Saturday, August 12, 2017

The N-Word

I didn't grow up with a great deal of racial diversity. Home was a small town in southern California, northeast of the city of San Diego by about 45 minutes. Predominantly Caucasian, we had a fairly substantial Latino population but, beyond that, there wasn't much representation of minorities.

I don't remember much at all about my early education on slavery, segregation, and racism. I'm sure I learned my fair share in a classroom, surrounded by all my white peers, hearing about the Civil War and Martin Luther King Jr. Then, just as now, we tapped briefly, told the white students a few highlights of black history and moved on. My parents must have educated me further because I can remember, for forever, knowing that there is a VERY bad word that we NEVER, EVER say. I feel pretty confident in guessing that there wasn't a lesson in my mostly white school about not saying the n-word.

I can never remember saying it. Not to someone, not in the privacy of my own bedroom just for the sake of saying it, not ever. As a child, that word was, to me, the most angry and evil thing imaginable. Somehow, I had to have been taught. I had to have had, instilled in me, the idea that the n-word carried a weight, unforgivable and inexcusable. I struggled through The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird--loving them with an affection that continues to this day, but wrestling with how we might adequately remember a piece of our American history without THAT piece.

I've wondered if my intense aversion to this six letter word was somehow born of a subconscious, God-given foresight that, one day, I would be the white woman trying to grow the black boy to manhood.

I have said the n-word. I've said it as calmly and as matter-of-factly as I can manage. I have said it because I have instructed my son. I have told him that he will hear it, that people will say it to him and about him, that it will appear in literature and history. We have talked about its use in pop culture and within the African-American community. It was not easy for me to say because in such a small word there is so much history and heartache, so much degradation of an entire people group--a group in which my son belongs. It is pointedly inflammatory and I highly doubt that it will ever be free of its connotation of intimidation and oppression.

"The word n-----, you see, sums up for us who are colored all the bitter years of insult and struggle in America." -Langston Hughes The Big Sea

An online dictionary begins with a usage warning and lists the word as extremely disparaging. It's warning says this, "The term...is now probably the most offensive word in English. Its degree of offensiveness has increased markedly in recent years, although it has been used in a derogatory manner since at least the Revolutionary War...Extremely Disparaging and Offensive represent meanings that are deeply insulting and are used when the speaker deliberately wishes to cause great offense. It is so profoundly offensive that a euphemism has developed for those occasions when the word itself must be discussed, as in court or in a newspaper editorial: 'the n-word.'"

Saying it--in painful lessons to my son--did not prepare me for the look on his face when it was used last night. I might have dared to hope that he would not be only 8 years old. I might have hoped that it would not come from an older, white boy.

"Mom, I have to tell you something," I've never thought I'd seen the color drained from the face of my perfect, brown boy. Something was wrong. His whisper, when I went to him, was barely audible. "A boy said the n-word."

Every nerve, from the top of my head to the tip of my toes began to buzz. I calmly asked him to point me to the one who said it. He was, maybe, 12 or, perhaps, 13. Older than Garrett. Old enough to know. I found myself feeling thankful that it hadn't been a, "Hey you, n-----!" or "Get outta here, n-----!" Instead, the boy had asked my son if he knew what it meant.

I have no idea what his plan was or what he hoped to gain or make Matthew lose in the exchange but, after Matthew mumbled, "yes," the boy said, "It means you're black." My son, who is usually almost deathly afraid of new people and circumstances, whose default when threatened is always flight and never fight, apparently looked this bigger white boy in the eye and said squarely, "Stop." And then he came to find me.

Perhaps the boy didn't assume that the white lady coming to talk to him was related to the brown boy he'd decided to instruct in the ways of oppressive language with more than two centuries of historical baggage. I instructed him more perfectly. Calmly, but with fire in my eyes. We. Don't. Say. That. Word.

We, little white boy. You and me. We are not guilty of past atrocities but we are responsible for our actions and our words. We can remind the black man, with one six letter word, that there was a very long time in our history when he was forced to be less. When that boy said that word, when he told Matthew that it means he is black, what he really meant was that there was somehow a clear distinction between him, the scooter riding punk kid, and my son. And that the distinction "clearly" placed the white boy on top of their social order.

Let me be clear. I am not calling the boy a racist. (Nor am I calling RACIST on everyone who has ever said that word.) "Racist" is not a word to be thrown around lightly or tagged on to someone without serious consideration. He is a kid. I truly do not believe that he hates Matthew and wanted him to suffer. I do think he is operating from a place of severe ignorance. Please, if you are in a position of influence in the life of a child, teach him that there's a word that carries a punch he doesn't want to throw.

I firmly believe that it is only through conversation and awareness, forgiveness and love, that we can even begin to bridge the racial tension in our country. I will always be the white mother of a black son. And I will always do whatever it takes to see that he is given every opportunity to rise.

