Sunday, June 25, 2017

The 100% Neighbor

That a child will never know the extent of his parents’ influence is obvious. And who’s to say whether the unspoken lessons aren’t more lasting than the spoken?

Monday at dinner, the kids asked for Darryl Wilson stories. They had heard of this cognitively impaired semi-hermitic neighbor of my adolescence from grandma, grandpa, and tía Carolyn, and were hungry for more.  How did you first meet him? (Trick or treating, though Darryl didn’t realize it was Halloween until dad and 10-year-old Carolyn enlightened him). Did Darryl have candy for Carolyn (yes; but it had expired in 1987). When did you see Darryl outdoors? (only during the spring when he was re-painting his white fence). What did Darryl eat at home? (only oatmeal and potatoes). What did he eat when you took him to a buffet? (everything in sight). Where did he use the bathroom? (an outhouse, even in the mid-1990s).

From B (age 5) to I (age 13) the kids were full of Monday dinner wonder. They delighted as I recited the  greeting cards Darryl sent for every holiday on the calendar:

            “To 100% neighbors the Stipps
            From your 100% neighbor Darryl Wilson”

            Happy Valentine’s Day to my 100% neighbors, the Stipps
            Rev. Michael Stipp, 100% neighbor
            100% Karen
            100% Brian
            100% Amy
            100% Carolyn

            Love,
            Darryl Wilson 100% neighbor

“Can we go see his house?” asked R (age 6). And though I assumed it was demolished, I said yes. We’ll go tomorrow. Anyone who wants can leave after morning chores.

So off went to Danville, in search of adventure. On a Tuesday.

We approached the East side of town on this just-right June day, and I was both host and guest of the tour. I managed the remembrances that come unbidden whenever one returns to an old home, while answering questions from the back of the van. We drove slowly down South Kansas Avenue, past the VA cemetery, and took the curve West. While the kids peered out the passenger side windows for any traces of Darryl’s house, I was awestruck by our old street.

The road is beautiful. In a state where flatness begat large-scale farming, which begat hurried people, who begat almost everyone I know, South Kansas Avenue is a holy portal. You follow the road’s contour, and you leave post-industrial Danville, with small houses where factory workers once dwelled, and enter rolling farm country.  A canopy made by the trees slows you. The large thick vines that hang alongside many of the trees, together with the slope of the hill (first shallow, then steep) are positively un-Illinoisan. While the kids looked for Darryl’s place, I remembered the first time I drove on my own, up the hill and to Danville High. I remembered driving home on fall days with the weight of teenage stress, and slowing the car to a halt, to take in the multi-colored beauty of the leaves above. I remembered the pleasure of realizing that the snow plows might not get down the hill for awhile, keeping everyone home a little longer.  

“Darryl’s house was juuuuust up here on the right,” I told the kids. But there was no house to be seen. There was a clearing where only saplings grew within the forest of trees 10 times their age, but no house. May the memory of Darryl Wilson and his place be 100% eternal. 

Here’s a quick vignette, the specifics of which I’m skimming over intentionally, but which is important for this story’s point. Last winter, shortly after MG was born, we went as a family to an unknown place: a gathering we had read about online and decided to attend despite not knowing anyone there. As we approached the entrance of this gathering, I noticed tentativeness and apprehension across the brood. I huddled the kids up, and told them that we would go in with “adventure in our hearts.” They heeded my advice, and we made a fun and memorable day of it. I assumed then that the phrase “adventure in our hearts” was my stroke of think-on-your-feet fatherly genius, and nothing more. “Where does he come up with these things?” I imagined my wife saying to herself.

Back to Tuesday. After looking out into Darryl’s Vacancy, we descended the rest of the hill to look at our house, still standing in front of a creek on six acres, quaint as America can be.

And I remembered the sacrifice it took for my parents to make this home ours.  A year or so before, my dad had to renegotiate his contract to free up money for housing. Mom and dad made an embarrassingly low-ball offer, and waited out the owners until they accepted. We bought the place just 2 weeks before its well stopped working, and we had well problems the whole time we live there. (As dad would say here, it’s a deep subject. Har har). When my parents moved away from Danville, they could not sell the house, and maintained two mortgages for years.

