Friday, March 27, 2015

The Other Side of Bullying

I recently posed this question of a group of 1,000 Dad Bloggers:

"With bullying getting a lot of attention in recent years most of the stories have understandably focused on the victims. I'm wondering if any of you have had experience with, or written about, being the parent of a bully. I feel like it's a topic worth addressing, but I haven't seen anything out there."

I got two replies.

Now of course, as with any survey, especially a Facebook group survey, you don't know how much engagement you're actually getting. I have no idea how many dads saw the question. Still, two is a very low response rate.

Of the two replies one posited that it could be a hard thing to write about because of embarrassment or potential legal issues. Another told a story that I think is typical of how we tend to envision the parents of bullies as being bullies themselves. The story was told by a teacher who had intervened in an act of bullying in their class. Later, the father of the bully confronted the teacher in an aggressive and intimidating manner. To this teacher the source of the son's bullying behavior was clear. And I think that's a pretty typical narrative of what we think of when we think of the parents of bullies. The parents are also bullies, or abusers, or absent, or neglectful. Essentially, we often explain that kids are bullies because they have bad parents.

Another of the dad bloggers offered this, " I bet there are decent normal parents whose kid for whatever reason is violent or aggressive or intimidating."

I'm guessing that there's other stories out there as well. I imagine there's some shame associated with having a kid who's bullying. Maybe that's why we haven't heard the other stories. You'd think that just by sheer statistics that there are other circumstances, people who are trying to do everything right and still ending up with these behaviors from their kids. I'm curious about that.

There was a time when I was worried that my son was becoming a bully. It was devastating to think about. I was worried about having to face a lifetime of calls home from school and having to face angry parents a the PTA. It turns out, as I learned from a couple days observing the classroom, he was just being a normal 5 year old. But I think it could be a great resource for parents if people who had experience were willing to share.

Hopefully, by sharing those experiences we can look beyond simply blaming the parents. I later found this post on Punk Rock Papa where the author asked his Facebook followers a similar question. He also received minimal response. He lays into the problem pretty well for those of us who appreciate a good rant. There are two points he brings up that I found echo my own views. One is that we don't know anything about the parents of bullies, and that's a huge gap in our knowledge that leaves a dearth of positive tools for us to use in dealing with bullying. Second is that the Hollywood solution of round house kicking your way to a better tomorrow doesn't give our kids skills to apply later in life. As the author notes, kicking your bullying boss in the face isn't going to fly with upper management.

So where do we go from here?

For me the the interest in answering this question is two-fold. For one,
I've always been small, and I grew up being bullied. It shaped me and my interaction with the world way more than I realized until I was about 30. Basically, I saw anything that could be a potential injustice toward me as a fight. So I took an aggressive stance towards everything and everyone around me because I didn't want to allow an opening where I might be bullied. It was very counter productive. Fighting isn't the best strategy, the effect of fighting lasts long after there are fights to be had. Second, if my son does start bullying, I want to know if there's anyone else who has been through this. I want more tools to deal with bullying from the side of the perpetrator. 

The discussion with the dad blogger group led to another post on Tenor Dad where the author talks about his own experience being a bully. He discusses what led to his time bullying another child, and talks about how he plans to try to prevent creating future bullies. Tenor Dad writes,

I would be devastated to learn that my children were being bullied, but how much worse would I feel if I found out that they were the ones doing the bullying? No parent wants to believe that their child is capable of such things, but I can tell you that every child is. I was. You were. We have all been mean to someone at some time, and we all know how it feels when someone is less than kind to us. When the day comes that I am sitting on the couch, comforting a child who has borne the brunt of some juvenile cruelty, I will console them and I will hold them, but I will also ask them to remember that feeling anytime they are tempted to deal harshly with anyone else."

The victims of bullying deserve all the attention they have gotten, and will continue to get. I hope that by trying to take a more 360 degree view of the issue we can help parents of bullies to get involved in reducing bullying.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

My Child is Specal Needs, Until She's Not

I sometimes feel guilty when I say that my child has special needs because I know that it's a cheat. Sort of.

The thing is, I know her needs will end, where as for so many parents of special needs children it will never end.

Lou was born with a surprise complete bilateral cleft lip and palate. In hindsight it was actually perfectly clear on the sonogram, if you knew what to look for, which my wife and I did not. We would have expected our midwife to catch it, but since she later lost her license after several instances of gross malpractice it's no surprise now that she missed it also. But it was a surprise at the time. Sort of. (UPDATE: T tells me the radiology person should have seen it, not the midwife.)

