionately impacted people of color. The Mission, which has been the epicenter of Latinx culture since the ’60s, has for sure been whitewashed, if not woke washed. Overpriced eyeglass and furniture shops have replaced independent bookstores, and vintage clothing boutiques have given way to $200 jean stores. San Francisco leads the nation in housing prices. In 1996 I rented a two-bedroom apartment for $1600 in the Mission. Now, the same apartment would cost close to $5000. But is boycotting Manny’s the most effective way of bringing attention to this problem? Is dissing random people who are just asking questions about the protest the way to create equity?
Then there is the elephant in the room, the additional line of attacking Manny’s because he is, “a Zionist.” As said, I don’t know where he stands on the Palestine/Israel situation but if that is part of the tactic, should the protestors not also find out how other business owners on the street feel about the subject? Why single him out? Is it because he’s Jewish? I never got that far in my conversation with these folks. Given how it all played out – don’t think it was lost on me that the woman I was talking to handed me over to a large male who used his microphone as an intimidation tactic – I’m not interested in talking to them again. Any organization or protest that so quickly defers to patriarchal power loses its legitimacy, end of story.
I fully support the rights of the Palestinians, and that includes BDS. As I’ve written in the past, I think Zionism is a form of nationalism that is intolerable but so is anti-Semitism, whether it comes from the right, left or center. Given the experience I had, I question the protestors’ motivations. Granted, these were just a few people; perhaps some of the others in the coalition have sound reasons for protesting Manny’s. I’ve read a few things online such as this piece on Waging Nonviolence’s website that give me cause for concern. Without knowing the full story, I don’t feel I can make a sound judgment on whether this one establishment, which is owned by a Jewish American, is more deserving of a boycott than other businesses in the Mission. Anti-Semitism may have nothing to do with it, but still, the optics don’t look good.
Herein is the problem that the left needs to address. Anti-Semitism from the right is much more pervasive and violent. Nationalism, fascism and alt-right thought is predicated on bigotry so, in a twisted way, it’s understandable. The left prides itself as being anti-racism, anti-elitism, and against anti-Semitism so it should steer clear of any activities that can give the wrong impression. There are bound to be transgressions, and they are the exception, not the rule, but it only takes one slip of the tongue, misconstrued or ill worded statement for the right to pounce. Jewish Americans are extremely defensive of any rhetoric that has shades of anti-Semitism. I do not think anti-Zionism is the same as anti-Semitism, and I urge other Jewish Americans who, regardless of what they think about Israel, to distinguish between the two. Conflating them plays into right-wing tactics.
All of us need to be vigilant when it comes to prejudice. Hate takes many forms, and it’s not always as overt as a white supremacist walking into a synagogue with a semi-automatic. Historically, racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and homophobia were no strangers to left-wing circles. While it may run counter to the values most on the left hold, we cannot pretend that bigotry, ignorance, and hate are even today absent in our ranks. What should set us apart is that we know the difference. We do not talk about how there “are very fine people” chanting “Jew will not replace us,” or for that matter, think it’s ok to boycott a business just because the owner is Jewish. If the left is going to present a strong and persuasive vision for an equitable society, it cannot tolerate such inconsistencies and should address this issue before it becomes fodder for right-wing criticism.
My father’s uncle Irving (who also took the Spanish Civil War photos) snapped these shots after the Christmas Blizzard of 1947 when more than two feet of snow blanketed Central Park. Maybe because it’s been so unseasonably hot in SF, I’ve been drawn to them over the last few days. It is hard to believe no one saw them until 2005 when they were developed for the first time. They capture a moment in time yet are timeless.
Many Jews of my generation were inundated with the message that Israel could do no wrong. With the Holocaust still fresh in the collective memory, our families, rabbis, Hebrew school teachers, and friends told us that Israel would always be our home. They said that the Palestinians left voluntarily, encouraged by other Arabs and that the only ones who engaged in terrorist acts were the Palestinians and their allies. It was very black and white, Arabs and Palestinians bad, Israel good.
I visited Israel twice. As a teenager, I went on a teen tour, a common rite of passage for upper and middle-class Jewish kids, that was lead by religious zealots who took us to Israeli settlements and made comments about the filthy Arabs. The second time, when I was in my early 20’s, I spent five months living on a kibbutz. There, I heard a lot of the same propaganda pushed on me as a child.
Over the years, as I became more aware of the Palestinians’ plight, my views started to shift. Still, it used to upset me when people said Zionism is racism. In lieu of centuries of persecution, I felt that it was important for there to be a haven for Jewish people. I used to dismiss claims that Israel was an apartheid state. Comparing it to South Africa seemed like a false equivalency. Singling Israel out for boycotts when other countries perpetrate human rights abuses on a grander scale bothered me. I no longer feel this way.
