Okay. That’s It. Oprah Winfrey is Definitely Going to the Hot Place, and I Miss Calvinism

I recently killed my Facebook page only to realize that LinkedIn is the fresh hell of my life.

Because of grad school, it had come to seem necessary. Last semester a professor said it was the best way to get in touch with her. My school inbox filled up with requests and notifications from my ambitious classmates: So-and-so added connections you may know. So-and-so added a new skill. So-and-so is probably going to get a job soon, and you’re not. It even nags you when you forget to include biographical information, sending reminders to complete this or that section of your profile to your inbox. If Facebook was like a neverending high school reunion, LinkedIn is like a neverending job application. LinkedIn is Facebook with no fun and worse consequences.

I hate them both neverendingly.

Robert Kiyosaki, author of Rich Dad, Poor Dad, says: “Poor people are always looking for work; rich people are always looking for networks.” LinkedIn is the digital Dale Carnegie. How to Win Friends and Instagram People. Or something like that.

Career has superseded policy as my least favorite word in the English language. I am waiting for a new issuance of the DSM to include Careeraphobia to resubmit myself to the care of a therapist. Then everything that’s wrong with my life can officially fit the pattern of a mental illness.


Is it just me or do we seem to be openly discarding the notion of meritocracy in our culture? Privacy, too, is all but dead. The private person will suffer lack of opportunity, and especially the humble person will. Both will be considered obsolete or techno-illiterate or incompetent. Or so we are told. The workforce demands that we compete and by compete it means market. These personal finance gurus—charlatans and scumbags, all of them—have got us convinced that we need to engage people in increasingly vast but shallow virtual spheres in order to win…what? A job? A healthy income?

An identity?

I despise LinkedIn because of the bi-directional flow of the marketing that is going on. Now that I work for a corporation I am more aware than ever that my job is not just a transaction; it’s an everyday laboratory in which I, the subject, respond to the marketing tactics of my brand name employer. Only ecstatic and enthusiastic levels of happiness seem to equal compliance. I am being sold, on my job, on the concept of my job as self-fulfillment, every day. Only it’s a sale that, for the sake of my own economic survival, I can’t refuse, which makes it, paradoxically, not a sale at all, at least, not an honest one. I can’t even negotiate the terms and conditions of the transaction. I use a time clock that takes a digital picture of my right index fingerprint as proof that I am me and that I am a payable entity, but I am supposed to honor some sense of real value and connection with these awful people who put up the time clock. And sing their praises online!

These same awful people have named the section of our employee website where discounts are offered “the Company Store.” These discounts are the result of partnerships with other corporate entities, such as WalMart and AT&T, whom I’d rather not patronize anyway.

There is a saying we lean on in the service industry, “Kill them with kindness.” My manager says it when she treats an obstreperous guest to complimentary gifts and services in order to smooth over their complaints. The same is being practiced on us, with “The Company Store.” Other sections of the human resources web site offer us help on such things as filing for bankruptcy and personal financial literacy courses. I have considered calling the “Business Integrity Line” to complain to corporate overlords about the obvious lack of sensitivity involved in using this term, “The Company Store.” It’s morally wrong to so casually and smugly invoke the industrial exploitation of coal miners who were once coerced into living in isolated patch towns, then indentured through the use of company-owned general stores. People fed their children to these bastards in order to afford the overpriced food at the Company store, and the breaker boys came back with lacerated hands, sallow skin and stunted limbs. Long before the Holocaust, men were gassed to death when, because of accidents, collapses or improper ventilation, methane vapors infiltrated the underground chambers where the men were trapped, in ten or twelve hour sentences at a time, for the non-crime of being born poor. If they did not burn up, they suffocated. And this was only one of the excruciating variety of death by industrial accident available at the time. But now it’s been turned into a sly joke that’s being pulled on hotel workers at the expense of these dead souls.

In friggin’ Pennsylvania, anthracite central.

It’s like they are daring me to say something.

I used to work on the island of St. Thomas, on a 500 plus room resort. Another instance of spray-you-in-the-face-like-a-tomcat corporate arrogance occurred when the general manager of the resort chose to co-opt Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his inspirational quote of the week on the internal newsletter. Along with the week’s guest satisfaction scores and occupancy stats, the general manager cut and pasted a quote from the civil rights leader about service.

The fuller version of this popular King quote is (my emphasis):

“Everybody can be great….because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

Eighty-five percent of the population of St. Thomas is black, their ancestors brought to the West Indies to slave away in the sugar cane fields of the English, Danish and French colonizers. To this day, Caribbean people are notorious for their Creole and patois, what sounds to the Anglo ear like a defiantly, quixotically ungrammatic and confusing mish-mash of low, broken English or French and pure, joyous linguistic imagination. The slave trade was even more brutal there, as the year-round growing season and the proximity to the high seas routes between mainland America and Africa meant that colonizers could work a slave until he or she dropped dead, then get a fresh-off-the-boat replacement. Enslaved men were as plenteous as fish at a fish market. Their business model therefore did not involve the regeneration of and forming of family networks among the slaves, as in the American South.

The island’s native sons are currently second-class citizens of the United States. They have rights in the territories, but they can’t vote for the President. The wage scale is extremely low, a product of the tourism and hotel industry supplanting the old plantation style domination by non-native interests. People struggle to get their children into clean school uniforms and new shoes, much more to get them into college. Many people native to the Virgin Islands do not know how to swim or how to sail. Thirty to forty percent of children who attend Virgin Islands public schools never earn a high school diploma. Many of them end up in what are called “back of the house” positions on resorts, as groundskeepers, shuttle drivers, janitors and cooks. Non-natives, i.e. whites, have more representation in what is called, without irony or, again, acknowledgement of the historical residue, “front of house” positions. (These dichotomous terms used to apply to the relative rank and physical placement of slaves on large estates, “field slaves” versus “house slaves,” etc.)

I had at this resort a very sweet, grandmotherly West Indian supervisor named Judith. Once Judith pulled out a sepia-toned picture of our CEO visiting the resort that she had saved on her phone. In it, he is an old white man at the apex of a geese-like formation of smiling, crisply uniformed black hotel workers on a staircase. I had told her I had a bad night (the guests were rough, and the service I gave was not smooth), and she showed me this photo as an act of inspiration, as if to say that we are all equally valued on this plantation, err, resort. She has been loyal to this job and this man for almost thirty years, and she was making less money than I was but carrying more responsibility because she was a non-tipped hourly worker. She probably made somewhere around $26,000 annually. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated while he was helping to organize a labor campaign for sanitation workers. By serve he did not mean buffalo wings and pina coladas. He did not mean that at all.

In stealing this quote, the general manager left out the last two parts, the heart full of grace and the soul generated by love part. Not accidentally.

My new manager’s office is strangely decorated with literature and flyers about accountability and personal responsibility—favorite buzzwords of the Right. One flyer shows different levels and statements associated with these vaunted, good-little-worker traits. At the bottom is “blame, victimhood,” at the top is “problem solving, leadership, etc….”  I say strangely because before I had a corporate job, these things were not displayed everywhere in the businesses and newsrooms I frequented. My adulthood was assumed. I say strangely, too, because such condescending psycho-social babble is something I would really more expect to see in a drug treatment center or a halfway house or even a grade school than in a workplace. Such propaganda is common among major retailers, though, and it really serves to make entry level employees feel like their personal situation at the bottom, with wages that do not even come close to cost of living standards, is the result of some personal failing or deficiency. Entry level retardation can be overcome with good character and mental hygiene, according to managers. Talking about or even recognizing systemic unfairness will not advance you here, is the implicit message.

Directly below this flyer, for a couple of weeks now, a stack of flyers on how to reach the Office of Supportive Housing has been sitting on the printer. The Office of Supportive Housing is a local governmental entity designed to get aid to people on the threshold of homelessness. The housekeepers have recently had hours slashed by a new “choice” program, which rewards loyalty program members with extra points for opting out of housekeeping services. The same company that has jeopardized the status of its workers unto the point of dropping them at government bureaucrats’ doors in a state of near homelessness loudly touts the conservative ethos of the self-made scion and of personal responsibility. Everyone on the managerial rungs is not so subtly winking and nodding at and making noises about the Republicans in this premature and overwrought Presidential campaign season.

One of my managers darkly quipped that Hallmark did not make sympathy cards for the victims of drive-by shootings. It’s oh so inconvenient. A “houseman” who lives in a violent neighborhood in West Philadelphia and cannot afford to move had three of his relatives grazed with bullets during a family barbeque. Then he found that he couldn’t safely be at home with his two daughters because he had the nerve to report the incident to the police and was branded a snitch. The managers purchased him a sympathy card, then two weeks later wrote him up for lateness and for bringing his children to work. The lack of shelter, avoidance of expensive childcare and the scrambling he had to do after the incident almost cost him his job because of the strictness of the corporate policies, but the managers, as they were snickering about the awkwardness of it all and signing the card, were self-congratulatory and smug about this act of “kindness” toward the employee.

So when I come home from all that, the last thing I want to do is scout LinkedIn for information from similar corporations on self-fulfillment. It is not leisurely for me to create a separate and strictly professional persona online that I then have to keep refreshed and public. The ultimate Benthamian nightmare is this self-imposed panopticism, where you do the double work of being your own guard and prisoner, censor and performer, at the same time. How many times have you been exhorted to “Google yourself”?

The Internet is full of what seems like uncompensated work for me to do. Surveys and sign-ups and subscriptions and shit I don’t need to buy stacked on top of relevant articles and shit I need to know. Sometimes, I’d rather eat a brownie, throw some kettlebells, and watch old episodes of The X-Files. Unfortunately, I get links to LinkedIn materials at work through our corporate website and email servs, which is how I stumbled across this interview that LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner did with Oprah Winfrey as part of an effort to promote Oprah’s upcoming television series Belief.

That Oprah is doing a television series on religion is skeevy enough as for years now it has been the joke that “Oprah is the official religion of America.” But she seems to have taken the charge literally, almost as a directive to end her career as an actual religious figure. It’s like someone has said to her, “Hey, Oprah, you have a multi-billion dollar a year sales empire, your own magazine, TV channel and …What’s next?”

Apotheosis, of course, then livecast ascension.

In the interview on LinkedIn, Weiner comes close to framing and enshrining Oprah as a prophet. He uses expressly religious terms. Weiner cloaks Oprah’s financial power and wealth in the dishonest lexicon of Law of Attractionists, saying to her that she has her “finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist, and you are not only receiving it, you are influencing it.”

She sells stuff, is what he is saying, and because she has sold a lot of stuff in the past, she is more likely to generate megasales in the future, as well as to know what people want to buy before they do. But somehow selling and forecasting are words too mundane to describe Oprah’s material success, so throughout the interview Weiner and Oprah couch everything in these New Age terms of “sending” and “receiving” and “messages” “landing” in the collective consciousness. These abstractions are fine up to a point. Cultural commentators use them a lot, but they are dangerous and offensive when they are slyly hitching viewers to the entire Law of Attraction paradigm, which exalts the rich people of privileged nations, soothes their conscience, excuses class divisions and blames poor people for their own status. Over the course of the interview, it becomes apparent that both Weiner and Oprah are propagating LOA.

At one point, after she shares some of her spiritual insights about working and achievement and female self-actualization, he asks her: “Has anyone ever documented every time you say you had an ‘Aha moment’ or a ‘lightbulb moment’ or when you repeat something twice?”

Weiner is suggesting that someone, a disciple, create a gospel of Oprah. This is important, he says, “because everyone is learning through you. You are a vessel of learning.”

Years ago, I wrote this post on how vile and viral were the Law of Attraction ideas and how upsetting for anyone concerned with social justice in a crisis age. I’m not the only one doing this. Hardcore Christians who are horrified about the way the texts and messages frame humans as creators of the universe are pretty outspoken. They see the parallels between the snake in the garden and Eve’s temptation.

I see the way that young people are today enslaved, indentured by universities, the psychiatric industry, the needs of their parents and the insistence of corporations that they give their whole selves to profit maximizing activity while getting little in the way of pay, respect, autonomy or security in return. All they have is hope, and what a tender, obnoxiously under-rebellious lot they are.

You don’t have to worship a Christian God to see that the Law of Attractionists are supporting the same set of beliefs that led us to vast economic insecurity and inequality. LOA is a thousand times more powerful than its intellectual forerunners, Ayn Rand and the Objectivists she spawned, though, because Ayn Rand was aggressively polemic. In page after page, you can almost hear the axe grinding behind the dry, wooden prose. Some people may think she set the world on fire with her ideas, but she was a flop of a writer. She is the canonical equivalent of a bookend because she never selflessly delivered a character she could not bend to her mammoth, buck-toothed will. She ended up producing as a capitalist ideal a caricatured version of Western, Apollonian masculinity that calls for an equally exaggerated vilification of just about everyone else: poor people, the government, housewives, workers.


LOA, by contrast, whispers and sighs and seduces like Taylor Swift if Taylor Swift floated down from a rainbow-colored spaceship wearing only bunches of trendy kale but smelling of Cinnabon. It carries that viral capacity precisely because of its intellectual lightness. It’s a bluebird. It’s a plane. It’s a yoga class. It’s safe, all-natural heroin. It’s wholesome, but it’s sexy at the same time. It’s ordinary, but it’s magic. It’s ancient, but it’s now. It’s anything you say it is. It’s anything I say it is. You can have everything that you want in this life, just by thinking about it, because you are good. You’re a good person because you want, and if you get what you want, you deserve it because you attracted it with your mind, by wanting it.

These Law of Attraction themes really have metasthesized into American cultural mainstream, distracting us from the American empire even as it falls down around our ears, the class warfare that made Baby Boomers turn on their children, and the concentration of wealth in irresponsible, transnational shadow entities, the corruption of liberal democracy, the violent death the planet is dying and the social unrest that all of the above has provoked by making us focus on our own little bottom line: our “happiness,” our “selves,” but not our real emotions or our real selves. No, our LinkedIn meme-spun avatars of calm, achievement and success.

Ayn Rand’s characters were a defense of the melodramatically drawn rich but self-made man. LOA is a defense of the most vulgar wish-fulfillment fantasies of escape that most of the lower and middle classes harbor as a direct result of their declining status. LOA is a deliberate, calculated sublimation written for poor people by rich people. It is a siren song, a toxic lullaby; it is evil, actually.

To soothe myself I used to watch Fight Club. Now I watch the History Channel documentary on The Dark Ages.

I may have negative net worth, I tell myself, but given the parallels I see between present day America and the collapse of the Roman Empire (actually more like the collapse of the Soviet Empire, really) can my fiscal faults and paper failures really be that significant?

I constantly flirt with the idea of joining the military. I would wade through piss and shit and blood and guts to get out of debt. After years of making straight As and reporting on crime and corruption, I think it is high time that my country serve me, and my only pre-deployment instructions to my family would be that if I did not come back alive that they forever say, “She died of her country” rather than “She died for her country.” Oh, and everyone would have to do a shot to Pink’s “Funhouse” at my wake.


Sure I hate jihadists, and I could put killing one of them on my bucket list. But deep down, I don’t give a fuck. There are people in Oakland living in shipping containers. Real, live boxcar people in 2016. As I watch The Dark Ages, I think: Why suffer from low self-esteem? As a thought experiment, I ask myself over and over: What advice would a time-travelling me have for a random Roman legionnaire? What do you tell an ant living at the base of the Colossus of Rhodes?

