Great Urban Racers (June 8, 2014)

For the past decade, I’ve tried to entice certain members of the friend and family circle to audition for The Amazing Race with me. Repeated pleas were issued to those with whom I’d work best, with lesser (but still important) consideration given to teammates with the potential to give good TV. Initial enthusiasm runs high….but then a would-be partner encounters the actual application, a behemoth of a document that calls for more evidence and stamina than the state Bar exam, with a lower pass rate. At that point, the initial “Hell yeah! Let’s do this!” turns into a “Well, maybe later.”

In 2011, unable to tamp down competitive scavenger hunt urges any longer, Gary and I registered for the Chicago heat of the Great Urban Race. The event’s website describes the race as, “a fun and challenging puzzle where your city holds the pieces. Teams solve clues, tackle challenges and race for cash prizes in this all-out test of smarts and speed…hundreds of Masterminds take to the streets to complete a variety of exciting mental and physical challenges at unique stops throughout the city. Your team is free to choose your own route as you hustle from clue to clue on foot or by using public transportation.”

Yep, that’s about it. GUR has three major mental and physical components: a initial set of 12 clues and puzzles used to determine race destinations, quick instincts and research leveraged to create a course map, then speed and skills to execute, hopefully fast enough to finish in the Top 25. Teams in that elite bracket are invited to compete against the other top racers from that year’s host cities in a contest for the national championship. In 2014 qualifying heats occurred in: Los Angeles, San Diego, Austin, San Francisco, Tampa, Jacksonville, Houston, Washington DC, Atlanta, Portland, Philadelphia, Boston, New York City, Chicago and Toronto.

In 2011, at 32 years of age, Gary and I ran our first race and enjoyed some beginner’s luck. We finished 41st – respectable enough to whet our appetites for more. We saw that with improved running speed (from me) and a few other tinkers, we had the goods. 2012 would be our qualifying year! …Only it wasn’t – not by a long shot. A more challenging course, more teams and some key errors on our part resulted in a completion time nearly 45 minutes behind the previous one.

In 2013, an unnaturally chilly July day in Chicago, we fared much better, only to be undone near the end by The Clark Bus That Never Came. Team Monsters Are Real was getting older, wiser, and settling into its niche of near-miss tragedy.

Saturday, May 31, 2014 was about as perfect as one could ask: warm sunshine without humidity, not a cloud in the sky. One half of Monsters Are Real awoke that morning full of optimism. Not six weeks before, the deteriorating and painful state of my hands made the consideration of withdrawal a serious one. Gary deserved a real shot at achieving our mutual dream of qualifying for the finals, and I no longer believed I was the partner to help him get there. But that was all before the miracle of beet juice. I’d slept well and hydrated the night before and arrived at the GUR starting point, Lizzie McNeil’s, with a sense of performance promise. I shared as much with Gary, not that I had to. Over the course of 22 years of friendship, we’ve developed a seamless ability to read each other and collaborate without explication.

We ran a great race. There was more walking in certain parts (from me) than I would have liked and I’ll never love Kraft Singles again the way I did before. But once we completed our first task nearly 45 minutes into the competition, we checked them off fast and furiously until we crossed the finish line.

It was clear we’d done well. There were very few teams checked in, enjoying their free-for-racing bottles of Miller Lite. However, while Team Monsters Are Real is in possession of a collectively healthy ego, it stops short of delusion. At best we hoped to match our finish from 2011. Hundreds of groups of competitors kept expectations low. We didn’t even stick around for the award ceremony.

In hindsight, I don’t know what would have been more delicious: hearing live and sweaty that we’d finally done it, we’d cracked the Top 25, or the Jesse Pinkman “Yeah bitch!” moment I experienced in an office conference room the following Monday morning – in front of my new boss and a senior graphic designer. When Gary sent the text message that we’d reached our goal, the euphoria overtook any semblance of professional decorum.

This afternoon, we booked our trip to Vancouver. We fly from Chicago on August 8, the day of my 36th birthday. The GUR national championship kicks off the following morning at 9:00 am in the downtown area of the city nicknamed, “Vansterdam.” This has all the makings of a most triumphant birthday weekend, no matter where Monsters Are Real ultimately finishes. In the ensuing weeks, I’ll be working on my speed sprints while Gary and I research Vancouver’s public transit, major landmarks and streets.

Six weeks ago I couldn’t dance vigorously without cracking, bleeding, burning hands. Today I am planning a training schedule for a competitive Canadian adventure with one of the people I love most. I’ve already won.

New York City’s Municipal ID Program Offers Model For Circumventing Immigration Inertia (October 22, 2014)

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I have a close friend who’s more like a little sister. We both live and work in Chicago, the third most populous city in the United States. In the Windy City, home to almost three million people, the shifting demographics of the nation have already become a new normal. As of the 2010 Census, just 45 percent of Chicago’s residents self-identify as exclusively Caucasian. Of the remaining ethnic categories, African Americans, and those of Hispanic or Latino descent, represent the largest groups.

