Monday, February 2, 2009

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

The Breach disclaims that the following narrative, ripped from the WTF headlines, must be read as simple, novice fiction. There's no way the following story can be way. Not after 30+ years of desegregation; not within 3+ months of the election of America's first Black president. No way a school administrator spent the balance of four days trying to pacify this scenario, a month before the first round of TAKS tests. No way this story happens in an urban American school in 2009. No way.

Whew! So here's the yarn: On a nondescript Friday morning, a school employee, along with several colleagues, was harmlessly reading the news on a computer homepage: It was early in the morning, before school started - before duty or tutorials or classes began, so no foul so far. The msn page featured a story, complete with picture (pay attention now...this is important), of a dreadlocked African American man in an orange prison jumpsuit. For this story, his specific one is beside the point. Unless it, too, is the point.

Aside: The Breach would post the photo in this blog, but is not nearly as technologically sophisticated as our friend at .ross; hopefully, he'll give us some tutorials soon.

So this school employee (henceforth #1) notices that the dreadlocks in the photo resemble the dreadlocks on the head of another teacher (henceforth #2) at this school - a teacher who also happens to be an African American man (you don't get extra credit here for skipping ahead). #1 thinks the resemblance is hilarious. So funny, in fact, that it would be a great idea to email the picture to #2, and to the rest of the faculty as well. The caption included in the email? "Is there something you're not telling us?"

As you might guess (but #1, sadly, did not), #2 was far from amused. As though context were necessary to justify the offense taken, the fiction constructed here says that #2 grew up in a deep South state (one that figured prominently in the contests over desegregation in the 60s; one about which several important movies have been made), and was raised by college-educated parents to confront and overturn the most basic of racial stereotypes. #2 interpreted the picture and message as an inexplicable example of inexorable racism, appealing to one of the most insidious tropes about African Americans: the Black man in prison. Oh...and the explanations offered by #1? "I can't believe #2 doesn't have a sense of humor", "I spent 4 months in Africa on a mission trip; how could #2 think I'm racist?", and (you're gonna love this) "When I saw the picture, I didn't see a Black man or a prison uniform; all I saw was hair."

Seriously? Seriously.

Though of course there's no way we could know for sure, The Breach understands that, when confronted and asked to give a reckoning for the email, #1, rather than owning and renouncing the offense, offered a battery of defense for it. Of course, it's the very defense of such an email, the fact that #1 could not, after four days of reflection, come to an understanding of the marrow-deep offensiveness inherent in any comparison of an educated educator to a felon, on the basis of color and hair, that illustrates a degree of racism far more dangerous and damaging than inbred morons in sheets. It's the blithe assumption that such a heinous comparison is funny, that stuns one into paroxysm. It's the notion that ministering to Africans in the name of God for four months somehow buys the minister racial immunity, that drops one's jaw (has anyone read Heart of Darkness, Cry, the Beloved Country, The Poisonwood Bible, know...the Bible?). It's the straight-faced and earnest insistence that the one who is offended by racial stereotypes somehow owns the responsibility for that offense, that makes one slap the head in disbelief.

Thankfully, this is a fiction. But in such a fiction, it's the oblivion on the one hand to the impact on the other that suggests an ethical and moral bankruptcy. It's the insistent innocence in the overt hypocrisy that makes The Breach ask: Have we learned or accomplished nothing in our cultural revolutions? Have we progressed socially only to the extent that the surface picture of our culture is more politely palatable than it once was? Have we moved no closer to Dr. King's dream of true racial equality? Despite the protestations to the contrary, it's the picture - and its comedic, irresponsible, and tragic deployment - that tells the real story of racial progress in America. For if American public schools do not offer a racial safe haven for the teachers in them, what hope is there for the rest of America, and what lesson does this story teach the students, who are enrolled both in those schools and in that America?

Fortunately, these questions are merely academic; this story and its implications just hypothetical fiction. The story did not - could not -really happen. Not now. Not today. Or...

