Trump Towers

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“Well, there it is,” the older woman said in her thick European accent. “Trump Tower.”

“Well, it’s more like a hotel. Do you think it will be used for hosting foreign dignitaries?” The younger woman looked sad as she said it, snapping a shot of the building on her phone. “I didn’t realize how close it was to the White House.”

“I’m sure many diplomats will try to stay there to impress the president. But maybe he will let them stay there for free.”

Both women stood thoughtfully silent for a moment before I chimed in. I had been standing nearby, on a long walk through the streets of Washington D.C. I had taken my own photos of the Trump hotel as they had been talking.

“I don’t think he will be letting anyone stay for free,” I scoffed.

The older woman laughed. “We can pretend. I’m trying to comfort my daughter. She is college-aged and living here in America currently.”

The daughter continued staring at the building. “I just can’t believe it is happening. I keep looking at all of the states, even here in the District of Columbia, and I see how the majority supports Hillary Clinton. How could this man have won?”

“Well, speaking for a lot of Americans, we can’t believe it either.”

I introduced myself to the two women, Annaliese, attending college locally, who was showing her mother Linda around the city. Both women were from Armenia. I explained that I was a tourist to the city also. There was heaviness in the air as we became basically acquainted. They asked what I had been doing in the city, and I told them about my adventures.

“And then yesterday, I went to the Holocaust Museum. Have you been?” I asked.

Linda looked down, a sadness heavy on her face for a moment. “I have no need to go there. My mother’s generation was that of the first genocide, the Armenian genocide.”

I couldn’t think of anything to say, and there was a pregnant silence for  a moment. Then Annaliese asked me what I thought of the museum. I looked back over at the Trump hotel, and sighed.

“The first part of museum was dedicated to the political circumstances at the time. It told of Germany, struggling with political sanctions after World War I, and how the economy was slow to rebuild and the people were dissatisfied. Despite all of that, Germany had a lot of cultural things happening. It was becoming a safer place politically for homosexuals and for women, for Jews and other religious groups. It seemed to be changing, slowly, for the better. And then Hitler happened.” Both women looked at me and seemed to want me to continue. “Watching those exhibits, I saw how Hitler surrounded himself with people who admired and emulated him, and how he used the plights of the average German to propel himself into power. He used propaganda and political loopholes within the German system to seize larger and larger pieces of political influence. He exploited crises to gain sympathy and seemed to operate on a message of ‘Make Germany Great Again’, and then he took over and appointed others just like him into positions of power. And then the world watched what happened next.”

Annaliese looked at the hotel and then at me. “That sounds painfully familiar.”

I nodded twice. “Yeah, the museum was extremely uncomfortable for me. I must have had 75 moments of ‘oh my god, that sounds like America right now’. Political campaigns built on propaganda that exploit the disenfranchised. Anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-women. Fear-mongering and gas-lighting.”

Linda stuffed her hands in her pockets, avoiding the cold wind. “And the rest of the museum?”

“Well, the rest of the museum was all that happened next. I cried lots of times reading about the people killed, and how they were killed, the people experimented upon, the ones who barely escaped with their lives. It was horrible. The museum was so beautifully built, and we must remember what happened, but it was horrible. I’m sure it was similar to the stories your mother told you of the Armenian genocide.”

We stayed silent for a moment again, and I felt the need to clarify. “Look, I don’t think we are headed for genocide in America. I don’t think that would happen again. But I do worry about what comes next for us. It’s a heavy time here after things have been going so well.”

The conversation lightened up for a few minutes and we talked instead of food and music and entertainment, of aspirations and climate and family. And then the women headed along their way, after having me take a photo of them in front of the Trump hotel.

I continued my walk then, past incredible buildings full of history. I saw names emblazoned in plaques and pavement: J. Edgar Hoover, Ronald Reagan, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass. The sheer history of these streets. The sheer weight of the footfalls of the men and women here who have influenced a world’s destiny and changed billions of lives for better or worse, from right here on these streets.

I came around the bend and saw a few handsome Secret Service agents screening the credentials of four men and women dressed like Christmas carolers, admitting them to the White House grounds for some sort of event. I looked at a construction crew building a stage for the upcoming Inauguration of a new President. I watched a crowd of Americans gathered at the perimeter staring at the White House in all its grandeur, realizing, as I was, that it is just a building like any building, and a small building at that. A Muslim family stood arm in arm, the women with their heads wrapped, the men with heavy beards. A black mother held the hands of her three daughters, all in pink snow hats. A lesbian couple hugged each other tightly. An elderly father pushed a stroller while his daughter carried the child inside. We watched, all of us, the silent grounds around us, wondering in unison what the future holds.

a message to white people who are tired of talking about hard things

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This election matters to me. For many reasons.

