Tuesday, October 15, 2019

On Discovering America

Yesterday was Columbus Day...or Indigenous People’s Day...or Rape of the Americas Day…or whatever you want to call it. The day that we’ve traditionally celebrated Columbus’s discovery of America...or not...since he thought until the day he died, that he was in India. 

And then again, there’s that whole “discovery” thing. How can you discover a place that already has people in it? Seems that *they* would’ve discovered it first. Why should old Chris get credit for it?

Well, writer Will Furguson came up with the best explanation in his book Why I Hate Canadians (not to worry, he’s Canadian himself). He compared Chris’s situation to that of discovering a new restaurant. The restaurant was there long before you happened upon it, and thousands of people had eaten at it before you arrived; but it was new to you. You “discovered” a restaurant that you hadn’t known of before. And when you tell all your friends, who had also never known of this restaurant, about this place, they’ll credit you for “discovering it” and bringing it to their attention.

Which is what Columbus did...he “discovered” a new world that no one in Europe had known of before. One that already had people in it, but one that was new to the experience of the Europeans. 

“Well, OK,” you say. “But what about the Vikings? Weren’t they here even before Columbus?”

Oh for sure...and I got in trouble for this one back in grade school when I kept insisting that Columbus didn’t discover America because I had read that the Vikings were here first. A classic case of me being too smart for my own good; of being technically correct, but practically wrong; of technically correct, but missing the point.

Or…of the teacher not being able to patiently explain that I was missing the point, rather than just wanting Gatling to shut up about the Vikings already.

It’s true that among the Europeans, the Vikings got here first...by almost 500 years…and had a few short-lived settlements in Eastern Canada. But as the term “short-lived” implies, they didn’t last very long and nothing came of them. There wasn’t a great Scandinavian rush to settle in this new world, and the Vikings apparently didn’t tell a whole lot of people about what they found; because very few others knew about the settlements in Vinland until hundreds of years later. The point that I was missing, while being technically correct (and that the teacher didn't ’splain to me), was that Columbus’s later “discovery” of America happened at just the right time and under the right circumstances to set the “Age of Discovery and Exploration” in motion.

And that’s why all of us, for better or worse, are here.

And let’s be perfectly clear about something…there’s absolutely no guarantee that if Columbus hadn’t accidentally stumbled upon this place, some other European wouldn’t have, with the same results. In fact, there’s no guarantee that something else or someone else wouldn’t have happened to wreak havoc on the indigenous population. We can romanticize about what might have been, but it’s all just useless conjecture.

We can, however, work to own up to and correct the damage that was done since 1492.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Throwing the Goose Under the Bus

I have to say that the only thing more dismaying to me than the senseless, and tragic, death, of Botham Jean at the hands of former police officer Amber Guyger is the speed at which many of my white friends…my white friends, mind you…are willing to throw her under the bus as a sacrificial lamb in a misguided attempted to try to make it up to us for all the ways that we’ve been mistreated since 1619.

Actually, I’m pretty steamed about the way that some of my white friends are all too eager to throw all white people on this continent…even those born just a few hours ago…under the bus as part of that same misguided attempt. But that’s another opinion for another time. I want to focus on one particular case here, and not make the mistake too many people have made of making one particular situation, one particular tragedy, emblematic of another, larger, problem.

In order to get my perspective on this, you first have to read my piece from November 18th, 2013, If it Looks Like a Duck. But for those of you who won’t bother taking the extra effort to go there, let me summarize: Sometimes what appears to be a duck…the same old tired duck of a white person shooting a black person intentionally…is really a goose. A very scared goose, packing heat, who thought that having a gun would protect it, and made a split-second decision with very tragic results. In that piece I cited three different cases where that happened, including the one of Bobby Crabtree, who shot and killed his 14-year-old daughter Matilda Kaye, when she jumped out of the closet to surprise him late at night. Her dying words were “I love you, Daddy.”

Remember that. It’ll be on the test.

Now, remembering what I said about that goose, there are two things we need to keep in mind about the Amber Guyger case.

First of all, had this been a white officer accidentally killing a white person in their apartment, we would’ve heard crickets. It would’ve just been another tragedy borne of a scared person with a gun making a horrible split second decision that they wouldn’t have had they been unarmed, and had to consider other possibilities.

Second, similar to the first one, had both victim and officer been white, there would be no huge controversy over the showing of forgiveness in the face of what was a tragedy for all involved.

But...because the victim was black, it became a big racial issue turned into something emblematic of all racial issues in this country. Because the victim was black, and it became a grand racial issue, we are unable to see it as what it is...a single tragedy, and a single response to that tragedy.

