Thursday, May 30, 2013

"I'm not a racist, but....."

I was recently at our local village farmer's market at Vista Ridge, overlooking the Bay of Fundy.  It's set up weekly in a large barn, where local entrepreneurs can sell the food and goods that they've grown, cooked, or created. Bread bakers, goodie makers, cheesemongers, knitters, hobby farmers, a butcher, and other vendors all gather to offer their wares to tourists and residents.  It's a gathering place for socializing and shopping, where the Vista Ridge family operators always serve your breakfast and coffee with a story, an anecdote, or a simple friendly welcome.   

I'm getting better acquainted with Angela, one of the vendors who lives in the village, since we've sat together on a few committees over the years, attended each other’s potluck suppers, and shared a few bonfires at beach parties.  She's a young mother of two boys and reminds me a little of my far-away friend, Jen (yes, I have more than one friend-- see pregnant woman with lemon in The Cheese Stands Alone, and In Over My Head.)  Like Jen, Angela is quiet, unassuming, observant, and when she does speak or contribute to conversation it appears that she has carefully chosen her words.  When she's funny, and she often is, she's smart funny.

At last Sunday's farmer's market Angela was set up with the early season offerings from her small farm.  After our breakfast, I stopped for a few moments to chat and catch up from the previous week's market, when I'd purchased some of her home-grown sprouts.  This week she offered eggs from her variety of chickens and ducks.

There were several dozen remaining in damp cardboard egg cartons.  She lifted the lids to reveal an assortment of shades of brown eggs, fat eggs, large eggs, white, blue-tinted, green-hued, beige.  All clean and pretty.

And then she quietly said, "Maybe if everyone regularly saw their eggs come in a variety like these, people could all just get along.  It's just colour, the eggs are all the same."

We bought a dozen.

And it made me think over this past week about her comment, and racism, and naturally, my history with “the N word.”

I was about five or six, and we were on vacation in our Volkswagen van. We ate our familiar and favourite go-to camping lunch of fresh tomato with mayonnaise and salt on store-bought white bread.  My brother and sister were sitting on the bench seat and my folks were in the driver and passenger seats, and as usual, I sat on the Taffle™; our picnic tote in the middle. We still have this, 45 years later.

My folks and older siblings were talking and I'd missed most of the conversation, which probably went over my head, but at some point I heard my Dad remarking about the different ways to describe a black person.  As they all discussed this, my mother, sister, and brother all came up with different terms.  There I sat, and heard a variety of words -- Negro, African American, Coloured, Afro-American – and some others less acceptable. Eager to be considered a part of the adult conversation, I offered my contribution:


Everyone gasped.

My sister shrieked, "JANE!" My mother, said, "OH NO! You must never use that word! Where did you hear that?" Dad choked down the bite of sandwich he had just taken and shook his head.  My brother laughed in disbelief.

I was immediately and thoroughly crushed.  I don't know where I heard it -- it certainly wasn't ever spoken in our family, and after all, I was only about five years old.  I just wanted to be taken seriously in what I thought was an important conversation among the grown-ups. It did not go as I expected.

I was about the same age when a black family living in a white neighbourhood was burned out of their house. I remember my mother's troubled and anxious remarks about it.  I didn't think she actually knew the family, but she was very distressed about this racially motivated attack.  I remember her smoking, and jabbing out her cigarette as she talked angrily about it.  I think it was about that time (the mid-sixties, when we lived in a Chicago suburb) that she became involved in the equal rights movement in some capacity. 

For years, I somehow equated this local family's incident with the Medgar Evars assassination, which had actually taken place several years earlier in Mississippi.  It wasn't until very recently, when reminiscing with Dad, that I learned that my mother was so troubled because it was actually someone in our own neighbourhood that simply refused to have a black family live next door to them – no matter what.

A few years later when I was about nine, after we'd moved to Michigan, my Dad and I were snacking from a bowl of nuts, cracking each almond, hazelnut, walnut, or pecan one at a time and picking out the meat.  We had a small pile of broken shells and made each selection carefully, one at a time.  Dad picked up a brazil nut.  I never chose those since they were impossible for me to crack open.

