A welcome to readers

As a resident of this planet for more than four fifths of a century, I have enjoyed both successes and disappointments in a wide variety of vocations, avocations, and life experiences. This blog satisfies my desire to share some thoughts and observations--trenchant and prosaic--with those who are searching for diversions which are interesting, poignant and occasionally funny. I also plan to share recommendations about good/great movies I've watched and books and articles which I've found particularly mind-opening, entertaining, instructive. In addition, I can't pass up the opportunity to reflect publicly on how I am experiencing the so-called Golden Years. Write anytime:

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Race and Religion Default: Part II--or Resetting the Program, Becoming More Conscious, Learning Honesty.

Perhaps I can accomplish my purpose in this section by the use of illustrative vignettes. What I want to do is to show you how I was slowly able to reset some of my defaults about religion (remember, I was taught to disparage or denigrate other religious beliefs as well as the believers), and race (remember I was raised in the South) by increasing my consciousness of the world and struggling to be honest in my appraisal of myself, and by learning to live more openly. As I write, I realize just how much of a "work in progress" I am.

In high school my best friend was Bill Tyler, a slender, white blond (who unlike me got tan), gentle, very athletic, college-bound boy who happened to enjoy lots of the same people and activities that I did. We were inseparable at school, in the high school social club that we started, after school and on weekends riding horses at a local stable, and lazily floating along Beargrass Creek on Indian Summer afternoons fishing for catfish, or adventuring out to a distillery pond in nearby Bardstown where the catfish thrived on a diet of spent distillers grains insuring that their fillets were the sweetest and most tender in the world. Together we cleaned our catch in his mom's kitchen sink, being careful as we removed the skin and mud vein, and then dipped the fillets in milk and cornmeal where they deep-fried in lard until golden brown. We also fashioned hush puppies which bubbled in the cast iron pan alongside the fish, and then we sat down to gorge ourselves on our sumptuous, fresh-caught repast, washed down with sweet iced tea made by Bill's mom and kept ice cold in a dented galvanized pitcher in her refrigerator

Bill and I shared everything and kept no secrets from each other. We talked about life and death and jobs and the future and what we wanted for wives and later for families and jobs. I was going to be a doctor and Bill wanted to be an engineer (he did, I didn't).  We double-dated and fumblingly explored the mysteries of adolescent sexuality at the local drive-in movie. We shared burgers and fries and shakes with and without our dates at Mammy's, the local drive-in restaurant and teen hangout. We went to movies together by ourselves or with dates, and we donned our midnight blue, wool ball caps to watch adult league fast-pitch softball games at Bonnycastle Field under the lights,  on summer evenings so hot and humid  that we were almost overwhelmed by the smells of stale beer and sawdust and uniforms stiffened with man-sweat.

I loved basketball, but Bill adored baseball and was a good pitcher. I didn't really like the game all that much, was scared of having my glasses broken by an errant pitch or foul ball, but he wanted me to join him on varsity, and urged me try out as a pitcher (there was a serious shortage) since I could throw a straight fast ball with  fair accuracy. But he said if I was going to be attractive to the coach, I'd have to learn to throw a curve. So he spent hours working to improve my arm motion, my grip, and catching (sometimes chasing)  my pitches because he wanted so much for me to play with him on the team. In turn, I agreed to catch his pitches which always arrived with a whack and stung my hand right through the thickly padded catchers  mitt.  But I didn't care because I want to help him be better--just like he wanted me to be. He made the team; I didn't.

Bill was from a blue collar family. His mother did piece work somewhere and his father was a high school graduate who, following in his father's footsteps, had worked all his adult life as night watchman at Brown Forman Distillery in downtown Louisville. Bill's house was on a small (75 x 100) lot and of very modest size; the Johnson house (four bedrooms and two baths) was located on almost two acres. None of these dissimilarities made an iota of difference to either Bill or to me because what we felt for each other, and shared,  blurred all other distinctions. We were buddies: he was "Puss" and I was "Chubbs."

