Wednesday, September 21, 2016

My White Face

I generally prefer to use this platform to bash all the people in my life who have done me wrong. Today I am going to focus on my own wrongdoing.

I was twenty, twenty-one, maybe. So we're talking twenty-five years ago. I was not in a good place. I was two years into a three year relationship that was doomed. We fought all the time, and it wasn't always her fault. We were both emotional basket cases. I was a community college dropout, working as a nanny. I'd been out on my own for a couple of years after my mom had kicked me out of the house for fucking up in school. Barely an adult myself, I had developed a deep hatred of authority figures after spending my adolescence fighting with my asshole father. One of my shrinks tried to tell me I had bipolar disorder and put me on Lithium, but it made me feel like a zombie. At least Angry Becky got shit done. Zombie Becky was worthless and there was NO fucking way I was going to rely on Mom and Dad to support me. I had to make it on my own.

It was winter. My girlfriend and I lived in midtown Kansas City because it was cheap and, at that time, it was the only place in the Greater Kansas City area where gays and lesbians felt safe, or at least safe-ish. The family that I nannied for lived in southern Johnson County, about a thirty minute drive on a good day. This was not a good day. It had snowed the night before, and I was running late, for no other reason than I was a worthless piece of shit who'd stayed up too late the night before, probably writing in my diary or working on my stupid fucking unpublishable novel or some such shit.

I was supposed to be at my bosses' house by 7:00am so that they could leave for their upstanding citizen jobs. He was a lawyer, she was a paralegal. They had a twelve-year-old, a two-year-old, and a newborn. She was one of those supermom types, left over from the eighties. Mall bangs and everything. I'm not shitting you: after she gave birth and returned from the hospital, she was up early the very next day exercising to some celebrity workout video in their home gym. I was like some fat fucking babushka over in the corner of their "hearth room" balancing the new baby on my belly as I fed her a bottle and sang Frère Jacques "again, again!" to keep the two-year-old occupied long enough to stay out of her mom's frosted hair.

It had snowed heavily overnight and many of the streets were still unplowed. Even though it was freezing outside, I had the driver's side window to my Ford Festiva cracked to help the windshield from completely fogging up. There were streaks everywhere from my gloved hand trying to wipe away the condensation. The heater/defrost on my tin-box car barely worked. I guess they don't need 'em much in Mexico in the factory where it was made. I'd spent a whole two minutes of what should have been a twenty minute job scraping the snow and ice off my windows because I was in such a hurry to get to work.

I was about ten minutes from their house when I noticed red lights flashing through the four-inch section of my back window that I'd managed to scrape off. I slowed down and pulled over as far to the right as I could manage on the snow-covered street to give the cop some room to pass me on his way to wherever the hell he was going. As far as I knew, there weren't too many criminals in this affluent neck of the woods. At least not the kind that got caught.

It took me a moment to realize he wasn't going to pass me.

"Nooooooooooooo!" I shouted.

He was after me.

"What the hell did I do?!" I pulled over on a side street where the snow was even deeper. My pathetic car could barely make it. I put the gear shift into neutral, pulled the emergency break, and killed the engine. I could feel sweat developing under my wool cap. No matter how cold it is, I always get sweaty when I get upset.

The cop knocked on the driver's side window.

I didn't even bother to roll it down any further. I was so pissed this guy was going to make me even later to my job than I already was. "What did I do?" I shouted through the three-inch crack.

"Umm, could you roll down your window, please?" the cop asked. He sounded a bit taken aback. Like he wasn't expecting to encounter any shrieking banshees in this neighborhood. This guy had no idea.

"Why? What did I do?" I asked. I could feel my face flush like it did whenever my dad would start in on me.

"Umm, well," he paused and began using an ice scraper on my window.

"What are you DOING? I NEED TO GET TO WORK?!" I shouted.

"Hold up, now. Lemme get some of this ice off your window..."

I cut him off, "Man, I NEED to get to work. My boss is gonna yell at me. Can you just tell me what I did?!"

He chuckled a little and then proceeded to begin scraping my front windshield. He raised his voice, not in anger, but so I could hear him through my still barely cracked window.

