Human Frailty

You open a carton of eggs, and not quite with negligence but in the rush of routine, you lift out one egg that cracks open. Your fingers sink into the collapsing shell, sending cold and wet through your sense as you calculate the tiny disaster before you simply wanting to scramble eggs for breakfast.

You know, of course, that eggs are frail things, and you handle them with care—but this egg had been somehow slightly stuck to the carton and your reflex was to squeeze and pull a bit harder.

Half a shell and the exposed yolk still in the carton remind you, however, of the inherent frailty of eggs.

Over about three months now, I regularly spend time with my 76-year-old mother in the wake of her stroke and my 3-year-old granddaughter now freshly embarking on formal schooling by starting 3K.

Conversations with my mom and granddaughter are disorienting and similar—a garbled string of occasional words and phrases mixed with complete nonsense, not even words but mumbling.

And my mother and granddaughter both pause, eyes intent, awaiting some signal I have understood—and often I have no clue.

My mother suffers the consequences of a tiny blood clot in her brain while my granddaughter is victim to the simplicity of emerging from being a baby into early childhood.

Like an egg, they are both incredibly frail, but mostly in slightly exaggerated ways that are an essential characteristic of being human.

Humans all are frail, although we seem determined to ignore or refute that fact.

My mom has slipped into frailty, her body has failed itself after almost eight decades. While my granddaughter has begun navigating the very dangerous world in her new and tiny state.

The world is many parts angry and insensitive, like a hand hurriedly pulling an egg from a carton.

What would this world be, what could this world be if we walked through it with care, gingerly and slowly stepping along as if each step were vital?

The same week that we have been told by doctors, nurses, and social workers we can leave my mother alone during the day is when my granddaughter began 3K—equal terrors for me too much aware of the callousness of this world about human frailty.

To be aware of that frailty, I suppose, is overwhelming, and for me, possibly a great contribution to my relentless anxiety.

Callousness and carelessness, I believe, cannot be the alternative to the weight of being aware that humans are frail—that every human deserves compassion.

I have adopted a soothing tone, gentle smile, and reassuring words when my mom becomes frantic and sad, when my granddaughter fears she has done something wrong or tells us just a few days into her school life that she doesn’t want to go.

“I’m sorry,” “It’s ok,” “We’ll take care of it”—assurances offered, even though I really can’t promise they are true, because everyone must know that they are not alone, that the world doesn’t have to be so awful.

More and more often, the calm after these disturbances for my mom and my granddaughter is what I reach for to make each day worth all the other struggles and possibilities—the heaping mess of just plain nasty people who seem to outnumber the rest of us.

The calm, however, remains in the shadow of the facts of aging for my mother, life is shorter now than what she has lived, and for my granddaughter who will someday way too soon stop raising her arms for me to lift and hold her, stop crawling into my lap and guiding my hand to her feet while she eats a popsicle and watches TV.

It is a lovely and selfish thing to comfort another person, and each moment doing so should be handled with care, like taking an egg in your hand.

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Rising Tides and the Ignored Plight of Being Boatless in the U.S.

While dystopian post-Apocalyptic literature, such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, has gained renewed popularity recently, William Faulkner approached those essential elements differently in his dark and comic As I Lay Dying.

We may be able to imagine now the Bundren family, as ancestors to Trump-supporters, suffering fire and flood as a metaphor for the human condition magnified by poverty and ignorance.

Faulkner offers a double dose of complications through his own garbled and tone-deaf ideology as well as his experimental and multi-layered prose.

As the coast of Texas and the greater Houston area continue to be battered and flooded by Harvey, a re-reading of the flood scene in As I Lay Dying, when the family loses control of Addie Bundren’s coffin and horse-drawn wagon in the flood waters of a river, suggests that Faulkner is not dealing merely with allegory—but with how Nature often intervenes with lessons that should caution humans about the maxims they live by.

Along with traditional commitments to rugged individualism and chastising those who struggle to simply pull themselves up by the bootstrap, “a rising tide lifts all boats” stands as a common refrain in our uncritical hymn to capitalism and the so-called free market.

Harvey is today an ongoing human tragedy—one that could not be avoided but likely could have been lessened by a people less committed to “the myths that deform us.”

