Coronacation 2020

My older son Brenden says I need to blog more, so…

As you probably know, COVID-19 has decimated the airline industry, among all the other havoc it’s wrought. Compared to last year, the TSA is screening about 95 percent fewer passengers each day, sometimes under 100,000 people nationwide. Southwest is hemorrhaging cash. Instead of our normal 4000-ish daily flights, we’re operating around 1000 and have parked a couple hundred aircraft. Even with the drastically reduced scheduled, our flights are still mostly empty. Currently the dispatch department is paying everyone their full salary but only staffing about half the desks to aid in social distancing.

Needless to say, this isn’t sustainable.

Fortunately, the changes at work have limited the spread. We’ve only had one confirmed case in our office, and it happened in March. However, it’s still strange and sad to see our headquarters look like a ghost town as the non-operational employees work from home and only half the operational ones are there. I dispatched an Oakland to Honolulu flight last week that had two passengers. That works out to two flight attendants for each passenger.

To preserve cash during this jaw-dropping downturn in travel, Southwest is offering its employees the chance to stay home for a month at a time with full benefits and a fraction of their salary. They’re calling it Emergency Time Off (ETO). After doing the math and discussing it with Jenny, I volunteered for May. As of April 26, I am on coronacation™ for six weeks. I return to work June 8.

Yes, this is going to sting, but we’ll be okay. I’m grateful to still have a job. Over 26 million people have lost theirs over the last few weeks.

Southwest in Crisis Mode

I started at Southwest in June 2001, fresh out of college as a rookie technical writer in the IT department. A few months later, another event shocked the industry and evaporated demand for air travel: September 11. All commercial flights were grounded for two days. Nobody knew whether people would want to fly again after that. Millions of people canceled their flight reservations. At any other airline, I would have been laid off immediately. But Southwest doesn’t believe in layoffs. Our leaders let me and every other employee keep our jobs, even though they knew the risk. By taking care of their people, they won my loyalty for life. And over time, people starting flying again.

This year, Southwest is facing the biggest challenge in our history. My coronacation is a little way for me to give back to the company that saved my career and has been so good to my family over the last 18+ years.

Life Before and After COVID-19

So…now what?

My pre-rona life was a lot more hectic. I worked a lot of overtime trying to chip away at the mortgage, save up for travel, pay down one car or save up for the next one, fund house projects, and save for the boys’ college. When I wasn’t at work, I drove the boys to and from the pool, watched their meets, stayed in shape by running and cycling, helped out around the house, and tried to get enough sleep. It was a nice life but very busy. When I had a day off that didn’t involve a meet or a family event, I felt a little guilty and disappointed that I wasn’t working overtime to get ahead. I’m supposed to be productive, dangit!

Enter COVID-19.

Only half of the scheduled dispatchers actually come in to work so we can have an empty desk in between each of us. Open shifts are covered not by overtime, but by the on-call people, so overtime is all but gone until this passes. I only worked 8 shifts in April. I was on-call for several other shifts but only got activated once.

The virus has impacted each person in their own way. It forced me to slow down, to breathe, to relax, to reevaluate my life and how I spend my time and what my priorities are.

Despite the stay-at-home order and various nagging questions, this has actually been nice. Our kids have a weekday routine – breakfast, workout, school, lunch, clean something, free time / family time, dinner. The boys no longer have swim/dive practice in the evening, so we can relax and hang out instead of driving back and forth to the pool three times each evening. I run or ride three times a week but don’t have to squeeze them after work or on a rare day off. I sleep more and am less irritable as a result. Jenny and I go on walks and talk and catch Pokemon. We taught the boys how to play spades and got smoked by them in Super Smash Bros. I introduced them to a couple of my favorite movies. We might do a Lord of the Rings movie marathon like Jenny and I did before the boys came along. I cleaned out and reorganized the garage and linen closet, knocked out the huge pile of filing I’d put off for far too long, and diagnosed and replaced a bad circuit breaker that was turning off our fridge. I’ve FaceTimed with my mom and my 93-year-old grandfather. I finished a fascinating book called A Woman of No Importance, which is about an American woman with one leg that served as an amazingly effective spy in France during World War II. My next goal is to finally finish reading the novel version of Les Miserables (too many words, Victor Hugo!!!), the basis of my favorite musical. I also hope to dust off my guitar and see if my fingers still work.