...was this really my day? Is a picture really, really, worth more than all our words?

Sunday, December 28, 2008

800 Pound Hypocrisy, Vol. 1

Perhaps my greatest fear in opening this Pandora's box is that any chance at legitimate dialogue will get buried under the insidious, irrepressible rhetoric of left v right. It's so much easier, after all, to retreat with Linus into our respective pumpkin patches of ideology. But I could never look Thoreau in the eye if I didn't voice today's hard words that I am convinced need voicing. After the Presidential election and all the attendant clutter, what remains unaddressed - since before the Reagan era - is a critique of the religious right that is not diminished by either the left's cowardly refusal to articulate it or the right's cowardly refusal to acknowledge it. But someone must file the complaint, must articulate the grievance, must voice the disconnect between dogma and do.

Qualificatory Aside: Perhaps as a challenge to those would-be ideologues plagued in the closet by a thorn-in-the-flesh revulsion against the 800 pound hypocrisy in the room, perhaps because some of my favorite people are evangelicals implicated in this debate, and perhaps because I just relish being a smart-ass, I offer the following palatable excuses to stop reading:
a) I voted for Obama - not against McCain/Palin, as a friend intimated recently.
b) I think Clinton (his under-the-table philandering notwithstanding) was the most effective and globally beneficial American President since FDR (Nixon could have been the standard, damn it, if only he'd had the courage to own, rather than deny, his sins), and
c) I don't buy for a second the idea that because God may have blessed America with unlimited opportunity, He blesses inherently every American endeavor.

Are you still here? Don't say I didn't warn you.

If only in this blog, on the field of battle I delineate here, those who aspire to a moral majority must consider and respond to the hypocrisies inherent in certain touchstone issues. If they can't...or choose not to...then they should retire to the silence reserved for the hypocritical Sadducees who didn't actually crucify Christ, but did nothing to intervene, either. See, it's just that you cannot claim moral superiority in the culture wars while either ignoring or embracing moral repugnancy on other fronts. Following the letter of the commandments while ignoring their original spirit never satisfied Christ, so why should we expect that it would satisfy those we pray/wish/fear will come to Christ? See, the great thing about Christ - the divine and emblematic and maddening thing about his ministry - was that his actions and words agreed. Instead of wearing a T-shirt advocating "Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner" while condemning to Hell the most politically vulnerable sinners of the day, Christ actually did hate the sin, and he actually did love the sinners. And the sinners - both within and without the church - responded to him in droves. If His "followers" do not or can not imitate him in this essential dichotomy, they will never achieve his success...or even maintain relevance. I could pick any number of specific issues, and I promise to; there is no strategic calculus to the order. This is observation 1; there will be others.


Contrary to popular belief, Christ never addressed what we, in the 20th/21st Centuries, call homosexuality. The word in English, as defined today, did not appear in literature until the late 1800s. But as sins go, He specifically did address issues like: the paradigm of peace v war (can anyone provide a New Testament verse supporting the Bush Doctrine of preemptive war?), overt religious hypocrisy (there was this woman with a penny...), prostitution (drawing in the dirt v throwing stones), the death penalty (Seriously? This has to be explained to Christians?), the conjoining of capitalism with the worship of God (the only Holy violence recorded - in any gospel or contemporary historical account), the consumption of alcohol (Jesus voted for), and the idea of religious litmus tests in general (how many dinners did he share with the ruling establishment?) Others in the New Testament referenced homosexual activity - which is a very different thing, just ask Ted Haggard - but in each case the reference appears as an entry in a grocery list of sins (gossip was among them, as was slander) so ubiquitous as to indict us all - it was never isolated or privileged or reified in the way it has become a lightening rod for the religious right today. See, there's a monumental spiritual difference between repudiating the practice of- the active participation in - homosexual acts, and the defining and condemning of the practitioner as evil.

