Shine A Light

Yesterday, Thanksgiving morning, I went down into the storm drains beneath Las Vegas with Matt O’Brien, my wife and some other friends to deliver food and supplies to the homeless people who live beneath this city. Eight years ago, Matt and I wrote a series of articles in the Las Vegas CityLife about the storm drains and the people who live in them. We got a lot of coverage for it — the early 21st century version of retweets — and were nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. (Your publisher nominates you, so it’s not that big of a deal, but it was still pretty cool.) Matt went on to continue exploring the drains, ultimately writing a book about his experiences, Beneath The Neon. I went off to start a dot.com. Though I’ve been down in the drains a few times since, Matt was the one who really kept involved with the situation and the lives of the people down below. He even founded a community project, Shine A Light, to help people get out of the darkness and into recovery programs and housing. A lot has changed since I was last down there. For one thing, there are a lot more people than there were before (though nowhere near the 700+ that Britain’s The Sun suggests). And the people who are down there seem to have made the transition from crashers to squatters; several of them had incredibly organized and elaborate “houses”. The drains are beginning to look less like a place to doss down for a few nights or a week, and more like a Sterlingian interstitial favela. The very existence of these subterranean temporary autonomous zones is a quirk of Las Vegas’s uniquely Manichean climate and geography: it’s either bone-dry or flooding here at any given time. The fact that it’s mostly the former is why people can take up semi-permanent residence in the storm drains here. They’re almost always dry, except when they’re not…and if you’re in them when a wall of water comes rushing down out of the western mountains, you’re probably dead. This is both heartening and disturbing. Heartening in the sense that these people are establishing some sort of equilibrium for themselves, no matter how ephemeral or transitory; a couple of folks mentioned losing all their mostly dumpster-obtained possessions when floods came through. But it’s also disturbing in the sense that eight years after Matt and I alerted the world to the problem, storm drains are still serving as a substitute for homeless shelters in Las Vegas. The official treatment of the homeless by Las Vegas and Clark County is reprehensible, bordering in some cases on outright human rights violations. Mayor Oscar Goodman made the national news by attempting several years ago to make it illegal to give food to homeless people. This was after he made the statement publicly that Las Vegas “has no homeless problem”, a statement which any resident or off-Strip visitor to the city can tell you is ludicrous, bordering on the surreal. I can’t find the exact numbers at the moment, but a few years ago I saw a statistic which suggested that less than 1% of Clark County’s budget went to social services. This wouldn’t surprise any Las Vegas residents. The streets (and the tunnels beneath them) are full of walking wounded, human casualties of addiction and mental illness, not to mention people who simply fell through the cracks of an increasingly depressed local economy. Several months ago, I was having a conversation with an acquaintance who told me that “80% of the homeless are addicts” and that most of them don’t want help — that the services are there if they want them. In the case of social services, this is simply and demonstrably untrue: both public and private services for the homeless and for addicts here are criminally underfunded. More than one of the people I met in the drains yesterday told me they were on waiting lists for housing and treatment programs, sometimes for months. And when you live in a concrete cave under a city, you may not have months to wait on help. But more to the point, I think, this is an example of a deeper, underlying attitude I see again and again in Las Vegas: a profound and distressing lack of empathy for those in need. Put another way: this is a mean-ass town. If Las Vegas has a spiritus urbus, it’s psychopathic. Yes, a great percentage, maybe even the majority of homeless people are addicts. So what? Las Vegas is a city of addiction. I’d personally guess the rate of alcoholism in the city runs about 10%, maybe higher, most of it undiagnosed or treated. (That includes, ironically, the acquaintance who was railing about homeless addicts.) Even more are hooked on illicitly-obtained prescription pills. And God only knows how many gambling addicts manage to keep their addiction in just enough check to keep a roof over their heads. This is a city that subtly and not-so-subtly celebrates alcohol culture, cocaine culture, speed culture. Goodman himself is a notorious public drunk who once told an audience of schoolchildren that if he only had one thing to take to a desert island, he’d bring a bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin. Apparently it’s okay to be a drunk or a crackhead or a junkie in Las Vegas, so long as you can hold your shit. Lose your handle on your own vices and you aren’t worth saving. The people beneath Las Vegas’s neon can’t rely on the city or the county or the state to help them, and they don’t seem to be able to rely on the goodwill of their fellow citizens; most Las Vegans don’t know they’re down there and most of the ones who do wouldn’t piss on them if they were on fire. And their numbers seem to be slowly, steadily growing. These people live in the cold, in the dark, in shit-smelling tunnels where no light shines, like fucking rats. That’s not acceptable. Matt’s working a lot with Help of Southern Nevada to help people get out of the drains and back into the world. I’m working on ideas for how to raise money for HOSN to give them more opportunity to help the people in the drains, and I’ll post more on that as I come up with viable notions. In the meantime, throw your spare holiday change at HOSN, even if you don’t live in Las Vegas. Help them help the people who cannot help themselves. Help them shine a light in the darkness.