The other day I ate lunch alone on the porch – no electronics reminding me that society is collapsing, no one to talk to, just me and a gorgeous spring day. The sun was out. A healthy breeze rustled the trees, shimmering in various shades of green and full of life. A pair of beautiful red-shouldered hawks swooped in and perched on our fence. That brief half-hour of quiet reminded me that life is indeed going on, even with the deadly virus, and that I get to choose what to focus on.

This feels a bit like retirement, except that my kids are still young and my body still works. So although it won’t be much fun financially, I am grateful for the opportunity to help Southwest and to spend so much time relaxing and enjoying life with my family as we try to stay healthy and sane.

On the bright side, it’s easier to save money when you aren’t supposed to do anything. We had booked and largely paid for a summer camp for the boys and a trip to San Francisco for us in early June. COVID-19 has canceled both of them, which (sadly) freed up some funds. Their swim and dive clubs are on hiatus, which saves cash. We’re deferring expenses, canceling extra mortgage payments, eating out much less, reducing our contributions to the boys’ college funds, and burning some of our savings that we can use to get through May.

I’m also well aware that we’re in an extraordinarily privileged position just to have the option to help my employer survive by taking a month off.

The boys are taking it pretty well. Jonathan, our social butterfly, really misses people. Jenny and I are trying to accommodate him by spending time with him each day – cards, chess, video games, bike rides, trampoline time, art projects. Brenden, our introvert, doesn’t feel as lonely but laments that he hasn’t been inside another building besides our house in over a month. Both miss being in the pool. In a pleasant surprise, they’re spending more time playing with each other. Sometimes it’s Minecraft or Super Smash Bros. Sometimes they just hang out on the trampoline, talking and batting a ball around. They’re having little trouble with online learning except for occasionally overlooking an assignment, which Jenny and I try to catch.

Jenny is a little stir-crazy. She’s reading a lot (thank you, Kindle Unlimited!), working on some art, and trying to keep the boys on track. She hits the grocery store every 7-10 days, trying to make each visit count. She and her family send each other short video updates via the Marco Polo app to stay in touch. Since her hospital has banned in-person classes, she and her partner are converting most of her classes to online format via Zoom. Her first one was the full-day childbirth class earlier this month, and it actually worked fairly well.

So in a nutshell, we’re doing okay.

Questions That Make Me Squirm

Although this time isn’t all bad by any means, some dark and uncomfortable questions bubble up throughout the day. Questions like:

  • The big one that few want to consider: what if we never find a way to become immune? What if there is no protective immunity after one gets the disease? Despite our hopes and assumptions, so far there’s little evidence of it in people who have recovered. What if herd immunity isn’t possible? What if we never develop a vaccine? Some viruses still don’t have a vaccine despite years of effort, including norovirus, RSV, MERS, the Epstein-Barr virus, and HIV. Flu has one, but since the virus mutates so much, we have to keep getting flu vaccines annually, and each year’s formula never works 100 percent effectively.
  • How and when will the economy recover from this? How many jobs will never return, particularly in small business, brick-and-mortar retail, restaurants, bars, clubs, live sporting events, concerts, and other sectors that bring together large groups of people?
  • Will people ever want to fly again at the same level they did before? What would make them feel safe enough and confident enough to get back on an airplane? Will Southwest need to shrink permanently? If so, how many of my friends, including people I’ve trained, will lose their jobs? That will be the last resort, but Southwest can’t go on like this forever. For many of us, dispatching for Southwest is our dream job, and I want every one of our new folks to stay if possible.
  • Will it ever be safe to hug my grandparents again?

Reasons to Hope

Despite these worries about things I can’t control, all is not lost. People have come together to fight this disease like I’ve never seen. Healthy people are choosing to stay home, keeping their distance, and wearing masks to protect others. Essential employees put their lives at risk every day to treat the sick, keep the lights on, fly vital supplies and workers to the people that need them, and keep food in everyone’s bellies. We’re learning about who we are, what’s important, and where we are vulnerable. And a lot of really smart people are working hard to end this crisis with the least possible damage. We are a strong species. We learn, adapt, and persevere. And we’re not giving up.

