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Considering the Source – Again

So again, I find myself up against human nature – true, racism at this level of engagement is one that appeals to baser instincts but, it’s part of our human collective none-the-less. What to make of the words, “…if Obama doesn’t make it to the White House due to a bullet to his head, it won’t bother me…” I heard these words not even an hour after parsing the enormous implications of the accusation of racism with my journalism class. And for all my verbal acuity, all I could think to call her was, a racist. I am silenced by how quickly that term came to my tongue. Had I not just implored my students to seriously consider such an accusation? But, in the time-honored tradition of likeable racists everywhere, this woman opened her mouth and removed all my doubt, saying,  “I’m not racist because I have good friends who are colored.”

“Just what color are they?” I asked. The woman was serious – in 2012 in a western New York town that boasts a Fortune 500 company. Sitting in an office of the local community college, this encounter forced me to look at the general work pool on campus – which holds not one African-American aide or secretary. Would this woman have said the same thing to, say, a more obvious person of color rather than to me – a very light-skinned (“be careful what you say around her”), African-American adjunct? This woman obviously feels very comfortable in her position here at the college and not one of her peers seems able to compel her to keep her offensiveness to herself.

I awoke from a fitful sleep dreading what was waiting for me at my office. My foreboding increased as I got closer to the campus. The panic and fear returned from a 1997 event when high school students surrounded my classroom door all wrapped in the confederate flag. As the only African-American teacher in that school, I got but a glimpse of the fear and trepidation that the marchers of the ’60s must have felt going up against the institutionalized racism of the times. That day, I wanted so badly to turn and run after seeing two of my students as part of the intimidating group and, shockingly, the son of a teaching colleague. I stood my ground because I was not going to be intimidated by ignorance and because my knees were too weak to support me to my car. For months afterwards I became the target of these sons of ‘good-old-boys’ and the victim of weak-willed administrators too afraid to call ignorance into the light and destroy it for all to see. Needless to say, a teachable moment was lost here. What was not lost, I came to understand this morning, was the low-level panic and fear for my personal safety.

The issue here is someone’s right to be brazenly insensitive – bordering racist in the workplace. The remarks this person made created, for me, a hostile environment if but for the minute it took me to grab my keys and briefcase and leave. As I write this I am not sure if I want to file a formal harassment complaint. If I did file, I feel I would be bound to some abstract justice that requires secrecy in which statements and verifications can be made, after which all would go into a separate file and life would go on.

What do I want to happen? I’ve lived long enough to know I cannot change what is in someone’s heart. As an educator of color, I see the need to meet my students with honesty and respect in modeling just how to behave in the wider world. Most of my students will leave the comfort and confines of this small community to live and work with many other groups (if they are lucky). Campus issues around racist remarks can serve as the proverbial teachable moments. I believe when these issues are identified, handled, and attempts at resolution are made in transparency, students can learn the extremely important lesson – made even more meaningful for those with whom they will work. That lesson? Respectful consideration.

 

Coffee and Me: An Affair to Remember – (updated)

I’ve been in love with coffee since I was 25 years old and had the misfortune of being put on the graveyard shift at an all night talk-radio station in Los Angeles. Like most lovers, I have to admit, I have not always been faithful and the sight of the new Starbucks in the CCC commons dining hall brings back more than a little chagrin at my most memorable transgression against the beautiful brown bean.

Coffee is an addiction. I know this  – even as I genuflect every day in front of my coworker’s Keurig® Platinum Brewing machine praying she does not step into traffic, find reason to hate me, or is somehow reposted giving cause for her to dismantle her coffee altar. And I am not a prolific drinker of coffee either. I start my day with one cup, that’s all, but in 1995, my doctor suggested that I give up all caffeine. I stared at her, stunned. How could she even fix her face to insist I give up my daily mug of motivation? I was at a loss for the words that would make her see the importance of my needing to stay up past sundown and read to my son or grade 50 student essays. I left her office more prepared to get a new doctor than a new drug. But, by the time I got to the market, I thought of all the events of the previous week – a week filled with an extreme crankiness that forced students and co-workers alike to tiptoe on conversational eggshells in my presence. So, in total capitulation, standing in a coffee aisle that fairly buzzed with the delicious fragrance of ground and un-ground coffee beans, I reached for my Kryptonite – Postum.

