Tuesday, December 19, 2006


After months of putting it off, I finally decided to sit down and figure this out. I had to, you see; it was sitting there in my Outlook box waiting to be solved, and I had to empty the box before leaving work for the year. Which is tomorrow.

What I found was that, no matter how proud of my MENSA sample test scores I may be, I am no genius. Think you are? Give it a go.

No, I won't post the answer. I looked all over the web for it to no avail, and you'll get no better. I will tell you this though: it takes me 15 clicks.

Monday, December 18, 2006


Over the last week, I've had the privilege of dining (that's right 'dining,' not eating) at two very fine restaurants.

Historically, I am not a great gastronome, no lover of fine food and drink. There have been many times I've wished I didn't have to eat at all, such a bother I've found it to be sometimes. But those times mostly come when I am bored with the (lack of) selection, or want to spend time spent cooking/eating/cleaning doing something else. But being a necessary thing, I learned to keep it simple and suck it up.

Simple is definitely not a word useful in describing my recent dining experiences. First, a holiday lunch at Maggiano's Little Italy brought a tilapia dish crusted with something light and toasty and textury. Side dishes and drinks were not as memorable, but the highlight of the meal was the cheesecake. The slice was a good three inches high and four inches wide at the round end. OMG, and the strawberry topping...I was a freak. Of course, cheesecake is one thing I'm always a freak for.

My second big deal was a birthday event for my wife and half of another couple at Laffrey's Steaks on the Hearth. Apparently some Detroit icon, this little place is deceiving in its size. The steak was probably the best I've ever had. This was just a steak, but the texture and juice and flavor (woody and smoky and red) still make me salivate to imagine. I also had a twice-baked potato (which I *must* learn how to make) and sauteed mushrooms with it. Okay, so this was a simple meal, but well worth both the drive and the price (which is saying something; plan $50/person) for any special event you can think of.

With the holidays afoot, there is lots more good eating in store for me in the next several days, but after that it's back to my old routine: looking forward to a weekly visit to Taco Bell for lunch, and the fanciest non-special-occasion dinner being baked mostaciolli, both of which are fine by me.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Don't Let Nobody Hold You Down

This is a post a long time in the making. [Disclaimer: this post discusses racism and prejudice. If it makes you uncomfortable, maybe you ought to read it anyway. In any case, it's my blog; there's a "Next Blog" button up there you can click of you want.]

For years, I've been an avid watcher and listener of anything dealing with the various prejudices of the world. Some I've been known to practice, even currently. I'm not always proud, but I'm always human. Not that prejudice is ever justified.

Racism, however, has always been of particular interest. The notion that some people are to be treated differently, particularly better or worse, than other people because of how they look was introduced to me at a young age. I made friends with a neighber named Joseph. I don't know how old I was; like most childhood memories I can scrape up I can't readily identify whether I was 4 or 8 or 12. But there I was, playing in the alley and the vacant lot where a house had burned a few years before with Joseph one day, and then shunning him the next. My dad had told me that I wasn't allowed to be his friend because he was black, and probably gave me some evidence this was a good idea, because I remember not arguing (that wasn't allowed anyway) and not feeling hurt the first time I purposely ignored my former playmate.

From there, I suppose it went the same way one would expect. We were a low- to mid-income white family in the inner city near a major industrial complex; maybe half the street was minority, black and Hispanic, and my dad was fraught with not only the preconcieved notions he'd grown up with, but what he saw around him. It was a time when crackhouses were popping up all around us. There were two on our street. Adolescents stood on the corner near the empty lot for hours at a time, then would lean into a car window, make some exchange, and walk away. Sometimes they got in. The lot was only three houses away from ours, so it freaked my parents out. The kids were always black and male. Then one day (I was still small enough to be inside the house playing, oblivious), someone came to the door knocking furiously. I only heard about it after he'd run off, but it was one of these kids from the corner. He told my mom to please let him in, that someone was trying to kill him. She didn't, and he ran off down the alley. She was visibly shaken; my dad was visibly furious when he got home.

