Colliding and Reflecting

The Saturday of Labor Day Weekend, I was involved in the first car accident since the State of Michigan granted me a driver’s license decades ago.  Fortunately, no one was injured, other than our vehicles.

20140830_171200

My car was towed to the insurance-covered body shop for assessment.  At first, I thought it was totaled.  I could not open the driver’s side door, and my wife and I exited the vehicle through the front passenger door which opened only about a third of the way.  However, the insurance company saw it otherwise, and thus began the extensive work – a process which took five weeks to complete.

Five weeks without a car. We became a one-car family, which left me feeling like a grounded teenager.  I would take my wife to work early in the AM in order to use the car if I had to appear in court.  I wasn’t about to risk adventures outside those required, which meant missing the Kerrytown Book Festival, the Wayne State University Literary Walk, and a gathering of writers reading from their works at the home of my instructor/editor.

To make matters worse, my mother-in-law passed on September 13th.  We purchased this property with a second, one-bedroom home on it, in order to provide a more comfortable living arrangement for her versus a nursing home.  It was intended for a much longer duration than the first 152 days of ownership.

Needless to say, the combination of the two events provided me with a great deal of time stationary at home, to write, read, and reflect.

I was more productive in writing.  In August, I had begun to apply a plan I adopted from Gail Sher’s One Continuous Mistake: Four Noble Truths for Writers.  Within, Sher identifies the Five Pillars of Writing (Brainstorming, Journaling, The Draft, Enriching and Refining, and Rest Period) which I have turned into a regular writing plan covering two hours a day, segmented into four periods of composition – two of fifteen minutes in length; a thirty minute segment; and an hour.  The two hour per day routine, even when disrupted, provides for a certainty that something can be done every day, even if it is just one of the segments.  This September I wrote almost fifty percent more words than last September.  Progress is being made over a variety of projects, including producing eighty-five pages of the novel I am currently at work on.

But there was a deeper understanding that I came to during this period about writing.  Though I enjoy attending events in the presence of other writers, a writer must write.  It made me aware of the  distractions that can become a way of life, keeping me away from writing.

I look at this blog, for example.  There are months where I’ve posted regularly, and months where there may be only one or two entries.  During the month of June I had tried to maintain some regularity with the blog, but found myself stretching and ticking time away trying to come up with something worth writing about.  This forum is purported to be a tool to build one’s platform.  Yet, it has become a distraction.  I do not believe that my blog has convinced any one of its few readers to purchase my novel.  If I have something to write about – like a donut on the window sill – then I’ll do so.  And the soccer fans seem to enjoy my Detroit City FC posts.  But it makes little sense to me to try to snare a reader by writing a blog post when really, who has the time to peruse the internet and explore unfamiliar bloggers?  My time would be better served researching or revising a short story that would find itself published within a literary journal where readers, editors, and agents are interested.

Another distraction is Facebook.  It’s taken some time and I’m still trying to assess its purpose.  Is it a place to hold conversations?  Debate politics and religion?  Show off our kids, dogs, or cats?  Take surveys to find out which character from which fictional world I am?

I find the most challenging aspect of Facebook is seeing the posts of people who have fallen for the divisive canards such as Obama’s country of origin, climate change deniers, and the like.  A wise person once told me not to argue with crazy.  Too often I have.  I’ve done so partially to get clarity on why I hold the opinion I do.  In the end, however, crazy isn’t rational enough to change its opinion based on any argument I may make.  And maybe I’ve been crazy to think it might.

What’s worse is the anger that fuels those who believe in the divisive canards.  Anger arises out of a fear, and brewed hot enough, leads to hate.  I try to remember the Buddha’s words:

The worse of the two is one
who, when abused, retaliates.
One who does not retaliate
wins a battle hard to win.

Saṃyutta Nikāya 1.188

It is a battle I’ve lost often by retaliating with hatred.  Most often it comes in the sports arena.  Teams that I dislike, you know.  I try to rationalize it by saying it’s only sports, but sometimes that dark emotion begins to consume me in ways that don’t make me the nicest person in the room.  It causes me to engage in speech that would not be of benefit to those listening to my rant.  But let’s not confuse hatred with taunting.  “Fuck Ohio” is a taunt.  Or am I rationalizing again?

