This is How It Feels

THIS IS HOW IT FEELS.

Not elation but relief. Not celebration but reflection. Not an end but perhaps a new beginning.

Guilty verdicts for Derek Chauvin in the murder (we can now say murder) of George Floyd won’t erase centuries-old systemic racism. It won’t heal a broken America, won’t eradicate discrimination, won’t make us safer. We still have much work to do.

But I remember Rodney King — we had a video then, too. I remember Amadou Diallo, unarmed, in a doorway, shot 41 times. I remember Trayvon Martin, killed for walking while wearing a hoodie. And while nothing can bring them, or George Floyd, or 13-year-old Adam Toledo back to life, today’s verdict’s in the Chauvin case can give us hope that justice is possible, and that anyone can be held accountable.

So many of us don’t know this feeling. We don’t know what it’s like to cry tears of joy, to believe that the future is brighter, to think that we as a nation can rise above our basest selves. We are, after all, a country of fragments; a people fragmented. We are a labyrinthine expanse so loosely bound as if against nature.

But this is how it feels when America does something right for all Americans. This is what we mean by one nation with liberty and justice for all.

Yes, we are a country of fragments. But while the pieces don’t always fit, once in a while we do come together.

I can get used to this. I hope we all get used to this.

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Speakers for the Dead

ON THE FIRST DAY I WASHED MY HANDS OF IT.

Lots of soap, two “happy birthdays.” Rinse and repeat. 

After the first week my daughter came home because of it; graduated college in our living room thanks to it. 

For months we distanced from it, Zoomed and baked bread and watched everything on the Internet to keep our minds numb to it. My job changed during it (in some ways for the better, in many ways not.)

Some wanted to ignore it, to wish it away, to live in a land of make believe. Too many of us did, and never lived to regret it. 

Two days before Christmas, I got it.

On New Year’s Eve, I thought it got me. 

Now one year from Day One, I’ve still got it – not an active virus, but the lingering reminders like headaches and pain. Not the disease but the guilt of survival, the Post Traumatic Covid Disorder that keeps me out of the room where I quarantined, and that makes any slight discomfort a sign of irreversible doom.

The truth is, what happened to me – to most of us – was nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to the hardship and despair endured by those who lost their jobs, their health, their loved ones, their lives.

You were pissed because on day 71 you couldn’t get haircut? You were angry because on day 183 you couldn’t sit inside a restaurant? You complained because on day 236 you couldn’t go to a football game?

C’mon. Seriously, get real. You need a reason? I’ll give you 528,000 reasons and counting, counting, counting.

We, the ones still here, are the speakers for the dead. We speak for them and stand for them and goddammit we wear masks and get vaccinated for them too.

Don’t wash your hands of it. Don’t ever wash your hands of this responsibility.

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I See Kobe

I SEE KOBE.

Not the undefendable jumper or the unapologetic swagger. Not the 81-point masterpiece or reducing opponents to pieces. Not the championships or the Larry O’Brien embrace, with Shaq at his side and champagne on his face.

I see those moments too, but mostly I see Kobe shopping at Fashion Island. I see him getting coffee at the Lost Bean in Costa Mesa. I see him at Javier’s or at Mastro’s enjoying a meal, at Fletcher Jones picking up his new Maybach or driving along Newport Coast.

I see Kobe whenever I ride my bike on PCH, whenever I pass John Wayne Airport, whenever I see a sunset over Newport and realize we both shared that experience. Because Kobe Bryant, for all his accolades and global fame, was one of us.

He may have played in Los Angeles, but Kobe belonged to Orange County. This was home, where he raised his kids and ran his business. You can hardly go anywhere around here without seeing Kobe Bryant – and when he died almost one year and a million tears ago, on a quiet and deceptively normal Sunday morning, everyone felt it.

January 26, 2020 is burned into our memories, into our collective consciousness. We lost a friend and a neighbor, a father and a son. We lost so many other Orange County friends and families on that devastating day, too. One year later and it still seems unreal.

With apologies to Philly, Kobe is ours now. And he is still here, still with us, still smiling and inspiring us. You just need to know where to look.

