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Unpopular Ideas

Ramblings and Digressions from out of left field, and beyond....

Location: Piedmont of Virginia, United States

All human history, and just about everything else as well, consists of a never-ending struggle against ignorance.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Hernia Considerations

It is two months today since my hernia operation. My neighbor up the road, G., the X-ray technician, had one about five months before I did. Another neighbor, K., the potter right across the road, has told my wife that G. is a little peeved because I seem to have done somewhat better than he with the post-op phase, and actually that is hard to understand, as G. is 20 years younger than me and bigger and much more robust. G., who nevertheless has been very solicitous about my operation, told me just the other day that it wasn't till about a month ago that he stopped having twinges from his operation. It sort of stunned me to think that I haven't had any for nearly the same period, though my op was much more recent than his. And K. knows a couple of other guys, also much younger than me, who have had troubles that I didn't have, following their hernia operations.

I have no explanation for these disparities, other than it might be due to the skill of my surgeon and the others at the hospital.

My wife thinks one chief cause might be that I was more obedient to the doctor's orders. G., for instance, went back to work about a week after his op. As I am not employed, I wasn't under the same obligation. Mainly I rigorously observed the doctor's instructions not to lift anything heavier than 15 or 20 pounds, a restriction that he later extended so that I ended up under that constraint for six weeks. Luckily it was before I would start having to do my regular cutting and hauling of firewood. Still, when you live in the woods, a 20-pound weight limit is a severe constraint, but somehow I managed to stick with it.

One result is that where before I had little interest in exactly what things weigh, now I do. So I need to find something that I can use to weigh any manner of objects, up to about 55 pounds. Fifty-five has become my magic number, both in driving vehicles and in lifting things.

A few weeks ago a third neighbor, H., the gun guy, offered to sell me what would ordinarily be a great deal -- a perfectly good 21" CRT computer monitor for just $25. At first I jumped at it, but then I got to thinking, and a few hours later I cancelled the deal. I had reminded myself that I already had a 20" monitor and a 21" one, not to mention a 19-incher, and handling them had probably gone far to opening that tear in my abdominal wall. They were all well up into the 50- and 60-pound class, and H.'s monster promised to weigh even more. I saw no sense, the great deal aside, in having something that would encourage the 15 percent chance of a second intestinal bulge developing on the left side.

G., who is always ready with medical horror stories to drop on me, told me about a female acquaintance who recently had the same hernia operation that we had undergone. She runs a business teaching people to ride horses, and she went back to demonstrating it much too quickly and she reinjured herself in the same spot, and now she has to go through that hernia repair business all over again.

Just the thought of that makes me cringe, in spite of how well everything went for me.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Why I'm Not a Republican -- Reason #2005

This evening I got a phone call from a person who at first presented himself as taking a poll for what I thought was a national or neutral service. The guy didn't mention a connection with any particular candidate.

I don't usually answer these things, but something made me hang in with it.

As I live in Virginia, the poll had mostly to do with the Governor's race between Tim Kaine, the Democrat, and Jerry Kilgore, a Republican.

I'm afraid I answered somewhat rambunctiously, and it must've been clear within the first two or three questions that I'm a Liberal and that I always vote Democratic and that I intend to vote for Kaine. In fact, when he asked a question that had to do with how I felt about Kilgore, I said I didn't know anything about him except that he was a Republican and that, ipso facto, meant that he couldn't be a good guy.

Some might say that that's not being fair-minded, but I so rarely see Republicans do anything that I consider worthwhile that I feel my definition of them as being congenital bad guys holds up, till they show me something counter to that.

I was offended by the questions asking my religion and my race, and I skirted both, though ordinarily I don't. But other questions were interesting and I saw no drawback in answering them, and that plus inborn courtesy drove me to stick with the questioning till the end.

And it wasn't till just before he hung up that the guy informed me that he had taken this poll for the Kilgore Committee.

What does this mean? Was he an uninterested party, just doing this for the committee to make some money, in which case he was indirectly informing me of the irony of my answers, or was he an adherent of that committee, in which case he could have thrown that info in my face with a great deal of glee, thinking how he had pulled one over on me in light of how much I had clearly opposed his side.

Regardless the thing that he really did was to confirm my distaste for Republicans, and to verify that this was just another of their dirty tricks, for which they had become so famed during Watergate and in numerous elections. Because for sure, if I had known beforehand that the poll was being taken on Kilgore's behalf instead of by some neutral party, I would have refrained from answering the poll.

It left me also with this uneasy question. Given the also proven Republican taste for vindictiveness, is it possible that they will try to come after me in some harmful way?

Naw, I'm trying to think. As I also told them my age, 74, they might just conclude that I'm just a cranky old hopeless backwoods curmudgeon whom no one would listen to and therefore would not be worth the trouble -- all of which is true, but in the climate of anger and fear that that party has created for decades now, I find it easy to wonder.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

The GW Bush Legacy

As the Bush Gang is so incorrigible and their misdeeds so numerous that there's little chance that they will do anything to redeem themselves in their remaining three years, it's not too early to assess their legacy. And besides it's good for the soul to write as if the nightmare of their being in power is over at last. And in some ways it is.

The legacy of the two GW Bush administrations can't be clearer. It is devoid of great accomplishments that will have a lasting beneficial effect on the U.S. or on the world at large. Instead the Bush Co.'s era will be remembered as an age of disasters, some of which they brought about, while others they made worse for their own ends, and at least one of which they used for photo-ops.

I can mention five right off, though there are others.

The first was the putsch that put them in power in the first place. That alone tainted everything that they did subsequently, so much so that instead of gleefully running off with the prize, they would have done better for themselves and for the country to leave the ideology-stained Supreme Court out of it and instead allow massive recounts so as to have a cleaner start for whomever.

The second was collectively the massive tax cuts in a series of years that mainly amounted to payoffs for Bush's wealthy supporters. That money turned out to be desperately needed for the disasters to come.

The third consisted of the events of 9/11, in which Osama Bin Laden went a long way toward fulfilling GW Bush's earlier expressed desire to be a dictator.

The fourth was the unjustified invasion of Iraq, with the ensuing death-drenched occupation.

The fifth was one of the greatest natural disasters in American history, the reducing of an entire big city, New Orleans, to a big sludge bowl, by a hurricane.

To my recollection no other president has had such a long series of absolute catastrophes to occur on his watch. Despite that the people in power and their supporters congratulate themselves every day. The Fates, however, seem to have a different view of things. That ought to tell the people in the White House something, but they're not built to hear it.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Okinawa and Living Long

A while ago the Discovery Health Channel ran a program on the process of aging and factors that prolong life. Prominent in the program were Okinawans, the inhabitants of the tropical island in the Ryukyus chain near China and Taiwan that, however, belongs to the Japanese, though up to less than 200 years ago it didn't.

Okinawa has meant something to me for many years. In 1954, thanks to the US. Air Force, I was stationed there for a far too brief span of seven months. In that time nothing of a crucial nature happened, yet the place made an impression on me so deep that it has lasted to this very day, and in fact I nearly re-enlisted just so I could go back there. Surely going to the Kadena Airmen's Club every night and getting soused on Whiskey Sours while ogling the cute little Okinawan waitresses couldn't have been the cause of that, could it?

Possibly! Because those months on Okinawa were by far the most carefree period of my entire life. I truly didn't have a worry in the world.

A relaxed air must be endemic to that island. It was one of the reasons that the Health Channel program gave for the fact that Okinawans tend to live longer than the Japanese on the main islands (I tend to think of the two places separately), and they have quite a large number of centenarians, which is a surprise considering what they went through during the last days of World War 2.

These are the ones who survived the truly terrible experience of being squeezed tighter and tighter between the advancing American and the retreating Japanese forces in a maelstrom of napalm and bullets. As a result their contemporaries and family members died by the tens of thousands during the three months of ferocious fighting that followed the American landing on April 1, 1945, which that year was not only April Fool's Day but also Easter Sunday -- the last great battle of the Pacific Campaign.

In addition to that kind of sheer luck and their relaxed lifestyle, other factors that may account for the greater longevity of today's Okinawans include getting plenty of exercise and eating small amounts of nutritious food.

The program showed some Okinawan ladies fixing a stew that included fish cakes, tofu ...and pigsfeet.

Over here pigsfeet are regarded as being practically pure, jellied cholesterol, but there it was. I have absolutely no use for tofu or bean curd, but I love pigsfeet, though I have only had them on the average of once every 10 years. The idea of that stew greatly intrigues me, and I will have to look up the recipe on the Internet.

