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Aunt Jemima and Me–and Race

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When I was a kid, I had a lot of aunts: my mother’s sisters, Aunt Grace, Aunt Millie, Aunt Bonnie, Aunt Leona; her brother’s wives, Aunt Florence, Aunt Helen, Aunt Viola, Aunt Eunice; my father’s sister and sister-in-law, Aunt Agnes and Aunt Shirley; and some grand-aunts whom I met and knew, Aunt Kate, Aunt Maggie, Aunt Jennie, Aunt Jule, Aunt Helen, and others I knew of. My perception of “aunt” was this: a woman I am related to, who has her own children (except for one), and whom I can go to if I need help.

So I saw Aunt Jemima, whose picture was on our pancake mix box, as the same kind of person. She was also like Betty Crocker, whose picture was on other packages, but who was not an aunt-type person.

I had a lively imaginary life when I was quite young. (Truth be told, for quite a few years after that, too.) My mother was a loving person, but my brother was born when I was only 11 months old, so her attention was divided. By the time I was 6, she had three more pregnancies, with none of the babies, all born early, living more than a few hours. These were not easy pregnancies for her, and we moved countless times, as my father, an electrician, followed where the work was. (Back and forth: four different places, I think, in Storm Lake, Iowa, my birthplace; Des Moines a time or two; Spencer, Iowa, once; Cherokee, Iowa, twice; East St. Louis, Ilinois, once; finally to Garden Grove California, when I was almost 7.)

It’s not hard to see why I had imaginary friends. Susie and Atinia (I have no idea where that name came from) were girls more or less my age, who could move when we moved, And then there was Aunt Jemima. Yes, she was in my imaginary life. She wasn’t a servant or “mammy,” concepts I didn’t have at that age. She was my aunt. She wasn’t my primary caregiver—that was always my mother—but she was someone I could go to when my mother wasn’t fully available to me.

My mother may have picked up on my liking for Aunt Jemima. Dennis (my brother) and I didn’t get many toys, and almost never if not for a birthday or Christmas, but Mom sent for these dolls, premiums from Aunt Jemima pancake mix. I no longer have them, but here is a picture:

and I want you to notice something: this is an intact family: mother, father, and two kids (a boy and a girl, just like my brother and me). Yes, there are some patches, but my mother mended our clothes, too. I was probably then 3 or 4, and I saw in the dolls nothing “different” from me and my family.

Then when I was 5, on one of our stays in Des Moines, I started kindergarten. Iowa was the first state to desegregate public schools, in 1868, and I went to public school. I quickly found two “best” friends and two “second-best” friends, and one of each was black and one white.

The only one whose name I remember is Karen, my best friend who was Black. Of all my friends, all the girls in my class, she was the one I saw as most “like” me. Lots of little girls around us had her or my skin color, my or her hair color, eye color. But only Karen was as tall as I was. Only with Karen could we look straight into each other’s eyes when playing “London Bridge.” Standing in line, she was the only girl whose head I couldn’t see over. All the way through graduation from high school, I would never again have a female classmate as tall as I was.

I probably was aware—I really don’t remember—that Karen was what polite people referred to then as “Negro.” But that was of no more significance than that my other best friend (whose name I don’t remember) was called “blonde.” Lots of girls were in those groups. But only Karen and I were “the tallest.”

Those experiences formed the basis for my personal feelings about race. Because I was one of those kids who learned to read early and then literally read everything I could get my hands on, I soon discovered that other people had very different ideas. I learned when quite young about racism, slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, lynching, all of it. I never had to go to a segregated school (although in the Catholic schools I attended for 12 years in California, students who weren’t white were mostly Mexican American and Filipino American, with only a few Black students), and as I recall my textbooks, they were a bit more realistic about the history of the US than the books mandated for public schools.

I am not colorblind, and I doubt those who say they are. I can’t imagine what kind of bubble one would have to live in to be able to “ignore” race. But I have always been grateful to the universe for giving me the experiences I had, which gave me my personal feelings about race. My feelings are what I live with, are what combine with my thoughts to produce my actions. My thoughts can be mistaken, my actions poorly chosen, and I try to accept informed criticism of them. But I don’t think any errors in thought or action will come from those feelings.

