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Watching the Watchdogs

(This op-ed was originally published in The Politico Magazine in August 2013.)

While enjoying dinner in Cambridge recently I noticed two police cars parked in front of the restaurant. Two officers bent a man over a squad car, and cuffed his hands behind his back. The man did not resist and the police did not seem to use excessive force. It was also public. If the cops wanted to hide something, they would have difficulty doing it in that spot with daylight to spare. Dozens of patrons witnessed what I did, and several of them began to whisper and buzz about the excitement outside.

As my boyfriend and I exited, I used my iPhone as as camera to take three shots of the scene, which we had to pass to leave the building. While I didn’t flaunt the gesture, I didn’t attempt to hide it, either. No one seemed bothered by this mundane action (and it was far less obnoxious than a selfie)––except one of the police officers.

He confronted me and asked if I had taken a photo. I confirmed that I had. He demanded that I hand over my phone. I politely declined. Then he grew more aggressive and claimed that it was ‘evidence’ in his crime scene. Again, he insisted I relinquish the contraband. Again, I declined, knowing that his claim was a lie. He said that I didn’t have a right to take photos of the cops. I replied that, actually, I did.

As I tried to pass him to reach my car, the officer moved his body to block my path. Then he tried to take my phone from my hand. I leapt back, a knee-jerk reaction more than a deliberate decision. I told him that his actions were illegal as I slipped my phone into my back pocket. He lunged for the phone, trying to grab it from my jeans. I dodged his effort, restraining myself from kicking him in the crotch (which is what I would have done to any other man harassing me in such a way).

He eventually backed down, realizing that I was more aware of my rights than he had anticipated. I went to my car, shaking, with a rapid heart beat, but with my phone triumphantly still in hand.

This situation is hardly an isolated one. American citizens face arrest, or the threat of it, on a regular basis for keeping an eye on the very people hired, trained, and paid (with taxpayers’ money) to “protect and serve” them. The list seems to grow exponentially every day.

There was the high-profile incident on Leon Rosby, who was arrested in Hawthorne, California, on June 30 for the crime of “obstruction” of police as he recorded video of their cars parked outside of a house in the neighborhood. After agitating Rosby’s dog with the illegal arrest, the officers fatally shot his pet four times.

The evidence? Another citizen taking a video of all of this with his own phone camera. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Mum5iJMlyk)

Also, more recently, Dominic Holden of “The Stranger,” a Seattle, Washington-based publication, wrote about a similar experience. In the July 31 issue, Holden published “Police Threatened to Arrest Me for Taking Their Photo Last Night,” in which he describes interactions with Seattle cops threatening him for taking their photo while they questioned a man who was not under arrest. (http://slog.thestranger.com/slog/archives/2013/07/31/police-threatened-to-arrest-me-for-taking-their-photo-last-night)

When Holden followed up with the police department, the response he received was this: “King County Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Sergeant Cindi West explains, ‘It’s a free country, and as long as you have a legal right to be there, you can take a picture.’ She elaborated in an e-mail that ‘in general a person cannot be ordered to stop photographing or to leave property if they have a legal right to be there.’ ”

Holden writes, “What happened to me was minor. But I’m writing about it because it’s minor. Officers went out of their way to threaten a civilian with arrest and workplace harassment for essentially no reason. Because they could. Because they didn’t like being watched.”

That’s right, civil servants––whether they are politicians, TSA agents, or police officers––don’t like to be watched. That is what they are, by the way: servants of the people. They are here to help protect and provide services to its citizens. We pay their salaries, after all. So, when did “servants” become “leaders” and “authorities”? People must arm themselves with knowledge of their rights and take back their power.

These self-proclaimed leaders and authorities insist on forcing naked screening images at airports of people simply trying to visit their in-laws in Chicago or fly to Orlando for a trip to Disney World. They justify widespread National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance of all phone calls and emails exchanged by law-abiding citizens who used to be (and presumably still are) protected by the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights. And they insist on violating personal space and civil liberties with such intrusive and humiliating tactics as “stop and frisk.”

The response to resistance or even simple questioning of these policies is, “if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to worry about.”

Yet, when free, law-abiding members of the populace do something as simple, harmless, and legal as take photos of officers arresting someone in public or standing around eating donuts, they face harassment and threats of arrest, not the transparency they seek and deserve.

