Sunday, June 28, 2015

A shaka in Panther City

It's been a long day, and I'm going to blog to unwind. Is it the norm to blog when you've nothing to say?

It's been a full day, working two shifts for the Fort Worth Bike Share program. Sweaty and grimy, I feel the gentle calm that comes from having worked all day in the sun...the fatigue works as a sedative, my body is relaxed and I feel at ease in the breeze of my fan while I nurse my last glass of Bockslider, a beer named in honor of the Texas band, The Toadies, who have performed at Martin House Brewery more than once...

One of the best moments today was in answering tourist questions about the Tarrant County Courthouse, and then seeing the elderly visitors study the panther sculpture that lies in respite across the street.

       "Do you know the story about the panther?" I asked as they took pictures with their phones.
       "No, tell us!" their enthusiasm was as genuine as my youngest son's when he is studying dinosaurs and caterpillars.
       "Well, the story goes that a reporter from Dallas, in the late 1800's, claimed that Fort Worth was such a sleepy, laid-back town that a panther could be seen napping on the steps of the court house...well, Fort Worth considered the intended insult as something to be proud of, and so folks began calling Fort Worth "Panther City."

They laughed, took more pictures, and thanked me for the story. Then I proceeded to drive off, leaving the company bicycle pump and a bag of tools used for bike maintenance under an oak tree on Main Street. I drove back to the shop, dropped off a couple of wounded bikes, drove across town to add a couple of bikes to an empty station, and then I listened to a customer who explained that his bike wasn't shifting. I answered some questions about the pricing structure of the bike share, took his bike to the truck, and reached for the tools...

I may have said an ugly word or two when I realized that my tool bag was probably being pawned in Haltom City. I lashed the broken bike to the trailer, jumped in and took off...I started estimating the replacement cost of the missing tools, then started figuring out how many hours I had lost as a result of having to replace them...

As I negotiated the heavy, leisurely paced traffic, I kept repeating one or two of those ugly words until I turned the corner from 3rd onto Main, and saw the yellow shaft of the air pump and the bag of tools resting as I had left them, chilling in the shade.

Faith in humanity restored.

The rest of the day went by with no drama...just constant movement, watching the computer to make sure stations getting full of bikes were relieved of a bike or two so that customers could park without fear of paying overage fees. Sundays are fun days, with groups checking out bikes together, because there really is no better way to see our city. Friends, riding fast enough to feel a breeze, socializing, exercising, getting fresh air, laughing...

A few weeks ago, a man pulled his car over to yell at me..."That right there is one of the biggest God Damned wastes of taxpayers' money I ever saw!"

    "Excuse me, sir?" I was used to people stopping to say "Thank you for doing this, this bike thing is such a service to our city, keep it up!" Occasionally, I hear people say things like, "I wish I had thought of this!" or "Y'all must be making a killing of that little piece of real estate!" as they look at the plot of land occupied by the Bcycle kiosk. There are a number of people who think the bike share program is Mayor Betsy Price's pet project, but I usually get to say something positive, and then explain that it is a private nonprofit organization. Yes, federal grant money was used to buy capital, but the running costs are met by donations, sponsorships, annual memberships, advertising, late fees...etc. Not taxed money.

This guy wanted none of that. "I know that you get subsidized..." and then he drove off. Due to traffic, I ended up behind him, and he lifted his hand high and gave me the finger until he drove past a pair of cops and then he changed his California howdy into a Hawaiian shaka sign that surfers use to send love. Ass hat. If only he could see the smiles on people's faces and hear how many are using the bikes to commute, each trip leaving a car parking space available for ass hats like him to use.

I'm not an evangelist for the cycling lifestyle the way many of my friends are. Lately, I choose to surf around on my long board rather than get the bike of the rack. I think it feels frivolous and free to skate around town like I do. I'm not getting any younger, so I want to do what I can to enjoy what I've got. It's more than that, though; it's like zen...when I find a good rhythm and gentle hill, and I'm coasting and carving, I can imagine riding a glassy wave, in tune with the natural forces at work in this world, until a wheel finds a piece of gravel, and then my old friend Gravity and his sister, Inertia remind me of my age.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Teaching Ollie to Ride

My ex wife and my oldest son went to New York City on a school field trip this week, so I have had the pleasure of taking care of Ollie, my 7 year old son.

When his brother, Dylan, learned to ride bikes, we had the whole family support group together...though I was largely responsible for teaching Dylan, I knew that if he ended up with skinned knees, his mom was home, able to help with first aid and cookies, if need be. It seems like I remember that Dylan learned pretty quickly, suffered a few set backs, including more than one episode with wasps stinging him while on rides, but eventually, he became quite able to ride. By the time he was 10 years old, he even joined me on a Critical Mass ride around Fort Worth, and a ride from downtown Fort Worth to Prairie Fest, out at the Tandy Hills Nature Area.

Oliver, on the other hand, has the same family members supporting his efforts to learn how to ride, but his support group is divided by divorce. Two different homes. Two different bikes.