Oprah, on the other hand, believes that she can make a pot of tomato soup using only her mind. She shares her first LOA-conversion “manifesting” story with Weiner:

“One day I was at my farm in Indiana.  It was a rainy day and I was thinking, “Gee, I sure would like some tomato soup.” Soon after, the caretaker who lived across the street came in with a pot of tomato soup. I asked her: “What made you do that?” She said: “Well, honey, I had these tomatoes. So I thought maybe you’d like some tomato soup.” So I was like, Wow, if you can get tomato soup like that, what else is possible? What else can I manifest? So I started trying it with other things. I have seen it happen over and over and over again. You control a lot by your thoughts.”

Like all LOA promoters, she calls coincidence “manifesting” and believes (or expects us to believe) that all her wealth and comfort are the direct creation of brainpower and feel good vibes. If this is really the way she thinks, I don’t envy her that “power.” I’d rather be butt-fucking broke but brave enough to face reality than serenely, senselessly and selfishly delusional. Furthermore, little notice or gravitas is given here to the chain of thinking that barely pauses in gratitude for the smallest but most basic of gifts—food—nor reflects on the many who are without it, before immediately aspiring to more. “Wow, if you can get tomato soup like that, what else is possible?”

What else can I manifest? is code for a common, baseline, but highly individualized greed that shows up again and again in LOA texts and which LOA texts are designed to simultaneously stimulate and absolve.

Sure, later on in the interview Oprah pays lipservice to the fact that sharing makes everything more enjoyable, but it’s astonishing that someone who plugged Anna Karenina, a tract written by a radical Christian anarchist and Russian anti-bourgeoisie, on her book club, could turn around and tell a tale about how a servant on her modern-day estate brought her a pot of soup at the exact moment of her craving as an anecdotal opening to a rather underhanded morality lesson about how the rich get richer and the poor get…to make tomato soup, apparently.

Right now, in the United States, thirty percent of people are in poverty or approaching poverty. Even for those outside the bottom 30 percent, the possibility of prosperity and financial independence is diminishing precisely because earned income is failing to achieve upward mobility. Any kind of (largely mythical) social compact whereby the two had a cause-effect type relationship is broken, has vanished. Instead, the returns on working a job are that you will be available to work your job next week and only next week, and that’s all, across many different levels of income and across many different occupations. In this entirely extractive paradigm, the returns on unearned, i.e. ownership, income are exponentially greater. Yet everyone is still reading volumes on how to get a better job or a better-paying job when almost no one who is currently wealthy or independent in America got so from working a job.

So here’s why LOA is important to people like Weiner and Oprah, to brand makers and to Republican shitheels such as Donald Trump and Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina. It makes people comfortable with the metrics, unquestioning of a moral scheme of things in which the old Weberian work ethic is mercilessly repackaged to be the new/old American dream and people are expected to wed their most private ideals, of passion, of dreams, of the raw, primal ingredients of an identity quest, to cleaning hotel rooms, serving lunch, making coffee, to all manner of jobs both menial and flatly unfulfilling.

In her book, Do What You Love and Other Lies About Success and Happiness, Miya Tokumitsu discusses the dirty schemes and memes of branding as they are practiced on jobseekers and low-wage workers, of being a “team member” as opposed to a stocker or an “associate” as opposed to a “cashier” also comes with the expectation at the outset that ordinary people try to sell themselves as some sort of savant, plugged into the magical realm of self-actualization and psychological growth while performing work for wages which are worse, in terms of real buying power, than the same jobs fetched thirty years ago. The ideal worker must be wholly consumed by their work and wholly dependent on it for self-worth but harbor no expectations about material security or even continuity in exchange. Benefits be damned, I would do this job for free is the obvious refrain toward which job seekers are steered through a series of questions and personality quizzes when applying for jobs at Target, WholeFoods, Starbucks, Wegman’s and so many others. The rank-and-file of these megacorporations are subjected to increasingly repressive, strident and fascistic norms of behavior at work, where obedience to policies that sometimes threaten basic mental and physical health, such as “clopens,” and competent performace of duty is not enough. A subjective ethos of happiness, satisfaction and loyalty to the brand must be reiterated at all times.

In a section titled “The Morality of Lovable Work,” Tokumitsu writes: “How did love, pleasure, fun and constant attention to the self’s desires become the picture of ideal work? How did they overtake self-sacrifice as virtues? Even more fundamentally, how did work become seen as worthy in itself, as one of the widely accepted parts of human existence?” The rest of the book explores how these elevated and propagandized ideals about work actually undermine Americans, trapping them into systems of reduced pay for both skilled and non-skilled labor and shrinking their autonomy while preaching that somewhere, just over the rainbow, they will have access to cool, creative jobs. They will be famous online and set their own hours.

A WholeFoods near where I live has plastered life-size photo cutouts of its bakery employees along with little biographical portraits along the window that allows diners in the café section to peer into the bakery. It’s creepy, and it’s weird because it’s done in such a way as to visually mimic the live worker standing there, looking out from the interior workspace. It’s a little bit of badly done trompe l’oeuill.  One of the bakery employees featured at the Plymouth Meeting store is a youngish black man, and he has round features which seem exaggerated because of the angle at which the photograph is shot. He has a giant grin on his face, of course.  Every time I see this farcical display I think of hungry, slavering dogs at the pound and hear that song, “How much is the doggie in the window?” in my head and I don’t even want to eat the pastries anymore.


I have been working blue-collar jobs for seventeen years: bagging groceries, cooking, cashiering, working fast food, and waiting tables. Never has it been more incumbent on me to participate in coached marketing about the level of satisfaction that I have with my shit-pay job for a corporation which repeatedly gets glossy encomiums in Forbes and Fortune magazine for being one of “America’s top 100 places to work.” This job, which does not cover even basic rent at 40 hours a week, teaches me to repeat the same marketing schtick back to them as a requisite duty while expecting other corporations to subsidize their low pay by giving me more mind-numbing, part-time work.

The training in this starts before you are hired. A recent job application I filled out for a hotel chain demanded to know: “How often do you feel that you can achieve success at work by focusing on positive things?” Answer choices range from “I am not sure” to “More often than most other people.”

Beware this word positive. It seems that positive thinking and all the pop psychological jargon of LOA has trickled down so thoroughly into the masses that it is teeth-grittingly de rigeur among, of all people, the homeless. Twice a week I steal back my hospitality “talents” and serve breakfast at a day shelter where most of the clients work full-time for places like Popeye’s and Motel 6 and for the contractors who build or landscape or service such places. Quite a few of them are pursuing higher education, taking classes in phlebotomy, pharmacology and human services. They are not all the stereotype of enfeebled, unreasoning mental patients and dirty, drooling drug addicts. They live on the street and cannot afford food because their wages are that low or because there is no support for what they are trying to do with their minds.

The shelter is plastered with the uplifting, anti-self-pity Christian credos that make me want to run screaming home as soon as I take off my apron. “Pray about everything, worry about nothing.” Etc.. The first few weeks I volunteered, I was very depressed at what I saw there. I almost started crying when a woman, the phlebotomy student, told me, unbidden, that in spite of how the nuns at the other shelter had temporarily confiscated most of her clothes and belongings, she was plugging on.

“You have to stay positive, you know? I am keeping my thoughts positive.”

If you ask them how they are doing, most of the homeless clients will give you some sort of response about how they are remaining positive.

It broke my heart, how the woman felt the need to self-censor. She had whined, and now she needed to reflexively redeem herself with this canned message about positive thinking. I looked around and realized that, except for when they were out on the street, there really was no safe space for these people to mourn their situation, to express pain and anger at their degradation or to solemnly reflect on the value of suffering. There is an insidious fallacy in the Christian charity houses and the LOA saturated broadcasts and New Age spiritual retreat centers that holds that a human cannot experience a feeling that is both negative and righteous at the same time.

By the same token, we forget that happiness is just a feeling, an often fleeting and a value-neutral state of mind. Happiness is of dubious utility and has a tenuous relationship with survival if the survival in question is that of your immortal soul. Like, if you are stranded in the woods on a snowy night and you piss on your hands, you might stave off frostbite. You will smell bad, but you might keep all of your fingers. That’s happiness for you.

The same job application also asked me this question: “Most recently when given a positive performance evaluation by your supervisor(s). What did you think determined the evaluations?” The answer choices lay bare the extent to which work and workplace culture have really become the temple whereby we must prove ourselves obedient spiritual pawns. The answer choices are: “1. It was determined by my effort and hard work, which is usually how I succeed in other areas of my life. 2. It was determined by my effort and hard work, but this usually is not how I succeed in other areas of my life. 3. It was determined by other circumstances, which is usually how I succeed in other areas of my life. 4. It was determined by other circumstances, but I feel my effort and hard work generally determine my performance evaluations. 5. I have never been given a performance evaluation.”

Now mind you this application is for a waitressing position. So I have to prove that I own and live the secret to success while beseeching people for a low-status, waitressing job. I have a sneaking suspicion that one of the burdens the working poor would like most to shed is this forced hypocrisy. Really it’s a given that I am not a success. The correct answers are encoding for a pliant personality. It is not the case that the restaurant and hotel industry thrives because wait staff are rigorously self-analytical. The companies have spent much money designing this screening process.

In the heyday of the hippie movement, people attacked the school system for how its rigidly Weberian psychological dogma produced weak, unquestioning automatons, uncritical zombies, willing and mindless consumers. Think Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The new wall is the department store and the restaurant where, after this massive failure of creative capacity, the new working poor of America, college-educated or not, naturalized citizen or illegal immigrant, can go to experience the most vicious vicissitudes of Soviet-style crowd control while participating in the Capitalist Funhouse.

Suze Orman’s series “Young, Fabulous and Broke” makes my blood boil simply because it cons young people into believing that they can escape the service economy through the same-old tropes of exceptionalism and positive thinking. In her addresses, she extols young people to work for low, insufficient wages in order to prove their enthusiasm for their chosen professions, then she tells them that going into debt even further while working slavishly in the hopes of a promotion is a sound financial strategy. She has a handy-dandy success story, of dear little “Loren,” aspiring Millennial shoe designer, whom she advised to wait tables while waiting for the perfect opportunity to open up at a shoe design company, then to work 60 to 70 hours a week for $30,000 in New York, then forego asking for a raise, all in order to get noticed. Loren did what Orman told her to, then had a meteoric rise through to the ceiling of executive leadership at the shoe company. Her long hours and grindingly low pay paid off, in other words. Messages of hope, again disastrously soothing and hope, not grace.

Orman’s exhortations of work harder for less seems to be going over well with Millennials, at least those who attend these Young, Fabulous and Broke seminars, where Orman’s compelling oratorical style somehow makes her messages of outright lying and condescension easier to swallow. She tells them not to ask for more money at work because “that will make you just like everyone else.” She tells them that it’s okay for them to make less than a livable wage and use credit cards to cover basic expenses such as groceries and gas because all of this economic folly is not folly as such it’s an investment in themselves. Orman calls the young people in her audience the most undervalued asset in America to their faces, and they take it.  Because they are each already conditioned in the norms of stinking, rotten Weberian capitalist bullshit.

Orman is right. The American worker has been subject to a precipitous devaluation in recent times, making the Millennials by far the most undervalued and least well paid generation to enter the workforce. But never, not once, does Orman or do any of her ilk in the personal finance industry, advise young people to question why or to get angry about this. Instead, she turns the whole situation absurdly on its head, inviting them to participate further in their own devaluation by working harder for less pay and incurring more debt. As if they have a choice in that. Orman’s gift is that, by speaking with confidence and verve and that faux credibility that charisma invokes, she is able to convince her audience that these dilemmas and lack of good choices are fresh ideas of her own making about how to achieve prosperity in a landscape that demands hard work but that is bulldozing prosperity. She is poisoning young people with bad financial advice derived not from any facts but from their own hope.

For a lesson in what Orman’s prescriptions for “Loren” look like when adopted by a whole company as standard operating procedure, read this expose of the ruthless and miserable corporate culture at Amazon.

Tokumitsu warns of the dangers of what she calls hope labor in Do What You Love and Other Lies About Success and Happiness. She outlines the economic fallout of the shifting dynamics of the reconstituted post-Recession American economy. Young people are in greater numbers taking internships that don’t pay at all, working intellectual type jobs, such as adjunct teaching at colleges, for what amounts to less than minimum wage. Why are we doing this? Because it’s American? Because it’s going to make our country great again? Because it will eventually make us rich?

Answer: 6. None of the above.

We are doing this because we don’t have an alternative. And we continue to make up excuses about how we should not do the hard work of coming up with an alternative.

If the Recession had not been triggered by the subprime mortgage crisis, the CEOs of WholeFoods and other Fortune 500 companies would have made it happen by some other means. They posted record profits in the height of the Recession, 2010 to 2012, because it became an excuse to cut labor costs, and they have maintained or exceeded profit expectations since by holding wages low through the use of layoffs or the threat of layoffs. They are expanding their corporations, rolling out new lines and brands, opening more properties, merging with other companies, all of which means they are expanding their need for labor even at the same time that they are cutting benefits, making full-time jobs part-time and freezing wages. There is no conspiracy here, just free market economics and property and intellectual rights.

The conspiracy is the idea that you can get ahead by being of service to these people. The conspiracy is the idiocy of hope and the way it is captured in LOA texts and their celebrity promoters. The conspiracy is the idea that any of this has to do with your self-esteem, which is itself probably a conspiracy in that you should not worry so much about chasing it; remember the liberating fact that John Calvin introduced, that God, the arbiter of the Universe, might consider you a worthless piece of shit anyway.

Full disclosure: I am a hypocrite. I have crashed and burned on the pyre of Do What You Love, and I am only 34. I was as guilty as anyone else of believing that if I worked hard enough at something I cared about and passionately, that I would, if not succeed financially, be protected somehow from merciless and humiliating poverty. Alas, I was a journalist. I came in early. I worked late. I took frantic phone calls from editors in bed and on the toilet. I worked nights and weekends. My soul’s yen had more to do with the Freedom of Information Act and the public’s right to know, even to know unpleasant or uncomfortable truths, than with the public’s right to fashionable yet comfortable shoes. My best work, my investigative pieces on drug trafficking and medical waste, could not be defended or made virally popular with proper marketing. (Ditto my novel.) They served only a small group of people. They were not mind-blowingly cute videos of pets and children. They resisted marketing and would have required defense in a court of law, as I would have had the paper that had illegally been exploiting me, working me to the point of exhaustion as an exempt and salaried professional, not settled with us for back pay. I earned about $11 or $12 an hour as a reporter, once you factored in the unpaid overtime. There was no way up or out. There was no ladder to climb; there was only more of the same, more brokeness and more degradation, more greedy, shrill and manipulative editors, more deferring of student loans, more risk taking, more hell and stress, more gutless perfectionism, for 60 hours a week.

God, how I miss it. The singular, purposeful life. The hunt.

Because I did love the truth. But the truth was also that I was being defrauded, coerced and intimidated and that my bosses were breaking my back while hypocritically breaking the law in order to do so. The truth is that I earned $3,500 more the year after I quit the paper and was a cocktail waitress.  In two-thirds the work hours. And I was mad as hell about that.

Orman’s advice is making others ripe for the same devastating Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow meltdowns.

Oprah thinks she has solved spiritual hunger by endlessly baiting her audience into product endorsements delivered on the heels of elevated and spiritual-sounding advice. She, like Orman, is a false crone. She tells Weiner that her female audience members, middle class, educated achievers, kept expressing a sense of a void at the center of themselves:

“‘I feel like there’s something more. I feel like I’m missing something'” they complained.