The bootstrap and rising tide myths render invisible and willfully ignore those without boots and the boatless.

As Harvey has shown, the media and mainstream responses to the flood are blinded by privilege and assumptions about human agency: How do poor individuals and families evacuate who have no transportation, no emergency funds, nowhere to go?

For the poor in the path of Harvey, the storm and the flood are exponential versions of their daily lives already stressed by a calloused American faith in deforming myths; poverty is the fault of the poor rests just beneath the bootstrap and rising tide myths.

The able-bodied but lazy poor, however, is worse than a myth because it is a lie: “more than 80% of the officially poor are either children, elderly, disabled, students, or the involuntarily unemployed (while the majority of the remaining officially poor are carers or working people who didn’t face an unemployment spell)” [Who Are the Poor? (1987-2013)].

Between the election of Trump and the landfall of Harvey, pundits and the media have spent a great deal of time wrestling with the so-called Trump voter who is white and working class or poor, and often rural.

That debate and myopic focus teach an unintended lesson about how the only the things that matter in the U.S. are those that impact white people (“working class” has become code for “white” as if black and Latinx aren’t working class). This same pattern has developed lately about opioid addiction.

But there is much we can and should learn from the white working-class/poor voters who remain in Trump’s camp despite many having those commitments checked by, for example, realizing that Obamacare is the ACA—and its repeal would have cost them healthcare.

Like the Bundren family, they are self-defeating in their stubbornness and ignorance, but to observe them still raises questions about how much they deserve compassion.

And here is the irony: these “Make America Great Again” legions, driven by white nationalism and racism, deserve the exact compassion and community that they deny the poor because of their indoctrination into the deforming bootstrap and rising tide myths.

When there are rising tides, the boatless always suffer—but in the U.S. we have decided to live as if that is the fault of the boatless.

Harvey’s devastation of Houston exposes once again the fragility of humans against the enormity of Nature, but it also unmasks the emptiness of the American character, unwilling to put community first because the dollar matters more than any person, even a child.

The Great Deforming Myth is the Invisible Hand that may or may not provide for you—unless you hit the birth lottery.

Like the Bundren family—mostly a clan of deeply selfish and bitter humans—standing on the river bank and watching Addie’s coffin tumble and bob in the churn of the flooded river, Americans watch Houston drown on smart phones, tablets, and 24-hour news channels.

The ugly subtext of As I Lay Dying is that Addie’s family members are using her death and burial to cash in on something they have been otherwise denied. Their journey through fire and flood seeks the cover of a grieving family to mask their pettiness, their emptiness.

In the receding waters of Harvey, we should consider that Faulkner, not Fitzgerald, has crafted the Great American Novel, and the characterization is not pretty.


Bonus Pop Culture Scene Refuting of the Rising Tide Myth

School Zones: A Meditation

I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishment after I’m dead.

Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian

No good route exists for my drive from my house to my university; my commute is a Groundhog Day of the Southernism “Can’t get there form here.”

To avoid the daily morning ritual of accidents on the interstate I could use to make that drive quicker, I tend to snake my way along back roads, and on that journey, I typically pass through two school zones—a high school near my house and then an elementary school closer to the university.

Both school zones bring traffic to a crawl, and then often, to a stop as crossing guards shepherd teens and children across the road to their schools.

These crossing guards are armed only with day-glo vests and matching wands to protect students from 4000-pound automobiles and the increasing reality that drivers are distracted by their smart phones.

The paradox of this cavalier optimism, this nod to the greater decency of people confronted with the frailty of children, is that schools have increasingly become more and more prison-like—police in the hallways, doors locked, intercoms to screen any who try to enter the building, and discipline codes and practices that parallel and even intertwine with law enforcement.

School zones and barricaded schools contrast sharply, however, with the broader disdain for and disregard for the conditions of children’s lives in the U.S. The largest group of people suffering in poverty are children, and this reality is far worse in the U.S. than many other countries.

And despite efforts to control students as well as protect them from the gun violence that the U.S. views as normal beyond the walls of schools, the U.S. also has more school shootings than almost four dozen other countries combined.

Our daily behaviors also reveal that too often our care for our own children, and children who look like us, exposes our disregard for “other people’s children”—in the cruel tolerance for corporal punishment as somehow just parenting and the rush to punishment in grade retention that negatively impacts poor children of color.