Does this mean that The Breach promotes homosexuality? Certainly not. The argument here is that isolating, privileging, and participating in jihad against any single class of sinners - including the denial of basic legal rights - is a position that simply cannot be supported by the Red Letters. Nor should it be. What the gay bashers overlook, intentionally or not, is that sexual acts as indicators of morality are entirely beside the point - with Christ it was never so much about the sin itself as it was about the motives, the heart, that produced them. Limbaugh and O'Reilly can scream into their microphones all they want...American families are not threatened by same-sex sex any more than they are threatened by sex education or birth control or funding for health clinics in Darfur that may or may not practice abortion. These are actions, choices, positions, talking points...these are symptoms. Christ never preached against symptoms. He did reach out frequently to mitigate them, but he never preached against them. He knew the heart mattered much, much more.

American families are threatened by narcissism, by lust, by selfishness, by consumerism, by unnecessary wars, by $3.00 gas. While it may assuage my conscience to vent my righteous indignation at the gay couple two blocks down, what I have to admit is that the most insidious threat to my own family is the father who is chronically obsessed with his job and a self-imposed isolationism. It's the heart of the father, in my home, that threatens disaster; it's not what two women down the street do in their bedroom.

So what's the real wolf at your door? And isn't that the question Christ would ask, of you?

Next up? Torture. Stay tuned...

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Junior, Vol. 2

As you might imagine, I've felt a nagging and persistent guilt since posting Vol.1 last week. The basic track of this guilt critiques Vol.1 and its author for the heartlessness and bad taste inherent in speaking ill of the dead. "Come on", the conscience says, "Surely you can think something nice about the man...he was your grandfather, after all." At a time like this, we should concentrate on the good memories (and there have to be good ones), and on forgiving the real or perceived injuries from the past. Right? Plus, since I'm blogging about this, I thought coming back with a sort of "oh...I forgot about the time that....and it makes everything ok" would make a really effective and impressive literary turn. Surely I could come up with something, if only for the literary effect.

Hmm...OK, I'll play along.

We had Junior's funeral this weekend at the farm. In typical...weird...Isbell family fashion, it was a funeral without a body (Had I not watched the man die, I would be screaming conspiracy!). Junior insisted that he be cremated, and that his ashes be spread over his family's old farm in Albany. The ashes weren't ready, but we had the 'funeral' anyway. This I found terribly ridiculous; on the other hand, it would have really irked Junior that he missed his own funeral (plus, the preacher kept referring to him as 'Pops' instead of 'Pop', which would have really set him off), so I kept my objections to myself in favor of the silver lining. At one point in the 'service', the pastor asked if anyone wanted to share some memories. Much to my surprise, several people did have some positive memories to share: My own father talked about how his father made him help with car repairs, how Junior always asked him about reading the Bible, and how those learning experiences were invaluable in years to come. Fair enough. All the aunts contributed written memories, and several cousins and spouses shared some sentiments about: how Junior kept the family together (a 62-year marriage is impressive in any generation), how he always was ready with good advice, how some of them enjoyed his 'softer side' with his great grandchidlren over the last several years, how his legacy was one of the stalwart. Fine. If you say so.

I remained silent. I couldn't very well tell the crowd about my Vol1 blog, or summarize the contents. So I just listened. And what I heard surprised me a little: Many in the family owned, rationalized, or fabricated positive memories of Junior. Or perhaps their manners are just better than mine.

For my part, I've spent the last several days scouring the archives of my history with Junior, searching for some moments I could tap to mitigate the angst from Vol.1, and to reach a kind of peace with the man.

My best memory with Junior? The list is not crowded at the top, but a few finalists did emerge. Each, however, came with the inevitable Junior sucker punch.

