Tuesday, July 15, 2014

How is Sgt, Thomas Tibbs, you ask?

Stay tuned after today's blog post for a brief commercial message.

Thomas is doing just fine these days. It's hard to believe that I last posted about him in February. He has made amazing progress since then, most notably now wagging his tail for me (which took four months) and taking a treat from my hand (which took five). Of course, he's still the world's most quirky dog, but that's okay. I love him just as he is, and I don't mind making a few accommodations for him. Well, maybe more than a few. But still okay. Below is a brief update on his progress (and if you haven't read the previous posts about Thom, you might want to click here):

What I mean by quirky:
He's still nocturnal, and I'm not referring to sleeping patterns; he's happy and awake and alive if it's dark outside. As the light comes on, he becomes more and more wary and afraid and shut down. His ears literally begin to droop as dawn turns into day. Thus, I find myself running around the back yard at 4:30 in the morning doing dog bows with him as he huffs and jumps happily, using a stage whisper (so as not to wake the neighbors or their barky dog) to tell him, "Good boy! Good job!" if he runs to retrieve his chew bone. While he will now wag his tail at 4:30 in the afternoon when I feed him (yes! progress!), he will not play at that hour. At least, not until the sun goes down.

Anything out of place makes him anxious. He is learning to come in the house by himself (without being led in on the leash), which, again, is great progress. But if he sees anything out of place—a pillow on the floor, a chair moved to a different spot—he will turn around at the door and trot back to the safety of the side yard, at which point I have to go get him and guide him in to show him nothing will hurt him.

He will sit calmly in the family room while I vacuum the house, will stand in the doorway of the garage while I start the truck, slowly wagging his tail to ask if he can go. Neither the dishwasher nor the garbage disposal scares him. But if he hears a motorcycle start up—even if it's blocks away—he bolts for the side yard in terror. If he sees a motorcycle parked at the curb while we are out walking, he has to be coaxed around it.

His favorite spot to sleep is now the extra cab of my Ford Ranger. When I first began taking him places in the truck, he would become anxious and often get car sick. But he has slowly learned to love sitting in that protected back area between the seats and the wall of the cab, his face turned toward the wind blowing in from the open passenger side window. The loud explosions around the Fourth of July (which are still being heard in my neighborhood) were terrifying for him. One night recently when we came home from a long, leisurely walk in Mt. Baldy, a very loud boom resounded just as he was getting out of the truck in the garage (which is also something he does by himself now). He turned around and dove back in and didn't come out for over an hour. No problem. He's still sleeping part of the night indoors and part outside, so I leave the doors of the truck open in case he wants to duck for cover.

He steals things. Specifically, my gardening gloves. The first time he did this, I didn't realize what had happened (Now where did I leave those gloves...?) until the next day when I found a pile of dog vomit in the back yard and, as I cleaned it up, found both gloves. He had taken them off the patio table, ingested them, then (thank heavens) regurgitated them. Now, there were several other items on that table: His leash. His brush. His Nyla bone still smelling of peanut butter. His Kong toy that is hollow inside so that I can put treats in it (which he loves to play with to extract the treats, even though he still doesn't know how to play with toys). But he ignored all those goodies and took my gloves. So I have been very, very careful since then to always leave my gloves up on the workbench in the garage where he can't reach them. Until today. Today while we were working in the back yard—me heartily pulling weeds, Thom contentedly curled in a corner—the phone rang. I ran to get it, pulling off my gloves and setting them, yes, on that same table with his Kong toy, etc. while I went to answer it. Ten minutes later I returned to find one glove missing. Thomas was still in his corner. I looked everywhere in the yard for the glove, thinking I might have dropped it. I even made him get up to see if he had taken it to chew on and then curled back up on it. It was nowhere to be found. In the hour it took me to mow the lawn, I considered my options: I could wait for him to puke it up. I could make him throw up. I could call my vet to get his opinion. I was still mulling these things over as I went to check on Thom, and as I stood talking to him, I kicked some loose dirt with the toe of my shoe. A finger emerged. Well, not an actual finger, but the index finger of the glove. When he'd seen me set the gloves down, he'd gotten up, trotted over, taken one and trotted back to his corner to hide it for later. Son of a gun. There are just certain things—my gloves, BunnyTibbs—that he feels are rightfully his, and he will reclaim them if he gets the chance.

