Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Seeing a bigger world in a small town

   I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how people in my life have influenced me and shaped who I am.  For example, the people who worked at the summer camps I attended from about 10 to 16 really drew me out (something to write about). At a retreat at my meetinghouse on Saturday, I thought about how, sometimes, these people are God speaking to me, leading me on in my life and that it’s something I don’t expect at all – it’s not a minister in a church – and don’t realize it until later.  Growing up in a small college town like Claremont provided some unique opportunities for this, as I explored in this recent Claremont Courier column. 
   I haven’t thought of Frank in many years.  Decades really. 
   I don’t know what he’s doing now.  He could be teaching sociology at a college or history at a high school. He could be an administrator at a non-profit.  Or he could be working at a market or store or doing janitorial work. 
   He could be writing for a small newspaper or working on Wall Street.  In any case, I wonder if he’s still singing in a gospel choir. 
   I hope he wasn’t shot dead in a drug deal gone bad. 
   This is what ended up happening to Robert Peace, an African-American man raised by a single mother in a rough neighborhood in Newark, N.J, while his father was in prison, who was able to go to Yale University.  He subsequently worked in a medical lab and was a popular high school chemistry teacher.  He also sold pot, which he started doing in college simply as a way he knew how to earn extra cash, and, seven years after graduating from Yale, was killed while out on a deal. 
   The story of Robert Peace – Rob – was told by Jeff Hobbs at the C.M.C Athenaeum a couple weeks ago.  Mr.  Hobbs, a Los Angeles-based writer, was Robert Peace’s roommate at Yale University for four years and has a book out called The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark.
   The soft-spoken author is clearly still quite affected by his relationship with Robert Peace and by Mr. Peace’s death. (He wrote a book about it, after all.) It was with some emotion that he spoke of developing a close, long-time friendship with a guy who had such a different background, not at all like his white “well-off family in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania.” That he was able to have this experience, facilitated by such an institution as Yale University which made an effort to reach out to Robert Peace and other low-income minority students, is something that Mr. Hobbs definitely sees as very powerful and moving. 
   Listening to Mr. Hobbs, seeing how touched and passionate he is after this experience (again, he wrote a book about it), I found myself thinking about Frank after all these years.  The last time I saw Frank was when I was in high school.
   This was when my parents hired him to assist me and look after my younger brother after school while they were still at work.  Since I was disabled and needed care and assistance, this was a critical responsibility, and Frank was recommended as someone well-suited for the job.  Like Robert Peace at Yale University, Frank was an African-American student at Pomona College with a background – he was from a very low-income family from the rural South - very different from most of the other students. It was also a background different from mine. 
   Frank and I did not live together for four years.  We were not roommates, and I can’t say that we developed a tight bond (until hearing Mr. Hobbs, I really hadn’t thought of him for a very long time). But he did take care of me for a time, and we found we had critical things in common despite our very different backgrounds and situations. 
   Although he wasn’t in a wheelchair and I was, he certainly knew what it was like, at Pomona, to be different, not like the others, on campus.  He understood what it was like for me, as one of a few disabled students, at Claremont High School. All the more so, because he had a bad stutter, so he had some idea of what it was like for me with my impaired speech. He knew something of what it’s like to not be understood easily, to be nervous and sometimes scared about speaking and to be sometimes made fun of, especially by adolescent peers, because of this. 
   I also learned in part from Frank, at the time, that I could be successful in my effort to get into a good four-year university and to move out on my own despite my substantial limitations.  Knowing how far Frank had come, with all the hardships he had dealt with (I am suspicious of the notion of “overcoming” – it seems to me one deals with a disability or other condition), to get into and graduate from Pomona College gave me encouragement and support in my endeavor. 
   Furthermore, I imagine knowing Frank for that time helped me be more open to all the different people, from all sorts of backgrounds and with different interests far from mine, that I would meet and deal with later in my life.  This was especially helpful when it was me, not my parents, hiring people to assist me.  Plus, I got to find out about and enjoy traditional gospel singing.   
   These were critical lessons coming at a pivotal time for me. I have realized over the years how important these lessons were, how they made me a better, more open person and made my life all the richer. And I like to think that Pomona College and the other colleges here are continuing to offer this valuable learning experience to all the students, and the rest of the Claremont community, in reaching out to students like Frank who have different backgrounds and experiences. 
   It looks like they are.  I see it when I hear the students snapping their fingers as a speaker explains what it’s like to have to defend one’s sexuality or one’s gender and when I read about Scripps College dealing with transgender students as a women’s college.  I see it in Claremont Mckenna College, long ago a men’s college, putting out new guidelines on sexual conduct and when speakers encourage male students to speak up or intervene against sexual harassment and assault. 
   This is hard work the colleges are doing, all the more vital now when it’s apparent that rape and sexual violence are still common on college campuses and when well-educated university students sing racist songs with gusto. 

