My America (written for contest)

To understand, My America, I wanted to embody a lifetime of experience that could speak directly to my concept of living as a white man in the Midwest. I was fortunate to grow up with conscientious siblings all of whom were driven by values instilled by parents just trying to keep up with the norms of their day. My folks raised five kids, most of whom came of age in the sixties, experiencing the death of JFK, RFK, Shirley Chisolm running for President, the assassinations of Malcolm X and MLK Jr., and countless other life changing events wrapped around the atrocities of the Vietnam War. My sad claim to fame was that in 1972, Kent State had occurred on my birthday. These events all of them tragic had a huge impact on who I am today.

 

I love America, I truly do, I am a patriot by all accounts, thankful for my freedom and the many men and women that sacrificed their lives to help maintain our free society. However, there are times when I am made physically sick by the actions of many, all of whom could find more peace in their lives by just opening their eyes. There is a systemic method of discrimination in our society that permeates every aspect of our lives. Interestingly, as a white person in this time, it seems I would be just fine if I ignored everything around me that is hostile or demeaning to my way of life. I wouldn’t have to deal with it because I am of the color of skin that these realities do not impede. For me personally, that is a problem, it always has been and is resultant in my writing this story.

 

When I was a young boy, I took a trip to New York with my family. I was 12 years old. One night a group of us went to the corner grocery store. I noticed a number of black kids playing about outside the store, and I asked the person I was with if they knew any of them, as the market was only a couple blocks from their home. They immediately responded with, “I don’t mess with any (n-word).” It was at that moment I was struck with fear. I had never felt this way, I didn’t know how to feel. I was raised in the whitest of white America in the Midwest and had never experienced any aspect of the African-American culture, beyond my readings about MLK and X, and my mother’s insistence we recognize authors of color in all of our studies. I was scared for the first time in my life of something I had no control over, I felt threatened without knowing why. It wasn’t until the next day that I could understand my fear was based upon the person I was with and not the people at the corner store who left me feeling curious.

 

The next morning our family was given an auto tour of Manhattan and several surrounding Burroughs including Harlem. As we drove past The Cotton Club and I noticed the streets were filled with black people, I said emphatically to my mother, “That’s who I saw last night mom, black people.”

 

She looked out to the gatherings of people going about their morning, turned to me, and provided me a life changing suggestion. “Thom, those aren’t black people you’re seeing, those are people,” and then she smiled and continued to finish her Tareyton cigarette, like Katherine Hepburn standing with a foggy backdrop, showing logical purpose.

 

Fast forward 30 years, and I am a teacher in a high school classroom. I finish my licensure and am fortunate to be given my first theatre program. During that summer, while working on the coming year, I scour multi-cultural scripts, the only one I know firsthand is Raisin in the Sun, and I keep it on my shelf for future consideration. I can’t find anything I like or understand. I’m having a hard time maintaining my goal of becoming the ‘multi-cultural teacher of the year’ if all I can produce are mainstream script ideas. I call a friend at a local high school with a unique demographic and ask for her suggestions.

 

She states calmly, “I’ve never used a multicultural script.” And I think about that for a moment, and I’m suddenly thrown off wondering how that could be possible. When I asked her why not, her response was my first lesson of a new cultural awareness that I suddenly realized had nothing to do with race and more to do with talent.

 

“I cast only the right person for the character or role,” she stated, and I was in the moment humbled. I suddenly felt like a racist, because rather than focusing on the content, I was centering my aim upon the color of every students’ skin that would eventually audition to be on my stage. Years later that lesson echoes in my mind every time I hold an audition. However, I wish that solution could remain that easy.

 

In today’s world there is a greater need to understand diversity and how it works in our society. Gone are the days of suggesting that issues only apply to one minority. They apply to everyone, and right now as I write this I am questioning my own ability to be an open minded citizen of America that recognizes and respects every culture that I have the opportunity to encounter in my daily life. It’s not easy, but I didn’t come here to whine.

 

In recognizing My America I try to look to the future, given the present turn of events since our last election. We are in the middle of a crisis, that one group of people would suggest is overstated, while another group will cry out, ‘when will it ever be enough?’ Today, my focus is on racism and how it permeates our society to a greater level than even I was kept sheltered from in my formative years, beyond the television and books. Through my family’s eyes, I did experience Civil Rights and I did value its importance on our society. Today it seems all those battles in the 60’s have been summarily dismissed and we are faced with re-tooling our ability to open our minds to an incredibly diverse and beautiful world of people.