Honorable Mention: In my twenties, Junior had several open heart surgeries; it happens sometimes after smoking for sixty-odd years. During one hospital stay, I volunteered to spend nights with him in the hospital. On the third night/morning, somewhere around 2:00 or 3:00, a new nurse came to the room to administer medicine. When I asked this nurse, as I did all of them, what he was giving my grandfather, it became clear that he was unsure. Since Junior had nearly died during a previous hospital stay as the result of incorrect medication (it was why the family insisted that someone stay with him at all times), I pressed the nurse for clarification, which made him defensive and dismissive. I "invited" the nurse into the hall for a conversation in which I "shared the love of the Lord" with persuasive articulation. We ultimately woke Junior's doctor at home for verification, and determined that, in fact, the medication and dosage the nurse had intended to give were incorrect. When the correct medicine was finally administered, and the nurse skulked away in chagrin, Junior cursed me for more than an hour because I had been so loud during the hallway altercation with the nurse that it kept him awake.

Second runner-up: For twenty years, Junior was truly a big deal in the honey bee world. He had bees everywhere - from his backyard in Odessa, to hives all over our farm, to Lake Brownwood, etc. He collected and bottled the honey right from the hives, and it was delicious. To this day, I can barely eat "store-bought" honey, after all those years of an abundant supply of the "real" thing. It's like settling for J&B after years of an unlimited Glenfiddich supply. I used to love to help Junior harvest the honey from the hives, and sometimes he'd cut a section of honeycomb for me to eat. Junior, however, always ended up wanting to use the bees to teach me to be tough. Invariably, he'd get irritated that I couldn't hold the hive open, or keep a firm hand on the comb, or hold the jar or bag open wide enough while wearing the thick, oversized beekeeper's gloves. Invariably, he'd curse me and call me a sissy, until finally yanking the gloves off my hands. As the bees began stinging me and I began crying, he'd reiterate that I was a sissy, and insist that I had to get tough if I was going to make it. I'd spend the rest of the day with tweezers, plucking stingers out of my swollen hands. He'd spend the rest of the day chuckling at me. In my first memory of this scene, I'm six. You'd think I'd have just quit going to the hives with him, but in those days I still cared what Junior thought, so I reenacted this scene with him for years; it was not unlike Bart Simpson's "Ow..quit it" sketches.

First runner-up: I remember that for many years, Junior kept a travel trailer on an RV lot at Lake Brownwood. In the summers, we often spent weekends there - fishing in the lake, swimming at the pool, exploring in the woods. Those were good times, and I can still recall the excitement of going to the lake, catching what my memory tells me were big fish with my dad, and the smell of the bacon and biscuits my grandmother always made for breakfast. One visit stands out vividly from the rest: Junior was moving rocks, and I got the bright idea to help. He was digging rocks from around and under the trailer and putting them in a wheel barrow so he could use them to line his walkway and make a border for his garden. I watched as Junior (as tall then as I am now) strained to reach under the low clearance of the trailer to pull out the rocks. It wasn't going well, and he finally stormed, cursing, inside for a cold Budweiser. I was sure I'd impress him this time as I pretended not to be afraid of the rattlesnakes and copperheads that were abundant in those parts, and slid head first under the trailer to drag out rock after rock. While he was inside, I made a huge pile of rocks next to the wheel barrow; the farther under the trailer I dared without wetting myself for fear of snakes, and the larger the pile grew, the more certain I became that Junior would be proud. The thought gave me so much courage that when I did see a snake - it was a grass snake, but at the time I was sure it was a rattlesnake/anaconda hybrid - I kept going anyway. When he came out of the trailer, I was loading rocks from my pile into the wheel barrow. Junior stared for a minute before launching into a cursing tirade about how stupid it was to make a pile of rocks first and then load them into the wheel barrow: Why had I not put them in it in the first place? Why did I always do things the hard way? Why did I always have my head up my a#$? I could still hear him cursing after me as I ran crying into the woods near his lot. When I came back several hours later for supper, Junior provided the dinner entertainment: another rendition of his "don't be a sissy" lecture. Oh...I was nine.