By the time that summer rolled around I was experimenting with all manner of (legal) herbal energizers. Finally, I settled on liquid ginseng. I remember that first morning I poured it into my coffee substitute. I was not disappointed. My body began to hum and my pulse-rate increased along with my energy. I was going to be fine and that summer was going to be my most productive one yet. And to a degree it was until the day I awoke feeling the unexplainable urge to meet a self-imposed deadline.  So, covering all possible areas of distraction, I checked on my eight year old son and some neighborhood friends who were playing in the side yard before bringing in our ailing and aging dog and getting her settled in the kitchen. I poured another cup of my juiced-up Postum. I was free and alive and awake to enjoy it! Freedom lasted 45 minutes before one neighbor child began screaming for help. Startled, I jumped up from the computer and, in pushing my chair back, pulled the cords from the wall outlet. The loss of all that I had just written should have been a warning to me. I dashed down the stairs with the frantic screaming of all the children now ringing in my ears. Tearing through the hallway, I cursed the dining room chair that had fallen over in front of me. In retrospect, I’m glad it was there to slow my progress. I opened the kitchen door to find that my dog had become sick all over the floor. Shutting the door, I fell to my knees retching and gagging. I stopped when the screams from outside, again, became loud and insistent. I jumped to my feet but by the time I got to the side yard ‘joyful’ laughter was all that I could hear. “Hi mom, we’re on a desert island and taking turns screaming for help. Is lunch ready?” They were hungry. I was ticked. I stood at the back door suddenly remembering what lay on the other side. By my watch I had 50 minutes to clean the kitchen floor, fix peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for three dirty kids then drive them 12 miles to soccer camp. If I didn’t take time to retch or pass out I could do it. I had the energy. Everything went well with the clean up until I heard a faint knock at the cellar door off the dinning room. I should say here that my cellar is a dark and dank affair, sometimes home to frogs and other unmentionable vermin at certain times of the year. Why anyone would want to walk into this cellar from the outside entry for anything was a mystery to me. “Who is it? What do you want,” I shouted from the kitchen. It was the furnace cleaner stammering his wish to clean the furnace. “Just a minute,” I yelled.  I slammed lunch down on the patio table before marching back into the kitchen totally lost in consideration of how I was going to maneuver my old pet out of the house. Her forelegs were in fair condition leaving me with the business end of what was a very large dog with very little control over her sick bowels. I got her upright while ignoring more faint knocking from the cellar. And just as I was about to shove the last of my dog outside, another, more insistent knock came from the man behind the cellar door. As if the pounding on the cellar door was her cue, my dog released her own pent-up ‘frustration’ before pulling her hindquarters fully through the doggie door. Angry and soiled, I was too far gone to even cry and the hammering inside my head was the only thing that kept me from screaming. I left the kitchen to answer what was now definite pounding. I snatched at the doorknob opening the door to see the beleaguered furnace cleaner looking at his watch. “What do you want?” I shouted. “M’am, I’m on a schedule here. Could you please turn your thermostat on so I can check…” “Listen you,” I interrupted. “You got a schedule? I got a dog here who thinks my kitchen is her private toilet, three kids to clean, feed and get to soccer camp and a kitchen that stinks to high heaven. So let me tell you what you can do with your schedule…” I slammed the cellar door, looked at my watch, before cleaning the kitchen floor. I jumped in then out of the shower, collected the soccer gear, pushed the kids into the van before throwing a carton of wet towelettes at them. “Here, clean yourselves.” I stepped on the gas and made it to practice with thirty seconds to spare. The children, faces streaked with peanut butter and fear, jumped out of the van and dashed into the gym without looking back.

I took a deep and shameful breath. I looked at my hands draped over my steering wheel. They were shaking – hard. I was wired. I stopped at the little café at the end of Main Street and ordered a small cup of coffee hoping for some mathematical – caffeine plus ginseng – canceling out process. I waited for calm to overtake me before beginning my trek home. Once inside, I flopped down on the sofa. For the first time that morning I could exhale and close my eyes. And then, a soft knocking from the cellar caused me to scramble from my couch slapping my forehead in disbelief. The furnace cleaner was still in my basement! I opened the door and there he was, the man with “a schedule…” sitting and lightly rapping his knuckles on the bottom step. I was ready to give my biggest apology ever but, instead, I said nothing. I went into my kitchen and pulled the coffee maker out of hiding in preparation for one of society’s most humble of peace offerings – real coffee.

