The Rocket Man

Originally published in the 23rd edition of Susurrus

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The Space Shuttle and SLC 6 at night. Circa 1980s.

I took a moment to look around my bedroom, now filled with piles of boxes that were marked either “storage” or “school” in blue sharpie. I have too much stuff, I thought to myself. There were a lot of other things I could have been thinking about; the party after graduation, what happened after I left last night. I just had so much crap.

“It was his last night with everyone,” I heard Mom say from the living room. “He’s obviously going to drink.”

“You’d just think he’d make better choices,” I heard Dad say.

Dad was the only person in my sphere that was against me going to Berkeley. To him, my going there was like a personal attack as if I were running away. During our regular arguments he’d always bring up how I got into Cal Poly and how I should go there instead. He’d always talk about how close it was, how many people I’d know and the convenience of it all. In his head it was the superior school.

But those factors were also why I wanted to leave. “I don’t want to go to Cal Poly,” I told him during our most recent argument.

“Why the hell not?” Dad asked, yelling.

“I just want to try something new.”

Dad got up and walk towards the hall, but not without a short aside.

“I guess we’re just not good enough for you,” he said, quiet enough so I was sure to listen.

Mom had a different reaction. She smiled and said, “I’m gonna be a Berkeley Mom.”

###

            As I started to unfold the last box, I felt my phone vibrating. It was a text from Cam, an old friend I’ve known since before kindergarten at Miguelito.

“Aye??” it read, “we still cool???”

I tapped the text box to reply. As the line flashed I drew a blank. I didn’t know what to say and I could only imagine what he saw on his end. Those silent ellipses flashing as if I were writing a heartfelt message back – if he was still looking at the screen. I closed it and put my phone away. I’ll reply later.

I finished constructing the box and stopped to lie down on the floor. Slowly I rubbed my head as the blood – which felt like all of the blood – pulsated from my temples to somewhere in my arms with the intensity of the outlet gates at Cachuma.

Last night a few friends and I decided to sneak into La Purisima Mission which is considered by many “paranormal experts” to be one of the most haunted places in California. Since the Schwarzenegger budget cuts the security presence has been limited at best. As a result, local kids made it a rite of passage to spend a night on the grounds. Cam took it a step further and brought beer. I don’t usually drink beer, but that night I drank it.

When the pounding in my head ceased. I got onto my knees and dragged the box to my bookcase. Once I filled it with my copies of Doctorow and Hemingway I taped it closed and tried to decide whether to mark it storage or school. On one hand, I might need to grab my copy of Ragtime in the near future. But what if I never needed it?

###

            As I loaded the boxes into the car, the familiar rumbling of a rocket launch from Vandenberg broke the silence of the afternoon. I didn’t look up, the days when that was cool had passed long ago. Instead I continued loading the car while the rumble slowly faded back to silence.

When I finished, I leaned against the side door to wait for my family to see me off. My phone vibrated again. When I took it out the notification read, “Instagram: cam805 just posted a photo.”

I opened Instagram to look at the post. It was the two of us when we were kids. Cam was wearing his royal blue youth football jersey, something he would wear for most of his life, and I the yellow hoodie I used to wear all the time. “#tbt me & my day1 back in the day,” read the caption. “Good luck at Cal!”

No doubt similar pictures of Cam in a football uniform and me in civilian clothing were out there somewhere. But looking at this one was like looking at an ancient relic from days long ago, back when watching rocket launches was cool. Cam called those days at Miguelito “the good ole’ days” and maybe they were.

Back then when there was a rocket launch, the entire school would rush out of class to watch. Seeing those long lines of white steam exit the blue and enter the black was so bewitching to my 10-year-old self. It made me wonder when the blue ended and black began.

In those days after school, I’d walk with Cam to his grandfather, Mr. Ruiz’s house and wait for Mom to get off work. Mr. Ruiz had lived in Lompoc his entire life and he would always tell us stories about what the town was like before we were born. Like how back in the ‘60s all of the shops closed for the day to see Bobby Kennedy pass through for his campaign, or when the city finally had to build another high school – our crosstown rival Cabrillo. Whenever he’d tell us about these times it was always with some sort of regret that they had to pass.

How Cam and I remained friends for so long I’ll never understand. We never had anything in common and even though I went to his games, it was because my parents were on the board for the youth league – I had no choice. While he was on the field I was reading in the bleachers completely uninterested and unaware of what was going on. But I guess he returned that same sentiment by being unaware of what went on in my life. He was playing and I was going through a crisis of self.

The Saturday after the first week of school was when all the players in the league would have their height and weight taken so they could be sorted into age divisions. Once sorted, the coaches would draft them into teams. This was apparently a big deal and it took all day and it was why I spent one day every year for nine years in the equipment room while Dad and another board member – usually Mr. Ruiz – weighed over 200 kids and argued with their parents. Cam would have practice right after he was weighed, so I spent the day inside staring at the shelves of old helmets and shoulder pads that were the abyss.

Then the older boys would come in and my attention would turn from the shelves to them stripping down to their underwear. Something made me feel like this wasn’t okay. So it was a struggle for me to look without being obvious.

“It’s fine, son,” Dad once said. “We’re all men in here.” I think he thought I felt uncomfortable seeing people naked, but what was saying that supposed to achieve?

I think Mr. Ruiz saw me and knew what was going on. One year he came up to me with a Magic Treehouse book and said, “The equipment hasn’t moved.” It was easier to not look after that.