Voyeurism is a two-way street. So is surveillance. And we, the people, should take advantage of that, utilizing our rights to watch the watchdogs. Because, according to Lord Acton, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

If these people in power have nothing to hide, why do they worry so much about an iPhone and curious citizenry armed with knowledge of their rights and basic video technology?

(To avoid arrest or further harassment from the local law enforcement, I am not including the original photos taken of this incident.)

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Please Hold

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Things I did while waiting to speak with a representative at Brigham and Women’s Hospital this morning (in no particular order):

  • Kegel exercises
  • Thought of funny, nonsensical lyrics to match the smooth, jazzy instrumental hold music
  • Realized that the background music may have in fact been a diluted easy-listening version of a Beastie Boys song
  • Imagined the name of the representative who may or may not eventually interrupt the hypnotic Kenny G rendition of ‘Brass Monkey
  • Facercises (for real, this is a thing)
  • Started to read a pocket version of The Constitution of the United States (it’s shorter than you may think), courtesy of the ACLU
  • Pilates, which required a little physical maneuvering, contorting, and speakerphone (idea inspired by Amy Schumer)
  • Forgot the issue I was originally calling to discuss with a B&W rep

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Urban Improv Celebrates Another Year at Banned in Boston

Aerosmith bass player Tom Hamilton (C) performed in the April 26 “Banned in Boston” skit “Downtown Crossing Abbey”...

(Aerosmith bass player Tom Hamilton (C) performed in the April 26 “Banned in Boston” skit “Downtown Crossing Abbey” at the House of Blues with Urban Improv players Carol Fulp, Barbara Lee and Anita Walker. Joshua Lavine, courtesy of Urban Improv.)

Some of Boston’s biggest celebrities helped Urban Improv celebrate its 20th birthday last week at the House of Blues. Governor Deval Patrick, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, Mayor Thomas Menino and Aerosmith bass player Tom Hamilton, among a slew of others, joined the group’s cast for its annual “Banned in Boston” fundraising performance.

Urban Improv is an educational program that helps youths and teaches them, through theater, to tackle difficult issues like violence, bullying and peer pressure in positive ways. At “Banned in Boston” its members and volunteers — including local politicians, entrepreneurs and media personalities ­— use their theatrical talent to enact parodic skits on stage.

The humorous and often musical performances revolve around politics, pop culture, social events and recent news headlines. This year’s themes included Republican candidates and their foibles, cell phone technology, reality television, the Occupy Boston movement and the arrest of South Boston’s notorious mobster Whitey Bulger.

The preliminary cocktail party took place next door at The Lansdowne Pub, where several Boston and Cambridge restaurants provided signature dishes from tasting stations.

Chef Lydia Shire, representing Towne and Scampo, served curry noodles; Paul O’Connell, chef owner of Chez Henri, ladled out bowls of chowder to the crowd; and for a sweet bite, Upstairs on the Square’s co-owner Mary Catherine displayed mini cupcakes and chocolate turtles.

At 7:30 p.m., revelers ambled to the House of Blues, where the celebration continued. Cone-shaped birthday hats, jelly beans, Goldfish crackers and programs topped each table, and waitstaff with trays of wine and cupcakes from Sweet made the rounds. Boston-born David Walton, who now lives in Los Angeles and stars in the NBC series “Bent,” emceed the performance.

The night on stage opened with an energetic greeting from the Urban Improv co-founder Lisa Alvord, followed by a personal account from Shana Auguste, a former student of Urban Improv’s Youth Unscripted program and current member of the program’s artistic staff.

Born and raised in Dorchester, Auguste is now an Emerson College student studying communication. “I was really able to be myself in Urban Improv,” she said. Auguste cited three roles that the program played in her life: a family who provides love and understanding; a teacher with the lessons it offers; and a friend who gives advice and support.

The first skit was “Downtown Crossing Abbey,” a parody of Masterpiece Theater’s “Downton Abbey,” a British period piece presented by Masterpiece Theater. The local spoof had the Boston crowd chuckling with characters named Lady Allston-Brighton, Lord Somerville and Chelsea Revere.

After that, Gov. Patrick showed off his vocal chords and Frank Sinatra impression with a ditty called “Drive Me ‘Round the State,” a light-hearted political song sung to the tune of “Fly Me to the Moon.”