I, too, feel like there is something more. But, unlike Oprah, I actually know what that void is. I can name it. On this level, it is justice; on another, it is God.

I am in mourning for Calvinism. Real Calvinism, not that Waspy, postindustrial, I water-my-lawn-just-so, God-loves-men-who-wear-Cardigan-sweaters-and-do-calisthenics crap. The real, honest to Goodness strain of spirituality that says, I might just be going to Hell no matter what I think, feel or do. Nothing is given; nothing is guaranteed. Fate is arbitrary. It means you might not know what you are talking about at all times, but, then again, it also means the same for your clergy, your corporate masters and their government puppets.

The irony of Calvinism is that this level of psychological uncertainty didn’t sit well with the European and colonial populations who first embraced its clean, anti-Church message. This message interrupted the mafialike stranglehold the Catholics had on Europe’s assets, and the extortionary practice of accepting payoffs from people who just wanted their loved ones to get out of Purgatory.

However, it’s a pretty demotivating message, when you think about it, that no matter what you do the law of predestination might send you down the chaff chute at the end of your life, just like some factory byproduct. To counter the potential for mass chaos and liberation that this spiritual ethic might induce, I believe Protestant Americans and Europeans adopted an attitude that is actually the opposite of Calvinism. That attitude is the so-called Protestant work ethic that Max Weber later identified.

Simply put, if Calvinism had been taken to heart, production would have stopped. It would have been a chaos of flagellation and Burning Man-like revelatory assembly, but the ginning mills would have run silent. So, production required a contorted new logic born of new found, New World insecurity and after ages of aristocratic and feudal norms had turned effete as a society-wide organizing principle.

Calvin wrote: “There is no work , however vile or sordid, that does not glisten before God.”

But what is the point in working hard to produce something and to climb the social ladder when it is just completely concealed from us who is good and who is just getting a free ride? Calvin’s ideas of man’s total depravity and utter reliance on the whim of a God are met with the kinds of intellectual perversions and compromises that people like Benjamin Franklin exhalted as necessary for capitalist enterprise. The perverse anti-logic goes something like this: Well, while it is true that no one knows whether they are part of the elect, God’s elect are, we think, favored with wealth and prosperity during their lifetimes as “signs” of God’s grace. These randomly selected people will “manifest” good material outcomes for themselves, because they will be intended to reflect their otherworldly status during their lifetimes. They will naturally work harder than everyone else in order to get their wealth, and so show the evidence of being the elect to the rest of us. So, please don’t get in their way, all you good Christians.

The LOA mindset weirdly echoes the contorted logic of people attempting to cope and to impose social order when no one knows anyone’s status, really.

The first thing they teach people going into sales and marketing professions is to create an anxiety, provoke a need that did not exist before, then offer to fill it.

The Catholics made up Purgatory. It doesn’t exist in the Bible. It provoked an anxiety that only payouts to the clergy could fill. Calvinists made up election. Calvinism provoked an anxiety that capitalism, and only capitalism, offered to fill, as the screeching, quaking, strident profession of faith in God could not be sustained as evidence of election, but earning your own way in this earthly plane, ironically, could.

The problem with me is: I prefer the anxiety to the self-assurance. I prefer the problem with all its sharpness and rawness and liberating, uncompromising, jaw-tightening, knock you off your center of gravity, humility-inducing awesomeness to the false solution. Calvinism is spiritual skydiving.

A Law of Attractionist would say that all of this reveling in poverty is why I am poor. That’s why the Law of Attraction is just an inversion of the Law of Predestination masquerading as self-help.

Still, I say, it is probably a good idea to go spiritual skydiving, if you ever get the chance.

In many ways our Puritan “Founding Fathers” were zealous weirdos and pinched-faced bastards. Some of them had more in common with Jim Jones than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They at least had something more driving them than selling timeshares or getting in on the ground floor of a new market in legal marijuana, however. For their age, they were bracing libertarians and laudably opposed to arbitrary, doctrinaire micromanagement of ordinary people. They rejected spiritual bureaucracy, materialism and Old World greed.

Their grandchildren really failed to maintain this level of reform intensity in the years leading up to the American Revolution, though. They lapsed into the capitalist modes of being that led right up to the artificial and craftily diluted Calvinism that makes much of wealth as a sign of virtue, opening up the horrible Pandora’s box that Oprah and the Law of Attractionists have unleashed, the one that says that wealth is virtue.

In her book, Tokumitsu locates the crass drift away from true Protestant spiritual values right at the very foundation of the United States. She quotes Weber’s observations of Benjamin Franklin’s Necessary Hints to Those That Would Be Rich and Advice to a Young Tradesman:

“In these texts, Franklin urges readers to constantly refine their behavior and habits, and especially, the appearance of their behavior and habits, in ways amenable to the accrual of capital and credit. Weber writes, ‘Now, all Franklin’s moral attitudes are colored with utilitarianism. Honesty is useful, because it assures credit; so are punctuality, industry, frugality, and that is the reason they are virtues.

These virtues shape and are shaped by capitalist enterprise. Weber notes that, although impulses like greed and covetousness transcend time and geography, ‘a state of mind as that expressed [by Franklin], and which called forth the applause of a whole people, would both in ancient times and the Middle Ages have been proscribed as the lowest sort of avarice and as an attitude entirely lacking in self-respect.” pgs. 9-10

The American Revolution was not concurrent with a spiritual renaissance, but followed one, reactively. Most of the laws of the land were written to limits government’s threat, or organized religion’s threat, to individual freedom but here the individual was already the capitalist unit of labor, not a spiritual vessel. The problem even today is that men are not strictly or exclusively either.

In his thoughts on earthly riches, Calvin was actually much closer to the Beatitudes of old Rome than Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson or the exuberant authors of the Constitution were. Calvin wrote: ““All whom the Lord has chosen and received into the society of his saints ought to prepare themselves for a life that is hard, difficult, laborious and full of countless griefs.” In other words, no, you cannot tell the Elect by their nice clothes and the fatness of their 401Ks. If it sounds all too familiar to you, like a repeat of Blessed be the Poor sentiments that have pacified generations of the working class to their detriment, that’s fine, too. I do not object to hard work and struggle for spiritual aims. I object to hard work and struggle for the wrong people for the wrong reasons at the wrong time, for what would have appeared to Calvin as idolatrous aims.


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Thomas Jefferson abhorred Calvinism. He thought Calvin blasphemed in his too literal interpretation of the Trinity and in his insistence on predestination. Finer points of theology aside, it is worth remembering how closely these debates informed the legal atmosphere of the nascent nation. It is worth remembering that people once treated legal problems, problems of work and wages and how taxes should be levied and distributed, as equally important to matters of the soul and of free will.

Calvin was a lawyer by training, and his Institutes on the Christian Religion, are widely considered dry and distinctly unpassionate, but renowned for their “clarity and rigor”—two things the LOA tracts completely lack and which also are missing from the general intellectual and political atmosphere of the United States today. What it will take to reverse the slide into dunderheaded and self-abasing serfdom is something of an ideological revisioning on par with the Protestant Revolution. By God, people will have to talk about religion and values again in public spaces. It is already happening from Catholic quarters. Pope Francis shakes the leaves on the cosmic trees with his every breath. He is a blessing and a harbinger. Will his influence be enough to stimulate a shift in the evangelical Christian right, who for years now have avoided inequality as a topic fit for discussion? The insistence that right-wing candidates defend this vocal minority from persecution is getting absurdly old. Watching them stir the political pot with their inflamed views on abortion and gay marriage was annoying before the Recession, but now it seems the spectacular moral equivalent of rural necrophilia. Stop fucking your dead horses, please. (Ditto all of you who are hanging on every word of Caitlyn Jenner.)

With each election cycle, the Christian right  seem even more out of touch with economic issues and almost erotically clueless about their own time and place, like poor Dylan Roof raving about a race war while executing nine people. Did Roof know there was, about 40 years ago, a War on Poverty declared in America and that Poverty won against black, white and himself together?

LOA is the frontline of an attack on the very notion of grace, which was a notion fundamental to the establishment of the country that once was the United States and which was, apparently, important to Dr. Martin Luther King, a priest by education. Because grace, not hope, is the thing that makes us doubt ourselves but also makes us doubt the rich, the mercantilist usurper of time and the slave-holder, the hollow authority, the classist inheritors of ill-gotten gains and the modern-day kings who preside over the tax codes who protect them. Grace is by its very nature anti-authoritarian and very, very American. Grace, not hope, is so American that it’s pre-American.

The challenge for the Millennial generation will be to balance our secular plurality with such a calling to reform while everywhere a sense of urgency is watered down and flushed away by these New Age progenitors such as Oprah and Rhonda Byrne and her personal finance co-conspirators such as Suze Orman. Millennials won’t have to believe in capital-G God to make social progress, but it might help them break these bad habits of hope and self-affection because when hope is this blind it forces the bearer to stumble and fall.

Ketamine and Heroin as Numbing Agents Among Millennials

It was 2008, early in the recession, and it was prom season. Before I became a crime and courts reporter for a Fairfield County, Connecticut newspaper, I did not know prom had a ‘season.’ Trend pieces on public safety fell within my beat, so I partnered with the education reporter to figure out what might be unique to that year’s crop of partygoing teens that should concern parents and the community at large. My law enforcement sources did not have to scratch their heads hard to come up with the answer: ketamine, rohypnol and GHB, a trifecta of drugs, some originally developed as veterinary anaesthetics. These drugs induce incapacitation and memory loss and therefore can facilitate sexual assault. The police reported a spike in the street supply, more motivated and connected dealers infiltrating downtown night life. The head of the Emergency Department at the local hospital substantiated the police claims, reporting a marked increase in overdoses and emergency room visits by teens and young adults, especially females, who had used these drugs.

Ketamine, GHB and rohypnol are all called ‘date rape drugs,’ and they were familiar to me because they managed to make big headlines just as I had been leaving for college nine years earlier. The headlines fueled my overprotective family’s neurotic separation anxieties. Over and over I was cautioned about minding my drink at a party, informing people of my whereabouts and remaining alert to my environment. My grandmother and father foisted anecdotes from press articles on me. They seemed convinced it was their duty to warn me, their innocent, hapless, naive small town girl, of this big city, college life hazard. I found it meddlesome and exaggerated, given my straight-laced social milieu and behavior throughout high school, and was no more afraid of being drugged and raped than I was of being pulled into a Boston alleyway by a vampire and drained of my life’s blood.

I knew that I had exited the youth culture and placed myself among an older, out of fashion cohort of potential drug takers when I learned from my police sources that these drugs were being self-administered by teens and young adults. The information at first did not seem credible to my ears.

“You mean they are taking them recreationally?” I said. I could not imagine why anyone seeking a drug experience would choose drugs that effectively knocked the user out cold or at least carried the risk of a black out. Oblivion, numbness, loss of agency, loss of motor control, dissociation, these are the effects of the date rape drugs. What did it mean that the youth of Norwalk, Connecticut sought these drugs voluntarily, used these drugs and in some cases, died from these drugs? The drugs of my parents’ generation—LSD, pot, hallucinogens, and of the later X and Y generations, cocaine, ecstasy, methamphetamines—all fell within a spectrum of experience that could be characterized broadly as a ‘high.’  An enhanced feeling or altered mental state could ensue. With the date rape drugs, the point seemed not to get high but to stop feeling altogether, not to escape or to enhance subjective reality but to suspend or even to end it. With respect to ketamine, users dub this state a ‘K-hole.’ Although the drug does block the reuptake of dopamine by brain cells, acting on pleasure centers and producing effects more tranquil and compatible with ‘raving’ or dance parties, many users report a less pleasant, dissociative state wherein they have absolutely no control over the use of their limbs and an out of body feeling that makes their own memories and experiences distant, removed, as if they were watching a movie of themselves.1

As a reporter, I began to wonder if the term ‘drug abuse’ had outlived its usefulness. This new use of date rape drugs seemed to signify a death wish rather than a hedonistic impulse. In fact, so unconventional was this trend that my editors instructed me to remove that angle from my prom coverage. They felt it was too dark and too risqué for the tastes of the community.

The overarching narrative of increasing risk taking and nihilism in youth culture from my parents’ generation to my own seemed to have reached a terminal point. According to this narrative, each generation surpasses the previous one in terms of the extremes to which its drug users will subject their bodies and the inherent risks of their drugs of choice, turning to ‘harder’ drugs with more exaggerated and accelerated descents into the highly stigmatized realm of addiction.2 This arc of expanding consumer appetites parallels advances in technology, as ever more cutting edge or designer drugs emerge, the old drugs seem passe, the way that DVD players superseded VCRs in the electronic marketplace.

On one level, using a strictly materialist interpretive paradigm, to abuse drugs is to act as a consumer seeking gratification from a commodity. Because of their dissociative and anesthetic effect, date rape drugs being taken recreationally seemed at first to strain the credulity of this interpretation, falling outside of the parameters of pleasure consumption and closer to other behaviors, such as self-mutilation and even suicide. The more I learned of the pleasurable sensations associated with some uses of the date rape drugs the more I was willing to allow them back into the fold of the conventional drug use as hedonistic leisure spectrum. However, their use as recreational agents dovetails with a surge in the popularity of heroin and heavily sedating painkillers in the same generation of Millennials. If ketamine is what you take at parties, heroin is what you take at home. Ketamine is to stilettos what heroin is to houseslippers. The pleasures of these drugs are there, yes, but so are the probabilities of effects such as sedation, mental incapacitation and lethargy. According to national health statistics, “the use of heroin in the United States doubled between 2007 and 2012, as did the number of deaths from heroin overdoses between the years 1999 and 2009. This trend appears to be driven largely by young adults aged 18–25 among whom there have been the greatest increases. The number of people using heroin for the first time is unacceptably high, with 156,000 people starting heroin use in 2012, nearly double the number of people in 2006 (90,000).”3 Also setting apart the Millennial generation is their abnormally high suicide rates. That high heroin use and high suicide rates coincide within the data on Millennials is meaningful. If the drugs of choice among Millennials bespeak a collective death wish, then it would make sense that rates of actual self-induced death among the same population be higher than those for other age subsets.

I take the position that each use of a drug represents a psychological drive by the user and that the user’s actions are not irrational. I subscribe to a kind of interpretation of drug use that resembles rational choice theory, uniting psychological needs and wishes with a physical agent or product designed to act on the body in ways that symbolically meet or match that psychological need or wish. OxyContin and Percocet, two heavy painkillers, may be used ‘recreationally’ in the sense that the user might have no medical condition requiring the suppression of the pain sensors in their body, but the choice of the drug might arise from a generalized sense of overwhelming psychological pain. Similarly, the use of LSD might represent a psychological urge to transcend or alter reality in someone who truly believes that their present reality requires imaginative and deep transformation. In this manner, drug users project the needs of the psyche onto the body and ritualistically enact their needs and wishes by manipulating the body’s systems to a particular effect.

