Of ‘There There’ and Heather in second grade

I am reading “There There” by Tommy Orange and thinking about a girl named Heather I knew in second grade.

“There There” is our Oswego Reading Initiative selection and it’s an engrossing book on the perilous and haunted plight of a dozen Native Americans whose lives are intersecting. It’s a reminder that we have been, putting it bluntly, awful to the first inhabitants of this continent. I’ve seen it personally: One day in class Heather talked of her Native American heritage and, in a sphere of ignorance and cruelty, kids started picking on her. I stood up for her, and I got picked on too.

Heather and her family moved away. I don’t know if that was related. As much as I got bullied, I still lived in white privilege, even not knowing what it was at the time. I could go places and not be judged or scorned by the simple calculus of looking like everybody else. 

Those same natives that Americans have been so horrible to for centuries have been very good to my child. Amy is an accountant for the Oneida Nation, so in a country where we displaced so many natives from their homes, the Oneida tribe contributes to the roof over my son’s head. 

One summer, he went to the Oneida Indian Nation Early Learning Center, where he learned the Oneida language and sang wonderful songs in it at their graduation ceremony. Arius has friends who are Oneida, but he wouldn’t think of picking on them because they’re all just kids in his eyes. Our children are better than us.

I’m reading “There There” because I’m serving as the interviewer when Orange does a virtual talk with the campus community on Sept. 30, so I need to ask questions that sound intelligent. It’s not an easy or feel-good topic, which means I can ask questions about his characters and what inspires him, but we also need to talk about Native Americans and all that has happened to them, and where we can go as a nation to be truly inclusive.

And I’ll be thinking of Heather. Wherever you are, I’m sorry I couldn’t do more to help you, and I hope you’re doing well. We all have to do a lot better, but reading and the kind of dialogue we’ll try to have on Sept. 30 will at least point us to a better “there” in our respective journeys.

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So long, sweet summer

View at dusk of a front porch
I sat on the porch swing last night as a cool breeze drifted across the dusky evening. It felt like an apt elegy for what sometimes seemed to be The Summer That Never Was.
Today begins New Faculty and Staff Orientation. First-year students have moved on campus. Classes start in a week, which is when I have to start producing a daily e-newsletter again. In a few weeks, my son begins something resembling third grade. I may or may not have finished a syllabus.
Sure, we had hot summer weather. But I didn’t get much resembling vacation. No visit to the Adirondacks. No random road trips. Didn’t see a lot of sunsets. Didn’t spend nearly enough time at the lake. On a quick accounting, it seems like the weirdest summer of my life drifted through like a ghost.
But that’s not true. Good things happened too. I’ve never spent a summer playing so much music. I played the Turtle Cove open mic many weeks, and had some wonderful jams (including today) at the Sterling Cidery. Made some new friends, deepened some existing relationships.
While we didn’t travel much, my son and I still had a lot of small adventures, most of them stories written in his head. It’s true that imagination can take you anywhere, and it’s so wonderful to see how clever and creative he can be.
So long sweet summer, as Dashboard Confessional once sang. I stumbled upon you and gratefully basked in your ways/So long sweet slumber/I fell into you now you’re gracefully falling away/Hey thanks, thanks for that summer.
It is a reminder that we should be grateful for anything we got resembling summer or joy or peace, and for anybody we shared it with. And hey, I’ve always loved autumn anyway.

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I have strange comfort food, but for decent reasons

Chinese food -- pork fried rice, pork

To me, this is comfort food.

Growing up in a small town, we pretty much never had Chinese food (unless one counts LaChoy, and one shouldn’t), so I didn’t really start eating it until after college. When my brother Colin and I moved to Oswego, we didn’t have a lot of money to spare after the princely sum of $269 per month for our apartment over the since-departed Paura’s Liquor and a steady stream of cheap beer in one of the half-dozen bars in our neighborhood, so the also-since-departed Main Moon Chinese takeout was an early favorite.

For about $4, you could get a quart of pork lo mein, a decent amount of rice and maybe an egg roll or wonton soup. This, to us, was a lot of food — at least a couple of meals’ worth — and much better than the likes of generic mac & cheese, ramen and cereal that were our staples. So it was a fairly regular treat, as it were, until Main Moon closed one day with the owners saying they would return in spring (but like Charlie on the MTA, they never returned and their fate is yet unlearned).

With money being tight, we hadn’t dined out much as kids (and Weedsport more recently did finally get a Chinese takeout place), to the point that even eating at McDonald’s seemed like a big deal. You can scoff at this if you want, but many people are still in this kind of situation. Eating food made by somebody else was a mini-festival, so to discover Chinese takeout that I could afford and enjoy really made me happy.

