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Microaggression and Blackbirds

Long ago someone told me pigeons are flying rats and I’ve never bothered to think differently. Pigeons have discovered the bird feeder on my balcony. I shoo them away but they lurk on the ledges of the building across the street and return when they think the coast is clear. A single red-winged black bird, one-fifth the size of a pigeon, will scare a pigeon away from its breakfast on my windowsill.

 Red-winged blackbirds can be aggressive in defending their nests this time of year.

Red-winged blackbirds nest in Chicago parks. The males chase intruders — other males, crows, raptors, and people. I wandered down Michigan Avenue the other day to check on the migrating flock that sets up housekeeping every year in Lake Shore Park. Though I readily observe one or two red-wings at my window, there’s nothing like watching a flock dive-bombing unsuspecting dog walkers who pass under their nests.

On the way, I clutched my bag as I passed the Louis Vuitton store. I funneled myself between the ever-present queue around the store and the narrowing sidewalk. Lines formed outside Louis Vuitton and other high-end stores when Covid Shutdown rules required a limited number of people inside. And for the umpteenth time this year I noticed my silent microaggressive thoughts on Black people. Where do these people get the money for four thousand dollar purses? 

Covid Shutdown coincided with the proliferation of online free programs about white privilege, implicit bias and microaggression. For the first time in my old life I’ve been made aware that my whiteness affords me privileges such as crossing paths with a policeman without fear, a privilege Black people don’t have. I’ve discovered that fear of Black men is an implicit bias that governs where I live, eat, shop and travel. Microaggression is a bit trickier to face. Awareness of clutching my bag as I silently scorn Black people lined up at Louis Vuitton is a start. 

On a recent anti-racist zoom program, I learned about workers in the “informal” or survival economy. These are the bucket boys. The handymen. The loose cigarette sellers.The sex workers. The retail money-launderers. Until recently I thought of informal workers as criminals, and not as resilient, courageous, burdened and traumatized spirits of the survival economy. 

A dapper old pensioner sits in a busy park near my building. I know he’s often short on rent, the way you know these things about the neighborhood. He palms a bill in the hand of every passing informal worker: the Streetwise peddlers, the panhandlers, the street people. He’s the only person I know who still carries cash. I used to think he was not only foolish with his money but that he actually hurt people by providing cash for booze and cigarettes. I now think of him as the buddha, the christ, the manifestation of noble kindness. 

I’m receptive to changing my thinking about people.

But not about those pigeons.

___________________________

‘Nature’s A–holes’ Are Back: Red-Winged Blackbirds Attacking People Along The River As Nesting Season Gets Underway

Microaggression and Blackbirds

Long ago someone told me pigeons are flying rats and I’ve never bothered to think differently. Pigeons have discovered the bird feeder on my balcony. I shoo them away but they lurk on the ledges of the building across the street and return when they think the coast is clear. A single red-winged black bird, one-fifth the size of a pigeon, will scare a pigeon away from its breakfast on my windowsill.

 Red-winged blackbirds can be aggressive in defending their nests this time of year.

Red-winged blackbirds nest in Chicago parks. The males chase intruders — other males, crows, raptors, and people. I wandered down Michigan Avenue the other day to check on the migrating flock that sets up housekeeping every year in Lake Shore Park. Though I readily observe one or two red-wings at my window, there’s nothing like watching a flock dive-bombing unsuspecting dog walkers who pass under their nests.

On the way, I clutched my bag as I passed the Louis Vuitton store. I funneled myself between the ever-present queue around the store and the narrowing sidewalk. Lines formed outside Louis Vuitton and other high-end stores when Covid Shutdown rules required a limited number of people inside. And for the umpteenth time this year I noticed my silent microaggressive thoughts on Black people. Where do these people get the money for four thousand dollar purses? 

