Use Paula for good

paula

Paula, Paula, Paula.

What were you thinking?

Clearly, Paula Deen wasn’t using her brain when she talked to that attorney who was deposing her. I mean, she definitely didn’t spend a lot of time working on spin.

Otherwise, pretty sure she would have come up with a better answer than the one she gave when the lawyer asked whether Ms. Bacon-wrapped Doughnut ever used the N word or any other racial slur.

“Of course,” she said, and the country erupted in riots all over social media.

At least give Paula points for honesty.

This situation presents an interesting opportunity for the rest of us to engage in dialogue about race and language and understanding, but the cynic in me thinks it’s doubtful any real change will come about because of Paula Deen’s racist utterings, be they past or present. She’s lost a dozen business deals in the last two weeks, as businesses from Wal-Mart to Smithfield Ham to the Food Network drop her like a twice-baked shrimp-stuffed baked potato.

But here’s the thing, people. This whole deal, erupting like a chocolate volcano cake, shouldn’t surprise anyone who either grew up in the South or pays a modicum of attention to race relations in the United States.  Just because Americans can elect an African-American president does not equate to the end of all racial issues in the United States. We aren’t “over” racism because it’s so insidiously present in most aspects of American life.

For parts of this country, it’s not so readily apparent. There’s a lot of political correctness going on all over the place, a lot of righteous indignation. But while everyone’s up in arms over Georgia restaurant-owner/TV chef/cookbook author Paula Deen performing a mea culpa, the Supreme Court of the United States basically threw out the Voting Rights Act. Which one of those acts does greater harm to minorities?

Not that I’m minimizing the whole Paula thing. I’m just not surprised that she said and did those things. I’m not condoning it, but it doesn’t destroy my image of the Southern-fried cook because I just assumed she thought and acted that way.

I’m basing that, naturally, on my own experiences growing up in the mid-South.

I grew up in a small town in southern Missouri. There were equivalent numbers of whites and African Americans living there, but society was anything but equal. When I was a kid, black families only lived in certain parts of town. Schools had not been integrated for too many years when I started kindergarten. When my parents moved there, a nice older lady sent her black maid over to my parents’ house to help my mom, and then advised Mom to hire her own maid so everyone would know what rung of the social ladder she occupied.

Folks of different races got along in that town, and still do, but for many, it’s an uneven relationship. It’s paternalistic, magnanimous, a landowner-sharecropper situation. Not unlike how Paula Deen herself no doubt feels about many of her African-American employees. She likes them, she respects them, but she really doesn’t consider them her equal.

It’s easy for those in ivory towers to say that slavery ended more than 100 years ago – get over it. But it’s hard to get over it when the oppression is so much a part of the system, and this is what drove Paula Deen.

It explains why she didn’t put any spin on her honest answer to the attorney who deposed her for that discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuit. She can’t understand how she is part of the oppression.

For that, I feel sorry for Paula. She really doesn’t understand how just by virtue of being born white, she enjoys privilege. I believe her when she says she never meant to hurt anyone’s feelings or offend anyone and that she’s appalled that others think she would act that way.

She didn’t and doesn’t make racist comments to be racist. She has said them because that’s so much a part of her Southern identity, just like corn casserole and fried chicken.

It doesn’t make it right. It will never be right.

The better response for all those companies who are firing Paula Deen? Band together to mount an educational campaign. Teach those who’ve never lived it up close about systemic oppression and racism.

Fight ignorance with information and teach America a few things.

Charms of the boating life

sun on boatWe are boat people.

Well, to be honest, one of us is a boat person. Or, to be more precise, wants to be a boat person.

That would be the hubs. He became the captain of his own one-boat fleet five years ago, and ever since, he and the kids have had a fairly good time about twice a summer, once the boat is unfettered by its trailer and me, the fun sucker of the family.

Hey, someone has to do it. And I can’t get the memories of previous voyages out of my head. Trips such as this one, which I blogged about several summers ago.

This summer, as usual, we took the boat to the northern Missouri lake we frequent infrequently. We generally make it there over Memorial Day weekend, when the rest of my extended family visits my parents’ farm in Brookfield.

