Saturday, November 11, 2017

Bad Girls

With all of the convictions and allegations and admissions of sexual harassment and assault in the news recently, it seems like there's a house cleaning going on up at the top levels of power. One powerful man after another - in media, politics, and arts - is being dragged into the light and exposed as a sexual predator. And the reaction to it all seems appropriate. For the most part, I don't hear a whole lot of excuses being made for their behavior, and the consequences are coming in fast and brutal, as they should be. 

Especially in the case of men like Harvey Weinstein and Dr. Luke, it seems that the reason that this has gone on so long without repercussions is because they are hold a special kind of power over some of the youngest and most beautiful women in their industries, women who know that their hopes for a career in the arts will probably have to go through these men's offices at some point. These women, and many men as well, have to decide how badly they want that success. Badly enough to give in to these perverts and abusers? Badly enough to keep their mouths shut about the exploitation of others? And we shouldn't be surprised by any of it, either. We've joked for years about the casting couches and trophy wives in these industries.

In all of this, I can't help but thinking about all of these young starlets that we've watched grow up of the years. Some of them we even grew up with ourselves, thought of them as peers or friends or classmates. For about twenty years, we've watched a cycle repeat itself in these young women. They start of as bubblegum singers with Disney-esque reputations, and then as soon as they hit the age of majority - or sometimes sooner - they ditch the nice girl act and become "nasty girls." They either go from innocent, teenaged lyrics to highly sexual lyrics, or, too often, from suggestively lewd lyrics at 16 to openly lewd lyrics at 18. Then, after a few year of wild success on that track, they fall apart in public view and give in to drugs, alcohol, and other addictions. And for so many years, we've shaken our finger and tsk-tsked at them, lamenting the fact that these "bad girls" seem to need to act so whorish in order to prove their maturity and womanhood.

But now I'm not sure we had it right. After seeing how deep this perversion and abuse goes, or rather, how high, I'm starting to think we've been watching the cycle of abuse play itself out in these women's lives all along. We shook our heads at these young women with their suggestive or outright sexual music - women who for the most part don't write music, play instruments, or even write lyrics - and completely ignored the machine behind them that was crushing them and molding them into its masters' desires. And we participated in their destruction, because all the while we were scorning their behavior, we were still buying their music and greasing that despicable machine.

In fact, those desires became our desires. They exploited these girls and put their bodies on display, sexualized them and dehumanized them, and then made us all believe that this was all right, that we should celebrate this, because ... girl power? This is one of the reasons I go on a music fast every once in a while, because I need to know that I like the music I like because I find intrinsic value in it, and not because the industry told me it was hot right now. I talk about this with my students about this all the time whenever the subject of today's music comes up. The question I ask them is, are you really sure that this song is on the radio because it's good music, or do you just think it's good music because it's on the radio, usually in heavy rotation? How many times have you said that when you first heard a song, you didn't like it, but the more you listened to it, the more it grew on you? If somebody forced to you listen to "Mary Had a Little Lamb" as often as some of these pop songs play on the radio, you'd be humming that at your desk too. Even some of our most beloved songs are suspect. When you think of throwback jams that you hold up as personal favorites, it that because of the song's actual merit, or just because it happened to be in heavy rotation that year that you graduated high school, or got the party started at prom, or was on the radio when you had your first kiss? And for all of those moments in our lives that have such personal meaning to use, how can we be sure that the soundtrack of our lives wasn't actually the degradation of someone else's?

We played a role in this scandal, and we also have an opportunity and responsibility to do something about it, other than to post memes to Facebook. We can take back control of music and media and decide that the exploitation of these young people, especially women, stops with us. Instead of letting perverts tell us that it's okay for us to fantasize about underage women, or any woman who is exploited and objectified, we can retaliate with the same fire and brimstone that Weinstein and others are getting right now, instead of waiting to find out that the men behind the machine, the ones that put sixteen-year-old girls in fetishistic outfits and give them sexually suggestive lyrics and dances to perform, are the sexual predators that they obviously are. defines the verb pervert as "to lead morally astray," and while that's what has happened to so many of these young people, it's been happening to their audience as well, to the point that many of us watched the blatant exploitation of beautiful, young, vulnerable girls, and we not only bought a ticket to the show, but we despised the performers for their own degradation.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

American Idols

"You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or in the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third or fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments." Exodus 20:4-6

So much anger and fuss has been going on about the kneeling protest by many of the NFL players that it's hard to get on FaceBook or Twitter or even watch the news without hearing everybody's passionate comments about it, from your crazy uncle all the way to the President of the United States. I get that people see this issue very differently, from people who are concerned about the racial disparities and oppression that the kneelers are protesting as well as the respect for the anthem and the flag that the standers are offended over. Obviously, everyone has the right to their opinion, and the right to express it as well. I'm concerned about the cause that motivates the players to kneel, but I'm also concerned about the backlash against it, especially from fellow Christians. It seems that we've been talking so much about the first amendment that we've entirely forgotten about the second commandment.

The American flag, despite all that it represents for different people, is a thing. The national anthem is also a thing, albeit a different kind of thing. My concern, especially for Christians, is that we have turned these things into idols that we worship on a regular basis, and even demand that other people worship them as well. As Christians, can we really be that upset that people are not genuflecting passionately enough before our sacred objects? Doesn't that seem like idolatry? I grew up in church hearing all the time that idols are not just objects that we bow down to or salute, or icons that we keep in our homes and pray and sacrifice to. I remember hearing over and over that anything we put before God in importance in our lives is an idol. Pastors and Sunday school teachers told me that money was an idol for some people, or fame, or power, or even more innocent things like jobs or sports or hobbies, if they kept you out of church or kept you from obeying God. But every morning we still stood and saluted the stars and stripes, and I never saw any correlation between the two, until recently.

I'm not saying that pledging the flag or standing for the anthem is wrong. That's something that each believer has to work out in their own heart. What I am saying is that I was brought up to believe that anything that got in the way of serving and obeying God is an idol. Jesus summed up the commandments into two statements: "love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" and "love your neighbor as yourself." When Christians have neighbors, countrymen, brothers and sisters that are saying to them "I don't see justice for people like me," and their only response is to vehemently demand that their neighbors shut up about it and sing the national anthem, that's the definition of idolatry. When those neighbors are crying out that they think nobody is listening to them, and they feel that their lives don't matter to the rest of us, and we respond with how offended we are that they have chosen to send this message at the time that we have ordained to salute our sacred symbols, that's the definition of idolatry.

And I know that these symbols stand for something great for so many people. I get that we want everyone to rally around the flag and celebrate freedom and bravery. However, as Christians, we have other, greater, allegiances. The only symbol that we should be rallying around, the only icon that God has approved for us is the cross. That's the only symbol of freedom and bravery that we should be trying so hard to share with others. Frankly, it bothers me that Christians seem to get more upset when the symbol of our country is simply ignored than they get when the symbol of our savior and our faith is burning in someone's yard as a threat of violence.

This idolatry has gotten so bad that now people are boycotting the NFL until these players are fired for their demonstration. Even the President has called them nasty names and demanded that the teams fire anyone who doesn't salute the flag appropriately when the national anthem plays in the stadium. Many of the people I hear supporting this are Christians. It reminds me of something else I learned in Sunday school.

Image result for nebuchadnezzar statue
See, there was this ruler, who was very rich and very powerful. He led the greatest nation in the world at the time, and he was the kind of man who was quick to punish, so his dictates were neither questioned nor disobeyed. He set up an idol where every one in the city could see it, and he demanded that when certain music played, everyone should stop what they were doing immediately, silence themselves, and worship this idol. He decreed that if anyone refused to worship that idol, they should be punished, even killed.

However, when the music played, there were a handful of people who still refused to bow down and worship that idol. They were all young men, fit and athletic, bigger and stronger than most of the men their age. They stood out for their size, but even more because of their race. Unfortunately, they were foreigners who had been captured and brought to the greatest nation in the world, and yet they had already proven themselves to be wise, and brave, and bold since the moment they arrived. They had lost their country, their families, and even their names, but they held on to their faith. Because they served the one true God, they refused to bow down to that idol when the music played. Furthermore, whether it was out of bravery, or faithfulness, or just stubbornness, they chose to carry out this protest right in front of the magistrates and all the officials of the province, in full view of everyone, knowing full well the consequences for doing so.

According to the law, these young men were rounded up and punished, not just executed, but thrown into a fiery furnace that was especially prepared for them. It was turned up hotter than it had ever been before, to match the anger and the hatred of the ruler and all the true citizens who didn't care why they wouldn't bow and demanded they respect the idol. The fire was so hot that it killed the men who were ordered to carry out the young men's execution. But God Himself was with them in the fire and saw them through it. After seeing them walking around, unharmed, in that pit of fire, even the ruler was so impressed by their faith and God's favor to them, despite everything he had done to them, that he declared that people should worship the one true God too.

