Tuesday, March 11, 2014


J. talked about the race riots as we drove away from the half-way house. It was his first day out on his own. He had a place now and would sleep in if he wanted, come and go without having to check in, could get a cell phone, a camera, stay out late. The state said he could not drink. The Feds said he could.

"I'll go with the Feds," he said as we drove east, toward the sun and his new place.

"If you're white -- or brown, or black, or whatever the wrong color is in that moment -- and in the way, you'll get it," he said. "They don't care what you think in those moments. Like I'm an independent. It doesn't matter to them."

He talked more prison politics. He was open about it. Even though he was out and likely done with it, he still worked at it, let it out.

"The shot callers make you do things." 

He had a few plastic bags of clothes and a red electric guitar, China Girl, because it was red, real red, like high-gloss Chinese enamel.

"You're just in it," he said. "The riots are like a tornado or a wild fire. One instant it's all happening over there, and then, Bam!, it's right next to you, right in your face. And you gotta act. No choice, man."

As J. talked, I thought of starlings, hundreds of thousands of starlings, in flight, in a flock, winding and shifting, and breathing like a giant organism made up in coordinated individuals. They are subject to the group movements, the group whims, thoughts and decisions and forces bigger than single members of the flock.

Ornithologists call these gatherings murmurations, perhaps for the whispering sounds they make and wings beat in unison.

Yet, no birds drop from the sky, beaten and damaged from those murmurations. Race riots leave bodies broken and bleeding on the yard. Property gets trashed.

Starlings move according to some ancient urgings. The shots get called somehow, but they work to get the flock home to roost, to follow wind currents that make migration more efficient.

Humans play by rules too. The flock rules are more about beliefs than air currents. We live in swirling abstractions that we construct and enforce. Individuals play along or pay the price being exposed and alone.

Which tribe do you belong to? How much do you make? What do you do? Are you wi me or agin me?

We aren't a flock trying to survive the elements, we are tribes vying for advantage over each other.

But we admire the starlings, post videos of their fluid clouds of changing shapes, the governing rules of wind currents, and dancing grace, of choreography and shared vision.


J. knows how the human flock can move, how it can be a steamroller that crushes its own kind. He has no illusions. He is re-entering the stream, playing a new game. The rules, contrary to what the starlings deal with, are malleable, can be revised.

Starlings roost rather than crash and burn. I guess you gotta know where you want to end up.

I hope J. gets to run with starlings now that he is out of the pen. We'll fly, crazy busy, but watching the wings and sensing the changes in the wind. 

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