Artistic Director Toby Dewey thanked the actors, reminding them and the audience that the performances are making a difference in the Boston community. He noted how far the program has progressed in 20 years. Dewey explained that Urban Improv is an educational program that uses improvisational theater to promote “three-dimensional learning … using the mind, body and emotions.”

(This article originally appeared in an April 2012 issue of the Bay State Banner.)

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Individual Aesthetic

Interiors

(This post was originally written in February 2015 for Heidi Pribell Interiors, heidipribell.com.)

Welcome to The Inspired Eye, the official blog of Heidi Pribell Interiors!

Each week we will discuss topics related to design––ranging from patterns and color to beauty and style. The posts will cover a broad range of subjects, both practical and philosophical, and include images that reflect Heidi’s fun and vibrant energy.

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Let’s start with the concept of ‘aesthetic,’ something that we can all agree is essential to interior design, and life in general.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of ‘aesthetic’ is “a particular theory or conception of beauty or art; a particular taste for or approach to what is pleasing to the senses and especially sight.”

However, in Heidi’s words, “aesthetic is truly a style that resonates with the individual.”

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Every person has his or her own style, preferences, sense of beauty…that is, aesthetic. Here at Heidi Pribell Interiors we want to help you find, fine tune and express your own.

Our goal is to help you come closer to identifying what you think beauty is, and, conversely, what it isn’t. What is beautiful to you and how do you transform this choice into an action?

These ideas, inherent is children, fade as we grow into adulthood and start doubting our instincts.

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Heidi says: “As an adult, we are more paralyzed with our decisions than we used to be as children. Children are more in touch with their inclinations––they know what they like, they know what they hate. We tend to step back and second guess ourselves as we take on more responsibility. This makes us out of touch with ourselves.”

How can we help make the decision-making process run more smoothly? Let’s simplify. Get back to basics, relax, have fun, feel inspired, and follow your instincts!

That’s a good start.

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Downward Snoop Dogg: The Unlikely Duo of Hip Hop Music and Yoga

My gaze settled on the ceiling’s nucleus: a sparkly silver disco ball surrounded by ceiling fans. Contrasted by dark purple walls and accompanied by scantily clad, sinewy torsos, the space began to resemble a dance club more than a yoga studio.

Steadying myself in tree position, I wedged my right foot into my left thigh and pressed my sweaty palms together in prayer position against my chest. I sought an eye focus (drishti) to maintain concentration, settling on the Nike swoosh adorning the neon pink tank top in front of me. As long as the blonde woman wearing it refrained from erratic movement, I could use the logo as my Polaris.

Even with complete silence the tree position challenges my balance. With Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” playing in the background, it proved even more difficult; my mind wanted to dance, not seek inner peace through stillness.

This was a typical Friday afternoon hip hop yoga class at Back Bay Yoga (BBY). The unconventional nature of the modern, music-oriented yoga class hasn’t deterred students from attending. In fact, the yoga hybrid’s upbeat, unorthodox tactics themselves may provide the mass appeal it has garnered.

While yoga purists may balk, these rigorous hybrids have generated a loyal following. Hip hop yoga is one of BBY’s most popular class, evident in the maximum-capacity turnout. I arrived 20 minutes early and still added my name to a waiting list. Americans want to sweat, and they’re willing to pay a lot to do it.

BBY owner Lynne Begier has branded the class, making it her studio’s signature offering. She registered the trademark Hip Hop Yoga in 2012. One of her employees, who prefers anonymity as she is not speaking in an official capacity, says that hip hop yoga is one of the studio’s most popular classes. Offered nearly every day, it often attracts an abundance of students willing to take their chances on a waiting list. She claims that most classes can accommodate even those on the wait list, but recommends advance registration, which is available on the BBY website.

Indeed, on this Friday, all 30 of the students, including the wait-listed stragglers like me, made the cut and squeezed into one room. With accompanying mats, blankets, foam booster blocks, towels and water bottles, we compromised personal boundaries with strangers for some booty-shaking yoga.

The studio’s website describes the hip hop class as “FUN yoga accompanied by a rockin’ playlist of hip hop, pop and dance music––class will be vinyasa flow with a good stretch and cool down at the end.” It includes a disclaimer about the music: “Please note that true to hip hop music, there may be some explicit lyrics and content.”