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My wedding vows.

Rosalie and I wrote our own wedding vows. Several people asked me to post mine, which I wrote in verse form; and with Rosalie’s permission, here they are.


I will love you in the morning,
In those minefield moments
Before the coffee comes pouring out
To clear the cobwebs from your head,
When you move through the house
Like a ghost who can’t remember
Exactly how you left everything,
Blinking, like a sleepy owl.

And I will love you in the evening,
After you’ve wiped the day away
With cold cream and tea tree oil,
Curled up in your purple pajamas,
Nuzzling at my shoulder with your head,
Purring, like a sleepy cat.

I will love you when you are strong,
When you are as beautiful as you are now,
On those days when everything that’s in the world
Is just the frame that wraps around you,
When you are the song that’s playing in my head,
The blood that keeps my heart moving.

And I will love you when the world
Is washed out like an old Polaroid,
When you’ve locked yourself
In rooms made of uncertainty,
When you cannot speak,
When you cannot breathe.
I will breathe for you.
I will speak for you.

I will love you when gravity has worked its dark magic,
When your back is bent and your face is a scrawled memoir.
I will love you when there are less days ahead than behind.
I will carry you when you need carrying,
I’ll remind you when you need reminding,
I will hold you when you need holding.
I’ll love you when you need loving
And even when you don’t.

And I will love you when you are gone,
And when I am gone,
And when the world has ended
And for at least five minutes afterward.
I will love you when the stars burn out of the sky
And I will love you when the light of their fire
Finally comes to tell us of their passing.

I cannot promise that I will always be a good man.
That I will always know what the right thing to do is.
I will be weak and I will be selfish and I will be a coward.
But I can promise that I will do my best,
And make each decision with your face in my mind.

I cannot promise you that we will be rich
Or that we will always be comfortable.
I cannot promise that we will never know the joys of public transit,
Or the terror of unpaid bills.
I cannot promise that we will never want for anything
But I can promise you that you will never want for laughter
And never want for love.

I can promise you this:
Wherever we go, whatever we do,
We will be amazing
And our life will be bigger than the sky.

And I can promise you one last thing,
With everything I am, and everything that is in me:
I’m gonna love you, baby, ’til the wheels come off.

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Finding Common Ground.

I was much inspired by Jon Stewart’s speech at the Rally to Restore Sanity, which I only got around to seeing today. (I had planned to attend the local Vegas edition, but I was busy getting ready to be married the next day, which is a valid excuse.)

I was particularly struck by one thing that Stewart said: “We live now in hard times, not end times.” It’s often hard to remember that. One of the side effects of being fascinated by the history of religion is that you become aware that Westerners have believed that they were living at the end of the world pretty much since the time of Constantine. It has always been a part of Christian eschatology, and as such has pervaded Western culture for almost two thousand years, a strange sort of collective cognitive bias. (I have never gotten the impression that this is part of any other major religion’s established worldview, though it obviously forms the basis of lots of crazypants cults and such.)

The reason it always seems that things are getting worse is because humans tend to have a built-in idea that “change” = “bad”. We establish our foundation of how things are in our childhood; as we age, we see that foundation challenged day by day. Radio becomes movies becomes television becomes the Web becomes Twitter. Colored becomes Negro becomes Afro-American becomes African-American becomes person of color. Gay stops meaning “happy”. America stops being the happiest place on Earth to live. Greed becomes good, then bad, then good again.

But change, as the very most fundamental laws of physics tell us, is inevitable and indeed constant, from the atomic level all the way up to the structure of the universe itself. Change is the Terminator; you can’t argue with it, can’t reason with it…except unlike the Terminator, change doesn’t stop when you’re dead. The world keeps turning.

Fighting change is a Sisyphean task at best; at worst, it can be an act of atrocity. Part of my dislike of conservativism of any stripe is the underlying principle of trying to keep things the way they were. In the case of American conservatism, this is usually predicated by a desire to return to a notional “happier, simpler time”. The fact that such a time never really existed, of course, doesn’t stop people from imagining it to be a worthy goal. A lot of white middle-class Americans believe that the 1950s and early 1960s were a utopian era; and maybe they were, for white heteronormative middle-class Americans. It wasn’t a lot of fun to be black in 1952 in America, or an independent female, or queer, or mentally challenged, or mentally ill,or physically challenged, or atheist. In fact, for anybody who wasn’t getting their picture painted by Norman Rockwell, life in America pretty much sucked.

Not that it’s perfect now, but over the last forty years at least we’ve started to understand that the way we lived and the assumptions we made back then — what we defined as “normal” and “healthy” and “right” — were not absolutes, that in fact in a lot of ways we were kind of barbaric assholes. We’ve confronted racism and bigotry and hatred head-on, and seen them for what they are.