My uncle had been born with a cleft lip and palate, but only on one side. This was in the 1950s, in Pakistan, where my grandfather was working for some kind of NGO. The story that was passed down to me was that by the age of three my uncle was still just babbling. Doctors told my grandmother that because of the cleft my uncle was retarded (that's what they called in 1959) and would never learn to speak. It turns out he was just speaking a very obscure dialect of Urdu, which he learned from spending 10 hours a day with his nanny. While T was pregnant with Lou I used to joke that she was totally going to have a cleft. Then she did.

Lou was born at home (with a different midwife, not the one who lost her license) so we had no idea what to do with her. This was the midwife's 700th birth and it just so happens that the instance of clefting is about 1/700. She didn't know what to do either. Within two hours were at our pediatrician's office, and an hour after that we were the cleft clinic open house at our local hospital. We were lucky that Lou had been born on cleft clinic day. Right there we met the entire team that would be responsible for her care for the next 18 years. everyone who came in with her chart (case manager, surgeon, audiologist, speech pathologist, ENT, geneticist) did a double take when they read that T had delivered three hours prior and was sitting there asking questions about Lou's future. (T is a super hero). All the specialists kept using the phrase "severe facial deformity." That wasn't fun, especially since she was so cute. The worst part of the trip was learning that Lou would not be able to nurse. The best part was learning that early and being given the special feeders she'd need.

So we took her home and immediately nick named her "Zoidberg" because that is how we cope with stress.

People hear about her cleft and the first comment they usually offer, "Oh, well that's no big deal. They can fix that now." And they're right. Sort of.

The clefting is a relatively easy fix, especially the way they used to do it in the 1950s, all at once and right away. I assume they dealt with the further issues later, but I don't really know. No one in my family seems to remember. But right, she'll have totally normal function by the time she's 20. She'll always have a scar and she'll never have cupid's bow, and part of me will always wish she'd been a boy, because boys have an easier time looking a little rugged. Peyton Manning had a cleft, he's not considered ugly and I bet you didn't even notice. (You can hear it in his speech if you know what to look for).  But she'll be fine.

To get to that point though she will need three or four surgeries on top of the two she's already had. All told it's a lip closure, palate closure, nose job, jaw realignment, tooth insertion or removal (depending on what her teeth do), and a possible palate lengthening (to help produce speech). But after all that she'll be fine. If it seems like a lot (or even if it doesn't) it's a lot. Seeing a three month old baby come out of anesthesia with a huge scar on her face is not fun. Having to do it again seven months later isn't fun.

The surgeries made feeding complicated. Well, more complicated. That T was hell bent on only giving Lou breast milk for the first year was also complicated. That part of it meant T was pumping eleven times a day at first, for 40 minutes or more each time. She later reduced that to about eight times a day. Still, that meant that not only did we have to plan every outing anywhere at any time around T's ability to pump, it also meant that even when she was at home she wasn't available half the time. This second fact was especially hard on our two year old son. That much pumping was also draining for T, both physically and emotionally. She happily nursed our oldest for two years. Spending twelve months as a dairy cow was not as rewarding.

I know how this reads to people who have experience with special needs children, "Being inconvenient isn't the same as a really having special needs." You're right. But there's more. Lou qualifies for and requires special services. She's had free in home speech therapy through the county. She'll have IEP and qualify for early entry services in public pre-K. This means dealing with the admin side of having a special needs child. Lots of meetings, and follow up meetings. She faces scrutiny in public, from honest comments from other kids, to ignorant comments from adults, to teasing on the playground. Luckily all of these have been rare so far, but I worry about her going to school. Still, by the time she's 20 she'll be totally "normal."

That's why it feels like a cheat. That's why I feel guilty saying that my daughter has special needs. Because even though that's true right now, it's going to end, and the end is going to be fine. Meanwhile I know people who have kids that really have special needs. Kids who have had open heart surgeries within minutes of birth. Kids who eat through tubes. Kids who have cognitive or neurological issues that may not ever go away. Unlike some parents I won't have life long fears for her. Her situation isn't life threatening. With a series of painful and invasive medical interventions she'll grow out of it. So whenever I think about the things Lou needs that my other kids don't, whenever I schedule a determination meeting or register for support services I feel a little guilty. I feel like there should be another category for people like us, for people who have short term needs. I wish there were a category that didn't make me feel like I was disrespecting the struggles of other parents who don't have a light at the end of the tunnel.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Why I Went to Ferguson

It's now the end of March, 2015 and the DOJ has released their reports on the shooting of Michael Brown and their investigation of the Ferguson Police Department. The reports are mixed if you're a proponent of the "Black Lives Matter" movement. I'll admit, I haven't read the reports themselves, and I probably won't. I have read about them and the conclusions seem to be that while the department was rife with racism and rights violations, the shooting of Michael Brown was likely not the injustice we believed it was. Whether the DOJ report sways you or not is up to you. I personally believe in the DOJ investigation, in part because I supported the call for them to investigate and I feel like I have to stand by the result. That may seem weird given that I did not stand by the findings of the grand jury who examined the case. But I have more faith in a Federal investigation into this kind of crime. I also still believe that Darren Wilson is guilty of something, even if I don't know what that is, and I firmly believe that there could have been, and should have been options available to him in subduing a suspect under these circumstances. Though our understanding of the facts in the Brown case may have changed, that doesn't change the importance of the "Black Lives Matter" movement, which has become about more than just Michael Brown.

