Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Brooklyn in Big Sky

I didn’t know until recently that there was a place called Big Sky. When I got there, I saw that the sky was really big and Montana is really beautiful. Brooklyn is still the modern Mecca, but damn, it almost doesn’t make sense how beautiful Big Sky is. When I got there I was making jokes to myself that I could possibly be the first Brooklyn black man in Big Sky. I should climb up the tallest peak and stick the flag of the Nation of Islam in the rock and claim Big Sky for the Brotherhood of Flatbush.

They have down hill mountain biking in Big Sky. It is something the natives do for fun. They take bikes on a ski lift several hundred feet up the side of a mountain, then they turn the bikes around and ride down the side of the mountain. If you’ve ever been skiing, you know the feeling of standing at the top of the slope and looking straight out into the sky and how it feels when your stomach knots just a little when you look down the slope. That is on snow. In the summertime ski slopes are mostly rocks, gravel, dirt and neglected grass. My first reaction to the whole idea was, “Yo, that’s madness!”

While I was in Big Sky I was thinking a lot about the relationship between different groups of people, as I always do: scientists and non-scientists, deaf people and hearing people, men and women. The mountain biking madness made me think about the relationship between Brooklyn and Big Sky. I was talking to one of the guys, Tom, who worked in the Bike Shop. He greeted me like Happy People do. “What’s up dude?, How can I help you?” Pleasant, smiling, engaging. “Tell me about this riding down the mountain business?” He smiled even bigger, “Where you from brother?” I told him I’m from Brooklyn. He said, “Right on,” and told me about some time he had been there and how awesome it was.

“Riding down the mountain is awesome!” He told me about it with incredible enthusiasm. All the while he was looking straight at me and talking and smiling and explaining different things that happen and how it is different than the city riding that I do. A friend of his, Will, came in and the two of them continued in the same spirit. They could see that I was skeptical of the whole thing, and I said as much. Somewhere in the middle of it, I realized that they were trying to share some of their world with me. It was a point of entry to a relationship. They kept saying, “Dude you gotta try it.” “I’ve never really even ridden a mountain bike before, let alone down a mountain.” Tom said, “Bro, you look strong and well balanced, that’s all you need.” It was a genuine gesture of welcome. Welcome to Big Sky, welcome to our world.

I said, “A’right bet, let’s do it.” There were pounds all around. “You’re gonna have a blast.”

I thought to myself that rather than stick the flag of the Nation on top of the mountain, I’ll pin it to my shirt so if I kill myself doing this madness someone could identify me as Brooklyn in Big Sky.


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Listening to Sasha

At the end of Michelle’s speech, Sasha Obama grabbed the mic and said, “I love you Daddy.” For obvious reasons, that little add-on pushed me to the emotional brink. There is nothing new about the continued decline of the black American family. The struggles associated with those loose ends and disconnected familial bonds are studied ad nauseum. In particular, the black father figure in the popular American mind is approaching museum status, a relic of a different time. The language connected to black men as fathers today has boiled down to – “my baby daddy,” “that sorry motha$&!#,” “where’s my daddy,” “any nigga can have a child, but it takes a man to be a father.” As a father in the middle of this morass, I find that not only does this language hurt, it is disorienting. The statistics say that nearly 70% of black children today in the United States are born out of wedlock and the vast majority of those grow up without their fathers. The reality is what it is, but I find it disorienting that in America so many black children are robbed of what should be a basic right of existence, the love of not only their mothers, but their fathers too.

Sasha’s “I love you Daddy,” stood like a breakwater against a depressing tide. Love and black men are hardly ever connected to each other in the public American landscape. Often when they are, it is despite the man, rather than because of him. If only for an instant, Sasha gave us a different view. She gave us an image of what a child looks like when she sends the love signal out…. “I love you Daddy”… and the love of her father comes raining back down on her, confirming that her message was received and that her love is cherished and connected to her father’s love of her. In Days of Grace, Arthur Ashe wrote what has to be one of the world’s great love letters from a father to his daughter. He explains a similar love volley with his daughter, Camera. He wrote it when he was dying of Aids and it ends…

I may not be walking with you all the way, or even much of the way, as I walk with you now. Don’t be angry with me if I am not there in person, alive and well, when you need me. I would like nothing more than to be with you always. Do not feel sorry for me if I am gone. When we were together, I loved you deeply and you gave me so much happiness I can never repay you. Camera, wherever I am when you feel sick at heart and weary of life, or when you stumble and fall and don’t know if you can get up again, think of me. I will be watching and smiling and cheering you on.

Listening to Sasha, I heard my own daughter’s signal, “I love you Daddy.” It made me think of the ways I respond to her. It also made me think about how deeply I love her and how that love itself is a rudder that steers my sense of responsibility and my conduct as her father and as a man. I just hope that my love and my example are sufficient to keep her sense of manhood away from the morass.


