Monday, May 5, 2014

The Heart Of Wildness

We were in the heart of wildness when it appeared
Long, elegant body, defying gravity as it clung
To the bark, then released, clung, then released,
Flitting from trunk to trunk, searching for sustenance
There among the trees, just as we, too, sought nourishment.

At the flash of its red-feathered head,
You dug into your field guide, seeking a name
Looking and looking, until you smiled, satisfied
And read it aloud,
Never noticing how the words
Fell heavily at your feet, to join the detritus
On the forest floor.
Never noticing that beauty which had flown,
Had disappeared into the depths of
This mysterious world
While you were looking down.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Goodbye, David Rakoff. And Thanks.

What a strange afternoon this has been, as I work on my book, in between cooking and other more mundane tasks. Strange because after reading a headline earlier in the day that literally made me gasp and raise my hand to my mouth, I find myself musing on a man I never met in person. I find myself having to wipe clear my eyeglasses and dry my eyes repeatedly. I’m not typically one to cry at the news of a passing celebrity, though I may at times feel appreciation for their work. Perhaps it has something to do with a sense of kinship with someone who spent his working days trying to net words, like rare butterflies, and pin them to the page just so.

As an aspiring writer, it has at times been hard to know how to feel about David Rakoff. His was the sort of talent that would inspire me to want to write more and better, while simultaneously arousing the feeling that I should simply ‘hang up my pen’, as he had already said so many important things about being human, and said them so well, with such honesty, sharpness, humor, and eloquence.  I thought I had a highly developed vocabulary until I read “Don’t Get Too Comfortable”. I remember at a certain point while reading the book making a list of words to look up--some I knew, and some I didn’t, and others that were familiar but that he used in new ways that made me wonder about fine shades of meaning I might have missed. In an interview on Fresh Air, Rakoff actually apologized for using the same phrase, “care-worn”, more than once. But I think that even without the fancy lexicon, Rakoff would have been remarkable for his unflinching honesty, his self-awareness, his willingness to laugh at the absurdity of the world, without ignoring its pain. One could see in his work evidence of a man who had engaged in a profound examination of life and his place in it, its light and its darkness, almost to the point of neurosis.

Almost. He is saved from such neurosis, I think, by not allowing this examination to become an exercise in futile rumination, even when there are no clear answers to his questions. Even when the answers he does find aren’t particularly pretty or hopeful, he is trenchant, displaying a remarkable capacity for insight.  He uses that stunning mind and the tools of his trade--that stellar vocabulary--to craft works of heartbreaking beauty, offering comfort from the storm in unexpected ways.

An article on the NPR website today spoke of him being an “angry and passionate” writer. I was compelled to comment that I disagree with that characterization. Rakoff could definitely sharpen his tongue when he needed to, but I never saw him do it unnecessarily or without provocation or justification in his writing. And when he did choose to, you’d see some of the most beautiful, impressive arrows take flight. I could never offer a “tsk tsk!” to this man in the face of language and imagery that was unique, and often jaw-droppingly brilliant.  Despite his soft, dreamy voice and mild manner, it was clear that one would do well never to piss off David Rakoff. Take this gem:

“All of the designers I have met up to this point have been very nice, although upon being introduced to Karl Lagerfeld, he looks me up and down and dismisses me with the not super-kind, ‘What can you write that hasn't been written already?’ He's absolutely right, I have no idea. I can but try. The only thing I can come up with right now is that Lagerfeld's powdered white ponytail has dusted the shoulders of his suit with what looks like dandruff but isn't.  Also, not yet having undergone his alarming weight loss and seated on a tiny velvet chair, with his large doughy rump dominating the miniature piece of furniture like a loose, flabby, ass-flavored muffin over-risen from its pan, he resembles a Daumier caricature of some corpulent, overfed, inhumane oligarch drawn sitting on a commode, stuffing his greedy throat with the corpses of dead children, while from his other end he shits out huge, malodorous piles of tainted money. How's that for new and groundbreaking, Mr. L.?”

New and groundbreaking, indeed. What I would give to have seen Lagerfeld’s face upon reading this description. So, yes, biting and clever when necessary, but angry? I don’t think so. Quite the contrary. In most of Rakoff’s work (Lagerfeld aside) I hear a gentleness of spirit, a deep humanity that rings loud and clear. Even when he scolds us, his heart is in the right place. He will scold himself, as well. Anger is the province of fools who rail against what is, expecting life to bend to their will. I have to believe Rakoff was no such man. How else could he write that, with regard to his cancer, he is not moved to ask “why me?”, because the only proper answer is “Well, why not you?”  

