The lesson white people can’t teach

I wrote the first part of this piece three years ago. Just ran across it today and decided it’s ready for an update. No doubt more will come.

— Dave Williams,
June 16, 2020

“Atlanta” written and produced by Donald Glover

September 2017:

One day last week I was looking for a new TV show to watch and came across something called Atlanta. I’d never heard of it but the picture of three young black men with peaches in their mouths was weird. It intrigued me so I took a look.

Here’s how the Hulu log line describes the show:

Two cousins work through the Atlanta music scene in order to better their lives and the lives of their families.

That’s Hulu’s pr department trying to make it sound like a funky Modern Family. The description is so white bread it makes me wonder if someone was trying to intrigue me or chase me away. The weird photo makes a statement of its own. I’m not sure what it is but it sucked me in.

I punched PLAY.

Atlanta took me to a world I’ve never known, where everyone is black and speaks street slang in a dialect that was difficult for me to follow. I turned on captions and it helped but I still struggled a bit to understand what was being said and what it meant. Finally, I just sat back and let the characters develop. I was drawn in.

These people are just like me, but different. We live in very different versions of America.

I’m a white man in my middle sixties.

I’ve never experienced racial discrimination nor knowingly committed any but I’ve always known that it exists and is a damnable sin. I admit to being slightly uncomfortable around people of different classes and cultures. That’s just human nature and it has nothing to do with skin color, sexual identity, religion or nationality, it’s just a matter of “different”. I’m no anthropologist but I wonder if it isn’t an instinctive thing going back many tens of thousands of years to isolate and identify threats from other tribes. I don’t know. I’m just spitballing here. Regardless, we all experience that and almost all of us struggle to eliminate the built-in sense of fear that many people today would label bigotry.

Atlanta is just a TV show but in the comfort of my white middle-class family room it admitted me to a world I’ve never known and can’t visit in real life.

I watched all ten episodes of the first season and I’m all in. I care about the characters and their relationships. I like them. I want them to succeed. I want them to be happy. I love seeing their world through their eyes. It has opened mine.

But this isn’t a TV review. Here’s the point:

Each segment of our lives is a series of doors leading from one place to the next.

At 66, I’m allowed to ease off the pedal. Fewer doors, fewer choices, no hurry.  I don’t have to immerse myself in long term goals and obligations; my kids are grown and raising their own families. My career is achieved and I can stop reaching for the next rung on the ladder.

In many ways I’m just starting to live life on my terms for the first time. I’m learning to let go of insistence and think about what I want to do just because I want to.

Lately I’ve enjoyed stocking bird feeders and watching finches jostle for position.

I find myself saying hello to strangers with greater regularity and sincerity.

Old black men go through this same transformation.

If you’ve not reached this point you have an exciting time of life ahead that you’re probably dreading because you think getting old means wearing out.

Nope.

Getting old means getting free.

When it happens you’ll be amazed by how it clarifies your thinking; you’ll reassess beliefs and assumptions you forged long ago when you were gullible, impulsive and bulletproof. You’ll find yourself saying, “Maybe I was wrong” and being right about that.

In this sense growing old is a gift shared among people of all races.

Atlanta is just a TV show but it opened my eyes to a world inaccessible to me. The characters and their stories are fictional but I trust its cultural authenticity and insights.

In one scene Alfred, aka the rapper called Paper Boi, explains in a moment of frustration why he needs to be successful in music so he can stop selling drugs for a living.

“I scare people at ATMs,” he says. “I have to rap.”

That hit me like lightning.

I’ve never scared anybody by my mere existence. I’ve never had to think about how some might fear and maybe even hate me as a stereotype.

This is what people mean when they talk about white privilege. I didn’t get it until now because I’ve only heard that term as an accusation from other white people who live in my own culture. They try to teach me something while strongly implying I’m a bigot simply because I was confused and defensive. It was a revelation delivered to me in anger. They throw down the gauntlet of shame: “If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem.” It demands I choose sides and smacks of condescension. It makes me frightened, angry and defensive.

“I scare people at ATMs.”

That’s when I got it.

I have white privilege, I understand that now, no thanks to the message delivery system.

It doesn’t mean I should feel guilty about it. It’s not my fault and nobody can tell me it is. It’s just sad and wrong. It’s human. Maybe in some small way my understanding can help fix it.

