Monday, August 4, 2014

Moms and the Layaway Men



¡Hola! Everybody...
Today it’s my dear mother’s birthday. I love you mi viejita querida

For me, the archetype of The Mother isn’t a merely a downward spiral into an extended rap on identity politics (justified or not). For me, the archetype has much to teach all of us, regardless of our location on the power dynamic.
And to further clarify, at least from my perspective, motherhood has less to do with biology than many of us assume. Some of the most powerful mothers I have ever known never had children of their own. My aunt, Fefi was everyone’s mother. She raised more children than you can shake a stick at and if she were alive today and met you, she’d be your mother too. But she never had a child of her own, biologically speaking.

I had an aunt in Puerto Rico who received recognition from that Island’s governor – some kind of lifetime achievement award. She literally raised hundreds of children.

The woman my son calls mother is not the fruit of her womb. But she is as close to a mother he will ever know.

My sister Darlene never had a child but her instinct for nurturing and compassion is present in everything she does.

So motherhood (or parenting for that matter) is not just about biology, though I’m sure that’s an aspect of it. I think the Mother Archetype is instructive to all people in that it shows us the heart of the heart of compassion. A role model I certainly needed when I my then seven-year-old son and I were thrust together and I had to be a “mother” to him.

My own mother wouldn’t allow us to have pets, but she would welcome fragmented people into her home the way other mothers collected stray animals. The exiled, the unforgiven, the broken, the traumatized  — they were the cast of characters that populated my childhood. And as much as my mother helped these poor souls, a few would turn on her and I would shake my head and ask my mother why she bothered, and she would look at me and say, “There’s a God and He sees everything, it’s not for me to judge. You help because that’s what you are supposed to do. And if you can help someone but refuse, then you have wasted your life.”

It took me almost a lifetime to understand that wisdom…

Basically moms led a hilarious life with her children in tow — here’s a story I always remember…


 
* * *

The Case of the Layaway Men

We were all crying because the bad men were going to take the TV away.

            There was little else in that living room, I don’t think there was even a couch. We would sit on the plastic covered kitchen chairs to watch TV. And that’s what we were doing when these two strange men came into the room and started taking the TV away. I couldn’t have been more than five and my two sisters Darlene and Yvette were 3 and 2 respectively.

            We were crying.

            These two big bad men were taking the TV away.

            There were two things I remember most about that Lower East Side five-story walk-up apartment. One was that the bathtub was in the kitchen which made for funny situations during dinner time. The other was that it had this long, narrow hallway. So long, in fact, that I used it to ride a tricycle up and down its length. My mother was obsessively clean and the worn linoleum would gleam with floor wax and we would take a running start in our socks and slide across that long hallway.

            However, most of my memories of that apartment weren’t so good because it was the first time I would remember my father not being around. And when my father wasn’t around, things were hard for my mother and we had less to eat, less furniture.

            But we had this nice, brand new TV and these strange men were getting ready to take it away, so I cried, and my sisters followed suit. And my mother was standing there, not knowing what to do.

            Then she started arguing with these men. At first it was more of a plea. She was actually begging these men not to take the TV away. You see, the TV was bought on the ghetto “lay-away” plan, which was actually a scam to rip off those who had nothing to rip off in the first place. You would put an item on “lay-away” and that would allow you to take it home. You paid for the item in weekly installments. The thing was that the weekly installments often added up to more than twice the sticker price. In fact, most of what you got on "lay-away" was used -- items that were taken away from other families who had failed to pay the weekly installment.

            Aside from the long, narrow hallway, it was the only form of entertainment we had.

            Soon, my mother was engaged in an all-out argument with the men, who seemed to care less and weren’t even paying attention to my mother. You have to understand my mother is a petite woman who barely measures five feet tall -- not an imposing physical presence. So the men were ignoring my mother which made her more pissed off, which made us cry more.

            “You can’t do this!” My mother yelled.