So I guess there's still hope for us.

I understand what the American flag represents to the people who are offended by the protest, but I also know that every idol ever made represented something beautiful and meaningful to the people who worshiped it. The irony is that some of the same Sunday school teachers who told me that story when I was growing up, as a way of teaching me that even death was preferable to idolatry, are now telling me that saluting a flag is more important than loving my neighbor.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Teach Everybody's Literature to Everybody

I was speaking with a fellow high school English teacher a while ago about our curriculums, and especially the way our students and families react to them. One of the issues we both agreed on was the need to diversify the texts that students read, so that they get many different cultural perspectives on the world. For a long time, it was difficult to find literature textbooks that reflected any kind of diversity in their choices of authors, even in so-called world lit or American lit texts. I remember being at a teachers' convention once, many years ago, and talking to a representative for a particular Christian textbook company about the lack of diversity in their literature books. I was looking through the table of contents to see if they had made any changes (they hadn't), and it just popped out that my school wasn't using their texts any more. When the rep asked me why, I told him it was because their American literature book, which came in two volumes, had less than five works by African-American authors, and none by Hispanic or Asian American authors. In addition, the "world" literature book had zero works from anywhere outside of Europe, besides Russia. Lots of French, English, German, Russian, and even (White) American authors, but, as I pointed out, none from Africa, South or Central America, or Asia, and no works from any people of color at all. His response was that most of our students don't speak those languages. In my head, I said, "It's called translation, fool." Out loud, I pointed out that more of our students spoke Spanish than Russian or German, and they didn't seem to have a problem using translations when the original language was European. Then I walked over to the Starbucks kiosk and peacefully drank a green tea to recenter myself.

I think I'm much more sensitive to the issue now because I'm at a different school with a different clientele. I went from a school where the students were all Black, which is also not diversity, to a school where the wide majority of students are white, then Hispanic, and the noticeable minority is either Black or Asian. I love my new school, and they're all good students and families, but the culture is different. I never used to have to deal with the question "Why do we read so many Black authors?" So far, I haven't gotten that from parents or administration, only a couple of students. And students I can forgive for ignorant questions, because, obviously, it is my job to educate them. Still, I've been teaching American literature for going on twenty years now, and I've never felt the importance of ensuring diversity in what my students read more than now, in this culture and in this political climate.

The truth is, most of us insulate our selves from others - other races, other nationalities, other religions, other lifestyles - because it's harder to challenge, correct, and change our worldviews than it is to close the gates, circle the wagons and protect them. And that's all we're doing, protecting them, not even defending them. Defending our beliefs and our traditions would at least require considering the other side of things, other opinions, other perspectives. This is what bothers me most about this Trumpist movement, that there's so much anger and retaliation at just the expression of a conflicting idea.

"Get him out of here," he said, and a old man who looked as if his brawling days were at least forty years behind him punched a handcuffed man full force in the face. Remember that?

The same thing happens in our classrooms, especially English, when we exclude certain voices from our students' experiences, and homogenize everything in their education to reflect everything in their homes. I feel the need for voices of color in a class where the majority is white much more keenly than I did in a class where the majority was Black. In the Black classes, it was a matter of making sure that my students saw themselves reflected in the world they read, even when the textbooks didn't necessarily make that easy for me to do. In the white classes, it's about making sure that they know that there are other people, other voices, other perspectives, and that every dissenting voice isn't stupid, or disrespectful, or unpatriotic, or biased, at least not any more than they are themselves.

They need to know that Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka are not African-American, and never wanted to be.

And the best thing about being an English teacher interested in cultural diversity, especially when you have an administration that backs you, is that the students can't just tell you to get out of here or that you're somehow disrespecting some sacred icon. They have to read it; they have to hear that voice. It's ironic how we're all supposed to be American, just American, the same type of American, when people complain about their situation in this country, but then we become keenly aware of race and nationality when we see more than two non-white authors on the syllabus. To some people, that somehow makes the teacher some kind of crusader. Can you imagine? Why are we reading Beloved in AP English? Partly because you need diversity. More than that, we're reading it because it's in the top three novels that appear most often on the AP Literature exam, because it's taught in universities across the country as an example of great American literature, and because people who should know say it's a brilliant work of art.

So, to all the English teachers trying to diversify the texts that their students read, keep it up.

To all of the administrations backing those teachers, hold that ground and defend them.

To all of the administrations and teachers who are blocking diversity in the literature curriculum, seriously consider whether you are really educating these students, or just reflecting themselves back to them.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Every Party Has Its Pooper

Something happened today at Publix that really bothered me, enough that I want to share it, but before I do, I want to make one thing clear. My unmitigated love for Publix has been well-documented, so I'm not calling out the company itself for one bad experience with an employee or suggesting a boycott of the company in any way. In fact, please don't damage the Publix brand because of this story, because if my access to Publix deli subs and sandwich wraps ever gets cut off, I just might starve to death.

I was in my neighborhood store picking up lunch from the deli, and the woman in line in front of me was buying a sheet cake, plus a couple of other items I didn't pay attention to. I really wasn't trying to be nosy, and the only reason I even noticed the sheet cake is because Publix sheet cake is like ambrosia from the gods, and as soon as I saw it, I wanted to eat at least half of it. But once the customer was gone, the cashier who was ringing me up, an older lady, sarcastically remarked, "I didn't know you could use food stamps to buy sheet cakes," adding a snide little grunt at the end.

It took me a second to soak in her meaning, and I looked through the vestibule of the grocery store at the woman, just as she was exiting the store with her cake perched carefully across the top of the cart. I looked back at the cashier and said, "You know, a lot of folks are using those FEMA food stamps to replace all the food they lost in the hurricane, right." The cashier looked at me and said, with a sly, kind of conspiratorial look in her eye, that those aren't EBT cards.

Maybe. Maybe not. Still not sure how that's any of her business. Personally, I plan on using my FEMA food stamps as soon as I get them, and proudly at that. Not only am I always looking for the hookup, but I'm not the kind of person who sees my taxes as some sort of charitable contribution to the common good. Any chance I get to legally get my money back out of the system, I'm taking it.
I didn't want to fight with the lady, and I really did have places to be, so I just said in parting, "Well, it may not seem right, but I guess poor kids want to celebrate their birthdays too." Then, having learned that only fools argue with fools, I kept on strutting out the door. Then I walked right back inside and up to the deli counter because I realized I forgot to get a fork to eat my chicken salad. But THEN I walked triumphantly out the door again.

Several things bothered me about the exchange, aside from the fact that again, this is really none of her business, and certainly none of mine for her to be sharing my neighbor's business with me.

First, if the law allows that food stamps or other assistance can be used to buy cakes from the grocery bakery, then it must be because the government and community recognize that poor kids do, indeed, celebrate their birthdays. Food stamp allowances, just like any other currency, is limited and budgeted, and if a mother wants to cut back on the crackers or canned goods or whatever and splurge on a birthday cake this month, then I say God bless her. What does this lady expect that children in these families are supposed to do for their birthdays? Balance a flashlight on top of a box of generic oat bran cereal and make a wish that their parents were more responsible or ambitious? Does her mercy and brotherly love only extend to powdered milk and canned beans? Even Marie Antoinette let them eat cake.

Furthermore, her attitude towards this woman is severely undercut by the fact that she had literally just begged me for a dollar to "help underprivileged families through the holiday season." One thing I like about Publix is that they raise money for so many charitable organizations and give their customers a chance to donate to worthy causes. On the other hand, one thing I don't like is that they are hitting me up for an extra dollar or five every time I come in to buy a pack of gum or an onion for tonight's dinner recipe. This woman has no problem guilting me into charging an extra dollar on my bill for poor families in the neighborhood, but when a real live poor person, I'm assuming, comes in the store, there's no love for her. Maybe its easier to care about the poor when you don't have to actually interact with them. Or maybe we only want to help less fortunate people when we get to decide what they do with that help.

And speaking of the of less fortunate, maybe we should refrain from judging someone else's situation. I'm not trying to cast aspersions on this cashier's job or finances, or even her character, really, but I wonder if it has occurred to her that, as an older woman working the register at the local grocery store, that she may not be very far away from her EBT customer's position anyway. A lot of us have really lean months where we struggle to stretch our money around our bills, and a few of those months in a row could have the best of us seriously thinking about looking for some help, even if it's minimal or temporary. Furthermore, we often act like people who use food stamps are just leeches, when the fact is that many users have already put at least as much money into the system as they are taking out, and will repay whatever benefits they got once they get better employed or out of debt.

