E.M. Monroe

"I knew, not from memory, but from hope, that there were other models by which to live." Weems


June 2012

Models Monday: One Approach to Paying Medical Bills

I have sarcoidosis, a disease that causes immune system cells to cluster to form lumps in various organs in the body, and it has been active for a little over three years. I’ve gone in and out of remission but currently I’m in an active phase. I have a wonderful rheumatologist who began treating the sarcoid rather aggressively because it no longer merely resides in my lungs but has found its way into my liver. So to give you a sense of what aggressive means, the prednisone that I take for it has been reduced from 60 to 40 milligrams over the last month.

Over the past three years, I have been under the care of a variety of doctors for various problems that have arisen as a result of this illness. As a result, I have gained some experience as a patient, but almost more importantly given today’s standard of care, I have experience as a customer of medicine and I would like to share how I am processing what I have learned–especially when it comes to paying medical bills.

One of the things that troubled me recently was a pre-registration call I received on Friday for an MRI of my brain that was scheduled for this coming Tuesday. I resented it when the woman who handled the call ended it by asking me how I would be addressing the $479 dollar “responsibility” that I would have after my insurance paid its portion of the test. It wasn’t quite in the moment that I understood that she had limited the notion of being “responsible” to an economic construction–that came later–but I knew that I did not like her question. I trusted myself to resolve what disturbed me about her construction another time so I responded quite practically at first. Thus, with the practical understanding that I was not going to pay $479 on Tuesday, I told the clerk that I would be canceling that appointment because I had an MRI administered at another facility and they did not require any money at the time of service so I would be contacting that facility. She then sent me to a scheduler who canceled the appointment. Approximately 30 minutes later, someone else from that hospital called with the same question about my debt and how I would be taking “responsibility” for it to which I responded, “by canceling my appointment and going with another facility.” “So you did cancel?” he asked. “I most certainly did,” I told him.

By the time I confirmed the canceled appointment, I had figured out that I didn’t like being forced to accept the terms that someone else had established for what it meant for me to be “responsible.” There are more ways of understanding being “responsible” than through a discussion of resolving one’s debts. While I think it is “responsible” to pay one’s debts, it is also the case that being responsible involves being reliable and making rational decisions. When the hospital clerk called my house, she wasn’t interested in talking to me as a reliable, rational person, she was only interested in talking to me as someone with debt. It felt hostile to have someone call my home and force me, as a responsible person, to answer questions about an anticipated debt. Thus, I felt as if that woman, through the authority of the hospital, was trying to bully me.

I think that hospitals rely on having an aura of mysteriousness regarding the power of healing, the seemingly high quality and expense of the technologies currently available, and the dynamics of bringing those things together to help a single individual as a force operating in the cultural imagination to bully and exploit people. Instead of making itself appear less imposing, those working the business side of medicine (and sometimes even bit players) try to use the seeming impenetrability of their bureaucracy to intimidate you into acting in accordance with their practice. For example, if you have an MRI performed, theoretically, you can’t make the appointment yourself. This is something that gets done mysteriously through phone calls between people who make more phone calls and give authorizations and pass along codes that you apparently don’t have access to. You are supposed to provide your dates and times of availability and then someone calls you with an appointment. Thus, this all confirms how passive you’re supposed to be in this process. The business side of medicine tries to turn your balance, your bill, into the most significant moral aspect of the interaction but it seems immoral to me to exploit a person’s ignorance of a bureaucratic process. Morality at the doctor’s office gets conveyed mostly in terms of the bill.

I notice this as I have a PPO, which I chose because I was willing to pay for the choice to select my own doctors. I pay 10% of the cost until I have met my deductible. Most times, I’m billed after the service. But more and more, I’m being asked to pay what the medical practice doesn’t find insurance companies typically paying. So you get provided with notices and forms from the medical practice about your “obligations” and “responsibilities” regarding your bill before the first appointment is scheduled. I read these forms as impending bills being cast in moral terms. When I was new to the game, I was moved by it. I agreed that I owed it to the doctor to take care of my “responsibility” given that they had provided me with their expertise. I have since moved away from this position and one of the reasons for this involves my awareness of how my bureaucratic ignorance gets exploited–especially as someone who is a professional outsider, but also as an unique customer, an unwell person needing relief. No one tries to clear up any mis-understanding that I might have about the policies of one medical office being a standard practice for them all. Thus, the first time that I had a endoscopy performed, the hospital where my doctor worked required that I pay a portion of the bill up-front. The second time I had this procedure done with a different doctor, that hospital billed me. Had I known that there was a different way of handling the business of paying for the procedure, that might have influenced my decision to take on the first pulmonologist as my doctor.

As a unique, patient customer, rarely does it seem that my position as an unwell person figure into anyone’s construction of morality. Thus, payment functions as the prism through which to engage the subject of morality but not my vulnerability as a sick person in need of care. That is to say, the relationship between illness, vulnerability, sound judgement, and payment seemingly are not a part of the negotiation of how the business of medical care should be morally approached with ill people. Thus, the $356 that my GI doctor asked for up-front was not a necessary condition for the bronchoscopy she performed; that was about business, not medicine. Interestingly enough, as a business decision, it worked for her but I overpaid by $26, which I learned when at the follow-up exam, there appeared to be a credit at the bottom of a form that the administrative assistant gave me to sign. When I inquired about it, she told me that she would research it and have someone contact me. About two months later, I received a check for $26. No one gave me that kind of grace period for paying the $356. So what I have learned to do is to create my own system for dealing with medical bills.

First, I always want to know about any up-front costs that I am expected to pay. If I don’t like the terms or the figures, I will call my insurance company and ask them to help me save money. So in the case of the MRI of my brain, CIGNA put me in touch with Medical Solutions who gave me the authorization code and the telephone number for the facility where I had gone before. When I contacted that facility, I told them that I was not willing to pay them $479 for the exam up-front. I explained that I would prefer to be billed if there was a fee but barring that I would accept a payment plan that could begin when I arrived for the test. Those terms were accepted and so I have an appointment scheduled for July 2.