I started trying to teach him a couple of years ago. Before the divorce, I bought a knock-off strider bike, a bike with no pedals, designed to teach kids to balance without training wheels. I saw videos of kids doing all kinds of amazing tricks, off-roading and coasting with these things. Ollie seemed too tall for the one I found, so his use of the bike was never as graceful as the videos I found.

In the months of separation and divorce, teaching Ollie to ride became a back burner issue. He outgrew the baby bikes we had been given by friends or found in thrift stores, so I took the pedals off of Dylans Specialized kids bike and let Ollie practice coasting on it. The wheels and pedal cranks look a bit big, but with the seat in the lowest position, Ollie could easily manage to push the bike with just his feet, so in between long boarding lessons and checkers and legos, we occasionally tried balancing on the bike, coasting up and down the sidewalk.

Yesterday, after spending the day at the Fort Worth Zoo, I suggested it was time to take the bike out again. Still without pedals, needing air in its tires, I set it up, inflated the tires, and set Ollie to work. He immediately made it look easy, so I asked him if he wanted pedals.

"Yep, I'm ready," he answered cheefully.

I had a pair of aluminum platform pedals with harsh looking studs that I feared would skin his shins, but I put them on anyway, and instructed him to put his feet on the pedals while I pushed.

"Just use them to balance at first, buddy." I guided him, one hand under the saddle and one hand on the left side of his handle bars. We coasted awkwardly down the sidewalk while I tried to feel that moment when I knew he was balancing on his own.

I'm sure someone has written poetry about this parental task...teaching a kid to ride. It's ripe for metaphor: supporting, guiding, with the ultimate goal of letting the child go, autonomously into the dangerous world, without our protective power. If I do it right, I give Ollie the ability to leave me. If I do it wrong, he will be bound to the sidewalk, dependent upon others for transportation.

I suggested we try to get to the park over on 5th, thinking that he might be able to ride in the open field. Slowly but surely, we labored down Allen and took a left on 5th, just past the Arts Center. As we made our way down the sidewalk, I notice a couple of boys sitting at a picnic table in the park.

"Hey! You trying to teach him to ride?" One yells, even before I we are across the street.


"You should teach him the Mexican way," he suggests.

I'm closer now, so I ask, "yeah? What's the Mexican way?"

"You take him to a hill, and the gravity keeps him rolling until he learns to keep going...he has no choice but to ride!" As I listen I grin, shaking my head. Imagining the skinned knees and elbows and possible medical bills....

"That's not a bad idea, but I'm gonna keep trying this first..." I started pushing Ollie in the grass, running with him as he began to pedal. Almost immediately, he was riding, though slowed by the thick grass. The louder of the two boys kept offering advice and suggestions...I took out my phone and made video clips of Ollie's successes. His failures were minor, and he seemed to feel safe enough to risk riding faster. He faltered when I tried to get him to ride on the park sidewalk, but I was still happy with the success we had experienced in the grass.

As we worked, the boys, who had started playing catch with a football, started yelling offensive curses to each other.

"Come on guys. Watch that language, I've got a little one here!" I used my teacher voice, slightly stern, but with a calm though plaintive quality that I could quickly transform into the voice of authority if need be.

As Ollie and I tried to leave, the loud one punted his ball so that it landed close enough to me that I was able to grab it and send it back in a forceful spiral, albeit a bit low to be a good pass.

"Hey!" He threw it back. I caught it and returned it in a high spiral arc.

Once more, then another....then, Ollie and I headed back down 5th towards Allen.

"Have a good one, guys!" As I guided Ollie back home, I smiled knowing that kids really haven't changed that much. I was in Ollie's shoes once...relying on my mom to guide me into the realm of self-supported cycling...I was like those kids in the park, testing newly found autonomy, challenging the world with words, testing my place in the hierarchy of things.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

June 18, 2015

As I sit comfortably, even if a bit sweaty, in my humble bachelor's pad in the Fairmount neighborhood of Fort Worth, watching my youngest son play Xbox without a concern in the world, I feel a weight of sadness, knowing that tonight people mourn loved ones lost to a senseless act of hatred and violence.

Back when I was about six years old, a year younger than my youngest is now, I became the victim of racial hatred. I was playing in the yard of our Denver apartment building when a black child who must have been 12 years old or so, found me alone and attacked me, calling me words I had never heard before, words I later learned all too well. I remember how it felt when he managed to kick me in my arm pit and how shocked I was to be receiving a beating from someone I had never seen before. I don't remember much about the aftermath, just the indignation of having been hated because I was white. In the years following the attack,  my family lived mostly on Air Force bases, and no matter what negative associations I might have with those places, I can remember that they were racially diverse communities where housewives often joined one another for coffee and gossip, and where race was seldom a reason to prevent someone from playing pick up games of football in the nearest field. My parents never used racial epithets around me, and never did we talk about the attack I had suffered as being a reason to cast dispersion on anyone of color.

