Running another Philadelphia marathon

I never expected this. For over 20 years I was a typical jogger, going out two or three times a week for about four miles at a leisurely pace. With no goal other than fitness and enjoyment, I was unconcerned about going farther or faster. Suddenly I was 55 years old and lacing up my shoes for my fifth marathon.
It started in the winter of 2008, when a friend with marathon experience invited me to join him for a half marathon in Central Park, and I discovered that I enjoyed running nonstop for two hours. The idea of a marathon, hitherto almost inconceivable, became attractive. In the fall of that same year I ran Philly in 3:51, and loved it. I had the appropriate attitude of humility and respect for the distance, running a disciplined, well-regulated race the likes of which, ironically, I haven’t been able to match ever since.
Next was New York in 2009. By now I had moved to South Orange and fell in with a delightful gang of experienced, enthusiastic, and talented distance runners known as The South Mountain Running Collective. I became ambitious, and wanted to meet the Boston qualifying standard of 3:35. Like a fool, I went out too fast, and had to struggle and suffer to hang on over the last 10K, attaining the goal with only seconds to spare. Going out too fast is the classic mistake in distance running, though you might think it would not be so difficult to avoid.
But this performance got me to Boston in 2011, where I repeated the same error, albeit not as drastically: another positive split, but I beat my goal of 3:20 by five seconds, and easily qualified again for Boston in 2012. (Runners call it a negative split where the second half of a race is faster than the first, and it is well established that it is far more effective than the reverse.)
And how could I resist going back to Boston again? I could not, and trained with a view to another personal record (or PR, which is also a verb in runnerspeak) of about 3:17. But the temperatures were in the high 80s that day in April. We were forced to revise our plans and focus on simple survival. Hence my disappointing 3:43, 13 minutes short of Boston qualification (BQ) for my age group.
By now I was thinking it might be nice to get off the crazy train. Marathon training is a time- and energy-consuming pain in the ass, and try though we might to keep it tucked away in its own discreet little compartment, it inevitably has an impact on other people in our lives. And sometimes those people don’t like it. But could I really go out like that, credible excuse notwithstanding? With a 3:43?
No. In November 2013 I was back in Philadelphia again to settle accounts with the marathon gods. This time, however, the training cycle had been more challenging. It is not unusual to encounter setbacks of some kind during 20 weeks of training. Sickness, injuries, family dramas, the demands of work — in short, life — sometimes interfere. I had successfully navigated through bronchitis, a death in the family, and other challenges in previous training cycles. But this time injuries cost me a week and a half in August and several more days in October, and I was not able to get all the mileage I would have liked.
Even so, when I walked up to the line, I felt fit to run a successful marathon. The key workouts in the final stage of training had gone well. My injuries had subsided, the weather was fine, even my pre-race jitters seemed noticeably less severe than in the past. This time I did not have a fixed, specific goal. I thought 3:15 was conceivable, but decided anything up to 3:17:30 would be acceptable. And I had a plan, known as 10 + 10 + 10: go out relatively conservatively for the first 10 miles, i.e., at a 3:17:30 pace; pick it by a few seconds per mile for the next 10 miles; and for the last 10K, be in a position to pick up the pace even more, possibly enough to get me there in 3:15.
Once we got underway, embarrassing though it is to admit, I am not really sure what I was thinking. I do recall making a conscious effort to hold back initially. Over the first mile, traffic was congested, and I decided to go with it rather than fight. My first mile was a 7:42, but that was perfectly OK. A slow start was desirable; there was plenty of time to make it up.
For the next 18 miles or so, it seemed that nobody was in charge. The data on my GPS watch says that mile 2 was 7:18; mile 3, 7:08. For miles 4 and 5 I dialed it back to 7:24, but that was still about 8 seconds per mile too fast. The next few miles included a couple of moderate ones, and my average pace for the first 10 was around 7:30. The pushing and pulling continued over the second 10 miles, but the average overall was around 7:25 — consistent with the overall plan, yes, but too late because I had already blown too much energy in the first 10. By around mile 17 or 18 I was still feeling OK, but tired enough to predict that after 20 miles it was going to be hard to maintain the pace. Miles 22 to 25 were 7:40, 7:44, 7:48, 7:56, 7:55.
Crossing 26 with the crowds screaming encouragement, I was able to pick it up to a 6:53 pace, but over the last 10K I averaged about 7:48 and came in at 3:17:23. (The gory details are published at http://connect.garmin.com/activity/406675139.)
This marathon experience was different from the previous two in which I was seriously trying to reach a goal. In New York, the last 10K were hellish, but my addled mind had enough command of the numbers to understand that I would meet the BQ threshold if and only if I ran like hell. This motivated me to fight hard against the fatigue. The same was true in Boston in 2011: I knew the 3:20 mark was still within reach, but I had to dig. In this race, the goal was comparatively vague: sub-3:17:30, hopefully something closer to 3:15. For the last 10K I felt fatigue, but it wasn’t especially painful — I simply couldn’t convince myself to run faster. But I also felt pretty sure that the 3:17:30, and certainly the PR, was in the bag. That complacency probably hurt my cause; a bit of drama, pressure and anxiety might have provided helpful motivation.
3:17:23 represents a PR by over two minutes, and a Boston qualifier with over 22 minutes to spare; it was also good enough for 16th place among 319 men in the 55-59 age group. Maybe I ought to be happy with that. And although I am not completely disappointed with the bottom line, I am pretty disgusted with myself for not having better discipline. The objective numbers demonstrate that I had the fitness; the subjective experience of how smoothly the whole 26.2 went by, weak finish nothwithstanding, confirms it. I am almost certain I was physically prepared to run at least one, maybe even as much as two minutes faster. But I positive-split it by 1:22 and squandered this splendid opportunity.
Why is it so hard to slow down in those early miles? For me, I think one problem — if it can be considered a problem — is that proper marathon training really works. On race day you are fit, tuned up, but also tapered and rested — not to mention jacked up with the excitement. When the gun goes off and you start running, it is extremely difficult to believe that running can feel this easy and still be fast enough. It seems like you should be exerting at least a little bit. Even the minutes and seconds your watch displays at the mile markers do not convince. So, for me, the lesson is: believe it, bitch. It may even be that I could run a faster marathon next time by setting out to run it slower. Then there might be enough gas in the tank at the end to finish strong enough to get a better result.
Wait — did I just say next time? Uh, yeah, I guess I did. Which brings us back to where we started. I said I never expected to be running marathons, much less running them this fast. I said I would like to get off the crazy train, and maybe I will. But it isn’t easy. When you’re an athlete, you enjoy the challenge of seeing how well you can do, so you keep trying. Eventually the inevitable effects of age overcome the positive effects of training, but that’s no reason to give up prematurely. Another factor is that running marathons (and shorter races as well) is really cool, and fun, and profoundly rewarding. It gets into your bones and becomes part of your identity: you’re a runner. What’s the use of trying to be anybody else?

