Thursday, December 29, 2011

Family Values

Hope everyone is enjoying the holidays. I had a lovely Christmas with my family and stayed far from the computer, hence the lapse in my posts. Here is a second excerpt from my essay, Mother Mother.
Wishing all my readers a prosperous, healthy and happy New Year!
(Excerpt from essay Mother Mother)
Dad was a traditional father who provided for us and was not at all involved in rearing us. He did, however, take us to church every Sunday. Ma was a converted Catholic and had nothing good to say about the Church. “Christians on Sunday, heathens the rest of the week,” she said of Catholics in general and Dad, his family, and, as his progeny, us, specifically. She stepped inside the Church three times in my memory, when Andy got baptized, when my oldest brother got married, and for my father’s funeral. She was not present at her own memorial service. We cremated her just as she had requested in the months after Dad died.
I only remember a few tender moments between Dad and me. The most memorable one was when, at about four years old, I fell down the cellar stairs and my neck lay in the crook at the bottom where the rail post met the stairway. Dad carefully untangled me, my head in his hand, and cradled me against his chest. I knew from that moment on, despite his no-nonsense approach and explosive outbursts of anger during which curse words sprayed the room like buckshot, that he had a soft spot for his children.
Ma did, too, and I see those times it was expressed more clearly now: the way she sat and played Scrabble with me for hours, our bone china tea cups beside the playing board; how, when I finally learned to read, she let me take any book off her bookshelf stashed in the narrow hallway; how we watched old movies made in the 1930s through 1950s together, before color TVs, VCRs and DVD players. Andy and I became movie aficionados. Andy could name every actor and actress as if it were for a school exam. These were the times I felt wanted instead of resented.
They are the things I did with my daughters. Even though Cara and Mackenzie are grown women, we still talk about getting together to watch movies – a girls’ night.
But I fretted as a mother. In the age of intensive mothering that began in the 1980s when my daughters were born, I felt my inadequacy. Sharon Hays describes the onset of intensive mothering in her book The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood.  She says:
What Every Baby Knows is the title of a child-rearing manual by the pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton. In many ways this title epitomizes current notions of appropriate parenting. Child rearing today is, more than ever before, child-centered – it follows not from what every parent knows (needs or wants) but what every baby knows (needs or wants). This, as we have seen, is the approach that has come to be called permissive. And this…is also the approach found in most of today’s top-selling child-rearing manuals.
I read T. Berry Brazelton’s book and watched his show. I wanted to be a better mother than Ma but I didn’t know what every baby knows or every mother, for that matter. Most women of my generation didn’t have role models, even those who had loving mothers, because we would enter the workforce in numbers not seen since World War II when Rosie the Riveter dropped her children off at a government sponsored day care center on the way to the factory. Unlike our mothers, we had the innate sense to know that we needed more than childrearing to give us purpose and identity, but our guilt drove us to over-mother.
Quality time became the goal. Even if it was five minutes, if we were completely child-centered, it was more effective than the mother who spent the day at home with her child but spent it cleaning or doing other things while her child played in proximity. I came to question this in later years, but as a new mother, it weighed on me.
When I discovered I was having twins, I spoke to my husband about how long I would stay out of work. “Three months,” I said.
He nodded but said nothing. After I brought Cara and Mackenzie home from the hospital, suffered my own bout of post-partum depression, and discovered how much work it was to take care of two babies at once, feeding on demand and trying to log that all-important quality time, singly and together, I realized I would not feel comfortable leaving them with anyone else.
“I need to extend my leave,” I said to Ronald.
“I know,” he said. “I figured you’d come to that conclusion.”
I stayed home for nearly eighteen months, feeling guilty for not earning a salary when we needed a house. The apartment super kept asking us when we were going to move. Our apartment building housed mostly single professionals or childless couples. Two babies crying and then, later, two toddlers running back and forth in stiff-soled shoes were more than most of our neighbors could tolerate. Notes were slipped under our door or taped to our mailbox: Please keep your children quiet or If you would keep your voice down, maybe they would be quiet.
Did they know what it felt like when one baby went one way and the other the other way? How helpless and paralyzed I felt standing too far from either to do anything? Or how I felt when both were crying and I could not figure out if they were hungry, colicky, tired, or wet? It took time to change two babies and fix the source of the tears. Mackenzie howled as if death were upon her when she was hungry, and Cara nightly cried herself to sleep while I sat crying in the living room. I realized early on that holding her only made her scream and fuss more, her body stiff and recoiling from my touch. She was already over stimulated and sometimes she would cry for as long as forty-five minutes before she would abruptly drop off to sleep. But, even as I knew I was right to let her expend her tremendous energy until there was nothing left but to go to sleep, it still made me feel like a bad mother, judged by others. When Mackenzie, who was born with Metatarsus Abductus, a C-shaped foot (crooked like Ma’s had been), had to wear a cast at five months old, people glared at me when I took her out in public.
“What happened to your baby?” strangers felt comfortable asking in a judgmental tone. Each time I carefully explained that she was born that way and we were getting her foot fixed. Just as I calmly explained to people that yes, they were twins, fraternal not identical, or that their father is black. That was a frequent question, “what is their father?”

