Looking over my shoulder.

I keep looking for a way out of this working life I’ve ended up with. Working for other people is not working so well for me. I’d rather be sitting at home right now, peeling back the skin on my left thumb, trying to see the bone beneath. Painful, but so is 9 hours spent in a cubicle, trying hard to ignore the fast internet connection and expensive licensed graphics software and two flat-panel displays. My poems would be so wide if I resized the window. But I don’t. I stare at spreadsheets and Outlook and broken proprietary software. I wear a headset and listen to east coast clients who are three hours closer to quitting time complain. I spend the afternoon checking things off my to-do list and watching the clock. When I find myself saying “I want to go home” as involuntarily as I breathe, it’s not even that home is such a great destination at the moment, but it’s not here, and not-here is where I want to be. I want to be on the crowded, humid train full of other workers tired and wet from the cold rain outside. I want to drive behind angry honking commuters all the way back to Oakland. I want to do just about anything but what I’m paid to do, which is never enough, the pay. Never enough by design. And yet, here I am, taking a moment to pull open Notepad and write this because my boss left early, and for the first time today, there’s no one looking over my shoulder.

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Hooray for consolidating and streamlining teh blawgs. I just imported all the posts from my old WordPress.com blog into this one. (Shall I end that one with a cleansing fire? Hmm. Good question.)

More prominently on the website agenda is locating decent Facebook and Twitter plugins (for adding/following and for sharing). So far, I’ve just gotten annoyed with the widgets I’ve found, but I’m sure the proper solution is out there somewhere.

Just like “the truth.”

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Blood sports.

At the Berkeley Slam right now for the Battle of the Bay Indi World Poetry Slam edition. Jason’s competing. I almost wrote “performing,” and that’s what it is, but here, it’s all about competition. And I like competition. We all do–the poets, the audience, the hosts–and in fact, Jason just did a poem about sports and how rallying for the home team is a family tradition, a tradition of immigrants trying to be accepted by the home team.

I’m not used to cheers and pom-poms and rallies. It’s true that I spent my early childhood watching a lot of baseball on television with my grandmother, who loved not just the White Sox, but the Cubs. She was perhaps the only black women on the south side of Chicago who adored that team that played on the white side in a neighborhood that generally wanted her and everyone who looked like her, who looked like us, dead. Yes, Chicago made sport into a race war, and maybe slam is, too.

Maybe every poem about police harassment, about black-on-black crime, about the embarrassment of a father’s Filipino accent turns that stage into a battlefield. But it’s a war worth fighting, even if I’m a veteran now, no longer on the front lines, but cheering the bombast, rooting for my own home team.

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Just another manic Monday.

The first day back from a long weekend is always so terribly long. But I’ve had worse Mondays, it’s true. Mexican food, karaoke, and some time with my mother and Jason. It could have been worse.

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Hello, world!

Welcome to the brand-spanking new home of Lauren Wheeler’s Fighting Words. It’s taken a while, but I’ve finally migrated the old site over to WordPress. I’ll be making some changes over the coming months to get the site up and running the way I want it to be.

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We rats will pull a lever, too, if you give us a good enough reason.

I am hereby declaring war on insomnia.

Pharmaceuticals, take me away.

But, first….

I’ve been thinking a lot about electoral politics for obvious reasons. It’s not just the presidential campaign that captured most of us all year, or the backlash against black folks since Prop 8 passed.

This year began with my signing up, unwittingly, to be the press secretary for a doomed congressional campaign. With little sense of what that would require, and finding myself the default campaign manager, and canvasser, and strategist, I quickly realized how much work goes into such a campaign–and that one person cannot do it. During this time, I was also participating in my first electoral field work with Just Cause Oakland, walking precincts encouraging people to vote in the primary and conducting a survey about their concerns. This work wasn’t tied to any particular campaign; there were no ballot measures to vote on, the organization’s tax status forbids backing any candidate, and JCO’s understandably cynical when it comes to candidates anyway. The point was to do outreach to our base, let them know about the organization, and gauge their willingness to participate in the electoral process at all.

