I woke up this morning with a start. We all have those occasional flashes in unconscious states, where myriad things we’ve been consciously thinking about just come together. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about not just my work at Rikers but the horrific things that are happening at our border and the ways we fear and even demonize the Other—those people we think the world would just be better off without. We are becoming entirely too comfortable with the idea of indefinite detainment for people we fear because don’t know and/or understand them. And we’re becoming—and this is the most important part—we are becoming alarmingly comfortable using the law as a weapon to strike these people down. I think of all the people we use the law the stigmatize, whether it’s calling the cops because someone is non-violently bothering us, lawyers using our incredible precise surveillance state to make lawbreakers of anyone they decide to make lawbreakers of, the sickeningly abstruse term illegal alien. Every day our general public—you, me, and every Other we don’t know—are becoming less knowledgeable about our increasingly volatile world, while our institutions—our governments but much more actively our corporate ecosystem—have access to more and more information about us.

Yesterday my cousin, who is in her twenties and in med school but I get the impression has been asking herself the difficult questions people ask themselves when they are at the points in their lives where they are consciously making decisions that will affect who they are for the rest of their lives, sent me a Facebook message asking if I knew how she might find an inmate or inmates to become pen pals with. I asked her if she had any preferences for whom she’d like to reach out to, and she only that they be adult. This struck me when she wrote it, and has stuck with me since. I’ve told myself and anyone who would listen that my primary motive for this work is empathy. This has perhaps sometimes been simply a catchword, or a way of getting around the fact that I went in without a firm pedagogy. But I believe, more and more each day, that unrestrained (ok, perhaps just less restrained) empathy is our only way out of the situation I describe in the paragraph above. I want people, myself included, to listen voluntarily to the stories of people whose stories they currently think are unimportant, even reprehensible. I want more people to decide, like my cousin, to write to one or more of the more than 2.3 million people currently incarcerated in the U.S. I want people to consciously humanize the many people we encounter on social media whose ideas we detest (this is always a tough one for me). I want us to have conversation, rather than linguistic warfare.

I’m no longer terribly religious, but this is my little Sunday sermon to all of you, my friends. Be good to each other. And be good to each Other.

AuthorJohn Proctor

Today was pure fun—I got to meet both Zephyr Teachout and Cynthia Nixon! I've recently won a seat on County Committee, the lowest ranked position in the Kings County Democratic Party, and I was at a picnic for new County Committee members when I looked over and saw Nixon next to me, looking at me curiously. She then asked, “Is your name really John Proctor?”

That was exciting, but I have to say my favorite part of the day was the ten minutes I got to spend talking to Teachout. We discussed my work at Rikers, Judge Jonathan Lippman’s proposal for closing it, and differences  and similarities between Michelle Alexander’s and John Pfaff’s reasoning about the rise of mass incarceration over the past 40 years. All I could thinking after getting a photo with her was, This is a uniquely talented, immensely intelligent, and sincerely empathic human, and exactly the person to take the state forward as a leader in the fight against mass incarceration. I’ve never been so compelled to vote for a person into office as I am for her as State Attorney General.

AuthorJohn Proctor

MAN #1: “I wish I could read the paper faster. I never get it done by the time we get to the office.”

MAN #2: “My grandfather used be able to read the Times in an hour, and he could summarize everything in it except the Arts section.”

MAN #1: “You’ve told me that story three times already. It doesn’t make me feel any better.”

AuthorJohn Proctor

I wrote this little vignette last summer in Iceland, and promptly forgot about it. It seems too simple to submit for publication now, eight months later, but I'm kind of fond of it. And makes some perverse sense to share it now, in January - To misquote Mark Twain, I've never met a colder winter than summer in Ísafjörður.

Le Medecin.jpg

So much of our lives exists in the margins outside the frames of our Instagram feeds. Take, for example, a strange little piece of French ephemera tagged to a bakery in Ísafjörður, Iceland on someone’s—for example my own—feed. The framed piece, or rather its digitized presentation, evokes perhaps the Alps in the background and a strange, vaguely disturbing scene in the foreground. Two women seem to have been in some sort of skiing accident. A man is either attending to them or accosting them (the only words of the piece, “Le Médecin,” imply the latter, but the subtleties of their mannerisms hint, to my wife and me at least, at the former, but this could simply be due to the overblown, grotesque representations of mid-Twentieth Century kitsch). And, most notably, a boy in the background in skis, hangs from a tree over either a fence or a ledge and seems to be spying on the other three. They are all smiling—that posed, fakey smile we give when we know our picture is being taken, when we’re conscious of our surveillance.

At least that’s the way my wife and I see it as it looks over both of us eating crepes at a small table in this Icelandic bakery and talking about Brooklyn in the margins of the shot she takes on her iPhone.

“It reminds me,” she says, “of that new coffee shop in North Slope, the one that took over Gorilla Coffee. Did you hear about the sign they posted over their bathroom? This piece just reminded me of it. Apparently the new owners put it up as a joke, but it depicts someone peeping in on the women’s bathroom. I heard about it on the Park Slope Parents listserv.”