"You do realize that I could give you a ticket for driving this thing in such hazardous circumstances, don't you?" he said. "Did you even bother to scrape your windows before you headed out?"

Great, now I'm getting fucking lectured from a cop.

"YES, I DID," I gritted my teeth. "But I'm in a hurry and my defroster doesn't work very good."

"OK. OK," he said, shooing his hand at me like I was some annoying fly. He'd scraped off my entire front windshield by then and was working around to the passenger's side.

I sat there and fumed as he finished up the back. Thinking back on it now, what an ungrateful, spoiled brat. Here I was, sitting there like a pissy bitch while Officer Friendly made sure that my car was road safe.

"OK," he said when he made his way back to the driver's side. "That oughtta do it." He thumped my roof and said, "be careful out there" as he stepped away from my car.

I didn't even thank him.

I rolled up my window and made a big dramatic exit, my spinning tires flicking grey snow all over the officer as I maneuvered my car back onto the main road and sped up to make up for lost time.

There's been a lot of incidents in the news lately of young black men getting pulled over for minor traffic violations and ending up dead, shot by yet another bad cop. Maybe they were disrespectful. Maybe they were uncooperative, although most of the video evidence I've watched shows otherwise. If I had lived in an era of constant video surveillance I have a feeling my video evidence could have been used against me in court, or at least the court of public opinion. I was an ungrateful, spoiled brat. I didn't even get a ticket, let alone shot and killed. Despite my horrible behavior, my cop did his job helping me out, making me safe. Even if some would argue I didn't deserve it.

Maybe the cop who helped me on that shitty, snowy day was a good cop, and he would have treated anybody the same as he did me. Or maybe he would have treated me differently if, when first peering through the crack in the driver's side window, he had seen a black face instead of my white face.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Pinko Commie


I don't recall what started the argument, but at some point it got out that I did not, in fact, support Ronald Reagan's presidency. I was, like, 14. A few months prior, Mom brought home a poster of President Reagan that someone was handing out for free and I took it and put it up in my bedroom next to my Duran Duran and Smiths posters. 1984. It was the first year I recall feeling any interest in politics and foreign affairs. I was reading about vegetarianism and pacifism and it lead to stories about conflict and war. I didn't know much about American politics, but I knew President Reagan was my country's leader, so I figured it'd be cool to put his poster up in my room.

The more I paid attention to the news, the less I wanted Reagan's poster on my wall. I found myself disagreeing with nearly every policy he stood for. Soon, I ripped the poster off the wall.

When Dad found out, he called me a Pinko Commie. It was the first political argument I ever had. It ended with me bursting into tears, running to my bedroom, and lying in bed listening to "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now."

Who knows why I was drawn to liberalism. My dad's a conservative and my mom's an independent. Probably that's why. Wanting to be my own person, with my own ideas and beliefs. That's what adolescence is all about, breaking free from your parent's bullshit. Right?

As I've matured I've met many friends who in fact didn't rebel against their parents' political persuasions. Most of them are apathetic. Most Americans--old and young, gay and straight, people who watch  America's Got Talent and people who get caught up in Good Mythical Morning--are apathetic about politics. I get it.

My dad's not, though. When I was growing up, Dad read the newspaper every day. He watched the evening news during weekdays and 60 Minutes on weekends. He watched the presidential conventions like Mom watched the Tony Awards. He voted in every election. Some of my favorite memories of my dad are on election day when he'd come home and hand me his "I Voted" sticker, which I'd wear proudly as I pretended to be big enough to vote.

I guess that's where I get my passion. My interest in what our political leaders are doing and feeling like I have some say in the way they govern.

I could never talk to dad about politics without getting into a heated argument with him. Dad is a yeller. I'm a recovering yeller. We did not have dispassionate dialogue which left us feeling empathetic and well informed. We yelled until our faces grew red and we could no longer stand to be in the same room as each other.

I moved out of the house when I was eighteen. Dad and I talk less and less, and when we do, it's rarely about politics. The other day I visited Dad in the hospital. He's 89. His kidneys were failing. The chaplain had been in and held hands and prayed with us. I thought he was going to die. I mean, I know he's going to die. We're all going to die. But I thought he was going to die REALLY SOON.

