The Last Day

I’ve been watching a lot of movies these days.
This morning, I considered the fact that if my life were a movie, I might nod off to it.
There’s not much of a compelling plot to this flick.

Let’s say I titled my movie The Last Day. If you’re reading this on December 31, 2020, then there’s some context to the title; any other day and the title could make you wonder if there’s going to be a murder in this story or if it’s one of those end-of-the-world scenarios. Maybe it’s the re-telling of the last day on the job for this guy that’s retiring after 30 years working at a job he was ready to leave 10 years ago. What might he do?

Or if I was to disappear one day, the police may think this title could offer clues as to my whereabouts. I happen to be reading a new book called Anxious People that is a compelling, though rambling, detective mystery. It’s much more interesting than the movie I’m living. It involves a bank robbery of a cashless bank, an unintended hostage situation, and tremendous amount of backstory (interrogations, solitary people on bridges, messed up family dynamics)…some of which is informative and amusing, though some seems like filler. I’m not saying I’d prefer its plot to mine. It is, though, more of a page turner.

In my movie, most every day seems like the previous day. Dialogue would include the pivotal scene where the main character asks “Why is everyone putting out their trash today? Isn’t it Tuesday?” When in fact, we learn that it was Wednesday, trash day. Wow.

Then, there’s a scene where the main character texts his son about his day. Soon after, for no apparent reason, a poem appears in his head that he jots down quickly.

I will never know
the labor of pregnancy

the way it makes one crave
odd combinations of foods
or how it feels to have
a second heartbeat

winter in Michigan
must be similar though

almost nine months of hunkering down
moving more slowly
as its weight can be seen
its heaviness felt daily

all the reading in the world
doesn’t help one cope
as we keep layering on

at the end, however,
I don’t have anything positive
to show for my effort

He reads it to his wife who offers encouraging comments, so he saves the poem.

Much of the movie is spent watching the main character twirl his hair. He is unaccustomed to having hair to twirl and it passes the time. He wonders if his twirling comes off as a lack of confidence. He seems to be worrying about something. He isn’t. Though he is wondering when the plot will thicken.

Still Learning, Still Teaching

The election is over — even though the biggest loser doesn’t want to admit it — and I’ve been thinking about ways I’ve been teaching and learning lately. One thing I’ve re-learned from this election is the power of cults, mobs, and groups in general to deny reality. I am reminded of Gladwell’s notion of thresholds and wonder what our threshold is for this aggression that Trump is aiming at the country. Both Democrats and Republicans have a type of mob mentality going and each has a point at which they won’t take anymore…and then they act.

Republicans have these components more noticeably since they met for a convention, had many in-person rallies, are stoked by widely watched shows on Fox News, meet with guns-in-tow at protests, and are usually more black-and-white thinkers. They are in their bubbles of Parler, Fox, and even their churches and so far they’ve mostly kept their threshold in check (no overt violence in response to the election)…using denial to stir the stew. Democrats of course also travel in packs, but this year (due to our belief in Science and precautions over COVID-19) our mob has been mostly virtual. Not much excitement from a virtual convention. The campaigns’ of Democrats this year focused on using phone calls and other distant strategies to get out the vote and to emphasize to voters that their choice to vote early was essential to the party’s victory. What’s being tested these days is our threshold response; when will Trump’s denial of Biden’s victory cross a point that requires the Democratic mob to react? Possibly as a riot, possibly more civilly with Democratically-governed states sending out their troops to enforce the law…still provocative to be sure.

I’ve learned that decent, intelligent people can buy a bill of goods that goes against common sense and past conventions. I’ve seen a Presidential-led, Senate-supported, government official-allowed denial of election results. Millions of people saying “let’s pretend it didn’t happen” and allowing this un-truth to leave millions more (you know, the majority that won the election) anxious. Things haven’t fallen apart as much as some predicted…yet.

The next month or two will be very telling for us as country.


While this (above) did appear on Fox, they also refuse to refer to Biden as ‘President-elect Biden’ and have many articles doubting the results.

What I really want to talk about is the ways I’ve been teaching and learning lately (two of my favorite past-times). Here’s an overview:

* If you’ve been a frequent visitor to my blog, you know I love to juggle for its meditative, fun vibe. I have a couple videos on how to do it, but the best way to learn it is to try it…drop the balls…and keep trying.

