Sunday, July 20, 2014

My Sunday Feeling

It was my privilege last week to assist at a writing camp for Middle School kids all last week at the Hillary R. Clinton Children's Library.  While I don't have much experience with this age group off of the baseball field, I thought that it would be an interesting experience and a friend that works for the non-profit social justice organization that ran it somehow thought I would be good for them.  

While the camp was indeed about writing, it was also about using writing to understand differences (and similarities) among the participants.  Writing was just a vehicle for expression of feelings.  There was very little correcting going on by the facilitators (although I did some) and indeed the kids were encouraged to little 'er rip without regard to potential grading or other type of criticism.  

I guess we had about 30 kids there. They were mostly girls but the group, as a whole, was from all walks of life.  I was by far the oldest person in the room.  The leader, an honest to God teacher, is in her thirties.  The other two facilitators couldn't have been out of their twenties although I may be wrong about that.  But there was no mistaking that the guy with the grey beard was the senior member of the team.  We all wore name tags.  Mine said "Paul."

Something interesting happened early on.  An African American kid referred to me as "Mr. Paul."  The group was then informed that I was to be addressed as "Paul." 

I suppose I get what the leader was trying to accomplish.  Perhaps she thought that I would be offended by bring referred to in this fashion.  Perhaps, this being a camp where inclusiveness was exalted, the leader hoped to cull any age-based distinction or difference influenced distinctions out of their little brains.  After all, to name something is to acquire power over it as the old saying goes.  And, we all know that names can become labels.  And one of the purposes of the camp was to do away with labels and was about treating people as they really are as individuals without regard to race, sex, sexual orientation, age and so forth. 

I appreciate all that.  But I was not offended in the slightest.  After all, anybody could tell by but a cursory glance that I was the oldest person in the room.  And by a considerable margin.

Truth of the matter is, I kinda like being Mr. Paul.  While I really don't consider myself to be "old" I can't deny that I am no longer a kid.  Indeed, I am referred to in that fashion by half the kids in the neighborhood.  Hell, the Straessle kids call me that and they are practically my own flesh and blood. Well, the 6 year old doesn't.  But she's so cute I don't much care.  Also, that's what the kids at Miracle League call me.

I'm also referred to as "Mr. Paul" by most, if not all, younger African-American folks.  That's what my colleague Jason at the office calls me.  A lot of my clients referred to me in that way.  Even if they were older than me.

I like to think of it as a Southern thing mostly.  An intimate mode of respectful address.  So it doesn't bother me at all.  Truth of the matter is, I kinda worked hard at earning that respect and I am OK with sometimes being the oldest person in the room.  Because I'm secure in the knowledge that I am pretty young for my age and that I am better shape than a man ten years younger.  At this stage my age really is mostly a number. So far so good.

That night, I sent an email to the leader telling her that I didn't care how the kids addressed me, just so long as they talked to me.  And for the rest of the week I was either "Paul" or "Mister Paul." By the end of the week the leader was even calling me "MP."

Like I said, I understand the leader's concerns.  Perhaps she thought such language to be overly paternalistic in a certain sense.  Lord knows that was the Southern experience in white folks calling African-American slaves and/or hired help "Auntie" or "Uncle."  Perhaps it was a combined teachable moment and expression of consideration of me.  

While it is always the better practice to err on the side of consideration for others, sometimes it can be misplaced even with the best of intentions.  As was perhaps the case here with me.  

Friday morning I sang the National Anthem in Court for a Naturalization Ceremony before heading over to the camp.  I noticed one of my high school teachers across the courtroom sitting with the other ladies with the Daughters of the American Revolution.  We hugged after the ceremony.  She asked me what I was up to and I told her about the writing camp.  I also told her that while I was having a blast I wasn't quite used to Middle School kids.

"Nobody is used to Middle School kids,"she said." You will never get used to Middle School kids.  You just ride it out. I wish I had a nickel for every time some parent called me at home to ask why her kid had 'changed' since the previous month.  So really, your reaction is perfectly normal. You just have to ride it out."

I suppose that's true.  All I know for sure is that after the creative writing camp was over, Mr. Paul, "the oldest person in the room," fell dead asleep in his easy chair around 9 o'clock that night. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

My Sunday Feeling

One of my favorite stories is about the young science teacher who was applying for a job in a rural school district.  He was called before the school board for an interview.  

