Three years ago, Vista Equity Partners CEO Robert F. Smith paid off the student loan debt of the entire Morehouse College graduating class. It was a good thing for him to do. But it was appalling that it was even necessary. Even more appalling is that the problem of student loan debt remains nation-wide. Student ought not have to accumulate a lifetime’s worth of debt for a four-year degree.
Over twenty years ago, I accumulated more debt than was healthy so I could finish college and then a graduate degree. Largely, I did so because I didn’t understand debt and how it would affect me. My debt for two degrees was smaller than what many students have accrued today for a single degree. And still, it prevented me from doing a lot of things I wanted. It forced me to make choices that I didn’t necessarily want in service to that debt.
I have since paid off my debt. I was fortunate to parlay otherwise impractical degrees into a career in technology that paid far above what I would have earned elsewhere. And while I enjoy what I do for a living, I’m definitely in this field because of the money, not for its own sake. I’d rather have been able to focus on writing fiction. I’d rather have spent time on woodworking. I’d rather have played guitar. Those things all had to take a back seat to servicing student loan debt.
I’d rather no one else have to make those sacrifices.
Massive student loan debt is a drag on our economy. It damages creativity, innovation, and progress. It is a symptom of the disease that afflicts this country: that people exist only so that profit can be squeezed out of them for the benefit of those who already have grotesque amounts of wealth.
It wasn’t long after Carolyn and I moved into our house before a little calico cat made her presence known. She showed up in the yard, demanding affection from Carolyn. She got it–and a can of tuna. Pretty soon, she was a regular in our yard. Later, we learned that she’d been a neighborhood fixture for a couple of years, part of a feral colony at the other end of our alley.
I named her “Porch Kitty” because she could often be found on our back porch. Also, I thought that if I didn’t give her a real name, I wouldn’t grow attached to her. I was wrong.
“Porch Kitty” quickly became “Princess Kitty” and “Precious Kitty” and “Perfect Kitty,” but mostly we called her “PK.” She was sweet, and friendly, and an expert at breaking and entering. She exploited damage to the crawl space vent screens to get into the basement and took up residence there. Once, she appeared on the second floor, having climbed the inside of the wall, and exited through a hole in our HVAC ductwork.
Soon, she was coming inside to eat, and then we made her a permanent resident of the house. We screened the back porch so she could still go outside, and that’s where she hung out most of the time. But for a while each evening, we’d tuck the two birds away so that she (and Chubby Huggs, who we still miss) could come inside and spend time with us. She’d alternate between sitting next to me and on Carolyn’s lap.
She feared nothing, except for a weasel ball we got her one Christmas. She hunkered down against the wall, tail wrapped tight against her body, and did her best not to let it touch her. But she was death to Christmas trees, was happy to scale any height, and just last year, killed a rat that had invaded the screen porch.
We moved here in 2002, and she was already at least two by then according to the neighbors at the time. So she was at least twenty-two when she died earlier this week. She had a good, long life and we were with her at the very end.
Rest in peace, PK. I’ll always miss your fuzzy little face.
Last spring, Carolyn and I started running together every morning. Now that fall is well under way, it has been pretty dark when we get started. We run through neighborhood streets with infrequent traffic, and we keep an eye and an ear out for approaching vehicles.
This morning, during the warm-up walk part of our practice, a car slowed and stopped a few feet ahead of us. A young, black woman got out of the driver’s side. I expected her to ask if we’d seen a lost dog. It wouldn’t have been the first time someone stopped us looking for an escaped pet.
Instead, she said, “Excuse me. I drive past y’all every day, and I want you to have these.” She held out what I thought at first were two sparkly t-shirts.
“What are they for?” I asked. Given that it’s political season, I wondered if they were for a local political campaign. It would be an unorthodox way to drum up support, but whatever. I was wrong again.
“They’re to keep you safe,” she said, and handed us each an orange mesh vest with bright, reflective yellow stripes.
She doesn’t know us. Doesn’t know our names, our circumstances in life, nothing but that we are out before dark every day and that we might be in danger. So she did something about it.
