Sunday, November 5, 2023

Living as a Racial Minority

Growing up in North Miami, I couldn't help but know that I was one of the few white kids in the neighborhood. My parents bought a house they could afford, in an area that was experiencing the tail end of a white flight, and, to their credit, they decided to stay there for over fifteen years and raise their kids there. The education I got at North Miami Senior High (Go Pioneers!) included a lot more than Trigonometry and English Lit. I learned how to navigate the world without the safety net of being in the majority everywhere I went.

I was reminded of my childhood the other day, listening to an episode of the podcast Pass the Mic with Tyler Burns and Jemar Tisby. They did an interview with Michael O. Emerson, author of several books on Christianity and race, including Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. I'm constantly challenged by the Pass the Mic podcast, which tackles controversial issues pertaining to both American society and the Christian Church, but this episode hit home a little more than most. Emerson talked about how he, as a white man, came to some of the conclusions he has about race in America. He said that as a relatively new father, he felt called by God to live as a racial minority. He believed, literally, that God wanted him to uproot his family and seek out a neighborhood, church, and school where he and his children would be some of the very few white folks in the area.

At hearing about his decision, people around him said he was crazy, maybe self-righteous. They questioned whether this was safe, really betraying their views of non-white people. But in the end, he maintains that living as a racial minority gave him and his children a perspective on racial issues that they couldn't have gotten otherwise. 

It reminded me a lot of how I grew up. I don't know if my parents' decision was spiritual, or political, or just economic, but it had the same results. What seemed normal to me growing up - the experiences of my friends, classmates, and neighbors, the languages and other ways of communicating - gave me a sort of inoculation to the things I heard on the news and other media. I remember very clearly hearing Sean Hannity putting President Obama on blast for allowing a "gangster rapper" to perform at the White House. Because this sounded so absurd to me, I looked into it, only to find out he was talking about Common, the least gangster of all rappers in the entire hip-hop history. I could never hear Hannity's voice again without having my guard up, knowing that he would lie to defame anyone not on his side, and all because of the music I listened to growing up. 

I resonated so much with Emerson's experience and his discussion of race and the church that I picked up Divided by Faith and read it. By "read it," of course, I mean I listened to it in the gym and while driving, like I do with pretty much all nonfiction books. In chapter seven, "The Organization of Religion," Emerson tells the story of an African-American pastor in Seattle with a vision for a truly multiracial congregation. Because he wanted to plant this church with forethought and intentionality, he partnered with local pastors of either majority white or Black churches to pitch his idea and call out members willing to charter this new congregation. At first, when the church held its first service, the staff as well as the congregation was split pretty evenly between white and Black folks. Then, as Emerson describes it, "as the church grew, something happened to its mixed-race nature - it disappeared, and the congregation became nearly all African-American" (147). Emerson goes into the reasons why this shift happened, using some very technical social science language, but the gist of it is this: to most white people, a church that is fifty percent Black is a Black church, and they don't want to attend a Black church. The only new members joining the church were Black, and as the balance tipped from the halvsies that the white charter members signed up for, they left. Ironically, the reasons they gave for leaving were mostly that they no longer felt heard or seen, or that they felt the church had lost its vision of diversity. To me, this seems like a really diplomatic way of saying that they wanted to be in a diverse church, only so long as the diversity was kept to a comfortable minimum.

I call this ironic because the thing the white families cited for leaving is the default setting for Black folks in most neighborhoods, churches, or schools. People of color have to navigate spaces of racial and cultural minority all the time, and have learned enough survival skills in that arena to fill volumes. But, generally, the example of this church, among others, the history of white flight in America, and the current hysteria over immigration all show that white folks simply refuse to remain in spaces where they are not the majority, where most of the faces they see reflect their own back at them. And even then, whenever Black folks carve out spaces for themselves, little enclaves where they can experience the majority existence that white folks take for granted, they are met with suspicion and derision. The new thing is to call these spaces and organizations racist, or reverse racist, or whatever, whether they are HBCU's, Black caucuses in politics, or other Black organizations.

I would have loved to hear the exit interviews of those white charter members of that Seattle church. Reportedly, all those families went to majority-white churches. I'm sure the pastor was a good and wise man, and certainly hopeful and well-meaning for embarking on such a difficult vision. I'm sure he listened to all the concerns and complaints of the white families leaving his church, all the talk of not feeling heard, being pushed to the margins and out of the loop. I'm sure he looked them in the eye and told them that while he wished they would stay, he prays nothing but the best for them, and made one request. I'm sure he asked them to remember how the last few months or years felt, the feeling of being a minority, of being a little late to the party or left out of the inside jokes. I'm sure he asked them to take that feeling to their new church, and look out for the handful of Black members there, since that's probably their exact situation, as long as they want to be the "diversity" in so-called diverse churches.

Monday, October 16, 2023

I Told You So

My daughter is a single mom. Whether she wants it or not, she's got parents, step-parents, grandparents, godparents, uncles, aunties, and play-aunties giving her advice about how to navigate this phase of life. Sometimes she follows that advice, and sometimes she doesn't. Sometimes the advice she gets from one learned elder differs greatly from what the others tell her. Sometimes she listens to me, and sometimes she chooses the counsel of people I disagree with. And sometimes, she throws out everyone's wisdom and follows her own path.

Sometimes when she rejects my advice, always graciously, of course, is easy for me to get judgmental and annoyed with her. How could she fail to see the vastness of my experience, the superiority of my insight? At least that's what I tell myself. When she takes that road less traveled by and finds nothing but thorns and dead ends, I'm always there to guide her back and provide her the love and support to keep pushing forward.

But that little voice inside.

I can't help it. That little, insidious voice inside me wants to say it, or at least to make her know it without me saying it. I told you so. You should have listened to me. If you had just taken my sage advice, you wouldn't be in this mess.

But I'm learning to shout down that voice. I'm learning that my daughter might be right for questioning my judgment sometimes, that her situation is different from mine, and that what worked for me might not work for her, or just might not be attainable at the moment. After all, I was married to her mother for fourteen years. As far as I knew it at the time, I was doing everything right, everything the elders told me to do to be a good parent, to have a good marriage. Stayed in the church, check. Married Christian, check. Wait until marriage, difficult, but check. Be ambitious at work and a leader at home, double check. And then after fourteen years of ticking all the right boxes, reading all the right books, and listening to all the right people, I ended up a divorced single parent, exactly where she is now. On second thought, not exactly where she is, because while I was older, degreed, with more earning potential, I had fewer years ahead of me and so much more baggage to unpack and lessons to unlearn. So much less potential, in a way.

And after looking around with those older eyes, that unpacked heart, and a willingness to really see, I discovered that a lot of the people I counted on - the books, the elders, the experts, the play-aunties - didn't know what they were talking about half the time. I saw marriages that looked polished and perfect that were really cold and sometimes miserable when you peeked through the cracks. I saw parents who looked like geniuses with dutiful kids, only to see those same kids flee their homes to run amok in the far country like prodigal sons. And I saw that everybody is doing their best.

My daughter became a mother way too young, but now she's at the age I was when I first became a father. Looking back, I can't say I knew any more about parenting, or that I did a better job. Just about every parent I talk to about these matters has regrets, things they wish they had known, things they wish they had done better, including me. And just about every child I talk to has grievances against their parents, hurts and resentments that they have either reconciled and forgiven or still hurt over, including me. Including my own kids.

But the thing about having much older and much younger kids is that they don't all have the same parents. The older ones joke about how the littles have it so good, how the littles get to do stuff and have stuff that the older ones begged for, how they have a whole different home life than they remember. And they're not wrong. I'm still making mistakes, still learning the craft, and still hoping for grace and forgiveness, even as I grow and improve as a parent. More than that, I'm still giving advice to my older kids as they're making decisions about their relationships and their own kids.

Still advising, but not judging.

Because while my life is much better now, and, hopefully, so are my parenting skills, most of what I know now I've earned with many failures and years of painful setbacks. The older kids lived through it with me, but there's so much we don't let our children see, so much we don't let them know about what's going on with us. There's so much that we ourselves don't understand about why we parent the way we do, why we listen to one voice and reject another, so how can we teach that to anyone?

In the end, my hope is that my advice is true, because it's certainly well-intended. I also hope that all the elders in my kids life, from the grandparents to the play-aunties, are not only insightful but honest with them, and that my kids listen to the right ones at the right times, even if the right one isn't me. Last, I hope they forgive us all.

Monday, September 25, 2023

How Do You Say Potato in Sign Language?

