Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Love as Wind-Tossed Paper

“I love you,” she said.
“You don’t even like me,” I said.
the recipe for the perfect argument
worth its furry
both of us wrong.

beautiful lovers,
short-lived friends—
no heart to be an enemy
but sometimes i wish

passing glance
subdued by passion spent
long ago that brought
the blindness of fools

that cannot hide us
from daylight
the not-quite lies
now illuminated, I can’t bear to see

we squint, grasping for
the word that makes us win
hollow prizes
with hands coming up empty

why won’t she listen
why can’t he hear
“If I didn’t love you…” I say.
“If you really loved me…” she says.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Thanksgiving Tradition

We set out, this year for Thanksgiving, just the two of us, Sid and me. Sid was sad that his cousins would not be joining him this year. He was glad to hang out with grandma and grandpa, especially in the kitchen.

We arrived on the holiday eve. Leaving town amid the last remnants of the day’s rush hour, mixed with other holiday travelers, leaving the city for regions closer to Lake Wobegon in geography and spirit. Watching a steady stream of tail lights I wondered if travelers are headed home, to a relative’s, and of the stories of the people inside each vehicle. I cannot keep track. I cannot ponder each set of lights. It is enough to contemplate the stories that put my son and me in our seats that late afternoon.

It’s a matter of perspective. I can look at the faint images of drivers and passengers in the early dusk as we pass. I cannot tell if they are headed someplace happy or a place of annual or daily obligation. I don’t know the nature of the commotion that ensued prior to them getting into the car, if it was wrapping up details before the long weekend, organizing small children and the things they would need to survive four days at a relative’s, fits of loathing that often accompany times with family that are aggravations of the dysfunction and ill health that plagued their developmental years, or the greatest of joys that comes with the prospect of spending time with the most favorite and precious people in the universe.

These trips matter and so do the histories that lead up to them. We all have history that makes the days what they are, the day-to-day reality that created the relationships we encounter most intensely on a holiday as well as what those days looked like in years past.

The story of our preparation was marked by excited anticipation. Sid asked if we could go up to grandma and grandpa’s a bit earlier than I suggested.

This year, Sid spent hours in the kitchen entertaining grandma and grandpa with long discussions about China, school and the finer points of learning grammar and the teachers who were as entertaining as the escapades of pedagogy. I sat in a spare bedroom, listening to quick wits and luscious stories. Mother, who was always a good speller, the kind of smarts that helped her graduate from high school at age 16, traded her knowledge with Sid about the finer points of English–alternating that with her well-remembered math anxiety that made itself known as she entered college. Dad, the great story teller, compared his college French class with Sid’s experience. Even coming from New Orleans and French heritage, we do not maintaining much French language, but dad retains the stories, especially of his professors, as a language no one teaches as well as himself.

As I sat resting, I could hear each of them laugh from at each others’ stories and their own. Teachers are the same from generation to generation and, at the same time, so different today than the days when high school graduation was little more than behaving well enough to convince the teacher to give students a C and then to march them capped and gowned into an arbitrary adulthood. They were full of conversations, most of which I have had over the past years and recent weeks with each of them, in smaller bits and pieces. Sid’s monologues were enough to wrap grandma and grandpa’s attention. He looked forward to this trip as well for the stories he learns, as well as the grandkid attention.

I knew there are more stories. I hear them. As many stories that get shared, there are long, dark afternoons endured with the aid of the second or third drink. Off in a corner with a concocted fetish of a tumbler and melted ice. So much easier to peer slightly over the lip of the glass than directly into the eyes of past shames that the relative does not want to let you forget, the in-law who still dreams of the other woman for their son and the failure after failure to conform to something that is less about virtue or morality than it is a struggle to keep family members corralled in a cage of a family secret.

History, however you define or identify it, means something. Some we carry from our childhood. Some, we carry from generations. Americans have a short history and even shorter memories. Even the short 400 years since English separatists arrived and nearly all perished in the new elements is played out with most of the details mostly forgotten and lived through a fiction of harmony that masks the genocide that makes the losses of the initial losses of the first immigrants look like the loss of one nonagenarian relative whose suffering warranted moving on into the next world.

A friend, thankful in her own rights, shared a piece written by Dennis W. Zotigh in Indian Country Today Media Network, “Do American Indians Celebrate Thanksgiving?“ The present-day follies that dress children in garb to play Pilgrim and Indian mark our history better than we remember it. Was it so necessary to insult Native identity as it is to insult our children’s intelligence? For some purposes, yes.

We are making new traditions. Some fitfully. While some school children’s are led in rituals that still mock native peoples, but more people are interested in accurate and respectful representations of history, story and the people who lived and perished in those stories. New traditions.

I have often said that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It is that day, for me, that has been about getting together with people who I care about. Little obligation other than to enjoy a mean and share it with great people. Okay, there’s more than that, especially if you are making a big meal. I’ve shared a few green bean bakes over the years. It is the day when mom and dad usually invite other company, student strays and need the card table to fit everyone.

In years past, we would always have snow for Thanksgiving. There would be snow on the ground, almost every year. Even if the day before had none, it was sure to snow before dinner was set on the table. Two families in St. Cloud, the Statzs and the Opatzs, would hold a touch football game between the families. It was always held in a field covered in snow. But in recent years, climate has brought us something different. I have gotten used to brown Thanksgivings. Things change.

This year, it was only Sid, me, and mom and dad. Without his cousins, Sid gets more attention from grandma and grandpa, but he said, “It’s not the same without Kamarah and Nyah here.” Mom turns from the counter and says, “What are we missing?”

My impulse was to say, “Your three other children.” I was silent.

My siblings and my nieces are having a great Thanksgiving and we are looking forward to Christmas together. Traditions.

I had mentioned to a friend that I might bring baseball gloves. She was excited to hear this, surely missing her father with whom she shared a love of baseball and the misery of the Cubs. I might be able to give mom and dad’s neighbor Thom Woodward a call: a former baseball coach, he has expressed a desire to join us, having seen Sid and I and often his cousins at the park across from his home. The gloves sat idle as the morning sun became lost behind solid clouds and the wind picked up enough toward the end of our walk. Later, it would snow. A historically accurate Thanksgiving.

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Sunday, November 4, 2012

Obama’s Hand of Cooperation

In the week before the election, much of the eastern seaboard was hit by Hurricane Sandy.  Republican New Jersey Chris Christie was faced with the devastation left by Sandy and millions of people suffering in pretty harsh conditions.  He responded to his constituents’ emergency swiftly.  He also worked with FEMA and President Obama, setting into motion the pieces of our national infrastructure that was designed to enhance safety during such disasters and provide a backstop when the critical means for survival have been wiped out.

There is a photo that has circulated widely of the President, getting off a helicopter and being greeted by Gov. Christie.  They are shaking hands as they walk to their task of responding to the disaster.  Gov. Christie is quoted as saying much in praise of the President including, “The president was great last night.  He said he would get it done. At 2 a.m., I got a call from FEMA to answer a couple of final questions and then he signed the declaration this morning. So I have to give the president great credit. He’s been on the phone with me three times in the last 24 hours. He’s been very attentive, and anything that I’ve asked for, he’s gotten to me. So, I thank the president publicly for that. He’s done — as far as I’m concerned — a great job for New Jersey.”

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie greeting President Barack Obama to lead the storm response effort in the wake of Sandy.

This is not just refreshing because it is an act of bipartisanship that everyone talks about.  At this point, I am not so concerned about bipartisanship as much as I am impressed with this act of non-partisanship that President Obama marks the extended hand of cooperation that Obama has been extending for over four years. Too many Republican partisans have been terrorized into ignoring it or vociferously opposing, not Obama’s policies but the mere act of coming together at a “Team of Rivals,” as Dorise Kearns Goodwin phrased it.

It took Sandy to get one to honorably accept the invitation to make our county better.
This response to dire need is an example that Obama has tried to share with Republicans and show to Democrats.   It has been especially disappointing that Democrats at least didn’t pick up on it. It could have quelled the crass opposition. The message of cooperation over compromise is a winning one.  Still, it is even less rare than the partisanship of half a generation ago.

I don’t know anyone else who could have a chance at really has the vision that gives anyone a chance of pulling this off, besides Barack Obama.  Like Lincoln, his team of rivals is key and goes deeper than his appointment of Hillary Rodham Clinton (who grew up in a Republican household) and gaining the confidence of a statesman of the integrity and character of Colin Powell.  When Obama appointed Republican Ray LaHood to the cabinet, it was one smartest appointments that could carry this cause. LaHood is a very good guy and well respected. There are some good men and women in Congress, but there are still too many in DC for whom it is not a life-altering tragedy if stuff does not get done. When it’s staring them in the face, they can lend a hand to each other.

