There are people you encounter in life who are such good humans, you wish you could clone them many times over. That’s Jonathan Kwan.
I met Jonathan a decade ago, when he married my wife’s former colleague and close friend, Darya Larizadeh, a “ badass” public policy attorney in the South Bay, as Jonathan describes his spouse and mother of their two, mixed-race children. Carol and Darya worked together at Demos, one of the nation’s premier think tanks built by Miles Rapoport, past President of Common Cause, immediately after the election of 2000 to keep the flame of progressive policies alive. More recently, Demos gave the nation Heather McGee (Miles’ successor) whose new book on race and economics in America, The Sum of Us, is flying off bookstore shelves.
Jonathan, born in the South Bay to two college-educated parents who came to the US from Hong Kong in the 1970’s, is in his 13th year of teaching at Los Altos High School. A social activist who participated in a number of Black Lives Matter protests, Kwan is a leader in his school district’s Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District Alliance — a group which works to examine school policies and practices to advance racial equality. An English teacher by training, Jonathan is also an AVID teacher — a college prep program which serves first generation students. At Los Altos, he co-founded a group called “Teachers in Solidarity,” a network of educators working to fight racism, sexism and homophobia in the community.
His work in fighting racism and xenophobia, and teaching his students to respect each other regardless of their differences, made his writings about the recent slaughter of Asian American women in Atlanta all the more poignant. I am sharing Jonathan Kwan’s comments here on my Medium account, so his sense of violation and outrage can be seen to be as unique, and universal, as it is.)
Reflections on Anti-Asian Violence
By Jonathan Kwan
Like most of you over these past several weeks, my social media feed has been flooded with outrage, support, concern, solidarity and various hash-tagged responses to the violence targeting Asians seen in headlines. There is no justification for such cruelty. Full stop. However, it’s taken me a minute to formulate my sentiments on this growing conversation. Initially, I wasn’t sure what to say. But, I’ve done some thinking lately so here it is:
In my adolescence, despite my every effort (I spent an embarrassingly substantial portion of my time in middle school trying to gel my stubbornly thick and straight black hair in the style and manner of Beverly Hills, 90210 actor, Jason Priestly. All American. I never felt like I was part of america.
And while living in the Bay Area has provided some cover, a place with a healthy Asian population, Ranch 99 supermarkets, and visible corporate leaders that share my complexion, I am convinced that I am and always will be viewed through the primary prism of my Asian-ness replete with all the historical weight that this bears: Model minority. Math god. Long Duk Dong. Docile. Emasculation. Silent. Small dick. Speak English. Micro and macro aggressions. All of it. This isn’t new. I am, despite all of my proper English etiquette, still and always will be foreign to america. Sometimes, I wear my Asian-ness as a badge of honor, as a bridge to peoples made outsiders and othered. Lately, it’s been a source of inner shame.
White america manipulated us to feel like we have a seat at the table. Work hard and be quiet, they said. Meritocracy first, they said. Play by the rules, they said. Don’t get it twisted, we were always america’s punchline. From “me so horny” to William Hung to Kung Flu, the whole time that my parents and grandparents were convinced that we were the exception, we were the laughing stock (cue racist gong chime here). My parents and grandparents never really took notice. They just made sure to talk to me after I brought a Black friend home to kick it in high school.
That’s the genius and terror of white supremacy: to convince the marginalized into believing in the structures that perpetuate violence and division amongst one another. What these recent hate crimes remind us is that despite our academic and professional achievements, white america was never meant for us. This is an illusion. A tall tale. A myth. We will always be viewed as outsiders but what I find so troubling now, is how so many of my own people have bought in and internalized white dominance and at its worst, weaponize white power tropes to gain an advantage.