###

            I closed Instagram and went back to Cam’s text. “Aye?? we still cool??”

I tried to write a response, but I went back to look through his profile some more. I stopped to look at a post of Cam in his football uniform and his girlfriend, Stephanie, kissing from opposite sides of a low fence. The post was captioned, “HOME OF THE BRAVES BABY!” which was flanked by a blue heart emoji on both sides.

The night it was taken, Cam was still on a victory high after Lompoc beat Cabrillo. When the fourth quarter ended, he handed me his phone and told me to take the picture. It was very uncomfortable and it didn’t help that it took a few tries to get it right.

At the time Cam and Stephanie had been dating for about a year and a half. I thought she was nice, but I never thought anything more of her. As far as I was concerned, she was just another one of Cam’s pseudo-girlfriends he always seemed to have since we were 12. And by that time, Mom didn’t like that I was becoming a third wheel.

“You know the next time you guys go to the movies,” Mom would say, “you should invite someone yourself.”

“Like who?”

Mom shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said, “do you like anyone in class?”

I’d never been asked that question before. What did she mean by like? I thought some girls in my class were cool or funny, but did that mean I liked them?

Luckily, Dad saved me from this confusion. “He’s obviously not interested into girls yet,” he interjected. “Wait till he’s 14, he’ll be all over them.”

With that deadline in mind, I turned 13 and realized that the reason I didn’t like girls was because I liked guys. I didn’t live in a homophobic environment, it was just something we never talked about. As self-important as it may sound, I actually thought I was the only guy in the world who liked other guys. In what seemed like a simple solution, I decided that I wasn’t going to like guys or girls – spoiler: it didn’t work.

###

            “God dammit! Son’f bitch!” yelled a familiar voice. I looked across the street and saw our neighbor, Mr. Wold, trying to push a piece of scrap metal off his foot. When it was off, he took hold of his foot and focused on the pain.

“Hey Mr. Wold,” I said with a smile, “what are you gonna do with all that?”

Mr. Wold slowly stood back up and answered in his southern drawl, “I’m buildin’ a rocket.”

“For what?”

“Gonna fly it,” he yelled back as he dragged the metal towards the side gate. Before disappearing behind the garage he added, “gittin’ out of here.”

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, the Air Force began developing their own Space Shuttle program at Vandenberg. Mr. Wold was a relic from the wave of young engineers and physicists who rushed to this little hamlet on Point Conception with their families and the hopes of becoming the new Cape Canaveral. Because of this sudden influx of people, the town experienced unprecedented growth. Mr. Ruiz called it “the space rush.”

“Where this house is right now,” Mr. Ruiz would say when he’d begin one of his space rush tales, “there used to be nothing but flower fields. When the scientists all came in, that’s when they built them.”

Of all his stories, his favorite ones came from the space rush. He’s tell us about the kids Cam’s parents played with and how the city commissioned Mrs. Ruiz to paint a mural to welcome the new residents. But whenever he’d tell us about when the Space Shuttle arrived, it was always with an air of hope.

“We knew that the shuttle was supposed to come,” he said, “but when we looked up into the sky and saw it on top of that big plane that was when it became real. They were gonna be launching shuttles every hour. Every day. We were gonna be Cape Canaveral. That was gonna be us.”

The next time there was a rocket launch at school, Cam and I started to say that they were taking supplies up to the Space Shuttle.

###

            When my parents finally came outside, the goodbye process began. Whatever feelings Dad had about my leaving were gone. He gave his “I’m proud of you” speech before checking my oil one last time and giving me a hug where – I swear – I heard a whimper. Mom cried, too. She gave her “be safe” speech and hugged me again.

Mr. Wold’s scrap metal dragging briefly interrupted us. Dad looked across the street and watched through gritted teeth. Somehow he was able to say, “You need help with that, Hank?”

Mr. Wold stopped and looked up at Dad. “I don’t need no help!” he proclaimed before loudly dragging the rusty axel through the side gate. My parents looked over and just glared at Mr. Wold’s house.

“Seventeen years,” said Dad as he shook his head, “and he still hasn’t changed.”

“What’s he going to do with it?” said Mom with more annoyance than curiosity.

“He’s buildin’ a rocket,” I added in my best Mr. Wold voice.

Dad looked back at me, rolling his eyes and said, “He’s not building a rocket.”

“He might be,” I said playfully. “He did used to be an engineer. We don’t know.”

“We do know,” said Dad. “He’s been saying the same thing since I was a kid.”

“So what’s he doing with all that metal?” I asked.

“Recycling,” Dad answered just to get me to stop. He knew I was fucking with him. Even when his son was going off to college, he still found time to hate Mr. Wold. It was petty, and it was also the funniest thing in the world.

“Wasn’t Cam supposed to come by?” asked Mom, “Where is he?”

I said, “I don’t know.” Which made me think about his text.

“That’s sad,” Mom added, “Not seeing your best friend before you leave.”

“Don’t you want to see him?” asked Dad.

“I saw him last night,” I replied. “It’s fine.”

“Probably with Stephanie,” Dad said. “He’s always with her.”

“Yeah.”

“It’s good he found someone,” said Mom. “She really makes him happy.”

Mom loved the idea of Cam and Stephanie together and to an extent I guess I did, too. Regardless of how irritated I’d get when Cam went on his “I’m in deep” rants, I cared about his happiness. Mom did too, but I had my suspicions that she liked it – at least partially – because I didn’t date girls.