Stay safe, everyone. And wash your hands.

Help

My mom always worried I would end up “dead in a ditch.” I’m still alive, but I did take care of the ditch part last weekend.

Let me back up. As most of you know, the Dallas area experienced a bit of an ice storm last week. It started Thursday evening and dumped a few inches of sleet and freezing rain over the area. I had to work every night during the storm. By Friday morning when my shift ended, the streets in Dallas were slushy but still drivable. I slept a few hours in a Company-provided hotel room. It was a nice gesture, but due to a noisy heater and my constant expectation that the housekeeper was about to knock on my door, I didn’t sleep well and finally gave up around lunchtime.

By then the Dallas streets still looked the same – dirty slush and drivable. However, since the temperature was forecast to stay below freezing all day, I didn’t want to drive all the way home and then all the way back that night for my next shift. So I hung out in northwest Dallas all day. I ate unhealthy and delicious food (try the Cinnabon things at Taco Bell – oh my). I slogged up to the Cinemark and watched the new Christian Bale movie (great acting, OK story). I felt a little proud of myself for not being one of Those Texans who cower in their homes the minute a snowflake appears.

Trying to kill some time, I looked for a Starbucks where I could enjoy warm coffee and play on my iPad. However, the neighborhood I was in didn’t seem to be a Starbucks kind of place. So I parked at McDonald’s near a big shopping center that was surrounded by low-income apartments. Lots of people were wandering around in the parking lot, some walking to the grocery store or a restaurant, others chipping ice off their cars or trying to tweak something under the hood to get the engine running. My Sheltered White Boy senses started to tingle. I decided not to carry my iPad into this tiny McDonald’s and sip warm McCafe. Instead I hurriedly chipped ice from my wheel wells and hoped no one would ask me for Help.

Confession time: I try to be a generous person. I want to help people and like the idea of helping people. I give money to build wells in South Sudan and feed/clothe/educate needy children in Ethiopia and repair damage from tsunamis and chemical explosions and Storms of the Century. But there’s a catch – I always prefer to keep my distance.

By giving money through a computer rather than time, I can keep control of the situation. Actually getting involved with people’s problems directly and having conversations face to face and looking them in the eyes is way, way out of the comfort zone for a shy, introverted guy like me. Sometimes real people need something tangible like money, or a ride somewhere, or help with their cars, or gas, or a job. Situations like that involve talking to strangers and starting relationships. Relationships can be messy, inconvenient, and awkward. It’s easier not to get involved, especially with people you’ll never see again.

“You know where the nearest Wal-Mart is?” a voice from behind me asked. I turned and saw three young men. They seemed nice enough, but The Voice inside kept asking whether they were sincere and what else they might want. I have helped a few sincere strangers who approached me in the past. I have also gotten scammed. I once heard the same sob story from two different guys in the same parking lot a few weeks apart. For situations when someone might approach me needing Help, my default answer is no.

“Sorry, I’m not sure. I’m not from here,” I replied truthfully. They moved on.

I finished cleaning my car and found a Starbucks, a place where people who can afford to drop six bucks on a coffee and a cookie can hide and not get asked for Help. There, I felt safer, but also a bit ashamed. Those thoughts got stuffed into a dark corner of my soul as I warmed up with my venti cappuccino.

That evening I slogged my way to the office and worked my shift, finishing around 7:00am Saturday morning. The incoming morning shift people reported fairly good roads. Tired of hiding in Dallas and missing my family, I chose to brave the ice and drive home. Playing with my sons in a winter wonderland is a rare treat, and my wife was a bit stir crazy from being cooped up at home with all their energy.

As expected, most section of the roads and highway provided decent traction. However, the bridges, overpasses, and a few other areas were coated in ice. The slushy mess that covered the roads on Friday had frozen solid overnight as the temps dropped into the upper teens. I discovered my first so-called cobblestone ice, the tooth-rattling washboard of bumpy ice that tested both my shocks and my nerve. Along the way I passed a few cars that had gotten stuck and been ominously abandoned. Finally I turned north to highway 360, the final leg of my journey home. Just a couple of miles lay between me and my family.

