Charlie Says…

Sometimes I think the world is a mess.  It’s falling apart.   People are mean. And intolerant.

I try to have faith in humanity, and remain positive, but once in a while I think it just isn’t get any better.  Watch the news.  Read the papers. Does anyone read the newspapers any more?

I know Charlie does. (Pronounce this as Cholley. With attitude. Like in The Pope of Greenwich Village.)

Charlie is my 93 year old father-in-law.  He is also a guru. When he speaks, I hear history.  I hear a very different point of view.  We don’t always agree. Especially when it comes to politics. But I respect his wisdom and his experience.  He has lived a long time, and seen a lot of things.

He came from a much different time and place.  Hell’s Kitchen.  The Great Depression. Cold Water Flats. CCC Camps. The stuff of gritty black and white movies. Where people say things like “He was a freakin’ mutt, dat guy.”

I’m happy to have him here visiting for a few days. Happy to debate about politics and to listen to all of his stories.

Today he told us a fantastical tale about a friend of his.

Tommy Fitz was a fellow steamfitter (in the steam, as Charlie says),  and godfather to one of Charlie’s 12 children.  One night Fitz was at an uptown bar (a tavrin as Charlie calls it).  Fitz bet someone $100 that he could land a plane on the street right outside.  There was $200 sitting on the bar as Fitz walked out. Within the hour, a plane was on the street outside.

Of course I had to google it to see if it was true.  He is, after all 93 years old. He could make up all sorts of stories and I might believe them.  This is a real one.  Read about it.

Somehow, along the way the conversation turned to kids these days. As it often does.  We were talking about how Maggie went to a GSA (Gay Straight Alliance)  meeting yesterday, and about how kids openly talk about being gay or straight nowadays.

“Everything is out there. It’s all out right out in the open.” Charlie says. “Nothing is hidden. Like it used to be.”

By the look on his face I wasn’t quite sure where the conversation was going. Was I going to have to debate about this?

“You know”, Charlie says, “when I was a little kid there was this family.  They lived up the block.  They had a son. He was born all white. With really pale skin. and pure white hair and pink eyes. What d’ya call that there….?”

“An albino?”

“Yeah. He was an albino.  And they kept him locked in the house.  They didn’t let him out. He couldn’t go nowhere or do nothin’.  Just locked in the house his whole life because of the way he was born. Was that right?  We didn’t know.  We didn’t even wonder if it was right or wrong. It was just the way it was back then.
But that wouldn’t happen now. Because people realized it was wrong.   People are still realizin’ what’s wrong. But kids today already know what was wrong.  Things change.  Things are still changin’. Things are gettin’ better.”

Charlie says things are getting better.

Maybe we’re not such a mess.  Maybe change is just coming a little slower than I would like.   Ask me again when I’m 93.

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facecharlie

Pop’s first experience with Face Time.  “Holy cow. Wouldya look at dat. Hiya!”

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Tintinnabulation

(for Jayne who inspired me after being inspired by Mr. Cohen)

There is a crack in everything.
There are certainly some cracks in me.

The broken bits, the chinks, the lines,
the marks of failing miserably.
Cracks in my heart, scars on my knees,
the holes left by an absent friend.
The road rash from the falling down
and getting up to try again.

Scars from assaults and accidents
I managed to survive somehow.
Remnants of the lessons learned.

Lines from furrowing my brow,
squinting in the too bright sun
and smiling when I see your face.
They get deeper. Let them deepen.

They need no fillers, only grace.
The souvenirs that I’ve collected,
reminders of this life of ours.

Why would I spackle up the cracks?
Why would I cover up the scars?
Each crack lets in a bit more light.
(That is what Leonard says they’re for.)

So I won’t waste time filling cracks.
I need that time to make some more.

I’ll toll the bells that still can toll.
I will not envy you your bells.
I’ll gather rosebuds where I can
before I lose my sense of smell.

I’ll ring the bells that still can ring,
turn up the radio and sing,
no matter what this world may bring,
I’ll let the light get in.

Wrinkling and cracking again and again.
I’ll break another hundred times,
seek out each bell that might be rung,
and make that music mine.

I’ll sound the bells I still can sound,
and f#ck all of those broken bells!
I’ll still put on my combat boots
and dance like holy hell.

These are my cracks, my lines, my scars
Point, laugh, and judge them if you must.

But I will crack into a million bits,
before I crumble into dust.

