Dead Poets Society: Some Thoughts on Michael Brown and Robin Williams

August 12, 2014

I spent this past weekend at a lovely retreat center in Dittmer, MO, out of range of cell phone towers or wifi connections.

On Monday, as I began my slow transition back to the real world, news of two sad events reached me.

First, I learned that a young black man – or a boy, depending on how you look at it, as he was 18 – had been killed by a police officer in Ferguson, MO. Reports differ, but the facts that seem uncontroverted are that Michael Brown was unarmed and was shot 8 times, his body left in the street for more than 4 hours.

A short time later, I heard about the death of Robin Williams.

In a strange way, these events are somewhat linked for me, tied up in my first conscious realization of my own privilege.

While I came of age in the Mork and Mindy era, when I think of Robin Williams, my mind always goes first to his portrayal of Professor John Keating in Dead Poets Society. I loved that movie. I was inspired by it. I still cry at the final scene, when Ethan Hawke’s feet appear on his desk, his voice calling out, “O Captain, My Captain.”

My first job out of college was at a children’s home for minors, the majority of whom were in state custody, sometimes due to their own behavioral issues, but more likely because their parents were incarcerated, or struggling with addiction, or unwilling to remove an abusive person – sometimes the child’s other parent, sometimes not – from the home to ensure the child’s safety.

I was the typical young, idealistic, wildly naive white person going into this job. I was going to inspire these kids. I would be part Michelle Peiffer in Dangerous Minds, part Whoopi in Sister Act II, but mostly Mr. Keating.

What better way to accomplish this goal than to let the kids watch the movie that had inspired me?

One movie night, I popped a bunch of popcorn, bought the girls sodas with my own money, and we settled in to watch the movie. I pictured my young charges jumping up when it was over to do their homework, or going to school and signing up to be in a play or on a sports team.

I gravely misjudged the situation.

Almost immediately, one of the more outspoken young women was rolling her eyes and making it clear she wasn’t buying any of what the movie had to say. I finally hit pause after the scene where he has his students look at the pictures of young men who’ve come before them – young men who, by the time of the movie, are “fertilizing daffodils.”

It’s the part where he whispers to them, “Carpe… Carpe…. Carpe diem. Seize the day boys! Make your lives extraordinary.”

I asked her what was going on, and she said something to the effect of, “Shit, Miss Melanie! We don’t have time to be worrying about any ‘carpe diem.’ We have to worry where we’re going to live when we get out of here. How are we going to eat? We’re too busy trying to survive to worry about living.”

The other girls echoed their sentiments.

I didn’t say much. I didn’t know what to say. But I took that experience to heart.

I often wonder what that young woman, whose name and face I still remember like we had that conversation yesterday, would say to me about events that happen in the world which are rooted in race and class.

I thought about that last night as I read through my Facebook feed, finding mostly posts of outrage and sadness over the loss of such a young man. But mixed in were the posts asking why people have to make everything about race, why don’t people give the police the benefit of the doubt.

I can’t ask that young woman, by now in her thirties, what she would say to these people. But I suspect she’d tell them that if you’re white, you can’t know what it’s like to be policed by an armed force of people who view you as a threat merely by the color of your skin. I guess she’d explain that only a black person, and even more so a black man, can understand what it’s like to live in the shadow of Rodney King, and Trayvon Martin, and all these other men who were killed by police or those acting like the police, most of whom were never charged, and even in the rare case when they were convicted, never spent any time in jail.

It seems to me that if you live in a town that’s 67% black, but the police force is 94% white, any interaction between the police and the citizenry is going to have a racial component.

I know people who like to say we live in a post-racial world, that after years of affirmative action and anti-discrimination laws, race no longer matters. After all, we elected a black President, didn’t we?

Guess what color skin the people who say this tend to have?

The bottom line is that I can’t know what it’s like to live in fear of the police. I don’t especially trust the police – anyone who comes out of law school and doesn’t realize how often the police lie just isn’t paying attention. But I don’t worry that they’re going to kill me simply because I happen to be in a certain place at a certain time. Until I can understand what that justifiable fear feels like, I think it’s best that when an unarmed black teenager is killed by the police, I simply sit back and listen to those who live that fear every day.

