Philando Castile

castile

NY Daily photo credit

I recently told a friend of mine I have sometime wished I was black, and as the words left my mouth, the expression on his face indicated to me he was immediately offended. I knew I’d made a horrific presumption, and felt compelled to find him a little later on to continue our dialogue.  I wasn’t really sure what I was asking, but he sat me down and asked me a question.

He said, ‘as you sit in that chair, do you feel like you would be where you are, as a black man, including your personality and everything you are today?’

I had to think about the question. I had to get past trying to find the right answer and really think about how I was going to respond. I did not know what my answer could possibly be because I have never been a person of color. I have always been white.

This afternoon, when I first heard the news of the verdict in the shooting of Philando Castile, I felt immediately sick to my stomach. For a year I have replayed that viral video in my mind, imagining only one outcome. I believed the officer would be found guilty of manslaughter. I thought it was an easily defined case. I felt like I had come to know Philando through all the news reports and the expose’s of his life and the stories his community had expressed of who he was in our society. But I forgot one simple truth. He was a black man pulled over for a routine traffic stop. He was suspected of being involved in a robbery based upon his description. The only solid evidence that suggested he had been involved in the burglary was the color of his skin.

If that had been me, a white guy, with a gun pointed at my body by a peace officer, I am willing to bet, I could have said everything Philando expressed in the final minutes of his life, and I could have reached with my right arm and found my I.D. without the officer feeling compelled to discharge seven bullets into my body. This officer didn’t simply fire a couple of rounds, He fired seven times at point blank range. And there in that moment, while his girlfriend recorded the whole incident, Philando Castile died.

Justice seemed evident in this case, I didn’t even imagine the jury would take as long as they did to come back with a verdict. I only imagined it would be an open and shut case. That was until I saw the jury selection. I knew that when we had a jury of over 20 white people and two people of color, the case for Philando had taken a dangerous turn. I knew that when the officer was coached to cry in the witness stand, Philando’s integrity was in trouble.

I also knew I couldn’t get out of my car as a white man and express my sorrow and rage to any person of color without coming off patronizing. So instead, I called another friend, and told him he was the first person that came to my mind. Now this friend asked me if I was surprised by the verdict. I think I waffled my answer and said something like, “Well, yeah, I guess, well no, well I’m just sad.”

He agreed with my sentiments, and then began to speak of the systemic failure of our society to recognize the inherent discrimination of the African- American culture. Interestingly, he didn’t blame the cop that gunned down an innocent man. Instead he talked about how our society (his African-American culture) has to become proactive in changing the mindset of how we cope with our discrimination. He immediately prayed that there would be no acting out and a peaceful protest might occur.

I agreed with him and thanked him for letting me listen to his ideals, those of which I have always respected and believed. I finished the call, and sat in my car, and thought about what I would do next. All I could think about was how sad I was with the outcome of the day’s events. All I could do was feel like a white guy trying to wrap my head around this horrific tragedy. I still don’t have any answers, except only to say I’m sorry Philando, I am truly sorry this happened to you.

Why “13 Reasons Why” Is Important

13

In the fine arts we are encouraged to go big with our ideas, to allow emphasis on the issue, the illusion, the piece of art being presented on the stage. The purpose is designed to get the point across to the audience, or keep them engaged. The true compliment to an artwork, no matter the venue, is that people continue the discussion beyond the actual event.

Watching 13 Reasons Why, a controversial Netflix series really blew my mind. I felt like I was back in my high school again, experiencing the turmoil that a teenager goes through trying to adjust, fit in, survive the utter chaos of peer rejection and acceptance, all in the same day, every day.

About half way through the series, episode 6, or tape 3 I was riveted to every moment. Watching Clay struggle with the reality of losing his friend was compelling. I watched the behavior of his circle of people, I won’t call them friends, because so often in this period of a teenager’s life it is difficult to define who a true friend is. 13 did an excellent job exploring that aspect of high school.

I felt like I was the student in the room, experiencing the pain that comes with pressure and bullying. While the world goes on around a teenager, their internal struggle is never really revealed, and 13 explored that well enough to suggest this is real behavior. I thought all the characters fit the proper stereotypes.

The parents of each character as they unfolded in the show seemed normal. What I mean is they depicted the dysfunction of raising a family, holding a job, keeping up with or losing touch with their responsibility. I think the relationship that tore me up the most was Justin and his mom, I felt his pain as he leaned against the wall and she closed the door on their communication.

The administrators of the school seemed effectively overwhelmed by their task. There was the initial counselor who basically didn’t get tenure and then the new guy came in and gradually established their grounding as a central figure. In the end, it was clear things were beyond his control. Imagine the guilt we feel as teachers when we realize we missed something, that if we had just … we can settle behind the reality that our role in the classroom is to deliver our curriculum. Clearly that was demonstrated in 13 Reasons Why, but at the same time, we could recognize the vulnerability that children experienced around adults that were not involved. Or, if they were, they didn’t have a clue.