Last summer, we actually took the boat to Longview Lake for Joe’s birthday, taking him and some friends tubing. Putting the boat in the water there is a little stressful, what with the large numbers of other weekend water crafters waiting to plunk theirs in, too. For the life of me, I could not back the Suburban and boat trailer down the steep ramp, having instead to rely on one of Joe’s buddies, a 16-year-old boy, to back it down for me.

This year, though, when we made it to Lake Nehai we were looking practically like pros. We didn’t inflate the tube until we got to the little country store across the road from the boat ramp. While the hubs filled up the three-person tube, the kids and I went into the little store and bought sodas, snacks and two bags of ice at highly inflated prices.

Finally, we were ready and headed for the boat ramp. Our timing was perfect – no one ahead of us, no one waiting. Matt backed the truck and trailer toward the water, put the Suburban in park and hopped out. He climbed into the boat and instructed me to back the trailer into the water. Like the good little boaters they are, the kids told me when we’d gone far enough. I turned off the trucked and hopped out, and Maggie and I unclipped the boat’s bow from the trailer.

We pushed it a little and waited for it to set adrift. Matt turned on the motor and revved it a little, but the boat went nowhere.

We were perplexed. What was going on?

“It’s like it’s still connected to the trailer,” I said. “That’s weird.”

Matt grimaced. “I forgot to unclip the belts on the back of the boat,” he said. “It is still connected to the trailer. Pull it out.”

So I jumped back into the truck and pulled forward enough for him to unhook the back end. I had to pull it far enough out that backing it in was a doozy. It took me two or three tries and stops to remember that I had to turn the steering wheel the opposite direction of where I wanted the trailer to go.

It was starting to feel like last year all over again.

Eventually, the trailer made it back in to the water, we unhooked the bow, and Matt was off. While he and kids docked the boat and attached the tube, I parked the truck and trailer.

Life on Lake Nehai
Life on Lake Nehai

Two of the kids decided to stay on shore and fish a while, so four kids and I joined Matt in the boat. Two of them hopped onto the tube, and away we went for a nice, leisurely jaunt around the little lake. It was a glorious 30 minutes or so, and then Maggie and her BFF decided it was their turn in the tube. My niece stayed into, too, but Tom jumped back into the boat.

He doesn’t weigh much, and with two teen agers in the tube, the boat had a hard time planing. Matt assured Tom we weren’t going to capsize, but he was scared. Petrified, really, as he huddled on the boat’s floor in the fetal position.

I didn’t much like the ride, either, so I told Matt to take Tom and me to shore, where Joe and his cousin were finished fishing (nothing was biting) and could take our places in the boat.

When we docked, Tom and I climbed out, and the two boys got in. Matt took off.

jumping off boatTom asked for the keys to the Suburban; he thought he’d left his iPod in there. I gave him the keys with a stern warning: Don’t lock them in the truck. The other set was in the Suburban in my purse.

He headed up the hill, and I sat down on the dock to sunbathe. Pretty soon a pontoon boat full of fairly inebriated folks headed toward the dock. Most of the five occupants disembarked to use the portable toilet near the boat ramp. We chatted amiably about whether a storm was brewing as dark clouds gathered to the north of the lake.

Then they left. And I waited. And I realized that Tom had been gone a long time. The city girl in me wondered if he’d been kidnapped, but the more practical maternal side had another foreboding thought.

I took off up the hill. When I reached the Suburban, I found Tom with a stick in his hand, trying to pick the lock on the driver’s door.

“Stop!” I said. “What happened?”

He hung his head and told me he’d locked the keys in the car. He’d been in the back and thought he saw a ginormous spider, so he jumped out and slammed the door shut, leaving the keys and forgetting that he’d already hit “lock” on the key fob so he wouldn’t forget to lock the truck when he left. Tears stained his dirty little face.

I just sighed. Was I surprised? Not in the least.

I headed to the guardhouse to see if they had a phonebook. For once, I gave thanks for my mobile phone. Eventually, I reached AAA Missouri, who promised me a) Tom wasn’t the first kid to try to pick a car lock with a stick and b) a guy with a Slim Jim would be there in 30 minutes to two hours.

It was more like 90 minutes by the time the country mechanic from Meadville, a town about 45 miles away, made it to the lake.

