Sunday, December 27, 2009

Black Jack and Ujima

Somehow we moved from Franz Fanon and Edward Said and self-determination last night to Blackjack.

I'm still trying to figure out how that happened, but I think my mistake was in retelling Tracy Kidder's story of Deogratias the Burundian medical student.

As soon as I said Deogratias, "Deo" for short, my two offspring sang in unison "Day-O" and then ran to the laptop to pull up Harry Belafonte on Rhapsody. They suggested that we honor self-determination through African and African-American music, which seemed like a good idea at the time.

So we ran through Muddy Waters, Louis Armstrong, Michael Jackson, Ella Fitzgerald (we listened to a Christmas gift - the recent release "Twelve Nights in Hollywood" really is a gem). And that was as good as it got - Most Favorite Son put on Screamin' Jay Hawkins "singing" Old Man River, which was decidedly not my idea of self-determination, though it led to a spirited discussion of what constitutes self-determination and self-expression. I asked for Paul Robeson to cleanse my ears, but lost that battle.

We moved into 70s soul tunes, which promptly scattered the younger generation. So I lured them back with the promise of playing a game. Pictionary was nixed by one (too artsy), and Yahtzee by the other (too juvenile).

Most Favorite Son suggested Black Jack - Army rules with "soft 21". Sleeping Beauty had to be coaxed to come to the table and learn to play a new game. Once she learned the rules, she cleaned us all out.

We figure she's now learned a great skill for college.

And so it goes: Kwanzaa in Barelas.

We got a jump start on tomorrow's Kwanzaa principle of Ujima - collective work and responsibility. We collectively took part in making dinner, cleaning up, getting post-dinner refreshments and putting together entertainment - from music to games. I'll be putting on my thinking cap early in the morning for a Duke City Fix post on Ujima.

Suitcases and Kujichagulia

I spend so much time living out of suitcases that in both my homes I store them within easy reach and within eyesight. Today's chore is to put the suitcase out of sight for the rest of my winter break - just so I can fool myself into thinking that I live in one place year round. (I would have done this earlier, but unwrapped Christmas presents needed to be hidden where the suitcase goes).

Today's Kwanzaa principle is kujichagulia. Years ago it took me a few tries before that word rattled off my tongue - Swahili is influenced by Arabic, but they are not that similar. Kujichagulia means self-determination. Each time I see that phrase I think about Israeli scholar Dov Ronen, who penned a book by the same title and introduced me to the idea of national self-determination in an Arab-Israeli politics class I took when I was twenty, the same age my son is now.


If I'm not paying attention, I mix this up with Emerson's essay on self-reliance. I suppose there is some connection; I think that it would be difficult to assert self-determination without at least some measure of self-reliance. Self-determination encompasses more - from nations to individuals - each choosing how to define oneself, sometimes in contrast to others' definitions, and sometimes in accordance with one's own.

My little Kwanzaa book suggests teaching kujichagulia by remembering the history of slavery and telling those gathered around to keep the dream alive. Important topics, to be sure, but I'm not giving my children a history lesson they already know or reciting slogans tonight.

Instead, I'll dip into my Kindle and share with them a few passages from Tracy Kidder's Strength in What Remains, the story of Deogratias, a young medical student in Burundi who escaped genocide and put his life together again in New York setting his sights towards medical school (and earning bachelors degrees in Chemistry and Philosophy from Columbia University in the process) while also working to establish a health clinic in his parents' home in Burundi.

This story will undoubtedly lead the kids to bring up the movie Hotel Rwanda and genocide, and then I'll slip in some Fanon and Said on colonialism, decolonization, and national self-determination.

We'll wrap it up with some conversation about what it means to determine your "self" and I'll throw in some ideas about physical self and mental self and self-conception and how others see you if the conversation stalls. (Not that it ever does in this Barelas casita - life is just one long conversation punctuated by appropriate silence).

Yeah. Just doing my part to raise educated citizens here in New Mexico.

The road to self-determination starts with education. Kujichagulia.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Umoja and the Proselytizers

Today is the first day of Kwanzaa, and I am doing what I do every year: wondering where in Albuquerque I might buy a black candle for the center of the kinara.

Red and green candles are plentiful this time of year; I have finally figured out that the best time to buy muhindi (ears of corn) is just before Thanksgiving - one ear for each child in the family is tradition. The mkeka (straw mat), kikombe cha umoja (unity cup for libations), and mazao (fruits of the harvest) are all ready to be placed in their spot of honor. But first I need a black candle!

So I'm kicking myself for not buying any of the Kwanzaa candle sets I saw in DC earlier this month, and wracking my brain for a possible solution. It'll come.

