Friday, March 20, 2015

Melanin Mysteries

Not content with keeping us coloring within the lines, one of my 1950s Orlando grade-school teachers started a class discussion on which colors we should use on various bits of the illustrations in our workbooks. Grass? Green. Sky? Blue. Skin? I looked down at my arms and raised my tan little hand. "Light brown," said I. This was not the answer the teacher wanted from the blue-eyed blonde. 
"No, no," she said. "Our skin is not brown. The closest color we have in our crayons is orange. We will use orange to color the skin in our pictures." So Dick, Jane and Sally became orange, a color I never saw on my own skin until an ill-fated experiment with self-tanning lotion. 
Some time later, my mother entertained a visitor from New York in our living room. "Oh, yes, " I heard her say. "They (my brothers and I) get that brown just from walking to school and playing outside." So we were brown after all. Just not at school. 
My brothers and I stood one day in front of the water fountains at the Qwik-Chek. One was labeled "white," and the other "colored." I tried to figure out what the difference was. Was the water different? We pushed the levers on both. Nope. Looks the same. Is there something contagious about color? I didn't think so, but even if there were, how could you spread it with a water fountain? Your mouth doesn't even touch the spout. The mystery remained as we dared each other to take a drink from the "wrong" fountain. After a bit of nudging, feeling not quite bold enough, we left the forbidden zone. 
We weren't quite intimidated enough to avoid causing a scene on a city bus, though. On a ride downtown, the two boys and I ran to the back seat. It stretched all the way across under the back window, and you could get on your knees and look out. We clambered about on it as other passengers gave us half-smiling looks. Our mother reached out a hand to shoo us off the seat. "That's for the colored people," she said. "Aw, why?" we whined. "That's not fair. We like this seat." 
My mother worked as a secretary for a very southern white man. He told her that there would be people of intensified melanin coming into the office. If these browner clients were "from the islands," he said, she should address them as Mr., Mrs. or Miss. If they were local people, she was to use their first names only. She decided not to quiz them and fell back on the professional manners she learned in secretarial school, addressing all with honorifics. 
Sometimes racism is downright silly. 
These days, my arms are dappled pinkish-brown and ivory, spattered with dark brown and occasional bright red spots. Sun damage, says the dermatologist. I suppose the racist atmosphere in which I grew up was as dangerous as the untrammeled sun on the melanin-impaired. Somehow I had enough hate-screen to minimize the soul damage. I've had heavy doses of the antidote, too, and it comes from the Bible. In a nutshell, it's that we all descend from the original parents, Adam and Eve, who must have been a lovely medium brown. You may be brown or ivory or orange, but you are my cousin. Shall we share the crayons? 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015


     I stumbled upon a children's book by Neil Gaiman. Chu's Day. If you know Neil Gaiman-- and me-- you know why I grabbed it immediately, perused it and took it home. Reading through it a bit more carefully, I found an illustration of a circus with Chu the panda in attendance. Prancing about the ring were a donkey with a dog on its back, a cat on the dog's back and a rooster on the cat's back. "The musicians of Bremen," I blurted. "Someone put the musicians of Bremen in this picture for me to recognize!" (Illustrator Adam Rex, to be precise.) 
     "Who are the musicians of Bremen?" asked way-educated Hillsdale grad son. A trifle deflated, I related the tale of the outcast farm animals who teamed up and frightened away the gang of thieves who had been terrorizing the good citizens of Bremen and became heroes. "Oh, I think I remember that," said son, allowing me to creep back from the precipice of total failure as parental transmitter of culture
     I always feel that way when I mention some classic story or bit of folklore, and the offspring say, "What?" I tried, I really did. I gave them books about Paul Bunyan and Greek myths. I read them Stone Soup and The Little Engine That Could and Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel. Did I forget Johnny Appleseed? Myles Standish? John Henry? I remember Captain Kangaroo reading wonderful books on his TV program and the crew laughing (Live TV, don't you know) at some ridiculousness of Bunny Rabbit. I wish the Captain were still around. What I wouldn't give to hear the grandchildren humming "The Syncopated Clock."  