Covid Shutdown coincided with the proliferation of online free programs about white privilege, implicit bias and microaggression. For the first time in my old life I’ve been made aware that my whiteness affords me privileges such as crossing paths with a policeman without fear, a privilege Black people don’t have. I’ve discovered that fear of Black men is an implicit bias that governs where I live, eat, shop and travel. Microaggression is a bit trickier to face. Awareness of clutching my bag as I silently scorn Black people lined up at Louis Vuitton is a start. 

On a recent anti-racist zoom program, I learned about workers in the “informal” or survival economy. These are the bucket boys. The handymen. The loose cigarette sellers.The sex workers. The retail money-launderers. Until recently I thought of informal workers as criminals, and not as resilient, courageous, burdened and traumatized spirits of the survival economy. 

A dapper old pensioner sits in a busy park near my building. I know he’s often short on rent, the way you know these things about the neighborhood. He palms a bill in the hand of every passing informal worker: the Streetwise peddlers, the panhandlers, the street people. He’s the only person I know who still carries cash. I used to think he was not only foolish with his money but that he actually hurt people by providing cash for booze and cigarettes. I now think of him as the buddha, the christ, the manifestation of noble kindness. 

I’m receptive to changing my thinking about people.

But not about those pigeons.

___________________________

‘Nature’s A–holes’ Are Back: Red-Winged Blackbirds Attacking People Along The River As Nesting Season Gets Underway

Coming Out

NPR reporter Monica Eng posts traditional homemade dishes on Instagram for every holiday. When I spotted her photo of colcannon, I recalled that on St. Patrick’s Day in the before-time I would hop the downtown bus to The Gage restaurant for their annual version of colcannon. Colcannon is a peasant Irish dish of potatoes mashed with butter, cream, cabbage and onions. 

In 2020, Governor Pritzker shut down St. Patrick’s Day and all restaurants for a month to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus in Illinois. Our watering mouths were abruptly slammed shut not for a month but for the year.

Let’s have lunch! I messaged Mark this St. Patrick’s Day. We entered the same bus at different locations. Pandemic bus culture dictates you huddle in your seat and never look around. We didn’t recognize each other’s masked faces until we lined up by the bus driver at our destination. We hadn’t seen each other since the beginning of the shutdown.

The Gage is near the recently reopened Art Institute of Chicago. Mark and I could have visited the Art Institute after lunch but I dared not mention it. I’m not accustomed to “going out” yet and I needed to take it one occasion at a time. The Gage is only two miles from my home and I already felt like I was on an out-of-town excursion.

I’ve spent as much time in The Art Institute and the nearby Harold Washington Library than almost any public space in Chicago. Long before I even thought about writing my own book, I loved to see and hear authors talk about their writing in the womb-like Pritzker Auditorium at the Library.

In the year before the shutdown, the Member’s Lounge at the Art Institute was my favorite haunt for eavesdropping on conversations. I’d grab a coffee, find a seat and nonchalantly leaf through the delights in the oversized art book from the latest exhibit. I overheard couples argue over lunch plans, strangers flirt with each other and friends gossip about the get-ups of passersby.

Those best of days—lunch, art and authors—flicker in my memory like a moth dancing around a light bulb. The moth, and its cousin the butterfly, are metaphorically overused these days to describe how the vaccinated are acting after the year-long pandemic restrictions are gradually lifted. I get it. In order to get back in the habit of going out, my soul measures future steps, like an inchworm sprung from its cocoon. I loop up, edge forward, look around and take the measure of the awakening world, retreating when un-masked danger arises. Like the metamorphoses of the caterpillar to the butterfly or the inchworm to the moth, I suspect I’ll soon be free to flit about at will.

Molting Monarch Caterpillar

It can’t come soon enough. I’ve become an eating machine. If only my outer layers would molt like those of the voracious-eating inchworms and caterpillars. They need all the calories they can chew off.  

I don’t.

Marching Forth in Love

Marching Forth in Love

Throughout the fall of 2016, I spent three days a week at physical therapy to exorcise the demons from my new knees. That summer I had ceramic installed to replace disintegrating bone and cartilage. Recovery was a long process, made worse by those who’d gone before and bragged about walking a mile six weeks after their surgeries.

