Uncertainty is post-lockdown certainty

For 12 weeks this spring, our family of seven sheltered together in two houses. I don’t know where else but Akron could I have purchased a house on land contract with a mortgage of less than $600 a month, which I did in 2014.

In 2015, my partner, Max, started his solo law practice on the ground floor of the home, which we call “Cressler House” after the artist who’d lived there for 60-plus years. The living room became Max’s conference room, the dining room his office.

We also made our first two sons, Claude and Hugo, start staying at this house whenever they were home from college. And after he graduated from the University of Michigan in 2016, Claude moved into Cressler House and began paying rent.

During the lockdown, the seven of us flowed between Cressler House and the “main house,” where Max and I have lived for nearly 10 years. Many weekday mornings our two young children, Leif and Lyra, accompanied Max to his office to do school work.

At the same time each morning, I’d swing by for Hugo and his pandemic puppy. Hugo rescued Rutabaga in the middle of March when she was just 8 weeks old and, along with my three dogs, we’d all walk for an hour or more at the BARC dog park.

During these roughly 90 walks, Hugo and I had long talks. Granted, most of our conversations were about dog training. Hugo’s a natural and Ruti quickly learned several commands. She’s incredibly smart (maybe the smartest dog I’ve known), friendly and stinkin’ cute.

Jules, who just finished his freshman year at Ohio State University, stayed at the main house where he has a sweet suite over the attached garage. But multiple times a week, the three big boys had “bro night” and all stayed at Cressler House, made dinner together, watched movies or played games. Leif, who’s 10, joined them once a week.

My three oldest boys had not spent more than two weeks together at a time since Claude graduated from high school in 2012 and went to northern Michigan for a full-time summer job before his freshman year at UM. Since then, they’ve all had turns going away for college and summer jobs in other states.

A Rabbi once said, “If children don’t share a room, how will they be able to do so when they get married?” While I suppose married couples generally figure that out, I believe sharing a room can make children grow closer. I even put then-18-month-old Leif’s crib into Jules’ bedroom when we moved to the main house.

I did this and other things, because I wanted my children to remain companions as adults. And it worked. They have each other’s backs, but don’t hesitate to get into each other’s faces. They know and understand one another like few people ever do. It’s an enviable relationship.

During three months of lockdown, these brothers built gardens, recorded music, made home improvements and just hung out together, cementing their relationship even further.

Then the doorway to the next phase opened, and we all walked through, calculating, as I’m sure most have, which risks to take. We all wear masks in public, socially distance and wash and sanitize our hands like surgeons. But there are other, grayer areas, of risk.

Claudia Holen, Hugo Christensen and Rutabaga with Grand Teton Mountain in the background.Co

Hugo and his girlfriend, Claudia, had again been hired to work at Tanglewood Music Center, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. That, of course, was canceled, and instead they received unemployment.

Last month, they packed Claudia’s car with camping gear and Rutabaga (and the dog’s rather ridiculous amount of possessions) and left on a cross-country road trip. They arrived at the Pacific Ocean on June 29, just when COVID-19 cases began re-spiking.

Meanwhile, my three younger children and I spent the last three weeks with family in northern Michigan. All adults tested negative for COVID-19 before we joined the grandparents in their tiny home near Lake Michigan.

Lyra playing on Lake Michigan Beach in Charlevoix, MI

Not since the ’80s, when I worked there during my summer breaks from OSU (which Jules is doing this summer) have I stayed so long with my family in Michigan. When life fully resumes, I want to keep summers more flexible and less booked than I have for three decades.

Before Jules returns to Akron later this summer, Claude will have left for graduate school. Claude’s first choice, OSU, lost assistantships due to a hiring freeze related to COVID-19. Meanwhile, Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government and Public Service gave him a sweetheart package, so west he’ll go, wagons ho! To College Station, Texas — a small town surrounded by hot spot cities.

Uncertainty is the new normal. I’m concerned that a month after schools resume in the fall, lockdowns will again be necessary to control this pandemic. It’s possible Claude and Jules will shelter in their college apartments.

But if they return to Akron, we know we’ll be OK because we are incredibly lucky. Lucky to have space and lucky to have each other.

Please stay safe.