Thursday, December 18, 2014

When Help Is a Four-letter Word

What does the latest iteration of Michelle Obama's "Me! In Target!" story have to do with the producers of the film The Butler? Both show complete disdain for the idea of service, apparently rooted in snobbery and self-importance. 
In case you missed it, Mrs. Obama actually went into a Target store back in 2011. She has talked about it before. Imagine this being such an unusual event that you're asked about it on talk shows. You'd think she'd spent a month in a coal mine. Oh, wait. They're all closed, aren't they? Anyway, while she had reported the adventure before with some element of humor, the terrible trauma emerged in People magazine: 
"Even as the first lady," she told the magazine, "during the wonderfully publicized trip I took to Target, not highly disguised, the only person who came up to me in the store was a woman who asked me to help her take something off a shelf." She said the incidents are "the regular course of life" for African-Americans and a "challenge" for the country to overcome. Yahoo story
There's an element of "Don't you know who I am?" in the story, the suggestion that someone of her quality should never be asked to pull a bottle of detergent off a shelf, but the notion that this was some sort of racial insult is the recently-injected and truly bizarre bit. It takes a heap of prickly sensitivity to find a request for help demeaning. She has taken the sort of interaction that most people think nothing of and turned it into a burden. Here's a clue, Michelle, and all other race maniacs out there: perfectly normal, kindhearted people ask others for help every day. And perfectly normal, kindhearted people are happy to give that help. It's a good thing. It's the way human beings ought to live. It makes the world a more pleasant place for all. Complaining that someone took you for a perfectly normal, kindhearted person makes you look like, well, something else. 
Speaking of racial bogeys injected into race-irrelevant stories, we turn to The Butler, based on the life of Eugene Allen, called Cecil Gaines in the film. Allen served for decades as a butler in the White House. He was valued, even loved, by the people he served. But to some, "served" is a dirty word. I think the filmmakers had to find a way to deal with their horror of service. "How could a black man possibly be willing to carry trays to white people as a career?!?" Apparently, the only way they could justify it was by inventing a dehumanizing trauma for young Cecil. 
In the film, he and his parents are scarcely more than slaves on a Georgia farm in the 1920s. A skanky overseer drags Cecil's mother out of the fields and into a shed for a little miscegenation. While she cries and screams, Cecil watches his father, powerless, emasculated, do nothing about it. Afterward, he does show anger, and the overseer shoots him on the spot. And, so, Cecil becomes a pet of the lady of the house in a sort of Stockholm Syndrome, thus beginning a life of-- shudder-- service. 
Only no such thing happened. He didn't even live in Georgia; it was Virginia. I guess Georgia sounds meaner. But in an interview with The Telegraph, Allen reports that his childhood was happy. He just didn't want to live on a farm, so he went looking for another kind of work, something salaried. The Telegraph interviewer asked about racial tensions in Allen's boyhood environs. "I tell you I didn't know anything about all of this," says Allen. "The people who lived nearby were nice people. There weren't a lot of people who tried to take advantage of us."
What, then, could possibly have allowed him to serve others with skill and grace all his life? And, for that matter, kept him from breaking any bakery windows and kept his wife from cheating on him? (Both were in the movie. Neither happened in real life.) I think I know. They were Christians. A biography on a Scottsville Museum website (Allen's real life) tells us that he joined Greater First Baptist Church in Washington, DC, in 1949 and remained an active member all his life. More serving: he was on their usher board and board of trustees and in something called the July Birthday Guild. 
I'm guessing that instead of Jeremiah Wright's "Amerikkka stinks so hate Whitey" brand of preaching, the butler was hearing something like this: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them... Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must become your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave-- just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many." Jesus said that. (Matthew 20: 25-28) In Matthew 25, we read that any good deed, such as feeding, clothing, offering hospitality to ordinary people is the same as offering it to Jesus. Those who can't be bothered "will go away to eternal punishment." 
Hmm. I think I'll go make tea. Want some? I'll bring you a cup. 

