Inheritance

Once, while she was sitting in a chair in my living room, I reached out and touched a Black woman’s hair. At that moment and without thinking about it in any way, my hand was drawn to her hair, its airiness and resilience. I patted her hair a few times before what I was doing struck me and I pulled my hand back. She never turned her head to look at me but I felt her stiffen her shoulders. She would never scold me, though. My young friend looked up to me, respected me as an elder, and touching her hair could be interpreted as my trying to comfort her. She was, after all, going through a difficult situation.

I should have said, “I’m sorry I just touched your hair like that.” But I didn’t, hoping, I guess, that the moment would evaporate and she wouldn’t attach a bad meaning to my presumption that her hair was there for me to touch. But I knew that I’d overstepped. Obviously, because I remember it still five years later. I also know that if I apologized to her right now, she would wave it off even if it had really upset her, because she is accustomed to not making issues out of the missteps of White people. There isn’t enough time in the day, she would say.

I waver between wanting to believe I’m not racist because a Black friend once told me I was post-racial and knowing that the history of racism and slavery is as much part of my DNA as any White southerner. It is harder to deny my own racism when I have reflexes like touching my young Black friend’s hair. Because, you see, it’s reflexes where your DNA really steps up and tells you what’s what.

My ancestors came from England and settled in New York. They were early adopters, if you will, ahead of the immigration curve. Before America was a thing, my folks were here. The year they settled in New York has a 16 in it, if that tells you anything. Slavery was legal in New York until 1827, two hundred years later. That’s a lot of DNA to pile up, a lot of reflex to reproduce and settle in to a whole line of people. Maybe they owned slaves, maybe not. But my ancestors certainly lived in a slave-holding society for a long time.

So assuming I really am post-racial as I like to think I am, I know that, at best, my post-racialism is an intellectual response to my environment. It means that when I have time to think, assess, evaluate, I generally have reactions that are not racist. It means that I support policies that are anti-racist and associate with people who are like-minded, who are also not racist. But I’m not so sure my nerve endings, the unruly ganglia of reflex, have caught up to this post-racially evolved state. They may still be getting some of their signals from men wearing knee pants and carrying muskets.

My situation isn’t unusual, it’s just unspoken. White folks don’t go around talking about how they stupidly touched a Black woman’s hair. They don’t mention the imperceptible second look at the Black teen walking toward them or the tiny second’s worth of hesitation in sharing an elevator with a Black man. Those are secrets we upstanding citizens with enormously deep roots in America keep to ourselves, mostly because we don’t want to call it what it is. It’s racism.

It’s going to be a long struggle to end racism when it’s baked into genes we haven’t even discovered yet. We’ll get there, I believe that, but meanwhile, I’m keeping my hands to myself.

Yet Another Lesson

Our eight year old dog, Swirl, still has his balls.

He is called an intact male which seems odd to me because isn’t a male not neutered just a male? We’re not sure why he’s still intact but surmise it had to do with him being a sled dog – that being intact helped his running, kept him slim, or kept open the possibility that he could father baby sled dogs. Nobody said. We don’t ask the kennel because, after a thousand questions about Swirl’s siblings and races, we would be pushing our luck to ask why this particular dog, one out of two hundred, is intact and not neutered.

Anyway, after we got him in April, we took him to our vet. She said we should think about neutering him because it would reduce the risk of cancer in his balls. She didn’t say “in his balls.”

We debated this for a while. Should we let him be which was pretty much my preference or should we have him neutered which, oddly, was my husband’s preference, giving me the first real indication that he might be even more attached to the dog than me, or, rather, than I am attached to the dog, if you see the difference. Neither of us is prepared for the notion that we may outlive this dog. That’s deep.

So we decided to go ahead with the neutering. Today we took him to the vet for blood work. “He is the perfect dog!” the tech said when she brought him back to us. “So calm. He did everything I asked.” She went on to marvel at his looks, his personality, how friendly and sweet he was.

And then my husband said this and it has stuck in my mind all afternoon, how careful and perceptive a statement it was, how much it revealed about his love for this dog, after just a few months.

“One reason why he is so sweet and calm is that no one has ever hurt him.”

