Thursday, December 15, 2011

Unfinished Business

It was the best of intentions; it was the worst of intentions--things I either did half-heartedly or meant to do, but never got around to doing them.  Thoughts, topics and acts of courage that I never quite fleshed out.  Things I attempted, and things I accomplished with an eye of doubt and wonder.  The following is a non-exhaustive "top 20 of  2011" list that is a cross between David Letterman and Andy Rooney, except the order is arbitrary, and if you could hear my voice in your head, I do not sound nasally.

1. Figure out a way to make money without doing much.  Damn you, sluggish Economy.

2. I took up a a new style of yoga, and boy, the instructors are picky about how they want your body to move. One instructor kept telling me to puff up my kidney. I did not move.  Just puff it up, he repeated.  I don't know what that means, I told him, and if I did, I would be in a hospital.  He kept moving my torso around like he was shaping Play-Doh, and I shot a glare that said how 'bout i puff up your kidney?! See if you like how that feels!

3. I observe how friends become instant celebrities on Facebook because they get 25 thumbs up for the most mundane things that their kids do.

4. A relative has been living with AIDS for very long time.  He is 70 years old.  I've seen him in rough times and now looking the best he's ever had in a while.  He grew up in the segregated South, and I thought it would be a great idea to write a living history of his life.  I haven't talked to him about it.

5. Several hours into a meditation retreat I burst into tears. I did not know why, at first. I read a poem aloud and had trouble getting through it. Then, I realized that sometimes I think that what I have to say is not important.

6.  People say the most outrageous things on Facebook.  However, when you talk to them in person, they are not nearly as interesting as the things they post.  Major letdown.

7. I am sick and tired of culturally insensitive restroom signs.  Why does Starbucks insist on having one restroom for men and one for women?  The signs on the doors should just look like this:

This eliminates gender confusion and encourages healthy bowel movement. 

8. Lady Antebellum stole my heart this year with their refreshing sound.  My only gripe is their name.  What is up with the nostalgia with one of the darkest periods of American history? I have a better name for them: Madame Slavery.

9. The Rachel Maddow Show is excellent.  Rachel, you are the "best new thing" everyday.  

10.  Al Sharpton is the only Black host on a major news network during the week. This dilemma is like Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum's best selling book, Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?  Why are all the Black Anchors Bunched up Together on the weekend? Go to CNN, and it's like a chocolate city.

11. Joining the Occupy Movement sounded cool and trendy.  I just couldn't get with the whole sitting outside in the cold seeking moments to pump my fist and shout random political phrases.   It would have felt disingenuous to say," Hey Everybody, look at me, I'm occupying!" The movement felt very occupied by white people with people of color speckled here and there through out the crowds, and something about that seemed fishy to me.

12. Writing is always a challenging and peculiar process for me.  I like to experiment with various methods to get the fingers typing or the pen moving.  One way that I break through the challenge is by writing phrases based on things I see or hear.  For example:
 She had a way of  taking things that were crooked and making them straight.
Men in Diapers: the way we coddle men and expect women to take care of them and clean up their doo-doo.
Using Monopoly money for my therapy sessions with Elmo.
13. The word 'occupation' will no longer have its original meaning.

14.  This was a year of reading recklessly.  I cracked open and read about 15 books, though with some of the boring ones, I did not bother to finish.  And you know what?  I am okay with that.

15. One of the books that had a lasting affect was Motherless Mothers by Hope Edelman.  I began to blog about it, but it is very difficult to articulate the experience.  It is easier to think about all the ways I have had to mother myself and others without having a living compass.  It is also hard to imagine my daughter having to experience the same loss.

16. Our culture has an obsession with zombies.   I can safely say that the dead are indeed living among us--the Republican nominees.  Run and hide, People. 

17.  I am really bad at telling stories.  I get facts and times mangled and leave my listeners waiting for a punch line that never appears because I forget the point of why I bothered to tell the story in the first place.  As a remedy, I took a storytelling class.  I had to tell a story in five minutes and then be judged on my delivery.  People liked my story about learning to use a shotgun, and they enjoyed the sound of my voice.  This is as close as I'll ever get to an American Idol experience.

18.  I tangoed with the thought of leaving the the Democratic Party and becoming a card-carrying socialist.  I've learned that socialism is just as divided and confused as the straight, gay man married to a woman.  I still have not decided if I will vote in 2012, but I am an Obama loyalist, and I cringe when I hear socialist/Marxist activists attacking his policies.  They have every right to do so and their points are justifiable, but I can sometimes feel like they are bad mouthing a relative who you love, but you know has made bad choices.

19. One of my New Year's resolution was to become closer to my family.  I had my immediate family in mind, but this soon became cousins who lived far away, but were as close as the click of the "update status" link on Facebook. 

20. It is hard to whittle a list of twenty influential points from a very bustling life. I've always been a person who must write things down, lest I forget. Moreover, in this digital age stuff moves at you so fast that theresnotimeforpunctuationmarks and some thoughts never get finis

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Rage Against the Machine

Growing up with modest means, David Henry was like many youngsters of his day, helping out his family with their small business and nurturing his curiosity for education and wildlife.  He attended Harvard where the expectation for many young men was to take up honorable employment.  However, David Henry, a person who contentedly forged his own path, left Harvard and instead of entering a formal profession, took jobs here and there, such as being a handyman and serving as a tutor for a child of a family in Brooklyn, NY.  He disdained city life and moved back home where he spent two years living on rented land and documented a personal journey of simplicity and enlightenment by living off of the work of his own hands.  If his powerful sense of individualistic pursuits were not enough, he also felt that his name was not truly indicative of who he was.  So, he changed it.

The world would come to know him as Henry David Thoreau.

The rustic life of Walden promoted quiescence and solitude. Yet, Thoreau did not live his beliefs quietly or in a vacuum.  Both of his essays, Walden and Civil Disobedience stem from deep contemplation on life and liberty and are a commentary on the deeds of American society. While Walden is memoir-like, Civil Disobedience is an impassioned response to the evils of capitalism (a term he did not use, but was
the economic model of nation becoming more industrial and less agrarian) and of slavery.   Slavery, aka privately-owned chattel, could only exist within a country that accepted that Black people were equal or lesser in value to the products that they made.  To Thoreau it seemed irrational and  hypocritical for a country that so fiercely espoused values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, to tolerate such a peculiar institution. He compares men, especially those who serve in the military, to machines for they give their bodies in patriotic duty to their country without conscience, neither questioning why they serve and for what higher purpose. They are reduced to small, replaceable parts, subject to the shifting winds of government. Civil Disobedience is a call to reclaim consciousness.  In light of the American Revolution, Americans were living with the idea of freedom from monarchy, but not in the reality of freedom, since the government allowed the enslavement of Black people.  The opposite of consciousness is the illusion of freedom or fighting for it from forces without (the US was in the midst of war with Mexico during the period of his writing). Fighting to protect national wealth and security, the young country found itself in its first mid-life crisis.  Thoreau incisively attacked the government and her sleepy citizens who valued consumerism and decadence over principle, modesty, and justice.

