When Sharon Hudson hired me to edit her e-book, I was thrilled. I’d always gotten good vibes from her, and we have a serendipitous friend in common. I met Hannah, who Sharon interviewed for Episode 9, in a prenatal yoga class; we ended up giving birth across the hall from each other on the same day. That kind of connection, even once removed, seems significant. Still, I figured I’d scroll through the rough draft of the book, make some developmental suggestions, dot some i’s, cross out some split infinitives and that would be that.
But in addition to the standard editorial fare, I could not resist typing rambling personal commentary in response to her content. The book, Authentically Me, (coming soon) addresses how society’s values and teachings can interfere with our finding out who we really are and what we want. Even in the editorial process, it caused me to reflect on my expectations for myself and why I’ve struggled with a narrow vision of success. My takeaway?
Man, Sharon is really smart and introspective! I want to spend more time with her.
I am terrible at following up on thoughts like that, so when Sharon asked to interview me for her podcast, Soul Quest, I was excited. And then I was nervous. I was going to talk about myself for 45 minutes, and not like, which are my favorite yoga pants, but about my divorce, my miscarriages and how my whole initial plan for adult life fell in the toilet. I took many, many deep breaths, tried not to ramble and put it out there.
The podcast is “conversations with inspiring people about their quest towards living their authentic life.” You may come away from Episode 15 inspired by what NOT to do as a functional adult, but hey, I’ll take what I can get.
Huge thanks to Sharon for allowing me to spill my guts on some of the messier moments that have bludgeoned me into who I am today.
For someone who is pretty attentive to all the shit that goes on in her head and whatever the latest science/space/blackhole news is, I can be oblivious to the walking, talking, irl stuff. Early concrete example: my dad built me a Barbie house for Christmas when I was eight. While it was a work-in-progress, he threw an old paint-stained olive green bedspread over it in the garage. I walked past its five-by-five Snuffalupagus-like bulk every day for months to access my bike and roller skates. I didn’t notice it.
My mother said, when I was young, sometimes kids would make fun of me in that subtle, it-sounds-like-a-compliment-but-any-sentient-adult-can-tell-it’s-not kind of way. It hurt her heart, but upon realizing I had no idea anything was going on beneath the surface of “I like your hair,” she decided perhaps ignorance was bliss and kept it to herself.
I am still like this. Although, at forty-five, I may get an inkling that your “that sweatshirt looks so comfortable” comment may be your way of passive-aggressively saying, “You look like a slob, and now I feel better than you,” I am still too exhausted to try to figure that shit out. Whatever. You are dismissed.
I was just reading an advice column in which a person asked, “When a guest brings a bottle of wine to my house for dinner, do I have to serve it with the meal?” Figuring out what social custom dictates you do in situations like this is so incredibly tiresome. If you bring me a bottle of wine, please, for the love of god, tell me what to do with it. “I thought it would go nicely with the chips and queso” or “Save this for yourself for later” are welcome directions. Better yet, take liberty, get comfy in my house, and open that shit yourself or shove it in my wine fridge, which is probably empty because stocking up on wine is not something I’m capable of.
Whatever you do, don’t give me a choice and expect me to say the “right” thing. If you say, “Whatever. Open it if you want.” I will circumvent trying to read your true desires in your face like tea leaves and do exactly what I want. I’ll ask, “Are you sure?” That’s your one out. If you don’t take it, you’ve no one but yourself to blame.
Look, I will pick up on your mood. I am annoyingly empathetic. If you are having a shitty day, I will know that you are sad, tired, pissed off, depressed, whathaveyou. But if you are trying to send me subtle social cues to tuck my bra strap under my sleeve, I will absolutely not notice. Then, you will make fun of me to your “friends” later, which will feel delicious at first but leave you with that horrible hollow feeling after the fact, and I will go home none the wiser.
I used to think this lack of social awareness was a failing of mine, but every time I have gotten a clue that I didn’t use the right fork or someone was smirking at my shoes, it hasn’t done anything for me except make me feel bad (when I was younger) or annoy me (when I was older). Plus, Jason says he loves this about me, and with all the other shit he has to put up with, I oughta throw him a bone. So…oblivious. Yeah, I think I’ll keep it.
