Jury sentences man to 137 years in jail for stealing tires

Prisoner

(Credit: Getty/chinaface)

AlterNet

In America, one can fatally shoot an unarmed black teenager without fear of repercussion, but steal expensive property and risk a century behind bars.

Proving once again how little black lives matter compared to pricey inanimate objects, a Virginia jury has sentenced Jason Brooks to 137 years for repeatedly stealing tires and rims over the past year. Brooks, who was tried in Loudoun County, reportedly faces similar charges in Maryland and New Jersey.

According to the Loudoun Times Mirror, reports of Brooks’ alleged crimes began in 2016. Multiple owners of trucks and luxury cars told police that they awoke in the morning to find their vehicles, which were parked in their driveways, propped up on cinder blocks with tires and rims removed. The car owners Brooks allegedly stole from live in one of the most affluent areas of the U.S. According to Wikipedia, Loudoun County’s median household income was $117,876 in 2012. The site notes that “since 2008 the county has been ranked first in the United States in median household income among jurisdictions with a population of 65,000 or more.”

Brooks was found guilty of “six counts of grand larceny, six counts of larceny with intent to sell, three counts of destruction of property and three counts of tampering with an automobile.” The jury recommended he receive a sentence of “132 years in prison, 63 months in jail and ordered to pay $6,000 in fines.”

The Mirror reports that Brooks has “two felony convictions for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, assault and unlawful imprisonment.” Apparently, those crimes were not judged to merit more than 100 years in jail, while the theft of rich people’s tires and accessories were.

Brooks’ final sentencing date in the case is October 18.

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Explaining the rise in hate crimes against Muslims in the US

Donald Trump

(Credit: AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

Hate crimes against Muslims have been on the rise. The murder of two samaritans for aiding two young women who were facing a barrage of anti-Muslim slurs on a Portland train is among the latest examples of brazen acts of anti-Islamic hatred.

Earlier in 2017, a mosque in Victoria, Texas was burned to the ground by an alleged anti-Muslim bigot. And just last year, members of a small extremist group called “The Crusaders” plotted a bombing “bloodbath” at a residential housing complex for Somali-Muslim immigrants in Garden City, Kansas.

I have analyzed hate crime for two decades at California State University-San Bernardino’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. And I have found that the rhetoric politicians use after terrorist attacks is correlated closely to sharp increases and decreases in hate crimes.

Hate crimes post 9/11

Since 1992 (following the promulgation of the Hate Crime Statistics Act of 1990), the FBI has annually tabulated hate crime data voluntarily submitted from state and territorial reporting agencies. A “hate crime” is defined as a criminal offense motivated by either race, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender or gender identity.

According to the FBI’s data, hate crimes against Muslims reported to police surged immediately following the terror attacks of 9/11. There were 481 crimes reported against Muslims in 2001, up from 28 the year before. However, from 2002 until 2014, the number of anti-Muslim crimes receded to a numerical range between 105 to 160 annually. This number was still several times higher than their pre-9/11 levels.

It should be noted that other government data, such as the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which relies on almost 200,000 residential crime surveys, as opposed to police reports, show severe official undercounting of hate crime. These studies, based on respondents’ answers to researchers, indicate a far higher annual average of hate crime — 250,000 nationally — with over half stating that they never reported such offenses to police.

FBI data show that in 2015 there were 257 hate crimes against Muslims — the highest level since 2001 and a surge of 67 percent over the previous year.

As I noted in a prepared statement before the Senate Judiciary Committee in May 2017, this was the second-highest number of anti-Muslim hate crimes since FBI record-keeping began in 1992. Not only did anti-Muslim crime cases rise numerically in 2015, they also grew as a percentage of all hate crime. They now account for 4.4 percent of all reported hate crime even though Muslims are estimated to be only 1 percent of the population.

When do the spikes happen?

At our center, we analyzed even more recent disturbing trends related to hate crimes. Based on the latest available police data for 2016 from 25 of the nation’s largest cities and counties, we found a 6 percent increase in all hate crimes, with over half of the places at a multi-year high. In particular, hate crimes against Muslims had increased in six of the seven places that provided more detailed breakdowns.

We also observed a spike in such crime following certain events.

In 2015, for example, we found 45 incidents of anti-Muslim crime in the United States in the four weeks following the November 13 Paris terror attack.

Just under half of these occurred after December 2, when the San Bernardino terror attack took place. Of those, 15 took place in the five days following then-candidate Donald Trump’s proposal of December 7, seeking to indefinitely ban all Muslims from entering the United States.

In contrast, as I observed in my prepared statement before the Senate Judiciary Committee, after an initial sharp spike following the 9/11 attacks, sociologist James Nolan and I found that there was a drop in hate crimes after President George W. Bush delivered a speech promoting tolerance on Sept. 17, 2001.Other groups too, have found similar spikes in anti-Muslim hatred: The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), for example, noted that from the month of the presidential election, through Dec. 12, 2016, there was a spike in hate “incidents” against many minority groups. The SPLC found that the third most frequently targeted group after immigrants and African-Americans were Muslims. And just this month the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group, reported 72 instances of “harassment” and 69 hate crimes that had occurred between April and June 2017.

Fear of Muslims

Prejudicial stereotypes that broadly paint Muslims in a negative light are quite pervasive.

From 2002 to 2014, the number of respondents who stated that Islam was more likely to encourage violence doubled from 25 percent to 50 percent, according to Pew research. A June 2016 Reuters/Ipsos online poll found that 37 percent of Americans had a somewhat or very unfavorable view of Islam, topped only by antipathy for atheism at 38 percent.

The latest polls also show how Muslims are feared and distrusted as a group in America. While most Americans do not believe that Muslims living in the U.S. support extremism, these views vary widely by age, level of education and partisan affiliation: Almost half of those 65 and older believe that Muslims in America support extremism, whereas only few college-educated adults do so.

Interestingly, current polls also show that when people personally know someone who is a Muslim, the bias is much less. This confirms what psychology scholar Gordon Allport concludes in his seminal book, “The Nature of Prejudice,” that meaningful contact with those who are different is crucial for reducing hatred.

The ConversationIndeed, before we can truly say “love thy neighbor(s),” we need to know and understand them.

Brian Levin, Professor, Department of Criminal Justice and Director, Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism, California State University San Bernardino

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Michele Bachmann: “The Lord is working mightily in our government” thanks to Trump

Michelle Bachmann

Michele Bachmann (Credit: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) (Credit: AP)

Former Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann was a guest on Jan Markell’s “Understanding The Times” radio program this weekend, where she couldn’t stop gushing about President Trump and his supposed deep commitment to God and prayer.

Bachmann claimed that, since the inauguration,Trump has been “working nonstop, 70 days in a row, [he] hasn’t taken a day off” as part of his effort to make America great again and to take a stand for God.

“He is unashamed in standing up for increasing an awareness of God in the United States,” she said. “He recognizes how important that is and that that is a basis of Western civilization … As a believer in Jesus Christ, I could not be more happy with what I am seeing coming out of the Trump White House. This is beyond my wildest expectations.”

“The president himself is man of prayer and man who loves to receive prayer,” she cooed. “He is a man who, I do believe, understands who the God of the Bible is and he wants to lift up the God of the Bible here in the United States . . . The Lord is working mightily in our government and I believe it is because God is being reverenced, God is being lifted up. Prayer is not foreign in the White House, it’s not foreign in the Executive Office Building; looking to God, looking through Bible studies, this is not foreign anymore.”

Bachmann said that Trump deserves all the credit because “he is somebody who gets the fact that the God of the Bible is, He is, He exists, He is real . . . This president is very bold about the need for God in our country.”

Bachmann was among those who met with Trump in the Oval Office recently, where she said they were able to present “the faith perspective voice” to him and explain that enacting public policies based on biblical principles will “be the best for America.”

“I’m shocked at how happy I’ve been with what I’ve seen so far,” she said. “I really believe that it’s because of prayer. I totally believe it’s based on prayer. He’s president because of prayer, the advances we’ve seen are based on prayer and I think, going forward, that is what we need.”

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Tick tock: It’s time to stop bullying 30-something women about their biological clocks

woman_iud

(Credit: Image Point Fr via Shutterstock)

Thought Catalog

“Get that thing out of you!” my boyfriend’s cousin exclaimed after learning about my IUD.

A few bottles of wine into celebrating the 40-something’s birthday at a casual-chic French restaurant, she had asked when I was “finally” going to have a baby. To drive home the point that I still wasn’t quite ready, I pointed to the 99 percent effective birth control device implanted in my uterus, which emits copper ions toxic to my boyfriend’s most determined little swimmers.

Of course, I recognized that her comment was born out of respect for my relationship with her cousin, and a sincere desire for us to experience the joys of building a family. Still, I wasn’t thrilled to receive yet another reminder that my biological clock is ticking. Every. Single. Second.

At 34, I’m on the cusp of that harrowing age so many widely accepted pregnancy statistics seem to hinge upon. Fear-mongering medical professionals, fertility specialists, advertisers, and well-meaning family members love to assert that 35 is the year a woman’s eggs instantaneously become less viable. If you’re lucky enough to get pregnant at such an advanced age, they all seem to scoff, the risks of miscarrying or giving birth to a disease-riddled child suddenly skyrocket.

Thirty-something women are constantly bombarded with infertility horror stories — snippet upon snippet of anecdotal evidence about friends of friends intended to demonstrate that if you wait too much longer, you’re destined to get fucked by Mother Nature. We’re shamed into believing that our limited supply of eggs might soon be entirely worthless, and urged to consider egg freezing — an intensive procedure that costs an astounding $10,000 on average — “just in case.”

I know this because I am a 34-year-old woman and I can’t seem to escape the dreadful feeling that if I don’t get knocked up in the next twelve months, I will miss my shot at carrying a pregnancy to term altogether. The other day I found myself staring at a bottle of prenatal vitamins at the pharmacy, seriously contemplating purchasing the overpriced gummies even though that IUD is still very much lodged inside me. In the last few months, I’ve Googled things like “How fast do a woman’s eggs actually shrivel up?” more often than I’d like to admit. You went through puberty four years late, so you must have more grade-A gametes than most females your age, I tend to coach myself while assessing my reproductive health with questionable Internet fertility calculators.

My 35th birthday looms ahead, taunting me with the promise of missed opportunities and lifelong regrets if I don’t spread my legs and invite some sperm in stat. And yet, more and more research demonstrates that popularized notions regarding women’s fertility are totally bogus.

In “The Impatient Woman’s Guide To Getting Pregnant,” Jean Twenge contests the widespread belief that one in three women over 35 will fail to get pregnant after a year of trying, noting that the claim is based on an analysis of French birth records dated 1670 to 1830. Luckily, medicine has made some pretty significant strides since the eighteenth century! In fact, about 80 percent of women aged 35 to 39 succeed in getting pregnant naturally today, a slight decline from the fertility rate of women aged 27 to 34. In a 2014 study published by the Boston University School of Medicine, researchers even discovered that women who had their last child at 33 or older without the help of drugs lived longer than those who had their last child by 29 — a correlation and not evidence of causation, necessarily, but a notable phenomenon nonetheless. And for those who have trouble conceiving, IVF treatments, though cripplingly expensive, are quickly becoming more effective.

I’m tired of the narratives we feed women about pregnancy. We caution young ladies that if they wait to procreate, they’ll face devastating setbacks down the line. We tell them that their bodies were built to carry babies sooner rather than later (i.e. now!). We say there’s “never a right time” to have a child — as if women should drop everything and get preggers regardless of how prepared they actually feel, financially, emotionally, or otherwise.

If the “right time” never arrives, is it so crazy to presume that a woman might not be cut out for motherhood after all?

I have a hard time understanding the value in pushing a woman into a decision as life-changing as becoming a parent. On the other hand, the downside to forcing someone into a role they’re not yet psyched to play — especially one that involves risking their life to host a parasite for nine long months of potential discomfort before bringing a super needy infant into the world — seems quite obvious.

Does anything good come out of reluctant motherhood? Perhaps. But I’d argue that it leads to a lot of bad, too.

If we could all agree to stop pressuring women, no matter how old they are, into baby-making, the truth is that the world be a much better place — for me, at least.

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Trump’s big loss

Donald Trump

Donald Trump (Credit: Getty/Sean Gallup)

The demise of the Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act is hardly the end of the story. Donald Trump will not let this loss stand.

Since its inception in 2010, Republicans made the Affordable Care Act into a symbol of Obama-Clinton overreach — part of a supposed plot by liberal elites to expand government, burden the white working class, and transfer benefits to poor blacks and Latinos.

Ever the political opportunist, Trump poured his own poisonous salt into this conjured-up wound. Although he never really understood the Affordable Care Act, Trump used it to prey upon resentments of class, race, ethnicity, and religiosity that propelled him into the White House.

Repealing “Obamacare” has remained one of Trump’s central rallying cries to his increasingly angry base. “The question for every senator, Democrat or Republican, is whether they will side with Obamacare’s architects, which have been so destructive to our country, or with its forgotten victims,” Trump said last Monday, adding that any senator who failed to vote against it “is telling America that you are fine with the Obamacare nightmare.”

Now, having lost that fight, Trump will try to subvert the Act by delaying funding so some insurers won’t have time to participate, not enforcing the individual mandate so funding will be inadequate, not informing those who are eligible about when to sign up and how to do so, and looking the other way when states don’t comply.

But that’s not all. Trump doesn’t want his base to perceive him as a loser.

So be prepared for scorched-earth politics from the Oval Office, including more savage verbal attacks on Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, more baseless charges of voter fraud in the 2016 election, more specific threats to fire special counsel Robert Mueller, and further escalation of the culture wars.

Most Americans won’t be swayed by these pyrotechnics because they’ve become inured to our unhinged president.

But that’s not the point. The rantings are intended to shore up Trump’s “base” — the third of the country that continues to support him, who still believe they’re “victims” of Obamacare, who are willing to believe Trump himself is the victim of a liberal conspiracy to unseat him.

Trump wants his base to become increasingly angry and politically mobilized so they’ll continue to exert an outsized influence on the Republican Party.

There is a deeper danger here. As Harvard political scientist Archon Fung has argued, stable democracies require that citizens be committed to the rule of law even if they fail to achieve their preferred policies.

Settling our differences through ballots and agreed-upon processes rather than through force is what separates democracy from authoritarianism.

But Donald Trump has never been committed to the rule of law. For him, it’s all about winning. If he can’t win through established democratic processes, he’ll mobilize his base to change them.

Trump is already demanding that Mitch McConnell and senate Republicans obliterate the filibuster, thereby allowing anything to be passed with a bare majority.

On Saturday he tweeted “Republican Senate must get rid of 60 vote NOW!” adding the filibuster “allows 8 Dems to control country,” and “Republicans in the Senate will NEVER win if they don’t go to a 51 vote majority NOW. They look like fools and are just wasting time.”

What’s particularly worrisome about Trump’s attack on the processes of our democracy is that the assault comes at a time when the percentage of Americans who regard the other party as a fundamental threat is growing.

In 2014 — even before Trump’s incendiary presidential campaign — 35 percent of Republicans saw the Democratic Party as a “threat to the nation’s well being” and 27 percent of Democrats regarded Republicans the same way, according to the Pew Research Center.

Those percentages are undoubtedly higher today. If Trump has his way, they’ll be higher still.

Anyone who regards the other party as a threat to the nation’s well being is less apt to accept outcomes in which the other is perceived to prevail — whether it’s a decision not to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or a special counsel’s conclusion that Trump did in fact collude with Russians, or even the outcome of the next presidential election.

As a practical matter, when large numbers of citizens aren’t willing to accept such outcomes, we’re no longer part of the same democracy.

I fear this is where Trump intends to take his followers, along with as much of the Republican Party as he can: Toward a rejection of political outcomes they regard as illegitimate and therefore a rejection of democracy as we know it.

That way, Trump will always win.

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The largest wind farm in the U.S. is growing in Oklahoma. It’s a sign of the times

Brazos Wind Farm, Texas

Brazos Wind Farm, Texas (Credit: Brazos Wind Farm, Texas, via Wikipedia)

A new wind farm that could become the largest in the U.S. will be taking shape across the blustery plains of the Oklahoma Panhandle over the next three years, helping to wean four Southern states off of electricity produced with climate-polluting coal.

American Electric Power (AEP) and wind developer Invenergy plan to complete a $4.5 billion wind farm called the Wind Catcher Energy Connection by 2020, along with a 350-mile electric power line. The project, announced this week, will supply Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas with 9 million megawatt hours of wind power, enough electricity for about 800,000 homes.

AEP’s announcement is a sign that electric companies are gaining greater confidence in the future of renewables, even as the Trump administration casts doubt on established climate science and works to reverse many of the Obama administration’s energy and climate goals.

The Trump administration has aimed to slash or defund most federal support for wind, solar and other renewable energy. But energy experts say there is too much momentum behind the rise of renewables for those pro-coal policies to slow wind and solar farm development.

“It shows that the president’s cramped view of energy does not and cannot defeat economics and the public’s desire for clean energy and clean energy’s symbolism as progress,” said Jeremy Firestone, director of the Center for Carbon-free Power Integration at the University of Delaware.

Many states have set climate goals requiring a certain amount of their electricity to come from renewables by 2030. To succeed in those efforts, a Berkeley Lab report published this week shows that those states will have to increase the amount of clean energy they produce by 50 percent over the next 13 years.

New wind, solar and other renewables are being built at a fast enough rate in those states that they may easily meet those targets, said Galen Barbose, a Berkeley Lab research scientist and the report’s author.

AEP is investing billions of dollars in Wind Catcher in order to own the wind farm outright. Until recently, most electric companies would buy electricity from wind farms owned by a different company without investing much in the farm itself.

AEP spokeswoman Melissa McHenry said the company sees a substantial return on equity investments, so it makes more sense for AEP to own the entire wind farm rather than just purchase electricity from it.

She said a federal tax credit available for wind energy production makes wind power cost competitive with electricity generated using coal and natural gas.

“We’re increasingly hearing from customers large and small that they want additional clean energy resources,” McHenry said. “We’ve largely been a coal-fired utility. Now, we have additional resources proving to be cost effective so we’re investing in those resources.”

Mark Z. Jacobson, a civil and environmental engineering professor specializing in renewables at Stanford University, said AEP’s plan to purchase Wind Catcher shows that wind power costs have dropped so low that utilities realize they can make more money owning the wind farm outright.

Wind Catcher’s claim to fame as the largest single wind farm in the U.S. comes with an asterisk, however.

Another project of similar size is being developed in Iowa, but it will be composed of multiple separate wind farms. A 3,000-megawatt wind project on two sites is being proposed in Wyoming, and its developers call it the biggest in the world.

“We will have to see which is the largest in the end,” Firestone said. “If it is two adjacent wind projects, each 1.3 gigawatts each, are they individually smaller or together the largest?”

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Green card marriage: I paid a man to marry me for U.S. citizenship

wedding rings

(Credit: Getty/nurdanst)

Thought Catalog

For every person you ever meet, you’re bound to develop at least three first impressions. If you were to meet me? British, over-polite, affable. And you’d be right. Three things you definitely wouldn’t guess? Fraudster, federal law-offender, illegal immigrant.

As with most crimes, my motive was admittedly selfish. I had fled a troubled phase in London for a second chance in New York, fallen in love with the city, overstayed my tourist visa, and couldn’t bear to drag myself home.

“You have two options, Miss,” said the shifty lawyer I randomly selected to advise me on my immigration prognosis. “Leave the country and be banned from re-entry for ten years. Or get married.”

There was a company willing to employ me and I had an American relative who was willing to sponsor me, I pointed out.

“Doesn’t matter,” the lawyer affirmed. “You’ve already broken the law. Falling in love and getting married is the only way the U.S. government will pardon you.”

Squinting skeptically, I paid for my consultation and left. As it transpired, he was right. As tough as the immigration laws are in this country, marriage is indeed the golden loop hole, no matter your good or bad credentials.

A few months later, I was sitting before the same sketchy lawyer with my grinning fiancé in tow. Now it was his turn to be skeptical.

“Is this a marriage of convenience, or a marriage of love?” he inquired.

Love,” we chimed. “Definitely.”

After a brief but frantic search, I had enlisted the services of Joe, an out of work actor with a blatant disregard for the law and an earnest desperation for his next sizable pay check. Joe was short, classically handsome, and not at all my type. We’d met through friends, and when I mentioned my predicament, he’d stepped in without hesitation — for the going rate of $12,000 (a massive sum for me, but I figured that if I could convince a stranger to marry me, I’d find a way to afford it).

If Joe and I could pass the notoriously grueling marriage interview, I would have my Green Card and he would have a big chunk of cash. If we failed, I would be deported and he would spend a few years in prison.

Joe and I agreed upon the particulars of our deal in a near-empty Brooklyn beer garden one spring afternoon, the sun poking through an arching blossom tree as we shook hands. I will never forget that day. It would have been romantic, had it not been so deeply unromantic.

“Congratulations,” said my lawyer, enthusiasm halfhearted. With a wink, he added, “Make sure your families come to the wedding. Take lots of pictures. Merge your assets. You need as much documentation to prove that you’re a genuine couple as possible. You wouldn’t believe how many people try to get away with false marriages for a Green Card.”

Laughing nervously while taking thorough mental notes, Joe and I bid the man farewell and set off to prove ourselves on paper.

Over the next few months, Joe and I actually became good friends. We chatted about our pasts, our futures and our love lives in between snapping evidentiary photos of ourselves hanging out. We had fun trying to look the part of a duo deeply in love.

We opened joint accounts for banking, phone service and various utilities. I paid the bills.

I even ordered myself an engagement ring from Amazon. The day it arrived, Joe and I contrived a detailed story about the proposal, and Joe’s arduous quest for the perfect (cubic zirconia) rock.

The wedding took place on a blissful summer day at my aunt’s house. I borrowed a friend’s wildly inappropriate, low cut (but white, at least) prom dress.

We wrote joke vows, and cried with laughter while reading them out loud to each other at the altar. In our wedding photos, it looks as if we’re weeping with joy.

The only time our lips ever met was that afternoon, shortly after the priest — a vague, loosely religious friend — uttered the words “You may now kiss the bride,” while rolling his eyes of course.

My beloved mother, the most morally staunch human I know, gamely flew from England to corroborate our elaborate scheme. She wasn’t secretly hoping that Joe and I would actually fall in love because she knew me better than that. And yet, a wedding’s a wedding (even if it’s a ruse wedding), so tears inevitably rolled down her cheeks.

If this had been a film, the script would have dictated that Joe and I soon fall in love. It wasn’t, and we didn’t. But we did like and respect one another, and we did then eerily follow the path of so many doomed married folks.

Shortly after our nuptials, Joe met someone — someone who didn’t exactly approve of our whole plan — and fell in love with her. As quickly as he’d waltzed into my life, Joe suddenly wanted out.

Unfortunately, our final interview loomed in the not-too-distant future. To secure my Green Card, I needed Joe to sit alongside me in an interrogation room so we could be cross-examined about the validity of our marriage by government experts trained in the art of sniffing out liars.

Joe had already pocketed his $12,000 fee, and he didn’t have the means to pay me back. Still, he’d made a mistake, he said. Suddenly, he didn’t want to risk his balls and fail the interview. It was hardly as though I could sue him for damages.

A huge row ensued and our picture perfect fake marriage crumbled. Both our futures were now at stake and our heated exchanges grew profoundly ugly.

The night before the interview, Joe disappeared — refusing to return my frantic text messages and phone calls. In the early hours of the morning, however, driven by guilt, Joe showed up at my apartment and agreed to accompany me after all. We despised one another by this point, but we downed a few pre-noon shots of whiskey, put on our game faces, and rehearsed our act once more. We had both written down our respective life stories — schools, childhood pets, vacations, you name it — swapped them, and learnt them by heart.

Nearly convulsing with nerves, we sat down before the stern immigration official charged with determining our fates. Wearing a floral tea dress (my most wifely outfit, I’d reasoned), I held Joe’s limp hand with simmering revulsion.

“Documents . . . ” barked the officer.

I plonked my carefully curated stack of fabrications down on his desk.

The man flipped through our wedding album, scoured our bank statements, and then quizzed us: “Who takes out the trash?”…”What side of the bed do you each sleep on?” . . . ”Where’d you eat dinner last Friday night?” A string of surprisingly tricky queries, though nothing we hadn’t prepared for.

Finally, he leaned back in his chair, and, with a penetrating look, spoke directly to Joe. “So how are you finding this?”

“Finding what?”

“Marriage. How are you finding married life?”

“Honestly,” Joe said, voice strained, as if a fist were stuck in his throat, “it’s not as easy as I thought it would be.”

The officer reached for a large rubber stamp and hovered it ominously above our file.

“That’s good to hear,” he said. “People who are faking it never say that. Marriage is hard. Welcome to America!”

We had ultimately convinced the officer, it seemed, on the single shred of honesty we’d offered.

Joe and I left the immigration office together, then strode off in separate directions even though we were heading to the same Brooklyn neighborhood. We haven’t spoken since and I highly doubt we ever will again.

These days, I’m the fraudulent holder of a Green Card and a newspaper reporter by trade — a professional spin artist, if you will.

My single shred of honesty? Some day, I hope to enjoy a real white wedding of my own. My dress will be modest, Mom will cry (again), and my marriage will be for love rather than convenience.

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Please stop breaking up with my girlfriend

love triangle

(Credit: Getty/123ducu)

Looking up from my drink and across the room, I watched my girlfriend and my roommate kiss for the first time.

It was her 21st birthday, five days into the spring of our junior year. Heads swiveled toward Elizabeth and Jamie as their kiss deepened. Quiet rippled out through the din of the party. In the background, Beyoncé continued to serenade us with “Drunk in Love.”

Jealousy welled up in me: I was the one who wanted an open relationship, not Elizabeth.

Crushes have always sprouted in me, independent of my will, like I live in an endless springtime. One blossoms for someone who feels right in my arms at a blues dance, another bursts for a classmate who writes achingly beautiful poetry — all the time, people pop up and make me dizzy.

But every time a crush budded, I felt like I’d betrayed Elizabeth. When I snipped it before it could fully bloom, I felt like I’d betrayed myself. I didn’t want to leave her, but I craved freedom to explore.

Several months before, I’d confessed this desire to her. “I want to give that to you,” she whispered — but the idea made her seethe with anxiety. Our time together was already a constant negotiation. She had to micromanage her schedule to balance a Mathematics major with ADHD, while my distaste for clocks and Google Calendar verged on phobia. We lived in glimpses and embraces between class; love slipped into the little spaces we had left over. She feared we’d have no time left at all if we were entangled with other people.

So as her mouth moved against Jamie’s in one of the loveliest kisses I’d ever seen, I felt a lot of things. Jealousy, yes, at the bitter irony that she had what I wanted. Confusion: Had she changed her mind, or was this just a drunken birthday kiss? Happiness, too — what some polyamorous people call “compersion” — that two people I loved were sharing this intimacy. And also a little private hope: that Elizabeth would understand me better now. Under my breath, I whispered, “Finally.”

As the night progressed, time warped around Jamie and Elizabeth’s kiss. It never stopped. I got drunker than I’d ever been. For the first time, I spent my night retching into a toilet. Elizabeth, after holding my hair, spent her first night in Jamie’s bed.

There was no privacy in our room; closeness was the way of our student-housing cooperative. The stairwells resounded with mandolin music. The walls of the gender-neutral shower room were sheened with orange grime. Nobody locked their doors, ever.

The third time I walked in on Jamie and Elizabeth kissing, we decided it was time to talk about it.

We spoke for hours. Softly, carefully. Elizabeth held my gaze. Jamie averted it. “We need each other,” Elizabeth confessed.

“Okay,” I said.

They glanced at each other. “Okay? Really?”

“I never want to keep you from what you need,” I said. “Need is sacred.”

“Thank you,” Jamie told me, over and over. And, “I don’t deserve this.”

Maybe they didn’t. Jamie hadn’t yet told Sophie, their long-distance high school sweetheart and maybe-someday-fiancée, about kissing Elizabeth. “She’ll definitely be okay with it,” Jamie assured us.

I had my doubts that Sophie — who rarely used gender-neutral pronouns for Jamie and wanted them to be her husband, not her androgynous partner — would be a fan of polyamory.

But Elizabeth was beaming at me, moon-eyed. “I feel a hundred times lighter right now,” she said, “than I can remember having felt in I-don’t-know-how-many-months.”

We weren’t sure how we’d make it work, but we knew we’d figure it out. We had to. At dusk we walked to a campus café through swirling snow, arm-in-arm and arm-in-arm, giddy with laughter, embarking on this strange journey together.

The walk sticks out in my memory, because I think it was the last time all three of us were happy at once.

Later that night, Jamie called Sophie. Sure enough, they returned to the room and murmured, almost inaudibly, “This can’t happen anymore.”

But it kept happening.

Maybe I should’ve told Jamie and Elizabeth to stop. But watching them fall in love felt like falling in love myself. I liked when Jamie, half-asleep, would murmur, “I’m crazy about her,” and I would reply, “Right?!” I liked how Elizabeth told me little secrets and snippets of dialogue — and I liked the mystery of what she’d keep to herself. I liked waking up curled against her some mornings, and on others watching her stretch from Jamie’s bed, and waving to her.

But I hated how, wracked with guilt after Skyping with Sophie, Jamie would wrench themself away from Elizabeth.

It was a vicious cycle. Jamie couldn’t kiss Elizabeth without confessing the infidelity to Sophie, who insisted that this couldn’t continue. Jamie couldn’t help but agree and tell Elizabeth they had to break it off. Which left me stroking Elizabeth’s hair through the night as she wept and pined for all of the things they couldn’t do. Next week, they would find themselves alone together, and the cycle would begin again.

Jamie’s cheating sucked. I was complicit in it. But I felt Jamie deserved to be with someone who fully embraced their gender. Someone like Elizabeth.

So I began to root for my roommate to break up with the woman they planned to marry so they could stop breaking up with my girlfriend. For all our sakes.

Selfishly, what I liked most about our situation was clear proof that Elizabeth and I needed an open relationship. I liked trusting each other that much. I’d lost the guilt I felt when I held someone else’s eye contact in the library, or their hand on a walk, or their name in my mouth at night.

Until, that is, Elizabeth voiced her continued doubts about “outsiders” interfering in our relationship. People we both already knew and loved, like Jamie, were one thing. But interweaving the fickle needs of strangers into our life patterns? Weren’t we having enough trouble untangling the mess we were in already?

The double standard dug at me, made everything harder. Made it harder to hear about how wonderful Jamie was, how cruel Jamie was. Made it harder even when it was just me and her — because it was just me and her.

By mid-March, we were all looking for distractions. Elizabeth chose math. Jamie chose drugs. I decided to scrub every inch of mold from the co-op shower walls. Without a mask. The ensuing asthma attack landed me briefly in the hospital. After I was discharged, every time I stepped into our co-op, I felt my lungs seize up. I exiled myself for a week, sleeping alone in Elizabeth’s room across campus, while she and Jamie continued living in “our” room.

I lay alone in my girlfriend’s bed.

Without me there as a buffer, the tides of their relationship rose higher and broke harder. In panicked midnight walks and phone calls, Elizabeth insisted, “I can’t do this, Nick. I can’t. I’m not a polyamorous person.”

“But you’re in love with two people,” I protested.

“Exactly. That’s the problem.”

To Elizabeth, polyamory was an experimental structure for our relationship — one that wasn’t working. To me, polyamory was, is, a matter of identity. To me, loving two people at once is… loving two people at once. Three is three, twelve is twelve, one is one. Nothing about love should exclude, or possess, or covet. To me, it’s Time that is the great divider, limiter, and dissector of what could otherwise be infinitely expansive love.

And I will never stop wishing for more time.

I finally grew truly jealous of Jamie, as Elizabeth’s time and energy was consumed with their presence or siphoned by their absence. Grew resentful of their perpetual indecision, of how they kept hurting both Elizabeth and Sophie, of how the state of my relationship with Elizabeth depended entirely on theirs. Jamie had, at their core, a great restless emptiness that I couldn’t comprehend. They tried to fill it with drugs, with lovers, with an endless string of hobbies and talents that they inevitably soured on. Nothing sated. In the past I’d been concerned about Jamie’s patterns, but it was their life. Now everything they did with their time impacted how I spent my own.

Everyone just wanted everyone to be happy, but nobody was allowed to be.

Toward the end of April, Jamie left Elizabeth for good. Finally swallowed by guilt, they told Elizabeth, “I don’t love you anymore. You’ve hurt me too much.”

Elizabeth sobbed in my arms with wind whipping her hair as she repeated, “I am fucking up their life. I am fucking up their life.”

“Elizabeth,” I murmured. “I don’t think you’re doing anything to them that they’re not already doing to themself.”

At the end of the semester, I helped Jamie move out. That morning I was wearing a thin, floral-patterned shirt that had mysteriously appeared on my pillow. I tossed the last suitcase into the trunk of Jamie’s car, and we hugged farewell. I turned to head back upstairs.

“Thank you, Nick,” Jamie said quietly, their eyes briefly meeting mine. “For everything.”

I smiled back at them. “No problem,” I lied.

Later, Elizabeth called. She wanted to kiss me goodbye before she, too, drove away for the summer. I excused myself from my meeting and walked quickly from the library. I was startled as air rushed past me — I was running. Asthma and all, I was sprinting. As I flew down an alley toward the street, I heard a car door slam and a loud, fast pair of feet approaching.

Elizabeth careened around the corner and into my arms. The air was thick with birdsong. We kissed, still breathing hard from running to each other. Then her hands tugged at my new shirt.

“Why are you wearing Jamie’s shirt?” she giggled.

“I found it on my pillow,” I said, cocking my head. “I wonder why Jamie didn’t say anything about it.”

Elizabeth closed her eyes. “I left it there by accident. I was wearing it last night.”

And we laughed the way we had at the beginning of the semester, walking through snowfall, when everything was untarnished. Nothing was healed, nothing was saved, nothing made sense — but we were laughing again.

Source: New feed

A Nebraska-sized area of forest disappeared in 2015

Chile Forest Fire

(Credit: AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

A Nebraska-sized chunk of the world’s forests was decimated in 2015 because of wildfire, logging and expanding palm oil plantations, according to a new study. The loss is part of a continuing trend of deforestation that could have devastating implications for the climate.

About 49 million acres of forest disappeared worldwide in 2015, mainly in North America and the tropics, putting the year’s global deforestation level at its second-highest point since data gathering began in 2001. In all, the globe lost 47 percent more forested land in 2015 than it did 16 years ago, according to the study by Global Forest Watch.

Deforestation accounts for more than 10 percent of the global carbon dioxide emissions driving climate change. Dense tropical forests are also critical to keeping the climate stable because they suck up large amounts of human carbon pollution from the atmosphere, storing it in tree trunks, leaves, roots and soil.

Using satellite data provided by Google and the University of Maryland, Global Forest Watch researchers measured the death or removal of trees at least 16 feet tall.

2014 was a record-breaking year for tree-cover loss when nearly 60 million acres of forests disappeared. 2015 saw less, but it’s too soon to say whether deforestation is truly on a downward swing because of uncertainty in some of the data, study co-author Mikaela Weisse, a research analyst for Global Forest Watch at the World Resources Institute, said.

For example, Canada, Russia and the U.S. saw the most forest cover loss in 2015, mainly because of wildfire, pest infestations and commercial logging. But the study says the actual level of forest loss in those countries is difficult to determine because there is insufficient available data on logging and natural tree re-growth.

It’s unclear exactly how much carbon dioxide was released into the atmosphere from deforestation in 2015 because the organization has not completed a study of climate pollution related to forest loss, Weisse said.

Canada, Russia and the U.S. — among the most heavily forested nations on earth — are routinely among the top countries losing the most forestland because of their large size, large temperate forests and frequency of wildfire, Weisse said.

Weisse said she is most concerned about man-made deforestation in the tropics, where human-caused destruction of dense, carbon-rich forests is rising quickly. Papua New Guinea, for example, saw a 70 percent increase in tree cover loss due to deforestation for palm oil plantations and logging — more than any country on record.

Indonesia and Papua New Guinea saw massive wildfires in 2015, contributing to major tree cover loss there. The wildfires consumed parts of Borneo, Sumatra and the island of New Guinea, scorching large swathes of jungle during a significant drought brought about by a major El Niño event in the Pacific Ocean, which was one of the strongest on record.

The wildfires had a significant impact on the climate because of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as the dense forest incinerated, said Aidy Halimanjaya, a deforestation consultant for the Indonesian government and a climate change finance researcher who is unaffiliated with the study.

She said she Indonesia will continue to see major wildfires unless the government finds a way to manage the landscape more sustainably.

In Africa, expanding palm oil plantations in Sierra Leone contributed to a 12-fold increase in deforestation in 2015 compared to 2001. Palm oil plantation expansion has long been a major driver of deforestation in the tropics, especially in Indonesia.

One bright spot in the study is Colombia, where the deforestation rate has fallen 50 percent since its peak in 2007. The study says there is no consensus on why deforestation has slowed there, but Colombia’s government has committed to reaching zero net deforestation by 2020.

Many countries have taken steps to stop deforestation, but the study shows that those efforts have not been enough to slow it down, said Gustavo Silva-Chavez, a project manager for Forest Trends, a U.S.-based nonprofit, who is unaffiliated with the study.

Brazil, for example, saw its carbon emissions from deforestation fall by 80 percent between 2003 and 2015.

“That was huge,” Silva-Chavez said. “Unfortunately, in the last two years those emissions are going up. Despite our best efforts, emissions are still increasing.”

If the deforestation trend continues, it will become increasingly less likely that countries will stop global warming from exceeding 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels — the primary goal of the Paris Climate Agreement, he said.

“If emissions from forests stay the same or increase, there’s no way to avoid dangerous climate change,” Silva-Chavez said.

Source: New feed

How sex toys went from “sleazy” to “empowering”

Adult Woman in Sex Shop

(Credit: Getty/JackF)

You know sex toys have officially gone mainstream when a profile of a vibrator company graces the Style Section of the New York Times. In case you missed it in all its newsprint glory, that happened earlier this summer when the founders of the feminist-minded sex toy company Dame Products were featured talking about “Eva,” a “hands-free” couples product, which they hope closes the “pleasure gap.” It’s no coincidence that this $105 luxury item was also the first sex toy to ever be funded on Kickstarter, which bent its own internal rules barring such items from being on the site.

Dame Products, which describes its mission as designing sex toys “to heighten intimacy, and to openly empower the sexual experiences of womankind,” and its many competitors seem to have unlocked a fundamental formula for success that is equal parts wellness and women’s empowerment.

“I think the fact that we have a more holistic view of sex than sex as this one act makes us a lot more relatable,” Alex Fine, CEO of Dame, told Salon. “Self-love is the key to all of it.”

Make no mistake, bringing innovative sex toys to the masses is still an uphill battle, even for high-profile companies like Dame. Often, banks and payment processing services have clauses that flat-out ban any adult-oriented business, and venture capitalists are known to avoid such investment opportunities for fear of alienating stakeholders. But on the whole, sex toys just aren’t the kind of taboo topic they once were, as evidenced by the profits rolling in. It’s estimated that the sex toy retail market will surpass $50 billion within the next three years. And it’s more than just sales. We’re also witnessing the advent of corporate appropriation: Broad City, the girl power stoner comedy series set to debut its fourth season on Comedy Central, will soon have its own sex toy line.

All in all, the world of sex toys is a far cry from the seedy, underground image this market conjured until relatively recently. Naturally, part of this has to do with how far these products themselves have come, quality-wise. But this shift can also be attributed to the way women have taken charge of the industry, using real talk to sell wellness rather than pseudoscience, and empowerment as opposed to sexualization.

“If I were making a food product, I’d probably want to make you hungry and make you imagine eating this amazing food, right? So it makes sense that a lot of people have previously marketed sex toys in that way, and that way when done by men tends to objectify women,” Fine said. “But for us, we see these products as being about more than just sensual pleasure. In fact, I can’t tell you how many women don’t really make it sound like a sex act when they talk about masturbating. Sometimes it’s just a fun fast way of disconnecting, letting go, and relaxing.”

This type of approach to making sex toys more palatable to the masses has helped drive growth within the industry, which is more of a woman’s world than ever.

A brief history of sex toy marketing

When sex toys were first introduced directly to consumers in the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century, they were almost never marketed for what they actually were. Instead, they were sold as pseudo-medical implements. Vibrating chairs, wands, and other manually-operated devices were advertised as massagers meant to “improve blood-flow,” though where exactly that blood was supposed to be flowing to was typically left to the imagination. Later models were even marketed as weight-loss devices.

Fast forward to the sexual revolution that began in the 1960s and suddenly, there was no need to hide.

Throughout the course of the next decade, men typically ran the burgeoning sex toy — formally known as “adult novelty” — industry. The California-based Doc Johnson brand, helmed by country’s most successful pornographer, was founded in 1976 and quickly became one of the most prominent retailers.

While most sex toys being manufactured at this time were meant to be used by women or couples (with the exception of newfangled blow-up dolls and “pocket pussies”), you’d have never known it from the way these items were marketed.

“A lot of the packaging was male-directed in the 1960s and 1970s, with sexy women on it,” said Hallie Lieberman, a “dildographer” with a Ph.D. in the history of sex toys and a book on the subject due out this fall. “Even the packaging of sex toys geared towards homosexual men.”

Ads created by sex toy retailers aiming to target women were typically less pornographic, but often just as plagued by underlying sexism.

“You would see these ads that said things like, ‘I was never able to fulfill my potential as a woman,’” Lieberman says, referencing one gynecological exerciser ad from this time period. “It was about tightening [one’s] vaginal walls so she could provide a more pleasurable experience for her partner. Gender norms were changing, but that was in line with the more traditional gender norms, indicating a women’s role wasn’t really just to have her own sexual pleasure but to please her man and make sure he was enjoying sex.”

It was partly because of this that many women decided to eschew the traditional (and, frankly, sleazy) shops for the rising crop of alternatives. Lieberman says that the opening of the first boutique sex shop, The Pleasure Chest in New York, appealed to many women put off by the image the mainstream media was selling.

“We treat our customers just as though they were walking into Gimbel’s to buy a table and chairs,” one of its founders (both of which were gay men) told reporters at the time.

The Pleasure Chest was a place where women could feel comfortable to explore their sexuality in an “adult” environment that didn’t make them feel like they were among vultures — unlike adult bookstores, which were almost entirely patronized by men at this time, according to Lieberman’s research.

Other more sex-positive shops explicitly geared towards women, like Good Vibrations (the first of its kind) and Eve’s Garden, were soon to follow.

Lisa Lawless, who runs a “mom and pop” style online sex toy shop called Holistic Wisdom, has been working in this industry for almost 20 years. In her view, another significant cultural shift in the way sex toys were approached came when at-home sex toy parties similar to Tupperware parties began to take off in the 1980s. Now, sex toy saleswomen were able to reach their customers directly, and use the knowledge they took from this experience back to the male-run suppliers.

“I used to say this all the time, ‘Who are you marketing these products to when you have vibrators that have, you know, pornographic imagery all over them? You’re not marketing to women when you do that. We want more Victoria’s Secret, Bath & Bodyworks-style packaging,’” she said. “That’s when you started to see [brands] realize what it meant to be marketing these things to women.”

Today, marketing in general takes a vastly different form than it used to back in the 1960s and 1970s, when sex toy advertisements were largely limited to adult magazines. The bulk of most retailers’ marketing and promotion now occurs online. Though Google and Facebook still refuse to advertise sextech-centric content, sex toy companies commonly make use platforms like YouTube, Twitter and Instagram to build out their brands. This change allows them to do more with their voice and puts far more power in the hands of consumers, the most open-minded of which tend to relish the newfound ability to interact with these materials directly. Sex bloggers and toy reviewers in particular now serve as the primary influencers in this space, enabling them to call the shots and in their writing dictate the tone companies vying for their attention will take.

The result? Sexism — which once was inextricable from the sex toy industry — is perhaps the only taboo that remains.

Just ask sex toy entrepreneur Brian Sloan, who does not shy from controversy or using overtly sexual marketing tactics to get attention. In fact, his primary strategy in marketing his male masturbation sleeves has been to embrace it. His first major publicity grab, a “Vaginal Beauty Contest” in which the winner’s labia would be 3D-scanned for modeling a product, raised eyebrows.

Last month, he tried another bold move: creating a promotional video for his new “military-grade” masturbation sleeve, the Silicone Stroker, that aimed to highlight his product’s supposed superiority to women.

“It’s just kind of like crude humor. I don’t know how else to put it,” he said.

Sloan reached out to, among others, sex blogger and sex toy reviewer Miss Ruby and asked her to review the product. What she found on the website appalled her.

The animated promotional video that Sloan had commissioned struck her as fat-phobic, ageist and, worst of all, depicting a sexual assault. In the opening of the video (backed by a cheery jingle), a man appears to jump a bar and chase a woman, a frightened look on her face. She’s next seen blocked by him as he faces her, her legs up in the air on a table. What exactly that moment was meant to represent was ambiguous, though Sloan claims it had always been implied her was scanning her genitalia to use as a model for the product he then introduces.

Later scenes in the 45-second video were, if not as overtly questionable, filled with content that objectified women. At one point, the lyrics assure viewers that while real human women age and “go to ruin,” the Stroker will not. Sample lyric: “A man loves a woman but what he loves more is pushin’ his manhood into silicone.”

“I am unequivocally disgusted,” Miss Ruby wrote in a widely-circulated blog post on the video. “This is 2017.”

Readers and fellow reviewers shared the post, and some reached out to Sloan directly to share their thoughts on his handiwork. As a result, he changed the content of the video to more clearly show enthusiastic consent at the video’s outset.

“There’s a kind of internet bullying aspect to what they did that I don’t like,” he said. “Am I supposed to be politically correct in my marketing now? Is this like a requirement?”

“I might be a little less aggressive in my next video,” he admitted.

A similar PR fiasco occurred when Whizworx, a company that also sells male masturbators, tried using body-shaming tactics to sell their products in 2015, which resulted in negative coverage in places like the Daily Dot and Cosmopolitan after sex bloggers spread the story. Sex toy reviewers swore off working with the company by the dozens.

And then just last month, the UK-based sex toy retailer Godemiche put out Snapchat video in which an employee could be heard “shaming” pubic hair. After the incident led to comparable blowback from sex bloggers and others employed in the sex toy market, the company put out a formal apology for having been so “stupid and thoughtless.”

In the new sex toy economy — one that is more democratized than it has ever been — it’s clear that women are enjoying a new kind of power.

Source: New feed