The place we all loved came at a steep price. I’ve always been thankful for that house: for South Kansas Avenue on the outskirts of Danville, Illinois, and its out-of-nowhere beauty. But today, at age 38, with a handful of kids of my own, I’m cognizant of what it cost.


I’m aware of other things I learned from that place, too. My parents never needed to tell me that you make sacrifices for your kids, even if those sacrifices set you back for years. They never needed to say that beauty matters. They lived these realities. They never needed to tell me that when you meet the Darryl Wilsons of the world, you slow down.  And when my dad and Carolyn came home on October 31, 1995 with Darryl’s “treat” of decade-old candy in Carolyn’s plastic pumpkin, they probably didn’t realize that the adventure they both had in their hearts would someday be my kids’. 

Monday, January 23, 2017

Where Trump's supporters have it right

Donald Trump has built his legacy around mistrust. He categorically rejects and demonizes “the other,” and methodically ensures his listeners that he is the one to be trusted. The “other” can be business-as-usual politicians, entire foreign nations, Mexican immigrants, Muslims, both political parties, Rosie O’Donell, and especially the mainstream media. A simple response to Mr. Trump’s demonization is to say that he is factually incorrect: that Americans have nothing to fear; that the anger of his supporters is contrived rather than substantive.

However, I think we need to give serious consideration to some ways in which Mr. Trump is right. We must consider that half of our country found him more compelling that the candidate the Democrats had to offer. Many are rejoicing at his presidency; feeling hope for our future that they haven’t felt for many years. (I read one Facebook comment of a woman boasting that she introduced President Trump to her children as Jesus’ helper). I find it improbable that all of this enthusiasm stems from xenophobia and racism. I am here setting out to explore ways that Trump and his followers are onto something.

First, Mr. Trump is right to cast doubt on our faith in the mainstream media. Of course there are better and worse sources of news, and our president is not famous for nuance. But he’s right that the most popular and profitable sources are bad. FOXNews, CNN, and MSNBC are variations on the same theme: they troll for scandals to compete for advertiser’s dollars. During campaign season, you could rely upon CNN and MSNBC to provide non-stop coverage of Trump most recent scandals, and FOXNews for the same treatment of Mrs. Clinton’s. At points the channels seem to attempt even-handedness. But if you think that companies’ chief aim is to inform their viewers, look at the nature and the sheer number of advertisements that appear on their TV channels and websites. (A quick peak at all three sites just today showed an “Emily Bares All” link from FOXNews.com, a “Last Minute Cruise Deals are Right Here” link on CNN.com, and “1 Worst Carb After 50” from MSNBC.com). Clearly, these stations’ are after quantity of viewers rather than a well-informed viewership.

Next, Trump is right that the left-wing media is unfair to him and his supporters. Having myself concluded that Mr. Trump is unfit to lead a country, it’s a little hard for me to admit I think he has a case here, too. The problem is that the media’s dislike for the president leads to a mis-characterization of Trump Republicans. We hear that hate crimes are up since Trump’s election and can see from social media comments that racists seem to have become emboldened. But what of the rest of Trumps’s supporters? It seems that the mainstream media would rather paint Trump's followers as simple-minded bigots than confront their real-life problems. Let’s get into some of these problems.

For all Americans, there is reason to be concerned. Life as we knew it before World War II is past. For a couple generations now, we have been dependent on big corporations and big government to meet our needs. Having historically relied upon land, family, and neighbor, we now depend upon strangers up and down a dizzyingly complex supply chain. The industrial and agricultural revolutions have made life easier in some ways, but have served to displace and dis-employ. Our blue-collar populace went from poor but independent farmers, to middle class but dependent factory workers, to dependent non-workers. If I were in that position, and someone hearkened back to a brighter time in our history, I would listen.