"Son," the President of the school board said,"We need to know something before we can offer you this job.  Half of the board thinks the world is round. The other half thinks it's flat.  What do you think?"

The young man thought for a minute.

"I can teach it round and I can teach it flat," he said.  

I was reminded of this story after a post made the rounds on Facebook.  The subject was evolution and whether one "believed" in the Darwinian theory of evolution or whether one believed in the Biblical account of the origin of the world, whether it was created in 7 days and whether the human race is descended from Adam and Eve.  

Naturally, this sparked a lively debate that, for the most part, remained remarkably civil.  

And yet, it is remarkable, at least to me, that several of the posters spoke of "not believing" in the theory of evolution.  And this issue commonly pops up in our political discourse as a matter of faith instead of as a matter of science.  

Of course, this particular debate has been going on since the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial.  And, with the advent of the Internet, we see this sort of-for lack or a better phrase-faith-based approach to other issues where what one wants to believe trumps empirical evidence.  

The most insidious form of this is in the form of otherwise sane and intelligent people refusing to allow their children to be vaccinated in the belief that vaccinations can "cause" autism.  The fact that there is no valid science to back this up means nothing.  The fact that the physician that ginned up the "study" that "proved this" was exposed as a fraud and had his license to practice medicine taken from him by the medical authorities in Great Britain means nothing.  As a woman I saw interviewed said on the subject, "I don't care if 10 doctors tell me I need to vaccinate my child, I won't do it."

Of course, the practical effect of the "vaxxers" obstinance in the face of scientific evidence as to the safety and utility of vaccinations and the actual historical experience of the near eradication of diseases like measles, mumps and polio is to increase the danger that these diseases may become ubiquitous in the population again. 

Whereas, the practical consequence for the average evolution denier are less dire.  As I have written before, one may refuse to "believe" the "theory" of evolution without much immediate impact or any impact.  However, one "disbelieves" the "theory" of gravity at her peril.  

Of course, the Bible says nothing about natural science.  And one can accept the Darwinian explanation for the origin of the species and still maintain that he or she is a believer in the Bible.  As the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould said, science and religion serve different magisteria. The fact that the creation myth was an attempt by the biblical writer to explain the origin of the Earth and is not a document of hard science doesn't make it any less "true" in a very real sense.  Similarly, Darwin supplied no evidence that contradicts the notion that the evolutionary process wasn't kick-started by Almighty God.  

And there are many religious people that see no contradiction between the two.  

But, as the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was fond of saying, "you're entitled to your own opinion but you're not entitled to your own facts." And we are increasingly becoming a Nation in which empiricism is trumped by whatever beliefs make us feel better about ourselves.

And in a world in which our competitors are getting stronger than us in math and science, I don't think we as a Nation have the luxury of reposing faith in only those "facts" that we are comfortable with.  

Some things just can't be taught "round OR flat." 

Sunday, July 06, 2014

My Independence Day Weekend Feeling

Between photography, golf. cookouts and Wimbledon there's no time for blogging.  

Hope you had a fun and safe weekend!  

Talk amongst yourselves.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

My Sunday Feeling

I first got the news on Facebook of course.  Then I started getting text messages.  My friend Tony had sustained a stroke of all things late Friday night.  My first thoughts were those of shock and disbelief.  After all, Tony is only in his early fifties if that.  He doesn't smoke and he observes generally healthy ways.  Up until now he enjoyed vigorous good health. He plays softball and he bowls.  Likes to hunt and play golf.

However, his main claim to fame is that he is "Mr. Tony" to the kids at Miracle League where he has tirelessly pitched to the kids all day for most Saturdays since the league started business in Little Rock some 6-7 years ago.  

How could this be possible?

I went to the hospital to see him yesterday.  The big guy filled up his bed in the ICU and he was hooked up to all kinds of electronic stuff.  I took his hand.

"Boy, what are you doing in here?" I asked.  He started to speak.  He couldn't.  His wife Tish is a nurse.  Thank God.  She recognized the symptoms and called 911.  He couldn't answer her last night when she spoke to him.  Tony is a talker.  Time to hit 911.