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Taking it One Breath at a Time

I SPENT NEW YEAR’S EVE IN A MAKESHIFT TENT outside Hoag Hospital in Irvine, Calif., wondering whether my next breath would be the last.

I had good reason: my Covid symptoms were getting worse, causing my throat to conspire against my lungs. Every breath felt futile, like climbing a hill made of quicksand. I was cold, shivering under blinding spotlights, waiting for the doctors to do something, anything, to ease the suffering or end it.

And then I took a breath. It hurt, as in eyes watering pain hurt, but I took it anyway. And then when I had no other choice, I took the next one, and the next. I didn’t focus on breathing anymore – I focused on just one breath, just one inhale, as best I could. The next breath was all that mattered.

I’m doing better now, and for that I’m grateful. I’m still having trouble breathing, requiring some external support and multiple inhalers. My condition may be temporary or it may be indefinite – Covid doesn’t make any promises.

I first learned this life lesson almost 30 years ago, when I could have died from a tumor in my head, and still could die any minute if I have another bad seizure (thanks to the side effects of the removal of said tumor.) But so what? Life is never guaranteed. That’s why it’s supposed to be precious.

You get the next breath. That’s it. You get the next breath and the next one and the one after that, on and on until the breaths are spent.

Don’t worry about what you would do with your last breath, with your final moment. Don’t look so far ahead that you can’t see what’s right in front of you – a family who loves you, friends who care about you, a world that gave you its oxygen to breathe in the first place.

Just take it all in, one breath at a time.

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When a Number Becomes a Name

WE’VE ALL SEEN THE STATS.

As of this writing: Nearly 18 million cases in the United States and 317,000 deaths. My home state of California is breaking records every day. ICU space is at 0% here with no improvement in sight.

This is horrible and sad. But for most people that’s where it ends — we give our thoughts and prayers and then go back to wondering when we can eat inside a restaurant again.

Because at the proverbial end of the day these are just numbers. It’s math, and if there’s one thing Americans can agree on, it’s that most of us suck at math.

Numbers are cold, impersonal. The numbers for Covid are downright incomprehensible, so much so that some wonder whether all the precautions and protocols add up to making any difference.

The numbers don’t mean anything — until a number becomes a name.

When you can put a face on a statistic, it’s different. It’s personal. Because if it happens to someone you know, then it can happen to you.

I don’t see numbers anymore. Instead I see a colleague juggling childcare and work while his spouse is quarantined with symptoms. I see relatives in the hospital, a close friend smiling despite the breathing tubes.

The numbers now have faces and families, people I know and care about. Before this latest surge I felt sympathy, but now I feel fear. And I feel anger toward those who can’t see past the numbers, if they even believe those numbers in the first place.

No, a mask isn’t perfect. No, closing restaurants and gyms won’t stop every case. But doing something is better than nothing, and doing nothing means you are a selfish piece of shit. You aren’t a patriot, you are just an asshole without a mask.

Go watch a friend or relative fight for their life because of your bullshit conspiracy theories, and then tell me how your “rights” are more important. I’m sure everyone at the funeral will love to hear your Ted Talk on civil liberties.

This will get worse before it gets better. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do all we can to protect ourselves and each other. The virus wants to treat us all like numbers — it’s up to us to treat each other like human beings.

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Welcome Back, America

WE MISSED YOU.

I know, we’re the ones who kicked you out. Sorry about that. It wasn’t all of us, though — it wasn’t even a majority of us (we’ll talk about that Electoral College thing later.) But we’re here for you now, and we’d love for you to stay if you’ll have us.

Sorry about the mess too, we kinda trashed the place while you were gone. Lost our fucking minds for a while. And to be honest, it’s gonna take a long time to clean this place up. Will probably need a Roomba the size of an asteroid.

But don’t worry, we’ll help. This was our fault after all. We’re the ones who took your values and trampled them like meth addicts at a rave. We let racism run unfettered, legitimized ignorance, embraced the basest instincts of a species untethered by common principles of respect and decency.

We saw a naked emperor and praised his beautiful robes, defended his fascism as “just speaking his mind” or “taking charge.” We fell so far down the well, America, there was barely any more light.

But we made it back, by the throat and by the vote. For the first time in history we defeated fascism on our own shores, storming the ballot boxes from sea to shining sea.