I see it in the anti-affirmative action sentiments fomented by Asian-led action groups clamoring for meritocracy and color blindness in times of convenience. I saw it four years ago during a student organized walkout on my campus in response to Trump’s 2016 election — when, after consoling my AVID class of aspirational first generation Latino students in shambles over this existential threat, walking by a predominantly Asian and white populated classroom and witnessing not one student join or even look up from their exams. I see it when observing how many of the Asian students I teach seem to lack the vocabulary in discussions of race. I see it in my own family, many of whom in my generation have married white partners.
How can we be benefactors and punching bags at the same time? Play by the rules, they said.
Now, everyone finds themselves at a place where some are shocked, some are outraged, I am too! You have to be some kinda fucked up to beat up an 85 year old elderly man or shoot up a room filled with innocent mothers, sisters and daughters. Still, my hope is that these events have awakened my Asian community in a real and meaningful way. We will never be white america. We are no exception. We have more in common with our Brown and Black brothers and sisters than you were taught and I pray that we may have the courage and wisdom to push past the dominant narrative. Stop Anti-Asian hate.
Together, they represent 60 million people — or some 20% of the US Population — in their States. Between the two of them, Governors Andrew Cuomo of New York State (with whom I worked during his father’s Administrations) and Gavin Newsom of California have logged nearly 60 years of public service. They’ve championed progressive causes like Marriage & Gender Equality, expansion of healthcare benefits, and strict gun control legislation, and each has an accomplished woman serving as Lt. Governor.
Why then, have two such skilled, smart and strong public servants done such stupid things, prompting calls for Cuomo’s resignation during his third term, and Newsom’s recall before his first term as Governor ends?
Are they simply big, tempting targets for Right Wing extremists and disgruntled opponents within their own parties? Arrogant avatars of political royalty in the two of the nation’s largest States? Or, just plain tone-deaf, male lunkheads?
With the Ides of March fast approaching as well as the March 17 deadline for the Newsom Recall petition in California, and the Annual March 31 Budget Deadline in New York State, March may be the cruelest month for Andrew & Gavin.
Senator Bernie Sanders, popular among California progressives, rushed to Newsom’s defense this week, tweeting:
“Right-Wing Republicans in CA are trying to Recall Governor Newsom for the crime of telling people to wear masks and for listening to scientists during COVID. Extremist Republicans have done enough to undermine democracy already. We must all unite to oppose the recall in CA.”
In New York, 23 Democratic Assemblywomen, led by Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes from Buffalo, backed Cuomo’s call to let the NYS Attorney General Letitia James’ Investigation takes it’s course to carefully examine sexual harassment claims against the Governor. The announcement by the 23 elected Democratic women, came the day after the Senate Majority Leader — another Black, female, Democrat — called upon Cuomo to resign, and on the same day AG James announced two crackerjack attorneys with subpoena power, to lead the investigation into the sexual harassment allegations. According to the New York Times, “the lawyers will be required to report weekly to Ms. James and publish a public report with their findings, probably months from now.”
For now, provided there are no more bombshells from either coast, the tiki torches have been turned off, although California’s recall reactionaries are claiming they have 500,000 more signatures more than they need to put the measure on the ballot. So, what caused such powerful, effective leaders of 60 million citizens to be reading their own political obituaries in real time? Nano-second news cycles on social media may be a contributing factor, as well as the death sport into which politics has devolved. But to what extent, are Newsom and Cuomo responsible for their own messes?
In California, we’ve seen Newsom’s proclivity for being a putz before, with his screwball marriage to Kimberly Guilfoyle-hat and reports of his sleeping with his best friend’s wife while he was SF Mayor. This year, his dumb-as-a-rock attendance at a lobbyist friend’s birthday party in the ultra expensive Napa Valley restaurant French Laundry — during the peak of the pandemic when the rest of us were under lockdown — was unbelievably stupid. Stupid enough to merit being thrown out of office? I don’t think so.