So this,
my perfect offering.
I’ll ring the bells that still can ring,
embrace the cracks in everything.
I’ll let the light get in,
day after day, year after year.
And the only thing that I will fear
Is that one last bell.
Which I won’t hear.
So this…

 

**************************************

Hear Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”

 

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Achieving Nirvana

There is a rock band forming in my house. For two days in a row my music loving daughter has had other kids here. All down in my basement. Making a ton of noise.

But I don’t mind it at all.

Let this be the house where they make that awful noise. Let this be the place where they turn that noise into actual music. Where they change and grow and learn, and write the perfect lyric. Strike the perfect chord. Find the perfect beat.

Let this be the place where they experiment wildly and hone their craft precisely. Where they evolve into what they might become.

They have brought an energy into the house. An electrically charged hint of the future. A future where anything can happen. The whole world lies ahead of them and anything is possible. Anything good. Anything amazing.

These kids don’t know a world before Nirvana. Anyone who tries to start a band in the basement can grow up to be the next Dave Grohl. There is nothing stopping them. Nothing holding them back. Nothing telling them that their biggest and wildest dreams can’t come true.

The absolute positivity is palpable.  It takes my breath away. My heart grows fuller with every sound.  Every guitar riff is potential. Every crash of the cymbal is possibility. Every burst of laughter is hope.

Hope for all of the possible futures they can imagine. Every single one of them.

And hope that perhaps someday I’ll be on one of those VH1 Behind the Music Shows.
“Yes, that’s right. I am Maggie’s mom. I used to make them snacks.”

Anything is possible.

 

 

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Ice Cream Cake

(for my dad, who’s not here)

It’s your birthday,
and you’re not here.

I’m still right here.
Moving through my days
in the same house, the same place.

Okay,
some things have changed.
I mean,
it has been ten years
since I saw you.

A lot of time has passed and now,

I don’t miss you
any more.

I hardly ever think of you
the very moment I wake up.

You’re not on my mind
a thousand times a day.

I don’t see your face
everywhere I look.

I no longer have the urge to call you
sixty times a week.

I don’t cry at the mention of your name
every single time.

I do not feel the overpowering all-encompassing gut wrenching emptiness in my heart
every second of every hour.

No. I don’t. I don’t miss you
any more.

But it might be different
as I move through this day,
in this place where you once were,
in this house that you once knew.

Because I’m still here. Right here.
And you, you are not.
And it’s your birthday.

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My (white) Privilege

Lately, everywhere I look there are articles about race relations, bigotry, and white privilege. The revolution has been going on for decades, but it seems to have picked up some steam recently. Another defining moment in history is upon us.

This time, I will be an active participant. And it starts right here.

I was born in Newark NJ in the immediate wake of the riots of 1967. I’m a white lady. Our neighborhood was still relatively white compared the rest of the city, with a lot of light brown mixed in. I had friends from all over the world, mostly Puerto Rico, India, Cuba. There were a few black kids in our grammar school, but I could probably count them on two hands.

My grandfather lived next door. I saw him every day. He was a bigot. I didn’t know it as a young child. It was just the way he talked. And the vocabulary he used was a part of my upbringing.

I can vividly remember the last time I used the word ‘nigger’. It was and remains a defining moment in my life. I was walking to school with a girl friend of mine, who happened to be black. Another friend was walking toward us down the block waving and calling our names. He was too far away and I couldn’t tell who he was. When he got closer and I recognized him, I said, “Oh, it’s you. From far away you looked like a nigger”.

Just like that. I said it.

I still get sad every time I think about it. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.

But at the time, it was just a word to me. Just a word that my grandfather used at our dinner table, along with other words like “chink” and “kike”.  A word that really had no more gravity to my eleven year old self than “German” or “ American”. The rantings of a man who had too much table wine. But at that moment, when I said it, I saw my girlfriend’s face and I knew that it wasn’t just a word. It was something that I shouldn’t say.

A curse word. A cursed word. Something I would never say again.

I have tried my whole adult life to surround myself with people who have an understanding of the gravity of the word and everything that goes along with it. So the only time I ever hear it is in movies and in songs.

Until recently. I think it was the events in Ferguson that stirred up the racist pot in my life.

Two weekends ago we were sitting around our campfire in Pennsylvania. Some neighbors stopped by to sit around our fire and have a beer or two. We were having a lighthearted conversation about pets. “Who likes dogs?” “I prefer cats” “I would love to have a monkey”. Out of nowhere one of our visitors said “If you want a monkey, you have to go to Newark”.

