The Gift

Vodka bottle

Stocking cap and vodka bottle. Photo by Callen Harty.

April 18, 1989. A gay bar in Denver, the Triangle. A can of beer in hand, cigarette in the other. I was there alone, so I wasn’t there to be with friends, I wasn’t there looking for someone for the night. My friends were already gone home for the night. My partner was home in bed. I was there to drink, and nothing else. It was late in the night and there was a revelation, an epiphany, and in that moment I knew that I had a problem, that I wasn’t just consuming alcohol–it was consuming me. As a man stood next to me trying to connect I knew that I had to quit drinking, that it was destroying me in many ways. I went up to the bar and set my half-full can of beer on the counter and headed out into the Denver night.

As I walked home I may have sobered up some, but was definitely still as drunk as usual. I could easily put down a dozen and half mixed drinks or more in a night, or a combination of beer, mixed drinks, and shots. Sometimes it was less. It was whatever it took that night (or day and night) to get drunk. There was no such thing as social drinking. The sole purpose was to get drunk, be in a haze, hide multiple kinds of pain and trauma, and not deal with the realities of my life.

I hiked the long trip home up Colfax Avenue, made a couple turns and walked into the apartment, undressed, and got into bed, stirring my partner at the time. He turned and I said to him, “I’m quitting drinking.”

He looked at me and said, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

It was understandable that he didn’t believe it. We had been together several years at that point and I had been in an alcoholic stupor for much of that and for more than a decade overall. He had often told me I had a problem and I had often denied it. Others had tried to tell me the same thing. But that night I knew that I was an alcoholic, that I didn’t control the drink–it controlled me–and I knew also that I had more faith in myself than he did. I had been living the stereotype of the drunken Irishman, but I also had the stereotype of the Irish stubbornness in my blood, and I knew that once I had made that decision that I would never drink again.

No more blackouts. No more good times that were defined by being forgotten. No more waking up in booths of bars in small towns in Wisconsin or under streetlights in the middle of the night. No more rousing good times spurred on by the drink–I was mostly a fun drunk while around others, but insecure and depressed once I was alone again. No more numbness. No more thoughts of killing myself when the alcohol opened the darkest parts of my interior and talked to me about what a worthless person I was. No more waking up behind the wheel of a car along the shoulders of the highway. No more hangovers and hair of the dog.

It was time to reclaim my life after wasting more than a decade of it. And I succeeded in doing that. Whatever successes I have had, whether in the theater, writing, at jobs, public speaking, in working for human rights and just laws, in helping others, are a result of that night and the decision to stop my downward spiral before I reached rock bottom or before I had fallen so far down I could not get back up. Whatever failures I’ve had too, are mine, and I claim them with pride. I don’t get to blame them on drugs or alcohol any more, so I get to own them and learn and grow from them. I know now they’re because I’m human and prone to both good will and human mistakes.

Being fully human and alive and able to feel joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure, all the emotions that come in and out of one’s life–especially love–is such an incredible gift, and I would not have known any of it without coming to my epiphany and my place of understanding. It’s not that everything became easy or perfect the moment I quit drinking–but it laid the groundwork for bettering my life, imperfect as it or I may be. It allowed me to feel, after years of numbing myself. I can feel and I can deal with all the feelings I have. I can fully feel the highs and lows of life in all its fullness. This is the gift of sobriety. It is the gift of life, and today I hold that gift in my hands, with tears in my eyes, remembering the pain of childhood and the joys of childhood, the pains and joys of my life since. Like a child I can feel it all, and I am eternally grateful for that gift.

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Picture Perfect

Water Skiers

Water skiers. Photo by Callen Harty.

Over the course of several days I recently had the following e-mail exchange with a woman representing a fairly new company here in Wisconsin in reference to the photo above. I’ve removed some of the identifying details.

Her: “We’d love to use this photo on [X company’s] social media, with credit to you! If you’re interested, could you send this to me? [her e-mail address]”

Me: “You left a message on my water ski photo [. . . ], asking to use it on social media. I would be interested in working with you on this, especially given that yours is a Wisconsin company. I also feel the photo represents the kind of energy you want to portray for your product, but I have a few questions first.