At the core of his writing was the inquiry into living by principle rather than defining the self by the quest for economic wealth and material comfort.  For Thoreau, principled living meant that the worth of a man's work was measured by the time, effort, and heart he put into working with his hands and not by how much income could be gathered by production.  It also meant that there was a conscious connection between what a man did and his raison d'etre.  The feverish pursuance of wealth for its own sake disrupted this connection.  Once this disconnection occurs, it is not hard to understand why slavery was justified.

Deep in the illusion of liberty, Americans and those aspiring to be, find themselves trapped in a hole.  The American dream is the light above, but way out of  reach. We have done this hard work, and we have the calloused hands to prove it.  Our ancestors worked harder than us to give us a leg up so we would not have to clean the dirt out of our fingernails.  Yet, here we are, ensnared in the web of history repeating itself.  Our government is entrenched in mini-wars all over the world that we wish that Mexico would fight us again so we could decide once and for all what do about immigration. Slavery, the institution that once solidified the  economy would also confirm Blacks as second class citizens for ever after.  Our industrialized world has reaked havoc on the air we breathe and the land we trek.  The farm-to-market and locavore movements are not only a nostalgic longing for days of yore, but a necessity for the planet's longevity.

As the roots of the tree of history bear down into the fertile soil, its strange fruit returns: a newly revised version of Jim Crow. Typically, a Constitutional amendment protects the rights of its citizens.  However, states like Florida and Georgia are enacting legislation making voting difficult for their most vulnerable and oppressed populations.  The Votings Rights Act of 1965 strengthened the language of the 15th amendment outlawing practices like literacy tests.  These "exams" are being replaced by mandates to show proof of citizenship and  birth.  Prior to 1965 some states were still enforcing poll taxes to justify the ability to vote. Many older Blacks living in rural areas do not have birth documents beyond their bibles, so isn't it convenient that these people will need to purchase papers in order to do something that is free.

Thoreau was jailed for refusing to pay his poll tax because he strongly believed that he should not have to pay the government for something that was an inalienable right.

He died several years before the 15th amendment was ratified.  Civil Disobedience was published four years after his death.  He would never know how much his personal inquiry and his writings would inspire later generations and set the stage for a new discourse on what it means to disobey.

Gandhi and leaders in the Civil Rights movement used Thoreau's writings as a blueprint for peaceful resistance.  Similar to Thoreau's time, disobedience stems from discontent with the status quo: the condition that dictates that it is okay to dig a deeper hole of debt in the pursuit of a dream and that it is perfectly normal for the most powerful few to control the plight of the masses.  In waking up from the reverie of the American Dream, we are left with a nightmare.  Our motherland's finances are in disarray.  Globalization has made our world smaller, but we know not the intimations of our closest neighbors, and we court psuedo-politicians who have not a clue what Uzbekistan is. Whether supporters are conscious of it or not,  Thoreau's indignant spirit lives on in current non-violent protests.  I do not need to iterate why the Occupy movement is gaining ground;it is simply an economic model of Supply and Demand.  The demand for justice is increasing, but the supply of equity has decreased, thus the market is volatile and subject to fluctuations like demonstrations, walk-outs, and strikes.  The dissatisfaction with oligarchy has spawned inklings of anarchy, reminiscent of early 20th century labor reform activism.

For those of us who cannot make it out to participate in the movements, there is another  the type of disobedience that hits closer to home.  Divested of public displays of outrage and mistrust, it shows up in the daily ongoings of raising children struggling to make a name for themselves in the world of adults. As a parent, I often wonder if it is worth it to keep count of all the times I need to tell my kids to go to bed on time and to stop punching each other.  Has anything I have ever said worthy of moral compliance even made it between their ears?  Outside of  my peripheral vision, do my children adhere to aphorisms like, "Be good"  "Love yourself", "Treat others as you wish to be treated?"  We hope that our progeny, who look so much like us become the sum of our best and most shiny parts.  We teach them about oppression and the wicked and awkward ways of the world, and to stand up for justice, but we do not know what they do with these lessons.  Are they really listening when we are trying to have an important chat about what the 99% means while they are only using 10% of their brains to hear what we are saying?  Lost in my query, I received a call from the school principal that answered my questions.

My daughter along with a posse of four girls was caught tagging the bathroom walls.  I usually get calls from the nurse about fevers and stomach aches, so talking to the principal was an anomaly.  He said she was contrite and quickly confessed to her misdeed.   According to her and against her better judgment, she felt coaxed into it, and not wanting to be the party pooper, she acquiesced.  One girl wrote a threat to a classmate.  One scribbled amorous initials, "m.k. plus n.r".  The two others wrote things that didn't make sense. What did my daughter write?

"Love Yourself."

"Never deface public property" was not on my list, but my daughter has been listening to me.

As is such, to live a life of principle and with a commitment to justice is challenging. Many of us are just trying to hold down a job in order to pay the bills.  To live by principle means that our word is our bond, and if we say we will do something, be there, or speak up, we will not lie.  It requires that in our routines we apply meaning and self-awareness to all we do.  It means that despite the noise and distraction, we still listen.

In the introduction to Walden, scholar Michael Myer writes of  Thoreau,
"...he clearly shared Emerson's belief that each generation must discover the world through its own eyes rather than than through the eyes of previous generations..."
If we are to learn anything from history, it is that we must make a clean break from the repetition in two ways.  The first way is to regain consciousness.  There are still too many of us who, fed up with the implosive nature of politics, unplug from the discourse and settle for apathy.  We need to keep putting pressure on our elected officials and not be afraid to asks tough question of our government and of ourselves.  The second and most important way is to finally do away with  the American Dream.  Enough with altering the language in order to reclaim it or rename it. It's time to put to death the obsession with the pursuit of material comfort and an imagined could-be life.  The American Dream is a lie and an illusion fed to us to keep our wires hooked up to a large machine that when it eventually breaks down, will take us with it.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


It is easy for me to capture the memories of my childhood.  Mostly, I am laughing and playing.  I am innocent and naughty.  I am sleepy and wide awake at the world that loves the little-ness that is me.  I am skipping then quickening my steps and running to the edge of the horizon only to stop abruptly.  The sunlight whose trail I  have followed has disappeared and all that is before me is darkness.  I am scared, but fearless.  How bad can it possible be to plunge head first into adolescence?

Adolescence began for me the day I learned what conceited meant. A playmate walked up to me in the schoolyard and told me some "she said, she said" business about how I walked around like I loved myself too much.  I looked like I was too proud.  It did not occur to me that walking with an erect spine, shoulders soft, did not bode well for an eleven year old girl.  My body belied my age and at the same time my mind was hastening at such a pace that my body could not keep up.  All girls mature like this, and no one talks about it in sex education classes in a way that she can open her mouth and say, "Yes, that is me."  She hears that all of this development is normal and age appropriate, yet no one bothers to inform the media, bullies, teachers and parents.  Girls are persona non-grata in their own skin.