Today, Gov. Christie has the real lives of real people staring them in the face.  I did not like to dwell on the chorus of arm-chair pundits who’s clamor sang of politicians at the Capitol who are out of touch with “regular people.”  I still believe, basically, that politicians are not much different from the rest of us and their shortcomings are triggered by the same things that trigger ours.  But there is a privilege that got most of them there that is accentuated by their “honored” status.  It sometimes makes most of us invisible.  And like any of us, when we act in arenas where others or invisible or the day-to-day realities of existence for a lot of people.

This is especially apparent with the current Congress.  The Republican leadership and loyal minions decided early on that they could sacrifice the lives of a public desperately in need of economic recovery, community and personal health and acknowledged civil rights and the political and electoral gain would be justified.  They are far enough to not feel the pain that comes from not blocking Obama’s policies but the invitation for unprecedented cooperation.  Democrats showed their distance by not even having the words or message to respond.

This brings me back to Doris Kearns Goodwin and a story I related a couple of years ago. (See “Celebrity Crush” from November, 2010.) AT a booksellers convention, I had the honor of sitting next to her at the convention dinner.  She said something that shocked me.  She said, You know who I think should be the next President of the United States?  Paul Wellstone.

I smiled to myself.  Two thoughts crossed my mind.  The first was that she was just saying this because she was in Minnesota amongst a crowd that almost certainly loved Paul—unconditionally.  This may have been true, but I did not quiz her on this.

The second thought was, Oh, here we go again.  A well-off, out-of-touch elite who is going to go on about how wonderful and liberal Paul is and “don’t you just love him?”  But what she said surprised me.  It was smarter than a knee jerk and was what I now see as a distinction that, today, is fading: that distinction between liberal and progressive.

She said something like this:  You know, Paul and Sheila (Wellstone) are just about the only people on Capitol Hill and maybe the only ones in the Senate, who, when they go out, have to pay attention to how much they spend.  She reminded/pointed out that the Senate was a club of the very wealthy.  As such, most of them had little perspective on what it meant for most Americans to live day to day, make their way through the mine field of common economic and social realities.

I think it is why Obama and Bill Clinton make much better presidents than Republicans Bush, McCain, or Romney or Democrats Kerry or Gore.  Being a fortunate son is not what it takes to understand when to cooperate, compromise and build consensus.  The value the lessons of having a tough life growing up are showing, and there are many, not just politicians, who do not get those realities.

But Gov. Christie cannot ignore the reality of Sandy, nor the fact that much of the media if focused on neighboring New York and not his state–his people who where hit much harder.  News reports say that when Christie was asked if Romney would be joining him to tour the storm damage, he responded, “I have no idea, nor am I the least bit concerned or interested.”  He added, “I have a job to do. I’ve got 2.4 million people out of power, I’ve got devastation on the shore, I’ve got floods in the northern part of my state. If you think right now I give a damn about Presidential politics then you don’t know me.”

Well, I think he is concerned about Presidential politics, now.  I am.  He was interested enough to consider running for the office, or at least bathe in the attention amid such speculations–and we were interested enough to give him that attention.  But maybe this is that place where Christie can swallow Romney’s pride and Obama the Democrats’ and get a chance to show America what real pride is made of.  And maybe the next four years will look more like the shining example streaming through the storm clouds.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

How to Win a Political Campaign

“He actually sounded like a not-so-bad guy,” said a friend after hearing the concession speech of one of our least favorite politicians, years ago.  There is that moment of “If he would have sounded like that on the campaign trail” that comes–and goes after the votes have been counted.  But how come most candidates can’t be that person during the campaign?

One of the reasons they can’t is because of us. A lot of people say they are tired of campaigns and politicians.  I am tired of a lot, but most of all people complaining about politicians.  One of the things I am tired of is the complaining.

When you get down to it, politicians are pretty much like us, not always in the “regular guy” sense, but with principles, morals and  integrity much like ours.  When we see politicians behaving badly, they are acting like us, only in public.  They are acting like we want them to, encourage them to and reward them.

We don’t want humility.  We want them just as they are–only better than us, but one of us.
Campaign attack ads bother a lot of us.  We ask, why do they do this if we don’t like it?  But I don’t recall seeing many attack ads that are worse than common barbs and insults that many of us live with on a daily basis.

Or maybe someone could take to the campaign trail with that strong, humble integrity.  But that’s not the conventional wisdom. It is not what we ask for.  But for all the pins and needles on which we sit, it is hard to go an entire campaign season before we get a sincere “Thank You.”  Maybe we need to do a better job of asking for that, a better job of giving that and a better job being the people we want our politicians to be.

Then, maybe, we’ll win.

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Monday, October 1, 2012

Mom and Hilda

In the mid 1970s, near the time I was finishing grade school, Hilda and Bernie Heinen moved in next door.  They had retired from the farm in rural Stearns County where they and generations of family had lived and where some still lived: still farmed and some still spoke a form of German compromised by a couple of generations away from the motherland, a couple of wars with which they did not want to be associated and a longing to be able to navigate the logistics required to make it through a trip into town, the stock yard or the grain elevator.  Hilda and Bernie’s English was good with irregularities common in our town that often interchanged the words borrow and lend as well as the words teach and learn and with an accent that hinted at the rural Minnesotan and German.  Lake Wobegon.

Mom and dad came from New Orleans, a different world where a few still spoke the last smatterings of Creole, but themselves spoke English that had no hint of the French that dominated many of the name places and was cultivated to distinguish them as Xavier University students.

Hilda and Bernie moved into town partly uninfected by much of the media bias that tainted most of America’s perception of African Americans.  Mom had learned well from her father and her own experience to meet people like you were meeting Jesus.

Hilda and Bernie were good people and good neighbors.  Mom and Hilda became good friends.  Better than the neighbors across the street who were related.  Better than most would have expected and better than most would have dared or bothered.

And most would not have expected the exchange that happened between mom and Hilda one afternoon while they stood in one of their front yards.

Hilda referred to to a black person using the word nigger.  That, in Stearns County, Minnesota and many other places would not be so unexpected–maybe for reasons other than why, on this day, the word came out of Hilda’s mouth.  What came next was truly unexpected.

Of course, my mom what stunned.  Surprised and stung in a way that hearing the word nigger always stings.  It is America’s ultimate unwelcoming–and we as black people know the unwelcome that comes with this word and a lot of other edifices that loom larger than a passing insult.

But mom was not mad.  It did not change her relationship with Hilda, like so many stinging encounters might.  Mom was hurt, but took a half moment to seek the best way to respond, maybe even asking God what to do.  She decided to do something that she might not have been able to do with many other people, with any other type of relationship and maybe not in today’s social spaces.

She told Hilda what that word meant: what it means in common language and what it felt in her ears and to the ears of someone who is or believes is the humanity of African Americans and other people who walk this earth.  Mom was kind and gentle–because she sensed that Hilda really didn’t know.

And she didn’t.  Hilda faced the biggest shame of her friendship with mom.  She really didn’t know and would not have wanted to hurt mother or anyone with the word if she knew what it meant.  Hilda could not have been sorrier.

What was so remarkable about this exchange was that this is not how we handle this issue in America and not many are willing or really have the honest, safe space to misstep and repair the damage.

What usually happens is that someone shouts “Nigger” to draw a line of supremacy.  The target of the slur either gets out of the way of the unhealthy and harmful verbal assault or responds with either the angry pain of the injury or a rebuttal that falls on the emotionally deaf or dumb.

Or maybe the response it an attempt to say how that kind of language and attitude is hurtful and damaging to common spaces, not much unlike what mom did with Hilda.  Where Hilda showed her exceptional nature was in her response.

Most of the time when we explain that this kind of language and other slights we encounter (and I hate to call them slights because there is nothing slight about systemic degradation and social, political and economic disadvantage), we get a response that complains that is dismissive, that we don’t have any reason to complain, that somehow they are entitled to speaking to and about us with impunity.

Instead, the two women chose to understand each other.

They made a space moved mom to choose Hilda as the person to whom she sent her two youngest after getting off the school bus for tending and a snack before her older kids got home.  It made a space that moved mom to be the primary helper for Hilda, more than her family who lived not far from us, or the once removed cousins who lived across the street when Bernie was dying of cancer.