 

I don’t have the answers, but I do certainly have the passion and that desire and hope remains with me in every waking moment. My dreams are what fuel an idealism that allows the world to imagine being one.

 

In the words of John Lennon and Malcolm X, with liberties to merge ideas:

“If someone thinks that love and peace is a cliché that must have been left behind in the sixties, that’s his problem (Lennon) … I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the systems of exploitation” (Malcolm X).

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Observing Humanity at Ease

Driving along the highway this morning, I came upon a woman walking alone on the side of the road. I found her to be an odd sight, it was raining, there wasn’t a sidewalk per se, and she was walking away from an industrial region of the city. I looked around to see a stalled vehicle, or something to indicate why she was walking in the rain, with a phone to her ear, not looking particularly stressed but out of sync with her reality.

I then wondered how I might possibly know her reality, what her life was, why she would be walking in the first place, and finally why I would be wondering about this stranger on the road in the early morning hours. My first immediate thought was this was a woman walking by herself in an unfamiliar area. The first thing that went through my mind was she was vulnerable. I thought about whether or not she was safe. My next thought was I had no idea what her life was, and perhaps this was a daily routine she employed to walk to work, and she was just on the phone occupying her time on a typical walk. I then thought about my own world.

How often do I walk alone in an unfamiliar area to get from one place to another? I usually have my car, and if I’m somewhere that is not routine, I’m perhaps on my bicycle exploring, or vacationing with a purpose to go wherever I do happen to land. I wondered about the routine of our lives, how compact and determined our lives may be, without a lot of risk for adventure beyond planned events. In my eyes, this woman was on a journey of unusual circumstances, and perhaps I was making my noting of her presence far more impactful than it was.

I couldn’t help think about how purposely safe our lives are in today’s society. Though we have anxiety in our choices, our risks, and our opportunities, in general, I believe our lives are fairly preserved with always familiar protective boundaries. We are not often found in places of risk, or spontaneity that might upset the natural scheme of things, we call our reality. At least that was the overwhelming feeling I got when encountering this human being, walking in the rain, talking on her telephone, along a busy highway feet trampling the gravel where no walkway existed.

I wonder sometimes, what are the circumstances of our lives that help create the burden of anxiety we sometimes carry around with ourselves. For me, I have the opportunity to recognize addictions to be a major piece of what compels my inner thinking when contemplating my decisions. In the case of the woman on the highway, there was a time when I might be compelled to stop and ask where she was going, part of a ploy to find mutual attraction in the moment.

I wonder how it is we find ourselves in the trappings of creating visible shields to protect our lives from the society around us. We don’t wish to be judged or thrown into a category of miscreant. We wish only to be seen in the best light, and though this person I encountered on the highway probably lives an extremely normal life, in this one moment I placed her in a completely different world, one filled with a bounty of suspicious analysis that helps us the observer feel we are doing right in our own lives. At least that was my takeaway for myself on this rainy day in autumn.

Perhaps a sunny day with temperatures in the 80’s might have presented a more plausible observation. Today though, I am reminded just how sheltered our lives have become where it is an abnormal sight to see a human being walking along a busy highway with no visible means of explanation beyond their existence.

Fortunately, I have enough gasoline in my tank to get me from point A to B, preserving my stake in this societal machinery we plan our lives around.

Validation

Is it a want, a need,

a purpose,

defines the living soul,

the eyes of which,

a world may rely upon

to assist

simple understanding.

 

The manner we posture,

a walk, a glance, an utterance,

measured by one,

thought of as many

aspects –

how an introduction

might manifest

an outcome.

 

If by allowance,

a human being may

settle personal desire

within the structure

our normalcy suggests,

would might that insecurity,

begin a confidence,

well managed

in peace.

 

For a desired response,

to our musings

our careful scrutiny,

a passion to rather than pretend,

more assuredly demand

a satisfaction,

validation,

aforementioned affirmation,

perhaps provides,

sweet energy,

in life,

a determination

met by all eyes,

their eyes,

everyone has

many sets of …

 

I’s.