Even with that exhaustive introduction, I'm not actually here today to discuss the merits of the DOJ reports or the case itself. I know that while I have outrage and consternation, I don't have any insight into that aspect of the case. Instead I'd like to go back to August of 2014, when I went to Ferguson.

I'll be honest, even after the decision was made I didn't know why I was going.  Well, I knew why I was going. I was going because my wife had decided that the only thing she wanted for her birthday was for us to go to Ferguson, to march, as a family. In a way I understood. We had been sitting watching things unfold with a feeling of total helplessness. Posting on Facebook to an audience that was largely already on our side wasn't very satisfying. We wanted to help, but I didn't know what going to Ferguson would accomplish. There were already people there, what good, what difference, would the four of us make? But I am notoriously bad at giving gifts, so when my wife proposed this trip I agreed without hesitation. I wish I could say I made the decision for a more noble reason, but initially it was really just so I could give my wife something she really wanted for her birthday. So we decided to make the seventeen hour drive to Ferguson on a Friday night (so the kids could sleep the whole way and feel less of an impact) and come back Sunday night.

In the days leading up to the trip, and on the drive we talked about our goals for being there. My biggest fear was that we would end up as Disaster Tourists. My wife's feeling was that she wanted to go for several reasons. She wanted to show that non-Black people care about these issues. She wanted to be a white face in the crowd in order to show that this is an American issue, not just an African American issue. She didn't mean that in the tone deaf manner of the misguided "All Lives Matter" people. She wanted to show that people of different races, and from different places, care about what's happening in a small suburb of St. Louis that most of us had never heard of before. She also wanted to show the kids that activism is important. We had been talking with them about Ferguson for a couple weeks at that point, and she wanted them to see that you can get involved in world events, rather than just sitting back and watching them unfold. I agreed with these reasons, but I was still uneasy.

I didn't actually do any marching in Ferguson. I dropped off my wife and daughter at the march and went off to secure our motel and get some sleep, as I'd done the bulk of the over night driving. Later on I drove to pick them up at the same McDonald's where police had harassed journalists in the early days of the protests. Driving down W. Florissant Ave. past the burned out gas station and the boarded up BBQ place that had a Clerks-like "We're open" spray painted on the outside was surreal. The thing I noticed though, was that at that time Ferguson had the most polite drivers and pedestrians I'd ever seen. Whatever was happening in that community had either created, or maintained, incredible civility towards each other. The McDonald's parking lot was very busy, but no one was frustrated. People waved other drivers ahead, merged efficiently, and allowed pedestrians to pass. The pedestrians checked and made eye contact and acknowledged the drivers. It was astounding. The sense of community was palpable.

I started to figure out why I was there as I started to interact with people. The 900 mile trip meant we needed an oil change while we were there. While sitting in the car at the Valvoline on W. Florissant the attendant asked us why we in town. She was clearly surprised by the answer that we were there to protest. "Why?" she asked. At that moment, in that conversation, it was clear that we were there to do more than just show up and observe and be seen. We were there to meet people and talk to them, and to show that the media attention had an actionable result. The woman at the Valvoline and many others we met seemed both surprised and appreciative of the idea that the protestors' could inspire a family to not only agree with their message, but to come down to hear it first hand. We were there to represent people from other parts of the country. We were there to show the community that they were not alone, the their message was being heard.

We went to church at St. Stephen's the next morning. The priest, as we expected, discussed the on-going situation in his sermon. The parish welcomed us and wanted to hear our story. They asked if anyone was celebrating a birthday, and I outed my wife who was given a cross on string as a gift. We saw what the church had been doing in the weeks since the Michael Brown shooting. They had an overwhelming pantry of donated food and clothing. The parishioners told us they had been serving many hundreds more people since the protests began than they did during calmer times. They were also re-donating food to larger shelters and congregations. People had come to them saying that there were older people in the Canfield area who were in need of food and toiletries but couldn't go out for them because they were either afraid, or because the stores were closed. The church was trying to find out how to identify these people and get them supplies, while also being unobtrusive.

