German Biker Hospitality

We’re super jet lagged.  We don’t speak German. We don’t know what’s going on and it is huge!  Like Milwaukee’s Summeriest on acid—packed with people crammed into a dozen circus size beer tents with live bands.

In 1998, my husband Tom and I became empty nesters and we wanted to do something spectacular before one of them moved back. So we booked a trip to Europe. First stop: Octoberfest in Munich!

We make our way to the Spaten tent.  There’s a band blaring/screaming, “Alice, Alice, who the f… is Alice:”  Young women wearing dirndls are slinging giant glass mugs of beer around. We’re so overwhelmed we don’t know what to do. We finally realize that you can’t just walk up to a bar and get a beer. You actually have to be seated at a table because they don’t want patrons walking around with these giant glass liter mugs of beer. But all of the tables are reserved and the couple of tables that aren’t are packed with people.  

I don’t know what to do but Tom says, “Don’t worry.  I got this baby.”  Oh, okay.  He makes a bee line over to a table where there are a couple of seats open but it says reserved.  No, no, no I object..  “I got this,” he says.  

“Hi, we’re from Milwaukee,”  Tom says to the guy at the table who appears to be a biker.  Tom happens to be wearing a Harley anniversary t-shirt. We’ve never missed a Harley anniversary event.  But this is probably the part where I should tell you that while I come from a long line of motorcycle enthusiasts—a couple of cousins work at Harley, my dad has one, my brother has one, my son has one, my brother-in-law has one, and my uncle has one—Tom and I do not. 

Tom gestures toward the empty seats at the table and asks in English if we could sit down with them for just one beer and then we’ll leave.  The biker pulls out two chairs as an invitation.  We can’t really talk to them and but we do our best,  We introduce ourselves,  The guy who appears to be the boss tells us that his name is Mike.  He tells us that they are from Stuttgart.  His girlfriend tells me her name is Peggy.  At least that’s what I thought she said,  I say, “Peggy, like from Margaret?”  Mike snorts and says “No, Piggy.  Like schwine,”  More snorting and everyone laughs.

After we down a mug of beer, Mike and the gang decide that maybe we could stay longer since their other friends haven’t shown up.  We’re all singing loud and off key, “Ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit!” Half way into my second mug, I really need to pee. But the whole restroom situation in Germany is new to me. I discover that you have to pay to get in. You have to put a coin in a slot. Since we just got here, we don’t have any German money. We’ve been paying for beer with a credit card. I go back to the table and ask the women to help me out with this restroom thing. I squeeze my legs together and gesture to get my point across. They grab me up and sweep me into this women’s room where they are delighted to drop their pants to show me their tattoos.  Piggy has a bird of paradise all the way up her leg.  They want to see mine.  I don’t have any!  I’m afraid that not having any tattoos to show off will be a sure sign that Tom and I are faking the whole biker thing but they just think I’m shy.

We have a fun long afternoon/evening with Mike and Piggy and the rest of the crew.  As we’re getting ready to depart, my Tom says, “You should come to our house for Harley’s 100th anniversary.”  I smile but cringe inside.  We are so very grateful that they let us hang out with them but having them visit would most definitely expose us as posers. Tom writes our address on a piece of paper and hands it over to Mike.  

We miraculously find our hotel room in spite of the horrible condition we’re in when we leave Octoberfest. The rest of our trip was great.  

That was 1998.  2003 rolls around and we remember Mike and Piggy fondly but we’re also relieved that we haven’t heard from them.  We had moved in 2001.  A week before the Harley Anniversary, we receive a letter forwarded from our old house from Mike that was postmarked over a month before.  The letter began with “Excuse me, my English isn’t so good.”  He must have worked really hard to write this letter.  He reminded us of our invitation. But we are so embarrassed by our charade. It was too late anyway.  By the time Mike would have received our reply, the big Harley event would have been over. So the letter went in the fire place and we pretended we never got it.  Yet, Tom and I both regret not being able to return the favor of hospitality. 

We went to the Harley anniversary event wearing Harley t-shirts of course.  A friendly gnarly looking guy standing next to Tom in the crowd asked what kind of bike we owned.  Tom said, “Schwin!”  He shook his head in disgust and trudged off.  

