25 March 2014

mike vick

So, Michael Vick is going to play football for the New York Jets. At least, the New York Jets have aigned Michael Vick to a contract to play football. And this is a matter of the public interest because, as you may have heard, Michael Vick once ran a dogfighting operation.

I have nothing good to say about that. It's repellent in every way. It's fascinating in its repulsiveness because it defies even my usual rejoinders. Hunting is defensible, at least insofar as eating animals and wearing animals is defensible. Eating animals is, at bottom, using and killing animals for one's own enjoyment. In most cases, it's requiring animals to live in revolting, cruel, "inhumane" conditions and then killing them and eating them because it gives us pleasure. We, in the United States in 2014, mostly do everything we can to deny that these once were warm, intelligent, playful creatures (or would have been playful if not confined to cages  barely larger than their bodies). I'm not quite sure how what the hunter does is different. If anything, at least the hunter acknowledges his role in the process, and at least his prey lived an unfettered life up until being dropped by a bullet. 

There's a picture going around of a woman sitting astride a dead giraffe. It's appalling. And in kind it's not different from a bite into a cheeseburger. There's a bright line, and I'm on the same side of it as the woman with her ass on a dead giraffe's flank. You're in or you're out. 

Dogfighting, though - dogfighting inhabits the other side of a different line from you and me and giraffewoman. It may be blurrier, but it's a line nonetheless. To the extent I think about the perfectly intelligent pig that was committed to my breakfast, I want it to have lived a good, if abbreviated, existence, grunting and rooting under the sun; dying without fear or pain. I trust, or anyway I hope, that giraffewoman wanted to spare her prey suffering, that she thoughtfully chose her weapon and sought to fell it with one blow. There's a code to hunting, and there ought to be a code about eating. 

I can't imagine what the code of dogfighting would look like. When I picture Michael Vick, I picture him laughing. I picture him looking down at helpless animals, the victims of their own instinct and ruthless training. I picture him yelling and baiting these animals that are ferocious and pitiable at the same time. I picture him hooting at a particularly gruesome demise. Imagining the money he'll win; cursing the money he'll lose. Getting aroused.

And I picture the calculation behind causing this much pain. He dedicated buildings to breeding and raising and training and fighting these dogs. He thought about the dogs he bought to bait them. He kept accounts. It was a motherfucking cold-hearted, intentional endeavor, over years, except for the moments when it was hot-blooded and sadistic. I cannot, for the life of me, think of a single good thing about it. Not a single thing. I can think of more good things about - well, I'm not going to go there. 

Now let me digress for a moment: I forgive Michael Vick. 

Not because of anything up to and including the day he was walked into a jail cell, not because of whatever terrible childhood he may have had, not because of the circumstances of his family, not because of anything else I might not get about him. None of that matters. Dogfighting is on its face so wrong that nobody gets an excuse. Everybody knows better. 

I forgive Michael Vick because he went to jail, and did two years' time. That was what was asked of him, and he did it. That isn't enough of course. You get no points for merely doing what you are compelled to do. And yet, he did do time, and so we can at least say he was punished under the law, and that's more than one can say about a great many who have been handed lighter sentences in the court of public opinion. He was, it might be noted, bankrupted as well, and although he has since earned more money than any of us will in our lifetimes, that's not nothing. 

So he has been punished. Is it enough? I don't know. I don't pretend to know how to measure one crime against another, how to determine how much punishment is enough for any given moral transgression. Maybe other people have access to more or better information on this subject; I don't know. I do know that dogfighting is disgusting. As a gay man, I've learned not to trust people's disgust as a measure of morality. 

Anyway, regardless of punishment, there's the matter of reform. It matters not how long the jail sentence, how steep the financial penalty, how many floggings in the public square, if the guilty doesn't confess his sins and ask forgiveness and try to make good. By every account I have seen, Michael Vick has confessed his sins and asked forgiveness. He has worked on behalf of the humane society. He has spoken out in many forums on many occasions against dogfighting. He has spoken of, and others have testified to, the way that time in prison has changed him. 

I choose to believe him. I choose that partly because I don't know what else he is supposed to do. Given that, if I don't believe him, if we don't believe him, what possible reason is there for Michael
Vick to change his ways? Why should the next Mike Vick work to redeem himself if, after having done everything asked of him, and more, the answer is, "Not enough"? If the answer is "Nothing will ever be enough"?

I choose to believe in redemption. I choose to believe in it for myself, and for Michael Vick, and for anyone else, and I am not sure if there is any crime, short of genocide maybe, that is beyond forgiveness if you're willing to put in the work the way Michael Vick, by all accounts, has. 

Fine, you may say. Michael Vick can go live a humble life of quiet reflection and service. He doesn't get the rewards of cheering crowds and millions of dollars and fame and the rest. It's not an unreasonable point of view.

But to return to my main point: I don't quite get the idea that he's not a good enough person to play professional football. Because we're talking about the motherfucking National Football League. 