Back pain, bane of human existence

I wrenched the holy fuck out of my lower back while getting into the car to drive my daughter to school last Friday morning. That simple act seems to have triggered it, but an accumulation of insults must have contributed. I had never had a back experience quite so bad in my 50-plus years. I could barely walk, and had to miss a couple days of work. I could not dress myself without assistance, and was only just able to maintain that essential, minimal autonomy and independence: lower myself onto the toilet to take a shit, and wipe my own ass.
The back is hard to ignore, being right in the center of the body, the hub of everything: arms, legs, head. For the first day or two or three, I tried to be tough. Pain? Fuck pain, I can deal with it. But after about four or five days of it, when you are stiffly shuffling around in your bathrobe, staring out the window at the rain falling from the quiet gray sky… then you understand how a person could get depressed.
I had planned to run a local 5K race Saturday morning, even indulging fantasies of winning my age group. Indeed, the guy who did win it is an acquaintance, and his pace was 2 seconds per mile slower than my last 5K, on August 14. There would have been a dramatic battle to the finish line! (I could have this, I would have that — yeah, so go into a bar and brag about “could have” and see how many people you impress.) Instead, as runners were milling about the starting area, I was struggling just to get from bed to toilet, taking tiny baby steps, gasping and holding the walls for support.
Debilitating injury and pain get to us for any number of compelling reasons, but foremost among them is that such episodes are prefigurations of our eventual, inevitable death. Yeah you heard me: one of these days you are gonna go down and stay down, and your life will end. We should regard these illnesses and pains of our decaying bodies as opportunities to reflect on impermanence.
And yet there is a hilariously comical element mixed into this mess. A couple of times I burst out laughing at my predicament, stuck somewhere in the middle of a room, unable to stand still, unable to move forward. The vibrations from the laughter made my back hurt worse, of course, so I laughed all the harder — erasing from my wife’s mind any lingering doubt that I am crazy.

Why I am a de facto semi-vegetarian

The short answer is The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. I was already generally aware of the atrocious ways of meat production in the United States: extreme cruelty to animals; adverse impacts on human health and on the environment. But the gory details were sufficient to compell me to decide not to participate any longer. There is no excuse for treating chickens, pigs, and cattle the way large industrial producers do, and I refuse to be complicit in a system of which I so strongly disapprove. Indeed, it would be hypocritical of me to do otherwise.grilling_veggies.jpg

That doesn’t mean I am a full-blown vegetarian. Homo sapiens is one of those animals that eat other animals in order to survive, and I have no problem with that in principle. If you can serve me a piece of pork that was once a pig who was raised and killed in as humane and environmentally sustainable a way as is reasonably possible, I will happily eat it, mindful of the pig’s sacrifice. A roasted rabbit, who led a natural bunny life hopping around and eating and fucking until dispatched so skillfully that Mr/Ms Bunny never knew what hit her or him? Bring it! But getting that kind of meat requires substantially more expense and effort than does the supermarket kind, and as of yet I haven’t made the effort, so I have gone without eating the flesh of cattle, chickens, pigs, turkeys, and so forth.