I would be exiting to the right, so I stayed in the icy right lane instead of moving over briefly to the smoother, drier left lane. Suddenly, I felt the back of my car start to slide. I’d driven on ice a few times over the last several years and recognized the feeling, but I had always managed to keep the wheels straight and pull out. This time, though, my back end kept sliding left. It happened so fast that I can’t remember exactly how I tried to recover. Soon I was spinning sideways into the left lane with my front end pointing toward the right shoulder. I kept spinning and started moving forward toward the shoulder.

“Hmm. This wasn’t supposed to happen.”

I kept sliding. A shallow ditch appear on the other side of a wide, icy shoulder. Finally, I came to rest with my left wheel in the ditch on a patch of icy grass and mud and my right wheel on ice.

Beyond feeling out of control, the experience wasn’t particularly scary. No other cars were nearby at that moment. My car was mostly on the road. The ditch was shallow. All I needed to do was back out and turn around. This was an embarrassing but minor inconvenience, I thought.

The ice and my front-wheel-drive, 100-hp Honda Fit had other plans.

Using reverse only spun my wheels. I tried rocking forward and back, turning right and left, and got absolutely nowhere. I got out and tried pushing but couldn’t get any traction on the ice. I wasn’t going anywhere. I had stumbled onto a problem I couldn’t solve on my own.

I needed Help.

After I flailed about for five to ten minutes, the first car stopped and backed up. A man climbed out and walked toward me. I initially waved him off, embarrassed and determined to fix this mess myself somehow, but he kept walking toward me. His message was simple: you’re screwed, so call a wrecker. I had already suspected that, but he helped me accept it. So I guess that was helpful.

I called my insurance company to get some use from my roadside assistance coverage. Due to all the other people who had crashed or gotten stuck on the ice, the wait was at least four hours. That was an awfully long time to wait in the car. On the other hand, my house was far enough away that if I walked there in those conditions, I would need to come back soon after I arrived. I didn’t want Jenny to pack up the kids and come rescue me, nor did I want to ask my dad or a friend to go out in these conditions. There was no good option.

As I debated, another car spun out directly behind me in the same icy lane. That’s when the gravity of my situation became a bit clearer. If I waited in or beside the car, I might get hurt or even killed. If I walked home, I might return to find my car smashed. I sat in the car trying to decide which bad option I would choose.

That’s when Help arrived.

The next car to stop contained two guys about my age or a bit younger, both wearing service technician uniforms from a Grapevine car dealership. For all I knew, they could have lived near the McDonald’s from the previous day that made me nervous. They said they couldn’t just leave me alone beside the road. They drove a Civic Hybrid and offered to try to pull me out with a tow chain. As we were discussing that plan, two other cars stopped and three more guys got out, probably on their way to work. First we tried it with the Civic Hybrid. One guy drove while the other four guys tried to push me out of the ditch. The Civic didn’t have enough power to get me out, so another guy hooked up his pickup to me while the other four pushed. After a few cautious attempts, Plan B worked. I was free.

And it was only because five strangers interrupted their commutes, took pity on a guy they’d never met, and helped him out of a bind he couldn’t undo himself.

I thanked them profusely. It might have been appropriate to pay them something for their trouble, but my car was blocking traffic and they needed to get going, so it didn’t work out. The guy who drove the pickup left me with a big smile and a simple, “Be safe!”

I tried not to cry.

At the very least, those strangers got me out of a major jam. In light of the other cars that could have spun out in the same spot and potentially crashed into me, it’s possible they even saved my life.

I’ll probably never see any of those guys again, nor can I ever repay them for their kindness. What I can do is remember this experience the next time I see someone who needs Help. Few things can humble a man like needing a hand from a complete stranger who has zero obligation to do anything for him. Perhaps one day I’ll have a chance to pay this forward. Until then, all I can do is be grateful and tell their story.

Blog Soup 11/21/3013

Happy November and Happy Early Thanksgiving, everyone! I have a few moments and thought I would share a few thoughts and bits of news before I go tackle the huge pile of leaves in my front yard.