The anger, though, of those spewing and perhaps even believing the divisive canards is far from taunting.  It comes from a viciousness that makes me wonder about some of my fellow humans.

My best option is to observe them like the negative thoughts that arise in my mind from time to time, and try to be gentle with them.  Facebook as a meditation on the collective thoughts of my friends and what thoughts and feelings they bring up in me.

The other thing this period brought to my attention was transportation.  We spent a week in New York City and did not drive the car once.  Here, in Metro Detroit, that is a dangerous proposition.  I considered the walk from my house to Meijers, were I to need to pick up groceries.  The distance of the walk would have been no farther than what we traversed on Manhattan pavement from subway station to book store destination.  However, the walk here is far more dangerous.  The Meijers is on the corner of 23 Mile Road and Gratiot.  Both roads at that point are five lanes – two in each direction and a left hand turn lane.  They are wide streets.  And heavy with traffic.  The two-lane road that would lead me to Gratiot has sections that provide sidewalk, and sections that don’t.  Not the most pedestrian friendly excursion.  This for groceries, mind you.  Without a car, from where I am, there is no short walk or easy mass transit to a book store!

I’ve never considered myself a car guy, even being from the Motor City.  But when the body shop called and said my car was ready for pick up, there was much rejoicing.  Seeing her again, sparkling and unblemished, perfumed with the new car smell within, I wanted to hug her.  However, I remained calm and appropriate with the service rep standing nearby.

It’s funny, you know.   I recently wrote about how September, not January, signified the New Year in my life.  (Ironically posted a few hours before the accident).  With the accident and my mother-in-law’s passing, it truly is a new year, a new chapter, and new awareness.

DSC07180

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

Wait, what?

Masses are not headed for Times Square, bundled to protect themselves from freezing temperatures, in order to watch a ball to drop.

No parties are planned with ample supply of bubbly champagne to toast at the midnight hour.

Instead, in the Metro Detroit area, it’s a mild, partly sunny day in the mid-70’s, with a chance of rain over the weekend.  It’s the last weekend in August – Labor Day weekend to be precise.

Mike, you’ve certainly flipped your lid.  Either that or your compulsive behavior of being early to everything has kicked into overdrive.  It’s four months until December 31st.

Not to worry.  Like you, I’ll soon be flipping a 12-month wall calendar page instead of changing the whole damn thing.

Labor Day weekend traditionally marks the end of summer.  But for me it has always felt like the end of the year with September the beginning of a new one.

Part of it goes back to the education cycle.  The thirteen years of K-12; four more at Eastern Michigan University.  Later in life, the five years of law school.  Add to that my wife has been a teacher for nearly twenty years, and two kids, one graduating high school the other added four years of college, and the natural cycle for me has been that the new year begins in September.

It was also Labor Day weekend in 1982 that we were married, starting a new life as a couple on September 4th.

Other elements have merged into the revolution of my cyclical life.

– It was the first Sunday in September, 2001 that I attended a morning service at Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple in Detroit.  Still Point would close for the month of August, and September has been, for me, the kickoff (or the kick in the ass) to revive my practice from its laxity through the year.

– In September, 2005, we began organizing and planning the opening of our short-lived business venture – Waking Up, the sweatshop-free clothing store.

-In September, 2009, I joined a bowling league, which traditionally begins either the week before or the week of Labor Day.

-It was in September, 2012, that I began tracking my book buying habits and, inspired by Nick Hornby’s column in The Believer, writing about the books I bought and read during the month.

-It was just after Labor Day, 2013 that I received the galley copy of The Y in Life for final revision.  Returned to the publisher at the Kerrytown Book Festival in Ann Arbor, my first novel was launched on September 17th – the second anniversary of Occupy Wall Street.

