Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Bill, the Lillie of the Valley


Bill was a tiny spitfire of a woman.

She never much cared for her given name, Lillie, so she went by “Bill.”  However, we always called her "Mrs. Watson."  Even my parents did.  It confused us greatly when Mrs. Watson signed her first Christmas card to my family with “Bill."  Back in 1978, at least, seeing “J.C. and Bill Watson” on a Christmas card seemed so odd.

J.C. was her husband, a tall, giant of a man who always wore a black suit and a white shirt – probably even on Saturdays.  I never saw him wearing anything else.  Back in the day, he and his brother owned a small chain of department stores across a few then-small towns between Fort Worth and Dallas, at a time when “main streets” really were main streets, and townspeople did all their shopping along them.

Mr. and Mrs. Watson made for quite a study in contrasts – with him so tall and stocky, and Bill so short – incredibly short – and petite.  And their personalities didn't seem terribly similar, either.  He was quiet and unassuming; she was not loud either, but she talked more, and had definite ideas about things, and knew how to advance those ideas firmly yet graciously.

She was always a traditionalist, while at the same time, she could defy convention.  She personally designed their beautiful yet unpretentious home, and acted as general contractor during its construction, which was indeed an unusual thing for a woman in the late 1960's, in provincial Texas.  Her design is simple and elegant - a long, low-slung one-story home based on the type of farmhouses that were typical of her growing-up years in far south Texas.  Her parents owned quite a bit of fertile acreage in what Texans call "the Valley," near Texas' southernmost border with Mexico, a region particularly famous for its distinctive ruby-red grapefruit.  She incorporated a full-length covered porch on the front, and an other long porch on the back, all with Saltillo tile flooring she'd personally selected from a tile factory in Mexico.  The tan-colored hand-made bricks sheathing her home she'd also selected in Mexico.

It's a theme you'll notice often in Bill's life:  her love of hand-crafted things.  Their intrinsic uniqueness seemed to speak to her.

She installed hand-made front doors from Spain, and while their wood is beautifully fashioned in a classic Spanish style, she'd specified the wood to be of a particular variety.  A variety that, even today, has some sort of wormy, gooey fungus that, from time to time, oozes out of the wood.  It's as gross as it sounds, and the first time I saw it, I feared Mrs. Watson's doors were woefully flawed. 

"Mrs. Watson!" I remember exclaiming, "You have puss oozing from your doors!"  It looked like a case of really bad acne.  Oh, it was so gross.

Yet the ever-proper Mrs. Watson was mostly surprised that I was unfamiliar with this species of wood (I can't remember what she called it; I researched it for this essay, but can't find anything like it on the Internet).  Apparently, she'd chosen it because it helps to keep the wood moist, which is technically a feature to accommodate Texas' often-arid summers.

The more I've thought about it, her front entry doors contribute a great deal to understanding Bill Watson's character. On the one hand, viewed from the street, they look attractive, but not particularly exceptional. Yet upon closer inspection, they were obviously constructed with extraordinary craftsmanship, each piece of wood still solidly in place, as if straight out of an old-world carpenter's shop.  And they possess that secret, intrinsic ability to provide for their own maintenance; a quality even a botanist friend of mine was entirely unfamiliar with when I asked for her input.

Once behind these doors, those pink-hued Saltillo tile floors extend throughout the home's main rooms.  So although Mrs. Watson had plush Aubusson rugs on her floors, sounds do tend to echo a bit.  And her crisp voice tended to predominate in those echoes, while her husband’s was far more muted.  Not that she ever yelled, of course.  Bill was a genteel Southern lady, with a lilting laugh and a poised diction that disguised her humble roots from “the Valley.”

Almost certainly, it was those humble roots, during the Great Depression, with little money available for travel, and little opportunity for cultural enrichment beyond "the Valley's" Tex-Mex pluralism, that helped push Bill towards something different.  Something beyond the miles and miles of fields and placid agriculture in which the inquisitive and gregarious little woman had grown up.  After graduating from high school, Bill went on to college, which was a rarity for women in those days.  She ventured into office work for large oil companies in New Orleans and Los Angeles, and joined the foreign service to help with America's rebuilding of Japan after World War II.

In photos from her time there, Bill looks exceedingly comfortable, especially for a small-town Texas farm girl, in the cosmopolitan culture of a capitol city, in a country that had been a bitter enemy of the United States just a few years earlier.  Her incredibly short stature helped her fit in physically with the Japanese.  She loved the propriety of their culture, the proud nature of the people, and their fastidious industriousness.  Their wartime allegiances aside, the Japanese were just like her.  Which, for Bill, seemed to affirm not only the similarities that can be found across humanity, but also her own enthusiasm for her country, since the United States was participating in a vast humanitarian exercise to rehabilitate a nation it had just defeated.  There was a virtue in America's civilized response to victory that energized Bill's patriotism, and continued throughout the rest of her storied life.

I’m actually fairly uncomfortable referring to her as “Bill,” since when I met her, I was 13; an age at which I was expected to politely refrain from calling my elders by their first names.   She was Mrs. Watson to me then, and she’s Mrs. Watson to me now.

My brother met her first, shortly after we’d moved to Arlington, Texas, from upstate New York.  He’d been riding his bike around our new neighborhood, and Mrs. Watson had been in her front yard, tending to her immaculate landscaping.  She saw a young boy riding down the street – the Watson’s lived at the top of a hill, which was a fun spot for young bike riders, as you might imagine – but she didn’t recognize him, since we were brand-new to the neighborhood.  And being an outgoing person, she introduced herself.  And my brother came home, remarking on how friendly one of our new neighbors was… and about how fun that hill was in front of her house.

She was in her mid-sixties by then, her husband’s business was slowing down thanks to America’s newfound preoccupation with regional shopping malls, and she was about to become a grandmother for the first time.  Much of her days was spent on what had become her favorite hobby - her yard.  She used to have turf grass as her lawn, the type you see on golf courses, and she owned a lawnmower specifically designed to cut it.  She clipped the edges of her lawn as precisely as any groundskeeper at any prestigious country club would, and she kept her shrubs trimmed to within an inch of their lives.  It wasn’t until she developed skin cancer from being outside so much – despite always wearing a huge, floppy hat – that she finally hired a yard crew… which she supervised like a mother hen.

And the stories she’d tell, as she'd take breaks in her yard chores!  At first, I struggled to understand why a young woman would go to Japan to work so enthusiastically in a nation we’d just defeated in war.  I’ve never liked traveling, and foreign cultures are… well, foreign to me!  But Mrs. Watson would almost glow, regaling me with anecdotes of her time in Japan… or about the time when she wanted to see the Caribbean, and somehow ended up as the only paying passenger on a freighter sailing to Barbados.

Not that she was a loose woman by any means – she was utterly moral.  She wasn’t exactly the type of woman who’d risk her virtue by sailing on a ship populated only by burly men.  Yet she ended up subduing those mariners and earning their respect at a time in history when women typically weren’t widely successful in that regard.

Her son-in-law reminisced with me recently about how she used to drive - well, "fly" would be a more accurate term!  She drove like a bat-outta-you-know-where, and she always drove silver luxury cars.  We could have called her a silver bullet, I guess.  And she was so short, in a couple of the cars she drove, they had to pay to have the driver’s seat removed from its factory-installed track, and re-bolted into place even closer to the steering wheel, so she could see over the dashboard to pilot her cruiser.  Her husband couldn’t drive her cars, because he was so much bigger than she, and the seat couldn’t be moved to accommodate anybody else but her.

I’ve never enjoyed driving into Dallas, which is about half an hour away from us, but Mrs. Watson treated Big D like it was her backyard.  She had friends from around the world, thanks to her many travels. She also enjoyed maps, and would study up on places she was planning to visit in such detail that one time, after flying into a city she’d never been to before, she accurately instructed her cab driver on how to get to her hotel.

Over the years, she stayed abreast of many details related to her husband’s business, and after he died, when their store in Arlington was finally shuttered and the property sold, she was indignant at its selling price.

“J.C. purposely built that store with a reinforced sub-basement and elevator shaft that could support several additional stories, so it could be re-purposed into an office building,” she sputtered to me.  “From day one, he knew that building probably wouldn’t always be a department store.”  And Mr. Watson was correct.  Today, it’s an office building for the University of Texas at Arlington.

Over the years, Mrs. Watson’s health would have its ups and downs, but the only reason we ever knew she had skin cancer came when she hired that outside crew to begin doing her landscaping.  She never complained about her health, except when her failing eyesight kept her from enjoying television and reading.  Eventually, those prized Saltillo tile floors came back to haunt her, when she fell on them more than once, but even then, she kept her stints in the hospital shrouded in secrecy.  Not because she was afraid of getting older, but because she didn’t want to burden other people with her problems.  She knew how fortunate she’d been in her life, and she knew that other people had things far worse than she did.

