Friday, August 31, 2007

The Tilt of the Board

I think an amazing and simple concept has escaped our culture. We have complicated most processes to such an extent that it is difficult to find serenity. I wonder if this is one of those thoughts that people have been having for centuries and either can do, or will do nothing about it. So many other activities and daily events are so like this in character. Habitual living. I was recalling earlier today how I first became attracted to surfing.

I was visiting my Aunt Mary who lived at the time in Campbell, a suburb of San Jose, California. It was during the school Easter break and during the week my aunt planned lots of activities to keep myself and her four sons busy; she was, by trade, a teacher and I am not sure she did anything without planning but everything seemed completely spontaneous. One morning she packed her four sons and myself along with, I think, one of her friends and maybe the friend’s sons, altogether into a bright yellow-orange Volkswagen Van and drove us over the mountains to one of the beaches near Santa Cruz. I remember one of my cousins asking her if we were going to the “cement ship”.

The idea of a cement ship intrigued me. How could a ship be made of cement? Was it a real ship? How did it float? All questions a teacher was well equipped to handle. These questions occupied at least part of the drive over treacherous Highway 17, and when she wasn’t concentrating so much on driving, answers came easily forth. But Highway 17 takes a lot of concentration and I have always had a need to watch the road with the driver, so I don’t really recall what her answers were, but we did arrive in Santa Cruz and found our way to the correct beach.

After finding our spot on the sand and laying out towels, arranging picnic equipment and setting up a small beach umbrella, my cousins took me to see the cement ship. It had been a real ship and apparently then fell on hard times and became permanently moored, or rather, grounded. It had been deteriorating for many years but certainly still looked like a ship and for boys our ages had a certain romantic excitement about it.

As the morning wore on, we swam a little then walked back to our “spot” on the beach and ate our lunch. That meal was memorable because my cousins ate differently than my family even at picnics. They came from the anglo side of the family and ate hotdogs and burgers with mustard and catsup, american cheese and maybe a slice of pickle. They drank lemonade, coca-cola or rootbeer. My family had vast quantities of sour-dough bread, canned sardines or oysters as an appetizer, oven-roasted chicken cooked in or with wine and herbs, or fire cooked sausages, or firey choriço cooked with pinto beans. Dessert might be ice cream made by my grandfather or figs or apricots off my grandmother's trees. To drink there was usually red wine for the adults and ginger beer for the children. On this occasion the food was what my cousins would call “normal” picnic food, consisting of sandwiches, potato chips, lemonade and apples.

As I finished my lunch I remember eating the last of a small bag of potato chips, not unheard of fare in my family but certainly rare, and then biting into an apple. The taste sensation was of seawater! So much so that I thought somehow that seawater had gotten on the apple. Not so. I found more potato chips and ran an experiment. I drank whatever was nearby and crunched my purloined chips then bit into the apple again. Seawater! Not particularly pleasant but worth the experiment.

My Aunt told us all mildly to wait an hour before we went back in the water after we had eaten. I remember wondering if we would still be there an hour later or if everyone would have gotten tired of waiting and gone home. But we spent an hour or so running in and out of the surf, playing wave tag and chasing each other up and down the beach. It was during this post-lunch waiting period that I spent watching some people surf, an activity of which, up to that point, I hadn’t paid any attention at all.

Some older boys, related I think, to my Aunt’s friend, had driven themselves down and had brought their surfboards. When they seemed to be more interested in talking to some girls in two-piece bathing suits than surfing, I asked, or maybe begged to borrow a board from one of the boys. The boy that owned the board told me I could use it if I could lift it and if I was careful. Assuring him that I would be very careful, I pushed and pulled it, and even managed to balance it precariously on my head for a short while but eventually got it down to the water and out beyond the crowded shore break to where there were far fewer people and hardly any wave action at all. “Outside” surfers would say. I was laying prone on the board and enjoying a relative isolation from all the people noise and the heat of the sand.

