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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Looking North

Every time I see the mountains, I remember. That’s all because of a freeway detour that takes me the long way around to get home, forcing me off my comfortable, reliable route onto a different freeway that is not nearly as smooth. Each time I curve onto this new way home, there’s a certain vantage point that I hit where the full expanse of the mountains comes into view. Here, the mountains don’t gradually appear from my blind spot as they sometimes do when I travel from other directions through this valley. On this route, they announce themselves with the visual equivalent of heralding trumpets. Imposing and commanding, they remind me that they are always there, whether I notice them or not. They stand, unmoved, a mixture of brown earth and sparks of granite, shrub trees, and transmission centers. The clouds and the contrasting colors soften the reality of the vibrating traffic and ridges of development that lead to their peaks. A reality that seems almost pretend from far away.

I grew up in Los Angeles, so these particular mountains are my lifelong companions. I know the way they rise and fold into each other, where the towers stand, and, if I look closely, where the roads lie that lead up from the world below. From some perspectives, like from a perfectly positioned parking garage or from the skylight in my childhood bedroom, the tops of the California palm trees make a carpet on which the mountains sit.

I know the time of day by their hues, especially the orange light that falls across them as the sun goes down to the west. The descending light hits the mountains like a blanket of color and shadow because where I grew up the mountains are north. North like the star, north like the compass that guides you when you are lost. It was an embarrassingly long time into my adolescence before I realized that mountains aren’t north everywhere, even in Southern California. When I was six, my mother used the mountains to teach me how to find north, south, east, and west. Standing with me underneath our 25 foot shade tree she said, “Look to the mountains and you can figure out where to go from there.”

But can they show me where to go from here? Without willing it or wanting it, as I hit that spot on this new freeway, I go back. Always. Back to the happiest of days and back to the saddest of days because the mountains are with me through it all. They are the backdrop, the meditation spot, the shape of realization in each. Their crests match the crescendo of emotion they evoke, an amalgam of opposites if ever there was one. A rush of sadness mixes with the peace of constancy and pulls forth nostalgia not just for what once was but for what once could be, stirring up the happiness and anticipation that defined so much of youth and the surprise that still marks so much of living life. No matter what, it never goes the way I think it will.

I remember the mountains from my five year-old perspective, looking out my bedroom window waiting for my friend to walk out across the street and wave to me, inviting me to run outside and play. Like kids used to do, we would sit and watch the world: the trees in the neighborhood, the shape-shifting clouds and the mountains that framed it all. Because none of that was just wasting time when we were five.

One day when I was much older than five, I looked out onto those mountains and I thought about how the ridgeline stays the same, even when everything is moving around it. The warm breeze that always blows in early autumn in Los Angeles was back again that day, making every detail of the mountains clear. It was as if I could see a leaf on a tree one mile up and fifteen miles away. And I thought, life is hard and complicated and beautiful like the mountains and every once in awhile, when the timing is just right and the season is just right, I get to see all of that in detail, up close. Whether I want to or not.  

The mountains were still there the next day, unchanged, when everything else was nothing but change. On this day, I would look again onto the mountains swept clean by that breeze and think: this is the last thing you saw. This, right here -- the mountains -- these points that rise and break the softness of the clouds, just like the truth sometimes does against a beautiful white lie.

I looked out to that line in the sky, the backdrop to our lives from childhood onward that always announced ‘we are home’, no matter where we had been. Home. The term somehow embraced you. The space that I returned to that was always changing but still the same. The space I carried with me even when I didn't notice it. But now I know home can be hard and complicated and not always beautiful, especially close up when there are no clouds to soften the view.

You looked to these mountains and to your home and you left.

As I drive up the detour and the mountains come into sight, the reality that you chose to leave is the first thing I see and my memories of you, the last. There is nothing left in my view that looks pretend. It is all closer than ever, taller than ever, realer than ever, reminding me of all that was and of all that wasn’t and of all that will always be. Every time I see the mountains announce themselves like that, I commit to finding a new way to get home around this detour. I haven’t found it yet.

Monday, December 30, 2013

My Day in the Magic Kingdom (It's not money, it's paper.)

