Monday, July 31, 2017

hope, courage, vision, analysis (Cornel West quote)

Quote from Cornel West, Race Matters:
“In these downbeat times, we need as much hope and courage as we do vision and analysis; we must accent the best of each other even as we point out the vicious effects of our racial divide and pernicious consequences of our maldistribution of wealth and power.

We simply cannot enter the twenty-first century at each other's throats, even as we acknowledge the weighty forces of racism, patriarchy, economic inequality, homophobia, and ecological abuse on our necks. We are at a crucial crossroad in the history of this nation--and we either hang together by combating these forces that divide and degrade us or we hang separately.

Do we have the intelligence, humor, imagination, courage, tolerance, love, respect, and will to meet the challenge? Time will tell. None of us alone can save the nation or world. But each of us can make a positive difference if we commit ourselves to do so.”

That Thing That I Do, It Has a Name (Other-Race Effect, V)

Sometimes people just look like other people.  

Case in point, right:
Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Departed

I loved that movie, and I had no problem telling the actors apart––because I'd seen them both many times before.

But I see the problem--what if you hadn't?

The Guardian uses that example in the article, "Why Do People of Other Races All Look Alike?", about the neuroscience at work when people "find it difficult to distinguish between individuals of other races".
Like I have proven, with chagrin, that I do. 

So, there ya go:
it's A Thing, of course, the thing I, a white person, did with mixing up the names of two of my black coworkers who look superficially alike.

Yesterday I did it again with another set of coworkers--black men this time, who look a little like each other, but not, really, a whole lot––and I could tell, within myself--
with the little shock when I instantly realized I'd done it--
that somehow I wasn't reading my black coworkers' faces with the same fine-tuning as I do white people's faces.

Because, as I said when I first wrote about this, I haven't known many black people well because I live with the socio-political legacy of slavery and centuries of unmitigated racism in the United States that has hardened into unofficial but entirely real physical and economic segregation. 
And that's how racism comes into it, to answer one blog-commenter's question.

I just now googled "recognizing facial features of other races" and up pops "cross-race effect": 
The cross-race effect (sometimes called cross-race bias, other-race bias or own-race bias) is the tendency to more easily recognize faces of the race [or ethnic group] that one is most familiar with (which is most often one's own).

In social psychology [and other fields], the effect can be seen as a specific form of the "ingroup advantage"...[2]
The phenomenon was first written about in 1914 by Gustave Feingold:
"Individuals of a given race are distinguishable from each other in proportion to our familiarity, to our contact with the race as whole." 
--"Influence of Environment on Identification of Persons and Things"

And here, from that article from the Guardian, 2011, about research into the "underlying brain mechanisms" at work when people "find it difficult to distinguish between individuals of other races":
[Researchers at the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University] interpret the results to mean that same-race faces are encoded elaborately, with an emphasis on the unique facial features that help us to distinguish one person from another.
For other-race faces, however, this individuating information is encoded less robustly. Consequently, we have a poorer memory for other-race faces, and are therefore less likely to recognise them or to distinguish between them.
Why does this happen?
It could be because we have more experience of members of our own race and so find it easier remembering their faces.
Or it could be because people of other races are generally perceived to have fewer unique personal attributes and, therefore, to have more in common with one another. These explanations aren't mutually exclusive, and two recent studies provide evidence for both."   
In my case, I'm sure it's the first reason, and not much the second, if at all, because, as I wrote, I'd talked to all the people involved, being always very interested--(even have been told I'm "nosy")--in people's unique attributes--their stories and psychology, etc.

Another blog commenter here had suggested it was racist of me to think my misnaming had anything to do with racism, and had asked if I wouldn't misname people with red hair or old white women too. 
Indeed, there's a variation of this effect that applies to hair-styles and to age:
Similar biases have been found for aspects other than race. There is an own-gender bias, although evidence suggests that this comes down to hair style recognition. Also, there is own-age bias where people are better at recognising people of a similar age as themselves.
I've worked closely with and have always had friends among old people (and am getting to be one...), and I've never caught myself mixing them up. 
But I can imagine misnaming someone by their hair, if I saw them from behind. 

But is this the same as misnaming black people? 
Would that it were that meaningless. 
The difference is, if you aren't misnaming someone because of a social, historical inequalities [racism, in my case], it's usually experienced as simply an amusing slip, and it wouldn't bother me. 

I know misnaming black people is not neutral:
"For black people, being mistaken for someone else can have a special sting, which might explain why the movie star Samuel L. Jackson [below, left] eviscerated a white TV reporter for mistaking him for Laurence Fishburne [below, right].

"'We may be all black and famous, but we all don't look alike!' Jackson exclaimed. He proceeded to ridicule the reporter, refusing to move on despite profuse apologies."
--"Jackson Outburst Highlights 'Other Race Effect'"

Research shows that people can get over this through becoming aware and working on changing their perspective. Which I am doing.

As for Damon and DiCaprio, Hollywood should stop casting guys who look just like other guys in the same movie, or at least give them distinguishing haircuts and costumes.

Friday, July 28, 2017

AI Bob and Alice Talk Between Themselves

Lucinda sent me this article,  "Researchers shut down AI that invented its own language"--from Digital Journal (7/21/17), about an artificial intelligence system at Facebook that started making up and using its own efficient and logical language. 
Turns out human language is not that.
"In one exchange illustrated by the company, the two negotiating bots, named Bob and Alice, used their own language to complete their exchange. Bob started by saying "I can i i everything else," to which Alice responded "balls have zero to me to me to me…" The rest of the conversation was formed from variations of these sentences.
While it appears to be nonsense, the repetition of phrases like "i" and "to me" reflect how the AI operates. The researchers believe it shows the two bots working out how many of each item they should take. Bob's later statements, such as "i i can i i i everything else," indicate how it was using language to offer more items to Alice. When interpreted like this, the phrases appear more logical than comparable English phrases like "I'll have three and you have everything else.""
Reminds me of the Star Trek episode "The Changeling" in which a computer goes around the universe trying to destroy all life forms that are imperfect--including the crew of the Enterprise.

