Monday, October 24, 2011

And for My 70th Birthday. . .

When he turned 50, one of my oldest friends--we were roommates freshman year in college--jumped out of an airplane. For my 60th--I can't say I planned it, but it's as good a reason as any for doing it--I biked the C&O Canal towpath, nearly 185 miles from Cumberland, Md., to Washington, D.C.*

Writing this a few days afterwards, I feel better than I'd imagined I would when I was planning the trip this summer. I'd gotten a great new bike last year, a Cannondale Quick CX Ultra, but back problems and bronchitis kept me from doing much riding that summer. And though I went into the winter with the best intentions, once it got cold the bike stayed in my office. In April, when I finally got back on it, I went two-and-a-half miles before I had to turn back, completely winded.

Once I'd talked my friend Bob into doing the C&O Canal with me, I started to train. Early in the summer, I rode 35 miles one morning, the longest I'd ever gone. A few weeks later, I developed knee problems, which meant cutting back how much I rode. But at least the two orthopedists I consulted didn't tell me to give up riding completely.

I wasn't entirely convinced I'd be able to finish the trip, but my wife drove Bob and me to Cumberland on a recent Thursday morning anyway. After a few unseen delays--the purchase of a commemorative jersey at a bike shop; adjustment of the new grips on Bob's bike--we waved goodbye and took off. We rode about 45 miles to Little Orleans that first day and another 45 to Williamsport the second. From there, it was about 40 miles to Harpers Ferry.

The end of that third day was the worst of the trip. Not because I was tired or my legs hurt or I was thinking about the 60 miles we had to ride the next day. I was, they did, and I was. But what was truly awful was that the only way to get across the Potomac River to the hot shower and soft bed I so desperately craved was to climb a narrow set of twisting stairs with my fully loaded bike.

But I made it up the stairs (and back down again the next morning) and Bob and I made it to Washington. I feel pretty proud of myself for doing something I never thought I'd be able to. That is, until I think about the avid cyclist the innkeeper at Little Orleans told us about. He rode from Washington to Cumberland and back to Little Orleans--about 225 miles--all in one day.

It's something to aspire to.

*Now, the full disclosure implied by the asterisk above. I didn't really ride the entire 184.5 miles of the C&O Canal towpath from Cumberland to Washington. About a half-mile from the end, I got a flat near 31st Street in Georgetown. Since my wife was only 10 minutes away, I decided not to be a purist. But it wouldn't have mattered anyway: A few tenths of a mile ahead, the towpath was blocked by a chain-link fence.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Family History

Since I finished my novel more than a year ago, I've been working on a family history/memoir. (I'm pretty sure it's not going to be a memoir/family history.) For most of the time, I've been transcribing family letters. Members of my family have lived in the same house since 1929, and as people came and went over the years, they left behind things they probably intended to come back for but never did.

It's meant for a full attic.

In August, I went down to the South Carolina town one set of grandparents came from. I'd always intended to finish the research before I begin to write--making notes along the way, of course, so that I wouldn't forget important ideas. When I came back from the South, though, I was so excited by what I'd found in libraries and archives I decided I had to write while it still burned in me.

As part of my research, I've been reading a book called "History of the American Negro and his Institutions, South Carolina Edition." A kind of "Who's Who," it was published in 1919 by a man named Arthur Bunyan Caldwell. I don't know much about the history of the book, but Caldwell published seven volumes covering five Southern states and the District of Columbia. (One state may have taken up two volumes.) Each book includes profiles of about 300 prominent black men. There are a few women--four in the South Carolina volume.

With something like 5,000 family letters to transcribe, it's not as if I don't have enough to do. But I decided to go through Caldwell's South Carolina book a few days ago, making a count of the people profiled, their occupations and whether they'd been born before the end of the Civil War.

Interestingly, only about 75 were born before the end of the Civil War. Most of those, of course, were born in slavery, though a few had been free. Most of the men were preachers, the majority Baptists, followed by African Methodist Episcopalians. But there were doctors, lawyers, dentists, school teachers, college professors and college presidents. There were businessmen, farmers, leaders of fraternal organizations, undertakers, and insurance salesmen. One woman was a doctor, another a nurse.

A year or so ago, when I told a friend (she's white) about a relative who'd been a lawyer and college professor and administrator in the South in the late 1800s and early 1900s, she asked, "Was his wife white?" I laughed and said, "Of course not." Still, though I'm heir to that history, I never imagined then the variety I'd find in Caldwell's book.

Of course, the men and women he profiled weren't typical of black South Carolinians in 1919. They'd worked hard, seized opportunities, been lucky. In the process of getting college educations, going to medical school, and buying land, they endured privations and humiliations most of us can't imagine. When Caldwell allows them to speak, they are too often accommodationist in the Booker T. Washington vein. They had to be, of course.