Chubby Huggs came into our life in 2006 as a full-grown adult. A stray who nevertheless weighed in at nineteen pounds, he loved two things: (1) food and (2) everyone.
He was everybody’s friend. Pest control technicians, electricians, plumbers, painters, anyone who came to the house got mugged for attention. We often joked that if burglars broke in while we were gone, they would still be there when we got back because it was impossible not to pet the little guy, and he could never get–or give–enough love. Even people who didn’t like cats thought Chubby Huggs was something special.
He eventually slimmed down due to the combination of a healthy diet and his personal trainer–our other cat, PK, who was none too fond of the interloper. She chased his furry little butt around every chance she got. They had a love-hate relationship for years but eventually he won even her over.
When Carolyn had to travel on business, he would sit in her place on the sofa as if waiting for her. When she was home, her lap was his favorite place to be.
He hated one thing: small objects on the coffee table. Pens, coins, keys–he felt that the proper place for these things was on the floor. He allowed vases of flowers (because he could eat them) and glasses of water (which he believed were obviously there for him). Anything else was fair game to be swatted until it dropped.
Chubby Huggs died this morning. He had bladder cancer and last night it became clear that he didn’t have any fight left in him. Carolyn slept out in the living room to be with him. I couldn’t bear it and went to bed. She woke me at 4:30 to tell me he was gone. I feel so guilty for not being there.
You wake up in the morning and you have a minute, maybe two, of ignorance. Then the memory comes. Data only at first, devoid of sentiment. You examine that data, emotionless. Clinical. It is a thing that happened. You remember feeling sorrow, but you do not feel sorrow. It is not part of you. You tell yourself that you’ll be okay. That there are no more tears to shed.
Then it hits you, grief boiling out of you like vomit, bursting forth through clenched teeth. It shakes you. Strength leaves your legs. Your lungs turn to stone. You feel as though someone has seized you by the hair and plunged your head into water. It holds you as you struggle to breathe.
It passes. For a moment, then for a few, then for a few minutes. You breathe into the bottom of your lungs. A moment of clarity. You remind yourself that it cannot, will not last forever. And you think, I’m okay. I’ll be okay. Maybe not today, but–
It hits you again.
As if to punish you for thinking you could survive. You feel as if someone has plunged your head under water, then let you up long enough only to gasp for a single breath before pushing you back under. Over and over.
Last month, her health began to decline. The vet gave us some medications that we hoped would ease the strain on her liver and kidneys. Although Pookie responded at first, it was clear that the medications weren’t working as well as we’d hoped they would. All day yesterday, she struggled to hold onto life but a little after eleven PM, her body shut down and she died.
Pookie liked to hide in a basket of stuffed toys on the bottom shelf of an armoire in our living room. She liked to ride Carolyn’s shoulder wherever she went in the house. She liked to mooch food–many of the pictures I have of her are of her sharing my lunch, eating from my hand. Words cannot describe how funny, brave, and loyal she was.
The house is far too quiet now. Even when she wasn’t vocalizing, she was around, doing things, making noise. Snacking, chewing on something, exploring. Fluffing her feathers, fluttering her wings. Sometimes she would wander around the floor, her tiny little talons tick-tick-ticking against the hardwood. The absence of those sounds is unbearable.
Pookie is a 28-year-old sun conure. She has been my wife’s constant companion for all of those years.
I met Pookie after Carolyn and I began dating in 2001. Pookie was nine years old then, and fiercely protective of Carolyn. Every time I put my arm around Carolyn, the little tyrant ran across the sofa in attack posture, her beak open and wings spread. Pookie remained suspicious of me the whole time Carolyn and I were dating, throughout our engagement, and for the first three months after we married.
One Saturday morning, Carolyn went out with a friend. While she was gone, I started playing my guitar and singing. I was a verse or so into “Lover’s Cross” by Jim Croce when I heard the flutter of her wings and she landed on my shoulder.