“How are you planning on using the photo? As an ad? On Twitter? Facebook? Instagram? Elsewhere? Would it be a one-time use or would you be looking to buy the image outright? Any information you can provide on when/how you will use the photo will help me out.”

Her: “Thanks for the quick response!

“[X product] is brand new within the last 6 months or so, and it’s the first and only Wisconsin-made [X product]. As you probably gathered, we really try to appeal both to locals (WI and Midwest) and to action sports athletes, so combining the two in our social media marketing is our goal! Your water skiing photo is unique and hits both of our targets, so we think it’d be a great fit with our marketing plan. We’d just be interested in posting it once on Facebook and Instagram, and we always give credit to photographers we use (with either full name, Instagram handle, website, etc).

“Let me know if you’re interested in sharing your photo! And if you have any others that you think would fit, you’re welcome to send those as well!

“I hope this helps answer your questions; feel free to reach out with any further questions! Thanks!”

Me: “Thanks for answering my questions. I am not a professional photographer, but have had a couple one-man shows and a good number of sales of my work, so I do charge for companies to use one of my photographs. Normally for an Instagram or similar post I would charge [X dollars] per post. Given that you are a new company and Wisconsin-based like me I would allow you to post on both Instagram and Facebook for the [X dollar] price instead of [X dollars] for each. Let me know if that works for you.”

Her: “Unfortunately we are not yet in a position to pay for the use of photos. Thanks, though, for your consideration!”

From the beginning it felt like she was trying to get me to give permission to use the photograph for no charge. I do have to give her credit for asking permission to use the photograph, as there are those out there who will do so without getting permission or offering payment in advance. The amount that I quoted was incredibly reasonable and I was offering a 2 for 1 deal. I have often donated my photos to non-profits, good causes, and educational organizations, but I have also occasionally sold them to corporations and newspapers. Most recently I sold one to an international company out of Switzerland for use in their company newsletter and was paid a fair price for it.

I expect companies with advertising and marketing budgets to pay for my work. If you are in the business of making money you shouldn’t expect others to help you in that effort without compensation. But businesses, particularly American ones, do not value art (or much of anything else) unless it in some way increases the bottom line. Things like photography, poetry, and other art forms are devalued in this country. When school budgets are tight the arts programs are among the first to suffer. I believe if the woman who wrote me could be shown that paying me X dollars to use the photograph would increase their sales by Y amount she probably would have found the money for it in her budget.

Would you bring someone into your office to do data entry and not pay them? Would you expect a newspaper to run an ad without paying for it? Would you contact the local copier company and ask if they would mind you using a copier for a while without a contract or payment? Then why would you expect to use the work of a photographer, amateur or professional, without fair compensation?

What made this situation a bit worse to me is that after the last e-mail about not being in position to pay for photographs I did a little more digging and found out that the woman isn’t an employee of the company that wanted to use the photo, but rather an employee of an advertising agency. Perhaps the company that hired her agency didn’t have it in the budget to pay for photos for social media, but being from an ad agency she should know and understand the value of a photographer’s work.

I spend a lot of my time shooting photographs, downloading and uploading, cropping and editing when necessary, posting, and more, not to mention what I spend on gas for travel to some of the places I shoot, camera equipment, Internet costs, etc. She made it clear that my photograph would enhance the marketing of the product. There is value in that and there is value in my time and effort. A credit acknowledging that I took the photograph is not fair compensation and every time someone gives away a photograph like that it makes it that much harder for professionals who have invested a great deal of money and effort into their business to make a living. I value professional photographers and my work too much for that.

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The Missing Narrative on the Pennsylvania Special Election


American Flag. Photo by Callen Harty.


While watching the televised returns of the Pennsylvania special election pitting Democrat Conor Lamb, Republican Rick Saccone, and Libertarian Drew Miller against each other all the pundits from both sides before, during, and after it made the election about Donald Trump.

