Sunday, November 15, 2015

Rejoice with Those Who Rejoice; Mourn with Those Who Mourn

Let's imagine that my house is robbed, my family injured and killed, and I go to my neighbor to get help or comfort. What would you think if my neighbor said to me, "Yeah, well, what about the people down the street who got robbed last week? Or the family across town who were all shot to death just last night?" What if he said, "I'm not saying what happened to you isn't bad and all, but if we're going to talk about that, then let's talk about all of the pain and suffering going on in our community"? 

What would you think of a guy like that?

I'd think he was kind of a jerk - a heartless, unfeeling person - and I'd have a hard time even believing that he really does care about the family down the street, given that he can't seem to care about what's going on in front of him, even for a second, to grieve with me.

There is something about these terrorist attacks in Paris that is bringing out this very ugly side of people in conversation and on the Internet. Too many people are saying that we should be paying attention, or sometimes more attention, to what's going on in other countries. And maybe we should. But here's some of the problems I see with this attitude.

First, it seems really calloused to respond to someone's pain with your own politics, or even with someone else's pain. Suffering is not a contest, and only a fool would try to win if it were. 

Second, I get tired of hearing from people that no one talks about the suffering in other countries,  when the people complaining about it aren't talking about those countries either. Why is it that the only time I see certain people talking about oppression in Africa or Asia or South America is when something gets blown up in Paris? Yes, definitely, we should make noise about all of the suffering and oppression in these countries, but it looks very hypocritical when the only time I hear people talk about these issues is when they are trying to draw attention away from someone else's pain. Stop waiting on the media. You have a Facebook account and a Twitter feed; make yourself the herald of suffering in these countries. Sacrifice thirty minutes of your day every morning and post 200 words about the most recent developments in the country you are most concerned about. It will require a real commitment on your part, but it will have the power of sincerity and sacrifice behind it, instead of sounding like someone trying to scold everyone for showing sympathy and compassion, as if there's only enough love to go around, and you want to make sure it gets to the right places. 

This is exactly what makes many of us so frustrated with the "all lives matter" movement, if it can even be called a movement. If it is a movement, then apparently its mission is to misdirect the sympathy and attention shown to black victims of police violence and abuse of authority. When people look at situations like the ones involving Corey Jones or Tamir Rice and shout that "Black lives matter," the only correct response is to shout back, "Yes, they do!" Trying to correct, or more accurately, redirect, by saying that all lives matter is callous, heartless, and ignorant. But is it any different to draw attention away from the suffering in Paris by saying that there's suffering in Africa or South America as well?

My point is that we need to stop trying to trivialize the suffering of others by refocusing attention and questioning people's intentions or implying prejudice. The Bible teaches us to "Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn" (Romans 12:15). We also need to stop demanding that others do what we are not doing ourselves, or waiting for someone else to start the movement. Let your passions guide you to protect and support others without tearing any down.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

No Limits Movie Marathon

In our house, we love movies. It's one of the things that brought my wife and I together and our love of film is still a source of bonding. I joke to people all the time that you don't have to look for huge signs that you're dating "The One." When you walk into her apartment and see a 60 inch 3D television and three hundred or so DVDs, that's how you know. 

So, because we love film so much, we're always looking for ways to pass on this passion to the kids, not only to share our favorite films with them, but also to teach them how to think critically about them, how to set criteria for what makes a good or bad movie. A couple of weekends ago, since we were all together the whole weekend with nowhere to go, for once, we decided to have a movie marathon, where each member of the family could pick whatever movie they wanted, as long as it was in the stacks or on Netflix. Then, everybody would have to watch everybody else's movies and discuss them. Even movies that would normally be off limits for them were fair game for that weekend, so long as they were willing to be uncomfortable watching them together. Basically, for the cost of a few movie snacks from Walgreens, we had an entire weekend of entertainment and family bonding. Unfortunately, the littlest one hot left out for most of it, since the movie choices ended up being quite gritty and scary. We could only watch our flicks while the baby was napping or after her bedtime for the evening. Then again, I've seen Frozen, Winnie the Pooh, and every episode of Sesame Street and Umizoomi at least a hundred times each, so she's already had her movie marathon with us, and it is, in fact, ongoing.

The first film was my oldest daughter's pick, and she chose Insidious 2, mostly because I had been telling her she couldn't watch it and it happened to be on Netflix. She is pretty good at playing all the angles when she wants to. She had seen the first one with her mom, and thought is was great, but, to me, her taste in movies, especially horror, runs too deep into teen flick, jump scare, I-thought-that-guy-was-dead deus ex machina territory. So when she chose this one, I steeled myself for an hour and a half of lowest common denominators. The truth is, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I still have to say I was completely lost for the first twenty minutes, but once I caught on, the rest of the movie really worked for me. My daughter said that was because I hadn't seen the first one, even though I tried to explain to her that good filmmaking means that the movie has to stand on its own merits. 

Overall, I liked the twist on the ghost story/possession idea, and the (spoiler) time-travel aspect was confusing, but also interesting. Maybe it was because my expectations were so low, but it made me actually want to watch the first one, to get the background the story. The only part that really sets of the plot hole detectors in my brain was when the boy with the powers, in the most stressful moment of his young life, with the lives of literally every one of his family members in jeopardy, somehow just falls asleep in a brightly lit room with people walking around and his possessed father beating down the door, so he can "cross over." I really felt like that was an even bigger flaw than it may have been in another movie, because it seemed as if this one had worked hard to protect its own mythology.

My son's movie was Alien, mostly because he wanted to prove to his sister that old movies could be scary, too, and without ghosts and demons and such. He definitely made his point. Alien is one of those slow burn horror movies, but the notes it hits stay with you for a long time. It was really difficult watching it with people who were seeing it for the first time, because in some ways it's a whole different movie the second or third watch. I kept telling them I couldn't answer any questions, because I wanted them to get the full experience. When you think of all of the really deep seated human fears that a film can exploit to scare us, Alien concept verse just about every one of them. Think about it - body invasion, sexual violation, evils of technology, xenophobia, darkness and sterility, nakedness, isolation, the reprisal of nature, the evil corporate conspiracy. It's hard for me even now to come up with a primal fear that Alien doesn't tap into at some point. I feel a little spooked just rehashing it. Seeing their gut reactions to scenes that have lost some of their edge for me over many viewings somehow helped me to get back into that space where the film really scares me again. I think that's one of the real values in film as a shared experience, that the audience is reacting not only to what they see on the screen, but to the emotions of the people around them as well.

My wife's movie wasn't a horror flick, but it was still one that the kids had asked about and hadn't been able to watch - The Warriors. It's one of my favorites, for sure, especially because of the music and the look of it. But I think what makes it such a well-loved film is the themes of loss of leadership, wrongful persecution, and the soldier behind enemy lines. Teenagers are very concerned with fairness, or at least consumed with the need to be treated fairly, as they perceive it. So, given that, I think that both of the kids really responded to the Warriors because no frame and hunted for something that they didn't do, and wouldn't do. It makes it so much worse that they aren't even part of some huge conspiracy or caught up in someone else's war. When it comes down to it, there was no reason for killing Cyrus at all, just that one crazy guy "likes doing things like that." One other unexpected bonus we got from watching it together is that it opened up a discussion with my daughter about Mercy, how twisted and needy she is, how she allows herself to be degraded and seems to just make trouble whenever she goes, and how she brings out the worst in Swan. Swan is no angel, to be sure, and he is certainly responsible for his actions. Still, sometimes two people just have an effect one each other like repulsing magnets, and really expose each other's worst qualities. One thing my daughter reacted very strongly to is the idea that Mercy seems to need a gang, or a man, or a group to belong to, but then she never likes the one she's with. It did my heart good to hear hear ask why Mercy can't just "do her own thing" and stop worrying about everyone else.

Finally, my pick was the only PG-13 film in the bunch, Monster Squad. To be honest, the entire idea of No Limits Movie a Marathon was basically a ruse to make the kids watch Monster Squad. As soon as I saw it available on Netflix, I started scheming and plotting to make them sit down and watch it. The thing is, every time I watch one of these movies that I loved as a kid, especially when I haven't seen them for a few years or more, I'm always surprised by some of the content that made it into the movies that were clearly made for kids, and shocked that my parents let me see them. Every time I watch The Goonies, which is at least once a year, I'm amazed at the amount of foul language that is coming out of those kids' mouths. Not only that, but invariably, almost every time I put on one of my old favorites to watch with the kids, there's always a nudity scene that I forgot about, and I can never get the remote fast enough to avoid looking at boobs in front of my children. I don't know what surprises me more - the fact that so many of these nude scenes were allowed into PG-13 movies, or that they didn't make enough of an impact on my adolescent, hormonal brain to remember them. I swear my kids think that Ronald Reagan passed a law in 1980 that every film produced during his presidency would have to have gratuitous boobs in them. 

