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Wiley Wandering

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Soaring to Seattle, Senior Citizenry, Sushi and Sisters: Part I

Okay, so here is the context! Recently I traveled to Seattle, Washington, to co-present six “N-word” sessions with a very good friend and colleague of mine, Dr. Eddie Moore Jr. Now, you can’t even imagine what a trip (yes, a journey) that was! We engaged the City of Seattle, a community college, a private K-12 school, an organization of professional educators, a large, underrepresented High School, and a community center all in two days. More importantly, the conversation that we immersed all these different groups in was one that almost all of them had never had outside of their comfort zone. Black folk do not discuss with White folk the pain and/or pleasure they find in using the N-word . Mexicans, Asians, and First Peoples don’t discuss their take on the N-word with others. Many White folk seldom if ever examine the moral implications of their bystander status when others use the term around them. But you best believe, all of these groups have a take on this problematic word and it would blow you away to be in an extended conversation with Eddie and I. We are two like minded people when it comes to our passion for social justice, but we are light years away from one another in terms of our ideology of its problematic nature, as well as how use of the word may suggest something about certain types of people that it doesn’t suggest about others!

Eddie is the founder of one of the fastest growing conferences in the country, The White Privilege Conference. Before some of you get too uncomfortable about the name of the conference and what it might entail (though that might be a sign that you have some things you may need to explore, if not address about yourself) this is a conference that attracts a who’s who of white scholars committed to the social justice movement (Peggy Macintosh, Robert Jensen, Jean Kilbourne, James Loewen, Jane Elliott) as well as the usual suspects of underrepresented scholars (bell hooks, Cornel West, Michael ‘Eric Dyson, Lee Mun Wah). Suffice it to say, this conference is large and getting larger. Eddie as the architect has grown quite large himself and so it is real cool for me to have the opportunity to hang with my homeboy, a burgeoning (if not already arrived) superstar himself. Plattsburgh had the opportunity to see Eddie. He came to town and joined me in doing the “N-word” at SUNY Plattsburgh.

On my way to Seattle I departed from Burlington. I sat next to an elderly White woman on my first plane. If I had to guess her age she may have been in her late 60s early 70s. We initially chatted over Delta's tight scheduling and then further bonded when she shared with me details of her previous travel history. I sat and chatted with this woman thinking to myself what a strange world we live in. Here we are today, this beautiful elderly White woman and I laughing and chatting away. 50 years ago we wouldn’t have been able to even sit next to one another. 20 years ago I wouldn’t have said a word to her out of thinking we had nothing to talk about. The other day we were two people who for a moment tapped into our humanity and rolled with it!

I changed planes in Cincinnati and amazingly enough, encountered an elderly Black woman. I was grading papers for a class and I heard an elderly woman’s voice asking me if I could help her. I looked up to see an elderly Black woman needing help with opening a breakfast container. She must have been in her late 70s early 80s. Later, she would request my assistance again opening a water bottle. Beyond those two exchanges the only other conversation that took place between us was her apologizing for all her requests for help! What a sweet woman!

The difference between the seeming health and level of engagement with these two elderly women aside, my wonderment about what age we become the person who needs assistance preoccupies my thoughts now? The slightly younger elderly White woman was vibrant, alive, and intellectually curious. The older elderly Black woman was reticent, reserved, and somewhat shy like. I wondered how different their lives might have been because of their racial experiences. Do you have any ideas about that reality? Both women bore the brunt of living long lives in a society that appeared to enable them to live long lives where they still generated an endearing energy, though one’s energy output was high and infectious, while the other’s was low and in need of a boost. Both of them made me think of one of my favorite sayings. Dr. Lynn Schlesinger told me early in my days at SUNY Plattsburgh that the one community we are all apt to join at any moment is the disabled community. While she said this in the context of ability, it definitely applies to age. If we live long enough we will age and our physical ability will become different, we will become differently abled. We will become physically challenged. When none of this reality is immediately upon us we easily can feel invincible which unfortunately can lead to our being quite inconsiderate. It is this inconsideration, or what I was once accused of, that I want to address.

