Friday, September 11, 2009

An End to Kofa

Once, the night before I was leaving to St. Kitts for Christmas, our dog, Kofa, ran off. It was a terrible dilemma. Do I leave with him lost or do I miss spending Christmas with my family in St. Kitts? I discovered how much of a connection Kofa and I had as I got sick confronted with the decision. I ruffled false feathers when he came back saying that I might have killed him myself had he made me miss the entire Christmas vacation. Now I am confronted with doing just that.

The quiet and mighty Kofa has lymphoma. About a month ago he was a 90 pound black and tan Doberman Pincher made out of steel. Today he is a ghostly shadow of himself. He weighs about 70 pounds, has stopped eating and struggles to stand up. In order to take him to the vet to confirm that I am awake in this nightmare I had to pick him up and put him the car. His suffering is such that we have to put him down. Even writing this, thinking about it and confronting the reality of having to actually do it is horrifically overwhelming. I was driving when I was explaining to my parents what the situation is and the grim decision we are faced with – deciding when to put an end to Kofa. In the middle of the conversation I was overcome with emotions and had to pull over as I could neither speak nor see.

People always talk about how dogs are man’s best friend and how the bond between people and animals can be profound. I have never dismissed those ideas, but I have not experienced their full truth until now. During the past eight years, as a function of long hours at home completing school, post doc and now working remotely, I have spent more time with Kofa than with anyone else. Needless to say we’ve developed a powerful relationship. Despite that, I am surprised by how deeply attached I am to my dog and how vicious the pain is at the prospect of having to put him to sleep in the coming days.

Our tradition says that man is man and dog is dog. In this case my dog is my man and it is killing me to think that I have to kill him. Just posting this, I'm wetting the keys.


Friday, August 7, 2009

The Beginning of the Trajectory

Yesterday was our daughter’s first day of school! It marks the beginning of a whole new stage of our lives. She is now officially plugged into the public school matrix – in Georgia of all places. We will have to be hyper-vigilant to ensure that the beautiful flames of curiosity, inquiry, budding logic and self-confidence that all children have are not extinguished in her by the school system. It is a shame to have to view public schools in that way, but the reality is what it is. For so many black children, independent of class, the public school system can be a danger to their natural intellect and thirst for knowledge. The damning and persistent achievement gap between black and white students is evidence of this danger.

My wife and I experienced the bundle of emotions that you would imagine from parents sending their children off to the first day of kindergarten. We wondered about how well we have prepared her for this first step into the world? How have we supported her self-confidence? Have we encouraged her to ask questions and be reasonably critical of things? We even took bets about who might cry. The school organized a “Kiss and Cry” for parents to support each other after dropping their kids off.

Our little girl looked even more beautifulicous and smart in her crisp and clean school uniform. Her braids were interwoven with the precision and inertia of centuries of black women prettying up their little girls for new beginnings. Her face was shinny with Jergens Original Scent. Her uniform issue K-Swiss sneakers were immaculate. All was happy. She found several friends of hers in her class, her teacher was energetic, very welcoming and highly organized. The other children looked equally eager, sharp and ready to begin.

There are three girls’ classrooms in kindergarten at her school. Two of them are the same and one is for students who need a little more attention. The two regular classes (I recognize that I am guilty of assigning labels already) are very mixed as is the school. While the school is predominantly black, the incoming classes are reflecting the changing neighborhood and are increasingly white. My daughter’s class is majority white and the other is probably half black and half white. The third class is for children who haven’t yet grasped or been exposed to the basics of the alphabet, numbers, colors, shapes etc.

After leaving my daughter’s class and sticking my head in the other class which is right next to hers, I was happy. Looking at all the children and the proud parents was a beautiful and emotional experience. Then I went to take a look into the extra needs class which is across the hall. All the happiness of the moment was immediately knocked out of me. That class was nearly exclusively black. Of the 20 or so girls, there was one white girl who was obviously white and two others whose ethnicity I couldn’t discern. The public school system and its specter of brutality was sitting at one of the desks smiling wickedly at me.