It’s the end of a long day at Disneyland. I am squeezing in this annual trip between a packed schedule at work and my 16 graduate credits in the evening. I am on the tram to the parking structure. My resentment for this tram is deep and unyielding. In the old days, you could just walk straight out of Disneyland and into your car. Now, exiting Disneyland is like being caught in an ungraceful circular goodbye that just won’t end. If you are within 10 feet of me at closing time in the Magic Kingdom, I will surely recount this to you more than once.

On the tram, a man with teenagers turns to his wife and says with mock enthusiasm: “Too bad we didn’t get a two day pass. Just imagine, we could be coming back tomorrow for another 12 hour day!”

I look at him, a complete stranger, and know he is my brother. We commiserate the rest of the ride to our cars.

I take my children to Disneyland once a year, every year. They love it. And I love them. When I roll into the parking garage, it is this love that sustains me while being slammed with a $16 fee to park a regular old automobile. I tell myself to just think of it as three Disneyland churros.

We meet our friends at the entrance; there are 11 of us all together. If you are a financial masochist like me, you quickly calculate that a (potential*) $1,000 in entrance fees surrounds you in the form of people you know. Not including parking. I begin my standard Disneyland mantra: It’s not money, it’s paper. It’s not money, it’s paper. It is the only perspective that clamps down on the sticker shock.

Before our journey begins, I give my preemptory lecture to the children who are with us.

“Attention: This is a school day, yet you are lucky enough to be at Disneyland. There is no crying at Disneyland. There is no fighting at Disneyland. There is no pouting at Disneyland. All over the world, from the heights of Bel Air to the poorest corners of the globe, children want to trade places with you. I won’t go into why this is or explain cultural hegemony, but I will say this: you are the envy of millions. Remember this fact if you have to wait in line for an hour or if your parent refuses to buy you yet another five-dollar churro. If something doesn’t go your way, smile and keep it to yourself.”

I can already tell I will fail at my own directive numerous times throughout the day.

This speech is especially pertinent to my five-year-old daughter who is only on her second trip to Disneyland and is at risk of large scale whining. She’s a relative newbie. That’s because I do not bring children who still nap to Disneyland.  I have seen countless parents try to rouse their sleeping toddlers to see a parade they have absolutely no interest in seeing.  It is only when one pays almost $100 for a 3 year-old to have an experience that one would ever be stupid enough to do such a thing.

So off we go, thankfully without a diaper bag, on our Magic Kingdom adventure at Christmastime.
The park is pretty full; it is an ongoing battle to keep my five year old from getting swept up in a tide of people. A couple of times I see her riding a crest of humanity away from me and I think: I am paying for this anxiety, go figure.

To top this off, multiple rides are closed: Thunder Mountain, The Story Book Ride, Haunted Mansion, and Indiana Jones. I look at the (potential*)  $1000 in entrance fees surrounding me and I cannot stop myself from engaging the lovely Disneyland cast member who must bear the bad news to the swarming legions. “Another ride closed? This group represents (potentially*) a 1000 bucks and 3 people off from work, not to mention the ADA money for all these kids missing school…”

The cast member raises an eyebrow and tries to move me along: “Well, thankfully, there are 100 other attractions for you to ride.” Oh awesome, condescension, my favorite.

“Just for the record, sir, of those 100, the train doesn’t count. Neither does the Tiki Room, Tarzan’s Tree House, or the House of the Future. Those are “A” ticket rides --that’s what we are getting for our (potential*) thousand bucks.” My friend Mike graciously leads me away.

Did I mention I am extra tired?

Moving on. We separate into age groups and my sister and I take the little ones to Toontown. We have virtually abandoned Fantasy Land because it resembles the 405 Freeway at 6pm -- except with strollers instead of cars. So now we are off to Toontown. I hate Toontown. All my friends hate Toontown, but my sister wants to take the little ones there because she doesn’t have little ones anymore and the last time she went to Disneyland I don’t think there was a Toontown. Like most people, she has to learn the hard way.