I did know about one of her surgeries, but not from Mrs. Watson herself.  Her beloved daughter told me – or, at least, told me when Mrs. Watson was due back home from the hospital!  The next day, as I was on my usual evening walk, before the sun set, I went by Mrs. Watson’s house, and down that hill into the cul-de-sac, and I saw her daughter leave in her own silver Cadillac.

I didn’t think anything of it until I began to hear some rustling and banging going on in the toolshed attached to Mrs. Watson's backyard carport.

“Who would have the audacity to break into Mrs. Watson’s toolshed at this hour, with the sun still out, and her daughter having just left?” I wondered as I rounded the cul-de-sac.  The odd noises continued, so when I reached her driveway on my way back up the hill, I simply strode down it to the end of her driveway, where her carport and toolshed were.  And through the open door of the toolshed, I saw Mrs. Watson, not yet a full day home from the hospital, in her housedress, fussing with that cumbersome turf grass mower of hers.

She looked up and saw me coming.  And with a stiff index finger pointed swiftly at me, she sternly ordered, “Don’t tell my daughter!  She thinks I’ve gone to bed.”

Instead, Mrs. Watson had been hoping her daughter would leave while it was still daylight, so she could fiddle with that turf mower, an apparently cantankerous machine that she didn’t entirely trust to her yard crew.

So I obeyed her command.  Until last week, that is, as I talked with her daughter, who was planning Mrs. Watson’s funeral.  She died two Fridays ago, after a three-year struggle with all sorts of ailments; quietly, in the house she’d designed herself, with her family around her bedside.  Elegantly, in full command of her family’s affections, and a nurse hovering next to her; well into her nineties, having outlived everybody else of her generation in her family.

I figured it was now safe to tell her daughter about the turf mower.

And she laughed.

It was so Bill... the Lillie of the Valley.


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

On Clarifying the Role God Expects


Sometimes life seems so complex to me, I have to go back to the basics.

You see, no matter how convoluted our existence may seem, I believe the triune God of the Bible to be the penultimate Source of life, reason, and purpose.  I believe that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit have created and continue to distinctly control and perpetuate everything in our universe.  I believe that no matter how complex life may be, God's Creation serves only one purpose, and that is to somehow, ultimately, bring glory and affirmation to its Creator. 

For example, I believe that dirt doesn't simply exist.  It's purpose isn't only to help anchor the roots of plants.  Dirt brings glory to God because He made it.  The fact that dirt comes in various colors and consistencies and actually serves a valuable function is gilding the lily, at least in theological terms.  And just because dirt serves a different function in God's Creation than, say, a brain surgeon, that doesn't mean dirt brings any less glory to God than the ability of a brain surgeon to operate on the organ that makes us think.

I know; that's a pretty literal statement, and it paints my belief system as being pretty simplistic.  But does it mean I'm wrong?

I believe that Creation's purpose of glorifying God is achieved in a variety of ways, but I also believe that humankind, regardless of our profession of allegiance to God, tends to focus not on Creation's purpose, or Creation's Originator, or on the variety of ways Creaton represents God's sovereignty.  Instead, I believe we created beings tend to expend excessive efforts on trying to control and perpetuate our own existence in this universe, manipulating Creation to suit our own ends, instead of allowing all of Creation to point us to God.

In other words, regardless of whether we believe that God exists, or that Jesus Christ is His holy Son, or that the Holy Spirit reveals these truths to our consciousness, I believe we mortals tend to use culture, or science, or knowledge, or history, or laws, or governments, or money as ways to frame our human experience and justify our roles in it.

In and of themselves, culture, science, knowledge, history, laws, governments, and money are not bad or evil things.  Yes, they are tools, but God created them all to serve particular purposes, and He expects us to steward them properly as His resources for our journey through this life He gives to each of us.  Yet I believe we have come to disproportionately value them.  We have lost the perspective that God wants us to have of them.

This hasn't happened within our lifetime, or during America's existence, of course.  This has been a problem with humanity since the Biblical "Garden of Eden," which I believe to have been a literal place, during the literal timeframe after original Creation, where Adam and Eve first succumbed to the temptations of the self.

When any of our human constructs comes between ourselves and God, some level of disorder is created.  The degree to which we perceive chaos to exist in our world is the degree to which we've allowed greater and greater levels of human constructs to separate us from God.

Technically, we call this "sin" in theological parlance, but we don't like to believe that sin is as pervasive with our culture and within ourselves as it actually is.  Sin is what evil people do, but we don't like to consider ourselves as being evil.  We acknowledge the chaos festering around us and blame other people for it, rarely wondering how complicit we might be personally in the systems and attitudes that give rise to what eventually deteriorates into chaos.

How does this happen?  Well, again, it's not that complicated.  It happens when we're not genuinely learning God's truths for ourselves, and applying them to His relationship with us.  All of us tend to assume a higher degree of personal importance for ourselves than we ought.  Many don't seem eager to teach God's truth to their children.  We exploit God's generosity when He gives us His Creation to "rule and subdue."  We selfishly presume upon God's grace so we can over-indulge in various aspects of His Creation.  We will readily acknowledge that we are God's children, but we fail to see how we act not like respectful sons and daughters, but often like spoiled brats.

We don't really care about other people, except when doing so suits us.  We covet things God hasn't given to us, we hoard what God does give us, and we presume to have earned what God gives us - even though He's the One who gives us whatever intellect, opportunity, knowledge, insight, physical strength, and aptitude necessary for other mortals to "reward" us with "our" compensation.

We tend to forget that politics is a sordid, inferior substitute for God's expectations of community life.  We tend to forget that while laws can exalt the Creator of order, they can also be tools of biased manipulation by enfranchised power brokers.

We tend to believe that knowledge confers importance, often at the expense of wisdom.  We justify our homage to culture by claiming we need to have a particular identity, even while ignoring the fact that God is Himself beyond any culture.

In fact, we have so many confections of identity that it seems more natural to view God as simply being a component of our lives, instead of being the Source of it.  As a component of our lives, we presume that God can be as important or unimportant as we allow Him to be.  However, as the Source, God should predominate over everything, even to the point where we're willing to give up everything else to follow His Son, even to death.

Life is less complex with God as its Source, but it's a simplicity we don't find attractive or desirable.  Most of us really don't want to live with a worldview in which the various elements of life that we might experience are relegated to lesser levels of importance in the face of God's honor and sovereignty.  Life probably wouldn't be as fun as we'd want it to be, or filled with as many luxuries, or political freedoms.  Political freedom is nice, but it's not the type of freedom for which Christ died.

Life with God as its Source is profoundly counter-cultural, particularly to those of us in the Post-Modern West.  Hardly any pastor or preacher expounds on it from the pulpit.  It is not a component of our evangelical industrial complex.  Lip service is often paid to the concept, but hardly any of us truly understand it, or value it as the best way to live.

Hey - I don't live it.  I'm not preaching to you here; I'm preaching to myself.  I don't wake up each day, asking God to expend me to the uttermost for His glory.  I ask God to protect me from as much adversity as possible.  I plead with God for comforts.  I struggle - often desperately - with pride and cynicism, completely failing to trust in Christ.  I lust, and I envy, and I covet.  I'm deeply disdainful of others, and I'm constantly pegging my own self worth not on Christ's love for me, but on what I see Him doing in and for other people.

In theory, I know that my inferior perspective is vanity - vanity both in the selfish, prideful sense; but also in the vain sense that in the end, it all means so little.  I believe God is sovereign, but my brain and my heart want to think I've got some sovereignty in me, too.  Or I fear that maybe you've got more sovereignty in you - which, of course, you don't.  None of us are sovereign.  That's why God needs to be our Source.  Yet almost always, we don't literally want Him to be.

We don't want Him to be our Source because it means that all of the worldly metrics by which we value ourselves are basically meaningless.  And that is such a bizarre notion for us.  We recite "he who would save his life will lose it" and we think it means that if we're caught in a sniper's gunfire, like Sunday night in Las Vegas, we'd have more honor by staying and protecting others than running for cover.  Otherwise, we really don't give ourselves away.  Because we really think we're worth more than that.

Yes, God values every element of His Creation, from each speck of dirt, to each human being, no matter who we are.  Not because God needs the affirmation of human beings. But because we can't possibly help but give Him glory, even when we steadfastly refuse to acknowledge that our existence actually helps to prove His.

For those of us who literally believe that Jesus Christ is His Son, and that He died to obtain our freedom from sin - the sin that separates Him from us, and creates the chaos in life - God extends to us His holy love and desire for eternal companionship.  If you don't believe in all of this, it sounds so hokey and absurd.  But frankly, some of that absurdity likely stems from the reality that for all practical purposes, many of us "Christians" don't act like we fully believe it, either.

After all, if we did, and God truly was the focus of our lives, we'd probably be living much differently than we are.


Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Misguided NFL Speech is Free, but Costly


Aren't you weary of this rancor?

Such divisiveness cannot be good for any country, let alone one that purportedly stands for freedom of expression.  Because while we all - from the president on down to the lowliest among us, even me - have the right to speak our mind, we often forget that with that freedom can come grave responsibilities.