I knew nothing of the sea except my enjoyment of it. I really wasn’t much of a swimmer although I had taken a YMCA swimming course. I was probably eleven. I didn’t know how to surf. I didn’t even think of trying. I was floating on a big blue and white surfboard and using it kind of like a pool chair. I was enjoying the gentle rocking motion and the warmth of the Santa Cruz’s spring sun. I was also floating on that blue and white board further and further out into the wide blue Pacific.

I remember thinking at the time there was really nothing to keep me from floating outward into the coastal current and all the way down to Mexico. I had, at the time, recently read a story of a Chumash boy in a dugout or bark or some kind of canoe, paddling between, or out to, or from, the Channel Islands and fearing being caught in the California Current. I thought it might rather be fun to be able to move along in the ocean and not need to paddle.

I do not remember if someone called me or another person on a surfboard came by, or I just got the notion to go back in, but in I started, thinking I’d have to paddle myself all the way back to the beach. The waves moving toward the beach were quite small and slow moving and as far out as I was, it was going to prove to be, and more importantly, looked, like a long, long paddle. My naïveté was a lucky thing for me, as I had no clear realization of the depth of water I was in, or that the momentary calm of Monterey Bay was an asset to an ignorant pre-teen without much ability as a swimmer.

The surfboard, one of the old balsa-wood construction types, was like a diving platform for someone my size. It was quite stable. It also paddled like a diving platform for someone my size. I think I even stood up on it to look around. My lack of knowledge, regarding how to place oneself on a surfboard, made standing up a perilous adventure. So I paddled and I paddled and I paddled; my skinny arms flailing along the rails like a three-horsepower outboard pushing the Queen Mary. Then I would rest for a while and again start paddling. Rest and then paddle. Rest and paddle. It became a horrid exercise in repetition and perhaps because of the distance, seeming futility.

At some juncture during my paddling it dawned on me that I had indeed paddled way too far out and maybe I really had caught the sea current and was on my way to learning Spanish. I could not see my Aunt or her friend, or my cousins or their friends or anyone I knew or recognized, and the people on the beach looked like ants and, well, I started to panic a little.

But my panic stricken arms were tired so I took another rest and then I spotted, far far down the beach my Aunt waving her arms at me, or at least I thought she was waving at me, and my calm returned and I refocused my attention on getting to the beach. I tried all kinds of techniques; both arms at once, one arm after another, hands only, pushing myself back on the board and using feet only, holding onto the tail-kick, full legs, knees down only; I discovered that one arm after another mid-board was best, despite the size of the board and my skeletal arms.

I don’t precisely remember when it happened but I do know it was somewhere out where full-grown men were standing on the sandy bottom with just their head out of water and occasionally a toddler sitting on their shoulders, but somehow the speed of my paddling and the speed of the waves rolling by, found an equilibrium and I was being pushed by a wave with no help at all from my weary arms. I was enthralled and delighted that I had discovered a principle of grand locomotion that was better than a carnival ride, and neither I nor anyone else had to pay for a ticket and neither had I anyone telling me I wasn’t big enough or old enough.

I felt lifted and energized. And the board began picking up speed a little. Now this was living! Then abruptly and directly in the path of the board a swimmer emerged from underwater with the back of his head to me and in my fear I leaned my body to the right which I honestly thought would roll my body off the board leaving the board to continue along its path to provide the unsuspecting swimmer with new blue and white stripes. Much to my amazement on a flattening, though still steep learning curve, the board tilted with me as I clutched the rails, even though I didn’t know they were called rails, and, to my stunned amazement, turned like a roller coaster car avoiding the completely unaware swimmer and picking up even more speed!

Keeping my death grip on the rails and fearing that the board would flip, I pulled hard on the right and pushed on the left and to my relief the board slowed and in response to my pressure straightened perpendicular to the wave and began to turn slowly to the left. Making this discovery, I pushed slightly more weight to the left and sure enough, the board turned more left and began to pick up speed again. I was zooming along nicely mow. I gave some pressure to the right side and again the board slowed a little and I was heading straight into the beach.

