Pecan Pie

A friend ordered an appetizer before dinner a few nights ago, Brussels sprouts. I asked what was on them, and she said, “Chopped pecans. Here,” pushing the plate toward me to confirm.

I hadn’t expected chopped pecans on Brussels sprouts, but since we are approaching Thanksgiving and the Christmas season, my mind took another unexpected turn: Suddenly I was struck by the realization that I would never again have a pecan pie made by my mother who died about eleven months ago from stage 4 lung cancer discovered a few months after suffering a stroke and witnessing my father’s death just a couple weeks after the stroke.

Maple Pecan Pie

My mother was from North Carolina, mostly the central hills of the state from Lexington to Salisbury, Spencer, and Concord. My father grew up and always lived in my home town of Woodruff, South Carolina, in the upstate, the foothills.

I learned to distinguish between my parents’ Southern drawls once I lived away from home for a while. As my father did, I grew up pronouncing “pecan” with two hard syllables—PEE-CAN—the last rhyming with “man,” not “con.”

And once I was permanently on my own, my mother began focusing even more heavily on pleasing me with food if she could coax me to visit. My father, however, had come to recognize my favored status when I was a teen. Supper began to feature both what I preferred and when I would be home (after basketball practice, and such).

When I talked to my parents by phone, my father would usually joke that I needed to visit so he could have a good meal.

Children of the 1950s, my mother and father always spent way too much money showing everyone in the family their love. Holidays were manically overdone, especially Christmas, with gifts and food.

Fall and winter were a flurry for my parents who were overgrown children at Halloween; they carried that glee through the new year as well.

Thanksgiving in my home kicked off Christmas season with decorating the house and putting up the tree, all of which stayed up until New Year’s Day. I grew up thinking these traditions were universal because we had made it all so regimented and the holidays simply pervaded everything in our lives for well over a month, late November into January each year.

I also developed an affection for pies—sweet potato, pumpkin, and pecan—as holiday food. My mom often made them from scratch.

Her pecan pie was wonderful even though it was always a challenge to make well. Some were a disaster, according to her, but I never noticed.

Crunchy on the outside then deliciously sweet at the center, her pecan pie was about the only thing that could compete fresh out of the oven with her just-made sweet tea that bordered on being syrup.

As my parents aged, and both struggled with heart issues for many years, they clung to the holidays, but Halloween soon became too much for them. For many years, they dressed up and dozens of children came by for my mom dressed as Mother Goose requiring a rhyme for candy.

Thanksgiving and Christmas also gradually dwindled—the meals no longer made by my mother, even the pies, and the gifts becoming fewer, the cash cards holding less and less.

My parents died with almost no money and mostly their house to represent their legacy, their shot at the American Dream.

Even during those last years, years I really didn’t see as last, when I visited on Thanksgiving and Christmas, my mother always steered me to the vegetable tray—she made sure there were red, yellow, and green peppers, and carrots—and she always bought pies, pecan as well as potato or pumpkin, or some times all three.

I struggled for many years with the reality of my infirm parents against my stunted conception of them, the idealized mother and father who existed for much of my life.

But I also struggled against my parents clinging to a certain fixed image of me—especially my mom always trying to feed me those pies even as I nearly never ate pies in my adult life, except to please her at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

When I did my obligatory visits on those holidays, I had to try all the pies, and grazed throughout the visit from the vegetable tray. And then my mother would wrap up pie to take home—and I almost never ate them despite her frail gestures of “I love you.”

In those moments, I couldn’t rise out of the trap of my own life to see everything clearly, to appreciate that every single thing in life is fragile.

Even a pecan pie. Especially the last pecan pie.

There will always be a last time, and we almost never know that until afterward, until it is too late to appreciate the last time as we should.

I used to teach Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and watching it in front of students presented the same problem I had with other plays, Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. These works always make me cry.

Emily dies young in Our Town, in childbirth, but realizes she can return to rewatch some of her life. The Stage Manager warns her against it, and she does find the experience painful, lamenting: “I can’t look at everything hard enough.”

Then she asks, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?” And the Stage Manager replies, “No—Saints and poets maybe—they do some.”

I love this scene in the play, and I hate it.

It breaks my heart.

I sat in the restaurant, the faint taste of pecan in my mouth, fighting the urge to cry because I had suddenly realized my mother would never again make a pecan pie for the holidays.

I talked about it briefly, withholding tears.

But I am not really sure what else to do with it. I am aware we all will likely be too busy with our lives to really look at our living, to fully see what matters in the moment.

And then the last time will be behind us.

We missed it. We will always miss it.

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Expanding Access to Voting Despite the Failures of Partisan Politics

It has been a strange journey for me as a leftwing intellectual having grown up and always living in the very narrowly conservative South.

Most of my voting life has been committed to voting against candidates, solidly rejecting Republicans who were uniformly elected in my home state of South Carolina.

I then about a decade ago adopted the pose of a non-voter, calling on George Carlin‘s and W.E.B. Du Bois‘s philosophies about partisan politics.

However, with the election of Trump, I have once again been tossed around in how I navigate a very political world that is mostly paralyzed by partisan nonsense.