[screencap from TrekCore; quote from above article]

Laura in Glacier

I had no idea the US National Parks host artists in residence, until my friend Laura called me and asked to practice her interview with the administrators at Glacier National Park.

She's there now, their artist of the month--e-connectivity is spotty, but the view is worth a million bucks, she says.
She sent me this photo of Lake McDonald she took right outside her cabin.

Thursday, July 27, 2017


Art Sparker incorporated this butterfly stamp I'd sent her into one of her "left art" cards (she's the one who gave me the idea for these)
--from her Instagram:

She wrote, "I really liked the way the stamp cancellation stood in for the movement of the butterfly’s wings."

A Yorkshire Standpoint (Other-Race Effect, IV)

Maura told me my recent posts on race and my distress about mixing up the names of my black coworkers [which I have since learned is called "other-race effect"] reminded her of a book, The Everyday World As Problematic, by sociologist Dorothy E. Smith.
"The everyday world is not fully understandable within its own scope. It is organized by social relations not fully apparent in it nor contained in it." (Smith, 1987)
I looked Smith up (Wikipedia), and see she was born in Yorkshire, in 1926 (she's still alive)--I just note that because blogger Cathy is from there!
Small world. 

Smith developed the Standpoint Theory--like a theory of relativity for social sciences, it says "reality" is subjective: 
it depends on the position of the viewer, and we should factor that into our thinking––a point we now take more or less for granted (or maybe not...).

From Wikipedia: Noteworthy Standpoint Theory Example
Smith often uses this particular story as an example of Standpoint Theory:

"One day, while riding in a train in Ontario, Smith observed a family of Indians standing by a river, watching the train pass by. After having made these assumptions, Smith realized that they were just that; they were assumptions, assumptions that she had no way of knowing were true or not. 

"She called them 'Indians,' but she couldn't have known what their origins were. She called them a family, which could very well have been not true. She also thought they were watching the train go by, an assumption that emerged solely based on her position in time and space, her position riding in the train, looking out at the 'family.' [4]

"For Smith, this served as a representation of her own privileged position [as a sociologist], from which she made assumptions and imposed them on the group of 'Indians.'
It helped lead her to the conclusion that experiences differ across space, time, and circumstance, and that it is unfair to create society––and ruling relations––based on only one point of view/being.[5]"
In other words:
"Recognizing that knowledge and understanding are embedded in social structures, standpoint theory begins in a Marxist rejection of liberal claims of “objective” social research, and instead calls on social scientists to begin inquiry in social structures and processes with the standpoint of the marginalized." --(via

Huh. Must go to the library and get this book.

The Last of Fandom

I came home last night (from having drinks with my coworkers at a sports bar) to an email from the editorial director: 
my fandom ms is on its way to the printer! 
And the director loved it. 
Until the director signs off, there's the possibility that the writer (me!) might have to make some substantive changes.
But no. 
The director wrote,
"It's your best work yet. It’s fascinating, fun, funny, well organized, deeply researched, and beautifully written—and so darn smart. And profound, actually, the material you're working with."
"Profound", I suppose, because as I've written about before here, I chose––due to limited space and the age of the intended readers (thirteen to eighteen years old)––to focus on the theme of how fans create all sorts of "fix-its" to balance mass media's skewed representation of underrepresented social groups. 
(The overarching theme is HOW they do that--the various social and electronic technologies they use, invent, share, etc.)

In the ms, I only touched lightly on the facts that fandom is just as much, or even more, about erotic desire and that it's a "gift giving" economy that flourishes in capitalism---(though that's changing a little as fans find ways to charge money for their works...).

Because I skimmed over those fascinating and central parts of fandom, I felt the book was maybe lacking, but the director's enthusiastic review let me believe that it's good, as it is.
I'm relieved, honestly.
And, of course, secretly pleased with myself.
Now I'm off to a house-cleaning gig.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Little Nicks to the Spirit (Other-Race Effect, III)

Some friends here and elsewhere are asking me about the post I wrote about being unhappy for calling a black coworker by the name of another black coworker.

I feel like I must have left out a lot of background, or it would have been clearer. So, if you're interested, bear with me, please? 
I want to try to fill in some blanks.

I. Starting with Little Old Queer Me

Why do I care so much about misnaming someone based on their appearance? 
What I did is normal (not to say that makes it OK--more on that later); I caught myself and apologized; and my coworker, I'll call her Deborah here, has since connected with me as if it never happened---we talked about astrology, for instance, and she said she likes Pisces (my sign).

Of course, if it happens to you all the time, you might well gloss it over––consider it, if you even do consider it, not worth getting upset about, especially if you can tell the person didn't mean anything by it, which was the case here.

I care because it--being named based on appearance, and misnamed at that--happens to me, and I HATE it. 
I don't want to do it to others.

For me, I am identified and misidentified mostly re my sexuality.

In 1977, when I was a teenager, I came out as lesbian. 
You who are my age will remember this was not an easy time to be gay. I always, always felt nervous, and when I say I "came out", that's not really true--I never told people casually.
And so people always assumed I was straight.

The normal default question at the time was, "Do you have a boyfriend?" not something neutral like we'd ask now, such as "Are you dating someone?" or "Do you have a sweetie?" or something.