Twenty yards, ten yards, just a few more feet and then another head popped up, this time a toddler playing in the water a few feet from the sandy beach, but this time with wisdom aforehand, I pushed on the left side of the board and yielding to my pressure, the board turned, picked up a final burst of speed, missing the child and avoiding what might have been the first beheading at sea of a two-year old by an eleven year old with a longboard. With another slight lift the board and I were pushed onto the beach where I lay for a while feeling the relief that comes from a stay of execution.

Another small wave rolling in again lifted myself and the board, us, I was thinking by this time, and pushed us a few inches further onto the sand with a hissing crunch I’ve come to know well and my first surfing adventure was over. The simplicity of sliding along on a wave made by the forces of nature, out of control and in control simultaneously, changed something about the way my mind worked. At the very least, it changed the way I perceive the world, and I knew it at the time. Then I got a confirmation.

As I lay there still on the board, feeling my panic abate and a kind of relaxed energy returning, I rested my head on my arm and stared at grains of sand here and there sparkling in Santa Cruz’s afternoon sun, a pair of bare feet walking by, flipped a small amount of sand into my face and a voice from far above said, “nice ride.”

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Big Show

Walking a dusty western lane

We heard strange music

A marching tune with heavy drums,

Floating between dust motes

Trombones and piccolos,

Accordion and calliope,

Rusty notes on the wind,

Colliding faintly

Among dry grass and star thistle,

Flickering on leaves

Of late summer green trees.

From some Time

Before grass and trees

Were trees and grass.

Hear it in the mid-day sun

Hear it in the mid-night moonlight

A parade to wary ears

Bringing impossible memory

From a faraway circus

A somewhen show

We never saw

And never will.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

No Deserto Do Tempo

Photo: Diego Fernandes 2007

see me stand

myself standing

by myself alone

on a desert plain

outside the time of time

standing between

a future of futures

no past passes passed

a present would wet drifting dust.

This timeless dust

denies me you

you have passed

past predicts future

future makes time

time is you

you are there

I am here.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Diary Day

Today began so easily. I woke early for me; I went to sleep around three a.m., so waking at 10:00 a.m. was like sleeping in for me. I normally get about six hours of sleep. Last night I don't remember dreaming.

I was at a friend's house on the coast and the sound of waves usually puts me to sleep and then gently wakes me. I didn't hear the waves this morning, but instead just drifted to the surface. I knew I had to get my clothing and all the rest of my paraphernalia together for the drive home so I made myself a cup of tea and finished organizing everything. I was ready to leave in an hour and a half but I delayed to check my email and because I just didn't want to leave the sight of the ocean.

The waves were bigger this morning and quite a few surfers had gathered. As I drove by I thought about the day ahead and the day behind.

Yesterday had been flat so I went into the City to visit another friend. He seemed more energetic than he has been for a while and in general just healthier. Often he seems depressive because he has never found his "work". He told me he found a workplace he really likes and also that whatever he does next he is going to do until he retires. This came as quite a surprise because he has spent a lot of time bouncing from one job to another trying to find the "perfect" job and regretting all the time he has spent at whatever job he just left. He also told me he has started, restarted actually, taking dance classes. When I told him I thought this was a good idea because dance is a great meditation and since he wasn't going to be getting in any major ballet companies...which he interrupted, joking, "yes I am". At least, I thought he was joking, so I laughed. Then he said, "why are you laughing?" in such a dead-pan manner, I wasn't sure he wasn't fantasizing about being a "star" again. I have heard this before. My friend suffers a bit from agoraphobia so on occasion he has lived locked away in his apartment and the only stimulus he has had has been his own mind and television.

He is one of those people who is impressed with the idea of movie stars and celebrities and talks about whoever has the lastest headlines. Depending on whether he finds them the kind of talent he appreciates he spends a lot of time praising or blaspheming them. He is a good person with a history of poor choices. Like lunch.