The two women chose to share a space that most of America will not work to create, for which most of America is reluctant to work and that many do not want to exist.

After Bernie died, Hilda let her hair go white.  She let mom know how sad she was without him.  Mom worried, wiped tears and let her tell stories and shared a few of her own.  They were busy being Jesus for each other and entertain the angel they saw in each others’ eyes.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Fiction Spot: The Last Running Summer


Today, he has the memories of his childhood self running.  Running with his two legs.  Sometimes, he thinks those memories are dreams, fantasy images of a very young boy.  Sometimes the images are from the perspective of  himself running in his own body.  Sometimes he is the observer, dreams or memories of him running across the field with his cousins on those long, golden summer and autumn days.

He remembers the days that seemed to go on forever, the sun-scorched, coarse grass that was, in the later days of the season, slightly too long for the games of tag, touch football, kickball or whatever they chose on any given afternoon.  The days grew long, overlapping into dusk on that summer and fall stage of recollections.

The most vivid memories were of the games that played on even after the sun slipped below the horizon, lit by a lone utility light atop a pole not far from the house.  It was the kind of light they tell you about, warn you about in the middle of many country fields–the ones that they say not to walk to in an emergency because they look closer than they are–that one can parish  in the distant journey to that beacon whose welcome is illusion a siren especially in those snow-swept storms that used to visit the Midwest more than once each winter.

That summer and fall in 1965, Donny and his cousins benefited from the illusion that it was not time to come in for the supper the grownups ate while the playing kids’ plates cooled like the crispness of the first days of school that came after their fun.  Their parents let them play that summer–play past the small pangs of hunger forgotten amid the fun–or duty.  Past some bed times.  Past any concept of “future” that Donny’s four-year-old self could conjure.

They decided, between them, the grownups, that they would let the kids play–instruct the kids to play way beyond the regular boundaries of time, competition and exhaustion.  Some of the older kids knew.  The younger ones would know it time: know why, this summer, they were allowed to ignore the dinner bell, play past their hearts’ delight–play with respect for nothing except the rules of whatever game they were playing and a few bumps and bruises that often visit young bodies that run faster than the wind and the shouts of their names that sail the game into the next harbor of semi-organization.

And with respect for an attempt to let the little kids have as much fun as the bigger ones, especially Donny.
He remembers that summer, not knowing that his one shorter leg made him different.  The other kids saw him as  not much different than any other four-year-old who struggled to keep up with the faster, older kids, and not so different because everything about him was as normal as everything else the family and a few friends had always known about him.

The older cousins knew, partially from what their parents had shared with them, but more from overhearing hushed tones that the grownups felt forbidden to speak but felt the responsibility to share with each other: because that is the adults’ burden; or because they needed to talk through their fears; or because Donny’s problems were easier to talk about than their own problems, relationships, or shortcomings.  The older cousins, taking their first sip of grownup responsibility carried the burden of knowing why that summer, they played into the night, why they were told to play as long as Donny wanted to play, long beyond a four-year-old’s bed time.  As they grew older, they too carried memories of those days.

Donny remembers the illusion of running fast, an illusion created by the gentle prairie winds that blew across the golden fields and his still golden hair.  He was not fast. He was four.  He had one impossibly short leg.  He was the little cousin that the older kids made giggle and chased with no more speed than what would keep him in the game.

He did giggle–a lot.  He was happy.  It was the last summer when he had no inclination that there was anything wrong with his body and it was how the other kids saw him, just as kids see so many other truths with their naive intuition of integrity.

Soon, after the others were shuffled off to school, mostly out of sight and away from the taste of adult responsibility.  Almost like a poorly-kept secret, Donny would be shuffled off to what the doctors where sure was the right thing to do with The Impossibly Short Leg.  Sure that he would be better off without it.  Sure that the prosthesis which would be refitted many times over the course of his next decades, one that would fill his other pants leg the same as his longer leg, would be the best “cure” for Donny’s short leg and clubbed foot.

That fall, while his cousins and their friends played at recess, gym class, ran home from school, chased the girls, where chased by the boys who would otherwise imitate the football game they saw that weekend at the high school field or on television.  Meanwhile, the parents paced daily as if by doing so, they would come to some peace about the doctors’ decision or whether they explained what was about to happen to the little boy or their guilt over having caused Donny’s affliction or the curse that God had placed on their family: to have such an inflicted child.  Donny was having his shorter leg amputated, well above the knee.

Donny does not remember waking up from his surgery, nor the three others that were required before he could have a properly fitted prosthesis.  The encouragement given him by so many of the grownups didn’t register, subconsciously shutting down from the trauma, but giving the impression through his silence to the grownups that he was happy and taking this all in stride, taking care of grownup feelings.

He did not dwell on this change.  He avoided it as fiercely as he avoided the changes that came as his body introduced him to adolescence and avoided again when those changes brought on urges that he would not entertain because what girl wanted to be with a boy with only one leg?

When Donny was born, the nuns who served as the nurses in that Catholic hospital wondered to themselves and out loud, the same way as the disciples asked Christ of the lame man, was it the sins of his parents or the original sin of Donny that left him lame.  They, nor the doctors nor the parents waited for Christ to answer and, instead, wielded the tools God had left in their hands.

Jesus would have said, Donny’s condition is neither the result of his parents or his transgressions but exists in order that the glory and power of God can be demonstrated.  Or he would have said something like that, if our Bibles depict him honestly.  Then, he might have laid his hands on Donny, restoring the leg and showing his glory. Or maybe not.

The nuns, the doctors and the other well-meaning mortal sages were left with their own devices.  Whether they harbored notions that Donny’s parents’ sins brought them to this point, they made the best choice that their limited wisdom could see.  It was probably the right choice but could not have been as glorious as Jesus’.

The cousins would not see Donny again until Christmas at aunt Marilyn’s house–and this time, to them, Donny was “different.” This time, they felt sorry for him.  For the first time, they were fixed with the notion that there were things Donny could not do.  He was a new but familiar stranger and all of them were a little afraid.  The cousins did not know how to play with him.  They did not know how to talk with him.

The family’s  silence was matched by Donny’s who, that Christmas, spent most of his time in the big chair in the living room, next to the tree, mostly watching, with two shoes that hung identically beneath the cuffs of his brand new jeans.  Appearing unexceptional in his muted form, no one would ask of his condition, nor whose transgressions  were to blame, nor whose mortal glory might be stoked.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Not Quite Ready for Some Football

I spent last Friday night with my dad. We went to see the Minnesota Vikings American football team play the Buffalo Bills in a preseason game. These days, unlike in my youth, I am not a big fan of football. Many of you can count as many reasons to not like the game, but I will watch football with my dad. Not just watch, but appreciate some of it’s finer points.

There are two things that I continue to appreciate about football. The first is that football is one of the few places in our society where a Black man can come close to being recognized and paid for his efforts on par with his White counterparts. There are still hurdles of biases that most players must overcome, but the results on the field are hard to argue. Some try to run a subconscious and sometimes conscious sabotage. The stumbling blocks are not unfamiliar and not unique to football, but that sabotage often backfires in an atmosphere where any kind of anger or animosity have a very welcome physical response in kind that is likely to be rewarded on the field. However all the factors figure, the field is more even than most aspects of society.

The other thing I like about football is that it is how dad went to college. He paid his way into school on an athletic scholarship. (The photo on the banner of this blog is dad from his college playing days.)

There was a time as a kid, when my favorite sport was whatever sports season was in full swing. In the winter, I wanted to grow up to be a professional basketball player and then, later a professional hockey player. In the spring, I wanted to become a professional baseball player. In the fall, it was football. Those fantasies added to any fun that came with being out with the other boys, to play in the fields and playgrounds or just play in my imagination. Later I had fun playing on the team dad coached, a volunteer job he held for 29 years at Holy Spirit School in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

Like with so many of the boys who became men on a journey boosted by their learning from dad, football was not so much fun after 8th grade when I was too old to play on his team: when football came to mean less about personal and social life and more about how important football was to our elders.

It was not that we did not learn about football. Those who played for dad carried with them a reputation of skill and how to play well and safely. We also learned to practice and play with pride, with respect for teammates and opponents, coaches and officials, and that ideally, we would carry those ideal back home, to school and on the streets of our community. And I knew that even as a kid who would not get his growth spurt for a couple of years, I could still bring down a running back who outweighed me by 50 pounds.