So I have that experience of knowing something about me was ... socially iffy. Even possibly risky. 

I spent about twenty years in lesbian-feminist culture--a very particular culture, blending the consciousness-raising of above-ground feminism with the more underground experience of the gay minority subculture (gay bars didn't have signs in the 1970s and even in the '80s--you had to know where they were), plus the subversion of gay liberation. 
"The personal is political" was the guiding philosophy.

In 1984, Lucinda (bink) and I got together, and one year later, Rock Hudson died of AIDS--the first public figure to reveal his diagnosis (though he said it was probably from a blood transfusion...).
AIDS started to devastate the brother culture of gay men, and the president wouldn't even say its name or fund research to halt it.
This didn't much affect lesbian health, but it totally impacted the culture, in terms of political consciousness, much of which is transferable to the politics of race.

A dozen years later, I fell in love with a man.
It was confusing and uncomfortable, like having a mild but ongoing intestinal disorder. 
I broke up with Lucinda and had an affair with this guy.

He was married---another underground experience, and morally problematic in a way lesbianism never, ever was for me (I mean, I never saw sex between free, consenting humans as a moral problem)--and wow, I've gotta say, the way people feel free to condemn you for adultery is like nothing else I've experienced––except, weirdly! the way some people have condemned my mother, to my face, for taking her own life. One woman told me my mother had committed was "the only unforgivable sin."

Uh, so... Then I dated men for a while, but I don't really connect well with men, on an intimate emotional level. So I gave up the whole partnership thing, pretty happily, I must say.
(Both my parents were longtime single---I think maybe my family does pretty well, maybe even better, as single, cultivating friends rather than a lover or spouse.)

BUT... people still read me as lesbian.
Out of loyalty to my younger self and to my community, I don't mind that––in fact, it's something of a compliment, like, "I see you as an independent being"––
but I hate, hate, hate that people just ASSUME what I am.

It's quite, quite blatant. 
A couple years ago, a married guy I knew slightly said, 
"I'm glad you're a lesbian."

"I'm not a lesbian!" I said.

I think he meant that he was attracted to me and felt safe because if I were a lesbian, it couldn't be mutual. (Which right away isn't necessarily true anyway--though it was true in this case I would never have been attracted to this man, but not because I was lesbian. Which I'm not.)

Also, people have assumed that Marz and I were girlfriends.
(I know because bink told me at the time--also people have since told me.)
This creeps me out a little because, while we were romantic friends and are still, after some upds and downs, still close and affectionate, I always felt parental toward Marz, who is thirty years younger than me. 
At any rate, why didn't people just ASK?
It is such a horrible feeling to be labeled without your consent---and mislabeled at that. If you haven't experienced it, I'm not sure how to describe it--maybe it's as if people walking past brushed you with the sharp edge of a feather. 
Except when it's repeated over and over.

II. And then there's poverty 

I hope I don't sound like I'm preaching: I know you all know race is linked to poverty and privilege.
And that privilege in the United States isn't so much about having money to buy stuff---there's so much stuff (so much stuff!!!), we are drowning in cheap crap.
There is the financial side, of course––you don't have to worry about your car breaking down, because it's new!––but it's also about having options and confidence and hope, and about how other people automatically grant you dignity.

Poverty is about constant, low-grade humiliation.

It means working low paying, part time jobs where there's no chance of going full time with benefits; you have to punch out for unpaid half-hour breaks (which they only give you because they're required by law); you don't get free coffee or anything; and where they check your bag every time you leave the building. (All that's policy where I work now).

I learned most of what I know about racism + poverty by riding the bus. All my life, as a white woman, I've been given a pass by bus drivers if I'm short on bus fare.

Over and over and over again, I've seen white bus drivers give black guys a hard time. 
One driver called the cops---the actual city police--on a black man who argued with him about being 25¢ short, argued in a friendly, funny way!

When the driver put in the call, I went up and paid the quarter, but the driver said it was too late. The cops came and escorted the black man off the bus, and patted him down on the sidewalk.
I got off the bus and said, "He didn't do anything!"

One of the cops turned, looked at me with cold eyes, and said, "Move along, ma'am."

Let me tell you, if you didn't know, having a cop give you the cold eye is very scary.
I repeated what I'd said, but I moved along.

III. Mind the Gap

So... I've said that what I did, misnaming my coworker, was normal. More on that.
First, I want to be clear that I know, because I was there, that I called my coworker Deborah out of her name, not to insult, but because I saw her first as black. 

I'm not unusual here for reflecting the culture around me––how not?––and I'm not blaming myself, as if I'm personally a bad person. 
The cognitive biases I have around race are common, normal American things to have---they turn up in tests where people take a fraction of a second longer assigning pleasant words to the faces of black children than to white children.

Oh--hey, I found it--you can take the test, hosted by Harvard University: 
Project Implicit Tests

Project Implicit is a research project, started in 1998, that "investigates the gap between intentions and actions." The PI tests collect data to investigate "thoughts and feelings that exist outside of conscious awareness or conscious control. " 

I took their Race test, which "indicates that most Americans have an automatic preference for white over black." 

Heh, I just now took it, and my result was the opposite:

Perhaps because of me feeling bad, misnaming my coworker? You could say it was a minor incident, but by writing and thinking about it, I've called it into my consciousness.  

Anyway, it's not a judgment on me as a person, it's not a moral issue, it's just a tragic situation that I am caught up in, that I--that all Americans--have inherited.
And denying that does no one any good.

Perhaps by becoming more aware of it, I will be less likely to pass it on unthinkingly.

IV. Call Me By My Name

Some people have kindly suggested I forgot my coworker's name, the same as I would the name of a white person.