Lastly, what does this cashier lady tell her own kids or grandkids when it’s their birthdays? “Return all those gifts. You don’t deserve free stuff just because it’s the anniversary of your existence?” Birthdays are literally all about getting free stuff just for being alive, getting gifts just because you managed to survive another year on the planet. Even Publix recognizes this, because they are so awesome, and gives parents free stuff for babies and discounts on party supplies for their first three birthdays (parents, get that hookup). They even give away a free baby cake with the purchase of a sheet cake on the child's first birthday, so you can take those crazy pictures of your child desecrating a delicious dessert.

I guess the thing I hated most about that interaction was the fact that some people just can't stand to see some folks celebrating anything, as if someone else's fortune or blessing is a personal affront to them. "If you feel that strongly about it, you could always have paid for that cake yourself, to make sure that none of our tax dollars were spent on a child's happiness," I said piously to myself as I pulled my seatbelt across my chest in the parking lot, too lazy to go back inside and confront the woman again.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Attack of the Microaggressions

I had a conversation with a white friend recently about some racial topics, and it got a little heated, as these conversations often do. One issue that got sort of glossed over was the idea of microaggressions. Specifically, my friend expressed that he doesn't believe in such a thing, and refuses to feel like he's walking on eggshells all the time. It's ironic. I don't think that most decent people would willfully say that they don't acknowledge that we each have a responsibility to watch what we say and to avoid insulting people or hurting feelings, but for some reason we always choose to see only our intentions, and never our transgressions or even our prejudices. I also think that there's something about the term that gets people upset right from the start. Microaggressions. It sounds like some kind of sci-fi world conquest campaign, like nano-bots designed to infect and control world leaders (rights reserved on that story idea, by the way). It sounds like a deadly and highly contagious virus that turns people into zombies - the fast angry ones, not the slow hungry ones. Frankly, it sounds like one of those new terms that people invent for issues that really do need to be dealt with, but that too many people don't even want to acknowledge.

There are several definitions of microaggressions out there, and a lot of writing on the subject, ranging from the idea that this is all a part of the new "victimhood" status to the idea that this is a longstanding problem that is only now being attacked because so-called "minorities" in America are growing in numbers to the point that they are unwilling to ignore these slights any longer. Whatever definition you use, at the core of the matter is the issue of assumptions. Asking an Asian or Hispanic person where he's from assumes that he's not from right here in America. Maybe a nicer way to get to know someone would be to ask about their ethnicity or heritage, which you could ask anyone of any racial appearance. Remember, white people don't come from the Isle of White. Telling a Black person that she doesn't "act Black," assumes that there is some Black code of behavior, which you have either perceived or invented. Even worse, usually it means that she doesn't possess any of the negative traits that you're stereotyped with Blackness.

This is why the word exists, and this is why we should be open to discussing it, even if it means that someone is questioning or correcting us. A situation like that can help us to see our own assumptions and prejudices reflected back at us from others. Obviously, no one wants to be embarrassed in public or drawn into a fight or accused of being a racist for saying something that wasn't quite thought through completely. On the other hand, gentle correction calling attention to the offense can go a long way to opening someone's eyes and creating an ally instead of an enemy. I have one particular Black friend that swears that everywhere he goes, he gets mistaken for an employee, regardless of what he's wearing or doing. Maybe he's just got a really helpful look on his face all the time, or maybe white folks assume that he could only belong in these spaces by working there. Hard to say. He's even told me that a store manager once ordered him to go stock an aisle, because he was wearing the same color shirt as the uniform. Maybe he just looked like one of the new hires. Hard to say. I've actually been with him when it happened. Once we were in our favorite grocery store getting some supplies for poker night, debating what kind of drinks to bring, and a guy walked up into our conversation and just stood there. After an uncomfortable moment, we both looked at the guy, and he said to my friend, "When you're done helping this customer, I have a question for you." The thing is, my friend wasn't wearing anything even close to the uniform - not the same style or color or anything. I really like the way my friend handled it. He just smiled at the guy, kind of chuckled, and said, "What makes you think I work here?" Immediately the guy's eyes opened wide, as if he was seeing colors for the first time, or maybe polo shirts, and stuttered, "Oh, man, I'm sorry." Then, my friend smiled even bigger, said, "no problem," and held out his hand to shake. Once the guy shook his hand, looking embarrassed now, my friend asked him again, more quietly and, somehow, even more friendly, "But really, what made you think I work here?" The guy laughed, a little nervously, apologized, and walked away, but I bet he was still asking himself that same question the entire ride home. "Why did I think that guy worked there?"

What I liked about my friend's tactic, which he has probably developed over years of mistaken identity, was that it was confrontational, but not accusatory, probing, but not aggressive. He didn't call the guy a racist, and thereby shift the focus from what just happened to an attack on a stranger's character and honor. Just a simple question. "What makes you think I come from somewhere else?" "What do Black people act like?" You probably won't get an answer, but it forces the other person to contemplate their perceptions. And, who knows, maybe there is a legitimate reason, a good intention behind that awkward question or statement. Really, how do you ask about someone's ethnicity without being awkward or offensive? It would be easy to say that their ethnicity shouldn't matter, but my ethnicity matters to me. Is it stupid to think that other people's ethnicity matters to them? If I am getting to know someone, shouldn't that be at least a part of the process?

Here's an example from a white perspective. After a few days of no electricity and air conditioning after hurricane Irma, I finally broke down and decided to get a generator for the house. My daughter and I hit about five different Home Depot locations before we found one that was just unloading a shipment of over thirty of them. So I did what any Miami boy would do. I pulled one out, put it on a hand-truck, and then sat on it until my wife could bring the Home Depot card. While I was perched on top of my brand new generator, a woman employee working the section told me that FEMA has grants for people who purchase generators during the power outage. Since I'm always looking for the hookup, I chatted her up about it. As we were talking about it, a dark-skinned customer, probably Haitian, based on the accent, walked directly through our conversation and jumped in it. "You Republican?" he asked me. "That's not for Republicans." I wasn't even sure what he was getting at initially, but then he said, "Make America great again, right?" Luckily, the employee checked him before I really got a chance to respond. I say luckily, only because I didn't really have a ready response, and he moved on. It made my daughter angry, though, she felt lumped into this accusation of being Trump supporters. He made an assumption about my daughter's race, based on her appearance. He made an assumption about my politics, based on my appearance, and said something stupid and mean, especially when, as a city, we're all trying to recover from a disaster. My daughter said that she hoped he was still hanging around when my wife brought my card, just so he would feel stupid. The problem with that, I told her, is that it would just be another assumption. Plenty of racist people marry people of other races; in fact, sometimes that's why they do it.

Again, that's what microaggressions really are, questions and statements based on our assumptions and prejudices. Sometimes they are innocent, but ignorant, but sometimes they are hurtful, and nobody gets a pass, even with good intentions. It seems obvious that good intentions don't make up for inadvertently insulting someone. But it also seems obvious that one stupid or ignorant question doesn't make you a bad person. Maybe if we called it something else, some people would feel more comfortable talking about it. Maybe if we called them "tiny accidental insults," instead of a word that sounds like the bad guys from a Voltron episode, a lot more people would be willing to discuss them.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Not My President!

Everybody I know is angry with Trump to some degree, and this latest tirade about Charlottesville has only made it worse. I hear a lot of frustration and even despair coming from all sorts of people, even those that I know voted for him. I get it. There's every feeling from fear to disappointment, all kinds of name calling, and many ideas about what to do. The reaction that bothers me, though, is when I hear friends, celebrities, or radio personalities saying things like "Trump is not my president." Just searching #notmypresident will find you all sorts of similar reactions.

I get the feeling. Most of us want to disassociate ourselves with this president, or the government as a whole, or even with a party that we may have identified with previously. If you talk to people who travel out of the country regularly, most of them will report what foreigners think of us right now, because of our leadership, and it's not good. But whether you voted for him or not, whether you are just frustrated, embarrassed, or outright furious, we cannot let disassociation lead to disenfranchisement. This is our place in history, and in one hundred years, kids will still be learning about the forty-fifth president of the United States of America. For better or, realistically, for worse, this is your president.

Disenfranchisement is real, and many Americans have felt that they are not a part of the system for a long time, and for good reason. It's one thing to feel disenfranchised, but it's another thing to disenfranchise yourself. Removing yourself, your voice, from the system is not going to change it.

The president serves us, not the other way around, and when we say, "not my president," we say no to that concept. We say that he only serves other people, not us. And while it may be true that he is currently not serving your needs or addressing your concerns, that doesn't mean it's not still his job to do so. It just means that he's failing at it. You can say all you want that the president doesn't represent you, but if you ask anyone from outside our borders, you'll find that he does. If you mean that he does not reflect your values and attitudes, then you're probably right, unless you have a penchant for torches, swastikas, and vehicular homicide. But if you mean that he is not the face of this nation right now to the world, then you're dead wrong. Sure, people around the world are reasonable and understand that he doesn't speak for all of us. Still, they also know that he was chosen for office through the method that we have agreed upon to elect leadership, and that alone says something about the state of our country, however you look at it.