But unlike experiencing the game alone or with someone else or the television commentators, talking about what happens on the field that honestly critiques the game and not the players, talking about the players knowing what they had to do to get there and like they are the physical and emotional beings they are, and hoping that their experience in the National Football League will help support them and their families during the rest of their life time.

Friday, we watched, not “ready for some football,” like Hank Williams, Jr., or the masses of onlookers that drive the pseudo-capitalistic machine that paid Williams for that song that sounds more like the soundtrack to accompany the guy with the beer on the sofa than the majestic athletes on the field. I am not sure if I have a song for those athletes, the ones who have been encouraged to weigh 300 pounds but are still quicker and faster than any of us watching, the guy who will be injured giving his best to please the crowd who will forget him a minute after he leaves the field, the tears of joy from a mom or dad who is seeing their son on the NFL’s field for the first time or that exceptional player who goes home every night to the love of a woman and maybe a child–whether that week they are in the same city or not.

After I left for college, my youngest sister Jennifer became dad’s football partner. Today, she is the biggest fan, still as cognizant of all the social, political and cultural shortcomings, and still, even as a resident of Chicago, a Vikings fan. She is the true lover of American football. It is very charming, the two of them, intelligent discourse on a brutal game. But this Friday–his time, I got to hang out with dad. Thanks dad for taking your boy to a game.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Life at the Speed of a Cup of Tea

It has been a while since I have shared with you via this blog.  I am not sure what to write in this tiny space.  There are so many things, so clear but the maze society places in front of many of these issues and the complex musings that I have brought to others make it tough to untangle in one Friday’s post.

I am not sure if I should write about missing my son Sid while he is on a wonderful adventure in China, the bad ideas that are being pushed in the two constitutional amendment ballot questions we will face this fall, the still racist commentary during the Olympics, a couple of the great stories of the Olympics, how my foot hurts and I don’t know why and how it makes it hard to get today’s exercise, the fact that I am not really feeling that sorry for myself when I know that my friend Anne’s friend Jim is in the hospital with an illness from which they don’t think he’ll recover and who may be in his last days.

I could write about my mom and dad’s wonderful 50th wedding anniversary and the wonderful friends my mom and dad have cultivated over that half century.  I would, but it is a story that is too long to tell, with too many people and is one about two people about whom there is too much to say in this moment.

I could write about all the work I need to do around my house and how I am supposed to get a lot of it done while my son is on adventure and learning in China.

I am reminded of a phrase that my Sid used to use often.  “Too many conversations.”  When he was little, he used to say this whenever I ran into someone I knew–and it seemed to him that I knew someone wherever we went.  Too many conversations; let’s go.  And maybe today, too many of my thoughts are running into each other.  Do I need to make time to talk with each of them?

Too many words.  Too many ideas.  Maybe it is time to just cultivate a moment of simplicity.
A simple moment with a simple cup of tea, something that I have not enjoyed for a while, but can now with today’s wonderfully cool morning, a wonderful cup out of which to drink it and the promise of a weekend that I can fill with something new.
Tea cup by Heather Wang. http://www.fireonthegreenway.com
Off to something else.  I hope your weekend is blessed, and enjoy a cup of something good.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Midnight Drive from Nowhere

Sitting in the passenger seat of her blue Volvo 240 wagon, the wind animated her hair--hair that had lost all other life from the days of excessive heat and humidity. She was tired, wilted in the swelter. I clutched and shift into fifth gear, turned and see her happy and content.

The tassels of her deep brown locks swirled around her neck and face as disorganized as the rest of the world that had also wilted into a disarray.

We didn't mind. There comes a time in the heat wave when you just give up, realize that the starch in your shirt means nothing after a couple of minutes outside; that the potato salad might just be better left behind; that as hard as you try to protect yourself between the air conditioning of home and car or between car and work or wherever you are going.

Content with our state of disassemble, we sat wordless, headed to her home—or mine, from somewhere—I cannot remember. The destination was defined more by our momentary glances-- caught in between wafts of breeze and a passing car much more in a hurry than two lovers fine with each others' company.

Later, we would lie limp in bed, too hot to spoon, too hot to sleep, but not to hot to trace the space between us with a finger, a light touch through the heavy air.

What did we talk about? Religion, politics, the kids. The future. The past. The present.

The next morning, we wandered out the door, aimless, bearings confused by oppressive stew of weather. Maybe a shower before we found our first appointed stop, unable to tell, neither by how we felt or by memory, whether we had taken one the night before.

In this morning, I could not tell if we are happy, content, thrown back into the real world, unable to put off the facts in this start of the day. Unable to procrastinate those things that are so easy to forget in a cloud of a love. We would find that place of forgetting soon enough in each others' eyes, arms. And maybe a little bit of bravery to talk about those things, and religion, and politics, and love, and the kids, and work, and all those things that make all the questions that surround them so hard to answer.

Happy and content in our mortal, humble ignorance and relative wisdom. Happy to shift into neutral and let the rest of the world be in a hurry to solve the problems that have no answer.

Monday, June 18, 2012

A Return to Baseball's Cathedral

The rain let up with an hour to spare before last night’s Twins-Phillies baseball game. In the quiet overcast of the day’s storms, I remembered in my haste to get out the door that I had forgotten an umbrella. Moments later, I remembered that I had forgotten our scorebook. Sid gave a shrug of his shoulders at omission of the umbrella. The missing scorebook was of more concern.

The umbrella would be unnecessary. We substituted the scorebook with an inexpensive scorecard and a pricy pencil from the gift shop.

Sid and I arrived at Target Field on the light rail train that was less packed than Sid expected. The girl who would turn four in three days, wearing her heart-decal-ed Twins t-shirt would not sit down and exerted the power of “NO” quite often. A cute couple nestled with each other in their seats, the man totally oblivious to his surroundings and the woman somewhat distracted by us. Outside, waiting at the platforms for trains headed the other direction, lonely faces of women and men who stayed too long at work, nothing, no task and no one who would have waited for them to step off the 4:30 train.

Even under the heavy gray sky, the threat of rain had passed. Sid and I made our way to seats. The air was calm and pleasant and the only weather menace was the beads of rain that clung the the green seats that were much better than either of us anticipated.

Close enough to the field to notice the blades of grass that were disturbed by the sliding play of Twins second baseman Alexi Casilla, vivid numbers sewn onto the backs of uniforms, the chance at a souvenir foul ball. Behind us sat a father and his primary school-aged daughter, a bright girl of whom her father is proud and may grow up to be as much of her fathers baseball buddy as Doris Kearns Goodwin.

We saw Julian Loscalzo, a native Philadelphian and reason d’etre for Ballpark tours and of “Save the Met” fame, wearing his hometown insignia sitting down in the seats in front of us. I had enough time to start a conversation before he realized that his seats were in the next section over and the people to whom the seats belonged eagerly wanted to sit down.

It was an interesting game, satisfying to Sid’s baseball mind. A nice night and still air that produced three home runs, one by Jim Thome, now playing for the Phillies, again, launched into the right field flower boxes and which, even into the next morning, had not been found.

The Twins lost to a struggling, injury-laden but usually powerful Philadelphia Phillies ball club. No matter. It was a sweet night, our first successful trip to the ballpark, where we belong.

The last month of this summer, Sid will be in China. I do not know if I will make a trip to the ballpark. It is not the same without him. I don’t know with whom I would visit the park. It might not matter if I go—does not matter if the thunder storms saturate the ground and air. It does not matter if the stillness is disturbed and the air swirls and the atmosphere is filled with electricity and the smell of ozone. They will keep me company, even if I forget my umbrella.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

When There Is Crying in Baseball

There is a difference between crying over spilt milk and grief.  Or maybe not.  There are some things about which we should cry and others, not so much.

Having baseball tickets stolen might seem like the loss of a material thing or the chance to hang out in the elite company of those spectating the gladiators.  It would be sacrilege to say that it is on par with being told that you cannot come into the church for worship.  But what unholy transgression was it?

My son Sid and I had planned a trip to see the Minnesota Twins play the Detroit Tigers. It was to be our first outing of the year to the home field. It was a trip to do what fathers do with their sons, some of my mother friends do with their children, a gift that some of these mothers and fathers are passing along to their sons and daughters and a place where so many stories of the love between them have been told, written and lived.

It also was a spot, in that gray-skied Saturday afternoon where many of our friends waited in seats adjacent to the ones we had for the game. They were there for the same loves that get entangled in watching and playing that game and for the love of our friend Mel, who knows all of those loves and people well.

But Sid and I did not make it to the game. In the moments before we boarded the train to the ball park, the tickets went missing.