She’d wandered up to us in the middle of Big Bend National Park under a scorching midday sun. Despite her misgivings, thirst drove her to take the risk. “Hey! Y’all have any water?” Her name was Sarah.
We were in our early twenties and made friends with Sarah over the course of the next several sentences. We stood there in the semi-desert, sun bleaching out the curves and valleys of the Chisos Mountains in the background, chatting. Sarah said she and her friend, Clay, were crossing the border to Boquillas later that evening. “Have you ever heard of sotol?” she asked.
Surprisingly, as well-versed in cheap liquor as we were, we hadn’t.
“You should totally meet us over there and try it!” she said before waving goodbye and continuing her hike, empty Camelbak slung over one arm.
It didn’t take much convincing for Javier, Trey and me to go to a bar, even if it was across a stagnant section of the Rio Grande and nestled in a dusty cluster of buildings with no electricity. Later that day, we happily paid a few bucks to be rowed 50 feet across the still, mud-brown water and just as happily declined their offers to sell us coke on the opposite shore. It was the late ’90s. There were no border patrol agents, no gates, no checking of identification at that deserted bend in the river, just a handful of locals running a rowboat service.
We found the bar, indistinguishable from the rest of the modest buildings, except that it had a counter inside with a guy selling liquor behind it. We started to order a shot of sotol each, but when we found out a bottle was ONLY SEVEN DOLLARS, we pooled our money. Curiously, the sotol came in an old tequila bottle.
We were several shots in when Sarah walked through the door. “Hey, y’all!”
“Sarah!” She was our newly long-lost Norm in a perky, blond package.
We were already well on our way to being drunk, so Javier offered Sarah a shot.
“Oh, I don’t drink,” she replied.
One of us said something like, “But you said….sotol…”
It turned out Sarah was a recovering alcoholic, and she had only heard of sotol, not sampled it herself. What we had taken as a personal recommendation had only been an uninformed, whimsical suggestion, one we would pay for later.
We were there long enough for me to need to use the outhouse. The back jutted out over a cliff, so everything you deposited in the hole went spilling down into the canyon, which was a handy way to avoid having to clean it. At some point, Sarah left, we finished the bottle, and it was time to go back.
It was dusk. We stumbled back toward the river, through rocks, dust, prickly pear, and mesquite trees. Halfway there, I stopped to pee again and fell into a cactus, impaling my butt cheek with spines. At the moment, thoroughly numbed, I thought it was hilarious.
When we came to the river, we saw a boat moored on our side and a pair of sad mules tethered to a hitching post, but no rowers. They’d promised they’d be there, but since we were communicating in both broken English (them) and broken Spanish (us), we could have been mistaken. Instead of considering this, though, we were drunkenly outraged.
The boat had a slow leak in it, so we decided David, Javier’s younger brother and the lightest person in our group, should row us across one at a time to prevent sinking. As our one-brother ferry made its way back and forth, Trey began to get more and more irate.
When he and Javier were the only ones left on the Mexico side, Trey managed to get Javier’s blood up as well. It wasn’t hard; the two of them together and under the influence almost guaranteed madness, which is part of why I loved them. They made me laugh and sometimes pissed me off, but they were loyal as hell — to each other, to me, and as it turns out, to two sad, strange mules.
It’s unclear whether the source of their irritation was the absence of promised rowers or the ill-treatment of the emaciated-looking animals tied to the post, but it culminated in this (loosely remembered) inebriated exchange of words:
“You know what, man. We should cut their mules loose.”
“Yeah! Yeah, we should! Serves them right.”
“Yeah, they should be free. Look at them. They’re starving!”
And then the two of them untethered the two beleaguered animals, at which point Trey slapped one on the ass and yelled, “Yah, mule! You’re free!” Like some sort of vigilante Yosemite Sam.
Said mules glanced curiously at the loud, stumbling gringos behind them but made no move whatsoever to “yah!” When David returned to retrieve Javier and Trey, they gave up trying to cajole the mules to freedom and got in the boat.
