How we divide

We were making copies using the ditto machine in the teacher’s resource room of our school.

When the teacher’s aide – we kids called “slap jaw” – walked through the intoxicating fumes of the duplicating solvent to talk to us.

She asked us where we were going to high school – we both replied Sullivan. She pulled out her copy of the Gale Echo – our school’s yearly black and white booklet and opened it to the centerfold exposing the pictures of the graduating 8th graders.

Slap jaw thrust the paper and a pen towards me and asked me to autograph my light-greyish picture, saying I would be famous one day.

You were standing next to me, my sister, my desk mate in our “gifted” class, my friend for as long I could remember, our fate sealed by our shared initials R-F-R, your dark-greyish picture next to mine.

5th_grade_b_w

 

I remember looking at her, looking at you, then looking at her again. Perhaps I had a stupid smile on my face, thinking she just forgot, a simple oversight, she was an old white woman.

I remember that pause – that moment it took slap jaw to realize she should ask for your autograph too, but it was too late. She exposed our differences.

 

Freshman year of high school, I was labeled white for the first time. I’m not white. I’m a child of immigrants.

 

I played basketball in high school.

We played all-white suburban schools outside Chicago. We played all-black south and west side schools in Chicago.

To some, I looked more like suburban white than south side black.

My sisters of basketball.

When I fell in love with a black man from the west side, he told me I wouldn’t be accepted by his people. To his family, friends, and neighbors, I was white.

I remember feeling my love is no different.

 

In high school, I labeled myself a half-breed – something I heard or read someone call a Native American whose parents weren’t both Native.

But was I a half-breed German or a half-breed Cuban? What half of what breed would I be?

30 years later I received my AncestryDNA® results. I remember looking at the colored blobs over parts of the globe where my people came from.

The European continent was aglow in a rainbow of blobs.

90% of my DNA is European Mutt, my ancestors traversed the lands from Spain east towards Poland, from Scandinavia, south to Italy and Greece.

The other 10% comes from the continents of North and South America, Africa, and West Asia (the middle east).screen-shot-2017-01-20-at-7-54-12-am

 

The complicated mess of my DNA is a result of wars, colonization, slavery, revolutions, migration, immigration and everything in between.

My DNA unites, rather than divides.

I may not look like you. Our phenotypes make us look different to each other. But when we look inside we will find our similarities.

 

Aloha

Author and her uncle

Finding Voice

Author and her uncle
The author and uncle Danny summer 1987.

My path to becoming a writer began on a mild Chicago winter day in January 1988. But I didn’t know it. It was the day my uncle Danny died of AIDS related pneumonia.  He was one of those rare authentic adults who was filled with the joy of living. I loved, admired and adored him.

His death inspired my journal writing –  he suggested it a few months prior to his death and his death inspired the content. The sorrow in my soul broke open my heart and inspired me to write without thinking about what was written.

A few months later, my AP English teacher said I had a “gift.” He said my writing sounded like I was speaking. He said there are people who spend their lives trying to do that.

I now know he meant to say my writing had voice, which is something to practice. Instead, I took his observation, his compliment of my creative talent as an accomplishment I didn’t need to strive towards anymore.

I thought, if I had achieved something that others spent their lives trying to achieve, then why go any further? Why pursue this thing that came effortlessly?

Instead, I exercised my analytic mind, I became a scientist.

I went to college, then grad school and studied things that didn’t come easy to me. But they were things associated with another love, the ocean. I longed to play with fish all day. I dreamed of a life swimming around in their watery environment, studying their behaviors, their life history, and their diversity. I didn’t have a job in mind, I just followed my love.

I knew I loved fish, I loved tropical waters and I loved the TV show Magnum P.I. that was filmed in Hawaii.

This girl from Chicago, dreamed of becoming a marine biologist, marrying Tom Selleck and living happily ever after studying Hawaiian fish. But it was hard trying to achieve this dream.  Despite all of this love, I was only a C+/B- student at the illustrious University of Chicago, the school I ended up at because I didn’t apply to the “right” university in San Diego, where I really wanted to go. UofC is a school so anti-social, so anti-anything I had experienced in my previous life as an inner-city kid going to public schools, that my only goal was to graduate so I could continue pursuing my dream of becoming a Marine Biologist some place closer to Hawaii, like California.

For four years, I ignored the better grades I received in those classes that required creative writing and kept working hard at those classes involving solving formulas and equations. I ignored my talent.