I thought she was going to attack me. I braced for a nip on the ear. It didn’t come. Instead, she rubbed her face against my cheek and made little, happy noises. I kept singing. She kept snuggling. By the time Carolyn got home, Pookie and I were best friends.
After that, Pookie had to be wherever I was. If I slept in, she would yell out her “assemble the flock” scream until I got up. One day she tried to stow away in my jacket when I was going to work. She ignored Carolyn if I was around.
Pookie’s crush on me ended after about six months and Carolyn reclaimed her position as first in Pookie’s affections. But I have been part of the flock ever since. She’s been the best bird to both of us.
Last week, Pookie started having seizures. We struggled to get her to take the anti-seizure medication that was prescribed for her. It smells awful and apparently tastes worse. But she seemed to be doing better until yesterday. Carolyn took her back to the vet and they took a blood sample. The vet called back with the results late in the afternoon.
Pookie’s liver and kidneys are starting to fail. She’s 28, which is very near the upper range of a sun conure’s lifespan. The vet told us that there are some other medications we can try. (Apparently these are formulated to taste better.) But she’s living on borrowed time. I’ll pick up the medications in the morning. We’ll take all of the time we can have with her.
I’ve been thinking about how many white people are often defensive about racism. When a behavior is called out, they protest that they aren’t racist. They’ll say it’s unfair to say that they are. They say they aren’t racist because they know what a racist is. A racist is someone who does racist things. “Racist things” is an amorphous collection  of behaviors that might include:
Racists use the “n-word.”
Racists overtly refuse to hire black people .
Racists fly the Confederate flag .
Racists join the Ku Klux Klan.
The syllogism of whiteness is: Racists are horrible people. I am not a horrible person. Therefore I’m not a racist. When white people are called on racist behavior, the syllogism comes into play, and they react with injured dignity. You’re saying I’m a horrible person.
There is another way to think about racism. Rather than any collection of behaviors, racism is an entrenched, systemic mindset that pervades our thoughts and behaviors in so subtle a fashion that we don’t even recognize it. It is everywhere and it is insidious. It is inside all of us.
If that statement triggers a defensive response, let me ask you to pause and reflect. Because that reflexive, defensive response of, “But I’m not racist” is a result of the syllogism of whiteness I talked about above. Another term for it is “white fragility,” and you can read about it in Robin Diangelo’s book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.
It’s not enough to be “not-a-racist.” You have to be actively anti-racist. Because if you don’t, if you are content to continue benefiting from the systemic issues, then you can call yourself “not-a-racist” all you want, but your complacency signals consent to racism. I don’t see how that’s a hell of a lot better.
It’s not enough to declare yourself free of racism, quote a certain phrase by Revered Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior, and tell people, “I don’t see color.” You have to take a stand. Every day. You have to be willing to be wounded–both by things you’ll realize about yourself and by other white people. You have to learn to center the grievances stemming from four centuries of oppression over your own.
Recognize that you’re going to screw up. You’re going to offend someone. Racism is so ingrained in our culture that a lot of times, we don’t even realize that what we’re saying is racist. So when you’re called on it, set aside your wounded pride. Apologize. Promise to do better. Then follow up on it.
Don’t expect black people to educate you. Black people don’t owe you the education you can give yourself. Google is your friend. So is Wikipedia, believe it or not. Google “redlining.” Google “history of racism.” Google “Civil Right Movement.”
Banish these phrases from your vocabulary: “reverse racism,” “reverse-discrimination,” “all lives matter.” Better yet, do the work to find out why those phrases are offensive.
I’ve mentioned it already, and it’s on the reading list above, but I’ll say again: Read White Fragility. Even if you think it doesn’t apply to you. Especially if you think it doesn’t apply to you.
Read, “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It will make you angry. It might make you defensive. (It did for me, the first time I read it.) That’s OK. Set it aside, let it percolate in your mind. Then read it again.
Know this: ironic racism is still racism. Alluding to racism in a joking way, to show that you “get it” is actually painful to people who are actually suffering the effects of that racism.
Stop quoting MLK until you’ve read more than that one speech. You know the one—the one that has the phrase everyone can quote. Especially read, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Play careful attention to his criticism of white moderates.