The Battles We FIght

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One person can have both an acute and a chronic condition. Perhaps someone with diabetes (chronic) has a heart attack (acute), or someone with lupus (chronic) has a broken back (acute). Any of these conditions, untreated, can kill the person. The person may have a primary care physician for the chronic condition but go to the emergency room for the acute condition. Treating one or the other condition does not mean the other doesn’t matter, nor does it mean that the person won’t die of the one left untreated.


I have long seen this as a metaphor for social ills. Like any metaphor, it is not flawless, but I find it useful. Please take it as a metaphor, not a literal statement.

Consider, for just one example, sexual assault. Think of it, for this discussion, as the chronic condition, and sexual assault on women by men the acute condition. If one could eliminate the acute condition, that would be a good thing, but the chronic condition would still be present in society—women assaulting men, men assaulting men, women assaulting women. All of these exist now and would continue to exist.

This can be applied to any number of other general conditions in society. As I see it, in every case, both the “acute” and the “chronic” conditions must be “treated,” for society to survive as a healthy place for all. That is, both the overall problem and the specific instances must be addressed.

I have no argument against—and have not been presented with any persuasive argument against—someone battling either the acute OR the chronic presentation of a societal problem. Few among us have the resources (energy, financial, time) to battle everything that is wrong with our society today.

Nor do I have any argument with those who make different choices about what they consider “acute”—necessary to be given priority. Each of us lives our own life, faces our own challenges (and demons), has our own circle of care, has our own resources, sees our own possibilities for action.

I do have an argument with those who claim that because the overall problem exists, battling a specific example is pointless, or who claim that because a specific problem is so serious, no overall problem needs attention. This touches on the black lives matter/all lives matter issue. If people truly believed that ALL lives matter, there would be no need for action to support specific lives. But society is structured so that—and apparently far too many people believe that—Black lives, as well as lives of other POC, poor people, homeless people, people with disabilities, and other groups, are not part of “ALL.”

Of course some of these lives matter more than others on a personal basis. As I mentioned above, we each have our own circle of care: immediate family, extended family, chosen family, friends, acquaintances, neighbors, and many more, in whatever order. But on a societal basis, when we look at the way our society values lives, treats lives, all lives must matter equally, and if they don’t, those that don’t matter as much need special attention and protection.

The world has enough injustice, enough unfairness, enough pain and suffering that we all have to pick our battles. That I am fighting certain battles does not mean the others don’t matter, or that they don’t matter to me. And I will not presume that about you regarding the battles you fight.

COVID-19 Diary Entry #5

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I wonder how much of the COVID denial, including anti-masking, is fear? Denial and opposition often (usually?) are rooted in fear.

Some people, for maybe as many reasons as people, do not handle fear well, or cannot handle it at all.If this is the case, constantly showing them statistics and facts, and especially firsthand (from medical personnel, family, or survivors) accounts, will only make things worse. (NOTE: I am not saying to hide these, and don’t respond as if I am.)

Look at what T tells people. Look at what multimillionaire preachers tell people. Go back and look at Reagan. “You’re going to be ok. You’re going to thrive. Just follow what I say, and everything will be fine,” that’s the message people listen to.

And it works. Fear can be a great motivator, but with a lot of people it motivates them to follow whoever tells them they don’t have to be afraid. Look at most official WWII propaganda. Did it say, “Look at the horrors of war! Is this what you want?” No, it said, “Here is what will save us. We’ll be fine if we do this.” And it worked. People accepted sacrifices in their daily lives far beyond wearing a mask to the store.

Can we do anything with this?

Disband the Police?