And the winner is...: By the time I met and married Sara, I'd long since cut any emotional ties I once had - or tried to have - with Junior. I would shake his hand on my infrequent appearances at family gatherings, and sit and watch football with him until he started getting ugly. Then I'd just leave. But once, a few years ago, he did tell his way... sort of...that he was proud of me. It was at the farm, shortly after I'd been promoted to principal. Tucker was almost three and Elizabeth almost one. After spending the day watching me be a father, and listening to me talk about my work in Oak Cliff, Junior actually asked me to drive him out to look at the cows. Existentially, it was a big moment. At the barn, as I poured cow cubes into a bucket small enough for him to carry, Junior offered what passed for his 'blessing': "James, you're finally becoming the grandson I always hoped you'd be." I laughed and replied, "Well thanks, Pop. I'm glad you...." As I tried to thank him, a few cubes I was pouring from bag to bucket fell to the ground. Junior interrupted, "Goddammit! You're wasting the cubes! Why don't you pay attention to what you're doing?"

As awful as it derisive as he was even in what passed for a compliment, and as stubborn as he was in his terminal undermining of the best any of us could ever do...this was, without a doubt, the best thing Junior ever said to me.

As you might imagine, I did not share my best (or any) memory of Junior at the funeral. Instead, I held my daughter as she reluctantly surrendered the spotlight for a few moments, did my best to placate my son as he asked repeatedly, "Daddy, when will this be over?", and smiled a wry and caustic smile at the thought that, no matter what mistakes I might make, my children and grandchildren will never know the sting of comprehensive rejection that is Junior's ultimate legacy.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Mental Health, from December 1

In a recent extended, and largely unrepeatable, dialogue with myself, I accused me of being much more responsible for my own chronic foul humor than I ever wanted to acknowledge. I hate to admit it, but I think I was right. So I'm working on an experiment in building good mental habits - something along the lines of "whatever doesn't suck, think on these things." Is that how it reads?

Anyway, here's what I've done so far:I'm trying to make a conscious choice to read. Ironic, I know, but I'm difficult. Last week, inspired by an erudite brother, I started reading David McCullough's biography of John Adams. I've always wanted to read it, and noticed a copy in my parents' library at the farm. So amid the orgy of football and pie, I started reading. What's the big deal? Well, it's been over a year since I just read something...something not directly related to work. The biography is good, but what I love is that I'm still reading, that I found myself in a mindless moment at work thinking about the way Adams faithfully wrote letters to his wife in the midst of the business of creating a nation, and about the way McCullough's writing voice frequently takes on the linguistic style of Adams' letters. Which of course has nothing to do with work. Which of course is the wonderful point.

I'm trying to make a conscious choice to cultivate a disinterested detatchment from work when I'm at home. Yesterday, I'd planned to write three weeks of lesson plans for 8th grade history teachers, but Sara wanted a day to shop alone. I spent the day with the kids (they ate all their dinner!) and never opened my work bag. Today, I called Sara from work to check on her, to ask how her day was going. What's the big deal? I'm something of the national spokesperson for the "don't bother me at work" crowd, not to mention the national chair of the "obsessive compulsive 80-hour work week" committee. Saying no to work - even for a second - was refreshing.

I'm trying to make a conscious choice to exercise - it's supposed to build energy or some such nonsense. Yesterday, I worked out on the eliptical/stairmaster thingy, and did two sets of dumbells. Sadly, the belly was still here this morning, but I did bounce out of bed at 5:15 and didn't even stagger on the way to the shower. What's the big deal? I'm terminally lazy. There's something transcendentally triumphant about willing myself into discipline.

I didn't drop the F-bomb all day. What's the big deal? Have you met me? The day seemed surreal without the anger.

There's nothing special here...nothing laudable or noteworthy. The most impressive thing about this note (is this a blog?) is that I finally figured out how to post a note on facebook. But the point that might validate this obnoxious personal narrative (the horror) is that I've proactively done a few things that I feel good about, instead of reactively doing things about which I don't. These are comically small steps, but maybe that's the whole point: tiny acts of conscious resistance against the collossal encroachment of crapiness.

