Silver Sobriety

Me looking in the mirror, 1986.  From a production of Play with a Tiger.  Photographer unknown.

Me looking in the mirror, 1986. From a production of Play with a Tiger. Photographer unknown.

25 years.

Today marks 25 years since my last drink.

There was a time when 25 hours without a drink was pretty much impossible for me. Now it has been 25 years.

On past anniversaries I have recounted the bad times and how lucky I was to come through them. This year, for the silver anniversary, I want to celebrate. I want to think of the good things that have happened in my life that may not have if I had not quit drinking that night two score and five years ago.

To start, I have a life partner with whom I am deeply in love. We have been together now for almost 23 years and will be together that many more if we live that long and that many afterlifes or whatever comes next.

I have a job where I am respected that I have held for more than seven years.

I have created organizations that are thriving to this day and that have helped countless other people to live more authentic and rewarding lives.

I have had dozens of articles and poems published and also fulfilled a lifelong dream of writing a book (with more to come).

I have written 23 full-length plays, as well as one-acts and monologues.

I have won several awards for various things.

I have helped others find sobriety and/or move away from lives filled with drinking and drugs. Not that I want prohibition; I’m talking about people who were like me and were killing themselves with it.

I have squarely faced childhood horrors and have become an outspoken advocate to make sure the things that happened to me don’t happen to others.

I have learned to love myself and more deeply love others.

I have lived longer by many years than I certainly would have if my behavior hadn’t changed.

Twenty-five years ago I started a journey that led to all these things and more simply by recognizing that alcohol was destroying my life and possibly–probably–killing me. I stopped one night, not knowing for sure whether I could actually do it for good, but knowing that I had to try.

25 years later I would say that it’s clear that I could actually do it.

Today, on this silver anniversary of my sobriety, I am proud of this accomplishment and all that I’ve done in the intervening years. I look forward to the next twenty-five.

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The Power of Song

Solidarity Sing Along, Madison, Wisconsin, 2014.  Photo by Callen Harty.

Solidarity Sing Along, Madison, Wisconsin, 2014. Photo by Callen Harty.

In honor of the third anniversary of the Solidarity Sing Along.

There is power in a song. Music can change the world. Art in its myriad forms can change the world. It can threaten the status quo and instill fear in those in power. It can comfort the oppressed and offer encouragement and strength to those fighting for the dignity of their fellow man. It can enlighten and offer hope.

It is because of the power of art that one of the first impulses of fascist governments is to take action against artists. Rulers will ban certain types of art or threaten to imprison those who do not produce “acceptable” art. Fascists will do their best to quash dissent in any form and artists tend to be particularly adept at fomenting discord and encouraging discourse through creative expression. When art is outlawed, then artists become outlaws—willingly–and also remain the outsiders they have always been. Artists must create art. It is in their nature. When the consequences of their work can land them in jail they have no choice other than to become outlaws by being true to themselves and their beliefs. As a result artists are often the first to be imprisoned, beaten, or killed by repressive governments.

But artists tend to be fearless. Throughout history playwrights, composers, painters, and others have undermined authority through blatant exposés and subtle irony. In more repressive and dangerous times their radical ideas have been expressed through allegory that reveals the hypocrisy of kings, governors, and others. A single artist can be more dangerous than an entire regiment of guerilla soldiers. A group of artists can be more dangerous than an entire army of trained killers. A gun can kill one man at a time, but a lone artist can affect the hearts and souls of millions, eventually leading to the collapse of a government not truly supported by the people.

A song or other work of art can also bring incredible happiness, an ecstasy almost. There is a special kind of joy that comes from sharing songs, from gathering in a group with people of diverse backgrounds and singing together as one voice. When singing is used as protest it creates a bond that is as great as any soldiers’ bonds in battle. Deep and lasting friendships are formed. When many disparate voices join together as one in song human connections are enhanced and there is a power that reverberates and echoes across the hills and valleys of the human experience. It is the power of a unified people. Every day that the artist stands against oppression is another hammer of justice pounding at the walls of the oppressor. Like trumpets bringing down the walls of Jericho, songs of protest can cut away at those walls of oppression until they finally come tumbling down, and then the songs of freedom can be sung.

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God’s Behind the Door

Mom at 89.  Photo by Callen Harty.

Mom at 89. Photo by Callen Harty.