House

Since Facebook prematurely outed me (darn you, Facebook! ::shakes fist::), I’ll go ahead and share some house news. Once Jenny finishes school in May 2015, we are tentatively planning to move to Grand Prairie near Joe Pool Lake. There are two main reasons for the move:

  1. Family – We’ll live near my sister (currently 30+ minutes away) so our kids can go to school together. Instead of being 45 minutes from Jenny’s family, too far to see them very often, we’ll be 15 minutes away. It won’t put us too much farther from my parents and maternal grandparents, either.
  2. More Space – When we moved into our current house, we had nine-month-old Brenden and no Jonathan. Now that our family is complete and we have two very active boys, we’d like to have a bit more space, including a big game room upstairs where they can play, a study downstairs, and a media room where I can watch movies or play games late at night without worrying about waking anyone up. We can get a lot more house for the money in south Grand Prairie/Mansfield compared to the Mid-Cities.

With that plan in mind, we have been updating our current house to get it ready. I might share some more details in another post if that would interest you.

Things That Make Me Go Hmm

A few interesting observations:

  • I recently sent my ex-fiancee a babysitter recommendation. We are friends on Facebook, and when she posted a request for a good babysitter, I had one to offer. It was a bit odd, but it’s nice that we don’t hate each other despite the breakup.
  • A friend of mine got a bachelor’s from a private school, worked a bit, got a master’s in a really specialized field from another private school, and probably financed everything through student loans. Now she is married and staying home with her kids, but they are so strapped for cash that they’re selling every spare possession they can on Facebook to reduce their debt. I’m all for staying home with the kids if that’s what’s right for your family, but I don’t understand taking out massive loans for private colleges if you don’t plan to work.
  • Some people say you should rake and bag your leaves because they choke off your grass, blocking air, water, and nutrients from reaching your lawn. Others say you should mulch the leaves back into the soil. For years I’ve been mulching them, but I’ve had problems with thatch development. This year I’m going to compost the leaves instead of mulching them. Wish me luck. I need it!

Baylor

As you probably figured, I am greatly enjoying the Bears’ football season. Jenny and I went to the Baylor-Oklahoma game in Waco earlier this month and had a blast. I’ve thought all along that our toughest test would come this Saturday in Stillwater, OK, against a tough Oklahoma State team. If we can win this, and Bama loses to Auburn or Mizzou, we have a chance at the national title game. That. Is. Crazy.

Obamacare

I held out high hopes for Obamacare despite my eventual decision to support Medicare for All instead. I defended it. I explained it to people. But now that the exchange website has experienced so many problems, and so many people are getting their policies canceled despite Obama’s foolish promises that “if you like your policy, you can keep your policy,” I have little appetite left for defending Obamacare. I love the new requirements – expanding coverage to the uninsured, no ban for preexisting conditions, keeping your children on your plan longer, coverage for contraception, etc. – but the overall scheme is too complicated to work well and isn’t going to draw in enough healthy young people to make it financially feasible. So in a sense, maybe the Republicans were right on many points. However, the answer isn’t going back to the old crappy system. The answer is expanding Medicare, a system that already works well for tens of millions of older Americans, to cover every single American, much like most other civilized countries do. But I fear that after the disaster of Obamacare, the country will have little appetite for further health care reform.

Unbroken and the Mystery of Enemies Who Become Friends

I drive a Japanese car, a Honda Fit. Unlike some Japanese cars that are built by Japanese companies on American soil, my Fit was actually made in Japan and shipped over. One of my favorite foods is sushi. Another is anything prepared hibachi-style. My family plays video games on a Wii U, a Japanese system, with audio run through a receiver made by Sony, another Japanese company. I love the spare, haunting simplicity of Japanese music and art and the minimalist beauty of its architecture and furniture design. One of my favorite spas is a Japanese gem outside Santa Fe called Ten Thousand Waves. In my lifetime, Japan has always been a country full of innovation, great culture, and solid values that offer an interesting alternative to our Western individualism.

Obviously, had I been born half a century earlier, my perspective on Japan would have been radically different.