Finally, with all ten of our feet planted firmly back on U.S. soil, we surveyed the quiet, mud-colored river, the sedentary mules, and the leaky boat in the moonlight. Then, someone suggested, “We should push the boat down the river!”
And someone else said, “Yeah, serves them right!” (Middle-aged me is SMH in embarrassment at that group of naive, ineffective, self-centered white kids.)
So we pushed the boat down the river, and it went scarcely farther than the mules. I say “we” a lot in this story, but aside from falling in the cactus, I can’t take credit for most of these shenanigans. Not because I’m above such drunken ridiculousness (I once picked a bar fight over a stolen novelty condom), but more because the impulsive behavior quota was already filled, and there just wasn’t space for one more bad decision.
After the anticlimactic boat launch, we heard two people approaching from the Mexico side — our rowers, pushing through the brush. We panicked. Someone whisper-yelled, “Let’s GO!” and we all hopped in David’s waiting Jeep and sped off, gravel spitting out from the churning tires, just like the hardcore hooligans we weren’t.
The rest of the evening was par for the course. We made dinner around a fire, talked and laughed. Javier and Trey got in an argument, and then I got mad at Javier and stomped off into the desert darkness. But only a little way off, because I was scared of getting lost. I was probably crying because that’s what I do. Aside from the fact that we were in Big Bend, it was a typical Saturday night. Javier and I were dating at the time, but it often felt more like the three of us were buddies. We acted more like family — there was closeness and trust, but fairly often, we annoyed the hell out of each other.
We all made up in the early dark hours of morning when the moonshine sotol hit our intestines. We were forced to stumble out of the tent, dig quick holes and pass around the toilet paper in the dark. Nothing brings people together like a shared case of the runs. The next day, we woke up late and hungover and went hiking because that’s what you do when you’re young and invincible.
Twenty-some-odd years later, I’m married with two kids and living in the suburbs. Trey lives in San Francisco with his husband; I keep up with him on Facebook. David got married, had a kid, then got divorced. Sarah had a kid, too. I lost track of her after that. Javier died about a year ago after a battle with prostate cancer, survived by his wife and two young sons.
I look back on that time in Big Bend, and it makes me smile as much as shudder. Unfortunately, I never could take anyone else’s word for it; I had to discover first-hand that it sucks to wake up hungover in the desert, that turning a good friend into a boyfriend into a husband is sometimes a bad idea. Some of those mistakes were fun to make, others more painful, more lasting.
At a time when I was emotionally volatile (she says, as if she’s not now), Trey and Javier reflected my sometimes violent feelings with their intensity, their humor, their arguments. Around them, I didn’t feel like such a mental misfit. But it wasn’t just that. I loved both of them. Still do. And after writing that, I can hear Trey’s theatrically nervous laughter followed by, “awk-ward!”
I finally got up the nerve to make an appointment to get my second tattoo, 20 years after my first one. I’d known what I wanted for quite some time. It wasn’t until the day I was going to get it, though, that I completely understood what it meant to me.
I’ve always been fascinated by the moon, from the time I was a toddler and named it “noom.” Its obvious influence on our planet and artful appearance has kept me looking skyward at night ever since. You can stare up at the moon on consecutive nights, and it will appear differently each time, but in a predictable cycle. Waxing crescent, half, full, waning crescent, new. Comfortingly, it even has a name when we can’t see it. Regardless, the whole moon is always there, apparently consistent. But…
It gets about one inch further away from Earth each year, and its tilt on its axis has changed over time. In the past, it has sustained impacts that have altered its landscape, adding new craters and debris. There’s no reason to think there won’t be more. There has been some evidence that our stolid moon is rusting. The moon, a constant in the night sky with its soothing, reliable cycles, is changing.
In the wee morning hours of yesterday, I observed the moon, Venus close at hand, in its Cheshire Cat form, grinning at me from above. I then fell back asleep on the couch and had a vivid dream that was a very literal interpretation of killing the past. At the end of the dream, I looked skyward to see that same smile of a moon. A letting go of what no longer exists, a look toward the present and future.