He had the Suburban unlocked in about 20 seconds.

I thanked him profusely and headed back to the dock to wait. Eventually, the boat returned, and the kids said they were bushed and ready to head back to the farm.

I’d been on the water all of 30 minutes the whole day.

But the Captain was happy, and his little crew of kids and cousins was worn out. And I guess that’s about all you can ask for when you’re a weekend warrior.

Make a difference for Lucas

Last fall, I read with dismay the news of 4-year-old Lucas Webb’s death, purportedly at the hands of his parents. And now I read with equal horror that workers with the Missouri Children’s Division had failed to remove the boy from his father and stepmother, even after repeated calls to the Child Abuse Hotline by daycare workers.

lucas barnes webb
Lucas Barnes Webb,
courtesy of The Kansas City Star

The knee-jerk reaction likely will be to blame the child service workers and the Department of Social Services. To be sure, mistakes were made, and the state already has fired two workers involved in the case. Surely there will be calls to crucify others.

But that will be the incorrect response to such a tragedy. If you’re outraged and want to make a difference to ensure that young Lucas didn’t die in vain, you should turn your ire toward the Missouri General Assembly. Ask your legislators how they justify spending much of the precious five-month session, year after year, debating how to curtail abortion, or setting up roadblocks for women seeking birth control, or slowly but surely dismantling the state’s safety net for those living in poverty.

Or spending time on frivolous legislation, such as passing a bill allowing drivers to show proof of insurance by smart phone.

Instead, legislators should turn their attention to taking care of the children who already are here, who live in Missouri. Thousands live at or below the poverty line. Our representatives and senators don’t seem to care about those children, though. How else to explain the continual cuts to services that benefit them, such as Head Start and Medicaid, the elementary and secondary education budget  and, yes, the Children’s Division?

Please, be angry about Lucas Webb’s death. Be very angry. And then do something about it. Contact your state representative and senator and demand that they address the systemic breakdown that ultimately caused Lucas Webb’s death. For a list of Missouri legislators, go to www.house.mo.gov or www.senate.mo.gov.

If Kim Kardashian legally can marry, everyone should be able to

rings

It’s so good to know that people change and evolve over time.

In my graduate classes, we talk often about the capacity to change and grow. That’s a tenet of social work, that people can reach self-actualization – their full potential. We have to believe that people can do this for society to move forward.

But it’s one thing to read about it in a textbook and another thing entirely to see it in yourself or someone really close to you.

For the past few days, most discerning eyes and ears in this country have been riveted to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the nine justices have been hearing arguments on two cases regarding who has the ability legally to get married in this country. On Tuesday, the justices heard arguments about the California law, Proposition 8, that disallows gays and lesbians from marrying. On Wednesday, it was the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, a 1990s-era law that defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

Talk of this case is everywhere you turn – newspapers, broadcast news, magazines, sitcoms, dramas, movies, the salon, the teachers’ lounge. You can’t get away from it.

So on Tuesday, as my 10-year-old was eating breakfast, he watched as talking heads on the Today show discussed what might or might not happen at the Supreme Court.

“That’s so dumb,” he said between bites of his Nutella waffle. “People should be able to get married.”

I agreed.

“Yep,” I said. “I think people should be able to marry whomever they fall in love with, just like your dad and I did.”

But as I said those words, it hit me that I hadn’t always held such a clear-cut opinion on the matter. For years, I just didn’t think about it one way or the other.

I can so clearly see myself at about 4, following my pregnant mother through the short aisles of a little family-owned grocery in my hometown. I don’t know what possessed me, but as we neared the butcher counter at the back of the store, I asked really loudly, “Mom, can two girls get married to each other?”

My mom froze, then continued walking and said, “No.” She said it in such a tone that I knew better than to ask why. So I didn’t.

And truthfully, I didn’t think about it again until I was an adult – and then only because of DOMA.

Yet that piece of legislation, flawed as it is, opened my eyes to those around me who couldn’t lawfully marry their true loves because they happened to be the same gender – a reporter at my newspaper, a photographer I knew, a shoestring relative, a neighbor.