In instances when I am billed, I never pay the bill according to when the bill states, which typically lists “upon receipt.” I don’t typically pay it “upon receipt” because it usually doesn’t arrive at the precise moment when I have worked out my monthly budget. Just like a hospital has billing, so does my household. Recently, I received a phone call from a doctor’s office about a bill that I had not paid. I explained to that woman that the bill had arrived very late in light of when I had been seen, but nonetheless, I would pay it after I made my new budget. Thus, I told her that she could expect to receive a check for half of the billed amount at the end of June and the other half at the end of July. She thanked me and that ended the call.

Honestly, I usually don’t begin making arrangements to make any of these payments until someone calls me because I’ve learned that insurance companies don’t always pay as quickly as you may be billed. Once you have paid a bill, however, you will wait months to get reimbursed and when you call about it, they will tell you, just as sweetly, about how their billing office only processes checks on various days and who has to approve the transaction, and whose office you might call to get a sense for when to expect the approval. Thus, I feel very little urgency about paying a bill merely because it arrived. I recently received a $40 bill from an opthamologist that fell according to my budget. About a week later, they returned the check because my insurance company had covered the cost even though the practice had not expected them to cover it.

One final thing that I’ll say about this involves prescription drugs, and one of my dearest friends pointed this out to me: ask your doctor for samples. When doctors tell you to “try” something, that could be an expensive gamble for you. I had a pulmonologist once who wanted me to “try” a sinus medication that cost me $63 because there was no generic form of it. The medicine didn’t work. Oftentimes, what they want you to “try” is experimental. So fine, let them experiment within reason but they need to do that with the samples that the pharmaceutical representative left. I go through this all the time with inhalers. Some of those don’t have generics and they can be very expensive. What I’ve learned to do is to say to the doctor that I will need samples until I at least learn how much this is going to cost me. I now use an inhaler that works. My pulmonologist knows that I’m all about the samples so he gave me an entire bag full and told me that “we have tons of these things in the closet” while writing out a new prescription for me.


Father’s Day Suite: Portraits of Men

What was most striking to me about the portrait that my son made in Play School as a Father’s Day gift for my husband was the green tie. Miles’s teacher had asked us to bring in a small picture of my husband that would be used for making a separate gift, and in that picture, he wore a tie. Did they make ties for all the fathers as it is a traditional Father’s Day accessory or were they intentionally trying to make the portrait representative? Whatever their intentions, we thought they did a fabulous job! Even the hairline was accurate. A few things, though, came to mind regarding that bright green tie as a marker of formality and its relationship to notions of appropriate dress. First, when I was a child, my grandfather used to rail against young people’s desire for “sneakers” instead of church shoes as desirable purchases. “When I was a boy,” he would say, “I never woulda asked my Mama for no sneakers.” To laughs, he would continue on, “man, are you crazy. Naw, no way. No sneakers, Jack!” I didn’t quite get the joke then because tennis shoes were practical as far as I was concerned. I was an athlete so I needed “sneakers.” As I continued to think about it years on, I realized that it was precisely because they were practical that my grandfather wouldn’t have wanted them–he would have been put to work in practical shoes. He had decided that as a young black boy coming-of-age in the Jim Crow South that he had more than enough work to do requiring shoes thought practical for him. I always believed that my grandfather wanted a life of the mind and as much as he could give that to himself, he did. Thus, “sneakers” did not suit the intellectual life he desired. Sneakers were more suited to a life of physical labor and he would not have chosen that for himself.

Thinking about my grandfather in this way led me to another portrait. This one by famed Tuskegee photographer, Prentice Herman Polk:

Mr. and Mrs. T.M. Campbell and Children, ca. 1932. You can find a full listing of the subjects in the photograph by following this link to the Paul R. Jones Collection, Atlanta, Ga.

Thomas Monroe Campbell stands out in this family portrait. It’s only later that I really pay attention to the rest of the family. He dominates the portrait with his defiant, almost confrontational, gaze. Then you notice that everyone except Anna Marie Ayers Campbell, looks at the camera, which is something that I have noticed in many formal portraits of middle and upper-class women. What was it like for Mrs. Campbell tucked inside her half of this frame? Even as this Easter portrait is beautifully balanced and composed–one adult to each group of three children; two dark uniform suits across the back with boys of equal height; three across the middle of about the same height; the hats, the ties, the white dresses, jackets, pants, and socks–you can’t help but notice that this portrait has a center, a black male center and he offers no apologies for where he sits. T.M. Campbell embraces his distinction.

T.M. Campbell did live a life of public distinction. He was the first African American extension agent for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to work with rural black farmers in advanced farming and land-management methods. The Jesup Agricultural Wagon that carried seeds, fertilizers, and the tools of modern farming practices was first begun by George Washington Carver, Campbell’s teacher and mentor. With Carver’s support and Tuskegee Institute President Booker T. Washington’s endorsement, Campbell took over the school’s Moveable School of Agriculture. Campbell achieved great success in his work and created opportunities for other black extension agents. Though presented with many opportunities to enter other fields, he declined opportunities to work outside of his extension work serving poor, rural, black folk.

Polk’s photograph of the Campbell family, particularly Mr. Campbell’s depiction, challenges our image of black southern men, especially during the 1930s. This Arthur Rothstein image suits that construction:

Arthur Rothstein photograph from Gees Bend, Alabama 1937.

This documentary photograph of a sharecropping family also features a black man set apart from the others but his distinction is due to his location on the line and not the suggestion of his command or authority. The desperation that one might imagine in the Rothstein photograph is nowhere present in the Polk photograph of the Campbell family. Interestingly, Mr. Campbell’s posture and his engagement with the camera resembles one of Polk’s more famous photographs:

P.H. Polk, “The Boss,” 1932.