Friday, March 20, 2015

Not just a song

   David Boren was right, of course.  Everybody agrees. 
   At least, that’s what everybody says.  Or we hear everybody saying.
   Yes, Boren, the president of the University of Oklahoma and former Oklahoma governor, did the right thing when the video of the members of the campus chapter of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity singing a racist song went online, going viral, of course.  He took immediate action, expelling the students and the chapter from the university.  What’s more, he literally sent the students packing, ordering them out in something like 24 hours and with no assistance in finding other housing.  He also said that he hoped the students would “think long and hard” while vacating the premises about what they did.
   Such swift action, with no days of delay and dawdling, no hemming and hawing, is all too rare these days.  One could practically hear cheering across the nation. 
   But did Boren really do the right thing?  Or did it just make the rest of us feel good? 
   Some lawyers and legal experts are saying the he would have a weak case in court if there was a suit over this termination.  After all, most speech, no matter how vile – yes, even “You can hang him from a tree… There will never be a nigger SAE” sung to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It” as on the video – is protected and lawful in this country. 
   And thank God for that.  It means I can write about how wonderful gay sex is and say that those who oppose gay marriage are hateful bigots, not to mention ignorant.  Sure, some are terribly offended when I do this, but, also, I’m hurt when they say I’ll rot in Hell for
Being turned on by guys.
   But it’s too easy to say that these things shouldn’t be said and that this song shouldn’t be sung.  Just as it’s too easy for the national fraternity office and the students in the video to say they are sorry.  (Or maybe not so easy; the parents of one of the students did the apologizing for him. 
   But the video is not the problem.  The video just means these people got caught.  It just means that that the rest of us can say it shows something bad and also that we’re not in it. Especially when it came out the same weekend that the March on Selma, a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement 50 years ago, was commemorated.   
   The real problem here – and one that is exponentially harder – is that presumably well-educated students at a reputable university were happily singing a song with the N-word and advocating lynching.  The real problem is that there are no doubt people who liked and advocate what the students sang and say that Boren is now the bad guy.  We – everyone, the rest of us – just aren’t hearing them in all the noise we’re making. 
   Why is this song still being sung?  Why are there white people in this country who still hate black people?  That’s the question.   That’s the problem. 
   And this isn’t just some Oklahoma thing.  It isn’t just back-country yokels, even if they got into college.  There was an article in the Los Angeles Times about police officers in San Francisco, that mecca of liberalism, sending each other texts about “niggers” and “faggots.”

Monday, March 9, 2015

A different view, a different life

   The following is my most recent column appearing in the Claremont Courier.  It is about going on a weekend trip to New Jersey last month, and it barely conveys what an eye-opening experience it was for me and how much it affected me.  Yes, I saw how different things are here in sunny So. Cal. (No, as I see now, it's not just Palm Springs, with its green golf courses and cooled resort hotels out in the desert, that's like Disneyland!)  More importantly, though, I saw how different and probably more difficult my life could have been. What’s more, I saw or was reminded that, if I want to, I can make my life different (but not more difficult and not necessarily by moving).