Kids are curious. They get you hemmed up and pepper you with rapid-fire questions, most of which have highly philosophical answers, and expect you to juts know everything. It's daunting and sometimes annoying, but it can serve a purpose as well.

For the past few years, I've been trying to learn more languages. I've been at least conversational in Spanish since I was a kid, partly because of taking the subject in school and partly because of growing up in North Miami. But when we moved out of the neighborhood, I worried that I might have fewer opportunities to speak it, so I joined Duolingo and started working on it a few minutes a day. Then, as I started realizing how many people around me speak Haitian Creole, I started working on that, too. Duolingo has a new module on Kreyol now. Pretty basic, but a great starting place.

In addition to those languages, I've been trying to learn ASL. At first, it was because the interpreter at my previous church got injured and couldn't sign for so long anymore. I'd already been interested in learning, so I decided to make a study plan and try to get ready to fill in for her. I mean, I'm pretty good with languages, I'm committed, so how hard could it be?

Apparently, really hard.

Three years later, I can sign well enough to have a conversation, so long as the person is really interested in food, animals, clothing, or our feelings. There are a lot of local and online classes, as well as YouTube channels and apps that teach the language. Lately, I've been using an app called ASL Bloom that's been really effective for me. I just work on it a little every day, and I'm getting better.

This is where the littles come in, the ones I affectionately call, "The Riddlers." The best way to learn something is to teach it to someone who knows less than you do. With that strategy in mind, I started buying them children's books in Spanish and Kreyol, as well as some resources in ASL. It caught on like a grease fire in a motel diner. My four-year-old now knows her ASL alphabet, and she's constantly asking how to spell things. (Helpful Note: She thinks spelling and signing are the same thing. We're working on that, too.) Whenever she gets a word stuck in her little head, she asks me to spell it, and she's pretty accurate. If we're in the car, I can just fingerspell where she can see it, and she gets it pretty much every time. It helps that I'm pretty slow at fingerspelling. We can even sing the alphabet song on the way home from school - her singing and me trying to keep up with signing. If we're at home or somewhere that we won't die if I use both hands, I'll spell the word for her, and then show her the sign for the word. If I don't know the sign, then I have to look it up, but that's the beauty of giving in to her constant questions. I'm forced to learn something or look stupid to the one person who still thinks I know everything, she gets to use her brain and her fine motor skills, and we have a little something in common.

In fact, she's learned enough signs now, beyond the basic baby signs she learned before she could talk (want, milk, more), that we can communicate a little, just between us. We were sitting across a table at a party a while ago, loud music forcing everyone to shout their conversations, and the two of us were able to communicate about the food, just she and I. It helps that food is one of my go-to subjects for vocabulary. 

We can also play tricks on people. Anytime someone comments on how smart she is, I tell them she's a champion speller. Just give her any word to spell, no matter how long, and she can spell it. The mark always gets so hypnotized with the four-year-old spelling a word like excellent or birthday, they don't even notice me behind them fingerspelling the word for her.

Sometimes, she turns the questions up to eleven, or the other littles are with us, and I get outnumbered. Sometimes, they want to know how to say the word in ASL, then Spanish, then Kreyol. I have to keep the apps in my quick access tray on my phone when they get together. It's like a flipped classroom, but instead of the materials being switched, it's the people. They challenge me to remember what I should already know, and force me to learn new words and signs to keep up with their voracious appetite. And that's the best thing about it. Not only are they keeping me on track with my quest for language learning, but they're also keeping that same fire alive in themselves. Most kids lose that curiosity and stop demanding to know things once they start school, but I'm hoping that indulging them will hold off that decay just a little longer. But if I can harness all that curious energy and channel it to my benefit, they might grow to love learning before homework sucks the joy out of it.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

See Our Tea

I spent Labor Day weekend in one of my favorite places. Disney World. In fact, I dipped into that PTO stash, pulled the kids out of school for a couple of days, dashed up to Orlando on Wednesday evening, and checked into our hotel to make an extra long weekend out of it. We had my daughter and the grand-kids there, all of us celebrating a few September and October birthdays, including my fiftieth (hard to believe, I know). Then, the craziness started. My brother's family from Florida, my sister's family from Minneapolis, and even my aged parents from Kansas all surprised me on Friday, ambushing me in the theme park. We rolled through Epcot, twenty-three deep, a surprise birthday party/family reunion with everyone from the two-year-old talking to Crush the sea turtle to ninety-one-year-old Grandpa scooting around on his motorized chair.

And we do look a sight together, strolling through the international pavilions, from France to Mexico, with our international party. My Jewish, second-gen immigrant mother, my Jamaican and white American daughter, my African-American wife, the light-skinned mixed kids and the dark-skinned mixed grand-kids. Then my sister's family, with her half-Japanese husband and her kids, some mixed and some Zambian. Pretty much everyone biracial in some way or another.

Rides got crushed, snacks got devoured, tantrums got thrown (but only a couple, and only one was from a kid), and then it was time to go. Usually, our exit from Disney World is pretty nostalgic, saying goodbye to the big banner sign on our way out and talking about our favorite rides and best memories. This time was different, and far less nostalgic.

This time Nazis camped around the sign, shouting obscenities and waving around hate symbols.

Just a couple of days before our vacation, a racist attacked customers and workers at a Dollar Store in Jacksonville, after being turned away from an HBCU, where he could have caused so much more terror and bloodshed. Our governor held a press conference to deliver a weak statement about it, and got roundly booed for his efforts. 


He and his office have spent years attacking Black history in the school system, watering down the teaching of the history of slavery, trying to highlight its "benefits" to the enslaved. He's been a one-man army against the boogeymen of "wokeness" and "CRT," which he seems to think is the biggest threat to kids today. But, to paraphrase that famous statement from Muhammad Ali, wokeness didn't round up my ancestors in concentration camps and murder them. CRT didn't string up my wife's ancestors. Or, more recently, CRT didn't fire my wife from an accounting firm because she decided to go natural with her hairstyle soon after Obama's inauguration, coincidentally, and some perceived her new look as a "statement." No, white supremacy did that, and in his speech, the governor, after years of winking at it, couldn't even name it as such.

All I hear on the subject is the concern that teaching the truth about slavery, about the history of racism in our country, will make white kids feel bad. I'm starting to think it's not so much about preventing white kids from feeling bad, as it is about preventing kids of color, especially Black kids, from feeling good. Where is the concern for my kids, grand-kids, nieces, and nephews? How are they supposed to feel when their history is attacked, censored, and watered down so that their classmates don't have to be inconvenienced by the truth? How can they even celebrate the resilience and strength of their ancestors, which CRT opponents love to point to, if they're denied access to the knowledge of what those ancestors overcame, not just in their classrooms, but libraries and other venues as well?

Who's concerned about my eighty-seven year old mother, the daughter of a Jewish woman who fled Germany during Hitler's rise to power, having to see the very symbols of that hatred, hear the same slogans and curses, that forced her family to leave their home in the first place?

I'm hearing a lot of concern, from the governor and from others like him, about math books being too woke, or beers being trans, or kids feeling bad about learning of the atrocities of slavery and apartheid in this country, but I haven't heard him or them stating any concerns about the Nazis who have been so emboldened lately that they publicly shout their hate from overpasses, park entrances, and street corners, in dozens of instances.

This is why I'm opting out of the culture wars. The major threat to my family right now does not involve bathroom choices or SEL in science textbooks. I'm becoming numb to any politician shouting about wokeness and CRT, partly because I'm not convinced that they even know what those words mean, and partly because I can't hear them over the literal Nazis shouting threats to my family and waving swastika flags. 

Sunday, August 20, 2023

You're Not My Mom

You're not my mom.

It's one of the most common fights in blended families. The step-parent makes a move to discipline, correct, or otherwise parent a step-child, and inadvertently triggers rage and rebellion that can sour the home and weaken the bonds between every single person in the family towards everyone else. Sometimes, the pain and fear of divorce, grief, and change are so strong that even a positive reinforcement on the part of the new parent - a hug, an affirmation, a kindness - can be met with hostility and withdrawal. It's like trying to cross a minefield with snowshoes on.

We had a couple of years of this cycle of rage. My kids made mistakes, my wife made mistakes, I made mistakes. I often felt trapped in the middle, like a UN negotiator trying to sort out a peace treaty between warring nations, except both nations think of me as a countryman. We prayed, we loved, we got professional counseling, and things got better. Ultimately, it took some maturing on the part of everyone involved, including myself, and even some relocation and time apart, but I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we're a real family now.