Each time I learned another person I knew was enduring this systemic discrimination, my view of marriage came into sharper focus, like my worldview was being refracted.

I wonder if that’s how it happened for my dad.

See, on Tuesday night, he and I sat next to each other at a concert at my kids’ high school. As the orchestra left the stage and the choir prepared to take it, we made idle conversation. In time, of course, it turned to the topic before the Supreme Court.

My 73-year-old dad said the arguments against allowing gay people to marry are unfounded.

“It’s just cultural,” he said. “They say marriage is between one man and one woman. But in other countries, you can have one man and four women. “

He’s got a point. And he made another cogent one when he said that many of those who oppose same-sex marriage are basing their logic on the Bible and religious teachings, nothing else. They need to be honest about it, he said.

But what a difference 25 years makes. My dad, while never homophobic, didn’t exactly preach marriage for all when he was raising his kids. I’m not sure he personally knew anyone who was out of the closet until he was in his 40s or 50s.

Attitudes change when the abstract becomes concrete, though. It’s easy to dismiss people en masse but less so when you work with them and go to church with them and sit on the sidelines of soccer games with them.

These days, almost every heterosexual I know has a homosexual friend or family member who is out of the closet. The times are changing.

And my dad’s viewpoint has changed, too. A few weeks back, he and my mom met an old friend one Sunday at a funky Kansas City brunch joint. Their friend was in town visiting her son and his partner, who live around the corner from the restaurant. Mom and Dad told me all about the son’s gorgeous old rehabbed house, his success as a teacher, the ginormous dogs he and his partner have.

They might as well have been talking about meeting anyone for lunch, which is as it should be. The times are changing. And they’re changing fast.

That’s what dad said as the lights went down before the choir took the stage for its performance.

“The main reason these guys give for not allowing gays and lesbians to marry is that it’s a change that’s happening too quickly,” he said. “But doesn’t that define conservatism – not wanting any change to happen?

“It’s happening,” he said.

It’s about time.

Community organizing: The power of working together

Man, am I ever glad that Snowmageddon didn’t happen LAST week.

That’s because on Valentine’s Day, fourth graders from Bryant Elementary School in Independence took Jefferson City by another kind of storm.

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Here’s a shot of the kiddos just after arriving in Jefferson City.

Thanks to all the generous folks who donated money, time and energy, fourth-grade parents raised enough funds to rent a charter bus (complete with a bathroom and DVD player!) from Arrow Stage Lines, buy each fourth grader a screen-printed T-shirt to wear to the capitol, buy snacks for the trip, purchase each child a souvenir from the capitol and treat each of the 29 students who made the trip to a buffet dinner on the way home.

In fact, let me just stop right here and say thanks to the Bryant parents who made the trip happen – Melissa, Stefania, Babette, Rod, Cody, Kristen, Erica, Frances – as well as Corporate Copy Print, Allen’s Banquet Hall, the Independence School District Foundation, Reps. Ira Anders and John Mayfield and the many other parents who allowed their kiddos to make the trip.

I couldn’t be prouder of this community of parents and their supporters, who demonstrated true community organizing as they planned this trip. It was textbook, just like something I’d learn in one of my social work classes.

In late December, parents met to decide how to solve their problem: They wanted their kids to visit the capitol, but the school said the trip wasn’t possible this year. Parents decided they wanted to see what they could do to make the trip a reality.

A meeting in early January attracted more parents and sealed the deal – the trip would happen if parents could just come up with the more than $1,000 needed to rent the bus. Suddenly, every parent at the meeting mobilized. Fund-raising ideas flew around the room, mingling with suggestions of how to get the word out.

Within a week, the rummage sale was on. Division of labor occurred organically, with parents taking on jobs that matched their strengths. It was a marvel to behold.

And at the end of a very long day, the parents had enough money to give those kids the best trip ever.

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The T-shirts were particularly awesome.

I’m not particularly prone to belief in the extraordinary, but this trip was meant to be. The weather was extra-perfect for February. Everyone – more than 50 people – was on time. We made it to Jeff without any hitches and made every tour with ease.

The kiddos met three local state representatives – Rep. Noel Torpey met them at lunch – and their Supreme Court tour guide, John Constance, told them he’s a product of the Independence School District, sewing that all-important seed of possibility in the young minds.

