At the Core

 

I’ve heard it said many times that Milwaukee is “the most segregated city” in the United States. It has been hard for me to believe this, because the particular area I live in here seems to be very multicultural. Not only do we see all colors in the rainbow, but the groups of people walking together are often a mixture too. On the other hand, there is a whole section of the city that we almost never enter on our trips home because there was no particular thing located in these streets to draw us there. When I was young, people used to refer to this area as “The Core”.

So I got to explore some of that part of the city when we decided to go to the Wisconsin Black Historical Society Museum at my daughters’ request. When we first arrived, I took in the neighborhood, which like so many in this part of town was hard to get a real sense of . . . mostly because of everything that was NOT there. There was a very nice looking public library with a green area around it, but the parking lot in the back could have come straight out of Addis Ababa. The road clearly should have been a commercial one, but a lot of the buildings seemed empty. There were no grocery stores, or pharmacies, or clothes stores, or hair salons or non-fast food restaurants. There were almost no pedestrians.

The museum was locked and we assumed closed, but we pushed the buzzer anyway. A friendly woman came and let us in. She said yes, the museum was open and that someone would come to show us around. In the meantime, we had the whole place to ourselves. We looked at some of the wall exhibits. Most seemed to be documents or pictures printed from computers, pasted on colored paper and then taped or tacked to the wall.  Many were showing signs of wear or exposure. The room seemed more like a classroom than a museum.

 

To be fair, I think we didn’t see the more professional exhibits because the main hall had been cleared for an event. The website, at any rate, has this picture:

But when we were there the hall was nearly empty:

 

So I don’t know what we missed due to unfortunate timing, but I don’t think it matters.

Because the curator walked in, introduced himself, and proceeded to devote the next two and a half hours to us. First there was a long but interesting talk filled with things I had never heard or known before. Then he discussed ideas with my daughter for the focus of her graduation research paper (the original reason we decided to go there). And then he went off to compile/photocopy articles for her.

While the curator talked, I found my mind and attention gravitating toward this picture:

I had seen it before. Was it something iconic (at least for Milwaukeeans?) – or was there something else about it that grabbed my attention? At one point I asked the curator who those people were and he said “I’ll be coming to that.” He went back to his talk which was somewhere between Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education. Eventually, he reached the 1960s.

It turns out that almost exactly 50 years ago today, Milwaukee experienced civil rights protests that earned this city the nickname “Selma of the North”.  A group of extremely courageous mostly black people began marching again and again, under the most dangerous of circumstances, FOR 200 DAYS IN A ROW (!) to protest unfair housing policy in the city. Looming large among these protesters was Father James Groppi – a Catholic priest (who happens to resemble my own father):

                  

Father Groppi had already traveled to the South to take part in many civil rights protests including some with Dr. Martin Luther King. At some point he realized that many outside activists were moved to fight against abuses in the South while ignoring the problems in their own northern cities. He returned to Milwaukee and got involved in raising consciousness about unfair housing policies that kept African American confined to certain parts of the city and in sometimes abysmal conditions.

All of this was news to me. And it captured my attention and imagination. While telling my sister about our museum visit, she mentioned that there were exhibitions and events going on in Milwaukee to commemorate the 50 year anniversary of the marches. She also suggested a book called “Evicted” which tries to elucidate why the problems identified in 1967 still haven’t been resolved. I am 100 pages into it and can already recommend it to anyone who cares about the fact that big profits can still be made from people in desperate circumstances – especially those trapped at the corners where Racism Road, Segregation Street, Poverty Lane, and Opioid Alley intersect.

 

Seedy Alley Surprise

This must be my 20th trip to Milwaukee, so it was nice to find a little hidden treasure just a five minute walk away. At first site, it is nondescript and uninviting little side alley, that makes you stop and consider taking the long way around:

 

But once you enter, you find yourself surrounded by this:

Here was my favorite part:

Morning in America

There are two soundtracks running in my head as I sip my hazelnut coffee and watch the sunrise on my first morning in Milwaukee and they couldn’t be more different. They compete with one another for my brain’s favor. First I envision the West Side Story dancers and hear:

I like to be in America!
O.K. by me in America!
Ev’rything free in America
(For a small fee in America!)

 

Suddenly there is a mental scratch of the needle on the record and the music changes to sultry sounds of Nina Simone  – or Muse – singing:

 It’s a new dawn, It’s a new day,

It’s a new life,

And I’m feeling good.

 

I think my brain cannot decide on the soundtrack for this day because it feels there is just a bit more waiting to do before this vacation can really begin. Just as it evades sensory input of people smoking around me, it refuses to accept the reality of our arrival here. So when we passed this view yesterday – one that had evoked the feeling of finally being home the previous 20+ times I saw it – there was no excitement (or at least none I allowed myself to feel.) And last night when we all sat together on my sister’s porch and reeled off a litany of possible activities for the next three weeks, I thought a lot of them sounded nice, but that it was too early to start planning . . .

And all of that is so, because my brain pushed the “Pause” button on receiving this message off my computer screen several weeks ago, along with the subsequent letter telling us to appear for our interviews on July 19th.