All in all, it took us two days, three bags of popcorn, and four different family size candies to watch them all, but it was absolutely worth it. I'm usually so cautious about letting the kids watch certain movies, or certain scenes that earn the big R. One thing that the No Limits Movie Marathon showed me is that, while it may be a little uncomfortable, there is some value in letting the kids see some of these things, with their step-mom and I to moderate discussion. Some of my favorite movies from my teen years are movies that I've told my kids not to watch, even though they were cornerstones to my cultural experience growing up. And they didn't turn me into a pervert or desensitize me to real bodily harm. I'm starting to think that there's too much real value in some of the films that have been either banned or restricted in my house to throw away, just because of some blood or a little nudity. I think w me get have to do this on a more regular basis, and next time, I'm definitely choosing Beverly Hills Cop.

Thursday, August 20, 2015


Apparently Madame Tussaud's has created a hail storm of criticism for themselves with their new wax figure of Nicki Minaj. For those who haven't seen it yet, I'll post a pic below, and it is definitely a very sexually suggestive, even erotic pose.

Immediately, two things happened. First, a whole lot of men, and a very small number of women, started taking pictures with the statue that were of a decidedly pornographic nature. Second, Iggy Azalea took to Twitter to lambaste the display as insulting to both Minaj, women rappers, and black women in general, because Azalea's hit single obviously makes her the leading voice on both hip-hop and women's issues. Minaj herself seems to actually like the installment, for whatever that's worth.

The thing is, I'm just as feminist as the next guy, but I'd like to complicate the matter a little bit, if I may. And I don't mean that I want to play post-modern head games with the issue. On the contrary, I think that one of the problems here is that too many people on all sides of an issue like this try to take something very complicated and force it to fit their simplistic view, rather than making it appear as complicated as it is. This is not to say I'll be coming to any conclusions by the end; mostly, in fact, just asking questions to point out how complicated this situation really is.

Complication #1
What in the hell did Madame Tussaud's think was going to happen when they installed this wax figure? If you place a statue of Rocky with his gloves up and blood on his face, people are going to take pictures of themselves facing him in their best boxer poses. If you place a statue of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury pointing his finger menacingly, people are going to take pictures either cowering in front of him, shrugging with that "I didn't do it" look, or standing next to him, as if backing him up. And if you place a statue of Nicki Minaj on all fours, nearly nude, with her behind in the air as if presenting, people are going to take pictures of themselves in sexual poses with it. Like this guy.

And I do get all of the rape implications involved, as well as the image presented of the black woman as object or plaything or purely sexual being. It is just a statue, but it some ways it is also the embodiment of the rape fantasy of the unresisting woman. In some ways, images and objects and movies like this perpetuate the idea that women, and especially black women, can be violated without repercussions. I get it. And I also get the apology from Tussaud's, but again, what other outcome could they have envisioned?

Complication #2
There is another question that has to be asked, as horrible as it may sound at first. That is, did Madame Tussaud's get it right? Specifically, does this statue match the public persona that Nicki Minaj herself has created? If you do make a statue of someone, it should be made to capture their most iconic persona or their most popular role. So, to return to the previous examples, if you make a statue of Sylvester Stallone, you don't make one representing his role as the beleaguered Sgt. Joe Bomowski in Stop or My Mom a Will Shoot. You put him in the iconic USA trunks and red gloves as Rocky. If you want a statue of Sam Jackson, you don't put him in boxers and a white ribbed undershirt, getting whacked in Goodfellas. You go with Nick Fury. And apparently, if you make a statue of Nicki Minaj, you make it look like this.

Or this.

Or this.

Or this.

Enough said. Wait. I was making some kind of point just then. Oh, yeah, right, right, right.
But why not make a statue of her standing up holding a mic? This is what Azalea asks. I could write an entire post about my opinion on Minaj's lyrical skills, but suffice it to say she's no Lauryn Hill. Or Queen Latifah. Or Foxy Brown. I'm not even sure she's a Monie Love. The question is not really why Tussaud's didn't depict her holding a mic instead of on all fours. The question is, which pose most accurately captures the essence of her public persona? Is Minaj primarily a rapper? Or is she primarily a sex symbol?

Complication #3
If I accept the premise that the statue represents Tussaud's accurate depiction of Minaj's public persona, the way she presents herself to the public, and I also accept that Tussaud's should have known that this statue would not only degrade Nicki Minaj and black women, but also incite abuse and violation, then wouldn't I also have to accept the conclusion that the same could be said about Minaj herself? Can any of these accusations also be directed at her? Does her public persona, like the Tussaud's statue, degrade and possibly endanger black women with the stereotype and myth it perpetuates? For the record, Minaj has the right to speak, rap, dance, and pose however she wants. It is her body after all. However, don't we all also have the right to critique her speech, lyrics, choreography, and poses? I don't mean "judge," although you could call it that, if you mean "to form and utter opinions about the wisdom, value, and morality of certain actions." Again, if Madame Tussaud's is wrong for accurately depicting Minaj in exactly the same way she depicts herself, then is Minaj wrong for depicting herself that way in the first place?

Complication #4
This one may be a little meta, and may sound like some kind of crackpot conspiracy theory, but bear with me. The next question that comes to mind is this: if we accept the conclusion that Minaj's presentation of herself is just as problematic and destructive as the Tussaud's statue, and some criticism should be directed at her as well, then who else is to blame? How much control does Minaj have over her public persona. In my opinion, she is absolutely responsible for her own public image. After all, no one is forcing her to take those suggestive pictures or speak those whack lyrics. However, there's force, and then there's coercion. If we didn't consume those images and lyrics as voraciously as we do, there wouldn't be much market for them, and no incentive for her to present this way. To complicate even further, is it possible that within the industry there are forces that push these images of black women forward, and hold back other, possibly more positive, constructive, and multi-dimensional ones? I don't have any hard-core (no pun intended) evidence of this, but the small number of female rappers promoted, coupled with the singular, monolithic nature of the current field of label-backed female rappers, is definitely circumstantial evidence, at least.

Again, my goal here is not to make some definitive statement about the morals involved here, although I do have opinions on the matter, nor to bash Minaj as a person, but to try to think of the thing from multiple angles, in all of its complexity. And I'm sure there's many angles I've missed, which is what comments sections are for. What I do want to state definitively is that I want to raise my daughters to protect themselves, their bodies and minds and hearts and images. I want to raise them to love themselves, and love all the parts of themselves, including but not limited to their bodies. I want to raise them to understand the power that they have to combat, or perpetuate, or create perceptions of women everywhere. And that is growing increasingly difficult, and not just because of a wax statue that some guy molested.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Helpful Hints for Traffic Stops and Other Police Encounters

With the death of Sandra Bland now reopening what were already very fresh wounds in the community, the media and the ever-vicious internet has also reopened their bags of salt to pour into them. It seems like whenever something like this happens, whenever a citizen, particularly one of color, is threatened, abused, or killed by the police, the dialogue, or more like monologue, turns quickly to an analysis of what the victim did to cause the violent situation. Sure, we get some insightful commentary from people like actor Jessie Williams, who just posted a very long series of tweets which accomplished two things for me. First, they really clarified what many of us already knew about the difference between white folks and black folks exercising their rights or speaking their minds to the police. Second, they made me question whether Williams understands how Twitter works. But that's not the point.

For those of you who haven't read much of the story or haven't watched the video, here's the context. Based on what I see, Sandra Bland gets pulled over for failing to signal a lane change. Now, she claims that he only reason she even changed lanes was to get out of the way of the same cop who ended up pulling her over, because he turned on his lights behind her. This seems reasonable enough to me, since I've done the same thing a hundred times, and would probably forget to signal, in my urgency, about half the time. However, this raises a question in my mind - why did he turn on his lights if he then pulled her over for the lane change? If he turned on the lights for some call or whatever, then why not ignore her and go to the scene? If he turned on the lights for her, then why is he giving her a warning for changing a lane after he turned on the lights?

Either way, she's pulled over. He gets her documents - no problems. He returns to his car and does whatever cops do when they go to their cars - no problems. He comes back to her car with what turns out to be a warning - no problems. He states that she seems irritated, and asks her why - no problems. She tells him. in a voice that is irritated, but not disrespectful - problems. He then tells her to put her cigarette out, because all of a sudden the smoke he's been smelling coming from her car for the last few minutes is now intolerable. She asks why she should have to put out her cigarette inside her car, and the cop orders her to get out of the car. Whether or not you believe that you have the right to stay in your car, and the advice I've seen on this is murky, the truth remains that while it is certainly an appeasement to get out when asked, for some people in some situations, getting out of the car for a cop is akin to allowing yourself to be taken to a second location by a criminal. At this point the officer drags her to the side of the road, well out of range of his dash cam, and all hell breaks loose. Before the weekend is over, she is found hanging dead in her cell. Where she was booked and held on charges of apparently changing lanes sans signal and resisting arrest.

My wife and I were talking about Bland's situation last night over dinner, which made for a super sexy date night, and her main question was, "So, what do I do if I get pulled over?" Honestly, at the time, I wasn't sure what to say. On the one hand, I guess you should be respectful and not start any arguments. In fact, a lot of the websites I looked at on the subject say that very thing. Interestingly, the way that many of them put is "don't give him a reason to abuse you." This really is the most curious way of looking at the situation, as if the cops are just ravenous, bloodthirsty predators roaming around, and you really do bring it on yourself by leaving the house wearing meat-scented perfume. How does that conversation go anyway?