None of these things necessarily affected me directly, but they definitely convinced my dad that he was right. The n-word was frequently used. He once told me that even a white person can be a n-er, depending on how he or she conducts himself. Aha, I thought, it's not color that defines it...but no. Upon my realization, I was quickly reminded that *all* blacks qualify for the word. My dad's prejudices weren't just against blacks, though. He told Pollack jokes and raved about the communists and Japanese. I never heard anything about Jews, but that's probably only because we never knew anyone that defined themselves as such. As an older man now, probably less bitter at the world but just as confused about how to express it, he still carries his racism and predudices.

While none of this made sense to me growing up, I toed the line. I learned much later in life that nothing ever really satisfies my dad except his addictions, but that was beyond me as a teen. I told endless strings of racist jokes along with my adolescent buddies, and laughed, while never really believing in them. I'd had bad brushes with "bad" black people, but far more decent relationships with black coworkers, friends from school, and neighbors. I never told my dad about them. I also had a disproportionate amount of bad brushes with "bad" white people. Not only did it feel unnatural to be racist, it was statistically unfounded.

So after a time, I practiced racism, and other prejudices I'd learned, as most people practice any distasteful but socially expected thing. Alone, there was none. When someone mentioned it, either stranger or acquaintance, I pretended to think the same thing. In this way I know I perpetuated a greater amount of ignorance than I hope I ever encounter again. My racism, after a time, had become fixed. I didn't like it any more than a rock in my shoes, but when the shoes cannot be taken off and shaken out, you live with it. It changes the way you walk, the way you organize your life, the way you see the world. So it was with this. But truthfully, my own personal racism, with its meager roots, was the least of my issues growing up. Maybe that meant I never focused on it. Maybe it meant I valued friends, no matter what color, more than my dad's social ideals. I have never really tried to figure out how large a role it played in my formation.

After leaving home at age 16, I entered a new world, one I was not entirely ready for. It was filled with people who, generally speaking, had lots more money than my family could ever hope for. There was a greater variety of cultures, including several of the Eurasian types and different religions I'd never seen. The balance was way off in my opinion. What I was used to was maybe 50-60% black, 20-30% white, and the rest a mix of Hispanic cultures (you *never* confused the Puerto Ricans with the Mexicans; you'd likely get your ass kicked). And that was it. I was comfortable with that. At school, it was very different. There were virtually no Hispanics. There was a smaller concentration of black kids, but a majority of them were from affluent households, so they were different than the kids from back home, even though the two places were only 15 minutes' drive apart. There were American kids who'd grown up overseas, people who didn't speak English very well, and nearly everyone was unafraid. Culture shock was severe, but I began to adjust.

The turning point in my life, prejudiciously speaking, came with a showing of American Pictures. The opening idea was that every white person was racist, every man was sexist, every straight person was homophobic, every Christian hates Jews and Muslims...you get the idea. Of course this is shocking to a group of intelligent adults, and we were just a group of high school students. The presenter tapered off these generalizations, but stressed that deep down in the core of everyone's humanity, we really only understand other people like us, and therefore, we really only like *them*... not anyone else. Not anyone different. And so he began.

American Pictures was, as its name suggests, mostly a slide show. The guy basically hikes his way across some place and photographs it in all its glory and squalor. It doesn't sound tremendous, but they were pictures of poverty, abuse, injustice, preference. They showed things that soeciety hides. There were explanations with some of the pictures, or groups of pictures, that told the circumstances. There was music, I think. In the end, after what was probably two hours that seemed like an instant, I was changed. Probably an unintended (or otherwise, but it's inconsequential either way) side effect was that I was slightly ashamed to be white, male, not-dirt-poor, and Christian. These things I could reconcile right away--what I'd really learned was that, while I could not change who I was, I could change how I view and treat the world and all the other humans therein. And in this way, I can reinvent myself.

And so I did. What I found was that once I stopped laughing at the jokes, nobody told them anymore, not around me. I found that, while at one time one unchallenged slur in an overcrowded fast-food line would silently make everyone blame the single minority worker behind the counter for the delay in getting their nacho belgrande, any open disapproval of any mention of racism would quickly take on a life of its own through the others in line, and the slurer was forced to leave out of shame. What I found was that once I had been given proof of what I truly believed anyway, that I was no better (or worse) than any other person, that my worth was defined solely by the things I'm in control of, that, while perception is 90% of reality, I decide how people will view me based on my behavior, was that everyone else has exactly as much control as I do.

