T's Ethiopia tukul

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Death at the House at Pooh Corner

I found out yesterday that my long estranged brother-in-law passed away about a month ago. Services were private -- so private that his own children were excluded.

As our family has coped recently -- and continues to do so -- with death and dying, this one seemed like it should be a simple one. 

He was an alcoholic. And he was a mean drunk. He was a verbal and emotional batterer. He didn't pay child support, forcing my sister to raise two children on one salary, a difficult task for a teacher. My sister suffered and the kids suffered. 

He would promise the kids the moon and deliver nothing. Nephew had to learn at a very young age that not only would Daddy not get him the fantastic toys he promised for Christmas, he wouldn't even show up. The second part was harder on the crying little boy than the first. 

Eventually Niece One and Nephew wanted nothing to do with him until he sobered up. They were tired of the emotional abuse and verbal tirades; they were tired of his empty promises; they were tired of how he embarrassed them when he was drunk; they were tired of how he treated their mother. 

They hadn't seen him in at least 15 years, more than half of Nephew's life. 

So the news seemed like a shock, but nothing to mourn. 

Until Loggins & Messina's "House at Pooh Corner" aired on the Spotify channel I was listening to while making dinner tonight. Because of BIL's nickname, this was a special song for my sister and him.

You see, Niece One was given her father's nickname, since they never expected a boy, and this way he was able to have a child named for him. 

And Niece One turned out pretty darn all right. And so did Nephew. 

BIL never had the chance to know that his daughter was valedictorian of her high school class and attended an Ivy League college. Or that his son graduated third in his class and became an engineer, like his father's father. Or that he has a granddaughter. Or a zillion other details about their lives.

And now he'll never know. 

That's not to blame the kids in any way. They did what they needed to do to survive. No one should be forced to maintain relationships with toxic people.

But BIL was an alcoholic, and that's recognized as an illness. So it's also hard to say that he deserved what he got. He had behaviors associated with alcoholism that made it impossible for his children to have a relationship with him. 

His family enabled him, so he never hit bottom. They blamed my sister for the breakup -- she did move out of the marital home when he decided to spend Christmas Eve night with his side fling instead of his six-months-pregnant wife, so yes, she did technically leave him -- and validated his anger with the kids for not maintaining a relationship with him. Even when they were in the house with him when he was drunk and put the kids in the car to drive somewhere. Somehow they justified his egregious behavior, or just looked the other way in a "hear no evil, see no evil" way.  

He needed help, but never admitted it. He went to rehab when it was court ordered for work or visitation rights. Never because he himself wanted to get sober. That was the tragedy of his life. Not being able to get past needing the beer more than loving his children. 

So there I was, making dinner and surprising myself by crying tears that were rolling down my cheeks and dripping onto the kitchen floor. Tears for what never was and for what now never can be. Tears for, as Niece One described, "a sad, lost life." 

When it touches your family, death -- it seems -- is never simple. 

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Overseer

It's 1809. The sun beats down without mercy on the slaves picking cotton on a plantation in Georgia. There is a quota for how many pounds must be picked that day, and the overseer is in charge of ensuring that quota is met.

A slave, smuggled into the south from the west coast of Africa, and newly arrived from the auction block is clumsy with the ways of picking cotton. He tries to keep up with the more experienced hands, but falls behind throughout the day. He is hungry, thirsty, weary, and bereft of any hope for a life beyond the bondage he has fallen under.

The overseer weighs his bag as the sun finally begins to edge toward the horizon. Ten pounds under.

He picks up his whip and calls the other slaves to witness. "This is a message for ya'll lazy n*****s," he announces. He binds the offender to a nearby tree, and procedures to deal out lash after lash after angry lash, until the young man's back is red with blood. "Anyone else wants to get a whipping' like this, you just make sure you don't pick your quota."

He delivers one more lash for good measure, and then releases the nameless man. No one dares to approach him to offer help. To do so would surely mean lashes for them. "Get up, you lazy n*****!" the overseer snarls, with yet another lash of the whip. Struggling, the slave gets to his feet, looks around at eyes that won't meet his, and begins his long march into the annals of American history.


It is 2017. A corporation located in the south adds a new job function to a group of employees in one of its divisions, with the purpose of ensuring that an upcoming project runs smoothly and in a timely manner. The function is named "overseer."

I work for that company. I heard mention of it in one meeting, and the African-American meeting leader stopping herself and saying, "I don't like that word. I'm going to have to call it something else." I thought it was a word that had slipped out of her mouth, because it didn't seem possible that in 2017, a company in America could possibly use the word "overseer" to describe a job role.