I can tell you the precise moment when I realized I wasn't going to be able to do it anymore. I was sitting in my friend Tim's basement watching the Cleveland Browns, my team, play the Pittsburgh Steelers, once bitter rivals, now about as much rivals as Kenyon and Ohio State. On October 17, 2010, Josh Cribbs, the Browns' brilliant kick returner, had caught a pass over the middle and was leveled by James Harrison. It was a cheap shot. From a mile away it was a cheap shot. It was cheap enough that the league took notice and fined Harrison, who has year in and year out diligently earned his reputation as a dirty player, $20.000.  Later in the same game, Harrison took his helmet to another Browns receiver, Mohammed Massaquoi. The league fined him $75,000 for that one. 

The National Football League was so appalled by this infraction that it immediately began selling framed photos of Harrison injuring Massaquoi on its website.

But then, this is, quite literally, the NFL's stock in trade. The game itself is a thinly-disguised simulation of war - if disguised at all - full of blitzes and aerial attacks, field generals and infantry; a quest to march into the other side's territory and defend one's own and ultimately extract the resources - paydirt, a term previously used to refer to precious minerals. The men in charge have surrounded it with all the trappings of the military as well; giant flags and (actual) color guards, wounded (actual) soldiers to receive a hero's welcome, Air Force jets flying overhead, military-style bands playing military music, while on the sidelines women with pom-poms display the presumed reward for valor. On television, between the battles, we get to see ads for the (actual) military, and for the video games that have served to train my nephew, strategically and psychologically, for the (actual) military, and for the cars that burn the oil for whose extraction we deploy our (actual) military. (It makes perfect sense that teams called the Redskins and the Browns are on the receiving end of the punishment, year after year, while the Patriots, in their red, white and blue uniforms, are doling it out.)

Just as a reminder of where we're going: this is the world for which Mike Vick's fitness is in debate. 

Is this turning into a rant? I'm just getting started. 

We need participants in this display, of course. They are sometimes referred to as gladiators, and the term is not especially metaphoric. The best start training when they're seven or eight. By the time they reach high school, the several thousand best have been identified by scouts and coaches who fan out across the land, men who have dedicated their lives to finding and training the finest fighting men. Countless others spend even more countless hours coldly calculating the value - in actual dollars - of a 4.6 40 against a 4.9.

The few thousand best spend four years in college, devoting most of their waking hours to training for football, without pay. Their exploits fund million dollar salaries for coaches and athletic directors. After four years, ninety percent of them will be discarded, sometimes handed a diploma of sorts on the way out. (Some number of these will join the legions creating their replacements.)

None of my analysis is particularly new or original. None of it is in the least exaggerated. Maybe it's worth keeping in mind while singling out Michael Vick for judgment. 

Those best of the best who make it to the NFL - what do they find?  

Well, they get paid handsomely. Some get paid handsomely for a year or two and then blow out a knee and are shown the door. Some - fewer in number, but some - get paid handsomely and retire gracefully. 

Some, like Mike Webster, have hall of fame careers and then die of heart attacks at age 50. Before he died, Mike Webster was living in his car, homeless, without health insurance, addicted to prescription medications that he obtained illegally, and clinically depressed. The root cause of most of this appears to have been chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which results from getting hit in the head too much from an activity like playing football. 

The NFL recently agreed to pay 18,000 players a total of three quarters of a billion dollars to former players to settle a suit related to concussions. (A judge rejected the settlement because it wasn't enough money.) More or less simultaneously, the NFL's retirement board sued to recover disability benefits from former player Dwight Harrison - whom it had previously ruled was totally and permanently disabled - and used his retirement benefits to offset the judgment (which he could not pay because he is, you know, totally and permanently disabled). The NFL won the judgment after Harrison didn't appear in court, which might have something to do with his impaired cognitive ability from having played professional football for ten years. 

These are the people Michael Vick is not fit to work for. 

You expect these people to suddenly grow a conscience over something like dogfighting? The only thing they're capable of growing in this circumstance is a fig leaf. 

If I were going to make an excuse for Michael Vick, it would be this: Having been immersed in this culture since the age of whatever, how do you expect Michael Vick to make a distinction between the morality of football and the immorality of dogfighting? What distinction is there to be made?

No, I don't buy that. Michael Vick did know better. So let me rephrase the question: What distinction is there to be made between Michael Vick, and the people and enterprises that manufacture and promote this product? What distinction, for that matter, is there between Michael Vick and the paying customers who look down and smile holler and hoot at what they see, and curse the money they're losing, and grow aroused?

Do we know which side of that line we're on?  You're in or you're out. 

03 March 2014

cigarettes and chocolate milk

So, the thing with G blew apart in the last week, and we got some closure today. And I'm grieving, and I don't know what to do with that, except maybe keep grieving.  I've been living in this so much the last week it feels ridiculous to write about it. And yet: I'll forget.  And maybe writing and reflecting will lead to insight.