Monday, December 19, 2011

Black Lie, White Hope

The GOP continues its quest for the Great White Hope. What about Herman Cain, you remind me. He was a straw dog. Charismatic? How about that wealthy Mormon, Mitt? Self-righteous Christian? Here’s Perry. How about the man that suggested a cure for obesity? No-more-food-stamps Santorum. Militant conservative? How about Michele “abolish minimum wage” Bachmann? Short-term memory? Here’s Newt “I took the marriage pledge” Gingrich. Best GOP candidate since GW. He cavalierly suggested that poor children ought to work as janitors in their schools.
In many ways it doesn’t matter who the GOP selects as their candidate. They want to ensure the wealthy keep their wealth and grow wealthier. They want to ensure President Obama doesn’t get re-elected. Some call him the worst president in the history of our country.
President Obama saved us from an economic depression. He defeated Osama Bin Laden. He ended the ten-year war in Iraq. He has worked diligently to preserve the middle class. What makes him the worst president in the history of our country? It’s the color of his skin. No one wants to articulate it quite that way. The moral compass of the collective society would balk at such blatant honesty. Most people would rather deny their racist assessment and pin their dislike on anything else that might appear rational. But their arguments aren’t rational. They are lies: lies that protect the liar from having to face his own prejudices; lies that smartly cover up what no one wants to say aloud; lies that make it seem as if we live in a post-racial society; lies that make everyone who harbors racist feelings feel smug and righteous.
I can’t just point fingers at the GOP or Christian conservatives who believe God is on their side and are bonded by hate and moral superiority. The 99%, a predominately white organization, is also bashing our president. I wouldn’t mind, except that their demands are unrealistic. The president can’t force change. If one has not personally experienced the tremendous backlash against everything the President is trying to push through, one cannot imagine the difficulty he is up against. To the 99% who are warming the benches while others are out on the playing field, consider a future in politics if you want to initiate change and learn to work within a system that is not only immovable but also difficult to negotiate. Then you’ll have earned your right to complain.
In the meantime I won’t encourage you to look at a third party solution. You’ll just waste precious votes needed to ensure that the GOP doesn’t get elected to the highest office in the land and take us all down by blurring the lines between church and state, destroying the middle class, and bolstering the power and wealth of the 1%.
We will live in a world where religious zealots create the law of the land based on the Old Testament. Apparently they missed the Good News. In this new world homosexuals are criminals; fetuses have more rights than children; women are submissive; poor people die for lack of basic necessities; whites are armed and dangerous to anyone that threatens their way of life; minorities are assigned non-American status; and slavery is re-instituted. The vision is extreme, yes, but possible given the extreme rhetoric of Tea Partiers and Christian conservatives.
Have you noticed that President Obama’s enemies have not found even one skeleton in his closet? They tried with the birther conspiracy. They tried to tie him to unsavory characters and Illinois political corruption. They tried to deny his Christianity, as if not being Christian would disqualify him from office. They have accused him of the character flaw of humanitarianism, if one can call that a flaw. I don’t. The only truth that no one wants to speak is that his African heritage is a flaw in the eyes of many.
We need President Obama for four more years. We need to fight the good fight right beside him.
(Excerpt from essay Keep Hope Alive: Post-Racialism in America)
Everyone in the bleachers kept craning their necks around to see behind us. We all knew Senator Obama would enter the square from the rear of the bleachers. The number of men in black suits with earphones made it obvious.
Suddenly the men in suits gathered together, and my sight rested on Senator Obama in the middle of them: tall, handsome, a spring in his step despite the grueling schedule he kept. He wore a pressed, bright-white shirt, the sleeves casually rolled up, and a blue, white and silver tie. As he stepped up to the podium amidst the cheers, he appeared confident, smart, and presidential.
“Yes we can! Yes we can!” the crowd chanted. I wanted to believe them.
“Our destiny is not written for us, it is written by us,” Obama told the crowd. We cheered louder.
“We can rewrite our destiny,” I thought. “We can change our destiny in my lifetime.”
“Yes we can! Yes we can!”
Obama stopped in the middle of his speech and asked for people to attend to a woman who was weak from the heat and press of the crowd. Volunteers ripped into plastic flats filled with bottled water and started passing them back through the crowd. From our perch on the bleachers, the thousands of water bottles being handed high above heads from black hand to white hand to brown hand, looked like bubbles floating over the crowd.
Ronald assisted citizens and saved their lives and property for twenty-five years as a firefighter, but sometimes they did not want his help. One man said he would not let Ronald resuscitate his dying wife. Another citizen, his house on fire, said he did not want black people in his house. Disregarding Ronald’s lieutenant stripes and his command over the scene, another citizen called him a nigger. Could hatred be that strong? Yes it can.
Obama finished his speech, and he walked around the circle of people closest to the podium, shaking their hands, speaking to them. I watched him, and I watched them, some of them wiping tears away after he had moved on to the next person. I knew he would exit beside the bleachers just as he had entered. Some people were already standing and headed off the other side of the bleachers, maybe trying to beat the dispersing crowd. I went in the opposite direction and crouched at the edge of the bleachers three or four people back. I could see Obama nearing us. I stuck my hand through the crowd of legs, and he grabbed it and firmly shook it. His hand was dry and warm.
I stood from the crouched position I had taken to reach him and turned around. I was crying.
“You did it,” Cara said. “You shook his hand.”
“Yes, I did.”