At the PT office, Assistant Colleen and I yakked up a storm about how awful Donald Trump was and how Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in to win the presidential election. My new knees took me to Cleveland the last few weeks of the campaign and marched me around neighborhoods campaigning for Hillary.

After the election I took advantage of my leftover Medicare hours and returned to therapy. By then the PTSD from the election outcome had exploded in my lower back. Colleen and I groaned away our sorrows as I waited to be treated for ongoing knee therapy and newly acquired back pain.

One day in late December I walked in the door and she exclaimed, “let’s go to the Women’s March in DC!”

The Women’s March was a worldwide protest on January 21, 2017, the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump. I wasn’t clear what the message of the March was except that Trump had a vile reputation with women. But Washington is the motherland for old protesters like me and I was all in.

Colleen found the last two seats on an overnight bus. We brought old pillows and blankets to leave on our seats and light backpacks to carry on the March. Outside Chicago’s Union Station four hundred cold but jubilant marchers filled up bus after bus and drove off. One bus driver told us they had run out of buses around Chicago but were bringing one down from Kenosha. We gratefully boarded our heated bus three hours late.

No photo description available.

At each of the two stops on the twelve-hour trip, the packed restaurants and bathrooms were abuzz with women in hand-knitted pink hats. The small bus caravan multiplied on the Pennsylvania Turnpike the closer we got to Washington. When our bus driver mistakenly pulled off the George Washington Parkway headed toward the heart of the March, I had to guide him to an improvised drop-off point behind Washington’s Union Station. We nervously deboarded, hoping our bus would be at that spot when we returned. We marched to the beat of  Women- in-Construction drummers toward the National Mall. Joining 500 thousand ebullient demonstrators carrying hilarious and poignant signs, I still had no idea what the point of the March was. As we passed by portable toilets all along the way, it began to sink in. The toilets were for Trump’s Inauguration crowd the day before. This day, toilets were padlocked. 

A young girl on her father’s shoulders passed by holding a homemade sign, “Hate Does Not Make America Great.”  And I knew that’s what we were meant to demonstrate. And so we did. And so we are.

Month 11 in the Shutdown Lane: The Shot

Month 11 in the Shutdown Lane: The Shot

Remember “flattening the curve”? By March 15, 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic in Chicago threatened a shortage of hospital beds and medical equipment. The governor cancelled St. Patrick’s Day parades and temporarily closed bars, restaurants, schools, churches and stores. Dr. Anthony Fauci told us not to leave our homes except for groceries or medicine or to walk the dog.

“Look at the curves of other outbreaks,” he said, “they go up big peaks, then come down. We need to flatten this curve.”

Staving off the collapse of the nation’s health care system was dependent on the unselfish actions of the body politic: hand-washing, mask-wearing, not traveling and figuring out how to stay at least six feet from others. We were so afraid we’d end up in the makeshift hospital at the cavernous McCormick Place Convention Center that we followed shelter-in-place orders. The curve flattened. For a few weeks. Then it spiked. And spiked again.

On March 20, 2020, I wrote the first in a series of thirteen weekly blog posts, “Week 1: Life in the Shutdown Lane.” By June, I lost interest. Oh, I wrote about it, moaned about it. But as time shifted into months, I stopped marking the time in weeks.Untitled 2

 “Flattening the curve” left the public discourse. Some embrace staying at home. Some double down on mask-wearing and malign
those who don’t. Some defiantly refuse to be masked and mock those who are. And some pay no attention at all as if the rules don’t apply to them. And now, the only hope for this cowboy nation to fight the deadly Covid-19 virus is the vaccine.

The first vaccines arrived in Chicago in mid-December. Priority was given to health care workers and people living and working in long-term care facilities. When the sixty-five and over age group was able to line up, all I heard about on my ever-present Zoom chats were adventures of the shot.

I thought I’d sign up on my doctor’s automated scheduling system, but when I looked, the web page said they don’t do shots. “Click here” it suggested. I clicked there and nothing happened.