The subject of Mr. Polk’s photograph, “The Boss,” had been visiting a farmers’ conference on Tuskegee’s campus when he saw her. Seeing power and command in her, Mr. Polk thought this “woman can boss anybody…” so he asked her to put her hands on her hips but the look is all hers. Mr. Campbell appears to be a “boss” as well. He and the subject of “the boss” confront the camera in unexpected ways–especially as they speak through conventions of dress and portraiture. Despite the habiliments of domestic labor and their suggestion of subservience, “The Boss” participates in being photographed but on terms she seems to have decided for herself; the same can be said for Mr. Campbell. He has agreed to dress formally for the occasion of the family’s yearly Easter portrait but he will comport himself as he pleases. I think that this photograph of my great-grandparents and my grandmother performs similarly:

Like Mr. Campbell, my great-grandfather, Charles Lewis, sits and is dressed formally, but what strikes me about him is that he’s actually the parent touching the child. The touching in this family portrait appears thematic. No one here gets estranged from intimacy.

Even as black men in the 1920s and 1930s dressed themselves for formal portraits, they still broke through convention with original voices, thus uniquely asserting themselves into tradition and altering expected utterances. I wonder what place formality holds for us now in our contemporary self-portraits? What role does fatherhood play in our efforts to define formality? Does fatherhood have a central role in crafting contemporary family portraits?

Generationally speaking, the photos that I have of young families in my own home don’t feature young men wearing ties. Even when there is clear color coordination in contemporary photographs between the men, women, and children in my growing little collection, young men do not wear ties. I noticed this recently at funerals too. While it wasn’t something that offended me, I noticed that young men and their children were not dressed in what I would have considered formal attire at my father’s funeral or my uncle’s. I think I noticed because my father was a suit wearing man. He took pride in having clothes to meet the expectations for whatever occasion was being marked. Too, my uncle and I had had a conversation not long before he passed about a young man who my uncle felt was far too casually dressed for court. “Can you believe he actually wore that to court today?” he asked me rhetorically as the young man was approaching from a distance. “I can’t even imagine what the judge thought when he saw that fool,” he said laughing. I remember thinking at the time that he and that young man certainly had very different definitions of what it meant to be cool. For my uncle, it certainly meant having a wardrobe that marked life’s key moments.

The relationship between black men, formality, and death, especially funerals, occurs in Spike Lee’s film 4 Little Girls. This eloquent memorial film pays tribute to the four little girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. In one scene, Freeman A. Hrabowski, III recalls his experience of preparing to attend the mass funeral for three of the girls. His school’s principal, George Bell, pulled him aside and while taking his tie off, said to young Freeman, “son, you wear dark ties to funerals.” While placing the tie around Freeman’s neck, he explained to the young man that he was representing the school through his attendance. Dress conveyed meaning beyond personal expression. Dress had the power to convey seriousness of purpose and could carry a group message of love, support, sympathy, and solidarity. Too, dress suggested that a child had been taught. That someone had prepared a young person to participate in public rites and ceremonies. Thus, a child’s attire carried an adult’s imprint.

There was a time when my observations about formality wouldn’t have been about class and education but now they appear to be. The example of my father and my uncle marks such an earlier period. Things appear to be changing. Young men who attend college, even for a time, will take photographs wearing ties, but otherwise, this does not appear to be the case. I was recently in a conversation with a woman and her colleagues who were in the Math Department at Morehouse College. The woman’s colleagues were teasing her for wearing a Spelman College shirt after being presented with it as a gift from the College following a speaking engagement. “Well, of course I wear it!” she said. “They actually had me in mind when they presented it. Morehouse only ever gives out ties. What am I supposed to do with a tie?” They laughed. Historically Black Colleges and Universities continue to create occasions for formal dress. For that matter, single-sex private high schools do the same. I recently received a newsletter from my high school that featured some of the girls in the formal uniform, which requires a blazer. In these contexts, spirited debate certainly follows the mandate for compulsory self-expression. What troubles me is that there are some people clearly being left out of the debate; it’s as if they don’t know that one is taking place. In the case of my father’s funeral, being sharp for going to a club shared the same aesthetic as attending a mourning ceremony. I wonder what this does for your sense of life’s fullness. It’s hard to imagine that life would seem more than mere monotony with every event being some slightly altered version of itself.

I had never considered the role that fatherhood played in how formality might get defined until I looked at my son’s portrait of his father and saw that green tie. I will be interested in seeing how this theme continues to play itself out as we’re raising him in this new media age. I wonder if his father’s ties will impact the Facebook photos he will one day post or even what new arguments he will bring to the table, presumably, against formality.

Models Monday: On Human Richness

My father was the one who first told me that David Halberstam was killed in a car accident. I don’t remember what we were talking about or which of Halberstam’s books I was reading at the time but when I referenced him, I clearly remember my father asking, “oh, the guy who died the other day?” “Really,” I asked. “Yeah,” he said, “I’m pretty sure he was killed in a car crash.” I searched for the story immediately after getting off the phone with my father and he had been correct. I remember being incredibly saddened by that news as well as struck by how diligently my father read. It was a habit he was very proud of.

As I’ve been reading Halberstam’s The Children I’ve been thinking a lot of my father, not so much because of the subject matter, but because he seems to fit with my impressions of Halberstam now. I think of them together, and this is a beautiful work to regard them over. If you are someone who takes an interest in considering portraits of peoples’ inner-lives and imagining the content of quiet, internal narratives that convey or lead to original ways of living in the world, then this book offers much to enjoy.