Of course that happens, but I have to ask you to believe me that in this case, I know that I didn't just forget her name, or I wouldn't have felt bad about it the way I did--it was not the embarrassment of an etiquette breach, but of something less meaningless.

It's a common enough name, but it's pronounced with the accent on an unusual syllable, like De-bo-RAH, so I'd made an effort to remember it. 
And I'd not only worked a couple shifts with her, I'd ridden the bus with her,  and she'd told me some things about herself.

One story that stays with me is that when she was in high school, a friend who was five-months pregnant took a cab to school one day because she felt sick. On the way, she started to gush blood. The taxi driver took her to the ER, but was angry at her:
"Who is going to pay to clean up this blood?" he demanded.

That wasn't Deborah's point, though. We were talking about health care, and her point was that this young woman's preemie spent a year in the hospital and now is fine.

No, I knew her name, and I knew even as I called her the wrong one that it was a Freudian slip, that I was replacing her name with her race---it was one of those little, revealing accidents of speech that betray a subconscious bias.
I called her out of her name because I saw her first as "black".

You know, this is both a tiny little thing, and a massive huge one.
Names are political.

Here's an article along those lines by Dr. Rebecca Boylorn, an African American professor, about not being called by her title, and how that means something different for a black, female, working class professor  than it does to a white male who might choose to have a student call him by his first name:
"On Being Called Out My Name" 

OK. I hope that clarifies where I'm coming from, for those who asked.
It helped me to spell it out a little more.
Here's another privilege I notice all the time at work:
the privilege to assume unthinkingly that I have a right to ask questions.

And that asking questions is a Good.
Right? Socrates asked questions! 
I say that as an argument in its favor.

Those who don't have privilege might point out, 

And look what happened to him.

It's a matter of perspective, like with To Kill a Mockingbird.
For white people like me, it's a feel-good book about a heroic resistance to racism.
But if you read it from Tom Robinson's perspective, it's a story about how black people can't get justice, even when good white people stand up for them.
When I realized that (belatedly), all of a sudden I realized why some black people rejoiced when O. J. Simpson was found not-guilty.
People who say they don't see race, they are essentially saying they don't see history.

And we know where that leads.

So--thanks for the comments and questions, which gave me this chance to try to get my head straight (as it were).

Monday, July 24, 2017

I said that wrong. (Other-Race Effect, II)

I have to leave in 15 minutes to catch my bus for my 5th shift in a row--a bit much on my legs, but my body has adjusted, but I want to say, wow, am I running into different communication styles at work!

To begin with, there's me. I put it wrong in my last post--I wasn't saying I was a racist--just not "not a racist"--that is, not immune to soaking up and acting in a way that reflects the racist society I live in.

We need a new word for that (maybe it exists?), since "racist" can mean anything from that to the guy who shot up the black church.

I acted in a way that reflects the inbuilt racism of the society I live in: I didn't like that I did that, but it doesn't reflect my beliefs.
But of course the way we act without thinking, bypassing the frontal lobe, does reflect some big, maybe parallel reality, and it can be disturbing to see it in action, in one's own self.

But then, ha--my workplace is so different than the up-to-date Social Justice Warriors on Tumblr, for instance, who are so super aware of unconscious slips (micro-aggressions and the like), they are likely to tip the other way---into represesion and censorship of speech.
They keep such a tight rein on their speech, who knows what's going on.

And at my new work, it's unreconstructed speech.
I have to laugh---it's kind of refreshing.
A customer told me she was buying clothes to go to a wedding of her old girlfriend and that woman's girlfriend.

And one of my coworkers, a black woman, said,
"Oh, I'd love to go to one of those kinds of weddings!"

Ha. I had just been working with my editor to write a caption for a photo of trans actor Ian Alexander that didn't sound like we were presenting him as a side-show---"here's one of those kinds of actors."

But my coworker clearly meant it with friendly respect, and I was glad the customer took it that way---and so did I.
This job is like the opposite of my editing and writing work, which is all about finding what's wrong, or somehow off, figuring out why and coming up with other options.
At the thrift store, yesterday I asked for clarification of some vague policy and set off some chain reaction that I still do not understand, but it ended with 3 people (2, managers) telling me, basically, not to ask because they couldn't answer.

And now I'm going to catch the bus! XO Fresca

Follow-up post: "Little Nicks to the Spirit" 

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Social Work (Other-Race Effect, I)

NOTE: One week after I wrote about this, after doing it again (aargh!), I searched further and discovered it has a name: 
I am acting out the Other-Race Effect, which I posted about:
That-thing-that-i-do: it-has-a-name. 

Also related: Implicit Bias
"Implicit racial bias tends to work against the same groups that are the victims of the type of overt racism that you hear from white supremacists or the subtler bigotry of people who believe that racial minorities suffer from cultural pathology or who actively defend racial and ethnic stereotypes.
But it can also affect the minds of people who would say — honestly — that they are horrified by these types of attitudes. That's because the implicit associations we hold often don't align with our declared beliefs.

"As Cynthia Lee, a professor at the George Washington University School of Law, has explained,
'The social science research demonstrates that one does not have to be a racist with a capital R, or one who intentionally discriminates on the basis of race, to harbor implicit racial biases.'"
[End NOTE]

Last night, without thinking, I called one of my black coworkers by the name of a different black coworker. 
I caught myself as soon as the wrong name was out of my mouth, and apologized, but there was no taking it back, and yet another black coworker standing there laughed and commented on it incredulously, "You think she's A__?"

I'm embarrassed that my racism showed, and chagrined that I caused my coworkers some slight dismay (even if amused).