I reached to my back pocket to feel the void where the envelope holding the tickets should have been. The pocket felt as empty as the gap left by a missing tooth and as crazy as a lost child: the lost slice of childhood that I planed to share with Sid that day.

At first, I told myself that I must have let them slip from my pocket. We ran from the train platform, tracing our steps back to the car, the Mexican fast food restaurant where we ate—a place much cheaper than the extra meal we might eat from the ball park concession stands. I looked hard, back and forth, in the car, on the ground, in the restaurant, in the eyes of passers by: something that would tell me it was okay, place them in my hand and make everything okay.

As I looked, though, the image of a man on the train platform kept appearing in my mind, a man who lingered too close as we swiped the pay strip on the fare box, the image of the man who, I am quite sure, lifted the tickets from my pocket moments before we would be on our way.

After those moments of the frantic, Sid and I got home and were quiet in the living room.  I tried my best to hide my sadness, but not so much as to fake something happy, fake a substitute that would not have even worked when he was younger. 

He did look sad on the sofa.  I asked him how he was doing, and he said he was pretty sad.  "And this one was for Mel's birthday, too--wasn't it?"  I told him yes, the man who took his not-quite-two-year-old self to the second baseball game he could even notice.  He cried a little.  I tried not to show much of my sadness, tears, frustration or anger; and how do you show grief over something like this?

We are sorry to have missed the chance to share baseball with each other, with you and everyone else who was there for the happiness of baseball.  While the money it cost us to participate in that day is significant in these days, but even at the greatest cost, it doesn't describe that what was missed was more than just a fun event, recreation or a chance to get out.  I don't know how many people will understand or how to describe the loss--even to a lot of people who know baseball. 

I think I can only have other people describe it.  They know, somehow, maybe from watching the two of us, seeing the game not through our eyes but through our sharing with each other and with anyone willing to get close enough.  Those who love us like seeing us together--seeing us in ways that are accentuated by baseball.

I am not sure which parts of what was defiled and violated are sacred.  I know that it is more than a violation of our personal space.  More than my friendships.  More than spoiling a game.  I just know that I feared such a catastrophe as much as I feared missing an important flight to an important event: like I had missed a relative's wedding. 

It is not a wedding.  It is just a game.  Just a birthday.  Just a day out.  Just another day filled with hazards.  But it is that day that remembers the first time I walked into the Bowie Bay Sox stadium with Sid in my arms, then settling in our seats, his eyes fixated on the animated diamond with more attentiveness and fascination that I thought was possible for a pre-toddler and my eyes welling with more tears than are allowed in baseball.  

I would not experience the kind of emotion I felt at the ball park until the first day we sat together, the two of us in church.  These are things that can define what fathers can do with their sons, friends with their friends, love with love and joy with joy.  (See “Crying at the Cathedrals.”)

For a moment, that is what was taken from us.  For a moment.  We will recapture it another day.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Windows into Grandpa: Part 1

Age had left him to shuffle his feet as he walked across the floor in the duplex he built, the one in which he lived for half of his life. His words were hard for me to understand. It might have been because I was used to hearing Midwestern voices, his the New Orleans accent was too unfamiliar, another language that I strained to hear correctly. But it was really his advanced years, so many years that I, as a child, could not comprehend: So many years that even his wife, official records or any other family member could not be sure how many years it had been. So many years that I was constantly anxious to watch each step, each breath, afraid that he might die at any moment. I was as afraid to lose him as I was afraid that, as a mere child, I was not yet been equipped with the emotional and social tools to deal with such an event if it should happen in front of me. I was afraid of what I would do without him.

Our Grandpa did not always shuffle. As a younger man, and even into late middle age, he was a lean, tall, dark-skinned man with distinctive and strong features in his face and toned muscles that were apparent even under his well-dressed self. And a walk that needed no swagger because it was strong, true and belonged to a man whose beauty struck every set of eyes that were lain upon him. He had the respect of people to whom he gave love, care, and a benign fear of God.

I was afraid of grandpa, not because of what he might do, not afraid of any anger or wrath. As a young child, such a man was a strange sight to me. He seemed bigger than life, and the people who knew him, including my mom and the man who she married, treated him so. But as I grew older, I did not discover the secret to why this reverence persisted. I don't quite know how to explain it , except to tell you a few things that mother would often say about what it was like growing up with him.

Her mother, our Grandma, was a yeller and a spanker. She was larger than life in her own right, big enough to match with Grandpa, maybe his emotional opposite: a woman to fear because of the whippin' you might get if you stepped out of line.

Grandpa never yelled. He never spanked. Mom would say, as many whippins' and harsh words as she got from her mother, she feared nothing more than the possibility that she might disappoint her father. The wince of pain and the lingering fulfilled promise of, “I'll give ya a whippin' so bad, you won't be able to sit down for a week,” from her mom was nothing compared to the deep, dark, empty pang in her heart from letting her father down—a heart to be repaired, soon enough, by the his love and adoration.

Grandpa was a man of few words. Except on Sunday morning. Grandpa was a preacher, pastor of the Second Bright Morning Star Baptist Church in New Orleans, Louisiana.

It seemed like the rest of the week, he read his Bible. Wise eyes peered through large, thick glasses with heavy plastic frames. Quiet in a sea of darting grandchildren and dueling televisions, he sat with the leather-bound Bible, turning the white thin pages with his long, black fingers and thick, ivoried workman's fingernails. I could not imagine when or how this sagacious discipline was cultivated, nor how the dry words of his King James, which I knew well from my days in Baptist Sunday school, could be translated into the rocking sermon that brought the congregation to its feet, caused women to weep and played on well into the afternoon, even on the hottest of Louisiana summer days.

Long, hot summer Sunday mornings. Sermons too long for a small child who had, by a strange happening of fate's logistics, grew up in a sedate, Swedish Baptist church that had services that ended on the hour, leaving just enough time to linger in the foyer with fellow congregants and get home to take the roast out of the oven before it burned.

Grandpa's sermons: too foreign coming from this creature in whose image I was made, Grandpa talking words, like music, that I could not believe were supposed to come out of a human. Sounds so rich and deep, like the most complicated jazz baritone. Too complicated for that small child to decipher.

Grandpa was old, not just in the eyes of a child who could not imagine being “so old.” The years of hard work at a cement factory made use of his long, strong arms, but also consumed his joints and left him with black lung disease. Years of upkeep on the rental properties he owned, the hauling, pounding, digging and mending did as well.

Rock and roll is a powerful thing.  Most people don't know why.  I am not sure, either, but it has more to do with the black church than any of us will admit.  Grandpa was not a fan of rock and roll.  He was not a fan of dancing.  He did not follow Little Richard, Elvis, Bobby Darin or the Beatles.  He did not want to. He did not have to.

The Sunday morning sermon was not the fare of the 17-year-old "Me Generation" teeny-bopper, on the first slope of adolescence, first taste of love's desire, barely off her parents' good-girl leash.  My not-so-vague notions of what whipped girls into a frenzy moments before and after Ed Sullivan introduced the Beatles "I Wanna Hold Your Hand;" or the swiveling hips of Elvis that the camera was only allowed to leave to the imagination of the television audience, pale in comparison to the rocked emotions of a dozen women wearing white in the front pews each Sunday whose lives had already lived bigger sparks of excitement, toil, tears and care than the Sullivan girls would ever feel, even into their old age. 

Sunday morning was not teeny-bopper tame.  Against a backdrop of furniture dressed in Jesus' royal red velvet, behind the pulpit, before the choir, with sunlight streaming in the east windows, Grandpa would rise, dressed in a the sharpest of suits draped over his lean and angular frame.

The sermon—the whole spectacle was hell-defying. It had to be. I did not know at the time, how much even there, in that church, in that neighborhood where if felt comfortable to be black, and at the same time, uncomfortable to be not black enough—that the people who toiled in that sea of humidity, heat and racial strife where profoundly aware of all of this at every moment. The songs, the preaching had to be potent enough to at least hint at some well of salvation and freedom from the present day, heart-hardened Pharaoh.

If Grandpa could defy hell and the apartheid under which his reign dwelt, it would be no problem to move the emotion of more than a few women, no problem to make them “fall out” in their pew, or save them, if for no longer than they could sit in their Sunday best for those few hours each week.