But they still don't call my wife "Mom."

And I don't really want them to. We already went through the war of the names, what everyone is supposed to call everyone else without hurting someone else's feelings. When the dust settled, my oldest daughter put it in the best words possible. In one family meeting, after discussing all those years of strife and reconciliation, she said to my wife, her stepmother, as best I can quote it, "You're not my mother, because I only have one, but you are my parent, and I know you love me and want the best for me."

It was so wise, I wish I had thought of it myself. I've been thinking about it for the past three years or so, since she said it. Maybe this wisdom came through her own motherhood and learning to rely on others in the process, or maybe she's just got it like that, but, I swear, this one way of thinking is going to change our bloodline for the better for generations. 

It's not just about making peace within the home, or reconciling with a stepparent. When you really tease out the implications of such an idea, that one doesn't have to be a biological mother or father to be a parent, it has such wide-spread ramifications on the family culture. Because if I can adopt that mindset, it opens me up to accept other people as parents as well. I'm still parenting my grown children who have left the home, even if it looks different now than when they were younger. I'm also parenting my younger children, ages ten and four. But beyond that, I'm parenting my grandchildren. They know that Papa is fun, but he don't take no mess. Rather than undermine my daughter and their father by subverting their rules and parenting, I'm trying to co-parent with them and create a community of parents, a league of superheroes all trying to protect and guide the littles through life. 

My kids and grand-kids are growing up with the idea that they have so many parents that not only aren't their mother and father, but aren't related to them. Sure, they understand, in their way, that their grandparents (and step-grandparents!) are parents as well, but they will also see their uncles and aunties, some of them biological and some of them "play-aunties," as parents. When they're at school, they'll see their teachers as parents, there to care for them and correct them. Even some elders in the church or community are their parents, in their own limited way. It feels like something we lost along the way to the nuclear family parade, where we only recognize and celebrate the immediate biological connections between adults and children, and not the broader cultural and social ones.

Of course, there have to be boundaries. Our kids need to also know that they can trust their instincts about grown-ups and listen to their own "creep-alarm" when it goes off in their heads. There's a hierarchy at work here, and the custodial parents have the fullest rights and the fullest responsibilities over their children. And, I'm aware, even in my own experience, that investing too much respect for elders can also cripple a child.

I had an experience just the other day that made me think about the need to sometimes push back against elders who are just flat wrong. It was kind of a minor dispute, but it really forced me to challenge my thinking about elders. I was at the movies with my wife, something we rarely get to do because of a lack of available babysitters. When we got into the theater, this old man and his wife were in our seats. When I gently informed him he was in the wrong seat, he got huffy and said, "What's the difference?"

See, you have to understand, I've always had an intense respect for elders, especially old people. I can't say if this is a generational thing, or a church, thing, or a personal thing, but talking back to elders is just very difficult for me. I'd rather humble myself than disrespect an old person, and sometimes, that means I'm getting taken advantage of.

But not this time.

After I took a second to really process his audacity, I calmly explained the difference to him. Mainly, the difference is that I picked and paid for those seats because they're good seats, which is probably why he decided to poach them and refuse to get up. But he had me at a disadvantage, because if he won't get up and move voluntarily, my only options are putting hands on him or snitching to the manager, and neither one seemed right to me. Since he continued to be unreasonable, I told him, without yelling, but loudly enough so that people around would hear, that out or respect, I was going to take the seats a little down the same row, but that what he was doing wasn't cool. I told him, for everyone to hear, that we don't live in the days of the Royale twin screen cinema where it's first-come, first-served and the popcorn is fifteen cents a bucket. I told him, furthermore, that if I end up taking someone else's seat, and they come for it, then I'm going to have to find a way to make him move. He accepted those terms. In a minute, someone else did come, and he ended up moving, with all twelve or so people in the theater jeering at him while the previews started. I was pretty proud of myself, and only wish that my wife had been there to see my heroic, diplomatic handling of the situation, but she had stepped out to the lobby to put a literal bucket of fake butter on her bucket of popcorn.

The whole experience made me question one thing:

How old do I have to get to be able to just punch an old man in the face and it not be considered elder abuse? I mean, I'm about to turn fifty, so when is it gonna be just two old dudes working something out?

But seriously, it did make me proud for a minute, to be able to show respect to someone old enough (barely) to be my father, but also advocate for myself without Karening down the hall to the manager. This is what I want to raise my kids and grand-kids with. I want them to think of their older family members, teachers, and community elders as parents, worthy of respect and sources of wisdom and guidance, regardless of their biological connections. But I also want them to be able to advocate for themselves, to set fair boundaries and speak up when those boundaries are violated. I want them to think of their step-parents as parents, and their grandparents and uncles and aunties and play-uncles and play-aunties and teachers as well. But I also want them to have the courage and diplomacy to be able to say to any of them, "I don't like that," or "you crossed the line there," or even "this is not cool, and I'm not prepared to tolerate it." And I want them to be able to do this without escalating the situation into a screaming match with the repeated refrain of "You're not my mom!"

Now that I see that in writing, it looks like a gargantuan task. 

But as daunting as it is, I still think it's the goal, and I know that my kids and grand-kids have the best possible team around them, with the skills to get them there. At the front lines, they have their custodial parents, obviously, but behind and supporting them, they have generations of parents, a wealth of wisdom and love to see them through.

And if they ever have to say to one of their "parents," or even one of their parents, that a boundary has been crossed and they feel violated, there are enough of us to sort that out in their best interest.

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Run, and Don't Look Back

Interracial relationships can be a blessing, can fill your life with new perspective and adventure, but they can also be hard. My experience in marriage has been pockets of time that, sometimes years in a row, where toxicity from external sources never pops up, only to be followed by an incident that brings the focus right back onto the differences and difficulties. We've been married for eleven years now, and, praise God, we've never had internal toxicity regarding race. But sometimes, I think that the long stretches of ease lull us into a false comfort zone that makes the racism and toxicity feel like it comes out of nowhere, when we probably should have been expecting it.

It could be a micro-aggression, a little snide remark or insinuation, especially hurtful if it's from someone who knows us. Or it could be full-blown hostility, especially with the way racial issues are ramping up these days, and especially in Florida. But, again, thank God, we have each others' backs. However, a recent story on Twitter reminded me that not everyone is so lucky.

Sometimes the call is coming from inside the house.

Reddit post entitled "My boyfriend called me the hard R." In short, a Black woman in a relationship with a white man accidentally dented his truck and he called her a racial slur. They've been together three years, apparently with no incident of racism, but he says that stress and anger caused him to slip and say it. He apologized afterwards and tried to be affectionate, but she's hurt and thinking of ending the relationship.

Sorry for the language there, but it really expresses her pain. I can't even imagine the hurt. I wonder if this woman had signs leading up to this, red flags that she either didn't see or ignored, and I remind myself that I've missed a few red billboards in the past, so no judgment. But, and I've said it before, interracial dating or marriage does not make one anti-racist. It doesn't even mean the person is simply not racist. There are a lot of reasons why a white person might choose to date or even marry outside of their race, and, as counterintuitive as it might sound, racism is one of them.

I actually hope that doesn't make sense to you. I hope that idea makes you scratch your head in bewilderment, because that might imply that the racist reasoning here is just irrational, and you're too good a person to think that way. But I've seen it so many times. Let me break it down.

If a person thinks of the romantic relationship as a partnership between equals, two souls connected by the bonds of love and attraction, together seeking mutual goals as well as supporting each other as individuals, then the idea of choosing a mate with racist intentions seems stupid, counterproductive, as well as obviously evil. On the other hand, consider that not everyone approaches relationships that way. There are a lot of wicked folks out there whose primary goal in dating or marriage is finding someone they can dominate. If that's their mindset, then it makes perfect (evil) sense for them to choose someone they think is inferior, beneath them.

In the situation this woman posted, she's been dating this man for three years, and yet it took this accident to really bring out the racism in him. He reacted harshly, not just with anger for someone who damaged a possession of his, but with the full force of his racism poured out on someone he thinks of as inferior. Nobody says that racial slur out of anger who hasn't already said it many times out of a racist mentality.

Here's the punchy pull quote in case you're just skimming this post:

Nobody says that racial slur out of anger who hasn't already said it many times out of a racist mentality.