Middle age can seem like it sucks. My body is doing all sorts of socially undesirable things — getting bulgier, wrinklier, less predictable. Involuntary physical change can be distressing regardless, but when it’s in defiance of our cultural worship of youthfulness, it can feel downright alarming. Suddenly, I’m different. But I’ve always been different.
To paraphrase Heraclitus, you can’t step in the same river twice; you are different and so is the river. My body is plumper now than it was five years ago, my hair is purple, and (as of yesterday) I have a tattoo of moons along my forearm. But look back a little further, and you’ll see a creature with a pregnant belly, a blond bob and a naked forearm. A bit further, a fiery young person with long pink hair and a chip on her shoulder. A strong, tan little girl who happily spends all day in her own head. Remove the societal stigma of aging, and this body I have now, this person I am now, is just the latest iteration. Remove the stigma, and I actually feel pretty damned good about it.
My body is changing. My mind is changing. Yours is, too. In a world where even the moon isn’t truly constant, we should expect no less. Instead of fighting the inevitable, wouldn’t it be more fun to embrace it?
Horror has always fascinated me — the freaky, the spooky, the macabre, the swimming pool dug in the old burial ground causing the long-dead to haunt the unwitting inhabitants of the new neighborhood. In sixth grade, I memorized The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe. The Telltale Heart kept me rapt in English class, and when required school reading took a more mundane turn, I ignored it for Stephen King’s Pet Sematary and Christine. They gave me nightmares, but I couldn’t stop; I’d read deep into the night, gripping the book with white knuckles. I’d watch every frightful moment of the film through the grill of my fingers.
My teachers looked down their literary noses at the so-called trash I read, but at 45 years old, I’ll stand by what I thought when I was twelve: It takes a true master to craft a story so suspenseful, so chilling, you can’t look away, even though you’re terrified. I don’t mean Texas Chainsaw Massacre slasher stuff that grapples for your attention with new heights in blood, guts and torture. I’m talking artful weavings of spooky, uneasy suspense and stories of baser human urges or warped dimensions of time, space and humanity no one likes to talk about. The kind of thing you might glimpse in the gutter at dusk or lurking in the corner of your dark bedroom at night and think what if…
I’ve never written horror. Maybe my early reverence of its masters intimidated me. But when my friends down the street, Liana and Brian, asked over beers in the pool one day, “Could you help us flesh out the backstory for our haunt?” I rubbed my hands together with murderous glee.
Starting around the first part of November every year, you’ll find Brian and Liana in their garage, already building for next year’s haunt. Brian crafts enchanted wells, and Liana creates gruesomely detailed monsters out of plaster and latex. They recruit live actors for certain parts. It’s not just a collection of peeled grapes for eyeballs and spaghetti for brains. Every haunt has a story, a theme that ties it together and carries you from one trepidacious room to the next. They employ much more than the element of surprise; last year, we traveled through the house over and over and were creeped out and delighted every time. It’s not just horror; it’s art. It’s spooky and subtle and freaky and in-your-face all at once. Come the season, the Robinsons’ average suburban house becomes unrecognizable. It transforms into the haunt, into Mortis Manor.
Liana already had some insight into what had happened at the manor. I teased out the details, pulling the story from my own muses, who were familiar with the Mortis family and their…circumstances. A few back-and-forth exchanges later, and we had unearthed the mysterious and chilling history of Mortis Manor. What we found, the truth behind the notorious estate, made our skin crawl. Mortis Manor seems abandoned, but it’s not dead.
The First Amendment states “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” We citizens of the United States refer to this as the “right to free speech” or “freedom of expression” and generally extend it to campaign signs. Thus, whatever the prevailing politics of a community are, Trump signs and Biden signs have equal right to be in people’s yards and other sign-sanctioned areas. Seems simple. But nothing political ever is, really.
On the internet today, I witnessed one of my neighbors pleading with people to be respectful of other people’s property and viewpoints. The incident that spurred her post was the theft of a Trump sign at the front of our neighborhood and the defacing of a Trump supporter’s property. The damage included their cable being cut, which interfered with their kids’ ability to get online for school. Most people agreed with her and thanked her for her call for decency, no matter their political affiliation. Hell, I agreed with her. Then, a different neighbor passionately presented another view.
