Monday, February 08, 2016

Dear Jorge....the other letter

Dear Jorge,

I've been dreading this conversation.  I knew we'd have to have it and it was becoming more clear every week.  When I snip at you for wearing baggy sweatpants out of the house, for walking around in ripped up shoes and dirty clothes, when I remind you so often to take off your hoodie's hood that I just give up and put all the hoodies in the attic rather than let you wear them.  It was coming.

A few weeks ago we were given a box of your dad's old toys from Grandma's basement.  We didn't bother to take inventory--whatever was in there was yours to discover.  You three little kids dug through them and added to their play kitchen, dress-up boxes, and more.  Saturday afternoon here was unusually beautiful--upper 40's, sunny, and perfect--and you were puttering around the front yard grabbing fallen sticks while I tidied the porch.  Out of the corner of my eye I noticed you were carrying something black--a piece of bark?--no, a toy gun.  A very realistic toy gun.  My heart stopped.

We have occasional toy guns in our house.  We definitely have them for the GI Joes, and blasters for Star Wars play, and plenty of swords and light sabers and daggers.  It wasn't the idea of violent play that stopped me, it was the sight of you--a brown skinned boy holding a very realistic toy gun while wearing your favorite sweatpants and a long sleeve tshirt.  If you were just a few years older and a few inches taller, you could be Tamir Rice, the 12 year old boy shot by police in a playground for carrying a toy gun much like that one.

Funny how fast those same people that might want to argue "there's nothing wrong with letting a kid have a toy gun" are able to turn that to "no kid should have a toy gun at the park; probably up to no good."  The fact is he was a twelve year old kid, with light brown skin and big brown eyes and if you ever let me give you a haircut you could look just like him in a year or two.  Maybe sooner, if you hit one of those crazy growth spurts you pray for nightly.

And so we asked you to put the toy in the house.  You asked why. We exchanged the look and that conversation happened.

Will you remember it as the first time you really realized what "it's not fair" means?  Will you remember it as the day you started to see your skin not just as a different color but as a thing to have an opinion about?

"Some people make bad guesses about other people based just off what they see.  Like, if they see a girl or boy, or an older person or teenager, or a person in a wheelchair, or a girl with short hair or a boy with long hair, they might guess things about what that person likes and dislikes and wants to do."

"That's stupid."

"Yes, it's not a good idea to pre-judge someone based on their looks. Even if sometimes it does mean something; like if you wear a Star Wars shirt I might guess you like Star Wars."

You agreed. "Right, but maybe you had to borrow it because your shirt was dirty at school."

"Right.  And then for stuff people can't choose about themselves at all like age or gender or height or health or skin color it's really just making a big guess. Those don't really give a good guess about any one person.  These are pre-judgements.  They're judgements made before there's any real information.  It's called prejudice."

You understood, but were waiting to see what this had to do with your toy.  I prayed for words.

"So sometimes people are lazy or scared or just don't bother to think too hard because it would mean a lot of hard work for them...and they make these pre-judgements about what a person is like, and what that person is planning to do or how they'll behave.  They are bad decision makers. And these people tend to think things that are hard to understand, like that girls are weaker than boys or people with dark skin are bigger trouble-makers than people with light skin."

Jorge, this broke my heart.  You go to a beautifully diverse school and have been taught love and peace. You had Sneetches on Beaches memorized before you could read. You personally have friends and classmates from dozens of countries and ethnicities. Your two best friends are your sister and a girl in your class who could probably beat you in any game you named but only by an inch. You are far more concerned with some one's choices about favorite superhero than any physical characteristic. You think evil only really exists in Star Wars and GI Joe. Girls are weaker and more docile than boys?  Skin color as a personality decider?  I might as well have told you that these people think that anyone with an odd number of eye lashes was better than those with even numbers.

"And sometimes--too often--bad decision makers see a brown-skinned person--especially a boy--and think they are going to be trouble.  Sweetie, not long ago a little boy like you was at a park, playing with a toy gun just like this one--the very one your dad probably played with every day at your age without a thought--and someone made a bad guess: they guessed he was dangerous.  They called the police.  The police took one look at him and didn't even ask him his name or to set the toy down, they just shot him dead.  He's dead now; just a little boy.  And not long ago a young man with dark skin was at a Wal-Mart and picked up a kind-of-practice-toy gun that they sell there.  He just picked it up and was carrying it in the store like you'd carry a book or some Legos you wanted to buy.  Another customer was a bad decision maker and called the police because they guessed he was going to do something dangerous.  The police showed up and didn't even ask him a question, they just shot him dead. The customers and the police were bad decision makers. They pre-judged.  I could walk in that store and pick up a gun and carry it to the front and no one would care, but because people are scared or lazy and just make decisions with no information, this guy was killed.  Not all police are bad decision makers--most of them are very good decision makers--but they can also be bad decision makers. And that can be dangerous.