I highlight these numbers in order to drive home the resigned frustration associated with incidents like the following. My friend, a beautiful woman of mixed racial heritage (half Caucasian, half Haitian Creole), works in a customer-facing position with a large banking chain. She’s also possessed of far more patience than most, which I suppose is a major driver of her professional success. She recounted the following dialogue between herself and a client earlier this week:

Friend (to Customer): Wow. There are a lot of people in our system with the same name as you.

Customer: Well, I’m sure you wouldn’t know this since you’re not an American, but…

Friend: How am I not American?

Customer: Because you’re of Latin descent.

Friend: I’m not. But I’m still confused as to why I wouldn’t be American.

Chicago has many flaws as an urban community, but on the whole, its citizenry skews liberal. It is not a Tea Party stronghold and for the most part, the city eludes the sort of redneck militia reputation that is often pinned on the Midwest. Yet the encounter described above is far from rare. My pal considered herself lucky that the “gentleman” assumed her immigration (of course she was born locally) is legal. This is what counts for a good encounter with the presumptive, threatened white male.

This trying anecdote was front in center in my thoughts as I read “Membership’s Perks, for Immigrants, Too” from The New York Times Editorial Board this week. Though the piece reports on The Big Apple’s introduction of a citywide identity card that “will tell everybody that its owner is a bona fide New Yorker,” the sting of truth is felt in the short opinion’s last paragraph:

“The longer it takes for Congress to act on immigration reform, the more it will fall to cities and towns to keep America’s welcoming spirit alive. Municipal IDs are signs of confidence in the benefits of integration — the belief that when strangers rub shoulders, when outsiders are welcomed and absorbed, the community flourishes.”

There’s an unwritten rule that neither side of the political aisle wants to discuss real issues in the run-up to an election. And Congress is certainly not to going to make any moves. With the midterms less than two weeks away, it seems Ebola finger pointing and Obama repudiation is as deep as any candidate is going to get. It was midsummer, during the height of the Central American child migrant border surge, that we last had any serious discussion about our broken immigration system.

So let’s be grateful to New York City for keeping this mess in the headlines, for trying to find real ways to work around the inertia on Capitol Hill to bring people together, even if it takes a little self-interested carrot dangling. That’s the American way! Per the editorial:

“The city has designed the card to include side benefits, like free admission or discounts at 33 cultural institutions, including the Bronx Zoo, Lincoln Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Those perks are meant to entice nonimmigrant New Yorkers to sign up, too.”

It won’t be much longer at all until Chicago’s bank customers, such as the one who plagued my friend, will be forced to keep their ignorant observations to themselves. The judgment of one’s Americanness based on skin color is already antiquated, and with a little more time, social norms will act as a further barrier. The presumptive, threatened white male’s verbal aggression is in the death throes in the Second City. The sensation is palpable – and one of the reasons we can share these stories with something approaching pity and humor.

But for the millions of undocumented workers forced to remain on the fringes in cities and towns across the country, our nation’s failure to act is no laughing matter. Let’s not wait until after the midterms to renew calls to action. It’s well beyond time to overhaul a system that benefits from underpaid labor while sneering at the hardworking people who provide it. And if Congress won’t budge, I hope my city and many others will consider following New York’s lead.

In Run-up to 2016, Chris Christie Finds Himself Alone in the Center Right (October 22, 2013)

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In evaluating Chris Christie’s leadership record as the Republican Governor of New Jersey, there are plenty of reasons for the moderate or liberal voter to be concerned. Christie took the oath of office on January 19, 2010 and initially offered a rather tired retread of the same G.O.P policies that have been called into question for decades: an across the board 10 percent state income tax cut, opposition to same sex marriage and the defeat of the Hudson River Tunnel Project.  The infrastructure initiative would have doubled the rail capacity for Jersey commuters traveling to New York City, and Christie killed the project according to NJ.com “even as Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was urging him from behind the scenes not to pull the plug before the two had a chance to discuss the matter, according to officials in the office of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).”

All that said, there is good cause to believe that Christie feels no need to submit to the “true conservative” litmus tests which pandering former moderates such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell routinely and disingenuously undergo. By the “white, straight male is right” standards of his party mates, Christie’s appointments of the openly gay Bruce Harris, and several Asian Americans, to the New Jersey Supreme Court were a breath of fresh, modern air.

On January 2 of this year, Christie openly and savagely criticized Congress’s postponement of a Hurricane Sandy disaster relief bill as “selfishness and duplicity” that was “disgusting to watch.” Most pointedly and grievously in terms of his party standing, the Governor claimed there was “only one group to blame, the Republican Party and Speaker Boehner.” Insult to injury as far as the G.O.P. was concerned after this photo of “The Hug,” a rare moment of emotional bipartisanship between a Republican leader and President Obama.

Two months ago, Christie signed a bill outlawing gay conversion therapy in children, making New Jersey the second state to implement such a law. While this may sound like average, tolerant and compassionate good sense, bear in mind that the party lags far behind the American people when it comes to the recognition of equality for all. Consider the loathsome “pray away the gay” clinics once operated by Marcus Bachmann, husband of Tea Party standard bearer, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.