I once had a conversation with an elderly black man who chastised me about being inconsiderate because I didn't treat him and his friend (a friend I greatly respect) with the respect he felt they both deserved! It is intriguing to have someone chastise me about disrespect when I rearranged my schedule to accommodate a request of his for assistance once. Or went out of my way to encourage his participation in community events in which my office facilitated. But none of this mattered to him. His dropping an unsolicited memento off by my office, to which I neglected to say thank you to him for, and my not making it to his friends big birthday celebration were enough for him to privately tongue lash me and interpret the entire situation as a major piece of disrespect on my part. I had to ask myself if his age was a contributing factor to my possible procrastination! Do you think it could have been?

How many of you ask yourself questions or seriously contemplate various answers about aging? Will I be healthy? Will I have family to assist me? How must it feel to be all alone as you are undeniably playing the back nine? While I couldn’t relate fully to the elderly black man insinuating I was inconsiderate by rudely taking me to task, I wondered would I be taking the same actions at some point in my life to some young man that may think he’s all that, when I don’t. Perhaps the cat is in the cradle and the silver spoon, little boy blue and the man on the moon! What are your thoughts on one day being dependent on someone to open a bottle of water for you, or assist you in clarifying a connecting flight’s departure gate? Are we prepared to be our grandparents one day soon?


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"Are we prepared to be our grandparents one day soon?"

That's a bit of an assumption! You know how you said in the RSLM class that marriage is what we have all been socialized into seeing as the "norm" and what's "desirable"? Well, your furthering the idea that we are all going to have kids.

Sure, grandparents could just be your phrase for getting old, but it implies family, it implies children--which is not something everybody has, wants to have, or will have. So that's for starters.

As for myself thinking about getting to that age, I don't consider it; I've got too much else to deal with. Did that look I get the other day mean something, or was she being friendly? Is my GPA good enough for the grad school I want? Will I have the $ to get my friend a bday present, or to get myself a mood lifter when my mood swing makes me depressed? There's so much to this world, day-dreaming about far-far away futures doesn't seem worthwhile.

Yet I see the point in putting yourself in somebody else's shoes. I try to do that, as best I can, but I honestly have a hard time being in MY shoes, let alone another person's.

This may be rather un-idealistic and quite contrary to what I imagine your worldview to be, but there was a Japanese philosopher/writer who said that once a person hit their peak in life, for the rest of their days they were a drag on society. After he finished his "greatest work" he offed himself.

While I don't plan on that path, he had the courage to follow his convictions, and perhaps had a point.

Nietzsche made the same point, in a different way, and I wish I could find the aphorism to quote, but here's the gist of it:

Is it better for a machine to be turned off once its purpose has been reached, or should we let it run until it falls apart naturally? The rational thing is to turn it off once it finishes its task, and this would be akin to suicide. Letting the machine break down due to excessive use would be akin to "natural" death.

Sure this is a bit depressing, but depressive realism has it's merits.

~Chin up!

*** Brennan, on one hand you make a very good point. I did project an assumption and unfortunately did open the door for you to break me off. Did that feel good? On the other hand, it wasn't that serious and as you anticipated, I was being figurative. And regarding the machine metaphor, we need not to get to wrapped up in metaphors. Unplugging a machine after it's usefulness and terminating a life after we deem it's usefulness has passed are world's apart. While the job the machine was designed to do may be done, humans are not designed in a one dimensional way. The value of a human life cannot be measured accurately except to say that all human life has value in some context and ending any life before that context has been arrived at is not something I would endorse. But then while I wander, I try to avoid any sense of omniscience! *** -- J.W.

