One particular summer arrival sticks out. We were in the Carolin Drive house so I couldn’t have been more than five. It was summer so I was definitely four. I could have been three, I suppose, but it would be odd to remember it at all. It was sunny and to my memory we were waiting for my dad to get home. Derrell would be with him. My memory always has it as after work for my dad but it could easily have been Saturday morning. Who’s to say. So it was a terrible realization that we were seeing what we were seeing. No one batted an eye that dad parked in the street. This was suburbia and we had a perfectly good and perfectly empty driveway. Regardless, the trauma blocked this oddity from notice. You see, there he was, dad, just strolling across the lawn practically overflowing with aloofness as we all thought how terrible it was. Derrell would be wandering the airport all alone! Looking for Dad! How could he have forgotten! It’s all the bigger boys talked about for days!
Of course, D was in the back seat, lying on the bench, cool as a fan. Dad and D, well, they got us good.
This would have been in the heart of the years when D spent summers with us as a kid. He’d get on a plane, or maybe a bus, I have no idea, somewhere in New York City. He lived in the South Bronx, but to us Western New Yorker’s, far more familiar with Toronto than NYC, it was a behemoth not at all disassembled to the boroughs. D was from New York City.
I think I like best the thought of my dad and Derrell, perhaps 12 years old at the time, rolling down the road and hatching this plan. Derrell was already a skilled clinician of holding a room with funny. My dad was his perfect comedy partner, a classic straight man. Dry humor and perfect for the role he was cast in in this sketch. Everything is in that conversation that got them there. It’s the late 70’s so they didn’t pull over. There were no seat belts restricting movement and I’m sure D popped over the passenger seat to the back bench to test it as a hiding spot while they soared out 531 to Union in Spencerport. It would be a long time until it extended all the way to Brockport. Just a skinny, bearded, cool Dad looking like a hipster Abe Lincoln and the lean, long limbed black kid with fabulous and fabulously big and round specs plotting a prank on the way home.
Derrell was almost certainly a curiosity the first time he arrived on Carolin. I mean, how could he avoid being one. But I am equally certain that would have lasted all of 2 mins. He is, was and will forever be touched with an undeniable charisma that shrinks distance, bridges difference and effortly seizes the attention of those in his light. I’m sure that by his first morning waking up and pouring sugar on his cereal he was the brother we’ve all known him as, as I’ve only known him as.
‘That’s not a water gun.’ D said.
‘Yeah it is. Watch.’ And if the 40 or so years between now and then have been in anyway instructive as to who would respond by shooting a stream of water in his face, running away and laughing, it was my older brother Mike. It’s a tiny moment, so neither would remember it. But I do. I don’t know why what sticks out sticks out. When you’re a kid you notice at weird times and implant memories for no reason at all. I remember this tiny exchange followed by screaming (the fun kind), chasing, laughing, a sprinkler.
‘It’s a dolphin. It can’t be a water gun if it’s a dolphin.’
We had water ‘guns’ shaped like sea creatures and in hindsight I’m glad we did. A dolphin spitting at you is funny, the bazooka like shooters that mimicked real guns from my youth, they were not as fun. At the time I wanted the water gun. The real one.
It was a disappointment. Like the length of wear for my sneakers or the irregular stamps on the tags of the Levi’s we got at Marshall’s. Silly, stupid kid insecurities that are now mildly amusing memories of things I wish I hadn’t been so hard on my parents about. Like when they got me the one speaker ‘box’ because the salesman explained it was higher quality than the two speaker cool ‘box’ I really wanted. 12 year old boys can be hard to please.
But other things were not done for necessity or by simple misunderstanding. Like the assorted wildlife shaped squirter’s whose triggers we pulled and had just as much fun as any of the kids playing with handgun looking cousins of our spitting animals. It was subtly communicated, explained when asked and a lesson I took.
D took to the dolphin. In the end, chasing one another with squirting sea life was just as fun.
I can’t predict my tragedies
I can’t defend proclivities
I may be able to say what is
That which I may never give
Over to those who wish to seize
The broken and battered memories
Of times remembered forgivingly
And dreams abandoned hastily
I don’t suppose it all is fate
But neither do I presume it ain’t
My whiteness lives outside of me
While I forever fail to see
Visions of those looking back at me
They fed my ego and took my most
Not for me said I and gazed
On such a life so filled and glazed
So much obscured the many signs
The world was tilted to me and mine
Now I wonder will I wage
The wars for justice I don’t engage
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.