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Hold That Bag

I finished up my "everything" bagel while reading in the paper (yes, the "paper") about a study of children's lunches performed in Houston by "researchers." The story failed to mention who these "researchers" were or who paid for their ever-so-thorough examination of 337 children's lunches. Any guesses? 
Paragraph after paragraph reported how many cups and ounces of fruit, vegetables, grains, meat, dessert, soda and a partridge in a pear tree-- nope, wrong holiday-- appeared in lunches the children brought from home versus lunches sold in the school cafeteria. They found that miscreant parents gave their kids lots more sodium and fewer Brussels sprouts than the lunch ladies did. Imagine parents failing to meet federal guidelines! The nerve! And kids throw some of their lunches away, so they don't get all the calories the parents pack. And how much of those goose-stepping, guidelined institutional lunches is thrown away? Huh. It wasn't mentioned. 
But the last paragraph made me spew my half-caff, fresh-ground coffee. "Now that schools have improved the quality of lunches they serve, it's time for policymakers to turn their attention to parents and others who pack lunches at home, the researchers concluded." Excuse me? We've already heard of at least one child having her home lunch confiscated at school. What's next? Inspection of home kitchens? Government-approved shopping lists? Brown bags treated as contraband? I wonder how the reporter wrote that last bit with a straight face. I think I might have have made it the lead, something about government tentacles and their never-ending reach. Time to chop them off with a freshly-sharpened chef's knife.  

Thursday, August 21, 2014

"Don't You Know Who I Am?"

     Eric Holder is helping out in Ferguson, MO, by complaining that he has been stopped for speeding on the the New Jersey Turnpike. Twice. And once, when he and a cousin were running to a movie in Georgetown, a cop stopped and asked what they were doing. Yeah, that's harsh, Mr. Holder. Couldn't possibly be that the cops were simply doing their job. Gotta be racism. 
     On Facebook, a person of our acquaintance told the sad tale of a young black man who was stopped while driving with a companion. Bright lights in the face, cops with guns drawn. The cops checked their ID and let them go. Gotta be racism, right? But the cops had been given a description of suspects-- two black men in that kind of car, in that vicinity. Sorry, guys, but you did fit the description.
     Remember when Susan Smith drowned her children and told police that she'd been carjacked by a black man? The police began to stop and question black men. When it came out that she had rolled her own car into the water, cries of racism were heard in the land. "Why were they only stopping black men?" Well, because they were told that a black man had committed the crime. That it was a lie is beside the point. When the only information they had was that the suspect was a black man, whom should they have looked for, Asian women?
     Guess what. Sometimes white people are "hassled" by police. I even experienced the bright lights in the face when I was taking kids home from martial arts class. I pulled out of the back entrance to the strip mall in my white Dodge van and was suddenly blinded by the fierce light. I slowed and pulled over, wondering why. Finally I realized I had forgotten to turn on my headlights. To the cops across the street, my van was clandestinely leaving a string of shops where there had been burglaries. Their spotlight revealed a startled blonde housewife with little kids. If I'd been a burly guy (of any color) in a watch cap, no doubt they would have come over and had a conversation with me. Other than the van, though, I didn't fit the description, and I went on my merry way, resolving always to turn on the headlights before leaving a parking lot. 
     Friends of any color, can we please brush all the chips off our shoulders and realize that any one of us may sometimes look suspicious-- or be stopped for an actual offense-- regardless of melanin? In a loose jacket and carrying a huge purse, I might well be seen as a potential shoplifter. Security would be wise to keep an eye on me. In short shorts and high heels down on the Trail, I might be taken for a prostitute. Or completely insane, given my age and veins. Anyway, young person, dark person, any person, if you're stopped by the cops for fitting a profile, the one to cuss is the criminal who created the profile, not the cop who's trying to find him. And if you're stopped for breaking the law, the only one to cuss is yourself. 