"Many White folk seldom if ever examine the moral implications of their bystander status when others use the term around them." Wiley, I'm not sure what you meant by that. How can I avoid being a bystander? I don't understand "moral implications" of overhearing someone using racist language around me. Do you mean I am supposed to let it slide if other people say it, and control myself so I don't say it (and I never have used that word). Are you saying that I'm supposed to assume that they are taunting me, as "Nyah, nyah! We can say it and you can't!" ...and that means they are passing a moral judgement on me? Aren't other people taught to be polite, too? By the way, if we're to become a better society, I think it would be best if we all used the same language values, don't you? Double standards are bad.

I was thinking about the two ladies on the plane. It occurs to me that one was treating you as an equal and one as a surrogate son. What do you think?

KLB, by moral implications I mean the fact that when we green light or ignore certain types of behavior, we often lose out on an opportunity to better insure that behavior like that doesn't visit us. The "N" word is just a symbol of our opportunity to challenge other's in their use of dysfunctional language. When we don't, while you as a white person or your children probably wouldn't receive the "N-word" label, the "N-word equivalent may be staring you in the face one day. It is like Dr. Martin Luther King once said, "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." In regards to the "Nyah, Nyah, Nyah" I don't expect White people to put black people in check for their use of the word anymore than I would challenge a gay person for calling another gay person something that may be cultural for them. On the other hand, if I have any access or influence with the speakers of this type of language, I often will go there by simply asking for clarification on what it is that they are saying to one another. Many times, in seeking clarfication, people get shamed because they just haven't really thought about what it is they are saying, or why they even say it and are embarrased at the fact that they can't articulate a reason. We often just do these things because we always have. *** -- J.W.

Before I get the the "age" issue, I, too, want to comment on the "bystander" statement. Having had the "privilege" of experiencing the "N-word" workshop with you and Eddie, (which is, by the way, amazing!) and being a white "bystander" myself, I resonate with KLB's question which, as I understand it, is "What is a bystander supposed to do?"

In the workshop with Eddie and during a couple of other contacts with him, I have struggled with what I experience as some request/expectation/challenge/demand/wish on his part that I do something or say something- as a whilte person- around this issue of the meaning and use of the N-word. It has been confusing and unsettling and, as such, has made me think about it- and think about it -and think about it.....My conclusion, a work in progress still, is that I simply need to stop being a bystander...but rather, say or do SOMETHING. The very fact of perceiving the issue around the N-word as being relevant to me and not just to the "other" seems significant. I still wonder what Eddie had in mind, but for me -I am trying to now figure out what a FORMER bystander should say or do...

Now, at my advanced age, I had better hurry and get to the "age"- related portion of this blog. No time these days to dawdle....

I think about age a lot. Part of this is a growing awareness of an increase in vulnerability as I get older- a loss of some physical power (e.g. loved to ski in my 30's- now am sure I would break my neck, think about heart attacks while I shovel the snow,etc.,need to wear glasses and turn up the volume on the TV or headset, and some slippage in memory and speed of processing information. I'll spare us all the rest! ) I rationalize that all of this is balanced by my great increase in wisdom, but this is not always convincing. And then there is the indignity of the loss of physical attractiveness in a world where, as the cliche tells us, men are sexier as they age, women....not so much....

As I age there is a disconnect between the girl still inside and the graying woman on the outside... I imagine that this disconnect will widen, but hope that by the time I reach the ages of the women in your blog, I will be able to merge the vitality of youth with the wisdom of age and deal with the inevitability of dependency with grace. Who knows?

The dependency part is very, very scary. And yes, I wrestle with all the questions you ask: Will I be alone? Will there be others around me to care for me? Will they want to be caring for me or will I feel that I am an unwanted burden? Will I be in pain?

The darker issue is that age brings us closer to death and it is this knowledge that makes us the most vulnerable. As we age we experience the death of people we love, and sometimes need, with increasing frequency and the concept of our own death moves from some remote possibility to a closer certainty.