As is true of the US, religious extremists in Israel have disproportionate power, leading to the oppression of other groups: Arabs, LGBTQ+, immigrants, anyone who is not fully Jewish in their myopic eyes. It’s easy to put a lot of the blame on Netanyahu and his corrupt cadre for Israel’s atrocious policies, but I’ve come to realize Israel planted the seeds of apartheid a long time ago. Zionism is a form of nationalism. White supremacist, Richard Spencer, is a firm supporter of Israel and its policies because he correctly realizes that having a white Jewish nation and a white Christian nation are two sides of the same coin. For me, it is intellectually and morally dishonest to oppose nationalism and support Israel as a Jewish state.
The capitulation today to Trump’s demand to ban Ilhan Omar and Rachid Tlaid demonstrate that Israel is, and let’s face it, for decades has been, a puppet of the American religious rightwing. They share the same goal: theocratic white supremacy. We know that Trump is a would-be dictator who governs as if he is a mafia don, using the power of the presidency to punish those who challenge his stupidity and call him out on his racism and corruption. While I’m still horrified daily, I’m no longer surprised. That the Israeli government would get wrapped up in his petty grievances should not come as a surprise either, but today’s news was a breaking point for me.
Israel, I’m out. I might be Jewish, but I’m a human being first and foremost and am as concerned about Palestinians lives as I am about Jewish lives. By the sheer accident of birth, I was born into geographic and socioeconomic privilege, as is true of most white Americans, and as such, see it as my responsibility to raise those who, by the accident of their birth, have less power. As such, I’m on board with BDS. Other countries suck when it comes to human rights too, but that doesn’t let you off the hook.
Instead of using the worst mass genocide in history to build a better way forward, you perpetuated the racist views of our murderers. Cozying up to anti-Semitic autocrats shows how morally bankrupt you have become. Eventually, your rule will end, but there will be more bloodshed, on both sides, and you, the American government who enables and uses you as well as American defense companies are to blame for every drop. I will do whatever I can and use whatever influence I have to call you out on your racist rhetoric and support boycotts of Israeli goods, especially Israeli wines and encourage people to buy wine made on the West Bank. I feel for my Israeli friends because while they don’t support many of your positions, leaving is not an easy option. Lucky for them they are Jewish, but your policies might lead to a brutal backlash putting everyone, no matter how much they disagree with you, at risk. Increasingly, Jewish Americans feel the way I do, including those who once swallowed the propaganda that you were “the promised land.” Now we know the truth. You are not our protector nor a friend, and most definitely, you are not the promised land.
Living in a free society means many things, and I won’t pretend that the US is absolutely free, but a cornerstone of the democratic values we would like to think we hold dear is free speech. As such, the Democratic candidates have every right to criticize who they want, even if that means the party’s patron saint, Barack Obama. In this sense, we are different from the Republicans who act as if the sun rose and set on racist Ronald Reagan’s ass. While no one will say that those who are critical of some of Obama’s policies do not have a right to speak their mind, they advise it is politically stupid because Trump will use their words against the Democrats come the general election.
No question about it, Barack Obama was the best president in my lifetime. While I take issue with some of his policies – increased deportations, bailing out Wall Street instead of Main Street, installing a pro-charter school secretary of education – probably others but those are the main ones, I think he is a decent human being who tried his best. To paraphrase John Edwards, “Anyone who runs for president has a big ego,” but Obama seemed to be genuinely motivated by a desire to make the world a better place, not power.
I also think that when we look at Obama’s record or any other president, we have to look at the time in which they served. This is not an excuse. Slavery was wrong, and no president before Lincoln should get a pass for not doing everything in their power to end it. The same is true of denying LGBTQ+ equal rights and protection. Human rights are universal and anachronistic. Obama might have squandered the first two years of his presidency when the Democrats controlled both the Senate and the House, but after that, he was dealing with a GOP controlled congress lead by a Mitch McConnell who put white supremist goals above country. Still, my aforementioned problems were executive decisions and as Harry Truman said, “The buck stops here.”
If Obama were running for president today, he would probably be for Medicare for All, which is sort of what he envisioned when he wanted a public option (which many Democrats were against), a form of a Green New Deal, lowering the cost of higher education and criminal justice reform. But he’s already had his shot. If we look back at his presidency, there were a lot of good things: the imperfect but monumental Affordable Care Act, eventually championing LGBTQ+ equality, the Dream Act, appointing two brilliant female supreme court justices, modest criminal justice reform and taking small but meaningful steps to fight climate change. Should the Democratic candidates talk more about this, health care especially? Probably. Biden, who has cast himself as the heir apparent to Obama, has taken the mantle here, saying that the Democrats should build on what’s there, or what’s left of it after two and a half years of Trump and politically, it’s a wise move. So is being in favor of Medicare for all but allowing private insurance to continue. It’s not a position I agree with – the insurance companies are greedy fuckers who should be put out of business – but I am concerned that politically this stance could cost the Democrats.