My local takeout of choice is now KQ on Oswego’s east side. Their $7.25 lunch special allowed me to get the not-unfamiliar combo of pork lo mein, pork fried rice and wonton soup. Delicious and a good value. And it takes me back to a time when such a meal felt like a celebration.

In a way, it still does.

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The real virus threatening humanity

Back in college, I was blessed to have a friend named Molefe, who fled apartheid, the oppressive segregation of South Africa. He was a better and braver man than I’ll ever be. He was the first person to puncture my bubble of white ignorance. While I knew South Africa from songs like “Sun City” and U2’s “Silver and Gold,” he made a national policy of racism concrete to me. He also taught me about some shameful ways my own country treated people of color, stuff not in history textbooks. Most remarkably, through sheer determination, he established a scholarship for South African students, with the Rev. Mpho Tutu, the daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, coming to campus to launch it.

A selfless and tireless man, Molefe had no designs on profiting from his profound deeds. He drove a cab in Rochester to make ends meet. One night he was murdered, an unsolved incident that still leaves a hole in my heart.

Molefe is often on my mind, especially this weekend. We have failed his vision of America. We have failed George Floyd. We have failed Breonna Taylor. We have failed Ahmaud Arbery. We have failed more people of color than I can ever list. For generations and generations, we have failed to cure our national DNA of the cancer that is racism.

COVID-19 sucks, but it’s a virus that does not discriminate. Racism is intentional and insidious, a different kind of virus carried intentionally and unintentionally that has harmed millions, perhaps billions, over the millenia, with a cost that we can’t easily calculate. I trust science will find a way to defeat COVID-19. We’re going to need more than even the world’s most brilliant scientists to defeat racism.

I’m angry, frustrated and sad. I’m part of the problem struggling to become part of the solution. Because even with Molefe’s example, I still carried bigotry in my heart and have had to work to expunge it.

It’s on all of us to make racism a relic of the ashbin of history. It won’t be easy because it’s entrenched. But love is also entrenched. So is kindness. So is generosity.

We have a lot of reading, listening and learning ahead of us. We need to not jump to conclusions but instead understand deeper meanings and challenges we face. As a person and a parent, I know it’s work we need to do to make America the land Molefe thought it could become.

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‘Let’s not screw this up’: please be responsible with reopening

Dear Central New York:

Our region is approved for Phase 1 of regional reopening, starting May 15. Please: Let’s not screw this up! Obviously, it comes with a mix of trepidation of “opening the valve” safely, as the governor would say, but also with a ray of hope for friends and neighbors. I know so many local business owners who are hurting, and have many friends out of work. Ultimately, it’s on us to do things the right way.

– Support local small businesses if you’re in a position to do so. Many of these are the ones who step up to support others in their time of need, so helping them can also serve as giving back.
– Maintain physical distancing protocols in public.
– Wear a mask or other PPE for any interactions and direct person-to-person transactions.
– Be considerate of the health concerns of others.
– Be patient as people learn to do things in new ways.
– Keep washing your hands.

– Take actions that might compromise the safety of others.
– Be a jerk.

I shouldn’t have to tell anybody not to be a jerk, but … have you looked around Facebook lately? So yeah.

Remember, the only way to move forward is to be responsible. Think of others. And be kind. We’re all in this together.

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Three packages of groceries

So I finally tried Instacart for the first time on Sunday. And I was impressed. It’s really a tradeoff of convenience and ability to stay home against paying a few reasonable fees. Could be especially good for parents (who don’t want to take kids who touch everything in stores) or others who might have reason to not want to venture out.

Starting is simple: You create an account (can do so via Google), pick a local store, request a delivery window and then shop online. In Oswego, you can get delivery from Aldi (my choice), Price Chopper or Tops, and can order for pickup from Wegmans. The selection of items are good, although the stock is not necessarily in real time — there’s a chance items might be out of stock, but you can select potential replacements with other brands or slightly different products.

Take ramen noodles, for example. My son’s mom said she couldn’t find them where she lived, and you can find the $2.50 12-packs selling for $20 on Amazon and eBay from profit-takers. I ordered two 12-packs (one for her, since Arius goes through a lot of it) and while Aldi was out of Maruchan, they subbed in Top Ramen for about the same price.

