The comfortable were afflicted

Humorist Finley Peter Dunne once wrote about the powerful influence of newspapers; that, among other things, they comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  “Mother” Mary Jones applied its usage to social activism, and others have applied it to religion.

My first introduction to the phrase came through my involvement in social activism as well, but I’ve felt that it was also a hallmark of good writing.  Both fiction and nonfiction can deliver the punch of awareness to injustice and force us to face our fears and failings.  Fiction has the power to make a reader reflect, reconsider, sympathize, understand, or even heal from one’s own situation.  Fiction is even more powerful at changing our views than nonfiction, because when we read nonfiction, we guard our views.   Reading fiction our guard drops as we become emotionally involved in the story.

I recently attended the book launch for an anthology in which three of my pieces were published.  The event included readings by authors published within the book.  The second writer introduced by the book’s publisher was Talyn Marie, who had two short stories included in the anthology.

Before Talyn began reading her story, “Norton,” she prefaced the piece as something that she wrote following the “write what you fear” advice writers receive.  For example, Natalie Goldberg advises authors to “(w)rite what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about.  Be willing to be split open.”  Undertaking the new role of mother was the seed of the Talyn’s story.  Becoming a parent is both exciting and also fraught with fears.

It was a soft warning.  The story, “Norton” is about a child molester as he pursues his prey.  Deliberate writing set the scene as Norton executed his plan.  As the story progressed, it became clear what Norton was about and where it was going.  And it got deeper.  The suspense grew as Norton closed in on a particular child he targeted.  My wife sitting next to me, reading along with Talyn, closed the book.  I heard a guy behind me say that he didn’t have to listen to this and left.  He wasn’t alone.  Even the publisher moved from his sitting position at the front of the room to the side, nervously wondering what he unleashed.

I, on the other hand, was riveted.  Not just to the story, but to the reaction.  It wasn’t that I sympathized with Norton (he does confront and is defeated by his own demon in the end), but by the power of the story.  Talyn afflicted fear upon the audience seated within the comfortable confines of a yacht club.  It moved people…some of them right out of the room!

Whether this story should have been read is no fault of Talyn’s.  The publisher clearly had no knowledge of the content of the book he published, and failed to plan and vet the readers for its launch. Though there were five other authors reading their fine work, everyone present will remember the blizzard we drove through to attend the event, and Talyn’s story.

Good writing provokes.  Julian Barnes wrote that “(w)hen you read a great book (or story), you don’t escape from life, you plunge deeper into it.  There may be a superficial escape…but what you are essentially doing is furthering your understanding of life’s subtleties, paradoxes, joys, pains, and truths.”  Good writing can push us to think, to sympathize, to feel.  It can take the reader to those uncomfortable places that are frightening to face, and places us before demons we refuse to admit exist.

“Written in the Mitten” on Amazon

Did you miss the launch party for Written in the Mitten 2013: A Celebration of Michigan Writers?  It’s available now on Amazon.


I have three pieces published within.

“With Prejudice”  (short story)

“Walking Together” (personal essay)

“The Word of the Day is ‘Trust'” (short story).

February 15, 2003…The story’s not over.

It was mid-February, 2003, when I was in Fort Lauderdale, Florida for a conference.  The weather was pleasant enough – 70’s and 80’s during the day, 60’s in the evening.  But there I was, in my hotel room, with the heater kicked on high, wearing sweats under the blankets.  I must have had it up over 80 degrees in the room, but I was still chilled to the bone.

The reason I recall this is because Common Dreams published Phyllis Bennis’ article reflecting on the tenth anniversary of the worldwide protest against the United States’ push for invading Iraq.

Saturday, February 15, 2003, I was one of among twelve to fourteen million people around the world, and between 1,350-1,650 people in Detroit, participating.

I remember it being a very very cold day.  A group of us met at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, and together we walked to Grand Circus Park.  I had my photo-journalist vest over my winter gear, to carry both my zoom and normal lenses and plenty of film.  We arrived after the speeches had begun, the crowd surrounding the Hazen S. Pingree statue.  Then, we walked.  The group holding signs, chanting, and walking in step with the cadence of drummers, proceeded down Washington Boulevard toward Cobo Hall.  I snapped off photo after photo, while chanting with the crowd.  The cold seemed less severe for a while.

February 15, 2003.  Metro-Detroiters march with the world in protesting the United States planned invasion of Iraq.  Photo by Michael Kitchen.
February 15, 2003. Metro-Detroiters march with the world in protesting the United States planned invasion of Iraq. Photo by Michael Kitchen.