We stop and get cotton candy. It costs $4. I explain to my five year old and the guy selling it that it’s really just a half-cup of sugar. Retail value: 12 cents. No one cares. I repeat my mantra: it’s not money, it’s paper, it’s not money, it’s paper. I feel momentarily centered and I move on.

We are all getting hungry. On the Pirates of Caribbean, we pass the Blue Bayou restaurant with its fake fireflies and it’s mossy ambience and I brag to my sister that I once ate there with a friend's family when I was in middle school. Their mom went to China in 1979 before everyone else except Nixon. I am pretty sure only those kinds of people ever eat at the Blue Bayou. My sister comments on some exclusive club somewhere in New Orleans Square that costs thousands to belong to where one can actually get a good burger and a beer. I tell her to stop talking about where uber rich people eat unless one of them will be taking us there today. I am still obsessing over spending $4 on cotton candy and I could really use a good burger and a beer.

Instead, I spend $100 on food that should only cost 25 bucks and some good will to overlook how bad it is.  An older gentleman rings up my purchase and asks: "Are you a yearly pass member?" I don’t respond. The crowd around us is growing, I yell to my oldest to find my youngest because she is now hidden amongst a sea of bodies.

A little frazzled, I look back at the graying man and say: “I’m sorry, what?”
“….Pass members?”
“Oh god, no. I can only do this once a year.” 
He smiles a tired smile and says: “I know exactly what you mean.”

The sun is setting. It’s cold. California cold. The wind is blowing so there won’t be fireworks and fake snow tonight. I am relieved that the night will be ending a little early, knowing we have a 20 minute wait for a 10 minute tram ride to a 5 minute escalator ride to a 3 minute walk to the car to inch through a long line to exit the structure to drive 40 miles home. 

I turn to my friend and say: “Remember when we could walk straight out of the gate to our car?”

Dedicated to Mike C. who has hung through more Disneyland trips with me than he cares to remember and Daniel T. who was supposed to take my kids to Disneyland this year while I sat and drank hot chocolate but instead moved to Boston just in the nick of time.

*My sister works for a Disney subsidiary and was able to walk in herself and three of our party for free.

The prices in the 1980's completely explain why I could go there with my friends in high school and college and how my parents could afford to take a family of 7 every year......
One-Day, One-Park, Adult Admission Prices over time
Price US$$10.75$12.00$14.00$17.95$18.00$21.50$25.50$27.50$28.75$31.00
Month & YearJan 1999Jan 2000Nov 2000Mar 2002Jan 2003Mar 2004Jan 2005Jun 2005Jan 2006Sep 2006
Price US$$39.00$41.00$43.00$45.00$47.00$49.75$53.00$56.00$59.00$63.00
Month & YearSep 2007Aug 2008Aug 2009Aug 2010June 2011May 2012June 2013
Price US$$66.00$69.00$72.00$76.00$80.00$87.00$92.00

^* Before 1982, passport tickets were available to groups only.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Things We Hold On To

I work at the site of the old Ambassador Hotel, a place well known for many things but most notably the assassination of Robert F Kennedy. As I did this week, I occasionally take guests on a tour of the historic areas of this site. Visitors are always surprised to find out that the location of the shooting is not memorialized; I usually preempt questions about this by explaining that the family prefers to focus on celebrating Senator Kennedy’s life. But this week’s visitor pressed me on the merits of “ignoring” this “piece of history” and so I added: I think a public commemoration of the spot of his death would detract from the family’s mission and add to their pain.

The response surprised me: Still?

Yes. Still.

There is still a jacket and a flannel shirt hanging in my closet, neither of which belongs to me. They were acquired the way I acquire all kinds of things from people I love -- I borrow them and then forget to give them back. A psychologist might deem this unconsciously holding on to people by holding on to their stuff. As fruitless as that has proven to be, it just might be right.

Every once in awhile, when I am flipping through items in my closet to find something to wear, I stop at the jacket and the shirt, neither of which will ever fit me but hang there in the appropriate sections. Some days I go right past them. Some days that seems impossible to do. My hand lingers on the hanger and I pull out one of them, eliciting emotions that are always closer to the surface than I realize. In the early days after I lost the people who wore them, holding these pieces of clothing provided some comfort as if wrapping myself in them was wrapping myself in their presence.

