Friday, March 30, 2012

It aint about hoodies; it's about fear, and guns and the vigilante impulse, and race, and, well... hoodies

It’s not about hoodies.

And, it's not about race. But, then, everything in American society boils down to race eventually. Race is just a fact of life in a former slave state. Period. So, it is about race, but maybe not as much as people would have you believe.

Where hoodies are associated with race, you might say the Treyvon Martin killing is about the fact that he was a black teenager and black teenagers are associated with hoodies. But I wear sweatshirts with hoods, always have. Of course, when I was 17 I would never have admitted to wearing any article of clothing with ‘ie’ at the end. I did, then, and do, now, wear sweatshirts with hoods. Sometimes they are black sweatshirts with hoods.

It would be naive not to realize people sometimes wear hoodies to stick up liquor stores and Churches Fried Chicken.

And, when you’re all down inside your hoodie, you are intimidating. Why else would you be down inside a hoodie when the temperature is 80 degrees? Of course, the temperature wasn't 80 degrees in Florida Feb. 26. It was raining lightly.

But teenagers do wear their hoodies in 80-degree weather. They wear their hoodies to my classes even when I'm sweating through my shirt. Why? Because it’s cool. Teenagers have always worn what was cool, no matter the temperature. When I was in college it was cool not to wear socks with Converse All Stars, especially if your Cons were red. I wore Converse All Stars with no socks through snow drifts on my daily trek to class . Maybe some of the older faculty members were intimidated by my Cons but more likely they were amused.

So, it is cool to be hot inside your hoodie. You shouldn’t have to pay with your life.

Some of the students have asked me what I think about the Treyvon Martin disaster. What I think is it isn’t about hoodies and it isn’t particularly about race – though race will be found at the bottom of it.

It’s about differences in how people define things. One man’s neighborhood watcher is another man’s vigilante. This is really about guns and who should be in possession of deadly force.

Police officers go through rigorous training with guns. They learn how to make their guns the absolute last resort. They learn a sort of reverence for life that they may not actually be willing to admit. They know what it is like to be on the wrong end of a gun. They know, in many cases, what happens when they fire their guns. They have no John Wayne, Clint Eastwood illusions about death.

They see it all the time.

And yet they still make mistakes. Terrible mistakes.

If anyone should be packing in our neighborhoods, it should be the cops. It shouldn’t be self-appointed protectors. It shouldn’t be the neighborhood watch. It shouldn’t be vigilantes. The NRA does not agree, but in my world only the cops would have guns.

And, the neighborhood watch folks would be limited to turning me in for my lack of landscaping expertise.

The NRA is a powerful force in American society. If the American Cancer Society were as powerful, you wouldn’t be able to buy a cigarette without traveling to Canada or Mexico. Guns and fear don’t mix, and the NRA is a perfect storm of both.

Just as the terrible evening of Feb. 26th was a perfect storm of guns and fear in a gated Florida community.

Let’s take guns first. The constitution guarantees the right to possess weapons. It did not, of course, anticipate the introduction of machine guns into the domestic arsenal, but it did protect the right to keep a gun. In the midst of a revolution – a violent revolution – such a protection is easy to appreciate. Perhaps it is as applicable today as it was then – you could certainly hear a few passionate arguments for its modern applicability anywhere you asked the question. My thinking about this was instructed by how the Black Panthers in the 1960s turned the issue around displaying their weaponry in public, which they claimed to need to protect themselves from white policemen. They were strong Second Amendment supporters, make no mistake.

But, as I tell my ethics students… everything that is legal is not ethical and everything ethical may not be legal. While it is legal to possess a gun, legal in some places to strap it to your belt or jam it into the back of your pants, and, in places like Florida, legal to use it to stand your ground, the question of whether it is ethical – or, logical, for god's sake – is not answered by the Constitution.

It has to be answered by the people who leave their homes armed, just the way a driver of a two-ton automobile has to answer the question of whether he should take another drink before he heads out on the road. If he doesn’t drink, alcohol won’t be the reason he kills someone with his car. If he isn’t armed, his gun won’t be the reason he takes someone’s life.

Now to fear. Immediately the gun advocate has pounced on my argument with the glib defense of self defense. He will be unpersuaded if I say I will do anything in my power to defend myself or my children – they are often the core of the gun advocate’s argument – short of using an instrument of instant death that I refused to pack for my trip to the store. They will be similarly unpersuaded by my argument that the risk of taking another person’s one and only life by accident, in haste, in anger or in fear, is greater than I can ethically endure.

Just as drinking and driving is a risk I am unwilling to take.

Why are people in our time so afraid they take such ethical risks? Let me put it another way: Why are they so fearful they are willing to spend the rest of their lives looking in the mirror knowing they murdered an innocent person?