Fish is another matter. Figuring out which kinds are harvested in an environmentally responsible fashion also takes some homework, and they have faces, and they probably don’t like suffocating any more than you or I would. But I am content to rationalize that a sardine does not have the cognitive functioning to realize how bad it’s getting fucked before it ends up in a can. Maybe I will eventually change my position. For now, I need protein and don’t want to depend solely on nuts and tofu. So I eat fish with some qualification.

One might say, let’s see you kill and butcher that animal yourself, and then see how you feel — as Michael Pollan did. I would certainly be willing to give it a try some day — killing my own food sounds kind of cool, in fact. But for now I am a creature who lives in the suburbs, works in a city, and going hunting with my crossbow is not really a practical alternative. The idea is certainly not forever foreclosed, but for now I am content to allow someone else to kill my food animals for me.

Opting out of industrial meat has not required any difficult adjustments in my diet, because I was already eating a lot of vegetarian meals, rarely consuming red meat, and increasingly eating fresh and local food. I have had to renounce that Cambodian style noodle soup from a Cantonese place near my office, a delicious concoction made with sliced and ground pork as well as shrimp and egg noodles in broth probably made from ducks who undoubtedly fare no better than the pigs.

As for eggs, we generally buy the most environmentally correct ones available, and willingly pay a premium over the industrial kind (think of it as insurance against salmonella poisoning courtesy of a mass producer in Iowa who churns out millions of eggs a week — you don’t need to be a Slow Food connoisseur to see the problem inherent in production on that scale). But that’s also a tricky game, since what you read on the carton — “cage free,” for example — may be bullshit. But I eat salads from a deli near my workplace, sometimes containing a hard-boiled egg about whose origins I know nothing. I am not a purist; I compromise. When I eat my kids’ left-over pepperoni pizza, I peel off the pepperoni and eat it, unconcerned about the pizza being tainted with pepperoni residue. And maybe — maybe — when Thanksgiving rolls around I will decide to go along with the program and partake of the turkey. We’ll see.

The result of this modest dietary change is that I feel fine both ethically and physically. I like to burn a lot of calories running, and have kept on setting personal record times since quitting the meat. Over time, I suspect our family will be eating still more local and fresh, and adjusting our diet according to the seasons in New Jersey. The rest of the family might even phase out the industrial flesh consumption. For now, this is working well for me.