The fact that this bullet is loaded in the chamber means it's already part of his arsenal. The girlfriend says that this guy has never said anything racist before in three years of dating, but I'd bet, at least I hope, that she's been replaying a lot of conversations in her mind lately to test that theory. Even if it wasn't specifically racist, how can she get away from the idea that he thinks of her as inferior? 

So here's my advice to this woman, this child of God, and anyone in the same predicament:

Turn that ship around and head back to port, because you're just seeing the tip of the iceberg.

Run, and don't look back.

Head for the hills, whence cometh your help.


She's not married to this person, and doesn't seem to have any kids for him, which is a blessing. Otherwise, it would be a whole lot more complicated. As it is, she can break up with him, block his number and socials, and knock the dust of him off her feet. 

To be clear, it is not her job to fix this, if it can be fixed at all. It is not incumbent upon her to put herself in the way of emotional danger one second more. She doesn't have to figure out how to let him down easy, or weigh the pros and cons, because, I guarantee, she hasn't seen even half the cons yet. It takes a few seconds to break up with someone who isn't your spouse, and there's a whole lot of life on the other side of that conversation, too much to spend one more minute attached to him. I'm not saying it would be easy. If they're living together, I hope she's got family or friends, a place to go immediately for shelter and encouragement enough to face the days ahead. 

Some might point to his excuse about stress, and I would refer them to the classy pull quote in the box above. Even if I bought that line, which I do not, why would I want to be involved, maybe even married, to someone whose go-to reaction to stress is to pour racist vitriol on their partner? Over a truck? Others might point to how sorry he was afterwards, how affectionate. Of course he is, because that's classic abusive behavior. They brutalize someone, and then stroke the wounds they inflicted to keep the victim on the hook. What really happened is a racist, abusive partner dropped the facade a little too soon, before he had a firm legal grip on her, and she got a glimpse of what he really is. The proper reaction when you see the wolf's teeth sticking out from under the sheep's skin is not to consider your options, or to try to look at it from the wolf's perspective, with all the stress he's under. The proper response is to run, rabbit, run. 

Lastly, for anyone considering getting into an interracial relationship, I want to emphasize that this is not normal. There will be plenty of issues and obstacles, but this ain't supposed to be one of them. This is not something to work through, or go to counseling together to resolve. This is a dealbreaker, something to flee from. There are too many threats from outside to have to worry about threats from the person who's supposed to be fighting for and beside you.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

The Butcher, The Baker, The Memory Maker

Every Saturday, I do the grocery shopping in the morning, and I take the littles with me. It gives my wife some quiet time, and we genuinely love those times together. Our eleven-year-old doesn't come any more, because she's too big for such shenanigans now, so she stays home and gets her chores done. But back in the day, when she was young and didn't care what people thought about her, she used to love grocery shopping day. These days, it's just me and the four-year-old, except on those weekends when our granddaughter sleeps over, when it's two four-year-olds. Once again, that's me and two (2) four-year-old girl BFF's who haven't seen each other for a couple of weeks.

It starts around nine or ten in the morning with a treat. Usually, it's a doughnut or a muffin, but some days require a full breakfast from the drive-through. When our four-year-old was too young to know the difference, and, more importantly, too young to tell on me, we used to get some fancy stuff, but lately, we've been trying to save money to move into a new place, so we've scaled back considerably.

With our breakfast treats eaten and bodies sufficiently energized for the grocery run, we jump out at our first stop. See, one of our money-saving tactics is using two different grocery stores - the cheap one with four letters in the name for everything we can get there, and then Publix for anything else, and especially the sale items. 

If you don't have a Publix near you, I feel bad for you, son. Moment of silence.

Anyway, if I had to choose two words to describe grocery shopping with the littles, those words would be - beautiful chaos. There's lots of singing and dancing involved, lots of exciting adventures in the produce aisle, and lots of opportunities to meet new people who may or may not like little kids. The chaos amplifies on those sleepover weekends, as does the beauty. When they were too small to walk or keep up on foot, they used to sit in the cart together and sing their nursery rhyme songs at the top of their lungs, call out the numbers and letters they see like Sesame Street characters, and greet every single person they see.

It's hard to explain what these greetings involve, because I don't want to give the impression that they just say "hello" to people. It's more like an observation mission, but out loud. Basically, they name what the person is doing or call out some interesting fact about their appearance. It's led to a lot of conversations about boundaries and indoor voices and how some people are different. I really want to believe those conversations have been fruitful in teaching them how to interact with people, but just a few weeks ago, they saw a man wearing an eye-patch, and one of the girls is super into pirates, so ....

Another example of what I mean by "greetings" just happened this weekend when a woman passed us in the aisle and my daughter asked me, quite loudly, if I was "looking at that woman." 

I gave up on holding hands almost a year ago, and just let them run free, because that's less stressful for all of us. There are some rules, however, and the penalty for breaking them is time out in the shopping cart. The rules are as follows:

1) Stay out of people's way, and say excuse me if you make a mistake.

2) Don't get in front of my cart, or I might run you over.

3) Also, don't get behind me, or I might step on you or fall over you. There's a zone near my hips and beside the cart that's a safe area.

4) Don't touch anything without asking, and if it can break, don't even get near it.

As wild and loud as they can get, they really don't break the rules, much.

Now, within those rules, there's lots of room for fun. Some examples of this are as follows:

1) Using bananas as phones and shout/talking to each other about ordering pizzas while giggling uncontrollably.

2) Using bananas as magic wands and casting spells at each other while giggling uncontrollably.

3) Using bananas for almost anything and giggling uncontrollably. It's a good thing I can use bruised bananas in my smoothies.

4) Pretending to be Spider-Man villains, and running up to strangers, shouting things like "We're doing evil!" and "We have evil plans!", except none of the strangers have any idea what they're talking about. 

5) One girl talks to the characters on the cereal boxes and the other does their voices in return.

6) Taking a number from the butcher's station, even, and especially, when we're not getting anything from the butcher.

7) My favorite game is when we're at the cashier. It's called "Stay in the Square," and the girls have to pick a square tile to stand in without talking and without stepping out. Whoever steps out loses. Best game ever.  

But it's not all fun and games. There are a lot of valuable life lessons involved as well. The most obvious is that they learn that we make a meal plan, a grocery list, and stick to that list when we go grocery shopping. We buy healthy food because it's good for our bodies. The girls get to pick one drink for everyone, and one candy for everyone, but every other item in the cart has a purpose. 

They learn to talk to the bakers and the butchers and use their manners. In Publix, where everything is more expensive, but nobody rushes you and everyone is really nice, they give away cookies and stuff to little kids. The girls have to walk up to the counter on their own and say please and thank you, and if they know the bakers' names, call them Miss or Mister. If the butcher isn't too busy, they can ask for a slice of cheese or ham or something, and practice patience, empathy, and manners over there. Honestly, they get so much free stuff everywhere they go, just based on the fact that they're two adorable, well-behaved, but chaotic little girls with brilliant smiles.

They learn the names of all the fruits and vegetables, and everyone seems so impressed that they can name every single item in the produce section - the artichokes, radishes, scallions, cabbages, dragonfruit (another giggly favorite), carrots, and bell peppers. I do sometimes wonder if the other shoppers would be as impressed if they had to walk around with them every week while they name every single item in the produce section, but I'm glad it gets them positive attention.

Another thing they learn on these trips, at least in their own little ways, is how they fit in the world, how often people will have expectations of them, and how important it is to know who they are so that those expectations don't define them.

One other game they like to play with people is something we could call "what are you?" It starts when somebody assumes that they're sisters. Maybe it's one of the bakers who asks, "Does your sister want a cookie, too?", because my granddaughter can be a little shier sometimes. See, they don't look alike, at all, except that they're clearly about the same age (just eight months difference) and clearly very close. They're both mixed, but my daughter is very light-skinned with blue eyes and tight curls, while my granddaughter is brown-skinned with brown eyes and long, thick hair that's barely wavy. Still, most people ask if they're sisters, and they answer with a loud "NOOOO" and a bunch of giggles, because they know what's coming and it's one of their favorite games. Then starts the guessing.


"Nooooo." Giggles.


"Nooooo." Giggles.

This is when the stranger runs out of guesses, gets that stumped look, and asks, "Then what are you?"

One of them, usually my daughter, the more outgoing one, grabs the other and shouts, "She's my niece/auntie!" Deluge of giggles.

The person looks from them to me, because it's probably unexpected, and also because they act so silly and play so many jokes on people as it is. That's when I confirm and tell them a little about our family.