I’m far from finished but one of my favorite stories to consider thus far has been about James Lawson’s mother, Philane. Mrs. Lawson was born in Jamaica as Philane Cover. She married James Lawson, Sr. and together they created a large family of nine children. Though James Sr. was the minister, it was Philane who impressed her oldest son Jim with a deep and lasting impression of nonviolence. Halberstam writes beautifully and movingly of the impression Philane made on young Lawson:

Her love, her optimism about human nature, and her belief that there had to be a better way than responding to hatred with hatred of your own–a hatred which she feared might end up devouring the hater–formed his home every bit as much, he later decided, as did his father’s strength and hard work. She was a strong, careful, loving woman who knew how to maximize the limited amount of money a black minster in the North made in the thirties and forties. They got their home from the church, and there was a church salary, probably no more than $1,000 a year. The black women of that generation, he believed, were brilliant at many things, none less than making-do, raising families virtually outside the cash economy. On a tiny salary Jim Lawson’s parents raised their nine children, sent five to college in an austere American economy, and did it so well that no one ever felt poor. Philane was a skilled cook, a magical repackager of food, so that nothing was ever wasted. She was a talented seamstress. By ritual every December each Lawson child was allowed one new suit of clothes for Christmas […]

They grew a lot of their own food, and they always seemed to eat well. They had a big backyard and that allowed them not only to grow vegetables, but to keep chickens as well. It was a family where everyone shared in the chores and everyone accepted responsibility for getting the work done […]

Jim’s mother, in addition to her other household chores, worked regularly in her home doing alterations for a local dress shop, and there were frequent offers for her to come and work full-time in the downtown store. It was only when the youngest children were in high school that she took such a job. Even in the late fifties, with her family largely grown and her holding the full-time job, she still ran a wonderful home. The first time Dorothy Wood came to Massillon to meet her husband’s family, the thing she remembered both then and every other time she visited was that on Saturday, at 4:00 a.m., the wonderful smell of baking bread would fill the house because Philane Lawson had gotten up early and started cooking so that her family would have the best of homemade foods all weekend, full-time downtown job or no. She was, her daughter-in-law decided, a woman full of human richness and a woman who took her own codes seriously […]

As Jim Lawson came to manhood he had a sense of how hard his mother’s life had been. It had been difficult for her as a girl–a life with little opportunity–but she had set out to create against all odds a better life; she had come to this country on her own and married and raised a large and loving family. Most important, she had managed to pass on not merely strength but compassion and a capacity to love to all of her children. She had strengthened them without hardening them. That, her son thought, was truly miraculous.

Halberstam’s understanding of Dorothy Wood’s impressions of her mother-in-law as someone “full of human richness” strikes at the very core of the meaningful portrait he paints of Philane Lawson. Wealth here gets defined through the human ability to generate and extend a capacity for regarding another with careful acknowledgement and concern. The ability to generate such wealth is astonishing in light of the fact that the world of Jim Crow segregation with its thorough contempt of blackness, which permeated all of America, North and South, would have defined riches against a black person’s ability to have it. The America of Philane Lawson’s time forced black people into the most menial jobs and thus the lowest economic positions and housing options that it could fashion. It was a nation that left black people to enter the most ill-equipped schools and to be cared for in the most neglected corners and basements of medical facilities. It was a country that used its creativity, its energy, its laws and its customs to showcase its disdain for black people, and this is no exaggeration.

Even as the country began making strides towards integration, it was clear that it knew very little of what it meant to be hospitable towards black people. Halberstam offers an example of the limits of hospitality as the nation considered integration after the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 as it appeared at Vanderbilt University. He writes:

When Vanderbilt had made its first tentative steps toward integration in its law, divinity, and graduate schools, there had been built-in restrictions. The black students were not to dine in the student cafeteria, they were not to play intramural athletics, they were not to buy tickets that allowed them to sit in the Vanderbilt gym for athletic games, and they were most assuredly not to live in an otherwise white dorm. If at all possible, they were not to use the toilets, which had been white-only until then. Nor were they, if the administration had any choice in the matter, to feel particularly welcome. In 1959 one of the school’s deans had received a letter of application from a would-be black Ph.D. candidate. The dean wrote back to warn the young man of the “annoying, embarrassing, or very distasteful” experiences he would probably face as a Vanderbilt graduate student. He would not be able to live on campus, so he would have to find housing in a black residential area. He would, the dean warned, be refused service in restaurants and motels, and he would run into other forms of rejection at the hands of white Nashvillians. Otherwise, it was presumed, he would be quite welcome to come.

This is so absurd it’s hard to even know where to begin. In effect, black students could come to Vanderbilt but they would be made to feel like they did not belong there. Too, black students should accept this treatment as a part of their admission and they were to adjust their emotional lives so as to feel suitably pained by their treatment. It was not enough to be treated poorly, black students needed to actually feel unwelcome, which of course, wouldn’t have been much of a stretch since they actually were unwelcome.

If the disdain for blackness represented in the Vanderbilt dean’s letter was supposed to extend to black spaces, Philane Lawson’s work for her family suggests definite limits to how far Jim Crow was allowed to permeate black life. Philane Lawson’s actions towards her family suggests that she had not used the broader culture as a model for determining the quality of the experiences her family should enjoy. That Mrs. Lawson could value herself and the people that the nation had decided were unworthy of anything it regarded as valuable was an achievement. Mrs. Lawson defined her humanity as wealth. She disagreed with the nation’s contempt for blackness and so she baked bread for her family at 4 a.m. on Saturday; she re-imagined how her family’s food would be served; she planned and saved for how her family would be clothed. Her example offers a model of wealth in human terms.

See Also: Models Monday: Expanding the Meaning of Success

Father’s Day Suite: Joe Paterno and Stories of Fatherhood

Fatherhood and fathering serve as strong themes in the narrative strand of the scandal surrounding former Penn State University football coach Jerry Sandusky’s trial where he stands accused of 52 counts of sexually abusing ten boys. Luke Dittrich writes a brilliant article about fatherhood and this scandal in the June/July 2012 issue of Esquire. Dittrich’s article, “In the Ruins of a Blue and White Empire,” approaches the Sandusky scandal through the lens of two of the central sons involved in this story: Jay Paterno, Joe Paterno’s son, and Victim #1, a fatherless boy.

Jay Paterno and Victim #1 couldn’t be more different. Jay paterno has had many doors opened to him because of who his father was. Victim #1 has only entered into a chamber of horrors as a result of the father he didn’t have. Interestingly though, Jay Paterno appears to cast himself and his father as victims. Their victimization comes as a result of accusations that Joe Paterno, the legendary coach, helped Sandusky commit his crimes by not doing more to stop him. From my reading of Dittrich’s article, Jay seems to think that his father’s legacy should remain untarnished and that he be considered blameless in these horrible events. He’s not alone in his beliefs. Victim #1 has been unfairly targeted for bringing shame upon Paterno’s legacy. People blame him for forcing them to see their idol as a man.

