My Sister

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The family she arrived to

My earliest memory of my sister was of a man coming to our house to speak with my parents. He was there to see if our home was a stable one. One where my sister would be welcomed and provided for. One where she would not only be safe, but hopefully nurtured and loved. I remember my mom essentially asking me to be on my best behavior before they arrived, but who’s to say whether or not that actually happened. I was, after all, just 6 years old.

I didn’t really understand why we were getting another sister. I had 2 already. There were 3 of us boys. I don’t think much of an effort was made to explain it, but that said, I have a six year old now and it’s remarkable the things he doesn’t hear us saying and the things he does. Maybe there was a giant family meeting. Maybe it was just the few words of encouragement to act normal when the interviewer came over to meet us.

Maya Lin (this is the name of the designer of the Vietnam Memorial and I will be using it in place of my sisters name in this post) was a teenage girl from Vietnam and we were a very big and ever growing family of white, suburban, Great Lakes style americans. We must have been quite a shock to her. Tall, pale and rembunctiously carefree. We were loud and curious, bold and kind. We were a station wagon with wood paneling kind of family who couldn’t have been more American. I can’t for the life of me, now, imagine what it was like for her to be dropped into this story as a young girl. At the time it never ocurred to me to wonder.

I was not all that welcoming. It’s just not a strength of little boys. I argued with her over the TV. A lot. To my memory my mom always sided with Maya. I was always cordial in screaming about how unfair it was and storming out of the room. I was a real charmer back then. Before long she acclimated. Never has more been swept aside in so short a time as me brushing past the acclimation process. But what can I know. She was plopped down into a new home and made a member of a new family in an instant. It was never questioned, never fretted on. Not from our side, my side at least.

Sure, my mother will tell you, if you ask, about that time, about her incredulous reaction to seeing snow fall, a thing she’d come accustomed to in no time as we lived in the 3rd snowiest city in America according to the video I watched on Facebook yesterday. It was from The Weather Channel and it meshes with my memory and the common understanding of where I’m from. She’ll tell you about how she had to have the TV to watch Soap Operas, a thing that was banned in my house for the wild disregard for moral behavior, to learn the language. My mom, and I don’t know how she figured this out, showed her these shows because all the characters spoke slowly, they over emoted, they spoke directly to the camera in close up and they repeated themselves over and over. Minus the horrid personal behavior, they were ideal for teaching the language. The other favorite was West Side Story. Musical theater courses through both sides of my family and while the appeal of this was lost on six year old me, the effect for language acquisition was also helpful. And she flat loved West Side Story. Mom would also tell you of her struggles acclimating to school and the challenge it was for her in that short time before she got the language down and made a friend or two.

I’d tell you about the new smells that as a 6 year old I thought were horrifying. This shouldn’t shock anyone who’s ever had a little boy. I had to leave the room the other day because I was eating a banana and this was just too much for Teddy to handle. In my case it was the smells of the food that I now realize I really missed out on. My palate has grown in sophistication since then and at this time when half my calories comes from cough drops and the other half comes from cold, discarded, nuggeted meats it feels like a real missed opportunity. Then there was the smell of bad overboiled hot dogs coming from the bathroom when her friend came over. It was just a home perm, a thing a thousand teenage girls that year did in my town, but none lived with us. My older brothers were yet to pull the trigger on the home perm.

Whatever her experience I can’t tell you. But I can tell you that it was a fully family version of growing up. It was sadly not the ideal version of family that was taken from her. But it was a very loving one she made her way to and became a part of. And because she did I learned of the small but thriving Vietnamese community where we went to shop with her. I saw the food from all over the world I had never imagined existed so close to me. I learned the look of government issued, self enveloping, light blue international letter paper that allowed her to get what I think were censored letters from her family in Vietnam. It taught me that I could love her in all the same complicated ways we all love our individual family members. I remember being sad when we dropped her off at college and happy when she could and would come home for holidays. I remember missing her way of eating, a thing you don’t think can be different, so different before you see it. I remember feeling like something was missing when she wasn’t there and feeling like we were all home when she was.