A Tale Worth Reading

This realization hit home for me while reading Laura Hillenbrand’s outstanding World War II biography called Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. It tells the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who served in the Army Air Corps in the Pacific theater. After his plane crashed, he crawled into a life raft with two men from his crew and began drifting west toward Japanese-occupied territory. His story was one of the most extraordinary journeys I have ever encountered. The book taught me much about the Pacific side of World War II, a subject I sadly haven’t studied in depth even though both my grandfathers served in the Navy during the war. It also gave me a portrait of a will to live that is strong enough to endure unfathomable suffering, despite circumstances that would have made me want to give up many times over. Hillenbrand, also the author of Seabiscuit, spent seven years interviewing POWs, historians, and Zamperini himself, poring over scrapbooks and photographs and military records, and weaving together this mountain of information into one of the most compelling nonfiction books I have ever read.

Japan as a Hostile Nation

The disconnect between the 2013 Japan I know and the 1940s Japan in the book jarred me a bit. Without spoiling the book for you, I will say that Zamperini does eventually encounter some Japanese soldiers, and the results will make you squirm.

How can two countries go from being mortal enemies in the 1940s to being begrudging allies against the Communists the next decade, to say nothing of our strong relationship today and our affinity for Japanese culture and products? Political necessity certainly played a role initially, as the United States wanted all the allies it could get against the Soviet Union and China. Economic considerations also helped, as helping Japan to rebuild presented a large trade opportunity. The passage of time faded painful and fearful memories, and the millions of babies born in the post-war Baby Boom were already separated by time from the horrors of the war. For me, a child of two of those Baby Boomers, the idea of Japan as a hostile nation feels strange and out of place. And finally, as many of the World War II veterans learned after returning home, hatred and bitterness make a terrible burden to carry for the rest of one’s life.

Closing Your Eyes Is Easier, but Opening Them Is Worth It

Studying the horrors of World War II filled me with a variety of emotions: sorrow at the suffering and death of so many people on both sides of the conflict, anger at the people who started it, confusion at how so many people on the Axis side could believe in ideas like racial superiority, wonder at the amazing resilience and bravery of the soldiers and the civilians, and a wave of many types of gratitude.

I am thankful this brutal war ended as soon as it did. I am grateful that my grandfathers and so many others returned safely despite the enormous risks they faced. I am grateful that people, and nations, can change over time, that former enemies can shake hands and sometimes even form friendships, and that forgiveness is possible even in some of the worst situations imaginable.

Happenings from the Week

It’s been a pretty good week. Here are some items of note.

First Taste of Caribbean Dispatching

In the lower right, you can see the first first I’ve ever gotten to flight follow to a destination outside the continental US, SWA 742 from Orlando to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Honestly, someone else had planned it and followed it most of the way. I took over maybe 10 minutes before it landed. But that still counts, right? I got to plan my first two SJU flights Monday morning. Since Puerto Rico is a US territory, flights to and from there aren’t much different from an operational perspective. We just try not to divert to Cuba.

Uncle Charlie

The saddest part of the week came toward the end. After a long and debilitating battle with Alzheimer’s, my great uncle Charlie passed away on Thursday morning. Nearly all his family and many friends got to gather on Saturday in Wichita Falls to say goodbye and celebrate his life. Although we are certainly sad that he’s no longer with us and will miss him, it’s a relief when long-term suffering ends for someone you love. He was a good man. Several family members shared moving stories about him that gave me a clearer picture of his high character, sense of responsibility, and devotion to his family. Rest in peace, Uncle Charlie.

NBA Player Jason Collins Comes Out

This article from USA Today has more details, but this week Washington Wizards center Jason Collins became the first openly gay player in any of the big four American sports. Other pro athletes have been out for many years, such as tennis stars Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King and sprinter Carl Lewis. Perhaps competing in individual sports rather than team sports made coming out easier. Until now, gay NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL players have always stayed in the closet. But it was only a matter of time, as statistically about 3 percent of people are gay or lesbian. Overall, the public response to Collins’ admission from other players has been very supportive and positive, which is very encouraging. Bravo to Collins for having the courage to take a huge risk and go first by being honest about who he is. Others will follow. You can count on it.

South Padre, Baby!