Talking to parishioners helped to understand another reason for me to have made the trip. I was there so that people could tell me their views, and I could bring them back to my community. The view of the people I talked with was that they were with the protestors, and against the rioters who they saw as being an outside element. They wanted people to know that their community was generally peaceful, but that they were all fatigued by the kind of injustice later revealed in the DOJ report. They wanted people to know that they were a normal community going through a tough time, and pulling together, and supporting each other.

That's what I witnessed. That's what I brought back with me. That's what I told people in conversations about Ferguson. The people of Ferguson are ordinary people, just like people in any other city in America. All they want is to be able to get up and go to work and live their lives without being harassed, or beaten, or shot. They are people who decided they'd had enough and rose up and said so.

Regardless of how their community is portrayed, or reported on, they just want the message to come through that they're us. So that's why I was there, to internalize the experience and the message. To try, in a small way to remind the rest of us that the people of Ferguson are just that, people. Regular people, who were put into an unusual circumstance, who helped shift the national focus and the national conversation, but who want us to know that they're really just us.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Time I was Totally (Accidentally) Racist and Why it’s Still Not OK

I recently read this blog post by comedian W. Kamau Bell about an experience he had with racism at the Elmwood CafĂ© in Berkeley. Reading the post was like a punch in the gut. It’s well written. It touched me because I have almost always been in inter-racial relationships, and because it shows how easy it is for people to look at a scene, apply their (sometimes) unconscious ideas about race, and then act like racists. In Bell’s story it’s a waitress, but in other stories it’s a cop, or a teacher, or the unofficial neighborhood watch vigilante. But that’s not why the story resonated for me.

When I was in my early 20s I was a waiter at a fairly popular restaurant in Berkeley. Now, if you’re not from Berkeley, there’s a belief that Cal (University of California) has a high percentage of Asian students. I have no idea if this is true relative to the numbers of Asian students at other universities in California, or in the US. I know that the folklore of it is enough that when I was a senior in high school my Japanese grandmother told me, “Don’t put down Asian on your application. They already have too many Asians and they won’t take you. Just put down Puerto Rican.” I don’t think my Asian-ness hurt me. I probably would have done better if I could have hidden my 2.3 high-school GPA. At any rate, there’s supposedly a lot of Asian students running around Berkeley.

One day I was working a lunch shift. It was kind of a slow day, but for some reason I was feeling really rushed. I think it’s because I had some tables outside and some tables inside. Whatever it was, I was not doing a good job in general that day and not for any good reason, I remember that much. A couple came in and sat in the back. It was an Asian couple, dressed in nondescript clothing, the woman had long hair, the man wore glasses. I was tardy in greeting them, I was embarrassed about that, and I was rude because I was ashamed of being bad at my job. I took their order, but for whatever reason I was slow in bringing it out.

While I was being slow and terrible at waiting tables I kept an eye on the couple as best I could. At one point the guy said something like “Are you ever going to acknowledge us?” He was clearly exasperated. I think I gave him weird grumpy look. I went and got their drinks and brought them over.

“We didn’t order these.”

“Yes you did.”

“No. We didn’t.”

“Yes you did. This is a heff, and this is a pale. Did you not know what they were?”

“You haven’t even talked to us yet.”

“What are you talking about? Of course I have. Fine, what do you want?”

“You know what, never mind.”

And with that they got up and left. I was furious. Sure, I hadn’t done my best job, but this seemed insane. I brought the drinks back to the bar and was telling the bar tender the story when I looked up. Coming back from the bathroom was the couple who had ordered the drinks. The guy gave me a look that said, “Yes, you took so long we both went to the bathroom and now we’re back and you still haven’t gotten our drinks.” I thought to myself, and probably muttered, “Oh you’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”

Yup. The couple I’d had the confusing exchange with was a second Asian couple in nondescript clothing. The man had glasses, the woman had long hair. The couple that had decided to leave looked back and locked eyes with the couple I was sheepishly bringing drinks to. They didn’t say anything, but the small nods and grim smiles they exchanged said, “See, this guy’s a fucking racist.” I knew right then that at best I wasn’t getting a tip, at worst I was getting fired.

I made a lot to excuses for myself over this. They were dressed so similarly. Their other features, the hair, the glasses, would have produced identical answers in a game of “Guess Who?” They had decided to sit at identical copper stand ups at opposite ends of a part of the restaurant where the north side mirrored the south side. I’m not racist towards Asians, I am Asian!

I made a lot of excuses, but I never really believed them. This experience has haunted me for years and I almost never talk about it. The truth is I failed to take the time to see people as individuals. I made quick decisions based on superficial factors. I proved that I’d be a terrible person to task with picking someone out of a line up. (I think this helped me understand how unreliable eye-witness accounts can be.) I could have remembered if they were on the brewery side or the bathroom side.  I could have looked at the woman’s purse to see if it was a clutch or a purse or a bag.