For a president to curse those who make a public demonstration against something like the perception of police brutality, his followers should be alarmed.  For highly-paid celebrities to pervert revered symbols of their country's honorable identity, their followers should be ashamed.

Yet the correct responses by opposing groups are not being made, and that itself is frustrating and disturbing.  It used to be only fringe radicals who would do something as intentionally inflammatory as burning our flag, which is akin to what professional American football players have been doing lately with their demonstrations against our national anthem.  But now, since these are football players, a group of extraordinarily-paid young men whose net worth is based on the adulation their fans bestow upon them, suddenly we have a crisis sweeping America between those who want them fired for their petulance, and those who defend them through a thin sanctimony of righting an injustice.

As if, in either scenario, two wrongs can somehow make a right.

Because yes, while we have the right to insult the national anthem, or burn the flag, our doing so tends to say more negative things about ourselves than what we claim to be protesting.  Our spurning of national totems bespeaks an ignorance regarding how our freedom to spurn those totems has actually been secured for us.  What's particularly curious in this particular instance is how the national anthem somehow, apparently, enshrines the perception that law enforcement is getting away with the heinous murder of so many black men.  Why does belittling the national anthem directly correlate with one's concern over perceptions of police brutality, unless the person doing the belittling doesn't understand that that national anthem has been secured not by law enforcement, but by our military - a military that is comprised of and is led by people of many different skin colors and ethnicities?

We do not live in a police state.  Because if we did, most likely the demonstrations we're seeing before NFL games would have already been met with distinctly brutal official tactics of suppression.  But what are we seeing?  We're seeing a national debate over whether professional athletes should be doing what they're doing.  And a national debate is a far cry from suppression, even though no less than our president himself has called for suppression through the firing of players he sees as being disrespectful to our national honor.

For the topic of police brutality to be fairly debated and addressed in our country, especially in the eyes of those who claim it doesn't exist, mustn't our narrative stay on-point?  Dragging our military and the millions who've fought for our political freedoms into the argument only serves to further divide our country, not bring disparate parties to the table of peace.  There is such a thing as respectfully expressing discontent until a particular wrong is righted, but broad insults are as unproductive as broad dismissals that something like police brutality exists.

What really makes the NFL demonstrators look a bit absurd is the fact that they're among the wealthiest one-percenters in Amercia, a feat made even more remarkable since they're merely entertainers, not corporate titans, or inventors of products that save lives.  Basically all they do is run around with a ball and beat each other up, to the great delight of spectators who, for some reason, willingly spend a lot of their own hard-earned money to perpetuate this ritual.

To the extent that NFL athletes actually comprehend the power they hold over their fans, it's understandable for them to want to advocate for causes in which they believe, with a view towards making their fans aware of these causes, and thus forcing institutional changes across society.  This is the right that NFL players have, and in a sense, it's a good exercise of the responsibility they recognize that their popularity gives them.

Unfortunately for all of us, however, the way many NFL celebrities have chosen to highlight their grievances over the number of blacks being shot by police officers has nothing to do with the number of blacks being shot by police officers.  Instead, all it's doing is making a lot of people very angry.  Which is taking away valuable public attention from the cause these NFL players claim to be focused on:  the question of police brutality.

It's misguided speech.

So should it be banned?  No, not if you value what the national anthem represents.  Should people who participate in this misguided speech be fired?  No, because employers should value a measure of self-expression among their employees, at least to the extent that it does not conflict with the viability of the organization.  Should our president be advocating for their free speech to be curtailed?  No, because by doing so, he himself betrays an ignorance regarding what free speech really is, and he undermines his responsibility as being the primary public defender of that freedom.

It's a brush fire that our president has fanned into an inferno.  The whole thing is such a sad waste of time when our country should be focused on far more beneficent things - such as our problems with racial strife, which supposedly was at the root of all this to begin with.

Come to think of it, what exactly are the direct ways NFL players - who claim to be so concerned about young black men and their interactions with the police - are getting involved in solutions?  How many black NFL players, for example, have recently been arrested for assaulting women?  How many are producing multiple children with multiple women, creating unstable family unit(s)?  Where is this role model advocacy on behalf of other young black men who may be more susceptible to glamorizing the type of get-rich-quick lifestyle that selling drugs seems to afford (and that an NFL contract affords)?  How many NFL athletes are using their personal resources to pay for top-quality legal representation for black offenders who may have been victimized by police?  How many are holding substantive public forums to discuss this issue?  How many are meeting with their local and national political representatives to advocate for change?

Maybe many of them are, and we just don't know, because they're conducting further advocacy in private.  What seems more obvious, however, is that a bended knee or an absence from the field during the playing of our national anthem is an easier way to merely grab attention and stoke conflict.

What's even sadder about all this is that now, it doesn't have a good chance of being resolved constructively.  As has become habit for our nation, this mess will likely disappear from the headlines when something even more provocative and disturbing takes place.  And our national narrative will careen to yet another point of deep contention.

Meanwhile, many of us have become just a bit more jaded regarding our responsibility for preserving our freedoms of expression in everyday life.  Which can't be a sustainable pattern of productive civic engagement for as proudly independent a country as the United States of America.

And the republic, for which our flag... stands.


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

My Family's Illegal Immigrant


I have an illegal immigrant in my family.

Well, at least one, anyway... that we know about.

He isn't Latino, or Asian.  He didn't smuggle his way here.  Nor did he pay some human traffickers tens of thousands of dollars to get here.

In fact, we're not completely sure of how he got to America.  But according to family lore, at least as far as my aunt Helena is concerned, what we think we know tends to make sense, and the dates seem to work.  But we don't know for sure, because our family's illegal immigrant died in the late 1950's.  As an alcoholic.  And because he was an alcoholic, he was not fondly remembered by his children when they'd recount childhood stories to us.

My aunt, who died last year, and my Dad, who died the year before that, were his children.  So the illegal immigrant was my paternal grandfather.  My grandfather died before my father and mother ever met.  And for years, Mom didn't know much about him either, because Dad, my aunt Helena, and their mother never talked about him, since his life with them had been so miserable.  Eventually, Dad told us about the time he got home from work, as a college student back in Brooklyn, and opened the door to the apartment he shared with his family.  And there was his mother, and his sister Helena, standing on the other side of a short, portly figure on the floor of their apartment's foyer.

It was my grandfather.  Dead.  My grandmother had arrived home first, and then shortly thereafter, my aunt.  And then Dad.  Dad closed the door, and the three of them stood silently, looking down at the man whose drunken stupors had become legendary in their Brooklyn neighborhood of Sunset Park.  Dad remembered that his sister and mother and he were numbed by a mixture of relief and grief - but not grief that he was gone.  It was grief about how much the family had suffered, living with such a hardened alcoholic all those years.

Finally, if only to break the heavy silence, Dad asked out loud, "Well, I guess we've got to call somebody to take the body away?"

I'm not even sure there was a funeral.  Nobody ever talked about there being one.

My grandfather was born in Finland, in a sliver of that Nordic country that ended up being invaded by Russia in the Winter War of 1939, about two decades after my grandfather ended up in America.  My Mom has two silver spoons with which my grandfather's sister was able to escape as their family's home in Viipuri faced imminent danger from the Russian invasion.  The town of Viipuri, still in Russian hands, is now called Vyborg.

As a young man, my grandfather set off from Viipuri as a sailor, or seaman, or deckhand, working on trans-Atlantic steamships and freighters.  We have records of him attending the venerable Seamen's Church Institute on South Street in Lower Manhattan, along the docks that used to spike outwards from the Financial District.  At the Seamen's Church, worship services were geared to maritime workers from around the world, working odd shifts, and lonely from months-long stints at sea.

On one of the voyages my grandfather worked, a freshly-loaded freighter from the Caribbean headed towards Europe, the deckhands were strictly instructed to stay away from a locked portion of the ship's hold, below deck.  Which, of course, was like telling a bunch of teenaged boys not to do something.  Before too long, my grandfather and some of his shipmates had broken into that forbidden part of the ship.  And what they saw deeply distressed my grandfather.

There, in the locked part of the hold, were men.  Black men, in shackles.

We believe this was sometime before or during 1916, which made me dubious at first.  Slavery was still around?  Well, apparently, an illicit fragment of it was, since it was a topic of grave concern for the League of Nations during the 1920's.  Somehow, the ship's owners had arranged for these men to be smuggled aboard without the crew knowing of it, and somehow, somewhere in Europe, they were going to be off-loaded, probably to be shipped to yet another destination.

We don't know many details about that discovery, but back then, my grandfather knew exactly what was going on.  And he wanted to be no part of it.  Absolutely not.

The ship's next port of call was New York City, with which we believe my grandfather was already familiar from previous visits.  He likely knew there was a vibrant Finnish community in Brooklyn, and that he could probably become culturally absorbed there without attracting much attention.  So when they docked in New York, my grandfather jumped ship - literally - forfeiting his pay in the process.  And he walked away from those caged human beings, off of the pier, out onto the streets of New York, never to work on ships again.