He still refuses to come when I call him. (I say "refuses" because I'm pretty sure he knows what I want, he just doesn't see any good reason to comply.) But he has gotten better and better on the leash. When we first began walking together, he would bolt through doorways or gateways and around corners or up onto curbs. We worked on it constantly, and I finally began teaching him the command, "Walk slow, Thom." Doing so was serendipitous. Just as he began to become proficient in responding to it, I tore a tendon in my ankle. At first I was devastated because I assumed we'd be unable to take walks for a while. But a day later we were limping around the culdesac, Thom on "walk slow" and me hobbling beside him at a snail's pace. Yes, it probably took much longer for the tendon to heal, but I just wasn't willing to give up our daily walk. Now when I tell him "Walk slow," he immediately slows his usual trotting pace to that of an old arthritic woman, which is basically what I am these days. I use this command to take care of my ankle when we are ascending or descending steep trails. He will continue the slow stroll until I tell him, "Ok, thank you, Thom," at which point he resumes his standard trot.

He still has a long way to go in terms of recovery. I know there are memories that still haunt him. Sometimes in his sleep, he barks or emits a low, ominous growl. But he has never uttered a sound while awake—even when all the dogs in the neighborhood are barking, even if that pesky little black cat is taking a swipe at him again. If people pass us while we're walking, he still cowers and tries to move to the side, tucking his tail so far between his legs it touches his belly. When friends stop by, he runs outside, remaining in his safe corner until he's certain there are no strangers present. But he has slowly warmed to my son and my friend Doug, so I see a time in the future when he will begin to trust other humans more readily.

My favorite time of day with him is early in the morning, just after he's had his breakfast, when it is still dark and he is feeling as happy and goofy as a much-loved dog can feel, trotting around the yard with his tail and head held high. My second favorite time is in the afternoon when he lies sprawled beside my desk as I write (as he is right now, matter of fact), softly sighing in his sleep. Just his presence here makes my life better.

And now for that brief commercial message: If you have enjoyed reading about Sgt. Thomas Tibbs, you might also enjoy the memoir I wrote entitled The Dogs Who Saved Me. All of the royalties for that book are donated to animal rescue groups who do the hard work of rehabilitating dogs like Thom. There is a link to the Amazon page for that book right here in the column on the left. And thank you!

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Birthday Gift

Back in the late 1970's when I was a young wife and mother with very little money, someone in our church began selling Avon products as a way to supplement her family's income. I sympathized with her plight, and so I found one thing to buy when she made her obligatory pitch over tea one afternoon. The "Dear Friends" cologne decanter (pictured above) with its lovely girl holding a cat reminded me of my then three-year-old daughter and her tenderness with a tiny orange kitten she named "Sweetheart" (because that was what I called her). The scent, "Roses, Roses," seemed like such an extravagance, but it really did smell just like roses, and I really did want to help out the young woman whose young family was struggling like my own.

So I bought the little decanter, and I kept it on my dresser, and every time I dressed for church or to go to dinner with my husband, I dabbed on a few drops of the sweet scented water. It took years to empty the bottle. Once the cologne was gone, I kept the bottle on my dresser because I loved the figurine, and the scent of the roses lingered in it. Now my granddaughter has it. She's sixteen.

A couple of years ago for my birthday, my daughter bought me some rose water, telling me, "This reminds me of you because you always smelled like this when I was growing up." It swept me back across decades in an instant. Until that moment, I'd had no idea she associated that scent with her childhood.  I used the rose water she gave me, though it didn't smell quite as sweet as the original cologne, and of course it was lacking the nostalgia of that lovely Avon bottle.

Then yesterday, for our birthday—because my daughter was born on my nineteenth birthday, still the best birthday I've ever had—she handed me a small gift bag. In it, wrapped ever so carefully, was a very familiar figure. Somehow, she and my granddaughter had found (online, of course) a woman selling the Avon products her mother had collected for years. As I opened the package, tears in my eyes, my granddaughter reminded me that she still had that old "Dear Friends" bottle because, she said, it reminds her of her childhood. My son, sitting beside me, didn't remember the bottle at all, but when he smelled the cologne inside, his eyes widened. "I remember this!" he said. Of course. When scent is connected to memory it can snap us back to places and experiences from long, long ago.

