It’s The Anniversary Of My Twitterstorm

A year ago, I wrote a controversial article about noise pollution that triggered a Twitterstorm.

Outrage roared through my Inwood neighborhood and onto all of my social media accounts. I became a trending Uptown horror show. Like in the Black Mirror episode called “Hated in the Nation,” I faced a virtual jury that seemed to wish me dead. These digital adversaries — some of whom I knew — erected a stock character of me: “a Gentrifying Becky from Wisconsin.” No matter that I’m from Indiana and moved to New York 15 years ago from the large town of Chicago, I was rebranded as a blonde bumpkin, earning much-needed advertising dollars for several online publications.

For a freelancer who has often struggled to get published, the reaction devastated me. Waiters gave me strange looks. Receptionists gossiped about me at places where I received health care. With national stress related to police violence and a traumatic presidential campaign, I became a caricature representing rent increases, white privilege and ignorant racism originating from the cornfields of the Midwest. A fellow writer, who is sometimes trolled by the Russian government, thought I was exaggerating. Then he googled me and said that given the choice between Putin or a whole neighborhood, he would chose Putin as his punisher.

For all of the vigorous communication, there was a moment when opposing sides could have seen each other and shared common goals of respect on our streets. But those delicate seconds dithered away in the march to create clever hashtags and collect screenshots as “evidence” to my supposed racism. Twitter sent me reports telling me I had a 72 percent negativity rating. On top of being a monster, I failed Twitter. To an overachiever like myself, this was just another wound.

I did write the article. I put it out there. But I tried to be understood, like so many of us who participate in online forums. What happened to me could happen to anyone in twitterland.

Last summer, gymnast Gabby Douglas received abuse when she was photographed not putting her hand on her heart during the National Anthem. This after helping her team win an Olympic medal. In January, Monica Lewinsky defended 10-year-old Barron Trump against vicious trolls. Days later, she stood up for SNL writer Katie Rich for joking that Barron would be America’s “first homeschool shooter.” Lewinsky tweeted that “online mobs are not the answer” and that “comedy is an imperfect science.”

Looking back, I think I deserved debate instead of debasement issued by peers with their own flaws. Fortunately, I didn’t get the same treatment as Justine Sacco, a publicist whose life turned upside down with a badly constructed tweet to her 170 followers. I consider myself lucky.

Before my piece appeared in the Daily News, I tried to sell it to other publications and was told noise stories were common. Fellow writers thought my original version was too scientific and unemotional. So, I amped up my beginning until I could no longer see it. Since you’ve come this far with me, I used phrases most humans can’t string together without wanting to blow something up. These choice words included “dick,” “stereo boy,” and “possible criminal.” Yep. I did that.

An editor at the Daily News accepted my article that went from more than 1,000 words to 600, tightening the tension. He chose that piece instead of a sleepier one I wrote about the ethical treatment of medical cadavers. My impression of him was that of an old-school journalist, who — in a shrinking newsroom — felt pressured to deliver clickable content to an insatiable audience. (He may have been more overwhelmed than I was.) The photo of Jay-Z further sensationalized my story, the final package of which I didn’t see until it hit the net. When I asked to take the photo and some language down soon after it appeared, I was told the Daily News couldn’t find another picture of La Marina, the club I mentioned by name. The language stayed for days. I prepared to die.

I didn’t die, although I did lose weight. In shock, I sat in a cafe and projectile vomited across the room, not once but twice on an empty stomach. I still have nightmares. I probably have PTSD. 

Pals keep reassuring me that “things have quieted down” and that I should forgive myself. After all, I no longer open my Facebook to find messages telling me I am the lowest piece of human garbage or that I should kill myself. But the damage of a digital attack continues long after the storm. A representative from an online reputation company estimated that I would have to pay $6,000 once a month for eight months to clean up my google search results with positive and neutral blogs. Without that kind of money, I’m forced to inhabit my soul rather than my image.

I’m tougher than I thought. Also, I’m neither good nor bad but something in between, which may be more interesting. I hate hurting people’s feelings, even though I still despise the inconsiderate noise blasting into my apartment from the clubs and traffic that clog my residential area. I want other people to respect my rights and feelings too, regardless of my skin color or how long I’ve lived here. Noise pollution is still pollution, even in New York City.