Our whole family was growing as this all took place. We were adding new members and each of us growing as well. By the time she was done with college she had a boyfriend. A Vietnamese boyfriend. I was 16(ish) and we were now 6 Medler’s (My youngest brother was born in 84) and everyone that would be a part of our family had arrived, to one degree or another, by this point. Whether it was right after college or a few years later her boyfriend eventually asked her to marry him. She said yes.

The wedding was to be in King Of Prussia, just outside of Philadelphia. I don’t know why, but I think they were living there at the time. She worked at a bank, I know that much, but honestly, she could have been president or a part time teller. Regardless I now look back on her asking me to be in her wedding with immense pride. It’s a real honor that she thought of me. I’m afraid at the time I was not so gracious. I said no. Yeah. I was also from a family where they respected my right to do such a thing. I’m sorry I did that. I’m incredibly thankful that they also asked my older brothers, both of whom have been and remain far more gracious in such matters.

Well, shortly before the wedding, and I mean very shortly, one of those government issued, self enveloping, light blue international letters arrived to alert Maya that her whole family was being released (had been granted visa’s.) I can’t begin to imagine how this felt for her. She hadn’t seen her mother and father and sisters and brothers since leaving. They hadn’t seen her since she was taken away. I can’t get into details I don’t know, but I know that what happened in the time between her leaving home and arriving to us was scary. She was made to leave in a moments notice and she was in a camp for some period of time. There were long periods when she was cargo on boats with no place to go, having no idea what life would hold if there was a future. She experienced and endured, as a teenage girl, innocent and surely terrified, things I know I never would have endured. But now she was here. My big sister. Annoying and loving. My honest to god sister. All the while waiting and hoping she could see her family again.

They would be arriving in a short time and once there the wedding would be in a matter of days. I remember us all, now in a minivan, making our way from Brockport New York down to Philly and checking into as few rooms as were reasonable for our large family, and getting dressed in our fancy duds. Mike and Eric in their tuxes and I in my Don Johnson whites (it was the 80’s) and my sisters in their best. My parents were old pros. They left enough time for us to woof down some happy meals and such in the parking ot of the McDonalds before heading over to the wedding, where all the food would be stuff our sensibilities hadn’t yet caught up to. I’m sure they were traditional Vietnamese wedding foods, but we weren’t really the traditional Vietnamese wedding goers. Not by a long shot. My Abraham Lincoln looking father matched old Abe in every detail, even height and frame. 6’4″ and slender, of Irish and Finnish descent. Still, we were there, her family. We weren’t in the front row, as that was for her Vietnamese family, but we were ushers and pasrticipants, those of us wise enough to recognize and accept that honor. Again, very sorry.

Anyway, there I sat, a foreigner in my homeland at a joyous celebration for my sister and her new husband. The ceremony was in Vietnamese and we knew to follow along. Our little league of nations pew at the church each weekend was one that taught us how to be attuned to ritual and cermony and this was no different. Just a different language. I remember looking back as the music started. My father and sister emerged, arm in arm. They walked down the aisle, she a bride and he her dad. It was beautiful. When they got to the first pew my father stopped, removed his arm and kissed her cheek and handed her hand to her fathers arm who took her the rest of the way and ceremonially gave her away.

I can’t imagine what this was like for her Vietnamese family. I can say that a lot of what I now see as extraordinarily meaningful was not so profound in the moment. I didn’t realize it all, what it all meant at the time. I’m discovering layers even as I write it here.

Our lives take on different meanings as they beat ever forward. Contexts and understandings change as we do. I know that my sister was meant to be a part of my family. It may not have been predestined, it may have come as the result of wretched circumstance. But in the end the love that we had, that persists to this days as we are all flung far and wide is something I’m so thankful for.

Fathers and Suns

You perform a rhapsody

Day in and out

Of love and pain and laughs and tears

And I fall for every prop

You look at me for all

As if I caused the sun to shine

Told the moon to rise and sparkle

Were it asked you’d say 

I was the one. The one.