He invited me to lunch and I let him choose the place where we would eat. He chose a little restaurant with a crepe menu and kept telling me that before the place changed its name it had really great sandwiches. When the server came to take our order he ordered a sandwich. The server was very accommodating and asked him what kind of sandwich he would like and my friend told him chicken salad. There were no sandwiches on the menu at all, but the server said we don't have chicken salad but I think we can make a sandwich with a broiled chicken breast and some veggies. My friend thought that sounded fine and agreed. He told the server what kind of bread he wanted and that was that. When his lunch arrived he said as the server walked away, "I am unimpressed." When he said this I refrained from comment. Then when lunch was over the server came over and placed the bill in front of me.

This isn't so unusual. When I am with someone or even in a group of people servers frequently hand me the bill. I made a joke and handed the bill to my friend. The server had a little laugh and walked away. My friend studied the bill for a few minutes then handed it back to me. I asked if I was paying. Rather reluctantly, he handed me a bill to cover his sandwich. Just the sandwich. I couldn't help feeling somehow I had been taken for a bit of a ride. After eating he asked if I minded if he went to the drugstore to buy a vitamin box, and then to another variety store to buy soap.

I haven't seen my friend for quite a while although we've talked on the phone. Currently he isn't working so he has pretty much nothing but time to look for work and buy what he thinks is necessary for his life. I really don't mind doing these things but it just seems surprising to me that when I haven't seen a friend for some time they would choose something as mundane as looking for a vitamin box over conversation. He seemed surprised when I told him I was going back to the coast house to finish my laundry. I told him this after we had returned to his apartment and he started looking videos up on You-Tube, and wanted to show me "these great dance videos".

The drive from the coast was almost meditational. I stopped once for petrol and after that the traffic just seemed to open in front of me. Except for the compulsory stop at a toll plaza, I drove straight through to my home. Very unusual I thought. Unloading anything I didn't want at work, I took a moment to drink some juice then went on to work.

Before I even had opened my door, I noticed that a number of clients were already back at the hotel from their own work. It was a pleasant day so they were standing around conversing and looking generally happy. One man came to tell me he needed a room next week and could we set him up. Not a problem. Then something happened.

I heard loud, very loud, talking and what sounded like crying from somewhere outside. I went outside to inspect because the woman making the noise had a really intrusive sound to her voice. What I found was a woman curled into a fetal position in one of the parking spots with her head pressed to the pavement and a cell phone held tightly to her ear and shrieking loudly but indistinctly. I simply told her to stop. She interrupted her shrieking to tell me almost conversationally to call 911. Then she repeated it. Conversationally. Then she went back to shrieking into the cell phone. When I told her to stop, she interrupted her "conversation" again to tell me to call 911 and that she thought maybe she had hurt her head on the pavement.

I realized there wasn't a lot of reasonable action occurring so I returned to the office to call 911. Fifteen seconds after I had entered the office and while I was talking to the 911 operator, she picked herself up and marched straight into the middle of the street, threw herself face down and stretched out perpendicular to the yellow line. She stretched out her legs and arms to present as long a silhouette as possible. Traffic immediately started slowing and another of the hotel guests ran into the street to prevent the woman from being run over. I saw him bend over her and say something to which her visible response was a swim like kick and pounding of her fists on the pavement. He hesitated a moment then taking hold of the back of her jeans picked her up like a suitcase and walked with her back to the relative safety of the parking lot, where he placed her much more gently than I believe he wanted.

An elevated pick-up which had been forced to stop pulled into the parking lot and two tattooed burly fellows got out and proceeded to berate the man who had carried the woman to the parking lot because he had not put her in the shade. She said nothing. I had run from the office to tell everyone who had gathered that the police and the fire department would be arriving soon and to just leave her where she was. The incipient fight between the guest and the hopeful heroes ended suddenly and the tattooed gentlemen drove away. I told the guest who carried the woman out of the street that the police might want to ask him some questions to which he replied he was okay with that. i returned to the office where another guest, very very angry, was telling no one in particular that she "wasn't going to put up with this" and she was leaving.