It’s been a long time since I have felt like that. Still, I haven’t been able to remove these things from my closet and put them away into a box with the other items I hold on to and carry -- items that don’t really belong to me, either. The brown cardboard of this box is worn and softened from years of storage and movement, storage and movement, storage and movement. Among its contents are a baseball cap, a short story with a margin full of handwritten notes, and a baby’s teething toy that is so old the fluid has long since evaporated through the plastic -- proving everything seeps out if just given enough time.

Once in a great while, I open this box. I read its contents and turn the items over in my hands. I wonder about what could have been for the boy who wore the cap, the friend who wrote the story, and, especially, the baby who held the toy.

That teething toy is now over thirty years old. When I hold it, I remember things like long walks after school and requests for blue scrambled eggs that kept turning out green. But mostly I remember watching the sunset with him from the garden behind his house one very normal, very amazing evening when I was still so very, very young. He sat with me for a long time on a bench beside the rose bushes, staying much longer than he, an active toddler, normally would. Watching the sky slowly change, he calmly leaned his head against my arm and expressed his thoughts with a sigh that came from someplace so deep within, it was shocking in its emotion. Something compelled me to commit every detail of that moment to my memory. I still feel the air cooling from the warmth of the day and his soft, fine hair against my bare arm; I see the layers of red and orange on the horizon, the line of a roof against the darkening sky; I smell the roses around us and I hear the sound of that sigh. I remember my realization that somehow this tiny little boy seemed to know he was not going to outlast the cancer he was fighting and so he was taking in the beauty of his world in a way I was missing. I remember it all and it can still make me sad.

Yes. Still.

There is something in our culture that wants to push away our own pain and the pain of others. So much so, that even in events as traumatic and public as the Kennedy assassination, people want the painful emotions about it to be over --maybe so they don’t have to exert the energy to be sensitive to them, but probably so they do not have to be reminded of their own. Louis CK said recently in a bit of philosophy masquerading as comedy, that sadness is an awesome, poetic emotion that everyone avoids. And he’s right. The cultural pressure to constantly act out what we think happy looks like, means we seek to be endlessly diverted from our inner lives by anything in our reach. It also means we judge others with the misplaced criticism that people who acknowledge their sadness are somehow stuck and missing life. Misplaced because carrying sadness means moving forward with it. It's burying sadness that means being rooted into the ground with it -- it just hides all that from view. 

We do a lot of burying of sadness in our culture and not enough carrying, but we all hold it, no matter what we do with it. Sometimes it fits into a box and sometimes it’s too big to be contained. Sometimes it is private and sometimes it is on the front page of the newspaper. But it’s still there, even forty-five years later, even when we are getting dressed for work, even when we are laughing at a comedian. Yes, still.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Ten Rules for Driving in LA

I have a vicious 13 mile commute into downtown LA that makes me question the state of my life on a regular basis. If this drive takes me less than 45 minutes, I pretty much expect the heavens to open and a chorus of angels to sing. The things I witness in those 45 minutes are hair-raising in their stupidity and sometimes in their danger.

So, I’ve created my own little 10 point addendum to the driver’s handbook just for this special group. Many of these rules have to do with the ‘left hand turn’, which, apparently, is much trickier than it seems.

1.     Figure out the turning lane: This is a lane between the opposing directions of traffic marked by a solid line on the outside and a broken line on the inside; it is supposed to be used for turning. I am including a graphic because, based on my driving experiences, this is not common knowledge. You first pull into the turning lane and then start your turn. Please, don’t come to a dead stop in a lane of moving traffic and wait for a good time to turn across the turning lane. NO, don’t do that. At least 50 people just mentally killed you and one guy almost rear-ended you. The turning lane. Learn it. Use it. Love it.
2.     Use your blinker. If you don’t turn on your blinker, the rest of us have no idea what you are planning on doing and cannot adjust accordingly. Flipping on your blinker in the middle of making a turn or after you change lanes, doesn’t count. And it’s just stupid.