The Democrats argued that the election was a referendum on Trump and that he lost, that even though Republicans poured in millions of dollars and Trump and his associates showed up to plead and beg the electorate, the Republican still lost. Republican pundits pointed out that polls showed Saccone five or six points down until Trump came in and made it a close race. They talked about how Trump stumping for Saccone closed the gap and that it showed how strong he is and how much support he has. An objective person could see both sides of those arguments, but while Trump played into this election he probably did so by encouraging some voters to get out and vote Republican and some to get out and vote for the Democrat. And, of course, the national media is pretending the Libertarian candidate who got more votes than the difference between the two leading candidates wasn’t even in the race.

Another theme that the Republican pundits (and Don Lemon of CNN) kept pushing was that Lamb was less of a Democrat than all the lefties that scare them in Washington, without understanding that to those on the real left the number of really liberal politicians in the Democratic party is no more than a small handful. While not as liberal as some might like, Lamb came across as a true Democrat. He harkened back to Franklin Roosevelt in his speech. He appealed to union members who have drifted to the Republican party because the Democrats long ago abandoned the working class. He is personally pro-life due to his Catholic faith, but politically pro-choice. He also refused corporate money and still won the campaign. He raised a paltry amount through small donations and still beat the twelve million dollars the Republican party and others poured into the Saccone campaign. He is no more Republican-light than the corporate backed Clintons or others.

This election was about so much more than Donald Trump. It was about union power, money in politics, and the one thing that nobody talked about last night: The election was a referendum on the Republican party and its power grabs. While the pundits brought up the idea that soon the district may change its shape due to the court ruling on gerrymandering in Pennsylvania, none of the pundits delved into the fact that Lamb won the election in a district that had been heavily gerrymandered specifically to maintain Republican control. Despite the district boundaries that were drawn to make sure the Republicans stayed in power the Democrat won. That is astounding, and it causes one to question why.

One of the things the Republicans have done since taking power in states and the country is to gerrymander districts, change laws to limit voting, damage or destroy the unions to take away support for Democrats, and in other ways do a better job than the Russians of undermining our democracy. What the pundits missed is that regular Americans have seen this and are reacting against it. Americans don’t like it when politicians bend or break the rules simply to stay in power and to push an agenda with which most of us disagree. Voters will react by getting energized and voting, protesting, and in other ways doing what they can to stop that from happening.

Voters across the country are mobilized, but many, many of them are not mobilized against Trump specifically, but the Republicans in general. Many, many of them are not mobilized because they are excited by the milquetoast corporate Republican-light Democrats. It is a grass roots mobilization against power grabs, policies, and laws that work against the working class, poor, and Americans in general. This wave of upset elections will continue not because the electorate sees the Democrats as saviors but because voters themselves are mobilized to save the country. The pundits may miss it, but the people are empowered and energized and will vote for whichever candidate or party is more likely to fight for their interests and the interests of democracy.

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Open Letter to Paul Ryan on Guns

Paul Ryan

Paul Ryan. Photo by Callen Harty.

Dear Speaker Ryan,

Yet another young man with yet another AR-15 semi-automatic rifle has killed yet more people in a place that should be safe.

And you, yet again, have said that it is not the time to talk about it. It is too soon. We don’t have all the facts. We have to wait.

The problem with not talking about these things because it is “too soon” is that it’s always too soon until it’s too late. We need to talk and take action now. Right now.

You may not realize this, but we have been waiting to deal with ending gun violence for years. We have been waiting almost twenty years since Columbine, since Virginia Tech, since Fort Hood, since the Aurora theater, since Oak Creek, since Sandy Hook, since San Bernadino, since Charleston, since the Pulse Nightclub, since Las Vegas, since many other tragedies (Binghamton, San Ysidro, the Baptist church in Texas, a shopping center in Omaha, and more, many more). We can’t wait any longer. It is time for talk and then for action. It is past time.

Maybe we don’t have all the facts from this week’s shooting yet. Do you think maybe we have enough facts yet from any of the previous mass shootings to start the discussion? Here’s a fact for you. Just in the mass shootings named above more than 300 people died and hundreds more were injured and many of them were children. That fact alone should tell you that it is time not only to talk, but to take action to prevent any more deaths from senseless mass shooting events.

