Lederhosen and jingle dresses

I grew up in a German-speaking household, with my maternal grandparents–both European immigrants–and extended German-Slavic, Lutheran family with whom I regularly spent time. My mum didn’t learn to speak English until she went to kindergarten. So much German was spoken in our home, in fact, that by the time I got to high school, I was so frustrated at not understanding what was, clearly, being said about me that I opted to take German all four years, plus a term of conversational German my first year at Virginia Tech, just for good measure.

Our culture–language, food, drink, holidays–enveloped us like a warm, comforting blanket. Though I remember a lot of polka dancing, cheek-pinching and entreaties to eat more, it wasn’t smothering, as portrayed in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Rather it was more like a support network of people I had no concept of being without. It just was. And though there was no overt talk of ethnic pride, nor was there shame or discouragement in being ethnic.

Photo of a white child and white adult woman dressed in traditional German clothing with green grass, a hedge and road in the background
My mum and brother, 1975

(The first time I walked into Novak’s Hungarian Restaurant a few years ago, the aroma actually brought me to tears. One whiff of a stogie has the same effect.)

I didn’t learn until I was in my thirties–from a coworker who had grown up on the Cheyenne River reservation in South Dakota–that the warm, fuzzy, cultural experience I’d had in my childhood is not universal. Chas told me about her family’s experience being sent to St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain, South Dakota, where they–father, aunts, uncles, and cousins–were forced to assimilate into White culture and forbidden to speak their native language. Without delving into the horrifying depths of the history of Indian schools in the U.S. (you should take the time to research this on your own), I ask you to imagine, just for a moment, being ripped from your family as a small child and sent far away from everything you know to live among strangers who brainwash you into believing your food, language, religion, rites, rituals–everything about your culture and your entire way of life–are completely, utterly inferior and wrong.

Young girls wearing colorful dresses with bells on them

Unimaginable, right? Horrifying, yes? Morally and ethically depraved, even? Absolutely. In addition, our [White male] U.S. government also:

  • took millions of acres of valuable, productive land from indigenous peoples without compensation (also known as “stealing”),
  • relegated these folks to reservations, sometimes thousands of miles from their homeland,
  • entered into treaties and reneged on them.

Then our [White male] government appropriated indigenous children and sent them away in a concerted effort to wipe out their very culture. Sit with that for a while.

Am I White male-bashing? No. I’m dropping truth bombs. (If you’re a 30 Rock fan, you’ll get that reference.) As much as I am a part of American White European descent culture–part of the problem, but trying to be part of the solution–I simply can’t wrap my head around why a lot of White people still believe in the supremacy of their skin color. We can point to the past and say, “Those old White dudes who ran shit were so ignorant and racist.” Because yeah, they were. But it’s 2021, for chrissake, and there is no shortage of White people who still cling to the belief that Black and Brown people are inferior to them. How is this even possible?! (That’s a rhetorical question, BTW. I know how it’s possible.)

Since we can’t unlearn things, we become responsible for the knowledge we gain. We can recognize our past, be proud of who we are, and appreciate our customs and culture: but I believe that those of us who are of White European descent should, if we’re able, also commit to using our White privilege in an effort to right these past transgressions. That looks different to each person depending on who you are and what you’re willing and able to do.

Jingle dress photo: Wikimedia Commons

Raise your hand if you’re a misanthrope too

In January, mi jefe, Javier, began one week with a post about his dogs, Chato and Chiquita. While I admit they are totes adorbs, the two of them don’t hold a candle to my dog-children, Agate and Rye Lee the one-eyed wonderpug.

Now that we’ve established whose dogs are, in fact, the cutest, Javier’s main point was that he’s noticed humans seem to be more open to a meet-and-greet with dogs than with other humans, that humans exhibit more kindness and openness to dogs than the humans walking them, and so on. Being an introvert—and, not to mention, a bit of a misanthrope to boot—I am definitely in this camp. (In fact, I find myself referring to some humans as “[insert dog’s name here]’s mommy/daddy/person.”) It’s not that I actively wish humans ill, it’s just that I prefer the company of plants and critters. I always have.