Do I regret writing the article? Every day, although I learned a lot and now consider myself a wisdom keeper. In the future, I believe every job candidate will have a tattoo, a piercing and an online disaster that may or may not represent the whole person. I have a head start into this likely reality.

Obviously, I would have written the beginning with more sensitivity to my neighbors of color. When the first negative comments appeared on Facebook, I slapped my forehead with the realization that I wrote my op-ed in a bubble. I assumed I would be congratulated. Instead, I enraged five continents in the first three sentences. Even though my intention steered toward noise pollution and not race, I could see why folks were upset. What was I thinking? (By the way, the “kid” I wrote about was between the ages of 25 and 30 and had a beard. I’m 42. To me, he was a kid.)

My neighborhood is changing. As I sit here well fed in modern Manna-hata, I worry about being displaced by high rents and unkind people. I must remember the Lenape, the area’s true natives, who sold Manhattan to the Dutch in 1626 in exchange for goods valued at 60 guilders. I have choices that don’t include decimation.

But I’m not so sure. Centuries ago, this island’s inhabitants struggled to survive. Today, we have smartphones and talent to waste.

To The French On Bastille Day! We Are All The People

 

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

 

When our new president swore on two bibles he would “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” a revolution stirred in my heart.

As a New York City Democrat who loves her conservative Hoosier family, I wanted to hold him to his promise without breaking ties. First, I needed to hear my thoughts.

On Inauguration Day, I visited the New York Public Library’s main branch on Fifth Avenue. Desperate to quell anxiety exacerbated by fake news and social media, I entered the great hush of the Rose Main Reading Room, known to many for its role in Ghostbusters.

By chance, I discovered artist Morgan O’Hara and a few of her companions vigorously scribbling at a long table. Their sign announced they would stay until closing time to handcopy the U.S. Constitution, the oldest written and continuously used governing constitution in the world that is more than 229 years old.

Smiling, I accepted the offer of paper and a marker from O’Hara’s stash of supplies. This was exactly what I needed, a patriotic reminder of a common set of values. I settled into a heavy wooden chair, feeling goosebumps creep up my neck.

As I re-penned “We the People,” I felt calm. My 7th grade teacher made my class memorize the Preamble in the 1980s. I imagined her low voice meld each syllable into a poem. Now I sensed “the Blessings of Liberty” as a fierce, fragile organism. Warmth moved into my hands and feet. My breath deepened.

When I checked my phone, verbal warfare invaded my cell phone. I watched in horror as a New England acquaintance started a Facebook pile-on. “Wash out your uneducated hick mouth and go back to Arkansas,” he typed to the stranger. Fans lobbed onto the post, forgetting that an actual human being was being torn apart. But the Constitution grounded me with its inclination toward fairness. Without thinking, I switched from print to cursive, surprised I still knew how to form the letters. To my relief, I found no mention of political parties, so toxic during the 2016 campaign.

The next day at the New York Women’s March, fear of crowds made me a pathetic protester. I emailed O’Hara, the conceptual artist I met at the library, to understand why I preferred her impromptu gathering to a mass demonstration. “Don’t make me out to be some hero,” said O’Hara, 76, who saw her event as a visual project, a way to return to basics and protest in silence. While she did not finish after six hours—predicting 14 for the whole task—the physical effort allowed her to sense how much tension went into making our laws.

Most of the Framers were wealthy. Many owned slaves. All were white men. Yet nearly everyone played a role in the Revolutionary War with more to lose than many of us with our smartphones and double lattes. Despite privileges, they were prepared to sacrifice everything to form a republic.

Centuries later, I imagined Founding Fathers could embrace feminists like my pal Liz, a civil rights and peace activist since the 1960s. Liz reminded me that the First Amendment grants five freedoms, including “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” But she went a step further. “We have to respect our enemies,” said Liz, an admirer of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. “Otherwise, it’s just a mob.”

Respect requires empathy. To cultivate gentleness, I copied passages before bed, moving the language through my bloodstream like a prayer. Article I, Section 8 granted powers to Congress and shared similarities to the book of Genesis. Each line was a creation: post offices, a standard of weights and measures, the production of money and the ability to declare war and to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.”

My jaw tightened as I thought of my new president’s executive orders. But as I spent more time with the Constitution, I thought its language modeled a level head for civil discourse. I was moved particularly by the 19th Amendment stating no one should be denied voting rights “on account of sex.” Ratified in 1920, the amendment and its gender-inclusive wording felt especially fresh.