Who dragged the moon to the sky 

Who put the sun to bed

Who rose at dawn to wake the world 

Shook it out of bed

I won’t abuse you of this thought

Or fail it while you carry

A necessary delusion that keeps us all merry

That makes me large enough to carry

The love and pride and fear  and worry

That you alone have brought

I warrant a giants space

A gods all knowing visage

With all the pride and love you give me

The illusion won’t stand forever 

Soon you will discern

That who you thought were mighty

Were little but concerned

And eager and bemused

Agobbed at what life wrought

As soon as you arrived we knew 

The gifts that weren’t yet bought

The truth that we disguise

Is evident to other eyes

To any looking at you and the grown ups who can’t catch up

While you labor in a lie

One we all must cling to

The truth, it’s you not I

That we all revolve and cling to

You are the sun and we the earth 

As much as we can figure

But if that’s wrong and you’re the earth

Than that should only figure 

Of all celestial bodies it’s the moon that we must be

As the sun that shines and alights us

Is all that we can see. 

Fallen

dismiss me I’m liberal
fault me for caring
about others and dreams
and nations and sparing
the lives of innocents
who fall below visions
of hawks and of monsters
and barkers of treason
you sling and slash
you shout of the demon
of fault that is falling
on those that don’t need it
you fire and fly
a flag of fallen heroes
but fail in your faith
never wanting for reasons to hate
alt white is leading
the nose of minor masses
to alt right leaders
contorting the language
to paint virtue of evil
and claim it is raining
the rain that is washing
their dominance away
not right not alt not white not all
but wanton and craven you hasten the fall
of fairness for looting
the souls of the groundlings
scraping and striving
learning and wheezing
your winning and failing
and pushing weighted ideas
that once fell to the flag
the long ago beat them
now spreads them and hides them
behind bars of blood
letting you rule but not fool
not even each other
spraying hate without heeding
those words you ain’t reading
that told of a notion
once dropped will no longer
unite us but bite us
by virtue of group think
shouts and screams and hollers for fealty
to nation not notion
defeating the meaning
of something we once knew
worth striving to perfect
now can’t even muster
the unity to protect

The Lodge, Part V: Figuring it Out

‘I really love it. It’s crazy. I’m here with people from all over the world, we work around the clock and we get one day off per 13. It’s perfect.’ I said. I meant it.

‘Joey, I’m so happy for you. I’m so excited.’

‘Thanks. It’s just a lot, but I think I really like it.’

This was my first call home after the guests had arrived. After the week long, 9AM-9PM trainings we were all ready to get to it, whatever it was. Even with that much time spent learning, with that many people who’d done it before there was no amount of preparation that was going to give me so much as a clue as to what that first day would entail.

‘I got picked to be on the bus that went into the city to pick up the guests. It was crazy. Unbelievable how much could happen in so short a time.’

This is not the staff picture from my 1st year. 3rd year, maybe?

About half of us staff were selected to ride the bus down to the city that first day. It really was a good omen, even if I didn’t know it yet. I’d be prepping the busses and coordinating the drop offs and pick ups within a couple of years and would continue to do them for many years after. You really had to trust the people on that crew. Any number of issues could arise, between the guests and their anxiety or separation or some other totally unexpected thing having to do with their diagnosis to random cars breaking down in front of you in the Lincoln Tunnel, car accidents, staff walking off never to be seen again (this happened more than once, place could drive you mad), incidents between guests on the bus, anxious, angry or just plain mean parents (as a rule they were ALL lovely. As a rule. Rules are ocassionally broken), mixed up medication, short fuses, insane heat, torrential rain. Whatever we ran into, whatever ran into us, we were there to check in 60 or so individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, process their personal effects and account for them, ensure they were fully stocked with meds, check in money get them on the bus and start to entertain them and continue to do so, and to be entertained by them for two weeks, sun up to well past sundown. It really was the most amazing thing I’ll ever do. Having and raising kids will mean more, but we can relate to so many others who’ve done it. But this, this was a singular experience.

‘Guests?’

‘Oh, yeah. Thing is they aren’t campers really. They’re grown ups and face it, grown ups don’t go to camps. They go on vacation. So they aren’t campers, they’re guests.’

‘That’s interesting.’ Mom said.