I remember reading, many years ago, articles criticizing a scene in Michael Moore’s 1989 documentary Roger and Me, in which a rabbit is clubbed, gutted and skinned by a woman who sold rabbits for food and pets. She was trying to bring in a little additional family income because her husband had been laid off by GM. Defending inclusion of the scene, Moore commented, 

″It’s a pivotal moment in the film because people don’t want to look …. They don’t want to look to see the brutality of what has happened, not to this rabbit, but to this town – that a woman is reduced to killing rabbits for food in the middle of the hometown of the world’s richest corporation.″ [referring to Flint, Michigan]

Despite the point Moore was attempting to make, I read several articles criticizing animal rights activists who were, indeed, far more horrified by the scene itself than his reason for including it. Condemn me if you will, but I’m one of those people.

Why? Mostly because animals are innocent. One hundred percent, all day, every day, they are innocent of prejudice, hatred, revenge, segregation, slavery–all the horrid things humans have done to each other since homo sapiens became a thing back in the day. Though there are multiple species that practice theft, territorial defense, parasitism, even indiscriminate killing (orcas on narwhals and murder hornets on honeybees come to mind), I’m quite sure they don’t do these things because of religion, politics or greed. They do it because of a biological imperative, whether we understand it or not. Humans do it because we can.

In the late 1990s I worked for The Dumb Friends League, one of the largest animal shelters in the Rocky Mountain region. During my time there, I learned that there had been pushback over the years from people who thought the name was offensive, because animals certainly aren’t “dumb.” Founded in 1910, the League was so named because back then, “dumb” was the common term for being unable to speak. The board of directors rejected all efforts to rename the organization, because the mission of the Dumb Friends League is to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves.

There are humans who can’t speak for themselves as well, and I deeply appreciate individuals and organizations dedicated to their support and well-being. The difference is that while I feel strongly the vast majority of humans deserve food, clothing, shelter and comfort, I know for certain that we’re the ones who created a system in which scarcity are all too common. We’ve also created a world in which corporate farming and meat production are necessary evils, as well as forcing wildlife from its native habitat to make room for human expansion.

I won’t apologize for who I am—but I can also be a person who tries to practice kindness, compassion and empathy to the best of my ability towards both humans and critters.

There goes my hero, v.2

In a past life, I was a conservation organizer with the Sierra Club in Rapid City, South Dakota, working with a large group of like-minded organizations to garner support for what would have been America’s first national grassland wilderness in the southwest part of the state. I say “would have been” because, though we got as far as federal legislation being introduced, the project never progressed beyond that.  It’s very painful to look back on this time for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the distressingly large number of deaths of people I had come to know, respect and love through this job:  my beloved mentor and supervisor, Kirk Koepsel; the Club’s Northern Plains Regional Director Larry Mehlhaff; my good friend and regional coworker, Mary Wiper; our steering committee director, Rich Gordon; long-time Sierra Club volunteer Don Higgins; radio/TV outdoor show personality Tony Dean; and Keith Jewett, the father of my dear friend and immediate coworker, Chas Jewett.

Chas is the daughter of a Lakota father and White mother, born and raised on the Cheyenne River Reservation in northwest South Dakota. She joined our team in 2002 as an organizer, specifically focusing on tribal outreach. Though we supported each other extensively, my emphasis was more on partnering with “unlikely allies,” specifically hunter-angler groups. It would be a colossal understatement to say that we had many adventures during our five years as coworkers–unfortunately not all of them happy. It is significant to note that, while both of us were insulted, threatened, and even spit at during our time on this campaign, none of that disrespect was committed by her peeps (native Americans)–only mine (White people). 

That being said, few people in my life know (or will remember) that although Chas is the first native American person I can call a friend, she wasn’t my first native American Sierra Club coworker. That person was, in fact, a Lakota woman named Charmaine White Face, who for years had been organizing native American folks on national forest management issues in the Black Hills area. She joined the grassland wilderness campaign shortly after I did in winter 2001.

Though they are both Lakotas passionately committed to environmental and social justice causes, I don’t know that I could have dreamt up two more different women, personality-wise. Charmaine was as quiet and understated as Chas is talkative and exuberant. Unfortunately, I didn’t work with Charmaine long enough to get to know her very well: she left the Sierra Club abruptly after less than nine months in the position.