This weekend will be a time for reflection on what a great year it has been – The Y in Life; book signings; a new house; another fantastic Detroit City FC season; the many new friends and connecting with old ones; and an awesome vacation in New York City.   It will also be a weekend of organizing and preparing for this year.  To start fresh, I intentionally broke my vow of not purchasing a book until 3,000 pages had been read.  In two months I made it through 1,400 pages.  I thought that was good and deserved purchasing the novel I discovered and intend to read very soon and the collection of stories I stumbled upon while browsing Nicola’s Book Store.  I thought it best to start over as my new year begins.

So to those, like me, who find September the beginning of a new year, I’m wishing you a fabulous 2014-2015.

How can you represent those people? Part One

“What I’m Thinking About” Wednesday
June 11, 2014

The first time I met Donna Goodwin(1) she was in the Macomb County Jail.  She was charged with obtaining a controlled substance by fraud.  The police alleged that Ms. Goodwin brought a prescription of Vicodin to a local drug store.  The pharmacy filled it, then the next day contacted the doctor on the script to determine its legitimacy.  The office manager identified Goodwin as a patient, but that the prescription was not legitimate.  The frail fifty-five year old, African American woman’s first statement to me was that she was glad to see me and asked me why she was there.

The other day I finished reading a collection of essays edited by Anne Smith and Monroe H. Freedman titled How Can You Represent Those People?  The theme of each essay is a response to the cocktail  party question asked of every criminal defense lawyer.  These lawyers have defended the tough cases – murders, rapes, etc.

The first time I met Eddie Lee was at the district court house for our first pre-trial.  Eddie was in his late forties.  The short African American man who lived in a low income housing project, was being charged with attempted criminal sexual conduct fourth degree.  It was alleged by a fifty-plus year old white neighbor that he tried to touch her lady parts.  He said little to me because of his diminished capacity, but the group of six neighbors who came to court in support of him told me plenty.

As I’ve been reading the book, I pondered how I would answer that question for myself.  I’m no Clarence Darrow or any of the seasoned attorneys writing these essays.  My caseload comes predominantly from court appointments out of Macomb County Circuit and a few district courts involving defendants charged with crimes punishable by five years or less.

The first time I met Scott Young, it was at the district court for a preliminary examination.  He was charged with assault with a dangerous weapon and conspiracy to retail fraud third – a felony and a misdemeanor.  It was alleged that he was the “getaway” driver for his accomplice who was attempting to shoplift from a grocery store, and that in the getaway attempt he came very near to driving his car into the plain clothes security officers following his accomplice.  An African American man in his forties, Young couldn’t believe the charges as all he was doing was dropping off and picking up his mother from grocery shopping.

Is it for the money?  Hardly.  Michigan ranks 44th in public defense spending.  In 2012, there were only 4,578 criminal cases filed in Macomb County Circuit Court, a slight increase from the previous year, but the trend has been dropping since 2008 when 6,210 criminal cases were filed (Page 28).  Fortunately for me, my law practice is the gravy for our home budget.  Were I to rely on my court-appointed case income alone to survive, I would qualify for food stamps.

The first time I met Danny Hugel was at court on the preliminary examination date.  He was charged with two counts of failing to comply with the sex offender registry by not providing his phone number and email address.  A thirty-something white male, Hugel said there was no way they could charge him with that.  After he had been arrested Hugel went back to the police station and talked to the dispatcher and learned that it was probably a clerical error.  I looked at his history and how he got on the registry fifteen years earlier and thought there was no way he should have been on the sex offender registry to begin with.

If not for the money, which to some would seem the only reason to go into the practice of criminal defense, then what?  These are ‘bad’ people, right?  Why would I, a ‘good’ person, want to defend them?

To be honest, criminal law was not the area of law I thought I’d practice.  Sure, I read comic books and was immersed in the good guy/bad guy myths which might naturally lead me to seeking employment in the prosecutor’s office.  But I was inspired to go to law school at the advanced age of thirty-seven – fifteen years after I graduated college – by two influences; Ralph Nader and because a bulk of the work in the legal profession involved writing.   I was working in a hotel at the time, on the midnight shift as a night auditor, when new management came in and began a practice of overbooking the hotel.  From what I learned on my own, the practice violated the Michigan Consumer Protection Law.  I was ignored, and soon after, I left the life of midnight shift and applied to law school.   I discovered Ralph Nader’s book, No Contest: Corporate Lawyers and the Perversion of Justice in America.  That was the spark.  I was writing a column for a hockey publication, but having no success with publishing short stories and novels at the time, and learning that being a lawyer required a large amount of time researching and writing motions and briefs, I thought this could be a better way to direct my desire to write.  That was the accelerant.  The fire began.