By the time I was in high school, I got creative with avoiding suspicions of my sexuality by abandoning my third wheel status. Cam and I were still friends, it just got really difficult to hang out with him and Stephanie outside school and not be asked, “Are you bringing anybody?

The two of us didn’t hang out until the summer before senior year when Cam had his first serious fight with Stephanie. He picked me up to go for a drive through the Santa Rita Hills, mostly to vent his frustrations.

“Are you two communicating at all?” I said, trying my best to find the root of the problem.

“Why do we need to communicate?” asked Cam, partly screaming. “We’re together all the fuckin’ time, if she has something to say, why doesn’t she say it?”

“Maybe you two need to cut your time together,” I said. “I don’t know, you know the situation better than I do.” I continued, “Once in a while you need to be a person as opposed to being part of a couple. That’s just me, though.”

“I don’t know, bro,” said Cam, “this girl’s doing something to me.”

I rolled my eyes as I said, “I’ve heard that for like two or three years, man. What is it that she’s doing?”

Cam sighed and said, “It’s just… why would I not want to be with her? I know what you’re saying but you’d understand if you finally found a girl.” Nothing was said until we got onto the 101 near Gaviota and Cam brought up the same subject. “Like you really need to find yourself a girl,” he said, “You’re cool and shit, you could get one.”

I looked out the window across the Santa Barbara channel. The sun had settled just behind Santa Rosa Island, turning the sky into a murky shade of tangerine that sparkled off the water. The lights on the oil rigs beyond the island made them look like galleons sailing for a distant place in a distant time. The world was changing around us, and I didn’t want to have conversations like this anymore.

I looked towards Cam, but he kept his eyes on the road. “Cam,” I said with my voice trembling as if I were about to cry (but I didn’t feel it coming), “has it ever occurred to you that I may not want to find a girl?”

“Look,” Cam persisted, “maybe Lompoc girls aren’t your type. I get it, not a lot to choose from. You’ll find her though.”

“Cam, no. that’s not what I’m talking about.”

Half joking, Cam asked, “Are you gay or something?”

“Sure,” I said, but I immediately realized that wasn’t a clear enough answer. “Yeah,” I added. I looked back at him. Cam was silent for a few minutes before he started nodding.

“Okay,” he said, “cool.”

“Cool?”

“Yeah,” said Cam, “You’re one of my day ones. You liking guys or girls, isn’t gonna change that.” I was taken aback by his apathy. He treated what I just told him like he found out I cheated on a test. He looked over at me and made an assuring smirk. “We’re still cool,” he said.

###

            I hugged my parents one more time, promised to come back for the nearest holiday and then I was off. A couple blocks down, my phone started vibrating in my pocket. I pulled it out and saw that Cam was calling me before I put the phone on the center console and kept driving.

I tried not to think about why he was calling, but I did find a diversion when I saw that I was running on empty. It was the only time I felt relieved that I needed to get gas. Usually I’d go to Sunshine Market since it was the cheapest. But that was out of my way, I also didn’t want to run into Cam in case he was there. It was for the best; he’d ask why I didn’t answer his calls/texts and then it would turn into this big thing that neither of us wanted.

I went to Circle K in the strip mall near Cajun Kitchen instead. I hated going there. To call it a strip mall was being generous. After the recession, what should have had at least nine storefronts now only had three: the grocery store Albertson’s, Beauty Connection, and – oddly enough – Radio Shack. But Albertson’s was so expensive no one ever went there. The only people there were teenagers learning how to drive and what was left of the employees.

It wasn’t like the recession was the only thing that pushed Lompoc closer to the edge. When Cam and I were in middle school, Mr. Ruiz told us the Space Shuttle story. We must have heard it a thousand times by now, but it still felt fresh.

“You had to be there, man,” said Mr. Ruiz. “They should have launched the shuttle from Vandenberg right from the beginning. Come on! We have better weather than Florida.”

“What happened?” I asked one day, not knowing the consequences.

Suddenly, Mr. Ruiz lost that air of hope. “What?” he asked.

“What happened?” I said again, “You know, when they launched the shuttle.”

“Well,” Mr. Ruiz said, “Challenger happened.”

The shuttle in Vandenberg was supposed to launch in the summer of ’86. But after the Challenger disintegrated in mid-flight, the Air Force halted development of their program. It wasn’t until later when I understood what that meant. That growth from the ‘70s and ‘80s slowly turned into decline. Everyone who was part of the program – except Mr. Wold, apparently – left looking for greener pastures, maybe to Cape Canaveral.

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While I waited for my tank to fill up, I went over to grab my phone. The screen read, “(2) missed calls from Cameron Ruiz” before Cam tried to call again. I put my arm down and gripped tighter, hoping it would go to voicemail quicker. When it stopped I held it up and read, “(3) missed calls from Cameron Ruiz.” I put the phone back in the car. Maybe he wants to say goodbye, I thought to myself, or maybe he wants to continue what happened last night; though I was pretty clear that we were done.

A month before graduation I was in a bookstore in Santa Barbara. There was no reason for me to be there. I just wanted to be there. As I browsed the aisles of shelves, I saw Stephanie. Her back was to me and I thought I’d go up and say hi. But when I went up to her, I ended up freaking her out and she dropped her books. “Shit!” I said, smiling in hilarity, “I’m so sorry.” It was hard for my dumb ass to hold back laughter as we both leaned down to pick them up. Then I stopped when I saw bruises on her arms which she quickly covered with her sleeves. We looked at each other and knew there was no way out of it. She didn’t want to say it, and I didn’t want to hear it but I knew what was going on right then and there.