‘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.’
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.
‘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.
And 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.
I 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.
‘Well, you just turn over your card, and then, you know.’
He says it casually. It’s out of step with anything we are familiar with, but it comes close. Charlie, who will be 6 soon, is trying out ‘ya know’. He’s approximating it’s use and misappropriating it. But he’s coming close and it’s pretty great. I won’t say it was adorable. I want to be respectful of his attempts at growth.
There will be more of this. Much more. I know because it’s how I came to be as well. I tried things on. I tried on jock. I tried on brooding teen. I tried on funny guy. I tried on ladies man. I tried on urban Joe or black Joe if you prefer. I tried on tragic Joe. I tried on social warrior. I tried on writer. I’m still trying it on. I put on these identities and parts of each were unearthed in me. I eventually rejected all of these as a whole person is way to big to fit inside something so narrow as an identity so narrowly and externally defined. There was a reason for each and that reason remains and lives on within me.
Watching Charlie start this I have to say, I don’t envy him. The journey to understanding who you are, determining who you are, leveling intent and native instinct as well as philosophy and temperament is arduous. It’s a journey I’m still struggling with. I’m still trying to figure it all out. I hope he navigates it okay. I’d say that I hope he navigates it better than me, but I woudln’t mean it. If he navigated it exactly like me, well, I’d buy that right now. I hope he finds his truest self faster than I did.
I had great freedom. Charlie, so far, knock on wood, appears that he will have similar opportunity. He will be able to be all the things, all the component emotional realities along the way as he grows from nearly six to man sized and ready to be freed of the tyranny of parents. It will seem like torture at times, as it certainly will for us as well but he’ll have that chance it appears. He should consider himself lucky. I should. Not every kid is afforded such a wide berth in which to experiment. Not every parent is afforded the confidence that the world will at the very least look the other way as kids growing up try on identities.
I had friends who were black when I was growing up. I have brothers whom I love who are and were black. Our dinner table had black people at it, black men. It had a young woman who was Vietnamese. Not to mention six tall, white, irish/finnish Medler’s as well. We were all fucked up in our own way. In the way that all good and happy families are. But at bottom we were well. We were loved and we were safe.
At least us white one’s were. Especially us boys. We could fail repeatedly. We could fall down and the world would be there, over and over to pick us up. We were given chances, seen for the good people that we were underneath our outwardly destructive behavior as we grew into fine men. We were forgiven our absences and absolved of wrongdoing. We got consequences, but just enough to make us better for it. Just enough to learn a lesson. Maybe it took a couple of times. Maybe more than a few. I can’t say that all my black friends wee afforded the same liberty and leeway.
As I’ve gotten older and I’ve looked back on my youthful friendships I think that we were all playing with a cartoon. A racist cartoon at that. When I say all I mean myself, my white friends and the relatively few black guys who were our peeers. I had three best friends in high school, all in separate contexts to some degree. Two redheads and a young man who was black. I essentially was drawn to each of them for their similar qualities. They were all funny, still are. They were all smart. Super smart actually, but like me they were largely smart in the room and not really caring about grades or accomplishment. They were and remain all guys you could sit in a car and split a six pack and talk about life with and you could learn and elucidate. Good guys. But when I was with certain collections of people, during times when I was trying on black joe, I have to say, it was pretty inherently and in hindsight, downright insidiously racist. There was no intent there, but that only makes it more dangerous. It was aping a culture to feel something. I don’t really know what that something was, but it was not ours, not come about honestly. We felt some kind of glow of hardship and reveled in it from a place of safety that wasn’t afforded the members of our groups who weren’t white. To some degree, perhaps they shared some of those safety nets, but we had more. I’d be sent home if caught doing the bad thing. He wouldn’t be. Wasn’t.
I take pride, shamefully, in being right racially. As if this is some honor. As if I should be given some special honorary brother status for merely acknowledging racism exists and saying it’s wrong. For a long time, 40+ years I thought that was enough. I don’t think that anymore. Now I think I need to acknowledge what biases I have. I need to respect the hardships of others and not usurp them. I have to stand alongside not only my my black friends and say we are in this together, I need to stand next to my white ones and own my reality as well.