Not all of us, of course. There are still many Americans who believe that homosexuality is a sin, that atheists are incapable of morality, that Hispanics are trying to undermine America by sneaking over the border to take American jobs and abuse the privileges of American citizenship. There are people who believe that marijuana is more dangerous than alcohol, that Muslims hate freedom, that the President is secretly a resident alien who is bound and determined to take everything away from them — their guns, their money, their freedom, and their God.

But I believe that Stewart is essentially right: these people make up a small but vocal minority. Most Americans are just people, with a tapestry woven of convictions and indifferences. Sure, there are people who want to build concentration camps for the friends of Dorothy; there are people who would like to see the Bible banned not only from schools but from private houses. But not many, and the wonderful thing about a society whose first and foremost principle is free speech is that these people are allowed to speak loud and long…which means we know where they are.

There are many things that I disagree with conservatives about, vehemently. I believe that human rights are universal. I believe in gay marriage and transgender marriage and what they used to call miscegenation. I believe that all Americans have the right to be happy in whatever way makes them happy, so long as that happiness does not directly interfere with the rights of others to the same thing. I believe in the rights of sex workers. I believe in the legalization and taxation of drugs. I am an atheist, and I believe that it is wrong to teach religious mythology about the nature of the universe and biology in schools as equal and viable alternatives to scientifically based theories. But I am not in favor of censoring such beliefs, or attempting to prevent people from having those beliefs, or adhering to them as moral values.

The problem is that nothing is that simple. Fundamentalist Christianity and Islam teach that certain widespread human behaviors, such as homosexuality or independent thought in women or the use of certain chemicals, are contrary to the moral intent of the creator of the universe. How do we square that with the belief that everyone is equal, that it’s okay to love whomever you choose so long as they are of legal age to love you back or to be a woman without a man to guide her, or to kick back and smoke a joint and chill out in your back yard listening to the Doobie Brothers?

Well, actually, now that I write that, the answer does seem pretty simple after all: we err on the side of allowing other people to live and let live, and we agree to disagree. We don’t call each other Nazis unless we’re actually behaving like the Nazis did: namely, rounding up all the people we think are bad and doing our best to exterminate them. We don’t call each other fascists unless we’re actually engaging in fascist behavior. We don’t call each other Stalinists unless we’re doing what Big Joe did: attempting to control not only the behavior but the thoughts and beliefs of our fellow citizens.

Here’s where I differ from a lot of other people who, like me, call themselves leftists or liberals: I don’t believe we can entirely wipe out racism, or sexism, or homophobia, or sexual violence between men and women, or nationalism, or bigotry towards those of different religions beliefs or no religious beliefs, or economic and class-based prejudice. I think that these things are part of human nature. There have been societies without some of these things, to be sure, but no society has ever existed without any of them.

But I do believe that we can do our best to make them individual, not collective, beliefs. One man or woman’s racism is inevitable; institutional racism is unacceptable. I believe that a Christian who thinks that gay marriage is wrong is perfectly within his or her rights to believe that, but I do not believe that his or her belief should in any way impact a gay couple’s right to get married. Jews and Muslims have all the right in the world to believe that the other ones are going to Hell; but they should have absolutely no right to harm or persecute or inflict societal persecution upon those others.

I believe that the First and Ninth Amendments pretty much cover it:

  • Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
  • The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

There you have it. The only laws that prohibit gay marriage are religious ones; Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion; therefore, Congress shall make no law opposing gay marriage. It doesn’t matter if you oppose gay marriage or not, because you are a citizen of the United States, and in the United States (all the United States), we do not and cannot pass laws which establish one set of religious beliefs over another (or lack thereof). It’s also illegal to make laws banning people from praying or believing the world was made in seven days or that it is wrong for a woman to appear in public without covering herself from head to toe. I may not like that, but again, not my call to make…and thank goodness for that.

It is hard not to see the right wing as being the instigators in the current atmosphere of rabid public discourse. The greatest trick that Ronald Reagan pulled as President was to somehow inextricably tangle fiscal conservativism with social and religious conservativism. To my mind, there is no obvious connection; it is perfectly possible to believe in privatized health care and also be a gay atheist, for example. And though I myself am not particularly fiscally conservative as a political stance — I tend to believe in socializing a certain subset of services for citizens, such as health care, on the grounds that it makes economic sense in the long term if not the short term — I can agree to disagree, respectfully, with people who are, within reason; I have absolutely no time for rabid libertarians who believe in abolishing taxation entirely, because it’s frankly a stupid argument that ignores human nature as thoroughly as any hardline leftist Communist doctrine does.

