In the space of 17 hours, my brain is packed with thoughts of race, discrimination, and the ambling drift of change. First, I hear the story behind a song Billie Holiday made famous,”Strange Fruit,” about the lynching of almost-three young black boys in Marion, Indiana, in 1930. After white citizens broke into the jail (the boys had been accused of murdering a white man and raping his girlfriend), two were hung immediately, but as the third boy, a 16-year-old named James Cameron, was being dragged to the tree to be killed, he pleaded for mercy — at which point someone in the crowd jumped onto the hood of a car and yelled, “He’s innocent; he didn’t do it.” The jarring sound of that voice saved Cameron’s life. He ended up serving four years as an accessory to murder even though the details of that event were never clear, ultimately being pardoned in 1993 by the governor of Indiana. Cameron died in 2006 at the age of 92, survived by a wife, three children, and a crew of grandchildren.
Some hours later, grading end-of-semester research papers, I read a student’s essay about the evolution of black women’s hairstyles — away from “trying to be white” relaxed looks into, nowadays, styles that actually work with hair that grows out instead of down; the essay is entitled “I Am Not My Hair,” and it is a firm, moving exploration of how significant the issue of hair is when it comes to acceptance of self and culture. From this paper, I learn about Navy Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Jessica Sims, a woman who wore her hair in tightly twisted locks pulled into a bun when she was in uniform. After nine years of wearing this style while in the military, she was told in 2014 to cut her hair or wear a wig. When she refused, her commanders processed her for separation for “serious misconduct.” It was in 2014 that the military adopted language that was later deemed “racially biased.” Between the passage of that language — which included prohibiting styles that were “unkempt and matted” (forbidding twists, dreadlocks and multiple braids/cornrows that were bigger than a quarter of an inch) — and its eventual retraction and revision some months later, an example was made of Sims. Her military career came to an end, and now the military countenances the hairstyle she was discharged for wearing.
An hour after grading that paper, I listen to the story of a Richmond, California, program that takes a revolutionary approach to street violence: once a year, the Office of Neighborhood Safety combs through both police records and on-the-ground observations and compiles the names of the 50 individuals in the city who are most likely to be shot or shoot someone. Almost invariably, the individuals who are flagged are African-American. Leaders of this program then approach those high-risk individuals and offer them an opportunity to re-direct their lives, if they agree to some terms. Essentially, the criminals attend meetings and receive a pay check for going straight. At the meetings, they are treated with respect, counseled about better options, and provided with strategies for avoiding the pitfalls of street life. They also receive anywhere from $300-$1,000 per month, depending on how successful they are at reaching their stated goals and following a “life map.” Absolutely, this program, aimed at interrupting the trajectory of birth>hardening>crime>prison/death, is controversial. Its framework is hyper-liberal. For me, I am willing to absorb the numbers, as reported in a Mother Jones article: “65 of the 68 ‘fellows’ enrolled in the program in the previous 47 months were still alive. One had survived a shooting and three had died. In 2007, when [the] program began, Richmond was America’s ninth most dangerous city, with 47 killings among its 106,000 residents. In 2013, it saw its lowest number of homicides in 33 years, and its homicide rate fell to 15 per 100,000.” Perhaps even more compelling is this summary from someone drafted into the program: “‘It’s just words, sometimes,’ says Eric Welch, a 25-year-old ONS fellow who was shot twice — the first time when he was 15 — before joining the program. ‘To me it ain’t nothing that I ain’t never heard before.’ But ONS kept after him, and eventually Welch realized the danger was real. ‘It was just like, “Okay, [they’re] saying this for a reason.”‘”**
The second my foot hits the parking lot, a roll of thunder spreads across the clouds. It’s the hottest day of the year — with our neck of Northern Minnesota being the warmest spot in the nation — and I have spent most of it inside, grading research papers. Finally, late afternoon, I am ready to get sweaty on some nearby trails. But then the thunder. The torrential rain. Settling back into the car, I sit for 20 minutes, reading articles online, checking Facebook, texting Byron. He reports the storms will last a couple of hours. Giving up, I head to the nearby grocery store to pick up a few items. My favorite part of shopping is the unexpected buy: this time some Hawaiian Punch taffy. As I check out, the boy bagging my groceries stops, nearly says, “What ho?!” as he picks up the colorful plastic bag. “Wow. This looks so good. This would totally be an impulse buy for me,” he says. Yes, I assure him. Hawaiian Punch taffy had not been on my shopping list when I entered the store.