“Copying the Constitution is different from reading it,” said my library buddy, Ana, an American citizen originally from Romania. “When you see a road from the plane, you don’t see the pebbles.”

Curious about the details, I traveled to Washington, D.C., specifically to visit founding documents at the National Archives. “Take a close look at the first page,” a guard told me as I approached the Constitution. “Can you see a mistake?” To my amazement, I found an omission, a line that had been scraped and possibly covered with candlewax. Then he pointed out a childish error on the fourth and final signature page—“Pensylvania” spelled with one “n”—scrawled out by Alexander Hamilton, the man whose name would launch a smash Broadway musical. I was in love.  

So was my father as I described my studies. Instead of arguing about Trump—an endless activity—we met up for a family vacation in Philadelphia, birthplace of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Infused with the Spirit of ‘76, we strolled through museums and chatted with costumed actors portraying Betsy Ross and Thomas Jefferson. At the National Constitution Center, we paused at a video of a naturalization ceremony. Like couples taking marriage vows, these brave new citizens pledged the Oath of Allegiance, swearing to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, “foreign and domestic.” When the camera zoomed in on individual faces, Dad and I stifled tears.

As a natural-born American, I took my freedoms for granted. But by copying my blessings each night with my right hand, I drew a pact with God—binding me to country, family and fellow patriots, however they voted.

Forty-five days into the Trump administration, I finished the last sentence of the 27th Amendment, the final law regarding congressional pay cycles. I was now a re-Framer with my own 43-page document. When stapled together end to end, the yellow legal paper trailed from my front door to my bed.

Then I started all over again with a fresh piece of paper, beginning with “We the People.”

[This article first appeared in the New York Observer.]

Too Old For Yoga Pants? Depends.

I knew I must be showing my age when I opened my goody bag for this year’s Yoga Journal Live in NY conference and found a box of Depends.

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A yogi for more than 15 years, I don’t feel the same zing when I attend these conferences, which seem to be giving way to festivals and social media. The yoga-lebrity doesn’t shine as bright as in years past, when teachers like Rodney Yee could create buzz just by walking through the hallway.

Although I’ve grown weary of yoga marketing and practicing in hotel conference rooms, I’m sad to see Yoga Journal Live go out of style. Materialism can be fun.

Even though I’ve grown weary of all the yoga stuff, including jeweled malas and $80 tops sold in the market place, I do acknowledge that the yoga I once knew is getting wrinkly. When I walked around the Midtown Hilton today, I felt like a step aerobics teacher hanging on to the last scrunchie. We conference-goers aren’t as perky as we used to be, or maybe there are just fewer of us. The millennials certainly aren’t hip to this scene, which may explain the adult pull-up diapers in our goody bags. While yoga is just as wanted and needed as it ever was, the accoutrements have become as passé as the leotard and as run-down as an un-toned pelvic floor.

My personal practice feels more authentic than ever, even though I’ve given up jump backs and headstands. These days, my regime looks like lying around on the floor. I’m still not ready for Depends.

But I’ll let you know for sure after I give them a whirl. I am an open-minded yogi, after all.

Your Local Samurai Guy

Yoshi Amao and Saori PHOTO: Emily Assiran for Observer

Yoshi Amao and Saori PHOTO: Emily Assiran for Observer 

“I have a wife,” Yoshi Amao, the instructor of Samurai Sword Fighting, says quietly the other day at Peridance Capezio Center in the East Village. “But the sword is the partner with my hand and soul.”

With his acrobatic frame and thick black bangs, the Osaka, Japan native resembles an anime character, especially in his hakama, voluminous black skirt-like pants. “People ask how I look so young because I forget my age always,” jokes Amao, who claims he can’t remember the year of his birth.

Amao, also an actor, banks on teaching the way of the Samurai as an unorthodox day job. Aside from his class, a 90-minute workout fusing martial arts with kabuki, he offers New Yorkers private lessons and hires himself out to corporations that want to convey the values of the Japanese warriors to employees, through physical instruction and storytelling with his troupe of 10 fighter-dancers.

“A Samurai is strong, strict and humble…I almost think it’s the opposite of American”—Yoshi Amao

“Sometimes workers need to experience another world and forget everything what they do, what they feel and who they are,” Amao explains. “They may be able to feel parts of themselves through meditation at the beginning and end of the class, swinging swords for many times with a big kiai [yell] and acting in the fighting scenes, eventually.”