July 19th. That is tomorrow. (Wish us luck.)

 

Tomorrow, one of two things will happen.

EITHER . . .

my daughters will officially become certified citizens of the U.S. and this long, at times nightmarish, bureaucratic odyssey will be over,

OR . . .

the odyssey will continue and the vacation will be over (at least for me.)

On the bright side I will probably be able to finally decide on a soundtrack – will it be the lightly cynical but happy patriotism? or the moody and dark irony of a new day dawning?

 

Tuesdays with Dafi

During a small family gathering today at my mother-in-law’s house, I got . . . scolded . . . admonished . . . reprimanded . . . by my sister-in-law.  And by my younger sister-in-law, no less. (A younger s-i-l who should actually be just a little in awe of me, a bit less uppity in my presence . . . I mean, if we were in China, I could boss her around and she’d just have to stay silent and take it.) What she scolded me for was how little I have been writing in my blog lately. Now that is a sweet thing to hear for any blogger – especially one who worries that certain friends and relatives are only reading out of a sense of obligation. I used to think this about her.

Every Tuesday, I take the train to the university to teach my course there. Two years ago, I got a new (old) lecture hall that had only one saving grace – it was right next door to my sister-in-law’s office. Once I realized this, I called her from the train one day and said “Hey Dafi! I’ve got a half hour to kill. What are you up to?” (She never let me forget that formulation.) What followed were weekly short get-togethers in which she gave me free coffee and all the latest family news that my husband forgot to tell me about. I’m not quite sure what she got out of these talks. Not only am I a terrible source for juicy gossip, but, once when I arrived at her office, I noticed my blog on her computer screen. “Oh no!” I thought, “she’s cramming my blog for our coffee klatch!”

One wonderful thing about Dafi is that when you think a thing like that, you can feel free to just go ahead and say it out loud to her too.

“Oh, no!” I said, and then asked her, “Are you cramming my blog for our coffee klatch!?”

She laughed and said no. I didn’t completely believe her.

All the more reason that today’s scolding made me feel good. Even if it came from a younger sister-in-law who has no business scolding her elder.

So, here’s a post dedicated to Dafi and a promise to everyone I have been neglecting on the reading/commenting side that summer is here, time for catching up is upon me, and I will be back. As I have warned many of you at times before  – “watch out for incoming!!”  And once the bombardment starts, you can all say:

“Thanks, Dafi! Thanks a lot.” (How you intone this is your own choice.)

______________________________________

A Note on the Name “Dafi”:
  1. it is pronounced “dah-fee”
  2. it is spelled d-a-f-i by me, d-a-f-f-i by my husband, d-a-f-f-y by others
  3. for years I thought it had something to do with Daffy Duck
  4. according to the husband, it comes from the movie “Some Like It Hot” and Jack Lemmon (in drag) as Daphne. (Pronounced in German “dahf-na” which turned into “dahf-nee”, which lost its “n” and became “dah-fee”, which is where I came into the family and took up the nickname and to this day, 30+ years later, still use it, even though no one else does anymore.)

 

A Moment in Teaching

I encourage my university students to consume non-commercial media like BBC, PBS and NPR. I also try to turn them on to podcasts – there are so many good ones out there. This year, one student in particular took my advice to heart. Each week, he would come to class and tell me about some new English language show or podcast he had discovered. A lot of it was pretty sophisticated stuff.

One time he was really excited about a fascinating find – it was called “Dead Dogs”.

“Dead Dogs?!” I asked, incredulously, “That sounds awful! Are you sure that was the name?”

 “Yes, Dead Dogs. It’s about all different themes in science and technology . . . it gets millions of clicks every day.”

“And . . . so . . . why is it called ‘Dead Dogs’?”

 “I don’t know. I’m not sure what ‘Dead’ stands for.”

“Spell out the name for me, will you?”

“D – E – D . . .”

“Wait a sec. ‘Dead’ is spelled D – E – A – D.”

“No, I am sure that it is D – E – D.”

 

We stared at one another for a while in silence and confusion.

 

“I have an idea,” I said, “write down the name so I can see it.”

 

Here’s what he wrote:

TED Talks

 

The following week we did some work on pronunciation.

 

 

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

 

. . . or the first day of it anyway . . .

 

 . . . but before I get to that, where can I get my hands on one of these T-shirts? It is perfect. All three of these crazes came to our school this year – much to the irritation of most of my colleagues. When it came to bottle flipping, I agreed – how is this an achievement?? However, I confess that I did the dabbing (aka “Usain Bolt”) gesture myself many a time and that fidget spinners also have a certain fascination for me. My colleagues were continually demanding that the students put them in their pockets or anywhere out of reach/sight. I never had to insist on that. When I came into the classroom, all the kids quickly disappeared their fidget spinners for fear that I would “borrow” it, start spinning myself, and not give it back. One of my students gave me one as a farewell gift and I blurted out “HOW COOL!!!” The sad thing is that I was honestly excited about it. Here it is (and notice the background!):

I got that gift on Friday morning – the last day of school filled with tearful farewells (but no tears from me, I’m not a wimp). The afternoon was spent carting daughters here and there, going last-minute-shopping for stuff they needed for their trip to the States, and finally at the Fair Trade Festival, where Mitzi’s new band had their incredibly successful premiere:

The night was long and moist for everyone except us designated drivers. I confiscated the husband’s car keys after he told the story of our kitchen renovations for the fifth time (a story, I might add, that he stole from me): “We wanted a new refrigerator. We are getting a new kitchen.”