Saying "not my president" is like pulling the covers over your head and pretending the sun isn't out. It's like sticking your fingers in your ears and chanting nonsense to block out the things you don't want to hear. It doesn't remove you from the problem, only from the solution. And it's exactly what the nazis and white nationalists are saying too.

There are forces out there trying to rob you of your agency in this country, and ultimately in your own life. They are growing bolder every day - bold enough to march down city streets with uncovered faces, obviously fearing no consequences, chanting "you will not replace us." To you. They are saying that you don't belong here, that you have no say in this country, that you are a second-class citizen, if a citizen at all.

And you are chanting down that street with them.

You are agreeing with the neo-nazis and white supremacists when you throw your hands up and relinquish your ownership in this nation. When you say "not my president," you are laying down your weapons and walking off the battlefield. As an American citizen, you have the right to question and challenge your president, you have the right to speak truth to his power, you have the right to call his motives and even his competence into question, you have the right to gather outside his house - our house - and show him your grievances and your numbers. You don't have those rights with someone else's president, only yours.

Don't misunderstand, I'm not saying support the president no matter what. I'm not saying support him at all. Organize, shout, shake your fists, write your blogs, and do whatever is right and just to oppose wrong and injustice. But saying "not my president" is a cop-out. It's tucking your ball under your arm and walking off the court when the score gets too high. And we're not even past the first quarter yet.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Racism, Prejudice, and Bigotry

I've had a couple of conversations about racism lately, especially about police brutality and disenfranchisement, and I notice a trend of diverting the attention away from race and onto other things. Even when someone agrees that Philandro Castile was wrongfully killed, even murdered, they want the focus to be on poor police procedure or psychological issues, and not race. I usually agree that not everything is about race, and many things are not all about race, but race does play a role in many issues, a huge role sometimes. The statements I hear too often are things like, "You can't prove this was because of race," or, "I'm sure Officer Yanez didn't wake up that morning hoping to get a chance to kill a Black man that day." The problem with statements like these is that they show a fundamental misunderstanding about how racism works.

In fact, maybe we shouldn’t even be using the words racism or racist to describe someone's actions. For some people, racism just means disliking or hating someone because of their race, and that lets them off the hook. It absolves them of any responsibility to check their own thought processes. They can say to themselves that they don't hate anyone, and therefore can't be racist, even if they continue to hold some very racist beliefs or continue to show some very racist behaviors. For a lot of other people, racism means a system of oppression based on race, where one race consistently, but not always, benefits from the system, and another race is consistently, but not always, disadvantaged or obstructed by that system. The problem with this definition is that it makes it easy to identify a system as racist, but not a person. Actually, it would be really difficult to apply that definition to a person at all, no matter what their actions are, unless they have the power of an entire system behind them. For example, if a president were somehow to enact a law that barred all immigration from a particular country or ethnic group, based on the idea that they are dangerous people, that would be racist, because this action has the force of a governing body behind it, even if the decision is made my one person. But I'm not sure the same can be said about the actions of a single police officer who shoots an unarmed, nonthreatening Black man. Even though he is part of the system, or serves the system, can his actions truly have enough force to be called racist, the way this second definition looks at it? Even under the first definition, he can't really be called racist, because, according to him and everyone he knows, he doesn't hate Black folks. Hell, he's got Black friends, works with Black cops on the force, listens to hip-hop, maybe has a Black girlfriend. How could that guy be racist.

On the other hand, if we use the word prejudiced, instead of racist, the focus is on attitudes and actions, not on narrowly defined concepts of hate or dislike. If we use the word prejudice, we can not only make better sense of what happens around us in these cases, but we can actually do something to prevent them. I think there might be a very small number of cops in this country who might wake up in the morning hoping to get a chance to harm someone because of their race. That scares me to even say, but there are millions of cops, so maybe two or three think like that. I definitely don't think that Officer Yanez or some of the other officers that have been involved in these clearly wrongful shooting think like that. Instead, I think they prejudiced. If prejudiced means to prejudge someone, to form opinions about others based on their race, then it seems to me that Officer Yanez shot Philandro Castile because Yanez was prejudiced. In court, he claimed that he was in fear for his life, even though, in my opinion, he didn't have any reason to be afraid. If the only reason he was afraid was because he had negative prejudices about Black men that caused him to think of this particular Black man as dangerous, then the whole thing makes more sense. Yanez didn't wake up that morning with he intent to kill anyone, or even hurt anyone, but he did wake up with the same unchallenged prejudices that he had held probably for years. When you look at it that way, some kind of scenario like this was bound to happened, and when it did, the officer would be just as surprised as anyone else. If he was prejudiced enough to believe that Black men are more violent, or hate cops, or more likely to be criminals, then his reactions would flow from that fear.

By the way, a person can be prejudiced against Black folks and still have Black friends. He or she can actually be friends with someone and still believe themselves superior in some way, or believe some very negative things about them, or just believe that their friends are the exceptions to the rule. It's still prejudice if you want the Black guy on your pick up team because you believe he must have basketball skills - you know, growing up in the hood like he did. Using the word prejudice can also put to bed any nonsense about minorities being racist. Anybody can be prejudiced, sure, but one person's prejudices, up against a powerful racist system, don't really mean that much. That person should definitely look inward and think about the way they view and react to people, but it's the prejudices that line up with and support the racists systems that cause the most damage.

That doesn't mean that racism doesn't exist, just that we have to be careful how we use the word, or else we can't analyze the problem, and can't prevent it. Yanez may have shot Castile because of prejudice, but he was acquitted because of racism. His actions were produced by his beliefs, but the verdict was produced by a system that, apparently, will not convict a police officer of a shooting, no matter how damning the evidence.

Take hiring practices as another example. It's easy to say that a company that doesn't hire minorities is racist, and may even be correct, but holding up that racism is a lot of prejudices. A white executive or manager in charge of hiring sees a lot of people come through his office. Just like a police officer, he probably doesn't wake up each morning renew his commitment to oppress his fellow man. But when you ask him why he doesn't hire minorities, he may say reply that he interviews them al the time, and they're seldom the right fit. Pressed to explain why he didn't hire a particular Black applicant, he might say that he just didn't connect with him, didn't trust him, couldn't picture him working with the rest of the team. That executive may have Black friends and may love listening to Stevie Wonder, but until he starts really challenging his prejudices, and asking why he doesn't connect with or trust people who are different from him, his company is going to be part of a racist system.

The good news is that we can deal with prejudice a whole lot easier than racism. We can screen police cadets for prejudice and watch them interact with different types of people. As colleagues, we can challenge each other when we hear things that betray our prejudices. And we can do that, even if we find ourselves thinking that same way sometimes.

In that way, prejudice is the one thing that all of us can really do something about to effect change. I don't have a problem challenging people on their prejudices, and usually all it takes is a simple, non-threatening question. "Why would you say that?" when someone says that they don't trust someone. "What are you basing that on?" "Are you sure about that?" Just asking questions forces a person to evaluate their thinking. They have to either give a valid reason, which they might have, or admit their prejudices. I don't have a problem with someone who knows that they are prejudiced and is dealing with it. I can deal with someone who says, "I don't like the fact that I instinctively distrust Arabs," or "I don't like the fact that Black men make me worried a little."

What I can't deal with is bigotry. Bigotry is that attitude that flies in the face of analysis or logic or even common decency. Bigotry is confronting all of the logic and morality against your way of thinking and still stubbornly holding on to it, because it's the only thing that makes you feel superior to others, and you HAVE to feel superior to at least some others. Bigotry is that friend or colleague that you do challenge on their prejudices, only for them to respond, "I don't care what you say, I don't care what anyone says, I know I'm right." I have no problem dealing with prejudice, but with bigotry - honestly, I just knock the dirt off my feet and walk away.

As for myself, I'm going to try a little experiment. I'm going to try to use the as little as possible, and just ask people questions that challenge their prejudices. I'm not equipped to take on the system, but I think if I can knock out all the struts holding it up, maybe one day I'll see it wobble.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

No Such Thing as 6T

There's a weird thing that happens when your daughter hits the age and size when she no longer fits into the "T's" line of clothing. My four-year-old is a tall, slim, long-legged girl whose feet have been getting farther and farther away from the bottoms of her 5T jeans for some time now. Since we're doing the obligatory family summer vacation soon, I couldn't stand to look at some of those jeans any more, much less pack them for a trip. So, being off work for the rest of the summer, I decided to take her to Old Navy for a new wardrobe. To say that it was enlightening would be a euphemism.