I was pleased to see that he had good grip strength.  No facial paralysis or drooping.  Movement is returning to the right side.  He can make vocal production but he loses his words when he attempts to state a sentence of more than a couple of words.  He communicated with me with his eyes and facial expressions.

Still, as I told folks later, he is lucid.  Tony is still Tony in there.  That is not always the case after a stroke event.  And I have every hope that he will enjoy a full recovery and return once again to his life of selfless service toward others.

But boy.  This is the kind of thing that wakes you up.  I mean, we are all aware of our mortality.  As the Richard Thompson song "Did She Jump Or Was She Pushed" memorably puts it, "She thought she'd live forever but forever always ends."

Still, you never think guys like Tony, or my late friend Hugh, are gonna get struck down. Not even for a little bit. So strong and larger than life.  This is the kinda of thing that happens to other people.  Like to people that smoke cigarettes by way of conspicuous example.  

Or guys like me.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but thanks to my father's genes I have cardiovascular disease. Indeed, the sludge in my system is in the left anterior descending artery, commonly (and amusingly) known as "the widowmaker."  

Now I work out vigorously, am completely asymptomatic, get 2 stress tests a year and am otherwise hovered over by a gaggle of white coats.  And my family doc says the odds of me keeling over like Buck did are "zero."

But stuff like this gets your attention.  We take our life and our health for granted.  We know not the day nor the hour.  Well, most of us don't at least. But that's a story for later.

Like I said, I have every hope that my buddy Tony will make a full recovery and will be back throwing at kids in wheelchairs sooner than later. The rest of us will step it up over at Miracle League until he can come back.

But damn.  Stuff like this wakes you up.  Life is short.  Way short.

Forever always ends.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

My Sunday Feeling

No MSF today due to family obligations.  

Talk amongst yourselves.  

Sunday, June 15, 2014

My Father's Day Feeling

I've written before that I don't much think about Father's Day anymore.  After all, I'm not one.  And my own father has been gone for so long that it is almost as if he never existed. That's still an odd feeling for me, to have no recent memories. There are a few pictures of me with Buck when I was a kid.  But none as an adult or near adult.  

That's what happens when your father checks out when you are a senior in college.  A kid at Catholic High once asked me when I first considered myself to be "on my own." 

"When my father dropped dead at 52," was my response.  You tend to grow up fast-or faster in any event-when something like that happens.  But the truth of the matter is that I don't much think about it anymore.  It is just "distant ship smoke on the horizon" as the song by Pink Floyd memorably put a similar state of cognitive dissonance.  

Indeed, I hadn't thought of it in sometime one way or the other until the other day when I called an old friend to express my condolences upon the passing of her own father.  

"You were so young when you lost yours," she said. "I just can't imagine."  Well, I did.  It's true. But so many years have passed it's almost just like one of many facts that pile up over time in the building of a life.  Certainly at the time it was a terrible and frightening shock.  But now it's just part of the resume.

That's not a sad thing.  It's just a thing.  A thing that happened once upon a time when I was young. Certainly it shaped and informed my world view.  Surely it had an impact on my early struggles with law school.  I wasn't stupid.  But looking back on it I probably should have held off a year which Tulane offered. But I didn't and 7 months after Buck passed there I was in New Orleans.  

That's a lot to unpack in retrospect.  Not that I was one to unpack things back in those days.  I didn't start that until fairly late in life when it was kind of thrust on me.  Better late than never I suppose.

Off the top of my head I can't think of many of my contemporaries that still have their fathers.  Maybe 2 or 3.  Big Don (who has to be pushing 90) is still plugging along with Virginia.  When I saw him last Summer he took great pleasure in referring to me as "the old retiree."  He still stands tall and his grip is strong.  He and Virginia are still self-sufficient and in fairly good health. Good for them.  And I enjoyed visiting with them as I don't get to spend much time with the parents of my friends anymore.

But do I wonder what it might have been like had Buck not succumbed to the likely outcome of his addiction to cigarettes?  I used to get this question a lot when I was younger.  After all, if my father were alive today he would be 88 or 89.  Not many folks live that long.  Especially with the cardiovascular disease he had and passed on to me.  