There is, at this point, so much I want to say to him, to tell him.  I keep thinking of things.  And I keep resisting the urge.  Right now I want to text him:

"Thanks. The silence/space was helpful, but hard.  Just an observation.
"You once said you swore I was the most thoughtful guy on scruff.  I'm willing to accept number 2, maybe, but you obviously left someone out of your assessment.
"Hasta la proxima."

And I think I will just let it go, because while I want to say those things, there are a million things I want to say, and right now I just don't get to say them.  And it occurs to me that he might be dealing with his own grieving process and not really want any more messages out of the ether.

I think that occurs to me because I read back over our chats.  I screen-capped them all, and maybe some day I'll transcribe them.  Or maybe some day I'll have grieved enough and delete them.  But I was surprised to see, after the pain and silence of the last couple weeks (and the whole period when I had texted him and he wasn't responding and I couldn't figure out what was going on) - after all that silence, I was surprised to see how easy everything had been, and how much we seemed to like each other (and particularly how much he seemed to like me).  There were so many times when he complimented me for being charming, or sexy, or whatever.  I lost sight of that.  I lose sight of that.  I get into things and only see wonderfulness and ease and beauty on the other side of the table, and look at it from inside my swirl of confusion and self-doubt and anxiety. 

But anyway - reading over the chats again I realize why this is hitting me so hard.

Two songs framing things.  "Nice and Slow" by Max Frost, which I must have heard sometime around the first weekend we met. (Check of facebook - I had posted it the day I heard it.  January 11.  Which I think was probably two days after we first met at the Rocking Horse.)  And "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk," which I was listening to while working on grant applications, and probably while or just before chatting with him, and which keeps getting stuck in my head - and which I posted on facebook today, and which so perfectly describes the way I'm feeling.

G had said, after I shared "Nice and Slow" with him, that he loved finding new music.  Hurting that I never shared this one with him.

The last two nights, Reg was out (hosting karaoke Friday, directing Terry's play Saturday), and I couldn't stand to be alone.  It was clear where things were going. Thursday I had talked with Candice about it, over beers and barbecue; she was encouraging and it gave me hope that maybe things weren't just going to blow apart. But Friday came and went without news, even after I texted G asking if he could let me know when he had a few minutes to chat.  And Friday night I poured bourbon down my throat, and although it didn't take the pain away, exactly, it did make it a little more tolerable, a little more distant maybe.  And Saturday came and went without news, and by Saturday night I was pretty unable to be with myself again - and poured beer down my throat, and talked with Richard/Kay, and Candice again, and stumbled home at 3 am reassured by the certainty that sleep would come quickly.

As I walked to the diner on Saturday night, I knew it was a troubling pattern that was forming.  I was in too much pain to think about doing otherwise.  But I told myself it needed to be the last night drinking for a while.  So today, I've been making my way through it.  When John suggested coffee at around 1:00, I jumped at it, and though I wasn't sure I was going to tell him the whole story, that's what ended up happening. 

What I mostly wanted to tell him about was the realization I had Friday night.  I had texted G during the day, and there was no response; I spent the whole train ride to Passaic thinking "he'll text me when he's done with work," and that never happened.  Walking from the station to the dealership, to pick up the car, I did a walking meditation.  Along the way I observed how sad I was, and I stopped to think about how that fit into the five hindrances - since sadness isn't numbered among them, but it sure seemed to be clouding my vision.

And I realized how much of my sadness was anger, at myself, at the world - anger that I wasn't the person I wanted to be - in part, maybe, that I wasn't and am not queer - anger that I didn't get to date as a teenager, that I never had the nerve to wear little animal hats and get stoned and pierced and tattooed and make out with boys, that I've made so many practical and wrong choices that have me, at 48 - and this was the big revelation - I'm finding myself attracted to men who embody all of those things and might in some way enable me to recapture the life I didn't lead.  Anger and self-doubt, the fear/knowledge/delusion that I will never be able to be any of those things, and that the version of me that I have been and am is inferior.

I told John some version of that.  He reached across the table, and when I didn't take his hand right away, he reached farther.  I don't know what made him do that.  I was really a surprise.  And it was a lovely gesture.  And he told me he thought I was experiencing what it was to grow older. That seems right.

Right now, I'm experiencing what it's like to be sober.  The hangover of the last two days is still with me, but it's more that I'm living with and experiencing and observing this pain and grief in a way I hadn't the last two days.  I have, oddly, no regrets about the way the weekend went.  I have no regrets about getting drunk, about the way I reached out, about having sat on my apology for a week while I sorted things out, about the exact text I sent to G.  I wouldn't change a word.

I hope he and I get to meet again.  I hope we get to be some version of friends.  I think we might; or I think that's delusional; or I think that's the stage of grief called denial; or I think it just reflects a tiny bit of optimism about myself and the person I can be and the life I can live.  It seems like it might be unhelpful to dwell on it too much.