Friday, August 24, 2007

Aftershocks that rock my memories

One upon a time, when I was a young military wife and  mother, we were stationed in at a post considered a bit of a plum Job. Honestly, on what st. sgts make the only way we were going to be  able to travel to Hawai'i was courtesy of the United State Air Force.

Orders came down and packers arrive and inspectors declared our former quarters had been cleaned to military spec. We were off bound for Schofield Barracks and 12-18 months on The  Rock.

It is not hyperbole to say that those few months in Hawai'i changed my life.

It was a tight community, the four family townhouses that made up enlisted housing had much deeper roots and traditions than you might expect of neighborhoods where no one is likely to still be there in a year or two. There were caravans of cars to take the children to the shore. Everyone knew everyone, and we all watched the wandering pack of kids who roamed from yard to yard.  

Four of the dead were stationed at Fort Lewis, to the north of here in Washington. The other ten were all assigned to Schofield Barracks. The streets where the curtains are now drawn are the same ones where my two oldest children raced their Hot Wheels.

And now the official cars, with their impecably dressed notification officers, are pulling up to doors, reading off the name plates. The chaplains are composing themselves for a moment in the tropical sweetness of the trade winds. There are things they must say, traditions that must be honored, standards which must be met.

When the doors open in answer to that knock- there may be shock or pleading or anger. But there will likely not be very much surprise. The families who live onpost in places like Schofield or Lewis all know this could happen at any time. Next week it could be your door that gets the knock, and the speech that begins with 'It is my sad duty to inform you-'.

There are two Scofield Barracks in my mind now. One is the place of impromtu BBQs and the sound of slack key guitar drifting on that impossible scented wind. The other is one where women, like I once did,  are holding down the home fort, hear words they have heard before in their darkest most frightened dreams. Where neighbors and friends bring casseroles and boxes of tissues, and someone to gather up the children and take them to another house to play.

And in the silence, with the notification officer possibly still sitting there, a cup of coffee awkward in his hands, the women weep. Or hold themselves together to make phone calls to family back on the mainland. They cling to the hands of neighbors they will soon lose, for widows and orphans don't live on military bases.

Outside the post there are tourists admiring the waves rolling in. They will eat and shop and sit in the sun. And here and there as they go about their days in paradise they'll hear snippets  of news. The names will be released, flags will fly at half mast.

There will be phone calls made, arrangements for travel and final resting place of the body. And while that is going on, the families are learning how long they can stay in their quarters before they have to decide where to go now. The military will see to it they have help and support, such as it is.

And in not so very long, those empty quarters reassigned to new soldiers and their families. And the impossibly scented wind will sigh between the buildings and the children will go back to playing,  missing their old friends and getting to know the new kids.

And they'll watch for those cars, long official cars, with solemn men in impeccable uniforms, moving slowly down the street while the driver searches for the set of quarters with the right name on the door. As it's happened at least 3227 times already.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Find out when 'Stardust' is showing near you this weekend and go.

We had an excellent time and will certainly see it again on a big screen if we can. And we are so going to own this one when it comes available.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Blog Against Racism: The Sequel

More musing on racism.

I'm mixed race. I don't look it. Most people looking at me spot the generations of Irish my mother's family brought to the table. A rare few spot my paternal grandfather's Scot's contribution in certain family features.

It came up once, when I won an essay contest and should have been given the family tree inspection to see if I qualified for the DAR. The committee ladies were taken aback when they saw my father.  Once my parents admitted they knew of no branch of the family coming to America until well after the revolution, everyone relaxed.

The only places I routinely get spotted as mixed race are where a good portion of the people present are people of color. Black people may or may not spot it. Hispanic and Caribbean folks catch it less than half the time, though they do note another anomaly in my 'passing' (which I'll mention later.) I've had Native Americans casually enquire as to which tribe I belong. 

For a couple of years in my twenties I lived in Hawaii, my father's birthplace which he hadn't seen in two decades. It was like my magical passing cloak disintegrated in the tropical sun. Small packs of boys pelting by on the beaches addressed me in pidgin. Little old ladies selling wares at roadside stands would stop in mid-spiel, eye my cheekbones judiciously and demand to know 'who are your people?'. WheneverI gave them my father's name they would give a crack of laughter.