Updated, reposted: 9/7/12

 

The Moment

I’ve been prompted:

 

Live in the moment

But joy seeps

In from the past

Forgetful of

The moment

What joy is the moment

When I hear someone’s

Cancer,

Of the dead

Wild-life with which

My cats treasure me?

What joy is the moment

At the bottom?

What joy is the moment

Before another

Beginning?

I am suspicious:

Joyful moments

Hiding

Under the sun,

The moon,

In the humus

Of life?

Sadly, it will not be

Joy that carries me off

July 2nd

It is 7:16 a.m. and the sun is

long view from the porch – into the morning sun

Spilling its diamonds on the soft

Undulations of the lake

Birds chatter

In a tongue

I fail to understand

But enjoy

The grass, taller as

Mower sits idle

Cooler than the neighbor’s

Called into duty at the first

Jagged sign of inequality

Wasteful & Un-greening

The she-cat crouches

In the small clovered shade

A game with the squirrel

And his tree

Today the hunted

Unluckily caught

Yet

Lucky enough

His foe responds

To voice commands –

This time

He scampers up the tree

Screaming his coarse poem:

Profanities in his own tongue

The Myth of Fingerprints: You Are What You Read

I have just completed the short story, The Bus Ride by Sahar Sabati. It is a fairly straightforward narrative about a nurse who gets off work early and finds herself  (the assumption here is that the nurse is female) on a city bus sitting across from a disheveled and smelly man. The nurse eventually imagines an entire Law & Order-type scenario from which the ragged, dirty man is running. The narrator begins her speculation by way of good character description.

He was carrying two bags. One was a red postman’s bag slung over his shoulder, the other was a black heavy-duty garbage bag he was half carrying, half dragging behind him. He put them both on the ground, propped his feet on them and leaned back in his seat.

The reader is intrigued by what the man might be carrying in these bags. The narrator describes the look of this middle-aged man before entertaining a host of possibilities as to why he is looking and behaving as he does.

The man, unaware of my musings, took a long sip out of the bottle. It looked like plain, clean water—why did it stink so much?

Once again, my imagination started to wander. Maybe the man had gone down on luck, and had spent the night hunting for meat to feed his family. Maybe he worked as a sewage-cleaner during the night. Maybe his washing machine didn’t work, and when his clothes reached a state of utmost dinginess, he finally gave up and is now going to his mother’s house to use hers, which would explain his state and the smell emanating from the bag.

This is the innocent rationale offered before the narrator takes off in her own self-described flight of fancy after seeing the blood on the man’s hands – blood that contrasts greatly with the shiny gold ring on his finger.

Horrific visions of my mutilated body danced before my eyes.

The nurse gets off the bus one stop later chiding herself for letting her imagination take things too far.

I rang the bell and was getting up to leave when the man looked at me and winked. It startled me. I tentatively smiled back. When he smiled, I felt utterly ridiculous. A man with such a nice smile couldn’t be a murderer. I got off and told myself that the extra walk would serve me as a lesson.

This short story ends in  the fashion of  O’Henry albeit lacking in cleverness.  Having convinced herself of her foolishness, the narrator is shocked when she gets home and opens up the daily news paper.

Looking up at me was the man from the bus. Over his head was the title: “Man caught on tape killing wife and kids.” It seemed that I had been right, after all. I fearfully looked around. I had been right about the man’s past actions; had I guessed right about his future actions, including my possible demise? I hurried inside the house and closed the door firmly, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to sleep anytime soon.