How is it that at 5 years old, on the very first day of school, black children are already behind? It is possible that if their teacher is exceptional, they will be able to catch up to the others and level the playing field. In this school their teacher is. The problem is that in the system in general, the worst teachers are those offered to students with the most need. As groups, the learning curves and academic achievement curves between these little black girls and their “regular class” counterparts are likely to never intersect.

Their trajectory may have already been set and their first day of school was yesterday.


Monday, August 3, 2009

Caribbean Man, Father In-Law and Golf

My father in-law is a typically Caribbean man in a lot of ways. His “name” is Rugged. He is from the poor and black side of St. Kitts and grew up during the days when the English tricked a lot of Caribbean people into thinking that the closer you were to them in color, occupation and physical proximity, the better you were. He damned that whole way of thinking and came up with the distinctly Caribbean combination of poverty, pride, a burning respect for education and an impeccable sense of family values. Since I married his daughter, he and I have always been relatively close. In my mind, one of my shortcomings has been that I don’t drink and I don’t play dominoes. For a man of Caribbean extract to not do those things has not only lead me to a life of endless teasing, but I think may have put an invisible constraint on our relationship. Despite that, as far as black men in the 21st century go, having a father in-law at all is an anomaly, so being able to think about our relationship is admittedly a privilege.

Not only is Rugged really rugged, he is a life-long athlete…football, cricket and now golf. He is a real deal golfer. He wins tournaments throughout the Caribbean and is one of the recognized talented senior players at the Royal St. Kitts Golf Club. He is also one of the kind of men that wouldn’t do well trying to teach a sport to a person with no natural athletic abilities. He is patient with a lack of technical knowledge, but frustrated with a lack of talent.

Recently I’ve been encouraged to try golf. While I don’t drink and play dominoes, I do have the black man’s gene and am a naturally gifted athlete (with a Ph.D., smile. That’s in our genes too!)

My father in-law and I went to play golf together the other day while he was visiting us. It was the first time that we were playing together, just the two of us. Throughout the round he was giving me tips on this and that about the game and my swing etc. A few times he would say do such and such and I would, and the ball would take off as he predicted. Then he would smilingly talk about people who are coachable or who have natural gifts. All the while as we walked from hole to hole I was thinking that this is relationship building stuff. My relationship with my wife’s father could go to a whole new level because I am trying to learn a game that he loves and can interpret his instructions to produce immediate, and hopefully lasting, effects. I also learned on some of the walks down the fairways how much he detests the Colonial imposition on the mentality of Caribbean people. I am sure he can see my interpretation of those views too and how they have affected my parenting style.

As we approached the 17th hole he said, “Alright Mr. K, let’s par these last two holes!” I said alright and joked, “lemme lash dis ball wid a 4 iron, right now!”

As I stood at the tee, 4 iron in hand looking at the ball, I was thinking that a whole new level of relationship was on the line. Strange, what pressures and thoughts swirl through someone’s mind as they prepare to tee off. On all the other holes he had some comment – “remember to transfer your weight,” “try not to pop up,” “make sure you swing through the ball.” This time he didn’t say anything. The future trajectory of our relationship was resting entirely on me and on the trajectory of this shot. I’ve never been in a golf tournament, but I had my first experience of tournament nerves.

I brought the club back with a turn not a sway, which naturally shifts my weight to my back foot without knocking me off balance. I kept my eye on the ball as I brought the club down and my weight transferred forward. I watched the club hit the ball, which meant that I didn’t pop up and had stayed down long enough to see the contact. I looked up on the follow through which is the end of the natural swing.

Rugged immediately exclaimed, “DAT IS A GOLF SHOT MY BOY!!” “A thing of beauty to watch and remember!”

I made par on the hole and solidified a new trajectory for our relationship.


Thursday, July 30, 2009

Misbehave....Go to the Office

One of the things I found irritating about the brotherhood of police that lined up in support of Officer Crowley and their attempts to chastise President Obama was how crass they all seemed. They seemed like the very kind of crude police officers that would indeed engage in racial profiling and the kind that I would be afraid of. When one of them referenced the President’s signaling the history of profiling and police brutality, he brushed it off as “whatever the history may be,” we’re not stupid. Probably not, but brushing aside the history of police brutality against black people, especially in Boston, is the height of insensitivity.