My father took this photo of his father - the older man at left, and again in the reflection top right -
in their Sunset Park apartment in the mid-1950's.  It's one of the few photos of my grandfather,
and we believe it was his last.  Nobody can remember who the other two men are.

Eventually, after he'd married and become a father, my grandfather obtained his United States citizenship.  Apparently, there was never any real problem with him not being a legal resident before then.  After all, illegal immigration isn't exactly a foreign concept in New York City, even if the restrictions on new arrivals to America were relatively rigid for the time.

My grandmother, who arrived in the United States years later, spent a night on Ellis Island because her American sponsor didn't show up to claim her.  That was one of the legal ways people got into the country back then.  Officials on Ellis Island herded the immigrants whose sponsors hadn't claimed them into a large cell with iron bars for the night.  My grandmother could hardly sleep, what with the utter lack of privacy, and worrying about what would happen to her.  Turned out, she made sure she was at the front of the cell the next morning - this big cage, probably similar to what my grandfather saw those slaves inside of - her face pressed against the bars.  Finally, later in the morning, a sternly-dressed woman strode into the immigration hall at Ellis Island, having just gotten off of the boat from Manhattan.  She walked right up to my grandmother, and asked her in perfect Finnish if she wanted to get off that island.

"Of course I do," my grandmother eagerly replied.

"Well then, just follow my lead," the anonymous woman ordered.  She marched up to an immigration clerk, and said she'd come to claim my grandmother, and had a job immediately for her in Manhattan.

"Is this true?" the dubious clerk half-motioned, half asked in broken Finnish to my grandmother.

"Of course it is!" my grandmother retorted, completely unaware of what that job was.

My grandmother Laitinen's first US employer
used to own this townhouse on W. 11th Street
in Greenwich Village. I took this photo in 1986.
The two woman left the hall and got on the next boat to Manhattan as soon as possible.  And that night, my grandmother found herself working as a maid at a party at a townhome in Greenwich Village owned by a well-known silent movie producer.

As they say, "only in New York," right?

At some point, obviously, my grandparents met in Brooklyn, got married, and had children.  My grandfather never seems to have held down a steady job, and eventually came to be known mostly for his prodigious drinking, and for writing a regular column for the local Finnish newspaper, New Yorkin Uutiset.  He wrote pieces about current events and philosophy under the pen name "X Seaman," since that's what he was.  Years later, my aunt learned that the prestigious New York Public Library had some of his articles on file as part of their cultural heritage department. 

Family friends who knew my grandfather in Brooklyn's old Finntown have told us that he wasn't as entirely bad as his family remembered him as being.  And it's been suggested that one of the reasons for his drinking - despite the fact that Finns are notorious for their alcohol consumption - may have stemmed from his disturbing experience on that trans-Atlantic ship.  As a Finn, back in the days when Finland was virtually 100% Caucasian, my grandfather would have barely known about slavery, and to him it likely would have been something that horrible people had done back in another time and place.  Not on board a ship he was working!

So for all the agony my grandfather gave his family through his drinking, I've come to value his distress over having the concept of human slavery break into his reality.  I sometimes wonder if, today, we whites would do well to let ourselves be a bit more agitated over something we figure only happened to somebody else back in another time and place.

Because while it may not be our reality now, it remains part of family lore for many African Americans.


Monday, September 18, 2017

School Name Audit Steps on Toes in Right Direction


Last week we pondered the city's removal of a Robert E.Lee statue from a park in a predominantly white neighborhood in Dallas, Texas.

Now comes word that the board for the Dallas public school system has drafted a list of schools named after historic notables connected in some way with the Confederacy specifically, or slavery in general.  The schools on this list may soon get new names, if the district can agree on how to process the logistics for doing so.

Four elementary schools will be renamed as soon as possible, since they're currently named for Confederacy generals Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, Albert Sidney Johnston, and William L. Cabell.

An additional twenty schools are on another list being audited for future name changes by the school board, but curiously, no major local media outlets have published that list.  It took a Facebook post by a white board member, Dustin Marshall, to get that listing circulating within the public.  And those schools are these:

1. Roger Q. Mills Elementary School
2. W. H. Gaston Middle School
3. Wilmer-Hutchins High School
4. James Bowie Elementary School
5. James S. Hogg Elementary School
6. John F. Peeler Elementary School
7. John H. Reagan Elementary School
8. Wilmer-Hutchins Elementary School
9. James Madison High School
10. Benjamin Franklin Middle School
11. Thomas Jefferson High School
12. David G. Burnet Elementary School
13. Stephen C. Foster Elementary School
14. Nancy J. Cochran Elementary School
15. Sam Houston Elementary School
16. Sidney Lanier Elementary School
17. John Ireland Elementary School
18. Kleberg Elementary School
19. William B. Travis Elementary/Middle School
20. William Brown Miller Elementary School

Of course, some of these people are relatively obscure by today's historical standards.  Have you ever heard of Roger Mills, for example?  Turns out, Mills was a Kentucky-born lawyer who served as an officer in the Confederate army during the Civil War, and then, later, as a Texas senator to Washington, after apparently deciding that serving the Union was a worthwhile endeavor after all.

Some of these notables are more familiar to Texans than they are folks in other parts of the United States.  James Bowie, for instance, was a legendary revolutionary for the Republic of Texas, along with William B. Travis, both of whom later died at the Alamo.  Bowie is famous as the inventor of the Bowie knife, and was briefly a citizen of Mexico, but for a while, he also worked as a slave trader.

Nancy J. Cochran is reputed to have been a proud mother of Confederate soldiers.  Sam Houston defeated Mexico to secure independence for the republic of Texas, and later served as a senator after Texas became a state.  He was pro-slavery but also pro-Union, and refused to serve in the Confederacy.

We could go on and on about who these people were as individuals, but what makes them all the same in the eyes of many Dallas school board members is their affiliation in some form or fashion with slavery or the Confederacy.  That's why Benjamin Franklin is on this list.  For most of his life, Franklin owned slaves and believed blacks were inferior to whites.  However, later in his life, Franklin became an abolitionist.  In 1790, he petitioned Congress to legally end slavery and "promote mercy and justice toward this distressed Race."

So, if anything, Franklin represents the hope that people can change for the better.  And perhaps this significant turn in Franklin's personal perspective will eventually cause the Dallas school board to keep his name attached to one of their schools.

Indeed, it is the often-complex backstory behind many of these historical figures that contributes to the controversy around such calls for culling the national historic roster of American notables.  Which, basically, is what Dallas' school leaders - along with similar governing bodies across the country - are doing with these re-naming exercises.  For centuries, leaders like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson have been venerated for the overwhelming balance of their contributions to America's founding, even at the expense of their support (to various degrees) of slavery.  Yet now, political correctness has limited the only publicly respectable scope for viewing these personages as being the lens through which their acceptance of slavery is evaluated.

On the one hand, it seems frustrating to some white Americans - even ludicrous to other whites - that the sum total of America's history and the leaders we venerate should be reduced to their perspective(s) on slavery.  Isn't there more by which we should value a person, many ask?  If we're all to be judged by our sins alone, who among us would have any credibility?

And those are fair questions, regardless of our skin color, aren't they?  Especially considering that in America, slavery existed on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, and that racism and bigotry have existed even without the presence of institutionalized slavery.  So, utilizing slavery as a metric for determining heroic validity immediately culls the herd quite a bit.

Which, for many politically-correct folks, would be the price we pay for finally admitting once and for all that the ownership of human beings was and remains patently wrong.  Period.

It's a jarring rationale for many whites.  For centuries, Americans have taught its schoolchildren that, sure, slavery may have been kinda bad, but that even though some "good" people didn't get the slavery issue entirely right, their contributions to our country's history mitigate that slavery thing.  After all, it was so long ago.  It was a different time and a different place.  Yadda, yadda, yadda...

Can't you see how, with a predominantly white-centric view towards exonerating national heroes, with an "ends justify the means" mentality, we also risk minimizing something that our black brothers and sisters still find eminently reprehensible?

And that whites should as well?

After all, were there white slaves in the United States?  (And no, the myths about "Irish slaves" don't count, since even though some Irish immigrants were considered chattel, they were not re-sold, they were eligible for freedom after their repayment of any debts, and whatever indentured servitude they endured was not conferred to their spouses or children.)

Couldn't a white willingness to ignore or dismiss the ownership, by other long-dead whites, of black human beings be kind of offensive to many modern blacks?  After all, how many blacks can ignore however much history of slavery exists in their personal families?  Remember, even though slavery affects both whites and blacks, there was only one race that clearly benefited from slavery.  It's convenient for whites to minimize that, and to see little problem with letting bygones by bygones, burying the hatchet, and moving on in harmony.

After all, it was those old, long-ago, dead people who owned slaves.  I don't own slaves, and I think slavery was and is wrong.

So what's wrong with proving our resolve against slavery by taking a harder line against honoring figures in our history who didn't take as hard line against it as we like to think we do today?