Bill taught me about friendship, loyalty, support, camaraderie, sportsmanship; about how to have a deep relationship with another person; about the importance of physical conditioning and discipline in sports. We both made images from the same clouds, were soaked by the same sudden spring thunderstorms, enjoyed our mini-camp-outs and picnics in the same leaf-scented woods accented by the peeling bark of sycamore trees; we both smelled the same creek-side algae and mud, swatted the same 'skeeters,' and shared the same excitement when our red and white fishing  bobbers jumped and caused circular ripples that suggested that a lunker was nibbling our dough balls beneath the pollen speckled, murky waters of  a pond or creek.

We tasted the same hamburgers and belched the same greasy onion ring burps, tried our hands at smoking pipes and cigarettes and at chewing Beechnut tobacco. We tried to like coffee and tasted beer together and learned how to drain a coke or a quart bottle of chocolate milk in one long swig by opening our throats and just letting the fluid flow down (punctuated by mighty belches, and usually followed gales of laughter) . We played hours of "burn out" in which we each tried to throw a baseball harder than the other, "burning out" our opponent's hand (he won). Some particularly dreary days we'd listened to 45's that we both enjoyed, hum or sing along, or pretend we were dancing with a hot young coed in bobby sox and loafers. We even took up and taught each other the intricacies of chess, going so far as to copy opening moves illustrated in the daily Courier-Journal. We rode bikes and drove cars, took endless walks, window shopped, and simply enjoyed each others' company in quiet moments of reverie and peaceful contemplation.

I witnessed Bill sick with grief when his grandmother died, feeling the same anguish of loss I's had felt when my grandfather passed away. In the spring of 1954, in front of Memorial Auditorium,  we both felt the same mixture of elation and sorrow at graduation when we parted company knowing that we were about to begin  different lives in different places and might never see each other again.  Our tears and prolonged handshake and embrace were witness to all that. I don't know this for a fact, but I'm also certain that, as our individual lives became increasingly complicated and stressful, we used our imaginations to remember and  revisit and repeat the same halcyon days and unfettered adventures that we had earlier relished  as "men-in-the-making."

I saw Bill once more, in 1961, before he died at an early age, when he and his new wife attended my ordination ceremony, much against the doctrines of his church. He was my friend, you see, and that's all that ever mattered to us both.  He was a Catholic; I was a Protestant. But for us, the more important appellation did not designate religious affiliation. Rather, it was when---as we were both standing with arms around each others shoulders, both dressed in khakis, T-shirts, and dirty sneakers, both holding fishing rods or worn ball gloves and grinning at the camera like shit-eating dogs--I called him "Puss" and he called me "Chubbs."

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Race and Religion Default: "We try to treat them as if they were as good as we are." Part I

Part I has to do with where my own religious bigotry and racism comes from, and then later I will address what taught me to deal with the defaults as they automatically become or try to become my reality. First, an explanation and some history.

This has been a very hard blog to write because I've uncovered several quite unsavory parts of myself as I examined how I have felt (and feel) about religion and race. It turns out that my self-image as "Mr. Liberal" and "Mr. Open-Minded Person" belie a Truth which I had to face once again when writing this blog. This Truth is that racism and bigotry are ingrained in my heritage,  in my very Being,  and are as much a part of my default system as the fact that I am a nearsighted white-headed male, or that I love food, or that listening to music often makes me cry.

In reflection, I see bigotry and racism are landmines I've stepped on all my life. (defaults, if you will,)   This is true in spite of the fact that I have really tried hard not to be a bigot or a  racist. I have fought against it. All along, I thought I was alone in this inward battle, so I was relieved to read  David Foster Wallace's observation about one of life's purposes:

[Life therefore]...is not a matter of virtue--it is a matter of my choosing to do the work of someone altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default-setting[s]...

I have chosen to do that work all along, specifically in the case of my bigotry and racism, and have met with varying degrees of success and certainly with a spotty record of sustaining what progress I've made. I have honestly  labored to alter and gt free of my defaults, with greater and lesser success.

Finally, this topic is more than a little painful  because at the time I was actually living out my younger years,  I really thought I was doing the "right" thing, that I was being a "good" person; and now I  come to find out that for way too many years I was living a life driven by attitudes and assumptions (defaults) about race and religion of which I was totally unaware, which triggered automatically,  and which turn out, in the real world, to be "Balderdash."  Here's where it all began.