The manager's son, who does not work for the hotel, asked the woman rather confrontationally what she had said. And she gladly repeated everything. The son then told her that the woman wasn't a guest of the hotel and this wasn't the fault of the hotel. The woman did not care and said so, she also reaffirmed she was leaving. The son seemed really offended at her anger more than anything else, so I interrupted and told her that it was fine. She could leave if she wanted. I pulled her bill out and destroyed it so she could see that it had actually been destroyed. She then pointedly told me she hadn't paid for the first night and I told her to never mind, it was on the hotel. She then said she wasn't trying to get out of paying the bill, she just wasn't going to put up with activity like that. I repeated that we were fine with her choice and to leave with our blessing. To which she did.

Here's the thing. The entire incident with the woman on the street had taken about three minutes. Then including the arrival of the police and the fire department, a total of maybe five minutes had passed while she and I had our discussion in the office. When she left the office, her husband was already trying to get their car out of their parking space which was partially blocked by one of the emergency vehicles. She walked straight to the car and got in. They had a little difficulty getting passed the police car and motorcycle and fire engine. So from the time the incident had started till the time they got out of the parking lot wasn't more than about twelve minutes. Much of that time she had spent in the office telling us she was leaving.

These people had come to the hotel as part of a wine tasting tour they were making. They had bought wine the day before and had at least planned on a two day stay. They had arrived from where ever they had gone today about a minute before the whole incident had started. Literally. Maybe less than a minute. So from arrival at the hotel till departure not more than fifteen minutes passed.

I am impressed at the speed of their packing.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

August Moon, Blue Moon, Any Moon

Photo: Diego Fernandes

eternal sacred night passing

under a small lght

a lesser light

a street light

a hall light

a nightlight

the moon

Moon and I

soft as whispers

brush new strangers

fingers cat fur fine

crawl intimate space

one here

one here

one there

one there



behind a knee

baby soft hair

here and

here and

there and

there and

sometimes time is timidly


a hand gently cupping

ah oh







I feel a newness

these strangers

they feel mine

across infinite

tiny distance

an arc of knowing

they know

that I know that

I know that

they know that

I know, we know

our secret names.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

A Morality Question

At times I go looking through old journals and on occasions I find some entry I wrote (and maybe all of them are this way) after I thought I had reached some special sort of understanding about myself or my situation in the world. In looking back on these entries I know this is foolish, however understanding is a tricky thing. What is the thing I am talking about and is it really that particular thing I think I have come to understand. Here is an example:

{no date...this is unusual because I usually date everything}
"? re: Voice. I feel I am gaining an understanding of good vocal technique but losing my sense of music somehow. i am also gaining insights into my own psychology which seem to have nothing to do with vocal technique per se, e.g., "nigger lips". I had not even thought of that for twenty years. Is this a kind of hidden handicap? I was talking to N... yesterday (10 July 2005) and it occured (sic) to me what Balachine {(sic) this is a reference to the great choreographer George Balanchine} meant when he told a woman in response to a question about whether her daughter would dance; "C'est une quéstion morale." A morality question? That means that her daughter could not become a dancer unless she (the daughter) committed herself to the morality of the dance. Is not morality a commitment of faith to the rule of an order? One then marries oneself to one's order, like a priest to his church, or a monarch to his country."

There is a "back story" to this. I take voice lessons. I took voice lessons for a very long time and then I stopped for a number of years, then took them up again. I take voice lessons because I like to sing. I am not sure I am a very good singer, but I have received compliments and I enjoy it. More importantly, and no one seems to believe me when I tell them this, it is a form of discipline to me, self-discipline, which I think I need. I have also taken and taught dance. Dance is another form of self-discipline for me, including teaching. I like the 'morality' of the disciplines. In July of 2005, exactly one year ago, I was having a voice lesson and my teacher told me to do something and I tried to do it but didn't succeed because, and he noticed this, that I seemed to have a lot of muscle tension in my lips.