The most aggressive criticism has come from Corey Booker and Kamala Harris, the two African-American candidates. Their main issues with Obama’s legacy, deportations and criminal justice, disproportionately impacted people of color. Other Democrats – white and people of color – have in return criticized them. Is it easier for them to call Obama out than it is for their white counterparts? People who belong to a marginalized group are allowed to be more critical of one another than outsiders. Some white candidates might have similar qualms but for a number of reasons, his popularity probably being the main one, are hesitant to publicly lambast or even casually lay blame on Obama for his shortcomings. Yet there is also a bit of political opportunism going on here. Both Booker and Harris know that Biden enjoys widespread support in the African-American community. Will discrediting the president he served win their support or, if Biden is the nominee, decrease voter turnout among people of color?
Given the moment we’re in, taking stock of Obama’s record is important so that if the Democrats take back the presidency in 2020 we don’t repeat the same mistakes that gave us Trump. While Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders haven’t named Obama, both point to a history of economic policies that favor the rich. Their criticisms are less personal as Obama was just one in a line of many since George Washington. And if Biden were not running, Harris and Booker might not have gone for the jugular.
Here’s the thing. The Republicans were much more of a clown car during the summer of 2015 than the Democrats are now. I don’t think criticizing Obama at this stage is going to make that much of a difference a year from now. People have short memories. Any criticisms that Harris or Booker level to weaken Biden will be used by Trump regardless. He will remind people that it was he who signed a criminal justice reform bill, nevermind everything else he’s done to put people of color at greater risk. Whether the nominee is Biden, Harris, Warren, Booker, Sanders or anyone else, Trump is going lie, manipulate and employ any and every possible weapon and the Democratic party and candidate better be thoroughly prepared and figure out how to strike back.
We can criticize Obama’s policies that are out of step with Democratic concerns in 2019 but should be careful about how we frame our gripes. Biden can say that the Obama administration planted the seeds for equitable health care and a fairer criminal justice system and propose progressive next steps. Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren are gifted communicators. Neither one of them has taken a shot at Obama (that I know of), but they can still say that they will pick up where Obama left off when it comes to health care, the environment and immigration, realizing that the country, not just the Democratic base, has moved sharply to the left since 2016. Airing dirty laundry in public is a tricky business, but that’s politics. My guess is that no one is more aware of this than Barack Obama.
Flavelle, Christopher. (8/8/19). Climate Change Threatens the World’s Food Supply, United Nations Warns. The New York Times.
Ransby, Barbara. (8/8/19). The Squad is the Future of the Democratic Party. The New York Times.
Solnit, Rebecca. (4/30/19). Unconscious Bias is Running for President. Literary Hub.
My father’s uncle, Dr. Irving Busch, was a surgeon in NYC. He was also an amateur photographer and a volunteer in the Republican Medical Services of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War.
Irving died in 1960 without any heirs. The family cleared out his upper west side apartment, and my father took some of his cameras, which resurfaced in 2005 when my dad was going through old boxes. He had the film developed, and 45 photographs came back including images from his time in Spain in the ’30s as well as Central Park after the blizzard of ’47.
The images of the women and children on donkeys and men at cafés during a time of turmoil asks more questions than they answer. We might not be embroiled in a violent civil war yet we are we heading down a path that draws parallels to Spain and Germany in the late ’20s and early ’30s. It’s no longer unthinkable to imagine the US having a civil war or plunging into a dystopian nightmare in the near future. We are a nation divided, and a sizable minority seems to be on board with authoritarianism and is apathetic if not supportive of cruelty. Lest we forget, Spain lived under fascist rule for nearly half a century. Yet even in the worst of times, life in some ways goes on. People in the resistance still stop for a coffee and to chat with their friends.
These photographs are not as dramatic or iconic as Robert Capa’s but they are a reminder of the heroic acts of individuals such as my uncle, who left lives and jobs in the United States to fight a noble cause in a foreign land. While they didn’t succeed, they fought the good fight serving as inspiration and a lesson to us all. I’ll post the Central Park photos separately in a few days; these should stand on their own.
If you are interested in reading more about the Lincoln Brigade and the Spanish Civil War, check out Adam Hochschild’s Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War,1936 – 1939.