Given how different drug use is from generation to generation, it is worth examining drug use as a form of symbolic communication. The historical moment influences trends in drug use as it influences trends in fashion, movies and music. One could argue that the chronology of a drug’s popularity, the manufacture and distribution trends, is based on the chronology of development of certain drugs. LSD could not have been popular in the decades before World War II because it did not exist in mass quantities, but such a materialist explanation ignores that there must first be a creative impetus to innovate pharmacologically and that that impetus is culturally formulated. The prevalence of heroin and date rape drugs, which date from the 1930s and the early 1970s, respectively, communicates a drive in the youth culture to disconnect from reality and to achieve rest or suspension in a black out state. The use of hallucinogens, marijuana and LSD by the baby boomer generation as they were coming into adulthood, by contrast, represents a drive to expand consciousness, even to speak out and articulate new visions of a social order. Rebellion and dissent from the status quo dominated the youth trends of the sixties, but today’s youth seek drugs that effectively silence them while drowning out the noise and the sensory traffic associated with modern life.  If the baby boomers sought to ‘drop out’, they meant to remove themselves from the strictures and norms of their elders, for the drugs they chose to imbibe still allowed for a level of engagement with their environment. The drugs of their young adult children allow for a much more complete withdrawal from the environment. In a Spin magazine roundtable discussion published in 1994, singer and guitarist Sean McDonnell, a Gen Xers and poet Allen Ginsberg, a baby boomer, square off on the chief differences between their generation’s drug choices:

Ginsberg: The government toes a subtle party line against a youthful vision quest—a quest for transcendence of condition, of becoming a more universal you. This is basic in all societies, from Native American Indians to Western society. My 1940s drug experience was based on an interest in a new awareness, a new consciousness, a new vision. The way drugs were used originally among the Beat writers in the ‘40s was to examine Cezanne, to listen to Bach. It was aesthetic. When it was commodified by the media and transformed into the Beatnik image, it then acquired the party line—that it was rebellion—rather than a proposition for a larger consciousness, or a greater scope of insight and perception.

McDonnell: Yeah, but in my culture right now, the use of drugs isn’t to expand consciousness at all. It’s to get wasted, to get completely obliterated. Nobody scoring three bags down on Avenue C is out to expand their consciousness.4


Unemployment, high student loan debt, economic stagnation, overwork facilitated by technology and 24/7 communications and hypercompetition for educational programs and jobs, these are some of the causal factors discussed in relation to a high suicide rate among Millennials, who seem to have come of age at the end of ‘the American dream.’ Writer Jewelyn Cosgrove, a Millennial who lost a friend to suicide in 2010, has this to say about the suicide trend:

“Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among millennials. We are a generation coping with dangerous levels of stress, stagnation, and limited resources to address suicide risk factors. Millennials, in particular, are found to have the highest rates of perceived stress when compared to other generations. Our generation engages in behaviors fraught with risk such as drugs, drinking, and driving under the influence, and emotional health among college students continues to fall year after year. Over the course of the past decade, suicide rates have inched higher, following a decrease the decade before.”5

In this context, heroin and date rape drug use can be interpreted as a passive and symbolic death, even a mini-rehearsal for suicide or an underlying expression of suicidal tendencies among young people. Recently, 27 year old pop star Lana Del Rey, whose style projects a James Dean, lost-soul nostalgia, took some heat in the press for telling a reporter, rather off-handedly, “I wish I were dead already.” Her comments hearkened back to the overdose deaths of supernovas Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse.6

In spite of the bleak times, writers such as Neil Howe have noted that Millennials express more affinity for their parents and more trust in authority figures than previous generations.7 The anti-authoritarian baby boomers seemed to have awakened to a disorder and chaos associated with the reshaping of ‘the American dream.’ In many ways, the society of the fifties and sixties was bleaker, more unequal and rife with social injustices such as sexism and racism. The constructive rebellion of the boomers was facilitated by a rising economic tide, and their forays into illicit drug use tended to reflect the socially expansionistic and determined idealism of the day with drugs that were purported to facilitate feelings of peace and well-being, visions, and catered to a mentality which was more hopeful and more empowered than the present mentality of Millennials.

Heroin and date rape drug use, on the other hand, is a jaded abstention or withdrawal from life. Some explanations of youth culture and the darkening of the drug scene rest on theories of risk that involve normalization, theories which postulate that today’s youth are more inclined to seek risk in harder drugs because softer drugs such as marijuana have become ‘normalized.’8 Such a theory is useful in explaining why some millennials snort or smoke heroin then report that they did so because heroin injection was too beyond the pale for them. The normalization theory also has relevance because a large number of heroin users report that they started off as addicts to prescription painkillers such as OxyContin and Percocet but found the supply of heroin met their needs much more cheaply.9

Today’s youth have much more exposure to pills and prescription drugs than previous generations as they have grown up in an environment saturated by the medical and psychiatric industries. Many young drug users were disinhibited from taking psychotropics because they were prescribed medications as adolescents and teens for behavioral and psychological disorders ranging from ADHD, depression and anxiety. According to statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, seventy five percent of heroin users have one of these disorders.10 Viewed from the normalization angle, their drug use does not represent a cultural break with or rebellion against norms, merely an illicit extension of behavior they were already conditioned to. Quoted in Drugs, Clubs and Young People: Sociological and Public Health Perspectives, a ketamine injector describes a higher level of comfort with taking the drug the first time because it has a synthetic, laboratory origin. Drug takers associate prescription and lab-based drugs with greater safety even in illicit use because, unlike street drugs processed in the criminal underground, these drugs cannot be adulterated or cut with unknown and potentially adverse substances. One British young adult told an interviewer: “I injected it because I know K is clean—it’s not like heroin, right. It comes from a lab, and it’s inside a bottle.”11 There is quite an irony at work here in that a young drug user, someone who has grown up in a world of tamper proof and child proof capping on foods and over the counter medications forms a preference for an illicit narcotic based in part on its appearance of ‘safe’ packaging.

While injecting a drug directly into a vein may seem like extreme, even morose behavior, there is a sense in which this act is not symbolically charged with rebellion at all. Heroin users report a feeling of ‘rush’ upon first encounter with a dose that makes them feel as if they were ‘under a warm blanket’ and which quells all worry.12 This ‘dope high’ can have calming effects for hours, making their heroin injection more the seeking of a lulling, womblike homeostasis than a dangerous, antisocial joy ride with morbid, angry overtones. The needle becomes soothing to the heroin addict like a bottle of warm milk to an infant. Thus something potentially lethal becomes psychically a source of nurturance in an atmosphere of overwhelming threat. In many ways, drugs of choice for Millennials are numbing agents which mimic death and cloak danger in a soporific safety zone, putting the user in a predicament psychologists Robert Jay Lifton and Richard A. Falk describe in their article “On Numbing and Feeling”:

“When numbing occurs, the symbolizing process—the flow and recreation of images and forms—is interrupted. And in its extreme varieties, numbing itself becomes a symbolic death: One freezes in the manner of certain animals facing danger, becomes as if dead in order to prevent actual physical or psychic death. But all too frequently, the inner death of numbing has dubious value to the organism. And it may itself become a source of danger.”13

Unlike the half-clothed hordes of hippies at Woodstock, who frightened more mainstream Americans with their aberrant fashions and raucous social protests, today’s young heroin users end up in a more inhibited, often closeted state of un-rebellion and self-medication while trying to lead otherwise normal lives. Media accounts of the heroin surge cite a heavy concentration of use in suburban communities.14

Twenty-something Chloe Caldwell wrote a confessional piece for Salon.com, “My Year of Heroin and Acne,” about using heroin to cope with the angst of being young, underemployed and, of all things, having acne. The account is startling in its typicality, with Caldwell appearing as a well-loved, well-groomed college graduate with inordinate free time who shares a hypochondria of the psychiatric sort with her best friend. The subhead reads: “I was 25 and living with Dad. I wasn’t in the clubs. I was in my room. And the worse my skin got, the more I used.” Caldwell’s voice is plaintive and frank as she details a rationale for heroin use that glibly blurs more substantial hardships such as her parents’ divorce and a romantic breakup with an obnoxious, stubborn cystic acne which heroin helped her “survive.” Caldwell writes:

“The thing about my heroin experience is that I did heroin when I did the most mundane things. I snorted heroin and went to the Dollar General. I went to Stop & Shop and bought yogurt. I treated my acne. I changed my profile picture. I cleaned my room. I went to bed. I wasn’t out partying. I was home in bed on the computer reading acne forums. When you stay in your bedroom and have heroin, you’re a king. You can be checking your email and be a king while eating an apple.”15

This paragraph exemplifies the distinctly unglamorous, clandestine use of heroin to cope with the banality of American life. It is also a far cry from Ginsberg’s aesthetic use of hallucinogens and boomer drugs to expand “insight and perception.”

At best, a cultural interpretation of the use of date rape drugs and heroin by Millennials bespeaks an ambivalence about the state of emergence that particular age group is in right now. At worst, it represents a wish to die in a generation that feels themselves to be deprived of hope. Caldwell says in her piece that heroin helped her “be there but not really there.”16 A non-committal, devil-may-care attitude pervades contemporary descriptions of numbing drug use by Millennials, but it is not one that has much bitterness or rancor to it. That may be the ultimate blessing of the Millennials, that they have reacted with disaffection to the Recession and the crappy hand history has dealt them with a cautious and not a sardonic numbness. As the economy teeters in recovery, perhaps the sad losses to suicide of certain Millennials will appear as outliers instead of harbingers of further cultural decay. In the meantime, it is helpful to understand the links between the numbing impulse and the cultural choices of these young Americans as they communicate different and evolving ways of coping with stress.


  1. Bill Sanders. Drugs, Clubs and Young People: Sociological and Public Health Perspectives. (Aldershot, England : Ashgate. 2006), 84
  2. Peter Bramham and Stephen Wagg, editors . (November 2010). The New Politics of Leisure and Pleasure . [Online] Available at: http://www.palgraveconnect.com.proxyau.wrlc.org/pc/doifinder/10.1057/9780230299979. (Accessed: 15 April 2015), 109.
  3. National Institute of Health/National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Heroin: Research Report Series” NIH Publication Number 15-0165. October 1997, Revised May 2005. Revised February 2014. Revised April 2014. Revised November 2014.


  1. “Drug Culture.” 1994.Spin (Archive: 1985-2000), Aug 01, 56-59, 98. http://search.proquest.com/docview/1286562007?accountid=8285.
  2. Jewelyn Cosgrove. “Suicide is the Third Leading Cause of Death Among Millennials—Here’s How I’m Trying to Stop It.” September 2013, http://mic.com/articles/62165/suicide-is-the-third-leading-cause-of-death-among-millennials-here-s-how-i-m-trying-to-stop-it
  3. Tim Jonze. “Lana Del Rey: ‘I Wish I Were Dead Already’”. The Guardian. June 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/jun/12/lana-del-rey-ultraviolence-album
  4. Jennifer Wright. “Millennials: The Worst, Most Entitled, Most Spoiled Generation in the History of Humankind?” June 2013. http://www.alternet.org/culture/millennials-generation-y
  5. Edited by Peter Bramham and Stephen Wagg . (November 2010). The New Politics of Leisure and Pleasure . [Online] Available at: http://www.palgraveconnect.com.proxyau.wrlc.org/pc/doifinder/10.1057/9780230299979. (Accessed: 15 April 2015), 109.
  6. National Institute of Health/National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Heroin: Research Report Series” NIH Publication Number 15-0165. October 1997, Revised May 2005. Revised February 2014. Revised April 2014. Revised November 2014.
  7. Ibid
  8. Bill Sanders. Drugs, Clubs and Young People: Sociological and Public Health Perspectives. (Aldershot, England : Ashgate. 2006), 87
  9. National Institute of Health/National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Heroin: Research Report Series” NIH Publication Number 15-0165. October 1997, Revised May 2005. Revised February 2014. Revised April 2014. Revised November 2014.
  10. Robert Jay Lifton and Richard A. Falk. “On Numbing and Feeling.” Reprinted in Culture, Communication and Conflict: Readings in Intercultural Relations. Revised 2nd edition. Edited Gary R. Weaver. (Boston: Pearson, 2000), 405.
  11. ABC News. “Hidden America: Heroin Use Has Doubled, Spreading to Suburbs.” July 2013. http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2013/07/hidden-america-heroin-use-has-doubled-spreading-to-suburbs/
  12. Chloe Caldwell. “My Year of Heroin and Acne.” Salon. January 2013. http://www.salon.com/2013/01/05/my_year_of_heroin_and_acne/
  13. Ibid.


ABC News. “Hidden America: Heroin Use Has Doubled, Spreading to Suburbs.” July 2013. http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2013/07/hidden-america-heroin-use-has-doubled-spreading-to-suburbs/


Bill Sanders. Drugs, Clubs and Young People: Sociological and Public Health Perspectives. (Aldershot, England : Ashgate. 2006)


Chloe Caldwell. “My Year of Heroin and Acne.” Salon. January 2013. http://www.salon.com/2013/01/05/my_year_of_heroin_and_acne/


“Drug Culture.” 1994.Spin (Archive: 1985-2000), Aug 01, 56-59, 98. http://search.proquest.com/docview/1286562007?accountid=8285.


Jennifer Wright. “Millennials: The Worst, Most Entitled, Most Spoiled Generation in the History of Humankind?” June 2013. http://www.alternet.org/culture/millennials-generation-y


Jewelyn Cosgrove. “Suicide is the Third Leading Cause of Death Among Millennials—Here’s How I’m Trying to Stop It.” September 2013, http://mic.com/articles/62165/suicide-is-the-third-leading-cause-of-death-among-millennials-here-s-how-i-m-trying-to-stop-it


National Institute of Health/National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Heroin: Research Report Series” NIH Publication Number 15-0165. October 1997, Revised May 2005. Revised February 2014. Revised April 2014. Revised November 2014.


Peter Bramham and Stephen Wagg . (November 2010). The New Politics of Leisure and Pleasure . [Online] Available at: http://www.palgraveconnect.com.proxyau.wrlc.org/pc/doifinder/10.1057/9780230299979. (Accessed: 15 April 2015).


Robert Jay Lifton and Richard A. Falk. “On Numbing and Feeling.” Reprinted in Culture, Communication and Conflict: Readings in Intercultural Relations. Revised 2nd edition. Edited Gary R. Weaver. (Boston: Pearson, 2000)







Domestic Violence Calls Surge Around Holidays


The Snorwalk police department reported a sharp increase in the number of domestic disputes over the Christmas holiday. Police Chief Harry Philling called the violence a “tragic reminder of the effect of family on people’s behavior.”

On Wednesday, a 37 year old woman had to be taken by ambulance to Snorwalk Hospital after police responded to a call from neighbors, who said the woman was naked and rolling about in the snow. She was still listed in stable condition as of deadline Friday.

“The beating she got was pretty light,” Philling said. “To the nearest we are able to  determine, however, the extent of her injuries was due to the fact that she and her partner were engaged in some kind of sexual play involving mistletoe. When an argument ensued, the mistletoe was used as a gag to quiet the woman so the man could get his point across. The woman was deathly allergic to the plant, though, and the contact with her mouth sent her into anaphalactic shock, swelling her throat and producing a painful, burning sensation in her skin, which we think is why she went outside and started rolling in the snow.”

A nursing supervisor said the woman had recovered from the allergic reaction but was still being treated for hypothermia and frostbite to her fingers, toes and nipples due to the one and a half hour response time of the Snorwalk police department.

The number of calls spiked Christmas morning. Philling said his officers were not sure why, but that it may have something to do with how ungrateful women are.

“We speculate that due to the dire economic times, many men were holding back this year in terms of gifts and choosing to buy their wives and girlfriends practical things such as snowblowers and Pampers,” Philling said. “At many houses that we responded to we saw many women attack men. Their reason? He did not buy a gift receipt.”

Philling said violence initiated by men and directed at women was also up this Christmas from last year by 30 percent.

Philling seemed appalled at the increase, saying, “Is that all? Huh, I wonder why?”