Soon we plan to take the boys to South Padre Island for a couple of days. In addition to lots of beach time, we also want to visit a rescue facility called Sea Turtle, Inc., take the boys sailing on a replica pirate ship complete with a pirate show, and enjoy some tasty seafood.

Helping West

I decided not to attend the West memorial at Baylor to counter-protest Westboro. My firefighter friend Jeremy did, though, and said it was very moving and well-done. I made a donation to the Salvation Army’s West fund, which is probably more useful than picking a fight with ignorant hatemongers, anyway. My sister and her husband went down and volunteered in West on Sunday, bringing an amazing number of cookies to the displaced residents and helping with the food efforts in person. They were nice enough to bring me some kolaches from Czech Stop, which helps West and me both.

Colorblind Children

One thing I love about suburban living is the amazing assortment of nearby public parks. I count at least seven parks with solid playgrounds within a five minute drive plus an awesome, huge one that’s maybe ten minutes away. Why spend $1000 or more, not to mention a weekend full of cussing and imposing on friends and family for assembly, to put a smaller playset in our backyard? We can visit a different park every day of the week virtually for free.

Another advantage of playing in all these public parks is the boys’ opportunity to play with other kids. My sons aren’t exactly shy. When we show up at a park where other kids are playing, they happily jump right in and assume they are now part of the group rather than awkwardly lingering on the fringe hoping to get an invitation. For this shy dad, it’s a joy and a relief to see how comfortable they are with complete strangers.

Last week we went to the “Blue Park” – we’ve given each park a name that’s easy for them to remember – that sits near the apartments where Jenny and I lived when we first got married. Lots of kids were playing at the playground that day, many of them connected to a large family gathering that was grilling at a nearby picnic area. As usual, Brenden and Jonathan jumped right in. As I watched them play, I noticed that they were the racial minority at the playground. Most of the kids were black, the ones from the family gathering, and a few might have been Latino or white. I was struck by how, for my boys and seemingly for the other kids as well, race was an absolute non-issue.

They didn’t care whether the other kids were white, black, brown, or any other color. They were just happy to have someone with whom to play superheroes and pile up on the slide and giggle and run around and swing. One of the black boys was older, apparently the leader of the group. He was very patient and helpful with the younger kids of all races. At one point he even pushed Brenden on the swing for a bit, and Brenden loved getting attention from a big kid.

This little experience reminded me of a truth I’ve known for years but sometimes forget: racism is learned, not natural.

Let me be clear and honest here. I’m not perfect in the prejudice department. I’m not completely colorblind, nor am I sure that’s even a good goal given that race is part of one’s identity and is often tied into one’s culture, values, and much more in ways that are difficult for an American white male to understand. I still jump to inappropriate conclusions sometimes based on someone’s race. I still laugh at some racial humor that I probably shouldn’t condone. I choose to live in a suburb with a good school district, and that district does happen to contain mostly white kids. But Jenny and I are trying not to taint our sons’ worldview with any inappropriate prejudices, generalizations, or stereotypes based on a person’s race. I think that’s the main reason why being around kids of other races isn’t a big deal to them. Since we don’t make race an issue, they haven’t gotten any notion that race is worth considering. I like that.

I also want to preserve that perspective in them for as long as I can. I don’t try to persuade them to go to the parks where mostly white kids hang out. (I do try to steer them toward parks that have actual bathrooms rather than Portapotties or secluded trees, but that’s another post) I try to keep them away from racist people so those people’s hatred and ignorance don’t taint my sons’ young minds. I try hard to avoid the subtle Texas racism of describing a white man simply as a guy but a black man as a black guy, even though the man’s race is completely irrelevant to the story. Using language that way reinforces the idea that race is a thing when most of the time, it isn’t.

I also don’t plan to hide my children from “the minorities” by enrolling them in a private school or homeschool them for their entire school careers to keep them away from kids who are different. Brenden starts public kindergarten this fall, and we plan to keep both of them in public school through their senior years, just like we were. I want them to be around different types of people – different races, languages, religions, genders, socioeconomic classes, cultures, and sexual orientations – so they will have a better understanding of how people really are.

I am convinced their lives will be richer as a result, and so will ours.