Because an online student has taken a notion to yell at me about the grade she received on her final paper, I am not feeling social; despite this, I slap on some lipstick and earrings, and Byron and I head to a bread-and-cheese party. Our city is abustle with the Homegrown Music Festival, wherein musical groups perform in every restaurant, bar, and open space to be found. As a rule, we avoid this. But the party, this year, right now, today, we do not avoid. We love the hosts and have a hankering to see their cool, recently renovated downtown loft. As Frank, one of the hosts, gives us a tour, he starts with their shared office — a commodious, high-ceilinged space with eclectic art hung all over the walls. The room has a run-down, bohemian air; that slightly decayed vibe is seductive. Delightfully, long windows provide not only glorious natural light but also an endlessly fascinating view of the alley behind the building, a byway that is a beautiful crapshoot of a vista; one can expect to see a police car, a heroin addict, a runner, a skateboarder, or a lost college student wandering down the road between the buildings, skirting the eye-magnet of a metal door covered with graffiti that acts as a focal point for the officer worker. Byron and I have long played around with the idea of retiring to an urban loft, and this tour props that dream onto some beefy legs. Plus: I am moony about the idea of a shared office, wherein we each could have our own ten feet of desk backed by couches, surrounded by framed images and reminders of the world outside. By the end of the tour, I want to clasp my hands over my heart. Packing inspiration from the loft tour into a tissue-lined box labeled “Maybe Future,” I walk outside to where the eats are staged and pull a bottle of white wine out of a cooler filled with ice.
Paco, Byron, and I drop Allegra at work and take ourselves to see the latest film in the Marvel franchise, Captain America: Civil War. I’ve had a couple nights of ragged sleep, so my mood is uneven. Two hours earlier, when I’d humped down the stairs craving a massive cup of coffee, my head hurt, my shoulder ached, and I spent some crabby time in front of the pantry door, snaking my right hand up the wood, trying to ease some of the stiffness and yap that had made sleep a touchy place. It was only when Byron announced, “I’m just really into Prom right now and want to talk about dresses” that I felt the first glimmer of hope the day might shape up.
Later, in the movie theater, my spirits perk even further when a 14-year-old girl, as fully 14 as she can be, plops down two seats away from me. I’m sitting in the dark, watching the trailers and trying to raise my right hand to the back of my head, further attempting to release some of the ache. As the 14-year-old settles in, though, all thoughts of shoulder and fatigue evaporate. For the next 2.5 hours, I watch both Avengers and seat neighbor with equal amusement. Sure, the teenage Spiderman provides lively enthusiasm, but he pales in comparison to the spectacle of the girl to my right. Removing her flip-flops, tugging down her mini-skirt, she treats several seats as a chaise longue — her feet on the seat next to me, her hip on the elevated flip-seat, her head on the armrest. Fully horizontal, more relaxed than if she’d been reclining in a warm tub of bubbles, she reaches periodically into a bag of candy, the crackle of wrappers louder than even the huge speakers in the Ultra-Screen stadium theater. Every 15 minutes or so, she abandons her recline, unfurls in a sort of Twyla Tharp-inspired interpretive seat dance, turns my direction, and spends 30 seconds staring intently at my profile, not actually seeing me for me but, rather, assessing her audience. Then, satisfied I’m not going to steal her Starburst or jam my hand up her skirt, she melts back into the seats. Bare feet next to me. Hips on polyester seat cover. Head on armrest. She isn’t a fan of the Scarlet Witch or Iron Man. But she clearly is a huge fan of herself, this girl, and in a 14-year-old that qualifies as a superpower.
A week ago, I returned to using My Fitness Pal to record every bite that enters my mouth. Six weeks of immobilization — even though I went for daily walks — has puffed me up right good. Every day last week, I weighed, measured, and logged my food; every day except one, I netted roughly 1500 calories of intake, once exercise was figured in (that is, I exercise so I can eat more — PLUS WINE). Every day, I ran 90-100 minutes and, later in the day, walked 30-45 minutes. Now, a week in to netting 1500 calories a day, thanks to doing 2-2.5 hours of cardio, I have lost A POUND. Yes, that is good. Still. A POUND. Is it any wonder I seethe when I read that pat advice to “Eat less; move more”? I eat five ounces of high-protein yogurt with three medium strawberries sliced into it for lunch each day, so you sure as hell can believe I would cackle evilly if I could do a Freaky Friday body swap with such holier-than-thou types. Yea, okay, Mr. “Eat Less; Move More,” take control of my corporeal shell for a month, and let’s see what you can do with this mess. I’m pretty sure our end-of-month debriefing will see you shamefacedly trotting out the words “genetics” and “metabolism” while begging for a return to your old body. Also: I can assure you that your old body has never had more fun than during these weeks when I took over. It doesn’t necessarily want you back, you unctuous know-it-all.
I am starting to think I need a Lemonade intervention. I cannot stop listening to Beyonce’s angry, assertive album, can’t stop watching the movie — so many beautiful, rage-filled, muscular scenes. And the clothes. And the hair — what Beyonce is doing with her black woman’s hair in that movie is significant. Lemonade is the soundtrack to my end-of-semester grading. Juxtaposing a light trip down the scale with pissed-off sentiment, she sings “middle fingers up” as I open student documents. Today, I am grading final exams from the Modern World Literature class. They’ve had a week to work on take-home answers, not so much short-answer essay questions as long-answer essay questions. It is not unusual to receive 8, 10, 12, pages from a single student, especially from the smart, motivated crop of students I was lucky enough to score this semester. Also, it is noteworthy that at least 1/3 of the class uses the word “colored” when describing a black character in one of the stories; that is the word used within the story — which is set 60 years ago in South Africa — and many students internalize it as proper usage, peppering it throughout their responses. There is no end to teachable moments.