Candidate one: a woman. A woman who is respected in many countries all over the world as a powerful and effective and respectful leader. A woman who has been called the most qualified candidate in American history. A woman who is a strategist, with a multi-ethnic team at her side, who runs on causes of social justice. And a woman who is being torn to shreds by her home country’s media (on one side) over scandals and lies and secret plots, all things that have been willfully overlooked in nearly every other presidential candidate across time.

And Candidate two: a man. A narcissistic, egomaniacal billionaire who avoids paying taxes, who marries super models and then cheats on them, and who refuses to pay people for the work they do for him. An overweight 70 year old man who has insulted basically anyone who is not rich and white and what he considers pretty: the handicapped, the overweight, women, veterans, the elderly, the mentally ill, the refugee, LGBT people, Muslims, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and nearly every other ethnic group. A man described as the least qualified candidate in American history.

I mean, look at their very campaign slogans. Her: Stronger Together. An invitation for everyone to work together, share, invest, and build, celebrating everyone. His: Make America Great Again. An invitation to forget the progress of recent years and go back to a time when white men could go back to being comfortable as white men, and where everyone else knew their places.

From even some of my closest loved ones, I keep hearing these bizarre arguments and frustrations about the election. Things like “I just want it to be over. I’m tired of them hearing about these things. I’m tired of people being mean to each other.” And “I get that Donald Trump is gross but I don’t trust Hillary. She is so dishonest.” And “I’m not voting. It doesn’t matter what the outcome of this election is. It doesn’t have any impact on my life.” And “I wish we could go back 50 years when things were easier and happier.”

These comments aggravate me to no end for many reasons, and they tie directly in to why the election matters so much to me in the first place. Every one of my personal values is on the national stage. Rape culture and gender equality. Systemic racism and its impact on minority groups. LGBT rights and teen suicides. Christian privilege and the hate speak about other religions or belief structures. Gun violence without sanction.

People in privilege have a habit of being faced with unpleasant topics, and then getting tired of hearing about them. “Okay, okay, I get it, women get raped. Let’s teach women how not to get raped. Now can we please stop talking about it?” “All right, I understand, prisons are disproportionately full of black people. But black people commit more crimes, so they should stop doing that. Let’s move on.” “I got it, another gay kid killed himself. But suicide isn’t just about sexuality, he must have been mentally ill. Did you see the Voice last night?”

And that is the very essence of privilege! You get to stop talking about it! Because it isn’t staring you in the face every day! If YOU were getting raped, if YOUR paycheck was less than your coworkers, if YOUR loved ones were being attacked by police, if YOUR son was pushed toward suicide, if YOUR family were being called rapists because of their last name… if it was you, and everyone around you just shrugged and told you to stop bringing it up, would you stand for that?

The very fact that it is 2016 and we are still having arguments about whether or not racism exists, that people are still learning what rape culture is, that children are putting guns to their heads because churches and families say they don’t fit in, and that a country that was founded on freedom of religion is debating entire religions from crossing the borders… I just can’t wrap my brain around it. It infuriates me.

Also, fifty years ago, things were not that great! That was the middle of the Civil Rights movement, with the country still coming out of the segregation era! Gay people were being sent in for shock treatments, and women were expected to housewives!

And if you are longing for the politicians of previous eras, well, stop white-washing your history. First of all, ALL of them have been white men. And NONE of them are beyond corruption. John Kennedy colluded with the mafia. Ronald Reagan ignored the AIDS crisis. Bill Clinton lied to the public about his affairs. And George Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Life was only better back then because you didn’t have to talk about hard things, not until you were forced to, and then you started to pay attention. Years later. (Have you ever heard of Selma? Stonewall? The Suffragettes?)

Our government has long been dominated by white men who shrug off things that don’t bother them directly. I remember legislation in Idaho years back, when a group petitioned that the locally named Squaw Canyon should be renamed because ‘squaw’ is an incredibly offensive words to Native Americans. The local white government officials shrugged off the legislation, saying it would be inconvenient and that it didn’t bother enough people. These are the attitudes that exist in every corner of American government, in every state and county and city. The simply cannot be the basis for our government decisions any longer.

It is long past time we had a representative government, filled equally with men and women, black and white and Latino and Native and Asian, Christian and Muslim and atheist, gay and straight and transgender. Our government should reflect every shade of human diversity.

And for those of you who are sick of seeing difficult things talked about, and shrug it off with an annoyed muttering about ‘political correctness’, well, you may have the luxury of not being impacted by the topics you seek to avoid. But you don’t get to avoid them just because they make you uncomfortable.