"So why do you think he attacked you?"

"I don't know. He asked me if I was irritated, and I said I was, because I didn't think that I deserved a ticket."

"Well, dadgummit, that's it right there! You gave him a reason. Why the hell did you do that?"

As stupid as it sounds, the real problem with that kind of thinking is that it's just not how we want to live. We shouldn't tolerate the kind of logic that says that cops can do pretty much whatever they want to you, and so the trick is not to let the situation get out of hand. When I get pulled over for speeding or whatever, I am not the one on the job at that moment. It is not my responsibility to deescalate the situation. That's the cop's responsibility. While it might be rude and disrespectful, I have the first amendment right to speak my mind - including but not limited to asserting my rights, defending my actions, using profanity, calling the officer names, and raising my voice. And the cop should be able to deal with any and all of those things, as unpleasant as it is, because he is presumably a trained officer of the law. When I worked in retail, I got cursed out on a pretty regular basis for upholding company policy, and it was my job to smile, deescalate, and give good customer service. I got exactly ninety minutes of training for that, via an awesome VHS tape. As a teacher, it's happened far less frequently, but there have been moments. I had a mother curse me out in front of no less than ten parents and children for helping her child remove his against-uniform earring - after he asked me to help him. Out of all of my classes, I don't remember any training for that. Still, I didn't have the right, even as an authority figure at the school, to put her in handcuffs and throw her off the balcony, regardless of how badly I may have wanted to do so. What kind of world are we living in where we actually tell people that rudeness and disrespect for authority figures can justifiably result in abuse, infringement of rights, or homicide?

The point I want to make is that the higher standard is for the law enforcement officer, not the citizen. I don't have to behave perfectly in these interactions in order to keep my rights and prevent abuse. On the contrary, the police are getting paid (and their low pay scale is an argument for another time) to protect and serve me, even when I act like a jerk.

And let me be clear, I don't think that Bland acted like a jerk. In fact, I think she showed remarkable restraint until she was ordered to get out of the car. After that, one could say she was somewhat abrasive, but then again, it's hard to be nice with a knee in your back when you're getting arrested for resisting arrest. That's kind of like getting fired for failing to get a job, or being executed for refusing to die.

But this is generally how it gets played in the media and on the internet; we pull out the microscope to pick apart the victim's actions, so that we can find some reason to excuse the cop's actions. Just to be helpful, to try to answer my wife's question, and anyone else with the same concern, I've searched through all of the advice from the news reporters and opinion shows and Facebook feeds, to pull together all of the wisdom on the subject and present it in one place. You know, so people will know what to do.

So, to get through an encounter with police safely, make sure you avoid the following behaviors:

DO NOT have an attitude.
DO NOT appear to be having an attitude.
DO NOT fail to answer any questions you are asked truthfully.
DO NOT defend your actions in any way.
DO NOT assert your rights.
DO NOT try to answer any questions you are asked truthfully, if the truth would make you seem to have an attitude.
DO NOT record the encounter.
DO NOT disrespect the authority of the officer.
DO NOT appear to be disrespecting the authority of the officer.
DO NOT have drugs in your vehicle or on your person.
DO NOT be caught using drugs.
DO NOT use drugs in the months leading up to the encounter.
DO NOT use drugs in high school, regardless of how long ago it was.
DO NOT get suspended or expelled from high school.
DO NOT get any grades lower than a C in high school.
DO NOT wear hoodies.
DO NOT play music too loudly.
DO NOT play hip-hop music at all.
DO NOT play country music or rock music, if it might be perceived as mocking those who enjoy it.
DO NOT wear caps turned backwards.
DO NOT make sudden movements.
DO NOT make movements that might appear to be sudden.
DO NOT be aggressive.
DO NOT appear to be aggressive.
DO NOT wear caps turned forwards, if it might be perceived that you are attempting to hide your face.
DO NOT use bad words, i.e. profanity.
DO NOT use "not-nice" words.
DO NOT look directly at the officer, or appear to be "eyeballing."
DO NOT insult the officer.
DO NOT appear to be insulting the officer.
DO NOT look away from the officer.
DO NOT carry illegal weapons.
DO NOT carry legal weapons.
DO NOT carry objects that might look like weapons, legal or illegal, including toy guns, sticks, spray cans, or wallets.
DO NOT have inflammatory messages or images on your car or clothes, unless it is a Confederate flag.
DO NOT be leaving the scene of a crime you have committed.
DO NOT be leaving the scene of a crime someone else has committed.
DO NOT be leaving a night club or strip joint.
DO NOT have a criminal record.
DO NOT appear to have a criminal record.
DO NOT let your pants sag, or otherwise expose any part of your underwear at any time.
DO NOT give him a reason.

Really, it's not that much to ask, just kind of minding your p's and q's, when you think about it.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Red, White, and Blue

I don't usually like to get into political issues here, because this is more of a family space to me, but then some political issues affect my family more than others. This new controversy about the Confederate flag basically sprang out of the murder rampage at the AME church in Charlotte, South Carolina, and has now basically eclipsed that tragedy and any talk about it, so, thanks for that, Internet.

This is how the debate works.

One side believes that the flag represents a war that was fought to maintain slavery in the United States, begun when American citizens treacherously opened fire on American soldiers and military installations. Since then, the rebel flag has become a symbol of bigotry and violence, mixed with some anti-government sentiment. It should no longer be flown at public-owned and government sites, because it taints the reputation of whatever institution flies it and sends a message of exclusion to African-Americans.

The other side believes that the flag is simply a historical artifact (of slavery) of the United States. In their minds, the war was not fought for slavery, but for economics (of slavery) and over the taxation of cotton and other crops (produced by slaves). The fact that the flag's image is so often found on T-shirts and bumper stickers bearing the slogans "The South will rise again," or "It's only half time," or "If at first you don't secede, try, try again," along with other, more graphically racist or bigoted statements, is just a travesty and a huge misinterpretation of history.

"The South will rise again." What does that mean, exactly? Every time I see it, I think that there can't possibly be so many people who never lived through that antebellum era, who are nonetheless just pining away for the days of agrarian economy, big front porches, iced sun tea, and slavery. It makes me wonder if the people who wear that slogan are really historical experts making a reasoned judgment about how our nation might have been better off, or if they are simply longing for more power and importance in their own lives and local communities. Or maybe they're just racist. Maybe they just don't like having a Black shift manager telling them what to do or a Black president making decisions for the country or Black passengers sharing a bus bench with them. Maybe they dream of a better time, when Black folks knew their place because the South by God showed them where it was.

I'll admit, it's difficult to hide my bias, because every single person that I've ever known who displayed that flag was a bigot, in one way or another. And that's hard to say, because some of these people were family members and friends that I loved, who would never have thought of themselves as racist. Still, they held views that were clearly prejudiced and bigoted, and the more they rationalized these views, the more racist they seemed. The new wave of racism is the "I guess that makes me a racist for telling truth" racism. In this paradigm, the racist says something really, super racist, and then says something like, "I know many people will think I'm racist for saying this, but I don't care." Then all of their racist Facebook friends can pile on the sympathy and say things like "No way! You're just telling the truth!" In order to truly capture the essence of it I would have to type these in all caps, but I can't bring myself to do it.

For example, I noticed that a Facebook friend of a Facebook friend just posted that Black people are more likely to commit violent crimes than white people, followed by "I guess that makes me a racist, but I don't care." For the record, yes, that does make you a racist, and of course you don't care, because you are a racist.

So to the argument that this rebel flag doesn't represent racism and slavery, but a historical conflict over completely benign economic and political issues, I would pose one question. Since when do traitors get to flaunt their treason? In what other country, anywhere in the world, would the losers of a rebellion or other violent uprising be allowed to display the symbol of their rebellion so proudly and ostentatiously? If the flag does simply represent the split between the North and the South, don't you think you look like sore losers at best, and dangerous upstarts at worst, flaunting your disdain and malevolence for what is supposed to be your country and your leadership?

Just to be clear, I firmly support the freedom of expression, and every American's right to own and fly that flag on their own property, whether it be house, car, or body. In fact, I encourage anyone who wants to display that flag on their property to buy one and fly it proudly. That way, my children can recognize you. That way, they will know who they are dealing with.

However, I also respect the rights of business owners, like Amazon, who refuse to sell these flags. This is not a "ban," nor is it an infringement of anyone's rights, this is the expression of the rights of the men and women who make decisions for these companies. If people are angry that they find it increasingly difficult to buy these flags, then they can support the few vendors who sell them, or they can learn to make them and sell them themselves, because this is America. Or they can just rethink their lives.