I know I have told this story before, but Buck wouldn't let me play golf. Although I am very right handed, I swing a bat (and a golf club) from the left. They tried to make me a switch hitter in baseball but I was useless from the right side.  Despite that neurological problem he would not hear of me playing golf.  I can hear his voice to this day.

" Son," he said. "It's just not done.  Left handed equipment is too hard to find.  The courses are all set out for right handers.  Golf is hard enough for right handers.  I'm just not gonna let you do it."

Of course, he was completely wrong but neither did I have sufficient funds on my 14 year old self to go out and buy left handed clubs to test his hypothesis. Not that I had ever heard the word "hypothesis" at that age either.  

And so when I took the damn game up in my forties, I wondered what he might have thought.  I wondered what it might be like to play a round of golf with him? Guys talk a lot on the golf course.  What would we have talked about?  I can't imagine asking him for advice, because in the real world I did adulthood pretty much on my own and largely on my own dime, because that was the way it was. And so I can't even much fantasize about this.  Still, I think it would have been nice to play a round of golf with my father.  I don't know why I think that.  But that's what I think.  I just don't think about it very often.

My friend Hugh passed away unexpectedly about 4 years ago.  Left two teenage girls.  I remember holding the girls in my arms and telling them that I wasn't much older than they were when my own father died.  I know that girls and their daddies are a different dynamic.  Especially in these parts.  

But I told them that, hard as it might be to believe it at the time, everything would be OK.  

"Trust me," I said. "I know.  It will be OK."

And if they are like me, 35 years from now it will just be a thing.  

A thing that happened to them when they were young.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

My Sunday Feeling

Up until recently, my working knowledge of the foster care world had been pretty much limited to emergency situations back when I was a young Legal Services lawyer and-well-defended people that were accused of abuse and neglect.  Guess I better not run for office in Arkansas where you can be accused of being in favor of pornography if you represented a negligee store somewhere a long the line. Well, I had better not run for office for any of a number of reasons.

But in the past couple of years I have learned more about the foster care system, primarily from a lady I work with who, along with her husband, has been a foster parent.  And around December of last year I agreed to be a volunteer photographer for The Project Zero which is a private foundation that works with the Arkansas Department of Human Services.  You can check it out here: .

They had a big "Disney Extravaganza" last Saturday at a large Baptist church in West Little Rock.  Where kids played games, ate hot dogs and interacted with Disney characters.  I have to say that Cinderella was pretty cute. Well, she was.  Anyway, I assisted another photographer in taking pictures of the kids that are eligible for adoption.

We had to have done 50 that day.  Individual shots.  Families.  One group was a family of six siblings. From teenager to little bitty.  Six.  My suspicion is that these kids got removed from somewhere.  People don't just give 6 kids up.  In retrospect, I have to say that most of them there at the church that day were probably the product of abuse and neglect with biological parents who had their parental rights terminated.

I have to believe that there is a special place in Heaven for those that provide foster care.  As the friend at work says some of these kids come with all kinds of problems, some of which are almost insurmountable.  You get emotionally attached to some.  And so it hurts when they get adopted out or otherwise leave to go somewhere else.  And she describes dealing with the State as nothing short of a constant pain.  You have to really want to do this.

My friend E provides foster care on a short term basis.  She wants to adopt.  She was there last Saturday checking things out. I get smartphone videos from her occasionally when she has one underfoot.  She hates to give them up when it is time for them to go to wherever they go in the pipeline. God bless her.  She really wants this to happen someday. I hope it works out for her.

I don't know.  I love children.  And I thought as a young person that I would be a father someday.  But that didn't happen.  It's nothing that I go screaming in the night about.  After all, God knows I seem to be involved with everybody else's kids around here.  But there are people, like my friend E, who have this palpable need to have a child.  I do not.

God also knows that the need for foster care and adoption services is great.  Like I said, we had about 50 there last Saturday who would be perfect candidates for a good home.  But you have to really want it.  And I'm not that person.

If there is any justice at all, and I'm not sure there is, then there is a special place in Heaven for people like E who open their hearts and homes to kids in the system.  Maybe some measure of that place can be preserved for the guy behind the camera.