Forgiveness

I had to go there anyway for a meeting. And I knew she was there. On the drive over, I thought about how ridiculous it was for me to still be angry about things that happened over 40 years ago.  That maybe now was the time to let it go. To forgive her, my ex mother in law, for not believing me, for not taking my side, for abandoning me. After all, I’ve learned a lot since then and gained an understanding of the pain she had faced, of the environment that shaped her, of loyalty to sons.  

I recognized her immediately sitting in a wheelchair alone in a hallway. The same frumpy hairdo and tent like dress. DiminishedOf course I had to tell her who I was for I had changed. My long gray locks and extra pounds camouflaging the young woman I had been. She said that she remembered that I had been married to her son briefly. She asked about my boys and grandsons. She told me how she had prayed to Jesus for one more year and that she worried about her son, my ex. And I understand her mother’s worry. She smiled and thanked me for coming to visit.  “Say hello to Elaine” she said.  

Eric

I was the best marketing director the Boys & Girls Clubs ever had.  I had bill boards all over town.  We had positive stories about the accomplishments of our kids and I’d gotten great media coverage when we opened a new branch.  I’d received multiple awards from the Boys & Girls Clubs of America for my work.  

In 1991, I got a call from one of the major networks.  Aha!  I thought.  That’s how good I am.  Now they’re calling me.  They told me that they were working on a documentary on education in America and wanted to talk to some teens about their experiences.  They specified that they didn’t want any of the honor roll type kids.  No youth of the year.  Just average kids.  They further specified that they wanted to do brief phone interviews with them without me in the room.

That should have been a red flag but I was so delirious with my own power that I agreed.  And no one at the Clubs questioned me.  They trusted me.

So, I lined up about six kids but the producers of the show told me that none of them were going to work out.  I told them that the only kid I had left who would be willing to talk with them was Eric, our youth of the year.   He was also president of his senior class at North Division High School.

Eric was a gregarious kid and a great spokesperson for the Clubs.  He loved the media attention and always showed up for an interview well dressed with a fresh fade hair cut. I could rely on him to testify to the importance of the role the Boys & Girls Clubs played in his central city neighborhood.   He became kind of our own local celebrity. 

I didn’t hear anything more about it until Eric called to confide in me that he had been asked to carry a hidden camera in his back pack at North Division High School.  Now I was worried.  This felt like trouble.  Trying to keep my panic at bay, I tried to caution him but he was excited to do it.  Eric insisted that he needed to do this because otherwise it would always just be his or any student’s word against a teacher’s word.  He wanted to make a difference.  He didn’t need anyone’s permission.  He was 18 years old.  

I called the producers.  Left a message.  Then called again every hour of the day. They clearly stopped talking to me.  

A few months later, the footage Eric collected was featured on Expose’.  It showed things like a teacher sitting at the front of the class while kids played dice in the back.  Not the kind of documentary I thought it would be.  And it wasn’t just Expose’.  The story was national news.  

The shit hit the fan.  The school superintendent was calling the head of the boys & girls club.  My colleagues at the branch where Eric was a member made sure that I knew about the pain and suffering this was causing his family. 

I almost lost my job.  To this day, I don’t understand why I didn’t.  I was responsible and I didn’t tell anyone what was happening.  My own arrogance at the time astounds me now.  

The producers said that they wanted to see what kids see.  I get that.  It’s valid.  We need to let the people who are impacted speak.  Tell their truth.  Powerful stories can lead to change.  But all that this story did was cost some teachers their jobs and make Eric and his family the target of the backlash in their own community.   His younger sister had to change schools.  She wasn’t safe at North Division High School. Eric moved out of state to go to college. The staff at the Club branch where Eric had been a member no longer welcomed me.  

The media didn’t care what happened to Eric after Expose.  He struggled for several years with mental health issues. On a visit home he sought me out.  He wanted to make sure that I knew he was okay.   It meant the world to me to know that in spite of the trauma, he had finished college and was successfully climbing the career ladder in the insurance industry.  He said that what happened wasn’t my fault and that he would do it again.  He wanted to make a difference.  And that he was still grateful to the Boys & Girls Clubs. 

A few years later, he was dead.  I was told that he was shot while protecting a woman from a man somewhere in Georgia.  There was no news coverage of the event in Milwaukee.  I learned about it from a colleague at the Clubs who had remained close to the family.  

When I tried to google him to create this story, wanting to make sure I had my facts right, the only thing I could find was the news reports about Expose, his life reduced to this one story.

