Rule 5: HTFU

In many ways, this past Tuesday was mostly a typical flight night at a local tap house, Growler Haus. We gathered and took over the room to the right, what we have come to call “The Office.”

But this Tuesday we were 15 gathered to say goodbye to a friend moving, as we say around here, “up North,” or in his case, back up North.

CJennings FW3-X2

The “we” in this case is the Spartanburg, SC, cycling community—or at least a part of it. Cycling is vibrant—although the people change and the intensity shifts over the years—in the Upstate of SC from Spartanburg to Greenville especially.

Chris, pictured above holding a mock-up of a plaque in his honor, is moving away, and we spent a couple hours over pints, flights, and food smiling and laughing about his moving to Spartanburg years ago and finding his way into our not-so-warm-and-fuzzy cycling clique; in many ways we are worse than high school, we road and MTB cyclists who have also branched out to gravel riding (anything to justify even slightly the code of bicycle ownership—Rule #12: The correct number of bikes to own is n+1).

If you zoom in, you see the plaque mock-up includes below his name Rule #5—one of the dilemmas faced by those organizing the gesture of farewell.

You see Rule #5, among The Rules at Velominati, is mostly NSFW—Harden the fuck up, or as we say in most public settings, HTFU.

The 15 in attendance and pictured above range in ages from their 20s into their 60s, much like our cycling community, and we all at one point or another have found ourselves stressed to our limits, probably questioning why we were voluntarily participating in a hobby, for fun, something that left us near the brink of death—or simply wishing death would offer a bit of relief.

Recreational cycling is often competitive, both spontaneously on any bicycle ride including more than one rider and during organized events (even the ones that explicitly announce “this is not a race”).

When we are the ones dishing out the pace and pain (a few above are always in that group), we smile and quip: “You know what to do when you are getting dropped? Speed up.”

It is that sort of nonsense that has bonded this group, nonsense that is about the same percentage sincerity as nonsense.

I have been cycling “seriously,” as we say, for well over thirty years. Those early years, I was mere fodder, a peon, but several of the elite locals gave me the treatment that we honor to this day, a sort of loving hazing, a relentless demand that “do better, damnit” is about the same as saying “love you.”

One of my friendly torturers was Fred; I still see him from time to time at mountain biking trails. He has shifted to solitary riding, and I have throttled back significantly my mileage and intensity. But I feel something unnameable every time I see Fred (Rule #3: Guide the uninitiated).

Fred was ruthless and his ability on a bicycle left me in awe. I never came close to Fred in ability, but I creeped toward his tenacity—and I certainly for a few year was a much better cyclist.

And I still know a hell of a lot about bicycling.

Several people in the photograph were shepherded into the flock as I was many moons ago. Now the grasshoppers have become masters; we guard our own Rules vigilantly even as we quote The Rules with a bit of a smile.

I hear our 20 and 30 somethings sigh and lament things aren’t like they used to be, shaking their heads at new riders. And I understand.

We are varied people. Bicycles and most of all riding bicycles join us, even when we don’t think alike, even when we can barely raise our heads or turn the crank in exhaustion.

Maybe especially when things are the toughest.

Only a few years ago four of us above were struck by a motorist (with six others), and a few of us were injured, some badly, one permanently.

And very recently, we were all visiting Chris in the hospital after a freak cycling crash that sent him to the hospital with a broken collarbone that put his cycling on pause for many weeks.

You see, it is just riding a bicycle, something children do, and it is far more than just riding a bicycle.

Cycling is not our entire lives—we have family, careers, and beer—but most of us cannot imagine our lives without cycling.

We will miss Chris, and I am sure, Chris will miss us, and this community.

In any moment of sadness, tugs of weakness, however, we have something to guide us through—HTFU.

Rule #1: Obey the rules.

Dog in the Sink

She is five or six years old, my daughter, sitting in the backseat and requesting “Dog in the Sink” from the R.E.M. mix-tape I made her.