My love for the environment and for writing merged on Earth Day 1990. I wrote a comment to a letter someone wrote the editor of the Maroon, the UofC newspaper.  I wrote something about think global and act local, but what I remember most vividly is the feeling I felt when people recognized that I was the one who wrote the comment. I remember where I was – paying for books at the local Cooperative book store and the cashier, another student, recognized my name. The feeling that my words meant something to someone else was powerful. I took it as symbolic of what my future as an influential scientist would be like.  I didn’t think it was something I could have pursued at that moment, change my degree and become a writer.

I wish I kept a copy.

Society didn’t show me a writer role model. No one told me about the importance of sharing one’s writing. My role model was Jacques Cousteau. His colorful, fish filled documentaries I watched on Channel 11, the PBS station in Chicago, were my inspiration. I wanted to do what Jacques did. Although, on some level, I did know that the elusive “Robin” in the Magnum P.I. series, the owner of the luxurious estate Magnum lived on, belonged to a novelist, but I associated that with the romance novels my mother read. Blech! I couldn’t do that, I thought to myself, I’m too smart.

If only I knew.

Note: This musing was written as part of a class on writing memoir – the assignment, called thematic stepping stones, was to look at things in my life that are in conflict and write about it. I chose “creative vs analytic self” and wrote for twenty minutes about the moments in my life this conflict arose. It was an assignment written by Theo Pauline Nester.

bus stopped by roadway stand.

Lost in Analogy…

bus stopped by roadway stand.
Cuban “Dirty Dog.”

Sitting on the bus in my decaffeinated and hungry state – bleary eyed, a mild headache, and a low grumble in my stomach – I tried to absorb the scenery. We rolled through a rural landscape of fields of grass bordered with wooden fencing and second growth forest, a jumble of tropical plants in slightly different shades of green, palms, vines and a coniferous tree or two. There were no directional signs for miles and no street signs at intersections. The Cuban government did provide motivational signs in the form of large billboards with pro-revolution slogans painted with vibrant colors. The road was boring and the only thing keeping me conscious on this tourist class, Greyhound bus look-alike, was the smell of old, dried up urine from the latrine at the back of the bus, a Cuban Dirty Dog.

Did you get the analogy?

In a writing workshop, located in Seattle WA, my classmates didn’t get it. They thought there was an actual dog on the bus, or that the smell reminded the narrator of an experience with a Cuban dog. Lost in analogy was the slang term for Greyhound buses used in my hometown of Chicago IL.

With analogy being so important to storytelling, to bring the reader closer to the story, what happens if the analogy isn’t universal?

It is like being told a joke and needing it explained to you. The joke is lost, poof – lost in translation.

What is a writer to do?

My goal as a writer of memoir and creative nonfiction is to share my story. My words will reflect my experiences, my slang, bits of my personality, but what if you the reader doesn’t get my drift and get’s lost? My goal of sharing my story is lost, as the reader is adrift in an ocean of confusion. Wondering, huh?! I don’t get it…

I don’t have the answer, for now I dropped the analogy to the Cuban dirty dog. In a different paragraph I call it a porta-potty on wheels (changed from my original Honey Bucket on wheels – the name of our local portable toilet provider in Seattle) so that more people in the U.S. would understand the reference.  Or should I call it a porta-John or porta-WC…  Ugh!

When I was a basketball player…

My height is an aspect about my physical appearance that I just can’t hide.

I really can’t hide.

Me, trying to make a lay up...
Me, trying to make a lay up…

Not in a crowd, not in the subway, or the supermarket, nope I stick out. The only place I have traveled where I felt short was in the Netherlands. Everyone there, women included, were tall! Even the friend I was with made a comment about how I had “found my tribe.” The only problem was they were all blond haired and blue eyed and spoke a language I don’t think I could ever understand. They were not my tribe.

The places I have visited where I feel most tribal, like Peru, Bolivia, Cuba or Mexico, I don’t look like them. My 6-foot, olive skin, light brown hair and eyes, just don’t allow me to fit in. The looks I got when I spoke Spanish in those countries were ones of confusion and disbelief.  “Where did you learn to speak Spanish with an accent?” They would ask. Even when I explained my colorful heritage – Mom is Cuban, Dad is German, grew up in Chicago – they would answer – “Ah, es Alemana.” Oh, you are German… Problem solved, at least for them.