What’s most painful for me is acknowledging my personal bias. I am scared to write what comes next and as much as I want to be brave and just say it and let it live. I can’t. I have to first say another truth. One that is honest and self serving. I am aware of my bias and whenever I catch it infecting my thinking of another human being I acknowledge it and put it aside and find out more about the person. In doing so I’ve met more wonderful people than a person my age has any right having known and I know that others who have had preconceived notions of me have done the same. I’m proud of that. Which is kind of sick. Because other times I’ve only found my bias in the rearview mirror. I can miss it and not recognize it until it is too late. I’ll always try to make amends if I can, but sometimes I can’t. I imagine there are times I don’t even see it. Ever. Me. Someone who grew up with black people. Who has written boldly on the ill of racism in America and who has spoken out at every turn decrying it’s outcomes, I can be overwhelmed by irrational and unfair bias against black men. Particularly young black men. I try always to counter it. I am disciplined about breaking through that feeling as swiftly as it is recognised. But I’m not immune. It breaks my heart that this is true.
I believe we all have biases. For much of my life these biases have put me ahead of most others in all pursuits, even before we’ve encountered one another. Even if we never encounter one another. That’s what being white and male is in my case. I have friends from homogenous areas of the world who will disagree with this, but I don’t think any of them honestly believes their lives would be easier if they were black. Or that any of the black guys they know wouldn’t think, on some level, the world wouldn’t be a safer place for them if they were white. It doesn’t mean life is easy for anyone. So many factors have lead to my life being what it is, not the least of which being my inherrently good traits. But I also see a world where I was forgiven much, allowed a lot and not restricted because the world has been trained to see me as a threat. And I’m big. I’m 6’2″ 235 big. But I”m not big and black and in threat of being exterminated like a roach or a snake because my appearance inspires blind fear of a visceral nature that has caused young men of color to be shot essentially for being black men. Or even boys.
As disgusted as I am to live in a world where this happens I can no longer go forward without acknowledging that I know what those cops were feeling. It was fear. I can have the same response to black men in situations that feel risky. I hate everything I’m saying and I’m more the type of person that will cross the street to be on the same side of that person because I’m civilized, understand that it’s my obligation to actively counter this reaction when I feel it, but I’ve felt it. I can feel it.
I hate myself for feeling it. But nowadays, with racists running for and winning office openly espousing profiling of religious belief and questioning the very humanity of people of color, turning their backs on the poor and destitute ravaged by war and strife and hunger, I can’t afford to deny my bias in defense of my ideals. Honesty is the least I can do. I don’t want to ever live in a world where those who know say nothing. Where people who can speak don’t. Right now I feel like I live in a world, in a country that has lost sight of the founding principle that we are all created equal. A myth that was a lie knowingly told by men who hoped to be cured by it’s aspirational sentiment and the actions of those people who followed them. We are failing and we are approaching a point where we must exercise not only our rights, but our better selves and the first step for me is acknowledging my bias. By moving past the foolishness of ‘I don’t see color’ and owning our bias. Owning it and letting it out into the world so I know I’ve done everything in my power to be free of it. So that there can be any hope of ever getting past what is so inherently unjust. So others can see the insidiousness of hate and it’s effect on all of us.
Hello… I hope you are all doing well this fine day.
I’m one of those people who is on edge in America these days with this very ugly Presidential campaign so fresh in my mind. Today I’m talking about one of the issues that has been on the surface for the past year, one that has some very disturbing trends reemerging in a country that has some original sin it can’t seem to get past. I hope this piece, my perspective and some history can help in a tiny way.
We’re afraid of topics of discussion that can reveal things we don’t want to acknowledge but we can know longer sit out of the conversations we have to have. Too many Americans are scared for too many reasons to sit idly by and let the voices of hate and intolerance go unchecked.