 

 

Finding Voice

I walked outside and screamed at the bottom of my driveway,

only because I knew no one would notice,

well, they did, and their doors shut,

I stood in my neighborhood and felt completely alone.

 

The manicured lawns,

similarly styled rose gardens,

the roof repair and invisible fences,

street signs that suggested we all slow down.

 

I glanced around and decided to scream outloud again,

more doors shut,

the street seemed to empty in a silence

more apparent than I’d noticed before my unravel.

 

I stood there for a long time

watched kids on their bicycles take the corner before

having to coast past the man at the end of the driveway,

I realized for the first time I might have been noticed.

 

I walked back up to my garage,

played some music while drilling some wood,

the sweat on my brow, I wiped with my forearm,

I glanced at the street, a squad rode by … I waved.

Philando Castile

castile

NY Daily photo credit

I recently told a friend of mine I have sometime wished I was black, and as the words left my mouth, the expression on his face indicated to me he was immediately offended. I knew I’d made a horrific presumption, and felt compelled to find him a little later on to continue our dialogue.  I wasn’t really sure what I was asking, but he sat me down and asked me a question.

He said, ‘as you sit in that chair, do you feel like you would be where you are, as a black man, including your personality and everything you are today?’

I had to think about the question. I had to get past trying to find the right answer and really think about how I was going to respond. I did not know what my answer could possibly be because I have never been a person of color. I have always been white.

This afternoon, when I first heard the news of the verdict in the shooting of Philando Castile, I felt immediately sick to my stomach. For a year I have replayed that viral video in my mind, imagining only one outcome. I believed the officer would be found guilty of manslaughter. I thought it was an easily defined case. I felt like I had come to know Philando through all the news reports and the expose’s of his life and the stories his community had expressed of who he was in our society. But I forgot one simple truth. He was a black man pulled over for a routine traffic stop. He was suspected of being involved in a robbery based upon his description. The only solid evidence that suggested he had been involved in the burglary was the color of his skin.

If that had been me, a white guy, with a gun pointed at my body by a peace officer, I am willing to bet, I could have said everything Philando expressed in the final minutes of his life, and I could have reached with my right arm and found my I.D. without the officer feeling compelled to discharge seven bullets into my body. This officer didn’t simply fire a couple of rounds, He fired seven times at point blank range. And there in that moment, while his girlfriend recorded the whole incident, Philando Castile died.

Justice seemed evident in this case, I didn’t even imagine the jury would take as long as they did to come back with a verdict. I only imagined it would be an open and shut case. That was until I saw the jury selection. I knew that when we had a jury of over 20 white people and two people of color, the case for Philando had taken a dangerous turn. I knew that when the officer was coached to cry in the witness stand, Philando’s integrity was in trouble.

I also knew I couldn’t get out of my car as a white man and express my sorrow and rage to any person of color without coming off patronizing. So instead, I called another friend, and told him he was the first person that came to my mind. Now this friend asked me if I was surprised by the verdict. I think I waffled my answer and said something like, “Well, yeah, I guess, well no, well I’m just sad.”

He agreed with my sentiments, and then began to speak of the systemic failure of our society to recognize the inherent discrimination of the African- American culture. Interestingly, he didn’t blame the cop that gunned down an innocent man. Instead he talked about how our society (his African-American culture) has to become proactive in changing the mindset of how we cope with our discrimination. He immediately prayed that there would be no acting out and a peaceful protest might occur.

I agreed with him and thanked him for letting me listen to his ideals, those of which I have always respected and believed. I finished the call, and sat in my car, and thought about what I would do next. All I could think about was how sad I was with the outcome of the day’s events. All I could do was feel like a white guy trying to wrap my head around this horrific tragedy. I still don’t have any answers, except only to say I’m sorry Philando, I am truly sorry this happened to you.

Why “13 Reasons Why” Is Important

13

In the fine arts we are encouraged to go big with our ideas, to allow emphasis on the issue, the illusion, the piece of art being presented on the stage. The purpose is designed to get the point across to the audience, or keep them engaged. The true compliment to an artwork, no matter the venue, is that people continue the discussion beyond the actual event.

Watching 13 Reasons Why, a controversial Netflix series really blew my mind. I felt like I was back in my high school again, experiencing the turmoil that a teenager goes through trying to adjust, fit in, survive the utter chaos of peer rejection and acceptance, all in the same day, every day.