"I know alla bout dem boys! My (brother, husband, father, grandfather) go school with them!' Yeah, I wasn't passing here. It didn't bother me, but when my father came for a visit he found it uncomfortable. The seething mass of cousins wanted to come around and drink and dance and eat and talk story... to do, in short, the things he had left Hawaii in order not to do. My mother found the food too strange. The stories of my father running wild in the sugar cane fields and cutting school to take his board to the beach bewildered her.  And it turned out I knew nothing of Hawaiian art or culture.

It was a strained homecoming, never repeated. I didn't fit in. I had been raised to be white. I didn't know how to be Hawaiian. Back on the mainland I passed again, but now with a niggling awareness of what I was doing.

Fast forward. My two oldest grandchildren are half-Hispanic. Their mother makes a concerted effort to see that they hear and speak at least some Spanish, an effort aided with good will and gusto by their paternal grandparents. Theirs will be a different experience in growing up mixed race in this newer America. And now I sometimes use endearments in Spanish when talking to the treasures  by phone.   Most white people don't even notice it, but Spanish speakers do.

The thing I have done differently from my parents it to be out about being mixed race. When white people say things, the things they would not say if any of Them were within earshot, I call them on it.

Sometimes it's polite. "That chain email you sent around about how all schools in America will be teaching in Spanish? My grandchildren, the ones you've met and had to Christmas dinner?They're Hispanic. Their father's family has been in this country longer than yours, by the way."

Sometimes I'm less polite. "That kind of language is not allowed in this house. Nor are those kinds of jokes. We'll talk about this later, when I am sure I can be calm. Right now, I'm going to have to ask you to leave." (Yes, I had to make that speech in the middle of a party I was throwing-to a very old friend. My hands shook for an hour after he left.)

So I'm like a human stealth fighter jet. I get in under the radar because no one sees it coming. That friend mentioned above? When  asked what the hell he was thinking, his defense was he had forgottenI am not white and my grandchildren are not white. He couldn't quite explain to me why words like nigger or jokes about wetbacks were magically made okay if there were only white people present.

Racism lies pretty lightly across my life, but it's still there, and I'm one of the 'lucky' ones who can pass. And I know perfectly well I have only been brushed by the destructive force racism can be. But because I can pass I hear things said, in casual conversations that make me doubt the airy assertions that racism isn't a problem any more.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Blog Against Racism

Short version: Racism sucks. Don't do it.

Longer version: As some of you know, I am a pasty pale person. No, seriously, cave fish white is my natural skin tone. I was raised in the most whitebread home you ever saw.

I am mixed race. My father is half native Hawaiian, with black hair and skin the color of mahogany. My mother is, and this may be hard to believe, even paler than me.

I am fifty one years old. Some of the most signifigant years of my childhood (1955-1960) were spent in the Deep South, much of the rest in rather non-cosmopolitan parts of the Mid-West.

My father passed. From the day he arrived on the mainland he ignored or denied his native heritage.

I remember segregated drinking fountains and swimming pools. I know that often the people in town were scandalized at the idea that there were colored families living right next door to white families on base.

One of my earliest memories was of the evening we showed up at my father's next duty station in rural Mississippi to discover we were the very first military people to arrive. Evidently, the date on Dad's permanent change of station paperwork was slightly incorrect.

Right. Picture this. Spring of 1958. Rural Mississippi. Coming on dusk. Young couple, a dark skinned young man and a pale red haired woman hauling two very small children in an overloaded car. The woman, by the way, is heavily pregnant.

There's no one at the base gate to let us in. There's no one at the base at all, it's too late for Dad to call anyone tonight and the town is small enough to have exactly two pay phones. He pulls into the only gas station to ask for directions to the nearest motel or boarding house.

The man looks at him. Looks at us in the car. Looks back at my father, in his uniform. Shakes his head.

"I can't help you."

He then turns and walks back inside, with a muttered order to the mechanic who is sweeping up.

The mechanic approaches, Dad asks where the nearest motel is located. The mechanic shakes his head.

"There's no rooms in town for you folks."

I think my mother understood him first. I remember her starting to cry.

It was past supper time, getting dark and we had nowhere to go.

In the end, the black mechanic finished locking up and had us follow him down the road to the little not-quite-a-town where the black families lived. Where the black families had lived for generations even though they went into town to work. There wasn't a motel but there was a woman who had rooms to rent. We stayed there for several days until an officer and a couple of non-comms arrived and opened the base.