Visiting my family in North Carolina, however, I learned that race was still very much an issue. The first time I remember hearing the "n word," was in the small community where my dad had been raised. Years later, when my father married my stepmom, an African American woman, I learned that even though most of the people I knew there would never condone lynching, they seemed quite certain by their responses that marrying outside of one's race was a cardinal sin. I remember thinking that, as much as I love living in the South, I wouldn't want to raise my children in a community that openly belittles others because of their skin color, or because of behavior that developed as a natural result of years of oppression. I remember being in my 20s, and feeling embarrassed by the shows of deference given me by elderly black folks working in service occupations. "Please ma'am, you don't need to call me 'sir,'" I remember saying to the elderly black lady who used to sweep my classroom floor with her God-awful dust mop that carried the mustiness of million passes across the elementary school floors.

Worse yet, I remember my own carelessness with words when I insulted a man I deeply respected, believing that because everyone knew I wasn't a racist, I could say anything and it would still be funny. Sorry, but being friends with someone for a semester does not allow me insensitivity towards his personal experience of being black.

Then, today, I read a comment Father Nathan Monk had made about his outrage that Dylan Roof, the white shooter of the black church members, was able to be arrested without violence, yet police had to brutalize poor black teens at a McKinney pool party, as though the two incidents occurring separately, thousands of miles apart, were evidence of a systemic problem with policing in America. Even though I am inclined to agree with that notion, to some extent, I chose to speak up, suggesting that at the moment when a suspect is being arrested, violence can be avoided, regardless of race:  "At the time of interaction with police, no matter the crime, the arrestee's attitude can affect the officer's behavior. Someone openly defying authorities is going to be taken down. It's ugly and sometimes brutal, but people can, except in those atrocious cases of abuse, avoid violence."

The OP then replied with a hashtag: "#victimblaming."

What followed was a series of posts and replies between me and Father Nathan Monk and those who agreed with me and those who took issue with Monk's comparisons between today's arrests and other instances of police excessive use of power when confronting black victims. 

It became clear that my view was being dismissed because I dared to suggest that some victims of police brutality could have avoided their fates if they had learned to respect authority. Sadly, there have been many well-documented cases where this was not the case. What seems to happen more and more today, through the posting and tweeting on social media, is that extreme viewpoints get all the attention, and those in the middle are thrust to one side or the other. The moral middle ground has become untenable in many instances.

For the record, I am glad to hear that the Texas Rangers are investigating what happened when the infamous McKinney cop tripped over a root and started pointing his gun at people. I am glad that Dylan Roof was arrested and will stand trial. I am glad that people are empowered to challenge authorities when authorities mess up. I am not glad that many people feel empowered to blame the cops for violence when I see children being brought up without guidance or expectations of respect for authority. 

In today's online debate, I dared to suggest that some of my students listen to rappers such as Chief Keef, and that they hear more from those who make millions promoting hate and criminal behavior than they do from elders who want them to become respectable citizens. A mother responded, saying that her son listens to all kinds of "ratchet" music and he stills loves his family and respects his elders. It is good that she is able to teach him to differentiate between music and the real world, because there are plenty of kids for whom no acceptable role model can be found. When there is no one to help shape our young people into citizens, what are we to expect of our law enforcement officers when push comes to shove?

Every institution in America needs improvement, no doubt. As I tuck my child into bed tonight, kiss his forehead and tell him that I love him, I know that the change needed in America is not the abolition of our law enforcement agencies. It may sound idealistic, and for students who suffered in my classes, repetitive, but the greatest change we need is empathy on all levels.

Imagine how much change could be effected if children were taught that empathy really mattered. When I taught English, I always emphasized the need for empathy in being an effective communicator and reader. The same applies for interacting with those who are different. Imagine if police officers learned to connect better with those they deal with, seeing perps as human beings, not just the offenses they commit...and those children being raised to understand one another and to see officers as human beings, not just symbols of authority to thwart...


There's a game that some play better than others, from which few can abstain...
Some play it forcefully, full tilt, pedal to the metal, their mettle tested
Others play passively, observing from the shadows, wall flowers, flowing with the go
     never seeming to commit, always aware,
but beware these players, 
     passive aggressively throwing their slugs,
     "yes sir, no ma'am, I'll do as you suggest sir,"
     They smile and look you in the eye, and they will comply if the cuffs come to shove
and their lawyers will post bail and they will survive and their charges will flutter unfettered to the floor.

righteously so,
the forceful will glare in the face of their oppressors,
and they will sound their barbaric yaups
and be cut down in the street 
as their mother's weeping plays 
in the clips on the six o'clock news, 
and edited, 
they will stream in the minds of the armchair anarchists who wait their turn to play,
their ammo boxes bulging with brass casings.

And what the world needs now is love,
the halftime show begins calling upon providence and justice
and jesters sneer, mocking the causes and players of the game,
and prophets predict doom, looking to the dusty volumes of archaic wisdom,
and I'm the man in the middle of the field, trying to forfeit the game altogether,
but by some obscurity of the rules, conscientious objectors find no sanctuary, and we must choose sides, even when truth lies somewhere in the gray areas of the game.