Recently my mother turned 89. It won’t surprise me if she makes it to 90 or 95, although I have already responded to several phone calls over the last couple years that left me in tears thinking that she was at the end. It has been more than half a year since a priest was called in to give her last rites. But she is tough. She hangs on, she keeps going, and she still has a sense of humor. She has gifts yet to give, I guess, and purpose that may be beyond my understanding.

I went to see her after she turned 89 and she was more lucid than I had seen her in several visits. Often she repeats herself and often she seems in a haze and doesn’t understand who certain people are or what her relationships to them might be. She is in a place where people who have been dead for many years are still alive in her mind, though once in a while the reality strikes her that she is the last of her siblings, that her two husbands and oldest son are gone, that virtually everyone she knew and loved except for her descendants are all waiting for her in some other realm. In those moments the sense of humor disappears and one can see a resignation and emptiness about her that is haunting. I think it’s not so much an existential emptiness as a profound loneliness.

Even on her best days there are moments when her reality is not the same reality that the rest of us see. There can be moments where she sees things that others don’t see or understand. But on this visit her mind was for the most part incredibly sharp. She knew who I was and she asked, as she always does–usually three or four times–what is new, before she answers that not much new is happening with her. On this visit I was able to tell her, “I wrote a book. It’s been a life-long dream of mine. I wanted to be a writer since I was in second or third grade sitting at the feet of Aunt Leona.” Aunt Leona was my mother’s aunt and my great-aunt. She was a woman who often visited us and who stayed with us when she was sick. She was a published composer, a poet, and a stringer for the Wisconsin State Journal. I admired her and wanted to be a writer like her.

My mother looked at me and said, “I’m really proud of you,” which almost made me cry because besides being a writer I’ve wanted little else in my life than for this beautiful woman who is my mother to be proud of me. She always had her priorities right–she was generous and cared about people, believed in the goodness of others, and lived her faith in her deeds. For her to be proud of me I felt I must be doing something right.

I stepped out of the room for a moment to get a drink of water. I pushed the door open when I came back in and she was still awake and waiting for me to return. I sat back down and we both were silent for a moment when suddenly she spoke. “God’s behind the door,” she said.

I wasn’t sure I heard her right or what that might mean, so I said, “What did you just say?” My mind raced to find the meaning of such a statement. Is she telling me that her time has come, that God is watching what we are doing? What was going on in her mind?

She repeated it. “God’s behind the door. Usually Coleen leaves it part-way open so I can see him.” I looked up and behind the bedroom door which I had pushed fully open was the framed Sacred Heart of Jesus picture that had always hung in our house. I went over and closed the door halfway so that she could see it and be comforted by it and went and sat back down.

“God is behind the door,” I thought, and contemplated the many meanings of that and the symbolism of doors opening and closing and where God might be at any point in a person’s life. She looked deeply at that picture and I realized that regardless of what anyone else might believe my mother was at peace in her faith and was patiently waiting for her God to open a door to welcome her home. In the meantime, being a good Catholic woman, she would bear whatever suffering he might send her way until he was ready for that moment, and she would live out her remaining days with grace, dignity, and humor. I realized I am as proud of her as she could ever be of me.

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The Bottom Line

Black/White/Straight/Gay.  Photo by Callen Harty.

Black/White/Straight/Gay. Photo by Callen Harty.

There is an unpleasant truth about the current gay bashing laws recently passed in Russia and several countries in Africa and it is not the obvious idea that human rights are being violated by a spate of laws criminalizing homosexuality. The same unpleasant truth is swirling around the controversy with multiple American states recently trying to pass laws that allow discrimination against lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) people based on religious beliefs. The bottom line is this: The bottom line is what counts.

The Obama administration, primarily through Secretary of State John Kerry, has condemned all of these homophobic laws and has been particularly harsh about the newly-signed “jail the gays” law in Uganda. The United States is looking at possible sanctions and looking at budgets to consider cutting aid to Uganda in response. Although Kerry also condemned Nigeria’s comparable law a few months ago the reaction has not been comparable. Strong words of disappointment were expressed but there was no talk of sanctions or any action to try to convince or coerce Nigeria into honoring its own Constitution. In fact, the ambassador to Nigeria specifically assured the Nigerian people that the U. S. would not cut any aid to the country.