Despite what might be said about that, what is refreshing is the air of change that President Obama promised the nation and has delivered in so many small and large ways. Here was a fundamental shift in the imagery of power, transgression and forgiveness. Here is something we have never before witnessed in the entire history of the United States.

A white cop misbehaves himself and wrongfully arrests a black man then he has to go the Office of the President of the United States, who is also a brother, to explain himself and make nice. That’s seismic.

Consider the message that sends to our boys in blue all over the country. They are probably in their squad cars right now, driving slowly past a brother staring him down with contempt as they usually do, but they’re thinking, “What’s the world coming to? That nigger might be Obama’s cousin. Come on Vinnie, let’s go.”

Images matter. For a white cop to have to go the Oval Office and sit down with two brothers – one of whom is the President of the United States, the other of whom is one of the world’s leading scholars at the nation’s oldest university is an image that I will cherish.


Friday, July 24, 2009

What is Javier Saying About Skip?

One possibility...

Los negros en los Estados Unidos piensen que todo el sufrimiento y la injusticia es de ellos. El professor esta detenido y es una crisis nacional. El president se dice que la policia son estupido. Que lastima! Pero que paso con miles de personas Latino que estan detenido cada dia? Donde esta la crisis nacional? Donde esta la investigacion? Justicia es importante, pero no por los negros solamente.


Thursday, July 23, 2009


Skip Gates’ arrest is causing a flurry of angry discussion among black people and perhaps a flurry of quiet nodding of heads among white people. For black men there is no shortage of shared experiences. Nearly all black men have been held up by the police for one reason or another whether they deserved to be or not. If not, they have for sure been the object of derisive suspicion from whoever is behind the counter, looking out the window or walking down the block in the other direction. Saying that Skip Gates is a renown Harvard Professor and if it can happen to him, imagine what could happen to the rest of us, is a moot point in the American black world. That is a lesson that doesn’t need teaching.

Once upon a time it was much easier to assume that the cause of the problem was the racist attitudes of police specifically and white American society in general. Their racial aggression, hatred and ugliness was on public display for all the world to see. In that logic, if a racist American society vilifies black men, then police feel they can enact their barbarism on black men with impunity. Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell among countless others, confirm that this logic still holds. What is increasingly troubling is the possibility of an alternative reason for police brutality in our time. The behavior of many young black men. The bad behavior of so many black men only contributes to the already foul attitudes of the police which worsens our tragically violent relationship with them.

A close colleague of mine has always said that the key to solving the educational divide between black and white kids is for black kids to sit down and study harder. Simple. He does not overlook the structural challenges and racial inequity, but focuses on what we can do for ourselves. That makes all of our claims more clear and effective. When you’ve done all you possibly can do and still come up short, then the argument that you’ve been dealt a poor hand or ineffective tools or public education for black children holds more weight.

The same point holds for black men’s relationship with the police. If, as black men, we would behave ourselves, our relationship with the police could improve. Simple. Then, when their brutality persists we could more easily make the argument that their violence and aggression is fueled by their own wicked and racist nature. In the meantime our argument is undermined by our own behavior.

A woman called into one of the black talk shows in Atlanta recently devastated that the police had shot and killed her son. She was grieving as a mother, but screaming for justice as a parent of a young black boy. I take the side of black first. My immediate response was that the police are foul and here is another brother to add to the list of slain innocents. She went on to say, however, that even though he was armed and got into some scuffle with the police and then this and that happened they didn’t need to shoot him while he was running away. I clearly run the risk of sounding insensitive to her pain, but if he had been behaving himself in the first place it is far more likely that he would still be with her. Righteous behavior is definitely not protection against wickedness, but it does earn you fair to middling odds against being in trouble with the police.

In my neighborhood at the moment, houses are broken into at least a few every week. Almost without a single exception the crimes are being committed by young black men…..with short locks or mohawks, pants hanging down to their knees and long white t-shirts. The police are called repeatedly to be on the lookout for African American males who have just stolen this or that or are suspiciously walking around the side and back of people’s homes looking in their windows.