If I'm being really honest, the whole morning takes a lot out of me. Aside from the actual chores of the shopping, and at two different stores even, there's the mental energy of keeping track of the girls, although they're hard to lose, with all the non-stop singing and giggling. They have a million questions about what they see and what they want. Then, if they've behaved themselves in the grocery store, they get to spend ten minutes in the pet store next door looking at animals they can't have, petting other people's dogs (after asking first), and creating havoc over there as well.

Those poor birds must hate to see those noisy kids coming.

But despite the fact that I need to lay down after we get back and put the stuff away, I wouldn't trade that time for anything. If my granddaughter is coming over at all on Saturday, I ask my daughter to bring her before we head out, so she can come too, and I've been known to delay the trip until she gets there. It's not like going to Disney World or camping or any of those other trips and activities that we think of as bonding times, but I know we're making memories. We don't spend any more money than we normally would on groceries, and we talk about boring stuff like healthy foods, budgets, and good manners, but we have fun together, and the girls get to explore their community and learn how to interact with all sorts of people. As much as it saps my energy, I look forward to it every week, and I know the girls do, too, and the people at the stores seem to brighten up when we walk in.

The birds, not as much.

Sunday, June 25, 2023

Queries and Colorless Flowers

It's been a little more than a month since the launch of my debut novel, and I've had some time to reflect. Generally, I feel like I don't know what I'm doing, and just trying, every day, to do a little something with the tools I have to promote this book, to get it in front of readers and get them to share it with others, via reviews or social media or recommendation.

And it's a lot, frankly.

But as overwhelming as it's been, I know that I have good people at my publisher, Indigo River Publishing, ready to help as much as they can, and I also know that I'm learning a lot about the industry. One thing I'm learning is not to listen to certain people.

For instance, one saying that really scared me from the very start was "Never pay to get published." I just read a whole Reddit thread on that subject. It was mainly about hybrid publishing, which was my path to getting published, and the reason I was reading the thread. Overall, the responders really seemed to think they had ended the conversation with that old mantra - "Never pay to get published." 

And I know, I'm still a novice in the publishing industry, still learning a lot every day. After publishing Thy Father's Glass (available now!), I decided to try to get an agent for my next novel, aim for the majors.

So I wrote a query letter, a bad one, then hired an editor and former agent to help make it a good one. I hit the query trenches, which I learned is a very apt metaphor for that aspect of the writer's journey. I say that because querying really does feel like a defensive position, like being inundated with wave after wave of rejection, looking for brief opportunities to shoot your shot before hunkering down in the trench again, next to your comrades in arms. 

Another way to describe querying is that it's like a poem titled "La Flor del Aire" by Gabriela Mistral. In the poem, the speaker encounters a mysterious woman of the meadow. The woman tells the speaker to climb the mountain and bring her white flowers, which the speaker does. Upon giving the woman the white flowers, she turns white, just like they are. Unsatisfied, however, the woman sends the speaker after red flowers, then yellow flowers, each time taking them and changing color, and each time remaining unsatisfied, until she makes one final, impossible demand, "cortarás las sin color," cut the ones with no color. And somehow, incredibly, the speaker does it! She cuts flowers from the air, creating them as she collects them, to satisfy this demanding, enigmatic woman of the meadow.

There are two reasons this poem reminds me of querying. The first is that I'm pretty sure I don't fully understand either one. The second is that querying makes me feel like the speaker in the poem, constantly catering to a demanding audience, all the while wondering if they really know what they want, or if what they want is even possible.

So, I followed all the rules and stipulations about query letters and cover letters and ten, twenty, or fifty page samples - also sometimes five, for some reason. I sent out a lot of queries, an even hundred over the course of three months, and now, I'm just watching the rejections, with some smattering of interest, roll in. At the same time, I'm getting an education in different paths to publication. And, while I admit that I'm still green here, all of this experience has taught me at least one thing.

If you want to get published, you are going to have to pay someone.

The old saying, "never pay to get published," is misleading, and downright impossible. There is no question, if you get published, you will be paying someone. The real question is who you'll be paying, how much, what for, and for how long.

For instance, you could self-publish. Some writers have been very successful this way, and some have simply put a bad book in print so they can add that "accomplishment" to their resume. But assuming you really have a great novel you want to self-publish, and I know of many, you will have to pay a lot of people to make that happen. You'll pay editors to polish the manuscript, graphic artists to design the covers and pages, printers to actually bring the book out of the ether into the physical realm. You'll pay for marketing and promotion and everything that a traditionally published author would expect their publisher to cover. Did you know it costs money just to get an ISBN number? It's a lot of work and expense, and I respect anyone who has the patience and the faith in their work to go this route.

At the other end of the publishing spectrum, you have the big five. Or is it four now? Things change so quickly. If you are one of the chosen few who actually leap out of the query trenches, charge the cannons, and get an agent to represent you, that agent will shop your work around to a very small group of editors and aqcuistions departments at a shrinking number of major publishers. If they are good at their jobs, and the market is starving for the genre of novels you write, and your word count isn't too high or too low and your inciting incident is in the first ten pages and the stars align in your favor, then you have a chance at getting an advance from the publisher and a contract. Unlike a self-published author, who would generally get all of the profits from sales, you'll get royalties to the tune of five to ten percent. 

And out of the meager share of the profits from the book you wrote with your own brain, you'll pay your agent ten to fifteen percent for their (genuinely crucial and difficult) job of selling your book to pubishers and possibly managing your career. While that sounds like a scam, consider that while the publisher is taking the lion's share of the profits, they are also paying for all those pesky bills that pop up when a book makes its way to readers - editing, design, marketing, distribution, among others. It's a long shot, but it's generally what we think of when we imagine the life of a career writer. 

But don't be fooled. You are paying to get published. You pay your agent, in perpetuity, for selling your book, and very often, they really don't have to do much else after the publishing contract is signed. Some do, some don't.

Somewhere on the road from self-publishing to traditional publishing with an agent's help is hybrid publishing. This is where the idea of paying for publication gets tricky. Hybrid publishers, and there are good ones and bad ones, like to say that they partner with authors. What that means is that when the publishing contract is signed, the author puts up some money, generally nowhere near enough to actually publish a book, but enough to take some of the initial burden off the publisher. Essentially, you are publishing with a smaller press, definitely not one of the big five, or four, with fewer resources. You shouldn't have to pay for everything, just one negotiable sum at the beginning, and in return, you generally get far more control over your work, and much higher royalties.

As an example of the difference between royalties in hybrid and big five publishing, let's just say that you're concerned that a smaller, possibly hybrid, publisher could never market as effectively as one of the majors. You'd be absolutely right, but here's the thing. That agented author, who gets about five percent royalties, has to sell ten times the number of books that I do to make the same money. 

And I don't have to share mine with an agent.

So, in response to someone who says "never pay to get published," I would say that everyone pays to get published. Every path to publication costs the author money at some level. Not everyone is going to get picked up by one of the majors. There just aren't enough positions in that league, and their algorithm for choosing books may actually exclude some of the best novels people are writing today. I'm still waiting patiently for all of my queries to get rejected or just wither on the vine of no response, but in the meantime, I'm watching the sales of my debut novel through my hybrid publisher.

And I'll admit, I had concerns about getting scammed. But the one thing that put my mind at ease about the legitimacy of my publisher, even when it drove me crazy, was the sheer number of times they had me edit that novel before they set a release date. It was nerve-wracking to get the criticism, but it not only made me a better writer overall, by a factor of about a thousand, it also assured me that they were a serious publisher. Every time my editor said, "It's not quite ready," I knew they were trying to put the best possible book on the shelf. If they hadn't cared about quality, then I would have been suspicious.

And hybrid publishing, done right, is traditional publishing. My novel is distributed by Simon & Schuster. Small press does not automatically mean vanity press. And while perhaps more of the marketing tasks are falling on me, the publisher is still promoting the novel as well. And anyway, I'm hearing a lot of writers - agented and big five/four contracted - complaining that the publisher is pushing a lot of the marketing on them as well.

So if a writer is skittish about hybrid publishing, I get it. There are scammy presses out there, just like there are scammy agents and scammy editors. We writers make vulnerable targets, quivering in our trenches and praying that someone, anyone, would rescue us from the front lines. If I had one piece of advice for anyone looking to follow this path, from an admitted novice, it would be to ask questions about deal-breakers. In other words, ask questions that point towards what you'd have to do to get this publisher to drop you. Ask what would happen if you refused to make edits, or failed to meet a deadline. What is their acceptance rate? Kind of like the dating world (which is a trench I'm so glad to be out of), if there's nothing you can do to get the other person to lose interest, it's a scam.