On the other hand, that flag has no place on public, tax-funded, government property. It is not the flag of any government, past or present, as supporters of the flag are eager to point out, and as such, it has no place on government, municipal property. Furthermore, whether you like it or not, whether you agree or not, and no matter what articles you share about the historicity of the flag, it sends a message to the community when it flies above government buildings. When a Confederate flag flies above a state congress building, it sends the message that there is no representation for African-Americans here, whether some people like it or not. When that flag flies above a court house, it sends the message that there is no justice for African-Americans here, despite what anyone thinks about its historicity. When that flag flies above a public school, it sends the message that education is not meant for African-Americans, regardless of what your wiki-page says. This is the message that rational people perceive, and it has no place in government spaces.

This is the way we heal America, how we cross the divide and fix our racial problems. We stop insisting that we are always supposed to get what we want, no matter how trivial the matter and no matter how much it threatens others and holds them back. We start listening to the other, not to bolster our debate or wait for our turn to shout, but to hear them.

By the way, on June 17, nine decent people were murdered by a terrorist with a real affinity for the rebel flag. I know they were decent people, because they welcomed their attacker into their private worship, despite the fact that he was very different from them. Their names are Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Daniel L. Simmons, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, and Susie Jackson.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Facebook Parenting

When you talk to people about disciplining children these days, especially people around my age, you get what sounds like an old man rant. "In my day," they say, "kids didn't run around and disobey their parents. They didn't talk back or else they got slapped and beat and spanked and they never did it again. If I had done even half the things these kids today do, I wouldn't be here." Thinking back to my childhood, I don't remember a whole lot of instances of homicide used in child rearing, but I do remember some rude and out of control children. Today's parents complain that children run amok, and in the same breath complain that the law has taken away their best disciplinary tool, spanking. So, apparently, the new alternative to corporal punishment is public humiliation, as if that's far less damaging to the child.

You know the situations I'm talking about. It's the Facebook post of the picture of the son going to school with his hair cut like an old man, or the video of him getting the haircut. Or it could be the posts of the girl walking the streets around her neighborhood wearing a sandwich board detailing her crimes for the community. Because of the involvement of the local community as well as the online community, the exposure and humiliation are almost exponentially more than a simple spanking or verbal discipline in the store around strangers. Furthermore, the new trend seems to be the embarrassing haircut, which means that the humiliation goes on and on for days and even weeks on end.

It seems as if I've seen these videos popping up in my Facebook feed with increasing frequency over the last two or three years, but I don't know exactly when this thing started. When did we decide that modern forms of discipline weren't enough, and we were going back to using the stocks and the crosses again?

One thing I decided for my family, from the time that my first child was born, was that no punishment or discipline would ever have a component of humiliation in it. That doesn't mean I never discipline them in public, but we never make a show of it. Just a couple of weekends ago, we had to correct the baby at Magic Kingdom, in line, at the Dumbo ride. So I put her on a little time out right there in the line. But nobody saw us yelling at the child or embarrassing her. All anyone saw was a calm father handling family business in a discreet way. All I wanted was to correct the behavior, knowing that if it goes uncorrected at any time for any reason, the result is a setback in her training.

And that's the thing - what do these parents want? What is the end game? I hear many of them saying on the videos that they've tried everything, but it's hard to believe that consistent and competent parenting has led to the craziness I'm seeing on YouTube. And in most cases, the child's behavior really does demand a quick and forceful response. But what result are they getting from this big show? If the child is using drugs, do they really stop wanting to get high because they have a jacked up haircut now? If your daughter is getting too close to boys, does her new-found source of low self-esteem drive her away from the loving arms of her male classmates, or right into them?

Just a couple of weeks ago, a thirteen year old girl in Washington was the subject of one of these videos. Her father hacked off her long black hair and posted the video of her with her new haircut on her Facebook page. He never does state in the video why she deserves this humiliation, but by the sound of his voice, he seems pretty pleased with himself. From what I can gather from the reports about the story, it was an issue that I would have dealt with by restricting her access to media a little and giving her a pep talk. I'm not sure exactly what his end game was, but the result was that after a few days with her new style, she jumped off a bridge into highway traffic.

Eyewitness reports to her suicide differ slightly, but one thing they all agree on is that she jumped "without hesitation." She didn't pause at the edge to think about it. She didn't look back, hoping that someone would stop her. She didn't stand up on the barrier as a cry for help. I can only assume that she either didn't want or didn't expect any help.

Embarrassing a child by fussing at her in the front yard or swatting his butt in the supermarket is one thing, and may be necessary at times. Creating elaborate schemes to humiliate a child in the most effective way, with the broadest audience possible, is completely over the edge. Just consider, it's the kind of thing that becomes public scandal when it's done to prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. In other words, it's the kind of treatment that we won't tolerate for terrorists and other prisoners of war, but somehow has become acceptable for our children, our own flesh and blood.

Everything we do as parents, including discipline and punishment, has got to be focused on the goal of building them up and training them to be better people. Anything that we do to tear them down damages them and defames us. After I watch any of these videos, honest to goodness, I always wonder why the parents aren't the ones who are ashamed of themselves, instead of the children.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Chick Fil A

It looks like we won't be able to take the traditional vacation this year, going out of town, spending a week or two in a new place, causing trouble for everyone we come across. Too many accumulated debts to catch up with, and it just doesn't look feasible. Instead, we sprung for the Florida resident Disney tickets for the four of us (the baby doesn't pay yet, thank goodness) and used them over spring break and this last weekend.

At first, I felt badly about not being able to do something big with my wife and kids. Especially the kids. That was one thing I made sure of when I became a single father some years ago, that no matter how hard I had to work, we would always take a week or two towards the end of summer and just have a lot of fun together. Even if I had to work a little extra over the summer to pay for it, it was worth it. Usually someplace we could drive to, Daytona, Orlando, the Keys, Naples. We've seen just about every part of Florida over the last few years. Not being able to do that felt like a failure after a long winning streak.

But at least we had the four days in Disney. We have family near Orlando, so we don't have to pay for lodging there, and the cost of the tickets fit right into our budget, with our tax refund covering most of it. So I decided to try to look on the bright side of it and really enjoy those few days. The first days were great. Beginning of April, great weather, no one else on spring break but us, park business was relatively slow, and the baby had a genuinely good time. She didn't fuss, hugged Minnie, and enjoyed most of the rides. That is, she enjoyed them until I got a little too ambitious and tried to take her on a little roller coaster. That sort of killed it for rides for the rest of the day.

This second time, just a week ago, was a whole different story. The weather was hot, and the crowds were so huge that we had a hard time getting on any rides. The first day, a Saturday, wasn't so bad. But doing Magic Kingdom on the following Monday was the worst. Almost no cloud cover, and wall to wall people. I thought for sure that a Monday would be a slow day, but it was the busiest I can remember seeing there. By about one we had already decided that we would wait another couple of years before we tried to come back, and even then, only in the off season. That plus the fact that I knew we weren't doing much else this summer was starting to get me down.

Then a funny thing happened. We went to Chick-Fil-A on the way home.

Nothing humorous about Chick-Fil-A, really. But by the time we got there, we were tired enough to be a little punchy, possibly also woozy from the heat exhaustion and dehydration, and hungry enough to over-order a bit. The soda and tea were free flowing and we were making it rain with waffle fries. To put it bluntly, it got silly.

It got quite silly.

At first, it was just jokes about how bad the lines were and how we had to hype ourselves up about rides we probably wouldn't even go on if all the other lines had been shorter. About how disappointed we were to find out that the Carousel of Progress was shut down for the day, and what that says about us as a family. And then, for some reason, the baby started getting generous with her food, wanting MyTy to "try" her fries and "try" her chocolate milk and "try" her chicken nuggets. For the baby, asking you to "try" things means shoving them into your mouth forcefully, even if it means mashing them through clenched teeth. After she had her mom "try" a couple of fries, I had to pull out the camera phone and record her, goading her to let Mommy try more fries, and put ketchup on them, just like Mommy likes them. And Mommy wants some more chocolate milk, but try not to let the straw go too far up her nose. Before long everyone was "trying" her food. Looking back, I'm surprised it didn't turn into an all-out food fight. I'm pretty sure the restaurant manager was surprised as well.

And just like that, it was a great day, and a great vacation. Instead of feeling as if the rest of summer was going to be a let down, I starting thinking about how to turn the stay-cation into this much fun for a week or two. We do have our difficulties figuring out how to come together as a family, but when we do, it's a riot, and at the center of it all is the baby. She binds us all together and gives us the best possible reason to love each other, even if it's through her, because she definitely loves all of us.

So, when our time off comes, instead of thinking of ourselves as being stuck in the house or feeling like we're missing out on something, we're going to pull out the board games, jump in the pool, play some ball in the park, and make our own fun. And next year, when we have the money to do another big vacation, maybe we'll do the same thing, because the fun is wherever we are, anyway.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Take Your Kid to Work Day

She grabs for the microphone, offers her chewed gum to bystanders, plays hide and seek under the table and behind the curtains, and, apparently, either steals your heart or turns your stomach. Riley Curry, the beautiful and lively two-year-old daughter of Golden State Warrior Stephan Curry has been getting more press and generating more discussion lately than the NBA players themselves. Most of the discussion is divided between two camps. Some say that children have no place in professional workplaces. Others say that children can not only be welcome in certain work settings, but can even enhance them.

