Show me the color of your right hand, pt. I

5 07 2015

Ta-Nehisi Coates, after excerpting a story of his experience with racism, has invited his readers to submit their own experiences. A misreading of this invitation (“talk about your experiences with race”)  prompted the following response from me. I thought I’d whittle it down and submit it, but upon re-reading his post, it’s clear my response isn’t on target and so won’t be submitted. Still, I thought it worth posting. Here’s part I:

I didn’t know I was white until I was an adult.

Even now, long into adulthood, I’m not always so sure.

As a kid in the 1970s, growing up in almost completely white town in a mostly white state, I knew I was white—but white meant pale, white was set against tan, not black. White was about the sun, and the more sun—the tanner you were—the better.

I could get a decent tan (we used suntan lotion back in the day, not sunscreen, and only until we had a base tan: then we’d switch over to baby oil), but mostly I found laying out boring. I wanted a tan to look better, to not be white, but it was a hassle not being white. You had to work at not being white, so while I worked enough not to look sickly—pale—I never achieved the glorious tans of some of my friends.

I wasn’t completely oblivious of race back then. We had a t.v., after all, and on trips to or through Milwaukee I would see black people; on family trips around the country I’d encounter black people, and they were utterly other to me. I wasn’t afraid, wasn’t particularly taught to be afraid by my parents, but it was always a little thrilling to talk to a black person like it was a normal thing to do.

*Caveat: I am running off of memory, This is how I remember the experience, today; how I actually experienced it, in the moment, is gone.

“Nigger” was not used in the Peterson household. No nigger jokes, no racial jokes, generally. Did we say “nigger pile” when we three kids jumped into my parents’ bed on Sunday mornings, or were we admonished not to? Did we change the words to “eeny meeny miney moe”? I don’t remember*. I do remember my dad telling us about the separate drinking fountains in San Angelo, Texas, where he served for awhile in the Air Force. There was at least one black man in his unit.

I liked to imagine, later, that it was this experience, along with, perhaps, seeing on t.v. the brutality of white resistance to civil rights protesters, that set my parents against racist talk, but I don’t know. It’s not something we talked much about.

My time at college at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, was my first sustained exposure to black people. Some lived in my dorm, some taught my classes, some worked at The Daily Cardinal, but however friendly we might have been with one another, we weren’t really friends. I was always conscious of their race; I had barely begun to think I, too, had a race.

It wasn’t until graduate school that I thought, truly, to do something about my other-consciousness, which meant admitting my self-consciousness. I remember reading a bit in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune of a white woman who, while waiting for a bus, thrust out her arm and screamed out STOP! at a young black man running up to her, intent, she was sure, on stealing her purse. He was, of course, only running to catch the bus, but this woman justified her scream with a well-he-could-have. . . .

I was scornful of this woman. Of course he was only running to catch the bus, how racist could she be? But if I wouldn’t have screamed like that woman did, I might have had the thought behind the scream. I knew that when I looked at one black person I saw every black person. They were all the same to me, I admitted, and if that wasn’t racism, little was.

I didn’t want to be racist, and knew that whatever good anti-racist politics I might hold, if every black person I saw was every black person, I was a racist.

Cont.

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Autumnsongs: U2

30 10 2014

You knew this one was coming.

I thought I’d get to it earlier, but this whole month has been unusually warm, and when I think of “October”, I think not just of a fading sun through fallen leaves, but sweatshirts and collars pulled up and knuckles reddened from the chill.

Some New York Octobers, yes, but not this one.

Still, it wouldn’t really do to play this in November, and today the wind did smack me around a bit, so why not now?

It’s lovely and melancholy not too much, in the way that U2 is often too much.

I loved that about U2, actually, that they were so often too much, too hot—never cool. I loved the righteousness and the politics and the absolute emo—a term nowhere in evidence back in the day—of the joint.

U2, in other words, were never cool, and I was all right with that.

Still, “Seconds” was about as cool as they got, in terms of perspective. It was angry, yes, but in a kind of can-you-fuckin’-believe-it way.

Why is this an autumnsong? The detachment, perhaps, but more so that I associate this song with that first semester at college, when the air in Madison was definitely chill, and I was running around trying to soak up all of the politics my skinny 18-year-old self could handle.

One weekend just about tipped me over: a Mondale/Ferraro rally (with which I was very involved) at the Capitol on Friday, an anti-nuke march in Chicago on Saturday, and a speech by Gloria Steinem in Milwaukee on Sunday—bless that skinny little heart, but I made them all.

The Chicago rally was a bit odd. I went alone (on the bus), wiped out, broke, and marched with I don’t know how many thousands of others through the foggy streets of Chicago, before we we emptied ourselves into a park to hear, oh man, was it Helen Caldicott? could Petra Kelly have been there? It seems like it, but thirty years on, and memory, like the sun, fades.