As I said earlier, I find it troubling how many of my white friends seem a little too eager to throw Ms Guyger under the bus in a well-meaning, but mistaken effort to make up for all the intentional violence done to us since 1619. Sacrificing one person who unintentionally made a tragic split second decision does not make up for all the lynchings and intentional violence inflicted on us over the centuries. Throwing her under the bus does not advance the cause of true justice.

I might also add, to my black friends, that insisting on looking at this single specific tragedy as a racial issue, when it wouldn’t have been had both parties been white; and wanting this scared and disoriented goose to be treated as a premeditated murderer “just to even the score”, doesn’t advance the cause of true justice either.

And before people give Botham Jean’s brother any more grief, and look at this through a lens of “black people always forgiving whites” (which you know darned well that we don’t...it’s just that it makes news, and is a shock to most people’s senses when we do), it would do everyone good to consider the Amish response to the family of the man who intentionally murdered the girls at the school in Nickel Mines.

Remember that test I said there would be? Well here it is: How much different is Brandt Jean’s response to the woman who killed his brother from Matilda Kaye’s dying response to her father?

I’ll just let you think about that one for a while.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

How Do We Remember?

I stumbled across it quite by accident two weeks ago…what purported to be the only photo in existence of the first plane hitting the Twin Towers in New York 18 years ago. And this photo was accompanied by a caption that said something like “Never forget” or “We must always remember.”

I have many thoughts about remembering, forgetting, and perhaps even the importance of allowing things to be forgotten. Some of these I’ve talked about before, and some will wait for some other time. But right now, a week after the 18thanniversary of that terrible day, I want to talk about how we remember.

Because how we remember, and what it does to us is important.

18 years. That’s a long time, and yet, not a long time. To put this into perspective, let me talk about something that happened 15 years before I was born…Pearl Harbor. Obviously, I don’t remember whether or not it was still a raw wound in June of 1956. I don’t recall whether or not it was still a raw wound in December of 1959, 18 years after the attack…when I was three years old. I probably wasn’t even aware of a thing called Pearl Harbor until I was about 10 or 12 years old…a good 25 years later, by which point, as horrific as it was to people who remembered it, it was the stuff of history books to any Baby Boomer who wasn’t from a military family or didn’t grow up in Hawaii.

But there is one thing I was aware of once I became aware of what Pearl Harbor was, and that was how the desire to “Remember Pearl Harbor”, and by extension, the people killed in that attack turned into a hatred of the Japanese. Not just those who planned the attack, not just those who were ordered to carry it out, not just the civilians trying to live out what they could of a normal life during wartime…but of all Japanese. Americans of Japanese ancestry (can you say “Manzanar”?) and Japanese who weren’t even born during the war. Our desire to “not forget” metastasized into a hatred of Japanese that lasted for decades; and it’s only within the past 20 years or so that the Japanese, along with other Asians, have come to be seen as “model minorities” rather than examples of the “yellow peril.”

What am I getting at? 18 years after the attacks of September 11th, what has happened to our resolve to “never forget” or to “always remember”? Has it been something that would honor those who were killed that day, or has it, like what happened to the Japanese in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, metastasized into a hatred of Muslims…all Muslims.

I think that we all know the sad answer to that question. An answer that shows that we didn’t learn a lesson from the aftermath of Pearl Harbor.

But really, how do we remember those we lost? How do we remember them and honor their lives? Do we remember them by seeking vengeance on “those people”, whether they were involved or not, and forgetting that they too live in fear of those extremists? Or do we more properly remember them by trying to make the world a better place for all of us…a place where there aren’t any violent extremists from any religion? And let’s admit that there are Christian extremists, Jewish extremists, Hindu extremists, Buddhist extremists, and others, as well as Muslim extremists…all of whom give a bad name to the religions they purport to represent. I think that if we’re wise, we know what the answer to that is.

The question now is, how many of us are wise?

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Dress Codes and Accusations of Racism

I used to teach at a school that had a very precise dress code. And of course, with a very precise dress code, students were always trying to find ways around it. Some parts of the dress code were particularly hard to enforce…especially if you were a male teacher.

We could handle enforcing the rules about blue denim, ripped clothing, clothing with writing on it, untucked shirts, or any of a number of dress code infractions (no matter how petty or stupid we thought they were); but there was one rule we didn’t want to have to deal with.


You couldn’t win this one. If you called a girl out for showing too much, she would turn it into an accusation of you looking where you shouldn’t be looking. You just couldn’t win.

And then one day, bless her heart, one day Laura, one of the administrators, dealt with it that in a way will not be forgotten. Upon seeing a girl who was practically falling out of her blouse, she said to her in a loud voice, “Put those things away!” and then took her to get a sweater.

There was no way that anyone could accuse Laura of anything inappropriate, and we had very few of those incidents after that.

So what does this have to do with accusations of racism? Well, it’s not going where you think it is, that’s for sure.

This has nothing to do with the fashion choices of people of certain ethnic groups, and everything to do with a conversation that came up in a Facebook group devoted to library workers.

