6 Unburned Pieces of The Mind
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Lay da smack down

Even though winter seems to be trying to hang on with significant snowfall throughout the mid-west, here in Maine we have bare ground, sunny skies, and mild temperatures. On many of the ponds and lakes, ice is out, almost three weeks earlier than what would be expected in a normal season. More than likely, winter this year will be remembered here as the winter that wasn’t, at least here on the mid-coast of Maine. Our only significant snow was a half foot that fell during the third week of December. It didn’t last long with the rain that fell a few days later. Actually, about the only place in Maine that had winter was northern Aroostook County. Almost everywhere else, though, had very little snow, and the convenience stores, restaurants, and hotels that depend on snowmobilers and cross-country skiing enthusiasts suffered multi-million dollar losses.

This past week has afforded some of the driest weather we’ve had so far. Though still below freezing at night, the day temperatures have been in the mid-forties. The drive to work in the morning on Highway 1 is now in full light of the sun as it glistens on the water of Penobscot Bay. Most days at work I categorized as either good, or not so good. Good, in that the kids had little difficulty with being in class and managed not being asked to take a time out by the teacher. At the residential home where I work, kids first have school on site, and depending on individual circumstances, may eventually be allowed to take a regular class at the high school. Very seldom, though, do we have any kids who are able to attend high school full time.

Today I had to go to the high school to pick up a student and an ed-tech, who had been assigned to him, and drive them to Rockland for his GED preparation class. As I stood in the hallway outside the library to wait for them, I watched the students pass to their classes after the bell rang, and became amused by a simple observation. Like most of our kids back at the house, many of the kids that went by me were dressed in similar fashion. With sagged pants, shirts two sizes too big, and hats worn sideways, it seems hip-hop has become far more influential than I had even imagined.

Not that there’s anything wrong with hip-hop, at least no more so than rock and roll was to my generation. But with hip-hop there seems to be an undercurrent that goes beyond simply challenging the status quo, an undercurrent perhaps far more insidious and pervasive than the gang culture depicted in West Side Story, which almost seems tame compared to what is shown and heard on much of MTV today. Want to know what your kids are tuning into? Just watch. Or better yet, listen to a couple of tracks by G-Unit or the Black Eyed Peas. Pimps, Thugs, Bitches, and a lot of f-this and f-that in-between. Oh, yeah. I be talkin’ now.

While I stood there reflecting on this, I noticed a young lady, about 5’4, in a pink sweatshirt, as she ran down the hallway. Suddenly, as if zeroing in on a target, she leapt about ten feet forward, planting both her hands on the back shoulders of a girl in front of her and knocked her flat to the floor. “Don’t you ever talk shit about me behind my back again, you bitch.”

She then turned and walked away. The girl that was pushed down to the floor gathered up her papers and books and stood up. She looked stunned and uncertain as to what to do next. What I found more upsetting about the incident, though, is that none of the other students offered to help her. I noticed a couple of teachers that were on the other side of the hallway, oblivious to what had just happened. I walked over to them. “Did either of you see what just happened?” I asked.

“Oh, the girl that tripped,” one of the teachers responded.

“Tripped? She was shoved to the floor by that girl,” I said, pointing to the young lady who was now down the other end of the hallway.

“You actually saw that she was pushed?” the other teacher asked.

I was perturbed by his response. “It wouldn’t be too much to ask if one of you went and brought that girl to the office, would it?”

Finally, one decided to go and get the girl and the other left to inform the principal. After the girl had been brought to the office, the principal approached me and asked if I would be willing to write a signed statement, which I did, as to what I saw.

After I had signed my statement, I left with the student and ed tech I had come to pick up. As we were walking out to the van, the student asked why I had to be such a snitch. “Snitch?” I asked.

“Yeah, besides it wasn’t your business,” he said. “You’re supposed to leave it as it is.”

“I’m not sure if I follow you,” I said.

“It’s simple. Someone talks trash about you, you lay da smack down on ‘em.”

“Just like that, huh.”

“Oh yeah, got to keep it real with your homies . . . keep your respect.”

“So, you just give into your emotions, regardless of the consequences. Is that it?” I asked.

“That’s it,” he said.

I didn’t continue further with the discussion. I was still upset by what I had witnessed and found it difficult to concentrate on anything else, let alone a discussion with a kid who thinks smacking other people is a perfectly acceptable way to command respect from your “homies.” Besides, there would be plenty of other opportunities to work that topic in with the discussion group my colleague and I conduct each week with him and the other students.

Later that day as I drove back home under a robin’s-egg blue sky that signified warm spring days ahead, I found myself experiencing a sense of disassociation. I rolled my window down a couple of inches: the cool air, fresh and inviting. In my youth I never felt separate from my home, family, friends, school, or the community I lived in. Whether white collar, blue collar or otherwise, it was if the neighborhoods we lived in existed as mosaics that consolidated a comfortable sense of purpose and belonging.

Even with those of us who chose to have moments of rebelliousness, the community was able to absorb our challenge to the status quo without any lasting consequences. We put away our bell bottoms, beads, and peace buttons, cut our hair, and moved on to pursue bigger and better dreams.

For most young people today, hip-hop is where it’s at. And for most, like those of us who were caught up in the craze of rock and roll, they, too, will eventually move past it. They’ll go on to college, work or the service. Those are the kids I don’t worry about. Our communities are still strong enough to accommodate another generation’s rite of passage without necessarily sacrificing the values that have allowed people over a period of decades to thrive and succeed.

It’s the kids I work with that worry me. Too many of our young people are in trouble today. As to why, though, ends up being a question that gives itself to a lot of rough generalizations rather than any specific answers. Both parents work. Sometimes they lose jobs or can’t hold jobs. Sometimes jobs just disappear. Parents can’t agree on what kind of expectations or limits they should set for their children. The father drinks while the mother is subjected to his continual abuse. And so it goes.