Michelle Cucina-Bella, executive director of Snorwalk’s domestic violence crisis center, said increased violence around the holidays is to be expected and that the Snorwalk police department is getting better at suppressing the violence.

“Unfortunately, we see an increase in calls to the local shelter, Battered Women ‘R Us, located at 32 Grand Plaza, this time of year,” Cucina-Bella said. “Sometimes we can stave off a crisis over the phone. A woman may not need to come and occupy a bed here, for instance, with the right last-minute cooking, decorating and sex tips. In cases where that is not enough, though, police are getting increasingly more aware of and increasingly more skilled at the need to identify the primary aggressor, or the person who is causing the violence versus who is really the victim.”

Philling agreed with the flattering statements.

“We are getting better at identifying men as the primary aggressor and issuing them a form that says they will promise to appear in court and another piece of paper called a protective order that says they promise to behave and be nicer in the future. In many cases we ask that they not contact their female victims once the women make bond,” Philling said.

Philling said the policy of arresting people who complain about being attacked or beaten, called dual arrests, was a long-standing and good one.

“This is a policy we developed in partnership with the black community. With respect to black youth, we found it so effective we started arresting them before beating them. It streamlines the report writing process,” Philling said.

When asked what battered women had in common with black youth and whether they deserved to be arrested for reporting a crime, Philling quoted John Lennon, saying, “Woman is the n—-r of the world.”

“You know, basically, there’s no reason why a beating should ruin anyone’s Christmas, but in cases where people just can’t agree to suck it up for the sake of the children or the festivities, we are just glad we can help,” Philling said.

These Chirrun’ Have Been Demoralized Enough!: Using States’ Rights Philosophy to Overturn Affirmative Action is a Really Bad Idea


Recently, this very nice Jamaican gentleman asked me out on a date. He called me up beforehand and said, “I really like you. I really do, but, you see, I have this problem: I am black.”

I chuckled.

But it seems a more appropriate response would have been for me to say: “Yes, R., being black in America is a problem. And it is getting worse.”

The national news is full of racist power-mongers, spewing the venom of  hate, ignorance and patriarchy. Examples include the nasty plantation mentality of the Clippers’ owner, Donald Sterling, coming out through this gross, geriatric sex scandal and Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy insisting that “Negros were happier as slaves.” Seventeen year-old Jordan Davis died in a convenience store parking lot, and the jury hung on the murder charge against Michael Dunn, an aggrieved white man who shot ten bullets into a car of black teenagers because they were playing music too loud. Dunn later claimed self-defense, but none of the teens were armed with anything but pop culture and uncouth amplifiers.

On the national level, the Supreme Court has decided to uphold Michigan’s ban on affirmative action in higher education. Basically, these are really bad times to be black. These are really bad times to be a child. These are really bad times to be a black child.

R. has three children, ages 5, 4, and five months. I thought of them while watching these news stories on CNN and while reading a May 7, 2014 article by Aldeth Lewin in The Virgin Islands Daily News: “V.I. youth population sees steep decline.”

The article discusses a report put out by the non-profit Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands. The report is based on 2010 census data, which indicate that between 1960 and 2010, the population of Virgin Islanders under the age of 18 shrank by 21 percent.

The significance of this demographic trend is that the territory may risk long-term gains for its youth by shifting policies away from what truly grounds them and bolsters achievement in school and in the workplace. Because there will be fewer of them: the chirrun’. For example, because a much higher percentage of Virgin Islander preschoolers live in poverty compared to their stateside counterparts, more of them qualify for Head Start, but that tenuous and dubiously positive foothold is all dependent on funding.

When the federal bough breaks, the cradle may fall.

In the meantime, let’s talk about what exactly these children have to put up with in exchange for federal dollars before we decide that affirmative action is an antiquated policy.

Last year a Head Start in a St. Thomas neighborhood called Hospital Ground had to be shut down and all the children relocated because so many shootings had occurred right outside the Head Start that Human Services no longer deemed it safe to operate there.

Human Services staff and the commissioner held a meeting with the parents and guardians before the final relocation plan was drawn up. A grandmother expressed outrage that her grandchild was wetting her pants at the sounds of cars backfiring or doors slamming. Because of the trauma of being besieged by drug thugs and criminals as a preschooler. Because the children and teachers were going into disaster mode drill and ducking under desks on a recurring basis and were in lockdown for hours because, in the words of one Head Starter, “the bad man with the gun is outside again.”

Because of the recent Supreme Court decision, Schuette v. Bamn, the national outlook for these same children is even more bleak. Many Virgin Islanders already have to compete in mainland schools and be dislocated from their Caribbean culture and families in order to obtain higher education, but the odds are longer now that they will even have that choice.

Conservatives in America who may be celebrating this decision are jumping the gun when it comes to getting their backlash in. With two more years left in the lifespan of the Obama administration, they are starting early and using their favorite branch of government, the judicial, to alter and reshape policies that have made American life somewhat more bearable for minorities and shifted the demographic balance of power toward the justice of plurality and equal representation.

If anyone can claim to have a white-person chip- on-the-shoulder, it is myself. I have been discriminated against by prestigious colleges when it came to my financial aid status and academic opportunities. I have also been the target of a sort of snickering harassment in certain black-dominated newsrooms, but, according to a fact sheet by CNN, a 1995 study determined that the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action have been white women, and I would have to concur. Small acts of discrimination do not override a seacrest of progress when it comes to women getting into and succeeding in college and in business, and I am one of them.

Controversial remarks by Obama about the value of vocational programs versus traditional liberal arts degrees were well-intentioned and reasoned critiques of the whole higher educational system, which frankly has bankrupted Americans of my generation in a way that I caution local families against. But the implications of the Supreme Court decision are startling. There is a lot of social fallout from the recession. We don’t think we can be kind. We don’t think we can make things more equal. We don’t think we have time, and we don’t think we can afford to.

I chose to go to trade school after four and half years of working in food service, free lance writing and reporting because I saw the value of a personal training career. But I would not trade my English degree for anything. It taught me critical thinking skills which later translated into an edge when it came to investigative reporting.

By the time I was laid off from a full-time position as police reporter, I weighed between 87 and 96 pounds, depending on how stressful my week or month had been. TV news reporters joked after my departure from the market that I had to have been either anorexic or a junkie, like the Robert Downey Jr. character in Zodiac. I was neither. I am 5′ 3/4″ on a good posture day.  (The media is as mean to its own as it is to its “targets.”) I can relate to the Asian Yale student who forced herself to binge eat after being mandated to get help for an eating disorder she did not have because people could not get their heads around her completely natural, slight build.

I took advantage of my time off and went back to school for personal training. I liked working out, but I also thought: “American women will pay me good money to teach them how to be like this.” After a few years of very fulfilling, rewarding work, I still could not stand that the world seemed to reward me more for my body and its marketability rather than for my brains, which were constantly taxed by my white-collar employment as a reporter. And severely underpaid. These are economic problems, though, not gender or race based problems.

As a personal trainer, I worked with former college athletes and immigrants from all over the world: Costa Rica, Jamaica, Eastern Europe. One of them told me he did not wear shoes until he was 12 years old and had to cut grass by hand.

“That’s why you have such great collateral muscle strength!” I replied.

Just like the brainiac children of international families who land excellent scholarships to Ivy League schools and go on to major in law, finance, engineering, marketing and other competitive fields, these people had worked very hard to secure their spot on the team and at the school. Just being around them and being accepted by them made me feel that I was special and tough.

I also reflected, during these years, on my Texas upbringing. I used to joke to my friends at Temple University that I came from a state so racist that all the black people lived in their own towns, in country isolation, like the converted convent Toni Morrison depicted in Paradise.

“How could I be racist toward black people?” I would say. “I was hardly ever around any. Prejudice takes proximity.”

My high school, however, irked me because of what I called our “self-segregation.” It was a magnet school with earmarked funding for arts, theater, dance, academic decathlon and with the losingest football team in all of Texas but a killer reputation for turning out National Merit Semi-Finalists. We white students from non-district zip codes were recruited for our test scores in junior high and really did not have to interact with the other, 49 percent Hispanic student population because so few of them were enrolled in Advanced Placement courses. Literally, every afternoon, all the white students would exit through the West Side doors, and all the Hispanic students through the East Side doors.

Here’s how I met Hispanics in high school: I danced with a few in our Westerner Union troupe. I got my hair cut on the cheap because I wore it boy short and the school had a fully-decked out hair and nail salon in it for the non-AP track (minority students from Camacho Junior High or other public schools.) The girls needed to practice the pixie style, their program director told me. Some of the boys in my elective studio art class told me that my pencil Taj Mahal rendering was “tight like a virgin,” and I interviewed an Hispanic girl for my journalism class on what it was like to be pregnant in high school. She was pretty nonchalant about it, which shocked me until my dance teacher explained that “some of them do it on purpose to get out of here.”

Oh, dear God, take me back to private school please, was all I could think my sophomore year.

I then went to four different undergraduate schools, and spent six more years dropping out and going back, always finding a cheaper, more accepting school and having to grovel before deans and professors in the Northeast who were pretty much convinced that because of my being from Texas and believing in gun rights and being rabidly pro-constitution that I was a closet racist. Being married to an ultra-right winger whom I am now pretty much convinced is a closet racist and a misogynist did not make me very popular either.

At Bryn Mawr, I nurtured a grudge against my only friend, a half-American, half-Indonesian international student who, like me, was a pipsqueak in class, a stand-out for asking question after question in lectures while everyone else sat docilely and made copious notes. D. and I were challengers, outspoken, and we had “spunk,” to quote my modern literature professor, Sandra Berwind.

But we were strangely isolated. She was going through culture shock, and I was having cold feet after only six months of being married. Both of us ended up being diagnosed with “bipolar depression.” Both of us were stigmatized and heavily scrutinized. I left. She stuck it out with the backing and the pressure from her parents and two older sisters, both Ivy Leaguers.

I resented her because I felt like I should not have to plead illness, the way she did, to explain why I was socially awkward and academically rebellious. I would not show up to class for weeks on end, then turn in a paper, achieve an A or B, and get nasty notes from professors who felt my lack of attendance was a slap in the face at the end of the semester.

Attendance is deference, and I had none for anybody at that time in my life, except psychiatrists (oh, how I rue that!).

D. stayed on and played the game, but I always felt that she had advantages afforded her because she was Indonesian. She had a pretty deep scholarship plan. I did not. It seemed that the administration treated her and the international students with kid gloves. They rolled out the red carpet with a separate orientation, special faculty introductions, special dietary allowances, special living quarter considerations and extra mentoring for children of families who got them into American schools with a propensity for bragging, in recruitment brochures, about their “diverse student population.”

What is this show? I thought. They are a handful, a mere handful, of prized puppies, and they have a lot more money than my family. They had massive scholarships, but then again they had to abide by a whole set of behavioral and academic standards in order to keep them, year after year.

I got in argument after argument with my grandmother about leaving my first college, Emerson College in Boston, Mass., because I walked away from a $5,000 a year scholarship. At that time, that was less than 12 percent of my overall tuition and living expenses. I felt good about my decision because I was trying to spare my father the burden of debt, and I felt that Emerson’s academics were less challenging than my high school curriculum.

One question we should be asking ourselves in the wake of this disastrous Supreme Court decision is: what price diversity? Asian and Pakistani and Indian students face the whips and scorns of resentment in higher ed settings, then in fields such as medicine, because of their work ethic. That may or may not be because their entire families have leveraged all available resources toward their education and future careers. It should come as no surprise that the decision was based in Michigan, where a history of labor quarrels and white flight have destroyed the markets and cities, and where the lines drawn by the recession perhaps cut deeper. White urban angst popularized by Eminem is for real, and it is ugly.

What is the pressure like in those Pakistani and Indian kids’ heads now, post- 911? I wonder.

I always felt like I had to work harder from grade school on because I never could rely on my parents for help with homework. I was lucky if my mother and father remembered that I was taking AP chemistry, but, on the other hand, they were not going to flip out if I got an A minus instead of an A. They were by turns indifferent, proud and resentful of me for being an overachiever. I was shooting for a four year degree, and that would make me the first, beside my uncle on my mother’s side, since my grandfathers. Other children I grew up with were given more support at home, but they faced more severe pressure to uphold class (as in $$$-making, not schoolroom) standards than I did.

According to experts in Lewin’s article, research has shown that “in order to reach a middle income by age 35, certain milestones must be met in a child’s life…children must first be born healthy to adults who are ready to be parents. The next milestone is being physically and mentally ready for school by age 5…Two major life events have been shown to throw children off that track, involvement with the criminal justice system and teen pregnancy…”


Here are a few milestones from my own white childhood:

In kindergarten, I became so angry with my mother, who tricked me into staying home during our Thanksgiving week by lying to me about what the date was. I caught her when she asked the check out clerk in the grocery store what date it was, so she could write a check. I had a case of walking pneumonia, the kind which is common in small children and where they do not often feel symptoms but have to be kept on antibiotics and rest to cure. I wanted so badly not to miss my opportunity to be an Indian. First-graders had to dress up like pilgrims, which seemed not so glamorous and fun to me. Also, my mother was attempting to date again after years of domestic abuse and shrill, litigious custody and visitation fights. Her boyfriend had dumped her, and she got drunk and played Journey on the stereo so loudly that I could not sleep. She was cleaning and breaking glass things, too. When I asked for my antibiotics, she gave me an entire bottle of Erythromyocin in a champagne flute.

“This is not proper.  Bitch is off her mothering game tonight. Bitch is crazy.” I had imaginary adult friends who said such things in my head at moments such as these. They were hysterically sexist and precociously, almost preternaturally, cynical. Beyond my-years, dirty-old-man cynical. One of them was probably based on the comedy of George Burns.

I went and got the Erythromycin bottle from the fridge and read the dosage and gave myself two teaspoons full and put the rest back in the fridge. My mother thanked me profusely for this after she sobered up the next day.

How is that for historical irony? I missed playing an Indian at school because that was what my mother was doing. Years later, I have forgiven her because I understand how stressful it was for a single working mother to keep up with the demanding schedule and expenses that my grandparents’ insistence on my taking jazz, tap, ballet, gymnastics, twirling and the like inflicted on her. On that side, my father’s side, I was a regular spoiled brat. I was supposed to be a pageant girl. The bitch of being born with nouveau riche grandparents is that you will never get credit for the gifts you refuse, like when you suggest that given college tuition rates it would be imprudent to be a symphony debutante and to spend $1,000 a year on an arcane and patriarchal Southern tradition that will bore you to tears and won’t even go down in your college entrance apps as an extracurricular.

I grew up on both sides of the tracks. My grandparents bought me more shit than my mom could literally afford to keep up with in the dark ages days before Ebay. On any given day, I would have gladly traded it all in for some lasting peace and quiet.

To cope with the class divisions and the violence in my family, I developed an overreliance on rituals and manners and schedules. One Christmas Eve when I was in fifth grade, I nearly got my ass kicked because I left my dress shoes out and the dog ate them. I was scheduled to sing a duet with my “boyfriend” Ryan at church, which totally threw off the holiday visitation rituals. I normally only spent Christmas Eve with my father’s family. We had to rush to the mall, where she had to shell out money she did not budget for a brand new pair of shoes. I sang “Silent Night.” Then we drove around my father’s sister’s neighborhood for an extra half hour while I balled my eyes out from the stress. When I looked clean and presentable, she dropped me off.

The last time I had told my father about one such episode, when my mother threw a tapshoe at me in the car because I lost the other one–I was four–my father staked out her driveway with a shotgun all night. She did not speak to me for three days in retribution.

