Thursday, November 20, 2008


Today is my dad's birthday. He would have been 64 if his lung cancer and chemotherapy hadn't killed him in January. One year ago today, all of us trucked up to the hospital to see him. He was having diet issues and was going through radiation treatments at the time, so he was a pretty bony version of himself, but himself just the same. He crabbed at my mom and talked about how one of the nurses was stealing his pain meds (he turned out to be right though). He was glad to see the kids, though they wore on his patience eventually and asked a lot of questions about his IV and the bag at the end of his bed. We brought a cake, and the nurses had given him a mylar balloon that floated from the head of his hospital bed. I think we sang; I even think we lit a candle for him to blow out, but I can't be certain anymore. I took pictures with my cell phone that are still there. I don't look at them often.

I spend a lot of time wondering how my life now would be different if he was still here: questions I'd ask him, things I'd want his help with, conversations we'd have, what Thanksgiving and Christmas will be like. I hate admitting it, but some things are easier without him, or rather, without the problems that made his life hell. Though I've put many of my thoughts to rest about how he'll spend eternity, and how he's free of his many pains, and just exactly what all this life and death business means, my confusion still lingers. And I am still angry that he was taken away.

At work, I am quiet today. Nobody knows what's on my mind, and though I'd normally share it with a few close buds I have, I'm not interested. I need to mull over this; I need to be in this fog for a while. I need to remember what it's like to think of my dad and worry about him. I need to think of what I'd say to him if we were going over there tonight for dinner, which is what we'd be doing if he'd never gotten sick, or survived.

Today, I am acting like that's what happened, except that he isn't physically here. Only my mom's working, and I'm doing dinner at my house, and rather than having family over, it'll be our normal friends we have over for dinner. I don't really like that, but it's how things turned out. That, and all the immediate family members that I don't live with are inaccessible. So tonight, with whomever is there, we'll eat the famous barbeque pork loin. I don't know if there will be cake, mostly because I don't know if that would make our guests uncomfortable or not. And hopefully, as with me, my dad will be on all our minds, though I'm not getting my hopes up.

Of course, it doesn't really matter anyway; he's enough on my mind today for a whole house full of people.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

My Two Cents for the Day

I won't elaborate on the news story; it's grim. While reading a Detroit Free Press article online, however, I ran across this sentence:
    Police still don’t know who the gun belonged to or how the boys’ got a hold of it. But the weapon has been retrieved.
Ahem. Now look: I don't have an English degree or anything, but anyone with a 10th grade Language Arts class ought to know what's wrong with this passage. The article was written by two (TWO!) journalists, presumably with some higher education in something that involves writing, and they still can't get their damned apostrophes right. And while it may be a matter of style to begin a sentence with conjunction in one's personal writing (see?), as far as I know it's never been considered acceptable with any professional work. And since when is the phrase "get a hold of" proper? Sure everyone knows what it means, and everyone uses it, but give me a break! You are not writing a note to your buddy here, guys, it's the news!

I used to work a lot with kids in middle and high school, and I'd see their writing. Anyone who's starting at any level of writing will probably automatically begin by writing the words they'd otherwise speak, but we're supposed to get over that by eighth grade or so. (If you read anything decent on a regular basis, you'll know it much earlier. ) I used to think that since these kids were young, or inexperienced at writing, that the writing they were doing would at least rise to basic rules of the language. If these journalists' work is any indication, I was sorely wrong.

Once, I believed I was just being too harsh (or worse, uppity) in my criticism of what passed for acceptable public writing, and in my judgment that in my lifetime I've seen the English language increasingly abused in ways for which Mrs. King at Pontiac Northern would have beaten me. Now I'm pretty sure I've been hitting the nail on the head the whole time.

I'm not trying to be a stick in the mud, and I know that languages evolve just like species do, but it's my opinion that the lack of attention to basic rules of grammar and spelling constitute not evolution, but degradation of the English language. If our college-educated journalists can't get an apostrophe correct, we're in serious intellectual trouble.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Clearing of the Drains

A couple nights ago, I spent my meager handful of weekday evening hours not helping kids with homework, or cleaning up after dinner, or walking my beautiful dog, or even playing my computer game. I spent it in the basement clearing out the floor drain.

As it happened, this drain is emptied into by the washer tub, and had apparently clogged with lint or something. That's what it looked like--whatever. Said lint had, over time, conducted much or the rotting mess of sewage in the street sewer into my sub-floor pipes, which not-so-delightfully appeared on my basement floor one night after the washer emptied. Because I'm cheap, I vetoed calling the plumber at 10:30 pm and simply plugged the drain, believing whole-heartedly in my ability to clear out a little (or a lot of) pocket lint in a pipe tomorrow as opposed to spending three digits for someone else to do it right now.

