Tuesday, October 28, 2014

'Way Down South It's Not Forgotten

This piece from NPR about racist origins of traditions at the University of Mississippi was thought-provoking, but the comments...well, the comments ranged from thoughtful to downright scary. I read them with growing unease for a very good reason: the son of my high school psychology teacher, who was also our football coach, is an associate athletic director at Ole Miss. My father has been their family doctor since before their daughter, who is a classmate of mine, was born. I think Dad may have delivered Derek, but I'm not absolutely sure- it's been a while, now, Derek being some six years younger than his sister and me. Derek deals with athletic academic compliance, something with which we're being hammered at the moment in light of the overwhelming cheating scandal at the University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill.

I was disturbed when Derek left the University of Louisville to accept a position in the athletic department at Louisiana State University, but when he went on to a new position a little while ago at Ole Miss, I got worried. It's nothing on Derek's part, mind you, but Ole Miss does have a history. (So does the University of Kentucky, by the way, if you dig deep enough; in the 1950s the University of Kentucky's athletics flag had the university seal on a field at the left edge, and the rest of it was the Confederate battle flag. The heavily romanticized Lost Cause still smolders unto today in some quarters.) Things seem to be okay, but I've never had the guts to really pursue this conversation with his family.

It was Derek's father, you see, who was called "boy" in my presence on the senior trip. It was about four a.m., in rural Alabama somewhere, and our bus had stopped at an all-night diner en-route to Panama City Beach, Florida. There were fifty of us or so, and only four of our party were African American: Coach C, his daughter, and two male classmates. The deputy sheriff walked up to Coach C, and said to him, plain as day, "Boy, we don't like your kind around here. You'd best get back on that bus and get on down the road."  I went perfectly still; I'd been raised to think that this kind of thing was a stamp of the lowest, trashiest sort of behavior...and in 1987, some backwater deputy called our football coach 'boy'! I was absolutely speechless. I thought at the time that I might be hallucinating from lack of sleep.

The coach begged his pardon, said we'd be on our way as soon as we could get everyone back onto the bus, and turned to me. His voice was calm and even as he told me to round the others up and get them back on the bus as quickly as possible. I must've started to say something, because he added, firmly, "Now." So I did it, and we left. The moment is burned into my memory forever; the comments on the NPR piece brought it flooding back to the surface. Has anything changed in the intervening time period? Have we really moved forward, or are we mired in the same muck?

At what point can we sift tradition from the bitter ashes of racism, Jim Crow, and slavery? When can we let go of the invective and bigotry? When will we ever move on? I worry for Derek's safety in a nagging, slightly seasick way, especially since this story clearly stirred some pretty angry sentiments. Let's hope that the people on the ground at the University of Mississippi, including Derek, can make a difference and help build a more amicable atmosphere where the pride is still there, but lacks the ties to an outmoded way of thinking and being. Moonlight and Magnolias was always a myth, anyway- a facade overlaying a darker undercurrent...dig it up by the roots and plant something new, folks. It's way past time.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Last Man Standing

So, the other day, our local surgeon and father of one of my childhood friends, passed away after a steady decline in health. He was a larger-than-life person, who lived to the fullest and was a brilliant surgeon on top of it. He'd dedicated his career, as has my father, to the rural agricultural community where I grew up.

With his passing, my father is the last of the local doctors- there are some "imports", but Dad's the last one who came during the Sixties, when the hospital was new and building a really great reputation in the area. He's been lonely since the surgeon retired this summer, and now...I hope he doesn't decide to retire. He'd be bored stiff inside five minutes. Dad's not exactly a handyman, and his primary entertainment other than watching hunting on TV is actually hunting (which these days is more like "sitting in his stand watching the animals walk by- sometimes shooting at them, but not seriously").

I'm not going to mince words here: they dealt with a lot of gruesome shit at our tiny local hospital back in the day. There were horrible car accidents, difficult births, men mangled and torn by farm machinery and livestock, hunting mishaps, drug overdoses, teen suicides...and we had a pretty sharp bunch of doctors to handle all that. They stepped up. They brought the "A game". They gave their lives to Medicine and we, the families, understood...that was The Way It Was- your dad missed recitals, graduations, award ceremonies, dances, plays, and ballgames, because he was sewing up some guy who caught a chainsaw with his thigh.

This particular surgeon helped me sneak my mother's original Papillon into the hospital. He'd taken Mom's very, very infected gallbladder out and was telling me, in detail, about how serious her condition was, when Didi poked her nose out through the collar of the cardigan in which I had her wrapped. He looked down, saw the dog, and said, "Get it inside- I'll cover you!" as he propelled me toward the door, where I was further aided and abetted by the Director of Nursing. Mom, by the way, was upset: "Oh, honey, you brought a DOG into a HOSPITAL! What were you thinking?" That was long before anyone had ever heard of therapy pets, of course.

There are a lot of people back home who owe their lives or the lives of their loved ones to this man. To me, of course, he was not only my father's colleague, but my friend's dad and the man who let me fish in his farm pond...and who helped me get a DOG into a HOSPITAL and never once questioned the logic behind it. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Fat Shaming: It's All the Rage

A rescue colleague posted a tale about how her husband's obese co-worker, a recently-diagnosed diabetic, injected his insulin into "his big belly" at a business dinner one night. I don't take issue so much with people being grossed out, but in my librarianly way, I followed it down the rabbit hole by asking a series of questions and offering that he might have had a medical emergency. As someone who is the sibling of a brittle diabetic and who has serious food allergies herself, I was curious to know if it was just an aversion to the injection or the fat body. I lost my temper pretty quickly, so shame on me for that, but it's not something about which I can be particularly objective.

People who aren't overweight or obese feel that it's their right, nay, their obligation, to remind those of us who are that we're unpleasant for them to behold and that in all sorts of ways, we take up more than our 'fair share' of space and oxygen. Also, it's their purview to remind us that we aren't supposed to eat what they deem inappropriate for us, such as sweets, alcohol, carbohydrates...well, pretty much damn well anything that's not a green, leafy vegetable or a lean broiled chicken or fish, because if we didn't eat like hogs on a rampage, we wouldn't be fat, right? 'Put down the fork and push away from the table' is how that logic goes.

We've been having this almost violent exchange on one of my library social network groups about racism, privilege, and bias, and what I want to say is, "Live a day in my world; there's privilege to not being fat, too." A colleague who is teaching a dual-credit course at an area high school just brought up that she is being cat-called over her weight as she walks to and from the class each morning. It's giving her flashbacks to the unhappiest moments of her own time in high school. This is a college professor and she's being fat-shamed by a bunch of snot-nosed kids. General wisdom would tell us, "She's the adult, she should be thicker-skinned! It's just kids being kids!" Maybe, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't hurt like a motherf*****.

Until you've had people crane their necks to examine what's in your grocery cart and visibly disapprove (by sighing, rolling their eyes, tsk-tsking, or similar) of its contents, you've not really lived. It's also great to be stared at as if you're a zoo exhibit when you're dining in public, although, here in the South, most people have enough couth not to comment in your earshot. Shopping for general items can also be fun; I once had the experience of overhearing a father coaching his young son on how to most effectively insult someone like me (they were near me, and I was definitely Dad's target of choice). I spun around and snapped, "I'm fat, not deaf. Perhaps you could concentrate on teaching your child some manners, rather than teaching him to act like a cretin." He turned white as a sheet- apparently it's only fun if you don't get called out.

It's often said that fat-shaming is the last safe prejudice. That's why so many of us are willing to risk our lives and mutilate our digestive tracts to leave this physical state of being behind- because we live in hell every moment of every day.