As I suggested in the beginning, in order to keep an audience, a piece has to have big moments. In television plot lines are imperative, and this is where I began to lose my direct connection to the characters in 13. Everything that could possibly happen, did, all impacting this small group of peers. Why such a micro-managed focus on the energy of a typical high school? Because the ability to attach pain and suffering to familiar characters helps get the point across to the audience.

If we accepted our buy in to the characters then everything they went through was plausible. Much like the movie Crash years ago where a diverse populace all experienced tragedies and successes within a literal block of L.A., though perhaps not possible, the experience the characters endured was certainly believable in the right context.

In 13, the key to this story is they deal with every aspect of being a teenager – confusion with sexual identity, clear cognizance of sexual preference and the societal scrutiny, the lifestyle of a jock, of a nerd, a geek, an outlier, a weirdo, In every aspect of student or teenager, the experiences seemed real and tragic.

What is an important takeaway is to recognize the behaviors demonstrated throughout this series were pretty spot on for the most part. The story line of the tapes could actually happen, though the possibility of getting through a dozen involved students probably not likely. But, they all maintained their characters with a haunting consistency.

Finally, let’s not forget this is about suicide, and the helplessness that everyone feels with a loss they believe they are responsible for. Even though in the real world we always blame the person who takes their own life. The movie itself defined the act as weak. I found it interesting that the young woman who revealed her cuttings on her arms, suggested she was doing it right, that suicide is a cop out. I’ve worked with cutters in my hospital work, and there was always a distinction between real and attention seeking, vertical and horizontal cuts as so eerily demonstrated in the series.

13 might be perceived as a segment of peers in a typical high school all being responsible for Hannah’s death, but if that is a takeaway, it is possibly wrong. It really is the remarkable telling of a young person’s struggle to define themselves while walking through life in a world of hurt, and having the fortune to play out the process with direct and frightening evidence, ironically replayed in cassettes with haunting truth.

I believe this series, beyond the embellishment and soap opera moments, is vitally important, certainly not for the eyes of children under 12 – not yet, even though we think they’re ready. It is a wonderfully tragic piece to create healthy dialogue, whether the characters are realistic or not. I was moved.

I Turned Off The News

 

Yesterday, I made a conscious decision to turn off the news. Having watched the now ‘idle’ banter of prognosticators and candidates for the last year, the outcome in hand, I wasn’t excited about hearing any theory, any ‘told you so’ antics, or any patronage from the winning side of an ugly defeat. I told all my classes I was only going to listen to whales singing in the ocean in some New Age melody all week while I gathered my thoughts and wrapped my head around this bizarre political future of our country.

The night did not allow me to completely escape my thoughts though, and the sounds of our immensely serene mammals in the deep blue didn’t contain me as long as I’d hoped. I still felt this urgency to know, to wonder, to speculate just how we had come to the conclusion we had as a voting nation. That answer still evades me this morning; however, what I did see was the peaceful protests throughout the country with our new candidate. The protests hearkened me back to a different time in my life.

I remember in the  60’s seeing pictures of the Vietnam war protests. In a child’s eyes, these were real, these were pleading students and family and friends and co-workers all banding together to make a statement, the riots that would follow later with the civil rights protests, the ever changing climate of our nation. I recall watching all of this through the eyes of my older siblings. To me, these were powerful statements of change and I was a fortunate witness to democracy at its finest – freedom of speech, the right to protest, the right to have a valued opinion. Certainly with that came tragedy, the loss of remarkable leaders from Malcolm X to MLK Jr, to RFK, to so many more names that are part of that tumultuous history. I remember Kent State and wondering how it was, as a ten year old, that our nation could be so angry within our own borders, while thousands were dying in a fruitless war across the world.

We had no advantage of social media to give us instant results. We counted upon Walter Cronkite, ‘and that’s the way it is’ and followed with tears the scroll of lost names in Vietnam on that day, that was the immediacy of our connection to the world around us. The silent protest in our minds became the visible chants outside the White House gates as the protesters ramped up the pressure on LBJ to get our boys out of Vietnam – “Hey Hey LBJ, How many kids did you kill today?” followed years later by Richard Nixon and the ‘tricky dick’ accusations of secrecy and fraud that destroyed his presidency. Back then people were vocal, and as a kid, I watched as it seemed there were good reasons to fight for what we all believed was right.