“Go on the Walgreen’s site,” a friend insisted. “If there’re no appointments, keep trying.” He’d exhausted himself getting up at all hours of the night checking for available appointments. He thought I should do the same.

“What’s the hurry?” I shrugged. “My life won’t change. Fauci says I still have to wear a mask and stay home.”

Hounded by the challenge, I succumbed to the bird-dog pursuit and registered on every site, not just Walgreen’s. When I received a phone call from Mariano’s pharmacy, I reacted like I’d won the lottery.

It may be a while before I go to the Art Institute, lunch with friends or linger in a grocery store, but after almost a year of restrictions, it sure is nice to have the freedom to do so.

Just the shot in the arm I needed. 

Ghost Story

I used to walk on Chicago sidewalks with my head down watching for pitfalls, unaware of my surroundings — or with a companion, engrossed in conversation. Newspaperman Paul Galloway tutored me  in how to walk, talk and observe all at the same time.

I met Paul when he happened to sit next to me at his first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1979. As the meeting got underway, a wild woman charged up the timeworn stairs of the old State Street townhouse, raged into the open room screaming and throwing empty chairs around. A policeman was hot on the woman’s heels and escorted her out. We all sat back down and continued the meeting.

During the melee, I assured Paul she was a harmless neighborhood drunk. 

“Does this happen all the time?” He asked.

“Oh no. But we do get drunks. After all, it is AA.”

Paul found that hilarious and from there on we laughed our way into a fast friendship. I’d been sober for three years by then and he peppered me before and after meetings with questions. We had long funny discussions on how to be a sober alcoholic in the crazy world of the newspaper business. He searched police records for the name and history of the woman who rampaged through his first AA meeting. Whenever I saw her on the street I averted my eyes, but Paul greeted her by name.

I’ve read newspapers and watched television news as long as I can remember. Until I met Paul, it never occurred to me to look for those stories walking along city streets. Paul pointed out politicians, criminals, movie stars, sports figures and flash-in-the-pan celebrities. In the middle of a deep philosophical discussion on the nature of god, he’d suddenly blurt out, “Jesse Jackson ahead” or “Bill Curtis crossing the street.”

On one of our many walks through crowds along the bustling bars and restaurants of Rush Street, Paul pointed out young Michael Jordan in line at the Bagel Nosh. He recounted details from the sports page about the newest Chicago Bull.

He loved reporting intimate details of people’s lives that couldn’t be printed in the paper. This age-old form of communicating the news was in his blood. Was it gossip? Hell yes. He used gossip as a learning tool—how to behave and not behave. Deep down in his funny bone he had an empathic moralistic core. 

Paul’s wife Maggie called one day in 2009.

“Paul’s heart exploded,” she said, “He was at the Asian Garden Massage Spa and his heart exploded! He’s dead!”

A fastidious germaphobe, Paul couldn’t have been there for the “happy ending.” He’d retired from the newspaper, so I knew he hadn’t been on assignment, either. I thought she was joking. 

“What was he doing there?” I asked. Stunned and grieving, Maggie sought answers in the days after Paul’s death, but the spa ladies didn’t speak English.

Paul Galloway. He left one big gossipy story that he would have loved to tell himself.

______________________________________

Read Roger Ebert’s Obituary of Paul Galloway.

Juror

Juror

When I was a young adult everyone I knew was summoned frequently for jury duty and had their own strategies to get out of serving. I thought it would be fun to be on a jury. I loved the Perry Mason television series and all the courtroom dramas it spawned. Experienced friends dissuaded me with stories of smelly old courtooms, unlovely fellow jurors and hours of boredom.

The jury summons that arrived in the mail listed the legal disqualifiers. If you were a lawyer, related to a lawyer, worked for a lawyer or even knew a lawyer, you were excused. I’m not a lawyer but I knew plenty of them. I’d volunteered on campaigns and lawyers were always running for something or organizing challenges against the Democratic Machine.  

