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.