Maybe I'm an idealist, a Forrest Gump. I know the world is far from perfect; I don't expect it to ever be. I know there are cultures, even (especially?) in America, that I have no understanding of where prejudices and racism are part of everyday life. But while my understanding of the world is incomplete, I know that my experiences, even in their limited context, mean something. I might be a dreamer, but I am no fool.

Locally, Michigan residents had the chance to abolish affirmative action in government and things like public university admissions. It passed by just under 60%. I took my views to the polls with me and all that, but what really got my goat over the whole issue was the way the opponents of the measure marketed their wares. One such device was a flier that was put on my doorknob about three times. It showed a black and white picture of Martin Luther King, Jr. marching ahead of a group of people of mixed race. I thought that was nice, and if that's all it showed, I suppose the flier could have been for either side of the argument. Equality, civil rights, and all that. But above the picture, in bold letters, it said: Don't let nobody put you down.

At first I looked for quotation marks. Phrases like this aren't proper, so I naturally assumed this one had been spoken by someone like Rosa Parks, or maybe it was something like Malcom X's 'by any means necessary.' But there weren't any. Maybe this is racist the way the SAT is preferential to native English speakers, but the incorrectness of this bold slogan, "Don't let nobody put you down," struck me as inherently counterintuitive. I supposed maybe the fliers were intended for a majority black audience. But then I realized that is a racist thought by itself, because it assumes that blacks won't either understand or respond to the properly, grammatically formatted statement: "Don't let anyone hold you down." In the end I was sufficiently disgusted and threw the damned thing away, but the thought lingered, bitterly, in my head that by wording it in such a way that such thing would only perpetuate more ignorance, and possibly, more racism.

Here I cite a blog by a very old, dear friend of mine: The Minority Report . The author has given me a unique perspective on what it might feel like to be a real minority, not just a white kid in a mostly black school. Racism is not dead (also see here), and the only way we will truly defeat it is by not teaching it. Unfortunately, I think the only way to understand just how wrong it truly is is by becoming a victim. Fortunately or otherwise, that is very unlikely to happen to most (white) Americans. Hopefully though, the exposure of stories of extreme prejudice will help us open our eyes. And once our eyes are open, maybe we could all take the time to remove our shoes and shake out the stones.

Update: Would Tara Connor had been booted if she'd been black?

Update: By Any Means Necessary still fighting MCRI (January '07)

Update: U-M halts fight against Prop 2 (January '07)

Monday, December 11, 2006

This American Life

Every Friday at 1500 EST, I try to tune into my local public radio station (101.9, WDET-FM) and catch my favorite radio show, This American Life. I'm a closet fan. I don't know anyone else who listens to it--anyone else, really, who listens to public radio on a regular basis at all, except my sister. I'm not part of some Detroit cultural elite. I just love the show.

Maybe it's Ira Glass's voice. Maybe it's the short musical vignettes during and between acts. Maybe it's the humanity of the stories, the laying bare of those things which make normal people cringe or cry, or laugh out loud at inappropriate things. The show is definitly known for its unique human quality, and humanity is something that is definitely lacking in not only commercial radio (for which, I suppose, it must be praised, as this is precisely why many of us tune in [to tune out]) but open society in general.

Try it sometime. Walk into a drug store and start talking about feelings. Not yours, just in general. One of two things will happen. The stranger who is the cashier or pharmacy tech or stocker, or whomever, will either (1) look at you in disbelief, or at least discomfort, or possibly with contempt, and may or may not begin deriding or condescending you as oversensitive, liberal, homosexual, or something else...or (2) something will connect with the person, an event upon which you will be understood to be in a sort of temporary, two-person, micro-society. Secrecy is included in all such agreements, as all others outside this short-lived, newly formed organization will be assumed to immediately jump to all conclusions in (1) about both of you.

Try it in a bookstore, a place where culture (supposedly) lives a little more freely. At least in the large places (Borders, B&N), it's more allowable to open up, but you're still subject to some of the same labels. You can only go so far into why you think The Good Earth is worth the money and time. You cannot call it beautiful, not unless the person you happen to be speaking to shares this view (something you will only find out by baring your own opinion). You cannot say how Ellison affected your professional direction, or describe the excitement of Moby Dick on your kids' faces, without being viewed, at least by a majority, as some kind of...freak.