In the early 1980s, law-and order politicians passed a slew of laws with stringent penalties for drug-related crimes. The whole system ballooned—courts, juries, attorneys, jails. It’s not that crime increased. It’s that more laws led to more arrests for the possession and sale of illegal drugs.

The jury pool didn’t expand fast enough. The court system drew from outdated voter registration lists and potential jurors like me and my friends used our easy-outs. Officials devised a quick-fix for the anemic jury pool—they eliminated most of the legal excuses. I looked forward to a day in court. Finally.

I arrived at the Cook County Criminal Court Building at 26th and California wide-eyed and ready on my appointed day. The jury selection room hadn’t opened yet. I waited in the cavernous 1929 yellowed hallway. I had no trouble sizing up the clutches collected outside the courtrooms. The accused were at the center of their group, surrounded by mothers, wives, children, siblings, friends. Every once in a while a public defender rushed out of a closed door to consult with a defendant. As I watched mini-dramas unfold, my bleeding heart told me I’d argue the innocence of each defendant regardless of the evidence. I hoped I’d get selected for one of their juries.

After a long wait on faded steel chairs in the windowless jury selection room, twenty-five of us filed into a courtroom for questioning. The judge described the case of the thirty-something man accused of selling drugs to teenagers. The defense attorney and the prosecutor whittled their way toward twelve jurors as they asked questions about our backgrounds, beliefs and prejudices. I fumbled my answers. I didn’t want to reveal myself in a crowd of strangers.

We took a break and I caught the attention of the defense attorney.

“I can’t be impartial ,” I whispered.

“What’s the problem?” She asked.

“I’m in Alcoholics Anonymous. I know people who’ve bought drugs from people like him and I know he’s guilty.”

When the judge returned, the defense attorney asked that I be dismissed. The prosecutor asked why. I edged toward the door without hearing the answer. The defendant’s lawyer mouthed “thank you”. 

And I felt guilty.

Free at Last: Lima Beans and Love

Free at Last: Lima Beans and Love

Abraham Maslow’s self-actualization movement took root in the 1940s and bloomed thirty years later when seekers started reading books such as The Prophet, I’m Ok-You’re Ok, and Be Here Now. These bestsellers moved me to cultivate a deeper self by rooting out my hatred for lima beans.

I tilled the backyard of my Jersey Shore bungalow and planted seeds of the detested vegetable. After a few weeks, bumps appeared under the thick skin of the seed pod. I diligently hosed away aphids, leafhoppers, and mites, but I was sure my crop was deformed. Consulting Rodale’s Basic Organic Gardening, I learned the bumps were part of the bean apparatus—four lima beans per pod.

The morning of the first harvest, I pulled the bean pods from the vines, broke them open and started eating the sun-drenched crop right there on my knees in the garden. My neighbor flew out of her back door.

“Stop! You can’t eat raw lima beans! They’re poison!”

Uh-oh. Another reason to hate them. 

But I was determined to use lima beans to crack open the hardened interior space between the habitual prison of what was and the freedom of what could be. I brought an apronful of beans inside, cooked, salted, and buttered them. They were good. I’d turned a corner. 

Eating the once-dreaded lima bean aerated my closed mind. It served as a gateway to other new experiences: breaking free from a Christian cult, my bad marriage and dead-end jobs. Shifting my consciousness from hating to loving lima beans gave me courage. I could imagine abandoning my secluded basement with its graveyard of empty Smirnoff bottles. Surrendering to a new job as a single mother, my only task was to organize the best plan for a nine-year-old boy’s future happiness—by getting sober. Again.

I returned to Alcoholics Anonynous unable to stop drinking, but too afraid to ask for help. I’d go to meetings, sit in the back, talk to no one, leave early, and go home. Falling into bed sober, I’d feel victorious. The next day, I’d think about nothing but drinking. Drinking and not drinking. I’d drive around in search of a liquor store where no one  knew me. By the time I got the vodka bottle in my hands, I’d feel relieved just holding it. For a few brief moments my body, mind and soul were free.