The truth was that I did not love myself, nor did I necessarily hate myself.  I was a quiet and disciplined student who could calculate the exact moment to raise my hand in class so I did not look too intelligent or too sassy.  I admit that my carriage and deameanor were a result of ballet and a maternal,West Indian upbringing unspoilt by the urban environment in which I lived.   I was not conscious of the way that class and immigrant status separated the "just Blacks" from the hyphenated nationalities Blacks, which culminated in me being shoved, fingered, and whispered about on the playground.  There were plenty of second generation kids like me in my town.  I just happened to be the one who was last to get picked in line for the teams.

Conceited followed me into middle school and changed the way she looked. Her modus operandi transitioned from a vocabulary word dangling at the end of a sentence to a striking  presence attached to my backpack.  The shoving and the back-stabbing continued, as this is developmentally normal and age appropriate. Between the tears tucked away before I got home and the the careful glances beyond the edge of my locker I noticed something. I was not alone.  I felt lonely because I was silent in a sea of teen outrage and rebellion.  Looking down at my feet taking hurried steps from one class to the next, I did not see  the growing trend of kids in the hallway who could not find their place in this social morass.  Kids like Pooh-Bee who was the Big Man on Campus--a light-skinned homeboy from the projects. He was the kid who made Beat-boxes on his desk instead of doing social studies.  He moved through school with quixotic charm and handled the administration in Machiavellian terms.  Pooh-Bee hung out in the back of classes with his b-boys making unwelcomed gestures and comments that are not worth repeating.  Imagine a tall, good-looking kid swaying down the hallway with all the cool kids in the latest hip-hop fashion flanked at his side.  Now, imagine this in slow motion.  That is who Pooh-Bee was.

Our school required all students to pass water safety class by eighth grade promotion, which meant that a student needed to be able to swim the length of the pool.  I loved to swim and within my class I was one of the few who advanced quickly to diving from the deep end.  Strong swimmers could opt out of the water and play board games until the period ended.  Except for those who did not know how to swim.  They were shuttled and roped off in the shallowest end of the pool.  Pooh-Bee did not know how to swim.   From poolside, I watched in discomfort the horror on his face.  His slender body stood frozen and shivering in the water.  Beginners kicked and splashed around him, but the instructor could not get Pooh-Bee to move.  In literature, this is called irony.

I thought Pooh-Bee was king and the rest of us were pawns guarding his position on the chessboard.  Too busy holding up our end of the bargain to act like the blacks you see on TV and in the news, we missed the cue card that told us, "Now, be yourself..."  We were thrown into the game not knowing that we were getting played.  Games are predictable because there is an objective, and it is clear who wins at the end.  Life at age fourteen did not move at a leisurely and stimulating pace of a card game.  We were rushing to get out of Algebra and writing essays in incomplete sentences.  We flipped the bird to teachers who mistook our back-talk for insolence instead of intellectual inquiry.  And as for the girls who wore tight blouses and short skirts--our bodies belied our age, and trust me, we felt just as uncomfortable looking that way as you did looking at us.

The misery of being a teenager in a rundown city felt like it would never end.  Well meaning teachers, Sunday school lessons, and politicians moonlighting as motivational speakers told us everything was going to be okay.  Eventually.  Pep talks sounded like a co-eds pledging a sorority.  They just have to memorize a few lines of history, get through being publicly humiliated, and agree to have their liberties suspended so they can earn their pins and the admiration of fellow sorors.  Eventually is adulthood with a smattering of therapy on the side.  I am glad not to be in my Adidas shoes from back then, but I secretly desire a do-over. My personal time machine would make me the Queen piece on the chessboard.

For writers, penning adolescence is cathartic, but can also be an act of civil disobedience;  It is uncouth and illegitimate to write personal narrative, especially one that is confessional.  The writer must distance herself from the subject and adopt an objective view.  What happens when the writer is the subject?  The personal becomes political.  As part of my redress,  I have created a running list of the names of other kids with whom I attended middle school.  Next to their names are nick-names, if any and their infamy.  For example,  Nicole, aka,  Little Dolly Parton because her breast were too huge for her petite frame.  Or, Sherrod, pulled a knife on the science teacher and held it to his neck because he did not take too kindly to white, upper class people acting like they knew better than him.  Robin, pregnant twice by age fifteen, DYFS took her children.  I remember them like they were my friends with whom I have lost touch and long to reconnect.  Our only acquaintance was on the board where we stood on the black or white squares waiting for the hand of fate to advance us.  Waiting was our act of solidarity.

To write about adolescence is to tell the story of political and social unrest. The oppressors are big and bad, care little for those living at the margins, and are uninterested in leveling the the playing field.  There can only be one winner and multiple losers.  I wonder whatever happened to Pooh-Bee.  I am sure he learned how to swim, but am not certain if he learned the rules to be able to master the game.

For me to admit defeat is synonymous to martyrdom for a generation of baby-boomer grandchildren whose lives played out like an archetype in The Breakfast Club.  I refuse to wave a white flag and to chalk up circumstances to a coming of age ceremoniously passed down from one generation to the next.  Rather, I am the Grandmaster.  Confidence in my abilities has grown as the awkwardness of adolescence has disappeared. However, the memory of her attaches itself to my pawn.  The dark corners and edges of the board remind me of the horizon.  I stare past the fullness of  the sun contemplating my next move.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Fear: False Evidence Appearing Real

In the throes of contractions, Talin's water broke. Her midwife went all counter-culture on her and told her to wait it out.  For like, two days. After several hours in labor, her son emerged healthy and undamaged from his passage down the birth canal.  This story is unfamiliar to moms who've given birth.  The manufacturer's owner manual specifically states that once the water breaks delivery must occur within 24 hours because the baby's sterile environment has been compromised.  If you do not follow the instructions, any parts that end up breaking cannot be returned.  It's the, "You broke it, you bought it" policy that's applied quite aptly to American labor. The scare tactics that parents-to-be are bombarded with at the moment of conception are so commonplace to us that you needn't experience childbirth on any level to be afraid of it.  Very afraid of it.  Nursery rhymes and Mother Goose tales meant to soothe and inspire laughter are more like the big bad wolf dressed in grandmother's clothing.  Because fear is a pipeline from the cradle to the grave, Yardiegal will follow the trail and examine the ways that we are scared-y cats.

Fear is not something that just happens to us.  It is a coping mechanism we fall back into when situations are unexpected and unaccustomed.  Not all fear is bad, especially when you're swimming at the beach and sharks appear. The adrenaline rush will quickly send you out of the water onto dry land.  The kind of fear to which I'm referring is the Pavlov's Dogs-type-- when two, unrelated stimuli are presented to a being (human or animal), that being will have an automatic, learned response. Let's go back to that beach where you see a beautiful woman in a bikini, and you salivate.  Your eyes pan her silhouette as she walks by holding a bottle of your favorite beer. To your dismay, you may never see this pretty woman again, but anytime you see that bottle of beer you'll salivate.

We are conditioned to expect the worse.  In response to doomsday Y2K, people stockpiled their shelves with a year's worth of survival gear in case all Hell literally broke loose.  Don't like wearing hats in the winter?  Too bad,  you'll catch a cold. If you don't read to your children daily, they just may grow up illiterate and stupid. While you're at it, keep an eye on your kids at the beach.  If  they manage not to get swept up by the current,  there is a risk that some stranger may kidnap them.  I think we spend more time making sure we have an umbrella than actually taking a walk in a rain shower.  At some point, everybody gets wet.