Meanwhile, the Kwanzaa principle today is Umoja, or unity in family, community, nation and race. (I interpret that last one as the "human race" though I suspect Ron Maulana Karenga had something different in mind). Communities are where the cultural lines emerge for me, not race, which everyone knows is a social construct anyway.

My first Umoja challenge of the day was an elderly couple who appeared on my doorstep. They were too conventionally dressed to be artists/writers/community activists and too old for me to place them as my kids' friends. The woman wore a hairstyle that was Pat Nixon-esqe, and the man wore a dapper tweed porkpie hat. I guessed that they were peddling something - religion, most likely.

So I girded my loins for compassion (not battle), and opened the door. They smiled kindly and asked me about my family - one person in particular. I thanked them for their kindness, and looked at them inquiringly, upon which they told me they were Jehovah's Witnesses and that they had been invited to return and converse more with said family member. I forced my smile (after all we are all humans just trying to find our way through life) and mentioned that I was the only one here and I was not interested in their message for me, thank-you-very-much.

So they left, introducing themselves as they made their way down the steps and handing me copies of the December 2009 issues of The WatchTower and Awake!

I felt as though my morning of music and solitude and good coffee and the written word (Sylvia Plath and Uwem Akpan) had been marred by this imposition and intrusion on my time. Had it been a neighbor in need or a visit from someone stopping by, my response would have been much different. I would have thrown the door open and offered my time and energy.

These folks elicited another response from me entirely - I did not want their message or their presence in my day.

And in my recognition of this, I realized that I was stepping away from that principle of Umoja -unity of humanity. So I stopped, recognized that these people were doing what they believed would be helpful, and that they probably had no idea that their presence on my front porch was unwelcome, annoying, and bordering on harassment.

I've grown tired of proselytizers knocking on my door and banging on my windows and approaching me as I garden.

It would be one thing if we could actually talk about religion and faith - I'd love to have a proselytizer offer some up Bonhoffer or Niebuhr or an analysis of the filoque controversy of the Nicene Creed. Given that I work in a Philosophy and Religion department, these discussions are not hard to come by, but I'm always eager to learn more.

The folks who come to my door are more interested in converting me to a flatfooted faith that involves no questions without answers. Unfortunately for them, uncritical acceptance is missing from my deoxyribonucleic acid. This thwarts their mission.

Once I got past my annoyance, my next thought was how can I recover that sense of Umoja - how could I take what these proselytizers had given me and create some unity from it?

Art is a great unifier - perhaps I could create something transcendent from this moment.

And so I pick up the pamphlets they have given me, looking past the poorly argued article on Paley's argument from design and begin cutting out words, phrases, and images that will become a collage.

What better way to reflect on unity than to tear out bits and pieces of what makes us human and to reassemble art?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve 2009

I've just put a pot of posole on the stove and it is beginning to smell like Christmas. In another hour or so we will have tamales from El Modelo, and the gingerbread cookies will be in the oven. I've got a few more gifts to wrap, and I've come up with a few errands to get different people out of the house for a short while so that I can wrap their gifts.

Yesterday it snowed briefly. The dogs were hanging out inside, Apricot the cat was doing her usual to taunt Haru, who we put on a leash in the house because her adolescent puppiness and the Christmas tree are not meshing well. After the rest of the family headed out to run a last minute Christmas errand, I sat down at the dining room table to sign Christmas/Kwanzaa/New Year's cards when I heard "crunch, crunch, crunch".

Miss Haru had figured out that if she stretched out her paw really long she could barely reach the Christmas tree skirt. And if she pulled snagged her nail on the skirt, she could pull it towards her, moving the skirt AND the presents her direction! Oh doggie delight! And ONE of those presents smelled AWFULLY good. And hence the crunch. But I was quick on my feet and took the present away and chastised her for her wily ways. (We really think she's got coyote blood in her). She gave me one of those looks that was part "Who me?" and part "I'm so sorry I've disappointed you".

No harm done to the present (it will need to be rewrapped) or Haru.

So the Christmas tree has a skirt and no gifts under it. This year, Santa has been asked to deliver gifts in a place where no adolescent canine can get her teeth on them. And doggie treats are not to be wrapped or placed under the tree this year - it is just too much temptation for a teenager.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Tea and Tacos

Now that grades are turned in and grade grubbing has slowed to a trickle, I've been looking at my days before Christmas with anticipation. Which friend will I connect with today? Where will I walk the dogs? What cookies shall I bake this afternoon?