But even if you buy any of the reasons to let me off the hook the fact is that those four people didn’t know any of that. Their experience of it was that I just mixed up two Asian couples, who to each other probably didn’t feel like they were alike in anything other than being Asian. I caused them to feel the sting of casual bullshit racism. And it was my fault.

So what’s the take away?  I’m not writing this to make excuses for the woman at the Elmwood. I’m lucky that this was before social media and blogging because I was able to learn a valuable lesson without being fired (neither couple even talked to the manager). I also hope that it can show that we do have to be vigilant in our actions and perceptions. I grew up as a mixed race kid in the most famously liberal city in America, and I got so comfortable in the idea that I was past racism that I made a mistake that offended four people. Maybe you think “Come on, it’s not like you were yelling slurs at the JCC.” OK, sure. But I don’t like the idea that four people were able to feel confirmation (probably for the millionth time) that the world sees them as a homogeneous “other.”  Even if I’m not racist, I contributed to the experience of racism in the world. That sucks.

When I talked to my wife about this she was relieved. She constantly beats herself up about things she thinks about race, especially when she doesn’t feel like she can think of a way to mitigate those thoughts. She’s not a racist. Far from it. But she did grow up in a mostly white world. This is something she’s confronted head on over the last ten years in exactly the ways you would want an ally to do. For her, this story validated the work she’s done, because it shows that even us iPride veteran hippie POCs have work to do. So I think that’s part of the take away too. Not to excuse racist acts, but to produce some empathy for people who misstep in their thoughts while on the journey to cultural enlightenment. And to take some of us, who might think we have it on lock, down a notch, and encourage us to keep being mindful and vigilant.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Here is a version of my remarks at Affys memorial. It's not exactly what I said, I didn't have much written down. Instead this is culled from my memory of what I said, or wanted to say. But I wanted to share it with you in case you wanted to have it.

Photo of George Bertelstein by Jessica Rose

Standing here now reminds me of the last time I stood before many of you in the woods and spoke. That was at Affy and Katy’s wedding.

Unlike George, I have an almost complete in ability to speak in any way other than off the cuff. So I hope you’ll forgive me if the transitions and relevance of my comments don’t totally flow in a way that makes sense. But that’s what having a conversation with Affy was like. He’d make three or four logical leaps in his mind that he wouldn’t share and then he’d give you the conclusion, and it was up to you to try to put it all together and figure out how he got there.

Afran Abraham. Abraham is fitting. Affy was a father, not just to Leo and Sophie, but in a way he was the father of our mirth. From the time we met him it felt like any gathering of people was just that, a group of people in a room, until Affy got there, and then it was really a party. It’s like, when he got there everyone could totally relax and have fun. Like air had been pumped into the room. Affy was fun in a completely unselfconscious way. He could dance like no one was watching while also totally hoping everyone was watching. He was like a miniature Bacchus, our personal God of carefree enjoyment.

I’ve been trying to figure out why this has hit me so hard, why I’ve felt so unstable the last week and a half.  We’ve lost people before, I’m sure we all have. But this was different. When we were in our teens and twenties we knew some of us weren’t going to make it out. That was who we were, it was how we lived. When we made it into our thirties I thought we were safe. That the danger had passed and we wouldn’t have to do this again for another thirty years. The reason I’ve been so unstable is because I’ve lost one of my pillars. I’ve lost one of the people who made me who I am. Affy was one of the few people who have ever made me feel totally accepted, totally comfortable. He did that for a lot of people. He treated everyone like they were his best friend. He made me feel so comfortable I would do things for him that I probably wouldn’t do for anyone else.

I’d like to tell a story about that, if you’ll indulge me. This was back when we were both working at Togo’s, and living at Affy’s parents’ house. I was renting a room in the attic. Some of the old Togo’s crew is here today. So we lived on the north side of campus, and worked across campus on Telegraph. Togo’s had a very simple dress code, pants and a white polo shirt. I had just been promoted to low level shift manager, and it was my job to enforce the dress code. So one day Affy shows up. Late. And he’s wearing the most ridiculous pair of acid-wash, cut off, jean shorts you’ve ever seen. And that’s not the worst part. He’s also wearing, and if you will, please close your eyes and try to picture this shirt. It’s a purple t-shirt, and says, “LOVE” spelled out in glittery, rainbow puff paint dots that look like tiny Hershey’s Kisses. And I’m like, “Affy, you can’t work in that outfit.” But I also know that he’s going to have to walk all the way back across campus and all the way back, and he’s already late. So I grit my teeth, and I take one for the team. “The team” being Affy.