And what a gift it is when someone can give us something so simple yet so powerful! I love this gift because it will remind me, every time I splash it on, of those long ago but much beloved days... and how far we've come as a family. And now, having seen my granddaughter, as beautiful as her mother, gently cradle a kitten in her arms, this simple glass and plastic container takes on an even deeper value.

So here's a birthday toast to nostalgia, to vintage memories and to making new memories as our family grows in ever widening circles of love.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Our New Normal (wherein I anthropomorphize to my heart's content)

Summer is here. As I write this, Sugie is beside me, curled into a fold of the softly worn green blanket that has covered this swing for eight summers now. During the school year, when things get so crazy with early hours, papers to grade, parents to call and impossible time schedules, this is what I daydream about. This is what keeps me putting one foot in front of the other, shuffling one more graded essay to the bottom of the stack, these long blissful moments of swing-sitting with this little chunk of a cat… and writing slowly, leisurely, thinking through my word choices as the ice cubes twirl slowly in my glass of sweet tea.

This is heaven for both of us. For me it’s the writing. For Sug it’s having her mom home so she can spend hours outside on the patio if she so desires (as long as I am out here with her).

This summer, of course, our routine is just a wee bit altered. Sug now shares me with annoying little sister Purrrl and the world’s most quirky dog, Sgt. Thomas Tibbs. So far, things are working out just fine.

In previous summers, when I’ve done my annual pilgrimage to Missouri, Sug has been left with various housesitters. I have always returned to find her somewhat emotionally shut down, always clingy and anxious for many days after my return. (And if you think I’m simply projecting or anthropomorphizing here, take a moment to read this piece in today’s Los Angeles Times by Amy Hubbard.) Even those closest to me have never fully understood that my deep anxiety in leaving her stems not from worry about her physical well-being but about how her psyche will fare while I’m gone. I am the center of her daily routine, her source not only of food but of safety and security. My absence means subjecting her to her own ‘worries,’ primal as they may be. Keep in mind, this is a sentient being I have cared for and loved for eight years. I know the difference in her response when I’ve been gone for an hour compared with an absence of twelve hours. It’s not about the food; she does truly ‘miss’me.

To help Sug feel slightly less alone when I travel—or when I’m gone from the house for a grueling early-morning-to-work-plus-parent-meeting-plus-grocery-shopping day—I brought little Purrrl into our lives last fall. And this year, when I returned from Missouri, Sug had not shut down. Well at least, not to the extent she usually does. Yes, I’m sure there were some moments of anxiety—my housesitter, with whom Sug is acquainted, invited people over a few times, so the house was noisy and there were strangers. But when the girls get anxious, they dive under the bed and huddle up together. They don’t cuddle, but I have no doubt that being near each other during a potentially scary experience helps them both to cope and offers them the comfort of familiarity.

All of that is preamble to say that, where my late summer mornings used to consist of yawning, stretching, and strolling outside to the patio with Sug, there is a bit more to it now. Now when I wake I have to move cautiously around a sleepy gray kitten who hogs the middle of the bed (Sug and I relegated to the left side, always) and who will lash out with cranky claws if her beauty sleep is disturbed. But ten minutes later, I will hear the girls chasing each other through the house. Because apparently cats do not need one or two cups of tea before they can officially begin to wake up; they seem to be able to go from I’m-still-sleeping-Mom! to I-got-you!/I-got-you-back! in about thirty seconds.

And after everyone is fed—except for me, though I am allowed one cup of tea to drink while I dispense fresh water, pick up rawhide chew remnants from the floor, start the sprinklers and put my shoes on—there follows a long, luxurious walk with my boy, Thomas, who is quite the happy dog these days. (Update on the good boy in an upcoming post.) Later in the morning, Sug will let me know it’s time to stop cleaning or folding laundry or goofing off on Facebook, and we will wander outside together to this very spot. This routine is what keeps me sane, and I am grateful to the Universe that the sanity it brings will last me for ten months when school starts again.