I went in looking for the next size up from 5T, since that's what she's growing out of. That's always worked so far, with clothes and shoes. Just get the next size up. I had to ask one of the girls folding clothes to help me find the right size, only to have her kindly guide me to the big girls section of the store. I'm talking regular girls sizes - no T's. And really, I had to know that this was coming. I don't remember this happening with my big daughter, but it must have, right? I also had to know that the T's were going to run out at some point. If the T stands for toddler, then it's not like they're going to have an 8T or 39T.

So once I got over the shock of the sizes, then comes the styles. One reason I like shopping at Old Navy, for the girls, is that they have so far resisted the trend of super-sexy clothes for young girls. Too many other stores make it impossible for me to buy something for my little girls to wear that I would actually let them wear outside of the house. Everything is low-rise or midriff, when I'm only trying to make sure that everything my daughter wears is touching something else she's wearing. If it's not that, then it's inappropriate pictures or text on shirts and other articles of clothing. These are the kinds of sayings that would be powerful and sexy on my wife, but are super creepy on a onesie or 3T shirt. And even though Old Navy is definitely my hero when it comes to keeping these styles away, the styles they do have in the sizes I need are more ... grown up. Not inappropriate, just mature. Sparkly skinny jeans and rompers like the ones my wife wears. Patterns instead of pictures. Ballerina jeans.

And what are ballerina jeans, really? As far as I can tell, they're really skinny jeans that are for girls who are exactly as narrow at their ankles as they are at their waist. Whatever they are, they fit my four-year-old perfectly, so thank God for them.

The other thing that took some getting used to is trying on clothes. Until now, shopping for clothes for my little daughter never involved a dressing room. You pick a pair of jeans that look durable and stylish enough, you hold them up to her waist to check the length, and then you ring them up and get out. As soon as I held up these size 5 girls' jeans to her legs and realized that they looked too big, even though the next size down was the T's, I knew I had a problem. We ended up trying on about fifteen different jeans and shorts. Some of them were too long, some had enough room in the waist for her and her best friend to both get in them, and some were perfect, in a way that made me relieved to actually find something, but a little weirded out that she was wearing big girl clothes.

Also, trying on clothes with a fully potty trained little girl, wearing panties instead of pull-ups, is a new experience too. I can't even express the strangeness of having to take her clothes off over and over in that tiny closet of a dressing room. It didn't help that whenever we had to take off a pair of jeans, she kept shouting, "get back here panties, you're not coming off."

By the time we finished shopping, we had about ten outfits, including some summer dresses. Some things she picked out, and some I did. We rang up as quickly as possible, using my Old Navy card to get the discounts, because I'm gangster, and then got out of there, went home and took naps. Actually, she took a nap; I laid in my bed contemplating my life for about an hour.

After nap time we started organizing a fashion show for the rest of the family. I made a playlist of the most bubbly electronic music on my iPhone, connected to the bluetooth speaker, and set up the dining chairs for the audience. We used my yoga mat for a stage at the end of the hall, and her room was the backstage changing area. Fortunately, my little/big girl has taken a few modeling classes, so she's got moves on the runway. Unfortunately, this meant a whole lot more changing clothes, and faster, including shoes. Still, she got to show off all her new looks, especially the ones she picked out, and be the center of attention that she always wants to be anyway. The show ended with her taking about twenty-three bows to "Everything Is Awesome" and blowing kisses at her mom, sister, and grandparents, clothes and store tags strewn around her room, and me ready for another nap/meditation.

The good news is that, if history repeats itself, there's going to come a day, just like it did with my oldest daughter, that she won't need me to help her try on clothes. Some day she won't even want me to come shopping with her in the first place, and I can resume my role of staying home and telling her which clothes she has to take back to the store.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Losers and Bullies

I've noticed a trend with many of my low-performing students. Every time there's any kind of delay or setback or any kind of hitch in our work - the internet goes down for a minute, the screen won't connect, the document doesn't load, whatever - several of them give the same reaction. "Well, I guess we can't do the [test, quiz, classwork, essay, etc.]." Variations on the theme are often "Looks like we all get 100's," or "Free day!" It aggravates me so much more than whatever glitch is holding up the progress in the first place.

How can I tell these kids, in love and respect, that this is the attitude of losers?

It's always the low-performing students, too. I'm not saying that the high achieving students are crying over the possibility of less work, but they are suggesting ways to fix the screen, or reconnect the system. In short, they are solution oriented. The big difference between these types of students is that the high-achieving kids embrace challenges; they understand that struggle produces growth and that nothing comes easy. On the other hand, the low-performing students expect everything to be easy, avoid work in every situation, and are never happier than when they can quit the struggle for knowledge and go back to playing Flappy Street or Crossy Car or whatever time wasting game they have circumvented the school's system to download on their iPads.

It's not lost on me that the only thing these students put much effort into is the very meaningless tasks that distract them from improving themselves.

Because I see it so often, I'm trying to come up with a way of reacting to it that doesn't come across and soul-crushingly harsh, but the only rebuttals that come to mind are the types that would probably get me into trouble with parents and administration, even if they definitely need to be said. I want to tell them that this is the same attitude held by many people living under bridges who have given up on challenge after challenge, until just getting enough food for the day became a challenge that they couldn't give up on. It's an attitude held by many people taking up space in their parents' houses after the age of thirty, dividing their time between Crossy Bird and binge watching Netflix shows on their parents' accounts. It's an attitude adopted by husbands and wives who walk out on marriages, or even children, at the first indication that a relationship requires at least some kind of effort. I want to tell them all this, and that there is still time for them to change their attitude.

And it's worse when there's more than one loser in the room, when all it takes is one person to give voice to that failure-tinged sentiment, and another three or four start piling on. Others laugh, and while my main focus is restoring the momentum in the class, I'm not sure whether the laughers are agreeing, or whether they are seeing the same visions of the future in their heads that I see in mine. I'm seriously considering faking one of these glitches in the first week of school every year, just to be able to identify who the quitters are and be able to nip that in the bud. I'm also considering having an alternate assignment ready for times when the technology fails or the lesson plan falls apart - something so academically powerful but also extremely difficult that the quitters would start brainstorming ways to return to the status quo just as much as the achievers do.

Unfortunately, the worst thing about this issue is that one of those losers lives in my brain too. He says things like that to me when life gets tough. I hear him on the second lap of the run at the end of a triathlon, saying that nobody would really know if I just walked these next few yards. I mean, you're already a winner; everybody gets a medal. He whispers comforting words to me when it starts raining just before I get set to go to the park to do by boot camp, saying that this is God's will for my life in this moment. He reminds me of all the rejections of the past whenever I start tapping words into this white box. I mean, really, what's the point.

Lucky for me, there's another guy in my brain, a bully who says all the things I want to say to the quitters in my class. He calls me names that I can't repeat here, and uses the kind of harsh and direct language that I can't use with impressionable young people. Sometimes I'm a little afraid of that guy, because he pushes me into doing things that I'm not quite sure I can do. Sometimes he bullies me into doing things that can get me hurt, either physically or emotionally. Sometimes he gets me into situations that have the potential for intense and enduring embarrassment. At the same time, that guy has pushed me into a lot of success. He has bullied me into walking across a room to talk to somebody I never would have met otherwise. He's taught me that I can find reserves of strength and power to get through that last lap, that we rest after the race, not during. He's shown me that if I run faster, I get to the end faster, and rest sooner.

His voice sounds a lot like the football coach from my junior varsity team. That guy was a man of great Christian faith and character who also cursed us out on that football field and called us names every time we failed to show maximum effort. If those same words had come from any other teacher, any other coach or principal, we would have been angry. We would have told our parents, and there would have been serious discussions. From him, though, somehow there was so much love in those profanities that we not only accepted it - we thrived on it. His words made us angry, for sure, but angry with ourselves for not pushing harder.

I wish I could unleash that guy in my classroom some days. I wish I could bottle that up and sell it on Amazon. I wish I could make a thirty minute video of it and post it to YouTube, with ads, of course.

More than that, I wish I could get that guy to live in my students' heads like he lives in mine, because that voice has gotten me through a times a lot tougher than homework or technology or triathlons. When I consider what my life would be like, what my children's lives would be like, if I had become the kind of person who backs down from challenges, I thank God for that bully in my head.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Can't Take the Heat

I'm still trying to understand what climate change and global warming really means, but what I do know is that every year it feels as if summer gets hotter. I'm not sure if that's because the actual temperatures are rising, or other weather-related factors are changing, or if it's just because I hate the summer heat more every year that I get older. I love Miami, but sometimes I wish I could move it a few degrees north.

I remember being a kid and having so many camping trips during the summer - with church groups, family, and anyone else who would take us out. Now, when I'm really trying to make an effort to go camping more often with the kids, I can't even imagine being outside of the air conditioning long enough to even set up a tent, much less sleep in one. I can barely make it from the house to the car without complaining.