“A Samurai is strong, strict and humble,” he continues, speaking slowly and considering each word. “I almost think it’s the opposite of American. Sometimes I think Americans are like this”—he throws open his arms wide and flashes a game-show-host grin. “Japanese more inner.”

In his class, beginner and advanced students (many are dancers and quick studies) perform choreographed scenes, what Amao calls “Samurai Showtime.” Newer pupils rehearse a kata that approximates movement patterns of ballet. They nimbly dart forward and back, while striking and blocking with wooden swords called bokens, as loud drumming served as the soundtrack. Next, seasoned fighters rehearse a scene with one man defending himself against multiple attackers. As the samurai twirl to face each opponent, his hair and pants flow like that of a matinée idol. Staged deaths follow realistic-looking slashes through the stomach.

“In class, Yoshi is serious,” says one of his lieutenants, actor Saori Goda, 31, who trained for five years and fights like she’s in Kill Bill. “He really thinks of the way of the samurai: You have to respect your seniors, your teachers. In New York, it’s rare to learn this style.”

Yoshi Amao.

Yoshi Amao. Emily Assiran for Observer.

Also from Osaka, Goda stands by Amao in the lobby, her raven hair in a high bun. Having changed into jeans, Amao perches on a stool, his left leg stretched to display a floral-printed sneaker. As fighters and ballerinas mingle in the hallway, he maintains a panther’s posture, bokens sticking out of his bag.

Amao moved to New York in 1990 to become a full-time actor. With his deep voice and heavy accent, he gets consistent voice-over work, providing narration to video games (Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories) and commercials. His athleticism frequently lands him TV and film roles like Disney’s Japanizi: Going, Going, Gong! and the USA series White Collar. “Mostly, I am the face of the Cherry Blossom Festival,” he says, referring to the annual event at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden.

Every spring, Amao choreographs a 45-minute play for the festival. This year’s theme was “Dragon Fire,” featuring Samurai Sword Soul, his troupe.

Amao adapts excerpts from the production for up to 20 performances throughout the country. While most of his performers are male, females provide nuance. “People get bored of men fighting,” notes Amao, deferring to Goda. “In Dragon Fire, Saori’s boyfriend is totally weaker than she is. He proposes to her. She refuses.

“Say the line,” Amao requests.

“I don’t want to marry someone who is not as strong as I am,” replies Goda, smiling.

“That always gets laughs,” he says. “In the U.S., men say, ‘Ladies first.’ Macho. I think women are stronger than men.”

Then Amao reveals a secret. “She is my wife,” he says, pointing to Goda. The couple burst into giggles. Married one year after seven years of dating, Amao and Goda met in New York when they were both emcees at a social event for JaNet, a nonprofit formed after 9/11 with a mission to “cheer up and unite” the Japanese expat community.

Today, the couple lives on the Upper East Side and occasionally collaborates on fight scenes, a difficult task in their small apartment.

Amao envisions taking his samurai show on the road, ideally in Las Vegas and California. “Then I will feel like I have made it in in America.”

Grammar Check: Why Celebrities Should Read ‘Elements Of Style’

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I know this presidential election gets people emotional, but that’s no excuse for bad grammar, especially if your name is Madonna. Take a look at Madge’s recent Facebook post promoting Hillary:

I love that the Material Girl has no shame, but her first sentence makes me squirm. Here’s a breakdown of her misdeeds, according to the fourth edition of The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White: 1) Bitches is a name or title that deserves parenthetic treatment when used in direct address. The Blonde One is talking to we bitches as if we were right there beside her. Therefore, “bitches” needs a comma. Ex. Bitches, are you in my gang??? 2) Because her statement is a sentence and not a title, Madonna really should ease up on the capitalization. If she wanted to pen a book, like The Catcher in the Rye or A Tale of Two Cities, she would have to italicize and use lower case letters for prepositions like “in.” Ex. Bitches, Are You in My Gang??? 3) Finally, no need for three question marks when one would do. With the way Madge zips through time zones, I recommend simplicity, especially when thumb typing on tiny keys.

As you can see, 29,000 people liked her shabbily written post. More than 2,000 fans actually shared it, which means Madonna is a person of influence. We have free speech in this country. I support her right to be offensive. She can continue to offer free fellatio to Hillary voters, but first, she has to polish her communication skills.