“OK Affy. We’re going to trade clothes.” So we go to the office and trade clothes. Now, Affy was slightly larger than me, so now not only am I wearing this Tobias Funke outfit, but it’s huge on me. Have you ever seen someone in baggy cutoffs? So now I have to walk back across campus in this outfit. And it’s the first really nice week of spring, and the college girls are out in their it’s-finally-spring-and-I-can-get-some-sun outfits. So there’s just beautiful girls all around looking hot in their spring garb, girls I want to date because I’m eighteen, and I’m wearing Affy’s acid wash Daisy Duke nightmare outfit. So what do I do?

I strut.

Because I know that’s how Affy wore it over there.

I strut, because if you’re going to wear the man’s clothes, you have to sport the man’s confidence.

I think many of us are searching for answers, and I don’t know if there are any answers to be had. Something that has helped me, that has gone through my mind often these past days, is a prayer we say each week in church. We say this prayer to God, but I think it works just as well for Affy, or for each other. I’d like to share it with you, and though I know that we have many different faiths and beliefs, I hope there’s something we can take from this.

We confess that we have sinned against you
In thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone
We have not loved you with our whole heart,
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry, and we humbly repent.

The message I take from this that we have to commit to loving each other. I think that when we look at the regret in our life, it’s the things left undone that we regret the most. So I urge you to take the time to reach out to the people you love. Do it small ways. Let them know you care, that you’re thinking of them, that you love them. We are a community, and it’s only by loving each other with our whole hearts that we will be able to survive.

Thank you.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Love of a Good Man

I should be grading, but I'm not. I was grading on Sunday when I learned that one of my closest friends had died. His wife called me to tell me, and ask that I help inform our friends.

Afran was young. Too young to be lost like this. His children are too young to have lost him. His wife is too young to be a widow, and a suddenly single parent. They are all too young to face the enormous task of living a world without him. They are all forever changed.

Over the last week I've been asked to help with some small tasks for the family. Part of that has led me to have contact with many people in Afran's life who I either did not know, or did not know we had in common. The common refrain from all of them is that Affy was a bright, charming, witty, wonderful person. They're not wrong. He was also a man who liked to play the fool.

This was a guy who could have what, on the surface, appeared to be a very knowledgeable conversation about literature, when the truth was that he spent time memorizing the synopsis and analysis on the dust jackets of important works. He could have read the books. He would have understood them, and likely come up with insights and connections to other works that I would never have figured out. But he was busy playing Madden.

If you met him at the right time (say, after a dust jacket binge), you'd think he was Will Hunting. If you met him at the wrong moment you'd think he was a living, breathing Homer Simpson. Here is how he described himself in a Facebook note a few years ago:

"11. I got 760 on my GRE in Math (99th percentile). I’m not a dumb as I pretend to be.

12. That’s not true. I can be quite dumb on certain subject matters, and astute on others. Depends."

What it usually depended on was whether he wanted to do the thing or not. If he didn't want to do it he'd pretend he didn't understand it. I once found him washing a cereal bowl by holding it under the faucet, filling it with soap, and then dumping it out and putting it in the drainer. No scrubbing, not even using two hands. After that I never asked him to do dishes again. Point, set , match, Affy.

I loved Affy. And he loved me. It was a very real example of platonic love. Love that could be expressed openly and honestly and physically. One of the other things people have talked about recently is how much they'll miss his hugs. They were epic and comfortable hugs. Affy was a moderately large man, and when he hugged you knew you were being hugged, and you knew what was behind it. (I am happy that I can say this about many of my friends.)

The physical expression of love could also be wonderfully violent. Another random fact from Affy's Facebook note:

"8. The worst fist fights I had in my life were with my best friend Roberto. A drunken brawl outside Albany Bowl was, in my mind, glorious. That said, never doing that again. Ah, teenagers."

To me this was platonic love at it's best in young men. The desire to fight and wrestle, but with the ability to end it, bloodied and battered, with hugs and drinks and composing heroic poems about each other. Keep in mind this was several years prior to "Fight Club" coming into the wider public consciousness. Often we would have these fights over the course of a night out, and then go into work together the next morning full of silly pride.

I loved Affy. And he loved me. As I noted in one infamous speech, his wife thought he and I were a couple when she first met us. Affy and I shared things I haven't shared with most other friends, at least not to the same extent. At various, and occasionally overlapping, times we shared jobs, apartments, girls we'd made out with, enemies, a phone line and game consoles. I've never before or since gone halfsies on a video game system, but Affy and I had both a Sega Genesis and a Super Nintendo that we shared. We were so comfortable together that I'd sometimes wake up and find him perched at the foot of my bed playing Donkey Kong Country, even when I wasn't alone. It didn't phase him, and eventually my girlfriend got used to it.