‘Yeah. Not so much, it’s just what it is. You forget about the word after a day of using it. Not even when you hear it so much during training. Truth is I was ready to see some guests by Sunday. They got here, Sunday.’

I was already spewing my person first language, practicing my committment to treating people respectfully and in line with their life experience and not the way I had before those trainings, which would have still been sensitive, but wouldn’t have been mindful of age appropriate language. In real terms I have learned a hand full of things in the 22 years since that week of training, some real valuable things, but none of it will ever come close to what I learned in those two weeks. Two because the training really didn’t end until after the first week that you were putting it into practice with the guys.

The training wea almost all centered around the arts and crafts room that was off the kitchen, the dining hall and the administrative/infirmary hallway. It was painted grey cement floors with knee to ceiling roller windows lining the walls to either side of our rows of chairs we lugged back and forth to and from the dining hall between meals to reset our classroom all day every day. I was given basic, sanctioned safety trainings, by the book and repeated yearly or near yearly since. I was given first hand trainings on what it meant to work in a field that was still populated with residents and former workers at Willowbrook State School. I met some of those who transformed our entire service system, from the inside, from one fraught and underfunded, filled with systemic abuse into one that was so truly person centered that we busted our asses to ensure that every person was given every ability to choose every single activity on their own and we would modify everything to ensure they could do it regardless of ability. I learned what it was like to be a sibling or a parent of a person with a disability from one of those parents. I met some of the heroic figures who said no to Doctors in the fifties who told them to put their child with a disability in the institutions and forget them. I met many of those children who found their way, through decades of darkness, both literally and in every other way and emerged on the other side heroic and still in touch with their tender and delicate humanity which had been so forsaken. They taught me. And I soaked it up. I loved it.

img_0191And I wasn’t alone. There was a core of us who made it through and reaped endless rewards because of it. There were at root about 30 or so of us who worked in cabins, lived with the guys. We were on call all through the night and working every waking minute (save the one hour break you lived for in order to shower and make a ten minute call to whoever to say how amazing the whole thing was or to cry because it was breaking you). Of those thirty about 16 or so made it through the summer. My cabin started with the full allotment of 6 staff. We lost Ausberto and Jim the Marine and I can’t remember who else, but one more. We made it through 3, two week sessions with just me, Mike and Tony. A suburban, an urban and a comrade. We cared for and loved 16 guys in that cabin every day. Two in wheelchairs? No problem, everyone will have what they need cause anyone of us would push ourselves miles past our limits to make sure of it. Truth is we did it to gut busting laughter much of the time. There were moments of discord and hot tempers, but they were over fast. Still love those guys and dozens more and would have the time of my life sitting around a fire all night reminiscing on those days. I can say confidently we all would. I met real family there.

‘Joey. I’m really proud of you.’

It’s still the most important thing I ever hear them say. Whenever they do I just eat it up.

‘Thanks mom. I think you would love it here more than anyone.’

And I’m sure I was right. It was a utopian society experimentation lab built on the ideals I learned from her. Love, compassion, understanding, committment, service and tireless giving that results in you getting so much after giving all of yourself.

BOOTSTRAP ELEGY

Pay no mind 

to the gold flecked philosophies

to the high hat hypocrisies 

of their bootstrap elegy 

pronouncing vice as virtue 

spreading apathy to foster 

fields of mice who do their bidding. 

Nothing we see seems to be what it seems

when Enron robbed Ida and chortled and crumbled 

the mountain we found wasn’t even a fraction 

of the fraud that was lurking

virtuous kneeling in pews and on TV 

Elmo grooming the children to pray 

to the heavens for love and salvation

finding church in the arms and uncomplicated desires 

of evil men hiding in cloth and mire

protected by god who shuffled them off 

to others and others every time saying sorry

and moving on to new fields and new fosters 

where no means maybe and riches are granted 

the veil of proof that god favors the takers 

and pays poverty wages to victims of crimes 

that can only be hidden neath the feats and the fears 

of all gods children 

convinced the next scratcher brings heaven 

while mending and tending the needs of their handlers 

the virtuous lenders and miners of fortune 

held up like beacons held out like sirens 

but hidden and choked behind screens that strain them 

and keep them aloft for all to see and touch and everything but be. 