And he talked about his worry that the surgery and the ensuing pain might make our dog feel that he had been hurt and change him in some fundamental way. It hadn’t occurred to me until he said it, how profound gentleness had been in this dog’s upbringing. How profound it is in every creature’s life. And how rare it is at the same time.

We are so accustomed to harshness. So accepting of it. The harsh commands, the pulls on the leash, the shouts of disapproval. When we went to the sled dog kennel to bring Swirl home, the owner said this to us, “Just say ‘No Swirl’ if he does something bad, anything more than that will break his heart.”

I think now of my commands and orders and insistence with dogs and, if truth be told, with children. My extraordinary impatience, my need to control, my unintentional ability to make either or both flinch with my sudden moves, though I never did anything horrible to anyone. Sometimes I acted like I could not be trusted. I see that now. Because of this dog. He has been such a gift to this old woman.

Photo by Nguyen Linh on Unsplash

Smoke Sense

The tide is turning. Who would’ve thought that Walmart and Kroger would be leading the way? In case you missed it, both issued statements today that they would no longer permit open carry of guns in their stores. Walmart went further to say it would stop selling certain kinds of ammunition. Could it be a lot more? Yes. But this is a big deal. This is one big crack in what has been a solid steel door of resistance to any kind of voluntary gun sense actions.

Something has snapped. Maybe it’s the relentless lobbying by Moms Demand Action and other groups. Maybe it’s corporate leaders reading the national polls. Maybe it’s realizing that an unrestrained gun culture resulted in a baby being shot in the face. Maybe it’s all of these things and more, but be clear, the culture is changing on guns. It could take years but it’s starting and the trajectory is predictable. Look at smoking culture in the U.S. Years ago, nearly everyone smoked. It was unusual for someone not to smoke. Moms smoked through their pregnancies and never thought a thing of it. Doctors smoked! Smoking was ubiquitous, sort of like guns are right now. Everywhere.

Forty years ago, I smoked at work, in bars, restaurants, stores, airplanes. I smoked on airplanes – legally – and I loved it. It was luscious, sitting in the dark of a plane at night with the red ash of my cigarette the only light. Luscious, I tell you, and so elegant. But then that pesky issue of my smoke giving other people lung cancer kept being brought up. Oh, no! Secondhand smoke! And gradually, the No Smoking signs appeared. Pretty soon, there was nowhere to smoke except outside in the cold next to the dumpster. Not lucious.

Now smoking is a furtive thing. Long gone are cut glass ashtrays and gold cigarette lighters. Smoking is a parking lot deal now. We have – over the course of forty years – completely marginalized smokers, interestingly, without making smoking or cigarettes illegal but rather by intensely regulating where people can smoke, which right now is practically nowhere that other people might be breathing.

Legal changes are essential to getting on top of our insane gun problem. Closing the loopholes for background checks, instituting red flag laws to take guns away from people who clearly intend to hurt themselves or other people, and absolutely getting rid of assault rifles and any adaptations that allow mowing down many people within seconds. But at the same time, we need to support the culture shift. We need to ostracize people carrying guns the same way we’ve managed to ostracize smokers. That’s what Walmart and Kroger started today — they said it’s not okay to have people carrying guns in their stores. It used to be okay but it isn’t anymore. That’s powerful. My hat’s off to them.

36 Years Later

I haven’t written about it for a long time.

When I wrote about it, it was still oddly fresh, even though it had happened so many years before. That’s what the first telling is always like. After the first time I wrote about my illegal abortion, I walked down the street to Lake Michigan feeling like layers of old wet wool sweaters were being stripped from my shoulders. I marveled at this. Had I been walking around for decades with all those thick, scratchy sweaters buttoned up to my neck? It had been so long, I scarcely noticed how damp and heavy and burdened I had become by what had happened when I was just a young woman.

The first telling of my experience with domestic violence had a similar effect. I had never put what had happened to me into words on a page. When I did, I made it a quick story, almost like a graphic novel without the pictures. Shorthand. Because, you know, it wasn’t all that serious what happened. Although it could have been.

Basically, for several years I had a boyfriend who had periods of psychotic depression. These episodes had occurred long before we met although I didn’t know that until a former girlfriend called me one night to fill me in. She told me that when he had these breaks, he became very threatening to himself and to others. There was a long history, she said, “you don’t know what he’s really like.” With me, his threatening behavior was rare and indirect but terrifying. I managed these episodes in strangely calm ways that even now make me feel I could talk someone down from committing mayhem. Maybe not. But let’s say I have experience.