In that different time, when race and equality were still on the mind of everyone, people began to fight together, and I watched secular groups like the KKK become less severe and threatening as our nation could recognize a holistic approach to life. In the 70’s books were written about ‘The Melting Pot’ a nation burgeoning with immigration becoming one, learning to live with one another and respect each other. Racism and prejudice still existed, but there was this seeming progression, this appearance of ‘love and respect’ that started to gain footing on so many levels. With the onset of so many different cultural mores we began to see a change in the landscape of our society.

The idea of ‘The Melting Pot’ has evolved today into more of a ‘mosaic’ as we gradually become aware of the value of culture, the beauty and elegance that each person in the frame of their own unique heritage brings to our American canvas. We have tried to take the time to appreciate those differences rather than destroy their integrity while lost in our own self-driven egocentric ideals. As a child I was motivated by a naive innocence to appreciate those pieces of our life that I could witness growing up. I wonder about the children of today, and how their exposure has perhaps changed, impacted, or effected their own perception of a modern, electronically driven society around them.

I wonder about the news, and what it is the media will find important as we now walk beyond the unprecedented electoral process that has for some turned their world upside down, and for others provided a voice of indiscriminate reaction that though maybe quieted in years past with active reasoning, today is suddenly harsh and overt and frightening. We live in a democratic society, so there can be no argument to suggest one person’s right to opinion ought be considered better than another’s; however, there is an element of respect and integrity that right now seems surely to hang in the balance.

So, as I observe our new style of protest in American society, just beyond a full day of electing a controversial candidate to the POTUS, I wonder about purpose, timing and decorum. Is protesting today that valuable in a time when we have already made a decision we cannot turn back on? For some, certainly that is the motivation for hitting the concrete, but for others I wonder if we have newer challenges ahead that can capture or channel our idealism. A friend of mine recently posted there is no more time for tolerance through the ideals of love and compassion, in his words, we need to ‘stand up RIGHT now.” I cannot argue with his passion, but I still do wonder about timing.

Perhaps our protest begins in six months, then we have seen a pattern to create a need for public awareness and change. Perhaps today we need to pay closer attention to the immediacy of our national decision, and recognize the hurt, the elation, the brusque reality of our choices demand a closer eye than simply arousing a formulated statement of disagreement.

Perhaps we do still count on ourselves as being the change we desire in the world around us. Ask a friend, see if they and another, and a friend of their own, a family member, a co-worker might join each other and together determine a time, quite likely in the near future to make a stronger more relevant statement, together.

Perhaps we might leave the news off for a few more days, and pay attention to our immediate surroundings.

Supremacy Court

Decisions seem beyond the concept of reality,

or perhaps we speak of truth,

our society,

the world we seem to trust and find faith,

is simply lost inside a hypocrisy.

We are a country with mixed messages, mixed races,

mixed emotions,

all drawn together by the masses,

those that seemingly decide our future based upon

individuals gathered together for the good cause.

Yet, we are caught up in faces,

those that suggest peace, while others contain violent

agenda.

We have a President.

We have a President,

a person elected by millions capable of running office.

Our society though would like to forget about now

and flash forward to tomorrow.

Is it ironic this is happening in February?

This month gives me pause.

Perhaps if we all stop and breathe and listen to the ridiculous nature

of a controlling society,

perhaps then we might begin to walk freely together.

(insert MLK Freedom speech here)

Bigotry Screams

I live in the United States – all my life, though I have had opportunity to travel, this is where my freedom has always evolved. In recent days we lost Supreme Court Judge Antonin Scalia to death. He was 79 years old. This man was highly respected for his strong views in a conservative lens. His views, stature and decisive nature will be sorely missed by those with a need to have a conservative voice in the judicial process. This is all very sad, as losing people in our lives can be. I can only imagine the feeling of compassion needed for his family during this difficult time. I can’t speak directly to it, because I am not in that inner circle. I can only speak to my own reaction to the loss of one I love in my own family network. But, that’s not the point of this commentary.

I actually want to speak more to the bigotry of a nation of freedom that I count upon to maintain my own sense of freewill. I’ve grown up with this all my life. I’m white. I haven’t had to fight for my freedom anytime in my life. I don’t wake up in the morning and step out the door and wonder when my first indications of harassment may occur. I don’t wait for it to happen because in my life it seldom has, unless I put myself in a difficult situation where the stress upon me is well deserved.

Right now, this free country of ours is experiencing Black History Month – actually it is being celebrated by those who pay attention. Today, February 15th, 2016, we celebrated President’s Day – a time to recognize the important leadership in our country that has laid the groundwork for our freedom. Tonight, as I decide to write this essay, I am experiencing a certain hypocrisy in our lives. We are being told by our Republican senate that we cannot let our POTUS select the next Supreme Court Justice to fill the vacancy left by SCJ Scalia’s unfortunate departure. We have one Senator McConnell who in 2005 stated that only the President of the United States can nominate a new Supreme Court Justice now suggesting that our current residing President Obama will not be allowed to name our next Supreme Court Justice.