June 2020:

My Age of Aquarius, the 1960s, was a time of cultural revolution that was shocking and frightening to my parents’ generation. We who were young found it terrifying and yet exciting. With one foot in the world of Leave It To Beaver and another in bloody Vietnam the activists and advocates for change set their sites on the hopelessly lofty goal of universal peace and love, no more wars or discrimination; flower power, Woodstock and all that. Immediately.

Peace advocate faces National Guard troops, People’s Park, Berkeley, CA 1969
Photo titled “Jan Rose Kasmir”

They advocated world peace by shouting, “You’re either with us or against us!”

And today, “If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem.”

This is where most people pay their check and go home. You can’t insult people into understanding and accepting your view of life.

Between generations of change our culture needs a nap.

We grow tired of fear and anger. We grow up, grow families and want our comforting lives back so we take a break for a decade or five. We want our children to have the secure, carefree lives we insist on remembering. To some extent they do, but yet they don’t.

Eventually, our kids or theirs gear up for another fight, one that inevitably beats others into confused submission and thus advances the bar of human evolution just a tiny bit before they take another break and bring the next generation in off the bench.

It is frustratingly slow but we have frustratingly short lives and so much living to do between protests.

As an old man who has been there and done that I am glad for the effort. Positive change is inevitable, I think. We do make progress but it is painfully slow, especially painful for the young and anxious.

I’m tired. That’s not a good excuse, it’s just a fact.

I have no great wisdom to impart or solutions to offer. I can only say that I wish people would stop shouting long enough to listen, really listen with open minds and hearts. We might find we have more in common than we believe.

For me it started on a TV show.

“I scare people at ATMs.”

Here’s a best-of reel from Atlanta.

Cowboy hats, blogs & footprints

by Dave Williams

Me and Lu
Me and Lu Posada, aka “Pa”

Thirty-some years ago during the Urban Cowboy craze of the 1980s, Lu Posada, a dear friend I met at the Yellow Rose, a now defunct Northern California honky tonk, told me, “Cowboy hats are like hemorrhoids. Eventually every asshole gets one.”

Blogs are like that. They were a fad a few years ago, every asshole had one. Like cowboy hats they seem to be going away. I’m sorry to see them go.

Personal blogs allow everyone in the world a chance to put on a hat, share their thoughts and make a statement for anyone who takes the time to read them. Some are whimsical, some are serious or weird, just like the people who write them. I love them all. They give me insights into the lives and perspectives of people I’ve never known.

I don’t remember when Anita Garner and I decided to start this blog. It was more than fifteen years ago but less than twenty, I think. I do know that both of us wanted to leave something of ourselves for our children and theirs. We’re sending them loving postcards from our daily lives.

Together we’ve written five or six hundred posts, snapshots of the moment that we hope will explain who we are or were, how we lived, what we felt about things and why.

I wish my parents and theirs could have done this. They’re all gone now. As I get old I realize how little I really knew them. That bothers me more every year.

We all want to feel that our lives mattered. We want to leave footprints in the sand.

Photo by Genevieve Dallaire on Unsplash

You should start a blog or a journal. Leave your footprints in written words and have conversations with your kids and grandkids. It will make you feel good immediately knowing it might eventually make them happy to know more about you when you’re gone.

Anita
Anita Garner

And, in case you’ve never seen our front page here it is, linked below; it explains how Anita and I met and how a long friendship has turned into our shared desire to inform, entertain and leave evidence of meaning to our existence.

https://theagingofaquarius.com/

PS, a disclaimer: Anita hasn’t read this post before I published it. That’s how we roll. She may have an entirely different perspective. I still wear cowboys hats. I’d be shocked if she ever did.

Click on that link to our blog frontpage above and dig into our our thoughts. You might find them interesting. I hope so.

If you have a favorite blog or two please tell us about them.

Judge not…

by Dave Williams

My special friend and blogging partner, Anita Garner, just posted an insightful piece called The Way You Make Me Feel. You should read it. It will make you think.

When I was young I was quick to judge others for their attitudes, words and actions. I was young, strong, handsome, wise and cocky.

The only part of that I have left is wise and I’m less sure about that the more I learn about life and myself every day.

Many years ago my adult son asked about my relationship with his mother from whom I had been divorced since he was four.

“I can’t see what you and Mom could have ever had in common,” he said.

“You didn’t know us when we were seventeen,” I answered. “We had a lot in common. We were in love but we grew up in different directions.”

As I am dragged kicking and screaming into my golden years I find great peace in learning that we are all still growing up in directions we never would have expected.

I’m still a flawed mortal, I do pass judgments on others but these days it’s usually judgments on social media squawks from people I don’t know and will never meet. We all need to identify the idiots in the world, right?