Today’s blog post is dedicated to my dear friend and faithful reader Barbara Tinsley, who gave me just the nudge I needed at just the right time.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Why I'm worried about that little horse running in the Belmont tomorrow

Photo courtesy of nbcnews.com

You may have been so wrapped up in the Donald Sterling scandal or the NBA playoffs or the NHL playoffs or all of them combined that you haven't had a moment in recent weeks to read the remainder of the sports page. So let me update you quickly on something important that happened in horse racing. Last month, a little horse from California won the Kentucky Derby. Then he won the Preakness. The horse's name is California Chrome.

These are big races, and the reason this is important is that, in horse racing, if a horse wins the Derby, the Preakness and then Belmont Stakes, it's known as the Triple Crown, and winning the TC turns a horse into a rock star (in the horse world) overnight. Winning the Derby is like finally getting that long awaited invitation to Madison Square Garden to perform, if you're a real rock star. Winning the Triple Crown is like being invited to perform at the Garden plus having an album go platinum plus being asked to perform on the Grammys. So, if you don't follow horse racing, you should now have some idea how important winning the TC is. You should also know that no horse has been able to achieve this feat since 1978.

One reason, of course, is that the Belmont track, at a mile and a half, is longer than Churchill Downs (where the Derby is run) or Pimlico (where the Preakness is run). Another glaring reason is that after the first two races, many horses are simply too broken to win the Belmont.

Now, I don't want to go all PETA here (though the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals do have accurate and substantial information on their website about horse racing), and I certainly don't want to jinx our brave little stallion from California, but I have to confess that it has become difficult to get excited about watching horses try for the TC when we've seen such equine tragedy in recent years.

You may remember hearing of a horse called Barbaro, a truly valiant steed who won the Derby in 2006, then lost the Preakness—because he fractured three bones in his right hind leg, probably at the start of the race (but of course he galloped around the track with the rest of the herd as horses will do). When he pulled up at the finish, he was holding that hind leg high, barely able to stand. Emergency surgery was performed the next day, and for months his owners tried everything to fix him, to no avail. He was eventually euthanized.

Then there was that little filly I fell so in love with named Eight Belles. In 2008, she finished second to the now famous Big Brown (the last horse to win both the Derby and the Preakness) in the Kentucky Derby—and immediately after crossing the finish line, she collapsed. Both front legs had sustained fractures as she ran, and she was so broken they couldn't even remove her from the track. She was euthanized while all those ladies in their pretty Derby hats looked on in horror. I would have needed to immediately down four or five mint juleps had I been present that day. As it was, I was watching the race on television and dissolved in tears when I realized what had happened. She, too, was a valiant steed. But there was a lot of pressure on her jockey to get her across that finish line ahead of Big Brown, and her jockey had whipped her repeatedly down the stretch because she wasn't running at her usual speed—no doubt because her legs were breaking.

Why? Because horses with long, slender pasterns (that space between the fetlock or ankle and the hoof) win races, so in the last twenty years or so of racing, thoroughbred owners have followed bloodlines with that particular trait, breeding horses with thinner and thinner pasterns. It makes the horse more flexible as a runner, but also compromises the horse's leg strength, for obvious reasons.

And then there's the doping that goes on in the business of horse racing at a rate that would make Lance Armstrong look like a novice at bait and switch and concealment. Horses are given pain killers so that, if they are injured or just not feeling well, they'll still run hell bent for leather, as we say in the horsie world. Just as Eight Belles did. (I make no accusation in regard to whether she'd been given pain killers. I simply note that she ran her heart out despite her pain, as did Barbaro.)

Because of Eight Belles, I could not bring myself to watch another Derby, though I had watched the race every year since I was twelve or thirteen. But last month, having done some reading on California Chrome and his owners, I settled myself on the couch, took deep breaths and watched him win the Derby. (I did not see the Preakness as I could not arrange to be at home.)

This amazing little horse might win the Belmont Stakes tomorrow. If he does, he will be immediately retired from racing and made comfortable on a stud farm where he will live out his days trotting around in a large pasture (when he isn't busy getting it on with every pretty filly who can afford his stud fee). The perfect life, I'd say, for a stallion. That is, if his legs hold out. I'll be praying as I watch the race.  

Sunday, May 25, 2014

I know who I am (Part 2)

To say that my father's death when I was eight years old had an impact on my life would be an understatement. It was in that exact moment that the forward momentum in my life began to make a slow, steady turn in a different direction.

