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My Life Defined, Part II August 16, 2007

Posted by flyingsirkus in Dad, Individualism, Who Am I?.
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Some more memories to catalog…

My First Political Awakening:  It must have been 1984.  I would have been starting the third grade.  Of course, it was an election year and my elementary school was doing mock elections.  I grew up in a particularly military-heavy community, so most everyone’s parents were conservative Republicans and adamantly pro-Reagan.  A classmate asked me who I was going to vote for.

“Reagan,” I said, without a thought.   Then, she asked me a question that changed something in me.

“Why?”

The words started coming out of my mouth before I could stop them, and I remember the thought process as if the sentence was being diagrammed as I spoke it.  I knew as I spoke that I WAS WRONG.

“Because that’s who…my…dad…would….vote…for.”

Then it was crystal clear.   I was NOT my dad.  I was ME, and I was about to do something that had been drilled in my head was my SPECIAL RIGHT as an American.  I was going to vote, and I knew that it should be meaningful.  My answer was horrible.  An interest in politics was born.

I started paying attention to the six o’clock news, which was always on when my dad was home.  This was well before the age of twenty-four hour news networks, back when you read the morning news in the paper over coffee and caught the nightly broadcast before Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!  I started asking questions about the broadcasts, about Presidential speeches and national news.  Then I’d question my dad’s answers.  Dad took these questions as arguments, and would eventually answer my questions with this awful phrase:

“One of these days, Kristina, you’ll realize that you’re wrong and I’m right.”

I am thirty years old, and to this day, my dad considers my political preferences to be nothing more than rebellion against his superior ideology.   The fact that I am a liberal progressive today has much more to do with an abiding interest in creating a society I believe is good, not nostalgia for a society that never existed except in the minds of 50’s TV scriptwriters.

My First Awareness of Racial Differences:  My best friend growing up was the girl who lived next door.  Her name was Tracy, and she was three years older than I was.  She had an AMAZING collection of Barbie dolls, Barbie toys, Barbie clothes…baskets and baskets full.  We played Barbies together every day on the walkway in front of my house.

One day, I decided to ask her a question that had been sitting in my head for a few weeks.  “Tracy,” I asked as I changed my Barbie’s clothes, “what’s it like to be black?”

She gave me a funny look.  “You’re not white,”  she said, and that was her entire answer.

Looking back, I can’t believe how much her answer shocked me.  My dad has blonde hair and blue eyes.  My mom is from the Philippines.  I had never thought of myself as anything BUT white.  I remember looking down at my arm and SEEING, for the first time, that my skin was really not white, but a deep tan from playing outside all summer.

Sure, I had grown up listening to my mom speak Tagalog to her friends, and to my mom and dad speak Tagalog at dinner when they wanted to keep something from us.  Yeah, my favorite foods were lumpia and pancit, and my favorite bedtime story was my dad’s version of Brunettelocks, where Goldilocks turned into an “Ay, ‘sus!” exclaiming, change-the-f’s-to-p’s talking scatterbrained Pinoy.  But all this was COMPLETELY NORMAL.

I think a huge part of my perceived whiteness stemmed from NOT being members of the Roman Catholic church.  Filipino households, to me, were like holy sanctuaries in and of themselves.  Gilt-enhanced paintings of The Virgin Mary and The Sacred Heart were ubiquitous in every Filipino household, as were statues of Mary looking down while standing in a fountain and omnipresent candles burning behind stickers of Jesus on tall glass canisters.  Oh, and there was the vinegary smell of fried fish that permeated the air in most Filipino houses.  Not ours.

The other part of my whiteness came from having an extremely ordinary name.  The Filipina girls I knew were named Rummalee and Cinderella, Madonna and Natividad.  They had last names like Macapagal, Abacahin, de la Cruz, and Santos.

Who, especially me, would have pegged Kristina Brown as a Filipina??

I thought I was going to uncover some great secret about Blackness; instead, I discovered my obvious Brownnness.

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Do This In Remembrance of Me June 27, 2007

Posted by flyingsirkus in Individualism, Who Am I?.
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If there’s one creepy common denominator among Christian religions, it’s the seriousness with which they regard that cannibalistic grape-juice-and-saltine ritual called Communion.  In the Fundamentalist Evangelical church I grew up in, if a person did not confess all the sin in his or her heart prior to partaking in Communion, sanguinary punishments lurked in the participant’s near future like Donkey Kong shooting up steroids behind a barrel, ready to decimate the physical body of the otherwise devout believer neatly and completely.  I found Communion terrifying as a child, and I was torn between the disappointment of my parents and everyone else in the church watching me refuse Communion because there might have been a moment that I thought my sister was a jerk that I forgot to confess, and braving the wiles of a hopped up Jesus, ready to destroy me with maggots in my muscles for daring to eat of his body and drink of his blood with a fleeting yet unconfessed moment of sibling derision still lingering in my heart.