One thing that was striking to me back in January and February was that I had a far easier time getting infrequent black and Latino voters in West Oakland to talk to me for ten minutes about their city council rep than getting the mostly-white voters I approached in the Sunset District to sign a petition to get a congressional candidate on the ballot. I quickly chocked this up to election fatigue, which points to a couple of things. First, the presidential campaign, even by January, had been going on for so long that folks were sick of hearing about it. Second, the people I spoke to in San Francisco were fatigued because they’d been approached so often by so many campaigns. Not true of the voters in Oakland I talked to; no one bothers to ask them who they’re voting for, much less what issues they care about. This isn’t surprising. Why should anyone care about talking to poor and working-class people of color living in blighted neighborhoods, and especially the ones who rarely vote?

Fast-forward to April, when I joined the Just Cause staff full-time as a volunteer organizer and campaign spokesperson for the campaign to defeat Prop 98, the ballot initiative that aimed to end rent control in the state of California. I spent a lot of time on the phone talking to would-be volunteers, trying to get them to care enough to give us a few hours of their time or, at the very least, to write a check. I spoke to hundreds of people and wrangled well over a hundred to commit to phone-banking after work or coming out early on a Saturday morning to knock doors in the precincts. We were effective. We moved people to vote in a June election, which usually gets 30% turnout and much of that from conservative whites.

One of the things I’d realized way back in January while working on the JLJ campaign was that winning a campaign has little do with the righteousness of one’s position. It has to do with the effectiveness of one’s message and with the dissemination of that message. People need to feel that something is at stake for them, or their families, or their community for them to vote the way you want them to. Or at all. If they don’t have a personal stake in the outcome of an election, they may not even bother showing up.

Lost in the noise about Barack Obama and Prop 8 were other measures on the November ballot here in California. Though I didn’t participate nearly as much this time around, the bulk of my time went to Just Cause’s efforts to defeat Propositions 6 and 9, two ballot measures that sought to further expand police forces across the state and the prison industrial complex. Prop 6 was particularly heinous, calling for minors aged 14 to be charged and incarcerated as adults, extending sentences for “gang-related” crimes like car theft, requiring police and sheriff departments to report the arrests of undocumented folks to ICE, and subjecting public and subsidized housing residents and their families to stringent criminal background checks. Prop 9, supposedly a “victims’ rights” bill that would have done nothing to expand victims’ rights, was written by the same folks who wrote 6, and would have lengthened sentences and made it harder for inmates to get parole hearings.

It wasn’t hard to know that lots of people would be voting in this election; eight years of Bush had nearly the entire state crying out for change. Way back in January and February, people automatically assumed I was knocking on their doors to talk about Obama even though I wasn’t. But I’d be lying if I said that folks doing electoral work in those neighborhoods weren’t capitalizing on the excitement about him while educating people on other issues that would affect them and their families more immediately than anything that may happen when President-Elect Obama becomes President Obama on January 20, 2009. Any campaign that didn’t use his popularity to its best advantage to attempt to sway voters made a huge tactical, or perhaps, strategic error. In the case of Prop 8, a lot of us who chose to throw our efforts towards campaigns that, in comparison, got very little attention instead now suffer for the hubris and naivete of No on 8’s leadership, which decided to avoid talking to our folks. Which intentionally left the children of LGBTQ folks–and hell, LGBTQ folks themselves–out of their campaign materials and television ads. Which assumed that it–we–would win just because we were right.

What they just didn’t seem to understand is that when it comes to political campaigns, it’s not about being right. It’s about convincing other people, people with no personal stake in your issue, that you’re right. But, mostly, when it comes to political campaigns, it’s about winning.

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Bail out my ass.

Monday, I used my new-to-me car Sputnik to drive to East Oakland and pick up a woman named Joyce from her housing project. We then went to the Oakland Housing Authority’s headquarters downtown for a press conference before the meeting of OHA’s Board of Commissioners wherein they would be discussing their disposition plan–a plan to dispose of 1,615 public housing units in the city, half of all such units.

The plan involves turning over each of the crumbling properties to an as-yet unnamed “affiliate” for one shiny dollar.