Mishearing the line “dogging the scene,” she renamed “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” as she did several songs, including another favorite “That’s great it starts with an earthquake birds and snakes and aeroplanes.”

We spent a great deal of time in the car together. To and from school. To and from soccer practice. To and from soccer matches and tournaments.

Typically, my daughter would ask me to play songs, often R.E.M. since that is what I was listening to almost all the time, and to sing along while she watched me singing in the rearview mirror. Once she had the lyrics, she would tell me to stop, and she would then sing.

By the time she was 10 or so, she could sing all of “Its the End of the World as We Know It (And  feel Fine)”—much to the amazement of family and friends.

R.E.M. is re-releasing Monster, a 25th anniversary edition, so “Kenneth” has been on a loop in my head for several days.

The song permanently blurs with life with my daughter as a child, her asking about the end of “Kenneth” when “I never understood the frequency” becomes the closing “I never understood, don’t fuck with me.”

As she grew up, of course, she understood more and more of the lyrics, including the profanity. I never shielded her from the music I listened to so our adventure with music morphed a bit from those mostly innocent early days.

Another album just passing its 23rd anniversary is CAKE’s Fashion Nugget. My daughter was fascinated by “Nugget” as an early teen; it is profane and in your face.

When she would climb into the car with some of her soccer teammates, as we drove to lunch between matches, she would ask me to play “that song,” and I would survey the friends—”Your parents are ok with this?”—and we’d listen to “Nugget,” her face beaming.

I have several of these song moments permanently imprinted in my memory—my daughter singing “O, my, my, O, tell yea” unaware of “hell” as an option while singing along to Tom Petty, for example.

But as “Kenneth” has been on a permanent loop in my mind, I have realized that I struggle to recreate in those memories my daughter sitting in the back seat. I have this vague awareness of that, but I often lose her face and child self behind the more immediate image of my granddaughter, who I see often and spend a good deal of time interacting with in her carseat.

I will never get back “Dog in the Sink,” my daughter at 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 …

I have lost forever a world of mixtapes and spending every waking moment in the service of a child.

“Kenneth” on a loop in my mind makes me very happy and deeply sad all at once.

I also will never again have a new R.E.M. album. I have, in fact, just redecorated my office, replacing some of the R.E.M. posters with The National—a band I found through R.E.M.

No photo description available.

I have always been haunted by Emily in Our Town, after her death realizing that we can’t and don’t look at anything hard enough in the moment.

“The world is too much with us,” Wordsworth warns; we are too busy living to really appreciate the moment.

My daughter used to come down stairs and repeatedly run and jump on me on the couch. She was rambunctious and laughing. But I was too often easily exhausted by that.

It deserved more. It deserved the same care and attention as those times we spent in the car, me playing songs she requested and her eventually telling me to stop singing so she could.

I was too easily distracted in my 30s and 40s: “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers”; squandering, I would add.

I am better now in some ways. I will sit on the floor with my grandchildren, even when it is exhausting and even when I know it will last only a moment before they are off to something else.

I have sat hours quite still with each of those grandchildren in my lap, sleeping or watching TV or their iPad. I used to joke I was my granddaughter’s recliner.

It is a pose I am happy to hold—now.

We carry always with us these things we lose, these things we cannot hold onto no matter how deeply we want to make the world, time stand still.

It is a bit overwhelming to realize I have lost those images of my daughter as a child, her voice even, and her mannerisms and personality. All of that morphing into my granddaughter.

When I confuse the names of my daughter and granddaughter it may be the most honest moments of my life. They have piled up inside me in a way that I cannot untangle, a way that I would never want to untangle because I would be afraid of completely unraveling it all. Losing again what I have lost already.

“Papa, look!” my granddaughter demands as I am driving; I struggle to make her happy, but I have to explain I can’t turn around while driving.

I try to use the rearview mirror, but my granddaughter will have none of that. She wants my full attention, not some indirect reflection.

The rearview mirror was enough for my daughter.

It’s a shame mirrors reflect only the moment. It’s a shame we often don’t enjoy those moments.

Isn’t This What School Should Be About?