But, I’m deeply satisfied with myself these days for having been relieved of the burden of critical introspection in realizing that I have no way nor reason to judge the paths others have chosen or the perspectives and opinions they’ve developed along the way.

I’m interested in your life but I can’t share the millions of moments that have shaped the person you are right now.

We’ll both be different the next time we meet. I can’t wait.

© 2020, Dave Williams

An unrepentant underachiever

by Dave Williams

I don’t remember when I first realized that I was never going to be special. I don’t mean as a person. I’m a good guy and I’m proud of that but when we’re very young we imagine a world of glory and achievements just waiting for us to arrive and pick them up as fate has arranged.

As kids we’re told we can be anything we want to be. It’s a lovely lie.

I wanted to be a major league baseball star. I daydreamed about it for years and played the game joyously. I was decent. I could hit the ball a mile but was a terrible runner and chasing down a fly ball in the outfield was always an adventure. At some point I suddenly understood that hitting World Series winning home runs would always remain in my imagination because I could never be good enough to play center field for the Giants.

The seed of doubt was planted in me early, fifteen or sixteen, maybe. Once they take root doubt seeds spread like dandelions.

I wanted to be a professional actor and as a young adult some pretty knowledgeable people told me I was good enough to study hard, get better and succeed. I’m still not sure what stopped me from trying. Fear of failure, I guess. Though, my wife, the lovely and feisty Carolann Conley-Williams, says I actually fear success. It’s an interesting possibility.

And that’s where I am now: 68 years old, most of my futures behind me and sometimes still wondering why I’ve carried self doubt with me through a lifetime.

I’ve had a very good radio career. I’ve worked morning shows in major markets and learned my craft as well as anyone in the business. I say that with expert objectivity. I’m very good but I’m not great.

I can write but I don’t. I want to but I don’t burn for it. Writers always say they write for their own satisfaction but I think that’s a nifty bit of self deception. What’s the point in writing if lots of other people don’t read your work and love it?

Writing is hard, lonely work fraught with doubt.

Contrary to what I had always assumed I began to learn that doubt can be a comforting friend. He requires nothing more of you than acceptance.

My old friend, Doubt.

I describe myself in social media as, “Happy husband, proud dad and grandpa, unrepentant underachiever.” I wrote it to be charmingly humble but it has suddenly dawned on me that it’s true.

I am an underachiever in one sense but I love my life, every bit of it. I wouldn’t change a thing. Not one instant.

Pushing 70 I’m beginning to understand that finding glory in one’s ordinariness can be a deeply satisfying thing.

My old friend, Doubt, brought me here.

Pictures courtesy of the free online photo share source, Unsplash.com.

Big round numbers

June 13, 2019

Highlands High School, Sacramento, 1969

A couple of days ago marked the 50th anniversary of my graduation from Highlands High School outside of Sacramento. A few days later I began my radio career.

50 years. It’s a stunning number. And that was quite a week, as I recall.

June 10, 1969 was a Tuesday. School was out and for some three or four hundred of us assembled in the football stadium the entire world of opportunities was laid at our feet.

I gave one of the two student commencement speeches that day. I waxed eloquently and metaphorically about those opportunities and warned my classmates, “You must be quick to grab the world by the tail (dramatic pause)…or be left holding the shattered fragments of a Crystal Dream.”

Our parents and teachers applauded my youthful wisdom. My classmates drank from hidden flasks, fired off a couple of illegal bottle rockets and laughed like hell.

One guy in the front row flashed me his junk under his graduation robe.

I said goodbye to my childhood that day with a handful of close friends who are still close and the girl who would become my wife.

Then 50 years slipped away.

KLIF, Dallas, 2019

In our fascination with big, round numbers we look back on our lives and try to find meaning in the journey.  We measure ourselves, comparing then and now.

I’ve been anticipating this big round number for quite awhile and now that it has arrived I’m surprised to learn that it’s not that big a deal except for two things:

I’m alive and happy.

Next stop, the big, round 7-0.

Cleaning for the cleaning lady

by Dave Williams

Today is house cleaning Thursday. I always dread it.

A long time ago in an earlier life house cleaning day was Saturday.

Every bloody Saturday.

While the rest of the world slept late and then enjoyed coffee and a leisurely breakfast while weighing their options for a fun weekend, I awoke hating Saturday knowing I’d spend it dancing with the vacuum and mop.

This was my first marriage. We both worked during the week and Saturday was the only time available for house cleaning.