To some, (myself kinda included) Trump signs are symbols of hate and intolerance. To a not-small number of people, they say “racism, elitism, classism,” calling to mind a general lack of empathy for fellow human beings. So, (and this is far from a new issue) do we tolerate ALL speech? According to the Constitution and the US Supreme Court, yes we do, with the exception of shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. But — and this is a question for intelligent Trump supporters in my neighborhood — how would you feel about a swastika sign in your neighbor’s yard? What about a confederate flag? Perhaps you’d be okay with a group of people in white hoods passing out literature or at least uneasily tolerate it as legal, but if a “Hitler” banner makes you squeamish, perhaps you can imagine how a Trump sign makes some people feel.
Let’s Be Reasonable:
I am not equating Trump with the long-dead, most-infamous, murderous racist of all time. I recognize a Trump sign is not the same as a Hitler sign. After all, Hitler is not the incumbent president up for re-election this year. I’d be skating on nonexistent ice if I said you couldn’t put up signs supporting a legitimate candidate in an upcoming presidential race. But I make the comparison in hopes of creating some empathy. No matter your politics, can you imagine seeing a sign planted in the ground, near your home, that you equate with complete disrespect and disregard for not just what you believe but who you are?
I’m not asking you to change your mind. I’m not asking you to condone destruction of property, political signs or otherwise. I’m asking you to have a little empathy for how your neighbors feel, how they might perceive those signs as a threat to their well-being based on the way the Trump administration has treated immigrants and other marginalized groups and ingratiated themselves to white supremacist groups. I’m not saying take your sign down; I’m asking you to consider your neighbor’s perspective. Just a little.
I know you are frustrated and appalled at what is going on in our country; I am too. And you should say so, loud, clear, articulately and often. But don’t resort to name-calling. Don’t sink to personal attacks and petty destruction of property. Stand firm, argue the issues. Vote, for godsakes. But we too need to show some empathy. Your neighbor is still your neighbor. And just because you can’t fathom their politics, doesn’t mean they aren’t decent people. Hell, debate with them; it would be good for you — get it out in the open and maybe both of you will stop feeling so hateful. But debate and listen; don’t fight, don’t mudsling. Come on, y’all. What would Obama do?
“Polarized” is hardly a strong enough word to describe the extent of us-versus-them mentality these days. Both sides only make it worse when they abandon intelligently arguing the issues for trying to out-bully each other. I’d like to think, or at least hope, that my neighbors can rise above the crappy example set by some of our most visible politicians. You can scowl at your neighbor’s yard sign. Your can disagree with them, and you can tell them that. But have some empathy and be a fucking adult about it, would you?
I’m having a bad day of underemployment. Sometimes, I’m able to appreciate the extra time I have, the energy I can spend on my kids or hobbies, but not today. Right now, I feel very, very insecure. I have been looking for full-time employment for seven months. The last time I seriously job hunted, I was 29 years old and it took six weeks. I have always relied — not on an optimistic nature or naturally upbeat attitude (because I don’t have those) — but on my determination: Keep sending out resumés, talking to contacts and taking interviews. Stay open to new possibilities. Something good has to happen eventually. It’s math, the law of averages or whatever.
But seven months and a pandemic, I have to admit, are wearing away at my perseverance and, honestly, my self-esteem. After throwing hundreds of applications and writing samples into the black hole of the internet and having nothing more to show for it than a folder full of rejections and a slew of unanswered emails, I am starting to wonder…lots of things:
What am I missing?
Am I doing something off-putting in interviews?
Am I too old?
Are there too many applicants out there, desperate for jobs, to compete with?
Do I need to give up on this goal of mine: full-time employment as a writer?
I’m open to improvement. I’ve poured over my resumé with Jason, the staffing expert. I’ve asked for feedback after interviews and gotten the unspecific and unhelpful, “We decided to go in a different direction.” I’ve continuously tweaked and updated my social media profiles, and I have stellar references. It’s hard to continue to do those things, month over month, without visible progress or results.