For my money, Stephan Curry can have his daughter in every press conference that he does. Sure, that child is a tornado in the press room, but the issue is not Curry's parenting style, but whether or not he is effectively doing his job. I remember one night during my graduate studies when my ex-wife got stuck at work late and couldn't come get the big kids in time for me to go to class. My daughter was two at the time, and my son was five. The professor's policy towards missed classes and tardiness was pretty strict, but she was also a very fair and kind person. So, rather than miss the class with a sorry-sounding excuse, I showed up fifteen minutes early with two little kids in tow and threw myself on the mercy of the academic. I figured she was either going to let me come to class with them until their mother could pick them up, or turn me away, but I was determined to show that I was willing to go the extra mile to be a good student. Of course, I knew that I was hedging my bet, since the professor was a devout feminist and the course was in women's literature. In a way, it was kind of a test of the feminist perspective on fatherhood. And it worked. She said that as long as I could guarantee that the kids weren't disruptive, they would be welcome to stay. For the next hour or so, my son silently colored and played with his Game Boy in the desk next to me. My daughter on the other hand, while she was definitely well-behaved and quiet the entire time, needed more personal interaction in order to stay still. She spent that same time meticulously brushing my hair. Hard. With the wrong side of the wooden brush. It turned out well, in that the class went on as well as it normally would, and the kids' presence even informed the discussion when the topic turned to women writers working while caring for children. Unfortunately, I did need to ice down my head afterwards. Because of the brushing, that is, not the discussion.

To Stephan Curry's credit, he seems to be able to answer questions just as well as he would otherwise. I mean, when most of the athletes' post-game answers are the same anyway, how much does it really matter? How many times do we need to hear about missed opportunities and failing to come together as a team when a team loses? Or formidable opponents but making sure we played our style of game when they win? If anything, some of those same reporters that were supposedly so negatively affected by the disruption said that having the cute little girl causing havoc for her father made for more human interest and a more relatable story for their audience. On top of that, the NBA suddenly becomes a family centered organization, infinitely more attractive to women and others outside their normal demographic. The player becomes more than a scoring machine for his fans, and probably gives them a whole new reason to cheer him on, buy his shoes, and wear his jersey. Everybody wins.

In fact, I think that the real winner here is the Curry family, and maybe all of us watching them. In all of the debate over whether this beautiful child should be there, I had the hardest time finding any articles discussing why she was there at all. I put it together when I realized that she seems to show up at away games. Apparently, Stephen Curry has his wife and daughter travel with him, at least some of the time. If I were him, I would do exactly the same thing, not just because I want them around after a game, win or lose, but also to keep me honest. Too many of the other stories we hear about NBA players, and other athletes as well, are about them cheating on their wives with countless women, being accused of rape, or losing their families because of infidelity. I've even heard some basketball players try to make themselves out to be the victim, complaining that they are unable to resist the kind of aggressive groupies that are sometimes even sneaking into their hotel rooms on the road. I bet having wifey in the suite when one of those chicks tries to break in is a real deterrent to that kind of behavior. I bet it would be really funny to see those stiletto heels and tight skirts running down the hotel hall with a lamp flying after them. If you can afford to have your wife and child with you on the road, then why wouldn't you? Some might say it would interfere with his game, but I can tell you that the effect of having your woman watch you play is an exponential increase in both hustle and focus. I play ball with my friends after work at least three days a week, and whenever one of our wives or girlfriends come in the gym, it turns into a highlight reel for her man.

In addition to the incident with the college class, I've had to take my kids to work in other situations. When he was one, I pushed my son around in an Office Max cart for a couple of hours once, confusing the heck out of customers when I asked if they needed help. The irony was that I met another father that day who told me he once had to bring his two-year-old son to work - as an orchestra conductor. Just dressed the kid up in a baby tuxedo and sat him down in the pit with a plastic trumpet. As an adjunct professor, I had to bring both of the big kids to the last session of a freshman class I was teaching when they were five and seven. We got there early, they sat in the back and kept quiet, and students mostly came in to get their final essays back and have one last conference. I think most of the students thought the kids belonged to one of the other students in the class. Just a couple weeks ago, the baby couldn't go back to day care, because she hadn't been 24 hours without a fever, so I took her to work with me. I made her a little play area behind my desk where she would be out of sight, and she could play with my phone and some toys. I only had two classes that day anyway. One class had a test, so I could keep a close eye on her most of the time. The other class had a discussion and Q&A about a chapter in The Sun Also Rises, and she made one minor distraction, but otherwise stayed out of sight. My point is that in each case, I made a choice. It was either take the kids to work and do my job, and do it well, despite their presence, or take off from work and not only disrupt the learning program for my students, but also force the school to incur the cost and hassle of hiring a substitute. I figured that as long as I could do my job, and at the same time take care of my child properly, I would bring them.

Sure, if Riley were running out on the court and tripping up players or hanging on to her daddy's leg through a fast break, it would be a problem. But if Stephan is doing his job, giving good answers to reporters, if they're getting their soundbites, and their stories file on time, I don't see the problem. Maybe the reporters who are complaining need to understand their role in the sports industry. Nobody comes to these arenas because of what they write. Nobody turns on the game to watch them. Nobody even turns on the post-game interviews to see them. They tune in to see the players. And now, not even that. Now they tune in to see Riley.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Klingon Attack!

It's been so long since the big kids were babies that I sometimes forget what that was like. In a way, it makes things all kind of new with our baby. I do remember that my son, my firstborn, was just the chillest, most patient baby ever. Hardly ever cried. Never threw tantrums. He kind of spoiled me for what came next. Even through those difficult second and third years, I don't recall any terrible behavior or acting out with him. At worst, he would get on a "NO" streak for a minute, but usually a strong look with the people's eyebrow like The Rock was enough to get him back in line.

My daughter, on the other hand, was not a quiet baby. Like her brother, she was never one for tantrums, but her normal crying volume was quite loud. Like incredibly loud. The kind of loud crying that sounds like it's coming from inside your own head, centered between your ears, and seems to go on somehow even after the baby has actual stopped crying. There were never any moments of flopping in the grocery store or screaming and fighting in Target, it was just that she only had two levels of sound. It was either cute, bubbly, pleasant baby or top of the lungs screaming as if her leg was broken baby. 

It looked like the baby was going to find her spot right in the middle of her brother and sister - not the laid back, no rush, "I could use a change" style of her brother, but not the over the top, bloody murder, "I just pooped, why am I still wearing this diaper" style of her sister. She had a really good groove going. If she cried, we knew that something was actually wrong, and her cries had meaning and import to them. We could really determine the threat level by the tone of the crying.

And then things suddenly changed.

About a month or so ago, the baby started developing this really bad habit of bursting into tears for EVERYTHING. Anytime something didn't go her way, or she didn't get what she wanted, or even if she just had to wait, she would turn on the water works. We dealt with this by speaking firmly to her about using her words, especially because she really is so verbal. Just when she starts making some real progress in that department, all of a sudden she turns into the clingiest child ever. And only for her mother. If she gets home and her mom isn't there just yet, it's tears. If mom isn't the one giving her a bath, or putting her to bed, it's tears. If I wasn't so rational and manly, this would probably hurt my feelings. It's like having a whole different child suddenly, like some kind of changeling that the fairies switched with ours. For the first time that I can remember, I'm having to deal with the flops and the tantrums, and it's really strange to me. I can't lie. There's a small part of me that's tempted to let her have her way and make mommy do all the work. It's a really small part, though.

And I'm aware that I exaggerate sometimes for the sake of narrative effect, but I swear that it's not uncommon these days to see MyTy walking through the house with a 39-inch tall sloth wrapped around her leg or dragging behind her.

I've been trying to track down the cause of it, to figure out if there was any change in the home or at school that might cause her to be so clingy. There was an out of town trip a month ago, just the two of them, so maybe she got too used to all of that alone time. Also, school is over, and our schedules have changed a bit. Maybe she is getting confused or thrown off by the fact that she's waking up later and seeing less of mommy in the morning or afternoon. Is it possible that this is just a thing that babies go through? And maybe I either got lucky the first time around or I'm just repressing the memory of it?

Until we figure it out, if we ever do, we're just going to continue to use equal parts of reassurance and firmness. We can make sure that the baby gets a little extra focused snuggle time with mommy to try to appease the clingy monster in her, but then also enforce the schedules and parental roles in the house so that mommy doesn't get burned out and baby understands that she can't always have her way. Keeping fingers crossed at all times, of course.

In case that doesn't work, I'm looking at constructing an extra large baby carrier harness that can accommodate a 35 pound child. It might sound like a physical burden for MyTy, but then I'm told that weight training for women is great for increasing bone density.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Let's Hear It for the Girl!