3.     Pull forward.  When you are waiting to make a left hand turn: PULL . FORWARD. The goal is to get as many people’s front wheels across that line and into the intersection as possible so that we can all legally turn when that light changes to red. If you stay 5 feet behind that line, even you might not be able to make the turn. Which leads me to…

4.     Don’t stay five feet behind the intersection line. Do not wait through two lights for a gap in traffic large enough to move a locomotive. Get your ass into the intersection and you can legally make that turn no matter what freaking color the light is. And so, possibly, can the guy behind you.

5.     Don’t make me hit the brakes so you can turn left with your impeccably bad timing. If I have to apply my brakes to avoid hitting you as you turn, you make me wish I could.

6.     Follow the rules. There are intersections throughout Los Angeles where it is illegal to turn left during rush hour.  When you deem yourself too special for this rule to apply to you, you then feel entitled to block the intersection and wait through the entire light to make your turn. Meanwhile, a half mile of cars traveling down, say, Normandie Blvd. just came to a halt behind you. And that means the cars exiting the freeway at Normandie just came to a halt, too. Which means the traffic on the 101 is even more horrific than usual, all thanks to you and your specialness. Just so you know, when that happens, people don’t just mentally kill you, they envision multiple ways to mentally kill you.

7.     Don’t travel 20 miles an hour faster than the average flow of traffic. If you do this, you are either a 19 year old male who thinks he knows everything or you are just an asshole. The rest of us take solace in the fact that your driving technique acts as a neon arrow, pointing you out to our friends from the CHP. In fact, when I see them flash their lights at you, I feel a sense of satisfaction that is rarely found in the natural world.

8.     If you are the first car stopped at a stoplight, you are the line leader. That’s right. Just like kindergarten, you have a “job”. You need to move the line of cars through that intersection in as timely a fashion as possible. That means you should not be checking maps, composing email, or reading a book when the light changes. If you miss the green light, somebody may honk as a way of saying: “Do your job, line leader!” Do not flip them off. You are the one who is wrong here.

9.     Know where you are going. This prevents you from veering across six lanes of traffic at a 45 degree angle in order to get to the exit you didn’t realize you needed. Stop relying on your phone's map feature that doesn't voice directions. When you take your eyes off the road to look at a tiny little digital display while you are also lost, things go downhill fast. Get a GPS. They are cheap. They talk to you. They come with big screens. Here you go.

10.  Try not to get caught in the intersection. I say “try” because it can happen to the best of us. Sometimes this happens when we think traffic will move but doesn’t, usually because someone decides to parallel park or the line leader can’t complete a right hand turn due to the pedestrian traffic*. I get it -- we all get it. We also understand that you are now blocking hundreds of drivers from moving forward through that intersection and beyond. If this is you one day, all that is required is that you look duly mortified and that you make gestures of helplessness and/or of begging forgiveness. We will all feel bad for you. What you should definitely avoid is looking straight ahead like a statue, checking your email, or reading a book. Do that and someone may actually kill you.

*Pedestrians. Let me start by saying all drivers in Los Angeles hate you, perhaps even more than we hate other drivers. Generally, it’s not personal. I am sorry you are in LA and you don’t have a car because getting around here without one just sucks. But we are driving and that means we are only thinking about one thing: being done with driving.  Get out of the way, stop walking so slowly, stop running across at the last minute and stop having conversations in the driveway to my parking garage.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

In Response to the Response On Those 25 Kids Who Didn't Get Jack

This blog is kind of a fun thing I started a year ago with the encouragement of an accomplished acquaintance who said, “If for nobody else, write it for your kids -- one day they will want to know who you are besides their mom.” I do not write to make money, to advertise, or to be famous. I write because no one at my job will let me talk this long without interrupting me or wandering away.

The majority of what I write never gets posted here and what does is usually advertised just to the 300 friends on my Facebook page. It still surprises me that it gets read by anyone other than the 70 or so adults I speak to on a regular basis. I know a bit about my readers because there are stat counters that tell me things like how many first time and repeat visitors I have, how long they stay, what posts they read, and what cities they are in when they read them.