Eventually, we made it home and fell into bed. We had made it. We had survived. Except that . . . (full disclosure) . . . the last day of school is not the last day of the school year. There was one more week of “Post-readying” to get through. And there were still “a few” things to do before our new kitchen could be installed starting Monday morning . . . i.e. 48 hours later . . .

 

Backtrack.

In the exhilarating process of planning and ordering our new kitchen months ago, we somehow found it feasible that the last week of work before summer vacation would be a good time for having the kitchen built. We didn’t really consider everything that would have to be done beforehand – the water lines, the electric cabling, the heating pipes, the subsequent plastering and mess. We didn’t consider the fact that my husband would be out of town for half of the last month of school and glued to it for the other half (mostly due to graduation exams) and that I would be feverishly working on the year-in-review slideshow for a week and then writing 28 farewell letters to my students the next. We also didn’t consider that our kids would be reeling from one year-end recital or party or performance to another while packing and preparing for their first solo flight to the States. Or that the hubby was taking part in a barbecuing competition that would keep him from home from noon Saturday to the wee hours. Or that we would have to leave for the airport in the middle of the night (2:00 am) to get them to the airport, driving for two hours there, two hours back, and then reporting for work at 9:00 am on Monday morning.

 

And because we hadn’t considered all of this, we woke up on Saturday morning in a bit of a panic. The fridge and dishwasher were still standing in the middle of the room which had to be emptied, cleaned and painted. But before that could be done, we had to go get the hubby’s car and Mitzi’s keyboard. And we had to tape up plastic everywhere to protect the windows and rest of the house. And the husband had to get everything ready for his barbecuing competition – that meant cleaning grills and finding all the equipment in our now disastrously chaotic household. We managed and he took off at noon. I walked into the kitchen and considered where to begin . . .

I decided on emptying the last load from the dishwasher and moving it. I opened it up and was greeted by some kind of new life-form. It seems we forgot to actually turn the machine on after that final loading five very warm days earlier.  I had to transport all those green and fuzzy dishes and glasses and cutlery to the bathroom and wash them by hand. It was truly one of the Top Five low points of my life.

Next task – moving the refrigerator. This required emptying it out completely and then sliding it into the living room and filling it back up again. Seems straightforward enough, but it took hours. And there was a lot of toting things to our one water source in the bathroom and back. More green fuzziness was also involved.

After that came vacuuming and mopping and daughter chauffeuring and mopping and unsuccessful attempts at online check-ins and mopping and then some more mopping. The kitchen had now gone from this:

to this:

 

And I went from this:

to this:

 

Sunday was painting day.

 

 

Monday.  We had left to take my daughters to the airport at 2:00 am and got back home around 7:00 o’clock in the morning. The workers arrived shortly thereafter and everything was hunky-dory as far as the kitchen project went. I drove off to school relieved and then had . . . the worst day of my entire six years there. (Details are unimportant here, but will probably be dealt with in some future post.) I can say I came home demoralized and ready to quit. I tracked the progress of my daughters and saw that their flight had been delayed. It was almost midnight before I got word that they had landed safely, gotten through the airport procedures, found the right bus, contacted my sister and were safely arrived. I went to bed.

On Tuesday morning, the workers arrived again and continued installing the kitchen. I drove off to school  . . . reluctantly . . . almost unwillingly.

I arrived and walked into the kitchen. My “boss” was crying and the other members of the teaching staff were in intense discussion with her. I realized that all of them had felt as deeply bad about the meeting as I had and that they were equally exhausted. We talked through all the crap from the preceding day and reaffirmed our solidarity with one another. The efforts to drive wedges between us had failed.  We even got a few things on our list done.

I went home and checked the progress of our kitchen. I recognized that it was going to be gorgeous. I checked the mail. The letters confirming my daughters’ citizenship interviews had arrived.

My husband suggested a shopping trip to pick out new dishes and pots and pans. It had been quite a few days since we had thrown money to the wind. In the store, we actually found dishes that we both really liked.

When we got home, we chatted with our daughters about their impending canoe trip and concert and civics lessons (to prepare for their interviews).

I hung up and felt that the world was a different place.  After a week, no, make that a month, no, make that a year of recurring anguish and frustration, things were just falling into line. The kitchen was taking shape. The citizenship process was becoming clear and comprehensible. The dimmed lights of my professional future had just brightened. The end of the tunnel was now . . . not quite in sight, but the lightness of the walls indicated that there was just one more curve ahead of me and then . . .

Sunshine.

And nothing.

But, sunshine.

 

PS.  A few days have gone by since I wrote the above. The school year is now officially over. The kitchen is now done. Have a look: