There’s nothing like a trip to Atlantic City to make you re-examine your life.
The after-hours party scene at last week’s League of Municipalities conference had a lot to offer including free food, free booze, and amazing networking opportunities.
This year’s event was a roller coaster but I’m glad I made the trip to Atlantic City because it gave me a lot to reflect on.
“Choke your motor!”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was an extremely hyperactive, sugar-sensitive kid. Whenever I got too ginned up or overexcited or self-righteous, my dad (see pic) employed a familiar command to bring me down from the rafters.
“Son, choke your motor,” he’d say very sternly but still not mad.
He was a Marine so he could afford to be gentle the first time because we all knew he could take me to Parris Island if he really wanted to.
Truthfully, I probably could afford to choke my motor more often. My dad’s not around anymore and so now I have to figure this stuff on my own. I’ll get it, but it’s gonna take longer without someone whispering (or yelling like a drill instructor) in my ear.
The League of Municipalities Conference (aka “The League”) is one of the biggest annual events on NJ’s political calendar. Early in my career (circa 2005), I gravitated to these affairs (separate from the conference itself) because it was the center of the universe I was desperate to be part of.
I didn’t know anyone and nobody knew me and so I could go about my schmoozing and blogging under the radar. I’m not much of a drinker but the proximity to power was intoxicating enough.
That last part is still true. But nowadays, events like the League or the Chamber Train usually mean a series of extravagantly intense encounters which is what I longed for back back when I was new. Minus all the booze.
I get a lot of feedback at the League, mostly positive stuff from people who are happy about something I wrote. But y’all have a long memory and I get plenty of reaction from folks who didn’t like something in my column.
It’s a small price to pay for my soapbox.
There were a few uncomfortable run-ins last week in AC. I saw a guy who once groped a friend of mine and an ex-lawmaker who punched his girlfriend in the face. I go out of my way to try to avoid these encounters because 1) alcohol is flowing so what’s the point and 2) it’s a buzzkill.
But a few of y’all were determined to pin me down and make me justify my words including a central figure from Bridgegate who’s just trying to move on with his life despite never-ending criticism from folks with strong opinions.
If feelings remain sore, I reasoned, they probably should’ve thought that before enabling ex-Gov Chris Christie’s worst impulses. I believe in myself enough to back up my words when pushed.
But still, it took a chance encounter with a Chris Christie-era bureaucrat to make me realize that my relentless stridency sometimes violates a central tenant in my life.
“When I tell you that everyone deserves the grace to amend their life, that means everyone,” Frank told the group of misfit drug addicts, 18 of us, sitting cross-legged in a semicircle for group therapy.
It was maybe my third day in rehab at Presbyterian Hospital in West Philly and I was too feral to realize that Frank just dropped a golden nugget of advice for all eighteen of us.
“Everybody deserves the grace to amend their life,” he repeated for good measure.
Frank was the toughest of the drug counsellors at Presby and he didn’t have time for your crack head lies. I learned so much by watching other people try to outsmart him with their bullshit and so when it was my turn, I knew better than to try.
“Frank, you’ve never been a drug addict so what do you know about what we’re going through?” one of my cohorts snarled defensively.”Why should we listen to you??”
Frank was having none of it.
“Mr Lassiter, you’re new here, do you agree with your friend? Do you believe my advice is worthless because I’ve never walked in your shoes?”
I froze. Truthfully, I did agree but I was lucid enough to know that was probably the wrong answer.
“No,” I replied hoping that would settle the matter but it didn’t.
“Why not, Mr Lassiter? Tell me why my advice is valuable and say it loud enough so the others can hear it,” Frank demanded and honestly I hadn’t thought far ahead yet.
I gulped hard. I could feel my ears get hot because that’s what always happens whenever anyone pushes me harder than I want to be pushed. Everyone was watching, rapt, curious what the new guy had to say.
“Because you already have the tools?” I mumbled.
“What was that?” Frank demanded.
“I believe you are worth listening to because you already have the tools to deal with drugs and alcohol that we lack,” I replied. Not sure where that reply came from but it passed muster with a no-bullshit hard-ass like Frank and that felt like huge victory.
My point: if someone like Frank forces you to dig deep and challenge yourself with more vigor, listen to them. And believe them when they tell you that everyone deserves the grace to amend their life.
Cuts both ways
Whoever said the pen is mightier than the sword was probably a writer because that’s an a vivid, evocative metaphor. And like the sword, the pen cuts both ways.
I know that’s a fact because you tell me.
It means a lot to when you rave about something I’ve written. It still blows my mind that someone pays me share my political opinions and to write about stuff I care about. I don’t reflect on that with gratitude as often as I should.
I take negative feedback very seriously because usually it’s at least partially true. And when Bridgegate Guy pulled me aside at the League it was obvious that my Bridgegate reportage left a welt.
“Do you think I’ll ever be able to live that down?” he asked rhetorically. “I was a midlevel staffer surrounded by massive egos. And I’ve worked really, really hard to get past that.”
I was unmoved.
“You enabled the worst scandal in NJ political history and ended up with a great job having faced very few if any consequences,” I replied, not missing a beat. “So if you have do deal with some angry Tweets or a pointed column from time to tine, I’d say you got off really easily.”
He looked genuinely hurt.
“No consequences are you serious?” he replied, shoulders drooping by this point. “Do you have a minute for me to tell you the consequences from my perspective?”
He did and it softened my heart. Frankly I felt bad.
And in that moment I remembered Frank’s rehab wisdom that everyone deserves the grace to amend their life. Frank told me a million times but I’d forgotten anyway.
Then Bridgegate Guy and I hugged it out and I walked away grateful for the reminder that there’s a human being on the other end of my critiques. A slightly awkward encounter felt like a very small price to pay for the lesson of self-reflection.
And that gets me to the point of today’s long-winded Black Friday polemic: sometimes, to my detriment, I fail to choke my motor and let it rip full throttle. Other times I’m stingy with grace despite the fact that my road to redemption was paved by the grace of others.
With an eye on 2020, I’ll strive to show more grace in my words and with my deeds. I’m pretty sure that’s gonna make me a better writer. And probably a happier person as well.
Jay Lassiter is a long-winded writer and political commentator living in Cherry Hill, NJ. You can tell him to choke his motor on Twitter @Jay_Lass.