We did it for you, America. Truth is, we need you. if we learned anything these past four years, it’s that we can’t do this on our own.

Please don’t leave us again. Please don’t let us abandon you. We’ve learned our lesson and we promise to do better, to be better. We are still your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. And we need you now more than ever.

Welcome back, America. Welcome home.

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What’s Next: Why the West Wing Still Matters

THE MOST PRETENTIOUS THING YOU CAN DO IN HOLLYWOOD is say that a television show is “so much more than a television show.” The second most pretentious thing you can do is start a podcast just so you can talk in public with your famous friends, but I love Rob Lowe so dammit, he gets a pass.

Since I’m not in Hollywood, however, I can be as pretentious as I want. So here’s the truth in all its dramatic glory: The West Wing is the living, breathing, online streaming soul of the American Dream.

Just as NASA inspired a generation of Americans to go to space, the West Wing inspired a generation of young Americans to go into politics. My daughter is one of them — I sometimes think she went to college in Washington D.C. just on the off chance she might run into C.J. Cregg doing “The Jackal” in a Georgetown bar.

But what I didn’t know — until this week — was that The West Wing inspired at least one person to become an American.

A new colleague told me, very matter-of-fact, that the West Wing is the reason he is in America. A TV show he watched while going to school in the United States, halfway around the world from his home and family, is why he’s still here today.

“If this show was America, I wanted to be part of it,” he said. “It was that simple.”

A TV show? Stop it. That’s like the aliens in “Galaxy Quest” believing Tim Allen was really a starship captain, not an actor who played one in a TV series.

But no, this really happened. A TV show had become a promise of something better, a blueprint for What’s Possible. A young man changed his entire life not to go into politics, but because of an idea called the United States.

That promise remains unfulfilled, as we’re all painfully aware. The West Wing now looks less like fiction and more like farce, a poke in the eye, a comedia acta for the modern cynic (the Latin was for you, President Bartlet.) The show’s ideas and ideals are now so foreign it’s hard to believe they ever existed.

But the West Wing still matters. It still has the potential to be a force for change, if we want it to be. It once convinced an immigrant to make a life in an imaginary world; it can help us find that place again, and make it real.

(For a refreshing West Wing fix, check out the special cast reunion performance on HBO Max and listen to a refreshingly unpretentious Rob Lowe’s podcast interview with West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin. Okay, now what’s next?)

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Why Social Media Companies and News Organizations Need to Atone this Yom Kippur

MONDAY IS YOM KIPPUR, THE JEWISH RELIGION’S DAY OF ATONEMENT.

I have a lot to atone for. I regularly “skip intro” on Netflix shows; I don’t always wash my hands for a full two “happy birthdays”; and I generally use the posted speed limit as more of a suggestion.

Jews believe so completely in “nobody’s perfect” that we have an entire day dedicated to apology and guilt. You know it’s a big deal because we can’t even eat for 24 hours, and most Jews can’t go without eating for 24 minutes (unless it’s before swimming, then you gotta wait at least an hour. No idea why that is, I just always assumed it was in the Torah somewhere.)

But this Yom Kippur — the one that comes amid a global pandemic, social injustice and an election where democracy itself is at stake — I’d like to amend the standard directive to apologize to those whom you’ve hurt or wronged in some way. This year, I want to ask social media companies and news organizations to apologize to us.

No, sorry, that’s not enough. Not this Yom Kippur. This year, I want them to do their fucking jobs.

Disinformation still flows on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others with alarming regularity. And while I get that stopping all the crap is about as easy as holding back a tsunami with a cheese grater, it’s not an excuse to allow the stuff that’s actually caught to stay up with ineffective disclaimers.

There are too many examples to cite — from Photoshopped videos and baseless conspiracies, to misleading ads targeted to swing state voters. When Donald Trump Jr. promotes false election-rigging narratives on Facebook or shares fake videos of Joe Biden on Twitter, they earn barely a shrug from the platforms.

Sure, Facebook may point you to accurate election information, but it won’t remove the offending content despite being false and in violation of their own rules. Twitter can apply a “manipulated media” label but will still let the fakery get shared.