There are catches, of course. Currently, you need a $35 minimal order to lock in your prices. I paid a $3.99 delivery fee and a $2 service fee (the latter seems newish), plus tip. Tips are not stated as required, but certainly the right thing to do, especially nowadays. You can autotip different percentages as high as 20 percent, or a custom amount. These added expenses came to $15 for my order (for what was a lot of groceries). Instacart has coupons and special deals that can save money to its customers. I still prefer Bosco and Geers for meat and baked goods, and Ontario Orchards for fruits, veggies and baked goods (I love baked goods), but Instacart can take care of the rest.

I didn’t mind paying that, because I’ll trade money for convenience. Aldi through Instacart is great for dry goods, which is a large portion of my staple diet. I also wanted to do more baking, so needed things like more flour and brown sugar. Many of the things I buy at Aldi are a buck cheaper than I find elsewhere, so it balances out somewhat. I ordered mid-morning and had a 2 to 4 p.m. delivery window … and my food arrived at 1:45. The tip to a local hard-working gent was well-deserved.

Ultimately, I was able to stock up on some of my kid’s favorite foods while staying home and safe with him, playing and wondering what kind of person invented regrouping for elementary-school mathematics. For me, the tradeoff was definitely worth it.

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1 month into a ‘new normal’ that isn’t normal

A darkened office with an open door

A month ago today is when the world started rapidly changing.

On March 11, the governor announced that SUNY and CUNY schools would switch to remote learning. Among the subsequent social media storm, I didn’t have time to cancel what would be my last in-person class of the semester.

I arrived in Mahar to find only half my class attending. Those who did were anywhere between dazed and despondent. Some had just seen any sense of normalcy shatter. Seniors sadly said they had worked so hard for years to attend graduation, but were unsure they would. My response to them, and ever since, is resolute: Everybody on this campus wants you to have a graduation. You and your family deserve the celebration. But we don’t yet know when we can do it safely.

My original plan as of that morning was to give a lecture, hand out an assignment and pass back their research papers. None of that seemed viable. But knowing that some of them left that semblance of a class maybe feeling a little bit better, or taking even a modicum of comfort that a teacher cared about their physical and mental well-being means that class was more meaningful than I could ever have planned.

March 11 featured high drama on the national stage as well — in a moment sure to be recreated in some movie, a doctor raced onto the court of an NBA game to stop it because one of the players had tested positive. Suddenly, the league suspended the rest of its season. You-know-what had got real in a hurry.

On Friday the 13th (the only instance I’ll tolerate the written use of an ordinal number for a date), I arrived to pick up Arius to get a text from my mom that she saw on the news that his school had suspended face-to-face classes. (That my mother never seems to know any such thing before I do just added to the surreal nature of it all.) Sure enough, word was he’d be out of school for at least a month.

We spent that weekend maintaining some sense of normalcy, going to the children’s museum and acting like everything was going to be fine. In retrospect, we were young and naive (OK, one of us is not so young).

The week and a half from March 11 felt like a series of daily gut punches. More and more colleges and schools suspended in-person learning. Sports leagues and other institutions came to a halt. Bars, restaurants and non-essential businesses could no longer host customers. Most private businesses were told to work remote or not at all. Things I looked forward to were canceled or postponed.

By Friday, March 20, our whole team was working remote. I left the office at noon that day not sure when I would be working there on a regular basis again. I still don’t know.

Some of us have settled into some kind of routine. I start in my home office between 7:30 and 8 every morning. I still find ways to tell stories. I send and receive mountains of email. I spend time on Zoom or Google Hangout interviewing people for video stories, attending meetings or enjoying virtual hangs with my lunch crew. The commute is short and I get to wear sweatpants. But none of it feels normal.

I don’t know if we’ll be anywhere near normal in another month. Or even two months.

It’s a holy weekend for many people. Easter and Passover gatherings will not feature all the loved ones they normally would. I join them all in praying we find some kind of resolution.

Through it all, this I still know: We’re all in this together. Take care.

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For the birds: Taking a lesson from nature

Photo of trees and birds on a pre-spring March day

The other day, I went out in the backyard with a glass of wine and spent several minutes listening to birds high up in the trees. They are singing the folk songs they have exchanged for thousands and thousands of years. It’s their mating season, and while all around us seems so stressful, they are living lives more or less unchanged.

As last week went on, I began seeing and hearing less and less people, and seeing and hearing more and more birds. Now that I’m working for home, they’re about the only entities I hear in real life and real time. Our feathered friends have always been here, but now I’m just back to appreciating them. My relationship with them is uncomplicated; they want and need nothing from me, and don’t pay much attention amidst their courtship rituals as I gaze up in silent admiration.