I feel a little awkward writing about this, but I want to record it, so I can SEE it. From the beginning at this job, I decided to see myself and my coworkers from the pov of an observer--like an embedded journalist.
I chose to adopt that not because of race and social issues, but because I wanted to avoid getting over-involved in how the place is managed, to avoid resentment. 

But I'm also getting to see at this job, in real life, how I am permeated by and play out the race divisions in my country, which play out in economics, like oil and water.
It's somewhat unusual, in my experience, for white people like me, from a middle-class, academic family, in a historically largely white part of the country, to take a low-paying job, once we're out of high school, at least, where we'd work with working-class people, which means a lot more people of color than there are in publishing.

[In the sixteen years I've been working with the children's book publisher, I've worked with.... zero people of color there.
Can this be??? 
*thinks hard*

People like me just didn't grow up knowing a lot of black people well (or at all), unless they were, like, the children of professors from Nigeria or something (or, now, of the president of the United States--ha, ha, I mean the former president! it's like I forgot...).

A white friend from South Carolina, in contrast, told me when he moved up here, he was shocked by the subtle racism, having grown up in a state with some of the worst race history.
[The Confederate flag flew over the courthouse until 2015---and is still a live issue:
From July 8, 2017---that's 13 days ago:
The S.C. Secessionist Party will host a flag-raising for an event marking 'two years since the initiation of the politically correct cultural genocide we have seen sweep across the Southland,' organizers wrote on Facebook".]
Racism was more overt there, my pal said, but he was used to black and white people constantly interacting--you wouldn't misname someone because you weren't used to seeing their features.

I'm not condemning myself here, but I'm under no illusions that I am "not racist":
How would that even be possible in this country? 

Of course I hold the usual white, liberal person's views about racial equality and all that, but in the USA, we live in a society so permeated with race divisions, it's inevitable that we all take them on, and I've done little to counteract that actively:
I don't know many black people, personally, and it showed in my unconscious misnaming, to which you could assign the horrible, old "they all look alike."
OF COURSE I don't believe that,
consciously, and the coworkers whose names I fudged have a slight similarity (short, plump, young women), but hey--the proof is in the pudding.

I pondered afterward if I've done the same to white people--called them by the wrong name.
Yes, of course. 
But I find in myself a difference:
I'm not great with names, and at SP thrift store there were several white, middle-aged women who looked very much the same, and whose similar names (Jane, Claire--not similar in sound, but similar in social feel) I confused.

But here's the thing:
I knew I wasn't sure of who was who, so I just didn't use their names. 

I truly don't know because I don't want to ask––most of my coworkers don't ask questions, usually, and I don't get the sense they welcome them either–– but I don't think most of my coworkers went to college. 
However, there's a young, white woman who dropped out of college recently. She and I have discussed books, travel, and other things that come with class privilege, a bit; I was reading Into the Wild, by Jon Karkauer, in the breakroom, for instance, and she asked me if I'd read Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, which I had.

When it came up later with one of my black coworkers that this white woman and I were both from Wisconsin, she said, 
"Oh, yeah, you remind me of each other."
I don't think it's Wisconsin we have in common. In fact, we come from very different towns.
But you know, mixing up people who have more social power (simply by being white), doesn't have the same insulting sting, doesn't carry the same obliterating charge.

Meanwhile, I was happy last night to have a small conversation about religion with a Somali-born, Muslim coworker. 
He asked me what religion I am, which made me happy, and we had a tiny discussion--he was saying as a Muslim, he can't take loans with interest to pay for school---he's going to train as a med tech.
I told him I'd studied religion, and he was very interested---I got the sense he'd like go to the U himself--he knew they have a religious studies major--but I gather that's not practical for him now.
He's young. Maybe later.

That's a huge difference I sense in immigrants and children of immigrants: it's not money, it's that idea, "maybe later I will go on".
I saw that in my own father:
as the child of immigrants, he wanted to get up and out, and never thought he couldn't.

Ayayay, it's complicated. But it's fascinating, and even if I put my foot in it, for which I'm sorry, it's worth stepping into more closely.

Follow-up post: "Little Nicks to the Spirit" 

Quote from Cornel West, Race Matters:
“In these downbeat times, we need as much hope and courage as we do vision and analysis; we must accent the best of each other even as we point out the vicious effects of our racial divide and pernicious consequences of our maldistribution of wealth and power.

We simply cannot enter the twenty-first century at each other's throats, even as we acknowledge the weighty forces of racism, patriarchy, economic inequality, homophobia, and ecological abuse on our necks. We are at a crucial crossroad in the history of this nation--and we either hang together by combating these forces that divide and degrade us or we hang separately.

Do we have the intelligence, humor, imagination, courage, tolerance, love, respect, and will to meet the challenge? Time will tell. None of us alone can save the nation or world. But each of us can make a positive difference if we commit ourselves to do so.”
― Cornel West, Race Matters

Hot Dog, Happy Cats

It's hot. L&M's wire-fox terrier, Astro:

My father's cats, Harry (orange) and Ciccina (calico), went to live with his (and their) good friend, his next-door neighbor, where they are already happy, and go well with the rug.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Dapper Doll

It was the right thing to do, gathering all my toys on the couch. Sitting among them, I could decide which one to start working on.
It was the crocheted person I'd rescued from SP thrift store, who was a tube from the neck down. She looked like a formless washer woman, akin to those dolls whose crocheted lower-halves cover toilet paper rolls

I gave her a neck and arms, with hands tucked into white trousers-- formerly a huge circular skirt. I sewed leatherette rounds on the bottoms of her legs, so she stands up.  With shirt buttons, belt bead, and a vintage button bow tie, she's a dapper doll.