I always loved my father; most of the time I liked him; occasionally I feared him; and sometimes I was disappointed by him. I never idolized him. I was always hyperaware of my father’s limitations. I came closest to idolizing my grandfather. My relationship with my father prepared me to be a cautious admirer of any potential idol. Having a father who would call and say he was going to do something with you and never show and promise gifts that he would never give helped to keep me clear-eyed about a man’s limitations. But if I ever forgot, my mother and my grandmother always reminded me to keep guard against blind worship.

Before I knew my grandfather, he had been an alcoholic and my mother never seemed to forgive him for it. She was always a little bit cool towards him and he seemed to accept that from her. My grandmother didn’t seem quite so impressed by my grandfather either. I would watch my mother and my grandmother ignore my grandpa’s teasing; not go to him for advice like everyone else seemed to; want him to “hush up Charlie, and just be quiet.” One time, my grandfather was on the porch regaling us with stories of his horn playing days when he was a boy in Louisville, Kentucky. My grandmother must have crept to the door as he was telling his tale and called me inside when she had had enough. “I want to tell you something,” she might have said as a way to begin. “Your grandfather played the sorriest horn you ever wanted to hear,” she said without a doubt. I remember wondering why she had done that. Why not let me believe my grandfather could have been as good as Charlie Parker? For years since I’ve thought about that moment and I decided that my grandmother wanted me to know that men, even the ones we deeply love, have limitations.

Former assistant coach Mike McQueary taking the stand for the prosecution yesterday at the Sandusky trial and his role in this case has consistently framed for me the position of actual men versus idols.  McQueary saw Sandusky showering with one of the boys and his reporting of the events to Paterno set off a string of events that eventually led to Paterno’s firing and now Sandusky’s trial. Instead of rushing in to save the boy from what he thought was an assault, McQueary caused some commotion to alert Sandusky to his presence before leaving the locker room. After composing himself, McQueary called his father for counsel and his father advised him to tell Coach Paterno. For me, McQueary’s actions firmly place him in the world where men reside. Men have limitations. They too can come undone by the horrible things they encounter in the world. The disappointment that many seem to find in McQueary’s failure to be a better hero for the poor child being assaulted stems from a failure to accept experience in human terms. Human beings have limits–even the one’s we try and turn into idols.

Trapped between an idol and a monster, Victim #1 has caught hell from adults and students alike in the small town Pennsylvania community that identifies him. As you consider the fact that the Paterno family received a call from the President of the United States on the day of Joe Paterno’s funeral and that a large number of people want to rename major streets after the Coach, you wonder how Victim #1 understands his own value. According to Dittrich, Victim #1 penned an essay about heroes where he wrote , “I’m glad I’m a hero. I save myself all the time.” His outlook holds promise. At least he thinks of himself as someone worth saving.

See Also: 

Reading with My Father: Slim’s Table Interlude (onPenn State)

Jacob Philadelphia, President Obama, and the Barber

Jacob Philadelphia, the little boy who touches a bowing President Obama’s hair, is such an interesting child. He and his family were interviewed on Lawrence O’Donnell’s The Last Word and he pretty much stuck to his story about Obama’s hair: it felt the same as his own. The new detail regarding his fascination with President Obama’s hair is that when his mother takes him to the barber, he consistently asks for a haircut like the President’s.

Interestingly, “The Obama” cut is actually a style listed on Hyde Park Hair Salon’s price list given its popularity. Zariff, the President’s barber and thus, First Barber, describes the style to Essence magazine in this way:

The Obama cut is a custom cut. It came about in 2004 when Mr. Obama came into the shop and said he was speaking at the Democratic National Convention that evening. So I had to make him look sharp. Before that he was wearing his hair longer and a little curlier. I took it down to a short cut, tapered on the sides, back and neck. I wanted it to look more natural.

Mr. Obama’s haircut received slightly negative attention in May when reports began circulating that Zariff was trekking from Chicago to Washington, D.C. every two weeks to give him his now famous cut. The ostensible scandal involved whether or not taxpayers were paying Zariff’s expenses; the carbon footprint being created by these trips; and the general notion of extravagance surrounding a seemingly mundane event. Neither Zariff nor the White House addressed the specifics of their arrangement; though Zariff confirmed that Mr. Obama pays $21 for his haircut just “like everyone else.”

“Barber-gate” aside, I think it’s interesting that “The Obama” is a popular request at Hyde Park Hair Salon. I think it’s interesting because it reflects an aesthetic investment and set of conventions usually unseen in popular culture about black men. The clean, neat cut that characterizes “The Obama” was familiar to me as an aesthetic pursued by men who found eloquence in a conventional life. I was reminded of the possibility of black men desiring conventional lives when I considered Obama’s hair and the popularity of the style in conjunction with one of the books that impacted him as a kid, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.

Obama’s investment in Song of Solomon makes sense in light of how he identifies his quest for self-identity in Dreams from My Father. When he was fifteen, the President writes that he was engaged in a “fitful interior struggle,” as he was “trying to raise [himself] to be a black man in America, and beyond the given of my appearance, no one around me seemed to know exactly what that meant.” Reading the classics of African American literature provided young Obama with material from which to draw on in his efforts at racial self-fashioning. It is clear why Song of Solomon, with its interest in black male questing for identity, would have appealed to him. One scene from the novel resonates powerfully with Obama’s quest, especially as it occurs in a space long associated with black men’s tales of coming-of-age, the barbershop.

Railroad Tommy and Hospital Tommy, the proprietors of a barbershop, provide Guitar and Milkman with the frank talk about black male experience that young Obama, who was about the same age as Guitar and Milkman when he experienced his “fitful interior struggle,” might have yearned to hear. In one powerful scene, the barbers learn that Guitar is frustrated because Feather would not allow he and Milkman to stay in his bar and have a beer. The “lecture” that follows from Railroad Tommy details a host of disappointments the young Guitar can expect as a black man in America:

 “You think that’s something? Not having a beer? Well, let me ask you something. You ever stood stock still in the galley of the Baltimore and Ohio dining car in the middle of the night when the kitchen closed down and everything’s neat and ready for the next day? And the engine’s highballing down the track and three of your buddies is waiting for you with a brand-new deck of cards?”