On the surface this looks again like the Republican party trying to control the government. However, in a deeper context this is clearly the perfect storm of the bigotry that has existed from the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency. We live in a very frightening time when the Black Man is under constant scrutiny to such a degree that the person holding the highest position in our office is racially discriminated. This actually makes me very sick, and all I wanted to do was get my thoughts down. On another occasion, I promise I will write with less ramble.

For now, please recognize the ticking bomb our Senate has created in this free country of ours. Please accept my apologies. Peace, and continue to celebrate Black History Month.

The Message of Camelot and high school theatre

Today, I am reflective. This weekend our students performed Camelot on the Shakopee High School stage. This is a show that has been with me since as a child, my mother brought me to see my first production in Wausau, WI as our neighbor was performing in the ensemble. I remember being immediately drawn to the atmosphere, the nuance, the beauty of the stage. I knew at five years old, the stage was where I belonged in some capacity.

I have always wanted to perform this show, and now we are blessed to have the gift of such a talented group of students, to afford the opportunity to attempt such a prolific musical. The dialogue is eerily timeless in our era of border disputes, and haunting terrorism that merits a world misguided by fear, greed and envy. There is a dialogue profound to our needs today. “We are civilized” in the words of King Arthur.

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As we endure the pain of Paris and all of the hotspots of real torment in our world today, I take pause in knowing that theatre allows us to imagine the illusion of a peace that is attainable, is though far-reaching, within our grasp, if we might take the time to ‘think’ as Merlin tried to instill in King Arthur. I wish only love and peace to our neighbors and that we do understand the meaning of a borderless world brought on by an inherent grace in our lives today.

When writing these words, I am immediately drawn to notions of my mother, Jane Amundsen, who taught me idealism as a child and through her spiritual guidance today. I am truly blessed to have such a wonderful group of students to bring these ideals to the stage, if not for the span of a few hours of our lives. I hope all of you can find the time to come and see Shakopee’s production of Camelot on the high school stage.

~

*photo credit – author

Fan Duel & Draft Kings – Gambling Facade

I love the game of football. I used to play fantasy football many years ago. Back then, it was fun to put together a team with your friends and see who might outdo the next guy or girl in the league. Back then, we only threw a couple of dollars into a pot, and there was an innocent winner at the end of the season. Back then, fantasy football hadn’t exploded into an enormous industry. Back then, I used to be a gambler.

Fantasy football wasn’t an issue for me, my games were the casino and texas hold-em. Nearly destroyed my family, our finances and me. I was actively suicidal and there was no one I could talk to about the addiction. My wife knew about it, but she enabled me much like she would my alcoholism. How could she possibly confront a controlling jerk that was unwilling to admit his own denial of a compulsive addiction? I managed to kick my addiction to gambling, a couple years after I managed to get a handle on my alcoholism. I’ve been in recovery for over ten years now, and my life is so much easier than it was when I was in the business of lying through my teeth to make it to my next game or shot of scotch. I got lucky, and walked away with a lot of support from my family, friends, and recovery.

This NFL season, fantasy football began a new venture in their industry. They introduced Fan Duel & Draft Kings with an advertising campaign that would rival the likes of any casino showcasing that elderly couple who ‘unexpectedly’ won a Cadillac with a $2.00 bet. The promotion talks about that easy bet that could turn into millions of dollars for the winner. Already both companies have fallen under scrutiny for insider trading with their transactions. Already both companies are under investigations by government agencies across the country, trying to justify or decry their status as a skill based game versus an industry of luck.

If you have ever played a league in fantasy football, you certainly know one of the tenets of a successful day is putting the correct team on the field on any given Sunday. However, one can also clearly see that picking the right players is certainly ‘a gamble.’

I actually become physically sick when the ads come across my tv, not because I am necessarily afraid of buying into a game, but more importantly because of the immediacy of my reminder toward how quickly I was drawn into the insidious nature of gambling, coupled with the ease of wanting to take that first drink again.

I’m asking my sports fans out there to look carefully at what is literally being dangled before you – a game of chance, that moves beyond just having fun and camaraderie to a game that clearly puts a vulnerable person’s financial stability at risk if they are willing to take chances with their impulsivity.

Be careful out there football fans – there are no Kings in the game of Draft Kings, only losers that could ruin their’s and their family’s lives. There is no legitimate duel going on at Fan Duel, only a sham to steal our money. In the end, not only will you hate the trade itself, you’ll lose your perspective and love for the game of football. You’ll be hooked. Don’t bet on any happy endings here folks. Be smart, and just watch the game, not the industry sharks waiting to reel you into their web of deceit.

Gambling is a very real and treacherous disease. The thrill of the win is far less impactful than the misery of loss.