In my home and among my family's closest friends, the prevailing attitude, when examined closely,  championed racism and religious bigotry, but they were carefully disguised by attitudes that were promoted and interpreted as "generous,"  as liberal, and as truly Christian. This worldview, when reduced to its bare essentials,  assured OT's ("Our Type") and me from Day One that the white race and Protestant Anglo-Saxons were God's anointed population on earth and that we, as the elect had, along with our advantages,  an obligation to tolerate and accept and assist and be kind and generous to others who were, by definition, inferior and not responsible for their lowly circumstances, and generally in need of help (the poor and downtrodden spoken of in the Scriptures). In addition to our privileged position in the world, OT's  inherited other moral obligations or duties--such as imitating "Lady Bountiful" who occasionally wandered down from her hilltop castle  to distribute trinkets and leftovers (whether material goods,  assurances of pity,  crumbs from the table, or copper coins) to the less fortunate down in the valley. The spirit of these obligations also carried over to religion and race.

In matters of religion, specifically, OT were taught to be non-prejudiced, tolerant and accepting. Take, for example,  the Jews. Because they were part of the Judeo-Christian tradition (even though the Jews of old were accused of killing Jesus), we were admonished at home to be tolerant, to show no negative bias or be bigoted in any way. I went out of my way to befriend Jewish classmates with this dictum in mind.  This was fairly easy because our Louisville Jews were "clean," well-educated, good citizens, knew how to make money, were clever and intelligent, mostly worked in respected professions or owned businesses, lived in nice houses in our neighborhood, sent their kids to college, dressed well,  and generally lived in peace and harmony with all us OT's. You can see why I had such a hard time when our family first vacationed in Florida in the late 40's and I saw sign after sign in front of motels proclaiming "restricted clientele." I couldn't understand why motel owners wouldn't want to house people like my friends Herbie and Stanley Berman and Melvin Benovitz, and I only later came to realize what actually was going on.

Activities in the Synagogue and shul were conducted in another language, so totally alien and uninteresting to me. I envied the Jews in that they got extra holidays from school, certainly more than we Christians did. Rabbis dressed normally and lived with their  families. A few wore yamakas and some even celebrated Christmas. Rumor had it that Jews knew ways of relieving you of your money and bargaining a seller down and often, therefore,  were very successful in business. "Jewing someone down" was common parlance. In all this there was more than a hint around the bridge tables of my parents and their friends that Jews would take advantage of me if given the chance--they were fundamentally unscrupulous. So, I became wary of all Jews as a result.

Down the religious block, so to speak, were the numerous Catholics who also lived in Louisville, but  not directly in our neighborhood. It was harder for me to "befriend" them and show my tolerance because they lived sort of separate lives.   They were mostly tolerated by OT (not dated or married, of course), but could be socialized with, but only on our turf. I also remember being a bit scared of the "mysteries" surrounding the Catholic religion. Catholics, or "fish eaters" as they were referred to with derision, though Christian, were somehow a lesser grade of Christian than Our Type of Christian--they attended their  private schools where subversive religious indoctrination took place which, no doubt included anti-Protestant, counter-Reformation doctrines, attitudes, and anti-Protestant propaganda of all sorts.

Moreover, Catholic clergy were were abnormal, unnatural. Strangely dressed nuns were cloistered in convents with no sex (with men) and always traveled in pairs.  We were told by our friends that teacher-nuns beat their charges in school. What were those habits hiding? Separately, the white- collared priests were often described by my friends and by local lore as drunkards and, even in those days, as homosexual child-molesters. To cloud the issue even more,  what were we to make of the plastic statues on car dashboards, the silver medals hanging around necks, meatless Fridays, the Virgin Mary, crucifixes the absolute Rule of the Pope, Holy Water, no contraception, and the curious habit of athletes making the "sign of the cross" before shooting a free throw or receiving a kickoff? While I accepted all this at one level, I surely laughed at my share of priest and nun and Pope jokes and made derogatory comments about  Catholicism whenever possible.