I don't mind being a literature freak. I don't mind that when I asked to borrow the BBC Pride & Prejudice DVD's from one coworker, another balked at my lack of manly qualities. It's part of who I am. I don't mind that I have no one to laugh with about Jonathan Goldstein's "If This Ark is a Rockin', Don't Come a Knockin'." But sometimes I'd like to. Sometimes, it would be nice.

So in the barren land of human life, a weekly dose of humanity is refreshing and welcome. Come next Friday at 3, count me in.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Madison McBurney

This morning there was a news item that I found as part of my morning start-the-computer-and-get-ready-for-the-day routine. The headline was "Dad charged with murder." I knew this would be a trigger for me. I'm a bit obsessive about fathering/child issues, as anyone who knows my well-worn soapbox can tell you, but I read it anyway.

Basically, this local guy got so frustrated with his 11-month old daughter that he threw her into her crib. I'll spare the details, but she died the next day. Her name was Madison McBurney.

This story is first and foremost a tragedy. Anytime a child is killed, especially as a result of abuse or neglect, it is tragic, and this is all the more horrifying because the parent is the perpetrator. This story, however, if it is unique at all, is only so by degrees.

Frustration with children is something every parent knows, especially new parents. No where in the "What to Expect" books does it tell you how to handle when your baby won't eat, won't sleep, won't stop crying, doesn't have a fever or some fluke ailment like the shaft of a pillow feather sticking him through his clothes, and the doctor says there's nothing wrong. No, only experience can teach you what to do then. Contrary to first instinct, it isn't nothing. While the only thing you may be able to do for the child is gently shush and soothe, and maybe run the bath if you've had enough sleep, your first priority is your own sanity.

We all hear jokes about it. "The reason God makes babies so cute is so you don't kill them when they're small," we say. A close friend came up with the gem of a phrase "they're treasures, let's bury them." We laugh at these things and understand them to characterize a universal rite of parenthood and a common thread that connects all parents, usually by grey hairs. Until recently, I was actually horrified by these sayings. They seemed to completely disregard the total awe and absolute love you experience at this precious time. I know now I was simply taking myself way too seriously, but certainly in the context of today's news, they are, once again, horrifying.

I know the frustration of the man who was Madison's dad. Right up to the moment when he lost track of that first priority, his was no different than the daily emotional toil of millions of moms and dads. I have felt it, and come right to the brink. I have held a screaming child and gazed out a second story window and imagined quiet, and hated myself for it. Of course, I was solidly met by reality. There would have been two landings that day if any. Brendan now is still the most frustrating child in our household, but he also has the biggest heart of anyone I know, including all the grandmothers and clergy I've ever met. I told the story of the window the first few times as self-therapy, seeking the validation of my fellow parents, who, while shocked, did not condemn me (bless them), and later as a funny story of real parenting frustration and reward. I also use it as a quiet lesson to myself about how love is tested and practiced, and in this context, it is one of the most valuable experiences I've had.

I have no intention of defending Madison's dad. In his own right, I'm sure he is aware of his mistake, although the consequences for it very likely escape him. In this respect, this is a much larger tragedy. A child is dead, but a family is destroyed. I resist the urge to comment on every story I read like this (see aforementioned soapbox), as they are certainly overnumerous, but this one nagged me as I tried to shake it off.

Maybe that's a good thing. If this story has any impact, let it cause other parents to examine their own reactions and reiterate that first priority during those moments of insanity. Let it, possibly, cause one man or woman to take a timeout, lock the bathroom door behind them and remember their child's smile through the tears, noise, vomit, and poop. Because these moments, the smiles and laughter, the finger paintings and stick-figured heads, the bedtime stories and goodnight kisses and hugs, are as real, and a more abundant part, of the parenting experience than anything that might frustrate us.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

I'm Rea-dy

Today I have an appointment to talk to my boss's boss regarding a promotion recommendation that was made last APRIL. He (or someone) has been dragging his feet and I've had nought but procrastination and pooh-poohing on management's part. This is the boss who is known to fire people who cross him; I'm staying positive. Let's just hope I don't end up getting wasted in the Goofy Goober or finding seaweed stuck to my upper lip later.