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.

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

Opie and me

 

CarolAnn and I recently cleaned the tool shed out back and evicted three rats in the process. We went to Lowe’s to get rat traps but disagreed on what kind to get. I wanted a quick kill. She wanted the kind that would stick to a rat’s feet and hold them until we could throw them in the trash because, as she rightly reminded me, the snap traps don’t always work. The rats are wily, they grab the bait and make a clean getaway. The sticky traps are a certain though torturous death sentence.

In the end my emotional sensitivity won out. She loves that about me, though she doesn’t agree. We didn’t buy either. I guess I’ll have to depend on the dogs to solve the problem.

Dad, showing me how to use a slingshot.

When I was a boy my dad used to take me fishing but it upset me to hook a fish, yank it out of its home and eat it. Once Dad took me rabbit hunting in Wyoming because that’s what he did when he was my age growing up in Wyoming. He gave me a rifle, we found rabbits and I intentionally fired to miss.

I can’t face the idea of killing a creature just because it wandered into our garage or even our home. I don’t like rats or spiders but I also don’t see that I have a right to kill them. I told CarolAnn, who comes from a family of hunters, that this extreme sensitivity comes from my childhood when I fired a slingshot at a bird on a fence. I actually killed the thing, I told her. It destroyed me.

Now I doubt it happened.

Research has proven than human memories are highly fluid. The events we remember as sure as we know our names are actually reconstructed from bits and pieces of actual experience mixed with impressions from any number of sources pieced together by our emotions and imaginations. (For more fascinating insight, see the link at the bottom of this post.)

Lately I’ve been binge watching the old Andy Griffith show from my childhood and I came across this powerful scene.

I suddenly doubt that I actually killed a bird with my slingshot.  I think I’ve been channeling Opie for 60 years.

Doesn’t matter. It’s why I stopped fishing decades ago. I’m not going to start again now. I still won’t torture a rat simply because it wandered into our declared space. I’ll continue to carry spiders outside on a piece of paper.

Yes, I’m a hypocrite but I’m not sorry or embarrassed. I love eating meat and fish; I have no problem with hunters and people who fish. I just can’t do it myself.

Opie’s pain is mine.

——————

If the uncertainty of memory interests you, I strongly recommend listening to this podcast by Malcolm Gladwell. It will change your view of your own life and the world in which we live: http://revisionisthistory.com/episodes/24-free-brian-williams

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.

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.

That’s entertainment?

by Dave Williams

Today I somehow wound up Internet surfing upcoming concerts and live theater events in Dallas-Ft. Worth. Here’s a short list of shows I would enjoy seeing but will not:

Elton is retiring from touring, not being canonized.

1. ELTON JOHN’S FAREWELL TOUR – Cheap seats, $282 each. (In a basketball arena that seats 21,000.)

2. PAUL MCCARTNEY – Cheap seats, $82 each. (Third deck of a 50,000 seat MLB stadium.)

3, The Broadway tour of HAMILTON – Cheap seats, $345 each. (For that price CarolAnn and I can fly round-trip to California and spend a week with our kids.)

As a self-conscious old fart I figured that I’m just way out of touch with the cost of living these days. So, I did some quick Google work on cost of living comparisons and here’s what I found:

Presumably $2.50 to see The Stones and 25 cents for the Homecoming Queen Contest

— When I was a teenager in the late 1960s the Rolling Stones played the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium. Ticket prices were $2.75 (including a Homecoming Queen Contest). In today’s dollars that’s just shy of $16.00, not the $282 and up for nosebleed seats to see Elton John.

— In 1966 The Beatles played their last-ever live concert at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Tickets were $4.50 – $6.50. Paying $82 next year to see McCartney in a baseball stadium is a price increase of 551.77% and that’s just for one Beatle, not all four.

— Broadway tickets prices for Orchestra seats were $15 in 1970. That would be roughly $94 now, not the $345 they want for a seat that would require me to carry a telescope to see Hamilton.