“Please don’t tell anyone,” Stephanie said to me, her voice trembling. “Please don’t tell Cam. Promise.”

I promised her.

###

            With my tank full I drove across the parking lot to avoid the light. The faster I was out, the better. Then Cam started calling me again. In a fury, I stopped the car and picked it up. I finally had a response to his text.

“Stop calling me!!!” I typed into the box, “Not only are you mentally unable to make this right, it’s impossible after what you did. I can’t have this kind of poison in my life anymore.” Right when I was about to send it, I deleted all of it and cried.

The night – and a few nights after – I found out about the abuse I couldn’t sleep. I tried to act normal, but whenever I saw one of Cam’s posts, a knot in my stomach would twist into existence.

The monologues, the long drives, the PDA it was all a farce just like all the instances Steph played her part when she’d wear Cam’s jersey and letterman’s jacket. “I’m just getting ready to be a football wife,” she’d joke to everyone before we’d all laughed like idiots.

I’d see Cam kiss her on the cheek and I just wanted to grab him and scream, “You fucking moron!” I wanted to do something. I just hated that I was too much of a coward to actually do it.

Then at the mission, after a few beers, I hit the limit. We were all sitting in a circle and Cam and Steph were doing their thing and he slapped her ass. My first instinct was to say something right there, but I knew that would have done more harm than good. So I asked Cam to talk with me in private. I couldn’t be in a room full of a bunch of enablers.

We walked for a while on the mission grounds, mostly because I wanted to find a place that was as far from everyone else as possible. When we came to the fountain between the old pear trees, I stopped. Whether it was the shitty beer or the spirits that supposedly haunt the grounds, or the fact that it was the bare minimum of decency, I had to say something.

“Hey man,” said Cam, “I just wanted to say that… I’m really gonna miss you when you’re gone.” I looked over at to him and said nothing. “I mean…” he continued, “You’re one of my day ones, and I know you’ll be around for holidays and shit but… it won’t be the same.”

What he said was heartfelt and sentimental, but I had to stay focused. No good would have come from me returning the sentimentally “Cam,” I said. “I know.”

It wasn’t the best way to start but the mood still disintegrated. “Excuse me?” said Cam.

“I know,” I said again, “I know about the bruises. I know where they come from. I know.”

Cam smirked but I knew he was furious. “Alright,” he said as he tried to laugh it off, “So you saw some bruises. What do you think you know?”

“Don’t do that,” I said, “Don’t bullshit me like that. I know they’re from you.”

The laughs stopped. “Who told you?” Cam asked.

“Does it matter?” I said, trying to keep my promise. “It’s still not okay for you to be hitting…”

“It’s getting late,” he interjected. “I think we’re going to call it a night.” Cam turned around to walk back to the chapel.

I rushed and blocked his path. “No!” I said. “We’re gonna talk about this.”

“Fine,” said Cam, “So you know. What the fuck are you gonna do about it?”

“If you don’t end this relationship,” I started, “I’ll tell her parents.”

I’ve never seen a person so angry, scared, sad, and whatever else there is at the same time. I looked down and saw that Cam was closing his hands into fists and I braced for impact. But instead he took a step back and smiled in a panic.

“That’s what you’re gonna do?” Cam said, “You’re gonna tell her parents?” I nodded. Cam stepped back again and threw his arms up and let them drop to his side, still smiling that panicked smile. “Cool,” he said, “You know, that’s fucking weak. Why not just tell the cops?”

“Cam…” I said, but he interrupted me.

“Shut the fuck up! You piece of shit!” he yelled. There was a nanosecond where I saw tears in his eyes. “You piece of shit!” he yelled again. Cam stopped and wiped the tears from his eyes. He fell slowly and sat on the floor. “You know how happy she makes me.” he said with his head down, “She’s the only person in the world that makes me feel this way and you want to take it away.”

“Do you realize what you’re doing can ruin your life?” I said.

“So you think threatening me is going to make it any better?”

“This isn’t about you!” I said back. I wasn’t going to fall for it. “What I’m doing is correct. Do you not see what you’re doing is wrong?”

Cam stopped crying and stood up. I looked at him and saw his puffy cheeks and red eyes, and I felt sorry for him. He took a deep breath and gathered himself.

“She told you, didn’t she?” he said.

I looked down. I didn’t matter that I broke my promise to her, what good would that have done? “Yeah,” I said.

Cam rubbed his eyes and cleared his throat. “She probably told you not to tell anyone,” said Cam. “Especially me.”

“Yeah.”

Cam turned away and shook his head. The silence was deathly. “So,” he said as he turned around and looked at me, “She trusted you.” Cam walked closer to me until I felt the heat from his breath on my nose. “Kinda like how you trusted me when you told me you were gay.”

“My parents already know,” I said as calmly as I could.

I cleared my throat in order to keep up this façade of strength, turned around and walked away.

###

            “Aye??? we still cool???” Cam’s text read as I stared at it.

No, we’re not still cool. I came out to my family way before I came out to Cam. How fucking arrogant of him to think I’d tell him before my family. Did he actually think that texting me would make me forget that he kept my gayness in case he needed it for leverage? Or was he just really dumb? Cam was never my friend, just like how Mr. Wold was never building a rocket. It was all just a fantasy that fooled me into thinking I had a reason to ever come back here. Fuck this place.