Politicians and historians like to invoke the wisdom of the of founding father's architect of the United States and its constitution, but their wisdom was a front for fear.  After breaking loose from colonial tyranny, these great men constructed the constitution as an insurance policy.  In case foreign invaders tried to take what they claimed belonged to them, or in the threat of national mutiny, the law authorized them to protect their borders and booty by any means necessary. It started with giving Britain the boot, next was France, Spain, Mexico, and Indigenous Americans. The U.S. was born into a constant state of alert.

Sometimes, when people are afraid, instead of admitting it, they become controlling.  For years, Russia scared us.  The expansive country convinced us that their nuclear weapons were more powerful, more long-range, and that they had more of them then we would ever know.  They were lying, but it didn't matter.  The fear of communism made us tighten our grip on Latin America and affected our relationships with other countries.  Instead of extending a helping hand to Cuba, we punished her.  Our punitive actions cost us a would-be ally.  Like two lifelong friends whose misunderstanding cost them a friendship,and their children will never have the benefit of even knowing each other, we suffer from not knowing what could have been with Cuba. We are the richest nation on earth with the largest defense budget and we do not feel safe.  And, in case you hadn't heard, Homeland Security no longer uses the color-coded threat level system.  It's now called the National Terrorism Advisory System.

The British documentary, A State of Mind, follows the daily lives of two, young North Korean, teen girls training for a national celebration and is a rare glimpse into this culture. Beyond a silent commentary on the insular world of North Korea, the film also illustrates the profound fear in the minds of its people.  From school-age, North Koreans are taught to fear a U.S invasion of their borders. The most notable scene in the movie shows children memorizing a map of United States and reciting  mini-anthems about how the U.S. is the axis of evil and oppression.  At random, air raid sirens go off reminding the people to find shelter or take arms in the event of an American attack.  North Koreans must depend on food rations and more alarmingly,  know nothing of life outside of the 38th parallel. What little knowledge they do have of the outside world is shaped and censored by state propaganda.

While watching the movie, I was reminded of a time during my childhood.  Every Saturday at 12pm an air raid drill would go off in my city for about twenty seconds.  I learned that the sound correlated with the sight of rusting, fallout shelter signs I would see on the sides of random buildings.  It spoke of  an era I never lived through and had little understanding of.  If we were no longer in danger of an air attack, then why, I thought, do the sirens continue to blare?    Did we need to be reminded to be scared of something?

Fear of the unknown ends up being a fear of something that does not exist, which makes Winston Churchill's most quoted quote about fear actually true.  It teaches us to hang onto the past and to worry about a future that has yet to be. It's the nightmare that feels as if we are actually living it, yet we wake up a bit sweaty and smiling in relief.  All we need to do is take a few deep breaths and remember that we are alive and in one piece.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Help! I've Been Abducted by Aliens!

I'm always one to seek out fresh ideas and believe that every thing, everyone, every seemingly pithy encounter is a breeding ground for inspiration.  If I'm not inspired by something, then at the very least I will laugh at it.  I will laugh so hard that I will cry. If I'm crying, it's for one of two reasons: either I'm uncontrollably inconsolable or I'm once again lamenting what this world has come to.  I owe this week's tears to a friend who posted this status: "HOTNESS credited to yoga. Love it".  She was referring to this article about Maroon 5's lead singer, Adam Levine, posing nude for British Cosmo magazine in support of prostate cancer awareness.   The article also briefly references other yoga devotees who shed their coverings for a PETA campaign.  Can someone please tell me who are these people who equate going buff with some kind of social consciousness?  I know a heap of activists, and I've never seen them naked (thank god). These acts of omission are just plain conceited and egotistical, and trivialize major issues.  Do you really think that men who are at risk for prostate cancer will be inspired to get a screening after gazing at Adam Levine's tiny, short man? These types of images, fantasy-driven and exquisitely Photoshopped, are a dime a dozen.  You needn't be in Time Square to get a ration of beauty image blitz to realize that a preoccupation with what we look like and how much we weigh is a national pastime.  Somewhere between first grade and dropping out of college to go find ourselves and do yoga, we've removed our critical thinking cap, hit the snooze button and have rolled over to go back to sleep.  Here is your Wake-Up Call (thank you, Adam).

While you've been asleep, our world has experienced a close encounter of the third kind.  Whenever you're confronted with ads for designer clothes and accessories, infomercials for fad diets and workout regimens, or simply reaching for bottled water in the refrigerated aisle squeezed between energy drinks and soda, there is a switch in the brain that goes on.  Without your knowledge and authorization, a chip was implanted deep in the cerebrum by these invaders.  You receive subliminal messaging about thinness and ideal beauty.  The messages convince you that you are not quite good enough and in need of some type of extreme makeover.  Not even the most educated among us is immune in the least to the barrage of missives.  Actually, this makes you more of a sucker, er, conscientious consumer and ensures that at some point down the road you will buy product X or a version of it. It sounds out-of-this-world-ish, but it's actually a simple,scientific principle called persuasion, and advertisers hire social psychologists to consult on the best way to get us to buy products.  Even if you've killed your television and are proud of it, you are still within firing range and there's no escape.  The most persuasive tools are sex, food, and a distorted view of our bodies.

Hotness credited to Photoshop CS3
Research has proven that body image and psychological well-being are determined by exposure to idealized media images.  I am happy for Jared's triumphant weight-loss, but I can't help but wonder why he chose Subway as his meal plan. Was Richard Simmon's Deal-A-Meal really less appealing than the happy, shiny actors in the Subway commercials?  In the 1940s, William Sheldon, a psychologist, introduced the Somatotype Theory, the idea that human beings can be categorized into three distinct body shapes (ectomorphs, endomorphs, and mesopmorphs) and each type has a corresponding character or personality trait.  If you are an endomorph, you are, shall we say, big-boned and store layers of adipose tissue (fat) in your body. You are also lazy, jovial, and have very little impulse control so you tend to overeat.  The rest is history and set into motion a creation of false standards by which we judge each other. In time, all the images we see of blonde, blue-eyes, chiseled chins and chests and shapeless legs begin to meld together, and we cannot distinguish one individual from another. We sat watching the Miss Universe Pageant, and my friend noticed that if you could remove the heads of the contestants and put them on each others' bodies there would be no difference.  She was right.

To prove his theory, Dr. Sheldon conducted studies on male undergrads at Yale and took nude photos of them without their informed consent to participate in his research. His theory has long since been discredited in the world of psychology, but the world of pop health and fitness promises weight loss tailored to your unique body type.  It's not fair to hold Sheldon responsible for every maladaptive response, but much of his work was informed by eugenics and all of these standards of beauty have been shaped by racism and sexism.  The British documentary Nip, Bleach, Tuck chronicles the lives of four men and women of color who are convinced that something is gravely wrong with either their noses, skin color, or legs and are in need of surgical intervention.  Unfortunately, the psycho-sociological assault on humanity disproportionately affects girls more than boys. Pro-Ana and Pro-Mia movements are not designed to support healthy body/weight images, but to give an underground voice to girls and women who believe anorexia nervosa and bulimia are lifestyles choices and not diseases. 