I hope you read my post at The Good Men Project and share it with someone you think might get something from it…
It may seem silly for me to say that I need to take a moment to talk about my dismay. You may be hearing the combined weight of those of us who lost lamenting, licking wounds, expressing rage or just generally expressing anxiety. For what it’s worth, I know this little trickle will not move the needle. But I have to do it. I’ve been searching and seeking understanding and I think I’ve gotten some. I think the issues that are pressing to me differ from the people I grew up around, who voted pretty overwhelmingly for Trump and it shouldn’t surprise me as I had a unique experience. I’m from a multicultural, multiracial home in a fairly homogeneously white region of the world. I’ve been seeing racism up close for as long as I can remember. My sensors formed before many would be aware of the issue. I’m going to continue to try to understand and build bridges to those folks that voted for Trump in spite of his ideas. But I need to take a minute to indulge this existential despair. I owe it that much. If I don’t acknowledge it I will be consumed by it. I need to purge some periodically to keep from being fully defeated .
Have you ever run into the customer service person behind a desk at say, the DMV, who responds to your honest and simple question about proper procedure with an audible sigh, eye rolling exasperation and a general disdain for you as a person. That’s what it sounds like when I share a genuine anxiety and a feeling of existential dread about the years to come. I’m happy that after years of your seeming existential dread of the President I loved you are relieved by this result. Good for you. But honestly, don’t engage with this if you are telling me it will all be okay. You don’t know that. Objectively, we are going into uncharted territory and besides, even if you are right, that’s not what this is about. So go away. I’m not trying to change your mind. This is a yell for empathy from people, mostly, who agree with me and share my dread. That is my disclaimer. I’m going to make clear my fears here. You may feel like you’ve heard it a million times the last week or so, but this is my turn and I’m not interested in your levity. This is a support group post for other people weighed down by the state of things. Don’t be that DMV worker Go away and let me get this off my chest for and with the people who get me. As I learned when I got married, sometimes it’s not about finding a solution. Sometimes it’s just about being heard and empathized with.
Now, for those of you left who I know will get this… What the hell has happened. We have a president who is terrified of the job. He clearly was so focused on winning that he didn’t consider whether he wanted the prize. I’m convinced that for a long time he was TRYING to lose. In his private moments I’m sure he’s daydreaming about the network he was so well positioned to start and lamenting the fact that he can’t do it as president.
But more so I’m terrified of the schism that is revealing itself. It’s a schism that has always existed, but the boorish violence that is now occurring with such a lack of shame is disturbing. I feel like in this new ‘Trump’s America’, the Klan may just do away with their hoods. Why should they hide. The shame is gone. I heard Strange Fruit yesterday and never in all the time I’ve heard the hauntingly beautiful song about lynchings in the south has the grotesque reality of that world of which she sings seemed so present.
I’m tired of bending and flexing to make my moral outrage quiet enough to hear the justifications. I don’t want to be relativistic in terms of racism. There are built in, institutional disadvantages I’d rather be fighting, playing the long legislative game. Instead we’re faced with heart and soul of Breitbart having an office off the oval and the ear of a dangerously reckless, nihilistic president in way too far over his head. There might be some fear around the world at the prospect of this administration, but there also has to be a certain amount of opportunistic energy prepping to fleece our very overwhelmed and scared president.
Also, while I’m at it, why can’t we all just come out and say that racism is bad, that misogyny is bad that homophobia is bad and that we should all be working to make sure it is exposed as such. That these things are anti-American and in direct opposition to the concept of liberty. I mean if we can’t all just say F*ck the KKK what can we say together. What the hell?
Also, are we sure you aren’t at least a little racist or Misogynist or xenophobic if you voted for an openly hostile (granted he’s toned it down in the days since Nov. 8th) person who is all these things? A person who mostly answered questions of policy in such a blank slate way that there was no policy to reference if you wanted to vote for him on the basis of ideas. A person who played on the fears of angry white voters and gave ‘huge’ encouragement to intimidate ‘those people. You know who they are, you know’ at the polls and suggested that the ‘2nd Amendment people’ get to his opponent. I hear a lot of my friends, and myself, saying a lot of things that start with, ‘Okay, so you’re not racist/sexist/xenophobic but…’ I’ve believed it about those I’ve known as real life people, but I think the blanket exemption is not altogether true. Something more like, ‘I know you don’t think of yourself as a racist/sexist/misogynist/xenophobe, but as someone comfortable voting for one…’ might be more accurate. But that would shutdown the conversation.