Guitar shook his head. “No, I never…”

“That’s right, you never. And you never going to. That’s one more thrill you not going to have, let alone a bottle of beer.”

Guitar smiled. “Mr. Tommy,” he began, but Tommy cut him off.

“You ever pull fourteen days straight and come home to a sweet woman, clean sheets, and a fifth of Wild Turkey? Eh?” He looked at Milkman. “Did you?”

Milkman smiled and said, “No, sir.”

“No? Well, don’t look forward to it, cause you not going to have that either.

Hospital Tommy drew a pinfeather toothpick from under his smock. “Don’t tease the boy, Tommy.”

“Who’s teasing? I’m telling him the truth. He ain’t going to have it. Neither one of ’em going to have it. And I’ll tell you something else you not going to have. You not going to have no private coach with four red velvet chairs that swivel around in one place whenever you want ’em to. No. And you not going to have your own special toilet and your own special-made eight-foot bed either. And a valet and a cook and a secretary to travel with you and do everything you say. Everything: get the right temperature in your hot-water bottle and make sure the smoking tobacco in the silver humidor is fresh each and every day. That’s something else you not going to have. You ever have five thousand dollars of cold cash money in your pocket and walk into a bank and tell the bank man you want such and such a house on such and such a street and he sell it to you right then? Well, you won’t ever have it. And you not going to have a governor’s mansion, or eight thousand acres of timber to sell. And you not going to have no ship under your command to sail on, no train to run, and you can join the 332nd if you want to and shoot down a thousand German planes all by yourself and land in Hitler’s backyard and whip him with your own hands, but you never going to have four stars on your shirt front, or even three. And you not going to have no breakfast tray brought in to you early in the morning with a red rose on it and two warm croissants and a cup of hot chocolate. Nope. Never. And no pheasant buried in coconut leaves for twenty days and stuffed with wild rice and cooked over a wood fire so tender and delicate it make you cry. And no Rothschild ’29 or even Beaujolais to go with it.”

A few men passing by stopped to listen to Tommy’s lecture. “What’s going on?” they asked Hospital Tommy.

“Feather refused them a beer,” he said. The men laughed.

“And no baked Alaska!” Railroad Tommy went on. “None! You never going to have that.”

“No basked Alaska?”Guitar opened his eyes wide with horror and grabbed his throat. “You breaking my heart!”

“Well, now. That’s something you will have–a broken heart.” Railroad Tommy’s eyes softened, but the merriment in them died suddenly. “And folly. A whole lot of folly. You can count on it.”

“Mr. Tommy, suh,” Guitar sang in mock humility, “we just wanted a bottle of beer is all.”

“Yeah,” said Tommy. “Yeah, well, welcome aboard.”

Railroad Tommy’s list of disappointments reads like the Blues. At the same time that it details a series of negative experiences, it acknowledges a recognition for, and perhaps even a nearness to high quality. Railroad Tommy and men like him, black men, had seen Beauty. In America, the experience of being a black man essentially means that seeing Beauty, a thing most desired and cherished, being in proximity to it was as close as you would come to having it. No matter how small or minor the wish, you, a black man, couldn’t have it; even a beer.

The elegance of the conventional life that “The Obama” represents reflects a standard born from this context. Black men of Railroad Tommy’s generation invented an aestheticized notion of what it meant to live conventionally in light of the social, political, and economic constraints that may still be found in the pursuit of President Obama’s haircut. Young Jacob’s interest in “The Obama” suggests that the quest for an African American aesthetic sense of the conventional still tugs.

See Also: 

Leaning in to History

Models Monday: Summertime

Jerry Pinkney, “The Grasshopper and the Ants” from Aesop’s Fables.

When Toni Morrison and her son Slade set out to interpret “The Grasshopper and the Ants,” they were interested in the artist’s labor. Mother and son were interested in the fact that the grasshopper labors through his musicianship. His labor does not lead to him storing up provisions but it benefits the community who listens and dances to it. When winter comes and grasshopper lacks provisions, ant refuses him given the pressing needs of his own growing family. Their interpretation centers on our obligations to one another; what we owe to our friends and our community. Pinkney’s rendering holds the grasshopper accountable for putting off until tomorrow what he should have done today.

Now seems the perfect time to consider this story as we approach the start of the Summer season. “The Grasshopper and the Ants” suggests that the Summer must keep the Winter in mind. The seduction of slipping fully into the indulgences of summertime is no better represented than through Al Green’s interpretation of the George Gershwin composed tune for the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess.

The earth yields abundantly during summer. Green’s bluesy interpretation makes Aesop’s grasshopper appear less foolish to me and more convincing for his belief that the ants’s work was out of proportion to the season. This sentiment gets conveyed through D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s classic joint “Summertime.”

“Summertime,” here again, is not at all about work but about romance between boys and girls; young men and young women; old folk play and young folk play; food and celebrations. Summertime appears to erase any hint of conflict as all know the role they are to perform. Maybe this is why in Aesop’s tale, grasshopper seems so put off by the ants; they won’t act out leisure like everyone else. The ants insist on seeing tomorrow coming and refuse to be seduced by a moment of seeming abundance.

Cautious indulgence is the moral that I’m taking from this story–at least this time around. Now that school is out and vacation season has started, this story reminds us that all play and no work will make Winter a hungry time.