In New York, arrogance has bitten Andrew Cuomo in the ass before, when he disbanded the Moreland Commission on Ethics a few years back, and declared recently that he knew more than the nine healthcare professionals who resigned his administration following the burgeoning Nursing Home controversy — the subject of yet another investigation. Arrogance has long been Andrew’s Achilles heel, but stupidity…? Never. Until now.
What kind of brilliant political tactician meets privately in his office with female staff members, without another ranking female staff member present to monitor the meeting? In 2021, what supervisor in his or her right mind would discuss sex with a sexual assault survivor — known to you to be a sexual assault survivor? Astounding.
Santa Rosa attorney and a leading advocate for sexual assault victims Michael A. Fiumara, who won one of the largest sexual assault cases in California vs. the Catholic Church, noted that the mere mention of sex or anything sexual, “sets off post-traumatic stress triggers,” in most sexual assault victims. Surely a former Attorney General and a champion of women’s rights and protections for domestic violence victims like Cuomo, should have known that. It’s incomprehensible that he didn’t.
Incomprehensible? Yes. Insensitive? Yes. impeachable? I don’t think so. Nor should Cuomo even think of resigning before a full and independent fact-finding investigation — with those making allegations having a fair hearing of their complaints — has been completed by the State AG’s office.
New York and California hold 80 of the nation’s 435 seats in Congress. Approximately a dozen of those Congressional seats are in swing districts, at a time when the switch of only 6 seats in the House of Representatives, could give the misogynistic, racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Science, anti-LGBTQ, White Supremacist GOP control of the House, and the ability to suffocate all Civil Rights legislation. The sweeping, political and social justice stakes for this nation have rarely been higher.
I fully understand that as the grandfather of 3 granddaughters and the partner of a strong, independent woman for 49 years, I leave myself open to the charge of either being generationally out-of-touch, or a hypocrite who would want the women in my life believed if they were sexually harassed. I might not be willing to listen to the facts, nor to wait for a months-long investigation. I’d probably want to follow the lead of Lorena Bobbitt, with the ostensibly offending male.
I hope I would have the strength to stick to the rule of law, and abide by the findings of a legitimate and impartial investigation into such explosive and life-changing charges. I’m not certain I would. But I do know, having been trained in both the law and in language, to understand that words, and actions, have consequences, and that, more than ever, we need to insist on the unvarnished facts, despite which side we’re on. I’d like to think I’m on the side of the truth, no matter how painful.
I never met Lawrence Ferlinghetti, but I did sit in his worn rocking chair — “the Poet’s Chair,” as it was inscribed — upstairs in San Francisco’s City Lights bookstore, which Ferlinghetti co-founded nearly 70 years ago.
I sat in his seat and looked around at the stack of books that embraced him every day, holding his newest work, a novel entitled “Little Boy” on my lap, published just in time for his 100th birthday, two years ago this month.
I had just completed a book tour for my own memoir, “Tightrope,” in the year I turned 70, and wanted some of Ferlinghetti’s longevity as a writer to seep up through his chair, up through my butt, and keep me writing for the next 30 years.
His books of populist poetry, Coney Island of the Mind, Pictures of the Gone World, and A Far Rockaway of the Heart, appealed to me by their approachable names, and revealed to me the depths of my own unapproachable despair which I hid well from others behind a smile, outward optimism and good grooming. Ferlinghetti saw me for who I was.
So when I learned that at 100 years old, he had written a novel about his boyhood, and his life, I rushed to his book store to buy his book, sit in his chair, soak up his spirit, and start reading right there — on the very spot where Ferlinghetti wrote and read for hours without end. I hoped he would not appear, necessitating an awkward conversation; I simply wanted to get lost in his thoughts and mine, without interruption.