The laws in the two countries are eerily similar, but the reactions are not, so what is the difference? The most obvious one is that Nigeria is an oil-rich country and we are one of their largest and most dependent customers. According to the United States Energy Information Administration between 9 and 11 percent of our imported oil has come from Nigeria over the last decade. Meanwhile, Uganda is a much poorer country that is one of the world’s leaders as far as dependency on foreign aid. Simply put we can put the screws to Uganda if we want to, but we don’t have that same leverage with Nigeria. It comes down to economics rather than what may be the right thing to do.

There are also diplomatic options–such as recalling our ambassador–that we have used in the past when a country does something that is not to our liking. It simply doesn’t appear that the United States has any interest in pursuing any punishment or other avenues to try to get Nigeria to change their law. Meanwhile, gay men are being dragged out of their houses and beaten in the streets of Nigeria simply for being who they are. The same is also happening in Uganda and elsewhere on the continent. Similarly, despite our verbal protestations against Russia’s recent “gay propaganda” law the United States happily joined other countries to participate in the Sochi Olympics. Gay men and lesbians in Russia also face beatings by homophobic thugs. During the Olympics the networks didn’t touch upon that and one can presume all the sponsors were happy with how everything turned out, except perhaps the final medal count.

The disturbing truth for human rights is that those who espouse them in our country do so only when it is most convenient. When those rights advance the profitability of companies then those in government and in private enterprise support them wholeheartedly and pat themselves on the back for how much they care about equal treatment for everyone. When the bottom line is not affected the worst treatment of minorities can attract nothing but silent acquiescence at best or a complete dismissal of the idea that there even is a problem. Occasionally laws will change for the betterment of a class of people due to public opinion, but generally only when there is no economic impact, either positive or negative. Conversely, laws that allow discrimination can also pass due to public opinion, but again when there is no apparent financial advantage or disadvantage evidenced.

Take a look at the recent law passed by the Arizona legislature (and numerous other attempts around the country) that would allow for those with “sincere religious beliefs” to refuse service to lesbian and gay citizens. It is clearly discriminatory against LGBT citizens. It passed both houses in Arizona, but when word got out elsewhere in the country pressure started to bear on the governor to veto the bill. At first it was queer rights groups and there was no indication that Governor Jan Brewer would not sign the bill. That was followed by a threat of a boycott from George Takei who has so many online followers he could probably make that happen simply by snapping his fingers. Newspapers then started questioning whether the state could afford another boycott like the one that followed their passage of a hateful immigration bill several years ago. Still, there was no indication of either a signing or a veto from the governor. Finally, corporate giants like Apple, A T and T, and the NFL weighed in with strongly worded letters and opinions that the Arizona economy could suffer if the bill were signed. There were even implications that new businesses would not come to the state and that businesses already there might leave. That pretty much guaranteed that the governor would veto the bill.

The bottom line on queer rights and human rights in general is that those in power support those rights when advancing them also advances their economic interests. It is only when economic arguments are made (gay weddings will benefit the local economy by increasing business at chapels, honeymoon spots, florists, jewelers, and the like) that the big money folks who influence politics start talking about the importance of rights such as marriage equality. In a more just society (and world) the dignity of every human being’s life would be what determines whether a certain bill advances equality for all or moves us backward along the path of human progress. It would be really easy to see which bills advance rights and which do not if not for the blindness caused by money and greed.

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On My Mother’s Birthday

My mother, Kathleen.  This photo was probably taken about 20 years ago.  Photo by Callen Harty.

My mother, Kathleen. This photo was probably taken about 20 years ago. Photo by Callen Harty.


I honestly didn’t think you would make it to 89. In fact I really didn’t think you would make it to 88. In the last couple years you have lost so much weight, you have had hospice coming in a couple times a week for a year, you were given last rites a half a year ago already. And yet, here you are at 89.

You have survived things that would have killed most others your age, or even younger, through sheer strength and determination. You have lived more than twice as long as my father. You have outlived two husbands. You have suffered and struggled and survived. I know where my survivor instinct originated. God only knows how much longer you will continue to survive. I have given up trying to predict when you will give up. I know it’s coming, but at this point I’m not going to even think of predicting you won’t make 90.

None of us know why you’re hanging on to this realm so tenaciously. I thought that at some point you would want to go meet the maker you have believed in so fiercely all these years and to be reunited with the loved ones who have already gone, so it feels like there must be unfinished business here. It ultimately doesn’t matter, but I think we are all still learning lessons from you.