I was in a special education cohort in first grade. I was deemed developmentally delayed. I could read, but my fine motor skills and math reasoning were off, and I kept writing letters backward. My father kept a crayon drawing I did with the caption: “Dog is great. Dog is good. Let us thank him for this food.” The Ds were backward, too. Myself and other children from slightly dysfunctional households had to be practically quarantined from everyone else and were given a classroom so tiny it later became the office for coaches. It was in the annex gym, which was a temporary installation that was constantly infiltrated by blowing, red dirt. My first grade teacher approached me my ninth grade year to tell me how proud she was of my having been “highest academic achiever” for three years running, along with my best friend, Christy. (I speculate that Christy had me beat by a narrow margin at least some of the years, but that teachers decided because of the extreme rivalry between us, not to interfere by declaring a “winner.)

“I am so proud of you,” Ms. Stephens said.

I almost said, “Kiss my ass. I was never retarded or dyslexic; I was just distracted!” Instead, I just thanked her and walked away with tears in my eyes because I knew, too, how hard she had worked and how mean and hyperactive we had been to her.

In spite of all this white trash shit, I do not blame my parents for derailing me from a “middle income.” I graduated summa cum laude from a very good school, Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. No one came to see me walk except my husband. I wore the cowboy boots that my mother wore when she was pregnant with me, and the other summas said, “Wow! Penelope, you are such a bad ass.”

“I just didn’t know the gown would be so short,” I said. It was totally the truth.

No, I don’t blame my parents anymore.

I blame journalism for keeping my income level below my age in terms of thousands of dollars.

(But I digress.)

No doubt the Cliven Bundys (and the Ted Bundys and the Al Bundys of the world) would see it as a positive that the territory is spawning fewer children. Indeed, I would often drive through neighborhoods such as Kensington and Allegheny in Philadelphia late at night and see unattended toddlers toting garbage bags and sucking on enormous corner-store juice jugs with nipple tops and wonder why people keep breeding when they clearly cannot or will not take care of the children they have. I have an uncle who has quipped for years that enforced sterilization programs are not a bad idea.

But the gist of Lewin’s article is that a declining youth population means even less attention may be paid to an increasingly miniscule, by national standards, and politically disenfranchised minority: the Virgin Islander. 27,026 children were under the age of 18. Compare that to the  61,944,831 people under the age of 14 nationwide. According to 2010 census data,  “[w]hites constitute the majority of the U.S. population, with a total of 223,553,265 or 72.4% of the population” of the United States.

Even white children in the Virgin Islands belong to a separate and distinct (minority) ethnic group, many of them being the French (“Frenchie”) descendants of pirates. Their accents are more difficult to understand sometimes than the native West Indian, i.e. black, population. I hope that colleges and universities outside the state institutions consider them as minorities when using race as a criteria. The primary disappointment in the Supreme Court decision is that it parces out these issues in a cowardly fashion, using jurisdictional lines to skirt the real issues of longstanding poverty and cultural differences.

I attended the 2013 Charlotte Amalie High School graduation ceremony on St. Thomas. Charlotte Amalie is a public school, one of many plagued with crumbling facilities, nasty, stank bathrooms and constant pressure to uphold No Child Left Behind, and now, Common Core curriculum standards. Every year, the district’s managers and public relations people react with stone-faced blaséness to the obligatory questions for the AYP article. Why which schools and districts did not make “Adequate Yearly Progress”?

According to the Virgin Islands Department of Education’s web site,  graduation rates are still abysmal. 61.4% total graduation rate, according to 2012-2013 stats, with Hispanics and “others” trailing black children, who are the majority. 64.1% of black children graduated high school, 53.4% of Hispanic children graduated. The “others” and children with limited English proficiency fared the worst: their rates ranged from 23.1% to 32.4%.

During a Virgin Islands senate session where the topic was a severe teacher shortage and whether or not we should alter or relax requirement standards for entry level educators, an impassioned Board of Education member said, “These chirrun’ are very high energy! They are very hyper. Not just anyone can be in a classroom with them.”

Indeed, search The Virgin Islands Daily News archives and you will find that two of these chirrun’ have had sex in their classroom and allowed others to videotape it. Five of these chirrun’ beat an elderly, gay white man to death and left him bleeding in a shower stall at Magens Bay.

We all feel a little derailed by these chirrun’ and their energy, but, if you want to find hope, examine the graduation speeches of T.J. Thompson and Sadiyah Ali, Charlotte Amalie High School salutatorian and valedictorian in 2013. T.J. is black. In his speech, he obeyed protocol and thanked his educators, parents, elders, then God with a prayer. His manner was very solemn and respectful, except for when he was encouraging his classmates to abandon the local disregard for punctuality and he said, “On St. Thomas, if someone says they are going to die in 15 minutes, they mean they are going to die in an hour and 15 minutes.”

Gallows humor, perhaps? The territory’s murder rate is 8 to 10 times the national average.

Then he proceeded to tell his peers that it is “okay to quit. It is okay to quit procrastinating. It is okay to quit blaming your parents. It is okay to quit complaining about how unfair life is. It is okay to quit being ignorant.”

As a motivational speaker, I thought, this kid is kicking my butt right now. Does he come from a military family?

T.J. elicited modest, subdued applause compared to Sadiyah, whose speech was so spunky and gassed up that I winced. Wearing a habib, Sadiyah did the subjective thing that used to so annoy my ethics professor at Bryn Mawr when I disagreed with feminist texts by Andrea Dworkin and Carol Gilligan.

“The schoolgate no longer holds any restrictions for us!” she declared. Her classmates erupted when she said, “From now on, we can wear any color we want anywhere in the world. We can no longer be told to put away cell phones.”

She then talked about how hard she had worked to put together music videos while juggling mid-terms, the lack of sleep and adrenaline filled crankiness of senior year. She also thanked her bffs by name. It was a popular roll call.

But, I had to admit, the reason why I shook my head and uttered under my breath, “I don’t like her tone” was that it was like looking in a mirror.

Sadiyah explained that in junior high she had heard whispers, as a minority Muslim in a predominantly black school, that she “had a bomb” in her gown and that people had better not make her mad or “she would blow them up!”

She then eloquently quoted from the Oxford English Dictionary the definition of Arab and distinguished it from people of the Muslim faith.

T.J. wanted to pay homage to his elders and to authority. Sadiyah wanted to celebrate her freedom and autonomy from such elders and authority with all-too-naïve and smart-ass statements about how college is supposed to be different. (It’s not honey, in loco parentis is just around the corner. It’s okay I had no clue at your age, either.)

In ninth grade, to spare my mother the $1,500 to $3,000 expense of a pre-graduation white water rafting trip, I led a revolt. I convinced four of my bookish friends to refuse to go on this last class trip. One of them was from a poor, divorced family and, like me, had tuition from grandparents. The others were from wealthy households and just felt a certain sympathy and kinship. Our homeroom teacher was a coach, not a teacher, and we felt that the jocks had way too much say.

“You will all have to stay here during regular school hours, and you have to do class work,” Mrs. Rucker told us.

“You mean, like, we have to read all day while the rest of y’all are gone, and it’s quiet?”


“Mrs. Rucker, how is that supposed to be punishment? You forget, we like to read!”

The other girls and I had a vote. We decided we liked these terms and conditions, so that’s what we did.

Freedom and autonomy. See!


At my ninth grade graduation ceremony, I insisted that my friends and I be allowed to do a chair dance to Tracy Chapman’s “Gimme One Reason to Stay Here.” We mockingly took off our ties and rolled down our knee socks. The parents loved it. I asked that it be in lieu of my graduation speech, and again was told no.

“I’m 14. What the hell do I need to be making speeches for? Let’s do this friggin’ chair dance instead and get it over with!” was more or less my attitude.

I pray for Sadiyah and for T.J., but especially for Sadiyah. I felt a lot of angst coming off her.

Why did the media call the 14-year old girl who tweeted American Airlines that she was Ibrahim and a terrorist and going to blow something up the “dumbest” ever? She is not stupid; she is an outraged teenager who has grown up hearing about the detention and torture and assassination of Muslims at the hands of the U.S. government.

Ultimately, the decision to use race in admissions criteria should be up to the schools, not the state or federal government, not the courts. Because something like 69 percent of Americans still think affirmative action is a good idea, if we let the markets sort it out, chances are minority students will still continue to make inroads as demographic shifts also alter the color of our workforce and power elites to be more global and less “white American.”

But the saddest outcome, I feel, in the Supreme Court’s starting the domino effect with  Schuette v. BAMN is that it may pit the T.J.s and Sadiyahs of the world against each other rather than together against white suburban brats. As neither will be looked at for their unique cultural histories and stories, the future sals and vals of V.I. public schools will feel even less like applying to prestigious (i.e. pretentious schools) where the social networks will be to further advantage when it comes time to go to work. Fewer slots only pit minorities against each other; just look at the horrible labor history of trade unions and police and fire departments in the Northeast.

The following is an excerpt from Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s  57 pages of Wise Latina dissenting prose:

“Race matters to a young man’s view of society when he spends his teenage years watching others tense up as he passes, no matter the neighborhood where he grows up. Race matters to a young woman’s sense of self when she states her hometown, and then is pressed, “No, where are you really from,” regardless of how many generations her family has been in the country. Race matters to a young person addressed by a stranger in a foreign language, which he does not understand because only English was spoken at home. Race matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: ‘I do not belong here.'”

My gentleman caller, R., may or may not be a citizen yet. I do not know. I did not ask. Same for the mother of his three children. But here is another reason why race matters: poverty matters. R. works two full-time jobs, 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. at the same resort where I am a waitress, and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. as a supervisor for the Virgin Islands Housing Authority. The mother of the children, from whom he is separated, also works full-time. That is one job per child and holding. That is about standard for the Virgin Islands, where the cost of living rivals, according to some locals, the cost of living in Manhattan.

R.’s children no doubt have advantages over those of other “down-island” countries where the economic disparity between tourists and locals is even more blatant and disturbing, but they are probably not going to get much help with homework when their parents are working all damn day and all damn night. Sotomayor understands this personally, unflinchingly and with a fiery brilliance that only a woman of her age and her ancestry can deliver.

In closing, I thank God for Sotomayor.

And Tracy Chapman.


Reading “The General”, Handing the Right their A—s, Raising $$ for Charity

So, my agent is making me do this thing for charity…

Just kidding. It is an honor to help this great organization and to read with these two talented authors. 

To donate directly, click here. Please specify it is because you saw this post. 

Help A Homeless Shelter

Make Rent

Sunday, Nov. 18, 1 to 3 p.m.

The Outer Space, 295 Treadwell St., Hamden, Ct

League of Women Voters &

Occupy New England

present readings by


Norm Pattis and Linda Urbach and Penelope Gristelfink

Help those who need it most!! Story time and dance party!!!Donations of any amount accepted. All proceeds go to Columbus House, a local homeless shelter.

Norm Pattis is a Ct-based trial lawyer who focuses on high stakes criminal defense, discrimination and civil liberties. He writes columns for The Connecticut Law Tribune and for Journal Courier newspapers. He will read from his new book, Juries and Justice. Check out his blog at http://www.pattisblog.com.

Linda Howard Urbach, a contributor to the Huffington Post is the author of Madame Bovary’s Daughter (Random House Summer 2011) and two novels published by Putnam’s (Under the name Linda U. Howard) The Money Honey and Expecting Miracles. Her one act play “Scenes from A Cell” was a finalist in the 2002 New England One Act Festival. She is the originator of “MoMoirs: The Umbilical Cord Stops Here!” a theatrical production in conjunction with Theatre Arts Workshop of Norwalk, She’s also the creator of MoMoirs-Writing Workshops For and About Mothers.



Penelope Gristelfink is a personal trainer, former journalist, writer and political activist. She will read from her short story “The General,” a dystopic vision of an anarcho-capitalist society run amok. “The General” is live in the current issue of Eclectica Magazine, www.eclectica.org. She maintains a blog: www.ungloved.wordpress.com. Bring your laptop or smartphone to follow along.



Call me a dope, but I don’t get what’s wrong with it


When pictures of Michael Phelps smoking pot were leaked to the press, Saturday Night Live did a great skit hitting back at Kellogg’s for dropping their sponsorship deal with Phelps. The link is above.

Writer and actor Seth Meyers put it this way to parents outraged at the fallen idol: “If your kid says, ‘Michael Phelps smokes pot, why can’t I? Just say, ‘You can! Right after you win 12 gold medals for your country.

I take a similar view of the totally true but also totally irrelevant charges against Lance Armstrong and all the backpedaling, Indian-giving, ruthless extortion brought on by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). When you survive testicular cancer and win seven Tour De Frances and raise $470 million for cancer research/survivors, you can tell everyone to kiss off and take a corticosteroid, too.

If you feel like it. 

I think it would be an interesting experiment to see how many of the banned, illicit substances listed in the 202-page report are in fact in the medicine cabinets of the litigious vultures and media schadenfreude- artists who concocted the campaign to shuffle back the millions based on unprecedented athletic performance. Ever had a cortisone shot for your aching knees after lugging legal briefs around in a swank Hermes? Ever been susceptible to nagging doubts about declining sex drive and been tempted to buy into the new testosterone supplementation being peddled on TV? Ever had allergies so bad your doctor prescribed prednizone?

Ever been threatened with the loss of your balls and then your entire endocrine system, then bounced back to train seven or eight hours a day to climb steep hills with the sleek grace of an Alpine monorail?


Okay, then shut the hell up.

While I can see that many would be outraged by Armstrong’s overt lies, and while the pages of circumstantial evidence are overwhelming, you know that it’s a school-for-scandal dust-up and nothing more ethically substantial when British people start burning effigies. Yep, when it devolves into bumfuck, tabloid-addicted wankers putting on a show in
Edenbridge, then you know you can officially move on.

First of all, Armstrong did not do anything illegal. There is nothing in the report even akin to Andre Agassi’s use of amphetamines and narcotics, later disclosed in his confessional autobiography. Although sponsors have come out on CNN and decried his “perjury”, the legal basis for their claims is all going to be drawn up in civil proceedings, as it is not a criminal act to take these drugs or to blood dope.

Furthermore, the naivete of sports fans and the shattered innocence of his one-time supporters is steeped in an hypocrisy and an ignorance of both biomedical ethics and sport-specific training techniques.

When the average joe hears the term “blood doping,” they may conjure something like shooting up. The procedure does involve withdrawing blood with needles and reinjecting it, but there is nothing artificial or harmful in it. It is basically a way of holding an athlete’s natural tissues in reserve—and I contend that all people have an inherent, legal right to their own tissues—so that they can be used to up the natural, oxygen-delivering capacity of the blood supply during competition.

May the best bleeder/reinjector win, in my opinion. I mean, body builders, who are essentially functionally useless creatures, are known to take ice baths and expose themselves to cold for prolonged periods of time, in order to stimulate the brown adipose tissue command centers to greater fat-burning and thus get themselves leaner for competition.  Football players use barometric chambers to simulate high altitudes and enhance lung capacity.

We live in a society where both vanity and mediocrity and an unhealthy disregard for physical activity are fueling needless, expensive hormone replacement therapies and elective/cosmetic surgeries such as gastric bypass for no higher purposes than consumeristic cravings. Yet we cannot wrap our heads around the perfect storm of high-stakes endorsement deals and the parasitic, politically motivated “governing” bodies such as the USADA.