Not that we can erase history by changing the names of some schools, or removing some monuments.  And frankly, not every school name should be changed, or every monument removed, since each of these names in question represents a human being whose views towards slavery, during the course of their life, could have evolved from one end of the spectrum to the other, such as with Benjamin Franklin.

Some whites protest that there are too many names to change, and these names are too prominent.  Which, actually, serves to illustrate the argument for why these names may need to change.  Slavery was so widespread, and so integral a part of the American reality, that our lip service today can ring hollow when it comes to disavowing slavery.

Hey, let's face it:  Whites tend to enjoy going through life with slavery being an issue that impacts somebody else from another time.  We tend to forget that blacks generally don't go through life with the same perspective, at least as far as history is concerned.  And for those blacks who don't let America's history with slavery define their own individuality, we witness an enormous generosity of spirit on their part.

So why not return the favor?


Thursday, September 14, 2017

Lee Statue Removal Happens in Dallas


By the time you read this, Dallas will have one less statue of Civil War general Robert E. Lee on public display.

Currently, the city owns two Lee statues; one towers over a small park downtown near city hall and the convention center, and another commands - or, commanded - a prominent knoll overlooking a swanky boulevard known as Turtle Creek, near some of the priciest neighborhoods in the entire state of Texas.

Even Lee's detractors can't deny that the statue in his honor along Turtle Creek, in a public park named after the general, is a fine piece of art.  At least, in terms of its workmanship and aesthetics.  But with America's current fixation on commemorations of Civil War leaders - at least, leaders from the losing side - Dallas city councilmembers have voted to remove the two Lee statues from city property.  And the first one they chose to have removed from public viewing wasn't the one downtown, within blocks of the city's historically black-majority neighborhoods.

It was the one along Turtle Creek, named after a real creek that winds its way through some of the whitest districts in Dallas' northern neighborhoods.

This particular piece of artwork is actually composed of two elements; an over-sized depiction of a caped General Lee on his horse, and then another horse of a slightly smaller stature with a young, anonymous man (ostensibly one of Lee's soldiers) riding it.  Some folks defending this statue say the young man supposedly represents an African-American teenager, but its anglicized facial features in no way convey such an interpretation, at least in the obvious sense.

One person has already died in Dallas's push to remove Turtle Creek's Lee statue.  Last Wednesday was the council's vote to remove it, and work began immediately, which surprised many Dallasites, used to a far less efficient city hall.  A small crowd hurriedly gathered in Lee Park to either protest or celebrate the historic occasion.  But then the city's more commonplace tendency for lousing things up kicked back into gear.  The first crane hired for the job proved unable to handle the 6-ton bronze piece, which is - sorry, "was" - affixed to a handsome granite base.  The second crane brought to town for the job was hit by a red-light-running tractor-trailer truck this past weekend, and the 18-wheeler's driver was killed.  Even as late as last night, city leaders were guessing - at least to the media - as to when the statue could be removed.  A non-profit group sympathetic to keeping the statue intact had booked a protest at Lee Park for this coming Saturday, and it looked inevitable that the general would indeed be present during the protest to serve as a backdrop to the group's rallying cry.

Initially, Dallas budgeted over $400,000 for removing the Lee Park statue, and currently, it's unknown how much extra these delays have added to that budget.

Then, this afternoon, Dallasites were again caught by surprise at the sight of a new crane heading for Lee Park under a police escort.  And all during the statue's removal, police officers in body armor, with rifles in hand, stood guard around the perimeter of the work site.  The six-lane Turtle Creek Boulevard was closed to vehicular traffic, allowing bystanders a relatively unobstructed view of the proceedings.  And sure enough, by seven o'clock, the statue was down, without incident.

Of course, to some folks, the entire removal of Lee's statue is more than an incident - it's a travesty of justice and a refutation of history.  By now, we're all familiar with the arguments against removing statues such as this one in Lee Park  - a park that will likely soon revert to its original name, Oak Lawn Park, which it held before the Lee statue was erected in 1936.  Incidentally, it was then-president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a liberal Democrat, who dedicated the statue, which kinda flies in the face of a more modern narrative that only right-wing conservatives value the historicity of figures like General Lee.

In fact, history can be a complicated thing, as our bickering over America's Civil War proves.  Even Abraham Lincoln, long heralded as a hero for African Americans, did not consider blacks equal with whites.  It is now known that although Lincoln lead the Union in its quest to abolish the institution of slavery, at the same time, he was quietly negotiating to expel freed blacks from the continental United States after the war, to islands in the Caribbean.*  That inconvenient reality hardly fits seamlessly into the historical narrative most people want to believe about our national heroes, so it is not widely taught, or discussed.  I also knew a black woman whose family - in Mississippi, if I remember correctly - actually owned slaves as well, although it was a factoid of which she wasn't proud.  Still, she told me it was part of the reality of Southern economics at the time - if you owned a lot of farmland, it was cheaper to purchase workers to help with the crops rather than employ them, whether the landowner was black or white.

So is there really much of the Old South that's worth venerating, as many Southerners nostalgically claim there is?  Southern gentility is a concept that may have a romantic component, both now in the imaginations of people who never actually lived it, and back then, if you were wealthy enough to benefit from it.  But since it was largely based on an economic system sustained by slave labor, the gentility factor is corrupt in its practice, if not in its theory.  The plantation system was mostly a hold-over of the baronial British aristocratic system, which kept poorly-paid workers in perpetual servitude, subject to the whims of feudal honor, which itself is mostly derided in modern Britain today.

Then there's the question of modern America honoring a traitor to the republic such as Lee was, if you want to consider the literal definition of the term and its application to military justice.  Granted, none of the Confederacy's generals were ever tried for treason, mostly because Union lawmakers were afraid about how the public, deeply wounded and raw after such a bloody war, would react to a verdict one way or the other.  The overarching sentiment at the time was a desire to move forward as best as possible for the cause of national healing, but even that noble goal was eventually thwarted by unresolved issues over how freed blacks should be treated on either side of the Mason-Dixon line.

You see, racism was never defeated.  The Civil War didn't so much end because right had might; it ended because the South ran out of soldiers first.

That was back in 1865, but as we all know, the Civil War never really ended.  When my family moved to Texas in 1978, we were called "Yankees" by many native Texans, and kids in our neighborhood played "North against the South" - something my brother and I had never heard of up in rural Cleveland, New York.  Cops and Robbers?  Yes.  Cowboys and Indians?  Yes.  But I didn't even know what the Mason-Dixon line was until we moved to Texas.

Even today, the rebel flag - the "Stars and Bars" - is deeply revered by many as a symbol of not just the Confederacy, but the whole idealized notion of whatever the antebellum South was supposed to be.  "The South's gonna rise again" is a phrase that isn't entirely obsolete in the Southern lexicon.  And opposition to the removal of statues honoring Confederacy heroes such as Lee and Stonewall Jackson, just to name two, is potent here.

With all this in mind, if Dallas leaders wanted to make a statement against the Confederacy and its connotation with racism, why remove the Lee statue in Turtle Creek first?  Remember that other memorial here in Dallas?  It doesn't have only General Lee in it.  Lee is just one of four Confederacy heroes celebrated by this far more imposing structure, which consists of a main 60-foot pillar surrounded by four shorter ones, made of granite and marble.  It's called the Confederate War Memorial, it was dedicated in 1896, and it's considered the oldest public artwork in the city.

And the inscriptions on it? 
  • “The brazen lips of Southern cannon thundered an unanswered anthem to the God of Battle.” 
  • “It was given the genius and valor of Confederate seamen to revolutionize naval warfare over the earth.” 
  • "This stone shall crumble into dust ere the deathless devotion of Southern women be forgotten.” 
  • “The Confederate sabreur kissed his blade homeward riding on into the mouth of hell.” 
  • “Confederate infantry drove bayonets through columns that never before reeled to the shock of battle.”

I guess such romanticized notions as these are part of that Southern gentility thing.  But don't their contrived notions of valor - at the unmentioned expense of slavery - make the Confederacy memorial downtown worthy of more attention than what Dallas' city council paid to the Lee statue?

Meanwhile, this is what President Roosevelt had to say when he dedicated Lee's newer statue along Turtle Creek:

"I am very happy to take part in this unveiling of the statue of General Robert E. Lee.  All over the United States we recognize him as a great leader of men, as a great general.  But, also, all over the United States I believe that we recognize him as something much more important than that.  We recognize Robert E. Lee as one of our greatest American Christians and one of our greatest American gentlemen."

Hmm.

At the end of the day, much of our perception of the past depends on the rhetoric that tends to fit our worldview, doesn't it?  In other words, if you really want to believe Lee was as hateful a Southerner as his detractors claim him to have been, you will support the narrative that memorials to him must be obliterated from our country.  On the other hand, however, if you really want to cling to the notion that being a "great American gentleman" (whatever that means) should lead us to venerate people like Lee, you probably will be angry that Dallas removed a statue of him today.