My chest swelled and I cried when I opened the text: “Her artwork is displayed in the hallway.”

Skylar 5K artwork

“Her” is my granddaughter, Skylar, in her first few weeks of 5K in the rural primary school serving my hometown. Skylar is biracial and her parents are divorced; her school sits in a relatively high-poverty area of Upstate South Carolina, about the 11th most impoverished state in the U.S. and a deeply inequitable state by economics, race, and gender.

Usually, still, Skylar climbs onto my lap or beside me on the couch, just to be physically against me; I often hold tightly one of her small feet or she hooks an arm through mine as if we are tumbling through space and she needs to make sure we are tethered together forever.

This past weekend I watched her play at a bounce house and party facility, there for my grandson’s (Brees) third birthday party. Skylar ran with earnestness to maintain pace with a some of the children, her friends, but balked at a few of the bounce houses.

She stood nervously at one before turning to me and asking, “Is it dangerous in there?”

At another bounce house earlier, she initially refused to go in, shuffling up against my legs and softly telling me she didn’t like it. Later, she scrambled in, and as she had on another trip there, became trapped so an older boy went in to help her.

She crawled out crying.

As I looked at this artwork of hers, I was reminded of the weekend party, the bounce houses and peer pressure that proved to be nearly unbearable delight and fright for my dearest granddaughter who I love far too much.

When my daughter began to light my grandson’s birthday cake, Skyler warned her to move the cake back with “Remember. Safety first.”

Skylar, you see, already exhibits some of the anxiety and hyper-awareness I know all too well. She is a deeply sensitive child who is powerfully drawn to and deeply wary of the world she inhabits.

She inspires in me as my daughter did the urge to lift her into my arms and hold her close to me. Forever.

Of course, that is not love and that is not even remotely desirable since it would be an act (literally or metaphorically) of denying this beautiful girl her full and complicated life.

As my existential self-education taught me, our passions are our sufferings; if we seek ways not to suffer, we then must abandon our passions.

My precious Skyler will hurt in her life, be disappointed in very real ways. That’s being fully human.

I am disappointed and even angry, however, that she like all children in the U.S. is being handed a country that remains far too calloused about children, girls and women, and the many inequities that much of the country simply pretends do not exist.

I am disappointed and even angry, however, that the schooling she can expect is almost never like her artwork being displayed in the hallways but more like a prison, or a hospital.

As I told a class last night, her 3K, 4K, and 5K experiences already contain assessments of her “readiness” and how well she meets standards—and ultimately, she must meet the demands of being on grade level for that most important grade of all, third.

Many loving, kind, and gifted teachers will work uncritically as agents of this terribly flawed educational system even as they show her their love and kindness. School, then, will be one of the things I cannot protect her from, one of the things that will hurt her.

Despite Skyler’s disadvantages of race, gender, and a fractured family, she has what Barbara Kingsolver calls a “family fortune” in the love and care offered by both sets of grandparents and access to race and economic privileges in that extended family.

I often look at Skylar and Brees, recognizing that Skyler will mostly be viewed as white (although people routinely mention her tan, even in the dead of winter) and Brees will mostly be viewed as black.

Sky and Brees

Their lives will remained colored by the centering of whiteness in the U.S., again something I cannot protect either of these children from.

Skylar will be pushed a little, or even a lot, behind boys just because she is a girl, and will likely grow up to earn a fraction of those some young men who more often than not are just a fraction of her.

So my heart ached at the bounce houses as I walked around just to keep an eye on her, just to be there when she wanted to say she was feeling shy or afraid.

And I cried when I saw the artwork now hanging in her school.

I am trying very hard with my grandchildren and reminded of the speaker in Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones”:

…Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world.

And then the end of Smith’s poem, mixed as it is with tortured optimism:

This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

As I look at the artwork of a 5-year-old child, I am left with a question as well: Isn’t this what school should be about?

Rednecks, Hillbillies, and Crackers

Before my father graduated high school, he had a full set of false teeth. Finding—and later being able to afford—dentures that fit well were an important part of his life for sixty years.