Yes, you are physically weak–considerably less than a 90 pound weakling now–too thin for the hospice folks to even bother trying to weigh you. And your mind comes and goes. It can be hard not to be recognized by your own mother or to have to listen to you talking about things that are real to you but make no sense to the rest of us. And yet, even then, there is light in your eyes. Faith, hope, love . . . life, all reflected in your eyes.

I hope you hold on as long as that light is there and as long as there is some kind of joy for you in you doing so. Happy Birthday, with love and light.

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Three Years Ago

Protesters inside the Wisconsin Capitol rotunda on February 16, 2011, just days after new governor Scott Walker introduced his controversial "budget repair bill".  Photo by Callen Harty.

Protesters inside the Wisconsin Capitol rotunda on February 16, 2011, just days after new governor Scott Walker introduced his controversial “budget repair bill”. Photo by Callen Harty.

Before Governor Scott Walker took office he had already created controversy by stating he would refuse funds for a new light rail system that had already been approved with federal money set to come to Wisconsin. He demanded that the state stop working on a biofuels project at the University of Wisconsin. He proposed replacing the Department of Commerce with a public/private enterprise that he and his fellow Republicans could control. Progressives knew that with Republican control of both houses there would be a good chance of conservatives creating new laws that would be anathema to progressives. The Democrats, who were still in power–albeit with a lame duck governor–more or less rolled over on all of his demands.

Despite the steamroller start of his administration nobody expected the “budget repair” bill that Walker proposed on Friday, February 11. It would pretty much eliminate collective bargaining for all state employees, potentially end Medicaid in the state, and open up the selling of state property with a no-bid process. The very next day there was a protest at the Governor’s mansion. On Monday representatives of the University of Wisconsin’s Teaching Assistants Association (TAA) delivered protest Valentines to the Governor’s office at the Capitol. The next day about 5,000 people showed up at the Capitol to protest. At work that day I kept feeling that I should have been at the Capitol. Late in the day I went to my boss and asked for a last-minute vacation day the following day, Wednesday, February 16, in order to go and protest. I told her why I wanted it off and even though her politics were different than mine she okayed the request.

My first day at the protests was that following day, February 16. It was also the first day of protests for about 30,000 other Wisconsinites, a number which continued to grow over the following weeks and became what was known as the Wisconsin Uprising.

With exactly three years between that day and this I can still feel the rush of blood in my veins as I arrived at the Capitol that morning. An hour or more before a rally was scheduled to start thousands of people were already at the Capitol, both inside and out. Wisconsin and American flags waved in the February wind. Teachers and others marched around the square with hundreds and hundreds of signs–some of them incredibly clever and some of them a little over the top–all of them fueled by the passion of citizens whose government was ignoring their concerns and instituting a radical shift in the direction of the state with a previously hidden agenda.

I saw the first signs with the word “solidarity” on them that day, the first signs about replacing Walker and about recalls, signs from Democratic representatives showing support, signs with hearts (which later became a lasting symbol). The only one that was missing on my first day of the protests was the Wisconsin fist, which later became a ubiquitous symbol of resistance to Scott Walker’s agenda.

Inside the building hundreds upon hundreds of citizens gathered on every floor of the building with the rotunda the central focus of activity, as it was designed to be. Voices rose and fell, echoing on the marble walls throughout the building, a crescendo here followed by an eerie moment of silence and then a bubbling of voices again demanding fairness and asking that the people’s voices be heard. There was no organization and yet there somehow seemed to be an organic unity to the voices and actions of the people. It was breathtaking.

Back outside crowds continued to gather. I saw friends who were there for the same reasons as me. I took many photographs, the first of thousands over the course of the uprising, some of which included people I didn’t know at the time but who became friends through the battles to follow. Every segment of our society was represented. Many children were there with signs in support of their teachers. Union men and women marched with their locals. People who had never belonged to a union in their lives also marched with them. By the time the rally began there were an estimated 30,000 citizens. Later crowds would dwarf the crowd that day but at the time it was phenomenal. It was the first time in my life I had seen such power in the people who rightfully own the Capitol and whose voices the government is supposed to represent. It was electric.

I don’t even remember who spoke at the rally that day. I remember the people–the common, every-day, ordinary people like me who felt called to be there at that moment in time and whose voices rose together to speak up for what they believed. Too often we all sit on our behinds watching the television news and even when bills are passed that anger us we remain seated, blindly staring at the screen in front of us. But on that February day, and for months to follow, citizens moved from their couches to the streets and thousands got involved in politics in ways that they never had before. The passion was palpable and real and beautiful to behold, and while it eventually died down as it became clear that there was no way to stop the steamroller I learned at that time that it is within the people to rise up in times of need. It is still there within my fellow citizens. I can only hope that when the time is right something will reignite that passion in those tens of thousands of people who came to be with each other during that time. I wait patiently for the beast that fell back to sleep to once again be reawakened and roar back to life.