Walking out on sesshin

I signed up for a sesshin, or retreat, at a place called the Zen Mountain Monastery upstate: a week of lots and lots of sitting in a formal and disciplined monastic setting. I wanted to experience someplace other than the one zendo which I have attended exclusviely since I started practicing, and be an anonymous face in a large crowd. I also wanted to hear what the teachers had to say, after being deeply impressed with a couple of talks that I had read online. Two people I know who had trained at ZMM encouraged me to go. One of the founders, now deceased, is regarded as a major figure in western Zen — John Daido Loori.
[An aside for readers not familiar with Zen as practiced by most Western lay people: the core of the practice is sitting, or zazen — seated meditation. It’s important to sit every day, and it is likewise important to do intensive practice as often as your schedule permits: that is, all-day sittings, or zazenkai, and multi-day sittings, which we call sesshin or retreats. During these extended sittings there is no talking, reading, or fooling around with phones or computers. There are periodic breaks (sometimes barely adequate) in the zazen schedule for things like meals and sleep. The idea is to keep practicing around the clock. Sesshin tends to sharpen your skills and, ultimately, make you more acutely aware of where you are and what you are doing. This is also known as being awake. It can be said that Zen is for those who would dare to wake up.]
So I drove up to Mount Tremper, NY, on a rainy Monday afternoon, and sesshin began that night. The next day at about two o’clock in the afternoon I packed my bags and walked, deciding that this was not a fruitful use of my time right about now.
The place had about it a slight fragrance of psychopathy mingled with the incense.
My mattress was seriously fucked up, and made my back hurt. The ratio of showers to people was too low to expect more than one shower over the six days. The schedule was 3:55 a.m. rise, and lights out at 9:30, with a number of short breaks and only one one-hour break for all your rest and exercise. Breakfast and lunch were taken as formal oryoki, an extremely elaborate ritual involving lots of chanting and drumming and bells, folding and unfolding cloths and arranging bowls and utensils in a very particular way.
Maybe I gave up prematurely. I was uncomfortable and got but little sleep my one night there, and sleep deprivation has a pronounced negative effect on my mood (so it is for everyone, but I seem to do worse than most). My lower back ached, although not bad enough to be a crisis. There came a point in the oryoki ritual in which you put a bit of rice on the handle end of your little wooden spatula as an offering to your supernatural imaginary friend the Hungry Ghost. That’s when I realized this was not for me. I deliberated over the next hour or so to give myself a chance to reconsider, but that was pretty much the turning point in which I said fuck this.
If this sesshin regime were a prison, Amnesty International would have something to say about the inadequate opportunities for sleep, exercise, exposure to the outdoors, and bathing. But it is by no means a prison. You go in on a purely voluntary basis for a limited time — and although it is discouraged, you can get up and leave, as I did.
I packed my gear and took it out to the car as people were assembling in the zendo for the next round of sitting, following lunch. Drove down the driveway and found there was a gate that I was going to have to open in order to get out. When I got out of the car, I saw one of the monks walking towards me, and understood that I was going to have to speak to her. I had half-tried to tell myself, prior to escaping, that walking out and hitting the highway was going to be a satisfying act of self-liberation. But when I realized I was going to have to explain myself to someone, I felt a sheet of emotion extending from somewhere around waist level to above my eyes. She asked whether something had happened. I explained as best I could that this just was not for me, not now. She said, why did you come? I knew the question was not rhetorical. She wanted me to consider why I had come in the first place. Unable to recall any reason, I said it sounded like a good idea at the time. She tried gently to dissuade me from leaving, suggesting that I might try hanging around for the afternoon, talking to one of the teachers. I pictured myself re-entering the building with my baggage and re-installing myself in the room, and found the image intolerable. If she had said, come on, I will help you get your stuff back inside, it might have been a closer contest. I told her, as respectfully and tactfully as I could, the same things I just said here. I am attached to my bourgeois lifestyle, and have trouble tolerating a week with scarcely a shower and a bed so uncomfortable that it will take my back days to recover once I get home. She said, we could do something about the bed. I said, I am a wordly and unspiritual sort of dude for whom offering blobs of rice to supernatural beings is not the way I want to spend time that I could otherwise be with my wife and kids and cats. I said I understood that walking away from the commitment to stay till the end was not approved of, and could accept it if I was banned for life. She was perfectly gracious about it, and said on the contrary, I was welcome to come back and try again any time.
I was practically in tears as I drove away, because leaving was an anguishing decision, and I felt — rightly or not — a certain shame and humiliation from the failure. It took the rest of the week to process and get over it.
It isn’t necessary to justify myself, but I am gonna do it anyway and state for the record that I am not a one who typically quits when faced with adversity or difficulty. I have done week-long sesshin a couple times before, with schedules that were perhaps not as grueling as this one, but certainly not leisurely — and walking out was never under serious consideration. I have kept other tough commitments in this life, like training hard for 20 weeks to run a New York Marathon at a Boston-qualifying pace even when the last 10 kilometers were brutal.
So what happened here? I think this experience can be seen as analogous to a computer crashing under excessive load. Too many hats: father; stepfather; husband; computer programmer; professional court interpreter; distance runner; single-payer healthcare activist; ….Zen monk? Crash!
There is only so much you can do at a given point in your life. You can stretch the container pretty damn far, but we all must reach a limit at some point; then you have to choose between this and that, not both. Far be it from me to find fault with this style of practice. I might even go back and try it again some day, as the monk kindly suggested that I could. For now I belong on my mat at home and zendo, and in my supremely comfortable bed with wife and purring cats.