Each toiler now looking for that great scam

that will let them touch god who they claim has a plan

but what do they mean when kindness and love are held out as ideal 

and the scripture of fortune is fed by greed

and love is devalued to want and to weed

Why I Acknowledged My Bias

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAU9AAAAJDVlMjNjMjQ1LTIxOWMtNGViZC04ZjA0LWQ2YzgzZWEzZjlhYwI recently took to the keyboard and wrote about something that has felt wrong for a long time. I acknowledged my bias. I tried to avoid over explaining so as not to water down the message. The message being that even those of us who pine for a more equal world, who understand the vileness and ubiquity of racism and hate it, who at worst would be considered allies in the fight for equality, even we are affected by the structural racism that is so ubiquitous as to be invisible like air to those unnoticing of it and equally as unavoidable as air to those so effected by it. That’s one reason I wrote that piece. Here are a few more.

Firstly, I gave my testimony because it is true. I’ve been thinking about race and racism since I was a kid. I’ve had endless encounters with kids and later adults who said racist things and denied being racist. That’s okay, it’s not really up to you as to whether or not you are racist. To a Klan member I imagine they are perhaps okay with the title, but believing their bullshit completely they might think, ‘No, I’m not racist. I’m just aware of the differences between us that make me superior to N***ers.’ You don’t get to behave or speak in racist ways and retain any viable ability to assess yourself unless you acknowledge you are racist, at which point, by acknowledging it you’d be making an admission that it is wrong to be so. The truth is to the best of my ability I’m woke. But the reality is that I’ve been tainted by the environment in deep ways I can’t avoid. I can balance, I can counteract and I can own up. But I can’t avoid.

Secondly, I understand the power of words.The reality is that for all of my attempts to call out racism I’m afraid the coded message getting through is only reinforcing the beliefs of others who agree and hardening the defiance of those who either deny racism or ignore it. It’s worth sending the signal to those oppressed that you are on their side, but it is not really moving the conversation in a way that will reach the ears of those most in need of hearing the message. The reality is that it’s far more palatable to someone to acknowledge a failing or a blind spot after someone else does.

There’s real damage in suggesting we don’t see color. In not acknowledging the real ways that racist imagery and repeated reporting of only the worst of humanity in one segment of society has colored ones way of seeing the world. This type of racism is so ubiquitous that it is insidious. It can get in even when you are fully on guard and fighting it at every turn. I don’t remember the conversation around race being so suffused with people denying it’s existence when I was a kid. Sure, people didn’t really see how much it might effect an individual and might argue it isn’t as bad as it truly is, but we all for the most part acknowledged it was a thing.Nowadays it seems all shame has been lost by racists who come out screaming and yelling their ridiculous hate. Now more than ever we need to acknowledge it exists. Racism is real and it ruins whole lives and in shockingly large numbers.

Thirdly, it’s not my job to lead this fight. I can be as liberal as I want and I can claim to understand anything I want, but if I don’t acknowledge my role in the larger picture I’m tacitly allowing it. Once aware that there was some wish from some people of color for white people to acknowledge their bias if they truly wished to change things I had to do so. It’s the only suggestion I’d heard that was different. That could be something I could say, writing from a position of whiteness and maleness that could have an actual impact. I had to do it. Once I saw how it fit in to the larger conversation, I was compelled.

Finally, because we have to normalize the understanding that bias exists within us. It is real. We, even the allies, perhaps for now especially so, have to be the ones to say we know it to be real and the only way to do that so others can hear it, those who may know but not feel like they can say it, we have to be honest. How else can we ever hope to change a problem so ingrained in our hearts and minds. I want my kids to know that I tried to change this. That I wasn’t just acknowledging awareness and avoiding discomfort. That I was doing what I knew with whatever ability I had to make a difference.

Our Adventures…

img_4314I’m running out of nights like this. I lie in the dark trying to get comfortable in a single bed with a big four year old who wants me there and wants me out of his way all at once. We talk a lot about how he doesn’t want to sleep, how he doesn’t know how to sleep. We used to talk about how closing his eyes hurt him. I’ve since learned to stop asking him to close those eyes.