My senior year of high school, I thought I finally had my chance at being part of a tribe. My school was finally getting a girl’s basketball team. It was 1987. What other place than on the basketball court with other tall girls, would I feel most at home, most normal?

I was tall, I was a quick learner, my hand-eye coordination wasn’t so good, but I learned how to dribble and run at the same time. Basketball workouts did wonders for my physique – I think that was when I finally burned off all of that pudgy stuff called “baby fat.” I became a tall, lean, basketball machine.

I played Center. Which is sort of a cliche, but I was the tallest on the team. Although it was always a source of contention for the second tallest girl, whose perm made it look like she was taller at times. I had a mean rebound, which made up for my failures at doing lay up shots. Why I couldn’t hit the little square with the ball, at the right angle, with the right force, to then make a basket still perplexes me…  I think the analytical part of my brain wanted to know the equation or law of physics or geometry behind the theory of lay up shots – then I may have been able to “get it.”

There was a level of respect between teammates. We played well together and we didn’t fight each other, but we were not best friends and we never hung out after practice.

This didn’t decrease my desire to be their friend or to hang out. It’s just that even though we were the tall and athletic girls of our school – we still had differences that were hard to overcome. We lived in different neighborhoods, we had different socioeconomic backgrounds, none of us went to the same grammar school (which mattered for some reason) and I was in all AP classes.

I was learning a lesson that season of basketball. I was learning that the idea of a tribe of similar people is a farce. A farce that I feel many people aspire towards – that fantasy-land of similar looking and like-minded people. What I gained and cherish to this day, is the ability to look at someone and see myself in them. A person searching for their tribe, when their tribe is all around them waiting to be acknowledged.

Thank you sisters of basketball!

My sisters of basketball.
My sisters of basketball.

 

Made in the U.S.A.

Born and raised in the city of Chicago, I was surrounded by a mix of ethnicities and cultures.

In my neighborhood of Rogers Park we were a delightful blend of spices. A little creole seasoning, chocolate molé, spicy salsa, green curry and other delicious sauces. Me, my classmates, my friends could have represented many of the countries within the United Nations. Countries many of us never visited or will visit. Countries whose language was lost on the boat or plane that brought us, our parents or other ancestor. Countries whose culture was stuffed into a suitcase or strapped to our backs. Cultures that tried to blend with those found in this new country.

Fifth grade
Fifth grade

With all of this diversity surrounding me, my identity became an amalgam of cultures. I loved hanging with my girlfriends who would put french braids in my “horse hair.” Cook refried beans – with lard! – and eat them up with fresh made tortillas with my other girlfriend. Learn how to use chopsticks at our local Chinese restaurant. Learn how to jump double dutch – I was proud to be the only “white girl” who could turn double dutch. We all played together, we all loved each other, we all were a brilliant family.

That was until we got into high school. Suddenly, we were forced to label ourselves as – white or Hispanic or black or Asian, college bound or bound for McDonald’s, athlete or book worm, pretty or ugly, skinny or fat, fashionable or dumpy, popular or lame, rich or poor. I was all of them and none of them at the same time.

The innocence of elementary school was gone.

Kindergarten

Gone were the true values one should categorize someone – mean or nice.

The complexity of all the new labels that befell us as we walked the halls of our new high school – left me wondering where did all my friends go?

Were we all really too busy thinking – she is too white or too tall or too smart or too athletic or too nice or too ugly or too stupid or too whatever – that we couldn’t all be friends just because we were nice and we all grew up together?

Many of us were made in the U.S.A. Regardless of where our ancestors came from or if we immigrated here at an early age, as children we just wanted friends to play with that were nice. As young adults some of us became leery of those who were not identical to us.   Suddenly, some of us felt that our cultural identity would be lost by whom we hung out with.

Suddenly, I found myself a friend of everyone and no one.

Many of us had parents with the same cultural heritage which made labeling easier. I did not. My genetic makeup is a melting pot of Germanic and Latin cultures.

Cultural diversity, cultural tolerance, cultural love, are all genetic expressions of my DNA, although I have been greatly influenced by the environmental stimuli found in Rogers Park, Chicago, Illinois.

I am really no different than you or you or you. We all have the ability to express these traits. Our biology is all a mixture of many cultures. Perhaps all it takes is to dive deep down and find your child within and remember what was your original truth.

To say to that nice stranger you just met – “Your nice, can we be friends?”