I have always been interested in what a person who becomes a centenarian makes of it.

On another TV program of long ago, I saw a brash young TV newscaster ask a woman how she managed to reach age 100.

I had heard other centenarians, grateful at being asked and having their accomplishment recognized, give all sorts of answers, most having to do with peace of mind and diet.

I loved this woman's answer, because, compared to the others, it was such a towering, beautiful example of bluntness, simplicity, and truth.

"I don't know," she said.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Abu Ghraib Briefly Revisited

I was amazed at how shocked and dismayed good Americans were on hearing of mistreatment of Iraqis by American troops at the Abu Ghraib prison. Or were they really so shocked and dismayed? If they were, they were even more oblivious than I had thought to the myriad injustices that are committed in their name, and by them, at home as well as abroad. These injustices predate even the founding of the nation, and in the last century or so prisons have played a big role in that.

I have not been shocked or even particularly interested in the revelations of the misdeeds by American jailers at Abu Ghraib. Anyone who had read the necessary weblogs, notably Riverbend's at "Baghdad Burning," would already have been long aware of the iniquities associated with that abattoir in the sand. And they would have wondered what possessed the American forces to use it for much the same purposes that Saddam Hussein had earlier. Did they not know that such a benighted place would preserve an aura that would satanically control all its subsequent users, until such time as it was levelled to the ground?

GWBush likes to refer to our troops as if they're the very finest individuals to be found. He has to profess to see them as such, because he is asking them to stand in harm's way in order to realize his own inhuman intentions. But though they may all have come from homes filled with goodness, once they are sworn in, the apple pie factor seems to vanish, and these fine sons and daughters cease to be your paragons of virtue. Instead, being in the military takes away some of a person's humanity, and that is true also of civilian law enforcement, and it applies to volunteers of any nationality.

Unless they are trying to be funny, you will seldom if ever hear servicemen say idealistic things, such as that they joined to preserve the country's freedoms. That sort of blather is reserved for their commander-in-chief. Instead you will hear them say, in so many words, that most often they enlisted to improve their economic outlooks.

As a result, if they were honest and not heavily invested with ersatz patriotism, those who have been in the military might tell you that , though they met some fine guys and gals in there with whom they wouldn't mind reuniting in later years, too many others are a scruffy lot, with their minds constantly on sex -- or at least to preserve appearances they have to pretend to stay in that mode -- and with their mouths full of gratuitous invective and worse.

In addition to the military's hard, cold, prevailing culture, the adverse effect on its members is also a result of the chief tools used there, the weapons. Brandishing a weapon of any kind, which means wearing it, necessarily coarsens a person. It can't be helped. The weapon gives its holder a feeling of power, because of the fear that that implement induces in others. And in that respect the military is more drastic than hunting or law enforcement. Whether that weapon is a rifle, a tank, a submarine, or an airplane, the youths operating these implements have essentially been issued permits to kill with few questions asked, or to pillage, capture, beat, and kill, preferably with regard to opponents whose means to retaliate are as close to zero as possible.

These are very sad aspects of the human condition, though hopefully, if the excuses for having and using weapons don't overwhelm the species, they will not always be present ...in some other era to come.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Lightning Strikes vs. Terror Strikes

Our cats are so quiet that it is always startling to be reminded of their ability to state their objections at some very high pitches. One reason why this surprises is that they don't do it often. Generally they fully exert their vocal chords on just two occasions. The first is when some part of their person is stepped on. The other, which is more extended, more intense, and more frequent, happens when they're contesting points with other cats.

Humans indulge in a similar kind of behavior.

If on September 11, 2001 the several World Trade Center buildings had been brought crashing to the streets by an earthquake, you wouldn't have heard screams of outrage and vows of revenge. Well, not many anyway. That's because that calamity would have been seen as being a "natural disaster," provided by divine providence. Yet the death and destruction would have compared, if not in extent at least to degree, to what was brought on by men in a couple of hijacked airliners.

After 9/11 the U. S. instantly sprouted millions of acres of bared fists and teeth. Those concerted strikes were seen as having been the work not of Mother Nature but of fellow humans, and as such they were thought to deserve our fiercest expressions of anger and lust for revenge.