I put the phone down and started the engine to finally leave. Then I looked in my rear-view mirror and saw what looked like standing outside. I thought I was going insane even after I turned around. I got out of the car to get a better look and it was actually her. She wasn’t the cute girl Cam and I saw in Jack in the Box a year ago. She was a completely different person. Maybe that’s why I was confused.

“Hey,” Stephanie said. Even her voice sounded different.

“Hey,” I said. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m trying to leave,” she said. “Get the fuck out of here.”

“Where?”

Stephanie shrugged and said, “Anywhere.” She looked around for a long while and said, “You know I never got to thank you for what you did last night. You were gone so quick.”

“What happened after I left?”

“Cam pulled me aside, crying,” she said. “He said he loved me but we couldn’t be together because of how much he loved me.”

“What did you do?”

“I agreed and got a ride home,” said Stephanie. “Whatever you said worked ‘cause it scared the shit out of him.” I nodded. She looked away as a gust a wind blew by. She needed to get out of this place as much as I did – if not more. “Where you going?” she asked.

“Berkeley.”

“For school?” Stephanie said. “That’s awesome.”

“You want to come with me?”

Her eyes went wide and we just looked at each other for a long time. The wind blew across the empty parking lot and she finally said, “Let’s go then.”

With that, we were on the road. When we passed the closed-down drive-in, crossed over the dry riverbed and saw the eucalyptus in the distance, we knew were actually leaving. The light next to the bell that marked the El Camino Real turned red and Stephanie jumped out of the car.

“What the fuck are you doing?” I yelled out the window.

She ran across to the dry grass field and raised both middle fingers up towards the town. I watched her and my phone started vibrating. As suspected it was Cam calling. But before I had a chance to put it down, the ground started to shake. Another rocket, I thought. But it kept shaking, violently and ceaselessly. I saw the people in the cars around me get out and look towards the town in disbelief as more pulled to do the same.

I looked over and my jaw dropped. It was a rocket, but it wasn’t coming from base. It was coming right from where my neighborhood was. I jumped out of the car and stood next to Stephanie, whose arms dropped in disbelief.

He did it. That crazy motherfucker across the street actually did it. It took him more than 20 years but Mr. Wold was “gittin’ out of here.”

We, along with what must have been at least 30 people, watched and craned our heads as the rocket curved into the sky and over the Santa Ynez Mountains. It gained speed and a sonic boom echoed across the valley, knocking a few of us to our knees.

But all I could think about was what everyone in town was doing. I thought about my parents, how relieved they must be now that Mr. Wold was fucking gone and how annoyed they must be about the crater in place of his house. I thought about Mr. Ruiz and how he’ll tell this story years from now.

The Lompoc wind blew into my face as the shaking slowed down. My phone started vibrating in my hand.

And the rocket kept climbing, climbing, leaving a great, clean Corinthian column of smoke and steam behind as it exited the blue and entered the black.

The space shuttle being transported to Vandenberg Air Force Base
The Space Shuttle being transported to Vandenberg Air Force Base. SLC 6 in the background.

Photos courtesty of foxtrotalpha.jalopnik.com

After Tomorrow, Get to Work

Today President-elect Donald Trump will become President Donald Trump.

Most people – including me – never imagined this scenario would actually be real. But it is and for the next four years there isn’t much we can do about it.

A lot of people in this country are afraid of these next four years, and they have good reason. The president-elect’s campaign rhetoric has earned him the title of American Demagogue.

But there is no use in bashing Candidate Trump anymore. Victorious candidates usually change once inaugurated. They find that most – if not all – of their campaign promises cannot be fulfilled due to a plethora of reasons. Sometimes their policies take effect after the opposition party becomes the majority in Congress. Sometimes the economy isn’t as good as they thought it would be. Sometimes – God forbid – there is a war.

But regardless of what President Trump will do while in office, the fact still stands that there are more of us than there are of him and his cronies.

It’s time to get back to work.

If you believe that contraception and women’s reproductive rights need to be protected and universally accessible, donate or volunteer for Planned Parenthood.

If you are concerned for Americans who are Muslim, volunteer at the Council for American-Islamic Relations.

If you believe reading can change a child’s life for the better, become a reading partner.

Volunteer with animal shelters, churches, soup kitchens, soup kitchens at churches, or vice-versa. Most volunteering opportunities are at the local level, so hopefully Volunteers for America will be able to point you in the right direction.

Find out who your state and congressional representatives are and become a citizen lobbyist.

Remember that the entire House of Representatives will be up for re-election in 2018. If you don’t like your representatives, vote for somebody else and/or volunteer for someone else’s campaign.

Remember the golden rule: Treat others the way you want to be treated.

There are countless things that you can do to make this country better. I suppose that’s what makes America great. Moonshots, Hoover Dams, skyscrapers and baseball make America cool, but they don’t make America great. What makes America great is its people’s generosity. Believe it or not, Americans are generally good people who care about one another.

It’s also important to remember that decency is not a competition and no one is keeping score. You should also not wait for the “other side” to be decent for you to do the same. The only reward you get for being a good person is for your soul, and that’s what really counts.

Presidents exist to guide us, but we are the final authority of our fate. And when a president sucks we usually soldier through before picking someone else (if we can survive Watergate, Jimmy Carter, AIDs and 9/11, we can survive Trump).

Now get to work.