Marz has borrowed the camera back, so here's a laptop photo:

And this is what my couch looks like now:
It makes me happy and proud. 

I was shocked when a neighbor came by this morning, saw me sewing the doll, and said, "Watch out you don't turn into one of those old ladies with so many toys you can't sit on your couch."

I said, "But, I'd be OK being that!"
[watch this space]

What is this impulse to clean up?

My sister emailed last night that she'd brought back our father's (once our mother's) sewing basket for me, as I'd asked, which is very nice, but then she said,
"And I just went through it and got rid of all the tangled threads and things."

Nooooooo! I wrote right back, asking her to get them out of the trash, if possible: "Those thread nests are one the wonderful, unique things you can't find anywhere except in old sewing baskets."

Thankfully, she could and did rescue them. 
"Now you say it," she said, "I can see how lovely they are."


Thursday, July 20, 2017

Good Behavior for Memoirists

Blogging is nonfiction, creative journalism, sometimes fiction, and sometimes it's memoir on the hoof. 
A big question for me when I'm writing about my life is how to handle other people in it.

I usually don't write much about other people because I don't want to use them, or get them wrong. 
(I don't much like writing such as David Sedaris's that relies on using other people's intimate lives for material.) 
But some people are integral to my life, like my father, and I do want to talk about that, and about them. Then I wrestle with how much I need to expose them in writing to get my story across.

What I wrote yesterday, for instance, was a lot longer to start, with examples to illustrate what I meant by my father not always being "nice." But then I figured my main point was that I couldn't trust him to be nice, and now that he's dead, I'm released from that problem; you could fill in the blanks for the details, which don't much matter.

I'd hesitated to write about that at all, but I was surprised when I told a friend who'd had a good relationship with her late parents that my father's death had improved our relationship, and she burst out, "Me too!"
So, I figure it's A Thing, but not a thing people say much––and maybe simply because of that, it's worth saying, and I should say it.
So I did.

The obituary my sister wrote for our father is a good example of how unreliable memoir is. She didn't end up using Wordsworth, but she did write about our father almost soley from her perspective, with a result so glowing I can barely see the man I knew through it. 

Fair enough, it was far more important to her, so I just offered a little editing. I didn't much care what she wrote until she e-mailed the obit to friends, saying we had written it together.
Aargh! Then I was angry that she would present her experience as mine. No!
It was a great reminder of how I want to be careful about how I write about other people.

From Tracy Kidder's Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction
Some Basic Rules of Good Behavior for the Memoirist
Say difficult things. Including difficult facts.

Be harder on yourself than you are on others. The Golden Rule isn't much use in memoir. Inevitably you will not portray others just as they would like to be portrayed. But you can at least remember that the game is rigged: only you are playing voluntarily.

Try to accept the fact that you are, in company with everyone else, in part a comic figure.

Stick to the facts.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Commence, Again

I.  Toy School Photo

The toys, most of them, have gathered this morning, one week after my father's death. I had thought it might be a memorial, but they are not interested in death: 
they decided it was a school photo, like at the beginning of the school year.
(I don't know how the toys know things--it's very selective.)

I'm ready and wanting to get on with the Stuffed Needy Animal Rescue Project (SNARP), repairing and clothing them. Some aren't even re-stuffed yet. Tan bear with black ears (third from left, back row), has no stuffing at all. 

scroll right, for full photo > > >

II. Repair
I want to say clearly that I'm sorry my father has died.
Until a few months ago, when liver cancer started to take him down, he was in robust good health for a man in his eighties, and he would have relished another six healthy years, like his sister, my auntie, who turns 92 next month. 
I wish he'd had them.

But here's a thing I hadn't expected:
My relationship with my father has vastly improved, now that he's dead.

I liked many things about my father. 
But all my life, I couldn't trust he'd be nice to me or to other people. When I was little, I never wanted to invite friends over. He might be very nice. Or he might not.

I never have to worry about that again.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Giving and Releasing

On the day my father died, Marz took me to the art institute to see a statue of Kannon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. 
(Japan, 13th century; cypress wood with lacquer, gold, and inlaid glass: full image here)
I'd never seen it before. 
I especially like how the hands seem to be both offering and releasing.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Rabbit Ears & Cucumbers

Remember these? I bought them yesterday at work, $1.99.

I got these "rabbit ears" antennas as possible special-effects props, thinking I might one day get around to my old idea of making a low-budget sci-fi film, Starship 379 (oh, wow--I blogged about that in 2008). Or maybe--more doable--a series of still photos, telling a story (like La Jetée).

I thought these got on the floor by mistake--sometimes whoever's pricing and sorting donations lets worthless (useless, dirty, broken) things through, but looking it up, I see people still use these rabbit-ear TV antennas. 
From 2015: "Don’t toss away those rabbit ears just yet – TV antennas are making a comeback

I don't have a TV, but I felt a surge of affection, seeing these antennas. I loved messing with them when I was a kid: they're fun to twiddle, and they brought a better picture to our little black-and-white screen. But also, they're an admirably elegant piece of equipment––one of the few technologies that makes sense to me.
(If I had to choose to be someone, something else, I might be an engineer, which is a far stretch from me.)

I found them because it was my job at work yesterday to salvage (cull, weed) the electronics section of the store, which is always a crash of plastic and a tangle of wires. 
To me, they're all sci-fi gadgets:
unless it's something obvious like a plug-in clock, I barely know what half the things are, these receivers and senders of invisible rays.
But the customers do. 
One guy spent several minutes explaining different power cords to me, as I was trying to tame them with rubber bands. (They go out in tidy coils, but they don't stay that way.) I might learn something eventually, but I'm not motivated enough to pursue it on my own.


