Black History Month Reading

Surfing the news channels, I stopped by CNN and Anderson Cooper 360°. Trump’s gang had just published a list of terror strikes that were supposedly un or under reported, and Cooper and his pundits were asking themselves why and how this administration gets away with its shenanigans.

At the same time, I was browsing an old favorite, Invisible Man. Ralph Ellison’s narrator reports his grandfather’s final words. Calling himself a traitor, the old man tells his son to “overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction, let ‘em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.”

I glanced back to Cooper 360°, where I couldn’t ignore the parallels between the book’s themes and our current political quagmire.

Except for the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary (two (female) republicans stepped across the line), the Republican controlled congress has voted unanimously for Trump’s cabinet. Will our elected leaders “yes” our megalomaniac president to “death and destruction”? If so, how bad will it spill onto the rest of us?

I was disgusted and embarrassed for all of us as I read the stinging description of the Battle Royal. But the final four paragraphs of the chapter–the narrator recounting his dream about being at the circus with his grandfather–punched me in the gut. He opens a series of envelopes, the last one containing this message: “To Whom It May Concern,…Keep This Nigger-Boy Running.”

When Trump Tweets, he’s keeping us running. When he nominates people who are hostile to the institutions they will be leading, he’s keeping us running. When he presents “alternative facts,” he’s keeping us running. When he issues travel bans to immigrants, we’re running. Most importantly, when he colludes with foreign governments, he’s keeping us running.

Invisible Man was first published in 1952. We’re still running.

If you haven’t read or reread this amazing book, you won’t be disappointed. Pick it up to pay tribute to our history during Black History Month. Reading it feels like resistance.


America: The Third World

In 1993, when I came back from Africa, I went to the Mission Mall to get a haircut. I was early, so I headed to the ladies room to tinkle. In the stall, I discovered I was stuck on an island: no toilet paper. The dearth of toilet paper struck me as particularly funny, considering Africans referred to it as the American’s prayer flag.

But as I continue to notice the signs I have become alarmed to discover the United States devolving into a third world country.

Most frightening, as I was searching around the web last night, I looked up in time to see Elizabeth Warren being shut down and shut up by Mitch McConnell (and the other henchmen of the so-called President of these United States) as she tried to read Coretta Scott King’s 1986 letter in response to Jeff Sessions.

I was struck, again, by the parallels between this America and the Africa I’d loved and left in the early nineties. At that time, African women did not frequent bars, as patrons or as waiters. They didn’t routinely work outside the home except as domestics. There was only one other female University professor at the two branches of the National University of Rwanda. If they were married, women couldn’t open and use a bank account unless given permission by their husbands. Birth control pills were not available, nor were abortions, and, of course, if you could believe it, rape didn’t exist!

I should not be surprised that men are still trying to render us silent. After all, we elected a man who brags about “grabbing [women] by the pussy.” And so, I would like to say to men who try to silence women: if you are ever able to grow a pair of balls, I will happily grab them for you and squeeze…hard.









Middle Child

I’m the third in a crowd of five siblings. Not only am I the middle child, but I’m also the middle daughter. Double whammy.

This situation provides a lot of ammunition for the older, bossier extroverts and for the spoiled babies who came later. Imagine my four grown (old) siblings, thumbs in ears, wagging their fingers and sticking out their tongues: Nanny Nanny Do Do. Mom likes us better.

Even the experts have a name for it: middle child syndrome. We suffer low-self esteem and a pervading sense of emptiness. Coupled with the pummeling we take from our more favored siblings, it’s no wonder we’re depressed. Boohoo.

When I am feeling particularly scarred, I think back to the good times:

I am four. I am with my paternal grandfather, Popo. Mornings in his sunny kitchen, we drink coffee, mine laced with milk; he adorns me with plastic jewelry he buys off the revolving stand in Chas Ball’s grocery store; we play cards. He laughs hard, his body shaking, when we watch Archie Bunker together on the couch.

One afternoon when it’s still appropriate to take your children to the neighborhood joint, I clutch Popo’s hand and toddle into that bastion of Croation immigrants on Central Avenue, Frank’s Bar. He props me on a stool at a pinball machine, a root beer in a tiny mug within reach. I feed quarters to the game and operate one flipper while my brother runs the other. I feel like a big girl; I feel special.

Later, when I am a big girl, I ride shotgun with Dad in his 1969 Chevy convertible. The white leather sticks to my thighs and the wind flips hair into my mouth and eyes. With his first two fingers, Dad spins the steering wheel into a turn; his other hand cradles a Budweiser can against his leg. He smiles and winks. I feel happy.

Then my Popo dies. If I don’t see him there, in his casket, it may not be true. My elder sister pushes me into the receiving room at the funeral home; I feel alone and empty.

At the reception after the funeral, Dad drinks vodka. When it’s time to go home, Mom whispers, “Go with your dad.” Good idea. Send the disposable one home with the drunken father.