There were several years of his threatening, dangerous behavior interspersed with the kind of companionship and regard that keep people attached to one another. I thought I could help him get his illness under control and then he could be his easy-going, funny self all the time. I tolerated his breaks as a mental health issue, deciding that because he hadn’t put his hands on me, the situation was still manageable. Until it wasn’t. And that’s a whole story by itself. The gist of which is this.

He didn’t have a gun.

Everytown for Gun Safety posted this yesterday on Facebook: “In states that require background checks for all handgun sales, 47 percent fewer women are shot to death by their intimate partners.”

It stopped me in my tracks.

It would have been so easy for him to shoot me, to keep me from screaming for help, running away, getting into my car and speeding away on the night that he finally did put his hands around my neck. Because, you see, in his frame of mind, he wouldn’t have cared about killing me, he just wanted to keep me from leaving. He wouldn’t have cared about being arrested or going to jail, he couldn’t think about that. There was no space in his head for those things. He just didn’t want me to leave and shooting me would have made sure of that.

But he didn’t shoot me because he didn’t have a gun.

He did, however, shoot himself many years later. I went to his funeral and talked to his sisters. They were angry at him for having ended his life. I wasn’t. I was surprised he’d lived as long as he had, the suffering I’d witnessed having been so acute. And I was grateful, deeply grateful, that I had decided to leave him, to give up on him, before he got a gun. It sounds heartless but it’s true.

Eagle Scout

I just bought a copy of the Mueller Report.

When I was 16, I bought a copy of the Warren Report. And I read it which is even weirder.

And, at the time, because the Warren Commission was headed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, I figured what was in the report was the absolute truth and that conspiracy theorists were crackpots. I still mostly think that but it’s harder since it has been revealed to me that truth is like jelly, deceptively solid, fluid with the merest heat.

I ordered the Mueller Report after I saw on the news that a particularly vociferous defender of the president, some Republican member of Congress whose name I don’t recall or refuse to commit to memory, admitted he’d not read the report because, well, why would he have to since the president already told him what was in it and I was reminded of people who run around quoting the Bible because of verses they’ve read on restaurant placemats. It’s hard reading the real stuff. Real hard.

So to make myself feel extra righteous about this purchase, I’m going to quote President John Kennedy’s famous statement about going to the moon.

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Now we are entering the realm of the sanctimonious. I understand that. And I would apologize for this, for “making a show of being morally superior to other people” as the helpful Google dictionary puts it, except I think reading the Mueller Report is the morally superior thing to do and that’s why I’m going to do it despite the fact that it will probably take me well into the next decade to finish it, my attention span and preoccupation with social media being what it is.

I was a student once, though, a serious one. So my plan is to approach this task like homework. Now, leafing through this 448 page masterpiece, it seems that the reading might go faster than I thought.

The Trump years have worn me down. I find myself shrugging off things that would have made me careen into a light pole three years ago. Worse, the people around me are shrugging. We’re all shrugging. And many of us, tired of the discipline required for effective moral outrage, are skipping out on the hard work of resistance. It really is such a bitch to deal with national politics. Easier to be a thorn in the side of local elected officials. It’s way more fun and offers the prospect of immediate results.

I think the opposition, and yes, the Republicans are opponents, never mind the nostalgia of Joe Biden in his claim that the GOP would return to sanity once Trump is out of the picture, anyway, the opposition is assuming that we over here in the resistance are so gosh darn tuckered out with all our marching and yelling and sign-making that we’re just going to wander off and watch Seinfeld reruns and remember old times when we thought things made sense.

Nope. Not me. I’m working on getting my citizenship badge at this year’s jamboree. One page at a time.

More Later

Tonight, in one sitting and with the comfort of two rum and cokes, I watched When They See Us on Netflix.

I’d been dreading it but knew I had to watch it. It seemed to me to be a moral responsibility, to not just read about the exoneration of the “Central Park Five” in the newspaper but to sit there and have what I knew would be layers of injustice pile up before my eyes.