It’s time to harden our moral outrage. Not just at the opposition but at the lurching away from wage earning families and cozying up to corporations our own party has engaged in for more than a generation now. A habit that leaves us so out of touch that there is an opening the size of a truck that anyone could have driven through were they only willing to run on a blatantly white nationalist message, putting dog whistles away for openly racist appeals, willing to treat many women worse than the worst ways we’ve imagined of a presidential nominee, being caught bragging about sexual assault and defending it as ‘locker room talk’ and making sharp, personal identity jabs at ones opponent. We should all feel lucky, for now, that it was someone so brazen and so incompetent. A different type of sociopath, a competent AND charismatic one could have done far better and would have been plausibly able to claim a mandate.
I’ll get back to reflecting and analyzing soon. For now I just need to wallow in dismay. Just for this time. Just now. Then, I have to get to work.
5:30 Saturday morning. I sat in the bathroom liking, loving and sharing anything that triggered anything that felt like something new. Any argument I hadn’t yet seen, any inspirational meme or rage hidden plea from folks struggling with the same crisis I was trying to engage with. Suddenly, alone on the toilet in the dark I went to the home screen, found the facebook icon, held it long enough to cause all the icons to shimmy. I looked at it shaking there, tiny ‘x’ in the corner and I couldn’t. I needed it. So my cooler head prevailed, I stabilized my apps and immediately opened facebook again. That was when I knew. I went back and deleted the app. Here I am, 18 hours later and I could use some validation. Likes are good I guess. Loves are great. And laughs. They really do bounce around a lot longer in the synapses, feeding the need as it were. Comments. That’s what I’m talking about. Even the pissy ones. I could deal without the ones of people who clearly don’t read the whole update. Granted, mine can get long and I admit freely, I have tone problems. Shares. God do I love a good share.
But none at all today. That’s not totally true. I opened this here computer to write this piece and it was on FB and I had 25 notifications. So I scrolled them. I’ll say this and this alone about one notification. I don’t care who is racist, whether they are republican or democrat. I don’t like them. I’m anything if not clear on this I feel, but apparently it must be said.
I’m going on a day without facebook everpresent and I feel like it’s probably good for me. I had a great day with the kids. We went to the park across the street on this unseasonably warm day and played our extremely modified version of wiffle ball, which includes long stretches of Teddy walking like a sea crab and Charlie wanting to bat, field, be in the bleachers and search for treasure. Whatever, there was a bat, a ball, a few hits and some very passive fielding. I’m counting it.
When we were done we made it over to the other side of the school across the street, to the playground. It was good, there was another dad and son there. He was right between Teddy and Charlie in age and as suits their personalities Teddy went about digging holes on his own in the woods surrounding the playground and Charlie went about making a best friend. Everyone he meets is his best friend.
The dad was a nice guy and we got to chatting. It really was nice. He was cool, easy to talk to. He made a joke about the Mets shirt I had on and I let him know that the Mets were my winners as the Bills were my football team. He said it was good to see a man raising boys of character, kids who will have to endure pain. It was funnier when he said it. It was a good laugh line. I’d have been happy to call it at that. But we kept chatting and it was fine. By the end he asked for my number in case the kids wanted to get together. Sure. So who knows. Maybe I made a friend. It’s weird. Maybe its just me, but I kinda think that part of my life is over. I’ve never been very good at socializing without getting blind drunk and ghosting. It’s my signature move.
Once home I took apart a full bed to move it to T’s room, took apart his toddler bed and reassembled the full size and finally got done a job this poor, giant four year old has needed doing for some time. After showing him and his brother his cool, new big boy bed, one that matches his big brothers I made dinner. Rice and beans, corn on the cob, corn muffins and chicken tenders (the boys don’t really dig on my rice and beans, but there gonna regret that someday). After a nice meal at the table I had some quality TV time with the boys and then T came up and helped me shave my head. I do it every two weeks and his big brother likes helping, but this was Teddy’s first time. It was cool.
Capper, I got them both to bed. This is normally a two parent, two room job. I did it in under an hour. Whatever you think about that, you have to know, I’m bragging. In this house that’s bragworthy.
I almost forgot. I listened to the new Tribe album while I cooked. It’s good.
Here’s the thing. I’m bad at community. I’m good at dad, but I’m bad at making and maintaining friends. Actually, come to think of it, I’m pretty good at making them but really bad at maintaining them. I can strike up the conversation in the park easy. I can initiate or respond. I’m equally effective. But I know me, and despite everything I should do I’ll never respond if this guy texts. I’ll stay away from the park for a good long time, too. I know. It’s terrible. It’s where I fail.