The behavior of these young brothers in my neighborhood is such that it is logical for the police to be suspicious of black men. They’ve never had a call reporting a young white boy…sandy blonde hair, Abercrombie and Fitch t-shirt, dirty University of Georgia baseball hat, nasty flip flops running up the street with a flat screen. I was furious when I was stopped and harassed by the police in front of my own house…African American male, sagging shorts, no shirt, late at night. They made me go inside and show them my i.d. and then promptly threw it back at me and stormed off with, “we got a call about a black guy casing houses in the area.” The police infuriated me, but the root cause of the problem, that I grudgingly had to admit, was the brother who was looking to break into someone’s home.

This is the part of the problem that tears me up. Having been schooled in New York, by Blackful parents and by the Nation, I don’t think for a second that race doesn’t drive some of the ill that befalls black people and black men. It was racist aggression that caused the Cambridge police to continue to arrest Professor Gates after he said it was his home, but it was the logic of precedence caused by other black men that made the police suspicious of him in the first place. Skip Gates is right to be infuriated and I am along with him. But now, as James Baldwin said, “in the private chambers of the soul, the guilty party is identified and the accusing finger there is not legend, but consequence, not fantasy, but the truth.”

If, as black men, we want to improve the quality of our lives, then we have to do just that and improve the quality of our lives.


Monday, July 6, 2009

Water and Righteousness

Lately I've felt that I need therapy dealing with some of the challenges of parenthood – perhaps fatherhood more precisely. I have been taking my little girl to swimming lessons for the better part of a year. She swims at the Martin Luther King Natatorium which is in the backyard of the King Center in Atlanta. It seems a righteous place to learn to swim.

She started off with a lot of promise in the beginner’s class with Miss Emma. She quickly learned the beginning skills and was ready to move to the next section. She wasn’t afraid of the water. She has even been to swim in the sea in Barbados and in St. Kitts. When the time came to move to the next level with Brother Ezra, however, she started fussing at poolside and even at school before we went to the class.

She would ask, “do we have swimming today Daddy?” “Do I have to go to Brother Esra’s class?” I would say yes and the tears would start to well up. I’m not sympathetic to fussing like that and would be well on my way to ignorant almost immediately. We would arrive at the class with her fussing and me angry. A few times she started crying and carrying on at poolside and I let my ignorance get the better of me and snatched her out of the pool and we left. Clearly not a comfortable and encouraging environment to learn how to swim – where you need your breathing to be as relaxed as possible.

One of the things that I like about the center is that it is full of black families and children swimming. One day a sister pulled my hand and said, “brother you just need to give her time.” I started to say, “but…” and she interrupted me and said, “Time. She needs time and your patience.” I felt like a school child being scolded. Not only was I being scolded at the pool by sister such and such, my wife was schooling me at home talking about how she’ll be fine and I should stop pressing her so hard. I realize how unreasonable my position was, but having seen what my daughter was capable of in the water, her fear seemed baseless – to me, a father.

I’ve stopped pressing and started just playing in the pool with her. We’ve spent hours and hours in the scorching sun this summer, jumping in the water, climbing out and jumping back in…over and over and over and over again. We’ve quietly gotten to the point where I end up saying, “ole girl, we have to go.” The other part of what the sister said was that, “now you’re mad she won’t get in, but soon you’ll be mad that she won’t get out.”

We went to a lake this fourth of July weekend. My girl jumped off the dock into lake water!! I jumped in and she jumped in right behind me. This might be one of the moments that only parents can appreciate. When she leapt off the dock, about 3 feet above the surface of murky lake water, where she couldn’t see the bottom or what was in the water, my heart leapt out of my chest.



Monday, June 22, 2009

Closer to the Hispanic Laborer

This house renovation project is bringing me closer not only to hard physical labor, but the danger involved in living as a Hispanic person in the United States. I learned today that one of the men that are working on our house was arrested last Thursday night. He was stopped at a traffic checkpoint and was arrested because the name on the registration for the vehicle was not his own. These traffic checkpoints are set up randomly throughout the city to check people’s license and registration. Apparently they are randomly far more likely to be positioned in Hispanic communities. In several instances these simple traffic stops result in people being deported, legitimately or not. The man working on our place was fortunate. He is here legally and was given the latitude to prove that. Despite his ability to do that, he still had to spend the night in jail while his status was verified in consultation with ICE – Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (I will simply mention that he was at work on Friday.)