Right smack in the middle of puberty, I was issued a warning by my father: I was developing a double chin and needed to watch my weight.  I hadn't noticed, with my mind all on boys and such.  I took his fatherly advice to heart, ditched the boy scene, and became whipped by the need to look at my face from different angles in the mirror.  All of the sudden my nose was way too big for my face, and I hated how my thighs seemed to get chunkier when I sat down.  Thinking I might have eluded the madness, I attended an elite, prep boarding school for high school.  In a short amount of time, I quickly noticed a pattern. Many of the girls would cut pages from fashion magazines and hang them in border or as wallpaper around their dorm rooms.  There were ads of models in lingerie, in shoes, in Burberry's from head to toe.  The most popular ones were the Calvin Klein ads with groups of preppy kids hanging off one another vying for who could look the most aloof and comely.  How peculiar it was for a young Black girl to have pictures of White models hugging the walls of her room.

In her journey toward puberty, one of my daughter's best friends has been put on notice:  lose weight or forever suffer the consequences of  health-conscious, but boneheaded parents.  They've hired a personal trainer for her.  She is a kid with a solid build, a round, beautiful face, and a charming disposition. She also is very physically active and has yet to hit her growth spurt which will lengthen her body and even out her BMI.   My daughter watches her friend  bemoaning her caloric intake and wondering if the snack some kid has offered to her in school is okay with her diet.  During Father's Day, she told her dad that she was hungry and wanted more to eat.  He said no because she needed to watch her weight.  She yelled at him saying that she wished he was not her father.  He grounded her.

I think he also has been abducted by aliens.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Pimp My Bitch

I was invited on Facebook to attend a Slutwalk rally to bring awareness and action to rape culture.  It's called Slutwalk as a way to take back the power of the word 'slut' in order to show that shaming and name calling is not okay.  Like what the rally promotes, but I'm really not interested in reclaiming my inner slut.  Besides, I can't bring myself to believe that there is redemption in the word.  To me, this will always be a denigrating word, no matter how it's used.  There are somethings you just can not appropriate, which got me thinking about the way in which we use language to shape what we value. Yardiegal is deeply convinced that our American English, a colonialist hodgepodge of German, Latin, and French, is absurdly being upended and re-packaged by mass market media and fringe communities to redefine and challenge assumed personal and sociopolitical values.


To put it bluntly, you know something's changed when the phrase "Pimp My Ride (or house, tofu, etc.)" has nothing to do with the world's oldest profession.  The word 'pimp', which is defined as a man or person who solicits a prostitute in return for a share of the earnings, has taken on dualist meanings for a consumerist culture.  Sayings like, "steady pimpin'" and "pimpin' ain't easy" can mean either a man who is working his cash flow while maximizing his ho's,or anyone who considers themselves working at a job(s) to make ends meet just so they can survive. It's rooted in class and race struggles and is lyrically translated by rappers and their lackeys.  If asked how he were doing, you would never hear Donald Trump say, "Oh, you know how it is. I'm just steady pimpin'...", though it appropriately and metaphorically describes exactly what he does to make his money.

'Bitch' and 'nigger' both hold the same allure as taboo words that have become second-hand in our verbose society.  Comedian Katt Williams has taken it one, condescending step further and combines these two words, nigger-bitch, to describe a woman, regardless of her race.  Yes, he goes there, and he freely lets the NB-bomb drop in his routines like he's affectionately talking about his mama.  It used to be that a female dog was just that.  Then it became Joan Collins.  Then it became the title of a feminist magazine.  Then it became a male who acts up like a female. Then it attached itself to the word 'slap' and became a reality show phenomenon.  Nigger has had this same intricate journey, though some would argue that it's become transcendent. So much so, that it has a new spelling, 'nigga', with an altered definition so that White people can feel cozy using the word to describe their Black buddies.  See Season 2, Episode 11 of The Boondocks for a cartoon re-examination of this imperturbable word.

'Wife-beater' should be an oxymoron considering that anyone who is married shouldn't beat their wife.  It holds an image of some carelessly drunk man in his Hanes undershirt stumbling somewhere between "F&@# you, Bi%!ch!" and hand-cuffed on the ground with a police officer restraining him.  Here's the bizarre inflection: it's become an accoutrement for both men and women who like to bar-hop and check out the scenes at clubs.  A while back, I bar-hopped with a friend who wore a wife-beater paired with sexy jeans.  She was on the look-out for a cute guy and hoped that her style sense looked more straight than queer.  That was so gay.

'Conscious Capitalism' is a new term I'm hearing these days.  I don't exactly know what it means, but I'm wondering how that is even possible.  I'm guessing that it's like luxury with a conscience which helps people who wear certain types of furs or certain types of diamonds feel exonerated from being linked to the needless bloodshed.  It seems as if there are afflicted individuals that need comforting when they drop Benjanims on high ticket items when deep down inside they know that they really don't need this stuff.  As a result, they invoke a Mary Poppins perspective and take a spoonful of sugar so that the yucky medicine will go down.  Richard "Tricky Dick" Nixon, then vice president to Eisenhower, voyaged to Latin America where he became very dismayed that the political tenor of some of the countries that he visited, like Venezuela, seemed to soft-pedal communism.  Remember, this was the era of McCarthyism, and our world was seeing red.  Tricky Dick and other state officials desired to promulgate American brand capitalism in these countries.  Consequently, Eisenhower decided to Poppin-ize capitalism by inventing different names for it: free enterprise and free market. This, he thought, would be the clincher. 50+ years later it remains.  Hook...line...

Sinker: Operation Geronimo. It's infamous moniker was a legendary Apache chief who fought for his people and land against the invasion of the U.S. and Mexican forces.  He was cunning, fearless, and had a way of consistently evading capture.  Sound familiar? Geronimo believed that his culture and religion was being stolen from him on land that the oppressors claimed as their own for economic and security interests.  Sound familiar?  In the same way jihadists co-opt the teachings of the Koran to justify carnage, we use our words to defend our opinions and beliefs.  We've twisted and reverted slang and wordings to explain away things we wish to no longer speak of and to make light of dilemmas to which there are no plausible answers.  The best advice I've read shows just how far we've come in an effort to redefine our selves and our values:

Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become character.
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

What I learned from SpongeBob

A few nights ago, the family and I were chatting about what TV stations we knew by heart.  I don't think we watch tons of television, but we have certain penchants for particular shows. Surprisingly, my husband knows many channels and what cable station to which they correspond.  My mother-in-law is the guru of whatever station is showing a Red Sox game, and I--besides knowing the local channels, could only confidently blurt out two.  Nickelodeon on 54 and Disney Channel on 27.  Welcome to my world.