Edited to add that this doesn’t mean those of us who are white shouldn’t take action in response to such situations. We just need to let others take the lead and not question their experiences.


Lisbeth, the tasmanian devil in kitten’s clothing.

December 13, 2013

I recently became the owner servant of a small feline.

See how innocent she looks? How cute?

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Don’t be fooled. She is a force of destruction.

Here is how she likes to spend her time:

-Biting my toes. This is especially problematic because of my gout problems.

-Climbing up the shower curtain liner. It’s going to have to be replaced because of the giant holes in it from her claws.

-Jumping on my head while I’m sleeping.

-Kicking litter out of her box, rolling around in the displaced litter, then running around the apartment, scattering the litter wherever she goes.

-Untying the laces of my sneakers with her teeth, then grasping the loose laces in her mouth, shaking her head back and forth, causing the shoe to bang repeatedly against the floor. (I’m sure my downstairs neighbors love this.)

Just when I’ve HAD IT, though, she does something unbearably cute.

Like curling up by my neck:

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Or snuggling with my sister’s cat, Bendito:

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Or falling asleep on my arm:

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What on earth am I going to do with this kitten??


Sheep Dip!

November 12, 2013

I just got back to Peoria late Sunday evening from my birthday-related vacation. Most of the time I was home, I was not online much. And that was nice.

But it meant that I missed some very troubling news that came from my alma mater, Anderson University, last week.

Faced with declining enrollment and decreased giving, like most schools, probably, in this dreadful economy, some serious cuts have been announced.

What seems to be causing the most uproar is the loss of the theater major. (If you’re interested, you can look for “#saveAUtheatre” on either Facebook or Twitter for information.)

But the cut that tugs at my heart strings is the loss of the philosophy major and, along with it, the professor who had the biggest impact on me during my time at AU.

It all started as a fluke, really, and one that I resisted vehemently. I was meeting with my academic advisor, Dr. Randy Litchfield, trying to get my schedule sorted for the fall semester of my junior year. The class that would fit most easily into my schedule and satisfy a requirement for my major was Philosophy of Religion.

A friend on my hall was in that class. I remembered her coming home the first day of classes and telling us that her homework was “define God.”

I didn’t want to define God. The mere thought of an assignment like that made my head hurt. I couldn’t even formulate a response to the notion of a whole semester of such tasks.

But Dr. Litchfield was a persuasive sort, and I walked out of his office enrolled in this class.

Get ready for the big cliche, because that class changed my life. Oh, it took a while. I didn’t have the faintest idea what was going on for the first several weeks of class, but I took notes and tried to participate in the discussion and focused on soaking up as much of what was going on around me as I possibly could. (Did I mention that this was my first philosophy class?)

Then, at some point, things clicked. I finally understood the subject matter enough to ask what seemed like a halfway intelligent question. When I did, Dr. Reed, the professor, sat speechless for just a split second then said something to the effect of, “Good God, this woman has been listening to everything I’ve said for the past month!”

It only took a few more meetings for that to become my favorite class. By the end of the semester, I became part of a band of “groupies” that followed Dr. Reed around, taking whatever classes he taught. Over the next few semesters, I took Philosophical Theology, Ethics, Art and Philosophy, and Privilege and Oppression.

These classes shaped me in ways that have informed the work I do and how I do it for the past almost-20 years.

The structure of these classes taught me to speak up, to quickly organize my thoughts so I could keep up in the midst of heated debates, how you have to figure out what paradigm a person is coming from if you want to have a productive discussion, and so much more.

The content of the classes informed my world view on issues of race and class and gender and how those issues interacted with my faith.

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But even more importantly, Dr. Reed showed me an example of living the balance of being a critical thinker who is also kind, of walking the line between questioning and doubting, of how thoroughly examining the things you’ve been taught and are expected to just accept as true is the only pathway to having a genuine faith.

It saddens me beyond measure to think that future AU students will not have the opportunity to sit in Dr. Reed’s classes and have similar experiences. By senior year, the classes he taught had a policy that if we missed class, we had to stand at the beginning of the next class session and apologize to our fellow students for depriving them of our contribution during our absence. While this was something we did not always do gracefully, the point was well-taken. I think we’ve all been sitting around having a discussion and found ourselves thinking, “I wish so-and-so were here. I’d love to hear what she’d have to say about this!” That was at the heart of this requirement.