The job of a step-mother is truly a thankless one, which is why their husbands need to go a bit beyond the norm to show their gratitude. When you think of all the different situations that step-moms are in, from tight families to chaotic households, from dealing with ex-wives, either good or bad, to dealing with the memory of a lost wife and mother, there really isn't one way to get the job done. My wife has really embraced her role as step-mother, to the point of reading magazines and blogs written by and for step-moms. In fact, I think she really thought she was ready for this role. After all, her dad was a strong single father through some of her teen years, after the death of her mother. She spent the rest of her teen years adjusting to the addition of her father's new wife, so she felt like she could really relate to what my kids were going through. Sure, the relationship between her and her step-mom was rocky at first, and probably largely because of MyTy's resistance at first, but they have settled into a sweet and beautiful mother-daughter bond and friendship that I hope inspires my own daughter.

But I think it bothers her that step-moms so often get a bad reputation. They are often perceived as interlopers, maybe even former mistresses and home wreckers. Their role in the family is so hard to define and so difficult to establish that very often, they end up on the the bench cheering on the team, but never get a chance to shine in the game. I took the kids to see Cinderella when it came out, and we all actually liked it for different reasons. The baby especially liked it, so much so that she burst into tears when she realized it was over, just rambling incoherently about pumpkins and mice. I've never seen her do that for any other show. But, as good as it is, my wife doesn't seem to want to watch it. She's put off by the whole "evil step-mother" trope, and I guess I can understand her objection. Even the word is a little annoying to her. For as long as I've known her, she's referred to her own step-mom as her "second mom," although I suspect that it didn't start out that way. In fact, I'm pretty sure she had some other names for her at first. 

One of the things that is definitely awesome about step-moms is that they are able to love children with the same intensity and depth as a biological parent, but without the chemical assistance. I don't mean drugs, at least not in my situation, as far as I can tell. What I mean is that step-moms often have to rely on other reasons for loving than the biological instinct, or social obligation. There is no evolutionary imperative in step-parenting. So step-moms in the best situations have to love the children in their charge with just the right kind of love, one that is nurturing and accepting, but, at the same time, doesn't push the child into a situation where their affections or obligations are in conflict. And of course, do all this, all the while knowing that the child they love would probably prefer that their family didn't include a step-mom at all. That's in the best situations. In the worst, step-moms have to search for reasons to love, remind themselves of reasons to love, and sometimes, unfortunately, continue to love when there are no reasons to do so.

But I thank God that things haven't worked out that way for us. We have our own unique set of problems, and sometimes everybody in the house doesn't get along with everybody else. When that happens, we pull ourselves together and remind ourselves of our individual obligations and contributions. Sometimes we even have to get some professional help and advice, just like we would with our health or our finances or any other aspect of our lives. Still, even when it's difficult, I know two things. I know that others have it a lot worse, and I know that a large part of the reason that we don't is because I married the right woman.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

You Are Appreciated!

In case you missed it, last week was Teacher Appreciation Week, so if you didn't make some small tribute to your child's teacher, you can still come through on Monday. In my classroom, it was mostly the usual, a few heartfelt cards, a gift card or two, and then basically being bombarded with sweets all week long. The sweets I don't mind so much, even though I'm prone to overindulge. I just treat that week like Christmas or Thanksgiving - just accepting it as a cheat week and then getting back to healthy living after the weekend. Still, it's all in love, and it does feel good to be recognized for hard word.

However, this year, I got a surprise this week. Among the few emails of encouragement and gratitude, I got one email, actually two back to back from the same parent, calling me a racist and accusing me of making a child suffer. This because the student got a zero grade for an assignment she turned it that was so far from completion that it was basically just a heading on a paper. And the heading was done wrong.

I actually get these types of emails or even face-to-face accusations at least once a year, just not during Teacher Appreciation Week, usually from disengaged parents who don't know me, but are angry about their child's poor performance. It's usually a combination of a frustration over the inability to get the child to perform and and a refusal to acknowledge the child's weakness or laziness involved. I sometimes wonder if the racist accusations pop up at these times because they tend to work elsewhere, but that's another blog entirely.

So, in defense against the charges, I have to start by pointing out that not only does the child's entire class consist of Black students, but also the entire high school is Black, with one or two exceptions, and so her child is certainly not singled out for her race. Then, I usually have to point out the flaws in the child's work, or the lack of it, which in this case would have been pretty obvious if the parent had just looked at the assignment online and the work her daughter submitted. Finally, the one thing that always makes the racist argument go away is when I say that I'm married to a African-American woman. Then comes the apologies and "I didn't know" and back-pedaling.

But even this bothers me. Why is that even a defense? Racism is such an irrational thing. Racism, or race prejudice, is defined, basically, as the opinion that other races are inferior to one's own, or actions based on that opinion. It tends to accept premises that are not only untrue, but unprovable. It often flies in the face of logic and even demonstrable facts. Like a virus, it usually persists in the most unlikely places and in the most adverse conditions. What is it that people always say when they are accused of racism or prejudice? "Some of my best friends are Black." And the irrational thing about that is that, somehow, they are unable to see how the feelings of superiority that they really do have are incompatible with the friendships that they really do hold. So, in my case, whenever something like this happens, and I get off with the interracial marriage defense, I often want to complicate things and ask my accuser why they would accept that defense in the first place. Is it possible for me to be married to an African-American woman, and genuinely love her, and also think that she is inferior because of her race? I actually know a couple of husbands who think they are superior to their wives for other reasons, and yet also think of themselves as loving them, so why not.

And I know it doesn't make sense to think that a person could be friends with someone, even married to someone, and still think that someone is inferior. However, one of the reasons we lose the fight against racism is that we expect it to make sense. I have this talk with my students whenever we read some literature that deals with racism, or some historical or even current event affected by racism. They tend to ask why somebody would behave so horribly, or how someone could be so racist, against all logic and reason. I always tell them the same thing, that racism is unreasonable and illogical, and when it starts making sense to you, that's when you know you have a real problem. For instance, the seniors just finished reading Heart of Darkness by Conrad. In preparation, we looked at several opinions of the novel, from scholars like Chinua Achebe and others. Some say that the novel is obviously racist, or at least supports racist ideas, because of its depictions of Africans, and others say that it's anti-racism, because of the way it condemns the European colonization of Africa. My question for the students is whether the same author can be genuinely opposed to colonization and the mistreatment of Africans for moral reasons, but at the same time also think of them as inferior because of their race. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but it seems to me that people do hold these impossible, irrational, conflicting opinions all the time.

I'm starting to think that accusations of racism work the same way. Sometimes they are well-founded and true, based on concrete evidence. Sometimes they are based on nothing but a hunch or a gut feeling or a vibe, and are still true, because the racism is so far beneath the surface. Sometimes you can know a person for years, and think you know where they stand on race, and then one joke, one FaceBook post, or one emotional reaction shows you how they really think, in places they would probably never admit to themselves. They might need to have this pointed out to them so they can start some real self-evaluation. But sometimes the accusation itself is unfounded and irrational itself, and flies in the face of all reason and evidence.

At the end of the parent-teacher meeting, the parent apologized for the offense, and acknowledged that she was frustrated with the grades and wasn't getting good information from the child about the coursework, the class policies, and this assignment. We worked it out and put it behind us, I hope. So, the lesson to take away from the experience, if there is one, is that racism is irrational, and the ways that we identify it or dismiss it are often just as irrational, or at least arbitrary. Also, that appropriate Teacher Appreciation gifts might include, books, cards, edible treats, or maybe a mug or t-shirt, but never nasty, accusatory emails.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Who's That Baby?

As a mixed couple, we live a charmed life here in sunny Miami, Florida. I hear stories from other couples about the side-eye and dirty looks that they get in other parts of the country, and even some tales of more aggressively hateful people, but I don't think we get that down here. Miami is such a culturally diverse area to begin with, that different nationalities, customs, or styles of dress are no surprise to us. Also, maybe I'm just sensitive to it, but it seems as if the percentage of mixed couples is much higher here, because we see it pretty much wherever we go. I'm aware that things are different the farther north we go, and the more we move away from our culturally diverse home, the narrower the views around us seem to get. Even then, we don't get half the grief from strangers that mixed couples report from other parts of the country.

However, when it comes to mixed-race children, there still seems to be a great deal of ignorance surrounding how the process works, and how the final product comes to be. I think most people assume that all children are a kind of melting pot for their parents' features, but not necessarily their coloration. We're used to thinking of a child, he's got his father's ears, his mother's eyes, his father's nose, his mother's hair, but when it comes to skin color, or other matters of coloration or race, I think we often just assume that God finds the two parents on the Pantone grey scale and then picks the middle-most shade for the offspring. The truth is, if a child can overload on one side of the family, getting all of his mother's features, for example, and looking nothing like the father, then the same can be true for coloration as well. Now usually, even with children whose parents are of similar racial background, when a child looks nothing like one parent, eyebrows tend to get raised, and sometimes even cheeks tend to get swabbed. But even then, differences in facial features don't have the same visually striking effect as differences in racial features. The latest example of this is the pair of UK twins of mixed race that look so obviously different that they have become worldwide headline news. The story raises so many questions for the audience. How can this happen? What are the odds? How am I supposed to feel about it? Am I allowed to talk about this and still not be racist? I noticed in some pictures, the copywriters went out of their way to be polite in their captions, identifying the girls by phrases like "far, far left" or "third from right," apparently just to avoid identifying them as "the white twin" or the "the black twin." Another great example of not only the genetics of mixed-race, but also the social ramifications is the film Skin, starring Sophie Okonedo. The film is based on the true story of a "white" couple who had no reason to ever question their heritage, until the wife gave birth to, for all anyone could tell, a black baby girl. By the way, the story takes place in apartheid South Africa, around the 1960's.