Once his health began to deteriorate nearly as precipitously as his bank account in the last several years, that final set of dentures, lower quality and cost, made him look even less like himself than the disorienting transformation from aging and ill health—both making him enlarge, barrel-chested and swollen, as he simultaneously shrank in stature.

My father was a rough and rambunctious 1950s redneck growing up, losing teeth a few at a time from playing sports and the occasional fight. His dentist eventually decided to pull the last few and fit him with false teeth.

My mother, my sister, and I, then, never knew my father when he had teeth.

This was part of my 1960s childhood, a redneck life in Upstate South Carolina, my father’s home town. It seems fair to say that my mother was, as a North Carolinian raised mostly in Lexington and Lumberton, a hillbilly of sorts.

But theirs was no mixed marriage.

In fact, it took me many years, and well after I had moved out, to recognize the nuances of my parent’s slightly different Southern drawls and vocabulary. Both of my grandfathers had been painfully quiet men, although my maternal grandfather was equally painful in the slowness of his speech when he did (rarely) speak.

So I needed some distance to begin to acknowledge that this SC/NC couple had families who were often as unlike as like each other.

When my parents died a couple years ago, with those deaths shrouded in the ugliest possible consequences of an inadequate and inhumane healthcare system, I was pushed further into more fully and openly interrogating my redneck past.

Recently, I have been confronted, first, with Season 2 of Mindhunter focusing on the Atlanta child murders and the series’s characterization of KKK members, Georgia crackers, and next, with Ozark‘s fascination with distinguishing between rednecks and hillbillies.

 

Over the years, I have been exasperated often with the portrayal of white Southerners in the media, entertainment, and even popular memoirs (such as Hillbilly Elegy and Blood Done Signed My Name).

Those representations range along a spectrum of cartoonish to romanticized that deeply distorts both the humanity of those of us from the South as well as the many serious flaws that do persist among poor and working-class white Southerners.

As a lifelong Southern redneck who grew into social awareness and continues to wrestle with that redneck past against a deeply held moral imperative toward social justice, I am constantly faced with a paradox—seeking ways to defend the accurate, complex, and often deeply flawed white Southern characterization while in no way defending its historical and current racism, sexism, and homophobia.

I cannot express often enough the tragedy that is the self-defeating South.

With this newest focus by the two series above on redneck, hillbilly, and cracker, I have been thinking about my toothless father and the ugly stereotype of the toothless redneck/hillbilly/cracker.

The broader stereotype of white southerners is that we talk grammatically incorrect (therefore, we are stupid) and we are often poor.

These stereotypes expose deficit and misguided perceptions of both language and poverty, but it is the “toothless” slur that draws my attention now.

I hear fairly often about poor Southern whites that they have less sense than teeth, or something like that. And while watching Ozark fumble through their interest in distinguishing between rednecks and hillbillies, I have for the first time more clearly considered how damning the “toothless” slur is.

Being toothless among the poor has its roots in all sorts of inequity, mostly that poor and working-class Americans too often do not have access to affordable healthcare (including dental) or healthy food.

The “toothless” slur ignores that inequity but certainly reinforces the rugged individual myth: If only poor white trash would take care of their teeth!

Toothlessness is their shame, both cosmetic and as a sign of carelessness (if not the real ugly floor of all poverty shaming, laziness).

More recently than this Southern stereotype, this shaming of rednecks regardless of region, is the toothless meth addict, a characterization again grounded in shaming and perpetuating that the addict is solely to blame for the consequences of the addiction.

Watching both Mindhunter and Ozark, I think of my immediate family as well as the many, many rednecks of my life lived in SC. But I also have come to think very often of my toothless father.

With his better quality dentures and his crewcut, my father struck the pose of the handsome, hardworking white man of the mid-twentieth century South. He also believed in all of the great American myths about rugged individualism and pulling yourself up by the bootstraps as well as the ugliest racist and classist narratives that were ever-present in his community.