Think about it: That’s like serving someone a 32-ounce bottle of cyanide with a tiny six-point type label at the bottom that reads “poison.” The social media companies are basically saying hey, technically we warned you, so if you choose to go ahead and drink that’s not our problem.

And sorry (there I go apologizing again) but I don’t want to hear the “we’re not a news organization, we’re just a platform” argument. You can take that thinking back to 2015 when we might have cared.

In true fairness, this isn’t all on social media. Our once venerable Fourth Estate needs to take more responsibility too, especially those who cover the White House.

First, stop covering the White House. What the hell are you covering exactly? When’s the last time any actual news happened there that you couldn’t get some other way — like, I don’t know, through actual reporting?

Second, being “objective” doesn’t mean “report everything people say even if it’s total bullshit.” This isn’t journalism school and democracy isn’t a game — if the Pulitzer committee gave out awards for Not Putting Up with Crap, we’d see an immediate improvement in coverage.

Finally, stop beating up on Fox News. CNN is better than Fox (anything is) but not by much — it’s essentially Fox without the fealty. “Television news” overall is an oxymoron right up there with “President Trump.” You want to learn an actual fact, try reading a newspaper (yes, they still exist.)

This Yom Kippur, we need apologies from social media and traditional news media. And we need action to ensure that by next year Facebook doesn’t change it’s name to “Q” and that Dr. Oz doesn’t replace Dr. Fauci.

Okay, I should probably apologize for that. But this is the last time I let you all off the hook.

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Finding the Hidden Power in Privilege

MAYBE I’M THE LAST PERSON WHO SHOULD BE TALKING ABOUT PRIVILEGE.

For years — almost my entire life — I never knew what privilege was. Because everyone I knew was just like me.

I grew up in nice houses and neighborhoods. I never worried about money or getting whatever new toy was on the store shelf. I didn’t have to work during high school or pay for college. I didn’t even have to make my own bed until I left home, didn’t have to slice my own sandwiches into quarters with the crusts cut off. I know, spoiled rotten with OCD, hell of a combo.

I live in Orange County, Calif., which is basically Ground Zero for privileged white people. We’re so white, major TV networks had no problem making shows about us in the ‘90s. For us Arrested Development was a documentary; The OC was our version of Downton Abbey.

Orange County isn’t a place, it’s a petri dish of privilege stewed in salt water and safe harbors. Our privilege is invisible yet pervasive, like the air we effortlessly breathe without fear of a knee against our necks. 

And then I thought about it. Like really thought about it, like late-at-night can’t sleep thinking and dissecting my so-called perfect life, and came to an epiphanous conclusion: My privilege doesn’t come from what I have, but from what I don’t.

It’s the things I’ve never had to deal with that gut me. Not only can I walk around my block at night and not worry about my neighbors calling the cops, but that possibility isn’t even buried somewhere deep inside my DNA. It doesn’t exist, never existed for me and never will. Just as a video game character can only live within the confines of its programming, I simply don’t have the data necessary to understand.

“White” is our national default; it’s our factory setting, in many ways like Christianity is our default religion. Anything else, anything outside those comfortable confines, is by definition an “other.” And for too many people, “other” leads to discomfort, fear, ignorance and violence.

I’ve had some experience as the “other” – not racial discrimination, but religious prejudice and intolerance. From “Kike” name-calling in elementary school to Hitler salutes and assumptions about my role in the global media and banking cabal, I’ve seen and heard it all. Just a few years ago I was in a pub in Chicago when the man next to me casually talked about “you people” in reference to lawyers. I wanted to say “Um, dude, we’re doctors too,” but that just would have encouraged him.

So while I’ve never feared for my life, I’ve grown accustom to the police protecting me at High Holiday services and hiding my religion from strangers. I understand the crawling feeling on your skin when seeing a swastika. I can empathize with the victims and survivors of the Pittsburgh synagogue attack and countless other acts of hate.

The difference with us is we tend to stay quiet. We prefer not to talk about these issues or make a fuss. We assimilated Jews want to feel normal and be accepted, and that means sticking to our original programming. Fit in, don’t fight back.

Which brings me back to privilege.

Some people can’t choose to just “feel normal” or be accepted. And people like me can’t stay quiet anymore either.