Also, before entering law school, I realized that Gandhi had been a lawyer prior to his amazing achievements practicing nonviolence in India.  The legal profession as a healing profession felt like a natural place for me.  I then landed a clerk position with the City of Detroit Law Department in the Labor & Employment Section.

Law as a healing profession.  Labor and Employment law.  Mediation.  Labor Arbitration.  Collaborative Divorce.  Exiting law school, I thought this was the path I was on.

Then it took a turn.

(1)  All clients’ identities changed.

To be continued next week.

PART TWO

DSC01012

Awakening to nature and mind

Friday, Finally!
June 6, 2014

– Country living discoveries:
We recently moved from an apartment to a home with a half-acre of land and a creek running the western border.  I call it country living, though really, it’s not out-in-the-boondocks country.  A half mile away is a major intersection and freeway exit, with every big box store imaginable (except for a Barnes & Noble…apparently reading is not financially supported out here).  Still, it’s more country than I’m comfortable with.  The city rat in me would prefer a Detroit riverfront apartment or condo, close to where the action is, or a college town like Ann Arbor, bustling with people with a bevy of book stores.  Thus far in our brief residency, we’ve had some interesting situations and discoveries.

For one, the trees we have are epic.  There’s one out front that was a late bloomer, but she’s huge and generous with shade in the front of the house.  In the back, a large maple occupies substantial real estate.  Then there are the lilacs.  Deep purple ones toward the back, and lighter ones along the creek near the driveway that provide a nice fragrance carried by a spring breeze as you enter or exit the car.

DSC05317

Then, there’s the wildlife.  A rabbit has been seen often scampering across the back yard.  Toads in the patch of landscaping on the side of the mother-in-law house.  Then, a couple of robins occupied a nest atop the front porch light, hatching two little babies.  They’ve since grown and moved on.

DSC05326 DSC05335

And of course, squirrels, including one brave soul who decided to climb the side of the house and perch on the window sill of my office.  I’ve since dropped some nuts outside the window, but there has not been a return visit.  Yet.

DSC05333 DSC05334

I hear this is the month for turtles to be nesting.  Maybe we’ll get lucky to see them, too.

Oh, and the mosquitoes.  They have made their appearance known.  I foresee a future purchase of a bat house to help with that problem.  Bats are in the area.  My wife saw one during one of the first evenings we moved in.

However, with the abundance of life also comes death.  A few days ago I had the window open in the office.  As the breeze passed by, there was this feint foul odor that would occasionally drift by.  On Tuesday, when my mother-in-law entered the mother-in-law house for the first time as a resident, after spending better than two weeks in the hospital, my wife and I took the garbage out to the curb.  On the way back, the stench hit us, like a wall, in one specific location.  It was so noticeable that the guy delivering the oxygen tanks and hospital bed for mother-in-law asked “Am I too late?”  The aroma was strongest near the well next to the creek.  We peeked inside, but it was empty.  It has to be something down in the creek.  Since then the fragrance of death has faded.  Locals to the area suggest it may have been a muskrat.

It’s only been five weeks.  It will be interesting to see how things change as the seasons change.

– The Precepts.

Sunday morning at Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple will be this year’s Precept Taking and Abbot Installation Ceremony.  It is a ceremony for individuals who commit to undertake the Buddhist path by embracing the Three Refuges and Eight Precepts.  The participants in the ceremony are then given a Buddhist name and a set of meditation beads.

Having moved yet further away from my spiritual home makes regular attendance a challenge.  Sitting alone is good.  Sitting with a group in the presence of a guiding teacher helps strengthen one’s practice.  Like the Buddha’s Birthday ceremony and the evening sitting in honor of the Buddha’s awakening, the Precept Ceremony is a must-attend event for me.  I make that commitment for two reasons; to support those who are participating in the ceremony, and, for personal reflection and re-commitment of when I took the Precept Ceremony on May 18, 2008.