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave
I rise
I rise
I rise.
-Maya Angelou

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Spaghetti Goo Debacle of 2017

I think I was a teenager when my mother made the now infamous orange chicken. I have deduced my age simply because, before about the age of 13, I detested Chinese food and would have automatically hated that we were having it for dinner. Sometime, around late middle school, I swiped a bite of her Panda Express in the food court at Parkway Plaza and the rest is a history centering on a pretty intense love affair with take out Chinese.

My mom, excited to make something in her own kitchen that resembled the culinary expertise of Panda's signature dish, served up orange chicken. Except, I feel like we all should have known, when the recipe called for actual orange juice, that this was going to be an epic fail. And, truly, if I remember correctly, it tasted like I'd taken a plain chicken breast and submerged it for half an hour in a glass of O.J.

It was not good. I can't remember what we ended up eating that night but it wasn't the Orange Juice Chicken my mom had made. It was a night that will live in infamy. My mom is a good cook. In all my years of eating her meals almost exclusively, I can remember things that were not my particular favorite but through no fault of her own. I just don't really like meatloaf. The orange juice chicken, I am thoroughly convinced, was the fault of the recipe, not the chef.

It's been nearly 14 years of married life and in that time, I have made dishes that I wouldn't make again. Things that, say, weren't our very favorite. But normally, even if there's a person who doesn't like something, there's a Matthew around who will gobble it up with starvation level enthusiasm. Give it to Matthew, he'll eat anything. It's finally happened. I've had my Orange Chicken Experience.

I unknowingly signed my life over to football for the next three months. (Stay with me here.) This is particularly curious because I also signed my life over to the Jordan School District, Beverley Taylor Sorensen Arts Learning Program, and Utah's Alternate Route to Licensure. I am not sure how to divide my life so that everyone gets the appropriate parts but one thing has become abundantly clear. Something has to give. And that something is dinner.

I can't actually not make dinner but I thought that I might be able to simplify things a bit moving into this fall. I already love my crock pot like she's a full fledged family member but I've decided that it's time to up her status to full time cook. I'm planning--if I can get my act together--to freeze a couple dozen meals and throw them into my crock pot (who is rapidly reaching a status whereby she will need a name) for our particularly busy days. My boys have been practicing football almost every day for two weeks now and not getting home until 7:45 or 8:00. I decided that today would be a great day to use my crock pot and have dinner waiting for them when they got home.

I wondered if you could cook spaghetti in a crock pot. It turns out that you can (according to the Internet) and that you cannot (according to my family). I found a recipe that was basically spaghetti ingredients plus water. How could you go wrong with that?

I placed the spaghetti noodles in the bottom of the pot. I drizzled some olive oil over the top (to keep them from sticking to each other, supposedly). Next went the sauce followed by the water and then the meatballs. The recipe said to cook the dish on low for five hours but my crock pot is a tricksy little minx and she is apt to scorch anything I give her enough access to. I knew my crock pot spaghetti wouldn't need five hours. I planned to cook it for about three, turn it off, and warm it up just before the boys got home.

I checked it once. It looked like hard noodles floating in tomato juice. I became a skeptic of this spaghetti's ability to woo me. I replaced the lid and ignored it for awhile. The next time I checked on it, I was excited. The water had soaked up and it looked like delicious sauce and meatballs. I took a spoon to stir it. To my horror, the noodles had turned to what can only be described as goo. They had mushed together. What I was looking at were a few meatballs sitting atop one big blob of starch.

Troy had gotten home about an hour earlier and was working from our home office. I went down and explained that dinner was ready now. More than ready, really. And I'd just go ahead and feed the boys a very early dinner before their practice. I explained that we were eating Italian Goo for dinner. His look was one of...cautious trepidation.

I tossed the bread into the oven to crisp and dished up bowls of fruit because I didn't want those noodles in the pot for another minute and I didn't have time to toss a salad. A few minutes later, I called the family to the table. Because there was bread, my two growing boys wouldn't touch the pasta (if it could still be called pasta in its nearly liquefied state). I took the first bite.

Great Scott! It was horrible. I am not one to say Great Scott but if ever there was a Great Scott level of amazement, it was this. How could something so common as spaghetti taste so horrendously awful. It looked like wallpaper paste and tasted worse. I began to laugh. However, not wanting to sway my children's opinions (Matthew will, quite literally, eat anything including fish eyes), I tried to pass off my mirth for something else entirely.

Troy tried it. If his eyes could speak they would have been leading the spaghetti revolt. I very quickly spelled out (my children can spell but if I do it fast enough, they get confused) that it was inedible. We both began to laugh. Soon, we were shaking so hard that Will, having no idea what was so funny, began to join in. His laughter only elevated the situation and soon, tears were streaming down my face. The stuff was, in a word, revolting. Strangely, our 14 month old was chowing that mush down with wild abandon. It was the first time I'd ever given him a fork and he was enjoying smearing sauce ALL over his face so it's hard to say whether he enjoys eating wallpaper paste or whether he enjoyed the general merriment of the meal.