I can agree to politely disagree with people who believe in the right of every American to carry a lethal firearm — not because I agree with them, but because I believe that issue is so complex and so hardwired into the basic laws of our country that it deserves more debate, and that there are no easy answers.

I can even agree to politely disagree with those who think homosexuality or transgenderism is a sin, or that certain ethnic groups or races are inferior to others, or that women deserve to be treated differently than men. I may find their views abhorrent, but I also find it abhorrent that many people believe Lady Gaga to be an important, transgressive artist, or that sports should take precedence over academics in our public school system. And I suspect that many of my views are abhorrent to these people as well.

I can do that politely, if not with respect; I don’t respect people who deny the evidence of their senses and scientific method and continue to live their lives based upon the notion that the world was made in a week six thousand years ago, based on oral mythology created by Bronze Age nomads who thought the entire universe consisted of the desert they wandered and possibly the mountains on the other side. But you know what? They don’t respect me for thinking dudes should be able to get married and make out in public. And that’s totally fine.

We are a nation of nearly three hundred million people, and the only thing we all have in common is believing that our politicians are corrupt and that the world would be a better place if the entire cast of Jersey Shore got hit by a meteorite. What we desperately need to do is to just be okay with that, and to calm the fuck down and try to find our commonalities.

The only thing I can really say in favor of liberalism versus conservatism is that, by and large, liberals are not trying to take away your right to do anything (except not pay taxes). Conservatives right now are the ones who are telling you you can’t marry somebody of the same sex, or walk around simultaneously believing that the notion of a personal God is bullshit and that you should be able to be elected to public office, that you can be a Muslim and not be treated as if you’re trying to blow up every goddamn plane you see.

Why? Fear, I think. It’s that fear of change. Somebody said to me recently that they’d seen a statistic that the number of Muslims in America was estimated to double in the next twenty years. I responded with the four questions I learned to ask from Bill Hicks: Yeah? And? So? What? So what if 50% of Americans were Muslims? As long as they were Muslims who respected the rights of other people to not be Muslims, so what? So what if we elect a woman as President who likes to eat pussy? The world changes. The people on top of the heap go to the bottom, and the people below them move on up and finally get a piece of the pie, and then twenty years or a hundred years later it flip-flops again. This is how the world works.

I read a criticism of the Rally to Restore Sanity which, in essence, suggests that the whole affair was a way for hipster Generation X America to show that we’re so ironic we don’t need to actually get involved to affect change. I don’t think that’s true. For one thing, it is my experience that ideologues of either stripe are scary, humorless people. (It’s why I can’t live in the Bay Area; too many tedious self-righteous lefties, the kind of people who you wish weren’t on your side.) I am an unwavering supporter of GLBTQ rights across the board, but I can’t stand being around hardcore queer activist types any more than I can stand being around anti-abortion activists. Their hearts might be in the right place, but man, those motherfuckers can’t take a goddamn joke.

And that’s what it all comes down to. We all take ourselves far too seriously in this country, on either side. We get worked up and we start drawing battle lines and calling the people we disagree with monsters and we crank up the volume on public discourse to ear-shattering levels. As Stewart said in his speech: if we amplify everything, we hear nothing.

I’m not saying I’m exempt from this criticism. Hell, I’m a terrible loudmouth and I talk shit and behave like a dismissive asshole. I’m aware of it. What I’m saying here is that Jon Stewart and his massive act of comedic performance art have made me reconsider my own hysteria and hypocrisy.

Maybe it’s because I got married less than 48 hours ago and I’m in a sort of warm, fuzzy daze, but I think I’d like to make a promise to myself: I’m going to calm the fuck down and maybe try to cool it with the cheap shots. Not all religious people are retarded bigots. (Even though, let’s be honest: in the Big Three Western religions at least, the amount of retarded bigotry one displays is directly proportional to how literally one takes one’s chosen faith.) Not all fiscal conservatives are Scrooge-like bastards who kick ghetto children in the face; many of them are just people who have trouble paying the bills, the way I do. Our ideas for fixing our problems are different, that’s all.

I’m not saying there aren’t evil motherfuckers out there who deserve scorn and rage, but I’m going to try to be a bit more precise in my verbal carpet-bombing of them, and more constructive in my criticism of people who simply believe differently than I do. I can’t promise I won’t slip up and, say, mock Catholics for believing that God tells them to fill every goddamn square inch of the Earth’s landmass with dribbling unwanted idiot children. But I’ll do my best.

We needed a rally to restore sanity in America; to remind us that we’re all in this together, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, queer, straight, atheist, rich, poor, Republican, Democrat, and that we’ll go a lot further if we stop trying to destroy each other like characters in a bad fantasy novel, and maybe just sit down and figure out the bits we’ve got in common first, and the things we can agree upon. Even if it’s nothing more than agreeing that deep down inside, we all really, really hate that Snooki chick.

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I Got Married.

I am now happy.

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