(I should point out here that I do not, in fact, have veto power on anything in my house. My lovely wife simply allows me to believe that I do in some cases [bless her], and despite her insistence that it wasn't worth the trouble, gave me a chance to prove that I could fix this problem.)

I don't recommend this. Ever. I understand the intricacies of the trap under the sink, and I can install new faucets and change gaskets and o-rings, but I am not a plumber. I don't have plumber's tools, unless a hacksaw counts. I don't know what goes on under the house, and I sure don't know what happens after the stuff leaves my property.

Needless to say, I spent many of my precious evening hours in frustration just trying to find the problem, getting myself pretty gross in the process. Finally, I gave up and told the Wife to call somebody--anybody, I didn't care--but I was done. Then she turned the tables on me, and said that I'd have to call, seeing as how I already knew what I'd tried, etc. (This is one of her tactics to get me to not be so stubborn next time.) Faced with exposure and having to explain my failure to another man, I sucked it in and gave it another shot. This time, I knew I would have to invest a little and get the right tool for the job. As luck would have it, $30 at Home Depot and fifteen minutes did the trick. Go figure.

I know this is a spectacularly boring story. Fortunately, the story isn't the point. Looking back on the ridiculousness of it all, the cause of the clog, the potential prevention, the nasty chronic effect, the trouble it caused, the frustration in trying to deal with it, and the eventual resolution, makes for a pretty fair representation of much of what goes wrong in Life. It doesn't take a close examination to realize that I have a great many drains I need to mind, a fair few that have been clogged a good long time, and some that are creating quite the smelly mess.

Though I'm no stranger to emotional struggle, for a majority of my life I've wondered why it has to be so hard, and what, if anything, I can do to short-circuit the tough parts. More importantly, I am desperate for any scraps of wisdom that may teach my children to be less affected by their own issues later. In our culture, in our world, a certain amount of BS is inevitable, it's true, but most of it probably isn't necessary to get along on a daily basis. I've come to understand that my life will be defined by how I meet these challenges, and the tools I can pass along to help other people do the same.

The current state of my life is a good indicator that I'm not doing a very good job.

I've tried lots of things to handle my stuff, including sucking it up and pretending it's not there. Fortunately, I've been blessed with the stubbornness to keep trying, and the resourcefulness to try different things, with varying results. What I've found is, it's not a bad thing to be a hack, trying new stuff just because it might work (because sometimes it does), but being resourceful is only of use when you understand the limits of your resources, and when you know when to trade some inventive investigation for reasonably-priced peace of mind.

I wonder, if with my basement drain, how many times I will give up. I wonder which of those times I'll be able to toughen up and get back on the horse, and keep fighting. I wonder what simple changes I can make now to prevent trouble later, and I wonder what tool I'm lacking that, if it were simply in my possession, would make life as easy as $30 and fifteen minutes. I wonder if I'm the only one who struggles with these questions.

Mostly, I worry that I will not be able to figure it out in time to teach my children, and that they will be caught in the same vicious circle.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

On (the) Race

So here we are: America has voted decisively for the first black president. Yes, it's an historic moment, both in the smaller sense of our current politics, the economic crisis, and the wars in the Middle East; and also in the big picture, with the country still racially divided nearly 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. It's probably true what they were saying last night on CNN, that most people who were watching the results come in moment to moment will remember the election for their whole lifetime, that they may even remember where they were and what they were doing the moment it was announced that Barack Obama had gained the 270 electoral votes required to win. I'm still not sure the moment ranks up there with the Kennedy assassination, or the Challenger explosion, or 9/11/01, but I could be wrong.

If I am wrong, it's probably because I'm white. My problem in understanding what's driven people so furiously over the last year and a half leading up to this election is the same thing that causes my very intense curiosity over racial issues. The trouble with this curiosity is that there is no seeing both sides.

It doesn't always work this way; usually there's some way you can get a handle on both points of view. If we were talking about poverty, for instance, it would be completely different. Obviously, the world is biased toward the rich. The "haves" routinely give each other favors such as professional courtesy with the sole purpose of helping each other maintain their "have" status (if anyone can afford giant doctor or lawyer bills, it's other doctors and lawyers). In areas where "haves" are concentrated, anything that remotely reeks of "have not" is treated with disdain and mistrust. Though I drive an eight year old vehicle, I'm thankful it's a popular model. If I still drove one of my old beaters, you can be sure people would call the police when I drove through their neighborhoods to pick up my kids from their friends' houses. As it is, people look at me funny when I do my own auto maintenance in the driveway or cut my own grass.