One of the men, on their last project, was shot and robbed on his way home one evening. Another of them, during that same project, was held up at gun point, beaten and robbed. These are the daily experiences of random Hispanic men that I now know. Apparently Hispanic men are the targets for theft and assault because criminals know that they are often paid in cash and, because of their status, cannot call the police. Not only are the men terrorized, I’ve learned recently that Hispanic women attempting to cross the border are extremely likely to be raped by whatever men they encounter. The violence against them is fueled by the same knowledge of their powerlessness.

In addition to the daily street violence, they are confronting a raging anti-Hispanic sentiment in the country at the moment. It is driven in part by the poor economy and the idea that Hispanic workers are stealing jobs from willing American workers or undercutting the wage rate for legitimate services provided by Americans. It is also fueled by people like Lou Dobbs who is encouraging vigilantism and going to the border of ethnic cleansing in his zeal to rid the country of illegal Hispanic immigrants. Hispanic people are being arrested by the hundreds per week in Cobb and Gwinnett Counties here in Georgia and by the thousands across the country in ICE raids on factories where large concentrations of them work. The mantra seems to be – arrest them all and we’ll sort out their status later.

I am struggling to consider what it must feel like to be one of these men – here, in the United States, separated from their wives and children, working non-stop, without complaint, under extremely difficult conditions to improve the lives of American people who in turn spit upon them. How does this man, who is ultimately working for me, feel when I ooh and ahh about how phat he is making my house and then he goes home and is nearly deported because Georgia doesn’t want his kind to be here?

My wife and I passed by a Home Depot one day and a pickup truck with two white men drove up to the long line of Hispanic day laborers who post up there. A whole set of the men dashed to the truck to be first for an opportunity. As soon as the men were close, the truck peeled off with the white men laughing and yelling, “Look at those bastards run!”

I am seeing in these Hispanic men the dignity and quiet fortitude that American black people have been singing about themselves forever. I do not see the lessons that black Americans supposedly taught the nation about acceptance, equality and justice being extended to these newest Americans. Unfortunately, I also do not see black Americans themselves extending an arm of understanding, support or encouragement. I am sure that in the end this group of Hispanic Americans will end up teaching us how to be Americans again. When they are finally able to stand up straight and not be subject to American indecency they will greet us.

Hola amigos, Buenos dias.


Friday, June 12, 2009

Beginning to Think About Work

My wife and I are renovating our house. These days in America that appears to mean contracting with a white man who oversees the work of Hispanic men. That is what we’ve done. Our contractor oversees the work of Hispanic men but, he has distinguished himself in that he works alongside them. He does not oversee the work of several crews on multiple projects breezing between them in a spotless, scratchless Chevy Silverado. Since we have been in Georgia he is the very first white man – or any man for that matter – that I have seen working directly alongside Hispanic men, swinging the hammer shoulder to shoulder in the blazing sun. His truck is scratched up and dusty and they ride together to and from Lowes hauling materials. His love of the work and of craftsmanship is laudable, but his sense of humanity and equality among men is remarkable. Watching these men work has made me think deeply about the dignity of work and our attitude towards the so-called Hispanic laborers.

This experience has brought me closer to hard physical labor than I have ever been. It has reminded me that I work in a profession of the mind. The heaviest thing I might pick up in a day is my full cup of hot chocolate. Even that is lighter after the first sip. These men put out extraordinary physical effort each day in the searing heat and then come back and do it again.

Our plan is to knock off the roof and attic of the house, raise it and rebuild it with two bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. One day an enormous flatbed truck pulled up with all of the materials necessary to rebuild the floor system, all of the 2x4’s necessary to frame the entire upstairs structure and all of the rafters to hold up the roof. The flooring system is a set of nearly 50 I-joists each of which is approximately 30 feet long. The rafters to hold up the roof are solid pieces of 2x10” wood each of which is approximately 20 feet long. There were 118 rafters. Then there were hundreds of 12’ long 2x4’s. The guys from the truck used a mechanical lift and dropped all of this material on the street in front of our house.