Hillary Clinton was the best mainstream Republican in the 2016 election, and Barack Obama was a solid moderate—nothing akin to the socialist the Right tried to smear him as being. (Obama was no Eugene V. Debs, someone I could vote for.)

Even Bernie Sanders is no lefty if we frame U.S. politics against Europe or even Canada, and Sanders continues to prove himself tone-deaf on race.

However, Trump is a special kind of outlier, I fear, and as a result, I have returned to the voting booth where, again as I vote in SC, I had limited choices and a significant list of races where only Republicans were running.

I wasted my time, made something like a hollow symbolic gesture by voting:

2018 vote

I used a dramatic black-and-white filter on Instagram and thought about Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as I took the selfie.

So I was sitting with cycling friends at a taphouse after the elections, listening to two internationals—one from Argentina and one from Germany—talk about how ridiculous U.S. politics is.

Argentinians are required to vote, even prisoners, under penalty of fines if they fail to do so.

Germans have automatic voter registration.

In very real ways, despite the historical chest-thumping about democracy in the U.S., much of the world is more free than we are in terms of access to participating in a democracy.

My good German friend offered off-hand that he suspects he pays a bit more taxes in Germany, but, as he noted, he doesn’t mind because he gets so much more for that extra cost.

And since election day in 2018, races have become in doubt because of voting irregularities and remaining ballots counted, exposing that a significant number of U.S. citizens are effectively disenfranchised from the process.

Here then is the new paradox for me as well as my new commitment.

We must expand voting access for every eligible voter, even as we acknowledge that our partisan political system is horribly broken.

We must acknowledge that the wealthy and the privileged are voting, rather easily, and that those with the least power are most likely to be barred from voting—from the poor to the imprisoned.

Expanding who votes and the ease of voting, then, is a goal we must all seek even as we are disappointed in our two-party system and the inept and corrupt leaders it has spawned.

Let’s commit to some or all of the following:

  • Automatic registration of eligible voters, while also expanding who is eligible across the U.S.
  • A 5-7 day window for voting followed by a 72-hour embargo on election results until all votes are counted and verified. This includes no reporting on polls, exit or otherwise, once the voting window starts until after that 72-hour window ends.
  • Electronic forms fo voting—computer and smart phone voting, for example.
  • Online verifications of voting that alerts (email, text, etc.) each voter their vote has been cast and allows each voter to report irregularities.
  • Consideration of lowering the voting age to 16, possibly for local elections only.
  • Reinstate the popular vote in presidential elections and curtail gerrymandering.
  • Address imbalances in candidates’ representation of populations (see the House and Senate majorities versus a minority of citizens represented).
  • Full public funding of all campaigns, ending political donations and standardizing political ads and debates.
  • Vetting all political ads and debates for accuracy.

The ugly truth in the U.S. is that those with power and privilege do not trust or want a full democracy where everyone has a voice.

We may not be able to create immediately a better ruling class, but we certainly can create a more vibrant democracy by expanding access to having a voice for everyone.

If that goal is approached we may find that the ruling class changes for the better.

Dark Histories Cast Shadows over Diversity Initiatives in Higher Education

Sitting 30 miles apart, two upstate South Carolina universities seem to have mostly proximity in common. Furman University is a small, selective, and private liberal arts college while nearby public, land-grant Clemson University is the second largest research university in the state, touting a high-profile football program.

Yet, these universities represent higher education’s struggles with dark histories and a stubborn gap between faculty and student demographics compared to the communities and states they serve.

Private colleges with restrictive admission guidelines and higher costs have long struggled with diversity, but “[a] growing number of public universities are becoming less affordable and accessible for low-income students and people of color,” reports Ashley A. Smith for Inside Higher Ed.

In one ranking from 2016, Clemson (HHI 0.707) sat 98 among the top 100 universities, even less diverse than Furman (HHI 0.662), ranking 85 among the top 100 liberal arts colleges*. Both schools serve, notably, South Carolina with a black population of 26% (national rate 12%).

While many universities have begun reckoning with their histories as well as committing to diversity initiatives, diversity goals for faculty and student populations mirroring the general public remain elusive.

Reckoning with, Not Erasing, the Past

One permanent shadow appears to be Tillman Hall on the campus of Clemson University, the source of a contentious 2015 debate among students, faculty, administration, and the community.

Tillman Hall is named for former SC governor and senator Benjamin Tillman, who also founded Winthrop University (Rock Hill, SC). Will Moredock explains, “Modern historians generally regard Tillman as a fire-breathing racist, opportunist, and demagogue who played on the worst of human nature to promote himself to the highest levels of state government.”

The lack of action by administration concerning Tillman Hall spurred a student organization formed about a year earlier, See the Stripes, to continue urging Clemson toward greater diversity and inclusion:

The central idea of See The Stripes is an acknowledgement that The Tiger has stripes, which are an integral part of its existence and survival. While The Tiger could be seen as “Solid Orange” a solid orange tiger could not survive without its stripes. Similarly, Clemson University’s history has its dark parts that should be acknowledged—particularly the histories of laborers who contributed significantly to its development: slaves, sharecroppers and convict laborers.