To some extent, the news media reifies their fears, just through the normal course of reporting events. Some of this is unavoidable in a free society. But, the fact that what bleeds leads is avoidable. I’ve been working on a little study about the Kansas City Star Web page. My guess is if you could find someone who experiences the world only through the Star's Web page you would find a person demonstrably more fearful of their community and their world than someone who never looks at it.

Politicians have used fear to drum up support from the beginning of time and modern America is no exception. This is a reasonably sophisticated society linguistically and they have latched onto a variety of words and phrases which stand in code for fear and for who to fear. The very election of a black man to the presidency sent these codes into orbit, launched fear through the roof. Some of those among us want to celebrate a post-racial society. I'm not among them. People are still possessed by fears they can’t, or won’t, name – beginning with the idea of a black man in the White House – and my guess is those fears are translating into more guns and more stand your ground laws, reified by the daily news and the plethora of crime shows on television – which might as well be news for some people – and what people know of rap music… whew!

Yep, I just made the case, didn’t I? It’s not about hoodies; it’s about fear. But, once again I am forced to admit that fear is about race. And, since hoodies are about race in 2012… well, I'm back where I didn't want to be.

Well, I'm left only certain of this: It’s deeper. It’s just a lot deeper than a hoodie. And a young man has paid for it with his life.

--Lofflin… not afraid to be confused…

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The table

It seems almost silly to write the words, "A table changed my life." But the statement is true.

Two weekends ago, a family friend, who had purchased the contents of an abandoned storage locker at an auction, was having a sale in his front yard to get rid of the merchandise. Prices were rock bottom. And to help the friend out, I bought something I knew we didn't really need - a breakfast bar set, including a tall table and two stools, still new in the box. The price was thirty dollars.

An important detail: my wife Jamie wasn't with me when I bought the table.

My first reaction upon buying the set was that Jamie would probably kill me. Thirty dollars doesn't grow on trees, and as I said, we didn't really need it. Her reaction when I revealed the purchase was difficult to read; I knew she probably would have advised me not to buy the table had she been present, but at the same time I could tell her wheels were spinning with a decorator's intensity, debating options for where the table should go (one viable option, I knew, was up my ass).

But the next day, I took it out of the box and began the seemingly endless, but ultimately rewarding, task of assembly. Once it was put together, we dragged it into the kitchen. Jamie's first instinct was to use it as an island, but that was too impractical. Instead, we moved a rolling microwave stand (which we dug out of the trash and which has never held a microwave) to an unused corner of the kitchen, and placed the table by the window overlooking our backyard.

That night, we ate dinner at the table. Which is a big deal. We have a dining room, but it's right next to the main entry point to our house, and the dining room table is usually filled with the detritus of our everyday lives. So 95 percent of our meals at home are eaten in the living room, me in the recliner, Jamie spread out on the couch with a cat on each side. That night, however, we decided to give our new table a try.

Since then, 100 percent of our meals together at home have been eaten at the table.

That may sound insignificant; it's only a change of scenery. But some interesting things have happened because of that change.

For one, when we eat in the living room, television takes the place of conversation. When we are sitting face-to-face over dinner, conversation flows naturally without the interruption of a million talking heads pouring forth from the squawk box. In the past, Jamie and I have struggled with communication; we've always been able to speak to each other, but sometimes it's as though we're speaking different languages (Martian and Venutian, I suppose). At the kitchen table, we understand each other.

Eating at the table also seems to promote healthier eating. When I sit in the recliner and chow down from a plate of food on my lap, I feel like a blob and I eat like a blob. At the table, we sit straight up on backless stools. Better posture equals better eating habits.

And kitchen dining also makes us better at cleaning up after ourselves, which is a constant struggle. Instead of leaving our plates on the end tables in the living room, Jamie and I spend just a few minutes after each meal cleaning up the dishes and putting the leftovers away.

So yes, a table changed my life. We love eating at our new kitchen table. In a few hours, when I heat up my leftover carnitas, we'll eat there again. And I can't think of a better way to wrap up a weekend.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Will you still be sending me a valentine, birthday greeting, bottle of wine...

Courage... That’s what it takes, according to the old catcher in The Kid From Tompkinsville. Courage to get your head beaten in one day out there on the mound and come back the next day throwing strikes.

The Kid from Tompkinsonville is a baseball novel I read for the first time in the sixth grade. John R. Tunis wrote The Kid in the 1940s, part of a trilogy of baseball novels aimed at sixth grade boys. No matter who he aimed at, the writing is splendid and sophisticated. I can’t imagine I got as much out of this book when I was twelve as I did yesterday, more than a half-century later.

Tunis has the old catcher going up to The Kid’s room in the spring training hotel. The kid has been sitting in the dark, staring out the window, wondering why he ever thought he could be a ballplayer after a disastrous outing that afternoon. When the old catcher knocks, the kid switches on the light. When the old catcher says, “You’ve been sitting here in the dark feeling sorry for yourself…” the Kid wonders how he knew. He knew because he had been sitting in the dark in spring training more than 20 years earlier feeling sorry for himself.