The end of insomnia: how to get to sleep

As someone who struggled intermittently with sleep problems for decades and ultimately beat them, I am pleased to share what I consider the secrets of my success. None of this can be proven objectively; none of this is science; all of this is subjective and anecdotal. But it’s consistent with both science and common sense.
I assume you’re already familiar with the conventional wisdom: take it easy on the caffeine; don’t eat heavily too soon before going to bed; don’t work out hard too soon before going to bed; and so on. All that is fine. But here’s what seems to be working brilliantly for me.
Step one: clean house. Everything else can almost be considered a subset of this overarching principle. By house-cleaning, I refer metaphorically to getting one’s personal shit in order. This may seem self-evident at first glance. But this sort of mental-personal hygiene is forever a work in progress, and many of us are wandering around in various degrees of denial and delusion, so it bears a closer look. Hate your job? Deal with it. Hate your spouse? Deal with it. Need a shrink? Get one. Need to change shrinks? Do it.
Next, be very careful with alcohol. Even though I’ve always been high-functioning, I used to drink abusively most weekends of my life, thinking of it as a form of recreation. A few years ago I realized I had had enough, and abruptly quit binge-drinking. Few things disrupt sleep as cruelly as alcohol, and it gets worse as you get older. Moreover, the effects of boozing are more subtle, pernicious and persistent than we might think. You might be smashed on Saturday night and think that sin should be in the past on Wednesday, when you can’t sleep. Not so. Moreover, a penchant for getting hammered usually points to some underlying issue that has to be addressed: see step one above. I am still in the process of examining my own story, but getting to sleep is no longer an issue.
Next: exercise. Seriously burn some major calories doing hard cardiovascular exercise several times a week. The benefits are amply documented, and getting more so all the time. Don’t make excuses. Do it, and learn to love it. It’s good to lie down at night with a body that is really, legitimately tired, not just an exhausted body and a mind buzzing with all of life’s bullshit.
Next: sit. That’s the simple, unpretentious term many meditators like to use for what they practice. We call it sitting because it really is just sitting. There are many different meditation techniques, but the form I favor is arguably not meditation at all because there is no external object of concentration, no mantra, no effort to stop thinking and attain some pure state of single-pointed concentration. Sit up straight — on a cushion, or a kneeling bench, or even a chair — eyes open, looking down at about a 45 degree angle, and inhale and exhale. It’s good to set a timer so you don’t have to worry about the clock. Pay attention to what you’re doing: breathing in and out, receiving sensory input, thinking thoughts. Keep returning your attention to the experience of right now. The attention will wander — will crawl away like a turtle, or fly off like a bird. No problem, just keep coming back, time and again. Don’t worry about goals and objectives. Just sit. As Matthieu Ricard puts it with elegant understatement in one of his books, the benefits of meditating for 15 minutes a day far outweigh the scheduling difficulties. And by the way, the state of pure concentration — moments of astonishing clarity and calm — will eventually begin to happen from time to time. But not as a result of chasing after it.
Next: when it’s time for sleep, do not try. I can’t emphasize this enough. Stop trying to go to sleep. What could be more ridiculous, and self-defeating? There is no hurry. I have found it far more effective to just lie there doing nothing than to worry about the clock. Just lie down and let it happen.
Or not. The final point here is that you may do all this stuff with great diligence, and still have occasional difficulties getting to sleep and/or staying there. Maybe a bit too much coffee, or anxiety, or food, or some combination of these — whatever. When this happens, it happens. Do not worry about it. After all, what good does it do?

Running the 2009 New York Marathon

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I had the privilege of running the 2009 New York Marathon on Sunday, November 1. This was my second marathon; the first was Philadelphia in 2008. I trained for 20 weeks using a program from runningplanet.com specifically designed for a 3:40:00 marathon. In the final week of training I decided to reset my goal to 3:35:59, which qualifies a male in my 50-something age bracket for the prestigious Boston Marathon.

The NY Marathon is a logistical tour de force, with its 40,000-plus runners. Organizers clearly went to great lengths to keep everything moving and avoid excess congestion. Thus the start was divided into three waves, and these in turn were further partitioned into separate routes that only merged several miles later, where the streets were wider and people were naturally spread out more than at the start.

The streets were lined with hordes of cheering people. The atmosphere was highly charged, and despite the fact that I knew better, and even as I knew what I was doing, I committed the classic marathoner’s mistake known as going out too fast. Instead of running around 8:14 per mile, my pace over the first 10K was 7:53.

Gradually I calmed down and ran the middle third of the race at a more reasonable pace. But you can’t change the past, and by mile 18 I knew I was going to have to pay for my earlier lack of discipline. I had taped to my left wrist a timetable showing how much time had to have elapsed at each mile if I was to attain my goal time, and from consulting it I knew I was ahead of the pace throughout the course. But by mile 20 I was fading and the margin of error was getting slimmer. I concluded that I had nothing left, therefore nothing to lose. I would ask myself, can you stand another six miles of this? Yes I can. At five miles to go: can you stand another five? Yes I can. And so on.

The split times over the last six tell a tale of alternately fading, then fighting back. Mile 20, 8:22 — too slow. Mile 21, 8:28 — even slower! Mile 22, 8:12 — excellent, two seconds ahead of the goal pace. Mile 23, 8:10 — great. Mile 24 which is largely uphill, 8:49 — despair! Mile 25, 8:04 — heroic. Mile 26, 8:22 — too slow, but we’re almost home. For the last 0.2 I was running at an 8:35 pace — definitely fading fast.

When at long last the great sign that said Finish came into view, I was so spent that it took me a couple of beats to comprehend what it meant. I crossed the finish line and stopped my watch at 3:34:44: success.

Weaving and unsteady on my feet, I was accosted by a volunteer who led me to the medical tent, where I ended up lying on a cot recovering for about 25 minutes. On the adjacent cot was a guy named John from New Zealand, apparently in his 40s, who had also nailed his BQ (Boston qualifier) at 3:17 — and who had likewise spent everything he had and then some, and landed in the medical tent like me. In a shared state of total exhaustion and elation, we had a wonderful conversation about the nature of this amazing thing known as marathon running. It was a highlight of the whole experience.

During this conversation with John I had an insight: a marathon is at once both a communal, public event — a grand party, an orgy of thousands running through the streets! — and at the same time, as intensely personal and intimate an experience as you can have. It is absolutely solitary, but in a way that is neither good or bad. You drop down into ever deeper realms of your own consciousness and find out about who you really are. Think ten years of psychotherapy compressed into a few hours. Or, for you Zen practitioners, think of a week sesshin crammed into a single morning. No wonder the marathon game isn’t for everyone. I believe that many marathon runners are motivated by nothing other than a search for the Truth. We intuitively understand what Master Bassui teaches: the Great Question cannot be resolved by the discursive mind.

Second-guessing myself, I speculate that I could well have attained the same result or better if I had run a more disciplined, strategic race. It would have been more elegant if I had conserved energy in the first half and had a powerful finish, running the last miles faster, not slower, than any of the preceding. But as experiences go, what actually did happen cannot be surpassed. It was a marvelous adventure.