I say all this firstly to brag. I got a ton of shit done this weekend. That’s not even counting the full day of painting I did yesterday. but secondly I say it because I think there might be something instructive for me in it. I’ll engage all day long on Facebook. I’m sure I’d do the same on other social media platforms but I’m old and FB is where it’s at for me. Anyway I’ll spout opinions, engage in give and take and generally be an open book there. Meanwhile I can’t fathom the idea of having to talk to someone regularly without a structure to it. I love face to face at work but I don’t think we’ve ever had a neighbor in the house. Like ever. A good part of that can be blamed on it being very small, us being very full time employed, both of us, and it being a mess most of the time due to these factors and the two small tornado’s I put to bed this evening.
We’ve lost our political connectedness and I think it might be because we’ve lost almost all of our connectedness. Online I can disengage if you frustrate me or if I think your argument is stupid or if I just get caught up in a show. My grandparents were 1950’s style entertainers. After work other couples from the neighborhood swung around for cocktails. They would perform in community theater and go out with friends. My parents who had six kids, or nine if you looked at it right, even managed to be better than me. My mom is the social glue of her world and made a friend every time she met anyone. They had groups they would go to on Friday nights when I was young. Other moms were always over at the house for coffee, neighbor kids coming and going. It was a hub of activity and they were key players.
We don’t do that. We aren’t like that. It seems fewer and fewer people are. And so when something comes along, like a decision for who to vote for, we have no context to put it in. Honestly, I’m worried this guy, who seemed nice as hell (and looked remarkably like Tom Brady) might have had a Trump sign in his yard. This is a TERRIBLE way to think. And something that I think was avoided by my predecessors because they bowled with friends who’d vote for the other guy. Or they were in a play with them or they sang in the church with them. Maybe they just drank with them, whatever. They knew each other. They had a context for the whole person while nowadays we know nothing of our neighbors. Meanwhile we fill in all the worst.
I should note here that I’m projecting all of this and this might just be an issue for me. If it is, I can tell you, it ain’t healthy. It makes me blind to what people really are. It makes me see people unfairly and inaccurately. It makes me scared of a world of people and surely some of those people can be feared even or especially after getting to know them. But in that mix would be many more who could and should and would help us understand each other better. Maybe if the Trump guy down the street got to know me over pickup hoops and dinner with our wives on a date night for parents before we ever even broached the topic of politics we wouldn’t be so angry all the time. Maybe I’d see sooner how messed up and alienated some have felt whom we’ve never considered as liberals and perhaps he’d understand and see some of the inequalities I’m so upset about. In fact we might come to find we’re voting different folks for the same reasons and that we are both furious at the rising racist tide. Even if that didn’t happen, at least that’s a jumping off point.
Well, Its not been a full day yet and I’m already a little less tense for being away from FB for a bit. The arguments, often not tied to anything but our respective abilities to google facts that support our unbending opinions leaves us feeling like we’ve engaged when all we’ve done is harass. For my rather substantial part in that transaction lately, I do apologize.
I won’t go away. I love facebook and likely will as long as it houses y life of relationships. Just yesterday, in the midst of painting the upstairs landing and smack in the middle of my several day meltdown on FB one very kind, and genuine and thoughtful thing happened as a result of my community there. A friend from college, Bryan reached out to me. We hadn’t talked a ton in college and hardly at all since. But he had a context for who I was and he could see I was unraveling. He sent me a sincere and kind private message letting me know that if I ever wanted to hear a someone’s opinion who voted for the other side he’d be happy to talk. It was genuinely thoughtful, I know because I know him and he knows me, however long ago it was, ours was was a real relationship. Where you sat in the same room and talked. Had beeers. Watched games. All of it. We had a good back and forth about the issues that irked us. I know his information genuinely made me think. Than we talked about fatherhood. How much he loved it and how he enjoyed reading about my experience. It was nice. It was genuine. I wish I had more of that in my life. Disagreement without being disagreeable.
If you are asking ‘how do I talk to my kids about the fact that Trump won?’ there’s a real problem.