I shot him a look and decided to let it go because I thought no one else had heard it. And he was probably drunk.

As we continued talking about monkeys and how they could be trained he spoke again “You can’t train the monkeys in Newark” he said, with a bit of a slur.

Was he looking to get a rise out of me? “Are you KIDDING me?” I said. I looked around as everyone else continued the conversation, barely noticing him. Meanwhile, I was seething. Thankful that my kids weren’t around the fire. Trying to rationalize the fact that he was drunk. That it wasn’t worth the argument. But still seething. I took a sip of my beer and decided, once again, to ignore him.

A few minutes later the conversation turned to sports. Not my area at all, so I basically just sat back and listened. Someone started talking about Jimmy the Greek and the statement that he made about blacks being better athletes than whites.

Oh shit. Here we go again.
“How could he get fired for that?”
Wait. Wasn’t this, like 30 years ago? Are we really talking about this?
“It was a good thing he said. It wasn’t bad”
I can’t hold it in any more..
“It’s a racist statement.” I said, probably loudly. “It doesn’t matter if you think it’s a good thing or a bad thing. If you’re talking about a whole race of people, it is racist.”

As I begin to speak my mind, the anger started to rise up. I knew that I shouldn’t argue, but I could definitely feel it coming.

And then the monkey-man over on the other side of the fire decided to speak again. And the words that came out of his mouth were so horrible, so hateful, so inhumane. They have been turning over in my head for two weeks. I get nauseous every time I think about them. It has taken me two weeks to be able to write them down.

He said “I liked it better when they had fear. When they knew if they acted up they’d be hung.”

HO-LEE shit! Holy Shit! What did he just say? Are you KIDDING me!?!

I cannot explain the feeling. A wave of nausea, anger, heat, coursed through my body. My heart sank to my stomach as my stomach rose up to my throat. All of the injustices in the world swam through my head. And it was just a millisecond, before I was on my feet and some words were coming out of my mouth.

Honestly I don’t remember them all. But I know I said, loudly, “Are you fuckin’ kidding me!?” as I stood up and started walking, and “I WILL NOT be part of this conversation. I will NOT!” as I left.

I left my own fire-pit, my own back yard, and walked inside. I tried to catch my breath while the shock and anger came out in a stream of tears. After a few minutes I heard them drive off in their golf cart and I went back out to our other guests.

Over the past weeks I have remained unsatisfied with my reaction. Okay, he was probably more drunk than I imagine, and an argument would not have been wise. Maybe I should try to shrug it off as just the rantings of some drunk ignorant guy.

But in hindsight, I think I should have very calmly said “Please leave. That shit will not be tolerated here”.

Even though I pride myself on embracing differences and being an accepting person, I cannot accept this. And even though I do my best to tolerate what I cannot accept, I can’t tolerate this.

And so it was. Another defining moment in my life.

I made a very conscious decision two days ago. I will not ever sit by quietly and listen. If the bigots are going to make their opinion known, I will also make mine known. Zero tolerance from this point on.

So, last night we were leaving a restaurant. There was a scene unfolding in the parking lot. A well-dressed pretty white lady was standing by a car. She looked a little bit teary-eyed. A security guard pulled up and the sad pretty lady walked to the driver’s window. The security guard was a young black woman. A car pulled up in front of the security car blocking some of the parked cars, including mine. A white man in casual clothes walked out of the car, visibly upset, He moved quickly with long strides toward the woman shouting “Get in the car!”

We continued walking to our car. John and Shannon were up ahead of me. I couldn’t hear what was happening, but I was afraid for the sad lady, so I moved slowly. There were some words, and then the man took hold of the lady’s arm and they started back toward his car. The lady walked to the passenger door. As the man got to the driver’s side he turned and looked back at the security car. He dramatically, emphatically stuck up his middle finger and yelled at the top of his voice “Fuck you, nigger!”

Oh shit. Here we go…

Not a second was wasted as the anger surged up in me and the words just came flying out of my mouth, probably very loudly, “Are you kidding me? You’re kidding me right?!”

He ignored me, but the sad lady looked back at me, and then at my daughter and said “I’m sorry.” I think I said “Are you kidding me?” again. “I’m so sorry” she said, as the man got in the car and continued to curse.

I looked back at the security lady, threw my hands in the air and said, more like screamed it again, “Are you kidding!?” She just looked at me and raised her hands off of her steering wheel and shrugged her shoulders. The man drove away, as my husband said “Come on, get in the car, it’s over.’ And I got into my car.