Going to Jail for Health Care for All

On October 15, 2009, I participated in a nationwide campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience to demand Single Payer health care and an end to the profit-driven private health insurance system. Supported by some 50 legal protesters in the street, 14 protesters entered the lobby of One Penn Plaza in midtown Manhattan, a building that houses offices of the insurance giant UnitedHealth Group, and sat down on the floor. When we refused to leave, police arrested us and loaded us into paddy wagons.
Our group consisted six women and eight men. Of the men, two were in their mid-seventies; one of these was a retired Episcopalian priest, whose bearing and clerical color gave our group an air of respectability and gravitas; the other happened to be a Quaker.
Most people who do civil disobedience hope to get what is known as a Desk Appearance Ticket (DAT), where the police take you to the precinct, check your fingerprints for warrants, and if they find none, hand you a piece of paper like a traffic ticket and send you on your way. The whole process takes typically four to eight hours, and is perhaps only slightly more (or maybe less!) unpleasant than typical airline travel, where you are in a sense imprisoned, and your patience is tested. But we were not so fortunate. It was determined — I don’t know how or by whom — that we were to go through “the system” with the rest of humanity in all its wretchedness. Some of us speculated that this determination may have been political, i.e., someone powerful made a phone call and said that protesters should be discouraged and not given any breaks.
First we were taken to the 9th Precinct, in the East Village, where we were divided by gender and kept in two cells for over 10 hours. For the first five or six hours, morale was high. We had lively and stimulating conversation, got to know one another, sang songs, had some good laughs. After seven or eight hours had elapsed and we still had not been provided water, much less food, we began to complain. Ironically enough, the priest had headed a commission some years ago that promulgated a set of reforms for the New York law enforcement and penal system. Among these was a regulation that any prisoner detained for over five hours between midnight and 7:00 a.m. had to be provided food and water. When the priest pointed this out to one of the officers, she argued that the rule applied only to Corrections and not the NYPD. The priest insisted that it wasn’t so, and encouraged her to consult her supervisor. Eventually, she offered to take a few dollars from us, go to a vending machine in the building and bring some bottled water. I don’t think it took much effort. Shortly thereafter one of the support team was allowed to send in a bag with refreshments: more water, some fruit and energy bars.
In the meantime, the police went through an arduous process of fingerprinting us one by one with a scanner that kept failing to recognize our fingerprints. Whether it was software or hardware that was defective, or both, the machine balked if your fingers were too oily, or not oily enough, or if you were simply too old and your prints were too faint. The cops muddled through with commendable patience for the several hours that it took to fingerprint all 14 of us.
It was approaching 10:00 pm when we were transported downtown to a place known as the Tombs, in the basement of the courthouse at 100 Center Street, too late to appear in night court and be released. The place was packed, and we all stood handcuffed in a slow-moving line for over an hour to be photographed one by one, and finally, around midnight, admitted as a group to one of several large holding cells.
Some of us were still wearing white T-shirts with black lettering that said “Victim of Private Health Insurance” on one side, and “Medicare For All” on the other. We were repeatedly asked by both police and prisoners why we were protesting, and we seized every such opportunity. People were overwhelmingly receptive. (Only the intake photographer at the Tombs was hostile, but then again, from what I was able to observe, he seemed to have hostile attitude towards everyone.) Thus the system handed us an opportunity to promote our cause and continue the very sort of work for which we were arrested.
The Tombs was not particularly pleasant. I was grateful not to have known in advance what it would be like, because if I had, I might have hesitated to get arrested. We were in a windowless rectangle with a built-in stainless steel bench along three walls (the fourth being the bars). There were a lot of miscellaneous arrestees, people sleeping on the floor or on the benches, overwhelmingly black. A group of kids, whom I found vaguely menacing, had apparently been arrested together for drugs; they monopolized one of the two phones. Shortly after we arrived, the guard announced a feeding and let us all out into the hall to collect little boxes of corn flakes and milk. When we returned to the cell there was a confrontation, basically about territorial boundaries. Another prisoner struck one of our group in the face, breaking his glasses and giving him a black eye. Another of our group yelled for the guards, who came promptly and removed both victim and assailant to different cells. This was how our evening at the Tombs began. (Note to those considering doing CD who have an aversion to violence: this incident could surely have been avoided had we exercised a bit more caution.)
A guard came to the bars to ask witnesses about the incident. A couple of us went over and provided a narrative. Then there was some grumbling in the cell about snitches, and I had some fears of getting my white ass beaten. But the whole affair seemed to blow over, and the hours dragged on.
And on. After so many hours under flourescent lights with no windows and little sleep, the time of day reported by my watch became a meaningless abstraction; there was no discernible difference between 4:30 a.m. or p.m. There was a water fountain in the cell, but I distrusted the foul-tasting water and drank sparingly. As for food, it’s too painful to remember and I’d rather not talk about it. Seriously, though, the nourishment provided was evidently designed to keep us from starving and no more. For a good meal you should look elsewhere.
At some point, a handsome, well-dressed, articulate black man was brought into the cell. He and a like-minded friend began to lecture the assemblage about God, and His purpose for us all, and what we had to do to attain true manhood. “Gentlemen,” he said, “there are four attributes that you do not find in a real man. A real man is not a gangsta, a pimp, a thug, or a playa.” This seemed to be directed at the vaguely menacing kids. Eventually, there was a genuine conversation to which everyone who was not asleep appeared to pay attention, many of them participating. We discussed spiritual and philosophic issues and basic personal values. Where we could find common ground, we did so. When our well-dressed friend argued the inferiority of women, we called him on it. It was a remarkably fruitful exchange of ideas. But the preachers outlasted us, and the dialogue degenerated back into a one-sided lecture that became oppressive.
Our Episcopalian priest had been placed in a separate, more private cell — presumably because of his age and status. Towards morning, they put him back in with the rest of us. His appearance apparently humbled the two lay preachers, as they finally quieted down as soon as this real clergyman arrived.
The morning wore on and became afternoon, according to my watch. At last the guards started pulling small subsets of us out to go to court, where a judge released us on our own recognizance. Mine was one of the last three bodies — as we call humans in the judicial/corrections trade — to be summoned. Our lawyer, a volunteer who enjoys representing protesters, stood up for us in court without having had a chance to talk to us beforehand. The prosecutor offered Defendant Yours Truly a plea to Trespass Violation, the lightweight version of the misdemeanor Criminal Trespass, and one day of community service. Community service? Excuse me, I have been serving the community big-time for the last 32 hours. For our septuagenarian Quaker, who has more of a track record than most of us, the offer was seven days in jail. Apparently he is deemed a danger to society and in need of some deterrence. Fuck that. The UnitedHealth 14 will be holding out for much more favorable dispositions.
My brief encounter with the system was sufficient to underscore what I already knew: we live in a profoundly racist society. There can be no justification for the extreme overrepresentation of minorities and the poor in the jail population. If patterns of law enforcement have a disproprortionate impact on non-whites, which they undoubtedly do, that is inexcusable; and if dark-skinned people in fact commit crimes at a greater rate than light-skinned people do, then they must be disproportionately affected by inequality and social problems that make it so, and which must be addressed. Most people would rather make a living wage than spend the night in the Tombs for shoplifting cosmetics from Walgreens.
The experience also reinforced my feelings of gratitude. I knew I was lucky to enjoy a bourgeois life, but after being released from the can, sleeping in a comfortable bed next to my warm and yummy wife, with the cat Master Lin-chi curled up purring next to my legs in all his astounding furriness — this was delicious beyond description. I slept like a god.
When I awoke, the first thought in my head was this: Patients, not profits. Medicare for all. I realized my determination was now all the stronger.
* * *
Since you’ve been good enough to read all these words, you can now be rewarded with pictures and video. An excellent YouTube piece is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Vx_Cnw2Wxk, and there are still photos at http://www.antiauthoritarian.net/NLN/photo-gallery/2009_10_14_health/ — scroll down past the silly HCAN stuff about the meaningless public option to see some great shots of the UnitedHealth action.
And yes, there is something you can do: http://healthcare-now.org/ The struggle is far from over and we have no intention of giving up.