Regardless of whatever the reasons may be, one thing is certain: in an environment of uncertainty, children become anxious and confused. They begin to feel pushed away, unwanted, and left to themselves. Without a clear sense of purpose and belonging, it isn’t long before they seek out and join with others who also feel left out. With its tribalistic style of dress, music, mannerisms, and code of ethics that espouses and glorifies drug dealing, pimping woman, and drive-by shootings--that says easy status can be gained by beating the crap out of somebody, or even shooting somebody--it isn’t surprising that these kids have bought into the Gangsta culture that has proliferated across America. “Hey, Homey G, welcome to da house.”

By S. L. Cunningham


Tying age to the tail of a dog

"What shall I do with the absurdity—
O heart, O troubled heart—this caricature,
Decrepit with age that has been tied to me
As to a dog’s tail." -- Yeats, The Tower

Wednesdays used to be my long day of the week, and often I wouldn’t get home until 6 pm. To have a twelve hour day in the middle of the week sometimes felt much longer than necessary, especially during the winter months of December and January. Since a recent change in schedule to accommodate an earlier time for staff meetings, I now get home around 4 pm.

Having a couple extra hours does make a difference, especially now that the days are getting longer. Weather wise, this past week has been perfectly scripted: cold mornings and mild sunny days with temperatures in the low forties. Although tomorrow that may change with the prediction of one to two inches of snow. As I’ve been saying quite a bit these past few days, when it looks like spring with only a couple more weeks of winter to go, you may as well as take advantage of it before it gets all mixed up again.

As soon as I got home today, I took off my shoes, put my boots on and headed right back out the door for a walk about town. The sun at this time of day is especially bright and is beginning to set more directly to the west. As I amble on down Waldo Ave, I spot a nickel on the sidewalk. Not thinking much of it, I put it in my pocket and continue on.

As I step off the curb to cross Main St. to the Post Office, I find another coin. This time, a dime. I know I’ve prayed to receive good fortune on my birthday before, but I don’t think this is quite what I had in mind. Fifteen cents these days won’t buy much of anything except maybe a couple of Fireballs from Belfast Variety.

The last time 15 cents meant something was when I was twelve years old. I was a paperboy for the Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. After I finished my route of delivering papers around the neighborhood of Center and West Housatonic, I would stop in Hashim’s Grocery on my way home and buy a Drake’s Devil Dog and a ten once bottle of Coke. Back then Devil Dogs came in a single serving package for a nickel, but now they come in a package of two and cost around 89 cents. It was the perfect snack, that is, if you like devils food with a crème center. I would sit on the bridge over the Housatonic River, and take my time eating my snack cake. When I finished, I’d wash it down with the bottle of Coke. For 15 cents, it was a simple pleasure for a simple price.

Not much for mail today, mostly junk, and yet another invitational letter from the AARP. I think they’re trying to tell me something.

I continue on with my walk and head down toward Front Street to see what’s new with the construction going on at Stinson’s and the new foot bridge built across the Passy. Bought up a few years back, the old Stinson’s Cannery has been under development to become a retail shopping complex with condominiums.

Stripped down to its frame, workers during the last few months have been slowly fashioning what will become the new building. It's a fascinating process, but one that leaves you guessing as to how they're ever going to succeed in making what they have now look like the building that’s been rendered on the drawing posted on a sign that describes the complex that’s been dubbed: Wakeag Landing.

Getting back to my place, I notice I have a message on my answering machine:
“Hey, Dad. Just me calling to wish you a Happy Birthday.”

I reach into my pocket and dig out the nickel and dime I had found, and drop the coins into my change jar. I’m not sure what it is about birthdays. Yet again, I’ve managed to live another year, and considering I’m 52 now, I’m lucky, I suppose, that my only physical ailment in life thus far was a gall bladder that went south a few years back.

Even minus a gallbladder, I don’t feel any differently than I did when I was that twelve year old boy sitting on a bridge eating a Devil Dog. Though as I look at myself in the mirror, it’s quite obvious that something remarkable has happened over the years.

Nevertheless, all mirrors aside, I can no more distinguish how I feel now than I could from when I was 12 to 13, or 17 to 18, or 30 to 40. After 40, though, individual milestones seemed to matter less, especially now that I’ve begun marking in earnest the milestones of my son and daughter.

However, when I was young, birthdays were always anticipated as welcoming recognitions of growing up and becoming an adult. My yearnings were pronounced in simple proclamations to the world: my first bike, my first day at school, my first dance and kiss with Debbie Burns, my first car and license to drive, and, finally, becoming a Marine.

Time seemed like forever, but as I got older, the days and months became shorter. The last few years in particular have gone by in a blur, and before I know it, I find that one day of reckoning when I stand in front of the mirror and see reflecting back at me a marvel of bewilderment, a “caricature” that’s hardly recognizable as the face I’ve so long identified with.

I go into the kitchen and open a can of Friskies for my cat, who’s just recently celebrated his 11th birthday. Unlike me, he doesn’t seem to be the least concerned about his age. But then he never seems to be the least concerned about anything, and appears content with always being in the moment. When he eats, he eats; when he plays, he plays; when he sleeps; he sleeps.

No matter the day, month or season, he’s always one-mindfully in the moment of whatever it is that he’s doing. And so rather than have “age” tied to me like the tail of a dog--always trying to catch up with everyday demands--perhaps I should take a lesson from my cat and do a long stretch like he does, and with one big yawn, simply slow down and just be 52.

By S. L. Cunningham
Village Soup Citizen, 3/14/06: 25