Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Different Reality

One of my favorite TV shows is Mythbusters, and for the first few seasons it would open up with a clip of Adam Savage saying “I reject your reality, and substitute my own.” I love that line, because it comes in handy so often. There are many times when someone else’s reality just doesn’t line up with what mine is. It’s not necessarily that their reality is wrong, but it’s different from mine.

That’s the case with Eric Deggans. In a piece he did for NPR earlier this month, he says that interracial couples on TV live in an all too perfect world, where the “elephant in the room” of their racial differences is almost never an issue. He says that he makes this observation based on his 20-odd years of experience as a black man married to a white woman.

I reject the reality of Mr Deggans…or at least I reject it as being universal. I’m also a black man with 20-odd years of experience being married to a white woman, and I can tell you that we don’t spend a whole lot of time discussing racial issues. Currently our biggest ongoing issue has been getting our eight-year-old daughter to practice piano and clarinet without whining and dragging her feet. In fact, in the almost 23 years that we’ve been married, there have been very few times when the fact that I’m black and she’s white have ever been points of contention. Not from our families, not from our friends, not from our co-workers. There may have been a few comments from strangers, but even then, if we had five bad experiences in the past 23 years, that’s saying a lot.

Of course, location probably matters a bit. I’ve lived in the Northeast all of my life, and in a college town for the past 38 years. I suppose things might be a bit different in Missisippi…or Florida, where Deggans writes from.

I think that who your friends and acquaintances are matters a lot too. If most of the people you know are fairly open-minded, then being an interracial couple isn’t going to be any more of an issue than being an Italian-Norwegian couple…and talk about the cultural differences there.

Moreover, as long as we’re talking about different realities, there are as many different realities here as there are people in relationships. Just looking at five of the white girls I’ve been involved with during the past 38 years, I can say that things have run the gamut from “Paula” who couldn’t even bring me home to meet her parents (that lasted about three weeks) to “Lisa,” whose Italian mother loved me like one of her own kids, and for six years always made a point to try to make my favorite food when I came over for dinner. Sometimes it really is that easy, and really is a non-issue.

Which brings me to my next point: as relatively easy as it was for me 30 years ago, things have changed a lot. I can tell you, from 19 years of being a teacher, that among the students and families I know, interracial relationships are no big deal. The people on the shows that Deggans complains about, and indeed the writers of these shows, reflect this new reality; they came of age in a much different era.

So, to be fair, as I’ve said before, I’m not going to reject Deggans’ reality out of hand. For surely there are people for whom his reality is their experience. Instead, I’ll just say, again, that he hasn’t considered that his reality doesn’t necessarily reflect that of the rest of us who’ve been in interracial relationships. There’s a lot of variation out there.

And that’s the reality.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Material Things

A friend of my posted on Facebook:
Children will not remember you for the material things you provided but for the feelings that you cherished them with.
I don't know. I remember the material things, and the trips. That's why I didn't want to have three, four, or more kids; I wanted to be able to do the same things with them that my parents did with me and my sister, and for them to enjoy it as much as the two of us did.

I remember the Playmobile dashboards that my sister and I each got one Christmas, and that we played together with all the time. I remember being the first family at our school to discover Lego, and introducing both Devra and Sofie to it decades later. I remember the Kenner girder and panel building sets that my father and I worked on, and was disappointed to find out that Kenner no longer exists. I've since found out that they've been revived by Bridge Street Toys. And of course, I remember something that wasn't even mine; the Magnus chord organ that my sister got for Christmas. This is what I taught myself how to play piano on, and we know how important that was.

What about the trips? We didn't venture far out of the northeast. Heck, we didn't venture far out of the NYC metropolitan area. But there was Palisades Amusement Park; the Flemington Fair (which is the closest thing New Jersey had to a state fair); three visits to the 1964-65 New York World's Fair; and a long vacation trip to Quebec, by way of Buffalo, Niagara Falls, and Montreal (which included my first pass by Syracuse, and seeing the big General Electric sign from the Thruway). There were also day trips to Bear Mountain, Gillette Castle, and Mystic Seaport.

And of course there was the beach. Unlike Jerseyans now, we didn't call it going to the shore. Our regular beach was Sandy Hook, but we also visited Lake Hopatcong, Cheesequake (which my sister and I always mispronounced as "Cheesecake"), and one visit to Cape May, which hooked me for life. Now that's the beach that the Gatlings of Syracuse have been going to for almost 25 years.

Let's not forget trips to New York (actually the St Albans section of Queens), Pittsburgh (really Braddock and Monroeville), Washington DC, and Hampton VA to visit relatives. That first three-day weekend in Hampton led to my sister and I spending the summer there a year later.

But my point, and I do have one, is that it’s not a simple choice between material things on the one hand and feelings on the other. Yes, there are far too many families where the parents try to replace affection and attention with the latest expensive gadget. I also know too many people who grew up with very little money, and seem almost perversely proud of the fact that they and their 11 loving siblings only had a rock and twig to play with…between them. They seem to believe that families with some disposable income can’t possibly be as happy as theirs.

But I think that the most fortunate people are those who, like me and my sister, grew up in families where we had both; where the material things we got and the experiences we were able to have were signs of our parents’ love, and not attempted replacements for it.

And those of us who remember, and treasure, those gifts and experiences will try to do the same for our own children.

Hmm…I guess that means it’s really time to plan that trip to Quebec with Sofie.