My father and mother did everything they could to maintain the veneer that they had no past in being poor and they were not working-class, but middle-class.

IMG_0716

Keith, Rose, Paul, and Eydie Thomas— the family.

Their paradox was that they did in fact have a hand in their own disturbing dying days that were greatly accelerated and worsened by a harsh society and inhumane government that they endorsed until their last breaths.

It feels too much like a Poe short story, my being sometimes haunted by my father’s last pair of dentures that made him look cartoonish and pitiful, only a faint glimmer of the man I knew as a child. A powerful and all-too-happy young man who grew into massive forearms and a constant refrain of “If I was any better, I couldn’t stand it” to anyone who asked how he was doing.

Until that last pair of dentures, I had lived with a different image, one recreated by the telling of stories by my father.

When I was very young, my father was play-wrestling with my mom (they were very playful young adults, together and with my sister and me). My mom feigned that she was in distress and called for me to help her.

Just a child, I ran over and kicked hard at my father’s head. He turned away untouched, covertly removed his false teeth, and then rolled back to confront me with a huge toothless grin.

I screamed and cried, as my father told the story, while my mom and dad laughed.

This was my childhood, but I cannot tolerate the romanticizing of white Southerners anymore than I can stomach the petty stereotypes driven by poverty shaming.

I have loved my parents and family very deeply while also being very angry at them and my hometown for all the hatred and the self-defeating politics.

Over the last few years, the media have become obsessed with struggling whites all across the U.S. Many are rednecks, hillbillies, and even crackers.

There is so much white fragility on display that I recognize now even more deeply how whites resist equity and hard truths in the U.S. while always hiding behind a very large and starkly white banner. Maybe “Christian nation” or simply “U.S.A.”

Or the most disturbing and red “Make America Great Again.”

Yes, there are distinctions among rednecks, hillbillies, and crackers—but those really do not matter as much as what they have in common, an inordinate power linked to their being white and an irrational anger toward a world finding ways to expose those privileges so that we can end them.

And walking through that world, I am the son of a toothless redneck.

Once Racist: More on My Redneck Past

There is so much about the U.S. in the story of Kyle Kashuv.

Kashuv as a teenager has had thrust upon him a complex and accidental fame. First, he gained recognition by being among the high school student survivors of the Parkland, Florida school shooing.

Next, Kashuv filled a partisan political niche by being the face of conservative activist students after that school shooting—an event that spawned a rise in what has been characterized in the U.S. as left-wing political activism by a number of his classmates.

And now, Kashuv is the face of consequences: He was first accepted in Harvard and then that acceptance was rescinded.

Conservatives across the country have rushed to express outrage, focusing on arguments that his actions (documented and repeated racist language) occurred while he was still young; these defenses of Kashuv have often been absent the fact that colleges, and Harvard, have rescinded acceptances for similar reasons in the past (with little media fanfare) and that the nature of all college admission is judging applicants for their behavior while only in their teens.

By the logic of apologists for Kashuv, Harvard—and all colleges—are irresponsible for admitting or rejecting students for the grades they earned and the accomplishments they achieved while teenagers.

But the larger problem with how conservatives have rushed to defend Kashuv is that it is grounded in a plea for license, not freedom.

Kashuv has not been denied his freedom to express racist language and bigoted ideology; Kashuv has not been denied the opportunity to rise above these deplorable displays of calloused youthful indiscretion (if that is what it was); and Kashuv has not been denied access to a college education.

While it may seem harsh due to his age and his notoriety, Kashuv is simply experiencing consequences. To be free to speak and believe in the U.S. is not, ideally, also freedom from consequences.

As I watched this debate play out on social media, I noticed several people share that when they were teens, they knew racist language and slurs were wrong, and they refused to use them.

For me, however, I have quite a different confession—one that the following Tweeted video well documents in a context far different than my upbringing in the 1960s and 1970s in South Carolina:

These children above both knew the terror of their language and their actions, and they seem almost gleeful in the boldness of their hatred. This video in many ways feels like the evidence of Kashuv’s behavior, which he frames as “private” and “immature.”