It seems that a library worker was wondering how to approach patrons of certain demographics about their behavior and that of their children, without seeming racist. And the moment they asked that question, the torches and pitchforks came out, accusing that person of being racist for simply asking that question.

The problem is that I know that as with the girls showing too much cleavage at my old school, some members of some ethnic groups will turn any interaction with a white person that doesn’t go their way into a racial issue…whether it was or not. I have seen it done, and sometimes I’ve had to put on my “Laura hat”, and tell those people to “put that attitude away.”

And as with the male teachers who didn’t want to call out a girl who was practically falling out of her blouse, and would probably try to ignore her if she was totally naked, there are many white library workers who don’t want to deal with behavior issues of patrons of color, and may indeed cut those patrons a lot more slack than they would white patrons, because they don’t want to deal with accusations of racism.

The poor library worker who innocently asked this question was really trying to do the right thing, but knew, as do I, that unless you’re really careful (and sometimes even if you are), some people in certain groups will turn an interaction that might have gone fine with anyone else into a racial confrontation. And for even suggesting that this was a problem (which it is), they were accused of being racist, and the conversation got so nasty that comments had to be turned off.

What can we do about this? First of all, all of us need to admit that it happens, and is a problem, rather than immediately accusing someone with a question like this of being racist. Second, those of us who are in those demographics need to remember that not everything is a racial issue, and that sometimes we’re just wrong.

Finally, when we see a situation like this, those of us who are in those demographics need to “put on our Laura hats” and say, “Put that attitude way!”

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

If You Could Not Fail

I’ve seen or heard it many times over the past few years. More times than I can count and in more places than I can remember. On the internet, on cups, on posters, on refrigerator magnets…the meme that says “What would you attempt to do if you knew you couldn’t fail?”

And every time I saw or heard it, and heard people’s responses to it, I felt that they didn’t have enough imagination. That they didn’t seriously consider the possibilities open to them with this question. That they limited what they could accomplish by considering only mundane things.

Me, on the other hand, the first time I saw that question, I realized its true potential, and ran with it.

So what would I attempt to do if I knew I couldn’t fail?

Well…let me tell you what I wouldn’t do.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I love music. And anyone who’s known me for any length of time knows that I play piano…after a fashion…and wish that I could play a lot better than I do. So one might guess that I’d work on playing piano as well as Billy Joel or Elton John. Well…that would be nice, but that’s not it. Being able to play piano that well wouldn’t be using the possibilities of that opportunity to its true potential.

One person suggested that I’d buy an extra lottery ticket. This, of course, begs the question of why should I buy an extra one. Statistically, it wouldn’t get me any more money than simply knowing the right numbers to choose in the first place. But that ain’t it either.

These, and the things that I’ve heard most people talk about when they’re faced with the question, are small potatoes. They’re things that only benefit one person. But perhaps instead of dealing with potatoes, we need to think about rice.

You know…Uncle Ben’s rice.

Uncle Ben Parker, who told his nephew Peter that with great power comes great responsibility.

And now that you know that, I think you’ll have a better idea of what I would attempt to do if I knew I could not fail.

There is a big problem that needs to be solved, and it shows itself in many ways. It shows itself through our inhumanity to each other for personal gain. It shows itself through our inhumanity to each other for political or national gain. It shows itself through our inhumanity to each other because some of us somehow believe that it’s part of a religious obligation we have.

The big problem is that we just aren’t kind to each other. We don’t think about the needs of other people. We don’t think about people different from us as people, but as “those people”…as ciphers who merely stand for something that’s “not us”, that prevent us from having or doing something we want, and aren’t real living, breathing, people.

So what would I attempt to do if I knew I couldn’t fail? What rice would I buy?

I think it should be fairly obvious by now. If I knew I couldn’t fail, I’d talk to people…in person and on the internet; from the people in my neighborhood to world leaders; and get them to learn to play nice with each other. I’d convince everyone to convince everyone else to treat everyone fairly and ethically, and with an eye toward justice rather than mere legality.

If I knew I could not fail, that’s what I do.

And when that was done…I’d go practice piano.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

On Being "Mr Wonderful"

I’ve officially been Mr Wonderful for about seven years now. That’s the nickname I was given by a patron at the library where I’m the Tech Guy who tries to help you out with problems with your mobile devices and laptops (I promise nothing). But even though I only started being actually called Mr Wonderful since I started working at this library, I’m aware of having had this reputation for a long time.

The first time I clearly remember having that reputation was when I was working for a film company in New York, back in the 80s, and got a job offer from a company across town that wanted me to start in a week, rather than the standard two weeks you give for notice. When one of my coworkers asked our department head if he was upset that I didn’t give two weeks notice, he said, that his only concern was what three people he was gonna hire to replace me.