Bitches, are you in my gang?

 

Review: J. Brown’s Tough Yoga

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Gentle is the New Advanced,” an online tutorial series, is J. Brown’s love note to any instructor who has ever felt like a fraud with a jacked-up neck and broken heart. His students, fellow instructors, nod and share their own views while sipping tea in a cozy Massachusetts studio. With creaky floor boards and snow falling against a picture window, this setting presents itself as an affordable retreat, a chance to earn Yoga Alliance credits without leaving home. Brown’s philosophy lands on all of us who pushed through the power vinyasa years only to collapse in a wasted sweaty heap, the only way we could experience savasana.

Through four practice sessions interspersed with four lecture/conversations, Brown admits to sacroiliac instability, possibly from all the full splits he forced upon himself in his twenties. “Man, why did I do all those hanamanasanas?” he laughs in Part 6 — Lecture: Practice Technique. His illustrated workbook highlights a 1997 photo of Brown in an impressive bow pose, toes pointed and chest lifted to the heavens. His practice looks much different today, due to chronic inflammation and a growing maturity that informs his methodology.

In his “radically transparent” style, Brown talks about his mother’s death, an event he sought to understand while simultaneously pushing away his emotions. Despite his advanced asana practice and travels to India, he couldn’t answer a simple question: How does this feel? Numbed out, Brown confesses to practicing and teaching so much that Mark Whitwell encouraged him to get a girlfriend. He did. Today, Brown lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children.

His methodology now focuses on breathing through core moves — including leg lifts, sun salutes, and bridging — that are building blocks for what are considered flashier Instagram moves like titibasana and side crow. When combined with ujjayi breath, each “easy” asana develops its own personality and level of difficulty. Perhaps I can let go of my flying crane pose with less risk of injury and more room for growth. 

In one of my favorite discussions, a teacher mentions the death of her father. His illness and passing presented itself as physical and emotional pain. She desperately needed to stop “performing” in her classes. Rather, she wanted to offer authentic techniques, something she could do by herself in private. Yet with pressure to maintain large class sizes, some instructors call out intricate sequences they don’t have the energy to do on their own. “If you don’t have the discipline to do this practice at home, I don’t think you have a leg to stand on,” Brown remarks.

Examples of exhaustive, repetitive asanas include headstand and shoulderstand. After a student injured his neck and never wanted to go back to yoga, Brown stopped teaching these poses. “They’re the king and queen of asanas, but I don’t care,” he laughs. Jump backs with percussive donkey kicks fall into the category of compromising behavior. While he doesn’t want to impede on anyone’s fun, he encourages jump backs for those who have first found their “floaty cloud” capabilities. In forward bends, knees can bend. In bridges, he invites full wheels, only if they feel right.

After all that breathing, “feeling right” is easier to judge, which is really the point of it all.

 

I’m Just Here For Savasana

“Final rest” can lend itself to macabre thoughts. Contrary to the cute T-shirt slogan, the pose is serious – even difficult. In Sanskrit, sava translates into corpse. When we practice savasana, we arrange our limbs in a funereal manner, sometimes with a bolster under the knees and a blanket beneath the head.

In America, we don’t like to talk about death, even though we see it each time we read about another shooting, another vigil. In less sensational terms, how many of us have lost jobs, family members ,or even a beloved restaurant that closed and gave way to Starbucks? These are all deaths, but in our culture, we don’t have a healthy collective way to process or celebrate them.

When I approached my 40s, I wanted more calm in how I approached change. The laugh lines around my mouth reminded me that my body was only a temporary structure for my infinite spirit. While my muscles loved to run and stretch, my soul — which was so big it frightened me — also needed tender care.

For my body, I began researching anatomical donation. Eventually, I donated it to a major hospital (I’m still using it right now), even going on a tour of the gross anatomy lab and attending cadaver memorials. In order to move forward, I wanted a better relationship with letting go.

To my surprise, med students often told me about unusual forces within the lab. Their beloved cadavers — spread open with bone saws — held secrets of scars and old surgeries that made them as real as any yia yia or abuela. Despite religious beliefs, many of these future doctors felt like the bodies watched them, not in a threatening way, but with the benign matter-of-factness of elderly aunts at a wedding.

In the memoir Body of Work, author Christine Montross, a doctor and poet, describes cutting off the face of Eve, the cadaver she shared with her fellow students, one of whom had a panic attack. “Despite the inertia of the dead,” Montross writes, “they actively affect us. Even now as the term winds to a close.”