            And everything stopped. We stopped crying because we knew that tone of voice. We had heard that tone many, many times before and it usually meant someone was going to get their ass kicked. So we stopped crying, perhaps hoping it wasn’t one of us. The men stopped because it was a defiant, authoritative voice. I guess they were used to taking orders and my mother had just barked one out that would’ve made a marine drill sergeant proud.

            The pause lasted a split second and the men continued preparing to take the TV and we got back to crying, knowing that it wasn’t one of us that was going to get our asses beat down.

            I remember my mother tried pleading one more time to no avail and then I got really scared because when I glanced over to her, she had The Look. I can’t ever sufficiently describe The Look. It was the look of death and it actually made my mother look taller, more powerful, but these guys just weren’t getting it, but we knew. We knew some shit was about to jump off. I felt so bad, I almost warned the men, but, having learned even at that early age that discretion is the better part of valor, I chose to stay quiet. My mother, seemingly defeated and frustrated, left the room...

            And when she came back, she had the largest knife she owned in her hands. It was the same knife used for special occasions for cutting a pernil (roast suckling) or something like that, and she had this wild-eyed look in her eyes. I swear her hair was standing up!

            “YOU’RE NOT TAKING THAT TV!!!” She roared. “You will take that TV over my dead body! My children are not going to suffer.” And with that, she yelled her death roar and made her charge, willing to die.

            Now, I was very frightened because I feared for my mother’s safety. My mother was small and petite and, after all, she was a woman. Surely, she wasn’t a match for these two big idiots who didn’t even know better to leave. The men, who had until then been ignoring my mother, freaked out when they saw my mother charging them with this huge knife in her hand. They tried to calm her down, but it was too late, I could’ve told them that. She went after them and the funniest thing happened: The men started to run!

            Or rather, they tried to run, but my mother had them pinned down, slashing at them with her knife and she meant to cut them. Through some miracle, they managed to elude my mother’s slashes and make it out the living room into that long hallway, whereupon they slipped and slid through the length of that recently waxed and gleaming long expanse. Somehow, they managed to make it out of the apartment, though my mother almost managed to stab the unfortunate one who slipped and fell.
            But that wasn’t enough for her. My mother chased those men down five flights of stairs and down the street where they had their truck parked. They almost didn’t make it. By then my mother had ripped open her blouse and was yelling, “Rape! Rape!” at the top of her lungs which caused all the unemployed Puerto Ricans who happened to be hanging out on the street corner that fine summer day to join in on the chase of these two poor men. I know this because I was running behind my mother the whole time. I’m her oldest, after all.

            They jumped in the truck making their final escape in a squeal of tires and a cloud of dust, never to be seen again, a mob of oppressed and frustrated Puerto Ricans on their tail.

            There we were in the middle of the street, my mother with a knife in her hand, clutching her blouse closed. She looked at me and said, “C’mon, let’s go home.” Somehow, I remember, my mother managed to look regal, her head held high, and no one dared say a word to her...

            And that’s what we did; we went home up five flights to that sad almost empty apartment. She put the TV back, plugged it in and told us that we could watch as much TV as we wanted and that no one would ever take our TV away. She left and got some overpriced, stale meat and other things on credit from the corner bodega. It is said that Cuba, the proprietor notorious for refusing credit to his own mother once, took one look at my mother and decided that was not best time to mention her credit was stretched too far. Later she cooked us dinner, with a Blackout Special as a treat.
And we were so happy.
That was the kind of mother she was: ferocious, fiercely protective of her children. Later in life, it was her power of example that maintained me and taught me never to give up when the odds seemed insurmountable. It was also her fierce love that nurtured and protected me, serving as beacon to a path for becoming a better man. I believe that if I were to carry my mother on my back for the rest of her life, I still could never repay her…

            I love you Moms

            My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Fathers, Sons, and Daughters



¡Hola! Everybody...
I guess this is not your typical fathers day blog offering. Sometimes the hardest thing is to be honest with one’s self… My fathers were good, if flawed, human beings, but they gave much.
Happy Father’s Day, everybody...
* * *
What Does it Mean to Be a Father?
What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?
-- Antonio Machado

I had two fathers and possibly more. I had uncles, older cousins, as well as elders from the community who were to me as fathers in some respects. But the two that were most influential was my biological father, Edwin, and my stepfather, Vincent. The two men were polar opposites.