In my home and community of Upstate South Carolina, everyone knew racial slurs and racist behavior were dehumanizing and, essentially, wrong. But whites of all social classes and statuses persisted in using the language (casually and often in whites-only situations) and held the N-word in their pockets when the moment arrived to wield it against a black person.

Except in rare circumstances, you see, there were virtually no negative consequences for our casual and aggressive racism; in fact, among whites, racial slurs and behavior gained a person status.

Whites pridefully told stories of putting black people in their places—retelling in vivid detail the exchange so that racial slurs were fore-fronted in the retelling.

When I was in my late teens, I worked as an assistant in a golf pro shop at the country club where my parents built their dream home; this was the urge of proximity my working-class parents aspired to as an unconscious rejection of being just working-class in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

The private golf club was all-white, as detailed in the by-laws, but the people living on the course and the members were mostly just the rednecks of my hometown no matter how hard they pretended to be otherwise.

One morning while I was in the pro shop, one of the grounds crew workers was milling around and decided to teach me something: “Want to know where [racial slur] come from?”

We were alone, and he was an adult. But I was pretty sure I didn’t want to hear what was coming, but his question was just a formality.

He explained in detail that when Cain killed Able, and Cain was banished from the Garden, Cain mated with apes. And the result was the black race. And he had learned this himself in church. Sunday school.

He quoted scripture.

The problem with this moment in my life is that my only real response—all remaining private in my thoughts—was that I knew I wasn’t that ignorant. But thinking myself better than this man did nothing to dissuade me from my casual racism couched in my family and my community (among many whites who actually did not reject this man’s outlandish Garden of Eden version of races).

So here is my story of privilege, of the grand comfort I was allowed because I was a white young man and a good student, smart.

I attended junior college, and then I was a commuter at a satellite campus of the state university—never even considering a selective college in my home state much less something a rarified as Harvard or Duke. I was first-generation and my parents, despite their aspirations, could not have afforded more than what I did (college never cost my family more than hundreds of dollars a semester).

Here is the white male privilege part, and why I am not an apologist for Kashuv having his acceptance revoked—even as I freely admit my own behavior probably trumped his in many ways.

At junior college on a lesser level and then during my last two-and-a-half years as an undergrad, I was allowed the space to realize that an entire world and set of ideologies existed unlike my home and community—specifically that many well-educated people were actively not racist, sexist, or homophobic.

These new contexts and my journey with professors and literature (Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes) allowed me to choose to be a better person, to face my bigotry spawned by my home and community in order to be a more humane, to be fully human.

Four decades later I am deeply embarrassed by who I was for those first couple of decades of my life. In fact, I spend a good deal of my work as a teacher and writer seeking ways to confront that past by advocating for equity for all humans.

But there really is nothing I can do that pays the debt, that changes my history.

As I watch the sound and fury surrounding Kashuv, however, I can say without hesitation that he is being afforded a privilege I was not; Kashuv is being held accountable and this is happening early enough that he can right his ship if he so wishes.

He will suffer very little loss from this, but he can benefit—as white men often do—on the other side of being a truly calloused young man who is blind to his advantages.

There is far too little difference between my truly unforgivable youth and Kashuv’s more recent “private” and “immature” racism.

Neither, however, is the least bit funny, and neither is a case of how the U.S. should honor freedom.

Language and behaviors must have consequences in order to protect everyone’s humanity against the privileging of some people’s humanity.

 

45s

My dad drank Crown Royal and collected the purple bags the bottles came in. My dad and mom both smoked, mom preferring Kool brand with the green logo.

This was the 1960s, but with my parents it was the sort of 1960s left over from the 1950s. Not the hippie era yet; that was my mom’s sisters and brother, living then in Asheville among race riots.

We lived until about 1967 or 1968 in a rental house just outside of Enoree, South Carolina, near Kilgore and just south of Woodruff—what would become my hometown once we moved to another rental house near all the schools before our permanent home my parents built by 1971 at the golf course just north of Woodruff.