In the last two months a surprisingly large number of readers have pinned, tweeted, and reposted this piece:  To the 25 Fifth Graders Who Didn't Get Jack at Their Promotion Ceremony

Some of my previous posts have reached a substantial number of unique readers but those were related to some pretty hot topics, like the shooting in Newton or that frustrating article about “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All”. The last I heard, my daughter’s elementary school promotion was not in the news or on the cover of The Atlantic Monthly. This leads a thinking person to surmise that a lot of people across the country are having issues with the disproportionate praise given academic "success" at the expense of other very worthwhile qualities. Success for kids, even really little ones, is now mostly measured by numbers from a variety of tests, including state tests that are influenced by all kinds of things. With the help of our local public schools, these tests peddle a tall tale of predicting success, creating the unstated but pervasive belief that good numbers are the most important component to a successful life. Schools are motivated salesmen of this misdirection because missing key testing benchmarks translates into lost dollars -- and some pretty gruesome paperwork. I know this because at work I strategize with the best of them to wring out every possible disaggregate point in order to avoid both.

We all remember when there was no such thing as an AYP and an API and when we rode our bikes around town instead of being driven everywhere because parents were way less afraid. I am not lumping those two things randomly. Fears about how our kids will do -- if they will miss out or miss the mark-- are as real and exaggerated for us, the parents, as our fears about kids’ physical safety. I’ve seen parents argue with teachers about why their child received a 3 instead of a 4 on a third grade report card. I had to remind these normally rational people that no college admittance board will ever see this mark. But even third grade can seem high stakes when nothing is a given anymore: Going to college doesn’t guarantee a job, being a doctor no longer means being “rich”, and kids no longer prosper more than their parents. It’s tough out there, so parents push their kids to be competitive. In the process, parents sometimes increase esteem for the wrong things and are likely to abandon the age old “getta job!” for “don't getta job--build that extra-curricular portfolio instead!”.

Maybe it's parents' facilitation of so many life experiences (and science projects) that leads this current generation to be not just smart and competitive but also full of expectation for that facilitation to continue …. just because. They expect a high-paying job just because they have a degree, to be rich just because they are smart -- geez, they expect the laundry to just end up folded and put away even when they are, like, 16 and should know elves are mythical creatures.

The shock of going from being a big fish in a stocked pond to an average haddock in the open sea is often completely overwhelming for these kids. And by average, I mean average-excellent. There are a lot of smart, talented kids out there. To which the world sighs and says: So what? In fact, there are so many of these kids that come awards time at an elementary school, it wasn’t 7 kids who were recognized, it was 75 out of 100. When you consider the law of numbers, that means those 75 were recognized for being more or less culturally average. But everyone wants to believe receiving any award means they are not average. Average is apparently one of the worst things to be in our society, even though, by definition, most of us are.

Last year I wrote about a speech given by David McCullough to a group of privileged high school students in which he told them they are not special, they are self-entitled. Our society is beginning to respond to our over-facilitated middle class adolescents with calls that these kids' lives should be just a little tougher and a little more independent, although no one is quite sure how to make this happen. Still, I am concerned that in this pendulum swing, we will sometimes mistake struggle that tears down for struggle that builds up. 

Maybe that's a concern so many people share; a concern borne from the instinctive knowledge that we are more than our accomplishments and certainly more than our CST scores -- especially at the age of 11, when we are still mostly potential and possibilities.

Recently when I was doing errands in town, I was approached by a man I didn't know -- but he knew me. A mutual friend had sent him my piece on the promotion ceremony. He was the relative of one of the kids who did not get an award. He shared his anger at the events and then he shared his gratitude that I wrote the truth: it is who you are that matters and it is your character that determines how your life will go. The family read the piece to the child. Then they reread it for themselves. As he told me this, he fought back tears. I am betting the pain of this family is echoed in many families in towns all across this great NCLB nation of ours. And that each of you knows at least one of them.

Not everyone agrees with my criticism. One reader felt that being left without an award at the ceremony was a valuable learning experience. It was the very kind of 'struggle' experience that kids don’t get enough of these days. Following that comment, another reader told about a child that didn’t get the award, cried all the way home, and refused to attend a special lunch set up by the family. Humiliation can really kill an appetite.