I loved Affy. And he loved me. Our friendship was born out of a love of theater and poetry. We fancied ourselves romantics. I even dabbled in writing poetry because he inspired me. None of mine was very good, which I learned when we did a reading together for his poetry class his senior year of high school. They hated me. It was fine, because I'd done it with Affy, and he supported me.

One year, just before Christmas, we were out shopping together. We'd been up to Telegraph, and down to Fourth Street. We were at the Barnes and Noble on Shattuck Avenue when we decided to call it a day. We walked outside, and then Affy dashed back in asking me to wait. He came out with a Yale University edition annotated complete works of Shakespeare, which he presented to me as a gift. He had this amazing, self satisfied smile. The kind you get when you know you've done something great for someone else. I had 30 pound book and a long walk home. And that was Affy, equal parts thoughtful and careless.

Over the years our friendship grew from a foundation of literature and drinking and video games, to one of sharing marriage tips, and parenting tips, and drinking, and playing video games with our kids. Still, we knew we could see each other when we needed to cry. Or when we needed to be told we were full of shit. Or to go and seriously geek out because we knew we were going to sing our way through "Mama Mia" no matter what the rest of the people in the theater thought.

In the wake of Affy's death another friend of ours told us that he had a copy of a book of poetry that Affy had written. This was years ago, when we were all in our early twenties, and I had forgotten about both the book and its contents. But I remembered one poem, one that my cousin had liked, because it was about me. I remember not being able to even really think about the poem when it was written. I think it was too much for me at the time. I wasn't ready for it.

I've struggled with the idea of sharing it. I don't want to seem narcissistic. But I do have another point to make. Here is Affy's poem about me, written almost exactly twenty years ago, a poem about a younger, more perfect version of me.

The Importance of Being Santiago
by Afran Hirsch

The importance of being Santiago is not obvious
But essential to understand.
Though I do not know his heart,
I know his actions
And thus I have speculated on the nature of his being.

The importance of being Santiago is this:
The genius Santiago is is smart enough to know
That if one is not the victimizer, one is the victim
And yet understanding this
Is compassionate enough not to make victims
Of those he keeps company with....

The genius Santiago is hilarious enough
To always be the center of attention
But always destined to be under appreciated
For his genius is constant
So that his praise is not......

The genius Santiago knows
Better than anyone
That the world needs a good laugh
So he plays the jester
Even at the expense of his reputation
Because I believe he dreads a silent dreary existence
Even more than I do...

The genius of Santiago
Is resigned to his commision
Liked by all, loved by few,
Understood by even less....

Yet Santiago himself likes few things
Loves most, and understands it all...
Even in harshness, Santiago is compassionate enough
To mix jest with villainy, because he has looked at the sun
And not been blinded. And never aims to steal vision
With self-inflicted tears, from others...

Santiago knows life is a stage
And is the best player
This writer has ever known
And loved.

The importance of being Santiago
Is as important as the meaning of life.
One may never learn it
But seeking its meaning
Makes one a better person
Than had they left the dilemma unchallenged.
Thank you Santiago, for allowing me to travel
The path that is you
With the person that is you...

Love is a secret
Cloaked in obviousness
And one of the truer paths there
Is to know the importance of being Santiago.

I don't know much about poetry. I don't know if this poem is good as a piece of poetry, but it's important to me. Reading this for the first time in over fifteen years, it's important to me for reasons beyond it being a nice thing to have someone say. I have struggled throughout my life with believing I was worthy of being loved. So many people have loved me, and I've ruined so many relationships because I didn't believe them. I didn't see myself as being worthy of that kind of love and so I thought they must be lying. It's prevented me from loving people as much as I've wanted. It's prevented me from showing people how much I love them. Reading this poem, written to a 16 year old me, from an 18 year old friend helps me realize how wrong I've been. Even with all the crappy things about me. The stupid things I say. The stupid things I do, or stupidly fail to do. Even with all of that, I am worthy of this kind of love.

We all are. You are. The people in our lives are worthy of this, and we have to show it to them. We have to remember that how we feel is not unique. We share common insecurities. We have to get past them in order to love each other with our whole selves.

If Affy had known this he might still be with us. If he could have known for sure that he was worthy of love he might still be here. Of course it's infinitely more complicated than that. But those of us who are left behind have to try to find something in this we can use. We need something we can salvage so that it doesn't just seem totally devoid of reason.

I loved Affy. And he loved me. And now I finally totally believe it.

Thank you for the gift that has been your life Affy. I will miss you forever. I wish I could have helped you understand the things you've helped me to know. I am forever changed.

Thursday, April 25, 2013


The idea of not caring what people think has clearly been around for a long time. It's a phrase I remember as far back as I have memory. It often goes something like, "I'm going to do ____ and I don't care what people think."