The problem OT had dealing with the religious activities of Catholics was exacerbated because of the wide divergence of their national/ethnic origins: there were people who drank red wine and ate pasta, others who made and ate kielbasi, or loved sour kraut and dark beer with their hard bread and wurst. In short, the Catholics represented a recognizable and almost acceptable variation of OT, but were none the less to be viewed with suspicion. Catholics didn't belong to our OT's country clubs or social organizations, and occupied blue collar professions, for the most part, and worked at hourly jobs, owned taverns,  owned butcher and grocery stores and construction companies, attended wakes,  drank beer,  and played Bingo.

Catholics and Jews were doubly damned because their "incorrect religion" was combined with their ethnic diversity--non-WASP lineage. These facts were rarely said directly, but I knew they were true by listening to comments  and "asides" that were dropped by relatives at family gatherings, by the friends of my parents in casual conversation over bridge, in the youth group at church, and among my peers at school.

From the OT's point-of-view, which was my default view, the rest of society was viewed as slanting downhill from us--from me--who occupied the top.  And, at the very bottom of that hill, of course, were our "Nigrahs."

As I suggested earlier, in our family, and among our friends,  racism was carefully disguised as a benevolent and generous-sounding "we will treat them as if they were as good as we are." As a boy and later as a young man, I did not understand the implications of the "as if," part of that statement, and I went through my life up through my college years protected by a sparkling, righteous, unassailable coat of self-righteous arrogance.

Trying to come to grips with this, as I look back on it, I see that in one sense I was a genuine victim of my times and my Southern place of birth. As I was growing up in the 40's and 50's, the only Black people I was ever in contact with were yard workers at home and at church, janitors, maids, nannies, cooks (those who were riding home on the back of the bus as I went downtown to my dentist), radio preachers, and the poverty-ridden occupants of government housing or slums in downtown Louisville, or poor farmers or county laborers (working in fields which we passed on our way to a vacation destination), or the unemployed who lived on welfare and lazed around the street corners sucking on toothpicks or on a bottle of something secreted in a paper bag.

I knew no professional Black people, never went to school with a Black boy or girl, never attended a Black social function or ate in Black restaurants or visited inside a black home. Nothing in my life ever touched Black life and culture, except from a considerable distance.  (Oh yeah, I listened and danced to to Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Little Richard, the Temptations and the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, but that was different; I thought of them as being talented and successful in spite of their race, or, to use my mother's explanation for Cassius Clay's winning a medal in the Olympics: "he obviously has white blood.") It never occurred to me to ask why there were so few Black professionals, why the schools were segregated, why there wasn't better housing, why there weren't better schools, etc.  It was simply the way of the world, and that's what was  programmed into my default system

From my earliest memories as a boy, right up through school and most of college, if you's asked me if I had any prejudice about "colored people,"   I would have denied it vehemently; I would have even been insulted, angry, and maybe sad that you didn't see the purity of my own heart. In myself,  I was satisfied that I had gone out of my way to be nice and friendly to Alice, our long-time Black housekeeper, cook, laundress, and nanny, and had even given up vacation time to drive with my parents to hand-deliver an bonus Christmas check to her tenement downtown. I felt morally superior because I had gone out of my way to take Alice up the street to the bus stop at the end of a stormy day. I felt morally righteous when I was open and friendly with Burnice, the Black man who did heavy indoor cleaning and outdoor work for us for many years. I knew I was being a Christian. I felt smug and morally superior when he and I sat down at the same table to eat lunch and talk intimately about fishing and cars and national politics.

I certainly harbored no antipathy, animosity or ill feeling for either Alice or Burnice or for any other Black person, because they represented no threat to my status. I knew for certain that I was born with a white skin and, that Life, therefore, had dealt me a permanent upper hand (all high hearts and diamonds) while Black people had been dealt nothing but low spades and clubs. No fault of theirs. Just the way it was. Simple as that.

At the same time, I saw and didn't know what to make of the washroom and water cooler signs indicating "white only" or "colored only," or the unwritten rules about where "Nigrahs" were supposed to sit on public conveyances or in the theaters. I saw that the adults around me, black and white alike, seemed to accept these rules and abide by them. I had an intuitive feeling that I didn't think the rules were "fair," for some reason, but was never inquisitive  or morally sensitive enough to pursue the issue by asking questions of adults. The system seemed to work, especially for me and OT who were very much at the top of the hill with a hand filled from birth with  hearts and diamonds.