I was in the third grade when he died. In the fourth grade, Mrs. Walton told me that I could be a writer, and, as I noted in my previous post, I believed her. In the fifth grade, two things happened. First, my sister won a pony in a contest. She'd been entering the same tell-us-in-fifty-words-or-less-why-you-want-a-pony contest for years, my dad encouraging her to do so, promising her that someday he would get her a horse. After he died, her fifty words were heart wrenching. She won, and our lives became centered around a little dappled Shetland pony mare named Silver.

The second thing that happened that year was that I was I.Q. tested and found to be gifted. In the early 1960's, all fifth graders in California were I.Q. tested so that they could be "appropriately placed" in the academic programs that would best serve them in public school. (Don't get me started on tracking; that is a subject for another day.) I can't tell you what my I.Q. was because my mother wouldn't tell me. I do know that the school psychologist called her to give her this information and to let her know that I would be offered the opportunity to attend a special program for gifted children in the sixth grade. I would be bussed, along with four of my gifted peers, to another school every day to attend a class made up solely of gifted children.

So there I was every day that remained of the fifth grade, hanging out with my mutually smart friends, Cathy Dodd and Melinda Lively and Steve McCutcheon, planning for the next year, speculating on all the fun we would have, reveling in our newfound pride as smart kids, considering what our futures would bring. Cathy was my best friend and lived a block away. Her dad was a professor at UCLA, and way off in the distance I could see us attending college together there.

Oh—something else happened when I was in the fifth grade, or rather right after school ended for the summer. We moved. Mom said it was too expensive to pay the stable rental on Silver, so we moved a few miles away, from Lakewood to Cypress, to a house zoned for horses with a barn and a corral right there in the back yard. Heaven. For my sister, anyway.

The new elementary school had no program for gifted children. So that little part of my identity was no longer important or significant. I made new friends. Horsie friends. Turns out my sister's pony was pregnant, so we soon had another pony, then a horse, then the pony was given to me and I spent my time after school not doing homework but riding, cleaning, brushing, feeding, watering and preparing for the many horseshows I would enter.

I won a lot of trophies. And I'm proud to say that by the time I was sixteen I could train a horse "from the ground up," as they say in the horse world. But by then we were living in a new place because my mother had married my wicked step-father, and I was a clinically depressed, suicidal teen trying to navigate through deep emotional pain.

I didn't get good grades any more. I hadn't done homework since the seventh grade. No teacher ever told me I had the potential to do something with my life.

I did manage to finish high school. And then I got married, at age seventeen, for lack of any better options. And also because, in my senior year, I came home from school one day to find a Volkswagon "bug" in the driveway, the keys to which my mother handed over, telling me, "Let's face it, you're not going to college, so I took the money out of your savings account (which were funds from a death benefit paid out after Dad died) and bought you a car. You can stop borrowing mine now."

I still had a goal: I would train horses and write. I did begin writing. One of my first published pieces appeared in a horse magazine. But I became pregnant at eighteen, had my daughter on my nineteenth birthday, and in the years that followed, we adopted several children and eventually came to the realization that we could either feed our kids or feed our horses, so the horses had to go (all except my beloved pony, Silver, who lived to be twenty-three and was the first horse my daughter ever rode).

This story has a happy ending, it really does. When my marriage ended in divorce, I finally went to college. The snooty lady in the admissions office at UC Riverside looked at my high school transcript and explained that "for some people" community college is the best option, and so I went to Chaffey for two years, earned straight A's, applied to UCR again, was admitted with a full scholarship and graduated cum laude two years later (this, while raising four children as a single parent). In my senior year, one of my English papers was accepted into Ideas of Order, the prestigious "journal of letters" for UCR's English department.

Before I'd ever begun college, though, I'd been freelance writing for a decade, and I'd had a book published by a national publishing house, so really, writing was my first career. I began teaching after college so that I'd be able to support my kids, since I never received a dime in child support from my husband. Oh, and while I taught high school full time and continued to raise my own rowdy teens, I entered a graduate program, earning a master's degree in literature.

Yeah, I rock. (Little pat on the back there.)