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On Privilege

What Do We Want?  Photo by Callen Harty.

What Do We Want? Photo by Callen Harty.

Two items around the idea of privilege were thrust at me in the last couple days and they both show just how insidious privilege can be.

The first was an offhand comment made on someone’s Facebook post of an article about Missouri football player Michael Sam coming out as gay. Sam’s brave action was a monumental step in the struggle for queer equality, particularly coming in the notoriously homophobic realm of collegiate and professional football. The commenter dismissed it with a quick remark which I can’t quote directly as the original post is gone, but it was something along the lines of this: “So what? How many football players have felt the need to come out as straight so far this year? Get over it and move on.”

While the comment ostensibly seems like it might be a supportive comment, along the lines of a white person saying they don’t see color (it’s not an issue, let’s move on) we all know that unless a person is blind they do see color and that can color their perceptions, even on a subconscious level. The thing about this story is that coming out is an issue if you’re gay. In this case the man’s comment belies an underlying resentment toward gay people and reflects heterosexual privilege. It is easy for a straight man to say “get over it”, but a straight man doesn’t have to wonder whether someone will want to hurt or kill him because he is married to a woman. This is a privilege he has as a straight male. He doesn’t have to think about the consequences of talking about his family because as long as he is straight there are no consequences. He doesn’t have to calculate whether it’s safe to talk about the person he loves. This is heterosexual privilege.

The other incident that brought privilege to my attention was an article in the local paper about an upcoming “controversial” conference on white privilege. Two things stood out to me immediately. One was that in the headline and in the article the phrase “white privilege” was put into quotes, emphasizing the phrase and appearing to point out that the phrase itself was somehow suspect. It showed a bias and defensiveness against the topic which ironically laid a claim for the importance and necessity of a conference on white privilege. The other was the use of the term “controversial”. In reading the article the only controversy surrounding the conference was that some racists have begun sending threatening letters to the conference organizers which are now being investigated by authorities. The article made it appear that the conference was controversial, when in fact it is the behavior of the racists that needs to be examined. The headline and article writers were displaying white privilege without even knowing it. This is the kind of thing that illustrates privilege.

Having privilege doesn’t mean that you are a bad person. It is also important to note that being privileged doesn’t mean that you necessarily believe or see yourself as a person in a position of power or dominance, even though you are. In fact you may see yourself as someone with little or no power, and that may be true in some areas of your life (economic clout or education, for example), while in other areas you may have power that you are not even aware of precisely because you don’t have to think about it. The reality is that by virtue of your being you might be in a position of privilege whether you acknowledge it or even realize it. If you are a straight white male you are in a position of privilege over three classes of people, even if you don’t want that privilege or desire it. Acknowledging the reality is the first step in moving all of us toward more equitable treatment of all people.

This is what privilege is all about. A person who has privilege can ignore issues that others might have because in their position in society they don’t even have to think about the things that may be issues for others. As a white person of privilege you don’t have to worry about getting pulled over by police because you might “look like” a terrorist. As a heterosexual male you can dismiss the need to come out because you don’t even have to worry about it–it is presumed you are straight and because you are there is no issue. As a man you have access to power that most women do not have.

I understand that I have privilege as a white male. I am far from a power broker in this world, but there are things that I benefit from because of my race and gender. If I apply for a job I am likelier to get it than an African-American person applying for the same job and likelier to get paid better than a woman doing the same work. I have done nothing to earn either of these opportunities. That is privilege. Again, that doesn’t mean that I’m a racist misogynist; it simply means that I have advantages by virtue of who I am. On the other hand there are people who have advantages that I don’t have as a gay man.

None of these things are necessarily a reflection on the individual. It is a societal construct that needs to be deconstructed if we are to ever have equality for all people. I have spent a good part of my life working toward that goal, despite my privilege. The thing is a person with privilege can sit back and pass judgment on others without pondering how good they have it or why, without caring if they do realize it, or without working to end the disparity because it is advantageous to them even if it hurts others. That is where privilege ends and racism, homophobia, sexism, and other hurtful isms begin.

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