The cancer that ultimately took Rakoff’s life was not a secret, not a surprise to anyone familiar with his work. As Fresh Air’s Terry Gross put it, he wrote about his illness “with a perfect balance of wit and gravity”. He spoke in that interview of the many ways in which his life has been privileged; with general baseline good health (apart from the cancer), access to excellent medical care, he didn’t have to work in a shoe factory or live next to a toxic waste dump, then said “you can’t win all the contests, and then lose at one contest and then say ‘why am I not winning this contest as well?’”

That’s not angry--that’s as real, and as realistic as it gets. Though I didn’t ever meet him in person, I met something of David Rakoff in his books and his readings, his interviews and his pieces on This American Life. All that is enough to really feel this loss, to cry tears as real as the man himself. You can add that to the list of his privileges--to be able in the course of your life’s work to touch people you'll never meet, to affect them, to make them think, to make them laugh, and to make them feel your absence, keenly, once you are gone.

Thank you, David.

To hear Mr Rakoff in action, look here:

TAL contributors:

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Open Letter to the Princes of Nigeria

Coming To America, Paramount Pictures, 1988

Dearest Ones, Honorable Friends,

I cannot begin to express how honored I feel that you have chosen me, a complete stranger, to entrust with the money left to you by your murdered/kidnapped/exiled fathers/mothers/uncles/nannies who were in the "very lucrative" gold/diamond/coffee business, while you secretly hide out, languishing in your respective refugee camps, awaiting my assistance. I know that must be very stressful for you, and it must be hard to trust anyone, given what you've been through. How lucky we both are that I happened to actually check in my spam folder to make sure nothing important got dumped there. My apologies that your email suffered such an indignity, but all's well that ends well. May I also add that I'm pleased to see the refugee camps are now providing computers and internet service to you, and giving you enough time to compose your very long and detailed messages, otherwise I might not fully understand the gravity of your situation and the need for my most kind assistance. Just try not to get any mud on the keyboard--it's a bitch to get out.

May I also say how moved I was that, even across so great a distance, there in your camp, you could see so deeply and know of my tender heart and desire to be of service, just by using "People Search". Seriously, you so nailed it. It's like you could see right into my soul.

I can assure you that, as you have requested, I will not share anything about our exchange with my many contacts within the United Nations or the Lord's Resistance Army. None of them have time to read my blog, so please do not concern yourself, Dear Friend. Maybe former Liberian president Charles Taylor will have some time now, but he'll probably only have dial-up service in prison, and my beautiful (don't you agree?) blog page takes too much time to load with dial up, and he hasn't read my blog since the Vote 'em Out piece that pissed him off.

I must say I am struck by the generosity of you, the (quite vast) Royal Family of Nigeria, as you have shown yourselves so willing to split evenly the fortunes that are your birthright, in exchange for my simple assistance and sharing with you of my name, address, social security number, date of birth, phone number, and checking account number--which is an honor, Dear Ones, as I've said.  Rest assured, I will not reveal our plans or spend any of the money (even if Fairway is having a huge sale on Umbrian olive oil and Fair-Trade coffee) until I know you are safely here in the United States, beginning your new life.  I don't think you need to worry about the asylum board, either--I hear it's a piece of cake to get through those hearings, and maybe you might not even have to spend three years in detention while you wait. Sweet deal, I know. I wouldn't worry too much about deportation, either. We Americans are just crazy about Royal Families. Did you catch the wedding of Kate and William on the telly in the refugee camp last year? Dreamy . . . but I digress. Forgive me.

I am also struck by your extreme cleverness in using email addresses with different names than the ones by which you actually identify yourselves--indeed, this is a necessary step in protecting yourself and your vast fortune. But perhaps, for consistency's sake, you might choose one name, so when the dangerous forces that seek to do you harm actually open the email, they don't see your true identity, as I have. This is, of course, just a humble suggestion which I hope will not offend your Highnesses. I realize your families did not ascend to the throne through their stupidity.

By the way, do you know Mark Morgan,  "auditor general in a financial institution in Dublin, Ireland" (I'm pretty sure that's his title. Sounds important, doesn't it? Kinda . . .SEX-Y)? Maybe you'd know him by the name on his email account, Delilah Biggs? No? Well, he also has asked me for a similar favor involving a staggering sum of money, so maybe he'd be able to help us with routing things from that account in Spain/France/London you mentioned, what with working in a financial institution and all.  I’m all about networking, so if he's busy, then maybe we can try Mr. Benson from the "International Remittance Department", through his secretary, Reverend Murray--although, maybe you'd prefer not to, since they're from the United Nations. Here's their official United Nations email address, just in case you want to try: If you do want me to contact them for you, let me know soon, because they said they needed an immediate reply. It was in all caps, like "IMMEDIATE REPLY REQUIRED", with a whole truckload of exclamation points, so I guess they really mean it.