Nonetheless, their example and their achievements speak powerfully across the years. Sarah Palin? Rick Perry? Michelle Bachmann? John Boehner? We've survived worse; we'll survive them too.

Coffee Shop Encounter

When I walked into my local Starbucks the other day, I nodded at a black man sitting at a table by the window. After a moment, he nodded back. There was something, well, off, in his acknowledgment, so I looked at him and the man he was sitting with more closely. They were, I realized, Somali or Ethiopian. I felt a little chagrined.

No wonder he'd looked at me strangely: It was a black thing, and he hadn't understood.

I don't know where this custom of African-Americans acknowledging each other in public--even when they don't know one another--came from. As a boy growing up in a Washington, D.C., where men still wore hats and women still sometimes wore gloves when they went out, I thought it was simple good manners. Those same manners, and a sense of racial self-worth, also meant black men and women who'd known each other for years would address one another as "Mr." and "Mrs.," granting one another courtesy titles whites did not.

And perhaps it was just Southern good manners, as most blacks who live in the North came from the South. But I think that obligation of recognition (which, sad to say, doesn't seem to exist anymore) was also part of what James Weldon Johnson called "the freemasonry of the race." It's similar, I think, to the way Jews of a certain era called each other landsman. Or the phenomenon of two Americans--of any race--encountering one another overseas. Just hearing American English when you've been struggling with French evokes a sense of kinship. At least when it doesn't send you running the other way.

Of course, the man in the Starbucks knew nothing of that. And as I said, I felt chagrined, though not as embarrassed as the time, coming out of the movie "Kung Fu Panda 2" (I've got a 10-year-old; what else can I say?), I asked an Asian woman what the Chinese characters that had appeared in one scene meant.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I'm Korean. I don't speak Chinese."

Well, I'm Back. . ..

I was a little surprised when, a few weeks ago, I saw I'd not posted here since April. I don't really know why. It wasn't a conscious decision. Part of it was that I was having some trouble with carpal tunnel syndrome. After a while, I invested in speech recognition software. It's cumbersome and inefficient, but I hope the keystrokes I save will eventually help my wrists heal.

But the other reason I stopped blogging was that I felt as if I'd run out of things to say. There are only five or six subjects I care enough to write about and being, like Winnie-the-Pooh a bear of very little brain, I felt as if I'd said everything I have to say.

What I've realized, though, is that I've been writing for such a long time it's hard to give it up. I may repeat myself, but I think I'll keep writing anyway.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Will Republicans Finally Come to Their Senses?

I felt a little sick yesterday reading about President Obama's decision to release his birth certificate. Strange as it may seem, the move Obama was compelled to make reminded me of the Leonard Rhinelander v. Alice Rhinelander trial. Born Alice Jones, Alice Rhinelander was a woman of mixed race, a laundress and nursemaid who married Leonard Rhinelander, a New Yorker whose occupation Wikipedia quaintly lists as "socialite." Leonard's father was a real estate magnate worth millions.

Shortly after Alice and Leonard married in 1924, newspaper stories began to appear claiming he'd married a black woman.

Apparently under pressure from his parents, Leonard soon left Alice and sought to end the marriage, claiming she'd deceived him about her race. The all-white, all-male jury couldn't decide just what she was simply by looking at her in the courtroom. To help them, Alice was obliged to disrobe (albeit in the judge's chambers) so that the jurors could inspect her.

Of course, the president hasn't been subjected
quite the same kind of abasement since the 2008 campaign. Still, the harassment was grounded in America's continuing obsession with race, and a desire by conservatives to humiliate Obama. For members of the lunatic fringe right wing, it was never about the birth certificate. The real goal of these despicable people was delegitimizing the Obama presidency.

As the New York Times
notes today, "[T]he birther question . . . was simply a proxy for those who never accepted the president’s legitimacy, for a toxic mix of reasons involving ideology, deep political anger and, most insidious of all, race. . . . It is inconceivable that this campaign to portray Mr. Obama as the insidious 'other' would have been conducted against a white president."

But here's what's truly mindboggling: Even though the president's released his birth certificate, the crazies on the right aren't going way. Some people--among them the irrepressible Donald Trump--are calling for an investigation into its authenticity.

A recent poll found that 45 percent of Republicans believe Obama was born outside the United States. Which leads me to wonder whether
nearly half of Republicans are crazy or just plain stupid. Or whether there's something about being a Republican that makes people delusional once they join the party.

And, as if I needed more proof that there's something fundamentally unAmerican about contemporary conservativism, this afternoon some Republicans pronounced the whole thing Obama's fault because he hadn't released his birth certificate earlier.

My country, my country.