But then a manager in another meeting the following week used that same term. I heard nothing else she said after that. When she stopped to take a breath, I interrupted her. "Is overseer a thing?" I asked. "Like an official title?"

She informed me that was correct.

"I have to object," I said. "I don't know what else it can be called, but personally I think overseer is unacceptable."

There was a brief silence and then thankfully someone else in the group spoke up. "I agree." And then a third.

The manager was understanding in listening to our objections and promised to bring it to upper management. She asked what our objection was.

"Slavery," I said. "The word has strong connotations with slavery." Another moment of silence. "The overseer was the guy with the whip making sure the slaves did their work and didn't slack off. I think there needs to be another word. Unless anyone has another opinion."

"Nope, I agree with you," said Colleague One. "Me too," said Colleague Two.

Two days later we received an email that the job function had been changed to "facilitator."

I've accomplished amazing things throughout my career. I think having management change this job function from "overseer" to "facilitator" is one of my proudest moments. Each small step for humans adds together with other small steps to become one giant leap for humankind.

"Be the change you want to see happen." --Arleen Lorrance

Friday, November 17, 2017

The most difficult writing assignment of my life

I found this picture while looking for photos of Hubs's sister who has ALS. We are up against it this year, there is no doubt about it. I'm raising my fist to the heavens saying, "I'm strong enough. I don't need any more of 'that which doesn't kill you' nonsense." But even so, I was grateful to find this beautiful photo of just the two of us. "'Tis an ill wind that blows no good."

I am here to find a poem about grief to read at Hubs's mother's funeral service tomorrow. But I've been meaning to post this for oh eight or ten weeks now. As I write this, I lost my mom almost ten weeks ago. You might as well have ripped my heart out of my chest. To feel grief in every cell of your body -- to actually feel it in your cells -- the pain is indescribable. I had 58 years with her. But it is never enough. 

And now...my other mom. My son has lost both his grandmothers in the space of nine weeks. To the day. Almost to the minute. He's only 11. He will spend the rest of his life without a grandma. The reality of that blows me away. 

We knew that Mom had limited time. At one point, knowing how much she hated the obituary the newspaper had written when Dad passed away, I asked her if she was going to write her own. "No," she said, "You're going to write it."

Word of advice: if ever anyone says that to you, immediately grab a pad of paper and start writing down the important details. Like, oh, their college major and what town they lived in after college and where they worked then and whether their degrees with "of arts" or "of science." Because we always think we have time....until we don't. 

I wrote this as a final gift to her. At $4.43 per line, it cost a fortune. She never would have let me write something that cost as much to publish as this did. But, she wasn't here to have the final say. So here is mine:

Lauser, Rachel L. (Whitman) GLENVILLE Rachel L. (Whitman) Lauser passed away suddenly at her home, Tuesday, September 12, 2017, age 84, after living courageously and determinedly for many years with COPD and pulmonary fibrosis.  She was preceded in death in 1998 by her husband and love of her life, Douglas L. Lauser, with whom she would have celebrated 61 years of marriage in June of this year.

Rachel found joy in spending time with her family, the company of her companion dogs and cats, listening to classical music, attending concerts and plays, and traveling. She was an avid reader, rarely missed doing her daily crossword puzzle and Cryptoquote, and was a formidable opponent in cribbage and Scrabble.

Her favorite place was the ocean at both Cape Cod and Cape Ann, Mass., and even as her disease limited her mobility, she would get to the water’s edge with the help of family to spend hours sitting with her feet in the water and laughing when splashed by waves.

As a teacher of court-placed children, she never gave up on her students. She taught the “will never learn how to read” students how to read and encouraged children, whom the rest of society had given up on, to earn their high school diplomas and overcome their disadvantages to make good lives for themselves and their future families.

Rachel was born in 1932 in Boston, Mass., the daughter of the late Marion F. (Clapp) and Ira H. Whitman. She grew up in Pittsfield, Mass., graduating from Pittsfield High School in 1950 and North Adams State Teachers College, now MCLA, with a B.S. in elementary education and counseling in 1954.

She began her life’s work as a teacher in Trumbull, Conn. until her marriage in 1956. She then moved back to Pittsfield and worked as a substitute teacher in the Pittsfield School district while also raising her family.