Before I get busted about the crap on TV I subject my children and my childish self to, I'd like to advocate briefly for three benefits of watching TV. Number One:  You are in the Know.  If I'm ever bored with predictable shows like Project Runway and Say Yes to the Dress, I can count on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, The View, my local cable news station, Oprah, Rachel Ray, and The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, to give me streaming, live 24 hour coverage of the Royal Wedding and Kensington Palace.  It reminds me of the olden days when you had to get up from the couch to turn the dial on the TV because you couldn't bear the President's State of the Union Address, but every time you turned the channel, you saw different angles and slightly different hues of the same speech. Click. Shoot. Click. Darn it!

Number Two: It makes the song, "We are the World" much more believable.  I can feel truly connected to the suffering in the Middle East and Northern Africa when I feel confident that my American news stations are giving accurate and unbiased reporting.  And even though I will never really know how to spell Colonel Quaddafi's, Khadaffi(?), Gadafi(?) name, I have the knowledge that somehow, the US will find a way to be somehow more involved in Libya in some vague and stealth way.

Number Three: Hell hath no fury than peeling a child away from a beloved show and a parent from a teachable moment.  Let's face it.  School is stressful, and kids need something to wind down from an excruciating day-- the way mommy needs that martini.  So, if the family chooses to "check-out" by checking in with iCarly, I can be reasonably okay with that on one condition; there has to be a group discussion afterward about the implications of society and teenage behavior as depicted on shows geared towards tweens.  I'm serious.  My kids have had it up to their ears about how their parents point out how faulty and sexist the script is and how it depicts girls as hopelessly stupid and uninterested in education, to say the least.  If ever you're looking for a cozy and enjoyable evening with your favorite show, we are not the friends you invite over because we will comment and nitpick on just about everything socially and culturally inappropriate, demeaning, and unconscionable.  As an aside, this is why I LOVE watching any Tyler Perry movie.

Which brings this mommy to her teachable moment.  It happened while I caught a rerun of Spongebob Squarepants (don't bother asking how I even knew it was a rerun). "Pissed-off" could not begin to describe what I felt after learning that a yoga studio where I loved to teach was letting me go from the line-up because my class attendance was not high enough. I was pink-slipped via email from the studio owner who I've known for a few years.  I was not only upset at his dismissive way of dismissing me, but also mad because the wording of the email led me to think that my teaching was not good enough for the studio's standards.  I was so angry that I wanted to find someone that I used to be angry at whom I'd long forgotten, and think of that thing that made me angry at them in the first place.  My mind became the runaway train waiting to crash.  Then, Spongebob had a light bulb appear over his head.  He realized that even though he was fired from the Krusty Krab, he knew that he was a good fry cook no matter what anyone, including Mr. Krabs said. Like any show, the ending was predictable as Spongebob would return to his cherished dive.

I found myself only a little unprepared for the news of unemployment.  Unpredictably, I was more caught off-guard by my response to it.  I felt as though I shouldn't have been so raw with emotion.  For a moment, I convinced myself that the ascetic nature of yoga had taught me to transcend myself and not be so entangled in worldly passions of Lululemon, advanced poses, and svelte, yoga people.  Yet, my yoga practice is my spiritual practice, and spiritually, I'm a touchy, feel-y kinda woman who cries over spilled milk. Spongebob inadvertently led me to Thich Nhat Hanh (don't bother asking about what the connection here is), and he has written:
We need spiritual practice.  If that practice is regular and solid, we will be able to transform the fear, anger, and despair in us to overcome the difficulties we all encounter in daily life. 
I embraced my anger the way a child clings to her teddy bear in the dark.  At some point, the more present I stayed with my emotions, little by little, the caboose began slowing down to a manageable speed.  I'm still upset, but I've put it into the perspective of a difficulty I've encountered in my daily life.

The soapbox lesson from all of this?  Never underestimate the power of television, and never, ever be ashamed of exploring cartoons to uncover the deeper meaning of life.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

In Defense of Doof

One of  my favorite things to listen to on NPR are the sponsorships ads because I'm interested in who else, besides me, is paying for all this news.  My favorite line goes, "The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation...dedicated to the belief that all people deserve to live a healthy and productive life."  Between shows and the news, I wait for it, then happily mouth the words while driving to work in Boston.  I'm gleeful because at that moment I, too believe in these same ideals and the power of lots of money to change this world.  It's easy to believe because one the reasons my life and life of my family is healthy and productive is that I have two cars, one of which is paid off,  that drive me to work and back.  I'm not reliant on iffy public transportation to get me where I need to go. My cars also afford me the luxury of choosing where I shop to buy food.  If I don't like Stop and Shop's prices on Cheerios and crackers, well I'll just take my business elsewhere.  As long as one of us has a job and at least one car, my husband and I are pretty sure that we will not starve because the price of wheat and corn has increased.

My story is only one part of this hungry equation:  some people can afford to have choices, others don't.  Take the now two months old debate about Whole Foods moving into Jamaica Plain's Hyde Square district.  Whole Paycheck, er, um, I mean, Whole Foods is replacing Hi-Lo, a Latin American grocery store that served the diverse Latino communities in JP for 47 years.  Hi-Lo's owner is retiring and the owners of the property are leasing the space to the upscale supermarket chain.  Some residents are crying "gentrification" while others applaud the move to revitalize an area hit hard economically. The heated conversation  largely centers around the fate of Hi-Lo's employee and the disenfranchisement of its Latino shoppers.  It also surfaces stereotypes about Latinos and responsibility, as written so acrimoniously by someone responding to a WBUR article on the subject:

super 88 has done well because the asian/chinese community did something about what they saw as an unmet need and opened a very successful and consumer friendly business. if the latino community wants a store like hi lo in the hood they gotta work for it. the economy doesn't work on handouts, it works on entrepreneurs/business groups/civic groups DOING something. can't just sit on your ass and expect things to not change. 

He's right about one thing-- there was a need for a business to cater to a growing Asian American population.  Where he goes postal is in vilifying the Latino community for not doing anything to stop this food monolith from taking over. Perhaps what he envisions is a civic uprising akin to the Sadinistas in Nicaragua where everyday people take up their hoes and signs and band together to defeat an oppressive supermarket.  Sometimes, things can successfully work this way, but this takes knowing who your enemy is. The other side of the food justice debate urges consumers to rage against totalitarian, corporate machines like ConAgra Foods and buy local and organic to make a point that we will no longer stand for high fructose corn syrup and genetically modified whatevers in our foods.  Unfortunately, these would-be guerrillas literally cannot afford to participate in this eco-revolution because the price of local and organic foods are in themselves oppressive. Defending food is crazy and backwards when the food that you're defending is good for you and also bad for you because you simply can't afford it.  Add to it that fact that the diversity of food choices, meeting the needs of its multicultural neighborhood, and more importantly low prices, kept customers making the trek to Hi-Lo from as far away as Lynn.  To think that one would spend the money on gas for a round trip to save money on hard to find food  items is at the heart of a demanding need of non-white American enclaves to have a comestible connection to their culture.  It's not just about picking up eggs and a gallon of milk on the way home from work.  It's a process of recognizing that certain foods and having access to them regardless of the fat content nourishes the soul and makes for consumer friendliness.