I have had a lot of voice teachers but this is the only teacher I have ever had who can tell what I am doing without being able to see my face. I tested this one day by turning my back on him and doing whatever exercise he was asking me to do and he told me exactly what I was doing wrong. He knew without seeing my face where the tension was, how my tongue was placed, whether I was relaxed in the way that he requires, etc. When I asked him how he could do this, he said, "I can feel it." Needless to say, I was very impressed.

On the particular day in question, I seemed to have a lot of muscle tension in my lips, and he noticed. He said, "you seem to be trying to pull your lips in, or hide them or something." Oh dear!

What came flooding back into my mind almost made me cry, so I tried to laugh instead, jumped around for a few moments in what must have looked like a bit of a seizure or what we used to call a "spaz dance". My voice teacher is used to seeing such things, so he just waited until I came to rest and asked me what had just happened. I was embarrassed and had a very hard time telling him what had come creeping back into my mind.

It is even difficult to write about it now. So this is like a confession but I do not know to whom the sin belongs. Here is the history.

When I first went to school, I knew how to read. No one else in my class seemed to know how to read, and I thought it may have upset my kindergarten teacher. I now think a lot of things about me upset my kindergarten teacher. On one January day shortly after Christmas break, I brought some of my Christmas presents to school; one present was a book and the book was a rather complicated story with rabbits as the main characters. Just a book with a story about rabbits. It wasn't a Beatrix Potter book, nor was it a book about the Easter Bunny. It was just a story that had rabbits instead of humans as the heros and villians. And it was something I could bring for show and tell and, I thought, maybe have the teacher read, or allow me to read, to the class.

So when I came to class with my book, I asked the teacher if she would read it to the class. I told her I had already read it at home and that I thought it was quite good. She looked at it rather absent-mindedly and told me to bring it back and maybe we could read it at Easter. But, I protested, it wasn't an Easter book, it was just a book about rabbits. No, she was very firm, bring it back at Easter. But she didn't give it back to me to bring it back at Easter. She took it and put it on a shelf which no kindergartner could reach and started the regular class. This last action really puzzled me as you might imagine because she had told me to bring it back at Easter and then she didn't give it back so I could bring it back.

As a back-up share and tell item, I had also brought some toy cars to school. There were about twenty of them and they were all made in the same scale and underneath were labeled with whatever sort of automobile they were supposed to represent, and they were very accurate representations. During one of our recesses I took the cars out to the play area with a girl named Paula with blond braids who always seemed to wear plaid dresses with white collars. Sometimes a red plaid and sometimes a green or blue plaid, but always with a white collar. She and I were very good friends; she seemed to get into more trouble than any of the other girls for some reason. Maybe the teacher didn't like her either. Maybe the teacher didn't like Paula because Paula and I were friends. I do not know.

After the recess I packed up all my cars and put them into the special box they had come in and took them into the classroom and put them carefully under my table. Because Paula sat next to me she could tell me how much she really enjoyed playing with the cars during recess. The kindergarten teacher heard her telling me this and told her she had to stand in the corner until she was sorry she had spoken during class. Then the girl who sat across from me said something to me about Paula standing in the corner and the teacher heard her too but for some reason did not make her stand in the corner. The teacher then told me that I had to put my cars in a different place than under my table and showed me where they had to go which wasn't in the same place as my book. In fact, the book couldn't be reached or seen by any of the kindergarteners, but the cars I was told to put on a shelf where all the educational toys, puzzles, blocks and regular kindergarten books were, as if they were to be put there so the entire class could share them. Honestly, I didn't mind putting them there, I brought them for sharing. But then, after class was over, a strange thing happened.

After the bell rang and all the students were gathering their share and tell things and their coats and bags, a student named Douggy picked up all my tiny cars except for one miniature Ford pick-up truck which he took out of the special box, and started out the door with them. I immediately intercepted him and angrily asked him what he thought he was doing with my cars. He told me he "wanted them" and that was all there was to it. I wasn't going to allow him to proceed so I yelled for the teacher and told her that "Douggy was taking my cars!" And then another odd thing happened. The teacher came over and told me to let Douggy have the cars. Why? I asked angrily, should I let Douggy have my favorite Christmas present?