Let me be super clear on my views, this situation was not a 'learning experience' equivalent to working towards a championship and then losing it. It was not akin to the character building of an after school job or cleaning the garage. Instead, these awards branded 25% of the kids as ‘not special’ before an audience of their closest relatives. 

If you are a parent whose child does not struggle with academics, with emotions, or with making friends, count yourself lucky, but don’t count yourself entitled to that status or a better parent because of it. Life is not over yet. It could change at any moment. I have seen it many, many times in my 20 years in education.

I am not bashing parents, teachers, or awards. I am saying elementary schools need to publicly celebrate a variety of important qualities, not just give medals to those who jump performance bands on standardized tests or land in the advanced category. I am saying we are losing sight of the big picture. If you only knew how much baloney is entailed in determining these statistics and in the rules of testing, it is possible you would agree. Yet, it is for the love of this statistical and cultural madness that some kids and their families were left feeling really bad about themselves on a day that was supposed to be a celebration of growing up and moving on. No matter how much I examine it, I cannot see how this builds character. I cannot. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

On Trayvon Martin, Hoodies, Cheerios and My Favorite Student.... who said I could use his name.

In an interview a year ago, George Zimmerman said he wouldn’t go back and do anything differently the night he killed Trayvon Martin. One can only hope that is what his lawyers told him to say because it is hard for me to imagine not wanting a do-over in any situation that left an unarmed teenager dead, even if I had to keep a broken nose and a laceration of the scalp to get one.

A do-over is what most people seem to be looking for in the outcome of the Trayvon case because so much about this case --from the confrontation, to the laws, to the outcome --is hard to fathom. There are many questions here, but the one everyone is asking is: how much did race matter? The jury says it didn’t. Maybe it didn’t or maybe they just don’t want to think that it did because no one wants to risk being called a racist or calling someone else one. Nonetheless, based on what I hear in conversations with relative strangers at kids’ birthday parties and random social events, people express explicitly and implicitly some pretty troubling sentiments about different races, nationalities, and religions. These conversations happen when people assume I am like-minded, mostly because my skin color is the same as theirs, I live in the same town or we know the same people. Once they figure out I am not, they morph into fervent excuse makers. Because no one wants to be branded a bigot, especially a bigot.

Yes, even the people demanding removal of the sweetest Cheerios commercial depicting a biracial family do not want to be called out on bigotry. Because, hey, it’s not that the commercial-haters are racist, it’s that it is offensive to them that a black man and a white woman would be in love, married, have a family, and be portrayed as typically American on national television. Offensive, I am guessing, because this is not what their families look like and possibly because they are afraid that’s what the families of their grandchildren will. That slippery racial integration slope, it’s so scary.

It's really Florida that seems pretty scary; a troubling state not just because of their uneven use of the stand your ground law, but because they have that law to begin with. Plus, people are walking around that place carrying guns. People with guns can stop you and detain you based on nothing more than their perceptions of what your appearance means. It’s all part of a perfect storm, turning what would have been a verbal confrontation in one state into a deadly one in Florida.

The final decision in this case is thorny, and from my very inexpert point of view seems to come from a lack of witnesses, over charging, and laws in Florida that are just weird.

All of that could be true, but none of it means race is an unimportant factor here, despite the jury’s statement that race didn’t enter into their decision. Perhaps they are confusing their decision with their ‘deliberations’-- publicly saying pointedly racial stuff is only for the truly idiotic or the truly arrogant. Someone should have told that to Paula Deen a long time ago.

I am of the school that if Trayvon were white or Asian, Zimmerman’s fate not only would have gone the other way, there probably would never have been any confrontation at all. But mostly, I’d lay serious money on the bet that the jury’s decision would have gone against Zimmerman if George Zimmerman were black.  Black men are viewed as way more threatening than black teenagers. Apparently, even when they are just in a Cheerios commercial.