   Okay.  I get it now. 
   I now get it why there are all those retired people with New York and Boston accents living in Florida.  And the story about people on the east coast getting up late after New Year’s Eve on turning on the television to watch the fantastically bright and balmy Rose Parade in Pasadena and dream of moving to sunny So. Cal. (some allegedly decide to do just that) makes sense. 
   There was another story that I heard while I was growing up here.  It was said that the colleges did their hiring in January and February, when the weather was mild and bright green trees hung heavy with bright oranges under crystal blue skies and with snow-capped mountains in the background.  I get it now.  (Never mind the rest of the story: that the professors were in despair when they moved here in August and found themselves, all the more so at the time, in a horribly hot and smoggy place.) 
   I get it when I’m out on a February evening, bundled up in a hoodie and maybe wearing long-johns, and see students meandering across the college campuses in shorts and tee-shirts.  On a recent evening as I was going across the Pomona College campus, I saw a young man in this ensemble riding a skateboard barefooted. I get it now.  To them, our chilly winter days and evenings are balmy. If not flat-out warm. 
   Why wouldn’t our 50-degree evenings be a walk or skateboard ride in the park after daytime temperatures in the teens or lower? 
   I had no idea.  Really, I had no idea. 
   I found this out a few weekends ago when I attended a meeting in Burlington, New Jersey, not far from Philadelphia.  I found out that I’m a true California boy.  Make that a true So. Cal. Native. I was in fact worried about going there in February – was I crazy? I kept asking friends - but I really had no idea how different it is.   
   Of course, I have seen snow. As I write this, I see snow, but, as always, it is up there, over there, something pretty to look at. Snow has always been like an amusement park ride, something fun and romantic, an adventure for an afternoon or a weekend.  Yes, I have seen snow falling, but it was the thrilling, lucky highlight of the weekend’s ride. 
   Snow has never been something to dread, something to fear. It has never meant more work – shoveling – or not being able to get somewhere.  When the meeting I attended was over, many people rushed off, eager to drive home before the next storm arrived.  I guess I was lucky that none of my flights, including in Chicago where I had a layover, were canceled. 
   It only snowed lightly – two or three inches – while I was in Burlington, but it was enough to shut down the town, more or less.  No one was out having fun in the snow, and the few people who were out were in a hurry.  This was very strange to me. 
   Then again, the few inches of snow was just the beginning, a detail.  Each day, my friend and I – the crazy Californians – bundled up in everything we had and went out for a walk.  This was lovely and fun, but on the second day, I barely got down the driveway when I said “Nope” and had to go back.  The cold was like a knife and just hurt too much. 
  I understood why when I was happily able to go out for a walk with my friend on the last day and saw that most of the river two blocks over was frozen over.  This was definitely like nothing I had ever seen, including during a year in England and another in Italy when I was growing up, and it certainly wasn’t like when I get excited about seeing a frozen puddle on the sidewalk after a particularly cold night here. 
   No, I wasn’t in Southern California anymore!  It may well have been unusually cold, but no doubt this is far more likely to happen there than here.
   I certainly saw that things are very different in that part of the country – I’ve been saying that it was another world.  Not only is it cold, the cold had a major effect on life that I have never experienced.  Furthermore, I was profoundly struck that my life as a person in a wheelchair would be much harder there. 
   Yes, I gripe sometimes about our mild, boring weather, and I hate it when a few hours of rain means that I need to ask for a ride or can’t go out, but, for the most part, I can go out and get around in my wheelchair, even on a “cold” night (along with the guys in shorts). It really hit me that this wouldn’t be the case if I live on the east coast – or many other places in the U.S. And not just because the chilly wind might hurt too much; driving a wheelchair through patches of snow and ice isn’t easy. 
   Then again, there are many people who don’t just put up with the freezing weather.  Many Easterners claim to miss the change of seasons when they move here.  And when I mentioned to one woman during my visit that I think I rather have earthquakes than snow, she laughed tartly and told me that I was welcome to go back home. 
   When I did return to California, it was downright bizarre when, upon arriving at LAX, it was balmy – no, warm – at 11:30 on a February night.  It was enough, as if the previous three days in “another world” not so far away wasn’t, to leave me in a daze, marveling at my life in Claremont. 
   It wasn’t just the weather and the frozen river that made me feel like I had been in another world, far, far from Claremont, much closer, say, to England.  It was also the cemeteries with the graves from the 1700’s (quite pretty in the snow), the house two doors down where a sign said U.S Grant’s family had lived and where he heard that Lincoln had been shot, another building a block away where another sign said that Ben Franklin had briefly worked, even as Claremont, with its palm trees and red tiles, is known and admired for being like a New England town. But that’s another story. 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Give me that old-time everything

   Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker made a big splash at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C.  The annual gathering of right-wing activists has gotten to be seen as the coming-out party for the Republican presidential candidates.  Never mind that no one has officially declared their candicacy in the 2016 race and that those endorsed by this “red meat” group are usually way too extreme to win favor among the general electorate.  This confab has been called the “starting gun of the Republican primary”, and Walker reportedly got off to a good start. (When Jeb Bush spoke, expressing support for Common Core education policies and a path for citizenship for illegal immigrants, a group walked out in protest, lead by a man in a tri-cornered hat.  Red meat, indeed!) 
   Walker got big cheers for having, as he claimed in his speech, “reduced the burden on hard-working taxpayers by nearly $2 billion.”
According to the Los Angeles Times, although the resulting cuts at the University of Wisconsin due to this tax reduction will be controversial in his home state, “they may play well with Republican primary voters, many of whom see universities as hotbeds of liberalism.”
   So universities are bad.  Well, maybe not bad, but, to these folks, “hotbeds of liberalism” is close enough. Perhaps this is no surprise. After all, not only has there been grumbling about “liberal” college professors – and look at then-California Governor Ronald Reagan’s railing and action against protesting University of California students (it has also been said that Reagan, as governor, began the defunding of the once-great U.C system).  It also fits in with conservative voter and leaders’ tendency to discount or deny scientific knowledge or progress, as we see with those who refuse to accept the reality of human-caused climate change. 
   Another article in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times further illustrated this desire among many conservatives that things not change.  The article, headlined “In gun-loving Texas, a new push for open carry,” showed a yearning for a return to the way things used to be, if not the old days.  In this case, it seems to be a return to the wild, wild west. 
   The article focused on a group of gun enthusiasts showing their support for a state law allowing them to openly carry firearms by refusing to leave the office of a Democratic state representative in Austin, Texas.  They were armed.  The legislator, Alfonso “Poncho” Nevarez, later recalled thinking, “Guess what? They’re armed.” He added, “If they had come here another way, they might have found an ally.  I don’t want to reward bad behavior.”     
   One of those pushing for the open carry law responded by saying, “The only bad behavior there was, was his. He took an oath to defend the Constitution.”
   There was a third article in Sunday’s Times that focused on this conservative longing for the old days, good or bad.  It was about the effort in small town in South Carolina to change a war memorial that lists those that died in the World Wars as “Colored” and “White.”  Some in the small town of Greenwood, including Mayor Welborn Adams, want to replace the monument with one that doesn’t separate the races, reflecting the thinking these days.  Others insist that the monument stay as it is, arguing that it is an accurate reflection of the town’s past. 
   Mayor Adams said that the conflict has made him weep.  It is a conflict brought into sharp focus when Richard Whiting, the editor of the local newspaper, the Index-Journal, who worries that the controversy makes the town “look like a bunch of backwoods rednecks,” says that, while most of the town’s residents support racial healing, there are those who “still live with the hope the South will rise again.”