* I also have a lesson posted on the Red Cedar Writing Project’s Writing Enrichment page. It was fun using a presentation tool I had not used before. If you go to that link and scroll down, my lesson is called “Writing Friendly Letters.” I happen to believe that, as the Carpenters said lo those many years ago, what the world needs now (besides love sweet love) is to write a personal letter to a friend. It slows the world down around you. The letter will be incredibly appreciated and you’ll most often get a written response. The link above has other activities for K-12 students; if you’re looking specifically for high school enrichment, try the Greenrock page.

* I presented a short, Zoom session on Limericks as a Coping Strategy for the Michigan College English Association conference last month. It’s fun if that’s what you’re looking for.

* I’m tutoring one fourth-grader virtually as part of an initiative by our church to engage more with our local community.

* As a member of the Lansing Poetry Club, I will be leading a poetry workshop in March on Poetry of Witness. Stay tuned to our Poetry Calendar for more information on that workshop and monthly workshops between now and then.

* This week, I begin co-leading Stephen Minister Training at the Peoples Church of East Lansing. Stephen Ministry is a lay ministry employed by many denominations across the country and world to offer companionship to people going through tough life events. My years as a Stephen Minister strengthened my faith in God and my recent training as a Stephen Leader gave me the skills and confidence I needed to facilitate this ministry. It is a blessing in my life.

* I definitely learn a lot from writing. Whether it’s in my journal, here on this blog, with my writing group, in my recently released book of poems (My Name is Aram, Too), or writing a novel in a month with NaNoWriMo, writing pushes me to think and to consider what it is I believe and feel.

In conclusion, we need to keep learning and some of us need to keep teaching. One guy who embodied those qualities was Alex Trebek who died this past week. Jeopardy won’t be the same without him…meaning he’ll be missed…not that I fear change.

Here’s a wonderful tribute to him. It’s kind of long and seems to include commercials (though I worked around them by refreshing the page). If you’re interested in how Jeopardy runs and some of Trebek’s thoughts on life, I recommend it.

What’s Going On In Armenia?

It is difficult these days to get a handle on what’s going on in the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Being Armenian-American, I feel both concerned about it and disconnected from it. Disconnected because the conflict is not reported on regularly here in the states and I don’t make an effort to check in on it. Concerned, too, though because of the loss of human lives on both sides and the threat of more involvement from Turkey or Russian escalating the conflict.

Here’s a bit of history if you need it. The following information and the map, below, comes from a website called Political Geography Now. There’s more history on the website if you are interested.

“What is Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh?
The status of the Nagorno-Karabakh region is disputed. The UN and its member countries generally consider it part of Azerbaijan, but separatists there declared independence during the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the area has been ruled separately from Azerbaijan for over 25 years now.

Originally calling itself the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, the region’s self-proclaimed government now officially prefers the name Republic of Artsakh – “Artsakh” being an Armenian-language alternate name for the area. Founded by culturally-Armenian locals who didn’t want to be part of Azerbaijan, self-ruled Artsakh is heavily integrated with neighboring Armenia as far as military defense and day-to-day administration. But it still technically considers itself an independent country, and Armenia maintains a formal separation, neither recognizing Artsakh’s independence nor officially making it part of Armenia.”

Recently, according to some sources an Armenian jet was shot down over Armenian airspace by a Turkish F-16 fighter. Both sides are accusing each other of attacks. I feel conflicted about Armenia’s ownership of the disputed land but know that when both sides feel like it belongs to them, a peaceful resolution is far away. I will continue to keep an eye on news from the region and pray for an illusive and needed peaceful solution.

The U.S.A. Needs to Grow Up

FYI: My new, header photo at the top of the page is from our garden. I like the clarity of the photo as well as how it alludes to an openness, a hopefulness. Photographer: me.

As a country, the United States of America is still in a rough draft, test stage. We are in the middle school years of our life. We like to think we are middle aged with some wisdom but I think not.

Our current president is an indicator. He leads like a head bully. He personifies this country’s lack of maturity. He’s always been the self-centered, fragile, macho teen bully that the other kids (senators) are afraid to defy. You remember the type from middle school; no one really approves of the guy but the group tolerates him…to a point.

Other ways we act like middle schoolers: too often, we make judgments about others without knowing much about the situation; we are curious, but not great listeners; depth is not our strength; we like to try on “adult” actions with little success; we don’t appreciate the wisdom of adults (older countries…or even historians).

In order to grow up, people generally need a wake up call. Some eye-opening moment that requires self-analysis, that begs for a change of behavior. If the country hasn’t been having wake up calls lately, I’m not sure what these have been. Between injustices and murders of Black people by our police forces to denial of climate change in light of increased forest fires and rising oceans to rampant disrespect of women to the way some can’t follow safety guidelines to (insert your examples here) things seem a bit out of control and juvenile these days.

Growing up does not mean becoming liberal or conservative. It does mean moving on from those juvenile qualities of our early days: it means doing more listening for understanding, more learning and less judging, being more confident and comfortable with who we are and less likely to take things personally.

Empathy should not be political. It’s a human skill. QAnon is not an example of empathy…it is juvenile, paranoid, ridiculous…and way too popular. There are signs that empathy is still alive and well in our country and lately I’ve been seeking them out.

I recently took part in my first Living Room Conversation (albeit virtual). These are structured ways to have civil conversations with people from a variety of political beliefs. Here are the ground rules …

I found the time to be a useful exercise in listening to others. Though there weren’t as many conservatives in the conversation in which I participated, we did talk a lot about people’s varying ideas about our core values like freedom, access to work, and rising to a challenge. Some spoke of how the promise of America is so different than the reality for most people. People from around the country shared notions of balancing our hyper individualism with interdependence and our high hopes with a lowering of expectations; how understanding and tolerance may be more reasonable goals for us.

Another resource that I happened on is a book called Beyond Your Bubble: How to Connect Across the Political Divide by Tania Israel. This book jumped out at me as I was dropping off a couple books at a Little Free Library near my house. Someone had left an Advance Preview copy of this 2020 book that’s on the market now. This book dovetailed nicely in with the online conversation I had. For example, the diagram from the book, below, points out some tips on having a meaningful dialogue. Though somewhat simplified, I found it a good reminder that we are more alike than different.

Both Living Room Conversations and this book focus on understanding the other side. They focus on tolerance for each other’s views. You may not think that’s enough or possible or worth it. I think it is. We’re not going to change each other. But in a peaceful society, we need to practice civility. We need to understand and appreciate each other. Respect our differences.

If we don’t aim for at least tolerance, the air in our bubble becomes quite stale and practically non-existent. And beyond tolerance, I wonder if another concept could be helpful. From the Living Room Conversations website, I learned a new word: sonder. Sonder is the realization that everyone has a story.

Be well my friends.

——
I recently read White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo and Michael Eric Dyson; here’s part of my reaction in a poem.
——

White

I am not white

The edges of my eyes
are my only actually white part

Some call my skin
Mediterranean or olive
or Middle Eastern
but that’s really just
avoiding the question

Yes I am white
in that
white male white privileged way

Some people see me
as a white, Ford F450
with perpetual right of way
in their way

And acquaint me with a long line
of dead white guys
who wreaked havoc
(that is, death and destruction)
while playing
the Christian card

I don’t like being put in a box
with those guys

I do like being me
which is akin to hating
my truck but liking that it
gets me places

I don’t think I live like a Ford F450
but that doesn’t seem to matter
I need to accept my label
and hug the shoulder
so non-white folks
can get by

——

Resources:

* The Storycorps Project and Listening is an Act of Love by Dave Isay

* Elayne Griffin Baker’s insightful list of what we’ve lost in the White House

* The Living Room Conversation piece on Sonder

* How to Recognize and Deal with Emotional Immaturity…while not about the USA, seems to fit.

* Immature Leadership: Donald Trump and the American Presidency and a reminder of what he’s done

Poetry Book Footnote

Isolation has given me time to put some of my poems together. I’ve self-published My Name is Aram, Too through Schuler Books press in Grand Rapids!

The title is a reference to one of my favorite books of all time, My Name is Aram by William Saroyan. It’s a collection of short stories, not poems, and Saroyan set it in Fresno, CA, not mid-Michigan; I love his playful writing style and the Armenian community he created.

Here’s the cover that our niece, Megan, drew (the individual drawings refer to poems in the book):

Nice job, Megan!

It’s meant to look similar to title art Don Freeman created for William Saroyan’s book My Name is Aram:

If Freeman’s work looks familiar, he’s also the artist that drew the cover of the Corduroy books and Rainbow of My Own, among many others.

Here are some options if you want to get a book:

* It’s available online at the Schuler Books website.

* After Wednesday, Schuler Books in Okemos at the Meridian Mall will have copies available.

* I do believe in bartering, so if you want to stop by our house, I have copies. (close family and friends, please wait so I can give you a copy…I have many)

* If you are very patient, I will probably post a pdf of the book on this blog in a year or two.

Making Sarma

Being a Black Ally

After my last post, a couple people asked “What’s next?” for me and, I suppose, for them. There were several suggestions in the last post for action in our local communities and readings for educating ourselves. However, these times require a certain immediacy that was missing. I did some more digging and have taken these steps:

* I went to the Black Lives Matter website. I signed up to receive updates on Black Lives Matter Lansing events…

* …which offered more reading and a link to a related organization called One Love Global that focuses more on educating people on racial equity and how to achieve it…

* …and Sarah at One Love Global connected me to Emily D. on Facebook who organizes white allies at Black rallies. So, at this point, I am signed up to be a buffer between police and Blacks at rallies. After some prayer and reflection, I’m feeling drawn to that place. There are other aspects of being an ally which Emily’s post helped me understand.

* Another thing I did this past week was stay off Facebook (besides contacting Emily). I found it quite calming and centering. That allowed me more time for reading things like White Fragility, Furious Cool, Through a Lens Darkly, the current Sun Magazine, the book of James in the Bible and watching things like I am Not Your Negro on PBS,
Ronald Vinson’s powerful message, “Letter to Your Flag”

and these bird’s eye views of protests in the US and around world.

Part of me feels like I shouldn’t have to explain what I’m doing to get myself more informed and more active. However, I’ve come to realize that once I put my ideas out there, I make myself a target for criticism. So, I’m trying to be transparent, to be as clear as possible…

I continue to learn and as I do, I continue to realize how much I don’t know. But I continue to try to understand my privilege and how I can use it to better our society for my Black brothers and sisters in God’s world. I’m doing the best I can.

Resources

* Resources for children, families, and educators

* learning activities for teens and older folks

* Black Voters are Coming for Trump

* Black Lives Matter Lansing

* Me and White Supremacy book

What Can We Do To Fix This?

I’ve been avoiding looking at my privilege for a long time.

While I realize I’m a white male in a mostly white society, for most of my life I wasn’t aware of my privilege (which is part of the problem).

I usually fell into statements like…

I am fortunate.
My life is blessed.

Without looking too much beyond that.

When I think about race and racism, I feel stuck. I feel like nothing I say will change the mess of a system we now have. So why am I saying anything? Partly, it has to do with being a writer and an educator; through writing, I often come to understand my own thinking and I feel like I need to do that before I can share it or help others to understand their thinking. More importantly, though, is that I’m realizing that writing is not enough. The injustices in the world are calling out once again that it is time for action.

Below are two, recent Facebook posts (written by other people) that I hope you will ponder for more than a quick read. I have re-read them several times and they are both a call to action.
The second post was written by the parent of a former student; Sam Hosey is a man that I respect — an intelligent, involved and caring parent, whose opinion as a person and as a black man, I value.

#1

In America – because I am a human who happens to have white skin, I can do all of these things without thinking twice:

I can be arrested without fear of being murdered (#GeorgeFloyd)
I can go birding (#ChristianCooper)
I can go jogging (#AmaudArbery)
I can sleep in my own home (#BreonnaTaylor)
I can relax in the comfort of my own home (#BothemSean and #AtatianaJefferson)
I can ask for help after being in a car crash (#JonathanFerrell and #RenishaMcBride)
I can have a cellphone (#StephonClark)
I can leave a party to get to safety (#JordanEdwards)
I can play loud music (#JordanDavis)
I can sell CDs (#AltonSterling)
I can sleep (#AiyanaJones)
I can walk from the corner store (#MikeBrown)
I can play cops and robbers (#TamirRice)
I can go to church (#Charleston9)
I can walk home with Skittles (#TrayvonMartin)
I can hold a hair brush while leaving my own bachelor party (#SeanBell)
I can party on New Years (#OscarGrant)
I can get a normal traffic ticket (#SandraBland)
I can lawfully carry a weapon (#PhilandoCastile)
I can break down on a public road with car problems (#CoreyJones)
I can shop at Walmart (#JohnCrawford)
I can have a disabled vehicle (#TerrenceCrutcher)
I can read a book in my own car (#KeithScott)
I can be a 10yr old walking with our grandfather (#CliffordGlover)
I can decorate for a party (#ClaudeReese)
I can ask a cop a question (#RandyEvans)
I can cash a check in peace (#YvonneSmallwood)
I can take out my wallet (#AmadouDiallo)
I can run (#WalterScott)
I can breathe (#EricGarner)
I can live (#FreddieGray)

White privilege is real. Take a minute to consider a Black person’s experience today.

#BlackLivesMatter

THIS IS NOT A COMPREHENSIVE LIST. It goes deeper and longer and so many injustices never saw the light of day.