So what do I think?  Personally, I neither believe Lee was personally as hateful towards blacks as he's been portrayed as being.  I suspect he was a flawed product of his time who couldn't see past the Southern economic model of slavery.  Does that make him a racist?  Yes, but then again, many folks today are racists; they're just not defined as one the way Lee has been.

Nobody can argue that we don't still have a problem with race relations in our country.  And it's past time for us to admit that we need to work harder at overcoming the prejudices that have sabotaged racial harmony since before were were a nation.  So to that end, I think the magnanimous thing to do would be to remove from public land icons to the Confederacy that likely are misinterpreted and misrepresented today by people with various motives.  If there are historical organizations that want to house these icons on private land, then they should be allowed to do so, but the best memorials will be those that portray a broader and more wholistic representation of the Civil War, the Confederacy, and the Union, warts and all.

I can understand why taxpayers who aren't white don't want their tax dollars used to maintain statues that could be used to celebrate a way of life that mistreated people.  But more than that, since Lee is - to put the best possible spin on it - associated with a culture that sought to perpetuate the ownership of human beings, is that really something for us to so conspicuously celebrate?  After all, do we celebrate the owners of brothels?  Do we celebrate Aaron Burr, who was the third person to be vice-president of our fledgling United States, but was put on trial for treason?

What's the harm in removing statues to Lee and other Confederate legends?  Who's going to forget about those men?  Certainly not all of the Southerners who insist that "the South shall rise again"!  And the Civil War isn't going to fade away from our national consciousness anytime soon.  So what's the big deal?

Part of me wonders if the agitation so many people feel at the removal of Confederacy statuary reflects not simply frustration at the changing political and social landscape of America, but also a shadow of some latent racial issues that folks don't want to admit exists inside of them.

If I touched a nerve with that, then maybe I've got a point?

And if you agree with me, don't gloat.  No matter how you look at it, this should be a somber time for America, since we all have things to learn from it.
_____

* What preserves Lincoln's reputation is the fact that he was assassinated before ever being able to implement any part of any plan to deport newly-freed slaves.  Educators and historians like to assume that by the war's gruesome end, Lincoln's mindset had changed enough so that he would not have pursued the re-colonization idea.




Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Protecting Evacuees, or Their Rights?


After a significant natural disaster, it's become standard operating procedure.  Law enforcement agencies refuse to allow property owners back to their homes and businesses until the affected area has been deemed safe for re-entry.

Many people don't even think about it anymore.  It's just something else cops do to keep us safe, right?

This situation repeated itself Monday in the wake of Hurricane Irma, as Floridians who'd dutifully evacuated the Keys in advance of the storm were initially prohibited from returning by police officers who claimed the low-lying islands hadn't yet been deemed safe enough for re-population.

Other Florida neighborhoods were similarly restricted by law enforcement officials, at least for a day or so, but with many residents of the Keys being particularly independent and obstinate - which apparently is a requisite personality trait for those who call that fabled island habitat home - the tempers were particularly apparent there.

Having police officers telling them they couldn't go home was an emotional trigger compounded by anxiety from having just lived through a hurricane.  Since "home is where the heart is," it's only natural for folks to want to return to it and see how well it survived.

Is keeping homeowners from their homes something cops should be doing?  Homeowners are the ones paying taxes on that property (whether owning or renting) and having people whose salaries are drawn from those taxes telling you to stay away from your home can sound unAmerican.

Indeed, if you think about it, this irony is juxtaposed in the face of what most Americans claim to be the basic duty of government.  Ask just about anybody, and they'll tell you that the main purpose of government is protection.  Protect me personally - and all of us corporately - from adversaries, terrorists, whatever.  It's why many conservatives believe in a bloated military budget.  It's why many liberals believe we need more gun control laws.  Protection, safety, defense.  It's the people's Trinity.

Meanwhile, I've said all along that the main role of government is a different type of safeguarding.  Safeguarding not the "homeland," or our physical well-being, but the safeguarding of civil rights.  After all, if we don't have civil rights, how much more is worth protecting?  If we don't have the freedom of speech, or religion, or the right to be safe from unwarranted searches and seizures, what difference does it make if we have the strongest borders and the most merciless police forces patrolling our neighborhoods?

Now, obviously, there is a difference between having a robust military defense, and having cops perhaps being a bit over-zealous in keeping homeowners away from their property after a natural disaster.  But the theory is the same:  Governments get away with letting law enforcement agencies rule with an iron hand when the old "protection" justification gets trotted out in support of police officers winning out over angry, displaced folks from the Florida Keys.

After all, it's not entirely fair to those evacuees, is it?  The Keys weren't deserted; other residents had stayed behind to ride out Irma, whether that was a smart thing to do or not.  The folks now trying to get home had obeyed the government, yet they were being delayed in rejoining their neighbors who hadn't evacuated, and were still home.  And if personal protection is the main goal here, shouldn't the government "reward" evacuees by not making a habit of restricting re-entry after a predicted natural disaster?

Some folks have grumbled that when the next Irma approaches, they'll be less likely to heed government warnings because they don't like how the government treated them after Irma was over.

Not that the cops were entirely unjustified, of course.  And that's the wrinkle in these arguments, isn't it?  Electrical lines and other utilities had been compromised, with some perhaps exposing residents to some dangerous conditions.  Perhaps flooding had undermined more roads than first responders had realized.  Maybe there were massive casualties in some obscure neighborhoods, with fetid corpses laying bare in the Florida sun creating significant health risks to returning evacuees.  Nobody really knew all of the dangerous scenarios that existed after Irma, and if we're talking solely about safety, it doesn't make a lot of sense for hundreds - even thousands - of anxious residents to flood back onto the Keys.

Besides, returning evacuees would make what roadways were passable more congested for first responders and utility crews trying to complete their important work.  Spotty cell phone service could compromise communication in the area, especially as more and more people tried to make calls and overload frequencies.  And then what happens if it's still too dangerous for some folks to return to their particular neighborhood?  Where, along the broad scale of "danger," which we all tend to define differently, is the mark that says the danger isn't worth the risk of returning right now?  And how would you know it, if you weren't there to make that decision yourself?

Yet, on the other hand, how much personal responsibility should property owners be expected to assume for themselves?  In other words, is it more valuable to our society to let people be stupid in their eagerness to return home after a natural disaster, or is it more valuable to our society for people to not be restrained by a police state?  If three feet of seawater still covered the entire 100-mile stretch of the Keys, I don't imagine anybody would argue with the cops about not being able to return home.  And venturing into an area that has been hit by a natural disaster should at least be done without children or the elderly, who may not be able to navigate the various obstacles and dangers that may now exist.  There has to be some common sense here, with evacuees being willing to act responsibly and not take unnecessary risks.

During Irma's lashing of Florida, we all saw the photos and videos of unwise people venturing out in the storm to take selfies in the wind, ride bikes in the rising surf, or drive around like it was just another rainy day.  Remember, there is a difference between being adventurous and being reckless (even though many people today pervert the word "reckless" into being something that should be admired, instead of avoided).

It's hard to enforce laws against stupidity, even though we have many of them.  They've been dubbed "Nanny State laws," such as governmental prohibitions against texting while driving, which should be an obviously dangerous activity to anyone, but in reality is practiced by just about everybody.

And the more we let our government dictate our actions, the deeper our dependence on government becomes.  And that's not good for us individually, or as a society.  After a while, the government gets to set the standards pretty much unilaterally, with the populace further and further removed from decisions that impact us on a daily basis.  We live with the fact that our government can assume a position of control when we abdicate our own responsibilities in a situation - such as texting while driving - but isn't it another thing for us to, for example, let the government keep us from our homes after a natural disaster has passed?  Aren't there ways to accommodate the rights of property owners while at the same time making sure whatever first responders still need to accomplish isn't compromised?

It's kinda like here in north Texas, where law enforcement officials close two or three extra lanes of traffic after an accident just to provide an extra-wide buffer between two cars in a fender-bender, and the vehicles trying to get around the mishap.  What police officers who do this seem to forget is that the more traffic backs up behind an accident, due to needlessly closed lanes, the chances for further accidents in the back-up grows greater.

But I digress.  Of course, the easy answer after a natural disaster would be to simply outlaw permanent homeownership in areas prone to natural disasters, such as the Florida Keys.  Actually, any low-lying land close to the sea.  And maybe forests, considering all of the wildfires raging across the western half of our continent right now...  In fact, if the role of government was to really really protect people, where would be the limit in terms of preventing people from living in harm's way?

This brings us back to my main point about civil rights.  The more we molly-coddle people and compromise their ability to exercise basic human rights in a sensible manner, the more control we cede to an authority structure that has more power to pervert justice on a broader scale than we citizens do on an individual level.  If we don't take upon ourselves the logic, caution, and respect that being participatory members of a well-functioning society demands of us, then government control inevitably follows.

Well, either that, or anarchy.

Unfortunately, some folks think they'd prefer anarchy to a well-functioning society, but they do so without recognizing that no control can actually be more restrictive to civil rights than a well-meaning (yet self-feeding) government.

So maybe waiting for the cops to let you back into your neighborhood after a natural disaster is a small price to pay for an even worse alternative to such control.