My father was almost all yang: penetrating intelligence, extroverted, creative, charismatic -- he was everything a little boy wanted as a father. I adored him -- worshipped the very ground he walked and I wanted to be just like him. My father passed on to me the gift of the thirst for knowledge and I could never repay him for that. My father’s example taught me that there was a higher purpose in life and he taught me love for knowledge, beauty, and truth.

My stepfather, Vincent, was almost all yin: he was easy-going, definitely not cerebral, loved doing things with his hands, and loved music. As a child, he would take me to his various jobs and brag to his friends and co-workers that I was a genius. Then he would say something like, “Go ahead, ask him anything,” and his co-workers would and I would almost always get the answer right. He used to get a big kick out of that. Vincent, instead of resenting my intelligence, supported it. Any other man would’ve felt insecure, but not Vincent, because he was easy going almost to a fault. Not that he was a pushover, he wasn’t, he had the hands of a carpenter, large and rough, and I saw him knock out a man much bigger than him with one punch. He was simply less confrontational than my father. Vincent’s example taught me dependability, consistency, or “showing up” as might have put it.

These days it’s popular for talking heads and politicians of all stripes to go on at length about fathers and fatherhood. On one side, there’s the myopic notion that almost all social ills can be placed firmly on the shoulders of fathers -- or “absent” fathers. Of course, this is just a form of scapegoating. Sure, fathers are important in the development of young minds, but a father being more “present” doesn’t automatically translate to a better, more just society.

I once created a leadership development workshop that utilized relationship-building skills. My assumption then and still, was that the essence of leadership is about the ability to connect to people, not forcefully leading them by the nose. Whenever I would ask workshop participants to list what they perceived as leadership qualities, nurturing -- the core skill for relationship -- was almost never mentioned. When our culture emphasizes bread-winning and individual success for men at the expense of care-giving, the welfare of children suffers. A father’s absence influences the son and daughter’s development of social skills, self-esteem, and attitudes towards achievement. But more importantly, our culturally warped understanding of masculinity contributes to various forms of maladjustment, such as lack of impulse control, violence, incompetence, dependence, and irresponsibility. The son of a psychologically absent father experiences a weakened identification with what it means to be a man, and the daughter experiences a weakened relationship to the masculine principle.

Yet, in the name of family financial and psychological welfare, our legal system emphasizes the importance of the father’s job (or ability to earn), and therefore his absence, and award child custody to the mother nine times out of ten. When societal attitudes are unsupportive of the father’s active involvement in the family, then we see the fragmentation of family relationships so common today.

Don’t misunderstand my point: I am not advocating for some vague notion of “men’s rights.” I am saying that we -- all of us -- need to redefine what it means to be a man.

In the end, we are all flawed creatures. We all make mistakes. As for me, I would say that if you were to ask my son, he would give at best a mixed review. More likely, I don’t think he would characterize me as a “good” father. And he has good reasons for his view. In the final analysis, I too am seriously flawed human being. I guess what is important is not to get too stuck in who’s “wrong” and who’s “right,” but to do the right thing at the right time because it is the right thing to do at that moment.

And yet my own experience leaves with the feeling that a good father, however that is defined, requires more than getting the task done right. Perhaps fatherhood is more about being genuine and revealing ones vulnerability to those you love. When I reflect on the relationships between fathers, sons, and daughters, I am reminded of the words of the poet Rumi: “Out beyond rightdoing and wrongdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” My son, if he chooses, will one day be a father and if he can take even a little of what my own teachers gave me, then he will be a man.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

Headlines

[un]Common Sense