I’m not giving up. I’m just having a bad day. And in seven months of trying and failing to find a job, you know this isn’t my first dip into despair or my last. I’m reworking my portfolio; I’m applying for more jobs; I’m taking on contract work and submitting stories to contests, thinking something has got to lead to somewhere good, stable, long-term. I may cry, I may be irritable, I may yell at the dog and feel kinda shitty. But I won’t stop my pursuit even as my inner pessimist grumbles that I’m not getting anywhere. That inner pessimist is stubborn, but she’s not as hard-headed as I am. Fuck her.
I saw the body cam footage from the Rayshard Brooks incident.
Upon viewing it, I became certain about something I already suspected.
The video shows an officer approach Brooks’ car, where he’d fallen asleep in a Wendy’s drive-through line. The officer directs him to park the car, which Brooks does. When another officer arrives, they administer a field sobriety test and a breathalyzer; they determine he is indeed drunk.
Throughout the 20-minute interaction, Brooks is cooperative and friendly toward the officers, cordially submitting to the tests. He admits he’s been drinking. He’s in town to visit his mother’s grave, he says, in the course of the conversation. He offers to leave his car where it is and walk to the house where he is staying.
The officers ask him to put his hands behind his back, and that’s when Brooks begins to resist. He wrestles a taser from one of the officers and runs away. The cop who chases him points a taser at him, and Brooks points his stolen one back at the officer. It is at this point, one of the police officers shoots Brooks in the back two times. He died later of his injuries.
This was not just one man’s life.It was his family’s life as well. He had a father, siblings, a spouse and three kids. The day he was killed, his daughter had had her eighth birthday party. According to his family, he was a “loving husband and caring brother.” He adored his children. His niece said, “He was silly, had the biggest smile and the brightest heart,” and yet he was “shot and killed like trash for falling asleep at a drive-through.”
I have another story to tell you. There is no video footage or press coverage of it.
Two women in their mid-twenties stand on the street in downtown Austin next to a parked car. It’s around 2am. They are talking loudly and animatedly with one another when a police officer approaches them and asks if there’s a problem. They explain to the officer that they are both too drunk to drive their car home, but it’s in a space that will be tow-away come morning. They’ve secured a ride home from a sober friend. They are trying to decide which, if either of them, has the capacity to safely move the car to a nearby space where it will be legally parked.
The cop does not administer a field sobriety test or a breathalyzer. He does not ask them any questions. He would be well within the law to arrest them for public intoxication, but he doesn’t. He volunteers to move the car for them. He reparks the car, returns their keys, and they ride home with their friend and sleep safely in their own beds. Their parents, spouses and friends have the benefit of their presence to this day.
The police did not punish or even chastise the women for behaving somewhat irresponsibly; the police, in fact, facilitated their safe return home. Oh, did I mention? The women were both white. They were my sister and me.
It didn’t have to be this way.
What I suspected when I first heard about Rayshard Brooks’s murder was that it didn’t have to end in tragedy; it could have gone much the same way the incident with my sister and me did. What if, instead of trying to arrest him, they’d taken him up on his offer to walk home? What if they’d followed him in their car, or even driven him, to ensure he arrived safely and without incident? Without wasting taxpayer dollars on a purposeless arrest. What if that cop, even after Rayshard ran off with his taser, realized killing him would be a far worse outcome than the possibility he might escape?
But no, instead, Rayshard Brooks is dead, and his children will grow up without him. His penalty for a lapse in judgment, which we all have from time to time, was death.
Police aren’t trained to be helpful.
Sure, it happens sometimes, like with the officer that moved my sister’s car for us; there are cops who are reasonable and have a sense they are serving, not policing, the community, at least when it comes to white people. But how often are black people given that kind of understanding? How often, in the face of the police, is a black person allowed to make a mistake without dire, unjustifiable consequences?
If you take the militaristic methods by which police are trained and combine it with inherent bias and racism, you get the dangerously dysfunctional kind of policing we have now. You shouldn’t take my word for it, though; I’ve never been trained as a cop, but this guy has, and what he says about the toxic, racist, warlike atmosphere of police training is scary as hell.