It will be interesting to see if writing all this down in a public forum will prove similarly positive.
Stay tuned...

Junior, Vol. I

Saturday night, at about 6:45, my grandfather died. His name was Arthur James Isbell, Jr., but his parents, siblings, and other relatives called him Junior. His colleagues in careers from roughneck to teacher to cattleman called him Izzy. His children and wife called him Dad. All of us grandchildren called him Pop.

Interestingly, my younger brother and I, and one aunt, were with him as he died. I had never literally watched someone take his last breath; I don't recommend it.

Interestingly, my father was not at the hospital when Pop died. He'd spent the entire previous night with Pop - keeping vigil, talking to his father (though Pop hadn't been conscious for days), making sure the nurses did their jobs - and had planned to spend Saturday night with him as well. (That's my dad: Always taking the hardest assignment so no one else has to.) I had never called a parent on the phone to say your father's gone; I don't recommend it.

Interestingly, as my brother and I watched our aunt cry, and watched as the attending nurse checked for vital signs and officially confirmed what we all knew ten minutes earlier, the first comment any of us made about Pop was this: "You know, what we should do is turn on the television, crank the volume as loud as it will go...just to [annoy] everyone else on this floor; it's what Pop would have wanted."

See...Pop was (in)famous for the volume of his television. Neighbors joked that when the Cowboys played, they could work in the yard and still keep up with the game. If you didn't know Pop, you'd think he was just hard of hearing, and that he needed the volume so high just to hear the game. But if you knew Pop, you'd know that whatever pretense of deafness he made, he could hear well enough to catch even the softest whisper of a comment he didn't like. When he was angry with you, or when you said something that represented an opportunity for him to call down the thunder on you...the man could hear through walls. Pop didn't strain the speakers on his television because he couldn't hear; he turned up the TV so loud for the twin purposes of a) chasing any conversation from the room and b) generally annoying whomever was within earshot of it. Pop pumped the volume to be mean. He was infamous for that as well.

See...Being mean is what Pop did; it was his passion. Several of his seven grandchildren claim to have been his least favorite, claim to be the one he hated most, claim to be the recipient of the worst of his disappointment, of his derision, of his damnation. (Of course, the others are wrong; I'm convinced he was most awful to me.) Though my brother had his own time in Pop's crosshairs, perhaps he alone remembers the balance of his memories with Pop with positive connotations: feeding cattle, talking about grass and rain, driving him to the barber shop, or to look at goats. Yet it was my brother who suggested the television prank in the first moments after Pop's death.

See...the best memories of Pop were of his being mean: He once took away a pocket knife he'd given me as a reward for making straight "A"s on a report card, because my math grade the next report card was a "B". As I sat in my aunt's home and listened to my father and his sisters make plans for Pop's funeral, all the stories told, all the memories shared, all the 'laughter at the good times' that you'd expect to be shared by a family in bereavement, were about terrible, no good, very bad things Pop had said and done to them over the years (some as recently as last week). When one of my aunts suggested that the phrase "loving and beloved father, grandfather, and great grandfather" be included in the tombstone text, even my father - Pop's only son and most dutiful servant - said with a chuckle, "Let's not get carried away."

The memories felt and articulated in the first hours after his death - this man called Junior, Izzy, Dad, Pop - were not what you'd expect...what you'd want...what you'd hope for after your own death. The memories we shared in those first several hours after Pop's death were of hurt. Perhaps what we all felt most was regret...not of what we had not done or said to or for him, but of what he had not done or said to or for us; what we regetted was that none of us in the end remembered a tender moment, a kind word, a look of pride. His legacy, at least in those first moments and hours after his death, was one of regret that none of us ever earned his approval, his satisfaction, his love.

I don't recommend it.

This is Volume I; stay tuned...