As the march concluded at Cobo Hall, many sought warmth within.  The annual Boat Show was taking place, yet anti-war protesters occupied the vast lobby.  My wife, not comfortable in confined spaces, backed away towards the windows as I moved in to stand with a circle of drummers.   The drumming echoed within the great lobby of the hall, drawing protesters and curious Boat Show visitors.  I noticed a ring of Detroit Police Officers begin to circle the drummers, but I maintained my position, snapping photos in rhythm.  The officers were rather close, standing mere steps behind each drummer, but no action was taken.

After several minutes, I decided to turn around, locate my wife, and decide what we were going to do next.  I was surprised to find her standing within steps of me.  We maneuvered our way out of the crowd and she informed me that something almost happened.  She told me that as the police officers were converging, one held a radio communicating to the others.  An officer next to her tapped her shoulder and pointed directly at me (I did not see this happen), and called the troops off from breaking up the drum circle.  I can only assume that they thought I was the press and photographs of officers breaking up the drummers wouldn’t reflect well on the Department.

February 15, 2003.  Metro-Detroiters in Cobo Hall as part of the world's protest against a US invasion of Iraq.  Photo by Michael Kitchen
February 15, 2003. Metro-Detroiters in Cobo Hall as part of the world’s protest against a US invasion of Iraq. Photo by Michael Kitchen

Upon reflection ten years, we didn’t stop President Bush from engaging in an illegal, immoral invasion of Iraq.  We didn’t prevent the deaths of 110,000-120,000 (and counting) Iraqi citizens.  But as Bennis said in the soon-to-be released “We Are Many” documentary, the February 15, 2003 protest “set the stage for movements to come;” movements like the Arab Spring and Occupy.

Frederick Douglass said, “The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”  Well, at the 2-15-2003 protest and all marches I’ve attended up to Occupy, one of the echoing chants is “Ain’t no power like the power of the people cuz the power of the people don’t quit.”

I needed the heat within that Fort Lauderdale hotel room in 2003 to restore my physical body to full strength from the flu I contacted that cold Saturday.  Little did I conceive the long-term impact of our participation.  Thinking that the chapter of the history book had closed with Bush’s invasion a little over a month later, it was just the first page of a story that is still being written.

Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consultion with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph…

A noted one, who kept a tavern at Amboy, was standing at his door, with as pretty a child in his hand, about eight or nine years old, as most I ever saw, and after speaking his mind as freely as he thought was prudent, finished with this unfatherly expression, “Well! give me peace in my day.” [A] generous parent would have said, “If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace.

Thomas Paine, from an address written in 1776, and read aloud by order of George Washington to the encampment at Valley Forge. (Source:  Occupy: Scenes from Occupied Amercia Verso Books, 2011)

Understanding your sports fanatic friend.

DSC02971According to the countdown clock on the Columbus Crew website, there are 35 days and change until the league’s opening match to the 2013 season.  And closer to home, Detroit City FC’s season is to begin a couple months later.  The excitement of the coming season has risen to a fever pitch with me.  Last year, I attended more live soccer matches than in previous years.  Even taking out DCFC’s full eight match season, and the handful of games I saw the Michigan Bucks play, my trips to Columbus tripled to see the Crew in action.

This entry is for friends, family and loved ones of the person known as a sports fanatic.  The person you know who schedules their life around games; who bleeds the colors of their team and goes to extremes to follow their team; who seems to care little about the mundane things in life, or even the important things.  I hope that by the end of this writing, you will understand your friend, family member, or loved one better.

I recently finished reading Nick Hornby’s classic, Fever Pitch.  It is a no-apologies memoir of sports fanaticism.  Hornby is a rabid Arsenal fan, and his journal of matches and how they relate to his life reveals the mindset of a team loyalist, while also addressing issues within the sport of soccer, (racism, stadium tragedies, etc).  His life is marked and connected to the Arsenal.

There is one passage in Hornby’s book that really sinks in.  He described his greatest moment ever.

On May 26, 1989, Arsenal’s last match of the season was at Liverpool.  In order for Arsenal to win the championship, they would have to beat Liverpool by two goals.  The Gunners scored early in the second half, but Hornby had resigned to defeat as the game went into stoppage time.  Then Michael Thomas burst through the Liverpool defense and scored, giving Arsenal the league championship and Hornby a moment of delirium.

In seeking a metaphor to describe the feeling, Hornby declined the orgasm analogy, and stated why:

 Even though there is no question that sex is a nicer activity than watching football (no nil-nil draws, no offsidetrap, no cup upsets, and you’re warm), in the normal run of things, the feelings it engenders are simply not as intense as those brought about by a once-in-a-lifetime last-minute Championship winner.