Honey, you can't play in the front yard or the sidewalks or a park with a toy that might ever look like a gun. I like our neighbors and our police--I think they're all pretty good decision makers--but we can't know who the bad decision makers are and so this is for your protection.  I would never stop crying if you were hurt by a bad decision maker who saw you and made a bad guess and then they hurt you."

Jorge, you started crying.  This conversation gutted us both.  What the heck is wrong with this world that I have to warn  my nine year old that he'd almost certainly be arrested or presumed dangerous for doing things that his cousins or little brother will do without a thought and everyone will smile because, you know, boys will be boys?  You don't get that chance.  Because here's the reality: light-skinned-boys will be boys.  Dark-skinned-boys will be shot, pushed to the ground, sat on, trailed through the store watching for you to steal things, asked how you got the car you're driving, asked for your immigration papers, and generally treated like a sneak, a thief, and a threat...for the rest of your (hopefully long) life.

And so I cringe when you want to wear your favorite sweatpants to school, or your favorite shirt which is now stained in a dozen places and worn at the cuffs, or your favorite shoes which are a bit beat up.  You don't have that privilege.  You (and in turn, I) will be judged far more harshly for you looking dirty, messy, poor, or otherwise uncared for.  Katie wore dirty ripped-up shoes for 3 years and refused to let me replace them and people just  But if you show up in ripped shoes and ripped pants and a stained shirt, people make judgements about your potential and your value.  This right here is when you can finally use that phrase I've otherwise banned from your mouth: "It's not fair."

I've been quiet about this issue for a long time.  I cry with my friends that deal with this daily but I have not spoken out.  But Saturday afternoon it went from a political statement I didn't want to make, to a necessary reality to protect your life. You are getting bigger.  Soon you won't be immediately associated with your parents and sisters and brother and re-judged.  Soon you will be asking to go to the park with your friends for a bit and I want to be able to say yes, but I also need to know you'll be safe from the bad decision makers.  You'll get taller, hairier, and in the eyes of the bad decision makers, far more sinister and suspicious.

This, more than anything, is why I panic when you still can't learn to control your tantrums and rages.  What if you are still prone to shouting and arguing about little annoyances when you are 16?  What will happen if you try to argue that you weren't actually doing anything wrong when you are stopped on the sidewalk for a "random" search? What will happen when yet another blowhard tells you to go back where you came from?  What will happen if you get frustrated and angry at a friend and are voicing that opinion in front of the wrong person?  What will happen if you and Katie are arguing about whose fault it is that the car battery died at the mall and it gets loud and heated? You'll be judged quickly and harshly.  Not as a rowdy boy with a lot of energy and passion, but as a threat and a danger and menace.  You have to be twice as calm, twice as reserved, twice as obedient, twice as respectful. You don't get to earn your teenage war stories of "boys will be boys" like your uncles and cousins.  Those are far too likely to earn you suspensions, jail time, or a grave.

I want to scream with you: it's not fair. But mostly I just want to protect you.

I'm sorry I can't fix this.  I'm trying.


Thursday, February 04, 2016

Dear Jorge, at 9

Oh, Jorge.

Last week was your ninth birthday.  We celebrated a little at home on the day and then had a bigger celebration (and bigger cake) on the weekend.  As always happens, everyone was sick/snowed-in/busy so the celebration ended up with Aunt Judy as the only additional person but we do quality over quantity.

You're nine now!  Third grade, assertive, ambitious. You want so much to be treated as a mature, responsible kid without any actual expectations of maturity or responsibility. You're still solidly in the habit of throwing screaming fits for hours when your emotions just completely overwhelm you which can happen for anything as simple as saying there's no dessert this evening or that you have to put your clean laundry away sometime this afternoon. But when you're in control of yourself, you're a pretty great kid to be around.  You like to build and cook--anything that requires a lot of steps to get an impressive result is appealing to you as long as you have the patience not to rush through it.  You are a great big brother to August and you spend hours and hours with Katie.

You love to swim and ice skate and snorkel and bike and really anything that involves movement.  You also love to read and draw and write stories and research space and history.  Anything Star Wars, GI Joe, or Lego is top notch.