It’s hard to believe race didn’t enter Zimmerman’s mind either, even if it was just one of many factors that affected his actions. Maybe he suffered from a different kind of prejudice, like a prejudice against hoodie-wearing-I-think-you-could-be-a–criminal- because-your-skin-is-brown-and you-scare-me-teenage boys. I need to stop right there and disclose that this group represents some of my favorite people. Because that group is a collection of individual boys whose names I know and that experience changes a lot. And this is really the point.

Our perceptions shape our fears and our fears shape our actions. Most people's perceptions of those who are different are formed by upbringing, movies, the nightly local news, and superficial contact where the negative is given exponential weight to the multitude of neutral or positive interactions. And that is why this is important to be aware of -- not much substance radically forms our perceptions. It takes lots of information and some experience to get the real picture. This is definitely not just a black/white thing. This can be extended to many nationalities, religions, sexual and gender orientations, and disabilities.

I know this in part from Freddy, who was arrested and tried mostly over perceptions and politics (never discount that one from the mix). When I met Freddy, he already had a juvenile record and a probation officer, but he was working hard to change that. Then he was abandoned by his mother to make it alone on the streets at 16. He slept in parks, on rooftops and on the random couch – for almost two years. He was fed and clothed by teachers and families in the neighborhood, including kids in gangs. We all cared about him. On paper Freddy was a mess, but in person he was well loved for his many good qualities, even more so because he kept showing up to school despite his tenuous accommodations the night before. In real three-dimensional life, he was an impressive kid that deserved a chance.

One day Freddy was walking down the street with a known gang member when they were both hauled in on a gang injunction violation. There are areas in Los Angeles where it is a crime for two or more known gang members to be together. Except Freddy wasn’t in a gang. This is as close to being detained for wearing a hoodie and looking wrong as I know. So Freddy went to jail and faced a trial to prove if he was indeed in a gang. Your tax dollars at weeks and weeks of work.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the jury – they couldn’t get much whiter. It looked like someone raided the Marie Callendars in Thousand Oaks, pushed the patrons into a van and let them out at the Superior Court on Temple Street. I went home and cried.

Now facing two years in prison, I feared if Freddy wasn’t in a gang going into incarceration, he would be coming out. Left to fend for himself, and now screwed because he was a homeless Hispanic boy living off the good will of childhood friends who were gang members, the jury would have to look past what they saw in order to answer this question: is this boy truly a gang member? And while they would not have to decide in an instant, I was worried that they would. What would they see when they looked at him? Would they see a survivor --an occasional hoodie wearing, longhaired, dark skinned, failing his classes kid who knew a lot of gang members and who made it this far partly because he did? Or would they see a kid who was tough and would look suspiciously out of place in their own neighborhoods? A kid the jurors might cross the street to avoid. The kind of kid George Zimmerman definitely would have tried to detain.

There is so much more to this story, but the point here is I was wrong. Freddy was found not guilty. After the verdict, the jury stayed to talk and share their discouragement at the whole process and the world that Freddy lived in. I made a lot of assumptions about what these people would think, feel and do based on their race and who I feared they were – jurors that I’ve seen on television shows and in publicized cases, jurors that can’t see past what they think they know. But that is not all juries and that is not all white people.

This jury had the luxury of hearing Freddy’s story from him, from his teachers, and from his truly brilliant public defender. They got to see him as a complete, loveable, complicated, imperfect person. That description probably fits a teenager you know --and you, too, for that matter. It fits Trayvon, but Trayvon didn’t get the chance to let the world know his full story. And why he didn’t needs to be at the heart of the discussion.

We all live judging from the outside, it’s hard to do anything else. But we add a lot of stuff into that equation that we can fight to keep out of there: fear of the unknown and unfamiliar and, more dangerously, the conceit of certainty for what we think we know but don’t. What I mean is we all can get it wrong, at least in part, an awful lot. 

Unfortunately, some level of racism or bigotry will probably always be with us, along with a lot of other crappy things like poverty, abuse, and crime. But that doesn’t mean we can’t improve or we should shrug and move on because it is difficult. It is a process full of stops and starts, successes and failures, some legal, some cultural, some personal, most starting with an awareness of where we are at and some starting with the acceptance of a Cheerios commercial, but all risking an honest conversation that exposes our prejudices and responsibilities. Because everyone has both.