Of course, I still had a colleague approach me one day as I stood in a processional line with nineteen other teachers, proudly wearing my cap and gown in UCR blue and gold colors, about to walk out onto the football field with our graduating students. She said, "Kay, you're wearing the wrong colors."
"No...." was my confused response.
"Yes, you are. Those aren't Cal State colors." (Only other academics, I think, will appreciate the bias in the distinction here. At least I hope so.)
"I'm a UC grad," I told her.
"What? No you're not!"

Really? Upon what did she base her judgment? That same old far-too-pensive expression? My tendency, still, to wear boots and cowboy shirts and drop "ain't" into a conversation just to shock my fellow academics? Here was Miss Madden all over again.

I have continued to encounter other Miss Maddens in my life, a few in particular in very recent days because I chose to teach Honors level classes this year, after twenty-four years of saying "Give me the sweathogs!" because those were the kids I could relate to. Some... people with whom I teach feel I am not qualified to teach in the Honors program. Things have been said, intimations have been made.

But I'm no longer the quiet little girl who sadly returned her green dot book to the shelf. So beware, Miss Maddens of the world. Stop trying to bring down my success at the end of the rainbow with your self-righteous superiority. That ain't gonna fly anymore. Because I know who I am. See?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

I Know Who I Am (Part I)

Recently I mentioned something on Facebook that celebrated my role as high school English teacher. Eighty of my friends and acquaintances 'liked' it. A few days later, I posted a reminder about an event I would be attending in my role as writer.  Eleven people liked it. A day or so later, I posted an update on the success of that event. Seventeen people liked it.

I want to say I've gotten used to this, the discrepancy between how I see myself (writer) and how others see me (teacher), but the truth is, it takes me up short every time. I've been thinking about it a lot (or, more precisely, while mowing and edging the front lawn today, then weeding until it was too hot to continue). So I hope, dear reader, you will indulge me as I ruminate publicly about it in the next few blog posts. And I hope you will forgive me if, as I knead down to the deep tissue of this subject, a tiny bit of discomfort is experienced. I am not trying to call anyone out. I'm just trying to, well, be true to the above posted motto regarding "being simply true."

Because I do understand the dynamic of it. Since teaching is my career choice (oh, if you only knew how I came to choose it!), my identity, to most folks, is that of teacher. In fact, most of the teachers and educational staff I work with now have no idea that, in a past life, I was an established professional writer—before I became a teacher. My first book—published by a national publishing company and a bestseller for that company, netting me thousands of dollars in royalties—was written (dare I say it?) before I'd even attended college.

Since most folks (not all) see me as a teacher, this writing gig creates a tiny bit of cognitive dissonance because it doesn't ring true with how they perceive me. The Kay Murphy they know is the far-too-casual, far-too-sarcastic, somewhat cynical, always-resistant-to-change teacher who never contributes to any conversation in English department meetings. For some of them, this idea that I have published a few books is somewhat of a sideline hobby, a sweet notion I had about my dogs or my beloved great-grandmum that I decided to 'get published.' Of course, this is hardly the true picture. But how do I disabuse them of this mythology? After all, I've been misread, misidentified and misinterpreted all my life, and when I reflect upon it, I'm downright amazed at some of the things people have said to me.

The first in this long, tragic series of you-don't-belong-here episodes occurred with our elementary school librarian, Miss Madden. (I could be remembering her name wrong; after all, it's been fifty years or so. But I'm pretty sure it's Miss Madden.) In those blissful, post-WWII days after Johnny had marched home from the war and before anyone began to pay attention to the Civil Rights Movement or the USA's involvement with the politics of a small country called Vietnam, grown-ups were putting a renewed emphasis on the education of their children. Several innovative approaches to education had arisen, and teachers were beginning to implement such tools as standardized testing, I.Q. testing and tracking.

So there I was one day in the library of Grover Cleveland Elementary School along with all my peers in Mrs. Walton's fourth grade class. We went to the library regularly as a class so that we each had the opportunity to check out whatever books we wanted to read on our own. Well, that was the basic idea, anyway. And that suited me just fine. Libraries were magic castles packed with treasure, as far as I was concerned. I loved to lose myself in reading a good story. But in those days, we didn't have a Barnes & Noble at the local shopping center. Mom and Dad had a big bookcase in their bedroom which contained: A set of Encyclopedia Britannica (good job, Mom & Dad!), some Reader's Digest "condensed" books, and my father's law books. (No, he wasn't an attorney. He was a cop, then a night watchman, and he hacked his way through law school working the graveyard shift so he could attend law classes during the day. Then he contracted a terminal illness and died.) We never had money to buy books. The fact that libraries let you borrow them for free still thrills me.