The Tillman Hall stalemate represents one powerful hurdle for diversity goals at a university when the past remains an unaddressed stain on the present.

Furman’s reckoning has come in the form of a Task Force on Slavery and Justice, prompted by a new provost, and a diversity and inclusion committee charged by the university president.

The Task Force report, Seeking Abraham, confronts slavery and  racism in the founding of the university, but also details a roadmap of actions for moving forward as an essential part of creating a university community that is more inclusive.

Good Intentions, Rhetoric Not Enough

None the less, Furman student Juhee Bhatt blogged that good intentions of diversity initiatives are not enough:

Inclusiveness is much more than portraying students of color in news articles or acknowledging Furman’s role in slavery. Inclusiveness is an unfolding process of action that affirms the humanity of each minority on campus, it is not only displaying a headshot…or working to strengthen diversity statistics. Inclusivity is not a one-step process, rather it demands individuality and intentionality.

Across the U.S., college and universities employ faculty that are disproportionately white and male (especially at the higher ranks) and serve students channeled through narrowing admission processes and limited by increasing costs.

Further, diversity initiatives are often dulled by external forces, such as undermatching, and suffer from student and faculty skepticism about programs that seem to be more rhetoric than action, as Bhatt expresses.

Another challenge for diversity and inclusion programs is implementation, too often targeting diverse populations instead of acknowledging that diversity and inclusion awareness must be for all stakeholders—especially majority populations.

“Inclusivity Is Not a One-step Process”

A 2016 U.S. Department of Education report outlines the complex ways that colleges and universities can better attain diversity goals. These steps include more than diversity and inclusion programs, but include the following:

  • Creating mission statements to provide a context and foundation for action and policy.
  • Recognizing diversity must pervade the entire campus—faculty, administration, staff, and students—in ways reflecting the rhetoric of those mission statements.
  • Prioritizing diversity through admissions and hiring practices.
  • Providing diverse populations with on-campus support.
  • Establishing and maintaining inclusive climates as a precursor to increasing quantifiable diversity throughout the institution.
  • Resisting silver bullets, and dedicating funds and policy to a “multi-pronged commitment to diversity,” as the USDOE report concludes.

The U.S. must have colleges and universities where faculty, staff, and students represent the entire spectrum of diversity within the communities they serve, but commitments to diversity and inclusion must be more than banners, rhetoric, and public relations if those goals are to be met.


* The ranking index used (HHI): “A student body that is entirely White would have an HHI of 1. A student body that is equally made up of people from five different racial groups would have an HHI of 0.2.”

Halloween Reader: Everything You Know Is Wrong

Scientific Racism And Black Sexual Pathology

Ending the practice of pathologizing Black sexuality will not be easy because the assumptions that enable it to flourish are part of the fabric of American culture. As noted, some researchers have recognized the problems associated with pathologizing Black sexuality and are advocating different approaches, perhaps illustrating that tenaciously adhering to the old tradition can prevent true resolution.

Johnson: Women’s voices are judged more harshly than men’s

There is no escaping the fact that some voices sound more pleasing than others. And there is no quick way around society’s belief that deep voices convey authority; men have been more powerful than women for all of known history. It may be good practical advice to tell women who want to get into the voice-over industry—or indeed others that have been historically dominated by men—to use firm and deep voices if they want to impress. They might also take care to avoid the distraction of vocal fry, while simultaneously ensuring that they don’t sound too mannish. Women, in other words, are required to walk a thin line when they speak in public, a no-room-for-error performance never expected of men.

The myth of meritocracy: who really gets what they deserve?

Inspired by the meritocratic ideal, many people these days are committed to a view of how the hierarchies of money and status in our world should be organised. We think that jobs should go not to people who have connections or pedigree, but to those best qualified for them, regardless of their background. Occasionally, we will allow for exceptions – for positive discrimination, say, to help undo the effects of previous discrimination. But such exceptions are provisional: when the bigotries of sex, race, class and caste are gone, the exceptions will cease to be warranted. We have rejected the old class society. In moving toward the meritocratic ideal, we have imagined that we have retired the old encrustations of inherited hierarchies. As Young knew, that is not the real story.

Dear Media, Stop Misrepresenting Reading Instruction, Please

From Education Week to the Hechinger Report to The Answer Sheet (the latter two typically good sources for education journalism), the media simply cannot resist publishing misguided takes on how we do and should teach reading.

Citing the National Reading Panel as credible (it isn’t), misrepresenting whole language and balanced literacy (as somehow anti-phonics), hand-wringing about third-grade reading ability, and taking broad uneven swipes at teacher education—these are the hallmarks of bad journalism and garbled takes (usually with ulterior motives) on the reading wars.

Since I simply cannot continue to make the same points over and over, I suggest below a bit of actual reading to clarify why the media continually misrepresents the reading wars:

Here is a final note worth emphasizing: Phonics-intense and phonics-only reading instruction is a gold mine for textbook publishers, reading program shills, and the testing industry.

Consider carefully the who and why of public commentaries screeching about reading instruction, especially when the arguments are full of easily identifiable holes in their credibility and logic.