In Thai medical schools, Montross notes, cadavers are especially holy because most citizens are Buddhist and therefore reluctant to intervene with reincarnation. Students refer to their bodies as “great teachers,” giving them ceremonies before and after dissection.

In a dance of intimacy unknown to most of us here in the West, Thai medical students memorize their donors’ names, forever walking with the dead in order to heal the living.

When we lie down for savasana, we are likewise communing with our ancestors. Corpse pose is not for the weak, a powerful conduit between space and time that is more than a slogan.

This article first appeared in YogaCity NYC.

Trolls, They’re Just Like Us

What do entertainers Leslie JonesMinnie Driver and Normani Kordei have in common? They’ve had break ups with Twitter, the hyperactive social media site that can often act like an unregulated kangeroo court. Unlike most of us, however, many celebs have experts to navigate through Twitter’s beaky skies.

These days, trolling can also threaten the reputation of normal people, according to Jon Ronson, the inquisitive author of the terrific-ly timely book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

One powerful example is the one of Hank, not his real name, who attended a tech developers conference in 2013. Giggling with his friend Alex, he whispered that he would “fork” a guy’s “repo,” which in their nerdy tech speak, was a compliment for the presenter and his new project. Adria Richards, who sat in front of them, didn’t appreciate the sexual connotation of the joke and snapped a picture of them, sending it adrift in the Twitt-o-sphere. Ten minutes later, an organizer pulled them out of the conference to defend their comments. Uncomfortable, they left early only to found out about Richard’s disastrous tweet and follow-up blog. Hank was fired the next day. Here’s what he wrote on a discussion board on Hacker News.

Hi, I’m the guy who made a comment about big dongles. First of all I’d like to say I’m sorry. I really did not mean to offend anyone and I really do regret the comment and how it made Adria feel. She had every right to report me to staff, and I defend her position … [But] as a result of the picture she took I was let go from my job today. Which sucks because I have 3 kids and I really liked that job. She gave me no warning, she smiled while she snapped the pic and sealed my fate.”

That’s when trolls on a famous trolling site turned on Richards for misusing her privilege and getting a guy fired. “Cut out her uterus with an xacto knife,” someone wrote. Someone sent Richards a picture of a beheaded woman with tape over her mouth. Her face was superimposed onto the bodies of porn actors. Then her employer’s website and servers suffered an enormous DDoS attack, causing them to crash. Attackers said they would let up once Richards was fired. She was. What a terrible shame for both Hank and Richards. But they were fine, right?

No. They weren’t alright. While Hank found a job relatively quickly, he was perpetually on edge. Richards had more difficulties finding work. As Ronson shows, being trolled is highly traumatic.

Throughout his book, Ronson examines how normal people, who are hard-wired and raised to do good, can organize into lynch mobs. Ronson, who has a likable, egg-heady writing voice, was most interested in the accepted practice of public shaming online.

In 310 hilarious, sad and compassionate pages, Ronson chronicles the lives of non-celebs torn apart by social media. Or rather, by us. Yes, he admits. He’s been part of the pile-on, motivated to defend the underdog without leaving his laptop. All of this is making a more fearful, careful and conformist society, he theorizes. “We are defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart the people outside it,” he concluded.

 

Gearing Up For Tonight’s Debate, Quelling Feelings Of Helplessness

Judge Robert Katzmann presides over the largest naturalization ceremony in Ellis’ Island’s history. Photo: Sasha Maslov for Observer

Judge Robert Katzmann presides over the largest naturalization ceremony in Ellis’ Island’s history. Photo: Sasha Maslov for Observer

On Citizenship Day, I had the opportunity to report on Ellis Island’s largest naturalization ceremony, what organizers told me was the Super Bowl of Citizenship. Timed perfectly to the centennial of the National Park Service and the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution, this historic swearing-in was coordinated with two simultaneous events at the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials in Washington D.C. During the week-long celebration at other national monuments, 38,000 new citizens would likewise pledge themselves “to perform works of national importance,” a phrase unknown to many life-long Americans like myself whose roots are not Native American.

The ceremony was moving. When I re-played my recordings, I wept as 298 new citizens recited the Oath of Allegiance in the Great Hall. If you’re a garden-variety American and occasional Walmart shopper like me, you might want to bone up on the Oath before tonight’s debate. Here it is:

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.