I don't know what the odds are, but I know it happens more than one might think, that a mixed race child isn't born with a "mixed-race" look. In our family, the two teenage children, who are also mixed-race, definitely have "the look." Even my teenage daughter, who is light skinned, still has dark features from her mom's side - dark hair, brown eyes, skin that darkens in the sun rather than burning. The baby, on the other hand, fools everyone. Like all beautiful girl babies, she is definitely a conversation starter, but when my wife is out with her, the conversation usually starts with, "Oh what a beautiful little girl! Is she yours?" or the more tentative and polite "Oh my, where did you get such a pretty baby?" To clarify, the baby turned out exactly as white as I am, and that's about as white as it gets. In addition, she has my clear blue eyes, and they don't seem to be changing, along with light brown, mixed with almost golden, hair. The eyes make a lot of sense, because although my wife is dark-skinned, her father has very green eyes, so I can see how those genes would team up. The hair is more of a mystery, because even on my side, none of my people have light hair.

The irony is that while the coloration takes center stage in everyone's mind when they see us all together, she still doesn't really look much like me, despite the fact that so many people say we look exactly alike. Most of her features come from my wife's side of the family, so much so that if you put a picture of the baby side by side with a baby picture of her grandmother (and namesake, oddly enough) they look exact alike, just different complexions. In fact, the first time my wife's grandmother, the baby's great-grandmother, saw our daughter, the first thing she said was how much she looked like her namesake at that age.

I don't take offense to these incidents, and as far as I know, neither does my wife. I find it kind of funny when it happens, because it seems very innocent and only reveals the way we think of race and family and normalcy. I wouldn't want to go through some of the experiences that others have shared with me, and I certainly wouldn't want to explain them to my children. It's one thing to find humor in an innocent comment; it's quite another to be made the butt of someone else's joke, or the jester in someone else's court. Situations like the tasteless jokes on Melissa Harris-Perry's show, about Mitt Romney's family and his black grandchild being different from his cousins and siblings, show how unwilling we often are to accept racial differences and especially racial mixing. To paraphrase what Caleb Howe said about the situation, the picture of that black child in a white family is only funny if you think that race-mixing is absurd or laughable. I feel the same way when I hear about the geek rage over originally white comic book heroes like The Human Torch being cast as black in movies. A large part of the furor over Michael B. Jordan's casting as Johnny Storm was explained as tampering with the essence of the character, not because of his blackness, but because he's supposed to be Sue Storm's brother, and she's being played by a white actress. Again, for so many, it seems completely out of the realm of possibility that two people, one dark-skinned and one light, could ever be siblings, even in a fictional world where one of them can become living flame and fly and the other can turn invisible and create force fields. That we're willing to accept, because gamma radiation, but racial variation in a family, well, there's only so much disbelief I can suspend, right?

So I guess I'm really appreciative and proud of my wife for handling these incidents with the humor and patience that she does, because, for the most part, we have to believe that we're dealing with people who have genuine love and respect in their hearts, and may just need to see more of Mendel's laws of inheritance in action in order to see the beauty that comes with variety.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Can't Touch This!

Small children are such a mystery. Infants, toddlers, even preschool and kindergartners - their minds work in such odd and interesting ways, sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking, but often unpredictable. They learn new ways of talking and being from us, but then they mix them up in such strange ways, like aliens coming here and trying to fit in with the humans, but occasionally wearing their pajamas to work or talking to mailboxes about what letters taste like. Every time our baby girl gets a new tic or obsession, we laugh at how she connected those particular dots and wonder how long it will last before she figures it out or gives it up.

The newest trend is now saying "Don't touch!" for everything. I don't know if she's really concerned about what she thinks of as her property, or if she's heard us tell her this so many times that she wants in on the game, or if she genuinely thinks that she's living with a bunch of thieves and vandals who want nothing more than to steal or otherwise wreck her personal property. Whatever it is, she feels the need to stress the point daily now. If she needs to go change or try to use the potty while she's playing, she might put down her toy, point her finger at whoever is closest and say, " Don't touch my Cookie Monster." Or if she puts down her sippy cup for even a second to cross the room and get a book, it's "Don't touch my cup." Or it could be personal space and body ownership. "Don't touch my feet," when you're putting on her shoes, or "Don't touch my ears," when you take off her shirt.

Does she really think that everyone else in the house, ages ranging from 14 to 41, is really desperately waiting for her to put down her fairy wand so we can snatch it up and prance around with it? I've heard of convicts released from prison still guarding their food whenever they eat, out of habit, but is it really that rough and merciless in day care? Do you have to watch your back so vigilantly in the two-year-old class because any toy left unattended for even a moment is lost forever?

It really created a problem for us, especially when it comes to the body issue, because we started teaching her months ago not to let anyone touch her private parts, that that's not okay, only for Mommy and Daddy (or a few others) and only when changing her diaper or washing her. We also choose not to force her to touch anyone or kiss anyone or hug anyone, because we don't want to give her the impression that people have a right to her body. So, I kind of get the "Don't touch my butt," or "Don't touch my elbow," outbursts, but what am I supposed to make of the "Don't touch my bed" or "Don't touch my remote," moments? I mean, it's not even her remote!

And the whole situation is actually another piece of evidence that humans are just wicked. I say this, not because of some sort of greed or mistrust on her part, but because whenever she gets on the "Don't touch my umbrella" soapbox, all I want to do is touch that umbrella. I want to get my fingers all over that umbrella and show her that she's not the boss of me, that I can touch the umbrella if I want to, and there's nothing she can do about it. It's like forbidden fruit - as soon as she tells me not to touch it, the devil in me rises up and wants to not only manhandle it, but let her see me do it. So I find myself mentally torturing a two-year-old by hovering over her umbrella like Nosferatu while she screams, "No! Don't touch it!" Then I give it the tiniest of touches and we both start laughing. Maybe it's not evil in me, or at least I hope it isn't. Maybe I just need to prove to myself that she isn't really that materialistic or mistrustful yet.

Or maybe I just enjoy teasing her.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Welcome to the Potty, Pal

Spring Break! I don't know if it's the teachers or the students who get more excited. and since my school is a religious one, we generally take Spring Break the week after Easter, which gives us the Good Friday off as well, and results in an extended vacation. And what did I do with my week off? Disney? Nope. Camping? Nope. Sand and surf and bikinis? Nope. I never even put mine on. Instead, I spent the entire week trying to potty train the two year old. 

So, as a Spring Break experience, this one was definitely sub-par. I mean, there was a lot of nakedness and running around, just not the fun kind. Some of the highlights were staring at timers all morning and afternoon, washing soiled panties all evening, studying up on all of the different and conflicting methods before bed, and then running through the entire thing the next day, like some kind of Groundhog Day torture.

This was definitely one of those Roger Murtaugh moments, where I find myself standing over a pile of toddler poop that fell out of a pair of double-ply panties that I had just removed as gingerly as an explosives expert defusing a bomb, only to have the entire contents fall out onto the bathroom tile anyway. As if I didn't feel too-old-for-this-____ enough, my wife asked me if training the two teens was as difficult. I gave her some kind of answer, the best I could come up with, but the truth is, I really don't remember. I don't recall how that happened at all. I may be repressing it. I definitely remember changing my share of diapers, and I'm pretty sure they're using the toilet properly now, but I don't remember what came in between. I know I was involved in the process, and I remember vaguely that it involved a chunk of my summer vacation at the time, but I can't for the life of me remember how this is supposed to work.

It just seems like the easiest thing in the world. You have to go, there's a toilet/potty/latrine nearby - you figure it out. The game is hers to win, but this kid just doesn't seem to want it badly enough. And she seems to feel so badly every time she fails that I just don't have the heart to shame her as much or as hard as some of the methods call for. I give her the look and the subtle "Aw, man. Pee goes in the potty," but she seems so upset with herself that I can't go mush farther than that.

Still, I want to shout at her, "You were just sitting on the potty literally seconds ago." Really, how can you sit there for a full two minutes, and then less than a minute later, wet yourself, and everything around you, like you've been on a transatlantic flight, and holding it in since Paris? How many panties do you think I have in this drawer anyway? 

At one point we were both tired from the constant getting up and moving to the potty every five or ten minutes that I just gave up for the rest of the morning and decided to play my video game and just keep asking her if she had to go, which I knew was lazy, but proved to be exactly as effective as the previous two days of vigilance. Around eleven, with snack and nap about a half hour away, she sneaks up between my feet with that humble look and wants to sit on my lap and play games with me. I hand her the other controller (which is turned off, but she doesn't know this). She curls up with it in my lap like a cat and promptly falls asleep. I wake her up and tell her, there's no sleeping in Daddy's lap during potty training with no diaper on. She falls asleep again. I shake her gently and tell her that if she falls asleep, she will invariably pee, and I don't want pee all over me - again. That was Thursday, and the end of potty training for the week. I didn't get peed on that time, thank goodness, but I had enough sense to slap a diaper on her, feed her, nap her, and then just enjoy the day and a half we had left in Spring Break without worrying about her bodily functions. 