Aside from taking our food production and factory jobs elsewhere, globalization has also brought the world’s problems into our living rooms. It is natural to feel overwhelmed by problems we cannot solve: ISIS, Syrian refugees, exploding sweatshops, Ebola. And there is more than one logical reaction to problems outside of our control. We can try to play a part in fixing those problems . This approach may lead to an even more overwhelmed feeling as our noblest local efforts are futile in attacking global problems. Or we can retreat. We can look homeward, concerning ourselves with the problems in our own families and towns. If I were overwhelmed by the constant barrage of world-wide problems, and at the same time couldn’t find meaningful work to support my own family, the claim of “America First” would feel like a welcome relief.  Finally, someone with real power who’s talking in plain language about what matters to me.

The sentiment that Washington is working against rather than for Trump’s supporters is also understood. Politicians 
are out of touch with the realities of ordinary Americans. The Affordable Care Act is costing individuals too much. Corruption does abound.   

So in comes Trump. His message is that all of the fears and misgivings people have are for good reason. He works to fuel those fears and misgivings; his supporters turn the misgivings into conspiracies (as in Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March are funded by Hamas). In establishing his mistrust-based movement, Trump doesn’t rely upon the media to mediate his message. He controls it himself. The message is himself. The answer to closing factories? Trump. The answer to a world community that has become too large? Trump. The answer to the soggy political swamp in Washington? Trump.

Of course, he's wrong. He is not the answer. He is a master manipulator who is getting what he wants from “ordinary Americans,” and casting the rest of us aside as non-trustworthy “losers.” His followers are mostly good folks, but they have misnamed their enemies and misplaced their trust. 
The problems we all face are resultant from the twin forces of capitalism and globalization, causing all us to rely upon the twin crutches of large companies and government aid. To think that our answer to these problems is found in a real estate investor/reality star-turned politician is foolhardy. But those of us who readily accuse Trump and his followers of a simplistic fear of otherness may be wise to consider whether others we fear have a point.


Saturday, January 21, 2017

We're all Joe Maddon

I knew the sense of dread I've had about the future of our nation was a familiar sense. Leave it to "A Prairie Home Companion" to remind my of the other time I've felt this doomed.


Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Can't Wait 'til Next Year

I believe in the curse that was, and was broken.
Just as I believe that baseball is a blessing.
Just as I believe in resurrection, magic, Narnia, and Neverland
and that creation is oozing with goodness,
and that God Himself fills all things.

Even the corrupt things,
even our emotions,
our imagination,
our past-time.

I believe that there were magical things afoot that night.
And if you could prove to me that there weren't, 
and that the gods don't care, 
I would be grateful still.


Sunday, November 6, 2016

To My Right-Leaning Readership

You, who are embarrassed by Donald Trump, but are still voting for him because Hillary scares you.

You, who are scared by Hillary for reasons you can't quite pinpoint.

You, who decided that the FBI's reinvestigation of the e-mail scandal was the last straw.

Give this story a listen. It will help you to understand what was actually going on with Clinton's e-mails.

And remember this: Trump is corrupted by deeper evil than that which corrupts politicians like Clinton.

Don't vote for him.    

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Feasting as an Act of War by Andrew Peterson

I've been wrestling with a series of thoughts for ten years. Trying to pin them down and type them out. And then someone else comes along and nails the whole series in a matter of ten paragraphs. Bless you, Andrew Peterson. What more is there to say?






Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Time for Solidarity

Sonia Nieto, an expert on multicultural education, created a multicultural continuum for schools. It's a helpful construct that allows school leaders and teachers to think about how their schools serve children from various cultures. The continuum looks like this:


The categories are pretty straightforward, and so is the ideal. In a day in which most of our public school students are racial and ethnic minorities, we ought to strive for school cultures that provide "affirmation, solidarity, and critique." It's clear what is meant by affirmation: a step beyond respect, it means holding another's culture in high esteem. Critique involves the difficult conversations that arise when cultures attempt to co-exist rather than dominate. Critique involves asking and answering tough questions: Which cultural values are shared and which are at odds? Which culture gets to serve as host? Which is the guest? While these questions are difficult to answer, at least they are easily understood. But solidarity? Wedged not-so-harmlessly between affirmation and critique, solidarity is a wonderful concept that is most difficult to reach, or even to comprehend. Here's how I know.