Why does this story disturb me so? This story and follow-up questions was a homework assignment for my ten-year-old niece. Is our world not crazy enough that we need to continue to stoke the fear machine for simple reading pleasure? And is this what would make a young girl want to continue to investigate the beauty that can be created with words?  I think not. When I was twelve-years-old it was A.M. Rosenthal’s New York Time’s story of Kitty Genovese, the Kew Gardens nurse who was stabbed and left to die as 39 people watched and listened to her early morning hour screams, that scared me beyond reason. This story has since been updated with corrections as to the number of actual onlookers and the coming and goings of the perpetrator who did return to the scene to eventually silence (kill) Genovese. But, in 1964, my take-a-way was that a woman could be beaten and killed by any man and the first assumption is that, in spite of  the obvious physical assault,  the commotion is simply a domestic dispute. This was the beginning of a female-victimizing world for me.  A man had a right to beat his wife and no one has a right to “get involved.” That Kitty Genovese may have fared better had she simply screamed “FIRE!” rather than ‘I’ve been stabbed’ was not lost on my young mind. But again, I was 12 almost 13 years old. At 10, I had not been imprinted with the blood and guts of dismemberment.  At 10, I was fearing wicked stepmothers and loving the little girl going to live with her grandfather in the Alps.

Could there have been other stories for my nieces 5th grade educators to choose from that would not make her fear disheveled men who happen to carry bags? Also, are there stories available that would not make her fear the male gender in general? The subtext here is my niece should fear for her life in the presence of men who don’t look a certain way.  Yes, the world can be a vile and dangerous place for anyone. But I believe these are the lessons best taught by concerned parents who understand their child’s capacity to assimilate the contradictions inherent in human nature.

I suppose the story, The Bus Ride, has its place in the pantheon of homework assignments. But, for a ten-year-old girl whose father has completed numerous military tours in service to this country, this story should have no quarter. It is a cheap knock off of so-called television crime dramas that I can’t believe took more than two hours to write.

 

In Parenthood: No Crime Warrants This Catastrophe

I don’t know what the death of a child means – its purpose really – nor am I ready to lay the cause for such pain and misery at the feet of some ostensibly benevolent entity.

The beauty and pain of life and the road beyond...

Two former colleagues will be burying their son today. Their son: my son’s lacrosse goalie, two years younger. This is tragedy writ large across the small town landscape of the human heart. A tragedy that speaks to the lie that the cities are where it’s at. Maybe when I figure out the IT of everything I will be better able to make a distinction between the pain wrought by a life – and a death.

What I do know is that becoming a parent can be the most joyful experience two willing people can embark upon together – the endless dreams founded on faith in love and the innocent sounds of new names – mommy and daddy. It must be what an addiction is like; looking into the eyes of your child and succumbing to the bone-melting moment when you realize that there is nothing, no one in the world you could love more. It is the moment you watch your toddler waltz around the lawn in a spring rain babbling the language of sheer happiness, arms spread wide, head held high as if sipping from some celestial chalice of innocence,  that you know you would lay down your own life for this moment to continue. Children, loved, cherished – as it should be – infused into your veins every morning, every handhold, every neck hug, every embrace of that small sturdy body that holds the contents of your elixir, the potion you need to survive. Liquefied, cooked love – injected in the open for all to see – the tracks of which you are proud to expose. Children can make us whole.

As children can make us whole so too can they lay us low. There is emotion that resides in the cracked plaster and glass of all adolescent door slams – an emotion whose power, we

that road untraveled - to self-hood

forget, is as strong an elixir for the adolescent as our fresh-parent love was for us. But it is the road out of the nest, to selfhood that we keep our eyes upon – beyond adolescence – when the parent-child relation ship is supposed to right itself – the waters begin to calm, the phone conversations end in “I love you(s)”  – both ways. But before the road untraveled, we believe we are cursed; what did we do wrong? Worry – the congenital parental condition beginning, not with ours but with our child’s birth. Even as we wrangle with adolescence we begin to paint pictures of that road out of the nest, putting our dream-child squarely upon it, smiling and ecstatically babbling that sonorous, personal language of sheer happiness – it is this emotional chimera that saves us when all hell breaks loose. It is what keeps us on the edge of the grave looking in even as our flesh and blood is lowered into the earth – buried.

I realize my tears are useless in changing the scenario. They will not revive the loved ones of the T’s, A’s and the F’s. – the first initials of those friends and colleagues who have all buried their young.

To be a parent is to expect to see your child to a healthy adulthood

To be a parent is to expect to bring that child to a healthy adulthood – it is what you deserve for all the love and parent-hours spent keeping that child alive and well. What these parents get for all their love is not what they deserve. There is no crime that warrants such catastrophe.