A founding “father” at age 19, Hamilton was a lousy shot, killed in a duel by Aaron Burr who still has no musical to honor him.

Look, I believe in capitalism. If people are willing to pay these prices for two or three hours of big show entertainment who am I to protest?

I’m just kicking myself for skipping that Stones show.

The common cold

 

by Dave Williams

I have a lousy cold. It’s a terrible cold.

You ever notice that people who have a cold almost always beef it up a bit with paralyzing adjectives that make it sound like an exceptionally bad cold, not just a “common cold”?

This cold of mine is the worst cold in the history of colds. Trust me.

Thirty years ago when I was still young, eternal and bullet proof I just ignored any illness that didn’t force me into a hospital. A cold? Flu? Please. It will go away no matter what I do or don’t do. That was my attitude then and it was proven correct time and again.

I spent a lot of my 1980s evenings in a Northern California honky tonk wearing boots and hat and sucking on beer bottles, smoking Marlboros, chatting up the ladies and laughing with my friends.

Don’t go getting all judgmental on me, it was a different time and socially acceptable. To say nothing of hella fun.

In those days I learned that if I caught a wicked cold I could stay home, get plenty of rest, drink lots of fluids and I would gradually recover within a week or two. On the other hand, if I went out and smoked, drank, danced and laughed as usual it would take seven to 14 days for me to regain normal health, such as it was.

I don’t live like that anymore, I’m too old, and I don’t recommend it because it’s not socially acceptable these days. But I’ll tell you one thing for sure:

Dancing and drinking and smoking cigarettes with a cold made the time pass much more quickly than shivering on the couch alone and feeling sorry for myself.

We didn’t have Facebook or Snap Chat or Twitter in those days. Whining about a cold had to be done in person and your real life friends helped you get over yourself.

Swamp cooler days

It’s raining today in North Texas. I love rain and dark, cloudy days.

Me slurping from our garden hose on a hot day.

Most people I know worship the sun. They seem to like summer best of all and the hotter it gets the better. I don’t get it. Summer was great when I was a kid, impervious to sweat and grime, running barefoot through neighborhood lawn sprinklers and slurping from any old hose lying around because that’s what they were for.

We didn’t have air conditioning when I was a kid. We had a swamp cooler on the roof that blew semi-cool, very humid air directly into the middle of the hallway between the living room and kitchen in our house. I used to lie my bare tummy on chilly asbestos tiles right under the swamp cooler, wearing nothing but a pair of shorts fashioned by my mother’s scissors applied to an old set of blue jeans.

A new picture of an old wooden clothes rack like the one we had in the hallway.

I stayed there for hours on the hall floor with a stack of Dennis the Menace and Sad Sack comic books for entertainment.

Sometimes I took the pillow from my bed and put it on the floor next to my comic books. That was “the life of Riley”, as we called it in those days.

(I still don’t know why.)

Mom had to step over me to hang wet laundry on the clothes rack She didn’t mind. Sometimes she gave me my lunch there, peanut butter and grape jelly on Wonder white bread. I had to eat  it fast so it didn’t dry out from the wind.

Me with my sister, Linda, and our faithful collie, Rusty.

I wish I had pictures of all these things: me, my pillow, PBJ and comics. Sometimes my collie, Rusty, would lie down with me for a couple of minutes. He liked the cool floor but I don’t think he cared for the overhead wind.

For the past fifty or more years I’ve been able to enjoy and expect indoor air conditioning.

Now in my mid-sixties I don’t need to strip down to my shorts and lie on the floor under a swamp cooler.

That’s progress.

I still like summer for its memories of all-day baseball, ice cream trucks, slip ‘n slides and hot days that wouldn’t end until bed time. I loved childhood.

These days I prefer old man comforts, winter and the temperate yet crazy weather days of spring and fall in Texas.

Dark skies and rain feel cozy to me. They call people like me pluviophiles.

I’m glad they have a name for it. I just thought I was weird.