We lived on base the entire time my father was stationed there. My father refused to consider moving into town. If the base hospital hadn't opened in time my sister would have been delivered at the civilian hospital. By law the words "Mixed race" would have been stamped across her birth certificate.

My father was even more adamant about passing for white after that, both for himself and for all four of us children.

I was very young. I didn't understand, sitting in the car on that humid spring evening, why that man wouldn't help us. All I knew was he had a very strange look on his face when he said "I can't help you." And my father flinched and my mother cried.

The kicker? By the lights of the time and place, that wasn't a bad man. He didn't use any of the more usual words. He even sent his mechanic out to help us. He didn't have to do that. There were plenty of people who wouldn't have faulted him if he'd refused to lift a finger.

So, when I catch myself being a clueless white person, that's the moment I remember. One moment, almost fifty years ago, and I can still see the way my father's jaw went tight, still hear my mother swallowing her sobs out of stubborn Chicago Irish pride. They were stranded and helpless in front of their children.

"There's no rooms in town for you folks."

I don't know what it's like to face racism every day. I do know just one moment of being the target burned into my brain.

Don't do that.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Bright shiny new blog, oh how I love thee.

I am the driver on this bus and I have no map. Come along for the ride, if you like. But, be told, this blog will be run on the Bright Shiny Object Management System. So, if I suddenly veer from semi-articulate discussion of my position on the Iraq war (against, by the way) to how feminism informs my urge to set fire to my television (deeply, in the event you were wondering) to what I saw at the local farmers market (yummy gorgeous food and cute dogs)- well, it will really be as if we were sitting here face to face. That's the way my mind works. I have a magpie mind and the world is full of Bright Shiny Objects.

Some days I get hooked into a news story and trawl the Internet looking for more information or the reactions of bloggers I like. (Note to self: Blog roll) Other days I read a book and discover I must now track down the rest of the author's work. Because, you know, like I need more books. Right now if we had the yard space I could put a two room addition on this house, built entirely out of books and still have enough books left over to fill them. If you are a decent life form you will not introduce me to another cool bookstore, unless you are likewise bearing a gift card.

Some days I go work out and then spend the day musing about the weird baggage American women have about their bodies. And from there I am off into the twisty maze of passages that surround food and health and size acceptance and aging. (Welcome to middle age, here is your bad back and your AARP membership.)  

Some days I am mired in the past. Some days I cannot take my eyes off the future. I'd like my flying car now, thanks. And a pony. (Well, no, probably not a pony.)
I speak and write in parentheticals. I love the Great Pacific NorthWest with the fervor of a recent immigrant. I dabble-

-well, frankly 'I dabble' is pretty much my motto. I could have won an Olympic Medal in Cross-Country Dabbling by now if I'd been more serious about training. Right now it's fiber arts and photography and messing about with an idea for a novel which are taking up most of my time.

And now blogging. I'm learning as I go. But we pretty much all are, all the time.

The blog name?

I have insomnia. Had done my whole life. But now I have the rockingest doctor in the world and she sent me to a sleep specialist. This means I can now say things like 'my in-home blood oxygenation monitoring ruled out sleep apnea', which is the sort of thing one must say to insurance companies in order to get them to pay for one's sleep medication. One must also have an actual doctor give an actual diagnosis, because 'I haven't slept in thirty years' is not medical-y enough for insurance purposes.

And my rocking sleep doctor wrote down in my records I have chronic insomnia which is (like me) 'persistent and intractable'. I told him 'that would so be the title of my blog, if I had one'. And now, I do.

Begin the beguine

It's been nagging at me for some time (as services went to hell in That Other Place I journaled) that what I really wanted to do was a blog.

Someplace where my ramblings and ruminations were less likely to be followed or proceeded by someone else posting the interminable 'which root vegetable are you?' quizzes. (I am, as anyone who knows me can guess, the noble and under-appreciated rutabaga.) Somewhere I could discuss my own sometimes terrified reactions to the daily news. Somewhere I could post my rants and my paeans of praise.

Besides, in the procrastinating on one's novel game, 'I was working on a post for my blog' sounds far more grownup and serious that 'I was five hundred entries back on my Flist and still not caught up, but at least I know now which species my inner rodent belongs to!' Or maybe not, but don't disillusion me just yet, I haven't even got the new wore off this thing.

The freedom of knowing that a whopping three people will read this in any given week may lead me down some dangerous roads. But it will be an adventure.