These were attentions that Grandpa would mostly ignore, but Grandma—she would not.
It is said that jazz is that thing that came to birth when European instruments got into the hands of the African diaspora.  It lead to the blues.  It lead to rock and roll.  It lead to a Godawful fear about what was going to happen to the piano and horn lessons that were given to the nice children of middle America: a Godawful fear that this dark music would make their children forget their fear of God.  So it is with the King James Bible.  European instrument of Protestant politics, corrupted in the hands of the Diaspora, what would it sound like?

In the hands of grandpa, King James did not sound as the King intended.  He sat in quiet, most afternoons, with the Bible on his lab, gently turning the onion skin pages, thumbing through the Exodus, the temples, the acceptance of Ruth, prophet after prophet, angle's visit after angel's visit, a birth, life and death, rise from the dead, redemption, sweet redemption.  

[Leave comments here or at http://theclarencewhiteblog.wordpress.com/2012/05/25/window-into-grandpa-part-1/] 

Monday, May 21, 2012

I Just Know He's My Brother

even branches, by Julia Klatt Singer
They are running tethered together
One blind, one sighted
Stride by stride, two men, moving as one.
Like the way birds fly, wing tip to wing
tip, they move as though they share
not only the same air, but the same thought.
Flowers bloom–whole fields of them–
Frogs croak in chorus.  Even branches
Know to sway, in much the same way
as the one above or below them.
What I wouldn’t give tonight to know
What wind, what song, what yearning
what kind world, what beginning, what
abandon I belong to.


The scene is the field behind the church.  A comfortable Summer evening, church picnic with lots of games, lots of hot dish, cold salads and things off the grill.  Little games for the little kids.  Big games for the big kids.  Impromptu games for those who think they are bigger than that or cannot decide whether they are a big kid or a little kid, or wishing they could be both, even if they are neither.

I get pelted with a water balloon from a precocious Lisa Dahl.  I intend to retaliate, as I believe is her intention.  I am faster and a better aim and pelt her twice in the middle of the back with balloons that do not burst, much like the utopia of the distraction of a picnic from the fire and brimstone that is easily recalled inside the church walls.

Games.  We are obligated to the gunny sack race, the spoon and water relay, lawn darts.

Pastor prays before we eat.  Little children, fidgety men, and a couple of the gossipy ladies peak during the invocation.  I know what mother brought to the pot luck and promise to try the dishes others shared.

That year, my brother Michael is 20.  I am five years older.  We hover moments before the three-legged race, not with much intention, me reluctant to participate, but am vulnerable to the faint persuasions. I am not sure how much Michael wants to play, but I am guessing he wants to more than I do, wants to with more interest than his big brother, but as they begin to make the pairs, soon our legs are lashed together, standing at the start line.

We are told to take our marks.  We are commanded to get set. We are ordered to GO.

Michael and I start out awkwardly.  Stumbling.  Lost stride.  This is not going to work.  We are not the same athlete. We are not the same person.  We are not going to win.  We are last.

All my siblings: I love them.  We are four very distinct people carrying different virtues of our forebears, different personalities, different qualities that people know from knowing our parents. We each look like one of our parents but all have different noses and very different ways of making it through the world.

Neither of my two sisters are there, far enough away to not have to navigate the prospect of a three-legged race we would rather not run.   Before the race starts, I have no idea of how Michael and I will navigate, have no idea of where we will be when someone says “GO!” whether I will be in the race or comfortably on the sidelines, glad to let someone else have the fun, glad to be by myself.  I don’t understand how Michael and I were roped into the race, roped together, in that space. I did not need to know.

I also don’t understand how or why or see the moment when we suddenly broke into the most synchronized stride–running almost as if we were the same person, not just children of the same womb and sire.

We pass the other runners, outpace them by enough so that at the finish line, they have full views of our backs.

I can’t explain the feeling, that sudden burst of speed, whether it was his speed or mine, whether we began to hear the same drummer–what stride we fell into.  I don’t know what to say; I don’t know why.  I just know he’s my brother.

[Leave comments at http://theclarencewhiteblog.wordpress.com/2012/05/18/i-just-know-hes-my-brother/]

Monday, April 16, 2012

Don’t Tell Me Where You’ve Been, Wanderlust Train

wanderlust love
for the train
that will wander with more lust
than i will ever be able to keep up with
and longer than i can stand to wait
for its return
from further away than i can imagine.

but its horn is a siren
that will turn my head
every time it passes my open window
even on the coldest night;
my ears will perk
in the silent frost and my
neck strains to bring them closer
to phantom sound.

and the distant click-clack
click-clack, an echo
endures from your last visit
a long row of memory
laden with other people's cargo
your burden
now mine.

i tell myself
the whistle blares for me
and not some other wanderer
whose lust could never be as strong
as the love that waits on the crystal breeze
that circles around my bed posts
through my body
and fills the empty space
that sleeps beside me.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Not a Woman with Hoodie Wandering without ID

I received a voice mail the other day that ended with, “Thank you for being a champion for human rights.”  I didn’t know that anything had been won.  It doesn’t even appear that we are in the first division or even in the playoffs.  I don’t see the championship.

For a brief half century, we enjoyed a period in our country’s history where, even against a cultural backdrop of resistance, we thought of the constitution as something to affirm, expand and ensure civil rights and liberties.  Today, that respect for rights, through constitutional measures, the law, or cultural attitudes seems to show up for corporations more often than for most of us.

I am not surprised that there is enough steam to put a statement in our state’s constitution that says we are against men marrying men and women marrying women.  The constitution is supposed to be a document that makes statements about who we are as a people and what rights we have as citizens.  With all the ungodly things that happen today in the context of legal marriages, we somehow have decided to bring up measures related to legal marriage against the population that has not even had the chance to screw it up like the straight population.

I am not surprised that, even though our country has a four-and-a-half century history of terror legislators feel the need to enact laws that will protect the “rights” of George Zimmerman and anyone who wants to enforce the lingering and pervasive terror against which we have little other protection: certainly not from police culture.

I am not surprised that men who do not even have or acknowledge sexual partners and do not have anything to do with a woman’s reproductive health are trying to decide what women should do or have access to with regard to their bodies.  I am not surprised that more men, especially conservative men, are not standing up to say that they do not want the government in the private, sexual parts of their wives–places that they believed were to be exclusively known by them as a right of marriage–and not equally uncomfortable with the government doing the same things with their daughters.

I am also not surprised that there is an effort afoot to prevent hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans from legitimately exercising their basic voting rights, and will quite pointedly hurt voting access to the populations elderly, students, and people who move with greater frequency than other populations (eg. the poor, racial minorities, women fleeing abusers, and anyone else who regularly flees oppression or the difficult situations imposed on them by the social and economic dysfunction protected by current "rights" campaigns), in order to prevent a mostly non-existent fraud that is less effective, more costly and less efficient than most legal, legitimate means to influence elections and get votes for the candidate you want.  I guess this right TO vote, a right for which many have died and were tortured and for which many still fight needs to be curbed by the arbitrary possession of a state ID.  It seems we don’t need to poll tax or poll “test” or land-ownership requirement to pre-determine the outcome of elections.

I expect that I will have a valid ID with me this upcoming election, as I expect that I will in several upcoming elections.  I did run out the door without my ID one election day, several years ago.  That was just once.
I expect that I will not start wearing hoodies.  Not my style.  No need to mess up my hair even more than the ill-quaffed doo that I have been urged to groom with more attention.  It is also a nice spring, so I guess I will not need it.

I do not expect that I will ever want to marry a man.  Even though it might help me get better health coverage, make it easier on my mom if something happens to me and someone has to make decisions about my care, maybe make it easier to inherit something in my later years, and I know that, if we made enough money, we would qualify for one of the Bush tax breaks.

I do not expect that I will grow a uterus any time soon, nor to I expect to gain the perspective to be given the primary responsibility that gives me the right to make ultimate decisions about one.

So, why am I writing about these other people?  It is obvious: I look enough like them to know that I am them.  I know enough about history, mine and those who came before me, to make me afraid of all the things that, as a boy, I thought I would not have to suffer because those things that were so awful were exposed and could not possibly continue–because they were so awful.

So, I stood in the Marriage Equity subcaucus at my Senate District convention two Sundays ago.  I comment on the fate of all our Trayvon Martins.  I remember the people who died, mostly in the south, and where tortured just because they wanted to vote.  But I don’t feel like a champion standing up for rights.  I don’t even feel like I  am in the game, hiding from the men with guns who have historically wanted and still today want the excuse to shoot me or take away my “reproductive” capacity.  I breath a sigh when I see those men and realize I do have my “documentation” with me.  I am no where near a place where I will be married.  Just sitting in the stands.