Here’s the thing. If you believe that we elected a racist, sexist, misogynistic, unhinged maniac whose mere existence is capable of bringing untold abuse to minorities of all stripes, like I do, than you damn well better know how to talk to your kids about it. And yes, I said ‘WE’ elected. Because you know what, we are ALL Americans. Even those people you somehow forget when talking about how horrified everyone is at the thought of a President Trump. Also, start saying President Trump. Get used to it. Four years is not forever, but it’s not nothing.
Now also understand that the people, excluding the KKK and the various white supremacist groups, who elected Mt. Trump did not do so, uniformly and in lock step, for these vile traits. I know. I grew up in the area of the country, the beautiful area known as the Great Lakes Region to me, but as the ‘Rust Belt’ to so many who aren’t there. Fuck all of you, by the way. I don’t like that so many people I know and love from growing up felt the need to vote for this monster, but I understand why they did.
Let’s talk about that. Why? There is a fair bit of racially disgusting thought everywhere. It’s a real problem, just as real there as it is in cities and suburbs and rural areas the country over. But there’s a lot of kind, caring, loving and even socially aware, woke white folks there too and they voted for Mr. Trump. Can you sense my frustration? It comes not from any latent opinion changing of the other guy. He’s a straight monster in my opinion and the thought of him as commander in chief scares the life out of me. Nope. Still hate him, even if I still love so many of his voters. I disagree with them, yes, but I love them too. Nope, I’m mad at my own, left side of this country.
I’m mad because even now, when the election is over and our worst nightmare is true, we are taking the easy way out and calling our former base, working class Americans everything but what they see themselves as. Which is the forgotten backbone of a formerly great industrial economy.
Here’s what’s happening. It’s like Trump is in an iridescent dress and each side is seeing only one color. I see plain and clearly the monster, willing to put whole demographic catagories of humans, never mind the fact that the vast majority of them are fellow American’s, into the hungry lions mouth, caring not one iota for them because he thinks of them as some lower form of man then he. Seemingly seeing them as subhuman even, merely for the color of their skin or an accent that their children don’t share. I see a monster that is emboldening the voices of racial and nationalist hate all to serve his own acquisition of power and I’m disgusted.
You know who is on the other side of that monster, though? People. Struggling people. People who were raised in company towns where three quarters of the kids I grew up with came from homes that worked for the same company who could afford to operate there and promised a career long job with good benefits and an honest check that was not just above poverty level but rather a genuine article job that put you in the middle class. People who were made to believe that if they took the special classes those jobs would be there for them when it was time for them to have kids. People who now see those same giant buildings all their dads and many of their moms went into every day crumbling from the decay that comes from being abandoned and left to die as companies died and had to go other places where labor is cheap and human rights aren’t a thing. People who now struggle to paste together a valid income by stitching temporary job to part time gig to anything they can try to do for enough to make Christmas special for their kids they love. And you know what. Many of them love the brown and black kids, what few there may be, whose parents are there in the same boat, having no idea if what little opportunity that’s there now will be there tomorrow.
These folks, they don’t see only what we see. They see someone who came to them and at the very least said, I SEE YOU. You are not crazy. You really did get screwed and by forces beyond your control. He placed the blame where they placed it. He said yes, you got a raw deal and she(really he, but by extension) did this. Was it completely accurate? Who gives a shit. He was on TV every goddamn day telling them they were right to be angry. Then, he went where it didn’t need to go. He stoked anger into hatred and pointed it maniacally at OTHER hard working people struggling to get by. It was truly messed up, yes. But it was done by then. He got it. He saw the America that is ignored, though it is still tens of millions of our daily lives. Communities and economies in despair. Heroin tearing through families and towns and regions. Whole generations of people being ignored no matter how hard it gets. No matter how cold it gets. No matter how much opportunity disappears.
So talk to your kids about the fact that anger can turn to hatred when people refuse to see or hear people who disagree with them. Tell them that a bad man won and we lost. Losing is a part of living in a democracy and you feeling entitled to winning merely because the other guy is vile isn’t gonna cut it. You want more love, go find angry people and listen to them. Find people that don’t look like you and sit with them and try to make friends with them. Tell them we all have to work to make the world a nicer place and we can’t pretend other people struggling has no effect on us. It’s not an option to think that way anymore. Tell them to start thinking now about the next great invention they can think of because who knows what spark of genius will create a new industry and economy that can raise the water so all of us can float higher.
Just don’t tell them you don’t know what to say. That’s bullshit.