Wow. I never realized how complicated all this could get. Not that I mind, of course. I really want to help. That camp, and what those people did to your fathers/mothers/uncles/nannies sound just awful. And I could really use 3.5 million dollars. I don't know if you get much news in the refugee camp (maybe when you're online?) but things kind of suck here, too. Sure, we have running water and all, but you wouldn't believe what tomatos and gas cost these days.

Anyway, I was prompted to write today because I received another email from the President of Nigeria, himself, asking for my personal info to confirm release of funds. I was confused, since of course, I have been in touch with the monarchs of Nigeria for some time now. So it got me wondering if this guy was for real. Is there a president now? Is he from China, because his name sounded really Chinese. Is this the bastard who hurt your family? That makes me so mad! So, I just need some clarity on this so I can finish the transaction. Can you send me some sort of identification, and the name of the bank we'll be dealing with, so I can see if it matches what this so-called President of Nigeria sent me?  Then I can get you set up in your new place. You're totally going to love it! I found it on Craigslist, which you've probably never heard of. It's a 3- bedroom on New York's upper east side with a doorman and a gym, and get this--it's only $500 a month. I saw pictures and everything--you even have a view of Big Ben and Parliament. I just need to send them the check by Friday, so hurry. I mean. . . HURRY! URGENT REPLY NEEDED! Ha ha. But seriously, get the info to me fast, because we don't want to lose this apartment, Dear Ones. It's the perfect place for tender-hearted Royals, like yourselves.

Your Humble Servant,

Blanche DuBois

Coming to America, Paramount Pictures, 1988

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Who Killed Trayvon Martin?

Trayvon Martin, February 5, 1995 – February 26, 2012 

For my readers who are white--which, let’s face it, is probably most of my readership right now--this might be hard to read.  I can only attempt to mollify you with the fact that it is also hard to write. Remember, I’m white, too.  Despite this fact, I ask that you read it anyway. All the way through. I ask you to not only read, but to be vigilant when you see or feel your own defenses arise. Use your imagination and your courage to climb that defensive barrier to see what’s on the other side.  It’s painful, but it isn’t fatal, and I have to believe that such an act of bravery can offer some hope for us all. I have to believe this, or I’d sink into an abysmal depression.

I’m probably going to anger some people here. I wish I could tell you I’m sorry, but I’m not. I love you, Dear Readers, but I’m not sorry. Because I’m angry, too.

Back when I was a social work grad student at Smith (an institution that “officially” identifies itself as an “anti-racism” institution, while--at least, when I was there-- simultaneously ignoring the socioeconomic consequences of racism. Tuition was high, and the vast majority of my classmates were still white), I had a class called “sociocultural concepts” with a really great professor named Ken.  One focus of the class was an examination of the various factors that shape one’s worldview, for good or ill, and that tend to remain too often below a given individual’s awareness. That is, we often tend to assume that our worldview is shared by others--particularly if we happen to belong to the dominant race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or socioeconomic class of the place where we live.  In that instance, we have the luxury of ignoring other worldviews.  How nice for us. Also, particularly here in the good ol’ USA, we tend to think of our successes in meritocratic terms, even when our own merits are only part of the big picture.  Heck, we can even manage to see our failures in meritocratic terms, by which I mean that even when a situation isn’t so great, we tell ourselves it must be praiseworthy because, after all, it’s our situation (if you need an example here, try the US healthcare system, broken beyond belief, yet there are those fighting to preserve it in its current dismal state, insisting it’s “the best in the world”. No. For crying out loud, No, it’s not).

We can get very comfortable in our “group” at the expense of seeing or understanding others whom we don’t perceive as being part of that group. Sometimes I think this dampening of awareness and heightening of “otherness” is a willful; even purposeful compulsion we humans have, and I’ve written about it on this blog before.

As I’ve been working around the house today, I’ve been listening to the news and hearing a lot about the killing of young Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. Each time I hear a report about it, it brings tears to my eyes, then anger, then more tears.  I think of how afraid he must have been, how bewildered about what was happening.  I think of his parents and friends, the sorrow of their loss and their rage at the injustice of it, and at the fact that it is also nothing new. It’s been big and growing news for the past week--which is strange, since it happened last month. Why did it take this long?