In our caustic and calloused political debates about healthcare, school choice, public monuments, and more, the absent voice is always that of children, and they are also rendered invisible as if our policies are not ultimately the world in which these children live.

No child chooses their parents or their places of their birth and living.

It may seem cliche, but there is no doubt that a people should be judged by how they treat their children.

The U.S. is the wealthiest and most powerful country in history. How we spend public funds and the laws as well as policies we implement are who we are.

Crossing guards in day-glo vests raise their orange wands to oncoming traffic all across the U.S. throughout the academic year, and drivers stop their cars while children laugh and even skip across the road to their schools.

It is in those moments mornings and afternoons that who we could be passes right by us.

Who we are remains in the tragedy of Tamir Rice, mostly ignored, mostly forgotten. Just a child who may himself have been shepherded across a road by a crossing guard in a school zone.

Who we are remains to be a truly negligent people unable to put grand ideals into our daily behavior, driven by a nastiness and callousness that in the future will be an ugly monument that tells a story of how we failed despite all the opportunities before us for being good and kind.

Essential Logic Fail of the Right in the US: 9 Seconds of Deadpool

As one example that can be extrapolated to most of the arguments on the Right (think the recent monuments and flags debate), consider the complaints that NFL players are being “political” by protesting peacefully during the national anthem. To wit:

  • Standing for national anthem = POLITICAL ACT
  • NFL playing the national anthem = POLITICAL ACT
  • Telling people not to protest = POLITICAL ACT

The logic flaw is grounded in this: People call “political” anything they dislike, don’t agree with; their own views appear “right” and thus “not political.” This is lazy thinking, and self-contradictory.

And thus, 9 seconds from Deadpool:

Resistance in Black and White: On White Proximity and Solidarity

The uncomfortable history of professional athletes being activists is often whitewashed itself, in part through the sort of revisionism that conservatives seem to reject. Think of how Muhammad Ali was mistreated while the Greatest athlete on the planet in the 1960s and then how he was praised in the decline of his life.

Peter Norman has become a symbol for white athlete proximity to black protests.

Because of ostracized Colin Kaepernick, the current focus on athletes as activists is the NFL, and we must ask how this monstrosity has become the focal point of moral urgency and debate.

The NFL coddles violence in its playing as well as violence outside the lines by the players who are deemed essential. The NFL coddles and embraces a white ownership and white elite players who are directly partisan in their politics, but christens black activism as too political.

The newest version of this circus is a call by black NFL players to their white teammates, resulting in a slow drip of white players showing solidarity with the pre-season protests of a few black players. The talking heads on sports media and those displays of so-called solidarity, however, continue to reek of a white resistance to resistance.

Images of black players sitting, kneeling, and raising a fist with a white teammate standing nearby, with a hand or arm displaying support, is ultimately a show of white correction—a see how I am supporting you but I cannot actually kneel, sit, or raise a fist.

The vitriol of white supremacists and their ideology are likely not the real problem in the U.S. in 2017. Their hatred probably blinds and deafens them to black resistance and white solidarity.

Where we need change the most and where that change has the best chance of making a difference is among whites who consider themselves good people, much like the few white NFL players standing in solidarity with black players.

Whites must consider the following before resisting black resistance:

  • Check the urge to claim you are not racist and instead acknowledge the facts of systemic racism and white privilege without becoming defensive about what those forces say about you personally.
  • Recognize that all whites benefit from white privilege and are complicit in systemic racism even when some whites struggle and even as whites live in ways that seem to them to be “not racist” (“I have black friends”).
  • Black protests against inequity and injustice that focus on blacks is a call that matters to all people, a widening of the circle of equity and justice. Protests grounded in racial inequity are themselves not racist just because they highlight race.
  • Rethink what “racism” means by understanding that it is the combination of race and power, not just race. Blacks expressing anger toward or distrust of whites (as a generalization) is grounded in evidence that these generalizations are valid, but whites expressing white nationalism and white superiority are baseless and hate-filled ideologies that lack merit (race is a social construct and there is no biological differences that could be traced to one identifiable group being superior to the other).
  • Dignify black expressions of resistance and protest by honoring that space (stay out), remaining quiet in order to listen, and never interjecting a “yes, but” commentary.
  • Understand and reject respectability politics. Saying that you support a person’s right to protest, but disagree with the how and where is not an act of solidarity; it is itself an act of racism.
  • Don’t shift the focus of any black protests by asking “what about” and determining what issues matter for others through your white lens.
  • Assume the history you know is flawed, and then, commit yourself to knowing a richer story of history that includes all the voices omitted when the version you learned was being written.
  • Be careful about your solidarity and appreciate when you are checked for appearing to offer your white approval. To agree may often require that you (as noted above) step back and remain silent—even when you have a genuine contribution.
  • Resist confusing any individuals with identifiable groups; do not ask a person to speak for any group and do not assume anyone who looks as if they belong to a group somehow prove any generalization. Blacks such asOJ. Simpson, Bill Cosby, and Ben Carson do not prove any arguments among white resistance to black resistance simply because they echo the white “yes, but.”
  • Step away from blaming black protests of racism for creating or inciting racism; this is blaming the victim and is itself a form of oppression.
  • Solidarity can begin with asking how you can help; the advantages of white privilege are not your problem, but your problem is in what ways you use that privilege, for whose benefit.

Racism and white privilege were created by and maintained by whites with power, mostly ill-got power.

Whites are now responsible for ending both.

To resist black resistance to inequity and injustice is a great white failure that cannot be explained away, must itself be resisted.

Racial Slur

Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”

“Incident,” Countee Cullen

Earlier in the summer of 2017 during the controversy over Bill Maher’s use of a racial slur, I wrote a poem [1] that confronts the slur but also ends with an image that haunts me in the wake of Charlottesville and Barcelona.

The tyranny of the threat of being run over rests now in my bones after having been run over with a group of cyclists just 8 months ago.

But I have no direct personal understanding of what James Baldwin confronts about race in the U.S.: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. ” [2]

Along with the pervasive threat of  physical violence and death for any black body even or especially at the hands of the state (the crux of Colin Kaepernick’s protests), there remains the threat of the racial slur.

As Baldwin interrogated:

As witnessed in this video: Watch Out Loud: What Was It Like the 1st Time You Were Called the N-Word?

My first grandchild is starting 3K in a bit more than a week from now. She is a vibrant and affectionate child who happens to be biracial.

She appears at 3 on a path to mostly pass for white—that itself a horrible thing to still be contemplating or acknowledging in 2017. In the dead of winter, people praise her lovely tan.

And she is attending a school in my hometown where my wife teaches; it is a solidly rural small town in the South that is far more white than when I attended those schools.

And when I look at my dear granddaughter, the engine I hear revving is when she will first encounter that racial slur, directed at her—to be defined—or at her father, a tall black man with dreads who, when then dating my daughter, used to leave our house in a hoodie in the time around Trayvon Martin‘s killing.

There is a powerful thing shared between parenting (and grand-parenting) and teaching—spending our time in the care of children and young people.

Parenting involves watching a baby grow into independence and the inevitability of kinds of loss.

But teaching is an ever-refreshed group of children and young people—a sort of permanent fountain of youth.

In that parenting and teaching, then, is a kind of hope. Intoxicating hope.

However, my dearest granddaughter is walking into the world of Trumplandia, and I am nearly bereft of hope, consumed instead by fear.

I am haunted now by a question: What is the critical mass of good people who will act on that goodness in any organization or society for it to matter?

I am haunted now by a realization: The critical mass of truly awful people needed to matter is incredibly few, often needing only one dominant figure head to render the whole organization or society essentially evil.

I am terrified by my midlife understanding of the term “gunning an engine.”

I cannot hold my granddaughter tight enough, long enough.


[1] white folk (switchblade)

But all agon eventually reduces itself to human violence….
But then the world has always made violent use of children.
The Book of Joan, Lidia Yuknavitch

to apologists for Bill Maher

white folk carry “nigger” in their throats

like switchblades secreted in designer boots

there are no excuses for such dormant violences

like white men with slick-backed hair and dark suits

who will slit your throat in a white-hot second

like a volcano spewing lava swallowing barefoot children sleeping

beware these smiling white folk clearing their throats

like an engine cold cranking before plowing over you

[2] “The Negro in American Culture,” Cross Currents, XI (1961), p. 205.