The Zax: Our Country’s Future Without Unity

the-zax-standoff

In November I voted for Hillary Clinton to be the next president of the United States and as the world saw last month I — along with millions of others Americans — did not get what I want. Instead the country’s electoral system chose a man whose candidacy was built upon the foundations of  pseudo-nationalism, fear mongering and genuine misogyny.

For 16 months Americans watched a campaign that overthrew the power structure of one major political party and revealed the arrogance of another. When condensed so crudely it sounds like an astonishing feat of political will. But the devil is in the details.

We know too well what was said on the campaign trail. It has left a burning scar across the country, the likes of which have not been seen since General William Tecumseh Sherman burnt his way from Atlanta to the the sea.

But to write about the outcome would be dull. Smarter and wiser people have written better commentary with more insight.

But it is worth mentioning that the scar is not the steep influx of hate crimes, but the incredible polarization that both sides have been persisting for decades.

During the campaign I went to Nevada and Wisconsin which went to Clinton and Trump respectively. I also phone banked and called people in North Carolina, which voted for Trump.

In Wisconsin, I spoke to a woman who supported Trump said she and her husband hadn’t worked since the factory closed. She couldn’t afford to drive her kids to school in the town over — everybody was out of work and the school district could only afford to send one bus.

A man in North Carolina told me that he was going to vote for Trump because he was tired of “the same shit.” He went on saying that he hated everything that he said during the campaign, but that it wouldn’t matter if he ended up changing “the system.”

But the experience that will stay with me the longest is when I spoke to a woman in northern Nevada. Her daughter was sexually assaulted but her prosecutor decided to plea bargain with the assailant and he walked free. She felt wronged by the system and that her child got no justice. She reluctantly voted early for Trump,  because she felt that for just that moment she could give her daughter some justice. Then she ended it with, “You didn’t hear about this because it didn’t happen in LA or New York. It happened in who-gives-a-shit Sparks, Nevada.”

After hearing them I made no effort to argue. If they were at peace with who they’re voting for then so was I. We were going to win anyways, I arrogantly thought to myself.

After the election I delved into deep thought and began asking myself a lot of questions:

Are my family and I going to be safe? What does this mean for us?  Why has my country let me down? How did this happen despite all of the things he said?

It’s safe to say that I wasn’t alone in these thoughts. After a brief moment of panic, I called an old friend who had conservative views. He was just as shocked as I was — then again a lot of us were shocked.

“Maybe people just wanted a change,” he told me.

His response baffled me. What did that mean? How did Trump represent change? Even though his cavalier attitude towards the results infuriated me, I still valued our friendship.

I decided to look at it from his perspective. I let his words rattle around my head as I slept. The next morning I went onto Facebook and was disgusted by the posts.

There were two reactions among liberals after the election. The first was genuine fear among people of color and other marginalized people. This fear stems from both history and what people of color reported immediately followed after the election. This reaction was justified.

The second disgusted me beyond measure. In addition to not being justified it was just as fear mongering as Trump’s campaign. Well meaning whites began posting the link to Twitter’s “Day One in Trump’s America” series and used it as examples of why there needs to be another civil war. Others began blaming Republican voters, saying “If you voted for Trump, fucking unfriend me.”

That’s when I remembered what those Trump voters and my friend told me. That morning I posted this.

As a response to my very public “Facebook meltdown” from the night before, here are some thoughts.

I’m seeing a lot of posts saying “I can’t believe half this country is racist and sexist and homophobic,” “We should just not include Florida anymore,” and “F**kin rednecks ruined this country.”

And that’s when it hit me. Maybe the reason Trump won was because for years we have been ignoring a part of the country that is just as poor and just as disadvantaged as other groups.

This didn’t happen because half the country is sexist, racist and homophobic. This happened because in our pursuit of progress and inclusiveness, we forgot to include them.

For decades they saw on their televisions as liberals fought for the civil rights of minorities and LGBTQ+ folks while poor whites were characterized as country bumpkins, rednecks and hicks who were all racist and homophobic.

Meanwhile globalization has taken their manufacturing jobs out of the country and the new interstates made small towns in the heartland and Rust Belt forgotten.

It’s hard for anybody to explain why a job they had for years went somewhere else. Why the economy globalized, why prices would go up if manufacturing stayed where it was.

So nobody bothered to explain it to them and the frustration was left to fester as they saw the same liberal activists on TV talk about creating more opportunity for minorities. All while opportunity has been taken away from them.

And then we mock them and their way of life.

We demonized religious folk in media by characterizing all Christians as gay bashers or all Mormons as judgemental; and we mocked their beliefs and implied that their way of life, their spiritual comfort, was a joke, that if you believed any of that you were dumb.

They were finally fed up with all of it and this is the consequence.

Some of my more liberal friends read this and commented that it just didn’t make any sense, or that in the spirit of another comment, it’s true but not really.

When I made a post about my experience talking to Trump voters another comment read, “If that’s truly the reason so many people voted for him, then they have only shown themselves to be gullible fools.”

Even though we’re supposed to be more accepting than the other side, we are so quick to dispose anyone who poses a threat to the binary of our political bubble.

Recently I had a conversation with a friend that identified as somewhere to the right on the political spectrum.

They told me that after the election they began posting articles and think pieces that took up an optimistic tone for the coming four years. They also told me that since posting these things they have lost a considerable number of Facebook friends.