And in the mean time, I don’t care if the Major League pitcher had an affair with a guy when he was a teenager–much less what anyone did or did not do in high school.  It is none of my business what is happening with the insides of a woman I do not love.  Whether you look nice in the photo on your ID will not make you a better citizen or vote right, in my opinion.   And I still know with that of all the things the Bible says about marriage, none of them are part of the (im)moral right’s assertions of how the institution should be defined.

But some people have taken it upon themselves to “care.”  I don’t feel like a champion because they are winning.  One day, maybe it won’t be that way.

(Please comments at: http://theclarencewhiteblog.wordpress.com/2012/03/30/not-a-woman-with-hoodie-wandering-without-id/)

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Your Next Love Letter

Last Wednesday, I found a great Smith-Corona portable manual typewriter at Goodwill.  I was shopping for something for a trip to a chess tournament being held in St. Louis. (I can’t remember what I originally was looking for. I know I didn’t find it, whatever it was.)  It is definitely not the case that I need another item in my house. I have not the room. My son is intrigued but ambivalent, exclaiming, “For a while, there, I was thought we were caught in the world of typewriters and wood-burning guitars,” playing off a James Taylor quote he had rattling around in his very smart head. It is quite cool, a Smith-Corona Classic 12. It’s a portable, manual, vintage. It feels great. It is great.

It was almost not great. I tested it out in the store. Plunk, plunk. So many of these machines do not work, like the IBM Selectric I lucked into not long ago. Beautiful machine, but it’s electrical insides are scrambled and it knows not how to behave. This one felt great. Seemed to function great.

That is until I got it home and tried to type a word that had a K in it. The K did not work. Not a tragedy. I spent $7 and maybe I would be motivated to find someone who could repair this gem. The better idea was to try and fix it myself—a dangerous proposition, but it would be a true failing if I did not try.

I took off the metal plate on the bottom and searched the levers and hinges. Aha! The K was disconnected from its series of levers and rods. I figured out the mechanism for the failed connection, and with the help of two screwdrivers, made the reconnection. I could now write words with a K.

I now have a functioning manual typewriter. The typewriter I learned to type on was also a Smith-Corona, one of those gray, Studebaker-like, upright things that my mom had salvaged from the days when she was a student. I think I was seven or eight when I asked mom to teach me how to type. With three other kids, two of them quite small, and an outside-the-house job, She did not have a lot of time. She did the next best thing—or maybe the better thing. She sat me down at the kitchen table with her old Gregg typing manual and let me teach myself.

Years later, when I was in graduate school, I found another typewriter just like it at a yard sale.

I don’t know why I wanted that typewriter. It would be an odd way to reclaim my childhood. Regardless, the purpose it served was much different than was the allure as I passed the sale that early summer evening.

One purpose it served was saving the many recipients of my many letters from having to read my handwriting, which is still pretty illegible. The other purpose was to pound out the lingering adolescent angst that was the impetus or subject of most of the letters.

As you might remember from my first blog post “Stop Him Before He Writes (or at least tries),” I wrote about 380 personal letters one year. Many of them to a few women/girls for whom I felt enough affection to write so often, but never with the boldness to admit or hint, beyond the volume of mail they received, such affections. I would not admit because those affections were truly a transgression of what was supposed to be mere friendship or/and often with society’s color line. 

Plunk.  Thwap.  Slap. It was a wonderful sound and feel to which I worked out so many of my frustrations.  Social-political frustrations. Frustrations of internal and external religious and theological dissonance. Frustrations of what felt a lot like love in the midst of a fading adolescence.

This might be too reveling.  Did you get any of those letters from 25 years ago?

Maybe you were not in my life 25 years ago. Maybe you are not a woman. Maybe your life was safely secluded from such attentions. Maybe you did get a letter—and maybe it was not one tainted with such emotions. Maybe none of that matters. Today, as then, all of the musings may be little more than the exercise in writing it turned out to be.

Maybe none of it matters and maybe it IS nothing more than an old writing exercise—or that is all I will admit to. That and one other thing—something that may be of value to you: being so subtle and guarded with displays of affection has made me very good at figuring out if a man is interested in being your friend or if he has a crush on you. I can tell you how deeply he is into your relationship. I can pick it up, in most cases, pretty easily. Sometimes I can tell without ever meeting him. It is how I knew with certainty, even a year before he asked her out, that a classmate from long ago was interested in my friend A. It is how I knew that even though my friend C was so worried that her latest boyfriend might break up with her, that I was sure he would not, certain; I could feel it, that he knew she was the best that he would ever meet (that she was the best that most people ever meet, even if the context of relationship is not a possibility) and he would not pass on who she was. And I had never met either of them.

I can tell by the smallest kind of attention that a man pays, letters, or anything else, especially something else, because no one writes letters, especially on a typewriter. I only wish that I could be so perceptive in the dynamics of my own life.

I do not plan to write 380 letters in the next year, but somehow, the acquisition of this machine seems to fit for the day. I have urged my son to pound out a few poems on our new piece of functional furniture. What will I write? And what will you think if a piece of mail comes to your door, written on dear Smith-Corona Classic 12?

I beg you not to over-think this one, but in the mean time, I will carry the burden as I worry that no one will ever want a letter from me again.

** Leave comments at: http://theclarencewhiteblog.wordpress.com/2012/03/23/your-next-love-letter/

Sunday, March 18, 2012

I Love You: That’s So Funny

Poop, butt and vomit jokes are one of the delights of early childhood. I don’t know how long it takes us to tire of the butt jokes. Maybe as long as it takes to accept those not-so-crude aspects of life: a common daily reality, not so odd, ironic or absurd. I am guessing that doctors Freud, Jung, Erickson and Spock have explanations, something that explains this transition from being comfortable eliminating our waste into our pants to finding the elements of that process the most hilarious idea we can conceive of on the planet.

I recall a day in grade school when every boy in the middle grades was fascinated with a turd soooo big and long it would not flush. Everyone elbowed their way to the door of the stall in the boys’ bathroom for a chance to see the spectacle as one of our teachers tried to encourage and then order all of us back to our classrooms. Urging us out of the bathroom did not, in the least, halt our exclamatory banter, filled with “Holy cows” and “Did you see that?” and eyes as big as the phenomenon we had, prior to that day, never seen.

In time, we tired, outgrew, or just forgot to laugh at unless adorned by some cleaver sophistication.

In a way, we never quite get comfortable with any of that, the body parts and the functions that go with them. There are still ways to make poop, butts and puke funny. It works in some movies for some people on some days: I guess it’s all in the timing—and maybe in not being the ones who have to clean it up: either the physical stuff or the pitiful emotional fallout that accompanies the physical mishap.

While still children, we graduate to the next order of strange and uncomfortable body parts and functions: it’s about sex. We are kids, with no or very warped contexts of this life reality and, thus, still na├»ve enough not to confuse this caricature of sex with love. We can conveniently not see that sex and love are things that could go together, even if we know too much about them than is healthy for a child.

Sex and love: they are funny.

Bobby and Suzie
Sittin’ in a tree

Or, “Bobby has a girlfriend! Bobby has a girlfriend!” More giggles. More embarrassment. As many denials of “Do not! DO NOT!

When do we grow out of his stage? Hopefully not too soon, because it really is something children have to grow into, spend time uncomfortable with and out of that discomfort, spend an appropriate amount of time growing, establishing their personal space, identity and sense of self the discomfort helps us grow into. The taunts work for comic relief: Little Bobby with “First comes love/then comes marriage/then comes Bobby with a baby carriage is supposed to be an uncomfortable absurdity.

Even as adults, though, we sometimes—and for some, every time– do not avoid being as unripe as Bobby. And maybe that is why it is hard to graduate out of that stage of bad humor that it follows us into the spaces and time of life when it can no longer be a silly absurdity: the places in which we live and have to care in those relationships, with those real people.

Not being that undeveloped person is hard in our “Two and a Half Men” society. Once I got past being offended and realize it is just television, a comedy, it reminded me of some of the Greek classic comedies. So absurd. Silly. Such shallow attitudes on some things that are of ultimate importance: family, sex and love—or the absence of love. Absurd. Silly.

And maybe it would be funny, if only it lasted the two and a half hours it takes to present one of those Greek comedies. But it goes on and on, week after week, day after day, rerun after rerun. And then I realize that it is not just a fiction. It’s more real than we will admit, even though the implicit admission is as plain as the popularity of the show. It is hard to deny when the show’s star repeatedly shows the real consequences of what happens when the plot of the show comes to real life. It is hard to deny when the trail of ruin left by that star shows up large—and we still want to reward him with our attention, money and an even bigger stature than we provided him before.