Beginning in 1970, Rachel lived briefly in Erie and then Grove City, Pa., before moving to Glenville in 1972, as her husband took the family on a whirlwind tour of General Electric locations. She obtained her M.S. in special education from Russell Sage College in 1977. She began working at Northeast Parent & Child Society in 1978, where she served in the capacities of elementary school teacher, interim vice principal, middle school teacher, and high school English teacher, retiring in 1997 to care for her husband, who had been diagnosed with cancer.

Rachel is survived by her beloved children, [all were named]; seven grandchildren, [all were named]; and one great-granddaughter due to arrive in February.

She is also survived by her cherished nieces and nephews, [all were named], as well as several great-nieces and nephews.

Finally, she is survived by three dear companion cats, Lady Katherine, Pippin, and Katze.

The family will receive guests from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Saturday, September 23 at the Bekkering Funeral Home, 1 Mohawk Ave., Scotia, N.Y. A brief memorial service will take place at 1:00 p.m. All are welcome back to the family home for a reception following.

A graveside service will be held Sunday, September 24 at Evergreen Cemetery in Stoughton, Mass., at 1:00 p.m., where Rachel will be laid to rest with her husband, parents, and maternal grandparents.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A Rose By Any Other Name

Objectionable language alert. This post contains objectionable language. Because it has to.


All but the most ignorant among us, more and more of whom are slithering out from under rocks these days, know that "nigger" is a word that needs to be erased from the English language. Its use has always been to dehumanize people of African descent so that horrendous things can be done to them.

Things like slavery and all the evils that brought: living life as a possession, to be bought and sold; dying by the thousands on voyages across the Atlantic, bound together by chains, never to see their homes or their families again; whippings and beatings and all forms of torture; families torn apart -- mothers ripped from their children, husbands ripped from their wives, siblings ripped from each other; malnourishment and starvation; and hangings -- just to touch on the tip of everything that was wrong with slavery.

And rape. What female slave was never raped by a white man feeling entitled to his way with her? A white man could have his way with a "nigger," to satisfy his desires, without fear of consequence.

Because if you could dehumanize a people, you could justify treating them as cruelly and savagely as you wanted. You could justify literally working them to death and replacing them with other "niggers."

Once slavery ended, "nigger" lived on, because it is a word born of hate, and hate lives on. If you were white, you didn't want a nigger sharing your drinking fountain, or going to the same school as your children, or being allowed a seat on the bus if there weren't enough for everyone, or sitting at a lunch counter, or be allowed to eat in the same restaurant as you, or sleeping in the same hotel as you, or using the same door as you to enter a building, or playing on the same sports teams as the white players. You certainly didn't want a "nigger" moving in next door, or taking a white man's job, or riding a bus across state lines, or worst of all, dating your daughter.

They might have been freed, but "nigger" kept African-Americans dehumanized to live separate and
unequal lives. It was a word that sicced police dogs on civil rights participants and turned on the fire hoses and took out the night clubs and beat people to a bloody pulp. It killed voter registration workers, and bombed churches where little girls were attending Sunday school and it killed them too. It tortured and killed 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was mutilated so badly he was identified only by a ring on his finger, and whose mother put a glass top on his casket for his funeral so the world could see what his racist murderers had done to him.

It is a word that lynched thousands of black men and left them swinging from tree branches for offenses as minor as not stepping off the sidewalk to allow a white woman to pass. It put white hoods on cowardly men and burned crosses in yards to intimidate defenseless families. It dragged James Byrd for three miles behind a truck, alive to feel every inch of pain as the skin ripped from his body, just for sport, until he was decapitated when they drove through a culvert.

And on April 4, 1968, it sent shots ringing out through the Memphis sky, killing Martin Luther King, Jr.

It still kills today, as we see videos of cops telling "niggers" that if they don't cooperate they're going to get what's coming to them. It allows a cop to be the judge, jury, and executioner for offenses like selling CDs outside someone's store or being a 12-year-old boy playing with a toy gun in a park in an open carry state.

And now we have a generation of children telling us that "nigga" doesn't mean the same as "nigger."

"It means 'bro' or 'dude'," I am assured by a white mother of three biracial children. Whose daughter posted on Facebook about three "niggas" already having cheated on their girlfriends during their first week of college. Who greets her friends with, "Hey, nigga."

It's so cool, a white 18-year-old female with a black younger brother felt free to post a meme on Facebook.

