On Grief

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.

In Memory of Pookie

Pookie, hiding among stuffed toys last December

Pookie died last night.

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.

We’ll miss her forever.

The Best Bird

Pookie, the best bird

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.

On not being racist

Photo by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash

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 [1] of behaviors that might include:

  • Racists use the “n-word.”
  • Racists overtly refuse to hire black people [2].
  • Racists fly the Confederate flag [3].
  • 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.”
  • Here’s a reading list. Dive in.
  • 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.

Footnotes

[1] 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.

[2] Overtly. There’s a lot of subtle, subconscious refusal to hire black people. Guess what? That’s racist!

[3] 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!

Sylvie’s Desk

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Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

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.

Why Sammy Can’t Blog

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.

What was I thinking?

I rarely look at my old journals. So rarely, in fact, that I sometimes wonder why I bother keeping them. Today, I was moving a volume from 1998 and dropped it. It opened to a page with a post card clipped to it.

The postcard was from me, to me, exhorting me to remember something that happened on a trip I was on. For reasons lost to me now, I was cryptic about the thing I wanted to remember. It’s lost to me now.

I read the entry it was clipped to, hoping that something in it would job my memory. The key was not there, but I found something else: the opening paragraph to a whimsical story. I remembered writing it. I remembered what inspired it. I remembered where I intended to go with it. I have no idea why I abandoned it. The next few entires don’t even mention it. Pity. It was pretty good.

Teaching agility online

I taught an online version of my company’s “Agile Essentials” class for one of our clients. Before the COVID-19 crisis hit, I had always delivered the class as an in-person event. Social distancing and quarantine forced us to re-evaluate our delivery.

I was determined to do more than force people to sit through an all-day Zoom session in which I merely presented a slide deck. I re-evaluated the flow of the class and determined how to teach the same concepts in a different way. Instead of slides, I build a virtual whiteboard using Mural. Some of the exercises we use in the physical class couldn’t be replicated, so I invented new ones that demonstrated the same principles.

It paid off. The participants demonstrated what they learned throughout the class and provided very positive feedback throughout the course. That’s not to say there wasn’t room for improvement. They let me know some things I could do better next time. But I felt good about what I delivered and certain that they gained knowledge that they can and will use to improve their processes and practices when they return to work tomorrow.

When I teach in person, I often come away from the experience both tired and wired. I’m happy to say that today, I have the same feeling. I honestly don’t know how I’m going to get to sleep tonight.

COVID Capers

Carolyn and I needed groceries and a few things to effect some necessary household repairs, so donned our masks and out we went. Groceries would include frozen items, so we stopped at Lowe’s first.

It was a nightmare. They had marked most of their doors “Exit Only,” with a single point of ingress—but people still wandered in an out of any door they pleased. There was no attempt to limit the number of people in the store. Perhaps ten to fifteen percent of the people were masked. I saw only one employee with a mask. No customers observed any kind of social distancing. We got what we needed and got out, hoping we don’t need to go back soon.

The grocery store was better, but not by much. All of the staff were wearing masks—although one cashier had hers pulled down so that her nose was not covered. But still, many customers were bare-faced. Naturally, people too inconsiderate to wear a mask also thought nothing of crowding you in tight aisles. And this was a health food store, where I expect shoppers would be more healthy-conscious than the general public.

We’re not going to stamp this thing out with half-assed measures half-heartedly observed and enforced.