Because the OHA, like housing authorities all over the country, doesn’t have enough money to keep the properties open and maintained.


Because HUD (the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development) doesn’t have enough money to distribute to them.


Because three-plus decades of the neoliberalist push for privatization of every federal program under the sun, including all the safety nets F.D.R. put in place while trying to save the country’s citizens from the economic free-fall of the 1930s, has defunded public housing to the point where cities have no choice anymore.

So, when I’m told that we don’t have money for public housing, for federal welfare programs, for universal healthcare, for Head Start programs, for increased financial aid for secondary education, for aid to those homeowners and tenants caught up in the foreclosure crisis, I would sincerely like to know WHY THE FUCK $700,000,000,000–$2,500 of my money, and yours–is being demanded to help out Wall Street.

And so would Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio:
Marcy Kaptur bailout speech

Jay Smooth on Economics and Annoying Smart Guys, Or “How America Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Nerds”:

Economics and Annoying Smart Guys

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She says she’s tired.
That’s the first thing she says
when we arrive and she’s lying
in a hospital bed hooked up
to the dialysis machine.
Her hands, gnarled from years
of cleaning and cooking,
hands that held me when I was small,
smaller than she is now,
reach out for something invisible.
Her eyes are closed,
and she’s tired.

That’s the only thing lucid
she says in the time we sit with her,
after they’ve brought her back
to her own bed in her own room,
after three hours on the machine that works
for kidneys too tired to clean
her blood anymore.

She asks if Harry is still out there,
Harry, her younger brother who lives
in Chicago. She won’t eat her food, claims she’s
had dinner already, but that’s not true.
She’s upset by the number of times
they take her temperature, won’t stop
talking, complaining, the thin plastic
thermometer bobbing under her tongue.
She’s convinced the pills they give her
are giving her these crazy dreams,
making her mind go too fast.

My mother asks the nurse what they are.
“Tylenol.” “Tylenol with codeine?”
“No, just Tylenol.”

Tylenol, and vitamins, and other pills
to bring down her blood pressure,
which is still too high. “But it’s lower now,”
she says. “I don’t want anymore pills.”
She wants to go home. Blindly dials numbers
on the hospital phone that doesn’t call out.

“Who are you calling?” my mother asks,
and she snaps at her—“I’m 96 years old.
Do I ask you who you call?” She says she’s calling
Bill, her cousin, dead for decades.
He’ll come and get her. He’ll take her home.

“I’m tired,” she says.
And I know this is true.
She mouths more words to people
who aren’t there and falls asleep.

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Even closer to home.

From an article in Time Magazine on Trinity United Church of Christ:

The bulk of Trinity-goers are among the thousands living on Chicago’s South Side, a sprawl of cracked sidewalks and boarded buildings that inspires fear among the city’s middle classes, and even its wizened cabbies. “You won’t find a ride back,” the taxi driver told this reporter upon arriving at the church. For South Side residents, the best jobs are two hours away via public transport: a bus, an el transfer, and then another bus brings you to Hyde Park, the area’s lone upscale community. The few city-planning efforts to assist South Siders only worsened the situation. The most notorious were the Robert Taylor Homes, prison-like warrens with barred windows, circling police and neglected facilities that often left residents without electricity, heat and plumbing housed thousands until they finally came down in February 2007. The majority of those who died during the 1994 heat wave that killed more than 700 people were South Side residents. Before Katrina, it was the deadliest natural catastrophe in the U.S. since the 19th century. The morgues ran out of room. Bodies were piled in milk trucks.

And that right there is what happens when reporters stroll write about the Chicago of their imaginations instead of the Chicago that exists, the Chicago that is the third largest city in the country behind New York and Los Angeles and one of the most segregated. While it is true that you can drive for an hour and not see a white face on the South Side, the many black neighborhoods it comprises are hardly all crumbling slums, the Robert Taylor Homes were about 50 city blocks north of that church, and Hyde Park (home to the University of Chicago) is definitely not the only upscale neighborhood on it. It seems beyond comprehension for many that black folks might actually live well in segregated neighborhoods.