He drives and we weep. When we pass the funeral home, he pulls to the curb and cries, his body shaking. “Lockanoch, Popo–Goodnight” he says driving into the night.

Flash forward. It’s Dad’s birthday, but we talk about me. We talk about the house I am buying, about finances and the repairs I will make. I prattle on about paint colors and tile. He sounds good. His voice is strong. He is cheerful. We are happy.

Three days later, he’s dead.

Only now do I realize: My mother sent me with our despondent and drunken father that day because I am the middle child—the one whose personality would best match his and console him. I am that favored child.

As time dissolves to memory, this is my wish for you: May your children be festooned in plastic jewels; may you ride shotgun in a convertible on a sunny day. May someone care enough to twist you gently into a half nelson to whisper in your ear without malice, “Mom (Dad) likes you best.” May you always feel like that favorite child.

Most of all, I pray you often hear the last words my father said to me that idyllic spring afternoon as we ended our call:

“I love you, Pumpkin.”







Tourist in My Town

One misty morning my darling, Stanley and I vow to become tourists in our own town. So after breakfast, we leave Strawberry Hill, pass beneath the shadow of the Environmental Protection Agency building, wind through Fairfax and turn into a parking lot that leads to Kaw Point.

Despite the rain, we get out and meet the musty scent of the mingling rivers. Stanley tries the doors of the public buildings. All, including the facilities, are locked. The educational pavilion, a semicircular tableau describing indigenous Indian tribes and Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, perches above the confluence.

In 1804 when they camped here for four days, William Clark noted the personality of the river: “The party is much afflicted with Boils and Several have the Dicissentary, which I contribute to the water, which is muddy.”

Beyond a tiny forest and an amphitheater of limestone boulders, the angry swelling and rushing of brown water torments the banks on both sides of the river.

I stand near the metal cut out of Lewis and Clark, who point vaguely north, and my thoughts naturally turn to poop. It’s a serious subject, and if you are reading this on the throne, you know what I’m talking about.

In August, 2011, The Star reported (“It’s Just One Big Sewer”) nearly 2.5 billion gallons of excrement spill into the Kaw, and thus the Missouri river, about 36 times each year.

In 1804 the waters of the confluence were suspect. Now, Kansas City’s worn and outdated sewers are limited by our common necessity and by our pedestrian imaginations. If we wait until 2035 to begin fixing our combined system of storm drainage and sewers–as the EPA timeline suggests–we are slowly poisoning ourselves.

So when you feel the urge to go, I urge you to pay attention to November 19th,, World Toilet Day. (True story.) As you press your thighs against the cool porcelain of your toilet, give a thought to the 2.6 billion people in the world who still do not have access to a restroom.

Take a look at Rose George’s watershed book The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters. George reminds us of the Clean Water Act in 1972 and writes, “The construction and renovation frenzy that ensued was the largest public works project in the country to date.” While many object to more government spending, fixing our outdated sewers could be a way out of our crappy economy and a way out of our crappier habit of dumping our waste into our rivers.

Historians speculate that Lewis perceived the expedition a failure perhaps because he had read an article on steamships in an 1808 edition of the Missouri Gazette. On October 11th of 1809, destitute and deranged, Meriwether Lewis shot himself, the bullet grazing his head. When he didn’t die, he shot himself again through the chest. Still, he lived. When his servants arrived from the barn where they had been sleeping, they found him industriously cutting himself with his razor in hopes of finishing the job. “I am no coward,” he said, “but I am so strong [it is] so hard to die.”

Perhaps, all those many years ago, Meriwether Lewis, in one visionary moment, stared over Kaw Point and saw this future. And this mess inspired him into a profound depression. His prolonged and gory suicide seems an apt metaphor for what we are doing now.

As I ponder the dung colored water rushing eastward, Stanley jumps from foot to foot. His breakfast of eggs over easy has turned on him. We must go.



R U Old Enuf?

For the young, the virtual exchange of sweet nothings is normal. My students at Metropolitan Community College–Penn Valley routinely conduct love affairs by texting from under their desks during class, as they walk along the hallway to the computer lab, during recitals with the Jazz Combo in the Little Theater and as they wander through the Carter Art Center contemplating paintings. Their fingers race along the keyboard with a gracefulness they don’t often display when they sit down to write a paper.

But why should the new technologies be the domain of the young? In fact, texting–like lovemaking–should be reserved for those members of the population mature enough to handle the responsibility without abusing it or those around them.

My friend Pops, for example, has a new girlfriend who actively campaigns for communication by text. He smiles privately when his phone jingles with the news that he has a fresh message. Painstakingly, with fat sausage fingers, he types out a response to his tiny love letter. Not having mastered the art of thumb typing, he curses when he hits the wrong button and sends the missive out half-done. He strokes his white beard and sips from his martini glass as he considers how to phrase the most passionate message in one sentence. He has not yet discovered the shorthand that makes it okay to spell “you” with only one letter.