“People make me sick. So very sick” I said to John and Shannon, defeated, as I fought back tears.

Thoughts raced through my head as I drove away. Should I have gone to the security lady and demanded that she call the cops. Did she call the cops? I think she must have, because he was probably too impaired to drive. Did she call them? Or did she just shrug it of as the rantings of some drunk ignorant guy?

“What’s going on lately? John said, trying to lighten the mood, “You’re like a racist magnet.”

“Maybe the universe is telling me I have to do something about this.”

Is it?  Maybe it is.  So I am going to do something about this.  It starts right here.

And it is going to be my privilege.

 

 

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This One Time, At Band Camp

To measure the passing of time, I look at my children, and my friends’ children. The oldest of those kids have already gone off to college. When I hear about them or see them I am always amazed. Amazed in that that holy-shit-we-are-getting-old sort of way.

The passage of time is not linear. It’s exponential. Moving faster and faster every year.
Like a runaway train. Gaining momentum and barreling toward the tunnel of mortality.

Mildly depressing? Perhaps.

This happens to me every year in August. But this summer seems to be rushing by like no summer before it. Already more of it behind us than ahead.  All too soon we will be back to our Septembers.

But before September, there is band camp. My Maggie is going to band camp.

She is going away.  Away from me!  For days. And nights! To band camp.  And we all know what happens at band camp. Things happen at band camp. Scary things!

Things like gaining independence, forming lasting meaningful friendships, moving closer to adulthood. Things like growing into a person of strength and character who can stand on her own two feet. Sigh.

When I put her on that bus, I know I will see the 4 year old that I walked into pre-school looking up at me. Ohhh, the tears that were shed on that day. (All mine.)

Then there will be tortuous days of worrying and waiting for texts to let me know she is alive and well. Her one-word answers like ‘Yup’ and ‘Kk’ offering little relief to my unrealistic anxiety.

And I imagine that when I meet her at the bus at the end of the trip, she will be a grown woman, running at me with a pair of scissors, ready to cut the apron strings once and for all.

Mildly dramatic? Perhaps.

But that time-train keeps on rolling.   And sometimes it looks very much like a bus to band camp.

 

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Turn on the Day

I have always hated the news. Mostly because it is so biased and skewed that the real truth is often lost somewhere along the way. Never to be found.

But lately, the facts are undeniable. There have been so many senseless acts of violence both locally and globally that watching the news has become overwhelming. When I do watch, I vacillate between anger and extreme sadness. I’m finding it difficult to merely observe the news, simply listen to the stories, without letting them sink into my body.

Talking about it, watching it, knowing it, doesn’t make anything better. I want to stick my head in the sand, and then I chide myself for not getting involved and trying to change things. I am having a hard time distancing myself from the pain and the sadness.

After reading an article today about the bodies of the people who were murdered on Malaysian Air Flight 17 (the mere thought of it causes tears to well up in my eyes, and bile to rise up to my throat every single time) I decided I had enough.  Enough bad news. I can’t get on a plane and help anyone. So obsessing over this, reading every article,seeking it out isn’t doing me any good. In fact, it is making me physically ill.

And just then a friend posted the Bill Withers song “A Lovely Day”.  So I watched the video, and listened to the song, and I let that sink into my body instead. Diversion and denial. My go-to defenses.

That video started me on a YouTube roll about happy songs, and I when I stumbled upon The Rascals’ “It’s a Beautiful Morning” I decided to post it. Because it is a beautiful morning. And because screw the news.

I googled the song, as I often do. I like to find out when it was written, what the story behind it is. Are there cover versions? Are they any good? What are the actual lyrics, not the ones I’ve been singing wrong all these years?

I was beginning to enjoy myself when I got to the bottom of the lyrics page and saw the links for other articles:
“Couple Killed Just Moments After Taking this Beautiful Photo”
“7 Stars Whose Parents Committed Horrible Crimes”
and a picture of a mummified face with the caption “There are Places in the World Where this Could Happen to You!”

More bad news. More horrific stories. More sensational, terrific words to drag me in to someone’s screwed up agenda.

So I scrolled back up.  “It’s a beautiful mornin’, ahhh. I think I’ll go outside for a while, And jus’ smile.”

And then I turned the computer off.  Because screw the news.  It’s gonna be a lovely day, lovely day, lovely day, dammit.

 

 

 

 

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