I did not write this…feel free to share it…

______________________________________________________________

#2
By Sam Hosey

Thank you to all of my friends, who happen to be white, (or non-black) that have spoken up and spoken out. Many of you are my childhood friends and former co-workers whom I love dearly and I know many of you feel the same. So what do we do next? That’s a question I get asked often. First, keep your eyes open for injustices, but also look beyond the blatant racist acts and look for disproportionate treatment in our institutions. Second, call out your friends, relatives and even employers on their biased habits. Here are some suggestions…(and ask what can you do to fix this?)
* Read the book “White Fragility”
* Ask why is my church predominately white?
* Ask why my company or department isn’t 14% black (percentage of black population) at every level (entry level to executives)?
* Ask why the nonprofit board I’m on is so white?
* How many black people are in my circle of actual friends that I can talk to and listen to?
* How many black teachers has my child had in school?
* How many black neighbors do I have?
* How many black people are city council members?
* How many black public servants are there in my community?
* How many black people have I helped groom professionally speaking?
* Ask why are most of my local news anchors white?
* Ask when the last time I saw a white person brutalized on the news vs. the last time I saw a black person brutalized?
* Ask why are nearly all owners of NFL and NBA sports franchises white but players about 75% black?
* Ask why are most university presidents white?
* Ask why are athletic directors and D1 football/basketball coaches white, but the players mostly black?
* Ask why do I have such a problem with black athletes — who come from disadvantaged economic backgrounds and generate billions for the NCAA and millions for the school — getting paid, but are okay with white coaches getting millions?
* Ask why is the hero or leading character in my favorite movie white?
* Ask what programs does my company sponsor to uplift the black population in our community?
* Ask why are the rankings of “best schools” and “best neighborhoods” and “best cities to live” are always predominantly white?

I could go on. To bridge these gaps it will take very specific and intentional steps from white people. Attend meetings for the city council, the school board, your HOA, your nonprofit, your church, your company’s hiring panel and call this stuff out. Challenge other people who are in charge to fix it. Recruit, start action-based diversity programs, be welcoming, call out injustice and the wrong we see. It won’t do much if a couple people do it, but if a few million do, then we can effect change pretty fast and we won’t have to see racist cops killing people anymore. Thanks for listening.❤️

If you want to watch/listen to something to help kick start you, peep this out…

________________________________________

Wrap up…in direct response to Dr. DiAngelo’s video…and the two posts from above —

I’m the white progressive Dr. DiAngelo is talking about in the above video. I see that now. I do feel that I have tried to inform myself on race issues to some extent: attending diversity trainings and taking implicit bias tests, reading many books by black authors, singing in a mixed race gospel choir, many relationships with people of color… I try to be informed…but no, I haven’t given years to “study, struggle, and focus” on this topic.

I’m aware that my understanding of racism is incredibly incomplete, and there is some discomfort in discussing it…but that’s where growth comes from.
One tries to be humble and vulnerable when one is learning.
Humility…saying one has it pretty much destroys credibility.

the uncomfortability of discussing racism
is where we grow
things fall apart
so that they can be pieced back
together together
to fall apart…
know that the falling apart
will be pieced back
together

Yes, I was raised to be racially illiterate. Being Armenian, I was taught to be proud of my ethnicity. Proud of our language, our food, our history, our struggle to persevere and survive genocide,
and that’s similar
but different,
narrow, limited

I’m not living in Turkey.
Maybe if I was an Armenian living in Turkey right now…

Racism is definitely a system.
I’m part of it. Not proud of that.
A part of it
Not
apart from it

Her re-framing of the Jackie Robinson story for truth (…”whites let him play”…) helps me. I need role models…for change. I keep going back to Sam’s list above and thinking about which ones to address first.

Aversive racism, as she describes it, fit me to a point; I don’t buy the notion that our places of work are mostly white because people of color don’t apply — I’ve seen racist policies in place going on there…but have I spoken up?

I need to use my freedoms, my privilege, to speak up and out to change our unjust system.

Here’s an excerpt from DiAngelo’s book to get you thinking…

continued…

Here are some other resources that have helped me on my continuing journey.

Resources

Begin with the video, above, then read the book…

White Fragility by Dr. Robin DiAngelo

Assertive Black…Puzzled White: A Black Perspective on Assertive Behavior by Donald K. Cheeck, Ph.D.

Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him by David Henry and Joe Henry

Changing Systems, Changing Ourselves: Anti-racist Practice for Accompaniment, Sanctuary, and Resistance

The Race Card Project encourages people to condense their observations and experiences about race into one sentence with just Six Words.

Join the Earl Nelson Singers…we meet on Monday nights at 7 pm at Sexton High School in Lansing (when it’s safe to do so).

Your Kids Aren’t Too Young to Talk About Race