You're a good student when you take your time but you are nearly always focused on "finish" and "next" instead of "doing" and "now".  This leads to endless frustration for you as you have to re-do sloppy work, fix silly mistakes, or be reigned in from tearing the house down.  We are constantly reminding you to slow down, do it carefully, check your work, and focus on the task at hand.  We could save ourselves a lot of time if we just put those on a repeating loop.

But you're you, and you are great.  You have strong commitment to your beliefs and you work hard to help anyone you see that needs help. Just, please, slow down and enjoy the days, buddy.  The weeks and months go so fast; there's no need to rush them. Be nine. Stop wishing the days and weeks and months away until you're the age Katie is today so that you can have whatever it is you think your life is missing, or you'll actually miss your own life.  When you remember this and just live in the moment, your joy for life is incredible.  And that's all I want for you.


Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Sunday, January 10, 2016


August this morning, describing how he ate breakfast and  used his hands for something:

"...because I'm not very good at forks."

Other aug-isms that are adorbs:

Lemonade: Lemolade
Electricity: Electrisiky
Harden: Hardinate = I had to let the glue sit so it could hardinate.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

No See-Ums

A few weeks ago all the kids had pediatrician appointments on the same day.  You'll forgive me for not writing about it at the time because it took a month to recover from that drama.

Of the few useful things that came out of that day, we were told that August has horrible vision. Today we followed up with the eye doctor and...yep: 20/100.  That means what most people can see at 100 feet away, Augs has to be 20 feet away to see well.  That's in his weak eye; his good eye is 20/30 or so.

So today Augs got fitted for glasses and a patch to wear over his good eye to force his weak eye to stay active.  No pictures yet as the glasses should be in next week.

Monday, January 04, 2016

My soapbox for casual dating

I read this article years ago and came back to it today. Skip the courtship section and read "The case for traditional dating". Can we all collectively agree to just change the culture of dating? As a teen, I remember feeling pressured to be "in a relationship" the minute you went on a single date. It was emotionally exhausting. One date = dating, which meant if that date wasn't stellar you had to "break up" before you could be interested in someone else and then if you thought you'd give it another try with someone because maybe you judged too quickly you were either now in a complicated on-and-off relationship OR you were getting in deeper with someone and it was just so much freaking pressure. God forbid you date more than one person in quick succession because now you were either a whore OR you were in some soap-opera worthy web of torn hearts and broken dreams.
LDS (i.e. Mormons) have a similar many-and-casual view and I love it.
I'm not endorsing hook-up culture (i.e. all physical and no emotional relationship); I believe in keeping the physical and emotional investments in pace with each other. When I was a teen it felt like the expectation of both emotional committment and physical committment were way too high immediately and now there are three camps: all physical and no emotional (hook-up culture) or all emotional and no physical (courtship culture), all of both (immediately exclusive and intense and then when it almost surely isn't perfect break-up and move on=hookup-and-breakup). Where's the reasonable balance of "a little of both until something is interesting enough for a little more of both"?? And it's really not about a religious view (though both of these links are)--I think it's just a LOT healthier emotionally and mentally.

Friday, January 01, 2016

Expectations are always high for New Years and we always fail spectacularly.  It's the major holiday in Ukraine since the Soviet era basically squashed all religious holidays and so the people moved all gift giving and family celebrating to January first.  The religious holidays are back now, but they don't have the festivities that we associate with them here in the US.  

So...New Years is "supposed" to be super fun with lots of fireworks and partying until 3 AM and huge gifts from Father Frost or Winter or something like that. Think Halloween and Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July -- very kid oriented and family oriented and fun fun fun.  There's an enormous feast expected featuring no less than 13 specific dishes.  There's non-stop celebrating.

America's idea of New Years seems to be: if you're under 21, just go to bed because there's nothing for you to do.  If you're over 21 get trashed by 11 and go to bed by 1 AM.  Sleep all day on January first.

So, you can imagine the mood here.  Surprisingly decent, really.  

I spent 7 hours cooking yesterday and today and prepared the feast of feasts.  We went to the church's New Year's Eve celebration which ended in sulking off angry teenager, but everyone else had a blast. 

Once home, we read our 2015 predictions (nearly all failed) and wrote our 2016 for the jar.  We made a fire and toasted marshamallows for s'mores.  We fired off confetti poppers and did a toast with bubbly grape juice.  

Today we did the feast.  And eventually everyone went to bed.  And no one had a meltdown.  So...successfull start to 2016.  We keep the bar low here.