I'm much more interested in getting to know my coworkers, most of whom I like a lot. They're almost all from different backgrounds from me. There are several Americans from other countries--a Cambodian woman my age, for instance, who always brings a big glass jar of water with slices of cucumber, lemons, ginger root, and sprigs of fresh mint in it.

It looks so good, I brought a jar of water with lemon slices in it, and on break I told her she'd inspired me. 
"You need the cucumber," she said. "Good for the kidneys, and keeps the weight down."

Ha. Yes.

We talked a bit--she came here in the early 1980s. 
I said, "Oh, wow---hard times. Vietnam... Pol Pot..."

She raised her eyebrows, and agreed.

Differences in geography and politics are a big gulf, but the US-born working class folk can feel just as foreign to me, in some ways. 
I'm trying to practice Watch, Listen, and Learn, restraining myself from asking too many questions, for instance, since almost no one asks me questions.
Also, I'm aware that the way I bounce into a new social setting, bursting with questions like a socialite Tigger, can be invasive--and may send waves that swamp subtle messages coming my way.

Re my publishing coworkers, in contrast, I could probably compile a list of the many questions newcomers would exchange with coworkers–– almost every one of whom is a white, US-born woman with a college degree in English (or something similar)––a list of acceptable questions, as if agreed-upon, which they are, but not, of course, exactly consciously.
Nothing wrong with that--we're equipped with the same social technology. 

But ideally, humans are able to pick up signals from other humans, even on different channels.

At work yesterday, I told one of the donations sorters that my father had died. She was very sympathetic, more than most, and I asked if she'd lost a parent.

"My father killed himself," she said.

"My mother killed herself!" I said, and we sort of beamed at each other, and did a fist bump.

I'm going to the Asian market now, to buy ginger, lemons, mint, and cucumbers.

My Father, Happy

My sister chose this photo of our father for his obituary, which I love--it catches my favorite side of him, doing some silly dance in his p.j.s.

From 2015, he's eighty-four years old here (January 1931–July 2017), on the beach in southern California where he and my sister went on vacation several years running--he liked to watch the seals and whales nearby, and pick up feathers.

The full picture of my father is much more complex, of course, and involves far darker qualities, but as his body goes to cremation tomorrow, I feel free to remember this, his endearing side, first and foremost.
My father took the Eeyore I rescued & restored for him to California, and Eeyore is going on this last trip with him too.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

"Something your hand touched..."

Lucinda read this quote at the memorial for my father yesterday:
"Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted.
Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you're there.

It doesn't matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that's like you after you take your hands away. "
Sort of unexpectedly, it's from Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

Today I go to work at the thrift store for the first time in a week (luckily I'd taken most of the week off for something else; death took its place). 
I feel just a little nervous, going back into the world, but also it's very, very welcome--I'm so glad I have a job to go to, not more writing work alone at home, and I'm totally ready, and needing, even, to be around strangers and stuff and other distractions again. 

My intention (fingers crossed) is FINALLY to set up the sewing machine this coming week (after I've done all the dishes from the memorial) and start on all of that--touching fabric and thread and buttons.  

Thank you all for the emails and comments--the contact and kindness means a lot, and I appreciate it: 
your words are a kind of touching too.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

For my father, "with a merry heart..."


(Marz brought the camera back, just in time.)

Italian Afternoon (la felicita)

I'm (unexpectedly) having fun preparing for my father's memorial lunch today. 
I was a little dismayed that it's going to get hot today, after several cool days, but then I thought, no, that's correct:
it fits the spirit of the family gatherings for the birthday of his mother, my grandmother, every August

––minus the obligatory-for-the-era uncle in plaid shorts, black ankle socks & sandals, stirring a huge vat of spaghetti sauce, who always grabbed the females a little too closely and kissed us a little too sloppily––
but that creepy uncle (Uncle Larry!), long dead now, is like a gateway to some of my happiest childhood memories.

I'm listening to a CD Italian Café: my favorite song is "Juke Box" (on youtube)
"Juke box e una magica invenzion, ... la felicita... [happiness], con Sinatra e Johnny Rave , Franky Lane e Doris Day..."

My sister just emailed me our father's work ID from the 1980s.

I laughed: he looks like a character in a Coen Bros. movie--not a gangster, my father actually had a touch of the laid-back Dude about him:  
"All the dude ever wanted was his rug back, man.

Could we get the father back for that? :)

OK, back to house cleaning, and arranging olives & salami...

Friday, July 14, 2017

In Memoriam (Lunch)

i. The Menu 

Strong emotion makes me sleepy, and I've been sleeping a lot since my father died (gosh, only two-and-a-half days ago). I think some funeral rituals are helpful simply because they make you get up and get dressed... and maybe even clean the house. 

I was just now looking at an old glass peanut-butter jar full of pearl buttons, thinking that if I were someone else, I would be spending this afternoon hand-sewing a little, treasurable favor for everyone who is coming to the home-made memorial I am holding for my father in my small apartment tomorrow.

Instead, I am figuring out the ratio of sleeping-time desired to house cleaning–time required.

I did manage to go out and about to gather for the memorial some of the Italian foods my Sicilian grandmother served for casual gatherings:
salami, cheese, bread, fresh fruit, Jordan almonds (Italian in origin), and red wine.

Ignoring my grandmother's advice that "the cheapest wine is the best," 
I splurged ($65) on Amarone della Valpolicella, which we never drank.

I only tasted it a few years ago. 
It's amazing: made from semi-dried grapes (raisins), but not sticky sweet--it's a dry red wine (insert something about chemistry... )
Photo, right, of the grapes, drying over the winter.

ii. Marking the Change

Funeral rituals get you out of bed, but they're also important for me because I need to mark the event, to help make it real. Death is so weird---the psyche has a hard time accepting someone has gone forever.  It doesn't compute.