This person, also told me that they grew up in the American south as a person of color with an “Arab” sounding name. Though chose to not go into detail of the remarkable bigotry and hate they faced. Instead they simply stated, “The [racism] that the media complains about is kindergarten racism.” They also noted that the people who unfriended them were all white.

NOTE: The following is a direct address to young liberal whites.

People of color are all trying to find ways to cope with what happened last month. Some are incredibly happy, others are incredibly scared. Some are trying to find some hope in this, others are getting ready for battle. But apparently the ones who are trying to find the light in darkness have no place in your world.

If Trump turns out to actually be the American Hitler, you’re not going to be the victims. The worst that will happen to you, if you stay quiet, is that you’ll just watch your friends of color and their families suffer.

You personally do not know what it feels like to be racially discriminated against. You will never understand the level of shock and disappointment I felt when somebody in the grocery store called me a fat chink.

What you will do is say stuff like “I’m here for you” and “I’ve got your back.” This is all well meaning except your definition of being “here for us” is shutting down anybody who disagrees with you.

I consider myself to be very liberal, but the lack of understanding among liberal people is astounding. Aren’t we supposed to be the accepting ones?

Acceptance starts with understanding. Waiting for “the other side” to understand us leads nowhere. The best way to understand somebody else is to listen to them. Not only does it give us perspective, but also makes them feel validated.

Stop disregarding other people’s emotions. It is important to remember that while we were all upset by the election results, another half of the country was happy. They’re emotions are valid. We don’t have to like Donald Trump, but that should not translate to not liking half the country.

Stop thinking in monoliths. Saying that “half the country is racist” or “half the country is lazy” fogs over the fact that there are 300 million people living in the country all with dreams, cherished memories, concerns and fears.

Finally, stop viewing different struggles as more or less important. Struggle is not a competition, it is what unites us all. In fact the only monolith that is correct is that we have all experienced struggle.

It is possible to be a decent person and not have a decent president — we’ve done it a lot. If enough people in the country believed that, we wouldn’t be as divided as we are now. So let’s start.

From The Trail: Photos of the 2016 Campaign in California

It’s finally here! After two years of brutal campaigning, today the world looks to the United States as we hold our elections.

I don’t know how much I’ve spent on Uber and Lyft this cycle, but it was probably a lot. This year I was able to cover different aspects of the 2016 campaign. Sometimes with other people, other times alone. But the experiences of rallies, press conferences and a debate have all been the same: sending out emails trying to justify that my blog was a legitimate media outlet, waiting to receive confirmation, recognizing the same reporters at each event, wading through the crowd to get the best shot, trying to get the best quote, running into fellow student journalists.

The following are photos that I’ve taken during this incredible cycle. Since June I’ve reported on three rallies, a congressional debate and a group of Clinton campaign volunteers in Reno.

I did not photograph the Reno trip, though there are photos from when the bus got stuck in Donner Pass on the way back.

Some were taken with my phone when I was with other people.

Regardless of the quality or event, this election isn’t about Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Ami Bera, Scott Jones, Loretta Sanchez or Kamala Harris. It was always about what we as Americans — more specifically as Californians — are.

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Sacramento mayoral candidate Darrell Steinberg greets supporters outside the Hillary Clinton Rally at Sacramento City College. June 5, 2016
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A protestor outside the Clinton Rally. Signs read “Billary is a Fraud,” “Neocon – Neolib Two Sides of the Same Coin.” June 5, 2016
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Fellow Sac City Express reporters Maxfield Morris and Tyler Heberle at the Clinton rally. June 5, 2016
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Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson, State Senator Richard Pan and Congressman John Garamendi stand backstage. June 5, 2016
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Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton takes the stage. June 5, 2016
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Frequent collaborator Vanessa Nelson stands with other photographers during the rally. June 5, 2016
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Supporters cheer as Congresswoman Doris Matsui passes the mic to Clinton. June 5, 2016
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Sacramento County sheriff and Republican candidate for the California 7th Congressional district Scott Jones poses for photos outside KVIE before the debate with incumbent Ami Bera. Oct. 18, 2016
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Republican strategist Wayne Johnson (left) and former Sacramento County sheriff John McGinness (right) before the California 7th debate. Oct. 18, 2016
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Traffic behind our bus in Donner Pass. I was following a group of volunteers campaigning for Clinton in Reno. Oct. 30, 2016
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California Attorney General and Democratic candidate for US Senate Kamala Harris at a “Get Out the Vote” rally with Congressman Ami Bera. Nov. 3, 2016
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Kamala Harris speaking to reporters. Nov. 3, 2016
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Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders speaks at a Yes on Prop. 61 rally at the California State Capitol. Nov. 7, 2016
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The crowd outside the California State Capitol listening to Sanders speak in support of Prop. 61. Nov. 7, 2016
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Prop. 61 supporters listening to Bernie Sanders outside the California State Capitol. Nov. 7, 2016

Kamala Harris Makes Campaign Stop in Elk Grove

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California Attorney General and Democratic candidate for the United States Senate Kamala Harris stopped the campaign headquarters of Congressman Ami Bera (D-Elk Grove) for the Sacramento leg of her 10-day bus tour of the state.

Due to California’s top-two primary, two Democrats will be going head-to-head in the general election Nov. 8. Harris’ challenger is Democratic Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez of Anaheim. However, Harris is still the national and state party’s choice to fill the seat of retiring Senator Barbara Boxer who has occupied that seat since being elected in 1992.