Morrisonian Hope: T. Lang Dance Company Premiers Mother/Mutha

On Thursday, I went to The Goat Farm, a visually sumptuous arts center in Atlanta, to take in the premier of my friend T. Lang’s latest work Mother/Mutha. I had the great privilege of seeing her dance company working through some of the movements during an early rehearsal of the show and I was eager to see the realization of her vision. I had never been to The Goat Farm but I imagined it would be a rather intimate, urban spot in some part of the city where I had never been. So I was taken aback when I saw that The Goat Farm was an explicit reference. I sent my husband the above picture with a message that said: “There are real, live goats here!” Instead of the cold, dead, industrial space that I imagined being lit up by this performance, I started considering the fact of black women dancers in this bucolic scene and it immediately put me in mind of Toni Morrison’s Beloved (I know, everything does), particularly the Clearing, where “Baby Suggs had danced in sunlight.” Morrison describes Baby Suggs’s Clearing as “a wide-open place cut deep in the woods nobody knew for what at the end of a party known only to deer and whoever cleared the land in the first place.” The Goat Farm has an industrial past. It was first a site that manufactured cotton gins before making artillery during World War II. During the 1970s, it was used by an industrial engineer who also leased space to artists; apparently, the goats were brought in to eat the kudzu. The interplay of the industrial and the pastoral suited a performance that engaged black women’s violent, bodily interactions with history and their narratives of recovery.

Goodson Yard about 20 minutes before the show. The house was packed by showtime.

Unpaved roads lead to Goodson Yard, the warehouse seen in the above photograph. It was a beautiful evening to take in an event in the semi-outdoors. My phone told me that it was 79 degrees just before the start of the show. There was a wonderful breeze that would occasion past that added to the insistence to remain present to this experience. As I waited for the show to begin, I thought about Baby Suggs’s speech in the Clearing, her message of recovering, of laying it down, resounding in this setting. Through Baby Suggs, Morrison offers what has got to be the greatest speech written in the last fifty years. It is worth quoting at length:

“Here,” she said, “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavens instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver–love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life holding womb and you life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.”

And then she dances.

The five part composition that T. Lang choreographed was deeply rooted in sound: the sound of an auction barker; of a whip; of Bessie Smith; of Louis Armstrong; of crying; of wailing; of panting; of words; of silence. The visual range was stunning. The dancers were of varying shades of brown and carried that off through bodies of varying, refreshing frames. The masterful blending of the visual and the acoustic oftentimes through new technologies excited time. Every moment of the show felt urgent.

It must be an artist’s challenge to render ugliness beautifully. T. Lang’s choreography renders some of this through citing other artists, like Kara Walker, who have captured the crudity that black women have met in American life. As Lang’s work shows, for black women, crudity resounds like an anthem. But it was striking to me how hopeful the work felt. There was one narrative sequence where one dancer was moved like the stone that Sisyphus rolls. Each time she would be set in place, she would move and have to be reset. The dancer doing Sisyphus’s work kept an impassive face and I was reminded of Camus:

“The struggle (…) itself is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

I saw Mother/Mutha as an incredibly hopeful work. I saw the dancers always searching, questing for beauty despite the crudity that loops and repeats interminably. In the work of dancing, through art, the show seems to suggest, black women reflect the “flesh” work that Baby Suggs describes wherein a “you” recovers its own worth–finds its own “model by which to live” –and can be happy.

Milk, Biscuit, and Applesauce

The three items announced in the title of this post are actually listed as “Breakfast” on the menu of the Play School where we recently enrolled our son. Needless to say, I am horrified that this institution considers “milk, biscuit, and applesauce” a meal. You could read this menu and think that we sent our son to a scene from The Little Princess (1939) or better yet, Great Expectations. The austerity of this “meal” makes no sense. Why wouldn’t they try to enliven this choice with color? We live in Georgia and they make no effort to include the peach?! In fact, the fruit listed as an accompaniment to all of the meals on the menu is either processed or suspended in syrup of some kind, which is completely unnecessary. When I want to sweeten my fruit, I usually add honey. I recently watched a beautiful film about honey through a link on Simply Breakfast, one of my favorite food blogs to visit. In watching that video, you get the sense that those people know how to eat.

Breakfast is a deeply aromatic experience; it should smell rustic, earthy, and savory. There should be the scent of sweet or slightly tart berries mixing with the thick, heavy scent of percolating coffee, and complimented by a background of milk pooled in a mug, waiting in a creamer, and curdled in a dish.

The proposed breakfast menu at my son’s Play School fails to engage his sense of smell and this can cut him off from an intense set of experiences. In an article from The New York Times several years back on a conference on olfaction, the description of the power of the sense of smell was as poetic as my own memories stirred by the oatmeal my grandmother made with a touch of maple syrup and a pat of butter:

“Olfaction is an ancient sense, the key by which our earliest forebears learned to approach or slink off. Yet the right aroma can evoke such vivid, whole body sensations that we feel life’s permanent newness, the grounding of now.”

Our sense of smell can awaken us to the urgency of our existence and our uniqueness in the world. I love time’s presence in our sense of smell and recognize its potency. According to Jay A. Gottfried, as quoted in the Times,

“Olfaction is our slow sense, for it depends on messages carried not at the speed of light or of sound, but at the far statelier pace of a bypassing breeze, a pocket of air enriched with the sort of small, volatile molecules that our nasal-based odor receptors can read. Yet olfaction is our quickest sense. Whereas new signals detected by our eyes and our ears must first be assimilated by a structural way station called the thalamus before reaching the brain’s interpretive regions, odiferous messages barrel along dedicated pathways straight from the nose and right into the brain’s olfactory cortex, for instant processing.”

My perception of the coffee that I do not drink but whose scent I strongly remember percolating on Ma Mildred’s stove has the sense of pace that Gottfried describes. I experience it both as a whiff that creeps up out of my past and that is as available as it is gone. I can hear Ma Mildred’s husband Robert slurping his coffee from the saucer he took it from and I can see myself forming an impression. I seemed to be aware of myself creating memories at breakfast time; that’s what it seemed to be for.

My son and I make pancakes together in the mornings. He’s gotten pretty good at following instructions. He can dump and stir all of the ingredients “without making a mess.” This practice has become

something that we do together on the weekends. I’ve been trying out different biscuit recipes on Sunday mornings and he helps with that too.