A dozen or so pages into the book, as I settled into the Poet’s chair, I was blown away by the Poet’s description of himself as Little Boy:
“AND, Little Boy, grown up after an endless series of confusions transplantation transformations instigations fornications confessions prognostications hallucinations consternations confabulations collaborations revelations recognitions restitutions reverberations misconceptions clarifications elucidations simplifications idealizations aspirations circumnavigations realizations radicalizations and liberations as Grown Boy came into his own voice and let loose his word-hoard pent up within him…”
The paragraph exploded again and again in front of me. As my pace of reading it and re-reading it picked up, so did the rhythm of my rocking in Ferlinghetti’s chair, as if I were drumming his mantra into myself. No, this was not Ginsberg’s Howl, whichCity Lights courageously published, with Ferlinghetti risking imprisonment to win a monumental victory for free speech. It was a heart-to-heart talk from Ferlinghetti to me, a 100 year old writer mentoring one 30 years younger. Reading it, made me feel like a little boy. I was Lily Tomlin’s “Edith Ann” sitting in a rocking chair way too big for me.
The breadth of Ferlinghetti’s life always mesmerized me, from the volume of poetry and other writings he turned out, year after year, for 70 years; to the hundreds of writers he nourished with his own publishing company; to the courage he demonstrated rescuing American troops on D-Day, and the strength he showed in remaining a life-long pacifist after witnessing, in person, the nightmarish aftermath of US atomic bombs vaporizing Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the hundreds of thousands of human beings living in those Japanese cities.
He wrote of how he felt like “kissing the ground when I landed in Normandy June 1944,” how he questioned the plot of his life and “this novel, if not the remembrance of things still not past for the past is but a cautious counselor of what has yet to come…”
Fearlessly, Ferlinghetti revealed his journeys deep into the “dark workshops the bottega oscura in each of us where poetry is self born where heart’s poetry first generates in hidden caves the dark bodegas of self…” He longed for a peaceful world where dissent was no longer necessary, but inherently understood the necessity of seeking and speaking the truth in the face of unspeakable evil.
A few short months after Trump became President in 2017, Ferlinghetti, then 98, penned a short, powerful poem for The Nation, entitled “Trump’s Trojan Horse:”
Homer didn’t live long enough To tell of Trump’s White House Which is his Trojan horse From which all the President’s men Burst out to destroy democracy…
Ferlingetti’s unencumbered lyricism swept me up in its currents, and in a nod to his influence, I channeled his style and cadence in a piece I had published on singer/songwriter/social activist Harry Chapin late last year:
“Chapin’s life was, at it’s core, a love story — a complicated, triangulated, convoluted, undisputed, multi-generational, non-denominational, big-brotherish, earth-motherish, Bohemian-maniacal, Yankee Puritanical, serendipitous, so ridiculous love story that it could just as well have been fiction, or the subject of one of Harry’s own story songs. But, it was a love story as real as life, with roots as deep as roots can reach, and lots of reminders that it happened, and was not just imagined.”
I sat in the Poet’s Chair and felt his presence, still living, still loving, still fighting hard for justice, still sober to the terrors of the world — and it’s beauty — and knew that Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s life was both imagined and real, bringing many of us along on The Cyclone ride with him, inspiring us to extend our arms and our reach as far, and for as long, as we could.
This has been a hellish 11 months for many of us, especially for the families of the nearly 500,000 souls, whose lives were cut-short by COVID—including that of our own beloved family matriarch, Ethel Jacobson Hamburger.
The pain of disease, isolation, desolation, depression and financial wreckage has hit many good friends, family and colleagues across the country. It’s a time to be grateful for every breath we take. Literally.
My life-long partner, Carol Villano, and I wake up each morning acknowledging how blessed we are to be alive and healthy, with a comfortable home, enough food, and the ability to hug our son and three granddaughters, who are, mercifully, part of our “COVID Bubble.” We know we are far luckier than most, and have attempted, in small ways, to pay our good fortune forward, to grocery store workers, health care professionals, First Responders, and those not able to work from home.
The pandemic has forced individuals and families everywhere to re-evaluate everything; what’s important in life, and who matters most to you; what’s worth your limited time on earth, and with whom you’d most like to share it. Daily, I am acutely aware of my favorite Rosh Hashanah prayer:
““On Rosh Hashanah it is written,
On Yom Kippur it is sealed:
How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be?