This used to be a liberating idea. It used to be rebellious, at least in my experience. For me it was paired with things from the 1960s and early 1970s. (Sometime things from the 1860s and 1870s too I suppose.) Things like, women wearing pants or baseball players wearing mustaches, or same-sex couples holding hands in public. But the idea of it always seemed to somehow relate to fighting off some societal oppression. Not big things, like civil rights, but smaller everyday things, like the time I wore a cape and goggles to school. Over the years I've been alive it's become ubiquitous.

But now it's also become a tool of small oppression. Or at least a tool of expressing oppressive thoughts. Over the last couple years I've seen the phrase morph into something more like, "I don't care if I offend people." The one that spurred me to this writing is a post that's been going around social media regarding the pledge of allegiance.

Theres' nothing more American than not caring about offending people. This is really just one example of many posts like this one that claim some virtue in not caring about offending people. Now, I'm not going to get into a long screed about when the words "under God" were added to the pledge. I'm also not going to get too far into the separation of church and state and state except to point out that making little kids of other religions, or no religion, recite the pledge as written is horribly oppressive. (And the idea that they can opt out by sitting quietly is hogwash, singling them out as different opens them up to bullying etc.) What I will go into here is that the backwards idea that doing something oppressive is now somehow a noble act.

I guess we shouldn't be surprised. We live in an era of white men claiming injustice at any threat to their power or privilege. They feel they have to take back the country and what not. And I suppose it's not new to point out that the oppressors often try to adopt the tactics and slogans of the oppressed and turn them to the purposes of continued oppression, but this bothers me. it bothers me because it's not being used in the cause for equality, it's being used to foster anti-social behavior. It's a call against civility.

There was a time when it was cool to not care what people think, like in "Footloose." Now it's been carried too far. Now it's being used to say rude things to people. "Fuck it, I'm going to drive between lanes. I don't care what people think." Just this morning a grounds keeper on campus told me "Don't worry about it." when I pointed out that they were blocking a busy drive way. "It'll only be an hour." she said, despite the fact that if she moved her truck eight feet to the right she wouldn't be blocking anything at all.

I care intensely what people think. I want to be liked. I don't think this is a bad or weak or anti-revolutionary thing. I take pride in doing small, polite, things to try to make people around me happy and comfortable. I walk on the right side of the stairwell. I drive fast in the fast lane. I wear headphones on the metro. These are small things that help people feel happy and comfortable. I curse way less than I used to. Not because I think swearing is bad, but because I know it bothers other people and I'm educated enough to find other words. I care about not offending people. I'm a religious person, but many people don't know that because I'm not loud about it. I don't care what other people believe. I don't care if other people believe the same things that I believe. But I do care that big outward displays of religion can make people uncomfortable. I work in a university, big outward displays of religion are not appropriate in most of what I do. I care about that. I don't feel censored, or stifled, or oppressed. My beliefs are mine, whether other people want to hear them or not doesn't affect me. I can be just a religious quietly as I can by being in everyone's face. But one way doesn't bother people and the other way can, so I'm quiet.

I'll give another example. I teach a class that focuses on business and government. I encourage students to know what's going on in the world. I try to help them build habits that will keep them informed. My default is to tell them they should listen to NPR at least an hour each week. But NPR is a liberal station. So I don't tell students to listen to NPR, I tell them to listen to news radio. I offer NPR and Capitol News Radio as examples. One is more liberal, one is more conservative. I offer the conservative example for my students because I don't want any of them to feel uncomfortable because they think I'm pushing a political agenda. That feeling could damage their trust in me as an objective and neutral instructor. They may then feel they have to censor themselves in order to protect their grade. I would hate for that to happen, in part because it's the kind of thing that may never come to light. Then that person has had a negative experience that I can't help fix because I don't know that it's happened. So I offer both liberal and conservative views in my class because my job is to serve the needs of all my students, not just the ones who feel comfortable with my views.

I care about people's feelings. I care about offending them. This is a good thing. We can't get to a point where we don't care about anyone or anything. We can't become completely self centered. We have to be willing to do the small, but important things that improve life for all of us. So I urge people, stop labeling anything that asks you to make an effort as "PC." As if being PC is a bad thing. Call people what they want to be called, it doesn't cost you anything. Wear headphones. Don't burn smelly candles with your office door open. Don't bring nuts to school. It's basic common courtesy. Being a dick isn't revolutionary. Respecting people isn't an affront to your rights. You should care about offending people, especially when it's small things. If you want to kiss your same-sex partner in public, kiss that person! Who cares if people don't like it, it's a basic human need, to love and be loved and express love. If you want to make Hindu kid feel isolated at school you're being a dick. There's a difference.

This is how to not care what people think