Well, except for Jesse Jackson, hometown son. I remember him, up next to the stage, I remember him. Man, the man could speak.

So, “Seconds” is a foggy Chicago Saturday in October, thousands, tens of thousands of us marching against the bomb, against our annihilation, and for our lives.





You’re the top!

30 10 2014

So it was the Statue of Liberty’s birthday the other day—and I missed it.

Sorry, big copper statue that lacks a central nervous system and thus cannot feel bad that I neglected to wish it a happy birthday!

It may or may not (see the photo heading up this blog) surprise you that I fuckin’ love the Statue of Liberty. I have no idea why.

I did fall, hard, for New York City when I was a theatre-mad teenager, but my ardor was focused on Broadway, not the harbor. And yeah, my bitter little heart swells a bit at The New Colossus, but the poem wasn’t added to the site until 1903.

Maybe it was print of the magnificent work of the Pail and Shovel Party, submerging the Lady in Lake Mendota:

Photographer unknown/(surroundedbyreality.com)

I’ve got a color print of the original incarnation (it’s since been recreated) that I’ve been meaning to frame and hang.

For all of my troubles in Madison, I loved the town and the university; maybe it was the merging of the two places (Montréal was yet to be for me) where I felt This is where I’m supposed to be that fixt the Statue in that bitter little heart.

Or maybe it’s just watching it get taken out in all of those disaster movies that made the impression.

Anyway, I’ve probably mentioned once or thrice before that I think the Statue is the bee’s knees, but why not use the occasion of missed birthday to once again send my regards to the Old Broad.





Summersongs: XTC

23 07 2014

Moar music!

Yes, I’ll continue with my Listen to the music series, but I’m feeling a bit. . . limited by the one-way trek through my cd collection. So why loosen things up a bit, and gambol thru some songs of the season.

XTC’s Skylarking is, to me, a summer album. The first single was released in 1986, smack dab in the middle of my college years, and tho’ the album didn’t come out until the fall, my (mis?) memories are of listening to this in the green months of Madison.

The most well-known song may be “Dear God”, because in 1986 in the United States it was controversial to put out a single mildly criticizing/questioning the Big Kahuna. It wasn’t until I brought home my own copy of Skylarking that I realized that I got an alternate version: “Dear God” wasn’t included.

On the one hand, I was pissed, because even though the song wasn’t that great, I liked it well enough, and I didn’t like that it had been removed. On the other hand, I probably laid out 8 bucks for the new vinyl and wasn’t about to shell out even more money just for one song.

Singles? No.

Anyway, the songs that tie me most closely to that time are “Summer’s Cauldron/Grass” and “That’s Really Super, Supergirl”. I could never figure out Andy Partridge’s attitude toward the Supergirl—was he being nasty or pouty?—but I thought, get over it. In fact, I might have liked the song just for the attitude it inspired in me.

Listen to the lovely:

And enjoy the smirk:

Bonus fun fact: I recall Andy Partridge saying in an interview that all Englishmen had two of the following three characteristics: had bad teeth, were bald, were gay. He noted that he was bald and had bad teeth.

Don’t know why I remember that, but I do.





Take it easy

14 06 2013

Another dream about Madison.

It was so vivid, but, of course, it’s now all faded. I was in Madison, with T., in the Union (which, of course, was nothing like the actual Union) and near Lake Mendotat (which, of course, was nothing like the actual Lake Mendota: in my Madison dreams the shoreline is a coastline and lake scallops are oceanic waves), and when I awoke, I was so sad that I wasn’t living there.

Living in that dream-Madison would be so easy; I missed the chance of that Madison-dream.

Of course, that’s just what it was: a dream. Madison is a lovely town (when Scott Walker ain’t around, but it’s no longer for me. I may visit it again on my next sojourn to Wisconsin, and I set a part of my second novel in Madison, but as a real place, it’s not mine.

Part of this is my sense that to live there would be to ‘go backwards’, but more than that, I would always be looking for something beyond what Madison could offer.

This is not a knock on the joint: I’m restless, full stop, and thus unable to indulge he pleasures of staying put.

Then there is the fact that I am made uneasy by ease. Even assuming an identical level of financial uncertainty there as I have here, life in Madison would be easier in every way. You know those t.v. shows or books wherein newcomers are able to find a rich & quirky community life, with beloved hangouts and folks willing to tell-you-what? That would be possible in Madison.

Which is why I can never live there.

Okay, I could live there for a time—for a semester, maybe—but the idea that I would land there and stay there and stay there and there. . . no ma’am.

I’d wonder what I was missing, not just in the what’s-going-on-elsewhere way, but in the sense that ‘this is too easy: what’s the catch’? I always think there’s a catch.

I’m too skeptical, even suspicious, to live easy. This is not a wholly bad thing—looking for something more has its own rewards—but I miss out on the pleasures, and, perhaps, sorrows, of letting it be.