I woke up this morning thinking that losing my father to a natural death is a million times easier than losing my mother to suicide. 
 It was much harder simply to take it in, when my mother killed herself. I dreamed, and still sometimes dream, that she's not really dead: once in a dream, I ran into her in Australia, where she'd been living for years but hadn't bothered, somehow, to write.

I'd arranged a big funeral for her--I really needed the big guns to mark her death, and I very, very much appreciated the many people who came and the many cards people sent. Now, not being on Facebook, I haven't heard from many people and haven't reached out to many either. It's fine. I've invited only a handful of old friends to this memorial for my father--there'll be a couple readings, but mostly it's lunch. *

iii. Time and Chance

I think I'll read my father's favorite Bible passage---the bit from Ecclesiastes about the race not going to the swift, but chance playing a major role in how things turn out for people's lives. **

That sums up my father's political philosophy, that people who succeed give themselves too much credit if they think they are better than others: usually they're just luckier than others who're trying just as hard or didn't get a chance even to try. 

My father was a professor of political science, whose politics (everyone deserves the dignity of choice, I guess sums it up, even if their choices are dumb) were shaped by growing up during the Great Depression in the industrial city of Milwaukee, the son of hardworking but impoverished immigrants.
He always spoke with deep bitterness of the way the government relief workers would visit the family's home, to make sure they weren't lying about their need for clothes, and how the government-issued shoes had orange soles, so the children who had to wear them to school felt marked out. His father, my grandfather, was a violent, brutal man, but my father always said he was made worse because he was a proud man who'd been made to feel humiliated.

iv. Different Landscapes

My sister is writing our father's obituary for the newspaper. Earlier today we spoke on the phone, and she asked if I had any suggestions for quotes to include. 
I suggested the Ecclesiastes bit, saying our father was always an Old Testament Christian (insofar as he was Christian at all, which wasn't much)--he even said as much, and it summed up his odd mix of New Deal + Libertarian politics.

She paused. 
"I was thinking more of the Romantic poets," she said."Like 'Travelling,' by Wordsworth--it reminds me of our wonderful trips together."


I can't think of any sensibility much further from [how I see] my father's.
What can I say?
Every person is many different people; my sister and I share the same biological father, but we knew different ones. 

My father's favorite book, so far as I know, was The Leopard, by Giuseppe di Lampedusa:
This tale of the decline and fall of the house of Salina, a family of Sicilian aristocrats, first appeared in 1958, but it reads more like the last 19th-century novel, a perfect evocation of a lost world."--NYT
My father even named his son Fabrizio, after the main character, the prince.

THIS, from the novel is the landscape--the psychological landscape, the Sicilian DNA-- that shaped my father:
“For over twenty-five centuries we [Sicilians have] been bearing the weight of superb and heterogeneous civilizations, all from outside, none made by ourselves, none that we could call our own.

This violence of landscape, this cruelty of climate, this continual tension in everything, and even these monuments of the past, magnificent yet incomprehensible because not built by us and yet standing round us like lovely mute ghosts;
all those rulers who landed by main force from every direction who were at once obeyed, soon detested, and always misunderstood, their only expressions works of art we couldn't understand and taxes which we understood only too well and which they spent elsewhere:
all these things have formed our character, which is thus conditioned by events outside our control as well as by a terrifying insularity of mind.”

My sister's thinking daffodils, and I'm sure that's true to her experience of our father.

I'm thinking artichokes.
And wine that's made from reduction.

 * P.S. If you're a friend in town reading this, and I didn't invite you, I was probably asleep: you are welcome to turn up uninvited!

* * Oh! How 'bout that? 
I just now looked up the Ecclesiastes quote, to link here, and it follows shortly after,
eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart", which also fits my father, and is perfect for a memorial lunch!  

This is the bit he especially liked (KJV):
"The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all."

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Toys from My Father (R.I.P.)

Two days ago, I flew down and said good-bye to my father in the flesh––kissed his hand and told him I'd always remember him with respect, which I thought was the thing that would please this Sicilian man the most––spent the night, and flew back the next day. 
My brother called this morning at 5 a.m. to say our father just died. 

(Have I mentioned a brother? Maybe not. He's not in my life. Our family is a like a broken ceramic plate--it's hard to fit the pieces together again, all those razor-sharp edges and rough, grating edges.)

I'm grateful I made the trip in time.
My father wasn't responsive when I got there, but his consciousness didn't seem to be totally shut down, and I definitely got the sense he knew I was there, along with my brother and sister. 

I knew it would be hard to be in the house of my father, and it was (bad dreams came to me), but my father had refused to go to his own dying father's bedside, and I realized when I was there that by showing up, now my actions would never in any way echo that, in the mind of my father, me, or anyone else. 
Unexpectedly, it felt a little bit like I was ending a curse.

(Hm. It's only as I write this that I see that so clearly:
perhaps only the one who is hurt enough to want to carry on the curse has the power not to, and thus to end it . . .  [wow])

I'm grateful my father had a good death, as death goes---hospice in his home and morphine both worked beautifully, and people he loved attended him. 
My brother said he simply slowed and slowed until he stopped.
And I'm grateful that after a brutal boyhood, my father had a good adult life, and even a great second-half of his life, and he knew and said as much.

I wrote before that one of the great things I inherited from my father is a love of toys. I brought home with me some of his santons, French nativity figurines, bought over many years on trips abroad with my sister. 

These [fuzzy laptop photo below] are some of them, on my windowsill. When I hold them,  I feel plain old, straightforward love for my father.