This riles my own 61-year-old sweetheart, Stanley, because not two weeks before Pops had been haranguing the folks who are unable or unwilling to hold a thoughtfully developed conversation, depending instead on texting.

Despite his slow progress, Pops tries to convince Stanley that he too should take up this new hobby. Stan whips out his phone, flips it open and shows Pops the list of messages from his daughter. He is bluffing though. Whenever his daughter texts him, he simply calls her back. She sends pictures of the new baby and the old dog to my phone. Stan’s jealous about this breach in text etiquette and wonders out loud why he never gets pictures.

On the other hand, my brother-in-law, John’s thumbs dance across the miniscule keyboard as he sets up a date for a poker game or sends a picture of the ducks he bagged on opening day.

To be fair, my bro is retired, so he has lots of time to practice his skill. While he is a texting virtuoso, he does have to slap on his readers so he can actually see his messages. He pops an aspirin daily to decrease the pain of his arthritic thumbs. He carries his phone with him from room to room, asking absently of no one, “Why did I come in here?” until a message chimes through like a memory.

Which reminds me. Soon mental and physical dexterity will no longer be a disadvantage to us baby boomers. Google and their super fast technology arrive in 2012! Then our access to communication and information will be limited only by the imaginations of our entrepreneurs. Then students in my town of KCK and on my campus on the other side of the river (!) will be able to access, process and understand what the more seasoned among us already know: it is possible to teach old guys new tricks; youth (and technology) are wasted on the young; love can conquer all–as long as you have unlimited texting.


A Harmony of Intertwined Live

After twenty years of study and travel I came home. Nine months later, I am reborn. I stumble over the threshold and peer down the length of the birth canal—uh, I mean the bar. Jackie, owner and nursemaid, welcomes me with a cold one.

Before I had looked down on my Wyandotte County neighborhood; it’s old and broken like one of the prostitutes who wander the Avenue. It’s littered and condemned. Worse—it’s dangerous. Drug dealers and gangs cruise the narrow streets packing. In fact, I was afraid of this place my ancestors settled.

But in the neighborhood joint on the corner—Dotlanders—I found a harmony of intertwined lives. Here the people seem to have overcome the common prejudices of color, class, gender and age.

Young tattooed Hispanics compete with old white guys to answer Jeopardy questions. “Get a job,” Rob advises when a suit beats him. “Pull up your pants,” replies his nemesis. They knuckle bump.

OJ, a black man and former college linebacker, buys a round for a table of red necks. Though that forbidden word is sometimes uttered here, OJ’s friend, Donny, a giant German immigrant insists: “I’m not a racist. It’s a stereotype.” OJ nods; he knows this truth.

Fourth generation Croatians—those “dumb hunkies” who settled Strawberry Hill–drink with Serbians fresh from the old country. A member of one of the oldest families on the Hill, Leo Chop pats my back like he’s burping me, telling me about Fridays at The Old Mufaleenie’s when my dad pulled up to the bar in his new car, suits fresh from the laundry hanging in the back. “You come from good stock, Kid,” he tells me again and again in the forgetfulness of “a wing and a fast back” (a shot and a chaser).“Let’s dance with the devil,” he says to the Serb, and they throw back a shot.

The lesbians at the third table share a moist kiss over their draw beer. “Get a room,” says the bartender; she’s single and jealous.

Knute Knuteson ambles in on his 86-year-old bowlegs. A composition of old school and contemporary, he won’t wear his hat inside, yet his ears are pierced with diamond studs.

Before, he built bridges “over town.” Since he couldn’t wear his wedding ring, he remade the stones into earrings. Deep creases in his earlobes testify; he has never removed them. On Sundays he visits her grave. Afterward, he sips draws and shots of Cutty, propping his wallet open, so he can see his beloved of 54 years. He kisses the picture. “Hi, Mama,” he says. He tries to tell me he’s been to visit, but his throat thickens and tears struggle down his cheeks and mine.

On a poster in the bathroom, Marilyn Monroe’s skirt forever flaps. Beneath her stilettos, a quote from my favorite poet, John Keats, reads:

A thing of beauty is a joy forever:

Its loveliness increases; it will never

Pass into nothingness…

When my five siblings and I argued as children, our mother said to the air, “Why can’t we all get along?” The answer—this thing of beauty—must be that we can.

We are born; we live in a blink of the eye and we die. Only through the personal relationships that define our lives can we overcome division and hatred, so we must seek out those who are foreign and nurture those friendships like our children. When we all are responsible humanitarians, the loveliness increases.





Hello World. Welcome.

I can no longer contain myself in myself. So I have decided to store my extra thoughts here on this blog. Even though I said I would do this as part of this semester’s sabbatical agreement, so I have to do it, I also want to. I will do my best to make you want to join me here. Thanks.