"And I knew you went out to dinner with that bitch and ordered a steak with a Coke."
"I ain't even get a Coke."
"Why do niggas think it's okay to only reply to ONE part of the paragraph they were sent? and (sic) it's usually the most irrelevant part lmao"

"Nigga" is not an okay variation of "nigger." People who speak with deep southern drawls turn ending 'r's into 'ah's. "Would you be a dea-ah and fetch me a glass of wat-ah?" How quickly "nigger" turns into "nigga" especially in high confrontation situations, particularly with cops with guns and itchy trigger fingers.

No, the root of "nigga" is "nigger" and it is never okay. It doesn't mean "bro" or "dude". It means "you are less than human." That "joke" above? It is demeaning to black men. It paints them all with the same brush of not being able to be faithful to one woman. Like "nigger," "nigga" needs to go away.

It needs to vanish from the vocabularies of all people, no matter how much pigment in their skin. It needs to stop showing up in rap songs and in movies. It needs to be left in the past if we are to ever overcome the sad and brutal past and present of racism in this country.

Here's a litmus test for anyone who still thinks "nigga" is just a cool way of referring to one's friends. Are you going to pick up your precious newborn baby boy and say, "Hey, nigga?" Are you going to be okay with a grandmotherly type white woman in the grocery store cooing over his smiling face, saying, "What a cute little nigga"?

Anyone who throws "nigga" around needs to stop. Now. And anyone who has friends who use it, needs to tell them it's offensive and not to use it. Remind them what has been done in the name of "nigger" and its variations.

Remind them of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice and Terence Crutcher.

Remind them that when they say it, a whole lot of white people think they can use it too, including a police officer with a gun pointed at a man who is just driving down the road with his family and gets pulled over because he has a brake light out. And that day his four-year-old-daughter who is in the car with him when the officer pulls the trigger, because the blackness of her father is a weapon he can never drop, loses her father.

Remind them that people fought, and many died, for the right to be addressed respectfully. Using "nigga" dishonors their legacy.

Because "nigga" is just another way to pronounce "nigger" and "nigger" still bounces around in non-black heads, dehumanizing fathers and mothers and brothers and sons and daughters and sisters.

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

And "nigger" by another spelling or pronunciation reeks of 450 years of injustice.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Eighteen and Life to Go

Eighteen years ago today, I woke up fatherless.

My dad, age 64, had passed away the night before while I sat with him in the hospice room at the hospital, after a year-and-a-half battle with Merkle cell cancer.

I don't know what drives this universe. I understand the physical forces, but there is more to it than that. I don't believe in an all-knowing and all-caring God. But there is something. There are so many unexplained events around his last week that I can't believe there isn't a force -- a something more than stardust and dark energy from a big bang a long, long time ago.

I had planned my first vacation in more than a decade several months before he began the final decline -- a four day trek through the wilderness in New Hampshire with no access to the outside world once we started in. I was torn about going or canceling, but decided he would want me to go and enjoy being free in the mountains after spending so many years under the controlling fist of my ex-husband.

When we returned to the land of the pay phone -- no cell phone service in the notch -- I called home, hoping to hear that he was doing better. Instead I found out he'd been admitted to the hospital again and the doctor was very concerned. The plan of my friends and me returning to Syracuse turned into a plan for them to drop me off at a mall in Albany, where I would call home and wait for a sister to pick me up while my friends went on without me, in my car.

We arrived at the mall, but decided to gas up before dropping me off.  I wasn't looking forward to the half-hour wait at the mall, but it was the most convenient plan for my friends, who still had more than two hours to drive. As we pulled up to the pump, at this gas station I had never been to before, I looked over and saw my brother's truck. I had to do a double take. Yes, that was my brother. At a gas station I had never been to before. At the same time I was there. After I had driven three hours from New Hampshire. When I was going to need a ride home. Because of my dying father. And he had no idea about the plans I had made with my sisters; he was just working and filling up between jobs.

We moved my stuff into his truck, called the sisters to tell them they didn't need to drive to the mall, and my brother drove me home. That in itself is Twilight Zone material enough.

But it didn't end there. After a couple of days home and spending time taking my shifts at the hospital, there was no change. Unlike my teacher sisters, I had to go back to my job. I called every day to find out how things were doing. Each day it was discouraging to hear that there was no positive change; he was in a morphine induced sleep and mostly unresponsive, except for when the nurses tried to change his position in the bed, and then he moaned in pain.

When I called on Wednesday, the 26th, the news was different. "He had a really good day yesterday," my sister told me. "He was awake and his eyes were following us around the room."