On the way home, we stopped in Columbia at a huge Chinese buffet restaurant that will never be the same.

I’m pretty sure each one of the 29 kids used the bathroom on the bus at least twice.

By the time we rolled up in front of Bryant, it was after 8 p.m. The kids and parents quickly dispersed to enjoy the rest of the President’s Day break, and my husband, 10-year-old and I headed for home. I asked our son if he’d had a good day.

“It was the best day of my life,” he said, “next to the day I was born.”

That’s pretty darn cool.

Jeff City or bust!!!

I have this dream.

It started two years ago, when my niece’s fourth-grade class at Bryant Elementary School in Independence did not make the trip to Jefferson City as the capstone of a months-long lesson about Missouri history.

I don’t remember the reasons Maureen’s class didn’t make the mostly annual sojourn, just that the kiddos were sorely disappointed. And so were their parents, who didn’t realize the trip was a no-go until too late to do anything about it. My sister and brother-in-law took Maureen to Jefferson City themselves that summer.

My dream grew in intensity last August, when my youngest child entered fourth grade. He’d looked toward the school year with anticipation after the grade ahead of him resumed the annual Jeff trip in May 2012.

And when I and other parents were told early last semester that the fourth grade once again likely wouldn’t go to the state’s capital city – this time because the trip would take away from prepping for the state assessments – my dream intensified, nagging, pushing through my other thoughts, needling me like a splinter stuck in my sock during a 5K.

My dream, folks, is that all Independence fourth graders get the chance to journey to the center of our great state for their first up-close glimpse of participatory government.

On the surface, maybe, it seems frivolous. What’s the big deal about taking a bunch of 9 and 10 year olds to Jefferson City? It means waking up before the chickens to get your kid to school to catch the bus, sack lunch in tow. It means a good three hours on a bus with a bunch of exuberant kids who know every line to several episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants. It means giving up a day of your own time to go see things you (hopefully) learned about years ago.

Yep, the fourth-grade trip to Jeff is all those things. But it’s also this: The chance to make a favorable impression on young minds still idealistic enough to believe that this great democratic experiment we have going in the United States is working.

The trip to Jefferson City offers a chance for jaded adults to see awe and wonder again as the children gaze upward at the beautiful rotunda of the capitol or look down upon the General Assembly as members bustle in and out of chambers, going about their work; as they listen to the stories of how one governor’s wife saved the executive mansion; as they think that they, too, could one day, if they worked hard enough, earn a seat on the state’s highest court.

But more than that, it’s a chance for us as adults to model for our children the importance of civic duty – of knowing who represents our voices in government, of speaking up when we don’t agree, of learning about how our country works.

This is our job. If we don’t teach them, who will?

Back to my dream. From 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. today at Allen’s Banquet Hall at 11330 E. Truman Road in Independence, a bunch of parents who share my dream are mounting a huge rummage sale to raise money to pay for their fourth graders to make that trip.

This year, it’s one school.

My dream? Next year, all 18 of them.

What should we do for MLK Jr. Day?

Last year, in an effort to make the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday count for something more than mid-January sales, the hubs, kids and I spent a few hours volunteering at Harvesters, the food bank. After a short presentation about food insecurity, we went to work boxing up food that would be delivered to food pantries.

Hey, we’re not saints, people. It’s a national initiative called the Day of Service. You’re supposed to keep Dr. King’s legacy alive, step outside your comfort zone and work to effect change in your community. Click here for more info.

My kids loved it, and the experience sort of led them to volunteer in similar areas over the last year. So this year, as the holiday approaches, they said they’d like to go back to Harvesters.

Only Harvesters told me today that it’s too late to sign up to volunteer there on Jan. 21. They’re fully booked, they said, but we could come back another day.

Well, we don’t have another weekday. So we’re looking for something else meaningful to do that day to commemorate Dr. King’s work and to expand our knowledge of the needs in our community. And we’re looking for suggestions.

If you’ve got some ideas — serious ones, please — leave them at the bottom of this post. I’ll let you know later this month what we end up doing.

And if you haven’t already, consider marking MLK Day yourself by doing something for others.