But I wasn’t free. Before a previous downfall, I’d never even considered sobriety until I was forced into a mental institution. Now it was clear: my drinking was beyond my control. I was a full-blown alcoholic.

I opened up at an AA meeting miles from home on the edge of the New Jersey Pine Barrens. I said my only option was to drink myself to death. Recovered alcoholics from that group sat with me every day until the obsession to drink lifted. It was February 1976. Forty-five years ago.

 Lima beans and love freed me at last.


Maslow’s self-actualizing characteristics:

  • Efficient perceptions of reality. Self-actualizers are able to judge situations correctly and honestly. They are very sensitive to the superficial and dishonest.
  • Comfortable acceptance of self, others and nature. Self-actualizers accept their own human nature with all its flaws. The shortcomings of others and the contradictions of the human condition are accepted with humor and tolerance.
  • Reliant on own experiences and judgement. Independent, not reliant on culture and environment to form opinions and views.
  • Spontaneous and natural. True to oneself, rather than being how others want.
  • Task centering. Most of Maslow’s subjects had a mission to fulfill in life or some task or problem ‘beyond’ themselves (instead of outside themselves) to pursue. Humanitarians such as Albert Schweitzer are considered to have possessed this quality.
  • Autonomy. Self-actualizers are free from reliance on external authorities or other people. They tend to be resourceful and independent.
  • Continued freshness of appreciation. The self-actualizer seems to constantly renew appreciation of life’s basic goods. A sunset or a flower will be experienced as intensely time after time as it was at first. There is an “innocence of vision”, like that of an artist or child.
  • Profound interpersonal relationships. The interpersonal relationships of self-actualizers are marked by deep loving bonds.
  • Comfort with solitude. Despite their satisfying relationships with others, self-actualizing people value solitude and are comfortable being alone.
  • Non-hostile sense of humor. This refers to the ability to laugh at oneself.
  • Peak experiences. All of Maslow’s subjects reported the frequent occurrence of peak experiences (temporary moments of self-actualization). These occasions were marked by feelings of ecstasy, harmony, and deep meaning. Self-actualizers reported feeling at one with the universe, stronger and calmer than ever before, filled with light, beauty, goodness, and so forth.
  • Socially compassionate. Possessing humanity.
  • Few friends. Few close intimate friends rather than many perfunctory relationships.
  • Gemeinschaftsgefühl. According to Maslow, the self-actualizers possess “Gemeinschaftsgefühl”, which refers to “social interest, community feeling, or a sense of oneness with all humanity.

Bruised but Whole

Bruised but Whole

And then it was over. The Inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris didn’t just come and go at noon on January 20. The world came to a screeching halt and shifted into a lower gear of slow and steady governance. And we relaxed.

Before the big day, I complained about all the pomp. I wanted them to hide in the safety of a back room in the Capitol, put their hands on a bible, then get to work. Thank god I wasn’t in charge. In front of the television with my son and his family, I ogled Lady Gaga’s poofy red skirt, Amanda Gorman’s ballet hands, and Bernie Sanders’ wool mittens. Were it not for the pandemic, I would have celebrated on the National Mall wrapped in goose down with my thirteen year-old grandson. Just as I celebrated with his older brother and sister in the 2009 Barack Obama Inauguration. Just as I celebrated with their father in the 1977 Jimmy Carter Inauguration. 

Each of these Inauguration Days marked the “most important election” of our time: Gerald Ford to Jimmy Carter, Geroge H. W. Bush to Bill Clinton, George W. Bush to Barack Obama. And in the days after each previous Inauguration, the earth didn’t instantly shift under our feet. Indeed, for all the hype and hyperbole, Adminstration staffs admit in their memoirs, “We didn’t know what we were doing. We got off to a slow start.”