I didn't know then about the "surge." That when a person is somewhere between a couple of days or a few hours from death, he or she often awakens, becomes alert, and can even interact with loved ones. My sister's words were to me news that my father was likely once again fighting off an infection and responding to the antibiotics. My reaction, however, was to have a force push me down the hall to my boss's office where I told him I needed to go home. It made no sense to me, but that's what I told him. The second unexplained phenomenon.

My roommate convinced me to spend one more night in my own bed, because the final watch could takes weeks and be exhausting. So I arrived at the hospital the next afternoon, sat in the room with my mother for a while, and then told Dad I'd be back later.

I ate dinner, and my aunt called from Texas. My father's baby sister. She was 52 years old and coping with the looming loss of the older brother she always looked up to. As I write this, I am 57 and realize how heartbreaking that must have been. We were all too young. When I told her I'd been to the hospital, she asked how he was doing and if she should fly up. I didn't want to have her jump on a plane that night and then be wrong, but the words, "I think you should," came out of my mouth.

After dinner, I went to the hospital with the intent of staying there for as long as I could, to give the siblings a break from the overnight watching. My mother had left about 20 minutes before I got there. I was a little angry that she had left -- I think I was already feeling a premonition that this was going to be The Night. But I shook it off, and settled in with a stack of mail to open and bills to pay. The 24-hour watch had been going on for at least five days, maybe a week, and there was nothing to indicate that this night was going to be different than any other night.


Something told me to put everything away and be completely with my father. I read to him a little bit from my hiking journal. Then I sat quietly a little. A nurse came in and gave him his morphine injection -- a little early she said, but she knew she was going to be busy when he was actually due. His breathing slowed. I pulled up closer.

And I told him that we were going to be okay. I told him my then boyfriend was treating me like gold, although I would be able to get along without him if he broke his promise to me to not take me for granted again. "You don't need to worry about Mom," I said. "We'll take care of her."

Those are hard words to say to someone. I didn't tell him it was okay for him to go, because for me, it wasn't really. But I did tell him we would be okay. Although there are times when that was a lie. Because I'm not always okay not having my Dad. And sometimes I'm angry that he's not here to  help Mom, because she could really use him.

His breathing became less and less rhythmic. When the nurse came by, I called her in. She said this often happened at the end. I waited a couple through a couple more breaths wondering if I should call the family. When I started having to will him to take his next breath, it became clear.

I called the house number and my mother answered. I didn't want to talk to her -- I wanted a sister to break this to her. I asked very firmly for the oldest. Without questioning me, my mother handed the phone over to her. Later she told me she hadn't recognized my voice.

"You have to get Mom down here NOW," I said. "It's time?" she asked. "Yes," I said and then I hung up the phone.

I turned around and held my father's hand. I waited for him to breath. I waited. I waited. I waited. "Breathe," I said in my head. "Breathe."

But his chest remained motionless. I went to the door and I told the nurse. She came in and put a pulse oximeter on his finger. His heart was still beating, faintly. And then the display went black. She tried another finger. Still no reading. She told me she needed to call the nurse practitioner. I waited, holding his hand, and in that time, I felt something in that room. It's impossible to put into words but there was a Presence in that room.

The nurse practitioner arrived, put her stethoscope to his chest, and listened for a while. Then she stood up and hugged me. "I'm so sorry," she said. "He's gone."

How did I know that he was slipping away that night, unlike all the other nights that family had sat by his bedside? What voice of the universe told me to put my paperwork away and just Be? I have always thought that he was waiting for me. He couldn't slip into eternity until the missing daughter was there to say goodbye.

The unexplainable events didn't stop that night.

The next morning, after only a few hours of sleep I woke up. And as with every loss, for a split second, the universe was whole. Until reality came crashing down and my heart gained 20 pounds.

But life goes on, doesn't it? Even though you are screaming inside, "Stop all the clocks!" There were children to be fed. An aunt to meet at the airport. Plans to be made. I went to the kitchen and realized we had no food. Everyone had been so occupied with the caring of our dying father that the business of life had gone neglected.

We had no cereal. No bread. No milk. No eggs. No juice. No fruit. No anything to make any kind of a meal out of. It was as if the Grinch had cleaned out our cupboards.

My sister and I drove to the store. We picked up milk and bread and cereal and eggs and juice and I don't know what else. We wheeled our cart up to a checkout lane and waited for our turn to unload. A moment later, our neighbor from across the street, who I had never bumped into in the grocery store and never did again, appeared in line behind us.

We said hello, and then he asked, "How's your father doing?"

"He passed away last night."

His face dropped in sadness. "I'm so sorry."