There is change, and there are constants. The birds still sing and flirt and carry on their life cycles. They flit from branch to branch, not worrying about the latest news or how many likes any given post has or how the stock market is doing. They live their lives in the moment.

In these complicated times, may you have opportunities to find peace and the simple, small moments to remind you of the joys of life.

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Continue to look for the good, and you will find it

A young boy playing with Legos at a children museum

These are the times that try (hu)man’s souls, but I’ve also seen some really awesome people reminding us of the good of humanity.

I’ve seen so many people on campus and even alumni reaching out to see if they can help as faculty members hustle to make remote learning plans, while many colleagues come up with new ways to serve students. Focus on people hoarding toilet paper if you want, but I’ll prefer to ponder people sharing their skills for the betterment of others every day.

Within hours of the announcement that Arius’ school would be closed, two of his favorite adults had reached out to his mom to say that they could help watch him if needed. His school district (and many others) also put a high priority on making sure that the youngsters for whom food was a vital part of their educational experience would be taken care of, essentially offering every family in the community free breakfast and lunch.

But I feel for all those hurting. Students who don’t know when they’ll see their friends again. College seniors wondering if they’ll have graduations. People who can’t go to work because they need to care for kids. Businesses that have to shutter or radically alter their delivery methods, and hope they will be open again sooner than later — and all those they employ.

The Children’s Museum of Oswego, one of Arius’ favorite places, is understandably inaccessible for now. My inauspicious weekly open mics are on hold (I could do them online, but would anybody watch?), but I’m more bummed I won’t see the awesome folks I get to spend the evenings with. Sterling Cidery and the whole lovely community of friends I’ve made will sit empty in its edifice and in our lives.

Ultimately, this too shall come to pass. Time travelers Bill and Ted, while not exactly Socrates, gave us great advice: Be excellent to each other. Be kind. Be supportive. Be patient. When this is over, we’ll remember how people treated each other. And I have indeed seen many being excellent, which is a reason for hope.

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Ready for the closeup, while taking the long view

Mayor Billy Barlow speaks at Water Street Pocket Park grand opening

A warm sun illuminated the bricks — both those more than 150 years old and those placed in the past few weeks. A crowd of everyday people and business owners and officials talked and shared smiles. The news crews pointed their attention toward a small stage. A local rock band stood at the ready. Oswego was ready for its time to shine.

Earlier this week, an official ribbon-cutting and celebration of the new Water Street Square pocket park heralded the progress the Port City has made with the $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant from the state, a lot of brilliant planning and plenty of minds and hands and hearts coming together to bring imagination to life. Billy Barlow, the mayor in his late 20s who is running unopposed for election this year, gave a short and optimistic speech congratulating everybody and cheering the community’s cooperation, the traditional ribbon cutting unfolded and then 3 Of A Kind (plus fourth member Johnny Luber) played some rock favorites. 

It was Oswego and yet it was also unlike the Oswego I had known for years.

When I moved to Oswego, I found a sizable quotient of curmudgeonry, generally older folks talking about some “good old days” of Oswego yet not particularly doing anything positive to make it better (political will in those days often had an awful lot to do with personal interests). Letters to the editor often included the sentence “Wake up, Oswego!” warning about horrible things like progress and new ideas and not being stuck in the past. In truth, they were sleepwalking in a haze of memories, wanting to pull Oswego back to that real or imagined past instead of looking for a better future.

The DRI funding woke up the community in a different way. Sure, some people immediately fixated on the waterpark which seemed like a curiosity, but far more important were the proposals inviting people to live in our historic downtown. I lived downtown my first years here and, despite not having much to spend, had more than my fair share of dinners, pizza and beverages in the heart of the city. When the lofts in the Browne-Davis building opened, young professionals responded (a waiting list was almost immediate) and kept much of their business downtown. Many of the renovations and mixed-use construction continue to swell the downtown population.

As people sung and swayed and held their beers aloft with 3 Of A Kind (+1) on a night Barlow waived the open container law, you could still see For Sale and For Rent signs around you, but you also knew whomever took those opportunities would see a more vibrant scene and willing audience. It’s no exaggeration that everybody I talked to that night was excited and happy for progress. It’s something I discussed repeatedly during New Faculty and Staff Orientation, and something our newest employees had already noticed.

While we await more progress for the next 150 days, and the next 150 weeks, and ponder its legacy for the next 150 years, the sunshine and warmth are both physical and palpable, as Oswego steps up for its time to shine.

A quartet plays rock music for a crowd in Water Street Square

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