Saturday, December 10, 2011

You Can't Do What They Do

Ronald’s dad often told him when he was growing up that, “you can’t do what they do.” He meant that as a black boy, he could not do what he saw the white boys in his neighborhood doing, or behave in the same manner they did, or speak as they did. It would get him in trouble. Individual freedom of action and expression are different for different groups of people in America.
We told our daughters the same thing as they were growing up, especially when they moved from their Northeastern urban high school with a socio-economically diverse population that was about fifty percent ethnic minority to the Southeastern arts conservatory with a predominately affluent, white student population and almost all white faculty.
I thought about that expression, you can’t do what they do, this week as Ronald and I watched a documentary on Pearl Harbor on the History Channel. As Americans prepared to enter the war, Japanese Americans were being rounded up and placed in internment camps. True to the racist slant of the times, it was believed they might be more loyal to their country of origin than to the country they lived in, many for generations. Most were U.S. citizens. Most had never even visited Japan. Why didn’t the government sanction the internment of all Americans of German or Italian heredity?
When my father was drafted and ordered to report to duty, he changed his first name from Francesco to Francis. His brothers, except for Rocco, did the same. Were they worried they didn’t sound American enough? American citizens of ethnic minority heredity, you can’t do what they do.
Herman Cain announced this past week that he was suspending his campaign to run for president. I predicted his demise back in my October 23rd blog, Am I My Brother’s Keeper? So I wasn’t surprised when the allegations of sexual misconduct arose in the press. Herman, you can’t do what they do.
A few weeks ago an airline pilot managed to lock himself in the bathroom of the plane. He asked a passenger to go to the cockpit with a special password to let the co-pilot know of his plight. The co-pilot considered the pilot’s disappearance and the passenger’s thick accent to be indicative that the plane was under terrorist attack. It precipitated an emergency landing. If the passenger had spoken with an American dialect, would everyone have had a good laugh and the plane made its ETA without a blip? Foreign sounding passenger, you can’t do what they do.
A young interracial couple was banned from the woman’s church of worship in rural Kentucky a couple of weeks ago. After all the attention in the media, the pastor was replaced and the church rescinded its vote. Interracial couple wishing to worship, you can’t do what they do.
President Obama, did your mother ever tell you, you can’t do what they do? If she didn’t, it’s okay, she might not have known or understood it. I know it because I have witnessed it for thirty-six years. I’m sensitized to it. If you aren’t white, if you aren’t affluent, if you don’t view the world through the “white” American cultural context, you can’t do what they do.
(Excerpt from Chapter 8, Watch Our Show, Shades of Tolerance: A Biracial Love Story)
In the spring of 2006 I asked Ronald to drive to Albany for the day. I wanted him to go to the New York State Retirement Office and get the numbers worked up for his pension. He did not trust the administration at the Syracuse Fire Department to do it properly. He agreed to at least listen to what the retirement office had to say, still telling me he figured he would put in three more years. He worried the number of black firefighters was dropping – most of the black men who came on with him in the class of 1981 had retired at twenty years or they had signed off earlier, losing full pension rights. More than a few had told him they retired early or left because they could not take the daily abuse: the constant questioning from white firefighters about their competence; the racist jokes; the suspiciously numerous disciplinary write-ups from white superiors. Ronald knew what they were talking about. “You can’t do what they do,” his dad had told him about the white boys when they moved to the eastside, and it was true as an adult, too.
One of the new black recruits came to him for advice. His lieutenant had given him poor probation evaluations. One of his station mates had lied when he had asked him a question about calculating oxygen pressure. When his lieutenant asked him for the calculation and he responded using the answer given to him by his station mate, he was evaluated poorly again. His lieutenant was pressuring him to sign off and resign before his probation ended. The stress had caused him to become violent when he and his girlfriend had gotten into an argument, and now he feared the relationship might end as well.
Ronald counseled him not to take it out on his girlfriend, who, he told him, could not understand what he went through at the job. He told him he would help him learn what he needed to know. He would go downtown to the Fire Department Offices on his behalf. He told him he could get through it if he wanted to and that he was not on his own. He said, “Every white firefighter comes to work every day and gets to enjoy being a firefighter. They don’t want that for us. They want us to hate coming here. We have a right to enjoy firefighting as much as they do.”
The next day Ronald talked to one of the district chiefs and told him that something wasn’t right with the evaluations of the young recruit. He told him he had worked with him on overtime duty, and he thought he did a fine job and wanted to do well. He talked to the black firefighters’ group FOCUS (Firefighters of Color United in Syracuse) that he helped found years before, and told the group officers they ought to intervene. Still the young recruit signed off and resigned a week later.
“They want us off the force,” he said, relating the story to me. “They want it to look like we can’t perform the job – a self-fulfilling prophecy. They can’t wait to catch us failing, and they find ways to make it happen.”
The NYS retirement officer pushed a paper across the desk. It contained Ronald’s pension details. I watched Ronald’s eyes light up.
He picked up the pen the officer laid next to the paper and signed it. He would retire on June 30, 2006.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Beauty Booby Trap