Just don't ask me how I know this.

Sunday, May 7, 2023

Release Day Next Week - Excerpt From Thy Father's Glass

 As hard as it is for me to believe, but my debut novel releases on Tuesday! It's been a long process, with a lot of work, rejection, and imposter's syndrome along the way, but the big day is just around the corner. To celebrate (and maybe entice some readers to buy a copy) here's a scene from the novel.

Cover of the novel Thy Father's Glass by Jeffray Harrison. An attic at night in dark blue tones with a bright moonlight shining through a square window.

    Dane had already made three orderly piles of clothes on the bed and had started to pack when Muriel got home from the gym. He told her what Sabine had said and that his father needed him to stay over for a while.

“It happened that way with my grandfather.” Muriel helped Dane pack an overnight bag. “I was almost ten, and that was back in Haiti, but I remember it was just like this.”

    Dane went to the bathroom and scooped his toiletries into a blue drawstring bag with some faded company logo on it.

    “I remember being very sad about it. He lived with us,” she continued. “A lot of people had their grandparents with them back then. It was like he was . . .” She sat down on the bed, rolled a pair of jeans into a tight tube, and shoved them into the bottom of Dane’s backpack, “Like he was disappearing in front of you, a little at a time, until he was gone.”

    Dane cinched the bag with his deodorant and shaving tools in it and sat down next to Muriel, his shoulder up against hers. She stopped folding his T-shirt and rubbed the back of his hand.

    “He’s a completely different man,” Dane said. “I don’t know how this happened so fast.”

    “The doctors did say it was coming. We were all so focused on Mom for so long, I guess . . .”

    “But I can’t even say I really knew him before. Now what?” Dane took the shirt from Muriel’s lap and started rolling it tightly. She took another from the pile on the bed behind her and folded it into fourths.

    “You know, my dad and my grandfather never got along,” Muriel said, smoothing out the folded shirt and handing it to Dane. “Papa only ever had bad things to say about his father—he was stingy, he was rough—but I don’t remember any of that. People change when they get this way—a lot. I know other families who went through it, and it seems like there are always two ways people change: they either get really mean and difficult, or they get really sweet and gentle.

    “My father knew his father all his life as a hard man, strict to the point of being mean. But all I remember of him was him sitting with me on the couch, all hugs and kisses, being so grateful for anything I did for him. He didn’t always know who I was, but I knew he loved me.” She pushed socks into the front pouch of the backpack until she could barely zip it closed.

   “Once a man, twice a child?” Dane smirked.

    Muriel whipped him with a pair of his own underwear. “Did Sabine tell you that?”

    Dane nodded. “Pop was like that too,” he said, rubbing his eyes with the backs of his hands. “Then he wasn’t much of anything. He worked a lot, I guess, and when he wasn’t working, he wasn’t interested in much of anything I did. You’ve never really met the man.”

    Muriel nodded, put her arms around her husband, and stroked the back of his neck. “You can choose what to keep from your father. You can look at this time you have together as a window of opportunity to create some memories with him that will be full of love and kindness, and you can replace whatever bad memories you have with these good ones.”

    Dane turned his head and kissed her, wishing she could come with him, wondering how he would sleep in the old house, in his old room, without her. Even worse, no matter how hopeful Muriel tried to make it sound, he dreaded the prospect of so much time cooped up with his father. He tried to create a picture in his head of what it would look like to spend that much time with the old man, and nothing but torture came to mind.

    Conversation between them had always been strained and awkward, and now the Alzheimer’s made it nearly impossible. What would they do? Just sit around and stare out the window together? Listen to fifties music on the radio and tap their feet in time? Binge-watch Gunsmoke until they fell asleep? A dispassionate sense of duty compelled him to go through the motions, but he felt no real desire to do it.

    Dane and Muriel had never had kids, never wanted to, but he imagined it would feel a lot like this. Before Sabine had left for the day, she had cooked enough rice and beans and stewed chicken for them all, plus enough for later if the men got hungry. She had also walked Dane around the house and shown him her protocols for getting Branson ready for the night.

    He wasn’t so badly off that he couldn’t bathe himself, thank goodness, but if nobody reminded him, he would go days without taking a shower. Make sure to lock all the doors around the house and hide things you don’t want him to get into.

A mood board in black and white, photos around the perimeter: A chair sitting in front of the window of an empty attic, a Black woman with shoulder-length hair, a vintage black Plymouth from the 1950s, a white man with a sad face, a grizzled old white man looks into the camera with a magnifying glass.The text reads, Muriel nodded, put her arms around her husband, and stroked the back of his neck. “You can choose what to keep from your father. You can look at this time you have together as a window of opportunity to create some memories with him that will be full of love and kindness, and you can replace whatever bad memories you have with these good ones.”

    Fortunately, Branson was a tall man who couldn’t bother to bend over for anything, so putting dangerous items on lower shelves and the backs of floor-level cabinets kept them out of his reach. Make sure he had everything he might need—water, light, books, remote controls—by his bed in plain sight. Think of his mental acuity like a power grid, Sabine said. Too much stimulus, too many stressors, and the whole thing would overload and short out for a while.

    “He needs his picture of Miss Gwen by his bed, his bottle of water on the nightstand,” she said. “You don’t want him waking up in the night and wandering around the house looking for something.”

    “Check,” Dane said, “Everything in its place.”

    Sabine nodded. She stepped closer and looked up into Dane’s face, touching his arm to command his attention. “It’s more than that,” she said, dropping the pitch of her voice. “The way his disease is progressing so rapidly, there’s a chance he could wake up and not know where, or even when he is. Try to look at it from his point of view, how terrifying that could be.”

    Dane’s shoulders drooped and he searched Sabine’s face. “You think that could happen?”

    Sabine patted his arm and dropped her hand, still holding Dane’s gaze. “It’s going to happen, Dane. The plan is to minimize his stress and confusion in any way possible, keep his grid functioning.”

    The sheer urgency of Sabine’s instructions overwhelmed Dane, but she tried to bring him back into focus. It didn’t seem as if he woke up much in the night. He usually settled down for bed when she left at six and got up to sit in his chair, sometimes still in his pajamas, by the time she arrived at nine in the morning. He would sometimes take a short nap in the day, but Sabine said she kept him up and active as much as possible during the day to make sure he slept through the night since he was on his own.

    “You make it sound like we’re prepping a house for a toddler,” Dane chuckled awkwardly.

    Sabine agreed. “Once a man, twice a child,” she said, solemnly.

    Once he walked through Sabine’s instructions meticulously, and left Branson safely in bed sleeping, soundly, judging by the loud raspy noise coming through the door, Dane felt unsure what to do with himself. It was the same house he had grown up in, his old room, the kitchen he had plundered for the first eighteen years of his life. But now it felt foreign, as if he were some interloper, some shadow creeping up the stairs and stalking the quiet rooms.

    He checked and rechecked the door locks, cracked the door to his father’s bedroom, and peeked through the sliver of space to make sure he was sleeping, which he always was, every time. The loud snoring actually reassured him, and he didn’t know what he would do if the droning sound stopped.

    He didn’t dare turn on the television for fear of waking up or, even worse, alarming his father, but he had brought some books. After deciding to sleep on the couch instead of his old room, he remembered to check the attic window to maintain readiness.

    Dane had a vision that made him shiver as he crept upstairs to the attic. He saw his father laughing and leaning out of the open window, with nobody there to stop him or pull him back in. Checking and rechecking the lock put him more at ease, but he wanted more security than the little turning sash lock could provide.

    There wasn’t much left up there since he had cleared it out—the empty bookcases, a few crates, a broom and dustpan, and some folding chairs—but he placed every object strategically to get in an old man’s way if he should try to get to the window.

    Brooms would crash to the floor if the door opened, crates would topple over and clatter, and metal chairs would have to be relocated just to get in front of the window. As he stood surveying his work, he felt a little pride over what he had done, enough confidence to help him fall asleep tonight.

    Still, he needed to check the window lock again. The feeling of having forgotten something or of having left the stove on after going to work compelled him to take one last look and reassure himself that he could rest for the night. He tiptoed around the crates and chairs so he wouldn’t have to reset the trap and turned the lock as far as it would go.