One day, on a Friday staff call with the two of us, our supervisor, Kirk, made a thoughtless comment having to do with powwow attendees enjoying themselves too much and being hungover on Monday morning after the event Charmaine would be attending on behalf of the wilderness campaign. Kirk, recognizing this the instant it was out of his mouth, apologized immediately, owning his cultural insensitivity. I could hear the embarrassment, mortification and pain in his voice. His comment was meant as a joke about people in general having a good time over the weekend and “paying the piper,” so to speak, on Monday morning, but in context it was highly inappropriate and hurtful. Kirk knew (as do I, as do many White folks in western South Dakota) that many native American families have been affected–even destroyed–by alcoholism, and that alcohol, in fact, isn’t even allowed at powwows. Charmaine, for her part, seemed to accept his apology and understand how badly he felt about what he said. 

Later the next week, Charmaine and I were in the office together, and I was on speakerphone with Kirk. To this day, I truly don’t know what set her off, but Charmaine suddenly flew into a rage the likes of which I had never seen. She screamed and cried and threw things; I was literally petrified with surprise and agonizing discomfort. I don’t remember what she called me, but I know it was something accusatory about conspiring against her. What I do remember is feeling completely and utterly at a loss about what to do with her boiling anger and the way she expressed it. I also remember feeling surprised, hurt and resentful that she would lump me together with Kirk and every other White person she was angry at: after all, I wasn’t the one who made the inappropriate joke. I wasn’t “in cahoots” with Kirk: I wasn’t a racist! 

As a clueless White woman in her late thirties, I had no tools with which to break this down. I had no idea how to process any of this. I had never experienced anything like it. I wish I’d had the skills and the emotional maturity to talk to Charmaine about what happened and make an effort to heal our relationship.

Today, though, I am better prepared to view this incident with the perspective of time, education, life experience and ongoing self-work. I can unpack and analyze most of what happened–and recognize it when it happens in a different context. I understand intent vs. impact. I acknowledge that we live within interlocking oppressive systems built by White people for the benefit of White people, at the expense of people of color. I recognize and own my Whiteness and my racism. I try.

I hadn’t thought about Charmaine and this incident in a very long time. But I had recruited Chas recently to present a program on the concept of culture vultures, and her words brought it to mind. I was able to talk to Chas about why Charmaine left the Sierra Club. Over the years, I was able to have conversations with Chas that I probably couldn’t have had with anyone else. And truthfully, the vast majority of the time I was learning from her–not the other way around.

Kirk, too, spoke honestly about what happened with Charmaine after Chas was hired. I think we made a great team for the short time we were blessed to work together. I don’t doubt that Chas carries a similar kind or amount of anger towards White people that Charmaine does, but she expresses it differently–and, like Charmaine, has always seemed to channel it into her decades-long work in environmental and social justice. It may be that she expressed it differently to me than others. Over the years we got pretty good at calling each other on our shit, in a way that we can both understand and absorb without hard feelings. I know I deserve to be called out more than she does, and I appreciate her friendship more than she knows. Like my brother, Chas is another one of my heroes.

What does White privilege look like?

What’s the difference between White privilege and essential work?

Well, for starters, essential work looks like this:

(No, those field workers are not on Mars.  They’re actually working by the light of their cell phones, because this is what the Willamette Valley sky looked like in early September.)

On the other hand, White privilege looks like this:

White privilege is volunteering to harvest grapes for your winery owner friends, once a year on a Saturday morning, on your terms. You have the option not to go if it’s too cold, too hot, too wet, too COVID-y, or too smoky. White privilege is performing this work as a recreational activity, and being provided lunch and wine after only three hours of picking.

By contrast, essential agricultural workers–the vast majority of whom are Brown folks–do this work all day, every day, regardless of how they feel, what the weather’s like or the fire burning a mile or two away that’s not only endangering their lives, but making it extremely difficult to see and breathe.

They plant, weed, prune, harvest and clear for the next crop:  they can’t opt out–not if they want to pay their bills and support their families. Their hardship results in my being able to drink wine (and eat fruits and vegetables) whenever I want. Doesn’t seem fair, does it?

Harvest time can be hot or cold, wet or dry. Comfort-wise, this translates into the potential for heat exhaustion, dehydration and sunburn or ending the day soaking wet and muddy up to your knees. Either way, harvesting grapes full-time is exhausting.