After the chaplain left to pray with some other family, Dad and I sat together and watched the TV turned to some news channel. It was something sporty, so I wasn't paying attention. Plus, I was thinking about Dad and wondering how he felt and imagining what it would be like to know your time is soon and all you can do is think back and remember the good times.

"Who are you going to vote for?" Dad broke my attention.

"Huh?"

"You said you were going to vote for Bernie Sanders last time I saw you. Now that he's dropped out, who are you going to vote for in November?" Dad's face looked goddamn jolly. There was no animosity. Just curiosity.

"Oh, yeah, I'm gonna vote for Hillary Clinton," I said with a little lilt. Still a little afraid of what Daddy thinks.

"Yeah, I figured," he said and dropped it.

GUYS! MY DAD DROPPED IT.

No comment. No follow-up questions. He just smiled and turned his gaze back toward the TV.

"Yeah, Trump's crazy. There's no way I'm voting for him," I clarified my position, even though I wasn't asked.

"Who are you going to vote for, Dad?" I said. I think I was so stunned by no lecture from my Dad that it helped me work up the nerve to ask him.

"Ah, I won't live that long. I'm not gonna vote this year."

"You don't know that. Nobody knows that. If you get a chance to vote this year, who do you want to vote for?"

"Trump."

"Trump? What?" I shouted, but it was more of a laugh-shout. A surprised-shout. Not an angry-shout. Like when your kindergartner says they voted for Trump in the mock election at school and you shout out in amazement at how fucking ignorant they are.

Oh, shit. I'd become my dad. The yeller. 

I forced my eyes to look at the TV screen and said, as calmly as I could muster, "Why are you going to vote for Trump?" I wanted to say, "Because you don't want to vote for a woman?" to poke at some old wounds, but I refrained.

"Ah, I dunno. Joyce's got me thinking that's the way to go," dad said in a quiet voice. He sounded a little bit embarrassed.

Joyce is my dad's live-in girlfriend. Evidently Dad does what his girlfriend says now. And you know what? Good for him. When Joyce came to visit Dad in the hospital he sat up in bed and began to glow. His kidneys have improved and are functioning on their own. He's supposed to get released from the hospital in a few days. Hell, he might even live til November 8th.

I may be a pinko commie, but I'd be glad to see Dad live long enough to vote for Trump.


Friday, August 12, 2016

Katie's incredible first day

Katie's first day of kindergarten

Katie loved kindergarten. First and second grade were OK, but by third grade she started having trouble getting along with her less-mature classmates. By fourth grade she was so frustrated with most of her peers she started asking if she could be homeschooled or go to a private school with a more diverse age range of classmates. She does well with older kids, whom she admires, and younger kids, whom she adores, but she tends to expect too much maturity from her peers and loses her temper with them when they treat her, or others, disrespectfully. 

Katie's first day of first grade

She's an only child who never had the opportunity to squirm out from underneath her older sibling's fart-infused hand over her face or learn how to ignore a younger sibling's whining. All the kids outside of school she hangs out with-- her friends with mutual interests and maturity levels, and her cousins who are also sensitive and well behaved--adore her. It's easy not to lose your temper around adoring fans. It's more challenging to keep cool around people who are crammed into the same underfunded four walls day in and day out with you, not because you have similar interests and temperaments, but because you are the same age and live in the same geographic boundary as each other. 

Katie's first day of second grade

I don't believe in making rash decisions, though. I think it's a good life lesson to build your social skills by learning how to deal with annoying, uninteresting, and foolish people. There are a lot of them in this world, and some day Katie might work in an office with one or two of them. When my co-workers annoy me, I can't just stomp my foot and shout "leave me alone" even if it's how I feel. I want Katie to flex her flexibility muscle. Life is not about always getting your way. Life is about figuring out how to make the best of difficult situations.