I wasn’t astonished by it. I think there are many people in prison who were wrongly convicted largely because of racial bias in the legal system. I don’t think that’s rare; this case was rare, though, for the fear it struck among women everywhere. Wilding. That was the term that was used. The “Central Park Five” – all young teenage boys – were accused of wilding. It was terrifying. They were just boys but they were black boys and so people accepted the wilding label as if it made all the sense in the world. Of course, that’s what black boys do. They go wilding. I remember at the time, we bought that. Everybody bought that. Why.

The film connects us to the five boys in deep, personal ways. We get to know them as regular teenagers, then terrified boys, and then incarcerated people and never once are the characters overdrawn and nothing seems to have been exaggerated for effect. The truth was bad enough without embellishment. And their mothers. We get to know their steadfast, flawed, heartbroken mothers. And their fathers, who sometimes had to disappear to cope with their own grief and helplessness. They were loved boys and the love lasted.

What is missing from the film and reality as well, I suppose, is retribution. Once the actual rapist confesses and all five are exonerated, there are brief scenes where the prosecutor confronts the cop who extracted their confessions and the district attorney who, essentially, constructed a scenario whereby the boys were guilty while ignoring vast evidence to the contrary. I wanted to see her ruined, humiliated, anguished, and repentant. But she wasn’t. Maybe that will come in a sequel.

The racism in the film is profound and will stun a lot of people. But I was not stunned. I was ashamed, though.

It Only Took One Question to Make Me Go Sit Down

“Who would vote for you?”

I’d scheduled a lunch meeting with my longtime mentor, a former priest who was an administrator at the local anti-poverty agency where I was working, to tell him I was thinking of running for Alderman.

And that was the first thing out of his mouth. “Who would vote for you?” It didn’t seem to be a question intended for analysis, like ‘let’s sort through how you would appeal to various voting blocs.‘ It was a reflex statement that read to me like ‘really? you think you should run for Alderman?’ And in that moment, I knew I’d overstepped. It wasn’t my place.

That was twenty-five years ago but I can still remember driving away feeling completely foolish. Who was I to think I could organize and run a campaign, raise money, go door to door, convince people to vote for me?

A friend put me in contact with a leader of an ad agency known as a political kingmaker. I was surprised when he agreed to meet me at a local Mexican hangout. We ate enchiladas on paper plates and he grilled me. “Are you active in the Democratic Party? Do you belong to a church? A synagogue? Do you belong to any groups? Any large groups of people who would support you?”

The answer to all of his questions was no. I didn’t have a base or a group or anything. I just had myself and my family. I also had a lot of experience and knew a lot of people. I had a good reputation and was willing to work hard. It seemed to me that the people who were already Aldermen didn’t have much more than that going for them.

He looked at me and shrugged, “Who would vote for you?” From the campaign kingmaker’s lips to my ears, ‘you wouldn’t have a prayer.’ And right there, in that moment, I gave up on the idea and almost became embarrassed for ever having had it in the first place.

The guy who was eventually elected was younger than me with less experience, a staff person in a neighborhood organization. A good looking guy, suave and lovable, but I don’t know which church he belonged to or who was his base. Apparently he had one, though, or people thought he did. So he won.

Looking back, I know it was my fault for being so easily discouraged. I let myself be marginalized and diminished, maybe because it was what I had come to expect being a woman in America, maybe because I thought it was what I deserved. But I accepted it, that’s the unpleasant truth. I didn’t question their judgement. “They said no one would vote for me,” I told my husband. He started to argue but gave up when he saw I agreed with them.

I don’t think I was unique or that I had some pathologically low self-image. I had plenty of ego even then. I thought I was smart and capable. I believed I was exceptional. Until two men told me I wasn’t. Who would vote for you?

So the women who ran for office twenty-five years ago, those women were lions. Because I’m betting they got the same reaction I did when they started out but they didn’t quit. They refused to believe that no one would vote for them. I wish I had been like them but I wasn’t.

And women who are interested in elective office now? They support each other. They train each other. They knock on doors and take over social media and they win. All over the place. Locally, at the state level, in Congress. It’s beautiful to see. Any one of the many women I know who are in office or are running would laugh in the face of any man who asked them “Who would vote for you?” and then they’d hand him an invite to a fundraiser and keep moving down the line.

It’s so grand. I’m glad I’ve lived long enough to see this.