Yesterday I headed to the South Valley to see one of my oldest friends in Albuquerque. We met at the South Broadway Library when my children were very young - my daughter was strapped to my body in a sling, and my son had just moved from picture books to chapter books. We stumbled on the library end of the South Broadway complex one day after seeing a matinee at the theater, and I was thrilled to see so many books featuring children of color and rainbow families just like ours.

I stopped at the children's librarian's desk to comment on this, and started a conversation that has lasted 15 years.

My friend became one of our daughter's godmothers, and we have made efforts in our busy lives to stay connected - through moves and children's events and school and singing and writing and all of the different endeavors that define us. Lately we've struggled to find time to just meet and talk and catch up with life. So when I got an invite to come for tea, I jumped at it.

"Tea" turned into talk over wine and preparing tacos and stir-fried eggplant and sharing a meal with the company of two of her five children - one grown and one nearly grown, plus a grandson. What a lovely night of cooking, camaraderie, and companionship!.

Monday, December 21, 2009

El Modelo

It has been a while since I've blogged here. First - muchas gracias to the readers of Albuquerque the Magazine, who voted my blog as one of the top 5 in Albuquerque for 2009. I'm humbled by this honor.

Second - I'm back in the blogging saddle again. Check out today's post Toiling Over Tamales at Christmastide about El Modelo on Duke City Fix and let me know what you think!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

On the 92 Bus in DC

Even though I live in two cities, I'm still pretty much a creature of habit. If I'm in Albuquerque, I walk over to the Downtown Grower's Market; if I'm in DC, I go south to Eastern Market.

Mostly, I like to walk the 20 minutes or so to Eastern Market, but I prefer to catch the 90-series bus home after I've bought my groceries. Just as the 66 series buses that run down Central define most of my public transit adventures in Albuquerque, the 90 series buses mark my life here in DC, whether I'm headed to Adams Morgan, U Street, or to Capitol Hill.

The last two times I've ridden the 92 bus back to Gallaudet University, I've ended up sitting next to guys with interesting reading material. A few weeks ago, it was a man about my age in cool retro glasses holding a dog-eared copy of a 1980s issue of the Wisconsin Law Review (or was it Michigan?) Today, it was a sixty-ish professorial looking fellow with coke bottle glasses and a stack of books at least 8 inches high.

This man offered me his seat as I got on the bus, but there was a communication glitch and I missed what he said initially. Shaking my head, I pointed to my ears. He got it, and pointed to me and then his seat. Evidence of quick thinking, or perhaps just previous interaction with deaf people - who knows?

Anyway, I declined the seat with a smile, figuring that it was likely someone else would board who needed it more than I did. A few minutes later, he got off his seat and stood in the bus aisle. Nosy person that I am, I peeked at his book titles - one was a state of Virginia publication about the Battle of the Crater in the Civil War, and another was titled "The Crater: A Novel of the Civil War" by Richard Slotkin.

Catching me in the act of scoping out his titles, the man caught my eye and asked if I could read lips. I told him yes, and asked him if he was a professor. He shook his head slightly and identified himself as an historian. (I'm pretty sure he used "an" not "a"). And then he commenced to tell me about the Battle of the Crater, a Civil War battle in Virginia that was fought by (mostly?) black soldiers.

This was a creative plan - Union soldiers dug a tunnel under the Confederate front in hopes of a surprise attack, and then blew it up (hence the crater). He told me that many black soldiers were murdered (his word, not mine) in this battle and that his position was different from the prevailing view. Essentially he suggested that this had been a set-up, and that he was doing research reviewing Civil War soldiers' diaries and other primary sources in hopes of establishing his hypothesis.

I got off the bus shortly after he did, walking up the grade quickly to rush my groceries into the refrigerator. As I trudged uphill I thought of how much I prefer taking the bus to taking the Metro (subway).

The Metro is clean and efficient, and it gets me where I want to go, but Metro culture is less friendly than Metrobus culture. I can ride on the Metro and have no one say a word to me, but on the bus people chatter, chat, chant, and even sing.

I will never forget the ride on the 92 bus the Saturday after President Obama was elected. There was a LOT of joy on the bus that day, and a lot of jokes about the "White" House, and about forming a line at the White House to ask Obama for work. But what I remember most are some amazing vocals - including one woman who sang "Cry Me A River", "Go Down Moses" and a few other songs. Several others on the bus joined her; a young man in his twenties even harmonizing to her melody.

There were just three of us on that bus who were not black - a young couple from Gallaudet had boarded the bus with me, and they kept looking around, trying to figure put together what was going on. People were laughing, clapping in unison, smiling and everyone's expressions were just flat out happy - it felt like a party.

