Tag Archives: America

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.

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

3AM

I’m sick of everyone 

and their crockpot recipes. 

I’m sick of their Midwest mockeries. 

I’m tired of the constant cacophony 

of pained but righteous melodies 

sung by sparrows feeling entitled to everything 

and assholes baring their baritones 

and all the others who can’t be alone. 

Who won’t atone. Who sling their wares 

through country roadsides and broader thoroughfares. 

All the noise feels redundant but looks resplendent. 

Feels remarkable. But sounds insolent. 

I’m tired of wanting and wishing and playing 

never missing a moment I’m convinced is so vital 

to find it arrives and passes with no residue, no lasting. 

I leave wanting not more, not less. 

All I ever want is next. 

This can’t be me. It can’t be what it seems. 

I’m filled and fly on wings of dreams 

but ever I know and ever I try there’s nothing left but next. 

Next year and sorrow. 

Next pity and wallow. 

Next thing to be earned next feeling to burn. 

Forgotten piles amount to a life well mined 

by others who don’t give mine the time 

or the mind.

Owning My Bias

  ‘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. 

Acknowledging my Dismay

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.