Every bloody Saturday.

“It’s a beautiful day!” I enthused. “Let’s go on a picnic or just take a drive in the mountains!”

No, she explained with thinly-veiled annoyance.  It’s Saturday, cleaning day.

I was a very young man then, never even taught to clean my own room or to appreciate the neatness and order that just seemed to me like the natural state of things. My mother had done it all.

My equally young wife, on the other hand, had been taught to do her share of family chores, to do them correctly and on time.

I tried telling her that the house wasn’t going to get any messier while we were gone but she was disciplined. I hesitate to use words like rigid or inflexible, though they leap to mind. My first wife and her parents were happy, fun-loving people when off duty but they were always sticklers for planning. When I suggested we should “just take a drive a drive in the mountains” I was challenged for a specific destination and plan. I never had one.

It took me years to understand in retrospect that I should have planned to have a plan and not be so spontaneous. It couldn’t have worked, of course. It’s not who I am.

Fast forward: my now and final wife of 30 years, the lovely-and-feisty CarolAnn, is spontaneous like me. We love doing things at the spur of the moment specifically because we’ve made no schedule. Sometimes we even plan ahead to make no plans. Our home has never gotten any messier while we’re away goofing off and we’re both happy with that.

But the problem is the same as it was 40 years ago: we both still work; now in our sixties we’re too tired to clean house and far too rigidly spontaneous to change or care.

And yet, somebody has to do it.

Paying a woman to clean our home every two weeks is a luxury that stretches our budget but as long as I’m still employed it’s worth the expense.

Now I have a new problem:

I have to clean the house before the cleaning lady gets here. It’s better than giving up my Saturdays but it’s still a pain in the ass.

Talk about your spoiled man-child first world problems.

 

Brain farts & checkbooks

I have a young mind and I’m proud of that.

Pushing 70 I still get excited about all the things I’ve loved throughout my life and I still embrace all the new stuff: new technology, new social trends, anything and everything that makes me think, “Wow, that’s cool!”

As we used to say a thousand years ago, I’m hip.

But lately I’ve noticed my brain occasionally slips a cog and loses its place.

I just wrote a check and dated it 3-14-75.

March 14, 1975 was 44 years ago today. I have no memory of that day being significant in any way. As far as I can tell it was just one normal day among the 24,837 I’ve enjoyed so far.

It was a brain fart.

Just this morning I was telling a much younger friend at work that I have a young mind but my body is going to hell. Now I’m thinking my brain may be limping along quickly to catch up.

I like to believe that brain farts come from trying to sort too many wonderful memories mixed with meaningless combinations of old dates and images, all stuffed into the same leaky mental file box containing a glorious lifetime of days.

One thing I know for sure is that you people who still insist on a handwritten paper bank draft (a check) should catch up with the rest of us and accept digital payments. You’re embarrassing yourself and confusing me.

And now I’ve lost my checkbook.

Cough drops

by Dave Williams

I’ve had a chronic cough since just before Thanksgiving, 14 weeks to be exact. That’s a long time for a cough to linger and I’ve not ignored it. After two visits to my doctor, a chest x-ray (turned out clear) and a passel of expensive steroidal and antibiotic prescriptions and inhalers, to say nothing of a hundred bucks worth of over the counter cough syrups, suppressants and antihistamines, I’m still coughing. My doctor is a learned and experienced man but he’s stumped. He’s talking about sending me to a pulmonologist. (I had to look it up: that’s a specialist in respiratory matters.)

I’m not writing this because I’m worried about my cough. I’m just taking note of this moment in my life. At 67 I’m experiencing something totally new: the unexpected idea that I may be entering an age of increasing infirmity, of nagging pains and niggling problems that I might have to drag around to the end of my days.

I rarely get sick, not even a cold, but suddenly I’m starting to feel a bit frail for the first time. Coughing wears you out and makes you think.

Roughly 40 years ago I suddenly realized that I would never play baseball again. Real baseball, I mean. Unwillingly I made the transition from hard-breaking fastballs to the high arcing lobs of a bigger, softer target. Slow-pitch softball is fun but it’s not baseball.  Now, a couple of decades later I miss them both.

About 20 years ago I was suddenly relieved of the daily responsibility of parenting. Our oldest son was married and our youngest son had just moved out. CarolAnn and I celebrated our freedom as new empty-nesters. We loved it yet we missed having children in the house. Family time became the two of us time, which is wonderful though still bittersweet. We will always miss our boys.