The ritual was always the same.  The round double-decker silver plate, with the handle that doubled as a decorative cross, was passed around, filled with dry matzoh wafers.  It was explained that yeast, or leaven, represented sin (How?  Does sin eat the sugar in your soul and fart CO2 bubbles to make you rise until you’re light and fluffy?  I never got that part.) and so therefore the body of Jesus had to be broken from a big flat cracker.  I remember for a time, we attended a Southern Baptist Church that forbade the women from wearing pants, but used Wonder Bread for Communion.  I, and many others from my original church, refused to take Communion, Wonderous though the Bread may have been.  As the last parishoners took their crumb of the Savior, the pastor would recite I Corinthians 11:24:  This is my body, which is broken for you.  Take, eat, and do this in remembrance of me.

Consumer Christianity.  Literally.  But what if Communion was productive?  Wouldn’t that make it better?

I was thinking about this ritual earlier this week.  I took a short trip back to my hometown to visit my friend Ryan.  We stayed at his mother’s house, which is in the same neighborhood where I went to junior high school.   I once asked him where he went when he was feeling reflective, and he mentioned that he walked to the school, which was around the corner from his mom’s house.

I had my own memories of my junior high years, but most of those involved not so much the building or my friends, but my walk to and from school.  I lived in a different neighborhood, about a mile and a half away from the school, and it was the decision I made one day when I was twelve to stop taking the bus that was the crux in my life Robert Frost wrote about.

I was about halfway through the eighth grade.  I had just moved to this middle class neighborhood from a lower class neighborhood where my next door neighbor’s dad had shot someone in the middle of the day, where perpetually knocked-up Navy wives sat in lawn chairs, mesmerised by despair, watching their Aryan brood spill chaos, like the toxic substances oozing over rashes from their unchanged diapers, across the neighbors’ lawns, where boys in wifebeaters stuck gappers in carburetors while their teenage Puerto Rican girlfriends danced pantiless on the roofs of their cars to strains of Madonna.

The girls I grew up with in Rosemont Forest wasted afternoons with their brothers watching mommy dogs devour half their new litters of wormy puppies if their families were good, and fought their horny brothers off with lots of determination but not much success if their families were not so good.  This was the neighborhood where I smoked my first cigarette, had my heart broken for the first time, and sat, enthralled, in my neighbor’s stepdad’s spare room devoted entirely to his collection of Playboys, surrounded by airbrushed centerfolds displaying their curvily scribbled turn-ons.  Our Barbies didn’t go to prom; they went straight to where Ken and Skipper were parked and popped the cheating bitch’s head clean off with one violent tug to the ponytail.

But my dad finally got promoted to Chief Petty Officer, and with that promotion came the decision to move the family to a bigger house in a better neighborhood.  The home they chose was zoned in the same school zone, but it might as well have been another country.

The girls in my new neighborhood wouldn’t have known how to handle themselves in a fistfight, but they could insult each other into little puddles of tears with casual ease.  Their clothes bore no hint of iron-ons, their mothers actually drew the hearts in their Skippy sandwiches, and their musical tastes were, in a word, banal.  On my new block (no longer a block, mind you, but a cul-de-sac), the band of choice, the unwavering standard of Cooooool, was The New Kids on the Block.

I could have given a shit about the New Kids on the Block.  This branded me, more than any other aspect of my personality, as Weird.   However, I was not tough like the girls I grew up with, the girls who could kick ass.  I was a reader, not a fighter.  So I had no idea what to do when the girls in my new neighborhood started choosing up sides in their New Kids Pubescent Sexual Fantasy League, and tried to coerce me into participating.  It was completely foreign to me.

“Mark would never love you,” they’d spit at each other, their words like Atomic Fireballs of Truth and Passion.  “And how can you think Jordan is the cutest?  Joey is so much cuter.  And he loves me, not you, you slimy cuntfinger.”

It would amaze me how hurtful those words could be to these girls–not the slimy cuntfinger part, but the “he loves me, not you” part.  They’d hate each other in the morning, write a blizzard of notes folded into factory-building shaped origami establishing allegiances,  go to war in the cafeteria in the afternoon,  then choose up sides again and do it again on the bus ride home.   It was like watching expensive cars crash, over and over and over again.  However, I was not amused by disposable dignity.

One morning, as I was approaching the bus stop, dreading the inevitable pull to choose sides in a battle I cared nothing for, something about the nasty chatter just kicked at my heart.  I decided to keep walking. I ignored the calls advising me that I was an idiot, that I missed the bus stop, Hell-looooo?  I walked a mile and a half to school, and it was the most peaceful morning ever.

That afternoon, I decided to walk home.  A few weeks later, I got a brand new Walkman, and that was it.  I never rode the bus again.  Every day I’d walk to school to the strains of music I liked.  Better the exuberance of Bette Midler singing “Miss Otis Regrets” than the intellectually toxic and pheromonally manipulated New Kids shit.

I loved that walk.  Aside from learning to ride my ten-speed, it was probably the most liberating thing in the world for me.  I felt like I flipped a great silent bird to convention and walked on in freedom.  I loved that walk so much, I either walked or rode my bike to school all the way through the eleventh grade, where the trip was about a mile longer.