Like Hi-Lo, Super 88 in Dorchester and Brighton, and Tropical Market in Roxbury are markets that cater to very specific ethnic populations in which people will drive over hill and dale to get very specific items.  I know no other store close to me, even in Framingham with its diverse South American population, where I can buy sorrel and oxtail in the same place, but at Tropical Market.  I don't make these foods often, and I delight in knowing exactly where to get them even though I have to drive quite a distance.  When my husband was hooked on collecting bombillas for his mate gourd, he could always count on a selection at Hi-Lo to satisfy is intense cravings.  Living in a metropolitan area, I'm lucky to be a short drive from deciding to eat at a Dominican, Vietnamese, or Ethiopian restaurant all within a seven mile radius of each other.  My easy access to dine out in a city rich with ethno-flavor also magnifies the fact that these same communities which cook the delicious food I crave do not share in the privilege to be able to eat as one chooses. 

As much as I think stores like Hi-Lo and Tropical Market are national historic sites, they have their dark sides.  Fresh food rarely smells, and having patronized both places, I know that these stores can emit an odor of decay.  Tropical Market's produce section sits at the back of the store, I mean, way back.  They've jammed pack foods from  Africa to Latin America, which is good, but the store is dirty and small.  I don't write this to make light of the trials of small grocers and bodegas, but I've always noticed, having grown up in a small city, that the most unkempt markets reside in the poorest sections of a city.  My father would go out of our neighborhood to a supermarket two towns away in a wealthy, Jewish area to shop at the same supermarket chain.  He always told me that rich customers demand the best quality of food.  Living in New Jersey, I remember seeing the stark contrast between a Shop Rite in affluent Livingston versus the one in East Orange. I interpreted my father's remarks to mean that if you were poor then you had no say, no power in what stores came in into your neighborhood. While bringing businesses into the 'hood is profitable, it doesn't ensure the economic livelihood of those for whom these businesses are to benefit.  This is why new "affordable condos", independent-minded bookstores, and cute cafes that may change the complexion of their neighborhood don't eliminate the disparate reality that these well-intentioned purveyors still leave out a huge slice of their residents.

If you live on limited means, then your circle of nourishment is small and contained within a unending cycle of dead ends: no supermarket chains nearby or within walking distance, thus no passage to fresh foods, no fresh foods, so increased reliance on fast foods, fast foods lead to obesity, and obesity occurs because there are no supermarket chains nearby or within walking distance...  It's no wonder that obesity rates, which topple at 66% of all Americans, are higher for Blacks, Latinos, and some Asian cultures, especially when you find the majority of these ethnic minorities living in impoverished urban areas.

Let's hope that the coming of Whole Foods to JP will bring in jobs (they say about 100 employees will be hired) and that they will do their best to have products that reflect the demographic. What many do not realize is that Whole Foods and its more affordable step-brother, Trader Joe's, accept food stamps and WIC approved items. Arming oneself with this little known fact can make the dream of eating good, healthy food more of a reality.  All we need now is to convince Trader Joe's to go urban and assimilate itself into the more colorful spaces of Boston that look less like Brookline and more like Dorchester.


Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Silent Generation, Part I

As Black History Month winds down, I'm reminded of all those times, when as a child, I was asked to think and write about the contributions of famous black Americans.   The first person I automatically thought of was Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  He was the only person my social studies lessons and my teachers seemed to annually invoke.  I had no clue that he was only one of countless other activists who helped to shape our Civil Rights movement.  In high school, I began to learn the Who's Who of Black History beyond MLK, Malcolm X, and some entertainer du jour.  The lessons from textbooks and from life (like the first memory of being called a "nigger" on the day of my mother's funeral) would forge in me a steel-like, velvet soul always fending off attacks to truth and justice while seeking to understand the roots of inequity.  Now, I use this moment to reflect upon what contributes to Black History month being pertinent and necessary in a time when many question and refute its relevance.  Instead of a declaration of the courageous acts of people like Bessie Coleman, Bayard Rustin, and Lorraine Hansberry, I'm interested in the white side of black history. Specifically, the whites of the Jim Crow south.  Not the people like Gov. George Wallace or the Klu Klux Clan.  Like MLK, these white folks and their deeds have been etched into our consciousness so much so that our memory recall is rapid at the mere mention of Black History Month.  These were people who struggled with the realities of segregation, but participated in keeping Jim Crow alive and well.

Particularly, I'm interested in the bystanders and everyday people who never made headlines, but were captured in the images of policemen hosing down young protesters in the streets.  The people are nameless, but observant.  They aren't yelling at the black, college students sitting at the luncheonette counter. They are aware of  this scene from their booth looking down at their plates picking at the eggs over-easy, feeling either uneasy or indifferent.  They continue with their hushed conversation while the noise of people throwing chairs and hot coffee dominates.  They are the employers who hire help because they need lots of help and think that they are, in turn, doing their christian charity by helping their help because they've hired them.  For them, the socio-economic staus quo is that same mindset that defended slavery.

In the canon of civil rights history, the lives of the average, southern do-gooder is non-existent.  It is as if outspoken segregationists and raging white nationalists were the only roadblocks to freedom and the catalyst for the movement. Those who chose to live in silence while others suffered believed that they could either do nothing or risk losing everything for taking a stand.  However, I'm only speculating, because I have yet to come across any literature that speaks to this demographic.  Thanks to best-sellers like The Secret Life of Bees and The Help, the southern, white female voice is front and center dancing between that of the virtuous, but slightly rebellious protagonist and burgeoning activist.  As both novels are thinly disguised in biographical circumstances, authors Sue Monk Kidd and Kathryn Stockett, respectively, give life to familiar tales of discrimination, hatred, and partial redemption.  This half-redemption is left for the lone protagonist/narrator trying to carve a just life for herself amid an unjust society.  At the very least, we see her wrestling with civil rights versus familial obligations.  The fictional white, female character is an allegory for the feminine symbol of blind justice: the idea that if just one white person repents of their racist ways, this act covers the multitude of sins of the generation.  But, this is not so.  The enactment of the Civil Right Acts and the Voting Rights Act allowed for those at the margins of society to finally have a voice.  Simultaneously, these laws drove a wave of whites into corners of silence forced to now obey.  This is the memoir I want to read--the restaurant owner who refused to serve black patrons, but was then legally coerced.  I desire a page-turner that lights up about how much he wrestled with losing, God-fearing, faithful customers who at once decided that they just could not dine next to a black person.  

With the passing of decades and several U.S. presidencies and administrations, this generation of bystanders and taciturn observers have disappeared into the crowd.  Like aging Third Reich commandants scattered across the globe who've changed their identities and have fooled their progeny, they've successfully erased and revised their past. To their credit, some of them renounced segregation, and some of them eventually got on board with making MLK day a national holiday. Ironically, in perfect cadence with their forefather's footsteps, their adult children now hold secession balls in South Carolina.  They are legislators and ornery parents who opine to whitewash the Texas school curricula to omit any historical fact that colors the acts of the dominant culture.  For all of them, the Confederate flag is "separate, but equal" to the American flag.  Talk about history repeating itself. 