    The window gave a wide, pleasant view of the neighborhood. He could see why his father liked sitting there, even if he did seem to lose himself in a weird way. He got his face as close to the glass as he could and tried to see how far he could look down both sides of the sleepy suburban street. A sort of dizzy feeling came over him as he leaned into the window, as if the height of his vantage point or the memory of his father’s near accident disturbed his sense of ease. Blinking his eyes rapidly to shake off the queasy feeling, he settled back on his heels and looked through the window again.

    Neatly mown and manicured lawns all the way down to each corner showed how much pride and love the neighbors had for their homes. Some houses still had lights on, mostly upstairs, but a lot had gone completely dark already.

    Many of the houses had the same layout, in three or four different variations, and some were exactly like the Shottmers’, although none of them had the round window like the one he looked through. Not much had changed since he had played in those yards and taken the bus to school from that corner.

    One thing seemed out of place. Someone had parked an old black car in front of the Shottmers’ house. Not just old, but classic, like the cars in black-and-white movies from the forties and fifties. To Dane, it looked like a specific one he remembered from somewhere, a Buick, or maybe a Pontiac, but he didn’t really know much about modern cars, much less ones from over a half-century ago.

    Still, it was one of the most beautiful cars he had seen. The rounded hood looked like a bullet or a torpedo, the smooth curve from the back to the front, ending in the raised headlights like eyes on either side. And whoever owned kept it so well maintained, it looked brand-new. The black paint glowed underneath the streetlight. He could barely spare a thought to wonder why someone would park on his side of the street or whose car it could be when he saw something else that made him feel dizzy all over again.

    His father was walking across the lawn toward the car.

    “No,” Dane muttered under his breath. “Dammit, no, no, no.”

    He tried not to yell or make a ruckus that might startle his father, but he skipped every other step as he ran downstairs. The vision of his father wandering the streets at night plagued him until he burst through the front door and leaped off the porch onto the lawn. Once his feet touched the grass, he stopped so suddenly he almost flopped forward. He stood there in the creeping darkness of late evening and looked around.

    There was nobody there—no car parked on the street, no father in the yard.

    He turned to the left and saw his own car parked at the end of the driveway, all the way over to the side to leave room for Sabine to park in the morning. He turned toward the house and then back to the street again, confused and alarmed.

    Could someone have taken his father? A car that old would have made some noise for sure, but maybe he missed it in his panic. Was his father’s door open as he ran downstairs? He dashed back into the house and closed the front door, more quietly than he had run out of it, half sensing what he would find on the second floor.

    His father’s bedroom door was closed. For at least the fifth time tonight, Dane opened it just enough to peek through, but he didn’t even have to look to know his father was still in there and still sleeping. The unbroken drone of his snoring confirmed it.

    Dane wobbled a little, as if he had stood up too fast, and felt his way back to the attic stairway behind him, eyes still on the cracked doorway with his father sleeping on the other side. He carefully dropped onto the second step, his breath coming heavy now, and tried to slow his heart rate the way he had learned to do during an important basketball game.

    Once he felt steady, he closed the bedroom door and crept back up to the attic. Everything just as he’d left it. He again maneuvered around his traps and looked through the window. The black car was back, and his father leaned into the passenger’s seat, rummaging through the glove box.

    He closed his eyes for a moment or two and then looked again, but nothing had changed. True, the darkness of the late evening made it difficult to see the yard, but there was no mistaking his father’s stature framed in the light from the car’s interior—his sharp shoulders, long neck, and his gray hair cropped close. He opened the window as quietly as he could, as if, for some reason, he thought the car and the man might disappear.

    They didn’t. Through the open window, he could see them even more clearly. He thought about calling down there, but he couldn’t wrap his head around the situation enough to worry whether he would be startling his father, waking him up, or shouting at someone else entirely.

    After a few more moments of staring, he closed and locked the window, and as he backed away, tripping over one of the crates he had set for his father, he could still see the old black car, still see the man now sitting in the passenger’s seat rifling through some papers.

    He couldn’t feel his feet touch the floor as he walked soundlessly down to the second floor and approached his father’s bedroom again. He opened the door all the way this time, slowly, quietly, and entered the room. He crept over to the bed, where his father still lay sleeping and snoring, looked down into his face, and then parted the curtains and looked out the window.

    No car, no man.

    He stood there for some time, watching. Afterward, he had no idea how long the window had held him there, peering into the yard. He couldn’t recall how he had gotten out of the attic and back downstairs. All he remembered after standing silently above his father’s sleeping form was sitting on the couch and staring through the front window at the empty yard until he fell asleep, wondering how to talk to his father about all this tomorrow.

Thanks for reading! If you like what you see, please order Thy Father's Glass, releasing Tuesday, May 9.

Sunday, April 2, 2023

Let the Kids Read! An Ode for National Children's Picture Book Day

I was today year's old when I learned that April 2 is National Children's Book Day. Apparently, this day to commemorate and promote children's books, set on Hans Christian Anderson's birthday (get it), has been a thing since before I was born. Now, I know that every day is some kind of national something, but this one happens to be really cool, so I'm going with it. This week, the high school creative writing club I sponsor will be celebrating by reading their favorite children's books and eating appropriate snacks, although I'm not sure Target has a section for that, or at least I didn't see any signs. It might just end up being a lot of Peeps and Cadbury Eggs. We'll also devote some time to a short tutorial on what makes a good children's book, and how to get theirs published. 

Today, however, I'm sharing my favorite children's books, specifically with mixed and blended families in mind. 

First, some caveats, a few provisos, a couple of quid pro quos. Needless to say, this is not an exhaustive list, so if you think that I've left an important book off the list, feel free to mention it in the comments and hype the book yourself. I'm always looking for recommendations. The following is just a list of my favorites, in no particular order, from the books that I read to my kids with our special family in mind. And with all the legal stuff out of the way, here we go!

The Day You Begin, written by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by Rafael López

Cover for the children's book, The Day You Begin. A little brown girl with curly hair peeks into a classroom through the door.

We actually own the Spanish translation of this book, because we bought it for my daughter who's in the Spanish Immersion program at school, and somehow that adds a different flavor to the reading. Either way, this beautiful book is about three kids of different ethnicities who each feel left out sometimes, or afraid to share the details of their lives for fear that they won't be accepted, often with reason. One of my favorite moments is at lunchtime. One girl turns up her nose as she looks into another girl's lunch of rice and kimchi. The Asian girl notices the disdain, obviously, and while she feels insulted by her friend's reaction, she also has enough sense to wonder how the girl doesn't know that most of the world eats rice, literally for almost every meal. In the end, the three students who feel like outsiders become friends and find their similarities not only bind hem together, but also embolden them to share their lives with the class.

Where Are You From? written Yamile Saied Méndez and illustrated by Jaime Kim

Cover for the children's book, Where Are You From? A brown-skinned Latino grandfather walks a curving path through tall brown grass with his granddaughter on his shoulders.

A lot of mixed kids and the children of immigrants often deal with the question "where are you from?" in  a very skeptical or derogatory way. And, of course, the equally cringe follow-up question, "but where are you really from?" This book starts with a child confused by the question at school, from grownups as well as kids. Troubled by the idea that she doesn't belong, she asks her grandfather, because he knows everything. Grandfather tells her the rich history of their family, sometimes beautiful, sometimes sad, in the Caribbean and Latin America as well as the US. In the end, grandfather tells the girl that where she really comes from is his heart, and from the dreams of all her ancestors. It's a brilliant way to deal with the question that our kids inevitably face, in a way that unpacks the complexity of it in a way that "I'm from here, just like you" doesn't accomplish.

Eyes That Kiss in the Corners, written by Joanna Ho and illustrated by Dung Ho

Cover for the children's book, Eyes That Kiss in the Corners. A little Chinese girl in profile holds a pink flower and looks at an orange butterfly.

Another beautiful book, this time with vibrant illustrations of Asian culture, Eyes That Kiss in the Corners deals with the issue of looking different from the majority of kids around you. What sets this book apart from some of the others is that it's pure affirmation. It contains no moments of racial conflict, but instead celebrates the main character's beauty. The Asian girl at the center of the book loves her eyes, loves seeing them in all the generations of women in her family, loves how they remind her of the history and folklore of her Chinese culture, from the dragon dance to the figures of mythology. The art style complements the concept of the book and the lyrical text perfectly. It's a great book to get your child talking about the parts of them that they may need to love a little more.

My Heart Full of All, written by Jia Shao and illustrated by Kat Powell

Cover for the children's book, My Heart Full of All. A brown girl with flowers in her curly brown hair looks over her shoulder as her Chinese mother and African-American father follow behind her.