It didn’t take much convincing, but last Sunday I talked my friend into walking from the junior high back to my old house with me.  I have never walked all the way home with anyone, so it was a little weird for me to have conversation where I once had They Might Be Giants’ Flood album.  As we walked, the streets took on an animated quality, with those things that had not changed taking on the quiet background peace of an Impressionist painting while the new features of the landscape stood out in sharp Fauvist relief, begging to be touched, noticed, appreciated…

We stopped at my parents’ old house and chatted for a while with a new neighbor, but it wasn’t the house that I retook the walk for.  It was for the physical memory of the walk, the memory of the roots of my individualism; it was out of respect for those things that I wanted to repeat the after-school ritual.  It is eighteen years later, and I want to feel a communion with the girl I was and maybe find something of the strength it took her to say Fuck You to those things she could not live with, to find her own beautiful way of dealing with what Tom Robbins calls “the tyranny of the dull mind.”

I found a flower bulb in the middle of the street on the way back and put it in my pocket.  I think I can make it grow here in the desert.  Grow, bloom, and flourish, in remembrance of me.

I fell in love for twenty minutes… May 29, 2007

Posted by flyingsirkus in Individualism, Who Am I?.
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At first, it wasn’t that she was fifties pin-up gorgeous. I work in Las Vegas, and see beautiful, confident women every minute of every day at the casino where I work. It was the spiraling march of letters and punctuation that snaked around her upper arm like an Egyptian bracelet, black as her hair, that snagged one of my heartbeats and claimed it for their own.

She was chatting with the bartender, her smile so big her molars winked at me while her eyes were elsewhere. I was dressed in the unstylish all-black drab anonywaitron uniform that sucks away personality faster than prison stripes. There was a break in the bartender’s flirtatious conversation, and I grabbed it.

“I couldn’t help but notice your tattoo,” I began, my own originality spiraling away in the black void of the uniform. “What does it mean?”

She smiled, and this time her teeth full on and literally blinded me with science. “It’s a mathematical formula explaining how heat and light are transferred as energy in the atmosphere.”

‘Wow!” I said, and I walked away. I wanted her to know that I thought it was the most interesting tattoo I had ever seen in my life, and to see it on someone so achingly gorgeous was tantamount to an Old Testament miracle. It was like she’d walked straight out of Douglas Adams’ brain and into my bar. I didn’t want her to think that I was some random table-waiting idiot, and I wanted quite badly for her just to talk to me some more.

I totally forgot what I was walking away to do. I know I was busy, but at that point I could have had hoardes of angry customers snapping their fingers and glaring at me, giving me the “Miss!!” hiss, and I would have been just as oblivious. I walked back over to her.

“Did you get that just to piss off the people who think global warming is happening because they think the sun is getting hotter?” I asked her. I think it was the right thing to say. It sparked a conversation.

“You know, I never expected my tattoo to be so political,” she confided in me. I felt like I was swimming in caramel; warm and gooey inside and outside. “I used to be a physicist, and this was a formula I used often. I wanted an original tattoo, and I’ve never met anyone who has one like this.”

I knew how she felt. On a much more superficial level, I have three earring holes in one ear and one in the other. I have always wanted to meet someone else with the same combo. The closest I’ve come is a dear friend who has three in one and none in the other, and when I found that out it just made me feel closer to him kinshipwise, even though it’s a very silly club to belong to.

When she said that, I knew I was out of her league. I knew there was someone out there with a tattoo that would blow HER mind, and that would be it for her. But it never hurts to flirt, right? So I replied to her, “I’d like to get an Infinity Cat in my armpit one day.” Maybe not the best sentence to offer to further a flirtation, but I had a feeling she’d get it. I was right. It made her smile.

“You should!” she encouraged me. We chatted for a minute about global warming. It was weird for me to actually have a conversation with someone who agrees with the science I’ve read. Most of my conversations about global warming end up being debates. It made me feel awkward, like all of a sudden she started stripping off her black-and-white spaghetti strap dress. She showed me a little bit of her mind, and it was breathtaking.

I had to walk away. What was I going to do? I’m an unhappily married woman, and she was just driving a spike of fascination into my heart that I couldn’t bear to be driven in one more time. One more interesting conversational tidbit from her and I’d start falling into insanity. Life would stop making sense.

I retreated to the other end of the bar to fold napkins. I watched her intermittently. Two of my fellow waiters started chatting her up. Neither of them can use a sentence without calling the person they’re talking to “Dog.” She was having a great time talking to them, laughing at their jokes and making witty comments at their conversation. Then she was gone, off to attend a friend’s wedding, then back on a plane to Massachusetts.

I’m a pretty girl myself. I’m not shy, and I have a big laugh. I think I’m pretty smart, and a good conversationalist. And my body, while not her caliber, is really not bad. I’m no bloated egotist, but I think I’ve created an interesting person out of the life I get to live. I wonder if I’ve ever made anyone fall in love for twenty minutes?

I remember her, and I’m happy.