Learn about other civil rights leaders, past and present. The Civil Rights Movement did not spring fully formed from King’s mind like Athena from the brow of Zeus. It was built on decades of organizing, sacrifice, and struggle. Honor the memory of those who fought and were killed. Follow those who still lead today.
Listen to black speakers. Read black writers. Follow black people on Twitter. Don’t argue with them. Just listen, read, and think about what they have to say. And when you don’t understand or disagree with something? Go do research. Educate yourself.
Finally, don’t think that I’m saying I’m better than anyone else. Like all of us, I have feet of clay. I stumble. I screw up. I do my best, and I keep trying to make my best even better. We can all do that, and build a better society where racism has no place.
 The collection is amorphous because it needs to conveniently omit any behavior that an individual doesn’t want to be challenged on—see below for two examples.
 Overtly. There’s a lot of subtle, subconscious refusal to hire black people. Guess what? That’s racist!
 Confederate flag-wavers will tell you that they aren’t racist. They’re celebrating “heritage.” They don’t acknowledge that the heritage they’re celebrating is one of treason in defense of slavery. Guess what? That’s racist!
I found this vignette in one of my notebooks. I have no memory of writing it and I certainly have no idea where I was going with it, but it’s cute, so I thought I’d share it.
Sylvie’s desk was in the back of the classroom. Wood top, plastic seat, metal legs. The desktop bore the scars of many years of service. Scratches, gouges, and names carved into it surface. When Sylvie spilled water on it one day, a lot of it soaked right in before she could get a wad of paper towels to clean it up.
The next day when she came in, a branch had sprouted from the spot where she’d spilled the water. It stuck up and blocked her vision of her teacher. She wanted to move but the class was full and there was no place to sit but on the floor. Instead, she bent the branch down out of her way so she could see. Every time the leaves rustled, the teacher scowled at her.
The day after that, Sylvie came prepared. She had stolen a pair of her mother’s pruning shears so she could cut the branch off. But the branch had grown into a shrub. She tried to trim away enough twigs and leaves to look through. With every soft snip of her shears, her classmates gave her dirty looks. And it was no use. New branches grew in as fast as she could clip them. And every twig that fell to the floor sprouted its own growth. By the end of the day, a forest surrounded Sylvie that was so thick that she wasn’t even sure she was still in school.
I have been remiss in blogging for several weeks, in spite of my best intentions. I had a good run for seventeen days. I accidentally broke the streak when I wrote a post but forgot to publish it before bed. That set the stage for skipping a day, then two, and then two weeks went by in the beat of a hummingbird’s wings.
In spite of what this lapse suggests, blogging is important to me. That’s why I keep coming back to it.
I write at least one entry in my journal every morning. That exercise limbers up my mind. Often, those entries are not good writing, but the discipline of doing it prepares me for other forms of writing. Sometimes an entry helps me work through a scene I’m struggling with in my fiction. Sometimes I write about work problems and find a solution that way, or at least come to understand the problem better so that I can solve it later. Rarely, I can revise an entry for a blog post. (That’s how “Letters” began.) That’s never the intention, though. When I sit down at my keyboard with a cup of coffee at hand each morning, I am writing for an audience of one, and that one is myself.
I like the idea of blogging because I crave a different type of discipline. In the journal, I allow my thoughts to wander wherever they will. With blogging, I want to channel my thought into a specific topic and construct a coherent narrative or argument. Publishing that effort forces me to be accountable to an external audience.
Why do I struggle to do it, if it’s so important and I want to do it?
Fatigue plays a large role. I haven’t been sleeping well for the past few weeks, which means I start each day with limited energy reserves. I reserve mornings for writing fiction. I spend my workdays engaged in cognitive labor. By the time evening rolls around, I don’t have a lot of mental energy left to spend.
I don’t know how to solve my sleep problem. If I did, I would have solved it already. But I’ll keep experimenting until I find the solution. Until then, I’ll blog as often as I can muster the energy.