But anyway, no matter which side you're on (as a "have" or a "have not"), you can always fake being on the other side if you know what you're doing. Also, it's very possible to legitimately switch sides (though decidedly more difficult to go in one direction as opposed to the other.) In either case, it's possible to understand how both of these groups think, how they act and maintain their families, what values they teach their children, and how they talk to each other. It's possible to get right into their culture and figure them out, even if (in the event you happen to come from the other side) it's not always possible to assimilate completely.

Take other issues that divide people and you can almost always get the same effect. Even with gender, every man and woman probably has some person of the opposite sex in his/her life that can clue them in to how that group thinks and operates. Historically, women have even used men's names and gained world fame without the world being the wiser until after the fact.

But with race, you can't do that. With race, it's different.

Sure, in general, most open-minded people probably have friends or even relatives of the "opposite" race (for the sake of argument, I'm going with white and black here) that they can have serious discussions of varying depth with. But these discussions typically only go so far. The nature of prejudice is so ingrained into family upbringing and supported by popular culture, you can be offensive without even realizing it, and so most people are generally afraid to go too deep in their discussions, and maybe they even avoid the topic altogether. In fact, it's considered polite to simply pretend that there are no differences between you and your "opposite"ly colored friends.

I suspect that the only real discussions about race occur between same-race people, though I can't even be certain about that. As a Caucasion (where that term comes from I have no idea; I have no relatives from anywhere NEAR the Caucusus), I can say with absolute certainly that most American white people don't discuss race AT ALL with each other, unless it's done privately at the family level. This isn't to say that these people don't have opinions; on the contrary, most people's opinions on race are very strong, and not always socially acceptable. But the thing is you never know how the other person feels, and so expressing your opinion to a stranger, whether it be some subtle remark or a full-out n-word, could either get you an invitation to a club or drop-kicked in the face. Unless you're the grand dragon of the local KKK chapter, most white people simply won't take that chance.

My observation has been that American blacks don't have these inhibitions. It seems to be okay to be in a store, workplace, classroom, or fast-food line and discuss race in good or bad terms and not have anyone get offended, as long as it's not mixed company. In my discussions with the few black people who have been comfortable enough to talk with me about it, it also seems a fair assumption that many blacks share roughly the same views on race. If this is true with whites, we'll never know because we're so afraid to open our mouths to each other.

Maybe I'm naïve in my surprise that this presidential election fell solidly along racial lines, with Obama getting 96% of the black vote. But as the analyst on CNN said last night, he also got a majority of the vote for most American minorities and the middle-class. I'm definitely NOT surprised that Obama was the favored candidate of Americans who have probably not felt very represented by rich old white men. Maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that in black neighborhoods across America, there was celebration last night. Maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that one of my more crass coworkers congratulated my black friend as if she'd won the election herself. And maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that many conversations in the lab between whites cease when my friend walks in.

Maybe it shouldn't be surprising, but to me it is, because we went for months in this campaign cycle without race even being discussed (see above where white people are afraid to discuss race in public). Forgive my Forrest Gump ignorance, but it doesn't make any damn sense to me that an issue that clearly has so much hold over public opinion, that so obviously binds people together or drives them apart, that was one of the single biggest factors in this election, should be such a taboo subject. If the election had gone the other way, would American blacks have felt just as strongly in the confirmation of prejudice as they felt about the celebrations? Would American whites have breathed a collective (but silent) sigh, regardless of the threat another Republican in the White House might represent? How can we ever hope to succeed as a nation without eventually calling out the elephant in the living room?

I suppose my feelings at this moment, after the election but before we can assess our new leader's performance, are two-fold: I'm proud to be an American at this moment in history, and I'm embarrassed that it's such a big deal.

I hope Barack Obama's election as President of the United States represents a new and permanent change in America, but that would be a miracle. At the very least, I hope it will open some much needed dialogue and, if not heal, help folks at least understand some old wounds without making new ones. At the most, I hope Obama's term(s) as President are as historic as his campaign; I hope he can deliver on all the promises he's sold us; I hope he is as quick on his feet as he is at the podium; and I hope that whomever wrote his speeches helps him write his policies. The change we stand to see in our nation--in our neighbors, our coworkers, our families, and maybe even in ourselves--is extraordinary, and the implications of the next four years will impact Americans for generations. Now that the election is over, that much is guaranteed.

Because I've only ever been on one side of American race problem, and will only ever be able to see one side, it's impossible for me to do more than hope at this point. Except by talking and listening. If we could all start doing a little of those things a bit more with each other, we'd all be better off in a lot more ways than we realize.

God bless America.