But such catastrophes are never called "unnatural disasters," and I wonder why. Maybe it's because of the unconscious recognition that actually they're no more unnatural than earthquakes, hurricanes, or tsunamis -- if you accept the proposition that wars and terror strikes come natural to human beings, and the evidence seems to be that they do.

That said, if hatred isn't an appropriate response to an earthquake, then it shouldn't be to a 9/11 event either. It would be more useful after the event to pick up the pieces and carry on as before, while examining the situation and going easy on the recriminations.

Instead emotions take so much precedence over reason that exacting quick and thorough revenge is thought to be the only thing to do, and all the more so, recent events seem to say, if directed at people who had nothing to do with the planning or the execution of the strikes. All that matters -- the thoughtless thinking seems to go -- is that those populations were in the neighborhood and that the desired kill ratio is reached and maintained. But that only adds more broken pieces to the ones already there, and that in turn only increases the burden on the only ones able to do things that mean something in the long run -- a job to which guns are anathema.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Hopes and Prayers

Until a few days ago it had been unusually dry here in Virginia, and for several weeks we had been forced to water some shrubs and plants. But now, as happens often enough in answer to my biggest hopes, we are getting plenty of rain, to the point where in a few more days we might start thinking that it is too much.

Rain is the only thing I avidly hope for. I am afraid of getting too much of anything else.

Meanwhile prayer is used only in case of the direst fears.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Occupations -- Japan and Iraq

Those few neocons who know their history and yet idiotically support GW Bush's incursion into Iraq probably have the example of Japan fondly in mind.

In 1945 the Japanese, having been thoroughly crushed in overt warfare, concluded a peace with the Allies, mainly the U.S., and the American occupation began.

Until the dropping of the atom bombs and more importantly the mobilization at last of the Soviet Union against them, the Japanese had been been preparing to resist an American invasion by every means possible. So it was feared that there would be problems, but the occupation went smoothly. The Japanese disposed of their weaponry and bent all their efforts to rebuilding their bomb-ravaged country.

In the process they seemed to become totally submissive to General Douglas McArthur, their co-Emperor during the occupation, and when he imposed a constitution on them, they accepted it with hardly an objection, and in fact they have kept that constitution to this day, though now and then there have been murmurs about changing it.

That constitution and the supposed submissiveness of the Japanese have served them well, and in fact things got to the point where, in the late 1970's and early '80's, if visitors from outer space had landed on the Earth and looked around and if they weren't told, they would have gotten a totally mistaken idea about the outcome of World War 2, at least as it had stood in 1945. They would've concluded that, going by their economic prosperity, the Japanese and its big partner in the former Axis, Germany, had won, and the Americans, English, Russians, and others had lost.

There is, however and unfortunately for all concerned, no chance for the Iraqis to duplicate the Japanese experience. The reasons are many, but for now three will do.

Unlike the Iraqis, the Japanese were quite familiar with their occupiers and now they were able to figure out how to use them to achieve the goals that had faded so disastrously during the shooting. They had already been studying the U.S. for generations.

The Japanese weren't split into a host of tribes, clans, and warring regions. They had put that nonsense behind them centuries ago.

And in Japan the occupation didn't lead to a secular way of life being replaced by a religious one, in which there is little room for independence of thought and free inquiry, and in which Iraqi men are allowed and even required to keep their feet firmly clamped on the necks of the better half of their population, and the Japanese aren't expected to take valuable time out to set out a little rug and pray five times a day.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Quality of Conscience

I always feel much worse about the things that I do to other people than I do about the things that are done to me. I like being this way, and I flatter myself that this is called having a high quality of conscience.

You would think that this has left me open to all sorts of damage, but I feel that the opposite has been true. You might say that I just don't remember and that instead the haze of retrospect is in operation here, a natural defense mechanism that sets in with age. I am glad that so many events are safely in the past, but I have no sense of aching from injuries of that era.

Similarly, the instances of damage that I've inflicted on others have been few and non-toxic. Another defense mechanism? I'm just going by the scarcity of times that it's been called to my attention. They were always the result of miscalculations of some sort instead of being intentional, which my conscience, being on the iron-willed side almost to a fault, would never have allowed. But nothing protects us from being careless once in a while.

I have long known that being this way would automatically disqualify me from ever having positions of prominence and power, high or low, and I've been more than happy with that. Any time that circumstances pushed me close to being a leader of some type, it didn't last long and was always accomplished in a lackadaisical manner.