Back in those days, one of those new-fangled teaching methods involved identifying the ability level of students and teaching to that level. To guide and direct us in our reading, our helpful librarian had labeled all the books in our requisite section with colored dots. (For some of you, this will begin to sound familiar. In fact, a color-coded system is still used in today's Accelerated Reader program.) Red dots indicated an easy-to-read book. Blue dots meant the reading level would be a bit higher. More difficult reads with advanced vocabulary were designated with a green dot.

By the fourth grade, I was proud of my ability to read and spell, and as I said, I loved getting lost in a book, so I looked for those that were longer, and I had no trouble reading them; I'd been dipping into our Reader's Digest Condensed Books at home for lack of anything better to read.

On the day in question, I advanced to the check-out counter, green dot book in hand. I wish to heavens I could remember what it was I had. No chance of that now. I never did get to read it. The librarian made me return it to the shelf with the terse, "That's a green dot book. It's above your level. Pick something else."

Wait. What? Did a librarian tell me I wasn't capable of reading green dot books? Why? The only interactions I ever had with Miss Madden in the past had involved bringing a book to the counter and presenting the check-out card. Why did she think I couldn't read this one? Upon what did she base her judgment? My slack-jawed, already-far-too-pensive expression? My clothing? My perpetually snotty nose? My scuffed up saddle shoes? What?

I never learned. Burning with humiliation (especially as I passed some of my peers who were heading for the check-out counter, their own green dot selections in hand) I returned my treasure and chose a blue dot book of lesser value, though I never believed Miss Madden's mystical assessment of my reading level.

Later that same year, Mrs. Walton would tell me, after reading a short story I wrote, "You could be a writer," and I would believe her, choosing, at age nine, my future career.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Regarding Donald Sterling

I am relieved and encouraged that NBA commissioner AdamSilver handed Donald Sterling a lifetime ban from the league. How that ban plays out and whether Sterling will be forced to sell the Clippers and whether the NBA will ever see any of the quarter of a million dollars Sterling has been fined are all issues for another time, another discussion.

For now, I just want to comment on racism in America.

I hate to say it, but Mr. Sterling has done me a solid. For decades, I have had to listen to white people tell me, "Thank God we're past all that." For decades I have responded, "Racism hasn't stopped; it's just gone underground." Sterling's despicable remarks to his mistress have validated the point I have tried to make to my well-intentioned but very naive white friends. Putting on the mask of acceptance and tolerance is not the same thing—definitely NOT the same thing—as embracing diversity.

As the white mother of children who identify themselves as black, I could tell you stories of racism and discrimination that would make you feel the burn of shame, from the Bank of America employee who lied to my son to keep him from opening a checking account to the smog inspector who asked him if he stole his car to his boss (at his high paying white collar job in Los Angeles) who suggested he 'stick to dating within his race' to the countless cops who pulled him over for DWB. These aren't incidents that occurred in the 1950s or the 1960s. These experiences have all happened in the last twenty years. Racist remarks by his boss are on-going and as recent as last week.

Of course, I have my own stories. White people who are close to my age feel safe making bigoted comments for two reasons. Either they assume I am going to be in agreement with them, or (and this is the more insidious of the two) they assume that if I disagree, I will keep quiet about it.

Because this is what we do. We hear someone say something and we may cringe, but in keeping with this facade that has us all 'going along to get along,' we don't confront the person. We don't make a scene, we don't accuse. We may keep our heads high and walk away but we fail to point the finger and call a racist a racist. We stop short of embarrassing people. We stop short of shaming them. And what a shame that is.

Thank you, Adam Silver, for not sweeping this under the rug, for not using evasive language about this being a personnel matter or one the league would deal with privately. Thank you for pointing the finger at the exposed racist and saying with such great determination and fortitude, 'You, sir, are a racist.' Perhaps we can all learn a lesson from your example.