Trayvon Martin, February 5, 1995 – February 26, 2012  

Back when I took that class at Smith, we watched a film that has stayed with me. It’s called “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” We were to write a paper discussing our emotional response to it. It was to be 2 or 3 pages, but I struggled to keep it within that limitation.  The movie was a documentary about the murder of Chinese-American Vincent Chin in Detroit, who was mistaken for Japanese and beaten to death while police apparently watched for a while, by two auto assembly line workers, angered by their perception that auto workers in the dominant Japan industry had robbed them of their jobs (you know, the jobs they were entitled to as Americans, even if American cars at the time were garbage). The killers had just left a strip club, so it would seem their lack of respect wasn’t reserved for Asians alone. The film documents the outrage the case generated when both of Chin’s murderers received ridiculously lenient “sentences”, if they could even be called sentences. The men served no jail time after a plea bargain, and

were given three years probation, fined $3,000 and ordered to pay $780 in court costs. In a response letter to protests from American Citizens for Justice, Kaufman said, "These weren't the kind of men you send to jail... You don't make the punishment fit the crime; you make the punishment fit the criminal." (Wikipedia and Helen Zia (2000). Asian American Dreams. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)

My time at Smith was 10 years ago, though I can hardly believe that as I write it. Vincent Chin’s murder was 30 years ago, in 1982. And I realize that these tears I’ve shed in the last few days while listening to the news aren’t just because of Trayvon Martin, though that would be enough. It’s because of the realization of how little has changed. Sure, we have a black man in the White House, but what’s changed so much for minorities who don’t live on Pennsylvania Avenue?

I don’t know anyone personally who has said to me or in my presence that, because of Obama, we live in a “post-racial” society.  But I’ve heard talk of this; that is, I’ve heard people say that people say this. Do they really? Who are these people? Self-congratulatory white folks somewhere who voted for him and thought that was enough? I mean, really. . . who are they? And what kind of magic pills have they been taking?

I’ve also heard talk on the news and in commentaries that, had the situation been reversed, had a black man shot a white teenager, we wouldn’t be hearing about “stand your ground” laws. Sadly, I find this plausible, even probable. It’d make news, but a different kind of news. Now, if it was a black man shooting a black man, we wouldn’t be having the conversation at all. It wouldn’t make the national news.  It wouldn’t be considered newsworthy by those who make such determinations. In fact, this happens all the time.

I have nieces and nephews that I love, a lot.  More than I could adequately describe, really. I worry about them, worry about their health and happiness. But one thing that I, as the white aunt of these white children, have never worried about--even though the oldest of them has a few hoodies in his wardrobe and probably wouldn’t turn down an offer of Skittles and a soda--is that some paranoid maniac would hunt them down and shoot them in cold blood because they look “suspicious” (read: black). I can honestly say, one of the privileges of my white, middle-classness is that these thoughts never occurred to me. I have enough sense to know that this isn’t because my nieces and nephews are better kids, more deserving of freedom and safety. But think about it. Imagine you’re an African American parent who just turned off tonight’s news, and your honor-student son who, like most teenagers, likes to wear what all the kids are wearing--baggy pants, hoodie maybe, sneakers untied--tells you he wants to have the car tonight, to go to his white friend’s house. If you’re a parent, this might sound pretty familiar. But really--imagine you and your kid are black, if you aren’t.

How does that feel?
I tried it just now. It felt lousy, in a few different ways.
But only because I tried really hard to be honest about it.

How it must tear at them to be keenly aware of the world in which we live, to want to protect their kids from all the things that white parents fear, but more. How do you protect them from something as monumental and persistent and illogical as racism? How do you protect them from a culture and a nation built from institutions which support, and even depend upon, the perpetuation of this notion of “otherness” in its innumerable oppressive forms? How do you protect them, while simultaneously allowing them to feel good about the world? What a balancing act that must be.

Here’s the hardest part, though. I can cry for Trayvon and his family.  I can cry for minorities of all sorts, in general, as I try my best to understand what difficulties they face on a daily basis, still, in 2012. As a woman, I know some of those difficulties first-hand.  I can rail against and condemn George Zimmerman, Trayvon’s killer. And I do, unequivocally. But it would be disingenuous if that was all I was willing to do. It would not only be disingenuous--it would be useless.  Because without acknowledging those parts of Zimmerman that live inside me--albeit in a much milder form--I will only find myself railing again in a few weeks or months or years, when the next Trayvon Martin is in the headlines and the next police department under investigation, with most likely disappointing results.