This is the hardest story I’ve ever told. It’s a story about the harm caused in the wake of doing good.  I used Eric to proclaim the virtues of the Boys & Girls Clubs.  The media used him to tell the story they wanted to tell.  I question whether I honor him by telling his story or am I further exploiting him for my own benefit.  

I went on to have a long career in nonprofit organizations and storytelling.  I believe in giving a voice to the voiceless and that our stories of courage and resilience can inspire change and empathy.  But I’ve learned that my first loyalty must always be to the human being.  Not the story.  Not the organization. Not the media.  Not me.  

Utopia

In August of 1996 a group of friends invited me to attend the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival.  I’d heard them talk about it the year before and it sounded fabulous.  The idea of taking a 4 day break from the patriarchy was very appealing.  However, my husband, feeling a little insecure about me trapsing into the woods of Michigan with lesbian friends, asked for three promises—no nudity, no tattoos, and no sex with women.  “Why go?” I joked.  

It took me all but 30 minutes after setting up camp to relax into it.  It didn’t even seem weird to see a woman wearing a fancy garter belt contraption and stiletto heels high stepping through the woods.  Or to see a parade of semi clad red heads.  Or to see bare chested women with scars from mastectomies.   Everything was okay.  It was like girl scout camp only way better. 

The music was awesome.  I was introduced to bands like Dar Williams whose “When I Was a Boy” song brought me to tears; Tribe 8 who pretended to separate men from their penises with a chain saw;  and 7 Year  Bitch introduced me to the Riot Grrrl scene.   But my absolute favorite was the Murmurs, the lead singer tearing up as she sang about domestic violence in  “Sleepless Commotion.”  It was all so wild and yet gentle.  I saw a 70 year old woman float like an angel above the hands of the crowd in the mosh pit.  Her long gray hair draping down as she held her cane on her chest.  

And OMG the percussionist Ubaka Hill!  It felt like her drumming had summoned these tribes of women from around the world.  I danced with the masses like a cave woman wearing nothing but my blue skirt and body paint.  

There was respect for the land.  No beer cans and cigarette butts littering the woods.  There was cooperation.  Every attendee had to work at least three shifts.  You could be part of a stage crew, you could chop and stack fire wood, or work in the kitchen tent.  I chopped 250 pounds of cabbage and shucked corn into a kiddy pool with five women from around the world,.  

Everyone was cared for.  There was ASL at every stage.  There were quiet zones and rowdy zones. There were AA groups and NA groups.  For the first time in my life, I was in the minority as a heterosexual.  And there was a support group for that.  

For me, the festival was hyper stimulation paired with profound relaxation and spirituality.  But the overwhelming feeling was one of incredible safety.  It felt like a long luxurious exhale.  

I kept two of my promises to my husband.  I didn’t get a tattoo or have sex.  I attended the event for two more years.  

Wikipedia says that “Michfest” or some version of it spanned from 1976 to 2015—almost 40 years.  There were more than 5,000 women there each of the three years I attended on “the land” in Oceana County. There were years when 10,000 women attended.  There’s a lot of speculation about why it ended.  It might have had to do with the controversy of including trans women.  So even this utopia was flawed.  But maybe we can never achieve Utopia if we exclude anyone. Even people with penises.  Except people who are assholes.  Maybe exclude them.  

(I recently told this story at an Ex Fabula story slam. The theme was Utopia. I didn’t think I had a story and then I remembered my precious days at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. Ex Fabula is Milwaukee’s local story telling group.)

Update: And now you can hear my story as told on the Ex Fabula stage on Riverwest Radio. https://www.riverwestradio.com/episode/ex-fabula-0068-eutopia-stories-part-2/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michigan_Womyn%27s_Music_Festival

Not Lost

“Let’s review,” I’d say. And grandma would say, “My husband is still alive and we have three children.  You gave me the picture on the wall. It belongs to me and not anyone else.” Every visit with Grandma at her assisted living community concluded with my correcting her revised life story and calming her fear that someone was angry that she’d stolen that cheap print of a sunset.  She’d lower her gaze in shame. I would cry on my way out the door. She had been my pal as a child. We shared a love of books and she encouraged me to write. Later, through the trials and tribulations of my teens and young adulthood, I could always depend on her sympathetic ear.  And now I felt like I lost her.