Is this all depressing?- a little, but you know, it helps to mull it all over in the community of bloggers. We can all age in good company.

Maybe, JW, you can tell some jokes in your next blog.

*** AMW, we hadn't heard from you for a minute or two. What was up with that? And any thoughts of you aging I am sure are premature, for you are as timeless as a cool breeze across the desert sand!

So, in preparation of the next blog, as you requested, did you hear the one about the elderly woman...*** -- J.W.

Honestly, my first reaction to the aging issue is: My thoughts are, I really don't want to think about it! The inevitable loss of youth and vitality which is often accompanied by illIness, just plain depresses me. I realize dodging the subject will not change the course, but contemplating it will lead to additional stress in my life that, frankly will only contribute to the ailments which generally accompany age!

I work in a medical setting and recently had an experience with an elderly couple who's reality affected me so profoundly, I had to stop and gain my composure. The elderly woman was the patient and was quite confused and nervous. She had trouble walking and she just looked terrified. Her husband seemed healthy and of sound mind. He was so gentle and patient with her as he helped her to a seat and then proceeded to fill out all her paperwork and check her in. She had recently been hospitalized and was following up with a mental health counselor. Her appointment with the counselor was a traumatic experience which prompted a panic attack. She didn't understand what was happening to her and suffered from Alzheimer's disease. Her husband scheduled a follow-up appointment for her, but came back in the next day to say they wouldn't be coming back. He said,"She is too far gone and it's all for naught." The look in his sad eyes and the finality of his words were like an emotional dagger. I almost lost it right in front of him, but somehow was able to say how I was sorry as he walked away. It is moments like these that cause me to avoid the subject.

On the other hand, since you brought up the subject, I will say that thinking about it has reinforced my belief in the importance of enjoying and appreciating the life we have.
I often find it a challenge to live up to my own belief and sometimes lose perspective, but when I really stop and think how quickly time passes, I realize how important it is to live for the moment and not get too caught up in worrying about the things we can not change.

There is great deal that can be done to invest in a better quality of life for our mature years so I guess it's worth thinking about now and then, but right now, I am going to call a friend and go live it up somewhere!

Wow, to be the mind of an elderly black woman. She faced oppression in the form of racism, likely still comes across its rabid mouth, and further likely served a subordinate role as a young woman coming of age in a world dominated by men. She's seen African Americans make great strides. I would love to lose myself for hours with her, discussing life and her thoughts and feelings as an African American and a woman vie for this nation's highest office.

I remember fondly the array of discussions I shared with my daughter's Opa, the father of my ex wife, well actually, my first ex wife, but that's for another blog.
Anyway, Darby's Opa is African American, grew up in the south, served in Vietnam, retired from the military and has retired from two other jobs. He's, if not the, one of the kindest, hardest working humble men I've ever had the pleasure of spending time with.
He signed Uncle Sam's dotted line because, as a young black man, no one would hire him. So he was sent to Vietnam where he witnessed unimaginable tragedy, fighting for a government that was complicit in keeping him down.
I never thought of Hershel as a black man. He was a man named Hershel. And that wasn't because I had so effectively shrugged off the racial conditioning no one can really escape growing up in America. It was because that man named Hershel had such a powerful impact on me. He brimmed with positive energy and was an amazing giver.

As far as aging, shoot, it's bothering me in the present. I hadn't jogged for more than a week and had hurt my back, and when I felt better I went for a jog, felt the beginnings of a sharp pain under my knee cap and had to walk/jog the second half of my run.
The first time I noticed my age was at 30, I was playing ball with a bunch of guys aged 16 to 60. I was apparently the fast dude for the older dudes and got stuck guarding this tiny teenage point guard. He flashed some fake and cut to my left, my brain sent the message to stop him but my knees buckled. I got clowned, for a few days, and he scored on me.

As far as thinking further down the road in age, thank goodness for Viagara.

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