Saturday, August 23, 2008

I Totally Got Popped in My Vagina

I was recently at a conference on Science and Technology Policy. The theme of the conference was “Governing Emerging Technologies.” One of the main topics was how to involve the public in establishing rules to govern nanotechnology research. There are significant public health and ethical challenges surrounding nanotech development and public participation that are important. The language of the meeting, however, was incredibly inflated - $1.50 words for 5¢ thoughts. “I’m sort of looking at the junction of sort of ableism and sort of ability, and sort of the conceptual constructs that constrain the way we frame the distinction between sort of classifying technologies as sort humano-enhancement versus enabling technologies.” Several of the people who said things like this appeared to take themselves and their work very very seriously. Others who were asking questions in response to statements like these made a grand show of dramatic perplexing thought and agonizing theoretical retrieval to formulate their questions. There is no doubt that public participation in the governance of nanotechnology is important. This especially true given the temptation of lucrative profits to lead the private sector to overlook public safety. Having said that, what about clear and concise language?

I understand that every community has its own lingo (or, a sort of heuristically determined sort of canonized lexicon.) In this case, however, one of the main points was that public input into the scientific and policy process is important. I wonder how the “public” can be expected to contribute to a dialog where personal conviction and clear ideas are hidden behind layers and layers of such convoluted language? For example, I asked one conferencee what she thought about a topic she presented. “Well I’ve sort of read Haberman who sort of developed the notion that….” “But what do you think?,” I interrupted.

The meeting was in Big Sky Montana. It is a ski resort in the middle of a set of beautiful mountains about an hour from Yellowstone National Park. A lot of the staff of the resort are young, white twenty-somethings who live this stage of their lives on the happiness principle. They do things that make them happy and they say exactly what they feel. Many of them work at the resort so they can ski for free. In the summer a lot of them go down hill mountain biking. You put your bike on the ski lift and then ride down the ski slopes.

I took a break from the provisional mid-level situational categorization of neo-neuroethics and went to see about down hill biking and talk to some of the Happy People. A girl named Misty (I swear that was what she said her name was) was sitting at the bottom of the ski lift. She had on a t-shirt that said, “Barack the Vote” and electric blue shorts with knee high electric blue argyle socks. While we were talking, another girl came blazing off the slope on her bike. She took off her helmet and shook her hair out like they do in those shampoo commercials and said, “I just came down Congo and it was totally narly.” Misty agreed, “Congo is killer, you get totally hammered.” Then her friend said, “Oh my God, I totally got popped in my vagina.” Clear concise language. That’s how Happy People talk.


Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Who Decides "In" or "Of" America?

One of the products of the Bush years is that he has helped reinforce America’s narrow view of itself. He made his rash and ridiculous claim after September 11th, that you are either with us or against us. That has spawned a climate where the Americaness of people is questioned. In a recent article by David Brooks in the New York Times, Brooks stops one step short of asking whether Barack Obama is “of” the United States or just “in” it? The article ends by posing the question of whether “the rest of America” will accept and support this supposedly enigmatic figure who is not recognizable – to Brooks – as an American.

It is the assumption that there is some group of people who can decide whether someone is in or of America that I find repugnant. That assumption is based on the idea that there is some standard set of Americans against which the rest of us can be measured to determine how American we are. Brooks gives examples of the blue-blooded New England Kennedy clan, and the small town value systems of Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter and the backwoods background of Andrew Jackson. Those are all examples of traditional American lineages, true blue American backgrounds of the Norman Rockwell imagination and my eighth grade history books.

Speaking for non-Norman Americans, Langston Hughes wrote that, “I am the darker brother… and I, too, am America.” In claiming to question who is in or of America, Brooks overlooks the fact that one of the products of small town American virtues was lynching on a grand scale and that backwoodsmen brutally took those woods from Native Americans and fashionably absorbed that brutality into their famed rugged persona. He overlooks the fact that the Ku Klux Klan was as much of America as was the Kennedy clan. He does not pause to consider Hispanic Americans who are being criminalized both for being of America and for being in America.

People who were subject to America despite being of it, have the right to determine for themselves how American they want to be. It is a right that they have earned through time and through the contribution of traditions without which America would not be what it now is. Quite apart from the legality of citizenship, nationalism rests in an individual’s heart. The sense of being an American or feeling like one, is just that – a sensation and a feeling.

Brooks and other standard bearing Americans will have to make room for the emergence of other American identities and other American traditions that have been arrogantly cast aside as alternative. The reference points that undergird the American identity are shifting. Norman Rockwell did not capture the image of the true American any more accurately than did Langston Hughes. “The rest of America” will have to make room for the rest of America.