This is all after I’ve read the 6 year old as much Harry Potter (we’re on ‘Chamber of Secrets’ and he seems to love it!!) as I can before my eyes fail or his drift off. I love that we’ve gotten to the Harry Potter stage, even if I did rush it a little. The natural magnetic force keeping us ever connected is loosening as he ventures out in the world and our relationship is evolving, as it should. I’m happy we’re taking these nightly adventures to Hogwarts. I loved reading these books the first time around, but for me that was my 20’s and 30’s. Reading with him is making me acutely aware and evermore enchanted by all I am seeing now that I’m experiencing it all with a little guy who is more able to see the wonder and magic that Harry Potter and his friends and their escapades have to offer.

I haven’t always relished the putting the kids to sleep thing. Until recently we were each taking one kid and not getting out until real late, at which time we’d start the nightly cleanup. I’d be grumpy and tired and frustrated and my wife, far better at transitioning than I, would be left looking for adult conversation with a brooding lump who couldn’t be bothered to take his headphones all the way off. If you ask my wife I could still probably use an exit room akin to those ones I’ve seen in therapists offices on sitcoms. A place to process my feelings and decompress after putting the boys to bed.

Making the transition to the daddy that shares an interest with a kid from one who is the caretaker is one that happens organically. You recognize it piece by piece. You mark it in books first. Lifted his head, rolled over, first solid food, crawled, first words, first steps. Somehow they feel like your own accomplishments. To a small degree they are and in perspective they are amongst the most important minor roles you’ll ever take in any endeavor in your life. But they aren’t yours. These things, all of them, are there’s. We get the early credit as we should, but they are emerging. Each milestone marking a tick further along as they make it all the way to the people they will be. We are so caught up documenting every tree that the forest grows up around us and behind us and without us noticing we are wrapped up in discovering the life we missed along the way. Understanding the journey we made from lifting our heads and rolling over all the way to now. In doing so we learn that we were magical creatures once too. We were once the tour guides of life for the great adventurers we were once so unable to notice as they were disguised as our parents.

img_4321Eventually it’s an adventure inside an adventure inside an adventure out into infinity. We can look backwards and imagine our lineage as a seemingly never ending line, emerging and submerging each to the next all the way to the horizon. I find myself endlessly curious about the lives of all of them. I lie in bed wondering if my own parents felt this strange mix of weary burden and enlightened awe as they lie in the dark wondering if they were doing it right. Did they ever lie in that bed as the defiant and playful 3 year old while there parents wondered why they were given so much to carry and so much to be carried by. It’s all so obvious now, to me, this joy that I feel in the midst of the frustrations and among fluctuating confidence that can bounce so wildly between feeling absolutely assured that I’m nailing this whole parenting thing and the utter and obvious understanding that I am completely unequal to the task and am failing in ways that will inevitably go echoing into a future that scares me because I can’t know how it will all turn out. If it will all turn out.

Before long I’m back to the story. Back to the excitement of seeing what will happen to the boy who lived under the stairs. Excited to see how he will once again foil the indefatigably awful Dursley’s so he can make his way back to where he needs to be, with his friends, finding the life that is awaiting him. Full of adventure and meaning and life and love and tragedy. Hoping that he makes it through without the scars burdening him so greatly that he can’t be who he was supposed to be. Hoping beyond hope that there’s a story about the evil ones that makes it all make sense in a way that wasn’t just pure evil. Hoping the Dursley’s find peace and Harry can find forgiveness and understanding when he eventually gets to an age and thinks, ‘What the hell was all that about?!’ Hoping love will find each and every one of the people that matter. Hoping it will reach the Harry’s and Ron’s and Hermione’s, sure, but also the Neville’s and even the Draco’s and Crabbe and Goyle’s.

The adventure goes on far further than I ever imagined as a kid. It stretches out before me and beyond me ever morphing and suddenly surprising. The further I go the more I want. I lay in the dark adrift in adventure, wondering and wanting more than I ever could have thought imaginable while also knowing I won’t be around to see it all play out.