Within the hour, the food started arriving at the house. Tomatoes from Fritz's garden. Lasagna from a neighbor. A casserole from the Factors down the street, who were good friends with my parents, and whose children I had babysat when I was in high school.

What are the odds? What are the odds that our neighbor from kitty corner across the street appears in our checkout lane in the grocery store the morning after my father dies?

And now it's been 18 years. It's the proper order that the parents should pass before the children, but at 39 years old, I didn't realize how long and how much missing of him there would be.

I put up six quarts of green beans today and thought of him. How my gardening started with a rectangular patch he dug in the backyard and divided in half, for my sister and me to use to grow whatever we wanted. There were always beans.

Dear Dad, it's been a very good year for the green beans. And the yellow tomato plants are filled with tomatoes, but we're still waiting for them to ripen. And I miss you. It's been eighteen years and life to go. That's a lot of years to miss someone.

Post script:

My mother arrived about ten minutes after my father was pronounced dead. She cried briefly, then said, "He told me no matter what happened to him, he would always be with me."

My aunt arrived at the Albany airport the next morning. The news hadn't made it to her en route, but as soon as she saw our faces she knew, and we hugged and cried and hugged and cried. Two years later, she too was gone.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Black Lives Matter: "I Don't See Color"

I see two kids and a RED boat. What else do you notice about this photo?

1. It Was the Milkman

I am one of four siblings. Three girls with blonde hair and one red-headed boy. Not strawberry-red hair, not carrot-red hair, but fire engine red hair.

When we were out and about as a family, we were constantly stopped by complete strangers.

"Where did you get that RED HAIR?" people would exclaim. My mother would use the old, "It was the milkman" line, which was funny, because we really did have a milkman -- wow I'm old -- and he really did have red hair.

One time a girl about my brother's age, then five or six, pointed to him and said, "I like him. He has red hair." And then she blushed and hid behind her mother. We had never seen them before and we never saw them again.

I am tired of hearing, "I don't see color."

If people can pick out red hair from a mile away, they sure as heck see skin color.

If one of the first things you notice about someone is his or her gender, you sure as heck see their skin color too.

I have a brown-skinned child. I see his color every day. I see it in its delicious milk chocolate tone that makes me want to eat him up. I see it darken the minute it warms up enough for him to start playing outside in shorts and a T-shirt even with SPF 50 sunscreen applied twice a day. It's how I pick him out on the lacrosse field where all the kids are so padded and helmeted up that it's almost impossible to tell your child from any other. I look for the spindly brown legs.

Don't tell me you don't see color. I'm not buying it. I've lived it.

2. The Shopping Trip

About 15 years ago, I asked my then boss to go with me to the mall over the lunch hour to help me pick out a tie for my then husband. If you ever saw this man, you would understand why -- when he would show off a new addition to his wardrobe -- I would start singing "You're too sexy for your shirt" to mock him for caring so much about whether or not he was stylish. But I have to say, he is GQ to the hilt. He has a closetful of shoes that would rival that of Imelda Marcos. He can't pass a shoe store without drooling. There's a picture of him on FaceBook kissing a pair of shoes he saw in a store in New York City. His ties are gorgeous. He has impeccable taste. Oh, and he's African-American.

Shopping is a passion of his, so he was more than happy to oblige. We entered the department store, two well-dressed professionals. I realized almost immediately that I had just entered another world. I have never felt so many eyes on me. Everyone in that store assumed we were a couple. A mixed race couple. We weren't followed or harassed -- I assume my white skin bought us some privilege there -- but we got long looks from everyone who saw us.

I had my eyes opened quite wide that day. I was startled that people jumped to the conclusion we were a couple and I was annoyed they were giving us the disapproving once over -- over and over again. If my significant other was black, what concern was it to any of them? I just sailed along and let them think whatever they wanted to think. What was the alternative -- to wear a sign saying, "He's not my husband; he's my boss and he's just helping me pick out a tie?"

Don't tell me you don't see color. I'm not buying it. I've lived it.

3. Ferengi!

When we adopted T, we traveled into the far reaches of Sidama, in the southern region of Ethiopia, to meet with his uncle. Sidama is very rural and remote. Two hours each way were on dirt roads that got narrower and bumpier the further we drove. We even had the quintessential African experience of driving through a stream as opposed to crossing it over a bridge. It's likely that it's impassable during the rainy season.