Katie's first day of third grade

So, I didn't give in to her wishes to stay at home and read and watch V Sauce on YouTube all day, which let's face it, is what she'd do if I were her full-time teacher at home. That and play Animal Crossing City Folk til the nerves in her wrists and fingers start to tingle. I encourage my kid to face her challenges head on in the real world, but for the most part I offer her few challenges at home. Her dad tells her to do the dishes and pick up her trash and put away her laundry from time to time, but I have difficulty dictating to another person things I so thoroughly suck at myself. I want Katie to feel like her home is her refuge from a difficult world. That doesn't mean I want to keep her bubble wrapped at home like a modern day Rapunzel. I want her to learn to fight the good fight out in the real world and I also want her to know that her home is her comfy place whenever she needs a break.

Katie's first day of fourth grade

At the advice of her therapist, we had Katie tested for giftedness. She exhibits many of the signs. She passed the test with a circus cannon shooting kaleidoscopic colored clowns into the air. She especially scored well in the areas of creativity and innovation. Which is the new buzzword in the education crowd. Her school this year was renamed Apache Innovative School after it had been known as Apache Elementary since before even I was born. The idea is that kids today don't need to learn how to sit still and obey and never think for themselves. We're not raising future factory workers. We're raising future innovators. Our schools need to reflect that change in our society.

Katie was accepted into the gifted program. She starts next week. I don't know if this change to an "innovative school" has made such a difference or if just knowing that new opportunities await her changed her mind, but when I asked how her first day of school was today, Katie said, "It was incredible."

I hadn't heard those words outta this kid's mouth in years. I'm certain there will be good days and bad days ahead. But what a wonderful way to start the new school year.

Katie's first day of fifth grade



Saturday, August 6, 2016

I Love Becky's Mom...No Seriously

My mom is in the hospital with an infection. She's the kind of person who doesn't like a fuss to be made over her. She's introverted and modest about her talents and traits. She's hilarious, often unintentionally so, and one of the smartest people I know. I'm not the only one who thinks so. Look at what one of our guests wrote on our bathroom wall:



Mom doesn't know it, though. I've spent my life trying to figure out how to convince her. I'm bossy and opinionated. But she doesn't listen to me. How did my mom, who is conflict avoidant, manage to give birth to the likes of me?

But she did and I'm grateful for it.

My latest creative obsession is Prisma. It's an app you can use to change your photos into various styles of art. One of the things I've learned from my mom is that when I'm fearful or nervous a good way to alleviate some of the anxiety is to create works of art. Since Mom has been growing frailer, my worry has grown. It makes me feel better to dabble in some creative expression. I chose an old faded photo of my mom and me when I was nearly three sitting together at the table, having a conversation after lunch. Because the photo is faded it evokes memories of the many lunches and tea parties Mom and I had when I was a kid. This faded photo is a glorious metaphor for my faded, fuzzy, lovely memories. Memories of my mom and me hanging out together as a kid. I love this photo, so I turned it into art.











You don't have to have a Prisma app or old photographs to turn something into art. All you have to do is appreciate something, to value it, to love it, to hold it inside you and want it to last. I'd argue that Mom's best work of art has been my brothers and sisters and I.

Go, tell my mom how much you appreciate her. Wish her well. Send her healing vibes. Even prayers, if you're into that whole thing. She is. She'd appreciate knowing how much she's appreciated in this world.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Feeling the Bern (of fossil fuel)


I was in my car on my way home from work when I heard the roll call on NPR. I got home before they were finished, so I sat in my car burning fossil fuel to hear the person I caucused for, because he's greener and more of a pacifist, nominate the person I didn't want to win because she's more moderate and war hawkish. I actually got tears in my eyes at the generosity of Bernie's words. And he's inspired me to get over my damn self and realize that a vote for Hillary Clinton is NOTHING like a vote for ‪#‎Drumpf‬ and that the decision I've made to vote for her in November is a good one.

My former self, the 21 year-old Greenpeace activist, tsk tsk'ed the more moderate, middle-aged pragmatist I've become. But hey, that's life. It's crazy and irritating and ridiculous, but I love our democracy.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

So it goes

Warning: I'm a little cranky today, Friends. Today would have been my brother Pat's 55th birthday if he hadn't drank himself to death when he was 49. Life is hard and then we die. Love is all we've got, Babies, to paraphrase the amazing Kurt Vonnegut. He's dead now, too.