Because when it comes to privilege and social justice, quiet is complicit. Quiet is dangerous. Quiet is the finger on the trigger firing seven times into a man’s back; it’s the cries of a mother burying her child.

I get it now – because despite doing everything to fit in, despite getting jobs and raising families, people still tell us that we control the media and run the banks and killed Jesus. We’re told we’re overreacting about a few swastikas spray painted on our walls (“probably just some kids.”) And enough with the Holocaust already! Sure it sounded awful and that movie was sad but can’t you just move on?

You know what, I changed my mind. I’m exactly who should be talking about privilege. Absence of experience is no longer an excuse. And having a voice and the power to do good means nothing if you aren’t willing to use it.

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The Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore

The President of the United States tear-gassed peaceful protesters so he could stage a photo opportunity. He did this while saying he was an “ally to peaceful protesters.”

Fuck you, Trump supporter reading this and preparing your ignorant talking points. Please just shut the fuck up for once.

One more time: The President of the United States tear-gassed peaceful protesters so he could stage a photo opportunity. He did this while saying he was an “ally to peaceful protesters.”

This is a fact. So is the President’s intent to use military force against American citizens on American soil. Not against criminals, not against looters, but against people exercising their First Amendment rights.

Maybe those protesting 400 years of oppression should have worn camo and carried automatic weapons. Maybe they should have railed against wearing masks instead of racist murder. Then they would have been celebrated by our Narcissist-in-Chief, our mentally ill motherfucker of mayhem.

The President of the United States tear-gassed peaceful protesters so he could stage a photo opportunity. So he could hold up a Bible for a few seconds and pretend that he is a Christian. Because his ego was bruised by criticism for retreating to his bunker over the weekend, and he wanted to appear tough. Because he believes using Nixonian “law and order” as his re-election platform will be the red meat his dumbass, sycophant, Covid-denying supporters crave.

Yes, there are small groups of agitators who are just about wreaking havoc — some left-wingers and some white nationalists and some who just want new shoes. Crime is crime and should be punished. But that doesn’t give the President of the United States the right to shoot tear gas at peaceful protesters just to stage a photo opportunity.

NO! You still don’t get to talk yet. Not a word, not a syllable, not a bloated breath.

We all know what you’ll say anyway. It’s never any different — you’ll use the same rhetoric, share the same delusions, profess the same fealty. Besides, you don’t care what we think; you’ll never change your mind. You can’t. Changing your mind would be an admission of defeat, of weakness. Un-American.

So just shut up and listen.

Trump isn’t only suppressing the right to protest, he is also trying to suppress the right to vote. He’s a fascist who’s too stupid to even realize he’s a fascist. Yet this is true fascism, right here, in America — the same country that gave the lives of its best and brightest in World War II to defeat fascism.

I know, now you’re really pissed. C’mon Gary, where’s the whimsical prose? Where’s the self-deprecating humor, the Mizzou references and the whiskey posts?

Well I’m sorry, but the joke isn’t funny anymore. I lost members of my family to fascists, I’ve been called a Kike and a Dirty Jew and gotten my ass kicked by fascists. And I’ll be God Damned if I’m going to stay silent while a piece of shit destroys the Presidency and America’s standing in the world.

I don’t care about Democrats or Republicans. I don’t belong to any political party myself and could care less if you’re liberal or conservative. To quote Donny Dumpster Fire, there are good people “on both sides.”

What’s happening now is something different. This is about humanity, about decency, about being on the right side of history. And if you want to find me, that’s where I’ll be.

I almost died 30 years ago from a tumor in my head, and I could still die any minute if I have a bad seizure. So you’ll excuse me if I don’t feel like wasting another precious second dealing with people who are too stupid or too proud or too brainwashed or too comfortable with their privilege to open their fucking eyes to reality.

I get it. You can’t believe I just said all this. You can’t believe I used this kind of language in a public post, that I spewed such vitriol and expressed such hate. What happened to the nice Jewish boy?

Monday night happened. The last four years happened. The death of George Floyd and the end of America happened.

I’m sorry. Really, I am. This isn’t how I want to be. But the joke isn’t funny anymore.

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