None of the moments that people describe as the best in their lives seem analogous to me.  Childbirth must be extraordinarily moving, but it doesn’t really have the crucial surprise element, and in any case lasts too long; the fulfillment of personal ambition – promotions, awards, what have you – doesn’t have the last-minute time factor, nor the element of powerlessness that I felt that night.  And what else is there that can possibly provide suddenness?  A huge pools win, maybe, but the gaining of large sums of money affects a different part of the psyche altogether, and has none of the communal ecstasy of football.

There is then, literally, nothing to describe it.  I have exhausted all the available   options.  I can recall nothing else that I have coveted for two decades (what else is there that can reasonably be coveted for that long?), nor can I recall anything else that I have desired as both man and boy.  So please, be tolerant of those who    describe a sporting moment as their best ever.  We do not lack imagination, nor have we had sad and barren lives; it is just that real life is paler, duller, and contains less potential for unexpected delirium.  (Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch, [Riverhead Books, 1998], 222-23).

Hornby reminded me a lot of myself back in my hockey fan days.  It became an obsession applied when I was the president of the Ontario Hockey League team, Detroit Jr. Red Wings (currently known as the Plymouth Whalers) for two seasons.  Then, the Detroit Vipers claimed the Palace of Auburn Hills home, and my passion settled in a permanent location.

In 1997, I was fortunate to be photographing Detroit Vipers games for my friend’s hockey publication.  The Vipers ended the season with the best record, and marched through the Turner Cup playoffs.  Where games were proximately close (like Kalamazoo and Cleveland) I would make the trip for at least one of the road games.  Their opponent in the Turner Cup Finals was the equally tough Long Beach Ice Dogs who had an ungodly undefeated streak at home.

The format was two games at the Palace, three in Long Beach, then back home for two games, if necessary, in Detroit.  The teams split the games at the Palace, and it seemed unlikely that the series would end in Long Beach.  But the Vipers pulled the surprise, winning the next two games in California, taking a 3-1 lead in the series and the potential of winning the Cup in Long Beach on a Friday night.

So damn close to being with the winners, I decided I had to make the flight to LAX and get to that game.  However, the Ice Dogs would not go down at home, and I had to get back to Detroit for the Father’s Day, Sunday evening Game Six of the series.  The Vipers won, 2-0, the on-ice festivities and locker room partying will never be forgotten.

Patrice Tardif hoists the Turner Cup.  Photo by Michael Kitchen
Patrice Tardif hoists the Turner Cup. Photo by Michael Kitchen

It was one of those moments that Hornby described.  Following hockey for so long, this was unlike anything I ever experienced.  Not being an athlete myself, I never thought I’d ever come this close to this sensation.  It remains the greatest moment in my life.  Even though I wasn’t on the ice, delivering a check or setting up a goal that made a difference in the game, I was a part of it.  All I was doing was shooting film.  Having been situated between the players’ benches all season, I was there in the trenches.  When I was in the Long Beach Ice Dogs’ building ninety minutes prior to Game Five, Phil von Stefenelli – one of the Vipers’ defensemen – was going through his pre-game ritual outside the locker room, and gave me the nod of recognition and camaraderie.

I get the Hudson Street Hooligans of the Columbus Crew.  I get the Northern Guard Supporters and Motor City Supporters as they cheer and chant in the filled to capacity visitor’s bleachers at Cass Tech High School for the Detroit City FC games.

Hopefully, this helps you understand your sports fanatical loved one.  He or she has developed a deep emotional connection to their team performing on its athletic stage.  I can’t speak for all fanatics, but after that once-in-a-lifetime moment comes true, it opens one up to new avenues.  But the connection never dies.  The Detroit Vipers became defunct in 2002, but it will always be my favorite hockey team.  And though Columbus Crew and Detroit City FC have arteries running into my ventricles, I don’t feel a need to have my life consumed by them.  I still will attend every DCFC home game, and will make one or more trips to Columbus, my vacation soccer home, and make sure I can see as many of their matches on the tellie.

Detroit soccer fanatics celebrate a Detroit City FC goal at Cass Tech High School, Detroit, 2012.  Photo by Michael Kitchen
Detroit soccer fanatics celebrate a Detroit City FC goal at Cass Tech High School, Detroit, 2012. Photo by Michael Kitchen

Huffington Post photo credit

The Huffington Post graciously contacted me today about using a photo of mine for their story, Louisiana Hines Dead:  World’s Oldest African American Dies at 113.

The photo was taken at the 90th Birthday Celebration of Erma Henderson, on August 31, 2007 at Cobo Hall in Detroit.  Erma is featured in the second photo holding Ms. Hines’ hand as she spoke about Erma.