That sounds like Mr Wonderful to me.

And yet, as I think about it, even my starting to work there was a case of being Mr Wonderful. I was supposed to temp for two weeks while they found a new receptionist, and after one week, they asked if I really had to leave. I stayed for a year and a half, until I was lured away to the job across town by someone who knew how “wonderful” I was at the film company.

I was wonderful in all my other jobs too, but just never thought about it. I was just doing what I thought needed to be done, the best I knew how.

And I was wonderful in other facets of my life. I got my dream job of becoming musical director for the annual Parents’ Weekend student musical at Syracuse University because I was wonderful at learning to play three songs by ear at a time when we needed to replace a lead the night before we opened, and the only person who knew his lines, his three songs, and his three dances was the pianist. So we put him on stage, and I went to the pit for those three numbers.

In everything I’ve done, I’ve unconsciously tried to be Mr Wonderful.

But sometimes you just can’t be Mr Wonderful anymore. Or at least, you can’t be Mr Wonderful to everyone…not at the same time.

And one of the results of my having crashed and burned a few weeks ago is the realization of just that. The counselor I’ve been seeing said that you can’t be Mr Wonderful all the time. That sometimes you have to be Mr “Good Enough.” Sometimes you have to be Mr “It’ll Have to Do.” And the most freeing thing she said to me was that sometimes you have to be Mr “No, I’m Not Gonna Do That.”

I was stunned. I was like, “Wait a minute. I get to tell people that I don’t want to do certain things? Even though they’re asking me to do them because they think I’d be wonderful at them?”

This was something new, and yet it wasn’t. It was advice I always gave to others, but couldn’t take myself. And yet, when I talked to other people who had dealt with depression, they told me that I absolutely got to tell people “no”, no matter how hard they twisted my arm.

So for now, I’m gonna work on being a little less wonderful…or at least accepting the fact that it’s OK to be not quite so wonderful all the time.

And maybe by not trying to be so wonderful for so many people so often…I’ll be wonderful to myself.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

People Like Me

Last week, when I mentioned my struggle with depression, I also mentioned how a friend of mine said that depression seems to follow people like me around.

What are “people like me”?

People who think too much and feel too much. Well, OK, if you think that sounds a little judgmental and isn’t helpful to “people like me”, let me rephrase that…people who think and feel intensely and deeply. I’ll talk about the thinking part next week. For today I want to talk about the feeling.

Any of my friends who knew me in grade school will tell you that I’ve been an incurable romantic since first grade. My friend Sally from college told me once that I fall in love too easily. When I was in my late 20s, I had a girl break up with me because I felt more deeply for her than she was ready for (don’t worry, we’re still good friends). I’m convinced that the problems I had with one girl in my early 20s were because I felt more deeply for her than she wanted me to, while she still had other irons in the fire.

I replay the tapes (yeah, I know…what’s a tape) of situations from my teens and twenties, and ask myself, “What if I had dealt with this differently? How did I miss that social cue? Suppose I’d said this instead of that?” Some of you might say that this goes under thinking rather than feeling. I don’t know. Maybe it’s a gray area. Maybe it’s thinking about my feelings.

Of course, this could also be called “having a great imagination”, or being able to see alternate outcomes to things I’ve gone through. And this definitely helps when I write my stories. But sometimes it just gets you “stuck.”

And it’s not always about me. Sometimes it’s about others. It’s about other people…other wonderful people…that I want things for, and my disappointment that they don’t have or never got them. For example, there’s a woman I worked with many years ago who was one of the nicest people I knew, but didn’t have anyone…that I knew of. I imagined a secret love life for her that was wilder than anything you would’ve thought about her from seeing her at work. Many years later, she’s still never had anyone…that I know of…and I think it’s kind of unfair that someone that nice never got anyone to tell her just how nice she was.

But you know something…even in that, maybe it is about me…and how much I would enjoy being told that someone thought I was wonderful…even many years later. I remember how blown away I was to find out that the younger sister of a girl I had a crush on in high school actually had a crush on me. 40-odd years later, and with both of us happily married to other people, I was walking on air! Maybe I think that other people are this way too…when they’re not. And I’ve embarrassed myself more than once...and even gotten seriously burned...when I clumsily tried to pay a compliment that I’d be thrilled to get, but wasn’t received well at all.

But, going back to the woman I worked with, maybe that’s my issue…my issue as the incurable romantic…as the person who feels deeply…and not hers. Maybe it’s my issue as the person who feels incredibly deeply…and didn’t understand until very recently that not everyone else feels that deeply, wants to feel that deeply…or wants to know that I feel deeply about or for them…and not hers. Maybe she’s perfectly happy, while I’m sad for her.

And as I said a few weeks ago, maybe knowing this means that I can let go of my desire to make things right that I screwed up in the past.

And make me right in the present.