We've addressed the wounds of racism by bandaging it every time it re-opens and bleeds out.   I have a friend who grew up in the south and could not bring herself to finish reading The Help because it reminded her of her black nanny.  The severe discomfort of looking at her past drove her to a therapist.  I can only imagine what her parents do not feel and do not say.  I encouraged her to finish reading.  Racism is a broken bone that was set improperly and did not heal.  In order for the bone to return to normal it must be re-broken.  It's time for the silent generation to face the truth of its unrighteous exploits and confess.  The heavy burden of this reticence is carried by black folk, and yet we are consistently blamed for playing the race card, and like a magic trick, making it appear out of thin air.  Confession brings about healing.  Hippocrates said that healing is a matter of time, but it is also a matter of opportunity.  What we need is for these white families to tell their stories.  Let it begin in letters to relatives or in a journal.  It's time for southern whites to borrow a page from the annals of black history, dig their heels into the mud, and speak up for justice. 

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Deja Vu

Legendary female acapella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock, penned a song called "Emergency."  Six blended voices convey urgency and desperation singing out, "My soul is in a state of emergency!"  The group performs in classical Greek tragedy style where the chorus represents the background truth-tellers. Singing of doom and adversity, they sound the alarm to the current dark state of affairs.  During the chorus, one of the voices belts an ear-piercing siren-like pitch, and you feel like you're a bystander in a crowd watching an ambulance roar by.  It's that same gripping feeling you get in the middle of your chest when you watch the news.  Story and by-line after by-line of endless calamity and despair.  It's too much to take and you want to turn your eyes away, but you just can't because something about watching and sensing the fragility of the human condition is too captivating.  Furthermore, if you've ever been in the middle of a trauma as an unexpected victim, then you know that you do not have the privilege of having a remote control and just clicking the pain away.

Last week, I found myself on my knees screaming bloody murder in a curtained ER at Boston Medical Center.  There I was clutching the edges of the bed yelling, "Somebody please help me!  I'm in so much pain..."  I overheard soft sounds of doctors, nurses, orderlies, and patient reps calmly going about their business vaguely unaware of the banshee cries of a woman who could barely keep a johnny over her naked breast.  I found myself caught somewhere between "should I be laughing at this spectacle of myself?" and "is this really me? Here? Now?"  What made matters worse was knowing that I had been  here before.  Not this hospital, but this place of utter insanity and surrealism.  I stepped outside of my body, and my spirit hovered over me fixing her gaze upon me.  How did I actually get here?  To make a dramatic story short, I had a kidney stone.  A 2mm kidney stone lodged in my ureter that felt like a boulder trying to pass through a pixie straw.   One of the five ER docs who passed through my room chuckled to me that he heard that a kidney stone felt more painful than giving birth.   I always find it amusing how male doctors find it so convenient to joke around with their patients in a place designated for emergencies.   Desperately seeking pain relief,  I received the comic kind.  All I wanted was something stronger than ibuprofen to drip through the i.v. into my thirsty veins.  I reduced myself to begging for medication.  The nurse told me she would give me Toderol, (but not before my paperwork was completed), to take some of the edge off.  When ten minutes passed and the pain was still immensely strong, I was convinced that she lied (because my paperwork still hadn't been entirely completed) and  injected a placebo into my arm.  Years passed, and she returned with Morphine.  Ten minutes later, the pain amps up.  It took a third dose of something much stronger than Morphine before I stared to feel the high of being drugged-up and pain-free.  In my fit of madness, the attending nurse turned to me and asked if I was an intravenous drug user because " ...iv drug users tend to develop an immunity to drugs."  "No, Lady," I thought, "I just play one on The Wire." 

The ER is nothing like the frenetic, code Blue place you see on TV.  In a twisted way, I was kinda hoping that I would get that sort of attention when I was there.  It's the hospital red carpet treatment where everyone knows your name and there is a sanitized room awaiting your arrival, and a monogrammed johnny with your initials has been carefully draped over the side of the bed.  Whatever ails you, even if it is blood spurting out from your side, there is a fastidious and authentic diagnosis made by a highly trained and competent physician with the warmest of bedside manners.  TV has the main situational character (patient) somewhat in control of their  lines, how they are expressed and the timing of it all.  Ever notice how that even if the ending is dire for the patient, somehow the attending physician is absolved of his/her responsibility even if he or she did make the right, but painful decision to discontinue CPR?  The patient may retain some control over life altering decisions, but the doctor knows best.   Even though its characters are over-the-top, I think the show House is a near perfect example of how the frail egos of doctors overshadows the care of patients.

If anything, ERs are tiny microcosms of the larger ecosystem in which they dwell.  If barriers exists to providing all people equal access to adequate health care then the ER is the first place where the police tape that reads "Do Not Cross" is crisscrossed over the entrance to the hospital.  Ironically, the people who end up in the ER are those lacking health insurance. It's a break in the link in the chain of survival.  A job provides a health insurance plan.  Health insurance grants access to a primary care physician.   The physician is linked into a network of other providers, specialists and hospitals.  It seems simple and efficient, but we all know that our health care system remains stuck in a political holding pattern .  To further the disruption, consider a patient who exhibits these symptoms:
  • low income
  • oppressive environmental factors: living in an urban area with few safe areas to walk and play, limited or no access to fresh produce, etc.
  • English is not the primary language
  • elderly
  • person of color
  • co-morbidity (has more than one health condition, i.e.diabetes and asthma) exacerbated by all the preceding conditions
These aren't symptoms a physician checks for.   After all, in the event of an emergency they are trained to look for unusual sights, sounds, and smells.  On the wall of each  hospital room is a list of patient rights and a number to call if you are experiencing trouble; it may even be written in a few languages.  Does someone who is triaged, already in a vulnerable position, feel that they can invoke rights? I mean, the doctor knows best--right?

Rights are not being invoked, and it is not the patient's fault.  It's a system failure that has yet to be de-bugged and re-wired so that when it re-boots it defaults to the patient as the system administrator.  I served as a community trainer to a Harvard School of Public Health health disparities study investigating participation of ethnic minorities in cancer clinical trials.  In Boston alone, less than 1% of all cancer clinical trials enroll people of color, for whom mortality rates remain the lowest.  Besides a history of injustices regarding research (think Tuskegee), another huge barrier is health care providers not advocating for and educating their patients of color about the potential benefits of clinical trial participation.  Why don't they?  Because they don't think that their patients would be open to it, given the legacy of mistreatment.  They might be too scared, think it's too risky, or since their survival rates are statistically low, why even bother to let them know?

But, back to astral planing.  While I watched myself suffer, I remembered all those times I visited an ER, whether it was for me or with a family member.  To observe someone in pain is to be a bystander.   Innocent as you are, you can do nothing but hope that emergency personnel comes in time.  My spirit traveled in an out of that place to glimpse upon the distinct, worried faces of people waiting to be cared for, hoping not to be denied care.  Old folks on stretchers, some alone, some with loved ones planted nearby, infants crying.   And in the midst of all this chaos, I overheard soft sounds of doctors, nurses, orderlies, and patient reps calmly going about their business vaguely unaware that they, too have been here before.