Especially after these residents begin to file for government aid to rebuild what Irma damaged, so they can got through all this again after the next big storm.

But doesn't the logic of living in a well-functioning society involve learning our lessons the first time, and making constructive changes to avoid repeating them in the future?


Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Mabel, My Belle


I'm got a thing going on with a girl named Mabel.

She's beautiful, black, and very well-groomed.  Most days, she's sporting a stylish kerchief around her neck.  We live on the same street, and meet in the evenings, as the sun is setting and the temperatures are cooling.  I go out for a walk and stroll by her place; she sees me and comes out... so we can share some private time together before she quietly goes back inside her home.

Mabel is a beautiful black lab who lives around the corner from me, in what we long-timers in our neighborhood call the "Taco Bell House."  In actuality, the Taco Bell House looks nothing like a Taco Bell restaurant, but it does have a red roof made of those undulating tiles, and it has stucco walls, in contrast to all of our brick homes.  The Taco Bell House features a courtyard with a vine-covered archway opening to a fenced-in dog run that parallels our street.  And that is Mabel's domain.

Mabel's courtyard is mostly walled by sliding-glass doors, so from several rooms inside her home, Mabel can see who's passing by outside.  Her owners have built a little doggy-door into one of the glass doors, so she's free to go in and out whenever she feels like it.  At various times, as I've been talking to her owners, lounging in their courtyard, I've witnessed Mabel making loop after loop through an open human-sized door, and her doggy door.  Around and around.  It's as if she's afraid she might miss something interesting inside while she's outside, and vice-versa.

This summer, I guess Mabel has learned that I usually take a walk in the evenings, and she's started to watch for me from inside her Taco Bell House.  Last night, as has become our custom, I walked by the fence along her dog run, next to the courtyard with the arched entryway, and a familiar pattern played itself out yet again.

I'll hear the quiet flapping noise of Mabel's doggy door after I've passed, and as I continue walking along, with my back to the Taco Bell House, I'll hear a muffled bark and a moan from Mabel.  I turn around, and there she is - standing up against the fence, looking at me, with her soft, black eyes and floppy, fuzzy ears, waiting for me to turn around and return to her.

For all I know, she may do that with anybody who walks by, and we have a lot of people who walk for exercise in our leafy neighborhood.  Yet I've seen other neighbors walk by Mabel's home, and she never comes out to greet them.  So I like to think I've got a little something special happening with her.

And she knows I can't resist her.  Yes, I turn back around and stroll over to Mabel, whose seems to be begging for some attention, since she wants me to think her owners don't give her any...  which I know is a lie on Mabel's part...  but I let her think I haven't caught on to her little ploy.  Some people say a dab of deception is good for a relationship.  I don't know about that, but I know that it gets Mabel what she wants.  I reach through the wrought-iron fence and scratch behind her ears, rub her head, stroke her neck, and pat her on her back.  I talk to her and tell her how beautiful she is.  It's all an ego trip for her, of course - we both know that - and she drinks it up.  And then, after a short while, she backs away.  Her ego has been well and truly restored.  Without a sound, she turns around to head back inside.

I realize that these secret meetings of ours probably aren't the best basis for a long-term relationship.  But we seem to have had little problems with the racial thing; her being black, and me being white.  Even the species thing hasn't been much of a problem.  And there's little commitment involved, which works well for both of us.

Although... I've begun to worry a little bit about what will happen to our relationship this fall, when our human clocks get set back an hour, and the sun sets so early.  My walks will be in the dark, so will Mabel be able to see me?  Will she be looking for me before the sun sets, which will then be a couple of hours before my walk?  I hope she won't be devastated if she doesn't see me.  Or... will she forget all about me?

At least I can find some solace in the fact that the two of us will have had the Summer of '17.

Monday, August 14, 2017

No Just Cause for C-Ville Bigotry


Free speech requires considerable personal responsibility.

And as we saw in Charlottesville, Virginia this past weekend, just because you have the right to advocate for a particular viewpoint doesn't mean you actually are right.

For the freedom of speech to be respected, the topic of that speech needs to be carefully vetted based upon parameters that honor some overall benefit for society.  Abortion opponents, for example, argue in public that abortion denies free speech to the unborn.  Advocates of exclusively heterosexual marriage believe that biology (not just social protocols) overwhelmingly supports the existence of both a man and a woman in a family joined through marriage.

Meanwhile, what happened in Charlottesville centered around a myopic view of history that holds no benefit for society today.  History's general consensus of the Civil War is that even if America's Southern heritage held some virtue for the people of its day, that virtue was tainted by slavery, which is based on racism.  Even if one argues that the South went to war to protest the North's violation of states' rights, those rights most Southerners coveted involved the ownership of other human beings.

Otherwise, what's so special about Southern Gentility?  It may be quaint, but is quaintness a quality worth commemorating at the expense of human dignity for people who aren't white-skinned? 

Mind you, it's not that most Yankees weren't racists.  The movement of blacks from the South to the North in the generations following the Civil War sparked plenty of contention, particularly when blacks began living next-door to whites in the close quarters of Northern cities.  After all, "red-lining" was especially deployed in places like New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago.  White flight after World War II wasn't just caused by suburbanization; in fact, it could be argued that white flight exacerbated suburbanization.  Even Abraham Lincoln, the "Great Emancipator," didn't believe blacks were equals with whites; he simply didn't believe in slavery.

When the city leadership in Charlottesville decided to remove statues and monuments originally dedicated to Southern heroes such as Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, they did so in an effort to ameliorate the old city's stubborn homage to what has become a stilted exercise in Old South romanticism.  Sure, it's politically incorrect to publicly admit to being a racist, but at least for white folk, it's a lot easier to perpetuate nostalgia than support ways to help today's heirs of slavery believe that anti-black racism really isn't as pervasive as it may seem.

When the Soviet Union fell, many monuments to it and its progenitors were summarily removed.  When Saddam Hussein was removed from power in Iraq, most all of his statues were toppled.  The eradication of former symbols of power is generally what happens when one way of thinking or acting is supplanted by another, and the former holds no significant virtue to continue celebrating.

Nevertheless, while the removal of statues and memorials to Civil War's Southern apologists seems like an easy way to correct the public narrative in terms of slavery, Charlottesville may have missed an important opportunity.  You see, while in this case, the eradication of a statue likely will do little to eradicate the homage people want to pay to that statue's honoree, Charlottesville could have left the monuments standing, yet with a less biased interpretation of why these figureheads from the Old South's past remain important.

Because yes, as we saw in Charlottesville, to some people, Lee and Jackson obviously remain important figureheads of a bygone era.  Precisely because that bygone era isn't as bygone as it should be.  Obviously, as those boorish bigots demonstrated this weekend, hard-line racism is alive and well, and not just in the South, as witnessed by the Ohio residence of the guy who plowed a vehicle into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one of them.

Instead of perpetuating Lee and Jackson as figures to be celebrated and revered, as the Charlottesville of yesteryear intended when those memorials were dedicated, today's Charlottesville could have left them as reminders of the deeper complexities behind our War Between the States.  Lee, Jackson, and others represent the often-conflicting values we humans juggle, between morality and economics, and politics and justice - just to name a few.  After all, the Civil War didn't just happen, nor was it over when it was over.  Hard emotions led to it, sustained it during five bloody years, and have continued to be stoked by it, even all these decades later.

So, obviously, the legacy of the Old South - and the Old North, for that matter - still matters.  But why that legacy matters could be the more accurate narrative Charlottesville should ascribe it.

Of course, the folks who side with the bigots would call that "revisionist history."  Even if, in actuality, it was the trite, watered-down version of the Civil War that has been taught in public school classrooms ever since that was the revisionist history.

However, if the statues indeed need to come down, what is the opposing moral stance in aid of the public good?  Is the veneration of whatever passes for Southern Gentility so pure and virtuous a notion that the vile celebration of bigotry is warranted?  Why exactly do white supremacists believe so ardently that historical figures like Lee and Jackson deserve attention in the public square?  Even an academic veneration of Old South figures should not conjure such vehemence.  It's not really that whole Southern Gentility thing after all, is it?  It's mostly the representation of Lee and Jackson as champions of a white-centric society, isn't it?

That is a notion with no public moral beneficence.  So it is wrong.  Period.

If anything, this past weekend in Charlottesville proves that just because you have the freedom to say something doesn't mean you're right.


Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Travel, and the Detroit We've Been Through


Most people love to travel.

Me?  Not so much.

For many Americans, a vacation isn't a vacation if you don't travel anywhere.  Going someplace else - practically anyplace else but home - is considered at worst an adventure, and at best, an opportunity for fun and pleasure.

Even folks who have to travel for their job likely don't consider it as onerous a task as I consider travel to be. 

I'm not adventurous, curious, or thrill-seeking.  I'm actually, genuinely content to see the photos other folks take on their travels without getting any urge within my own soul to go and experience those places for myself.