Those expecting gongs and a round of “aauuuuummm” run the risk of leaving disappointed.

Instead this class attracted a cabal of Lululemon-clad veterans who blaze trails to enlightenment with rap music. In the front row, a man and woman who could both pass as body builders used the wall to display their headstand abilities. To my left, a teenager flaunted her flexible hamstrings and sense of rhythm like one of J-Lo’s back-up dancers. A trio of 20-something blondes claimed the back corner, chatting over their iPhones before class started.

The instructor, Kimberly Rajotte, introduced the session in a traditional way: relaxed and quiet, with a focus on the breath. After a few mindful inhalations through the nostrils, she asked the students to look inward and offer appreciation for ourselves.

This was familiar territory, and I settled into my comfortable yoga routine. The lingo resembled that of many yoga classes. The music, however, did not. Sounds that accompany yoga instruction usually include chanting, sitar music or silence. This one opened with a remix of the 1992 dance hit “Rhythm is a Dancer.” While in downward dog position, my hips swayed as though acting on their own.

Rajotte did not crank the heat, but students began to perspire from rigorous movement and close proximity to one another. Beads of sweat dripped to my chin as old school beats elided into more recent pop music.

Only rarely do I listen to hip hop music on my own, but somehow all of these songs sounded familiar. I started singing along in my head, lagging behind in the postures.

“Drop it like it’s hot, drop it like it’s hot…” Snoop Dogg seemed to mock me through the speakers as my right leg lifted with effort.

Lyrics about pimps, pigs and cribs dominated the room while sweaty, white Bostonians stretched their arms into warrior pose, and remained still for several seconds. My focus darted from the disco ball to various drishtis of company logos to this ironic image. I couldn’t help but smirk, and noticed that no one else cracked a smile.

The following 60 minutes included sun salutations peppered with f-bombs and ‘hos, cobra pose set to explicit lyrics, and gems of yogic wisdom proffered by Rajotte. She turned off the music and ended the class in a welcomed way––with corpse pose (shavasana), a posture of stillness and relaxation. We all completed the session seated cross-legged, bowed our heads, and said in unison, “namaste.”

Feeling both groggy and upbeat, in equal and unsettling parts, I stumbled into the lobby. Chilled beverages and merchandise summoned me. A mini cooler displayed $5 bottles of coconut water and kombucha tea. Colorful yoga pants and tank tops with aums and cartoon Buddhas lined the back wall. Shelves above them showcased best-sellers by Benjamin Lorr and Pema Chödrön, and colorful water bottles advertising the BBY logo.

Over the last two decades, I have attended various yoga classes––ashtanga, vinyasa, Bikram, yin, kundalini, Iyengar––but never an unorthodox fusion like the one I experienced in hip hop yoga. It was a distracting, mind-boggling, counterintuitive experience that subverted my expectations.

When I slipped into my boots and wandered toward the exit, the front desk woman asked, with that trademark smile, “See you next time?”

“Yup,” I said, nodding. “I’ll be back.” I slung my mat over my shoulder and realized that I meant it.

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Kill Your Darlings

Since my last post (11 days ago?), I have composed another lengthy piece about my favorite recent distraction.

(As an aside, it’s a game called Two Dots, which I downloaded onto my smartphone. Although if my phone were really smart, it would have told me not to add another form of procrastination to my growing list.)

I have also let the post sit for about nine days in an open window on my laptop, saved but not published. I have stressed about its quality, lack of completion, relevance, reception, and the number of Photobucket images I commandeered to accompany the text.

Like far more writing pieces than I feel comfortable admitting, this one sat, neglected and unfinished, and virtually rot like the bag of peaches left on my kitchen shelf awaiting a bite. Except those peaches have literally begun to rot, emanate a sweet and pungent scent to remind me of their existence, and will soon end up in the compost or a batch of cobbler.

The Two Dots piece faced a similar fate––not cobbler, but a transformation into something different, more palatable––namely, this post about killing your darlings.

That term “kill your darlings” emerged in many a journalism class during my academic career, and for good reason. It is essential. And it proffers Zen-like wisdom about ego and attachment. Yet I still grapple with that one. I also carry around a 34-year-old security blanket, which I use as a sleep aid. Obviously I struggle with some form of attachment disorder. Go figure.