Hug your loved ones tightly and appreciate every minute you've got with them.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin: a review

Black Like MeBlack Like Me by John Howard Griffin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the first book I read about racism and it forever changed me. I was in ninth grade at Milburn Junior High. It was 1986. Thirty years ago. And yet I remember it vividly, and with awe.

In the 1950's, a white southern man--the author, John Howard Griffin--takes medication to darken his skin and goes undercover as a black man in the Deep South. This book is his chronicle of that journey. Highly recommended for anyone ready to open their eyes to the reality of racism.

View all my reviews

Five stars. If I could give it more stars, I would.

My English teacher had assigned the class to pick a book from a list of titles about our country's history. We read it and gave her an individual oral report. I was just glad we didn't have to stand up in front of the whole class and talk about it, since I was a shy awkward fifteen year old. All those eyes upon me. Staring at my big boobs. Or my acne. Or my thunder thighs. I preferred writing book reports, but if we had to do an oral report, at least it was just in front of the teacher and no one else. She was nice. One of the few people I liked seeing each day at that miserable school.

"You're the only student who picked this book, Becky," she said.

I remember this distinctly because it made me feel special. At the same time that I hated for people to look at me, I also hated to be ignored. I was just one more middle-class white girl among hundreds of other middle-class white kids at my school. It was the suburbs in the eighties. Homogeneity was in vogue. I was used to sitting in a room full of my classmates, being talked at and not talked to, by our teachers. I wasn't used to this one-on-one, individual attention.

In fact now that I think about it, how could my teacher have found the time to have each of us give her an individualized oral report? Maybe it was after school, and it was some makeup exam or something. I did miss a lot of school. I was one of those kids who always missed the maximum amount of school allowed before getting kicked out or having to go to summer school. I was always making up exams. And considering that I was slacksadaisical about turning in my day-to-day homework, I was lucky that I tended to score so well on my exams, somehow maintaining an A/B average despite my poor study skills and attendance.

Probably, now that I think about it, I was giving my English teacher a one-on-one oral report as a make up exam from a day when I stayed home on the couch watching Andy Griffith Show reruns because I had a panic attack thinking about giving an oral report in front of my whole class.

I remember the look on my English teacher's face as I talked about the book. I'd never seen that expression before. Like she was looking at someone she'd never seen before. My mom once told me that when I was in kindergarten, she had to come pick me up because I'd thrown up. During the drive home, she later told me, I talked non-stop.

"I'd never heard you talk so much. I always thought you were a shy kid, but it was then that I realized you just never got a chance to talk much at home with all your talkative brothers and sisters around."

That was when I was really young. By the time I was in ninth grade at Milburn Junior High, standing in front of my English teacher, telling her how much I loved reading this book, I was the only child left at home. My siblings are much older than me, so they'd all moved out. It was just me and Mom and Dad and their miserable marriage left in our family. I spent a lot of time in my bedroom laying on my back, singing along with Morrissey and Michael Stipe. I read lots of books. My family, although miserable, was full of bookworms. We visited the public library every other week. My parents checked out about two sacks of library books each time. They were voracious readers, and so was I. It's the thing I'm most proud of both of my parents: they taught me that no matter how hard the struggle of life is, reading makes it better.

As I told my ninth grade English teacher about how much I liked this book, she smiled and started rifling through the papers on her desk. When I finally finished talking, she gave me a list of other authors I might like. Alice Walker was on it. She's the author of The Color Purple, which soon became one of my favorite books, which it is still today.

I guess my point is that reading changes lives. Life is hard. It's a struggle for everyone. I had my share of ups and downs as a teenager, and reading got me through it. Now I'm a middle-age librarian. And the world is still full of suck. And books still lessen the suck.

My fellow librarians are helping to alleviate world suck in amazing ways. For example, this librarian has created a list of #BlackLivesMatter books recommended for teens to help them understand what's going on in a world where daily we're bombarded with news of mass shootings and police brutality and cop killings.

I've written some reviews of books I think will help teens feel better about our chaotic world, especially All American Boys and We Troubled The Waters. But I realized I hadn't ever shared a review of my first "anti-racism" book, Black Like Me. So here it is. I'm forever grateful to my ninth grade English teacher for introducing me to it and for giving me wider eyes.