In its own indictment/reasoned decision, USADA quotes Armstrong’s biography. He describes his scientific approach to training: “I tackled the problem of the Tour as if I were in math class, science class, chemistry class and nutrition class, all rolled into one. I did computer calculations that balanced my body weight and my equipment weight with the potential velocity of the bike in various stages, trying to find the equation that would get me to the finish line faster than anybody else. I kept careful computer graphs of my training rides, calibrating the distances, wattages and thresholds.”

The report goes on: “Interestingly, the mathematical approach described by Armstrong in his autobiography, and which he ascribes solely to his own personal innovation and to his having ‘geeked out,’ is exactly the approach that the documents USADA has assembled indicate Michele Ferrari takes with his clients. As demonstrated by the documents capturing Ferrari’s own communications with Armstrong and other clients, Ferrari’s focus is unremittingly upon the numbers, upon the calculation of power ratios and wattages and thresholds.”

So, to recap, what USADA has brought to light is an athlete conspiring with a medical doctor to use math and science “unremittingly” to win a race that is also all about the numbers. How dirty. How damning.

The New York Times called Armstrong’s methods “cunning and farcical” and cited the fact that USADA had 38 blood samples reanalyzed by Christopher J. Gore, the head of physiology at the Australian Institute of Sport. Gore’s findings were that the chances that Armstrong’s hematocrit levels were naturally occurring were “one in a million.” But again, we are talking about concentration of red blood cells, not an artificially produced chemical substance. Something the body does on its own. Even erythropoeitin (EPO) and testosterone are native substances to the body, not uppers or stimulants, such as ephedra (common in Jillian Michaels’ type product lines) or even carcinogenic or kidney-killing steroids like HGB or creatine. This last is commonly available in certain protein powders sold at GNC.

How about, instead of stripping Armstrong of his seven medals and opening him and his foundation up to charges of fraud in civil courts, let’s have MIT start an exercise science program and make him a full professor? Or better yet, USADA should ask him to be their new chairman so that he can strengthen testing procedures and give them validity. It’s like when the makers of safes pay thieves to tinker with their new products. You want quality control, ask a proven expert.

Blood doping is hard to prove because it doesn’t trace back to an alien substance. Blood is blood. If you can’t establish an explicit standard for concentration or volume, and these are even subject to natural, non-doping fluctuations, especially in female riders, then stop trying to impose artificial standards in an effort to “police” a sport extra-legally.

The report is a testament to the agency’s own superfluity and moral weakness. The cover-up should have been on USADA’s end, to suppress the circumstantial evidence against Armstrong, not out him, because they failed to deliver on their own raison d’etre: a purely theoretical clean, level playing field that can never exist in practice. Instead, their report belabors USADA’s own inefficacy in page after page of what is otherwise an intimate portrait of a sophisticated network of trainers, athletes and doctors who are in no wise violating the Hippocratic oath.

From the report: “Twenty of the twenty-one podium finishers in the Tour de France from 1999 to 2005 have been directly tied to likely (my emphasis) doping through admissions, sanctions, public investigations or exceeding the UCI hematocrit threshold. Of the forty-five (45) podium finishes during the time period between 1996 and 2010, thirty-six were by riders similarly tainted by doping.”

Even though USADA lays the conspiracy at Armstrong’s feet, claiming he pressured other riders on the US Postal Service Team to cheat, if he had not, apparently the organization was so byzantine and effete that some other cheater would have won. So, in a sense, it was a level playing field. Also, there is not direct evidence anywhere in the report. It is a giant story-telling effort and a good piece of sports reporting, but not a legally valid document.

As Trevor Butterworth, a contributor for Forbes, pointed out in his article “The Kafkaesque Trial of Lance Armstrong: A Former Federal Prosecutor on the US Anti-Doping Agency’s Disregard for Due Process”, the testimony of Tygart, Landis, and other teammates against Armstrong doesn’t hold water and smacks more of arm-twisting and back-door immunity deals. Sour grapes, to say the least.

And what of USADA’s methods: admissions, sanctions, public investigations of highly public people with millions of dollars and hundreds of hours of career investment on the line. Hardly unbiased prosecuting.

In his own lawsuit against USADA, Armstrong has his lawyers put the issue of money, and the political motives of self-justification, front and center. The suit claims within the first two pages that USADA wasted taxpayer dollars coercing testimony from discredited, losing teammates, which it absolutely did.

According to wikipedia.org, USADA and the World Anti-Doping Agency are non-profits, but like all non-profits they are continually dependent on grants from the government and from organizations such as the Olympic Committee. The mere link between USADA and the federally funded Office of National Drug Control Policy, once headed by Joe Biden, ought to give us pause as I think the nation has bigger drug problems than endurance athletes. I would rather see a witchhunt directed at Perdue or big dairy farmers for the injection of a noxious and abnormal level of growth hormones into the food supply. Schoolchildren reaching puberty earlier and earlier and obesity run amok among the population of mediocre couch potatoes that are the rest of us is of more concern to me. Or the spread of meth out of Appalachia. Or the bloody, violent implosion of Mexican politics around drug cartels that have made El Paso a gated community over the maw of hell and mayhem that is Juarez. Give me destitution and bloodbaths and graveyards of mules as  reasons to splurge on enforcement, not little, spry jockeys on bicycles.

In the meantime, Lance, from one native Texan to another, this chaps my hide.

Sending Love and Cortisone,


Beware the Talk

The question was raised on Facebook by Bob Christian, editor and publisher of The Weekly Press: Is A. J. O’Connell‘s main character in Beware the Hawk based on me? I can only presume this is because of my involvement in Occupy and because O’Connell and I once shared a newsroom.

I think these questions are best answered by the author, fabulous author herself, but I wanted to outline some of the most glaring differences.

1. Occupy is not a secret society. Everything we do we do openly in public spaces and on the web. We believe in transparency. To the extent that exercising one’s constitutional freedoms and blowing bubbles in the park are increasingly considered a threat to the corrupt order of global multinationals and clueless, spineless,  money-grubbing politicians, then it might be a terrorist society.  Certainly, the NDAA, and the chiseling away at the writ of habeus corpus it represents, is a step in that direction.

2. A J.’s main character is a pedestrian courier. I am a half-marathoner and a cook. See my favorite food blog. See my favorite  fitness blog.

2. A. J.’s main character gets paid for her activities. I am a broke grad school drop-out.

3. A. J.’s main character does not care about the issues and sleeps with an undercover cop. I care about the issues and sleep with my cat and a nightguard because I have TMJ.

4. A. J.’s main character has pink hair. I have a red thing going on right now, but it’s just the fadeout from a previous dye job.

5. A. J.’s main character gets caught. 

Not to mention, A. J. wrote this book before Occupy started, and it was unfinished for nine years before being published! How prescient of her. See her latest blog post on the subject. 


Special thanks to the editors of Eclectica.org


Am planning a reading of my short story “The General” and fundraiser for a New Haven homeless charity around Thanksgiving. You can read the short story in the current issue of Eclectica magazine.

Special thanks to editors Tom Dooley and Anne Leigh Parrish for choosing the story, as well as for their praise and for creating an exquisite source of inspiration with their completely free online magazine.

fr. Anne Leigh Parrish:

“The General” by Penelope Gristlefink depicts a future where people seek revenge and justice just as they might today, yet under circumstances so harsh that the ability of the 14-year-old narrator to preserve her own humanity moves us profoundly. We conclude with “Grave Robbers” by Jerry McGahan, a story we love for its exploration of compassion in a world run on power and greed, and underscored by the danger of expressing any opinion that goes against established doctrine. These stories are strong, daring, and brave. Their authors don’t shy away from passion, pain, or ugly truths. Rather, they meet them with open eyes and open hearts. We hope you will, too.

Fear and Trembling in the Garden and Borderline Personality Disorder

This essay was written two years ago. My mother and I have since reconciled by phone. More on that forthcoming.

I haven’t spoken to my mother in nearly three years.  This is not something I feel in a rush to change. In fact, I can scarcely imagine my life without this supportive reality.  My mother has borderline personality disorder. The defining features of this mental illness are, ironically, a fear of abandonment and a simultaneous inability to sustain relationships.  This inability to sustain relationships encompasses even the bond between mother and child, although the burden of the estrangement is largely mine.
To the rest of my family and even to some of my friends, it is difficult to explain my estrangement.  They do not see the strings attached to casual contact that I do because they have never felt the emotional lacerations of such strings.

When I was sixteen, I moved out of my mother’s house and into my father’s. I thought of this as a “divorce.” In reality, it was far from the separation I thought it was. It wasn’t estrangement because I fully expected my decision to change her.  There was an element of punishment and revenge in it.  There was also the fervent hope of a very lonely and abused girl for a loving relationship that had never existed.

Two weeks after I left, my mother called.  Her voice was small, high and wheezy.  She sounded like a child speaking into a tin tube.  She had consumed an entire bottle of wine and overdosed on the prescription tranquilizer Xanax.  She told me she had done these things.  She called me a “nasty, little, rotten, spoiled, stupid bitch” and said her state was all my fault. Then she said she would blow her brains out with the loaded gun I knew she kept in a bedroom drawer if I did not come over. In the background, I could hear the pounding of police and paramedics on the front door. She, or someone else in the family, had called for help before she had called me.  (It would take me years to come to grips with the loaded significance of that fact.)

I went cold and hung up the phone. Later I would tell people that what I actually said was, “Call me when you get through with all that. I have homework to do.” But this was just after-the-fact bragging, the subjective zinger thrown over silence.

I understood  that not reacting, not getting angry, not calling 911 and not calling any other relative to let them know what was going on, was a profound act of self-affirmation. I knew there was a slim chance that she could actually kill herself, but did nothing to prevent this. I felt myself renouncing a responsibility I had carried for as long as I could remember.

Still, it would take several more years and her actually physically attacking me before I was ready and emotionally mature enough to permanently cut it off.

All in all, my refusal to have a relationship with someone who has caused me undue suffering and pain and fundamentally threatened my sense of self-worth never fails to provide complex dilemmas and social discomfort, but has taught me a lot of valuable lessons.

Even into my twenties, I nurtured the childish belief that my mother, a respiratory therapist, had special powers. I thought she was a sort of spiritual medium, a marked person. Because she could be as sweet and self-effacing as she could be nasty and horrible, I thought that angels and demons competed for control of her. I carefully observed her when she walked through the door, gauging which force––good or evil––had her in their arbitrary grip.  I realize now this superstitious paradigm was nothing more than a childish metaphor for how powerful and enslaving her mood swings were.

When you are the child of a mother with borderline personality disorder, you are taught that your value lies in your ability to interpret, absorb, receive and respond to your mother’s emotions. Having your own feelings, having a separate identity even, can get in the way of this, can cost you her love and her attention. In a way, estrangement started as a backlash against this irrational fear, as a way of taking it on by invoking it. I do not remember a distinct point in time when I looked at my mother, raging, raving or in the throes of some deep, almost physically crippling depressive mood, and said, I do not love you any more. However, I remember that when she threw me to the kitchen floor and tried to strangle me with my iPod laniard such considerations became suddenly and completely irrelevant, as when you are forced to leap from a burning building you do not weep that you tore a good skirt.

I spent two years seeking out therapists and telling my story, repeating my justifications, looking for absolution.  I followed an emotional arc similar to grief.  I went through an infantile revenge phase. Then I went numb.  Even now, there are good days and bad days.  It is a constant test of psychological health, and a course in the meaning of detachment.
During watershed events–––graduation, divorce, a new job, a job loss, holidays, life’s typical highs and lows––I don’t call my mother.  Often I don’t call my stepmother or any other surrogate, not because these individuals are inadequate, but because I have come to accept that in this respect my life defies the natural order. I don’t have a mother, yet my mother is still living. Our society puts such a high value on the mother-child relationship that to eschew it, even when a deep spiritual purpose is involved, invokes an automatic taboo. This estrangement will cost others, too. I will never have a boyfriend who can rest secure in the knowledge that his girlfriend has a good relationship with her mother.  My future children will be half as spoiled by half as many grandmothers.

Estrangement is culturally controversial. Friends and acquaintances, people I deeply respect, often advocate that I forgive my mother and would take as necessary evidence of this a rapprochement.  They mean well; they think they have my best interest in mind. But I recognize that their naive framing of the situation in simplistic, moral terms issues from a kind of ignorance of my mother’s disorder and the disruptive behavior it causes.

Estrangement incorporates and necessitates such psychological work as self-forgiveness and the patient tolerance that comes with knowing not everyone will always agree with you or think you are right.  My mother’s mother deeply disapproves.  My love for her is not diminished.

I had to learn also to forego the self-pity that gushes into the void in those days and moments when any normal person would call their mother and to not listen to the false voice that says, you do not deserve this. People mistakenly think that detachment confers an absence of pain. While it is true that I do what I do not to hurt or manipulate my mother but rather to protect myself from needless pain and disappointment, estrangement does not provide freedom from the pain of the past or from the absence of a functional relationship. A healthy estrangement does not provide relief from these things because it is not designed to.

There are limits to what estrangement can do. I think that many people who attempt estrangement and fail––either by falling into a kind of bitterness which is the opposite of the appropriate detachment or by collapsing back into the same relationships with the illusion that they can somehow, after an absence, control the other party––fail because they place too grand expectations on the estrangement. I do not expect the estrangement to carry me, to hurdle me over all or even any of life’s hurts or to solve all the personality flaws that were sowed by the damaging relationship I had with my mother.

A healthy estrangement is a means, not an end.  As the daughter of a mother with borderline personality disorder, I finally had an opening, into a vast field of pain and freedom in which I was allowed, even forced, to achieve an individual identity. These past few years have been fraught with failure and loss and, at times, very lonely. I find solace in the knowledge that the fear and trembling of finding oneself is so basic and universal as to be written into Western creation myths. The shame of nakedness Adam and Eve felt in the garden, listening to God’s voice after having bitten into the apple, I take to be an allegory for the hard but liberating realization of an imperfect self, however late in life this is achieved. For better or for worse, as far as my mother, my biological creator, is concerned, I am like a disobedient Eve, one who abandoned, one who ran.  Or even worse, a Lucifer, one who refused to serve.

I can live with that.

Hemingway wrote, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.”  The same principle exists in nature. Gardeners prune below the flowering line at certain times of the year.

Such cuttings encourage new growth.

There is much to be learned from the quiet gulf that is estrangement. It can be a meditative abstinence in cases where past experience secures the conviction that there is no other viable way. The healing and self-discovery that results from the use of this last resort is often as good as that achieved by any other means. This fear and trembling in the garden is bitter indeed, but, I find, good medicine.

‘Hook-Up Culture’ & Crime: Where the Rubbers Meet the Road

Recently, Hanna Rosin, senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly, picked a fight with Caitlin Flanagan, author of Girl Land, in an article meant as a preview to her book The End of Men.

In the Rosin/Flanagan debate, Rosin sticks up for a culture she sees as liberating to women because it reinforces the ‘post-feminism’ societal leveling, i.e. women making as much or more money than men and having greater access and leverage in high status career fields, while at the same time treating them to dick, delicious dick. Flanagan rallies around working class girls who, by their squeamish refusal to participate in the ‘grown-up’ world of casual sex in the academic world, often retreat to marriage and relationships and away from school.

No big surprise here, I am decidedly down with Flanagan’s Girl Land, and anyone who knows me will tell you that my own life history echoes that of her working class subjects who enter college and feel estranged from their more upwardly mobile, callous and achievement-oriented peers. I got engaged before my freshman year, married between freshman and sophomore years, and transferred to a Seven Sisters school because I was fixed on the naïve notion that it would be more appropriate and allow me to focus on my studies.