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Loving Law

Breaking God’s law in one particular breaks the whole thing, says the Bible. I believe that’s because it isn’t just a set of rules; the law is God’s character. We are made in His image, and we ought to be like Him, but we are so screwed up since the fall of Adam, He’s had to spell out the rules like parents telling squabbling children, “You sit here, and you sit there, and don’t even look at each other.” (Or Bill Cosby saying “I don’t want anybody in this house to touch anyone else in this house ever again!”)
“Worship Me, not false gods.”
“Don’t murder each other.”
All ten of the Commandments are really pretty basic, but misbehaving children need them. Perhaps to help us grow up and become more self-controlled, Jesus distilled the law as “Love God and love one another.” We ought to function always as God’s creatures, who appreciate being created and loved and who love Him back. We ought always to show love for other human beings, because they are also His creatures, and He loves them. These are the simple criteria.
Faced, then, with, say, the prospect of a human infant coming along at what we deem an inconvenient time, how should we decide what to do? We can go God’s way, love in its essence, or we can do “other.” That is the only division, the only one that counts. And “other” covers a lot of territory. Once you’ve stepped out of the circle of God’s loving character, you have no more boundaries. Thus abortion in the first trimester in the direst of circumstances soon becomes second and third trimester killing, just because you’re unhappy or inconvenienced. And then babies who have been born can be starved to death, or, more efficiently, have their spines snipped with scissors by someone like Kermit Gosnell, and their feet chopped off as trophies.
There is little merit in trying to say which sin is worse, even though some are more spectacular than others. Is murder worse than adultery? Is homosexual practice worse than gossip? Is it worse to covet, or to bear false witness? No sinner need feel superior to others, because the law is one piece. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God. Every one of us is outside the circle, and the only way back is through Jesus, Who made Himself the gate, the way, the truth and the life. The law points us in His direction.

Monday, July 7, 2014

And... Cut!

I suppose it’s a sign that an injury is not too grave if your first thought is “Save the sandals.” When I dropped a large, heavy, sharp, shiny chef’s knife on my left ankle, and the blood began to flow, I grabbed at the buckle of my spiffy Merrell sandals with the pale aqua suede straps. I raced the rivulets. The rivulets won. Blood dripped onto the floor and left traces on my toes when I yanked the sandal off. A half-width of paper towel (I remain frugal even under duress) was the first absorbent thing I grabbed and pressed against the cut. Next, I tied a kitchen towel on top of the paper towel and began to hobble toward the bedroom that held the first-aid box.

Youngest son was plugged into his computer in the adjacent dining room and didn’t move. Husband emerged from the hallway with his phone pressed to his ear. “I dropped a knife on my ankle,” I said. He turned back into the hallway. By then, I was pretty well convinced that I could have bled to death in the kitchen, and nobody would have noticed until dinner time. “Hey, what’s for dinner?” Darling son would then post on Facebook and Twitter, “Mom’s dead. That sucks” and go back to GoreCavern 2: the Sickening.

The hubs turned up as I was scrabbling through the plastic bin in search of butterfly bandages. “I tell you I’ve dropped a knife on myself, and you do nothing?” said I.

“I couldn’t hear you.”

“Didn’t the towel around the ankle give you a clue?”

“I just thought you might have sprained it or something.”

Oh, well, of course, a mere sprained ankle on your wife is nothing to HANG UP THE DANG PHONE for.

But he did help find the right bandages and, with a great air of self-importance, applied the butterfly strip over the cut, and a regular bandage crosswise over that. When I sat on the bed, he squashed a pillow under my foot to elevate it. The shock wearing off, the cut stung, and my eyes teared up. I asked for a tissue. He brought it and insisted on drying my tears—by bouncing the wadded tissue on the center of my eyeball. Very Ray Romano.

Naturally, Facebook is the place to analyze such ordeals, and I posted a brief report, with a notice to an EMT friend who once posted a photo of someone’s feet shredded to pulp right down to the tendons and wrote “Boys and girls, this is why we don’t wear flipflops on motorcycles.” Probably because she has answered calls for things like “Go to the drugstore and pick up my prescription,” she rejoiced that we actually took care of the cut ourselves. So I guess that’s all right. And... cut.