We were five white people and three Ethiopians crammed into a Toyota four wheel drive SUV. It was the Feast of St. Mary Day. We kept encountering groups of celebrants in the villages we passed through. And then we got to what was clearly one of the larger villages. The road was completely blocked by a procession of people coming back from church services. Our vehicle became a tiny island in a sea of brown faces. Faces of brown men who were pressing up against the windows and peering in at the "ferengi" -- white foreigners. Brown hands that were trying to open the doors to the SUV. Our driver got out, locked us in and kept pushing the men away, pushing them to keep walking. Apparently a lot of drinking takes place among the young men, who then lead the procession -- probably because the priests would not approve of their drunkeness, and the priests bring up the rear of the procession. Once the demographics changed to more women and children, that meant the priests were not far behind, and the men who were swarming our vehicle melted away.

When we got to our children's village, I felt like we had just entered Oz with Glenda singing, "Come out, come out, wherever you are." People came out of nowhere, first a few, then a few more, then a lot more, and then a whole lot more. From a tiny village with three buildings, we were surrounded by a hundred or more Ethiopians who rarely, if ever, see a white person. T tells me he never once saw a white person until he was in the Big House. The villagers talked, pointed, giggled. The men pressed forward. One grabbed a switch and held them at bay. The children were afraid of us, until one screwed up the courage to do a fist bump with me. Then one by one they tentatively touched their fist to mine and made the fireworks gesture and sound. They laughed and laughed and kept coming back for more. It wasn't just that we were strangers. We were white strangers.

On our way back, we stopped in Arbegona, the major town of the eponymous district within Sidama, to drop off the two Ethiopian officials who had accompanied us to translate. We got there just as school let out. Scores of children in their blue uniforms were walking in small groups down the road. I opened the door and Hubs and I got out just as two boys, maybe 10 years old or so, were walking by. They stopped. Their eyes flew open. They gasped in excitement.

"FERENGI?" they exclaimed.

I laughed. "Yes, we're ferengi."

"Do you speak English?" one asked, clearly eager to practice his probably dull lessons on real English speaking people.

"Yes, I speak English. Do you study English?"

"Yes we learn English in school."

"Well, you are doing very well."

Then the money came out to pay the translators and we were mobbed again by people hoping we might give some to them too, and that precious moment was over.

Don't tell me you don't see color. I'm not buying it. I've lived it.

4. Summer Camp

Growing up, we spent all summer running through the fields and woods, hiking hills, and wading the stream across the street from our house. But my mother still believed we needed a week at camp. I'm sure it was her "get out of jail free" card in what was otherwise a long summer with a house full of kids.

So off we went to Camp Stevenson on Ononta Lake in the Massachusetts Berkshires where we did the usual camp stuff -- arts and crafts, row boating and canoeing, archery, singing camp songs, and taking swimming lessons.

The dreaded swimming lessons. We swam in a frog pond. Okay, it was an old farm pond. But the water was black and you could only imagine the slimy creatures who lived in there. You couldn't see the bottom once you got in past your knees, and my knees were slightly lower to the ground back then. They had a buddy system. You were assigned a buddy and they blew a whistle every ten minutes or so and you had to grab your buddy's hand and hold it up in the air. If a buddy was missing, that was the camp's signal that it was time to pull everyone out of the water and start dragging the pond. Because seriously, you would never see a person on the bottom of that ugly body of water.

One time a black girl and I were assigned to be buddies. Back story: I grew up in a white neighborhood and went to an all white school and shopped in stores that the white people who lived in the white neighborhood shopped in, and went to a very liberal but all-white church. I was seven years old and I had never touched brown skin.

I was afraid to hold the black girl's hand. I was afraid that she would feel weird. I knew those were terrible things to be thinking, but I thought them. And her skin texture was different. Drier. If I'd been exposed to people of color on a regular basis, I would not have been standing there dreading every time the whistle blew that I would have to hold this poor girl's hand, and I would not have been feeling really really horrible about myself for not wanting to touch this girl on the basis of the color of her skin. She and her sister were the only two black girls at camp, and I could see the sadness and loneliness in their eyes. I was acutely aware that they were two black faces who felt alone in a sea of white, and they were acutely aware of their color difference from the rest of us as well.

Don't tell me that you don't see color. I'm not buying it. I've lived it.

Seeing color does not make you a racist. It makes you human. Shocker -- even black people see skin color. I watched a nanny at the Big House kissing an especially dark baby and telling him he was beautiful, the color of dark chocolate.

Tell me that you see color, but it doesn't matter to you. Tell me that you see color, but you also see a mom or a son or a kind nurse or a gifted musician. There's nothing racist about seeing color, just as there's nothing sexist about seeing male and female or hair-ist about seeing blonde vs. red vs. bald.