The mother of all power transfers washed across the universe with the Biden-Harris swearing-in. Joe Biden, wearing his mask, walked off his inaugural stage and signed seventeen executive actions inclduing a pivot in the Covid-19 pandemic policies. As if on cue, people on Zoom calls reported one after another their first shots for the two-shot coronavirus vaccine. And as the covid death toll passed 400,000 souls, Biden announced his Chief Medical Advisor, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Mr. Rogers of the Pandemic. And we relaxed.

Madam Vice-President Kamala Harris, walked off her inaugural stage to perform the swearing-in of Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Osoff. The two new Democrats mark a power transfer in Congress. And we relaxed.

The Biden and Harris familes treated millions of TV viewers to their short walk to the White House along Pennsylvania Avenue. Instead of the traditional inaugural parade, in the evening we watched one of those pandemic-era technological extravaganzas with Bruce Springsteen and Katie Perry, interspersed with greetings from American workers. And we relaxed.

When President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden arrived at the front door of the White House around 4:00 pm, they waved to us and turned to walk inside. For a few brief seconds, they stared at a closed door. The White House Chief Usher who opens the door and offically greets the First Family was nowhere to be seen. From his Palm Beach golf course, at 11:30 am, thirty minutes before the official end of his chaotic presidency, Donald Trump, getting in one last cheap trick, had given the order to fire the Chief Usher. 

And still, we relaxed.

______________________________________________________

Buy my book, “In That Number” at ReganBurke.com, Amazon.com, or your favorite independent book store.

MLK: The Drum Major Instinct

MLK: The Drum Major Instinct

Fifty-three years ago Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a prophetic sermon he called the The Drum Major Instinct. He riffed off a passage in the New Testament where Jesus’ disciples got mad at him because they wanted to be credentialed leaders, to be praised for their importance, the “drum major instinct”.  In the 1940s the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson, wrote in the Twelve Steps that this desire for an important place in society, the “social” instinct, is necessary for community survival. Both men cautioned that this natural god-given instinct, unbridled, can turn on us, become an obsession for power and supremacy and eventually distort our personalities. 

I know a bit about the desire for attention. During these pandemic shutdown months, online Zoom meetings have become the stage and meeting room for events. Last month I was the featured speaker in one square among nearly five hundred muted souls on Zoom. At the end all I heard was thank you from the host. People wrote kindly in the Chat but I still wish I could hear that applause. My book was published in October 2020 and the enthusiasm I need to promote it has waned, due to—you got it—no applause.

Donald Trump heard a lot of applause throughout his entire presidency, even during the months most of us followed the stay-at-home orders of Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force leaders. Whew! Trump’s drum-major instinct has rampaged so out of control that he still says the Democrats stole the election he lost to Joe Biden.

MLK:  “… the final great tragedy of the distorted personality is that when one fails to harness this instinct, he ends up trying to push others down in order to push himself up…by spreading evil, vicious, lying gossip on people…”

Trump spread evil, vicious lies to his duped white followers continually until they finally exploded into a blood-and-guts frenzy on January 6. They sacked the US Capitol in an effort to thwart the official declaration of the election results. Five people died. King nailed this aberrant behavior in a prescient accusation: his drum-major instinct makes him think he is somebody big because he is white. 

MLK and Bill Wilson remind us we all have the drum-major instinct. We all want the admiration of others. They caution us to keep it in check, to watch out we don’t let our drum-major emotions go awry, that we don’t act superior to others. I confess I do feel and act superior to the insurrectionists, the white fundamentalists, the angry male mob who sieged the Capitol. I condemn them in conversation, even post condemnations on social media. Experience tells me if I don’t stop, I’ll soon be in a full blown mire of self-loathing, questioning how I got there. King and Wilson both offer an ancient solution to keep my own potential soul-sick personality at bay. Love and service. Be a drum major for love. Help others.

I’m open to it. That’s the best I can do today.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

The Drum Major Instinct,” Sermon Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King, Jr., February 4, 1968, Atlanta, Ga. Listen Here: http://okra.stanford.edu/media/audio/DrumMajorInstinct.mp3

My book, “In That Number” is available at ReganBurke.com, Amazon.com or in your favorite independent bookstore.