Police officers are trained to expect conflict, to approach every person as if they are a mortally-dangerous enemy. The folks who get the worst of that mentality are marginalized groups like black people and people who are homeless or severely mentally ill.
The point here is this: We white people need to realize that our rights are respected way more often than those of black people. And nothing is going to change by making officers attend a handful of “diversity education” classes. When you hear shouts of “defund the police” what people are really saying is “dismantle the police departments and reconstruct something better.”
I scrolled through my Facebook feed today, and god, it made me so damned sad. Coronavirus stats, cops killing people, riots, looting, journalists assaulted by police and protesters alike. With the Trump administration as the backdrop for all of this, it’s starting to feel like end of days, end of times, end of…something.
Harkening Back to a Previous Era of Violence
But this is not new. George Floyd’s murder called to mind another time police officers committed violence against an unarmed black man already in custody. In 1991, police officers beat Rodney King, leaving the man with skull fractures, multiple broken bones, and permanent brain damage. Those cops were acquitted in the spring of 1992, despite what most thought was damning video evidence. A matter of hours after the verdict, rioting broke out in Los Angeles. The rioting and looting were so pervasive and violent, the National Guard was called in. Mail delivery stopped, stores closed, and people could not go to work or school.
The indignation and anger were not only for the cops who went free; it was the boiling point for tensions that had been simmering in what was then called South Central LA for years. Unemployment, gang activity and a drug epidemic were rampant, and occupants of the area were not only unprotected by police but targeted and harassed.
I was going on seventeen years old, and I was shocked the perpetrating officers were acquitted. I saw the video, and the acquittal made no sense. My surprise was part of the problem. I could not fathom someone’s rights being so egregiously trodden upon by people of authority as were Rodney King’s and with no consequence. But the people of South Central LA knew. It was happening long before, by chance, someone caught those four cops on video.
Just a White Kid from the ‘Burbs
I was a white kid living in a middle-class suburban neighborhood. I grew up in a place and with a face that meant people gave me the benefit of the doubt. I didn’t notice my privilege because I viewed that benefit, the assumption that I had a benign reason for walking down the street at night, as part of my natural right as a human being.
When I was in high school, two friends and I would sneak out of our houses at night. Sometimes we’d walk up to the all-night gas station and buy candy. Once, as we were walking down an alley behind the store, eagerly gobbling up melty Reese’s cups, a police car pulled up, lights and siren blaring. We were petrified. One cop got out, shined his flashlight at us and asked who we were. We gave our names and told him where we’d been. He said they were looking for someone who’d shoplifted at that same gas station. He told us to be careful and left. We were two white girls and an Indian girl.
In my twenties, I once got into an actual bar fight. These guys were being aggressively douchy, and I had just enough liquor in me to feel invincible. I got in the ring leader’s face and yelled I was going to kick his ass. A bouncer broke it up. The guys were kicked out, and my group left voluntarily, even getting our cover charge back for our trouble. The cops weren’t called; no one was arrested. We were a group of white girls, and the boys were white, too.
I remember college parties where cops arrived to find rampant underage drinking and possibly drugging, and no one even got arrested. “Keep the noise down,” was all they’d say. The party attendees were always, mostly, in appearance at least, white.
These are examples (and I can think of more) in which my white privilege — being given the benefit of the doubt even when I was acting less than admirably — showed. At the time, I didn’t notice.
I can’t tell you that the specific people in these stories — the cops, the bouncer – would have behaved differently if we’d been black. But I do know that black people routinely have a very different experience with authority than I did in these instances.
Same Oppression, Different Day
Today, here we are in a similar boat as we were in 1992; it’s leaking, it’s on fire and the crew are fighting each other. People are rioting and looting; people are violent. We don’t have to condone it, but we do need to understand it. The black people of our country have been talking, shouting, working for change for generations, and the same thing is still happening: black people are dying at the hands of the authorities who are supposed to protect them. If you are not heard, if your fundamental rights get trod upon in both large and small ways every day, is it really so shocking that one day you grab that authority by the face and make them listen?