More of this later.

My story, thus far, represents only the barest outlines of the forces which formed my increasingly hard-wired default system.  I think by now you have a pretty good idea of the issues which I have grappled with my whole life, more each year as people and events increased my awareness and sensitivity to the world and to my own battery of assumptions, presuppositions, default positions--all automatic and mostly unconscious.  Part II of this blog will describe some of those  people and events that opened my eyes to myself and to the world around me.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Work Default: Jeans, Sweat, and Brooks Brothers Suits.

Prayer for the Small Engine Repairman

Our Sundays are given voice
By the small engine repairman,
Whose fingers, stubby and black,
Know our mowers and tractors,
Chainsaws, rototillers,
Each plug, gasket and valve
And all the vital fluids.
Thanks to him our lawns
Are even, our gardens vibrant,
Our maples pruned for swings,
The underbrush whacked away.
"What's broke can always be fixed
If I can find the parts,"
He says as he loosens a nut,
Exposes the carburetor,
Tinkers and tunes until
To the slightest pull on the cord
The engine at once concurs.
Let him come into our homes,
Let him discipline our children,
Console and counsel our mates,
Adjust the gap of our passions,
The mix of our humors: lay hands
On the small engine of our days.
"Prayer for the Small Engine Repairman" by Charles W. Pratt, from From the Box Marked Some are Missing: New and Selected Books. © Hobblebush Books, 2010.

This poem describes beautifully how my default view of "work" first began to come apart. As you read, remember, I was a boy schooled to believe that manual labor of any kind indicated that the laborer was somehow inferior. These working folks were to be ignored and avoided except as specifically necessary to my existence. Other than that, I was taught that they had no meaningful lives which in any way spoke to me about which folks  I could or should relate to.

My first conscious change of attitude, preconception, a "default shift," if you will, happened in our local hobby shop, a one-man operation which I visited often in the afternoons after school or on Saturdays during the War.  There were several of us who met there, kids with only pocket change (bubble gum money when it was available) and little more. The hobby shop was an easy bike ride from home and from grade school,  so a few of us buddies would gather there and check out the old and new offerings and fertilize our fantasies of building and then flying model airplanes powered with real gasoline engines.

The models were "stick models," carefully created by gluing slender sticks of balsa wood together and covered with craft tissue paper, which was then shrunk, painted, and covered with decals and provided appropriate accessories such as wheels, cockpits, and a small gas engine. The engines' names alone fueled hours of my pre-adolescent fantasy life:  Hornet, Spitfire, Super Cyclone, Mighty Midget, Tiger Aero, and a whole range of engine sizes and designs made by Ohlsson (O and R)  called Red Heads because the top of their vertical cylinder was painted bright red. Our language expanded to make  comfortable use of terms like Xacto knife, .049 and .025, props, glow plugs and hot plugs, Eveready, and Testors heat proof paint and model cement, fast drying and extra fast drying, solvent, dope, and banana oil.

At the center of this hobby shop's collection of yet-to-be-built-or-fly airplanes was the heavy workbench with a cash register at one end where Mr, Hoblitzel presided over  an assortment of large and small vices, sturdy motor mounts for starting and testing repaired engines, an incredible variety of wrenches, screwdrivers, pliers, mallets and hammers, a wide variety of sizes and lengths of thin wires, a box of Bandaids,  a few half-empty Coke bottles, often with cigarette butts floating in them, a small plastic radio with long wire antenna and equally long and electrical plug extension, some Hersey bar wrappers, a couple of upright cylindrical Eveready dry cell batteries with metal posts on top and two (rarely) screw-on metal holding nuts, and an always sleepy, ill-tempered cat, Adolph.

The shop smelled of a combination of cigarette smoke, new and stale, gasoline, the exhaust odor of a mixture of gas and mineral oil, acetone, yesterday's banana peel on the bench, glue hardener (toluene), sawdust, and the left over fumes from the process of soldering electrical connections and small engine parts.