Nina Cassidy, Emerson Vineyards

According to Emerson Vineyards Assistant Winemaker Nina Cassidy, many field workers carry two 20-25 lb. buckets of grapes in each hand. They don’t stop to take selfies or arty photos.

In fact, they barely stop to hydrate, eat lunch or use the toilet.

According to a United Farm Workers Facebook post, Samuel (above, wearing a plaid shirt) earns $2.10 per bucket of grapes at a vineyard in Dayton, Oregon. Other winery owners pay contractors by the ton and have no way of knowing what each individual field worker is paid. They may also pay contractors a per-worker hourly rate for pruning or other jobs, but again have no knowledge about how much of that trickles down to individual workers. Sebastian, the vineyard manager at Airlie Winery, is Latino, as is his right-hand man, Guadalupe; Sebastian, in turn, works with winery owner Mary Olson to hire field workers and choose contractors. They’re among the lucky ones:  they work for a winery owner committed to workers’ rights and social justice.

While I was picking grapes, eating lunch and enjoying my wine that day, I thought a lot about the glaring contrast between our enjoyment and the experience most essential workers have, compounded this summer by a pandemic and the worst fire season in Oregon’s history. I thought about the 2014 movie Cesar Chavez and how much of that history I still know nothing about. I thought about the hundreds of bottles of Oregon wine we’ve consumed with family and friends since we moved here eight years ago, and how much time and effort went into those bottles.

Even if you take no further action, at the very least, be mindful when you eat and drink, and know how much effort went into making it possible for you to do so.

I’m With the Birds–And the Humans Who Love Them

I’m a bird nerd. There, I’ve said it. Now you know. Birds see me coming with my binoculars, confer with their friends and take off. I’m totally okay with them laughing at me behind my back. It comes with the territory.

Birds and humans have something very important in common: we see color. However, whereas birds rely on their color vision to choose mates, find food and scan for predators, whether or not we’re conscious of it, humans use it to make snap judgments about other humans. We’ve been conditioned to do so almost since the day we were born.

We receive messages about the meaning of skin color from our families, our friends, our teachers, movies and TV shows, magazines, newspapers, advertising, you name it. We’re immersed in this conditioning. It is quite literally impossible to be unaffected by it.

That being said, we can work on recognizing it when it happens and redirect the resultant thoughts and behaviors we may have.  Example: you’re walking in a park with your (unleashed) dog. A Black man with binoculars asks you to leash your dog, citing park regulations. Should you:

A) apologize and immediately leash your dog, wish the man a enjoyable day and continue on your walk, or

B) go all Mount St. Helens on this guy’s ass and call 911, screaming that an African-American man is threatening your life, while you simultaneously strangle your still-not-leashed dog and demand the man stop recording your antics.

Seems like a no-brainer. I would choose option A, but some women, like Amy Cooper, use their White lady fairy dust for evil rather than good and unfortunately, inexplicably choose option B.

Don’t be that White person. Be the one who sees color, acknowledges that Every. Single. One. of us is different, appreciates and embraces that diversity, and knows that all of our lives are vastly better because of it.

Photo credit Jeffrey Ward/Bird Collective

The Spirit of Radio

In early January, Rush drummer Neil Peart died of brain cancer at the age of 67. It is literally not possible for me to imagine what he’d been going through since his diagnosis less than four years ago. He was a remarkable person in so many different ways, not the least of which was being Rush’s drummer for more than 40 years.

I’ll direct you to Rolling Stone‘s beautiful version of an obituary, but I want to tell you my Rush story.

The first rock show I ever went to was Chicago, at the Hersheypark Arena, in (probably) 1976. I would have been ten or eleven years old, so my dad took me, as I was incapable of driving myself at the time. Little-known fact (unless you, like me, are from south-central Pennsylvania): Hersheypark Arena opened in 1936 as Hershey Sports Arena and served as the home of the Hershey Bears American Hockey League team from 1938-2002. (It also served as an evacuation shelter in 1979 during the Three Mile Island nuclear emergency.) If you want to know more about the fascinating history of this stadium where in 1962 Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points, setting an unbroken NBA record, read this article.