Because for the rest of us, it’s part of our daily lives. And our primary problem? It isn’t so much the sexism and racism and homophobia and Islamophobia, etc, that you get tired of hearing about. Our primary problem is your unwillingness to do anything about it because it makes you uncomfortable.

And for every topic you have grown tired of, there are a dozen more that haven’t yet hit the media at those levels: limited treatment options for the mentally ill, the violent murders of transgender women of color, Native American land rights, human trafficking, the real truth about poverty and homelessness, and on and on.

So woman up, open your ears, listen, and do the right thing. Then maybe we’ll quiet down a bit. Maybe.

Why-oh-Wyoming

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“Now remember, just because he has a mustache, it doesn’t mean he’s 21. Make sure to card before selling alcohol. The risks are just too big.”

As the public service announcement ended and more country music came back on the radio, I looked across the vast stretching snow-swept plains that extended in every direction, rolling black and brown peaks in the distance, a few rocky outcroppings stretching into the sky. The sun was just coming up over the peaks and I could finally see the terrain, after a few hours of driving in the early morning darkness. Gusts of wind blew light drifts of snow across the road.

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I pulled into Rock Springs, Wyoming a brief time later, here for a work shift for a few days. As I stepped out of the car, the wind cascaded across me, biting and much colder than I had anticipated. January in Wyoming was a bitch, clearly.

I shivered and pulled my scarf tighter around my neck, nestling into my coat, and stepped into the nearby gas station, a local place with the god-awful name of the Loaf ‘n Jug, it’s sister station the Cum n’ Go right across the road. Yes, spelled just like that.

Half of the gas station/convenience store was devoted to the sale of liquor. I looked around, hearing more country twang from the loudspeakers, and saw several shelves full of booze. Hey, the locals needed something to keep them warm. Several dead animal heads hung on the walls over the shelves, deer and elk and a mountain goat or two. My eyes fell on one of the bottles of liquor, a cinnamon red of Fireball Whiskey, with a handwritten sign over it that said “Buy two bottles of Fireball, get a free fishing lure! Inquire at the desk!”

As I munched on my trail mix and sipped on my hot, and terrible, gas station coffee in the car, I realized I had thirty minutes before my shift began. I grabbed my phone and Googled Rock Springs, Wyoming, figuring I may as well learn about the city I was in.

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I read about how, in 1885, the Union Pacific Coal Department was able to hire Chinese workers at a lower wage than White workers, so they, of course, hired more Chinese. The White workers rioted in an explosion of racial tension, burned down 75 homes, and killed dozens of Chinese. I didn’t see a single report of a White person killed. I read how the local newspapers at the time had sympathized with the White man’s plight, and how 16 men had been arrested for the murders, but all were acquitted one month later, met by the cheers of their loved ones for their heroic actions. It was with a pit in my stomach that I thought of recent anti-Muslim, anti-Jew, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic content in the media, in the current presidential campaign, and I wonder, for the one millionth time in my life, if we have evolved as a species at all.

I read about local industries and businesses and politics, about forms of entertainment (shooting ranges and the rodeo), about the long history of the state. And before long, it’s time to step outside the car, back into the biting wind, and to prepare for another day of work, this time in a strange and faraway place.

Later, I check into my hotel, and the kindly front desk attendant informs me that I’m just in time for happy hour. I shrug. It’s a week night, and only 5 pm, “But the drinks are free!” she exclaims. “One hour only!”

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And so 30 minutes later, a grandmotherly bartender mixes me a rather strong Rum and Coke. I take a few sips and make eye contact with the severed moose head hanging on the wall in front of me.

“He’s a beauty, ain’t he?”

I look over and see a woman behind me that I hadn’t noticed before. She looks as though she just woke up, her hair disheveled and in her nightgown, a large pink muumuu that drowns her. She takes a large handful of Lays potato chips from a bag she is holding and somehow fits the entire handful of chips in her mouth, cramming them in and not missing a crumb. She has no teeth, so she makes large gumming noises as she munches down on them loudly.

“Um, the moose?” I look back at his marble eyes. “Yup, a real beauty.”

The woman finishes gumming her bite and takes a swallow of the pink alcoholic mixture from the cup in front of her. “I bet he’s been dead fifty years.”

I look at her as she takes another handful, and realize I have nothing to say except, “Yup.”

And this is my life right now, I think. Me and this woman and a moose head at 5 on a week night, drinking free alcohol in a hotel bar in frozen Wyoming.

I give myself a little mental toast and take another sip.