The boys still hadn't touched it. I gently encouraged them to take a bite and then all but forced them to PUT THE BREAD DOWN AND TAKE A STINKIN' BITE ALREADY! Garrett was the first to do so. The moment the pasta touched his tongue, he allowed his mouth to hang open as if to caution his taste buds against any further engagement. "I don't like the pasta!" he moaned as it sat, like a lump, on his tongue.

For the record, Matthew didn't like it either.

When Garrett finally managed to swallow his initial bite, he told me how much he hated it. Feigning offense, I said, "Well, that's rude. Tomorrow night you can make dinner." To this, Troy replied, "Please?"

As we ate meatballs and bread and fruit, for some reason, which I will never understand, Troy took another small bite of the gelatinous starch. "It's not that bad," he said. "If we were with the Donner party, I'd eat this before I ate the other people." I'm so glad my husband would eat my meal before resorting to cannibalism. He told me he was glad that I hated it too because he wasn't sure how he'd have eaten the whole bowl if I somehow thought it was good.

There was, literally, zero danger of that happening. The night shall go down in history as, probably, the single most hysterical meal I've ever had with my family--and we didn't even eat it.

I blame my crock pot who tried her best but is just too hot for her own good. Much like the poor woman who served up Orange Juice Chicken, I do not blame the chef for the Great Spaghetti Goo Debacle of 2017.

        (After we pilfered for meatballs.)

Friday, August 4, 2017

You Never Know When You'll Need a Blanket

We always keep a small blanket under the seat in our van. Maybe it's because I read a book about a guy who was trapped in his car at the bottom of a ravine for weeks. If that ever happened to me, at least I'd have a blanket. When I was packing up the car to go to Tahoe, I saw that there was an extra blanket under another seat. I almost took it out but decided that I didn't need the space and it could stay. But I pondered that blanket for a solid minute before making a decision.

It's inexplicable, really, why my toddler decided that sleeping was optional on our recent trip. He's been sleeping through the night for more than 10 months so I'm not sure why he woke up--more often than not--in the middle of the night, shouting, "Ah duh!" If we ignored him because, no, son, we are not all done with our sleep at 3:15 am, his pleasant conversation turned to hysterical sobbing.The walls were paper thin. You could clear your throat in the next room, with doors closed, and everyone heard it. My mom and I had full conversations through the shared bathroom wall as we did our hair. So leaving him to "cry it out" wasn't really an option. Unless we wanted two grandparents, two parents, two brothers, and a dog crying it out in their own beds as they endured the shriek of the banshee.

At first, we thought it was because he was in our room with us. Perhaps the curtain we'd hung from the cabin's roof wasn't fooling him as to our whereabouts. So we played musical rooms and moved him into his own space. A couple of times, we gave him a bottle, hoping he'd grow weary as he quietly guzzled his pre-dawn snack. This wasn't really a solution though. He hasn't needed a bottle in the middle of the night in many, many moons. Sometimes he'd snuggle up to us and be just about asleep when, "Bing!" he'd sit straight up and grab a nose or squeal in delight that we were still there.

One particular night, Troy had gone out to the couch with him. After an hour had passed with Will fussing or wailing or full on summoning any nearby coyotes, I went and got him so that Troy could tap out. I'd been lying in bed, not really sleeping anyway.

I tried all my tricks. With Will, I've developed an almost fool proof way to get him to sleep. It works at least 9 times out of 10. On this particular night, as I bounced and rocked and gently swung--simulating an experience that can only be described as hopping on the top of a working washing machine while riding in the back of a school bus--he stared at me with wide eyes, letting out a cry every once in awhile.

"That's it," I thought. I'll take him for a drive. We have never once taken Will for a drive in the middle of the night with the intention of getting him to sleep. Come to think of it, I'm not sure we've ever done that with any of our children. I texted Troy, in case he woke up while I was gone, letting him know that I was out driving. I put my glasses on and grabbed the keys, closing the door behind me.

That's when I realized I didn't have my wallet and that I probably shouldn't drive around the lake at what was now 4:15 in the morning without it. I went to put the key into the cabin doorknob when I realized that I'd grabbed the wrong keys. I had my key ring, which did not possess a way to get me back inside the locked cabin. I stood, tired and confused about what to do next.