This was first published in Akron Beacon Journal on July 12, 2020.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Changing racial justice starts inside you, white America

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

— From “The Fellowship of the Ring,” J.R.R. Tolkien

The same day Medgar Evers was murdered in Jackson, Mississippi, author Eudora Welty wrote a prescient short story from the perspective of the killer. Welty’s insight into the mind of the white supremacist, who waited near the Black civil rights activist’s home before shooting him in the back, was not the product of supernatural powers.

“I thought to myself, ‘I’ve lived here all my life. I know the kind of mind that did this,’ ” Welty said in a 1972 interview. Sadly, “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” remains as insightful as when it was written in 1963.

Two weeks ago, I wrote of the need to discuss racism in America. And, predictably, I received a handful of letters spewing hackneyed racist tropes.

However, I received far more letters asking for resources to better understand America’s history of slavery and its legacy in institutionalized, systemic racism.

As I wrote before, getting to know people who are different in any way — including color, religion, nationality, sexual orientation or ability — is one of the best ways to dissipate the sense of otherness and recognize the humanity of all people.

But it is not the job of Black folks to teach white folks to become “woke” and understand what Black Americans have lived with all their lives, generation after generation for 401 years.

To my earnest readers, I sent a list of articles, movies, interviews, books and podcasts to better understand what, as white Americans, we often don’t see because it is not a part of our experience.

Of course, as soon as I pressed “send,” I immediately thought of things I’d forgotten to include. The truth is finding fact-based, quality sources on how and why racism in America remains an enduring contradiction to our Constitution, and the fallacy that we live in a meritocracy, is not hard.

Here is a small set of recommendations:

Shortly after it was published in 1996, I read Leon Dash’s book “Rosa Lee: A Generational Tale of Poverty and Survival in Urban America.” Derived from his Pulitzer Prize-winning, eight-part series for the Washington Post, Dash spent three years interviewing Rosa Lee Cunningham and her family.

Dash’s extensive research on D.C.’s urban underclass, including chapters on the history and sociology of African American sharecroppers in the South after the Civil War and the later Great Migration to the North, was my first exposure to the depth of the chasm under the whitewashed education I received.

Zora Neale Hurston, American author, anthropologist and filmmaker. Lived 1891-1960.

I had read novels, including “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison and “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston, both of which paint compelling and tragic pictures of 20th century life for Black Americans. But until “Rosa Lee” I’d not read nonfiction accounts informed by academic research.

I’ve since tried to fill the void in my education on a number of topics. And yet, as my grandma often told me, the more I know, the more I realize I don’t know.

The 2016 documentary, “The 13th,” directed by Ava DuVernay, recounts how time and again when one system of racial suppression is eliminated in America, another quickly takes its place. Several notable scholars and journalists are interviewed in the film, which I recommend everyone watch, no matter how much or how little you know about this history.

For narrative film, there is no director with more clarion ability to represent many aspects of Black lives and history than Spike Lee. “Do the Right Thing” is particularly topical right now, three decades after it was released, for the Black anger it accurately depicts like no movie before.

For a thorough recounting of the myriad ways our government policies have intentionally disadvantaged Black Americans, read MacArthur Fellow Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article, “The Case for Reparations.”

The podcast “Code Switch” and its newsletter provide black perspectives on current affairs. So does journalist Roxane Gay. And the discussions with mostly Black guests on “The Daily Show” with Trevor Noah, who is biracial, provide insights not found elsewhere.

For those willing to read books, consider “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson, “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo, “Letter to My Son” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson, “The Sun Does Shine” by Anthony Ray Hinton, “Notes of a Native Son” by James Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr.’s essential work, “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.”

This month, I had the honor to meet the mother of the young black man who recently, while waiting at a bus stop, was harassed by an older white man with a shotgun. She told me some of her white friends said, “I can’t believe that happened to James, we know him!”

That disbelief is the product of white privilege.

White mothers, no matter how rich or poor, do not fear when their sons leave the house: What if he’s pulled over by the police? Or hunted down by white supremacists in a pickup? Or harassed at a bus stop by a man with a shotgun?

Over the centuries, we have changed laws regarding race without changing our country’s bone-deep racial caste system. For that, we need to change hearts and minds. It starts with you.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on July 5, 2020.