So at the end of the week, I had literally nothing to show for all my effort, maybe one ounce of pee in the special Elmo potty, with the video, the stickers, the chart, and the Elmo doll that has its own little potty. By the way, she likes the doll. The doll has it figured out, swishes it every time it goes to the line. 

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Prince and the Pea

Obviously, I already have a hard time getting to sleep at night, but I manage that pretty well with rigid routines, comfortable space designs, and, sometimes, pharmaceutical assistance. Now the doctor tells me that my favorite sleep position is out of the question, because, apparently, sleeping on your side with your arm extended past your head is damaging to the rotator cuff, and probably partly responsible for my shoulder injury and pain. And it wouldn't matter if I decided not to listen to him, because it was already becoming impossible to sleep in that position anyway, because the pain wouldn't let me get comfortable.

At this point, I should probably clarify exactly what I mean when I use words like "rigid" and "routines" to describe my sleep habits. Here are just a few facts, all true, about my sleeping arrangements, all of which developed over years of struggling with insomnia, and all of which came as a complete shock to my wife once we married.

1. I sleep with at least six or seven pillows, all for me, and use every one of them in different ways, depending upon what position I'm sleeping in. My wife saw all of those pillows on my bed before we married, but of course assumed that they were just decorative. She now knows that they are definitely not, and wants to buy a bigger bed. This also makes it almost impossible to sleep in hotel rooms, unless I bring my own pillows, because the front desk never seems to understand what I mean by "more pillows."

2. I cannot look at any screen except for television for at least thirty minutes before I want to try to sleep, especially if it involves games of any sort, even puzzles. Once my brain revs up, it takes too long to idle back down again.

3. I play ocean and rain sounds to fall asleep. When I slept alone, they would pretty much play all night, but ever since my wife started having nightmares of being on a capsizing boat in a hurricane, I started programming the sounds to cut off after twenty minutes.

4. If I'm still awake after the nature sounds turn off, then I pop a melatonin, and that always helps, but I don't take them on the weekends, because I don't want to become dependent on them.

5. No part of my body can be touching any other part of my body. Or more specifically, no part of my skin can be touching any other part of my skin. That's what three to four of those pillows are used for. Touching my wife's body, on the other hand always welcome, except that now, with the wonky shoulder, I can't even sleep in a position that allows for spooning.

6. The room needs to be pretty darn cold, freezing, as my wife puts it, before I can fall asleep.

So, losing my favorite sleep position was a real challenge, and I'm still working out how to compensate for it. Rearranging the pillows does seem to help, and I certainly want to do everything I can to get rid of this shoulder pain, but it's cost me a few restless nights, not to mention annoying my wife and keeping her up as well. On the other hand, it's also a source of some amusement for her, watching me twist and turn and try to build magic walls and forts with my pillows.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Dear Meghan Trainor

Like most parents, I try to monitor what music my kids listen to, and, also like most parents, I fail at it pretty miserably. It's not like back when I was a kid, and you needed your parents to buy you a tape or something. My kids can literally listen to whatever they want on YouTube or SoundCloud, for free, and I could never really monitor it all. Plus they can watch the videos - on their laptops or phones, at school or at home, without my supervision, no matter how vigilant I am. But, then again, even in my golden years of cassette tapes, I got whatever music I wanted anyway, and my parents didn't know about most of it. We dubbed each others tapes and recorded mixes from underground hip-hop radio stations, so I got hold of some things that I probably shouldn't have had, and some things that my parents definitely would not have approved. And Look How Good I Turned Out!*

So the key, I guess, is to continue to monitor the music they download into their brains, as well as you can, but to also make yourself aware of the landscape of music that your children live in, and to keep discussing their choices of music, letting them always know how you think about what you hear, and inculcate them with the real critical and analytical skills to really listen to music and think about what the lyrics are not only saying to them, but about them as well.

So this post would be too easy if I were ranting about some misogynistic rapper spewing obscenities and retrogression. My kids already react to that with repulsion, for the most part, and as a lover of hip-hop, I've introduced them to new and old artists that I support and admire, for their beats, lyrical ability, and worldview. I'm actually not half as concerned about the artists with huge targets on their forehead that are obviously shouting dangerous ideas. I'm more concerned with the ones that fly under the radar, the pop stars that pass for cute and cuddly, or even uplifting and positive, but under closer scrutiny have us chanting anthems that are backwards and destructive.

So, on that note, what is up with this "Dear Future Husband" song by Meghan Trainor? I know she's had some positive lyrics in some other songs, and it's interesting that she presents an image that in some ways goes against the traditional standard of beauty in the music business, if you dismiss the fact that she's fair, blond, and curvy. I do like her sense of fashion, especially that it presents my daughters with a choice of style that seems more modest to me than others. But when did it become okay to be a Bridezilla? When was the demanding task-master of a wife considered the norm and not the joke?

First, if I could give my daughters advice, from a male perspective, about how to approach marriage and their role in it, one of the first thing I would tell them is to forget the idea that women are allowed to be "crazy" or act "crazy" and should not be made accountable for their attitudes and behavior when they do. Everyone has bad days, when work isn't going right, when the threshold for foolishness is particularly low, when concerns and outrages have built up nearly to capacity. But nobody gets a crazy day. Nobody gets to treat others, especially significant others, with anything less than respect and love, and just get away with it. Yes, it happens, because people are imperfect and therefore control their emotions imperfectly at times. I do it myself sometimes, and I flatter myself by thinking I'm extremely patient. However, when I do, I can't just expect my wife to take my abuse and craziness, shrug her shoulders, and dismiss it as part of being married to me. I have to apologize, make it up to her, and show her that the behavior does not reflect the man I want to be. The idea that men should accommodate their wives' craziness is must another backwards-thinking way of saying that women are somehow defective, unfixable, emotion-driven basket cases that have to be handled with care. That womanhood is a type of mental illness, and that it's sufferers may have good days, but can't be held responsible for their actions when the illness becomes too difficult to manage.

Secondly, I would tell my daughters that they are not always right, that nobody is always right, and that sometimes being right isn't even the right concept. When my wife and I differ about where to eat dinner, neither one of us is right. When we argue about how to keep house, neither one of us is right. Sometimes we simply have to argue our preferences and compromise. Sometimes that means that I have to defer to my wife's desires, out of love and a desire for peace, but not out of obligation. Sometimes, however, she's just dead wrong, and sometimes I'm dead wrong. This is why God gave us minds capable of reason, logic, and rhetoric. The way real life works, or should work, is that each side makes their best case, and when you are proven wrong on some point, you concede the point to your partner, willingly, gladly, thankful to be corrected out of wrong thinking. What you don't do is insist, without reason, or even flying in the face of it, that you are "right" just because you have a different number of x-chromosomes as your partner. That kind of thinking gets a marriage and a family nowhere. Literally. No progress can be made in a home like that - not financially, not sexually, not parentally. So don't play the "I'm always right" card, or the "If Mama's not happy, nobody's happy" card. You are a human, not a time-lord; you cannot bend reality to your will.

Lastly, I would tell my daughters that withholding sex as a means of getting your way is always a bad idea. Actually, I would probably tell their mom or stepmom to tell them that. But I would believe it, and think it! And I would fumble through an reasoned explanation if they forced me to! As much as I would hate having that conversation with my girls, it is important for them to know that sex is not marriage currency; it is not the reward for bowing and scraping and bending to your tyranny. In actuality, sex is one of the primary means of building emotional intimacy and bonding with your husband or wife. It is intrinsically tied to a man's self-worth and self-perception, and the idea that it can be used as a big stick to control the brute is one that can backfire in a million terrible ways. Your love ought to be the one thing in the entire world that your man can count on, and vice versa. Your kisses are not to be meted out for opening doors, like a dog trainer tossing bacon treats to a Spaniel for sitting on command. Now, there may be times when your husband's behavior is genuinely poor, so much so that he has offended you and broken the intimacy between you, and sex may just be unthinkable for you in that moment. He may need to apologize for his offense and find a way to restore the harmony in order for real sex and intimacy to take place, but that's not the same as holding out on your husband until he caves in to your whims, or threatening him with a drought in order to force him into submission.

I know, I know. It's just a stupid pop song; it's not supposed to stand up under harsh social scrutiny. But the thing is, these songs are one of the primary and most authoritative constructors of my children's worldview and self-image. In the same way that I don't want my daughter's to believe about themselves what Chief Keef says or suggests about women, I also don't want them to take these ridiculous and destructive ideas into their marriages. And if the kids complain that they can't even listen to the radio any more without hearing my voice in their heads, analyzing every verse and parsing every word, I'll know that I have accomplished my mission.

*One day I'll have to write about my fascination with this phrase. I notice that it is generally used to dismiss a criticism of some aspect of one's childhood that has clearly had a negative effect on the speaker.