Normally I don't "interpret" unless asked, but I thought that their expressions indicated curiosity, so I introduced myself to them and gave a quick summary of what was going on based on what I could hear/speechread.

A few people seated near us spotted our signing. One man signed "O" and mouthed, really slowly - "O -ba -ma" and gave a thumbs up. The deaf couple smiled and responded with thumbs up of their own.

It was a moment on the bus.


A different kind of moment happened today.

Here's a shout out to the unnamed historian who taught me about the Battle of the Crater this afternoon.

Thanks for the history lesson, and I hope your research goes well.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Dog Days of August

This week's Duke City Fix post is about the dogs. Check it out here.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Lizards in the Morning

Even though I've been walking the bosque for years, recently I've been seeing with fresh eyes. Having two young curious dogs will do that, especially when they've missed their daily bosque walk for two days in a row (rain two nights ago and birthday party festivities last night).

This morning we changed up our routine and walked on a different path (south instead of north) and later than usual. There are no toads out at this time since they prefer the darkness of dusk, but many Albuquerque denizens prefer bright daylight. We saw walkers, bicyclists, and lots of dogs walking their humans.

Despite the lack of toads, our dogs found plenty of lizards to keep them amused. No snake sightings, though I was hoping for one. Last time out I missed the snake, who was spooked into the brush by Haru, our intrepid hunter.

This morning I counted 3 rufous hummingbirds, one heron in flight, and zillions of dragonflies.

The river was higher than it has been these past few days - likely due to runoff from the storm. The bosque was lush and green and quiet. Once we got off the main trail we only saw two other hikers.

All in all, a very nice way to start off the morning, even if it did mean that I missed the Grower's Market.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Girl has a Name!

We've been wrangling and wrestling in this family over the naming of dogs, which may not be as difficult as the naming of cats, but we're still having trouble making decisions.

Over the course of a day to two, we dubbed our Chesapeake Bay Retriever "Dunbar" as a way of paying homage to Paul Lawrence Dunbar, favorite poet of some in our house. This was met with disdain by one Teenager Who Shall Not Be Named.

We offered a compromise - said teen could have full naming rights to the girl. She took the offer, and the girl now has a name, courtesy of our teen's avid interest in Hayao Miyazaki anime.

She is Haru, which is Japanese for sunshine or springtime, depending on how you write the character. We think that the name is perfect - this lovely rescued dog had such a rough start that her life with us is like a rebirth, just like the new life seen in springtime. She is also a girl with a sunny personality, so that meaning suits her as well.

So now we've got two dogs with names - one inspired by the written word and the other by visual art. Such appropriate ties for our family!

Monday, August 10, 2009

High School Dropout

My Duke City Fix blog post today is about high school dropouts.

Check it out here.

Toads in the Bosque

There's a stretch of the bosque that I know as well as I do the faded keys on my laptop. I've been walking it for more than 13 years, and what I love about this transect is that the seasonal changes are never the same, especially as you get close to the river.

Tonight's walk with the dogs led us through the bosque past a few trees with burn marks on the base of their trunks, to a narrow opening through the brush opening up to the sandy riverbank, and walls of green shrubs towering 6-8 feet tall.

There were massive clusters of typha (cattails), and in the sand, there were moving rocks!

Actually, the moving rocks were toads, but it took me a minute to realize this.

The dogs were much faster at figuring this out, and I got quite an upper body workout restraining our Chesapeake Bay Retriever from retrieving a toad. (I'm certain it would not have tasted as good as duck, which is what he is bred to retrieve.) Someone needs to tell him this though - he was far more interested in the toads than the ducks and geese on the water.

Our German Shepherd cross (who is still unnamed) likes the toads too. Of course, she's still a puppy so she likes everything that moves - animate and inanimate. She thinks the garden house is a snake and positions herself in quite the defensive stance when it slithers past.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Bats in the Neighborhood Tonight

It has been simply forever since I've blogged here, and to tell the truth, I'd forgotten it until I saw my blog listed on the Duke City Fix blogroll. DCF and DeafDC have been getting my posts, but I'm back on track. My goal is to post short snippets of my life in Barelas - no long essay posts on this blog!

We've had our new dogs for exactly a week now, and we've been taking them for walks in different parts of the neighborhood - Barelas Community Center, Tingley Park, Tingley Beach, and Kit Carson Park, which seems to be everyone's favorite place because of the thick grass and lovely tall cottonwoods.

Tonight we got to the park later than usual, and we saw bats!

There were so many mosquitos feeding on me that I thought the bats might swoop near me, but no such luck.

The dogs are half-named. The boy is Dunbar and the girl is unnamed but we'll fix that this weekend.