I honestly cannot remember what the teacher told me except something about Douggy not having anything to share and tell about. And she restrained me until Douggy had left the school. I alternated crying and screaming all the way home, but the closer I got to my house the angrier I got and when I reached the safety of our living room, I was probably red in the face with anger and my mother asked me what was wrong. When I told her what had happened and could she do anything, she just seemed to get very calm and perhaps a little sadly said, never mind, just don't take anything else you like to school.

I was astounded, to say the least. My mother was tough. And I am not talking about a kindergartner's point of view. She was tough and quite capable of battle. When my older sister had gotten in trouble for calling one of the other girls in her class a bitch, my sister had been sent home in tears and my mother got a call from the principal telling her exactly what had transpired. "Did you know your daughter called (let's call her Jane) a bitch?!" "Yes," my mother replied reasonably, "my daughter told me what happened." "Well," demanded the principal, "don't you think she should apologize to (Jane)?" Without a pause, my mother replied, "I don't know. Is she a bitch?" I know my sister returned to school without any further incident other than she and the other girl were kept well apart. My mother was tough.

There was something I did not know about the world.

My parents made no effort to recover my little cars and it was clear from the moment it happened that the teacher was not going to make any effort to recover them either. What had actually transpired here? I even asked my brother if he understood what was going on but he also could shed no light on the situation. But I did have the one little toy to remind me of the incident. Whenever I looked at that little truck, I recalled with full force, the complete injustice of the situation and even today I am not sure what exactly transpired. But here is my guess.

My family is mixed ethnically and over the years, I have heard comments at different times from different people that alluded to that facet of my heritage. Because my appearance and the appearance of my family is in no way unusual, there is no way to tell from the surface that we are anything but anglo-saxon. But if the subject comes up, and I am surprised how often it does come up, the mention of the latin side has sometimes brought out a side of people I am not sure I would have believed existed if I had not had the experience.

There are actually several examples; my favorite story about this sort of thing happened to me at a friend's house. I had spent many hours over time enjoying these people's company. One afternoon my friend's mother started talking about people belonging to my ethnic group sometimes rather disparagingly and she got more disparaging as she warmed up. My friend made several attempts to slow her down and only succeeded in stopping her when he finally shouted at her that I was indeed a member of that group. There was a rather long silence which was finally broken by his grandmother who said rather dryly, "you are not." When I replied in the affirmative she said, not without humor, "well!.....I let one in my house!" She also told me that being part anglo "saved me". The disturbing part of this to me, happened when I asked his mother what kind of bad experiences she had had with members of "those people". She told me she had never had any bad experiences because she never knew any. That is true prejudice. No direct knowledge, only rumor and some kind of strange floating reputation inform a person's attitude. Another like incident happened one day while members of my college world religions class were waiting for the professor to arrive.

It was a beautiful spring morning and many people had arrived early to read or drink coffee or just chat. Somehow the subject of ethnic backgrounds came up and while I was a member of the conversation, it seemed to me that when people were describing their backgrounds there was a kind of sameness about them. One older woman, who had told us about her desire to change her life by re-entering college and the work world after her divorce, told everyone her anglo-teutonic background all the while smiling and saying "how cool", "how neat" when people said they came from Northern European backgrounds. She seemed genuinely intrigued by mixtures of English/French or German/French or Dutch/German/Czech. I was really just listening when she asked me in a kind of breathlessly happy voice, "and what are you?" When I told her, the smile faded and she literally took a step backward away from me saying, "did you know they married black people?" She didn't say being part anglo saved me.

Was my Oklahoma-born kindergarten teacher (oh yes, I remember) a bigot? A racist? I do not know. This only occurred to me much later as a possibility. Was this the reason my mother had been cowed so easily? I do not know. And that is the nature of this strange beast. The recipient is almost never sure. What I do know is this: after that day, I hated "poor little Douggy", and he was the first person I heard call me "nigger lips".

I am glad I had read my book before that day in kindergarten because that was also never returned.