He held it up, turned it over a few times and then held it out between his thumb and finger, looking at it intently. I anticipated a nut-cracking lesson, but instead, he said, "You know what my mother used to call these?"  I shook my head and said, "No, what?" and he quietly said, with a slight grimace and shake of his head,

"Nigger toes."

I was horrified!  GRAM?  Sweet, kind, generous, soft-spoken, gentle Gram had uttered what I then knew to be an awful word?

We were alone in our own living room, but still I quietly whispered, in case someone would overhear us, "Why? Did she hate black people?" thinking some deep dark secret was about to be revealed.

And he simply said, "No, she was just ignorant about things like that, sometimes old people are."

When I hear someone say, "I'm not a racist, but ..." I know what they already said says more about them than whatever they're going to say next.

Monday, May 27, 2013

NAP Time

Back when I had four very small children and life could be a little overwhelming with the demands of motherhood, household repairs and needs, financial struggles, with few friends or family, I was someone's pet project, but didn't realize it until many, many years later.

I can't precisely remember how I got involved initially, but I'm pretty sure it had something to do with being appointed as recording secretary for our neighbourhood association's monthly meetings.

We met in a church social room with fellow neighbours who were concerned about the transition of our depressed older neighbourhood (most homes, including ours, were built in the late 1800's and early 1900's), where some pristine homes were next door to dilapidated rental units with absentee landlords, or had vacant lots that became temporary illegal dump sites demanding immediate attention.  We'd lost some key businesses in the area -- most significantly, the cattle stockyards -- and the ripple effect was felt both economically and culturally.  The area was changing, but we felt that we were on the cusp of the renaissance of South Omaha, and looked forward being part of a positive change with our growing family.

Most of the members of the association were retired senior citizens who were long-time homeowners.  We were on the opposite end of the spectrum when we arrived a few years earlier. We were in our twenties, had two small boys and more on the way, and had just bought our first home that needed significant repairs and improvements -- none of which we knew how or could afford to undertake.  But we were a happy, if at times chaotic, home and we were on track with a good life plan.

I remember that one of the senior women in the association asked me to join her at one of her upcoming meetings across town for the National Association of Parliamentarians (NAP), so I could be the best possible recording secretary for the meetings.  I remembered using Robert's Rules of Order back in high school when Stephen and I were part of the Model United Nations Club, and later on committees in college, so I was at least familiar with how a meeting should run and how minutes should be recorded.   And so I accepted.  She drove us both in her Crown Victoria to the country-club reception room where the NAP meeting was filled with about 25 older men and women all dressed in business attire.  They were attending to a speaker who was addressing the ways to make an amendment to a motion after it had been moved and seconded, according to Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised

Then the entire group was quickly rearranged, and got engaged in a spirited mock meeting led by an authoritative ruddy-faced chairwoman wearing a polyester pant suit and fake pearls who enthusiastically employed flip charts, an extendable pointer, fat magic markers writing in black and crossing out in red, and a large, solid, mahogany gavel.  She guided select members who had been given a small scrap of paper telling them what to call out when prompted.  Some were purposeful distractions which were immediately called to order, others were additions and amendments to the original motion which required a precise orchestration of protocol to be addressed, and some were points of personal privilege, calling for a vote, or a variety of parliamentary procedures to bring a mock resolution to final approval or rejection.  Each action provided a lesson within a lesson on how to properly run a meeting and get stuff DONE, impartially and without prejudice.

They had me immediately with "The chairman has not recognized you to speak, sir, sit down!" I think it was the NAP's version of "You can't handle the truth!" I  was completely and utterly enamoured with the entire process.  There were rules, and people had to follow them.  No room for confusion, self-doubt, no letting a blow-hard take over a meeting, or someone bully a topic or disrupt the agenda.  Oh Robert, you and I were about to become very good friends.

So with elderly Mrs. Anderson, I'd attended a few meetings, earnest with enthusiasm and interest.  At one meeting the group ceremoniously presented me with an expensive (for me) fat edition of Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised, sending me home with a few minor homework assignments.