the joy of stealing — from Pathmark

Oh, excuse me, was I recently berating people for their thievery? I must have conveniently forgotten that too I have enjoyed stealing a little bit, albeit rarely and in a petty way.
You know how a lot of supermarkets nowadays have those self-checkout things rigged up? A computerized female voice prompts you to “please place the item in the bag” after you scan the barcode. Ever tried just putting shit in the bag without scanning it first? The robot doesn’t like that. “Please remove the item from the bag and place it on the scanner, ” says she. It’s hard not to anthropomorphize that humanoid voice. After the fourth or fifth repetition of this routine I am surprised that she/it remains so patient and polite, and doesn’t say, in the same even-tempered robotic voice, “please stop trying to steal shit from the Pathmark corporation.”
But you can occasionally steal shit just by leaving it in your cart and wheeling your way through, pretending it’s an oversight. I had the pleasure of purloining some figs this way a while back, and it really was a mistake that time. “Oh look!” I said to myself in the parking lot, “free figs!” Some months later I stole a nice can of sardines because I had recently read or heard something about how nutritious they were and decided a couple more sardines in the diet would be healthy. They were also delicious! I was really glad I stole them. I might even pay for some next time. (Which gives rise to the interesting possibility that this free sample, so to speak, will ultimately benefit the grocery store’s and/or sardine provider’s profitability.)
The sole employee overseeing the several self-serve checkout stations doesn’t give a shit. It would have been fun to be a fly on the wall at some meeting of Pathmark executives where they decided to do this. You just know they had to have known customers would get away with some filching, and decided it was still cost-effective because it meant fewer humans on the payroll, hence a savings that would outweigh the loss of loss prevention.

Comcast, PSE&G, and don Adilio: thieves

Once again, my friends, it’s time to review an important teaching: people will steal your money if you let them.
I had three different entities try to reach into my pocket in the space of about two weeks. First it was the management of the building out of which I moved. The building manager Alberto presented me with a check for my security deposit — without interest.
“Dude, it’s with interest, I explained. “This isn’t just me; it’s the law.”
“Oh, well we don’t do that,” he said.
I repeated, “that’s the law of New Jersey my friend. Interest.”
I went on to suggest that at 2% per year the interest should be something like $50 for $1500 over a year and a half. This took place in the back office of the small supermarket that occupies the first floor of this building in beautiful and historic downtown Jersey City. The old Cuban gentlemen who owns most everything on that block was sitting at his desk witnessing this, and my effrontery apparently upset him. He went into a screaming rage. I did my best to ignore this and waited for Alberto to write out another check, accepted it, and bid them goodbye. The encounter was sufficiently unpleasant that it took tens of minutes for its residue to leave my body — those chemicals that tell you to fight or flee.
I have been considering how much of his tenants’ money don Adilio Gonz├ílez has had on deposit for how many years. From a little consultation with don Google I see that he has been lauded as a hero of entrepreneurial capitalism, received honors and awards, for building his business up from very little. I wonder how much money he has cheated his tenants out of. He certainly didn’t like it when I refused to let him cheat me.
Next up, Comcast. I called to shut down the service in the first days of February. They said I was subect to a $150 early termination fee. I said fine, so what’s my final balance going to be? A hundred sixty-one dollars and change. Thank you very much. Imagine my surprise — I was simply shocked, flabbergasted! — when a few weeks later Comcast billed me for $293. Sarcasm aside, I was mildly astonished, speaking of effrontery, to read the invoice and see that on its face it plainly showed they were charging me for services not rendered. The itemization said termination, February 02, followed by the service for the following month. In other words they acknowledged it was shut off and yet continued to charge. Does it surprise you to learn that it took over 30 minutes of voicemail menu navigation, holding, and grappling with so-called customer service personnel before the matter was finally straightened out? Now, suppose I had gone ahead and paid the extra $132 they tried to overcharge me. Maybe they would have eventually detected their mistake, and said oh gee we’re sorry Mister Bludgeon, here’s your refund. I rather doubt it. Indeed I doubt it was a mistake. Closing an account is normal, routine business operation. A corporation of their size ought to be able to handle it properly on the first try, don’t you think?
Next up, PSE&G, the electric and gas utility. Service at this apartment was discontinued early in March. So they sent me an “estimated” bill for $86 for the last few days of service. Please note that in the entire history of the account my bill never once exceeded $53 and change. Odd, isn’t it? Does it surprise you to learn that I had to call them on the phone to turn it into $12? Again, do you think they’d have refunded my money if I had simply paid them?
Comcast, PSE&G, don Adilio: shame on you. I only wish you would find a means of livelihood that doesn’t involve stealing from people.