If you are hesitant to talk because of all the money you’ve taken from the National Rifle Association perhaps it is time to give it back, buy back your soul, and join the majority of Americans who want to see something done about this issue. $171,977 is a lot of money to give back, but you would earn it back in good will and votes from the American citizens you are truly elected to represent.

Unlike Citizens United which allows politicians to accept virtually unlimited campaign donations it is understood that the Bill of Rights was designed to protect all of us. Admittedly, there are those on the extremes who do want to take all guns out of the hands of citizens and on the flip side there are those who believe we should have access to even more deadly weapons. Most of us are in the middle. Most of us believe in the Constitution. Most of us believe that the Second Amendment guarantees citizens the right to bear arms. We are okay with that. We come from hunting communities or collecting communities or communities where fear convinces people to buy guns to protect their homes and families. We are okay with people buying handguns or rifles for personal use. We are not okay with citizens holding weapons and arsenals that are designed solely for killing people efficiently. We are tired of waking up to stories about lone gunmen killing dozens of people for unexplained reasons.

Most of us also understand that the history of our nation is a history of compromise. You don’t get everything you want, I don’t get everything I want, but we both get something. We understand that compromise doesn’t happen without first engaging in conversation–not partisan debate with no respect for the opinions of others, but real dialogue.

You represent my state in Congress. You are the Speaker of the House. You should be a leader on this issue. You should not tell us it is too early to talk or refer to the calls for talk and action as knee-jerk reactions. You need to listen to all the people, not just those who support you with votes or cash. You are also a father with children of your own. When you see American children dying needlessly you should lead the charge in figuring out how to prevent that from ever happening again. Your constituents expect nothing less and we are watching, not just this week because of the most recent shooting, but we will be watching every day until we see the change that we so badly need.

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Will they know

Roselawn Cemetery

Roselawn Cemetery. Photo by Callen Harty.

When they dig up these bones

what will they find on the skeleton of my life?

Will they be able to read the hieroglyphics on my skull

and the petroglyphs of my soul

etched in the decaying calcium

before them?

Will they interpret the chips and nicks

and understand the life that once

filled what


Will they know the love that was harbored

in the cavity where my heart once resided?

Will they see the strength behind my chest,

the frailty of human beings and

the weakness of being human?

Will they know the passion of my bones?

Will they understand the complexity of the man

who inhabited the corpse beneath their shovels?

And will they understand in the end that their bodies, too,

are nothing more than dust and bones?

Will they know more than I was a man

and am now an empty shell?

Will they understand that they, too,

shall lie wrapped in a shroud

wrapped in the earth that bore them?

Will they know that this, too, is their home?

That love, anger, hate, curiosity, empathy,


falls into dust?

And will they know that the energy of all

love and hate and

all else

lingers long after the soul departs the body,

lying on the bosom of the earth above their bones?


When they dig up these bones

will they know that they are my bones;

that they are their own bones?

Will they read the writing left upon them?

Will they understand that mortality is in the bones

and that immortality is in the love and energy left behind?

When they dig up these bones

will they know? Will they know.

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On Trump and Racism

Boy with Flag

Boy with Flag. Photo by Callen Harty.


Donald Trump is a racist.

That is it. Period. Donald Trump is a racist. There should be no further discussion. It is a fact. But in this day and age there apparently are no “facts”, only “fake news”, lies, and smear campaigns. As a result, there are those who would argue against the idea that Trump is a racist. There are apologists for his behavior who will do everything they can to justify his words and twist them into something so innocent-sounding that it could be construed as treasonous to say that he is a racist. Trump himself, like all racists, denies that he is a racist.

Seemingly every day he does or says something that offends a huge swath of the world’s population. Yesterday and today newspapers, websites, Twitter, and citizens both in the United States and abroad were in an uproar over a report that on Thursday Trump described African countries and Haiti as “shithole countries”, asking why we would want immigrants from such places.