But one time I had to cancel.  There was a scheduling conflict with the neighbourhood gal who was babysitting for me, and I wasn't able to get away for the next meetings and lessons.  But this group made sure to hire another responsible mother, and even paid for her services to ensure that I'd be able to attend in the future.  They arranged it all for me.  So I continued to go.

The lesson meetings were wonderful, efficient, tidy.  Everything that was accomplished was done  methodically, without frustration, and with reason.  And before I knew it, after a few months I was standing in front of 13 members of the group leading my own mock meeting and hearing murmurs of "she'd have no problem with the testing", "waive fees" "extra tutorials".

The next thing I knew, I was given study guides, a NAP membership card, and a 3-ring binder of booklets to take home with a plastic laminated quick-reference guide for handling motions and amendments.  Even the materials were efficient, and I carried them with pride to another NAP member's house in the affluent neighborhood of Dundee, where we sipped iced tea in her opulent sun porch while she circled my notes with her gold-plated Cross™ pen.  It finally dawned on me that I was being groomed for the Parliamentary Law exams to become a Professional Registered Parliamentarian.  They want me to actually accomplish something more;  I would have credentials!

But then life suddenly got very hectic in those early years.  The youngest of our four, Olivia, became seriously ill and required our undivided attention; we eventually had to move to another city; I had to stop going to the meetings and lessons, resign from the neighbourhood association, and we uprooted from our life in Omaha for a little while.  My group of mentors was very understanding.  

It wasn't until just recently, that it occurred to me that these mature, senior women (and men) probably saw me as a good candidate to 'become something' under their guidance, and support. There I was, a young woman with a gaggle of small children in a run-down area of town in a 'fixer-upper' home, with no extended family or other support system.  Someone who they probably saw going nowhere fast.  I now suspect they were collectively trying to give me a foot up with opportunity -- arranging and paying for child care, buying membership dues, purchasing educational materials, driving me to meetings and lessons, and giving tutorial support to make sure I was following up with the studies, leaving no room for failure because of excuses.  I'm glad I was naive at the time, but looking back now with this realization, I am pleased to think about the kindness they extended to me, and glad I accepted and embraced it.   I really, thoroughly enjoyed it all, and still employ what I learned to this day. 

I secretly look forward to the time when I can bang a gavel with authority and confidence during a meeting and call out, "The Chair does not recognized you, SIT DOWN!"

Friday, March 22, 2013

On the next episode of Survivor

When Stephen and I were first dating, one of our mutually favourite Monty Python routines was the  SPAM sketch. "Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, SPAM lovely Spam, wonderful Spam!"

And so, as newlyweds, and just getting started in our small apartment in Omaha, Nebraska, one of our first purchases for the pantry was a genuine can of Spam.  We never intended to eat it, but kept it as a knick-knack on the shelf as a memento of our early days of shared humour.  Over time it became a symbol of our relative prosperity: we had never been too poor or too hungry to have to open it.

After about ten years and being relocated several times to different houses and kitchens, we noticed that the can was beginning to bulge! It had held pride of place in our home in each move, but by now long past its expiration date, it was time to dispose of it.  Somehow, simply buying a new grocery-store replacement lost the original significance, so we were resigned to simply and unceremoniously throw it out.  Later, Dad saw a novelty gift catalogue that featured the familiar SPAM can (with the key-turn opener on top and everything) that had been made into a battery operated clock. He had it shipped to our door.  Now, in our 30+ years of marriage, it sits in the Cleveland Place pantry reminding us that though we've had a few hardships along the way, we've never really suffered, we've survived.

Several years ago I travelled from New Jersey to New Brunswick on the tail end of a fierce winter nor'easter. Kathryn, Olivia and I drove in our minivan following snow plows, sand trucks, salt spreaders, and passing several abandoned vehicles that had skidded off the snow covered roadways. It took us about 20 hours to take the typically twelve-hour trip because of the road and travel conditions, and we finally arrived in Alma particularly road-weary.  We weren't surprised to find the driveway at Cleveland Place completely snowbound, so we parked next door where the wind had blown the church parking lot clear.  We waded through drifts to Cleveland Place only to find the normally unlocked door was locked!  Even the secret hiding place for the spare key only revealed an empty and cold disappointment, and we realized: we were locked out ....after midnight, below freezing, with no cell phone.