But it wasn’t true.  Keys, hats, and umbrellas get lost.  You might get lost in the woods, in an unfamiliar city, or lost in thought.  You might lose your hearing, your patience, or your sense of humor. People with memory loss aren’t lost.  They are who they always were.

If only I knew then what I know now.  I’ve learned that it’s on the play field of imagination where we find our loved ones.  All of the parts re-emerge—the mischievous child, the caring grandparent, the fun-loving friend.  We only need to put aside our own inhibitions and join them.

As a TimeSlips facilitator, I look forward to jumping into that play field of imagination with reckless abandon  At an adult day center, we talked about the tooth fairy and how she comes to collect baby teeth from under a child’s pillow. “That’s not what happens,” said Alice. “When you lose a tooth, the tooth fairy comes to get it and brings it to someone who really needs it.”  

I feel like the fairy.  I get to bring something that many thought was lost to people who really need it.  My heart is full of joy.

But it’s harder with people we know.  There’s a shared past and an established pattern of communication.  Before Grandma’s dementia, our conversations were about family history, the progression of my career and the antics of my children.  

My husband’s friend, Carmen, has early onset Alzheimers. Tom has lunch with her most Tuesdays.  They’ve known each other since they were teens, so their conversation typically migrates to the exploits of their youth.  Carmen increasingly fakes it. She stares off into space and says, “Oh sure, I remember that.” And Tom feels embarrassed for her.  But the day Tom brought her home and they discovered a dead raccoon in her backyard, everything changed. They called him Clarence and talked about how he might have ended up there.  He had a wife and a dozen children. Clarence was out getting some time for himself when he came upon his arch nemesis, a wild coyote named Silver. Silver bit him in the neck and Clarence climbed the fence into Carmen’s yard to try to escape. “His wife is really going to miss him.  How on earth will she support all of those children without him?” They laughed and laughed and the light in Carmen’s eyes shone bright.

I wish I could do my time with Grandma over again.  I wish that I had been able to make the shift either grilling her about her health or reminiscing to imagination.  I wish that when she told me that she was a widow and had seven children, I would have asked her to tell me about her deceased husband and their lives together.  I should have conspired with her to remove that print on the wall that worried her so and restore it to it’s sacred place at the Guggenheim museum. We could have created a story that would have delighted us both and strengthened our bond.  We would have been pals again.

(You can learn more about TimeSlips and making meaningful connections through imagination at timeslips.org)

 

 

 

What Could Go Wrong?

It was Labor Day weekend, the last weekend in a summer full of outdoor adventures with my grandsons.  Twelve-year-old Noah and I headed up north to go white water rafting.  It was my idea.  I’d gone rafting dozens of times.  Who cares that the last time was almost 30 years ago?  What could go wrong?

We arrive at the meet-up spot near Pembine.  Our guide, Derek, fits us with life jackets and helmets.  Along with the other 6 rafters, two women and four men, we board the bus with our driver Bill who takes us to the launch spot on the Menomonie River.  We rafters chat a bit on the bus and I learn that only two of them had ever been rafting before and it was a long time ago.

The first section of the trip is just flat water and Derek uses the time to review the safety instructions and practice paddling in unison.  We all listen carefully.

The next section is class 2 rapids which I now know means “some rough water and rocks, some maneuvering.”  Only a basic skill level required.  Yahoo!  We got wet.  Everyone was laughing.  We give a high five salute with our paddles.

The next section is class 4 rapids which I now know are waves, rocks, sharp maneuvers, a considerable drop; “exceptional” skill level required.

Off we go.  Derek is calling out paddling instructions.  But the people paddling on the left are paddling way harder than the people on the right and we smash straight into a giant face of rock.  The force bounces us into a ricochet which catapults me into a backward summersault out of the raft.

My helmet pops off and I’m trapped underneath the raft.  “Gurgle, gurgle, gurgle.”  Oh dear, this is bad.  I was really, really scared.  After a death defying amount of time, the raft and I drift  apart.  But now I’m going down the “considerable drop” all by myself.  Whitewater crashes over my face.  It feels like what I imagine waterboarding would feel like.  I thought I was going to drown.

Noah is screaming, “Grandma!  Grandma! Grandma!”  When you are over 60, you think about death now and then and you think, yeah, I’ve had a good life.  I’m okay with death.  But not today!  Not fucking today!  Not like this.  This would really suck for Noah.  I can’t have Noah’s last memory of me be this!