Trevor Noah says society is a social contract — rules we all agree to abide by for the common good. When police and people in power break that contract by killing unarmed black people, when that kind of grotesque display of hypocrisy is repeated again and again, why should anyone else abide by that contract? It’s not new: violence begets violence.
Our Privilege is Showing
As white people, we need to try to understand that the advantages we enjoy, the ones we are so accustomed to we don’t even notice them, are not available to everyone. Sarah Grimke, an early feminist activist, once said and was quoted by Ruth Bader Ginsberg, “I ask no favor…All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”
Your white privilege isn’t so much privilege as it is your unassailable right not to be held down — socially, economically, even literally, as we all saw as that police officer held his knee to a handcuffed and docile George Floyd’s neck until he was dead.
Jody David Armour, a USC professor and author of a book on the civil unrest of LA in the early 90s, refers to it as “the 1992 uprising.” While the word “riot” focuses on the criminal elements, he says, an uprising is defined as “the perceived failure of the criminal justice system to fairly serve all people.” We decry protesters’ violence while ignoring the systemic violence that spurred it. When American colonists, citizens of Brittain, willfully destroyed valuable private property during the nationally-revered Boston Tea Party, we called it a protest of unfair taxation, a rebellion against a tyrannical government. It also fits the definition of a riot.
A Sign of the Times
You don’t have to decide rioting, looting, participating in an uprising is bad or good. But no matter what we choose to call it, it is a sign that something is very wrong with our country and has been for a long time. In 2017, three years before George Floyd would have the knee of a police officer crush the life out of him, Armour said, “Ain’t nothing changed but the year it is.” And now, sadly, it would seem he is still right.
But maybe this is, at long last, the catalyst we need. Perhaps, with corporate giants like Twitter, Facebook and Nike taking a stand, and the greater public finally taking notice, we can cut out the core of racism in our country and fill that void with egalitarian systems that serve and protect ALL citizens. IF that is, those companies put their money and efforts where their mouths are, and IF we don’t forget George Floyd as soon as the next news cycle starts. Maybe we can finally begin to remedy our past transgressions as a nation. Maybe it is end of times. End of racist times. We can not only hope, we can help make it happen.
When my oldest was asked, as a kindergartener, “What’s something your mom always says?” that was his response. He could’ve said any number of things:
What’s that smell?
Why is this wet?
I JUST cleaned this.
Not ’til I finish my coffee.
Get down. That wasn’t meant to hold your weight.
Or the ubiquitous, Why is there always crap all over the living room?
But my lovely firstborn chose something that makes me sound insightful. I would deliver this “learning experience” adage when he was down on himself for making a mistake, trying to point out that mistakes are how we learn to do something different the next time. I was not born with this wisdom. I, just like my kid, expected perfection of myself the first and every time. It was only later in life I began to tell myself to learn from my screwups and move on.
While all of this sheltering in place isn’t a mistake I’ve made, instead of lamenting what we can’t do, what’s not available, I can look at what I’ve learned from it.
We do not actually need all the activities we had previously scheduled into our lives.
We are all pretty good at entertaining ourselves (even the oldest, extrovert child) when we have ample opportunity.
While I am fond of baking, given enough free time, I still don’t like to cook.
The people in my neighborhood are awesomely supportive of each other in good times and bad.
Having only each other to play with for quite some time, our kids are now emotionally closer to each other.
I hadn’t lost interest in my hobbies before the pandemic; I’d just lost time and energy enough to want to pursue them.
Jason and I can still do projects together, and even if they are a pain in the ass, we don’t take it out on each other.
Trading books, puzzles and plant cuttings with friends may not be the same as dishing in a bar together, but it’s fun and bonding in a whole different way.
These are the things I want to hang onto longterm. Most of them have to do with protecting free time so that everyone in our family has the opportunity to get bored and think, “what next?”
Some people take “what next?” time and invent things to solve the world’s problems or start new, innovative companies or side hustles. That’s not what I’m after here. I want to maintain the leisure we’ve found during this time of everything shut down — books, movies, gardening, playing. That, to me, is the stuff that makes life worth living. And coronavirus has made me realize, I missed it. What have you learned from the pandemic fallout that you’d like to keep, longterm?