Who shall live and who shall die?
Who shall see ripe age, and who shall not?
Who shall perish by fire and who by water?
Who by sword,and who by beast?
Who by hunger and who by thirst?
Who by earthquake and who by plague?”
COVID has concentrated our minds, hearts and souls on life and love, loss and lost time, and forced us—regardless of age—to face our own mortality. At 72 years old, death is always glancing at us, waiting to dance with us, and often—as friends and family disappear, we understand, without needing to say it, how swiftly a bright and glowing candle can be puffed out.
Until, of course, we pinch ourselves for proof that we are alive, still human and full of love, realizing that our gift of life, of each breath, commands us to hold tighter those we love and to seize the opportunity to open new doors, and, as Amanda Gorman said at Joe Biden’s Inauguration, “to be the light.”
So, Carol and I moved toward the light, and toward unconditional love, and in the midst of a pandemic—and fearful that others wouldn’t be as fastidious about COVID protocols as we are– sold our home in Napa and bought another just about a mile or so from our son and three granddaughters in Sonoma County.
It’s not the first time we’ve done that in almost 50 years together, having moved 17 times during our life-long odyssey. Nearly 12 years ago, when our oldest granddaughter was born, we picked ourselves up from Manhattan’s Upper West Side, packed our essential belongings in our Honda SUV, and drove cross-country to San Francisco, to live nearer to our only child, and be part of our new granddaughter’s life. My mother’s death in Southern California about 18 months earlier hit me like an earthquake, shaking loose any notions I had of never being able to leave New York. The pull of family, and of a new baby girl, was impossible to resist.
Now, with 3 granddaughters ages 11, 9 and 5—and a loving, welcoming son — not even a pandemic could keep us away. Our house in Napa sold in 3 days for asking price. Contrary to what we expected, it was the smoothest, safest move we had among all of our previous 16. COVID restrictions eliminated “Open Houses,” the bane of any seller’s existence; only pre-approved buyers, wearing masks and abiding by public health protocols, could come through, and only one at a time, accompanied by our realtor who, serendipitously, sold us our Napa home 5 years earlier on the very same day we signed a new contract with this year’s buyer.
House hunting in Healdsburg, Sonoma County –one of the best small towns in the US—concerned us. Would the homeowners on that end be as COVID careful as we were? Prices were high, but interest rates were at record lows, and if this past year taught us anything it was how much we enjoyed sharing life and love with our son and his three daughters. Nothing else mattered.
Fortunately, the few homes we saw were vacant, and meticulously sanitized before we walked through them. I zoomed on Zillow for months, memorizing every home that came onto the market, and spotted each new one the instant it appeared. I had my eye on a particular neighborhood for years, and when just the right, newly remodeled contemporary home came on sale, to quote NYC’s Boss Tweed, “we seen our opportunity, and we took it.”
The new house is walking distance to town, and to our granddaughters’ schools, and comes with a community pool, tennis courts and a bocce ball court. The house has a “bonus room”, big enough for all 3 girls to decorate as their own, and deep closets to double as Harry Potter-like hideouts. For an added bonus, the principal of the Nursery School all 3 girls attended over an 8-year span—and where I hosted a fund-raiser for my 70th birthday—lived next door. We “air-hugged” when we discovered we’d be neighbors.
As if all of this kissing-good kismet wasn’t enough, we discovered that the same local construction firm which renovated our son’s house did the complete makeover of our new one, and the contractor is a family friend. If ever a move was meant to be, this one was it.
So, the day we closed on our Sonoma County home, we celebrated with cupcakes—each in their own little home, the girls’ noted–and we opened the front door to their squeals of delight, and let them run free, into a future full of fun and change and the pleasure of simply being alive, each of us “being the light” to one another.