Derek is shouting “nose up, toes up” at me. He’s yelling at the rafters to paddle hard and they finally get close to me.  Derek reaches over and grabs me by the shoulders of my life jacket.  “One, two, three,” and he hauls me into the back of the raft. The bottom of my suit falls down to my knees. I’m face down, bare ass up.  As I wriggle around to pull my suit up and find a more comfortable postion, Derek says, “Sorry ma’am.”

We get through the rest of the rapids and glide to the river bank.  No one is laughing.  “Grandma, are you okay?” says a wide-eyed Noah.  I say, “I’m fine,” even though my heart is pounding out of my chest and my hands are shaking.  Derek is wild-eyed and wants to know if I hit my head anywhere.

We hike a little way to rendezvous with the bus driver.  Bill greets us with. “Wait until you see the video!  Some of you are really going to want a copy.”

Video?  What video?  I forgot about the video.  Bill had been perched above the falls recording.

I rationalize it away.   How close could he possibly have been?  Plus, the mishap was in the back of the boat.  Only Derek saw it.  I tell Noah about it just in case and he thinks it’s funny but he’s not concerned.  “They would probably fuzz it out anyway,” he says.

Back at the meet-up spot, everyone gathers around a small flat screen to view our exciting journey.  Sure enough, there it is.  My big white ass for the whole world to see.  Noah nods his head and says, “Oh Grandma.”

The two other women in the group realize how awkward this is and yank the men away.  I threaten to stalk anyone who buys the video.  Noah consoles me, “It’s okay Grandma.  It’s not that bad.  Everyone has a butt.”

I give Noah a big hug.  I’m so very grateful that our memory of this trip will be this really funny embarrassing thing that happened and not something horrible.  He tells me that rafting was the most fun he had all summer.

(The live recorded version of this piece aired on WUWM on 1/6/17.  http://wuwm.com/post/ex-fabula-adventures-children)

 

Our Anniversary

Tom and I were married in 1989.  On the eve of our wedding a friend asked him how he felt about getting an instant family.  My boys were 11 and 15 years old.  He replied that it was going to be great.  “The hard part of raising kids is already over.”  He figured they were practically grown.  And the boys loved him.  They even invited him for a sleep over.  “Mom has a really big bed.”  They told me that they liked the idea of having a man around the house full time.  At least that’s what they said.  A few short weeks after our brief honeymoon, we discovered just how difficult becoming a family was going to be.

They turned on him.  They complained about everything and the “You’re not my dad” line was practically on an hourly rotation.  Ben, the 11 year old, took me aside and said that he didn’t think it was working out.  “Why?” I wondered.  “I don’t like the way he makes eggs,” was the only thing he could come up with.   Sam, the 15 year old, just stayed out of the house as much as possible mostly at the local skate park.

And Tom, who was the only child in his family, was not used to having competition.  He was cranky.  About noise, especially boy noise early in the morning.  The sound of them slurping cereal made him insane.  And he didn’t like sharing special snacks.  Or having to compromise on the TV schedule.  I was constantly negotiating the tsunami of two pubescent boys with the thunder clouds of a spoiled child .  It was ugly.

And it got worse.  Sam would disappear for whole weekends at a time on vague skateboarding missions without adult supervision.  When Ben got to high school he became a chronic truant and found a new hobby spray painting everything in the neighborhood.   Tom suffered through a bought of depression.  I spent countless months on projects I invented in the basement and went to counseling.  We even took separate vacations.  And in the mean time, we managed growing responsibilities at work.  Our marriage was being tested everyday.

Little by little things started to sort themselves out.  Sam turned 18 and cashed in all of the savings bonds his grandparents had given him and went off to travel the world as a professional skateboarder.  Four years later, Ben started his carpentry apprenticeship and moved out of the house.  Excited empty nesters, we booked a romantic budget trip to Europe!

And then in year 10 of our marriage a letter arrived by certified mail.  It was from the Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee.  It said, “We regret to inform you that while you are married in the eyes of god, your paperwork was never properly filed with the State of Wisconsin.”  It went on to explain that we had a year to file a special form called a “delayed certification of marriage.”