The Enoree house had a barn as a garage and sat across the street from Lefty’s, a beer joint that shuttered up on Sundays so men could watch 8mm stag films projected on a hanging sheet. My dad went some times.

This was the home where our family dog, a collie named Sonny, was hit and killed by a car, and my dad had to bury it somewhere in nearby woods while the rest of us sat in the house and cried.

This was the home where on rare snow days we had violent and relentless snowball fights.

This was the home where we had tea fights, an open invitation for anyone to toss a cup of tea in a family member’s face starting the tea fight that often ended with my dad bringing the hose in the house to end the tiny war.

This was the home where we played olly olly oxen free, dividing as we often did during card games—me with mom and my sister with dad—to toss a ball over the house for the other team to catch

And this was the home where my mom and dad shagged and slow danced to 45s, my dad drinking Crown Royal, and mom and dad both smoking.

My dad was a stereotypical macho working-class white man reared in the 1950s. But when they danced he was completely unself-conscious as he moved gracefully and with flair, singing along with some of his favorite songs—almost all Motown.

“I don’t like you, but I love you,” Dad would sing, his hand in mom’s as he spun her around the wood floors of that home with sliding glass doors looking out into the backyard.

“You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” came on while I was sitting at a local taphouse recently, and as often happens now when I hear one of those songs played on 45s during my childhood, my mom and dad dancing in their sock feet on a hardwood floor flooded over me.

They were a kind of beautiful, my dad thin and wearing a crew cut and mom a bit more than early Mary Tyler Moore. I liked seeing them sway, hand in hand, and that, I think, was my first lesson in being in love, of being truly and deeply intimate.

In college, my parents had to hide their marriage and romance so my dad would say “You tickle me, nut” for “I love you.” I think watching my parents dance was also a code for “I love you.”

We were never an affectionate family. My parents showed love with things and money—very 1950s American. They worked hard to have stuff, so their children could have stuff.

The American way.

And I loved those 45s of my childhood. That may have been the first trigger of my urge to collect, the 45s and all the different colored labels just about the time I started collecting Hot Wheels die-cast cars and years before I would become a full-fledged collector, amassing 7000 Marvel comic books throughout the 1970s.

All those beautiful scratchy songs over cheap record players. The Temptations, The Supremes, Otis Redding, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Drifters.

And Marvin Gaye. God, I still can barely move when I hear Marvin Gaye.

But my parents dancing and my dad singing to “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” have a deeply special place somewhere in my being. Those lyrics were so my dad—and so confusing for a child of five or six.

I have an argument with a friend about dancing. I think dancing is very intimate, something for couples, while the friend just doesn’t see it that way.

The last few times I heard one of the songs my parents danced to I began to realize that my parents taught me, showed me a very intimate thing that I will take to my grave.

My parents in their 20s dancing in sock feet on hardwood floors to 45s that my sister and I would change for them.

My dad drinking Crown Royal, and my mom and dad smoking, twirling and intertwined as young marrieds in love.

And I saw something like that again after my mom’s stroke, after my dad died sitting beside her in a care facility.

Mom had a photocopy framed picture of dad from then, black and white with dad in his crew cut. And she wanted it near, but cried and called for “Daddy” after he died and in those last months before she died too.

Mom lost the ability to speak and write just before she lost Dad, but I think she may have become lost as I do some times in memories of them dancing to those 45s back in the Enoree days that they worked so hard to leave behind for their own house.

There at the end I watched her and I knew my dad’s voice singing “You really got a hold on me” was more than a song.

Domestic Tuesday

My life as a voracious reader began in childhood, but matured at some point in early adolescence as obsessive. That early obsession was grounded in collecting and reading Marvel comic books as well as science fiction novels—early Michael Crichton, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, and Arthur C. Clarke.

I have steadily plowed through my reading life discovering and then devouring new writers. In my last couple years as an undergraduate English education major, I was in my John Irving phase, spurred by falling madly in love with his The World According to Garp.