“Ah,” I sigh. “I can already guess how that conversation went.”

“Yeah, and the Comments sections on the blogs posting about it. I think the last thing I heard was a dad accusing them of promoting rape culture, and the owners saying people should stop being so sensitive.”

“The ever-present Brooklyn hipster-vs.-parent debate.”

“There aren’t any hipsters left in Park Slope,” my wife says. “I think they might want to at least try to appeal to their customer base.”

“I think some of our fellow Park Slope parents might try easing up on the hypersensitivity.”

“Better to be hypersensitive than insensitive,” she says.

“I disagree,” I say.

“We come from a generation that told us not to take these things—the male gaze, imposition on women’s bodies—seriously,” she replies. “We have two girls I don’t want to subject to that. Or at least I want them to stand up against it when they see it.”

“I want our girls to be able to identify oppression when they see it, and laugh at it,” I say, then add, “That’s power.”

“I just want you to be aware,” my wife says, “that you are speaking from a white male perspective, with the privilege that entails.”

I stop looking at her, fixating on Le Médecin. “I guess I should just stop talking then.” I continue talking. “I wasn’t speaking from privilege. The opposite, actually: I was speaking as someone who has overcome plenty of class-based, systemic adversity, mostly because I learned to laugh at it. That’s what satire is—undermining oppression by laughing at it.”

My wife has stopped talking, but I can’t.

 “You just took my position, which I’ve thought about at length, and made it into a stereotype. You say I’m speaking from a position of privilege, but I think it’s a position of maturity.”

My wife has stopped looking at me. She’s looking out the window, whatever argument she might make tucked away for another time. It’s probably right at this moment that I realize I’m mansplaining. I want to continue with this argument, to see it through to its conclusion, but I see in her icy gaze that I’ve already proven her right.

“Right now,” she says, “I don’t feel safe in your company.”

We sit, both of us looking out the window at the hotel across the street, or the fjord this hamlet is situated within, or the cloud-capped cliffs looming over both sides that block out the sun for two entire months of the winter—both of us shrouded from each other. Her hands are in her lap, one of my legs is crossed over the other, and the French doctor, the women, and the peeping-tom skier gaze over us into the online ether, smiling.

AuthorJohn Proctor

For the past 12 days, I've essayed various aspects of this strange and wonderful season. Here they are, collected in their entirety for your yuletide bewilderment.

Pee Wee Herman asking you not to drink and drive, the Bullet Boys threatening violence on Rudolph, Lou Reed and George Harrison being Lou Reed and George Harrison...

Everyone's got one of these stories. Hopefully.

With special guest appearance by Andrew Carlsen, Todd Schartung, and a gang of skinhead toughs.

What was it with the Fifties and eskimos?

For my friend Liz Blood, in absence of 12 full days of the sacred...

<insert black heart emojis>

On the road again.

You want none of this Santa.

That Santa gets all the girls.

Christy Merrmas and Holly Happy Days!

It's alright. I love you.

AuthorJohn Proctor

Having taken everyone's suggestions to heart, I've decided to do something no one suggested. Get ready for 12 Strange Days of Christmas, people!


Taking into account my friend Meagan's recommendation to just do seasonal winter music, I'm now brewing up a seasonal playlist of its own. But that's for January. And as for my friend Liz's thumbs up on going with sacred music for the holiday - despite my agnostic love for churchy Christmas music, I just couldn't invoke the sacred this season. Not this year. And barring a certain mangy old fox being smoked out of the henhouse, probably not next year or the year after.

It is in fact with the old Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times," in mind that I give my strange, interesting, wonderful friends a break from the more depressing aspects of our strange and interesting times. Starting Thursday, 12/7 and running through Friday, 12/22 (minus weekends) I give you my advent calendar of strange and interesting Christmas cheer. And to warm you up, here's a great list of 10 weird Christmas albums, none of which shall be drawn from here.

AuthorJohn Proctor

And now, dear friends and readers, for the dreaded reader-response request. For the past three years I've indulged in some Christmas fun through perhaps my favorite part of Christmas: the music. The first two years I focused on my favorite variety, miserable. Last year, at my mother-in-law's request to lighten up, I dropped 12 days of unrepentantly happy Christmas songs. Ironically, doing that list only made me more depressed. (In the songs' defense, it turned out I was actually clinically depressed.) 

Anyway, feel free to catch up on the past three years, but I also need your help deciding what to do this year. The 12-day thing works, but I'm trying to find a unifier that's less polarized. I was thinking maybe my favorite novelty songs, or anti-Christmas songs, or even sacred Christmas music (which is a guilty pleasure).

What do you think? One of these? Something else entirely? Help a brother out, here in the comments or on my social media. 

And as thanks, here's a nice photo of me with Santa outside his trailer in the Eighties. Those were good times.

John with Santa.jpg
AuthorJohn Proctor