Hoblitzel, an older, thin-haired stoop-shouldered man with wire rim glasses, wore filthy, over-the- shoulder gray striped coveralls, almost stiff from years accumulating shop dirt and grease, an equally dirty and torn blue denim work shirt with sleeves rolled up his hairy forearms, and he had fat stubby fingers with very dirty, uneven nails. He was the epitome of the "manual laborer" I had been taught to ignore, avoid, or at least discount as a valuable human being.

Just by being in the shop, what I learned from Mr. Hoblitzel was an appreciation, yea a reverence, for people who could intuit what was going on with engines and motors, large and small, and then (irrespective of fingernail dirt) manipulate the smallest screws and brass bolts, cut the thinnest piece of sheet metal in just the right shape, listen to the sound of an engine running and tweak something or other (not in the books), even-out the sound, and miraculously improve the little engine's performance.

I also learned that an older, rough, formally uneducated man in overalls can be really smart, well-read, and enjoy the symphonic music and opera coming from that little plastic radio.  More than that,  l discovered that it was a mistake to "judge the book by the cover," as we used to say in the literary world, and that even a tough looking man who does manual type labor can earn and merit the love and adoration of little boys, and return that love without even trying--welcoming and accepting  our presence in his shop even when we didn't have two nickles to rub together, teaching us what he knew about mechanics and engines and materials and tools without any thought of payback, accepting our curiosity without assuming that we were also stupid, welcoming our questions without asking us not to interfere  or bother him, allowing us to see that it was OK for a grown man to get teary when hearing a particularly moving Puccini aria, and learning that it was not a damnable sin to say "damn" when his model's engine unexpectedly caught hold and caught him unaware when the prop spun and cracked him in the knuckles and drew blood.

After my learning experience in the hobby shop, I expanded the deconstruction of my default system everywhere I went. I became more  observant; I paid attention to people who were not OT ("Our Type") and  was astounded to find 'pearls of great price' hidden under the most common, and often unattractive oyster shells. On the other end of the spectrum, I also found out that some clean, polished Brooks Brothers suit-wearers--doctors, lawyers, ministers, educators, bankers, and the like--those who had been held up to me as "OT"-- were also common human beings who were just as subject to sloth, stupidity, and error as those who wore work clothes, had dirty nails, and weren't formally educated. I also discovered that many OT weren't worth knowing regardless of their haute couture veneer.

More simply put, I understood that many of my trusted assumptions about humans, their work,  and their personal  attributes and value, based largely on maxims ingrained in me early in my youth by parents, church, society, school, and my buddies, were, as David Foster Wallace said in his commencement address, balderdash. Once I accepted this new awareness and understanding and hit the delete button for my original default setting, a whole new world opened itself to me and I could see myself, my own talents and failings, in light of the realities I saw in other people--not, as earlier,  through the distorted lens of my default setting. I could wear jeans, work up a sweat in the garden, shovel manure, and be myself without the continuous concern about making an good impression or worrying about what others were thinking.

But even more important, I discovered a veritable treasure trove of amazing and interesting  people everywhere: in churches, but not only in the pulpit, but also cleaning the floor in the social hall or cooking for Wednesday night dinners; in doctors' offices, but not just in the examining room, but also in the lab, at the reception desk, in the waiting room, or running the elevator; in the lawyers' offices, but only in the legal library, but in the waiting room where other clients had their own stories; in the bank, yes, behind the large polished mahogany desk in the back room, but also in the tellers' cages, filling the coffee machine, and fixing the phone system; in schools and colleges, not only lecturing and grading papers and filling out endless forms or computing budgets, but handing out jocks and cleats in the equipment room, re-shelving books in the library, or manicuring lawns and plowing snow. I am now enjoying this endless feast of human beings because most of the "balderdash" has been set aside.

Oh, and I learned that even Adolph could be made more pleasant when given my almost empty Sardine tin to lick because his gums hurt and he had no teeth. Was that a the purring of a cat or of a well-tuned Red Head .049?

No cheering yet; this was just the first default setting that needed examination and analysis. Stay tuned in as I take on some more.