In June 2002, I was 22 years old. The month prior, I had finished my undergraduate degree and gotten married. My wife and I moved to Little Village (la villita), in Chicago, a neighborhood referred to by many as the “Mexican Capital of the Midwest.” It is not uncommon for children to grow up in Little Village without learning English, and following the Mexican soccer league more than any American sport. Many of our neighbors were undocumented immigrants, and the yearly Mexican Independence Day parade drew crowds of half a million. That’s la villita.

Of the reasons we moved to el barrio, solidarity was near the top. We wanted to know how if felt for immigrants; we wanted to walk a mile in their shoes; and we wanted to help. Beth had already gotten a job as a nurse nearby, but I hadn’t found one yet.

As I searched for a “real” job, I also wanted to get to know our new neighborhood better, and maybe even meet some community members. So I did what many of my undocumented neighbors did. The day after we got back from our honeymoon, I walked into a temp agency and asked if they had any work. They told me to come back at 4:30 the next morning with my social security card; they had a minimum wage gig that I was welcome to. My first job after college.

4:15, my alarm clock sounded accompanied by rooster crows. I dragged myself out of bed, and down four blocks to the temp. agency office. I showed my social security card and my driver’s license, but the latter wasn’t even asked for. In a place where social security cards can be bought for $50 apiece, corroborating identity isn’t too high a priority.

I was told to sit in the 18-passenger van outside, and wait for the other trabajadores to arrive. At 4:45 the van rolled out, 15 undocumented mothers and fathers, trying to scratch out a living while their kids slept at home. Some laughing and joking around. Some quiet. And me. Trying to work a little, and to learn, but uncertain what to expect.

Fifteen minutes later we pulled up to a meatpacking plant, the name and affiliation of which escapes me now. Each of us from the temp. agency was assigned a factory employee to supervise us. Even though I speak Spanish, the foreman saw me and sought out an English-speaking employee to be my boss for the day.

“What the f&$k are you doing here?” was my one-day-boss’s 5:00 am greeting. I fumbled some answer about needing to work. His eyes rolled, but he showed me the ropes. Actually, he showed me the chains where slabs of frozen ribs hung. My job was to grab slabs of ribs, one at time, and wrap them in plastic as quickly as I could, which was not very quickly at all. Did I mention the ribs were frozen? In shorts and an intramural sports t-shirt, I was cold cold cold after five minutes, and miserable the workday long.

We were done by 2, and back into the van. On the way back I focused on thawing, and my next move. In nine hours’ time, I had banked about 40 dollars, and a day of solidarity. Would I come back for another day? A week? A month? A career? Would I plant myself as an advocate for my minimum wage, undocumented, mom and dad coworkers? Would I learn their stories and publish them like Steinbeck did for the Grapes of Wrath?

Back at the office, I told the manager I would like to come back the next day. “OK” he responded in Spanish, “que venga a las tres y media.” And 3:30 a.m. was simply a price too steep for solidarity, and my self-inflicted social experiment came to an end.

Looking back, I am struck with how well I remember my own experience. I remember the awkward conversations, the looks of confusion and incredulity. I remember my thoughts to and from the stockyard plant. I remember getting up early. And I remember the cold well enough to shiver now as I type. But I don’t remember the experiences of my co-workers. I had intended to understand, them, but one day simply wasn’t enough.

Solidarity is powerful, but hard to attain. It requires looking beyond ourselves, living beyond ourselves, which requires more time than we often want to give. I say go for it. Use your position of privilege to live for days and weeks and years among those who have few options. Listen and immerse yourselves in their stories. Love thy neighbor. But walk a mile in solidarity's shoes to learn what you're getting yourself into.