Trinity stands about 3 ½ miles from the last house I lived in before leaving Chicago at age 10 to live with my mother in Oakland, California. The area in which I grew up, Chatham, was a solid working- and middle-class community. My street was mostly single-family frame houses, bungalows, and a few brownstone apartment buildings, my neighbors a mix of young professionals with families and older, retired folks who yelled at us to get off their finely-manicured lawns when we played kickball in the street.

Inspired by the Time article and my imminent visit to Illinois (Springfield, not Chicago) to get my 96-year-old grandmother and bring her back to California with me, I decided to look up my old house on Google Maps, and thanks to streetview, I was able to actually see it. It’s been sold and remodeled since my grandmother moved out a few years after I left, but I still remember sitting on that porch while one of the girls from down the block gave me cornrows for the first time. I remember chasing fireflies down that very-much-not crumbling sidewalk, putting out nuts for the fat brown squirrels that lived in that big tree out front, playing double-dutch with my cousins Debbie and Luanna, being hit in the shoulder with a lawn dart one summer, eating apple pies made from the fruit of the tree in our backyard until it was struck by lightning during a thunderstorm. We weren’t rich by any stretch of the imagination—my grandmother retired from her civil service job shortly after I was born to help take care of me and was on a fixed income, and my mother sent her AFDC checks to Nana every month—but I don’t remember wanting for much then.

(Living with my mother was a completely different story, but ironically it was in integrated neighborhoods in the East Bay and Miami Beach where I encountered real poverty while in her care.)

A simple search on Google today led me to a real estate website that describes my old neighborhood thusly:

A strong history of prestigious African American-owned businesses established a solid base for a prosperous and successful Chicago neighborhood that is still present in Chatham and spills over into beautiful residential blocks and a viable commercial and dining district.

And Chatham is hardly the only such black neighborhood on the South Side.

Thinking more about the trip I’m about to take to Illinois, I’m stuck with a lot of frustration. I’m angry at my great-aunt, with whom my grandmother has been living for the last eight years and who is now, in effect, kicking her out, and at my mother, who is too much of a nervous wreck to do anything in preparation for her mother’s arrival. I can’t help but wonder if this is what it was like for her, over two decades ago, when I moved here to live with her for the first time in my memory. She was a year older than I am now before she had to be responsible for her only child, and I know that she didn’t have the easiest time making the adjustment. Her behavior now—indulging in the worst kind of avoidance and self-pity, drinking every night after work—makes me wonder if this is what she was like before Nana and I stepped off that plane at Oakland International Airport in 1986.

I wouldn’t be surprised.

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Close to home.

Last June, after leaving my last job in the video game industry, I decided to spend the summer doing volunteer work. One organization with which I became involved is Just Cause Oakland, a community-based organization dedicated to protecting affordable housing for people of color and working folks. JCO came into being in 2000, and its first campaign was to pass Measure EE, a citywide ordinance that prevents tenant eviction without cause–a huge issue at that time thanks to the dot-com boom happening on the other side of the bay.

Since then, JCO has fought gentrification in Oakland, pushing for inclusionary zoning policies that require real estate developers to create affordable housing alongside the $600,000 condos and McLofts being built in East, West, and downtown Oakland. Just Cause is also involved in the fight to protect existing public housing, much of which is being demolished all over the country to make way for private development, and has uncovered some of the less-noticeable side effects of the subprime mortgage crisis–namely, renters being forced out of foreclosed properties when banks refuse to pay for water service or trash collection.

Of course, there is never an end to the tribulations we Bay Area renters face. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the property owners who got Proposition 13 passed in 1978, thereby slashing property taxes statewide and virtually bankrupting California schools, is at it again.

Proposition 98 will be presented to voters on the June 3rd ballot, disguised as protection against eminent domain seizure. What the proposition really calls for, however, is the end of rent control across California. Its passage would also prohibit inclusionary zoning practices and do away with various environmental protections.

Just Cause Oakland and other organizations have taken up the fight. I spoke at a rally yesterday in protest of this dangerous piece of legislation and was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle and Oakland Tribune.

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