About half way through the series, episode 6, or tape 3 I was riveted to every moment. Watching Clay struggle with the reality of losing his friend was compelling. I watched the behavior of his circle of people, I won’t call them friends, because so often in this period of a teenager’s life it is difficult to define who a true friend is. 13 did an excellent job exploring that aspect of high school.

I felt like I was the student in the room, experiencing the pain that comes with pressure and bullying. While the world goes on around a teenager, their internal struggle is never really revealed, and 13 explored that well enough to suggest this is real behavior. I thought all the characters fit the proper stereotypes.

The parents of each character as they unfolded in the show seemed normal. What I mean is they depicted the dysfunction of raising a family, holding a job, keeping up with or losing touch with their responsibility. I think the relationship that tore me up the most was Justin and his mom, I felt his pain as he leaned against the wall and she closed the door on their communication.

The administrators of the school seemed effectively overwhelmed by their task. There was the initial counselor who basically didn’t get tenure and then the new guy came in and gradually established their grounding as a central figure. In the end, it was clear things were beyond his control. Imagine the guilt we feel as teachers when we realize we missed something, that if we had just … we can settle behind the reality that our role in the classroom is to deliver our curriculum. Clearly that was demonstrated in 13 Reasons Why, but at the same time, we could recognize the vulnerability that children experienced around adults that were not involved. Or, if they were, they didn’t have a clue.

As I suggested in the beginning, in order to keep an audience, a piece has to have big moments. In television plot lines are imperative, and this is where I began to lose my direct connection to the characters in 13. Everything that could possibly happen, did, all impacting this small group of peers. Why such a micro-managed focus on the energy of a typical high school? Because the ability to attach pain and suffering to familiar characters helps get the point across to the audience.

If we accepted our buy in to the characters then everything they went through was plausible. Much like the movie Crash years ago where a diverse populace all experienced tragedies and successes within a literal block of L.A., though perhaps not possible, the experience the characters endured was certainly believable in the right context.

In 13, the key to this story is they deal with every aspect of being a teenager – confusion with sexual identity, clear cognizance of sexual preference and the societal scrutiny, the lifestyle of a jock, of a nerd, a geek, an outlier, a weirdo, In every aspect of student or teenager, the experiences seemed real and tragic.

What is an important takeaway is to recognize the behaviors demonstrated throughout this series were pretty spot on for the most part. The story line of the tapes could actually happen, though the possibility of getting through a dozen involved students probably not likely. But, they all maintained their characters with a haunting consistency.

Finally, let’s not forget this is about suicide, and the helplessness that everyone feels with a loss they believe they are responsible for. Even though in the real world we always blame the person who takes their own life. The movie itself defined the act as weak. I found it interesting that the young woman who revealed her cuttings on her arms, suggested she was doing it right, that suicide is a cop out. I’ve worked with cutters in my hospital work, and there was always a distinction between real and attention seeking, vertical and horizontal cuts as so eerily demonstrated in the series.

13 might be perceived as a segment of peers in a typical high school all being responsible for Hannah’s death, but if that is a takeaway, it is possibly wrong. It really is the remarkable telling of a young person’s struggle to define themselves while walking through life in a world of hurt, and having the fortune to play out the process with direct and frightening evidence, ironically replayed in cassettes with haunting truth.

I believe this series, beyond the embellishment and soap opera moments, is vitally important, certainly not for the eyes of children under 12 – not yet, even though we think they’re ready. It is a wonderfully tragic piece to create healthy dialogue, whether the characters are realistic or not. I was moved.

A Prayer For Meaning

eagle

StarTribune photograph

 

Today the battle won for the many,

those lives that fill our hearts with meaning,

the memories of laughter, filled the room,

when so many others were left alone.

 

Today, we do recall our brothers and sisters,

whose names we all know always forever,

the lives of strong, courageous beings,

went before our own to save such freedoms.

 

Today, in our ‘day off’ we must remember,

the many heartfelt thanks to all the members,

our lives are allowed to stand in sunshine,

only because their day off would be eternal.

 

So when we fire up the grill, pop the beverage,

when the favorite t-shirts and celebrations,

take over our country, light up the skies,

know the freedom they fought be not forgotten.

 

Be the infinite matter that defines our lives,

for their strength embolden our false security.