Please, stop trying to convince me of your non-racism by telling me you don't see color. Make peace with the fact that you do see color. Only then will you be able to fully understand how color makes as much difference in a person's experience in our society as whether one is male or female.

Color exists. And black lives matter. And don't start on me with the "all lives matter" retort. If black lives mattered in this society as much as white lives, there wouldn't need to be a Black Lives Matter movement. But when we see a black child get mowed down in the blink of an eye by police gunfire in an open-carry state for the audacity of holding a toy gun, we have to admit we do see color and the seeing of it is more lethal for black Americans than for white.

I do not believe anyone who looks at this photo and doesn't see 
a fair skinned girl and a brown skinned boy.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

In Memoriam for Elaine

Elaine and I shared a workplace, albeit several decades apart. She started her public broadcasting career at the station where mine ended. She went on to work for New Hampshire Public Television, becoming, at maybe five feet tall on a good day, a powerhouse of the industry.

When we met, she'd retired for the first time and taken a position for one of the vendors that my station used for direct mail. She always had a soft spot for us, the place that gave her her start, and was always eager to come back to help -- with pledge, with fundraising strategy -- if we needed help, Elaine was there. But in addition to having a fund raising savvy that allowed her to serve as a mentor to many, she had a deeply felt kindness.

Our calls about the business of raising money often turned to talks about how I was doing. Her concern was genuine. I had what physicians would consider minor surgery a year after I started there and struggled for weeks beyond weeks to recover any semblance of energy. I woke up drained and went to bed unable to sleep. Elaine -- not the medical professionals -- was the one who told me that general anesthesia circulates for months in one's system -- wreaking havoc on energy levels and sleep/wake cycles. It takes the body a long time to break it down and excrete it. Being given the clearance to return to work 48 hours after surgery doesn't mean one will feel up to it for a long time. She'd been through it herself and she knew exactly what I was going through. She would call me at least once a week ostensibly to talk about the next cycle's mail campaign, but in reality to see how I was doing, and reassure me that my physiological reactions were normal. "Enough about this," she would say after we'd made a decision about one thing or another. "How are you doing?"

Then as the years wore on and the station become a cauldron of toxicity, with the top managers meeting daily to utter their "boil, boil, toil and trouble" incantations, Elaine's concern once again became palpable. She couldn't say anything outright, because she couldn't lose the client for the company she worked for, but it was clear she knew I was increasingly becoming the scapegoat for management failings while in reality my achievements soared. Auction tanking? Blame annual giving for dropping revenue, when in fact, it was at record levels. Because when the director of development and was struggling to meet his goals, while people across the system were singing my praises and inviting me to speak at conferences, he decided if he had my job, he'd rise above his own failings and be able to be the star who saved the station. He indeed stole my credit while I was right there, but it was going to be so much easier if I was gone. He didn't want the glory to go to someone he supervised -- he wanted it for himself.

I knew it and Elaine knew it. The owner of the company she worked for also got his start at our station, and it's likely she'd been hearing rumbles from his conversations with Mr. Toil and Trouble. Again, our business calls became discussions of how I was doing. "Enough about this," she would say. "How are you doing?" She was happy for me when I got out. She knew I was going to a better place. Four months later was the May Day massacre where 25 percent of the station's staff was laid off. I was the last one out before that happened, and my position was never filled. Indeed Mr. Toil and Trouble took on the glory parts of the job and delegated the tedious and technical parts to others.

I can't say much about how we reconnected, but we did, and I was shocked that she was still working. She'd retired several times during my tenure at the public broadcasting station, each time saying she was only going to work part time, but each time ending up back at full time. And then, three years later, when I returned to the industry in a different role, there she was, still consulting with stations and managing their direct mail programs. But she did eventually retire for good. I thought she was going to die at her desk, so I was glad she finally turned in her keys even though it meant the loss of a good friendship.

I just found out that Elaine passed away this summer. It was while I was on the one vacation I managed to get away for since a year ago August and I was largely off grid, so missed any chatter there may have been about it. The world is a greater place for Elaine. Her legacy lives on in the world of public television and the lives it informs and enriches.

As for me, I am forever grateful for her phone calls. "Never mind all that. How are you doing?" Oh, how I could use that now.

"May the All-Merciful One shelter Elaine with the cover of His wings forever, and bind her soul in the bond of life...may she rest in her resting place in peace."