On top of that, it's never cool enough in the bedroom at night. The air in there can't seem to work as hard as I need it to in order to feel comfortable. And the whole time, my wife is wearing pajamas under a sheet and a blanket, while I'm nearly naked on my side with no covers, just trying to make sure that no part of my body touches any other part of my body. She makes fun of me for dodging the heat like I do, but I tell her that my people don't come from the land of sun. My ancestors hail from the land of ice and snow, and the genes they have passed down to me don't include any UV resistance.

I don't know if it's a gender thing or a size thing or a melanin thing, but I really don't get how my wife doesn't feel the heat like I do. Our little daughter seems to be just fine with the sun, too. On days when I pick her up from summer camp and her class is outside on the playground, she's running around outside with the rest of the kids, sweat pouring down her face and neck, but loving it. If I were in her class, I would have to tell that teacher that I respectfully decline the invitation to play outside and wish to do some more coloring, thank you.

On the other hand, she does seem to react to the summer brightness like I do, even if she doesn't feel the heat the same. Since we both have blue eyes and very light skin, we both squint at the sun the same way, which is to say, painfully.

Besides just the general discomfort and fear of leaving the air conditioning, I've got the added problem of trying to train outdoors. I'm still committed to this idea of competing in some kind of race every month in 2017, but I can't just run on a treadmill and expect to be ready on race day. I try to run outside twice a day when the race is about two weeks away, but I can feel the difference in performance under this summer heat. I usually run after work, so between four and five in the afternoon, but now that I'm only teaching one summer class, I'm trying to get in the park by eleven in the morning. Either way, about halfway through a 5K run, I'm starting to feel that gorilla jump on my back, and my body is telling me to either stop or die. I've gulped more Gatorade and Powerade and even Pedialyte in the last month than I have in my entire life, and I still can't figure out how to keep electrolytes in my body. The irony is that since the races are usually held right after sunrise, the heat isn't nearly as bad. I'm trying to turn a negative into a positive by telling myself that this is a training technique to make the race seem easier - something like oxygen deprivation or weighted vests. And maybe it is, because I went into June's 5K race thinking I might end up walking the last half, or crawling it, but instead, I felt really good. I hadn't had a decent run since May, but with that cool morning air in my lungs, I felt like I could have gone another two or three miles when I was done. I didn't, of course, but it felt good.

If there's anything that this summer is teaching me, one thing is that I am going to stick to this commitment to race every month, even if it means I have to slow down a little just to avoid heat stroke. The other thing is that if I want to go camping more, or do any outside activities, I need to plan a whole lot more of them between October and February. Until then, all of our family fun times are going to be movies, museums, video arcades, and other well-shaded and air-conditioned venues.

Saturday, June 17, 2017


I hear about all the horror stories of mixed couples from around the country and abroad. Just a while ago, looking for inspiration fro a new topic, and dealing with a case of writer's block, I read a few other blogs on interracial or mixed couples and the problems they face. They write about everything from having issues with holiday traditions to being spat on in the street by strangers. I even recently got a video forwarded to me from a friend, with interviews of interracial couples since the Loving trial in Virginia. As I read these stories, I just don't relate.

Growing up and living in Miami, Florida, there were always mixed couples around, and I grew up around so many different ethnicities that dating exclusively white didn't seem like a necessity. Actually, since I was in the racial minority at my high school, it didn't even seem like a possibility. Today, most of my friends are in interracial marriages, of one form or another, not because we all came together as some sort of support group, but because we all grew up in the same social conditions. So when I read these stories of the terrible things that interracial couples go through elsewhere, I feel very blessed to have grown up in Miami, but then I also wonder what life would be like if we tried to move anywhere else.

The internet is full of horror stories about mixed couples dealing with everything from microaggresions about sex and education and culture to outright and zealous disapproval. I didn't have any relatives disown me, and neither did my wife. None of my friends were surprised, and, like I said, many of them were in similar relationships themselves. I do remember having a conversation on the subject with my cousin's husband, back when I was about thirteen. He must have been at least thirty at the time, and, while I can't remember how the subject came up, he was trying to convince me that the Bible is against interracial dating. He was quoting "Do not be unequally yoked together in marriage" at me, and even at that age, I was pretty well read in my scriptures, and had to tell him that the Bible doesn't say that. He grabbed his Good Book and tried looking it up, but couldn't remember where exactly it was. This is from a Cuban/Hispanic man married to my white cousin. That relationship he doesn't see as interracial at all, so for him, the only sinful relations were between Black and white, apparently. For reference, and just in case it comes up in conversation at any time, the verse he was referring to was 2 Corinthians 6:14, and the wording is "Be not unequally yoked together with unbelievers," which is a whole different topic for an entirely different blog post. If I had possessed more rhetorical skill back then, I would have pressed him to say what exactly was unequal in these relationships.

I did have one old lady at church ask me, pretty soon after my wife and I married, why I married a Black woman, and if I couldn't find a white woman to marry. She asked this seated in her pew, right behind another older interracial couple. The wife sitting in front of her almost spun around, but her husband just restrained her and shook his head. But she is a very old woman, a member of a very diverse church with many mixed couples. It's really hard to get mad at her for asking, because she's so old, and, otherwise, very sweet, and obviously losing that battle, based on the demographics around her.

Other than that, I've seen racism in Miami, but never directed at us, so I don't have the same experience that I see in the video or in the articles I read. I remember on our honeymoon, a week long cruise in the Caribbean, we saw so many mixed couples aboard the ship, we started calling it the "Swirl Boat." I guess I'm more aware when I see other mixed couples, and get a sense of comfort from that. I certainly felt that way on our honeymoon. I hope my wife felt it as well, since this is her first (and last, hopefully) interracial relationship. There was one moment, while we were on a snorkeling excursion, that drew attention to our differences, but not exactly for racial reasons. My wife and I were both in peak physical condition on our honeymoon, because we saved sex for after the wedding. Speaking for myself, I wanted that first naked impression to be a powerful one. Apparently, one benefit of having an abundance of melanin is the ability to maintain a youthful appearance, so even though we're only three years apart, my wife always looks considerably younger than she is, while I ... don't.

On the snorkeling boat, there was a really nice lady with a table set up selling some hand-made jewelry, because it's the Caribbean, and everyone has a side hustle. There we are in our swim suits - me in my board shorts, as lean and muscular as I've ever been in my life, my wife in her bikini, literally looking like a supermodel, breaking hearts every time she holds my hand or kisses me on that boat. We tell the lady that we're looking for a necklace for our daughter (from the very beginning, my wife talked about "our" daughter and son, partly because it's just easier, but also from her understanding about how this family worked). The sales woman said, "What?! You no look old enough fi have pickney!" She asked how old the "baby" was, and started laughing when we told her the kids were 12 and 14.

"Me did tink you was one young gyal," she said.

"How young did you think I was?" my wife asked.

"Eighteen, maybe twenty," the lady said.

I looked at my wife, shrugged my shoulders, saw about the same thing, and felt pretty good about myself.

"So, how old did you think I was?" I asked.

The lady paused for a second, "Maybe forty-five?"

I was thirty-eight at the time.

"And what did you think we were doing together?"

"Me tink say you was robbing the cradle, having some fun in the islands."

I'm still not sure if that was a compliment or not, but at least it wasn't about being a mixed couple. The thing is, I became more conscious of that than of our races. I started wondering if everyone on the ship was thinking that. Even so, I loved the way she said it, with no judgment at all. I guess anything goes on the Swirl Boat.

As great as the honeymoon was, we did have to come back to reality, and that's how I feel about Miami sometimes. I know that we live a charmed life here, where mixed couples and interracial marriage are common, and no body stares or says anything negative any more. Mixed kids are seen as beautiful and wholly embraced. But I wonder what life would be like if we had to move somewhere else. As much as I love Miami, it's expensive to live here, and we talk about moving elsewhere when the kids are bigger. We choose our vacation spots based on how we think the racial climate is, whether it's in the US or abroad. I know I've got a certain level of protection here where I grew up, but I wonder If I ever had to leave Paradise, would I be telling some of the same stories I see in these interviews.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

What's in a Name? Part 2

There's always a lot of confusion for the littlest children in blended families, starting with what to call everybody you live with, to knowing who is related to you and who isn't, to figuring out everybody's schedules. This last one is one that causes not only confusion, but a whole lot of tears and disruption around our house.

By the time our youngest was two, she was very verbal, almost too much, and very attached and bonded to her big brother and sister. She would wake up every morning at least a half hour before anyone else wanted to be up, and that without even an alarm clock. It was as if something in her just just knew when would be the worst time to jump in somebody's bed and woke her up with just the right amount of energy for the job. Of course, God bless her, she had no concept of days of the week - still doesn't, really - so weekday and weekend mornings were just the same - still are, really. So she could never figure out when her brother and sister were going to be home, and when they weren't. She would check on them just to make sure they were home, and was always surprised, and a little sad, when they weren't.