Stunned, Tom made us a drink and we reread the letter together a dozen times.  What did it mean?  Was it a “get out of jail free” card?  How strong was our commitment to one another?  How would we feel if the letter had arrived a few years earlier, in the midst of the firestorm that was our family life?  Since there was no urgency and we were busy with work, we decided to just think on it for a few weeks.

And then the Journal Sentinel came out with an article.  It said  that during a period from roughly 1988 to 1990, the church where we were married failed to complete the necessary legal paperwork.  The reporter discovered that the issue was uncovered when a woman who had also been married during that period, applied for a passport in her married name.  When the government informed her there was no person with that name matching that social security number, the shit hit the fan.

I didn’t change my  name so it never came up when I got my passport for our trip to Europe.  But we’d been filing joint tax returns the whole time.  This was difficult to understand.

The article also cautioned people affected by this mishandling of really fucking important paperwork, that it was not a “get out of jail free card.”  Looks like a marriage, smells like a marriage.  The untangling of any union would require time in court.

Tom made us a drink and we discussed our course of action.  Together we decided that the letter was really a gift.  That we could take our time, the whole year allotted to us, to think about the years that we had survived, our lives as they were now, and the kind of relationship we wanted going forward.  We established a weekly date night.  We found new interests in common like visiting art museums.  We rekindled our friendship and passion.  We went on vacation with my adult sons, mended fences, laughed about the years that we had survived together, and truly reconnected.

Weeks and months went by and soon we were coming close to the deadline.  With five days to spare and the signatures of two witnesses who attended our wedding, we filed that delayed certification of marriage form.  We finally became the family we wanted.  The rest will be easy.

This month Tom and I celebrate our 28th anniversary.  Or maybe it’s technically only 18.

Talking to Kids about Race

This is my story about talking to kids about race over the generations.  It’s the story about a lot of small conversations.  It’s about the journey to unlearn racism that  never ends. I’m white and I grew up on the northwest side of Milwaukee.  I moved to Bay View as a young adult.  I have two sons and three grandsons, two of whom live nearby.

When I was very young I was at a shoe store at Capitol Court with my mom.  An African American man waited on us.  I had never seen anyone like him before and couldn’t stop staring.  I asked my mother out loud, “What is the matter with his face?”  My embarrassed mother whispered, “He’s just like us.  God just left some people in the oven a little longer.”  Hmm, I thought.  So he’s kind of like a burnt cookie.  Like me but somehow imperfect.

I wanted my conversations with my sons to be different.  I took them to Juneteenth day, Mitchell Street Sun Fair, Indian Summer and got them involved in the Boys & Girls Club where I worked.

When my oldest son Sam was in the 2nd grade, he had a homework assignment to do a presentation about his nationality.  We’re a bunch of things—Croation, Bohemian, and German—I was annoyed by having to pick just one and I didn’t like the idea of having the kids separate themselves by nationality and race.  So, I told Sam that we’re American.  Simple, I thought.  We discussed what we thought of as being American culture—hot dogs and hamburgers, baseball games and the 4th of July.  When he got home from school that day, Sam was really annoyed with me and said his teacher wanted to know if we’re native American and what tribe we belong to.  Not so simple.

When my younger son Ben was in the 2nd grade, his best buddies were two Mexican cousins.  We spent a lot of time with their families—school, soccer, church festivals.  One day, after spending time with their families, Ben asked me if he could “please, please, please be Mexican.”  Of course I had to say “no.”  It was hard to explain that we can’t choose what we are.  “We can’t be Mexican.  We can’t change our identity.”

When teenage Ben was riding in a car with an African American friend Jason, they got pulled over in Shorewood and were brought to the police station.  Ben swore they had done nothing and the police offered no explanation.  I talked to Ben about what happened.  He could drive a car through Shorewood  and no one would give him a second glance.  But it was different for Jason.  And I thought about what people mean in Milwaukee when they say “those neighborhoods,” the neighborhoods where “you’re not supposed to go.”  It depends on who you are.

Now I have conversations with my grandkids.

When Ezra was in 2nd grade, he told me that he didn’t like brown people  When I asked him why he said, “Kenny is mean.”

“Oh, so you don’t like Kenny,” I said.  “Are there any brown people in your school that you do like?”

“Oh, yes,” he said.  “I like to play with Trevor.”  “So that means you like some brown people.  What about Nathan?  He’s not brown and you don’t like him.”