DSC07232

-Detroit City FC host the Erie Admirals tonight at Cass Tech Stadium.  Special jerseys to recognize the “You Can Play” project to support LGBT athletes will be worn and auctioned at the conclusion of the match.  The anticipation is for another sell out.  City Til I Die.

Quote:  “Everything I know about morality and the obligations of men, I owe it to football (soccer).”  Albert Camus.

No Goals For 2014

Ah, the end of the year. Let’s look back and see if I’ve accomplished my goals.

Goals? What goals?

As I wrote last year at this time, I declared I had no goals for 2013; no goals “other than enjoying life, including the uncertainty of it.”

So how did that work for me? Let’s see:
-First novel published – The Y in Life (Grey Wolfe Publishing)
-First book signing as an author at Purple Tree Books in Cheboygan, MI.
-Short story finalist in 2013 Michigan Bar Journal Short Story Contest
-Two short stories and one essay published in Written in the Mitten 2013 (Heron Bay Books)
-Two short stories published in Legends: Summer 2013 (Grey Wolfe Publishing Anthology)
-Two short stories and one essay published in Legends: Autumn 2013 (Grey Wolfe Publishing Anthology)
-Became a member of Detroit Working Writers
– Won first trial.
– Had numerous cases dismissed, maintaining the innocence of several clients
– Finished the 2012-13 bowling league with my highest average to date.
-Attended every Detroit City FC home match, caught an away match, and attended two Columbus Crew games.

Not a bad year, considering I set forth no goals.

Goals are more of a hindrance to living a happy life than not. In a survey commissioned by Steve Shapiro, 41% of adults agreed that achieving their goals had failed to make them happy, or had left them disillusioned, while 18% said their goals had destroyed a friendship, a marriage, or other significant relationship.  Steve Shaprio, Goal-free Living (Hoboken, New Hersey: Wiley, 2006) cited in The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman (Faber and Faber, Inc. 2012).

Seriously. It can’t be said any clearer than this:

The optimism-focused, goal-fixated, positive-thinking approach to happiness is exactly the kind of thing the ego loves. Positive thinking is all about identifying with your thoughts, rather than disidentifying from them. And the ‘cult of optimism’ is all about looking forward to a happy or successful future, thereby reinforcing the message that happiness belongs to some other time than now. Schemes and plans for making things better fuel our dissatisfaction with the only place where happiness can ever be found – the present. ‘The important thing,’ (Eckhart) Tolle told me, ‘is not to be continuously lost in this mental projection away from now. Most humans are never fully present in the now, because unconsciously they believe that the next moment must be more important than this one. But then you miss your whole life, which is never not now.’ Another staccato chuckle. ‘And that’s a revelation for some people. To realize that your whole life is only ever now. Many people suddenly realize that they have lived most of their life as if this were not true – as if the opposite were true.’ Without noticing we’re doing it, we treat the future as intrinsically more valuable than the present. And yet the future never seems to arrive. Oliver Burkemann, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (Faber and Faber, Inc. 2012) p.116.

I know the goal-setting crowd likes acronyms, and mine for GOALS is Ghosts of Attaining Life Satisfaction. Yeah, it’s a stretch. But to chase these ethereal creatures and to attempt grasping them in order to experience a satisfied life seems to be a waste of energy and focus, and a distraction from the happiness of now.

I will look back on 2013 for the year that it was, reflect on it, savoring its joys and reflecting on its missteps and challenges. But for the future? All I have is now. This time next year I can review what another collection of 365 days of now-moments create.

2014 is uncertain, and I’m satisfied with that uncertainty. It is foolish of me to set a goal, for example, of writing and publishing another novel in 2014.  If something happens to alter that goal I’ll have excuses or disappointments to chastise myself with. With no goals I have no quota to meet. I’ll just look back and see what good was created, and be all the happier for it.

And I just might be surprised at how awesome a year it can turn out to be – like 2013 was!

Cover 52013-11-09 15.29.58DSC02297

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)