The reality is that Haiti and much of Africa and many other parts of the world are harder places to live than the United States, in large part due to years of American and European colonialism, capitalism, and exploitation. The citizens of those places may be poorer financially, but that does not make them poorer in spirit, less human, or less desirable as neighbors, co-workers, and friends. It does not mean that as immigrants they cannot contribute greatly to another nation’s economy, culture, and more. The struggling economies of the countries that Trump disparaged yesterday also makes it more understandable why they might want to and should be allowed to emigrate to the United States. Generations have come here for the dream of a better life that Lady Liberty has promised. It is why Italians, Chinese, Irish, Hmong, and others have sacrificed to come here. It is why Trump’s family came here. Regardless of Liberty’s call to “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” Donald Trump does not want the poor or huddled masses. He does not want any more immigrants–unless they are white. This is not an exaggeration. His words betray him.

Today he denied using the word “shithole”, noting that he used “tough” language in talking about the issue, but did not use that term. Trump and his supporters are missing the point. Most people in day-to-day life use foul language on occasion, if not regularly. Presidents and other politicians swear. On the Watergate tapes Richard Nixon used the “F” word more times than most people have in their lifetimes. It is not the specific language that is the issue–though we should expect a higher level of discourse and propriety from our leaders–it is the attitude behind that language.

Whether Trump specifically used the term “shithole” does not matter. What matters is that he questioned why we would want immigrants from Africa and Haiti coming into our country. At the same time he suggested that we should allow more immigration from places like Norway, where blond-haired, blue-eyed Aryans are the norm.

Whatever equivocations and denials may be used about the specific words, what remains is that Donald Trump is a racist. This, also, is not an exaggeration.

If yesterday’s incident were the only instance in which Trump said or did something along these lines, it would still be enough for anyone who understands the insidiousness of racism to say that he is racist. However, one doesn’t need to rely solely on yesterday’s meeting. There is a long history that can be reviewed, going back to his resistance to renting his properties to African-Americans decades ago, to his view of Mexicans as rapists, to his response to the neo-Nazi marches in Charlottesville, to his desire to ban Muslim immigrants to the United States, to his descriptions of American black communities during the election, to retweeting white nationalists. This is only a partial list. There are other instances of somewhat more careful language that also hint at a racist man.

The obvious conclusion that can be drawn from Donald Trump’s actions and words is that he is a racist and a racist is not someone who should be leading the world’s melting pot. Period. His views on race and immigration cannot be supported. There is no justification for his words or his beliefs. There is no place anywhere at the table for a racist, but especially not at the head of the table. If it were my house he would not be welcome any longer.

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Letter to Ron Johnson on the Tax Bill

Dear Senator Johnson,

While the Republican party has long promised some kind of tax reform, the bill that is currently before the House and Senate changes tax law, but does nothing to improve the circumstances of the vast majority of American citizens. In addition to it being a giveaway to the wealthiest of our countrymen, it is an insult to middle class and poor Americans.

If anything the tax rates for corporations and wealthy individuals should go up, not down. Those rates have been steadily decreasing over the last hundred years, while the burden of taxes has fallen more heavily on those who can least afford to pay more.

The bill also sabotages health care for all Americans while doing nothing to improve the lot of those who cannot afford insurance or staying healthy. This is a sneaky way to undermine the Affordable Care Act, a law that since its introduction has increased in popularity and use despite the constant Republican drumbeat against it.

Also, allowing drilling in the Arctic in this bill, something that has nothing at all to do with taxes, but has been a long-time unachievable goal of your party, is again a sneaky way to reward large corporations while ignoring the will of the American people. The majority of us want to see our environment–and especially those areas of it that have been designated for protection–left alone.

This tax bill has been rushed through without the possibility for thorough review by the members of either party, let alone the American public. Since it was unveiled, however, it has been shown to be incredibly unpopular in poll after poll. You and all of our elected officials have been elected to represent your constituents, not to enact legislation that benefits corporations and the wealthy over the needs of the many. Further, holding out your vote until other Senators agreed to an amendment that will further line your own pockets is a despicable act. It will be remembered come the next election.

Though I’m confident my plea will fall on deaf ears, I wanted to let you know how I feel and to add to the record another citizen whose vote you will not represent if you vote for this bill and whose vote you will not get once you do.

Tax the Rich

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