I thought about knocking but no one knew I'd gone outside. I assumed I'd scare the crap out of anyone who heard me. In the light of day I can't say that I really care much about scaring the crap out of my husband or my parents but, for some reason, in the middle of the night, this seemed like a mean and potentially dangerous idea. I imagined them jumping a mile--thinking everyone was safe in their beds and being very worried about who was rapping on the door at an inhuman hour. Or, perhaps, they'd hear me, whisper about what intruder was attempting to rattle them in the dark of night, and finally open the door and clobber me with a rolling pin before realizing who I was--their only daughter, his beloved wife.

One thing was for sure. I wasn't standing out in the middle of the Sierra Nevada mountains before dawn. Those mountains are deadly--ask the Donners. I will, probably, meet my death at the paw of a bear because I am not actually afraid of them and have been known to follow them for photo opportunities. But, I was standing out in the open with a small crying child and I feel like that is infinitely more tempting for a bear than a lady with a camera.

I buckled Will into his seat and decided to forego the wallet. It took nearly 45 minutes of driving before Will fell asleep. His shrieking escalated to war time loud and I was slowly losing my tired mind. I drove around the neighborhood. I drove from just north of Carnelian Bay to Tahoe City and back. Three minutes before I got back to the cabin, he fell asleep.

And because I didn't know that he'd transfer if I tried to move him, and because I was still worried about terrifying the whole house, and because I knew I had those two blankets in the back, I decided to stay in the car. I covered up the now snoring baby. I reclined my seat. I tried to sleep. And I could not.

Sometime, just after 6:00, I managed to drift off. At 7:00 my alarm went off so that we could meet my brother's family for breakfast. Will awoke with my alarm, poked his head around the side of his car seat and grinned the sweetest, happiest smile of delight to discover himself in such a situation. Sleeping out in nature, the way God intended it. Sort of. Except, not really. That's the trouble with that kid and it's going to be the death of me (unless it's the bear). He is the wildest of wild men, getting in to trouble wherever he can find it. And I don't expect him to grow out of that any time soon. But his smile can literally reduce to mush even the strongest of mamas.

I texted my own mama. "Are you up yet?"

"In the bathroom, doing my hair," she responded.

"Can you let me in? I'm on the porch."

Her bewildered look when she pulled that front door open was hilarious. Everyone wanted to know why I didn't knock. It was hard to explain in the light of day. But it was okay. We'd camped out in the van. The baby had slept. And I'd burrowed under the blanket I'd apparently left there for a reason.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Nickels, Pennies, Odds and Ends

I was just organizing our office--the place every bit of clutter, old floppy disk, and hippo pencil sharpener from when I was a child goes to die--in the hopes that I could clear just a wee bit of space to organize myself for the upcoming nightmare I've gotten myself in to.

"Do you want to teach drama?" they asked.

And I eagerly jumped because I love drama.

It's that love that has kept me taking one step at a time during these last few months as more and more and more and more commitment and responsibility have been revealed to me. Deep breaths. It'll all be okay.

I hope.

As I was going through boxes rarely opened, I discovered my old yearbook from the time I was teaching high school drama. I reread some of the hilarious things that my students wrote to me. Apparently, I was very concerned with them not getting tattoos as it would ruin their clean theatrical bodies. Or something. I have no idea really, but several of them promised me that they wouldn't get tattoos. Those students are all well into their adult years but I remember them as these eager theatre kids--just waiting to fly.

I miss them.

I found my faculty picture. I was 25. I look like a baby.

As I uncovered old Bible studies, notes from speaking sessions at conferences, and a coffee table book dedicated to the life and times of the sitcom FRIENDS, a loose square of paper fell out. I glanced at, remembering the desk top calendar I had as a very young teenager. It was full of little heartwarming stories or funny jokes.

Two Nickels and Five Pennies

       In the days when an ice cream sundae cost must less, a 10-year-old boy entered a hotel coffee shop and sat at a table. A waitress put a glass of water in front of him. "How much is an ice cream sundae?"
        "Fifty cents," replied the waitress.
        The little boy pulled his hand out of his pocket and studied a number of coins in it. "How much is a dish of plain ice cream?" he inquired.
         Some people were now waiting for a table and the waitress was a bit impatient. "Thirty-five cents," she said brusquely.
         The little boy again counted the coins. "I'll have the plain ice cream," he said.
         The waitress brought the ice cream, put the bill on the table, and walked away. The boy finished the ice cream, paid the cashier and departed. When the waitress came back, she began wiping down the table and then swallowed hard at what she saw. There, placed neatly beside the empty dish, were two nickels and five pennies--her tip.

I have held on to this scrap of paper for--I don't know--close to 23 years. I cannot read it without getting choked up. Every. Single. Time. I don't know why. I'm not usually sappy or overly emotional. I don't even know if it's a true story. But I want to be like that little boy. I wants to raise boys like that little boy. Maybe that's why it grabs hold of me the way it does.

The moral of the story: Teach your children to be kind and also, if they want to go into the theatre, apparently, teach them not to get tattoos.