While our contractor is righteous, he is also much older than his Hispanic crew so he left the lifting to them. These three men carried every scrap of that material to the back of the house by hand. It was thousands of pounds of wood. Each 20 foot long rafter weighs nearly 100lbs. They used cut up pieces of carpet as cushions for their shoulders. They had to pick up each piece from the middle in order to balance it on their shoulders. They had to walk through a muddy garden, navigate between two houses with only 7 feet between them, go up an ivy-covered embankment and then walk all the way across the back yard. Each man had to do this about forty times. I don’t know how many hundreds of 2x4’s there were, but two of them would carry 12 at a time up the same difficult path and the third man would carry six at a time by himself. Then there were the floor joists.

They began this work at 8:30 in the morning and continued until it was done at nearly 5 in the evening.

After they had gone I went to try to pick up one of the rafters which were stacked in three waist-high piles. I consider myself fairly strong, but it was a strain to pick it up. Once I got it on my shoulder I felt my lower back and stomach muscles trembling with each other trying to balance the weight. I didn’t even attempt to carry it from the street.

The following morning I saw one of the guys promptly at 8:30 as usual. He smiled as he always does.

“Hola amigo. Buenos dias.”


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Jesus Might Wink

I ran into an older brother on Saturday morning that I hadn’t seen in some time. He is part of a group of older gentlemen, in their 50’s and 60’s, who used to walk/jog in the evenings and I would see them while I was skipping rope. The set of them always made a point to greet me and made jokes after asking my name, they decided that Kamau was too difficult so my name became Young Breh. When this brother greeted me in the morning it was as if we hadn’t seen each other in years. It was as if I was a close personal friend of his or one of his son’s best friends. He shook my hand with both hands in that strong grandfatherly way. His smile was beaming as he said, “Young Breh, it is sooo good to see you!!”

It isn’t as if I wasn’t glad to see him, but his enthusiasm was contagious. I found myself thrilled to see him and I didn’t even remember his name. He asked excitedly about my daughter and wife. “Breh, take care of that precious little one. You know she holds the key to our future.”

I found myself smiling and smiling and really happy. I asked how he was. He said, “Young Breh, I’m on my way and I’m so excited I don’t know what to do.”

I was thinking about his happiness and mine; about how an incidental run-in on the street became a crescendo of excitement and expectation and understanding. It was incredible. I am not a disciple of cosmic energy and karma and such things, but I have to wonder about it now. What happens when millions of encounters like these are taking place all over the country and all over the world at the same time? What happens today during the inauguration when so much energy, so much pleasure, so much relief, expectation, pride and happiness are all occurring at the same instant focused on the same event?

It is so intense it seems likely that the clouds might part. Maybe they will, and Jesus will show his face and wink.


Saturday, January 17, 2009

Friday, January 16, 2009

Becoming a Dog Person

We have a six year old Doberman Pincher named Kofa. We got him when he was just several weeks old and could fit in your two cupped hands. He has grown into a 95 lb black and tan, sleek and muscular dog. I was never a dog person, but early on my wife decided that she wanted a dog and Kofa is what we got. We both come from Caribbean traditions where dogs are dogs and men are men. So we don’t operate like some of our American friends whose dogs roll in their beds and on the furniture and eat off their plates and lick them on their faces and such. We don’t play like that.

Having said that, Kofa is my boy. He is not only well trained, but well mannered. He goes out and picks up the paper in the morning. At night, if it’s raining hard or too cold, he knows that I don’t want to go outside so he’ll go out by himself, take care of his business and come back. We’re tight and now that I work from home we spend our days together checking up on each other. Now, “shhhhh,” I love my dog.

I was on my way to St. Kitts for the holidays to meet my wife and daughter who were already there. We made special arrangements with friends to come to our house and take him out and spend time with him while we were gone so that he wouldn’t have to suffer the indignity of being in a kennel. So you see how far along the spectrum of dog person I have gone.