And, yes, I've spent some time lately sitting in the dark feeling sorry for myself.

The old catcher tells The Kid what his mentor told him. It takes talent. It takes skill. It takes hard work. It takes a live arm. But, none of that matters if you don’t have courage. If you have courage, he tells The Kid, you’ll get some sleep and go back out there tomorrow throwing strikes.

In my case, it’s the courage to get old that I need. It’s the courage to get old and not slow down. It’s the courage to get old and not give up. It’s the courage to get old and not live in fear of breaking my wrist or exploding my heart. It takes courage to face getting old, trust me.

It takes courage to face the ever present notion in your life’s work that you might be falling behind yet to get up and do it again the next day certain you must still have something to give.

Lately, the courage I’ve been looking for is the courage not to care. You read that right. I’ve been examining how much extrinsic validation I’ve needed in my life. I’ve won awards in journalism -- even some recently – and I’ve won teaching awards, as well. My bosses have never found me wanting, though a few ex-wives have. But all that validation was just a reflection of my willingness (or unwillingness) to do what they wanted. My whole life, it seems, I’ve been studying for a test.

But what would I do if I had the courage not to care? What novel would I write if I didn’t care whether it saw the light of day? What novel would I write if I didn’t care what people thought of me for writing it? What would I photograph if I didn’t care what a “real” photographer said about my work? Could I play baseball and not care if anyone noticed when I got a hit? Could I play baseball and not secretly keep track of my batting average? Do I have the courage to not care how my bosses evaluate me?

I was listening to Joni Mitchell singing “Both Sides Now.” I’ve looked at life from both sides now; I really don’t know life at all. Well, I’ve looked at life from both sides now and I really don’t know me at all.

That’s a helluva thing to write on your 64th birthday.

Funny, the only place I think I know me is in the classroom. In the classroom I don’t care how I’m perceived. Not a bit. I only care about learning, my learning and their learning. They may think I’m a fool, a buffoon; I don’t care. Did we learn something today? It’s amazing, but I have no self-monitor in the classroom. No self-evaluation. The only thing I ask myself at the end of the day is if something was learned. So I was lucky to fall into the teaching racket. Damn lucky.

Now, as I sit here working up an appetite for birthday dinner, I’m wondering if I have the courage not to care in the rest of my life, the life I live outside the classroom. I’m wondering if I have the courage to find myself, even at sixty-four.


That photograph is me at three. I'm told my uncle kept a copy of it taped to the inside wall of his tank in Korea. Photo credit: Marion H. Lofflin

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A funny thing happened on the way to equality

I can't be the only one noticing this strange trend happening in America lately.

When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, the country came together in a way not seen since 9/11. Sure, those who voted for McCain didn't become Obama fans overnight, but except for the pure racists out there, everybody seemed to be proud to live in a country that could elect an African American president. On that beautiful election night, I was more proud of my country than I've ever been.

But now something weird is happening. Now it seems like the pure racists have taken over, and they're influencing a whole lot of good people for the worse.

A recent example would be Mitt Romney calling Obama the "Welfare President," a veiled effort to associate African Americans with welfare in the eyes of voters, but this has really been going on since the beginning of Obama's term. This article from an online magazine called "The Root" tells the full story. Here's an excerpt:

Yes, the country that likes to pretend that it is far removed from its racist past has engaged in the verbal equivalent of a throwback jersey. Some people have reached far back into that Reconstruction-era closet, pulled out that dingy jersey adorned with racial slurs, shaken it out and put it on proudly. Elected officials have reduced themselves to behaving like petulant children, storming in and out of meetings and running to the media to lob personal attacks at the president, then offering lame apologies shortly afterward.

Is this the postracial era that so many people theorized about following the election of the nation's first black president? Try post-Reconstruction, because the harmful slurs and images being tossed around the Internet and in public spaces hark back more to a racist past than to a racially ambiguous future.

President Obama, through no blame of his own, has not united the country. He has divided it by giving the racists a reason to be loud, and by making borderline or closet racists more comfortable to act racist.

I can only hope Chris Rock, who I quoted on this blog a year ago at the height of the ridiculous Tea Party movement, is right:

"Kids always act up the most before they go to sleep. And when I see the Tea Party and all this stuff, it actually feels like racism is almost over... This is the act-up before the sleep... and next think you know they're f**king knocked out. And that's what's going on in the country right now."

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Funniest headline of the year... so far

Call me a cynic
but today's headline from the Kansas City Star is one of he funniest I've read in a good while:

Postseason expands, but Royals' focus
remains on winning division..."

--Lofflin, grinning ear to ear