I got this story idea by attending smaller ceremonies each Friday at a downtown courthouse. Over and over, I was struck at how well new citizens knew our Constitution and geography. In a time when 10 percent of college graduates believe Judge Judy is a Supreme Court Justice, I wanted to know what it’s like to consciously choose the United States over another land. In my visits to a Lower Manhattan court, I learned about the ceremony on Ellis Island. Excitedly, I pitched this article to the New York Observer, a paper owned by Trump’s son-in-law, whose deputy editor said “yes” and assigned an amazing photographer. Together, we followed several new citizens from the time they got on the ferry to the moment they held official papers.

It was humbling.

Immigration will likely be a hot topic tonight in the presidential debate. I can’t control November’s outcome. But I can know more about my country. And I can learn more about the systems that govern this great nation. I started by ordering a pocket Constitution. And by putting a copy of the Oath of Allegiance on my living room mirror.

Here are some of my own pics:

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It’s The Super Bowl Of Naturalizations!

Judge Robert Katzmann presides over the largest naturalization ceremony in Ellis’ Island’s history. Photo: Sasha Maslov for Observer

When taxi driver Richard Valdez boarded a ferry to Ellis Island last Friday, he filed past scores of tourists for what appeared to be a VIP wedding. As one of 298 candidates representing 53 countries, Valdez would soon participate in the Super Bowl of naturalization ceremonies, the largest in the island’s history.

A native of the Dominican Republic, Valdez, 26, relished postcard views of New York Harbor under a cyan sky. Tall and athletic, he wore a navy sports jacket with brown elbow patches. To quicken his long commute from the Bronx, he brought Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez’ novel about love at first sight. Like many on the ferry, Valdez came to the United States for better opportunities.

Unlike most other new citizens, he stood alone. His grandmother back home could not witness the day when he pledged himself “to perform work of national importance.” In a few hours, he would be an American with the responsibility of jury duty and the right to vote in a heated presidential election.

Richard Valdez on the day he became an American citizen.

Nearby, Verna Genus, 66, who hailed from Jamaica, put Betsy Ross to shame in a white jacket, blue top, red lace skirt and crimson heels.

“I’m like the flag,” she remarked. With her braids piled high, she rattled off answers from her citizenship test in a heavy Caribbean
accent: “There are tree branches of government…The Speaker of the House is Paul Ryan.” Her son, Kirk Genus, 38, would also be sworn in. “I have never voted in my entire life, and I feel great,” said Kirk, who supports Hillary Clinton. Together, mother and son strode toward registration tables in the Great Hall, the cathedral-like space that once processed 5,000 immigrants a day.

This setting, with its relics and ghosts, moved Robert Katzmann, chief judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. His Russian grandmother came through Ellis Island.

“I admire new citizens,” Katzmann said before presiding over the ceremony. “I like seeing the joy on the faces. Witnessing the tears of their family members is always emotional. I think of it in terms of my own forebearers and their stories of sacrifice, service and patriotism.”

As the son of a refugee from Nazi Germany, Katzmann helped found Immigrant Justice Corps, a program providing legal assistance to non-citizens fighting deportation. Today, an IJC client would be sworn in as a citizen, a victory for the nonprofit organization.

After a presentation of colors and the National Anthem, candidates rose when they heard their various homelands announced. Among the first to stand at attention was Xinjie Quan, 24, a member of the U.S. Army National Guard, who emigrated from China and wore military fatigues. When the emcee announced the Dominican Republic, a large contingent moved to its feet—cheers ricocheting off the high, vaulted ceiling. Valdez was among them, raising his right hand.

I have no doubt that the spirit of liberty will thrive with you as citizens,” Katzmann told the beaming crowd. “To become a citizen, you passed every test. And as polls show, you know more about our Constitution and government than most native-born Americans. Because of your personal histories, you have a special feeling for freedom…You will keep this country great. You will make it better as you assume the responsibility of citizenship.”

After the ceremony, Verna Genus continued sharing a stream of impressive trivia from her citizenship studies, even after she and her son held their official paperwork to secure them to U.S. soil. “There are 13 original colonies,” she shouted. “And the longest rivers are the Missouri and the Mississippi.”

Valdez had fewer words. “I feel like an American now,” he said.

This article first appeared in the New York Observer.