According to Wikipedia, when it was built in 1936, “as the Hershey Sports Arena, the building was the largest monolithic structure in the United States in which not a single seat suffered from an obstructed view.” Who knew?

Also, I just read on the Hershey Entertainment website that Chicago played at the Hershey Theater in April 2019, and that this was Chicago’s “50th consecutive year of touring, without missing a single concert date!” That is impressive.

Back to my first show:  that’s pretty much it.  I don’t actually remember anything at all about Chicago or the venue itself, just that my dad took me. He probably doesn’t realize this, but my dad is one of the main reasons music is such an important part of my life. When I was a kid, I was always amazed at his ability to name the artist after only a few seconds of a song playing on the radio. I wanted so badly to be able to do this, and it cracks me up to remember my approach:  I would just memorize which songs went with which bands. It had nothing to do with the singer’s voice or the sound of the music itself, and everything to do with learning by rote. Eventually, of course, I realized that bands and vocalists have very distinctive sounds. But I didn’t know how my pop knew, so it was completely magical to me.

Dad took me to several shows when I was in high school, the most memorable–for a variety of reasons–being Rush, the year I was a sophomore at Herndon High School.

The way I remember it, my homettes and I were making plans to go–which in our case included two dads as chaperones–when someone’s parent won skybox tickets off the radio (or were given to them?). Naturally we didn’t want to be seen with said chaperones, so we gave them the skybox tickets, and the girls and I purchased regular seats.

I feel like it’s imperative I mention that in 1981, these two Old Guys who agreed to take us–one of whom was my dad, the other the afore-blogged-about doctor of cow farts–were barely forty. That’s young, as far as I’m concerned–especially since I’m now 54–but for some unfathomable reason, they both felt compelled to wear what equated to polyester leisure suits, shunning ties for a more casual look with dress shirts unbuttoned. I’m pretty sure I remember one of them, at least, wearing plaid pants. They looked exactly how narcs were portrayed in 1970s TV dramas. My girlfriends and I were beyond mortified and made them walk at least ten feet away from us.

The concert, as I remember it, was not only stupefyingly wondrous, but to this day the loudest show I believe I have ever seen. I was both deaf and hoarse for most of the next day. Though Geddy, Alex and Neil were touring their 1981 release Moving Pictures, my favorite Rush song was–and still remains–The Spirit of Radio.

(I love this particular video because 1) at the beginning, it shows the year the song was recorded, 2) it’s clear that much of the audience is my age, 3) the little kiddos with ear protection–something I wish I would’ve known about a little earlier in my life, and 4) Neil Peart’s drum kit is over the top.)

After the show, the dads had delightful stories of their own to share. Unbeknownst to any of us, skyboxes are not private spaces: they can be shared by a number of people who don’t necessarily all know each other. Upon arriving in the skybox, the dads noticed a mini-fridge which happened to be stocked with beer they assumed was complimentary. They decided this was very nice indeed, and were enjoying a couple cold ones when the other skybox occupants returned. Oopsie.

If I remember correctly, I’m pretty sure my dad said their skybox neighbors who so graciously didn’t beat the shit out of them for taking two of their beers “smelled like camels.” I’m not sure on what occasion my dad would’ve noted what a camel smells like, nor why he chose this particular animal, but apparently their new acquaintances were more fragrant than what these two sportcoat-sportin’ narcs were used to. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall.

To cap off the experience, some guys brought their girlfriends into the men’s room while dad was using the urinal. Good times.

Rush was one of my favorite bands at a very impressionable time in my life, and The Spirit of Radio encapsulates–as does Queen’s Radio Ga Ga–my feelings not only about music, but the role FM radio played in the formation of those feelings. It’s very difficult to overstate how important it was at the time.

So thank you, Neil Peart, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson, for being there for me during those traumatic formative years when I wasn’t sure I’d make it out the other side. Your music and your legacy will last forever.

Neil Peart photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Hersheypark arena photo courtesy Wikipedia

White lady fairy dust

Remember February? When we could still go to work? When we could still go . . . anywhere at all? After less than a month, that feeling of personal freedom is already starting to fade–and I don’t like it one bit.