And so I wonder what it all means? I think of my own son, the vessel that walks the earth holding my heart and dreams – for him. And now my frustration with him, for his comparatively minor infraction of the adult responsibility code, pales with the knowledge that this frustration could be easily trumped – any day, any time…

A Diary of Change: September 12, 2001

I have a picture of the Twin Towers – they stand tall and strong in the background – behind a group of frolicking high schoolers headed for the Statue of Liberty on the ferry out of

The Twin Towers - February 1994. Before the hole that swallowed my memories.

New Jersey. I looked frantically for that picture last night to no avail. I can still see the faces of my students though, BJ’s thousand watt smile, Kim, Thea, Byron, Jessica, Tiffany, Kristy, Nikki, and Katie all in adolescent poses of deep friendship. There were more but these faces found the camera at every turn. It is what I see when I close my eyes. And I could be wrong, relying like most, on the sovereignty of memory. I could be thinking of the picture we took on the eighty-third floor of the Empire State Building – different year but some of the same smiles and definitely the same Twin Towers in the background. I will always remember these pictures and yet over time I know these memories will fight a losing battle with the vision I beheld Tuesday, September 11th. Shocked, I watched the south tower as it belched smoke and flame. I saw the second plane bank and then plunge out of sight into the tower behind, propelling the fireball out beyond the south tower. I knew then that this plane was not coming in to drop flame retardant on the first tower – as I first thought. My heart raced. I held my head.

Only later did I curse technology. Oh to return to the world of word-of-mouth transmission. The time when one hovered around the newspaper or radio, listening to the newscast as it was filtered through the minds and hearts of stoic announcers. I thought of Cronkites’ voice coming over the all-com speaker in my junior high library and how it cracked and caught on the words that our president, John F. Kennedy was dead. That was a time when we were allowed space to form our own mental pictures of catastrophe – however tragic. It is different now.

Even as I write this I shake my head. I had a student write in her English essay, “Change is inevitable…” At fifteen she knows this. And here I am, half a century in age and barely able to remember when a postage stamp was two cents and the closest war was the ‘gas war’ happening over on the boulevard. I’ve missed something about change. Maybe it is the sameness of my days; the only changes are the ones I make.

Now my days are changed. An unseen hand has written A tragic script complete with murderous planes. How does one teach this? I don’t want to gather my son and the sons and daughters of others around me and have to explain hatred and intolerance. I fear it is completely beyond my ability. And yet I must.

I left school on that Tuesday with nowhere to go. There was nothing at home but lure of television news so I stopped and watched my son’s soccer practice. I read the local newspaper, the last one printed before the attack. I could believe, for a few minutes anyway, that the news of the day was light. Periodically, I’d look up at the boys and girls of various ethnic backgrounds on the soccer field in the bright sunshine. The day was exquisite, with the green hillsides only hinting at the golden leaves to come. On the broad expanse of lawn I witnessed young people in innocent athletics giving high fives to friends and competitors alike. I could have stayed there forever, a frozen tableau of perfection – no hatred, no intolerance, no headlines of alarm.

I was asked about our annual New York City trip by a student who assumed we wouldn’t go. I was resolute in my response. “We will go. That’s one thing that will not change,” I told her. But change is inevitable. A fifteen-year-old told me this. And she was right. The New York City trip did happen that spring. Phantom of the Opera enthralled my forty-five students, most from the hinterlands of rural western New York. On the subway to South Street Seaport, I decide not to make the trek to the hole in the ground that changes forever they way I view human nature. Most of the young people go with another chaperone. A few students stay with me and the vendors of cheap memorabilia. I sigh with relief. I am not ready.

Our chartered bus is faithful to our departure time and, after a last minute buying flourish of knockoff glasses and watches, we depart. I count heads then relax amid the excited chatter of adolescence. Even as darkness descends I sense we are on THAT parkway. My senses are validated by the silence that befalls the group. The bus slows to a crawl – not for traffic but for the view of the remains of the Twin Towers – the hole that has swallowed my city memories. I thought if I didn’t look – maybe things would become unchanged.

I looked. Foolish pretzel logic – to think we could achieve some type of retro-sameness. Like the skyline of lower Manhattan,  we are all forever changed.