Christie is far from perfect. His temper is legendary, and in 1996, the Governor switched from a pro-choice to a pro-life viewpoint, a move widely seen as base pandering rather than authentic change of heart. However, Christie is not the first politician from either party to adapt his platform to his public (see Obama’s often frustrating “evolution” on LGBT equality questions). By and large, the burly boss appears real and unscripted in an age of kowtowing and carefully scripted sound bites.

Early into the week, Christie once again finds himself on the wrong side of Republican party doctrine. The New York Timespublished a story on Monday by writer Marc Santora with the title, Christie Withdraws Appeal of Same-Sex Marriage Ruling in New Jersey. Although the Governor’s team was clear that the withdrawal should not be taken as support of the state’s Supreme Court ruling that hurdles to equality must be immediately and finitely removed, Christie breeches again with the right wing by embracing common sense. He will not continue to waste time and taxpayer money on a battle he can’t win. “‘Although the governor strongly disagrees with the court substituting its judgment for the constitutional process of the elected branches or a vote of the people, the court has now spoken clearly as to their view of the New Jersey Constitution and, therefore, same-sex marriage is the law,’ Mr. Christie’s administration said in a statement. ‘The governor will do his constitutional duty and ensure his administration enforces the law as dictated by the New Jersey Supreme Court.’”

At the risk of giving the Governor too much credit for simply refusing to take up residence in despotic Fantasyland, I find myself relishing a good 2016 Presidential contest in the event that Christie is able to overcome his party’s primary season extremism. One can always hope that conservative voters will come to see the merits of nominating someone who might actually, you know, win a general election. I’m unlikely to cast a ballot for Christie myself, especially if Hillary Clinton makes a formal decision to run, but it would be awfully nice to be able to summon some respect for the opposition. It’s been too long.

Federal Judge Finally Orders Changes to NYC’s Racially Biased Stop-and-Frisk Policy (August 13, 2013)

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It’s been a tough summer to be a minority entangled in the dispiriting web of the criminal justice system. Florida’s NRA advocated, vigilante-promoting Stand Your Ground law degenerated into inevitable ugliness with the 2012 shooting death of 17 year-old, unarmed teen Trayvon Martin. In the trial that followed, a jury of women upheld shooter George Zimmerman’s contention that he was not a racist, overreaching cop wannabe, just a regular neighborhood watchman protecting his property.  Unfortunately, despite the uproar, pain and public demonstrations which followed the verdict, the jury’s decision was well-founded according to strict application of the horrendous law. Zimmerman need only have felt the appearance of imminent danger to warrant a discharge of his weapon.

The badly needed public discourse that accompanied the case forced American citizens of all stripes to ask themselves and their neighbors the tough questions: Just how far has race equality actually advanced in the post-Civil Rights era? Is our justice system really as blind as our stated ideals desire? Where is the middle ground located between protection of public safety and respect for individual freedom and liberty?

In the local and national conversations which ensued, New York City’s controversial Stop-and-Frisk policy figured prominently. The public data warehouse, Wikipedia, defines the program as “a practice of the New York City Police Department by which a police officer who reasonably suspects a person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a felony or a penal law misdemeanor, stops and questions that person, and, if the officer reasonably suspects he or she is in danger of physical injury, frisks the person stopped for weapons.”

The rightfully suspicious regarded this expansion of street level police authority as rife with racial profiling possibilities. New York City’s outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg has found his seat of defense perpetually hot as he weathered public and private demonstrations against the law. Arguing that the policy has reduced crime and saved lives, the Mayor has repeatedly refused calls to abolish or at least amend the statute. The Supreme Court of the United States previously ruled that such practices were constitutional under the vaguely worded, “certain conditions.”

Opponents of the law have long argued that Stop-and-Frisk searches have been unevenly directed at young minority men, particularly African Americans. And this week, that constituency found a powerful ally in the form of federal judge Shira A. Scheindlin. In a decision rendered Monday morning, the judge had strong words of rebuke for Bloomberg and the NYPD. According to a story published in the New York Times, the judge “found that the city ‘adopted a policy of indirect racial profiling by targeting racially defined groups for stops based on local crime suspect data.’ She rejected the city’s arguments that more stops happened in minority neighborhoods solely because those happened to have high-crime rates.” Writer Joseph Goldstein further reports, “To fix the constitutional violations, the judge designated an outside lawyer, Peter L. Zimroth, to monitor the Police Department’s compliance with the Constitution.”

Mr. Zimroth has yeoman’s work ahead in the attempt to fix a law that has displayed “a widespread disregard for the [protections of the] Fourth Amendment,” but the rewards will be well worth the effort. Let this week’s ruling serve as a warning to other municipal locations across the nation who may have been inspired by the Big Apple’s example. Public safety concerns do not equate to free rein to harass “the other.”