The Reverends Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy promised to lead Rainbows to the Promised Land. In an earlier era, however, Eugene Debs was more on the mark, I think, when he told his followers that he wouldn't think of leading them to the Promised Land, because if he could, somebody else could come along and lead them back out. That sounds like the real truth of things to me.

I wonder how I came to be this way? Was it inborn or was it taught, or both? I don't recall being showered with any precepts in this direction.

It sounds close to the Golden Rule, but I've never liked the way that that is phrased. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." The operative word there is the sometimes deadly word "do." It seemed to me that, generally speaking, it was better not to do anything at all to or unto others, positive or negative.

Negative is self-explanatory. Not doing anything positive is based on a recognition that dawned on me slowly through the years, namely that we don't always know whether our "good" acts are actually of benefit in the long run. I can feel that I know what's best, and therefore, for instance, the things that I write in this weblog, but as for pushing hard in those directions ...I am not the godhead, nor -- unlike so many -- have I ever felt that I had a direct line into the Ultimate Authority. Too many times you see people behaving towards others with full confidence that what they are doing is all to the good, though in the end things don't turn out that way at all.

"Leave everybody alone." There it all is ...I think.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Mesas, Buttes, and Automobiles

There is a particular genre of TV commercials that has been around for decades, and, while they don't turn me off, they have always left me a little amused and quite a bit puzzled, because the logic is so far off that I don't understand their timeworn appeal to ad agencies, auto makers, and presumably to car buyers, too.

In certain areas of the American West there are mesas and their cousins with the smaller areas on top, buttes. I guess for hundreds of years people have tried to find good uses for these picturesque rock formations, other than being immovable and inaccessible objects of beauty. Finally, at probably the exact moment that TV sets became accessible to nearly every American, which I date at just over 50 years ago, New York ad agencies hit on the answer. The mesas and buttes would make great platforms on which to display the latest products of the car manufacturers.

Ever since then the agencies have never looked back, and never mind the questions that are always asked by literal-minded people like me, which are: how many people can afford to get their vehicles lifted by helicopter hundreds of feet up to the top of a butte, and, even if they could, why would they want to, because once there, where could they go?

Recently, instead of giving the poor, badly overused mesas and buttes a rest, someone came up with what I first thought was just a way to push this mode even farther into the ridiculous. But I now think that it is instead a brightly conceived if finally maddening piece of self-satire.

In this commercial a stereotypical-looking suburban businessman dressed in a monkey suit (my term for a business suit) and wearing a helmet is kissed goodbye by his equally stereotypical, beautiful wife, as he leaves for the office. But it turns out that his stereotypical house is not in a suburb. It is instead perched alone high atop a mesa or butte. He runs to the edge and jumps off. But he isn't a suicide victim. Instead he's wearing a parachute, which opens, and he floats down to his sleek, glittering, powerful new car waiting far below. He gets out of the parachute, jumps in the car, and drives off to his job.

In my mind this development instantly provokes a question that is so pressing that it never occurs to one to wonder how it is that an industrial park -- obviously this man's place of employment --has suddenly sprouted in the middle of the canyon and desert lands of Utah or in Arizona's Monument Valley. More importantly the urgency aroused is such that I am sure that the make of the wonderful new machine that the commercial is supposedly touting will never be noticed. I know I haven't.

Instead the overwhelming question that the viewer is left with is: at the end of his work day how is this guy going to get back up to his gorgeous, adoring wife and his comfortable house, high atop the mesa or butte? I worry about such things. Somewhat arrogantly, however, the commercial never even attempts an answer.

Another mesas and buttes commercial that has been around for a while treats the genre in a much superior way, and I think this is precisely because it is so believable, and, in this case, funny.

A bunch of young guys crammed into a SUV -- I can't recall its make either, because pricewise such vehicles are no more an option for me than is driving one atop a mesa or butte -- are heading lickety-split toward a butte that they have dubbed "The Rock." They are bubbling over with enormous enthusiasm and bravado as they anticipate climbing and conquering it.

But after they park at "The Rock's" base, pile out, and look up, their mouths instantly slacken and their eyes grow vague, as the unconquerable reality of the formation looming straight up and high as the clouds becomes apparent to them. But then one of them saves the day. He points out another such butte nearby that is considerably lower and less imposing. "What about that rock over there?" he says. "Yeah! The Rock!" they all say in unison and with great relief, and they jump back into their vehicle and barrel off toward that easier object with all their earlier bravado and verve fully restored.