The final question on the exam is a softball, but it yields enthusiastic, important responses. In that final question, I ask students to reflect on the stories we read over 16 weeks and identify specific bits of cultural knowledge they gained from the readings. Basically, I’m asking them to identify and articulate what they have learned. In this era when liberal arts classes, literature courses in particular, are under attack for being irrelevant (“I’m going to be an auto technician/phlebotomist/web designer. This class is a waste of my time”), the responses to this final question assure me that there are few things more essential to the education of a fully rounded human being than the reading of literature.
Here are a few topics students identify as “new to me, thanks to this class”: the existence of detention camps; the tradition of foot binding in China; that Jewish people feel alienated during the Christmas season; that the U.S. is actually fairly progressive on GLBT rights compared to other nations; that women around the world lack equal rights; that there was a thing called Apartheid. One student writes, “I had no idea how difficult the Depression was for Americans.” Another student, referring to a story in which a teenage girl in India dares to smoke a cigarette in public, arrives at a profound personal revelation: “Reputation doesn’t define who I am, and I don’t have to please everyone.”
[aesop_quote type=”pull” background=”#adadad” text=”#161616″ width=”content” height=”auto” align=”center” size=”1″ quote=”I have learned about many aspects to different cultures and how they affect an individual personally. This has not only opened my mind to the many practices and rituals of others, but also the struggles that they face. I believe that in understanding others, we must first learn about them. We cannot simply feel pain or understand their practice by simply looking at them, we have to learn how we relate as humans. Growing up in a small town, unaware of other cultures, races and views, I benefited greatly from these readings. I actually felt as if I was craving the chance to learn about these varying cultures, and seek a greater view. I find myself trying to educate others to see views from the other end, and finding compassion within ourselves to accept differing ways. This has not only profited my life right now, but I believe that it will further grow into understanding others, and wanting to learn about other cultures. In sum, this class not only furthered my knowledge about other cultures, but fueled my desire to learn even more.” cite=”Sarah” parallax=”on” direction=”left”]
I am grading. Beyonce’s voice taunts “boy, bye” while a voice inside my head pounds, “I want every auto technician to know about Apartheid. I want all the phlebotomists to know that foot binding perverted opportunity for thousands, millions, of women. I want every web designer to live in awareness of detention camps.”
I grab my coffee and head to the living room. Eyeing the carpet, admiring the accumulation of lint and crumbs, I plop to the floor. It’s physical therapy time. Already, I’ve done my wax-on/wax-off exercises on the wall, pushing a folded towel in small circles both clock- and counterclockwise. Already, I’ve walked my fingers up the pantry door in the kitchen, trying to reach for the ceiling without letting my scapula do the work. Now it’s dowel time, hands-behind-the-head time, internal rotation time — and, as of the past few days, strengthening time. At my PT session earlier in the week, I was given the challenge of lifting a one-pound weight. Since I don’t have a one-pound weight at home, I lie on the living room floor, raising and lowering a can of corn, arcing it from my hips to a point above my face, above my head. It seems entirely probable that I might drop the can and break my glasses and nose.
Inhaling, exhaling, arcing, I let my brain wander. A chuckle escapes my lips, which is better than pursing them tightly — the tendency when my shaking arm works the corn. The involuntary snort comes as I recall last night’s 2 a.m. reading. Thanks to a recommendation from my friend Tim, I have been reading the collected letters of Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being. Long a fan of O’Connor’s stories, I relish this chance to experience her non-authorial voice. She is so flipping funny. Every night, I laugh and laugh. She is wry, dead-on hilarious in her descriptions of the various farm families cycling through the land she and her mother live on outside Midgeville, Georgia, charmingly self-deprecating, appealingly confident about her talent. The letters range from the late 1940s to the early 1960s and reveal O’Connor’s stoicism about living with lupus and spending years on crutches. Admitting she primarily spends her hours reading and writing (when not tending to the peahens she raises), she notes the loss of physical ability has minimal impact on her days. If I break my nose with a can of corn, you can bet I’ll not be the slightest bit O’Connorish about it.
Moving my arm through the air, shaking, I snicker as I remember this passage: “…I have just sold the television rights to ‘The Life You Save May Not Be Your Own’ to what I understand is called the General Electric Playhouse. All I know about television is hearsay but somebody told me that this was a production conducted by Ronald Regan (?) [sic]. I don’t know if this means RR will be Mr. Shiftlet or not. A staggering thought. Mr. Shiftlet and the idiot daughter will no doubt go off in a Chrysler and live happily ever after. Anyway, on account of this, I am buying my mother a new refrigerator. While they make hash out of my story, she and me will make ice in the new refrigerator.”
Later, O’Connor writes to another friend: “…I have bought us a new refrigerator — the kind that spits the ice cubes at you, the trays shoot out and hit you in the stomach, and if you step on a certain button, the whole thing glides from the wall and knocks you down…”
Chuckling again at thoughts of a 1950s refrigerator entering a kitchen in rural Georgia, I let the can of corn rest on my hip.
That was 12 reps.
**The “Strange Fruit” and Richmond, California, stories came to me via the Radio Diaries podcast, a most excellent program