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     Disband the Minneapolis Police Department? People—including the city council–are seriously discussing it. Voices rise in opposition: who will protect us?
     The first question to ask yourself: am I in more danger from the “bad guys” or the police? Many who read this will say, the bad guys of course. So I ask that before you read on, you realize—fully realize, integrate into your thinking and your viewpoint—that for many in Minneapolis, the answer from their personal experience is, the police.
      I suggest that before going further, you also read this from Steve Fletcher, a member of the city council, about the experience of people in his ward: (Content warning: this article from TIME contains the video of the killing of George Floyd): https://time.com/5848705/disband-and-replace-minneapolis-police/. Read his short history of the many attempts to reform the police department, and the failures. (Keep in mind, if it matters to you, that he is a white guy.) Here’s another good short history from black writers: https://www.vox.com/first-person/2020/6/1/21276309/george-floyd-police-protests-minneapolis-black-lives-matter.
      I do see difficulties with the disbanding plan, and some are issues I haven’t seen anyone talking about. First, will some of the former police officers decide to show residents how bad things can get, or simply try for revenge? Given the behavior of some while on the force, I think it’s possible. And they won’t worry about hurting their neighbors: as of 2017 (the latest figure I’ve found) 92% of Minneapolis cops DON’T LIVE IN MINNEAPOLIS. They have never had any personal investment, emotional or financial, in the city that employs them. So what is residents’ response if they decide to tear it down?
     Second, recent events have led to many neighborhood groups joining to protect their neighborhoods when police wouldn’t, and the plans for disbanding the police call for increased use of such groups. But once this crisis has passed—and especially once the other crisis, COVID-19, has passed—will enough people be willing and able to continue this participation? And exactly WHO will do this work? When people go back to their jobs or their search for one, back to school, back to living busy daily lives, will enough of them, of us, still give the necessary time and energy to this work? Single parents? Adults in households where everyone works two or three jobs? People with disabilities? Will these neighborhood groups be representative of only their own neighborhoods and demographic or of the city?
     An associated issue that probably no one wants to discuss: Will people step up to protect those not like them as readily as they do their own demographic? Will African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Latino/Hispanic Americans, White Americans, everyone, all protect each other? Will everyone protect the homeless, who may have no resources to participate in the groups, and those with disabilities that make it impossible for them to participate, and brand-new immigrants who aren’t settled yet? Will everyone protect those whose values they don’t agree with? What about those who oppose disbanding the police force, or those who have actively supported the police? That’s a significant number—will they participate, and if they don’t, will they still be protected?
     I have no answers to these questions, but I can’t see going forward without them. Any plan such as disbanding of the police force or radical changes that involve more civilian active participation requires these questions to be discussed openly and widely. Otherwise, we risk simply trading one form of injustice for another. We have a rare chance, a moment in history, when we CAN do it right. We MUST.
     Back to the question in the first paragraph. When someone asked me, regarding the possibility of disbanding the police department, who will keep you safe?, I answered: why should I be safer than people of color in my city? I’m still waiting for an answer.

Lyrics That Speak to Me #2

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Two of my favorites, Hoyt Axton (1938-1999) and Arlo Guthrie, sing one of Arlo’s father’s songs. I first heard this song, probably sung by either the Kingston Trio or the Brothers Four, when I was about 16 (early 1960s). It had a very strong impact on me that has lasted all these years.

The crops are all in and the peaches are rott’ning,
The oranges piled in their creosote dumps;
They’re flying ’em back to the Mexican border
To pay all their money to wade back again

Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;
You won’t have your names when you ride the big airplane,
All they will call you will be “deportees”

My father’s own father, he waded that river,
They took all the money he made in his life;
My brothers and sisters come working the fruit trees,
And they rode the truck till they took down and died.

Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,
Our work contract’s out and we have to move on;
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.

We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,
We died in your valleys and died on your plains.
We died ‘neath your trees and we died in your bushes,
Both sides of the river, we died just the same.

The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon,
A fireball of lightning, and shook all our hills,
Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says, “They are just deportees”

Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot in the topsoil
And be called by no name except “deportees”?

Lyrics That Speak to Me #1

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“I cannot move a mountain now;
I can no longer run.
I cannot be who I was then:
In a way, I never was.”

Old Normal Is Gone (COVID-19 Diary Entry #4)

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John Pavlovitz, one of my favorite writers, today started an essay with “’When will things return to normal?’ They won’t.”

I was just talking about that this morning with son P. This is going to be very difficult for many people to face, but we’re looking at the Old Normal in the rearview mirror. That ship has sailed. Insert your favorite metaphor.

No matter how good or bad your old life was, no matter how good or bad it is now, when this is over–much farther down the calendar than many people think–your life will be different. At some point each of us MUST stop thinking “when things get back to normal…” because things won’t ever get back to Old Normal.

That is actually an opportunity. Think about what has changed, what your life is like now, and think about whether anything, no matter how small, is better and might be preserved. Think about what you did or had or wanted that you have found you don’t need, then consider whether it is a permanent tradeoff you could make for something better. Think about what you need now and can’t get, then consider what you can one day do to make sure you always have it (and think for a moment about those who have never had it, and how you might help them). Think about what you don’t need but desperately miss and want, then consider how you can have it, with more appreciation, in the future.