This book actually has a mixed family at the center, and deals with that issue a little more directly. In the story, a girl whose mother is Chinese and whose father is African wants to put on fashion show with her dolls. Every time she adds a detail to her doll's attire for the show, it comes from a different side of her family - a different tradition, memory, or some place they've travelled together. The doll's hair texture is like her own and her father's, pulled into two puffs. The dress is like her mother's fancy one for Chinese New Year. By the end, the doll has little nuances from so many different cultures and ethnicities, just like the child herself. It's a very fun book, written in rhyme, and very interactive, with space at the end for reflecting on culture and even drawing an original henna tattoo. 

Dream Big, written and illustrated by Joyce Wan

Cover for the children's book, Dream Big. A cartoonish drawing of a light-skinned girl wearing a red parka and glasses stands atop a mountain, planting a flag.

This is a bit of an odd choice for this list, since it's not specifically written about mixed families or even families in general. Instead, it's about girls dreaming big and connecting their aspirations for the future to famous women of all walks of life, from Harriet Tubman to Frida Kahlo. What makes me put it on the list is the way my three-year-old really gets into every panel, talking about what each of the women are doing, and especially the last image of so many women all in one scene, doing everything from running to climbing mountains to flying planes and helicopters. When we get to that part, with so many different women, she likes to point to the ones that look like her mother, her sisters, her grandmothers and aunties, and her friends. She even picks one that she says looks like me, and I try to take as a compliment, in the spirit in which I'm sure it's given. Best of all, when asked which girl looks like herself, she points to all of them. "This me, this me, this me, this me," she says. If Wan was hoping that little girls would see themselves reflected in a diversity of women, she definitely succeeded in my house.

So, those are just five of my favorite children's books that I've bought specifically to help my kids think about their mixed family, but there are a lot more good ones out there that I didn't mention, and, I'm sure, a lot more that I don't even know about. In Florida, where I live, many of these books might be pulled from the elementary shelves, soon if not already, so let's hype them up while we can. If you have a favorite, please drop the title in the mentions and tell everyone why you like it.

Monday, March 27, 2023

When Mom Is Problematic: A Story About Multiracial Families

 Recently, Colin Kaepernick released a memoir in he style of a graphic novel, a really interesting approach to the genre. In the book, he depicts his life growing up in an adoptive, multiracial family, his football career, and his activism. Of course, because it's Kaepernick, the ignorant Twitter users, or Twignorants, went crazy, especially because he discussed some of the nuances of growing up Black in a white family. Observe just a few of the highlights:

There's this guy with the helpfully telling Thomas Sowell quote in the profile pic that refuses to discuss racism with his Black grandkids, but expects them to ignore the "noise" of the racism he doesn't discuss with them.

Twitter post that says "Parents no matter the circumstances are not perfect. However, I have a black family and in no way do we discuss racism with our grandkids. They will grow up knowing they are smart, capable and to stop paying attention to the 'noise' and pay attention to yourself."

Or this one, who quickly dismisses the Black user affirming Kaepernick's experience and completely misses the context of "shut up and dribble." Also, why are some of them so obsessed with purple people. Is there a Grimace fan club I don't know about?

Two Tweets: The first, "It wasn't until I hit adulthood myself did I realize my family has a very 'shut up and dribble' attitude towards the challenges I face as a Black person. Many of which they created." The response: "Telling your kids to 'shut up and dribble' is part of being a parent. White black or purple it doesn't matter. It's all how you process information. You can either be a victim or a hero in your situation. It is up to the individual."

This guy refers to Kaepernick's story about his mother telling him he would look like a "thug" if he got cornrows with wanting to get a mohawk. Aside from not understanding the difference there, he also seems unable to understand that parents generally make their biggest mistakes in the pursuit of what is best for their kids.
A Tweet that says: "My dad told me I couldn't have a mohawk for the exact same reasons. To think that the people who adopted and loved and raised this kid had racist motives for doing what they thought was best for their son is disgusting, and anyone not honest enough to realize this is a coward."

This guy is incensed, livid, I tell you, over the cowardice it takes to openly discuss the racial conflicts in one's own family, especially when Kaepernick's parents risked public ridicule just for adopting him. But why would they be ridiculed? Surely, there couldn't have been any prejudice among their peers and social circles?

A Tweet that says: "Heaven forbid that you sound the least bit grateful that a white family would adopt you. How dare they to do such a wonderful and thoughtful thing for you, knowing that they would be ridiculed by some. Yet they still adopted you. Wow!!!"

Or this retweet of another clickbait article on the topic with a catchy title. The only problems are 1) A slight misunderstanding of what a novel is, and 2) the fact that Kaepernick did not in fact call his parents racist.
A Tweet that says: "Colin Kaepernick calls his white adoptive parents racist in new novel." Underneath, two pictures of Kaepernick smiling with his parents at a movie premiere.

Thankfully, there were also several comments like this one, either from Black children of white adoptive parents who shared some of their own difficulties growing up, or white adoptive parents of Black children sharing the ways they have grown and learned through the process of raising their kids.
Two Tweets: The first says, "Speaking as a black person who was adopted to a white family myself, I totally get it. It wasn't until I hit adulthood myself did I realize my family has a very 'shut up and dribble' attitude towards the challenges I face as a black person. Many of which they created." The response says, "I am a white mom with black children. I'm doing my best to listen to them on their specific challenges and not just say carry on."

The thing that gets lost in all of the defensiveness and racism in many of these responses is the true complexity of mixed and blended (including adoptive) families. People really are complex, and so are their reasons for doing things. Very often, we are not clear about our own motivations. Why do we marry the people we do? Because we love them? But why? Why do we develop different relationships with our different children? Why do our children end up so different in the first place? Parenting can be like a Rube Golderg machine, in which our words and actions, however well-intended, have so many unintended consequences, we often rest on faith that our efforts will carry through and land where we aimed them.

So, do I think that it was "problematic," to use Kaepernick's word, for his mother to tell him he would look like a "thug" with cornrows? Do I think that her words were motivated by a race prejudice, an inclination, planted in her by her upbringing and environment, to perceive Black boys and men in a negative or dangerous light? Yes, to both questions. But do I think that she was also doing her dead level best to raise a son who would have a good reputation and safe passage in a neighborhood that probably shared those same prejudices? Absolutely, yes. It's because I know that people and their motivations are complex that I can both critique her words and actions, but empathize with her intentions. For all I know, her words may have been motivated by love and concern for her son's safety, made all the more powerful by the knowledge that many people in their society will see her beloved son as a threat and a menace if he fails to live up to every single tenet of the racial policies of respectability. In fact, I'm sure that's where her heart was, just as I'm sure that she both knows and fears this danger because it lives in her own heart, too, inexplicably and problematically intertwined with her love for her son.

If that seems crazy, consider the dozens of reasons why people might choose to adopt a child, and add to that math the specific reasons one might choose to adopt outside of their own race. In the complexity of the human experience, there could be a hundred reasons. Now, as a thought experiment, try to think of at least two reasons, out of so many, that might be problematic, or even stemming from prejudice or racism. They really do exist.

Or, on another note, try the same thought process with interracial marriage. Among the dozens of reasons why people choose a marriage, at least a few must be problematic. So then it follows that adopting a child from another race, or marrying a spouse from another race, does not exempt one from prejudice, or somehow prove that the parent or spouse is somehow immune to racism.

If anything, these special, complicated, and beautiful relationships can be crucibles on which one's prejudices, however latent or subconscious, can be exposed and purged. Raising kids in a multicultural home can be hard. Beautiful, but hard. Mistakes get made, but also lessons get learned.

For this reason, another thing I'm sure of, even more than the idea that Kaepernick's mother simultaneously had the best of intentions and the most problematic of tactics, is that she is not in the same head space she was when her son was a preteen, rebelling like they all do and trying to redefine himself with hairstyles and other outward changes. I guarantee that Kaepernick had her full permission to share that intimate and challenging story with the world, probably in an effort to help mixed, blended, and adoptive families everywhere. This is what is so wrong about all the knee-jerk, defensive, and outright racist comments accusing Kaepernick of somehow betraying or embarrassing his family. He seems to genuinely love and cherish his parents, flaws and all. His criticisms of their worst moments seem to come from a place of healing and hope, but that gets lost in the cacophony of hate and backlash against his message. In fact, the fiery nature of the backlash makes me wonder if the loudest of the trolls are really defending Kaepernick's parents at all, or whether they're really defending themselves.