Perhaps it's my fear of the unknown, or my chronic clinical depression, that makes me a homebody.  I certainly can't afford to travel far, but I don't even like driving into Dallas or Fort Worth, which are mere minutes from where I live.  But I will travel when I have to, whether it's to Dallas for church, or Fort Worth to have dinner with friends.

I say all of this to help you understand what an undertaking it is for me - both physically and emotionally - to travel, even for personal family events such as my brother's recent milestone birthday in Michigan.  Shucks, the last time I traveled outside of Texas was to my eldest nephew's wedding last summer in Ohio.  Pretty glamorous destinations, don't you think?  But hey, isn't family more important, wherever they live?

So last week, Mom and I flew to suburban Detroit.  And I have to admit, the flight was as uneventful as possible - which is a very good thing in my way of thinking.  My brother and his family live on a sizable bit of acreage about 45 minutes outside of the rapidly-shrinking, bankrupt city, between Novi and Brighton, for those of you who are familiar with the area.  Their lot is heavily treed, with most of it lying in a protected woodland with marshes and a pond that freezes solid in the winter.  You can see their neighbors on either side through the trees, since technically, they're located in an otherwise ordinary subdivision, but it's solid forest directly behind their property.  Quite private, very quiet, and decidedly non-urban.  Even though the nearest town is literally two minutes away.

They've lived there for four years already, but this was my first visit.  And I completely understand why my sister-in-law, a country girl at heart, fell in love with the place the moment she saw it.

The thing about Michigan, of course, is that it's the world's headquarters for the mass-production of automobiles.  And where my brother lives, in suburban Detroit, my Honda Accord would seem a bit out of place.  Everybody in his family - everyone in his family are now drivers (yikes!) - drives an American nameplate.  I didn't see any vehicles in their entire neighborhood that wasn't American, except for one Subaru, which considering their fierce winters, is entirely understandable.

Here in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, Lexus is by far the most popular luxury nameplate, followed closely by Mercedes-Benz.  In Michigan, it seems that the stodgy old Lincoln brand still has a loyal following.  In fact, I was surprised to see hardly any Cadillacs, just like here in Texas.  I guess that former symbol of American "excellence" has lost its luster even in the land of its namesake, Antoine Laumet de La Mothe Cadillac, the French explorer who founded the city of Detroit.

Driving around suburban Detroit, it was striking to see so few people texting behind the wheel.  Here in Texas, it seems I'm the only driver who doesn't text.  Yet in Michigan, most drivers actually watch the traffic ahead of them as they traverse the state's brittle roadways.  Where my brother lives, many of the side roads are still hard dirt - an aesthetic that the state of Michigan propagandizes as country chic - while other roads bear the unmistakable pitfalls (pun intended) of too much salt in the winters and too much rain in the other three seasons.  Newer, freshly-paved roads are few and far between, unless you're driving in one of the many recent subdivisions that have been constructed for the masses of Michiganders continuously fleeing the older, more urbanized Detroit core. 

Indeed, as Detroit continues to hemorrhage population - despite having weathered its stunning bankruptcy - the metropolitan region continues to travel north and west.  Its close-in ring of suburbs having matured long ago, Detroit's more bucolic outer ring of exurban towns and villages is swelling with transient suburbanites who have the economic wherewithal to put even more distance between themselves and Motown's continued dysfunction.

We toured downtown Detroit during our visit, and while the area around General Motors' world headquarters, on the riverside, appears quite vibrant, the rest of the city continues to shrivel up and wither away.  There's a stretch of promising new urban revitalization blossoming between the southern flanks of downtown and Belle Isle, the city's answer to New York's Central Park, but drive just one block west of Belle Isle's entrance, and deep blight is all there is to see.

By now, everybody knows the "ruin porn" that is Detroit:  Block after block of vacant lots, with perhaps a rickety old house or an abandoned structure of some sort still standing to break up the monotony.  On other blocks, the monotony is row after row of boarded-up houses and businesses, huddling together like heaps of bricks and wood that are struggling to retain some semblance of once being livable structures.  Even the graffiti is faded, their decay has become so old.

Churches - Detroit used to be full of churches - are literally falling in on themselves.  One massive church sanctuary we saw from a freeway had a prominent, circular rose window facing the setting sun, but all its missing shards of glass looked like black thorns, not a glorious flower.

Along one avenue lined with majestic trees, some large, old homes that were probably fashionable mansions in their day have been connected by rickety facades and re-branded as nursing homes, probably to scam Medicaid by claiming that they're providing suitable care to the city's stock of elderly blacks who can't afford to leave.  One of my nephews is an EMT who works in and around the city.  He recognized several of these so-called nursing homes, having made multiple trips to them, and he testified to the horrible conditions inside, hinted at by the derelict upkeep of their exteriors.  We winced upon viewing some of the homes, imagining all too easily what life inside must be like.

Oddly enough, there doesn't seem to be an over-supply of liquor stores like in other urban American slums.  Detroit is so desolate, it apparently doesn't have the population to sustain even those ubiquitous bad neighbors!

This summer marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Detroit Riot, a five-day-long race-fueled tipping point in Detroit's fortunes as a thriving urban center.  Historically, like many old American cities, Detroit has always been a tinder-box of bias and bigotry, whether over race, or ethnicity, or religion, or country of origin.  But in 1967, long-simmering tensions between whites and blacks exploded into a conflagration of violence, arson, looting, and mayhem that opened the floodgates of white flight.  Combined with the city's cresting dominance in industrial manufacturing, the unabating popularity of new suburbs, frustration over municipal corruption, and the rise of the sunbelt, Detroit began its head-long free-fall into the abyss of urban decay. 

In 1950, Detroit's population peaked at over 1.8 million people.  But that was the decade in which suburbanization took off across the United States, and many of our large cities began to lose their middle class in significant numbers.  By 1967, Detroit was slowly losing residents at a steady pace.  Yet today, Detroit's head count has plummeted, standing at 670,000, and still dropping...

670,000 is still a lot of people, but it represents a stunning 62% decline from the city's peak.  Population-wise, Detroit is back where it was in 1910, before the automobile age.  No other large American city has experienced such a dramatic decline without any signs of stabilization - let alone reversal - in sight.

Sure, Mercedes-Benz runs a foreboding-looking research and engineering campus along the city's western flanks - literally on the city line.  Some huge hospital complexes continue pumping life blood into the city's renowned bio-tech sector.  A major subsidiary of Johnson Controls has announced that it's relocating downtown from the suburbs, purchasing a long-dormant 10-story office building for its new home, and hundreds of employees.  Other companies have made measured gestures of corporate support for Michigan's largest city, and the owner of Quicken Loans, Dan Gilbert, boasts that he now employs over three thousand city residents.

Yet while such glimmers of hope are certainly better than nothing, the magnitude of the losses Detroit has suffered remain staggering by comparison.  And the many factors that have taken Detroit on this miserable journey have yet to be thwarted.  Municipal corruption, for example, remains intransigent.  Detroit's schools remain atrociously inferior to anything any decent parent would want for their children.  Much of the city's abandoned landscape is polluted.  Many experts say that in theory, the city's remaining residents should be consolidated into a far smaller street grid, so they can at least be better protected and serviced by the city's woefully under-funded first responders and utilities.  However, the logistics - both legal and practical - of forcing such an upheaval makes the idea virtually impossible in reality.

Detroit's journey down this sad road, at least as it's been measured since its epic riot of 1967, has lasted almost as long as I have been alive.  Which means that even if Detroit's many problems were somehow fixed today, it likely would take decades for the city to backfill itself with revitalized new homes, businesses, and infrastructure to replace what it's lost.

Meanwhile, the travel many Detroiters are taking as they leave the city remains much easier.  In 2010, the Wall Street Journal recognized the phenomenon of "black flight" in the city.  Black flight is a term that describes how dynamics not of race, but economics, have become the last resort for the city's proud black population.  In other words, the reasons people are now leaving Detroit have little to do with racism, but everything to do with quality of life issues like employment, safety, housing values, public schools, and reliable municipal infrastructure.

So, Detroit's blacks who can afford to leave, do.  Just like anybody, black or white, who has stuck it out as long as they can.  Yes, there has been an uptick in the number of whites moving into Detroit, but few of them are families intent on homesteading in Motown for the duration.  Few seem eager to bet that their idealism will provide sufficient fortification in the city's raw, impoverished slums, eerily removed from within walking distance of downtown, where luxury condominiums and shimmering marinas dot the well-preserved riverfront.  Instead, they seem to be opportunistic Millennials or empty-nesters angling to enjoy some trendy loft living on a budget, since Detroit is hardly a high-rent district.

Besides, who says Detroit's revitalization depends on the skin color of the people moving back in?  Isn't it the industriousness of the newcomers, and their willingness to build something bigger than themselves?  As it is, Detroit needs more than corporate tokenism and frugal white folk to rebuild.  It needs entrepreneurs willing and able to take a long, arduous journey in a deeply blighted city.

Funny how travel can work, isn't it?  Only for Detroit, the joke makes nobody laugh.