Like so many other challenges, though, the situation we’ve all found ourselves in is providing me with some Aha Moments. You know what those are: the lightbulb comes on, either spontaneously while you’re in the shower or as a result of something you’ve heard or read. Aha Moments can be super cool, but they can also be super uncomfortable. For me, lately, they’ve been the latter.

What I’ve learned in the past few weeks is this: my White privilege (or “White lady fairy dust,” as we jokingly call it in our department on campus) allows me to feel resentful about not being able to do what I want when I want, where I want to do it. But get this: Black and Brown folks have to think about this every day–not just sheltering in place during a global pandemic.

Every day, Black and Brown folks worry about being pulled over by the cops on their way to or from the grocery store. Every day, Black and Brown folks worry about being shot in a Wal*Mart because they were holding a BB gun they took off the shelf. Every day, Black and Brown folks worry about their Black and Brown kids being the target of bullying–or far worse. Every day, everywhere, Black and Brown folks know they’re being scrutinized more closely than White folks. Every day, Black and Brown folks wonder if they’ll be targeted for something.

Yeah. They do. And what you may not realize is that most Black and Brown folks adjust their behavior accordingly to mitigate the potential of something bad happening. And they tell their kids to do the same thing.

My White privilege protects me from this. If you’re White, it protects you too. I’m not saying White privilege doesn’t feel good–it does, because it allows me to not have to think or worry about things Black and Brown folks think and worry about. If you look up the word, you’ll see what I mean:

priv-i-lege
noun
a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group

Yes, privilege feels mighty good indeed–but it feels icky too, because it comes at the expense of those who don’t get to enjoy it as well.

So, what can White folks do about it?

    1. Acknowledge it’s there. Know that you’re not a shitty person for admitting it. You didn’t actively request White privilege; if you’re White, it just happened. You know, because you’re White.
    2. Want to do something about it. Why would you want to change the status quo?  Because it’s unfair, and it’s been that way for a long, looonnnng time.
    3. Gently point out to other White people that White privilege is a thing. I say “gently” because we’re not very good at hearing this, much less accepting it as truth.
    4. Actively read, participate and learn.  Your local NAACP chapter is a great place to start.
    5. Journal your journey.  Or blog it, whatever works.

I’m not sure how we’re all going to come out the other end of this pandemic.  My optimism comes and goes.  I haven’t started day drinking yet, which I guess is a good thing.  And I’m trying to feel a lot more appreciation for what I do have (a home, Loving Husband, Happy Dog, One-Eyed Wonderpug and their feline step siblings) and less anger and resentment about being told not to go anywhere.

But it isn’t easy.

Stuff I’ve been thinking about lately, v.2

For lack of a more focused/coherent topic, please to enjoy this random collection of mental meanderings.

1. Working in higher ed is so not as glamorous as I thought it would be.  Especially at an open-registration community college.

2. Working at a winery is sexier than working in higher ed, but almost as exhausting.  Being on the outside of the bar is definitely more fun than being behind it.

3. There are a lot of people and situations I would simply love to write about, but realize I can’t for fear of coming across as a judgmental asshole.

4. I kind of am a judgmental asshole.  But there are still plenty of folks who may not realize it yet. Best to keep it that way.

5. Speaking of assholes, we had yet another yard ornament stolen. I spotted it propped up against a light pole a couple days later in our neighbor’s yard two houses down, sans the multicolored solid glass ball that had functioned as a veritable cherry on top. Our neighbor almost ran over it with their lawnmower. Seriously, people, what the fuck? If a kitschy glass thingamabob with no apparent purpose is mounted on a steel pipe well within my property line, IT’S NOT UP FOR GRABS. Literally and/or figuratively. Go to a craft fair already, buy your own fucking thingamabob, and then break it. Chrissake.

6. Things that are fun:  shredding paper, blogging, swearing, beachcombing, doing laundry.

7. Things that aren’t fun:  all other household chores, working, people who steal yard ornaments, traveling by air, waiting in line.

8. How can I possibly be 53 years old?

9. Did I actually meet Eddie Vedder and then spend time backstage with the rest of Pearl Jam after that show at the Paramount Theatre, or did I dream the whole thing?

10. I didn’t know about setlist.fm until just now.  In theory, it’s a super-cool concept.  However, 1994 was a long time ago.  How would would I know whether or not the setlist from that particular show was accurate unless I had a written copy to compare it to?