Night time was even worse. She likes to say good night to everyone before she goes to bed, kisses and hugs and all that, and sometimes, even now, she'll forget that her siblings aren't home. It's less of a stressor now, but when she was two and three, she would cry for her brother and sister, wailing their names because she missed them so much. I guess it was partly the shock of not finding them home, plus not being able to really understand when they would ever be back, or where they were in the first place.

It reminded me of when her big sister would cry for her mom at night. Putting her to bed was always an emotional routine back in those days. There really isn't any logic or magic that can cure it, just touch and time. Just remembering those nights helps me empathize with the baby more, instead of thinking she should suck it up for a night or two.

Fortunately, now that she's four, she doesn't cry at bedtime when her siblings are gone as much, but it still happens. There was one moment just this past week, when she was watching a show that she usually watches with her sister, and that started her crying for her. At first, it was every night when her siblings were at their mom's house, and bad enough that it would break your heart for her to hear it. We tried asking her if she wanted to call them, or even Facetime with them before bed, but she would always refused. We tried it a couple of times, and it sort of calmed her down, but not much. She really didn't want to be on the phone with them or even see them through a screen. She wanted to touch them, to know that they were sleeping down the hall from her, or just on the other side of her closet.

Explaining that they were at their mom's house didn't help much, because the concept was lost on her. If Mommy is here, then this is Mommy's house. So whose house are they at? After she actually met their mom, it made a little more sense, but then again, it probably mixed some other things up as well.

What does your daughter call her half-brother and half-sister's mom?

Auntie? Nope.

Mrs.? Eh.

First name? Definitely not.

Right now we're at peace with "Brother's Mom" or "Sister's Mom," because just saying it like that helps her keep it straight in her head. She's not around their mom enough for it to be awkward, and it's not really different from what she calls her friends' and classmate's moms and dads. For that matter, she calls me "Mommy" or "Teacher" half the time anyway, so who cares.

Then there was the time that both families got together for dinner after my son's high school graduation. Not only was it both sets of parents and step-parents, but grandparents, remarried grandparents, aunties and uncles, and cousins. Add to that some non-related friends who bear the title of "Auntie" and it gets even more confusing. Our little girl mostly sat at the table quietly next to her mom and looked at everyone. After a while of watching everyone getting along, she started quietly playing with the two boys next to her, both a little older. Afterwards, she asked who those boys are, and I'm still not sure how to explain to her that one of them is her sister and brother's cousin, but not hers, and the other one is not related to anyone at the table at all, not adopted, not officially fostered, but generously being raised by members of the family for a while.

In fact, I'm not much of a help, really. Since I'm still stuck in the loop of respect names, I still call half the women at the table Auntie myself. I wonder what the baby thinks of that. One day, maybe soon, her teacher is going to ask her to draw her family tree, and she's going to make a hedge bush about a mile wide.

But as confusing as it must be for her, and, frankly, for me sometimes too, at least it's not angry or tense. Awkward sometimes, yes, like when my ex-wife's mom stops by to pick up the big kids and the baby runs down the driveway to get a hug and a kiss, and sometimes even a gift or two. Or when their grandmother is so friendly and so innocent about all this, she offers to babysit from time to time.

That's awkward, and probably confusing for the baby. But the thing is, it comes from a place of genuine love, and it makes me smile whenever it happens. Maybe there will always be some awkwardness in families like this, and lots of confusion in uncharted waters, but at least there's no fighting. I'd rather see my little girl confused and tripping over what to call everyone, than afraid of her brother and sister's relatives or watching us behave like angry fools.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

A Wise Man Listens to Counsel

"The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man is he who listens to counsel." Proverbs 12:15 (NASB)

When my first marriage started really going badly, and there was talk of moving out and other problems that should have been obvious before were all just bursting into the light, at least for me, I was a wreck for a while. I had been trying to lose weight before that, because I had gotten really big, but right after my now ex-wife moved out, I went from a plateau where I didn't think it was possible to lose any more weight to losing just over 30 pounds in one month. I was just not eating and starting to actually look skinny, and not in a good way. People were amazed at my commitment and results and asked how I was doing it, but since I was so depressed and ashamed of my situation, at first, I didn't tell a soul - at work, at church, or even my own parents - that I was living on my own now with my two kids. So whenever someone would ask how I was losing that weight so effectively, I would just smile the best I could and say something like, "You don't want to know," or "It's really difficult, not for everyone."

It was in that state that I started looking up marriage and family counselors, not because I wanted to, or because I thought it was the right thing to do, or even because I thought it would help. I went to counseling because, when it was all over, whether my marriage worked out or was torn apart, I wanted to be able to look my children in the eyes and tell them that their father did absolutely everything he could to spare them this pain and preserve a whole and loving home for them. I knew someday they would ask about what really went down in those days, and I definitely didn't want to tell them "Well, I did almost everything. There was this one thing I could have done, but it was difficult and embarrassing, and I wasn't sure that I could afford it." So I found a great counselor in Hollywood named Martin Murphy, and he helped me get some insight into the situation, gave me advice on how to deal not only with my then wife, but with my children as well. When it looked like I was going to be coming to these sessions by myself, I asked if I could bring the children, especially because I was starting to feel that this was bringing about positive change for me, and that they could benefit from it as well. Ultimately, there just was no saving the marriage, but I'm not sure where I or my kids would be today if I hadn't made that choice to seek help.

The thing about blended families that we always talk about is that there is so much love and so many different ways to include everyone in a loving home. The thing we don't talk about is that every one of our blended families is born out of pain and failure. Our blended families are built on failed marriages, lost loved ones, deep griefs, and psychological damage. They are fragile. They are tenuous. And, like any fragile but valuable possession, they require constant care and attention.

When I started going to counseling myself, I had already had some negative experiences with therapy and family counseling as a child - nothing so traumatic, but enough to put me off of the idea. In addition, as a Christian, I was waiting for God to deliver my miracle, waiting for the story that I would be telling in testimony time. But when I got desperate enough, none of that mattered. I was already talking to my sister and my pastor, the only two people who know that I was going through this, but the more I talked to them, the more I realized that what I needed was professional, expert help. If my leg were broken, I wouldn't pray about it and call my pastor for advice, because, as wise as he was, he's not trained to deal with broken bones. And unless your pastor is trained to deal with broken marriages, broken homes, and broken hearts, you need to go elsewhere and seek help. Maybe you're thinking that the Bible has every answer for every situation, and that the church is the only place where Christians should go with these problems. If your church has professionally trained family counselors on staff, then definitely take advantage of that, because it's the cheapest and closest help that you're going to find. If they don't, then look elsewhere, and seek professional family counseling, Christian counseling, if you can find it.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't pray about it, and I'm not saying that you shouldn't include your church leadership in the process, but look at it this way:

Your children are suffering.

Think about that fact, because this is your reality now. Your children are suffering and you are on your knees praying about it and seeking help from well-meaning and wise people with no real experience in the specific nature of your children's pain. If your child were choking to death on the floor in your home, you wouldn't drop to your knees or call your pastor. You would tend to your child and call the paramedics, because they, and only they, are trained to deal with this.

Your children are hurt and need professional care.

You are hurt and need professional care.

Maybe you still think that prayer is the answer, and it definitely is part of the answer, no doubt. Pray while you choose a family counselor that will help you heal your family. Pray on the way to each session that this time will be effective and that everyone will leave that room a little closer to healing and wholeness. Pray that you will have the wisdom and the will to follow through with whatever advice the counselor gives you. Pray all you can, but also mobilize your your troops, gather your resources, and get in the fight for your family.

It reminds me of the time that Joshua came back from a crushing loss in Ai. His army had been beaten for the first time, and they had sustained heavy losses. The truth is, it was a bloodbath for Israel, and Joshua didn't know what to do. He was dealing with failure for the first time. Joshua 7 tells us that Joshua, the commander of the army and leader of all of Israel, tore his clothes and fell face down in prayer before the ark of the Lord, and he stayed there praying until he heard God's voice directly. The irony is that when he heard God's voice, it wasn't saying, "Well done, just a few more hours of prayer should do it," or "You're almost there, just pray a little harder." What God said to that leader with his clothes torn and his head buried in prayer was "Stand up! What are you doing on your face?" God told Joshua that there was sin in his camp, that his people were suffering, and that it was his job to gather Israel together, to comfort them, and to use any means to find the problem and solve it, not to spend one more minute in prayer. There is a time for prayer and there is a time for action, and when your family is falling apart around you, your children are suffering, and your home is in jeopardy, it's time for action. It's time to use any means at your disposal to fix the problem, before it's too late.