There is a whole other life which is beyond me, a something more available only to those who aren’t searching for that something more.





Chris Unger Baetzold, 1966-2012

26 09 2012

She was a funny roommate.

Don’t be fooled: she was a Badger, through and through.

Yes, she had a sense of humor—four women crammed into an apartment originally meant for two, you had to be able to laugh—but more than that, she was one of those people who couldn’t hold a frown.

Chris would come home from classes or a stint working food service at Chadbourne and relay something terrible, glare a bit, then immediately burst into laughter.

She was always cracking herself up. Hell, one day someone crashed into her (parked) car and left the scene; Chris ran up the steps into our apartment, yelled Someone hit my car! And then started laughing.

About that car: she let us drive it, as well as her Honda Spree. We drove the shit out of that Spree.

This was not an unusual occurrence in our apartment.

B. had known Chris since the two of them were little. Their families went camping together, and while they weren’t (I think. . .) roommates in Chadbourne, they did both live in the hall, maybe even on the same floor.

In any case, while I knew her before Madison, we became friends there, and, of course, roommates. B. and I were bridesmaids in her wedding, and I gave a reference for her when she became a cop in Connecticut.

About Connecticut: She moved there with her then-boyfriend, now husband widower, John. John lived on the first floor of our apartment building on Breese Terrace and, unlike a previous boyfriend (who had also lived on the first floor of our apartment building on Breese Terrace), was a good guy. He got into the chemical engineering PhD program at UConn, so Chris moved out there with him and became a cop in the meantime.

They married, moved to Minneapolis for John’s job at 3M, and had three kids. Chris and I didn’t really keep in touch after her wedding, but B. kept me updated on her life.

Chris, me, and B. after our Polar Bear swim in Lake Michigan, January 1987.

It fell to B. to inform me of Chris’s death.

She’d apparently had difficulty walking on September 14, went into the hospital, and died this past Sunday. Chris, who was always close to her family, was surrounded by them in the last moments of her good, if too short, life.

May she rest in peace.





Feeling groovy

24 02 2012

How long does it take to carve oneself into a place?

I’ve been in New York for over 5 years, and only very recently has it begun—begun—in some small way to feel like mine.

This wasn’t something to which I paid much attention in my early wanderings. Madison was the first stop out of SmallTown and I loved it unreservedly, threw my whole self into what seemed the far shore of previous life.

Minneapolis? I did not love, less for its Minneapolisness than for the fact that a) it was not Madison (where my friends were having fun in their fifth year of school) and b) it was the location of graduate school, where I was not having fun.

Albuquerque was so brief—11 months—that it felt more like an interlude to life than life itself. I wasn’t particularly happy to trek back to Minneapolis, but I knew the place, had friends there, had more-or-less (mostly less) of a life there.

The 2 bus down Franklin to campus, the 52 back to Lyndale, or maybe a bus to downtown, then the 15 up Nicollet. The bike route past the convention center, through downtown, sneaking up to the West Bank from behind, then over the river and over the bridge to the gym. Or hopping into my car and on to the interstate to get to campus, scoping out the few all-day spots scattered around Riverside or at least trying for a 4-hour spot.

The diners at Cedar-Riverside, the bars at Seven Corners, Electric Fetus for cds and the 3 used bookstores in Uptown, this one good for memoir, that one for fiction and philosophy, the other one for history of science. Walks through Loring Park and over the bridge to the Sculpture Garden. Swimming in Cedar Lake. All of my friends, oh, all of my friends.

I never adored Minneapolis, but at some point I wore a groove into to the place, a path which became my life.

I did adore Montreal, had my routes and habits, but Montreal was so easy that I wonder if I ever really took my life there seriously at all. I could make my impressions—feet on sand, boots in snow—but a wave or a wind and I was gone.

Then again, with my departure built into my arrival, I was free to swim its surfaces, to rove over the island trying to soak in every last bit of its sublime beauty; I passed through Montreal and let Montreal pass through me.

Somerville and Boston? No, no chance, not for me.

And then, Brooklyn. Unprepared and upside down but determined to make this place stick, to make myself stick. I told a friend last night that it might have been a terrible decision to move here but it wasn’t a mistake. I had to know, I told her.

Still, while a part me locked into the city, there were many more parts which were just. . . alienated? uncomfortable? suppressed? I tried consciously to create habits of living, but that felt fake; I acted as if this were already home, but that was a lie.

I wanted New York to be home, and it wasn’t. It still isn’t.

Recently, however, I’ve noticed that my path is, in some places, noticeably smoother. There are places I know, places I count on without knowing I count on them, friends who are true friends.

Another friend told me, before I moved here, that New York is a hard place, and she was right, it is a hard place. But I can run my hand over this ground and feel, for the first time, the ground begin to give.