All I can say is that I hope the administration of Anderson University is prepared to apologize to future students for depriving them of the contribution to their lives that Dr. Willard Reed could have provided had he not been forced out due to budget cuts.


Travel and Regret

November 2, 2013

Stubbornness runs in my family. I have not proven to be exempt from this personality trait, although mine doesn’t manifest the way it does for a lot of people.  It’s not a broad-ranging kind of thing. It runs narrow but very, very deep. This means that it doesn’t manifest that often, but when it does, there is no budging me.

I’m told I had such an episode when I was just a very small toddler and visiting a restaurant with my parents and several of their church friends. I had dropped a napkin or some other piece of paper on the floor, and my dad told me to pick it up. For whatever reason, the “I’m going to behave like I don’t have a lick of sense” switch got flipped in my head, and there was NO WAY I was picking up that paper. An epic battle of the wills ensued. I lost, but not without making a serious scene.

Another time this ugly trait popped up was at some kind of awards dinner I had to attend when I was in high school. I can’t recall why, but my parents wanted me to move  some of the placemats around, switching us from our assigned table to that of a guy I thought was cute. A complete sense of mortification washed over me as it dawned on me that he might think I did this on purpose to be able to sit with him (in retrospect he probably wouldn’t have given me or my presence at his table a second thought), and I told my parents, “I don’t care what punishment you give me, I am not moving that placemat.”

But the episode of this stubbornness that I most regret occurred during our family vacation to Colorado. I was ten years old on that trip, and I don’t know what got into me, but I just flat out refused to enjoy myself. As we were driving through the Rocky Mountains, any time my mom would encourage me to look out the window at the beautiful scenery, I would lock my neck in position so that I was staring straight forward. At more than location, one of which was Red Rocks Ampitheater, I refused to get out of the car. The fact that my parents didn’t leave me at a rest stop somewhere in Kansas speaks to how thoroughly I was blessed with good parents. (To be clear, that is not something they were even likely to think of doing, but given my behavior, I think the desire would have been understandable.)

I still find myself sucked into these bouts of unyielding, heels-dug-in, complete lack of willingness to budge on occasion.

Several years after that trip, I was watching Rattle and Hum with my dad. There’s a portion of the movie where U2 is playing at Red Rocks. I remarked how cool it was, and my dad pointed out that I could have seen it with my own eyes had I simply been willing to get out of the car. That’s when I realized that the person I hurt most with this nonsense is myself. Thus, it adds the list of things I am working to purge from my life. And visiting Red Rocks and actually seeing it this time goes on my bucket list.

Sorry about that, Mom and Dad.

(I am participating in an alternative NaNoWriMo project where, for the month of November, we will have a topic each day to write about, be it an essay, poem, short story, or other piece that is not a novel.

This was our first topic: travel.)


To the one who stole my heart

October 30, 2013

Reflecting on the past decade of my life, I feel like there is one major piece of “unfinished business.” I don’t think it would be wise to revisit this issue with the person involved. But the big theme of my life going forward is expressing my identity as a writer. So here I attempt to resolve this unfinished business through a letter that I won’t send but will post on the internet.

What can I say, I’m a woman of contradictions…

Dear you,

You are both the best thing that’s ever happened to me and my biggest mistake and regret.

I am used to things coming easily to me. I’m generally good at (most) things. So I’m not sure how I messed things up so thoroughly and severely when it came to you.

You told me I was one of your favorite people on earth. You were certainly one of mine. I thought you were my soulmate.

Now you don’t even talk to me. Not even about our biggest thing-in-common.

I wish I could understand what happened. I wish I could understand what I did or said, or didn’t do or didn’t say, that made you drift away. Did you just get tired of me? Was it a simple case of “out of sight, out of mind”? Did someone new come along who took over my place in your life?

I don’t think I ever told you that I felt like “Something About What Happens When We Talk” perfectly summed up whatever was going on with us. I still get that bittersweet mixture of nostalgia for the past tinged with sadness over the reality of the future when I hear that song.

I really do think I’ve let you go. For the most part. But I find myself worrying that I’ll never meet anyone that I have that same kind of connection with, someone who gets me so completely and doesn’t like me in spite of who I am but BECAUSE of who I am.