As serendipity would have it, I read the very chapter in Steven Pressfield’s Turning Pro (my new favorite book, writing guide, life lessons, new-age bible) about that topic over the weekend.

Pressfield writes a vignette about Pablo Picasso entitled “The Professional is Ruthless With Himself.” He describes the interaction between the artist and a gallery owner:

“Suddenly Picasso seized a palette knife and strode to the first painting. To the gallery owner’s horror, Picasso slashed the painting from end to end.

‘Pablo! Arret, Pablito!’

But Picasso didn’t stop. Blade in hand, he marched down the line of paintings, reducing each one to ribbons.

The professional knows when he has fallen short of his own standards. He will murder his darlings without hesitation, if that’s what it takes to stay true to the goddess and to his own expectations of excellence.”

There have many casualties in my writing process. The Two Dots post added to the body count, and many more will follow. If even one reader can relate to this process, though, the death has not been in vain.

Next week, perhaps Two Dots will enjoy a resurrection. In the meantime, it will remain merely a favorite distraction from writing.

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Thursday’s Child

According to “Monday’s Child,” that 19th-century nursery rhyme, those unfortunate enough to have been born on Thursday “have far to go” (if they had waited just one day, they could boast the virtues of “loving and giving”).

That aptly sums up today’s progress, which is still Thursday in the Eastern Standard Time zone.

Don’t misunderstand me, I have accomplished plenty, even though I woke up battling early stages of a September cold. Adding insult to injury, it’s 72 degrees and sunny outside. ‘Tis crueler than April

For instance, I have plowed through five more chapters of Tina Fey’s quasi-autobiography Bossypants. My reaction vacillates between inspired optimism (that inner voice says, “Astrid, YOU could write this book! You share some of Tina’s wit and humorous pop culture references!”) and devastated cynicism (that same voice turns on me with this dagger: “Astrid, Tina Fey started working for Saturday Night Live while still in her 20s; she wrote Mean Girls when she was your age; and she eked out this book while co-producing and starring in 30 Rock and raising kids. What makes this book interesting is her success and Sarah Palin fame. What would possibly make YOUR book a New York Times bestseller?”)

I’m a Gemini, such duplicity is common in my world––and one of those twins can be such a bitch. For what it’s worth, my book cover would be far less creepy.

Besides the reading, I have replayed level 68 of Two Dots, my new favorite distraction cerebral smartphone game with a free app, at least 14 times. Those pesky fireball dots foil my success every time. But I will prevail and move on to level 69, as soon as my five lives are restored (20 minutes or $.99 per life; I’ll take the wait).

I’m sure there’s a separate blog post hidden in there someplace. I’ll use it for inspiration during next Thursday’s “far-to-go” slump.

This morning I also completed Rosetta Stone‘s French level 1, lesson 4. This involves sophisticated phrases such as “les fleurs sont grosses” (“the flowers are big”) and “le chat est noir” (“the cat is black”), both of which will come in handy while trying to order a Nutella crêpe and a glass of Chablis during my next visit to Paris.

I even went outdoors. Twice. Ok, both times I marched 20 paces from the patio to the compost pile by the garage, but I did it with conviction.

(*not my actual compost container, but this one is way cooler than the one in my back yard)

So, there’s that, but in terms of writing…well, it’s after 3pm 4pm 5pm and I have tried nearly a dozen times to sit down and give WordPress an honest shot today. In the last half hour alone, I have exchanged 17 texts with my sister while attempting to write a publishable post about writing and Resistance.

I broke Rule #2 for slaying dragons: Leave your phone at home (or in the goodie drawer, the dishwasher, anywhere it cannot be mistaken for a distraction).

What better starting point than that which still has a vast distance to cover?

This is where parables, adages, factoids from fifth grade emerge and occasionally prove useful:

  • Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching wisdom––”A journey of one thousand miles begins with one step.”
  • Most car accidents occur within a mile of home.
  • Those last few pounds, not the first 150, are always the most stubborn to lose.

Wait, does that mean, with this much further to go, it’s only going to get harder, and with an increased chance of a fatal collision??

I’ll take my chances. This Thursday’s Child may have far to go––with the sniffles, text messages, and beckoning sunshine working against her––but she has slayed another dragon. Let’s see what Friday brings…

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