Now that is a great commercial and a fine contribution to the genre of cars, buttes, and mesas.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Good Fortune

I don't know if he still does, but in the past my friend down the road, H., the gun enthusiast, has seen me as being an unlucky person. Once he said that it seemed to him that I always get it in the neck.

I admit that, like a lot of people, I have suffered a number of bad setbacks now and then, but there have also been quite a few bright moments.

The most obvious must be that I've managed to stick around this long and do not yet need a motorized chair. Another is that I've always had sense enough to be able to spot an abysmal U.S. President when I see one, like the present pretender, and the integrity never to have voted for one, which makes me more fortunate in that respect than the great majority of my fellow Americans. And there are other things, but the one I want to talk about right now is my fuel supply.

Aside from a few small electric heaters that we rarely use, our only source of heat is a big wood-burning soapstone stove. This means that every year in the Fall I have to expend a lot of time and effort and the dwindling daylight to go out into the woods for about two months of steady wood-cutting, splitting, hauling, and stacking.

Many might look on that as dire straits right there, especially because of the risk involved, which only increases with age. This risk is in wielding a chain saw, and along with that all the highly dangerous dynamics of felling trees. That is usually necessary, despite all the dead wood still standing as well as sprawling across the forest floor, and even a small tree can do unacceptable damage. But despite my fears, I still see it all as a stroke of the rarest good fortune.

It means that I am alone in the woods for long periods when I don't have to hear or witness any nonsense except my own, because no one would ever follow me in there to inflict me with it. And those woods are more beautiful than the most celebrated cathedral or any other building anywhere on the planet. The ground is soft, the birds are singing, the colors are resplendent, the air has that fresh woodsy scent, and the shapes of everything are interesting and harmonious.

The aspect of this in which I am perhaps most fortunate of all is that I get a lot of exercise, fresh air, and well-filtered sunlight. And, unlike city people walking, jogging, and working out on Bowflexes and all those other weird exercise machines, at the end of the day, unlike them, I have something to show for it, in addition to the health aspects. I have a big beautiful stack of wood to keep us comfortably warm through the winter, even -- I hope -- if the worst aspects of a "Day After" should suddenly strike.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Louisiana Lamentations and Mysteries

I know painfully little about my family history, even for a Rainbow. I was thrown way behind timing-wise by my mother being the last child in a long string of pregnancies, at least 15 of which miscarried, and by my mother herself then having to endure years of her own natal mishaps before I made it through the chute, alive and kicking. By that time a lot of my antecedents whom I could've used being still around had already left this life, including all four of my grandparents.

The generations of my family that I know anything about first saw the light of day in Louisiana, a place that, long before Hurricane Katrina, was already weighed down in mystery and tragedy, with liberal doses of the occult thrown in. The recent despoiling of New Orleans by flood fits right in and cause me to liken that state to the pit of the nation's stomach.

My father was an orphan and was raised by his aunt. I know that aunt's first name and that his family originally came from the state to which I moved from D.C. 25 or so years ago, Virginia, thus unintentionally closing a circle. That's it on that side, period.

On my mother's side, her mother was the daughter of a Rainbow preacher in Donaldsonville, Louisiana. Somehow she hooked up with a scion of a well-to-do family of Scotch-Irish-French extraction, and in 1888 they married and moved to New Orleans. So it could be that I have some distant relatives across the "color line" somewhere in Louisiana, and possibly affluent, too. They of course remain happily and totally unaware of my existence.

It hurts me that there's a tremendous family story there, yet I know almost nothing about it, though my several older relatives were balanced, alert, well-educated people who should have been able to tell me but for whatever reason didn't.

Think of it -- a clearly interracial couple with five children living in New Orleans during a period when Rainbows were being lynched in the Deep South at the rate of four a day, with New Orleans itself enduring a brutal race riot at or near the beginning of the 20th century. But all that was wreathed in silence. All I remember hearing is that my mother's father refused to eat at the table with his children and that he liked to sit on the front porch and insult people.