“Yeah, I guess I like some brown people and I don’t like some white people.”  What I hoped he was learning was not to judge people by the color of their skin.

Just a few weeks ago I had a conversation with my grandson Noah who is a 6th grader.  He asked me why anyone would discriminate against people of color.  I explain that some people think that they’re different or not as good as white people.  “That’s crazy,” he said.

I still talk to my grown up sons about race.

After an incident at a soccer game that accelerated nearly to physical violence between adult spectators, Ben shared that he was sure that it was motivated by racism.  A Latina girl had accidentally knocked off a white girls glasses during the game.  We talked about how Latinos get stereotyped as aggressive.

At another kids soccer game, while the kids battled it out on the field, the adults of a Latino family were being targeted by the adults of an all white team with taunts like —“speak English.” The Latina mom understandably blew a fuse and unleashed a firestorm of cuss words which made everything worse.  Everyone stood around and gawked at the melt down spectacle, including me.  Finally, it was Ben who came up with a solution to the stalemate.  He simply invited the Latino family to move their lawn chairs and come and sit with us.

I was proud of him.  He may not have changed anyone’s mind that day, but he did something to intervene.  To demonstrate that not all white people feel the same.

People say that talk is cheap.  But so many of the big barriers in our society are built on conversations—the things people tell kids, or fail to tell kids.  People learn about race through conversations.  We learn who we are and who we aren’t.  We learn where to go and where not to go.

But conversation can help to tear down those barriers too.  I’m going to keep on talking with my kids and grandkids and I want them to keep talking to me.  We all need to keep talking.

 

Here’s a link to the live version told at an Ex Fabula Fellowship event in 2017.  http://wuwm.com/post/ex-fabula-difficult-conversations

 

Spies

The big bay window of the kitchen gave my grandparents the perfect perch from which to spy on the neighborhood.  As the sun went down and they finished the last of their pork shanks and sauerkraut, they would sit with the lights out and watch.  “Mr. Durr’s home from work late again.”  “Those Gitter kids don’t do a very good job at mowing the lawn.”  “The Westphal’s need new shingles on their garage roof.”

Grandma and Grandpa’s house was on the corner at the top of a hill.  We lived next door.  There were always eyes on us.  One Sunday morning, grandma invited us over for breakfast.  My sister shrieked with joy when she spotted her missing doll sitting in a blue and green flowered vinyl kitchen chair.  Mary Jo made a bee line for the doll but Grandma stopped her in her tracks.  “Oh no.  That’s my doll.  Some irresponsible little girl left her out in the cold and rain and now she’s my doll.”  And Grandma meant it.

My brother Joe, who always played that he was working, would move piles of bricks in a wagon from a spot in our back yard to a spot in my grandparents front yard and back again.  Grandpa supervised from the kitchen window.

As a hormone fueled teenager, I snuck my boyfriend into the garage for a french kissing lesson.  We’d just settled into a cozy spot in the corner on top of a paint tarp when the door flew open and the light clicked on.  “Boy you better go home now,” was all she said.  She was also clearly the “anonymous source” who reported me for rolling my skirt up way above my knees on my way to school and for smoking cigarets in the alley.

Eventually, I learned to watch for signs.  The glow of the ash from Grandpa’s cigar.  The rhythmic thumping of finger nails on the formica kitchen table.  The squeak of the swivel chairs.  I learned to be a spy too.

And when my own grandsons walked home from school by themselves for the very first time, my husband and I were there.  With our car camouflaged by a thicket of bushes a half block away, our eyes were on them.

This Started Out as a Love Story

Hard nutty cheese.  Musky red wine.  Candles drip on the lapis blue cloth on a table by the sea.  A black cat sits on my lap and I let it.

It is just you and me and the cat.  It’s dark.  The candles flicker in the warm breeze.  Our music is the roar of the waves as they wall-by-the-seacrash against the wall by the sea.  I am perhaps most in love with you in this moment.  Our hearts suspended together.  Breathing in peace, an ocean away from home.

Home.  Where bills need to be paid and alarms are set.  Where the light over the kitchen table dims our dreams.  Where expectations and household maintenance avert our gaze away from each other and the content of our hearts.

What I didn’t know then was how hard it would be to be with you again like that—with hard cheese and a bottle of wine.  We tried.  Romantic restaurants in other towns.  But a black cat never sat on my lap again.  And you never want any wine.  And the cheese just stinks.