The taxi was coming at 3:45 a.m. for me to catch a 6:00 a.m. flight. Of course, I didn’t start packing and organizing until late. Around 12:30, when I was done, I took Kofa out. We walked around the corner leisurely while I was thinking about being in the Caribbean sea the following afternoon. I don’t know what he was thinking about. I called him and turned to walk back home. When I got to the stairs he wasn’t behind me. I called again. Nothing. I went back around the corner and I could see his silhouette way off in the distance several blocks away. “What!! I don’t believe this moah%#kah dog.”

I went after him calling his name and watched him trot off. I went back home, got in my car and drove around looking for him. By now it was approaching 2:00 a.m. I went back home again and was like, “Yo, you got an hour and half dog.” I said it big and bad to myself, but I really didn’t know what I would do. Could I really just leave for two weeks with him lost? What would I tell the family?

I took a shower and got dressed to leave, then got in the car and drove around again where I’d last seen him. Nothing. Now it was about 3:30. I stood on the porch facing a real dilemma. Do I stay, miss my trip and probably find him or leave, spend Christmas with my family and not know what would happen to him?

Leaving a no collar, 95 lb Doberman roaming around seemed like a death sentence. Someone would call animal control and who knows what would happen then. I would also have to explain to my wife, and probably with more difficulty my daughter, that I left him. How could I do that?

If I stayed, because of full flights, I would likely miss my whole trip. Under those circumstances, if he came back after I missed my trip, I would likely kill him. So I was leaning towards leaving, where he at least would have a fighting chance at life, but deep down I felt I really couldn’t do that.

Now it was about 3:40. I felt the anxiety physically in my chest when the taxi called to say he would be there in a minute. Just then I heard him crunching leaves as he walked up to the back of the house. I called and came around sheepishly. When I looked at him, I could tell he was probably thinking, “I can’t believe you’re going to St. Kitts and leaving me here by myself.” The combination of anger, relief and anxiety told me that Kofa is really my boy and I have become a dog person.


Give Thanks

Yesterday, in response to the news that everyone on the US Airways flight was saved, I was as happy as if I knew someone on the flight. Of course, like everyone, I was glad that people’s lives were spared, but it struck me how personally relieved I felt. Reflecting on that, it dawned on me that we have been living in a morass of bad news.

Here in the United States, we awake each day listening to the number of people who have lost their homes and jobs. They show pictures on the news of desperate people crying, not knowing where their next meal or check or health care payment will come from. We watch the banditry of the rich, like Bernard Madoff, leaving people destitute and powerless over their own misfortune. Violent crime is on the rise. Three people have been shot and killed in my own neighborhood in the last two months.

Abroad, we’re watching wars raging and calamities all around. There was slaughter in Mumbai. Cholera is killing Zimbabweans by the tens of thousands. 200 people drowned in the ferry disaster in Indonesia last week. I read about Afghani girls who were burned by Taliban zealots as they tried to go to school. Bombs continue to explode in Iraq killing dozens at a time. India and Pakistan are gearing up for carnage. The Russians shut off oil to the Ukraine and therefore thousands of families are freezing in their own homes. The Congo fighting teams have split yet again, further complicating that killing vortex. Looming large, like a grand dark cloud of human atrocity, is the slaughter of Palestinians by unrepentant Israeli Jews.

Closer to home, a dear old uncle of mine, my de facto grandfather, is dying a slow and difficult death. A friend of mine recently gave birth to a beautiful child, but lost mobility of her legs in the process. In speaking with her the other day, I learned that not only were they dealing with that difficulty, her husband’s father had been killed in an accident just before Christmas. Also this week, another friend of ours was hit with unspeakable horror when she learned that her mother had been murdered. That was Wednesday.

Yesterday, I was on my way to a meeting when I heard that a plane crashed in New York. When I came out and learned that everyone survived I felt like I was swooning. “Give thanks,” I said out loud and to myself. I don’t think I consciously carry around all this bad news, but yesterday it struck me that the cumulative effect of listening to it all the time has left me wanting to hear something good. It is part of the reason that I feel such happiness and relief at the end of each day when my wife and daughter and I are all together – simple, safe, with food and Grace and each other.