My mother tried to make me feel better about the “meals” he would be served at Play School by telling me that he would get used to them. I explained to her that that is precisely what I don’t want to happen! I don’t want him to get used to that menu. So I’ve decided not to routinize that meal for him. When our schedule requires that we have to surrender him to that spartan, Play School fare, then he will encounter such austerity as an irregularity; otherwise, the evocative, aesthetic experience of an aromatic breakfast will be his measure. We take him to Play School after he’s had breakfast at home. We decided that his sense of smell was far too important to neglect.

Father’s Day Suite: John Edwards and Impoverished Children

It’s been about a week since John Edwards accepted responsibility for his “sins” in his press conference following the not-guilty verdict in his federal finance charges case. Making the distinction between his personal failings and his commission of crimes was a key strategy in mounting his defense. It is an important distinction. What worries me now is the work he plans to do for “impoverished children.” The New York Times reports that,

“Mr. Edwards closed his statement by saying that he believed that God was not finished with him yet and that he would spend the rest of his life trying to be the best father he could and work at how he could serve impoverished children in the United States and around the world.”

I hope that Edwards rethinks his photo op of impoverishment. This one takes place on December 26, 2006 when he became the first major presidential candidate to enter the race. Credit: CHARLES DHARAPAK/AP Photo.

I can’t help but to consider the limited way that Edwards might be conceptualizing what it means to be “impoverished.” For him, it seems to refer exclusively to money. In the Nightline segment that I watched, Edwards spoke of seeing children in the most poverty stricken places and believes that the Lord might have him serve those children. Poor children could certainly benefit from whatever money John Edwards can give them; they should take his money. Edwards, however, might want to spend some time considering how an expanded definition of “impoverishment” might be serviceable here. In his case, moral impoverishment best captures the “sins” that he accepts responsibility for and surely impacted his own children. The fact that they have money does not mean that they are not suffering as a result of their father’s moral impoverishment, despite his material wealth.

The public humiliation that Edwards has brought upon his own children would seem to create a strong need for him to consider the wreckage of moral impoverishment. Working through the salacious details of his own recklessness towards the feelings of his children is worth his investment. His actions put them under considerable public scrutiny. It pains me to think about how they were forced to enter into their public world and then come to terms with how they were being perceived; wondering how they would respond. I strongly identify with how his children might have suffered. Having to suffer through my own father’s worst times when I was a young girl made me sympathetic to my peers who were suffering the sins of their fathers.

My father came to my high school once to taunt me. I can’t even say that the taunting contained a plot, he just seemed to want to make me feel uncomfortable. I knew when I saw him that he had been plotting this bully session obsessively for at least that entire day. He could get that way when he was in one of his dark moods and when I saw him, I knew that I was in for something mean-spirited and largely incoherent. So on that day, he made me answer questions with language that good manners forced me to respond to in a way he could anticipate and thus controlled. All of my track teammates were around and they let me have my moment of glassy eyes after he left without question. And in turn, I defended them when they showed up to practice with startlingly jet black hair that covered their natural blond locks and stared off into space until their fathers came to practice; I watched them cry.

I thought about those Edwards children who might have had money but may not have had a mature enough relationship to language to respond to the sadness or to the curiosity of their peers and their peers’ parents and their teachers who wondered about them. How they all might have struggled with trying to show concern for those children who had to suffer their mother, Elizabeth Edwards’s pain, heartbreak, and sorrow as she was herself dying from cancer and losing her world. Though she isn’t old enough to have peers who worry about her yet in this way, I thought about the fact that Edwards’s affair has informed his youngest child’s public identity.

My father would spend the rest of his life “trying to be the best father he could be” and I think it was time well-spent. He did charitable work in El Salvador in 1999 and he worked with homeless families consistently until he passed in 2010. As he did it, he never overlooked his own impoverishment. In an interview that I conducted with my father during the summer of 2006, you get a real strong sense of the kind of thinking that my father did over his limitations as a father. Here’s a portion of the transcript where he reflects on his parenting when compared to his brother, my Uncle B.B.:

Dad: As a father? I’ve been envious of my brother’s relationship with his children. As a father-

Me: Really?

Dad: Oh hell yeah.

Me: O.K., because as I kid I remembered you’d talk about the pressure that he put on his kids that you weren’t happy with.

Dad: There’s a staying power-

Me: Mmm.

Dad: That in spite of the unhappiness, in spite of the fact that I disagreed with what he was doing, he didn’t go nowhere.

Me: Mmm.

Dad: You know. I can’t say that with you. See, but like I say, as an athlete, I’m not concerned about the game and the score of the game in the first quarter. You know. When it’s over, look at the scoreboard now. I feel like I’m a blessed individual that God put your mother into my life producing you. Oprah Winfrey? You ain’t seen greatness yet. I don’t care how much money Oprah got that if you gave me [a substance], my daughter versus Oprah, I’m picking my daughter. Not because she’s my daughter, it’s because I think she’s a great person. It was always real important to me…In the case of my brother, in spite of the fact–I made some youth adjustments, some peer pressure adjustments that affected my relationship with my daughter that all the things I said I’d never do, happened. And are there some regrets? Sure there are. You know. What do you do? Check me in the fourth quarter.

Me: Mm hmm. And as you say, rebound.

Dad: Oh I’m Dennis Rodman, I can rebound.

Me: But you think your brother is a cool father?

Dad: Oh God yeah. God yeah. How can you not be a cool father when you had health care for your kids and I didn’t have health care for mine? How can you not be a cool father when you were working everyday for your kid to not to have a scholarship but you could pay for them to go to school? How can you not be a cool father when you took your kid out of this environment and put them in a different one with a higher degree of education? When you always made sure that there was food on the table? That you were always there with some Kleenex? That you were always there at that baseball game that I was talking about?

Me: Mm hmm.

Dad: Oh it’s different things about him Bean(voice starts to break) that I respect the shit out of him for (trails off)…

Even if my father had not done a day’s work with “impoverished” children in El Salvador, I think his honesty about his limitations and his recognition of my Uncle’s good example redeemed him in many, many ways. I think he offers a good model for John Edwards to use for his own pursuit of being a better father to his children. My father would smile at the suggestion.

See also:

Reading with my Father

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