It leaves us, still as adults, afraid to fall in love or to let anyone know, even the target of our affections. Will people laugh at us? Will our love laugh at us? Is love a joke with which those around us are still way too comfortable? Will our love be so uncomfortable with the love that the realm of the comic will be the comfortable refuge?

If I say, “I love you,” will you say, “Oh, that’s so funny,” and laugh?

And I can laugh, too, make us both comfortable and say, “Just kidding.” Freud, Jung, Erickson and Spock have theories on this, too.  I am not sure I want to know.  Instead, we can turn on the television and learn what love is about.

(Leave comments at http://theclarencewhiteblog.wordpress.com/2012/03/16/i-love-you-thats-so-funny/)

Sunday, March 11, 2012

“The Time Has Come,” for a few Firsts

This is a true first for me, in many ways. It is my first attempt at video, recording myself, using my outdated camera, posting a self-made video—and this is the first and only take.
I recorded Pentangle’s “Time Has Come,” my favorite Pentangle song. I have to thank Sherry Ladig who, years ago, introduced me to these “folks,” or at least she was encouraged my affinity with her enthusiastic expertise on these great musicians.

You can learn more about Sherry and the band Dunquin, made Sherry Ladig (piano), Don Ladig (her swell husband on flute and whistles) and Kathleen Green (fiddle) at http://www.sherryladig.com/bands/dunquin/.
So, forgive the videography, I’m a newbee. Forgive the missed word or two in the lyrics, and the fumble with the strings. I have few words this week, but this song was sitting, waiting to be played for someone other than the idle books on my book case.
In the mean time, I am working on a couple of pieces, one of which will be showcased in a reading by Givens Foundation Emerging Writer Fellows on April 24th at Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis, so save the date. Hope to see you there.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Blog Hop: Is Comparison the Thief of Joy?

Be sure to visit this blog post at http://theclarencewhiteblog.wordpress.com/2012/03/02/blog-hop-is-comparison-the-thief-of-joy/ and leave a comment there!

Tell the world what you think.  This international discussion that involves 20 bloggers and scores of participants will make you think and fill you with stories.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

love settles at the bottom of the glen

2 loves
he comes beside her
a touch on her arm
she turns
guides his center
to the seat next to her
another touch
sends them rolling quietly
down a hill

he sits
turns again
they tumble into a light kiss
settle at the bottom
they gather
to watch
the birds fly
the setting sun

and i wonder
if i will ever
share such a beautiful silhouette
enjoy such a beautifully
seasoned love

Saturday, February 18, 2012

She Told Me, “I Can’t”

“I can’t do it,” she said. It was a statement that needed a bit of deciphering. I did not quite know what it meant; I did not know what made this 4th grader believe that she could not—could not draw an oval. Who told her that she could not?

Cassie picked up her pencil, held it to the paper, like a knife to something she threatened to cut, then placed it down on her desk, and said, again, “I can’t.”

I was in Cassie’s class assisting with a jazz and visual arts residency. The 3rd and 4th graders worked with visual artist Teresa Cox to spend a few days becoming their own versions of Pablo Picasso and Romare Bearden. For some, the transformation was easy. For others, not so much.

“I know you can,” I said, hoping to get a sense of her frustration. What did her words mean? “I know you can. Getting yourself to school every day was a lot more work than anything you are going to do for this project, especially draw the oval. Tell me what you mean.”

“I just can’t,” she said. “It’s too much.”

Was she overwhelmed by the larger project of creating a collaged self portrait? Was she shy or unsatisfied with her artistic ability? Had she really been trained by her environment to believe that she was not capable? I told her that I knew that she was a sufficiently intelligent girl and that I was pretty sure that most of the stuff that any of us was going to ask of her in the classroom was something she was up to.

I did not say this as an encouragement, like some hero that was going to make her to believe in herself. She was wise, intelligent and hip enough so that the Marlo Thomas bit wasn’t going to work on her. Still, I was uncomfortable with the “I can’t” language and how infectious it could be to so many other things that she was going to have to do in that classroom; I was not willing for those things, much less the project she was working on, to get derailed with the most powerful words of defeat.

Would I have to interpret her “I can’t” in a way we sometimes we have to interpret “I’m bored” when kids utter the phrase? Sometimes, “I’m bored” can mean a kid wants you to find something for her to do, besides make her lunch. Sometimes it means, “I’m depressed.”

I know that our childhoods are not always happy, that they are not days to which a lot of us grown-ups want to return. Not salad days. During the past weeks spent in a half dozen classrooms, I saw more than one kid living through a day to which they do not want to return. Still, I know that they have and will return in spite of my wishes to the contrary, just as those days did in my youth. And these hard days usually do more than just feel bad: they make just about everything, including school, dysfunctional and not easy.

It was frustrating that some kids could not seem, at first (and second), to pull themselves together to complete their project with an ease that matched the task. What was more frustrating and what was the most difficult to watch was how familiar I was with what those kids experienced.

I saw my 4th grade self, the 4th grade self that, somehow, could not fit himself—force his way into the context of so many things, places, projects and knowledge that should have been simple and easy. Instead, the reality against which I fought, many of the kids I see fight, was one that portrayed the simplest tasks with unease, unsureness and few expectations.

What was Cassie really supposed to do? What was really expected of her? What had she learned about what people expected?

I am not sure what she had to fight through that afternoon, what so many other kids in the many classrooms in which I worked over the past few weeks had to fight through—whether it was something as simple as not knowing or being unfamiliar with the use of scissors and glue or if it was more of a emotional weight against which they had to fight to get themselves to school each morning.

But Cassie was not fighting anything like an ignorance of what an oval was or how to use a pencil to create one. I heard her say the dastardly magic words again: “I can’t do this.” But what followed gave me a hint to what she was fighting. “You don’t understand. I got a lot going on right now,” she said. Heavy words coming from a ten-year-old.

I did not know what I could say in the small, not private space and in the short period of time we had. The words I was able to find could not be guaranteed to be translated into something helpful for Cassie. I do not even know if there were enough words or enough common, familiar language to have anything I said make sense—be impactful in the small context in which we worked.

I looked around the room, at the kids and at myself—at what was familiar in their faces and the feelings that emitted from their fits of frustration. I said, “Yeah, I know. A lot of us have stuff going on. We have stuff that seems impossible, like nothing’s going to work. But not everything has to not work.”

I told her, urged her not to do what is so easy for us, to let that art project, that easy thing, get washed down the same drain of stuff “going on.”

I do not know the details of her life. It is not my place to ask and I did not get the time—and about those things “going on,” she was right: I did not know them. At least not as clearly as she needed someone to know, understand and listen.

What I do understand is that some days, it is too hard to leave the comfort and safety of home and face a boat load of Impossibles, to step out the door, to pick up a scissors or put pencil to paper. But we get up and leave, not so much out of bravery or resolve but because staying is not an option.

And for some, and maybe for Cassie, it was what was happening at home that was her Impossible, an impossible that was heavy enough create a “can’t” that creeps into too much of her days. I do not know.

What do I know? That this opportunity to create was not a “can’t” and did not have to be another failure in days of difficulty. What I did know is that Cassie’s mood and attitude not only risked not getting her project done, but had bigger ramifications, not just for the day, not just for the school year. I thought of my own experience. I wanted to tell her in the most urgent voice something from my own experience: that she needed to do something about it or they would put her in the “dumb kid” class, which is where I found myself in too much of my school career. You might think that they don’t have dumb kid classes anymore. I am not so sure that we do not live in a social climate where we are not just segregating kids into the dumb kid classes: we are making whole schools, full of uncreative can’ts: this kid can’t… our systems just can’t… we just can’t pay for…

I did not have the magic words, and thought maybe her teacher, Ms. Dixon did. Maybe. I am not sure which conversations helped. I told Ms. Dixon what was going on. I know she knew Cassie much better than I. Cassie was a day behind on her project, but she, like many other kids who were having a difficult time, pushed through and created something wonderful.

Today, there are many wonderful works hanging I the halls of the three schools. Scores of works from as many kids. It seems like a major achievement, and given the work that Teresa Cox, teachers and students did, it is a major achievement. I am not sure how to measure this achievement against the the greater complexities of “stuff going on.” I am just glad that Cassie did not let this achievement slip away. I am glad that my worries of “I can’t” could be held off long enough for the wills that made a success.