They interviewed one of the survivors who, with a shaking voice said, “I’m so thankful that today my daughter still has a father and my wife still has a husband.” I give thanks too, that his daughter still has a father and his wife still has a husband.

That is profoundly good news.


Thursday, January 8, 2009

St. Kitts and Tipping

My wife, daughter and I were in St. Kitts for the holidays visiting our family. One of our oldest and dearest family friends is a combination English (white) and Zambian (black) couple. One evening we were all eating dinner on the beach at one of St. Kitts’ new found beach bars and restaurants on the southern bridge of the island between Frigate Bay and the peninsula.

St. Kitts was one of the Caribbean’s 6 remaining sugar producers until very recently. They have since unfortunately substituted tourism for energy and sugar production as the primary fuel for their economy. Partly as a result, “the strip” is full of beach bars patronized mostly by tourists during the high season. At this particular spot, “Shiggity Shack”, nearly all of the patrons were white, and the vast majority were tourists. The dinner entertainment consisted of a black one man band, “de ban’man”, wearing the classic colorful island shirt and white pants singing reggae songs and encouraging the audience to sing along or dance. After our clawless, delicious, cut in half, delicious, grilled, delicious, Caribbean, delicious lobster arrived, “de fireman” came out. At first he was eating sticks of fire and resting them on his tongue like they do in the circus. Then they brought out the limbo stick while de ban’man encouraged the audience to yell out “yeah mon,” every time de fireman successfully went under. In the end as you might imagine, they lit the limbo stick on fire and de fireman made it under a seemingly impossibly small space while the array of sun-reddened, temporarily Carib drinking Americans enthusiastically yelled “YEAH MON!!” Then de fireman came around for tips. Apparently at our table, only English tipped him.

Later we were talking about the distinction between service and servitude in the Caribbean context and the deference that is generally paid to white people in the region. English said that it is a generally accepted social truth that black people don’t tip well. As a result, in these sorts of tip-based economies black tourists and for sure black locals are overlooked in favor of more generous tipping whites. His conclusion was that the tipping disparity is probably a cause of the deference and the deference probably contributes to the disparity. A vicious cycle to be broken, if logic serves, by black people tipping more generously. He then cited the example of de fireman.

Surely there is an array of legitimate points to argue on this unfortunate reality, but the point that I don’t think hit home deeply enough with English was how the whole staging at Shiggity Shack represents a power disparity that is repugnant. Of course I recognize the entrepreneurship, hard work and success of the restaurant’s owner, who is a black Kittician (married to a white woman). I am glad at least that he is not a white retired ex-pat from New Jersey. That said, I was almost angry with de fireman an’ de ban’man. Their brand of entertainment, so stereotypical in its modern tourist roots, is like minstrelsy to me. It offers nearly nothing of our ornate Caribbean cultural tapestry. In addition, their performance capped off a day where I saw grown 30 and 40 something year old Kittician men and women trolling the blazing hot beaches with pieces of aloe offering to massage the sun burned tourists with “de magic plant.” Some of the women’s children were just hanging around under trees kicking dust waiting for them. I watched one Kittician man who must have been about my age negotiate to rub de magic plant on a white man’s feet who also must have been about our age. Once the Kittician man started the massage the white man just put his book back up and continued reading.

My anger at de fireman is also in the context of learning that the extraordinarily beautiful peninsula of St. Kitts will soon be the exclusive jaunt of mostly white, rich foreigners. There are already gated communities under construction, many of which will likely have no Kitticians living within the gates or even nearby and will allow only those access who come in some domestic capacity – reminiscent of sections of St. Peter and St. James in Barbados. Public access to the beaches will likely be restricted, access to some of the most scenic natural vistas on the island will be restricted. Most painfully, not only Kittician, but Caribbean identity is being impaired. We are being reduced to some smiling limboing “mon” who passes a hat while the sand that we press against to get under the stick is being snatched.

I just couldn’t bring myself to tip that.