Undaunted, I announced we'd drive onward to the Gazebo (our three-season cottage) about 10 minutes away. We could start a fire and hunker down until morning, when we could round up a spare key from somewhere.  The drive took another 1/2 hour since we had to take a longer route (the minivan couldn't get up the hills of Alma with the recent and yet unplowed snow). Arriving at the Gazebo, we found that more drifting prevented us from driving right up to the door as we usually did.  So we parked on the road and hiked up the driveway through deep snow to get to the door (one that I did have a key for).   Finally inside, the three of us found ourselves in total darkness -- flicking the light switch uselessly, we remembered that the power had been shut off for the winter.  We lit a candle or two to shed light and as our eyes adjusted, we saw to our further dismay there were merely a few sticks of kindling and two small logs for the wood stove.  This would not get us warm, let alone keep us warm until morning.  Nevertheless, we set to the task of lighting the fire. The wood burned with the sound and the speed of a freight train, quickly reducing to ash while we huddled under sleeping bags.  The remainder of the woodpile outside was under several feet of frozen ice-covered snow, probably with the missing hatchet close by.

Unanimous with our complaints, we realized we couldn't stay and freeze until dawn, so we hoofed it back down the hill to the van and drove back toward Alma.  By now it was about three in the morning, and sliding sideways down the hills with absolutely no traction, we assumed our safest position for the night in the recently plowed parking lot of the general store, just a few doors down the street from Cleveland Place.  Sporadically snoozing and waking and freezing and running the engine to keep us warm, we spent the next several hours in fitful, uncomfortable bouts of sleep. When the store opened, we used their phone to call Dad to rescue us and deliver a spare key. 

There was no rest for the weary, however, since once Dad arrived almost two hours later, he employed the girls to shovel out the driveway, and chastised me for not choosing a window to carefully break and sending one of our skinny girls through it, to get ourselves inside.  Damned if you do, I thought to myself, damned if you don't.  But we survived.


Alma in winter is a much different place than in the summer.  Many of the residents are seasonal, and spend winter in Florida or warmer points south.  Though there are plenty of winter activities -- amazing cross-country ski trails, pristine snowshoeing conditions, and miles of snowmobiling opportunities -- most of the tourism-supported businesses shut down.  Many of the fishing boats keep working, though, and being tide dependent (Alma has the highest tides in the world) the fellows going back and forth with their trucks or equipment on Main Street in front of Cleveland Place are scheduled by tide-time, not clock time, for their work at the village wharf.

The waters of the Bay of Fundy are some of the most treacherous in the world, too.  Winter fishing can be brutal.  The guys on their boats have to be strong; they have to withstand the rough seas and frigid waters, resist the harsh winter winds, haul the weighted lobster traps, and winch the scallop trollers -- all physically demanding non-stop activity in the open seas. Tough work for tough men.

Several years ago, we were enjoying the company of friends with a cheerful wee fire on a snowy, howling, winter night at Cleveland Place. We were wearing cozy pajama pants and slippers (as we certainly weren't going outdoors). Our house guests told us that the front storm door had come unlatched, and it wouldn't close tight now due to the snow that had blown in.

So Stephen -- just starting to be known in the village as a new resident -- grabbed the tiny metal shovel from the coal hearth and a short scarf that was handy, and shuffled out to the front door. There he tried to shoo away the drifting snow, free the threshold, and relatch the door.  He returned just a few minutes later, breathless, as the wind was cold and strong as it came straight off the ocean up to the front porch. He came back into the living room, paused, red-faced, and held up the tiny black shovel with a chagrined expression as he described for us all his perceived reactions of the fishermen passing by in their trucks watching him.  He could imagine them all shaking their heads on their way to the wharf at high tide, about to cast off a line into sub-freezing temperatures in white-capped waters, hauling eighty-pound lobster traps, and seeing Stephen, in thin pants, a dangling skinny scarf, and a T-shirt, out in the weather and battling the snow drifts with the smallest shovel ever known. "That's guy's never gonna survive a winter around here."