No, that’s not what I mean to say--there can be no next, no other Trayvon. I’m sure his family would tell you and me that he was one of a kind; precious and irreplaceable. And of course, they’d be right.

In all likelihood, even Zimmerman didn’t become a racist overnight. Who failed to challenge his warped beliefs with other ideas? Who disagreed, but tacitly accepted them? Who made it safe for him to become what he is? What am I doing to challenge the knee-jerk, racist responses I have sometimes observed in myself?

Trayvon Martin

So, what can I do? What must I do? This is challenging, for a number of reasons. In a previous post I wrote called “The Other”, I talked about our need to “mythologize” about people, to fabricate collective identities for groups of people we perceive as different in some way, in order to reinforce our idealized self-image. Where real differences exist, we also mythologize the reasons for those differences--inferiority, deficiencies of character or intellect, etc. But what I didn’t mention in that piece was a quite sinister element to this mythologizing process, where we ferret out those who are “with us” and those who are “against us”--those who are willing to weave their own thread into the tapestry of our collective myth, and those who are suspect in their silence or dissent. The question looms: how far will we take the myth in order to belong? If I acknowledge real inequities in the world, if I acknowledge the flip-side of racism that comes in the form of unearned power and advantage, am I a traitor? Do I lose my own identity?

The short answer is “no”. You aren’t a traitor and you don’t lose your identity. You get the chance to really live up to your idealized self-image and the idealized image of your “group”. You get to shake off the myths and illusions, and really be who you are, warts and all, and to come to truly know who are these “others” you’ve heard so much about. You can stop pretending or trying to live up to a falsehood. You’re free to succeed or fail truly on your merits, as can others.

You get to stop being afraid.
We get to stop being afraid of each other.

In the title of this post, I wanted to extend the question posed in the movie about Vincent Chin, and include other victims of hate and ignorance and unconsciousness and cowardice: 

Who killed James Byrd?
I did.
Who killed Matthew Shepard?
You did.
Who killed Laci Peterson?
We did.
Who killed Tyler Clementi?
All of us.

In all of these, we might know who shot the gun or swung the bat, or tied the ropes, but if we look closely and honestly, we’ll see an ever-widening circle of culpability. We see our habitual silence in the face of injustices such as these. We see police or prosecutors who do nothing, and who protect their own, or protect the privileged. We pay to see comedians who tell derogatory jokes about gays and women. We look the other way when men go to strip clubs that exploit and objectify women, because "boys will be boys". We see news organizations that are only willing to focus on African Americans when they commit a crime, but seldom when they are the victims, and we say nothing about this. We see pictures and videos on TV of missing beautiful blonde daughters, while beautiful black daughters and sons disappear without mention every day, while Mexican sons and daughters are slaughtered by drug cartels. We say nothing when the co-worker disparages the race or sexuality of another co-worker. We allow paranoid remarks about our Muslim neighbors to go unchecked. We stay silent when some idiot speaks of being “Jew-ed down” on a deal. We allow real human beings to be reduced to epithets like “illegals” or “retards”. We allow women to be raped or abused, then accuse them of lying about it. We refuse to look inside and confront the enemy within.

In short, we allow a climate of suspicion, ignorance and fear to grow and to thrive because we can. Because we feel safe ignoring what we perceive as “other people’s” misfortune, forgetting our inescapable interconnectedness. As long as we’re not the targets, all is well. We are, apparently, quite content in our cowardice--all of us, at one time or another. Be honest--ask yourself where you’ve failed in this regard, failed to do what’s right, or at least speak up. See it, and make a vow to do better and create the kind of “global climate change” that we actually need. Even suspecting that I’ll sometimes fail, I’m making this vow, here and now. Will you?

So, who killed Trayvon Martin?
Perhaps the more apt question is, “Who didn’t?”

[3/25/12: as an update since the initial posting of this essay, I'd like to sadly add one more to the list of questions above: Who killed Shaima Alawadi ? ]

Related, and worth reading:

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, by Peggy McIntosh

The Trayvon Martin Story is Too Perfect, by Tommy Christopher

A Mother's Reflections on the Death of Trayvon Martin, by Frances Cudjoe Waters

How to Talk to Young Black Boys About Trayvon Martin, by Toure'

Florida Teen's Killing a Parent's Greatest Fear, by Corey Dade

Trayvon Martin was Afraid, Too, by Michel Martin

Trayvon, Emmmett and Dangerous Black Bodies, by the Rev. Jacqueline J. Lewis, Ph.D.