I am not being Susie Sunshine here. I am not being mindlessly optimistic. I am being realistic. Old Normal is gone. When there is a “normal” again, it may not be what you want, I want, anyone wants. Or maybe it will be. But it will be different, and sooner or later we all must accept that. Let me quote two very smart men:
“For everything you have lost, you have gained something else, and for everything you have gained, you have lost something else.”
–Attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Everything is a tradeoff.”
–Bruce Schneier

A Desert Adventure

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(Previously posted in my LiveJournal.)

It was New Year’s Eve day, out on the Arizona desert, in the late 1960s. Five intrepid adventurers set out on an obscure trail, riding in a 1967 Toyota Land Cruiser. Now this wasn’t your $50,000 luxury SUV that the Land Cruiser is today. It was an uninsulated, unpadded metal box on wheels.

[Several hours of interesting and uneventful travel cross-country.]

The topographic map indicates a “crossing” on the Bill Williams River. Then it’s a short drive on a dirt road back to a highway, and about 200 miles by highway back to the starting point and a civilized New Year’s Eve drink or six.

Let us skip to the essential point of this story:

Always walk all the way across anything marked as a “crossing” before attempting to drive across. Because, y’know, there might be … um … quicksand or something out there.

[Picture of Toyota sunk to mid-hub in quicksand.]

Well, heck, who hasn’t wanted to spend New Year’s Eve on the banks of the Bill Williams, sitting around a campfire, listening to the coyotes howl and eating Beanie Weenies out of cans?

Oh, and waiting for a tow truck summoned, just as the driver was dressing to go out for the evening with his wife, to drive 200 miles of highway and 25 or so miles of desert road to winch a Toyota out of quicksand.

It could, of course, have been worse. There could have been no old codger living in a shack on the other side of the river, who had a vehicle and who was willing, for a price, to drive someone 25 miles to the highway where there was a phone. Or the tow truck driver could already have left. Or there could have been a flash flood–not unheard of at that time of year–that carried the Toyota away.

Or no Beanie Weenies.

Alternative Lives

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Ralph Waldo Emerson, in Essay on Compensation, wrote something to the effect that “for everything you have missed, you have gained something else; and for everything you have gained, you lose something.” (I confess to not having ever sought out and read the whole thing, and people quote it in various ways.) Bruce Schneier puts it more pithily as “Everything is a trade-off.”

I have been saying since I was young–possibly since the first time I had to make a decision that I realized would set me on one path and foreclose others–that I don’t want to live forever. What I want is more than one life (and to know that I am having more than one, even if I don’t know the details of them).

One life is simply not enough for all the choices this one has offered me. The one I am thinking of this morning–as I have many times–is music, and today’s thoughts started by my watching one of Somtow Sucharitkul’s concerts. As happens many times, I started to cry, because music, at least some of it, seems to go straight to my emotional control center.

I am no musical genius. All I have is a pretty good ear and a good voice (once upon a time, but no longer) and passion. But people with no more have managed to make a living in music–not as stars, certainly, but as worker bees. Many others have made music the center of their lives while (maybe begrudgingly) taking time out to work. But I know that if I had done more with music than I did (high school and college bands as the worst percussionist ever, church choir, a bit of self-taught piano), it would have consumed my life. I can feel that. And so I would never have had what I do have, and this is a very good life. But that potential life in music…it will always haunt me.

 

 

 

The Roller Coaster (COVID-19 Diary Entry 3)

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I ride the roller coaster between hope and despair. I feel joy when I see all the things people are doing to help others or to share words of comfort or to post activities to keep us occupied at home. I feel sorrow when I see statistics. I feel fear when I think about my spouse and I as among the elders with underlying health conditions. I feel anger when the murderous thug in the White House makes a pronouncement or when I read of anyone still supporting him.

I have moments of near-panic and moments of almost-serenity. I read and watch escapist books, movies, tv, and then read more about what is happening. I worry about the groceries we are short on and then remember how much we have, whether it’s like our usual stock or not.

This state of being, this roller coaster, will probably be mine for the foreseeable, or not-so-foreseeable, future. It’s probably most people’s. For now, it’s “normal.”

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