Courtney Stodden, the seventeen-year-old who married fifty-one-year-old, B-list actor Doug Hutchinson, may very well be the poster child for the decline of women’s equality, rights and self-actualization. She was just sixteen when she began an Internet relationship with Hutchinson and her mother both encouraged and signed consent for her to marry him. Still underage, she is often photographed in provocative poses. One has her in a T-shirt on which Yes, they are real is printed across her enormous breasts. But they aren’t real – photos taken just a year or two earlier show a different girl. She is a regular teen with regular sized breasts, no stripper makeup, no hair extensions, and no pouty mouth.
A strip club owner in Seattle has just offered her $5000 to appear on her eighteenth birthday to perform two strip shows. She hasn’t accepted his invitation, but why not? She’s been stripping on camera for a year now. Maybe it’s not enough money. Maybe her price (or her mother’s and husband’s price) is more like the pay one gets to appear in Playboy. Wait until she is eighteen or maybe not, if someone can figure out how to get around the little problem of her being underage.
I didn’t want to write about her. I’ve avoided it for months. Why take part in her prostitution? She is a child. Her mother, her husband, and the media are exploiting and objectifying her. As many adolescent girls would, she relishes the attention while not recognizing the consequences.
Younger and younger girls are dressing provocatively, sharing intimate photos, sexting, engaging in sex. They also suffer from eating and body dysmorphic disorders. Do they understand exploitation and objectification? What have they been taught about beauty by the media, the Internet, boys and men, other girls and women, and their own pursuits of beauty, popularity and celebrity?
I struggle with the concept of beauty and how it is defined culturally, sexually, emotionally, intellectually and personally. Even in middle age, even as a feminist, I still want to feel beautiful. I see how that renders me less than: less than men, less than other women, less than my own potential. At what price is beauty?