There have been other life transitions of course, less notable and too numerous to mention. The thing is, after nearly 70 years of living I’m starting to see a pattern, a constant ending and renewal of a single life’s experiences and perspectives. In 1984 author Gail Sheehy kicked off her enormously successful series of books about the subject she called Passages.

From toddler hood to old age we who are lucky enough to live long lives are constantly saying goodbye to one time of life and entering the next with some trepidation. That’s the excitement of the journey. With great luck, or by design if you prefer, life is a very long road of wondrous yet worrisome discovery.

I feel like a slow student, coming to this realization as recently as I have but I’ve been too busy living to take notice of passages. I’m just now beginning to understand something that should have been obvious:

Lives are lived as chapters of precious stories belonging to the world and yet as unique as ourselves.

I don’t miss baseball as much as I did 40 years ago. And frankly, though I will always enjoy memories of having our boys at home, I’ve gotten over wistful nostalgia pretty well and cherish my daily solitude with CarolAnn more than ever.

This cough is forcing me to hire a younger man to do my yard work. I hope that’s just temporary but the fact is I may never mow a lawn again. That seems trivial but I’m starting to miss trivial things as well as the big, profound stuff. At the same time I’m learning to shrug off the life I’ve known for whatever surprises come next. We all are.

Life is a kaleidoscope. Every slight turn brings a shift in perspective and a dazzling new view of the world we’ve always held.

If this all sounds a little loopy, just blame the meds.

Father’s Day in Judgment City

by Dave Williams

Jeremy and me, the early 80s, Fairytale Town at Land Park, Sacramento..

One of my favorite movies is Defending Your Life starring, written, and directed by Albert Brooks. It’s about a man who dies on his birthday and wakes  up in Judgment City, a Purgatory-like waiting area where he must justify his life in order to proceed to the next phase of existence. It’s warm and funny and will keep you examining your own life for a very long time.

My son Jeremy loves this movie as much as I do and today is his birthday.

On my birthday 17 years ago, shortly before he died, my dad told me he couldn’t believe he had a son who was 50. I know the feeling.

Jeremy was born 42 years ago today. Like all loving parents at this age I understand that he’s an adult with a family of his own and our relationship has grown with us. But like all parents, in my heart he will always be my little boy.

You have to be careful about that when you talk to a middle-aged child. Occasionally I still have to stop myself from calling him, “Kiddo”.

I’m not going to wax poetic about Jeremy and me. Many fine words have been written about ideal father-son relationships and the bonds of love that can’t be described. I have nothing to add. We know how we feel and how we’ve enriched and informed each other’s lives.

I will say this, however:

I am a far better person for his existence than I would be without his love, influence and instruction.

Parenting is a two-way street. You get as much as you give; you learn at least as much as you teach, probably more.

If you’re happy with who you are today you can thank your children in large measure.

When I arrive in Judgment City I will point fearlessly to my boy and testify, “This man is my justification for everything.”

***************

 

 

Aging is easy, changing is hard

by Dave Williams

I learned nothing from my upbringing about aging gracefully. Mother’s  only advice about the passing years was to encourage the use of more moisturizer so boys will like you.

– Anita Garner

My friend Anita wrote those words in her blog earlier this week and it made me think about my own upbringing.

Dad showing me how to use a slingshot

My parents taught me small things about washing dishes and how to work a slingshot. Mom taught me to scrub my face with Phisohex to wipe away teenaged pimples. Dad taught me to stand up straight and look a man in the eyes when I shook his hand.

Neither of them talked to me about girls or careers and retirement. I didn’t even get the birds and the bees talk.

There was no talk, not one speck of advice about fulfillment, about health, about work, about relationships, about how all of that changes through the years. – Anita

My parents, like Anita’s, left me to learn the deep, quiet lessons of life in my own good time. They taught me to be honest and respectful and that was pretty much it. Matters of my future and relationships were not theirs to teach.

These days parents seem to be much more hands-on. They plan their kids’ lives from sunup to sundown, from birth to college and beyond.

For all the stuff we read about helicopter parents and everyone-gets-a-trophy I don’t think parents today are doing anything wrong. It’s not mine to judge. The world seems much more complicated now than it was 60 years ago, though I don’t understand why.

I do wish my grandsons could spend their free afternoons building forts in open fields with no grownups around. I wish they could ride their bikes home at sundown dirty, sweaty and wearing a freshly scabbed knee and simply be told to go wash up for dinner.

Their world isn’t mine, I get that.

But sometimes I still wish it was.