Two of my mother's three sisters didn't make it into my time, and the only pictorial evidence of them is a shot of a dog that belonged to one of them. The third sister and my mother's brother were still alive by the time I started approaching adulthood, but only till then.

As soon as they could, my mother and father eloped, and soon afterward they "caught the first thing smoking," to Washington, D.C. This was during WW1. After his wife died my mother's "white" father moved to D.C., too, to stay with my parents, till his death in 1927, four years before I was born.

Meanwhile my father traipsed around D.C. throughout the 1920's and well into the 1930's, taking great photos of the monuments, buildings, and a few friends and neighbors.. Without the tourists everywhere, the D.C. of his time looks strangely deserted ...but there's not one shot of his father-in-law, or of his mother-in law back in New Orleans. What happened there? Did my father take such family pictures, and later were they all destroyed, so as to shut off memories of painful times? My mother said that there was a family Bible with pictures, but by the time I arrived it had long since been lost.

Meanwhile one of my cousins thinks that it's no accident that my mother and all her sisters married dark-skinned men.

In an age of better medical care than most of her family enjoyed, my mother lived to be 81. My father had already died nearly 40 years earlier, in 1938, after thus having been afforded scarcely more than six years in this life with my sister and me.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Being Something Else, or Passing

Many in the majority community may not even have heard of "passing" as the word is used here, but it is well known to those in the Rainbow community -- or at least the parts of it familar to me. (I have no idea what the younger generations of any persuasion know. I don't have an inkling of what they are even saying, unless they speak very slow.) By "passing" I mean presenting one's self as having an ethnicity different from what it actually is.

When, as a young man of 28, I was traveling alone through Japan on a college fellowship, in the summer of 1959, I was amused though discomfited when I saw that the Japanese didn't readily take me to be what in my mind I so obviously was, a hotshot American. I didn't care for being asked if I was an "Indo," that is, a native of India. My opinion of the U.S., for all its faults, was and still is considerably higher than it is of India.

Till then, at home in the U.S., I had never been seen as being anything other than "colored," or "black," or, believe it or not, often in a fond sense, depending on who was using the term, "a nigger." Was this a case, then, of passing, even if unconsciously? It couldn't have been, because the idea wasn't in anyone's mind at the time, and I'm glad of that.

My father was dark-skinned and obviously with many recent ancestors of sub-Saharan African heritage. My mother, on the other hand, was so light that she could almost have been described in the same way that Richard Wright, the author of "Native Son," spoke of one of his grandmothers, when in his autobiography "Black Boy" he wrote that she was so light-skinned that anyone would've thought she was white, which meant that she was white.

This was because my mother's father was of Scotch-Irish extraction, with some French thrown in. (This was in Louisiana.) She gave me the impression that her mother, however, was dark, like my father. It's hard to understand how the genes interacted there, because my mother and her siblings -- at least the two that lived long enough for me to see them -- could all have passed for being "white." And that, in fact, is just what one of them, her brother, did.

I don't remember how old I was before I finally saw Uncle John, but I had been around for a while. He lived for years in distant Chicago. I think he was a postal worker on the railroad, or some such. Maybe I remember hearing that he had a "white" wife there, but I'm not certain of that. He always kept in touch, however, with his two surviving sisters, and finally he moved to D.C. to be close to them in his final days, while incidentally returning to the Rainbow world.

Sometimes I wonder what Uncle John's life was like, posing in Chicago as a "white" man for so many years. Most likely it was easy. It has always seemed to me that Euros are not nearly so conscious of blood mixtures as are Rainbows. The latter group has often felt constrained to be alert to it, while the descendants of Europeans can keep burbling along in other directions.

The only time that my mother "passed" was purely unintentional. Once, as a very young woman traveling alone on the train from New Orleans, her hometown, to her new home in D.C., she had a long layover in Nashville. To pass the time she wandered into a movie theater close to the train station. This was probably in 1916. She enjoyed the film, but when the lights came up she was horrified to see that all the faces around her were "white." She got out of there fast.

She had been conditioned to do that, because the theaters in New Orleans were segregated, a policy and a custom enforced officially by the law and unofficially through threats, beatings, lynchings, and the like. But her features were such that no one in there was any the wiser, and it probably didn't hurt, either, that she was also good-looking.

I wonder if, after she boarded the next train out, whether she spent any time meditating on the irony that those theater-goers who had terrified her so much had been her father's people.