(Excerpt from essay Staying on It: Beauty and Aging)
One of my favorite actresses, Vivien Leigh, played an aging but refined southern English teacher, Blanche DuBois, who is fired from her position for her penchant for alcohol and young men in Streetcar Named Desire.
Blanche gives her perspective on beauty and aging when she says:
"A cultivated woman, a woman of breeding and intelligence, can enrich a man's life immeasurably.  I have those things to offer and time doesn't take them away.  Physical beauty is a passing transitory possession but beauty of the mind, richness of the spirit, tenderness of the heart, I have all those things."
But the quintessential movie on aging females is Sunset Boulevard. Gloria Swanson, aged fifty, played Norma Desmond, also fifty. Swanson’s declining career closely mirrored that of Desmond’s, only the outcome was different – Miss Swanson had her comeback.
Fran Hortop of Bint Magazine said this of Swanson’s portrayal:
Swanson gives a grotesque, cruel and powerful performance, more than likely the best of her career. She teeters on the edge of the ridiculous: Norma is much larger than life and lives in the black-and-white movie realms of melodrama where every stylised gesture counts for a thousand words. She’s all taloned fingers and bulging eyes, dressed like a psychotic goddess in elaborate turbans and jewels - a brave parody of the kind of ├╝ber-actress Swanson was herself.
After the film, Swanson was offered other similar roles, but she declined them, saying in her memoir, “I could obviously go on playing [Norma Desmond] in its many variations for decades to come, until at last I became some sort of creepy parody of myself, or rather, of Norma Desmond – a shadow of a shadow.”  She was in two more films after Sunset, but chose to pursue other business and artistic pursuits including sculpting until her death in 1983.

Ronald documented the changes in my face, body, and hair over the last thirty-five years in photos, not consciously, but there they all are. He always made me feel beautiful, even as we both mourn my loss of youth. Though I am always shy in front of the camera, he has managed to capture what he sees and avers.
He took one black-and-white photo in 1977 at the record store on Marshall Street near Syracuse University. My hair is cut to the tops of my shoulders with full bangs. I remember the hairdresser had told me, as he cut and styled it, that I looked like a china doll with my porcelain skin, large eyes and shiny, straight, dark hair. My skin is dusted with tiny freckles left over from the summer, and my small downturned mouth is parted so that just my two front teeth show. I stare at the camera, looking hesitant. I remember feeling embarrassed that Ronald was snapping photos in front the other shoppers in the store.
Back then I only wore a little blush, undereye concealer and mascara. I didn’t need anything else. 
Ronald saw all the photo albums spread out on the bed, after Cara and I had been through them, so I asked him to select his favorite photo from the many he had taken of me that first year. I didn’t like the one he picked: my eyes cast downward, a shy smile that might have been a grimace, my hand running through my hair.
He laughed when he saw me flipping through the pages of the albums a short time later, looking for one I liked. “Why did you ask me?”
There is another photo taken in 2011. It’s a close-up of my face. I’m looking at and smiling into the camera, having just graduated with my MFA degree.
The lines on my forehead and between my eyebrows are apparent, as are the crow’s feet running away from the outer corners of my eyes. My nose appears longer at the tip than it did in the photo taken in 1977, and it could be a result of age or camera angle. My dimples, doubled on the right side of my mouth, are etched deeply. My teeth, off-center due to only having one adult canine, are bright white. My eyes, crinkled in joy, are vibrant and warm. They are framed by my long lashes and the cocoa and white eyeliners. There is a hint of white at my hairline. I like this photo so much I copy it to the digital photo frame that sits in the dining room. Ronald often points out photos of me to guests, as they flash on the digitized screen.
“See that?” he asks, pointing out a photo where I stand between Cara and Mackenzie, both clutching single carnations, both smiling with lips squeezed shut because they are growing in front teeth. The photo was taken at the end of one of their piano recitals. I am in my mid-thirties. Permed hair frames my face and touches my shoulders, large, nineties-style glasses sit below arched brows, and a slight smile activates my right-side dimples. I wear a blue violet dress, the belt cinching my still-small waist. “She captivated me,” he says.
He tells me one day recently that he has been showing a photo of me to the guys at the golf range.
 “Not a college photo!” I respond. That would be false advertising.
“No, this one,” he says, and he pulls out a 5x7 photo taken at work for my ID card picture. I had given it to him several years ago and forgotten about it. “They all said how pretty you are.”
 I think he must be speaking about my inner beauty: the beauty of my mind, the richness of my spirit, and the tenderness of my heart. Maybe they were qualities I always possessed but didn’t recognize when I viewed myself through Ma’s eyes.
Maggie the Cat in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof felt the power of her beauty and sexuality when her husband Brick, played by Paul Newman, asked her, “What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof?”
“Just staying on it, I guess,” she tells him, “long as she can.”