According to a poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California, Harris leads Sanchez by 22 points as of Oct. 23. More recent polls put her at 20.

Recently Harris has gained national attention after spearheading the crackdown on backpage.com. Site executives Carl Ferrer, Michael Lacey and James Larkin were charged with pimping and pimping minors in Sacramento County Superior Court back in September. Prosecutors allege that all three men knowingly received millions in bonuses from the illegal prostitution ads on the site.

Harris said that it is important that her successor continue to pursue prosecution of backpage.com if she is elected.

Candidates duel over contested 7th Congressional District in California

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Democratic congressman Ami Bera and Republican challenger Scott Jones debated in Natomas yesterday for California’s 7th Congressional District.

The two candidates have dueled over this hotly contested seat with both accumulating their share of skeletons in their closets.

The debate began with questions regarding a lawsuit filed against the Sheriff’s department. The lawsuit covers allegations by a former female deputy that Jones sexually harassed her. However, Jones insisted that the allegations were false.

“I went under oath and I deny these allegations in the strongest terms possible,” said Jones.

Bera continued to push the allegations issue, saying that they were “pretty shocking what was going on.” This attack mirrors pro-Bera mailers and television ads that paint Jones in a similar light.

But Bera’s character was also called into question. Earlier this year, Bera’s 83-year-old father pleaded guilty to two felony counts of election fraud. Bera’s father, Babulal Bera, used family and friends to illegally contribute above the legal limit to his son’s 2010 and 2012 congressional campaigns.

“My father made a mistake and he shouldn’t have done this,” said Bera during the debate. “He’s not a criminal but he broke the law.”

A federal prosecutor found no evidence that would indicate Bera or anyone in his staff knew of Babulal Bera’s illegal activity.

Jones however believes otherwise. “Either the 90 friends and family of Congressman Bera who all knew what engaged in a conspiracy for four years to keep that information from Congressman Bera,” said Jones, “or alternatively that Congressman Bera didn’t have any substantive conversations with any of those 90 family and friends.”

Since redistricting in 2013, the California 7th has been one of the most hotly contested districts in the country. According to Cook Partisan Voting Index, the district is considered “even.” Bera narrowly won re-election against Doug Ose in 2014. This year should be no different.

Sponsors of the event included the Los Rios Community College District, Sacramento Bee and Folsom lake College which is located within the 7th District.

The election will take place on Tuesday, Nov. 8. The deadline for voter registration California is Oct. 24.

13th (2016) Review

13th_filmScore: 5/5

“We may have lost the sheets of the Ku Klux Klan, but cleary when you see black kids being shot down… we didn’t clear this cancer.” – Charles Rangel

Slavery was abolished when the United States ratified the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.

The 2012 film “Lincoln” focused on how Abraham Lincoln and his cohorts got the amendment passed by Congress in 1864. Director Steven Spielberg portrayed it as a major step towards full equality for all Americans, and there is no doubt it was.

But Constitutional amendments have consequences. The First protects all forms of speech including hate speech while the Second could not keep up with the rapid evolution of firearms. In Ava DuVernay’s “13th,” the consequences of the Thirteenth Amendment are explored.

The first section of the amendment reads (emphasis the film’s):

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Today, one out every four Americans – a statistic from the film – is incarcerated; roughly 2.3 million people. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 40 percent of those 2.3 million are African American even though they only make up 16 percent of the population. DuVernay uses “13th” to argue that because of 14 words, the United States became prison happy.

DuVernay demonstrated her filmmaking mastery in “Selma” but this documentary proves that she is one of the most articulate and informed filmmakers working today. Any filmmaker would have focused on the broader theme of mass incarceration without exploring the elements that contribute. DuVernay not only explores these elements, but she lingers on them just long enough for the rage to boil over.

With the slaves free there was a lack of available labor to rebuild the economy of the south. In addition to share cropping, white southerners also began arresting blacks for minor crimes so that they could be used as free labor. These arrests of black men created the myth that they were uncontrollable criminals, barely human.

But the fear doesn’t stop at that stereotype. “13th” contributes the massive prison population to Richard Nixon’s “law and order” campaign which planted the seeds for Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs. These are not new facts. Students of politics and history as well as the average stoner know that the war on drugs targets people of color more than whites.

But the film brings a larger context to this. The masterminds behind these campaigns knew exactly what they were doing – I will not specify because the anger needs to be experienced. These were not crusades for security and morality, they were diabolical strategies to consolidate the white vote for the Republican Party.

But politicians, regardless of their political affiliation, have to be tough on crime. Democrats like Charles Rangel and the Clintons supported harsh crime legislation because it became the new norm. Some even went as far as coining the term “super predators” – people who were beyond rehabilitation.

With an issue as heavy as mass incarceration it’s easy to end with resolution or at least hope. In “The Hunting Grounds” which tackles campus sexual assault, it ends with the growing support that victims have. There’s already outrage over the justice system and how it treats people of color. Institutions that were staunch opponents of these reforms are now becoming more flexible as the mood changes.

But DuVernay is too smart to let them slide. A professor from UC Santa Cruz makes it clear that history shows that when the establishment takes the lead in reforms, it usually leads to more repression. It leads me to think of Lyndon Johnson.

In addition to passing the Civil Rights Act, Johnson also initiated a war on poverty. He crafted his strategy with the help of both experts and the poor. This plan and the legislation that came from it came to be fittingly known as “The Great Society.”

“13th” is currently streaming on Netflix.