I was entirely confused when my refusal to participate in school rituals cost me. It did not cost me in terms of my GPA or my relationships with faculty, but in terms of peer support. People would say things like, Aren’t you coming to May Day?!

Every spring these women would reenact the arcane dance of vestal virgins around a giant pole. I would merely smirk. Why are you sluts putting on airs? I like Isadora Duncan, too, but this is too much.

One semester, I split up from my husband and ended up cocktail waitressing in a pool hall in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania  for a couple of weeks. The owner tried to impress me with big fish tales of being in the Philly mob, because I told him I was a writer. He said I could interview him, but that I would have to do it in the nude so he could make sure I wasn’t wearing a wire. The dean had cautioned us against getting retail jobs at places like The Gap because working represented a distraction from studying and a lack of priorities. I had planned to double major in English and psychology, so that I could pursue social psychology. I was particularly interested in pursuing criminal psychology post-graduation, but I was told that I was on too much financial aid to double major.

No matter how I played it at school, I was always cast as stuck-up and strange. But occasionally my fellow students would come to me and ask for guidance about love when relationships approached a serious enough level. One very bright,  ambitious friend of a friend sidled up to me one day and said in this deep, worrisome tone,“Penelope, how do you know when you are in love?”

“I don’t know, Ahmara” I said. “Do you really, really like the way he smells?”

Another semester, a group of students I barely knew but who knew me as “the married girl” came to me and asked me if I would meet with a senior whose Muslim family had just arranged for her to marry. They were concerned about how she would make the adjustment. When I did meet with her, it was evident that she and I were worlds apart. Both families involved were extremely wealthy, as was the case with many of the school’s international students, and she and her husband were tracked for post-graduate careers in law and finance. She was already commuting from a penthouse in Manhattan, and the diamond studding her finger could have put my eye out. We had a very cordial conversation. Mostly it involved her apologizing obliquely for the culture of arranged marriages and my listening, stunned, searching for the proper level of political correctness and tact. I left feeling like I had somehow let her down, and I resented the gaggle of students who had so misread our lives as to put us in this awkward circumstance.

All this talk about sex and economics is very accurate, but it is also boring and ahistorical. I want to know what senior citizens would say about these books. I have a feeling they would roll their eyes and say, “What, you people think you invented sex and jockeying?” Read Margaret Atwood. Read John Barth. Or Holinshed, for that matter, or Wycliffe or the Bible.

For Rosin fans to contend that women weren’t equally savvy, savage, sexual aspirants in the pre-Title 9 days of diaphragms and corsets is like saying that football was less interesting in the days of leather helmets. Impact forces were less, but finesse and agility were more highly prized. If what is lost to us on the male side is chivalry, ferocity and cunning on the female side have certainly, in my estimation, taken a blow as more and more women go passively through their day at the office enduring a blitz of what has apparently become a pornographic level of small talk, doing the intellectual work of the day, crunching numbers, writing policy, researching foreign affairs, and not questioning their own lives and surroundings enough. They do not seem to understand that, if we have entered a new economically driven phase in sexual relations, and I’m very skeptical here (such is a uniquely insular, domestic view—for an excellent overview of some of the increasingly prevalent forms of sexual violence against women, see this article by global health science expertsCharlotte Watts and Cathy Zimmerman ), we may be condoning new norms of behavior the way we condone hazing for marching bands, fraternities and sororities. But unlike hazing, it isn’t an initiation rite; rather, it’s  a constant standard.

The central problem with all this analysis is that it blanketly equates money with power. It excuses what is still in legal terms sexual harassment on the basis that paygrade status and rank in the office offer clearcut directional channels and that as long as women are able to flourish by manipulating these channels all things are equal and okay.

After the recession went full-blown, and when I was still working as a reporter, I had a very nasty, eye-opening encounter with the culture of finance grads in a bar in Stamford. An extremely drunk recent graduate kept slapping my ass on the dance floor in a way that I considered rather violent. There was a wind-up involved. He told me that he had expected to get a job with one of the firms in the area, but there were none available. He asked me what I did, and I told him.

“I don’t have a job yet,” he said, “IS THAT ALL RIGHT WITH YOU?”

He kept saying it, in between slaps, and I kept saying, “Hey, I have a job, and I’m still broke. Cool it.”

A few months later, he was on the local news. He was an up and coming amateur boxer who dedicated all his fights to his deceased mother. He was working an entry level job at one of the firms. He came across as a lovely, pugnacious, triumph-over-tragedy kind of guy, which, maybe, in his sober state, he was. My point is that Rosin and Flanagan and recent commentators ignore the age old truth that female dominance breeds contempt, and contempt breeds violence.

Global statistics tell a vastly diferent story about how women and girls who aren’t even afforded the opportunities to achieve power in the workplace are increasingly subject to violence, intimidation, rape, torture and abduction. The old standard, oft-quoted statistic that 1 in 3 women are subject to an attack of a sexual nature, still applies. Can we afford to showcase the United States as a global economic superpower but not draw links between an increasingly sexually crass culture in the academies and institutions at the top and the spread of sexual violence worldwide?

In her article, Rosin reported that sexual violence in the country is on the decline by a whopping 70 percent. Oh, really? I mistrust these statistics. A side effect of all this upward mobility of women in the workplace and in the halls of academia has been that women have clearly stopped reporting incidences of minor sexual crimes because they have been reprogrammed to construe this behavior as innocuous attention seeking and to therefore feel proud of it being leveled against them. Or, if not proud, nonplussed in a very dumb, unreflective way.

Cynicism is a form of intellectual laziness.

Plus, why sleep with people when you can just seduce and intimidate?

I have some firsthand experience with this. A week before I started a graduate program for creative writing, I was startled awake by my roommate, with whom I’d already been having issues of missing or bounced rent checks and what I considered churlish, uncouth behavior. He groped me. I asked him to stop and leave, and he did. I reported it to the police, but found it difficult to concentrate on my studies when I was tasked with getting a restraining order, evicting him from the premises and potentially testifying in court. Almost everyone I talked to at school and subsequent social engagements said, “That happened to me in college” or “that happened to my friend in college” or “that could happen on any college campus in America.” The comments, no matter how well-intentioned, felt belittling to me. So, too, did the process of seeking a deferment, especially given that I’d slyly, indirectly hit on a male professor by cc’ing him on a page-in-my-diary email to my second cousin describing myself more or less as a personal trainer who is bad with money but who loves to cook and give blowjobs. The email bounced back as marked UNDELIVERABLE, probably due to the inappropriate nature of its contents. (I maintain my doubts/hopes.)

I’m reminded of how ruefully I greeted this new term ‘metrosexual’ when it first came out, and how I groaned inside when I realized that subjecting men to the rigors of consumerist image construction did not represent a diminishment of psychological pain worldwide but an expansion of it. When I was in personal training school, I would laugh off the idea of dating a fellow trainer or a gym rat. Why would I want to date someone as vain as me? I told my friends. Similarly, to see myself and other women adapting to using sex for workplace gains, or using the workplace to make sexual gains, is a sad, antihumanistic trend. Making women pigs and men prissy is not progress; bad behavior in reverse is still bad behavior even if it makes Americans more money or is commonly practiced by the increasingly elite and tight subset of Americans who make a lot of money. Let us not let the rich set the table for all of us.

I decided not to pursue the charges against my roommate in court. I wanted no further grievance between us, but I am pretty sure that I was also reacting to the underlying just-get-over-it-tone of my new peers. Also, I was being cynical. I thought that no prosecutor or judge would be interested in my analysis of my roommate because in my written statement asking for a restraining order I cited my work experience as a police reporter for credibility and described my roommate as a “sexual predator.”

By the time I am faced with going to court, I back down because in my experience people in the legal field have nothing but contempt for the insights/judgments of journalists, and I don’t even have a job in journalism anymore. It’s an ingroup/outgroup thing. From being a journalist, I know that an even more contemptible category is wannabe cop.

The most grating post-incident conversation I had was with a pair of graduate students, the son and daughter-in-law of a friend. Both graduated with honors from Yale. The woman earned a degree in psychology and has worked in clinical settings as a counselor of the poor and underprivileged in New Haven. She is currently working on a doctoral thesis in performance studies at another Ivy League university. Her subject: ‘the legal system as theater.’ When the incident comes up on our way to dinner, and I tell her that I didn’t even go to court, that I was myself engaged in graduate studies, she misses the point. I instinctively feel that she has greater sympathy for my roommate, who immigrated from Haiti when he was fourteen. Maybe if I’d been inured to these encounters by going to Yale, I would not have so overreacted?

When I tell her the charges were fourth degree sexual assault, she quavers.

“Is there any way you could have resolved it amicably?” she asks.

I want to scream at her…I threw the case, M. IS THAT NOT AMICABLE ENOUGH FOR YOU?

I referred her to the work of Sudhir Venkatesh, a sociologist I interviewed in Philadelphia for a community news weekly and whose work deals with the ways in which crime, even violent crime, in the ghettos of Chicago is actually a sophisticated, multi-layered system of mediating economic disputes.

Of all the cat calling and sexually charged board room talk , Rosin writes:

The sexual culture may be more coarse these days, but young women are more than adequately equipped to handle it, because unlike the women in earlier ages, they have more-important things on their minds, such as good grades and intern­ships and job interviews and a financial future of their own.”

I find this staggeringly stupid and insensitive, especially to women of previous generations who also had those things on their minds in addition to darning socks, birthing children, helping construct the atom bomb and designing the spread spectrum communications system used by the military during World War II which laid the foundations for later computer/radar technologies and is still used to remotely operate garage doors. See Hedy Lamarr. Good grades and internships and the trappings of external achievement are no consolation against naked aggression, however sophisticated the aggressor appears. And it really doesn’t matter what the economic status of the aggressor is.

I have twice been exposed to porn at work by a male superior or manager. The first time I was working as a waitress. The second time I was manning the circulation desk at a paper that my husband had launched with a stockbroker turned publisher in Philadelphia. When the managers of Orlando’s Italian restaurant in my hometown viewed porn on the office computer, they’d do it openly, try to find the most outlandish, stomach-churning shit possible, then ask the female staff what they thought about it, and we’d weigh in.

When I went to ask my husband’s boss a question after working eight weeks without pay because staff were abandoning the fledgling paper like rats off a sinking ship and he was having trouble making payroll and found him watching a nude cartoon woman on his computer jumping up and down, we both pretended like nothing was happening, two violinists on the Titanic. Neither of these encounters fit neatly into Rosin’s high-ceilinged, high-financial stakes worldview, but of the two, I prefer the former because it is at least inclusive of my point of view.

That women benefit “in the long run” by making economic gains over and through this supposedly new system of power arrangements ignores psychological cost. The Atlantic Monthly also recently published “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter, a long complaint about the impossibility of work-life balance of this “new” breed of female overachievers exemplified by the likes of Hillary Clinton.

So progress is making women unhappy because “they can’t have it all.” Where does this sense of needing/wanting to “have it all” come from? And when is someone going to stick up for people not having it all? When I was working in Fairfield County, I initially felt sorry for the wives of CEOs and lawyers and bankers because they had about them an air of desperation. They expected me to keep them current in this sexual marketplace by helping them be slender and attractive into middle age. My sympathy ran one way, until I realized that if their husbands came home to them and reported that they’d decided to give up their six-figure incomes for, say, teaching high school or social work, that the wives would have pushed the speed dial function on the phone for the divorce attorney.

Once again, the slick social commentators turn to money, not happiness, as a measure of progress and find that men and women are equally “progressive” and equally “unhappy” now a days. Yea for gender equality!

While I was working for an all-female fitness studio in Westport, Connecticut, one of my clients, a woman who billed herself as a feminist therapist who specialized in helping women empower themselves, especially post-divorce, tried to recruit me into a dating service. She was a paid consultant. The men had to pay $110,000 to belong to the service.

I can only bring in 9s or 10s, Penelope,” she told me. “You’re a 10.”

I just about threw up in my mouth.

But, wait, it gets worse.

When I tell her that I don’t think I would do very well in this ‘service’ because I am only the manager of a fitness studio, and I don’t think I can relate to these other candidates, she says, “Oh, no, they like it when you have a career. They like it when you have things of your own that you’re doing.”

My cousin is a Marine. She served two tours in Iraq. When she entered the service for the second time, my mother said, “I think something must have happened to Morgan to make her want to do this” in this tone that implies my cousin’s hutzpah is rooted in sexual trauma.

I’m pretty sure you’re right about this, Mom,” I said. “And I’m pretty sure that something was junior high.”

I have been in and out of many male-dominated settings. I have been teased and eyed up and cajoled and have understood it all and suborned it all when there is a measure of real, intellectual respect and more writing to be done. Now I would say work is no different, but there is a layer of respect based on physical as well as mental prowess. Training a male client is not easier or better than training a female client, but sometimes it can be more time-efficient as when I encounter resistance and say, “Do you want me to do it with you?” and find that a male client will respond to this challenge by completing whatever sets I’ve asked without further ado.

I work in a gym and wear tight Spandex pants all day. I can hardly complain about light sexual banter when I expect people to pay me for advice on how to manipulate their bodies to a particular aesthetic. The personal training office is just off the free weight section which myself and my female clients jokingly refer to as “the pit.” Every gym has a pit, the place where the men tend to work out, where the equipment facilitates heavy lifting and where many women are reluctant to go. I won’t take a female client into the pit until she is ready to do pull-ups or push-ups or until I have a notion that she is really focused enough on herself to benefit from the environment.

Somehow, at this gym, I have only once been exposed to the level of crude, denigrating banter Rosin cites in her article, and the man who directed it to me also happened to be a North Haven police officer. After I’d pleaded illness due to anxiety attacks stemming from my roommate incident and complained in an essay circulated among my friends in Occupy about my past issues with decongestants as well as my father’s small time exploits as a pot dealer, this member of the gym comes into my office and makes a lot of amped up, cheesy and disgusting comments about my ass and about our similarly “high metabolisms” without disclosing that he is a cop. Nevertheless, I suspect he is fishing for information about my personal habits. Also, many trainers make a side income in supplying performance enhancing drugs. I do not do this.

I just look at him as if to say, Do you have a specific question about training or did you just want to rattle on about your day? And he goes back to the work out floor.

(As if half of special services isn’t on supplements, and no one there has ever had a bad fucking day due to roid rage.)

Anyway, my point is that I seldom expect this kind of thing from the men in the gym. Of course, it is a safe, public place, but once again, apparently, this is an inverted class privilege that does not extend to Yale or to corporate offices.

Tell me why it is that I held my own as a police reporter but would never survive at an Ivy League school where fraternity men chant outside a freshman dorm room: “No means yes! Yes means anal!”?

I got something for that:

“The first no means no. The second no means Krav Maga.”

When I was reporting, one of the problems I encountered was the disjuncture between the language of the police and the language of the newsroom. When I complained that my editors were giving me mixed messages or that I had an ethical dilemma, a public information officer would often say things like, “If you’re not getting much guidance from your leadership, maybe you should take your time to contemplate your predicament.”


In the newsroom, the archaic language of “character” and “honor” was often greeted with snickers and read as sentimental palaver, but it is precisely this kind of language that addresses the humanistic values that the field of economics does not. It is also the core of what the women in Flanagan’s book opine about missing, the “chivalry” of it, but which Rosin says is a dead paperweight of history, an albatross to women on their way to the unhappiness of “having it all.” Or trying to.

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