I’m going to give it a try, though. And I wish the same for you.

I will always be grateful to you for the ways you inspired me to become more myself.

Releasing you with continuing fondness and admiration,

me


Unraveling the birthday blues

October 22, 2013

I think it’s time to stop calling my current emotional state anything other than what it is – I have a bad case of the funky-funks, and I believe they have been brought on by my impending birthday.

Today, it occurred to me why.

40th-birthday-cake-with-candles

Have you ever had a class in school where you were given a big project as an assignment? You know, the kind of project that the teacher tells you about right at the beginning of the school year, but it won’t be due until the end of the quarter/semester/what have you?

I was always one of those kids who would receive that assignment and be all excited about it and think, “I’m going to make sure I work on this a little bit each week so I’m done in plenty of time and don’t have to rush around to get it done at the last minute!”

That might have worked for the first week or two, then I’d realize I had other things I’d rather be doing, and what did it matter – the assignment wasn’t due for months! Then one day I’d realize the term was half over, and my project was barely begun. I’d have another burst of enthusiasm to make up for lost time and get that project done ahead of deadline. Only once again, other things would creep in and the next thing I’d know, it would be just a day or two until the huge project was due and I’d be scrambling to get the thing done – bringing immense and unnecessary stress to myself, often to my parents, and making it impossible for me to produce the kind of work of which I was truly capable.

Well, not to be morbid, but I’m at that period where I’m looking up and realizing that the term of my life is half over, and I don’t feel like I’ve gotten very far on the big project of becoming the person I’m meant to be, of finding love, of just being happy. In fact, I don’t even really understand the assignment well enough to have the first idea of where to start. But I know that I don’t want to just be lulled back into complacency, into an existence where I go to work every day and come home to an empty apartment where television characters and internet games are my source of companionship. And truth be told, I’m kind of upset with my former self who let things get to this point, where I am so far from the person I wanted to be and the life I wanted to live.

But the only thing to do is try to move forward. I don’t really know where to start, but I have to do something. Because it’s later than I think.


Exile on the Island of Misfit Toys

October 20, 2013

Today, I had a stark reminder of why I am alone.

My mom is in town visiting me and helping me out with some daily living activities that have eluded me while I’ve been suffering from the Lingering Gout Attack of 2013. 

I knew my mom would want to attend church, preferably a church similar to hers back home, while she was here. So I did a little research, and it turns out there’s one only about a mile from my apartment.

We headed out in time to get there with time to spare. 

That proved to be a problem.

This was a small congregation. The attendance for last week was printed in the bulletin: 27.

So we stuck out like sore thumbs from the second we pulled into the parking lot.

As tends to be the case at churches, we were descended upon immediately by numerous people. They all wanted to shake our hands or touch our shoulders or hug us.

You may recall that as an “Aspie” (one who has Aspergers Syndrome), I don’t like for people to touch me. At all.

I have a bag of tricks I haul out for these situations, because flat out saying to people, “I really don’t want you to touch me” is seldom well-received, even though it seems like a completely reasonable position to me, particularly with strangers.

But I’ve learned that doesn’t go well. So I keep my hands full. I avoid making eye contact with people. I employ the artful dodge of turning away to deflect a touch or a hug.

None of that was working today. People would stick out their hands and just leave them there until I shook them. Or they’d clamp down on my shoulder and refuse to let go, no matter how I squirmed.

Within a few minutes of our sitting down, I was shaking. I had to start counting the letters in each line of the hymns we sang, adding stock phrases to make the number of letters come out evenly divisible by 12.

When the service was over, the pastor’s wife descended on me again, tried to get me to sign up for an upcoming event (“everyone here is old, we need young people to start doing some of the work around here!”) then asked to exchange phone numbers with me.

At no time had I indicated that I planned to return to this church.

I politely (I hope) declined and hightailed it out of there.

My mom and I drove all the way to a restaurant on the other side of town before I had fully calmed down and stopped shaking.

This is what it’s like any time I try to meet new people or join a new activity. So I mostly stick to work and heading home to hang out in my apartment, alone.

It’s a lonely life, but I don’t know how to change it.

Just doing a little venting. I don’t expect anyone to solve this for me.