Naive and often clueless, I was a twenty-something who hoped to be a writer, and desired more than anything a deep and unique love. My idealizing falling in love and marrying was compounded with idealizing Garp’s life as a stay-home husband/father.

While I have read most of Irving’s novels, and loved quite a few, it has been years since I read Garp and realize I may now find much of the novel, and Garp’s domestic self, far more problematic. However, while I have never become the novelist and fiction writer I had planned, my life as an academic and writer has included domestic elements that I genuinely enjoy.

Since I teach most often on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule, I have for many years remained home to write and work on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Also starting more than four years ago, I have been a caregiver for, first, my granddaughter, and now my grandson on Tuesdays.

Whether I have been home to write and work or to watch my grandchildren, I spend part of my time washing dishes and washing, drying, and folding laundry. Some days I also make a trip to the grocery store.

Laundry, while being a chore, also provides a bit of zen for me. I find a certain peace in folding and hanging up clothing the way I prefer.

As a man, I recognize the absurdity of finding peace in the sort of domestic chores society has imposed onto women, that many marginalize as “women’s work.” It is a sort of absurdity that could easily ignore that women historically and currently often must navigate a professional life as well as their domestic obligations in a way that men can drift into and out of—or even avoid—without much consequence.

One of my favorite, although heavy, units I taught while a high school English teacher included using the film Pleasantville as an entry point (focusing on the TV mother character) into exploring women poets—Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton—in terms of how their status as women impeded on their work as poets.

As I have shuffled back and forth between writing and doing the laundry, I have more than once paused against the awareness that Plath’s life overwhelmed her as wife, mother, poet. An awareness of the millions of women who have suffered and now suffer the same fate without the spotlight we shine on the celebrity-tragedy of Plath.

There is a convergence here since my mother was the most important influence on the reader I became, the writer I would become because of that reader life steeped in science fiction and comic books, and since my mother imprinted on me an indelible image of the domestic life of women.

shallow focus photography of brown clothes pins

I will always associate my mother with clothes pins, the bucketful in the laundry room where she hid hundreds of dollars at the bottom. (Photo by Caspar Camille Rubin on Unsplash)

My mother, Rose, was a child of the 1950s, and she spent much of her life caring for her siblings, and then her own children before later running a daycare. Even when she worked outside the home, my mother did the laundry, cooked, and provided the bulk of the childcare; she also handled the bills—and quite frankly it seems did everything.

And as Caralena Peterson explores about women academics, my mother appeared to do everything extremely well and nearly effortlessly.

Today, as my iPhone reminds me, is my father’s birthday and my parents’ anniversary. They died about six months apart less than two years ago.

My parents were very 1950s, very Southern and white. They were also uncritical embodiments of gender stereotypes and obligations.

Hard work matters, I believe because of them, for the sake of making the effort, and I do find some tranquility and sense of accomplishment in doing things the right way, or at least a purposeful way.

Like carefully folding each piece of clothing because each piece of clothing—whether yours or someone else’s—deserves that moment of purpose.

Part of the celebration around Irving’s Garp, which eventually led to a film starring Robin Williams, revolved around his provocative topics, but the novel also spurred a conversation about Garp as domestic husband.

In no small part, the public discussion equated “domesticated” with “emasculated.” A man without a job was no man.

This was a long time ago when I was far less aware, but I don’t really think that conversation interrogated that Garp as a man still had a decision. A decision that women are often not easily allowed.

I often find the sink filled with dirty dishes, and the dishwasher storing clean dishes—from when I started the cycle. Whether late at night before bed or first thing in the morning, I often make that right.

Putting away clean dishes. Filling the dishwasher and starting another cycle.

This seems simple; some would be compelled to compliment my helping out.

But this is not some other person’s chore. This is something I choose to do, in part because it brings me a calm to set things right.

It is, however, a decision I can make. It is my remaining privilege as a man.

Today as my grandson plays, and as I write, do some work, I cycle through washing and drying all the dirty clothes, folding them warm and clean smelling on the day my father was born, the day my parents were married 59 years ago.


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