So, do your research and find a counselor with a good reputation that suits your needs, Christian and otherwise. There are too many good Christian counselors out there who can help to stay home and try to fix it yourself. If you go to a session and don't feel like it's a good fit, then find another one, and another one, until you find the right one. Once you start counseling, give yourself over to wise counsel and follow their advice explicitly, like a student to a teacher. When I was in counseling, just about everything that man told me to do seemed counterintuitive to me, and sometimes, downright crazy. But before I even walked into his office for the first time, I committed myself in my heart to do every single thing he said, without arguing. I figured that if I was so smart and knew what to do, then I wouldn't be dragging my children through this mess in the first place. I can't tell you that everything he prescribed worked in the way I had hoped. My marriage ended, because sometimes they just can't be saved. But even so, I walked away with my sanity and my dignity intact, and the confidence that I really had done everything I could to fix the problem.

Even now, our family goes to counseling on a pretty regular basis. We don't go that often, but we also don't wait for a crisis to arrive before we make an appointment. Sometimes we all go together, sometimes it's just me and my wife, and sometimes one of the big kids might ask to talk to the counselor privately. In the latter cases, if there's anything we need to know as parents, which is usually every time, the counselor calls us in at the end to debrief. Actually, I think this is just an easier way for the kids to tell us certain things with a sort of buffer to protect them from the wrath they think might be coming their way. However it works out, we go, not so much to fix our marriage and family, but to maintain them, because, as God is my witness, I don't ever want to be in a situation like I was before, and I don't want my kids to suffer through that again. All it costs is an hour of our life and a copay that's less then what we spend for us all to eat at McDonald's. If the cost of therapy is keeping you from going, then check with your health care provider to see if you have coverage for mental health or family counseling, and you might be surprised by how little you have to come out of pocket to get the kind of help and expertise that other people are paying ten times as much to get. Failing that, there are plenty of organizations, especially Christian ones, in neighborhoods across the country, that provide affordable or even free counseling. It might take a little more research, or a little more money, but you can get what you need, and it's worth the price and the effort.

There is no shame is reaching out your hand for help when you're drowning. On the other hand, your children will ask you one day what you did to protect them, comfort them, and heal their family in the moment of crisis, and you will want to say that you did everything that you could. Your children will probably love you through all of this, despite their hurt and anger, but you have such a short window of opportunity to make your stand and heal their pain. Once they reach majority age, or leave your house for other reasons, your ability to seek help for them is mostly over. My prayer for all the blended families that I know, and the ones I don't as well, is that you use every tool available to you to fix and maintain your homes, for your sakes as well as for your children.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Happy Mother's Day?

Mother's Day is difficult enough in so many ways. Just buying a present for your wife that somehow says "mom" but not "domestic," with enough of a subtext of "lover" thrown in. I'm not great at buying gifts anyway, which just one of several reasons that we have separate wish lists on Amazon Prime. I swear sometimes I just pick off her list whatever is in the price range and hope that she forgot she put it on there. For blended families, Mother's Day can be even more difficult, to the point of causing stress and putting wedges between family members. Just consider some of the questions that blended families have to negotiate, some of which might be unique to our situation.

The first and probably the most obvious is, do I have to buy my ex-wife a present or card or something? This is a tricky issue, and there are a lot of emotions involved on either side. I personally don't buy a gift for the big kids' mom, but not out of spite or disrespect. My main concern, especially before I married, was that I don't want any gift I give to be misconstrued as anything other than a token of respect for the mother of my children. In our situation, my ex married before I did, so there were a couple of years where those dynamics had to be considered, and for some men, just about anything can be taken as an overture. I usually send a text or phone call, but nothing so tangible that it could serve as an affront to their marriage. I definitely make sure the kids get a present and a card for their mom, and usually their grandmother on that side as well. When they were younger, that always meant providing the money for the gift as well, and taking them shopping, making suggestions. So it's not as if I don't have any involvement in the gifting, even if my name isn't written in the card. Now that the kids have their own money, whether that's wages or allowance, they want to use their own cash to buy the gift. Still, they sometimes ask if I can chip in for something that might be outside their budget, or offer to do something around the house for extra funds. At some point, probably soon, I won't have to be involved in the process at all, but for families with younger children, dad really does have to take the initiative to make sure the kids have gifts for their mom, even if he doesn't want to. Think about it like this - you may not want to go shopping for a gift for your ex, but you definitely don't want your kids to feel ashamed or sad because they don't have anything for their mom, and all of their friends do.

Aside from not wanting to buy a gift because of the effort or expense, or an awkward feeling of separation, what if you just don't think she deserves a gift at all? What if she's just a bad mother, as far as you're concerned, and shouldn't be recognized? First of all, have you considered the possibility that you're just bitter and angry? That you may not be in the best emotional position to judge the parenting skills of a woman who very possibly broke your heart? That said, maybe she really is just a bad mother. Maybe she doesn't deserve recognition. Even so, it's still in your best interests to suck it up and make the kids buy a gift and a card for their mother. Unless their mother is completely AWOL and unreachable, she's doing something maternal with your children. At some point it becomes less about rewarding her parenting skills, and more about teaching your kids about humility and generosity. And if their mother is really that bad, and they know it, then it's an opportunity to teach them about showing love to people who don't deserve it as well. Just the fact that they see you making the effort can show them so much about the attitude they should have towards people who make their lives difficult, about how to combat apathy with love, that you can't afford to miss this opportunity. Besides, if she really is that terrible, then I can guarantee that she makes you sound ten times worse when she talks about you to her friends, or her family, or even maybe to your children. Just strategically, do you really want to give that woman solid evidence of your worthlessness, to shout to all the world? So have the kids buy her a nice gift, and instead of her going on about how their father didn't even get her a card for Mother's Day, she might just focus on the children for a change.

Unfortunately, in many situations, your children might not be able to celebrate Mother's Day with their mom, because she's passed on. When we're lighting candles and throwing streamers, we sometimes forget that holidays aren't always happy occasions for everyone, and can be particularly difficult for some. There's nothing wrong with celebrating Mother's Day with your kids after the death of their mom. It might not make much sense to buy a gift, but buying flowers and making a trip to her grave can be a really good way to help them hold on to the memory of their mom. Putting her picture in a special place on that Sunday, eating her favorite meals, listening to her favorite music or watching videos of her can create very positive traditions out of something very sad. And if it's difficult for you, Dad, just remember two things. First, you'll probably only have to keep this up until they leave your house and continue these traditions for themselves, or don't. Second, it's probably much more difficult for them. Explain this to your wife beforehand, that this is going to be a part of your children's ongoing healing and grieving process, and that while she is the only woman in your life, you share this grief with your kids. Above all, don't just let the day pass unnoticed because you're afraid of stirring up their emotions or making them feel worse by reminding them of their sadness. Trust me, they're going to feel sad either way. Because their mom died.

There's one more issue that might only be unique to our situation, but I'd be willing to bet that there are at least some others dealing with this. What if their mother doesn't even celebrate Mother's Day any more, or other holidays, for religious reasons? I dealt with this myself when my kids' mom changed her religion soon after the divorce, and let the kids know that she didn't celebrate Mother's Day, or birthdays, for that matter. In a situation like that, you end up walking a very fine line between respecting someone's religious beliefs, and honoring your kids' relationship with their mother, and teaching them the joy of generosity and thinking about others. Actually, that's really more of a triangle than a line, but the point is still valid. The decision, I made, right or wrong, was to keep on making the kids buy gifts for Mother's Day, and birthdays too. I didn't want to appear disrespectful to her religious beliefs, but I also felt that not doing anything could appear disrespectful as well. When My daughter once asked why we were even shopping for gifts when he mom doesn't celebrate the day, I told her that we do celebrate it, and that if you have to make a mistake, you make it by being generous. Most people can easily forgive a mistake when they know it's made in love. If there's some concern about a gift being refused, then make it a gift card to a restaurant so they can spend time together, whether it's on that Sunday or some other day. There's lots of cards that can express their feelings without necessarily saying "Happy Mother's Day" on them, and if you can't find one, then have the kids make one.

This kind of thing reminds me of playing tennis with my friends - not because of the competition, even though that does creep into these relationships sometimes. When I play tennis with a couple of my buddies, we definitely are trying to win, but sometimes just finding ourselves in a really good volley is rewarding too, and we even get upset with our opponent for ending one. Hard to believe, but I've found myself yelling across the net, "Dude, how could you miss that? You ruined it!" In the same way, sometimes this is exactly what you have to do. Just return the volley, put the ball back in her court and keep the momentum going. If she fails to return that momentum, then it's not really like you get a point or pull ahead in the ranking - just serve again and do your part to keep the game alive as long as possible.