Same Argument, Different Decade

Words have power.

I once had an acquaintance who justified his use of two of the most vile racial and religious epithets by saying that he applied them only in terms of personal behavior characteristics, and not as a blanket reference to individuals of a particular race or religion. His argument was totally specious, of course; there was, is, no excuse for the use of such appellations, and there are plenty of available adjectives in the English language to define poor behavior. One need never resort to emotionally-charged words with a history of offense and disparagement.

Perhaps that’s why I was surprised when, commenting on the objectionable use of a brand-new belligerent term frequently splashed across the pages of a progressive newsletter, I was roundly trolled and trounced by its readers. I had (somewhat naively, I suppose) expected better of those whose worldview seemed to encompass a wider perspective than the narrowness of conservative thinking. But, almost without exception, each commentor defended her/his use of the offensive nickname, one even going so far as to say that it was merely a “descriptor”.

Same argument, different decade.

Another of these purportedly broad-minded individuals was infuriated by my suggestion that answering bad behavior with name-calling actually served no purpose; that heckling made no difference in the behavior of those so labeled, and served only to perpetuate the cycle of anger. My statement, he commented, was self-righteous. Reading his words, I chuckled, for self-righteous, as well as hypocritical, were exactly the terms I had, in the privacy of my own mind, applied to those who used the offensive terminology under discussion.

But then I wondered: Why was it that these supposedly free-thinking people were defending the indefensible? If my old acquaintance had risen up in their midst and spewed his hateful rhetoric across the pages of their newsletter, claiming justification for applying it only to the behavior of people and not to the people themselves, these same commentors would have bitterly denounced him and banned him from their pages.

Evil, it seems, is only evil when done by other people, and specifically people outside one’s preferred group. Hypocrisy, however, appears to be universal…as is disappointment. I was bitterly disappointed to find that the group with which I mostly align myself– freethinkers, the broad-minded, forward-thinking individuals–were just as hypocritical, unkind, and sanctimonious as those conventional traditionalists who abhor change.

I wondered, too, about the ages of those who defended the use of that new and distasteful “descriptor”. I suspected (totally without evidence, I admit) that most of those who replied had reached no more than their third or fourth decade, if that. At my advanced and advancing age, one has seen and experienced a lot more of the hatred so rife in this weary world, and has learned the advantages of practicing that ancient phrase, “A soft answer turneth away wrath.”

After a couple of mild responses to their provocative justifications for their continued use of the spiteful nomenclature, I sadly relinquished the argument, realizing there was no point. I doubted that these assumedly-younger people had been raised, as I had, with the chiding phrase, “Don’t call people names. It’s not nice.” They had no grounding in simple good manners with which to comprehend my point: that creating a new slang term to represent an artificially concocted subset of humanity was not a descriptor, but in and of itself offensive and intended to elicit a negative reaction in the reader/listener. By using an emotionally-charged term, they intentionally bypassed the logic circuits within the brains of those hearing or reading their stories—and that is, as it has always been, the real rationale for the use of such terminology. It “others”—dehumanizes, demonizes—those whom it references, resulting in the speaker/writer automatically becoming the hero of her or his own story.

For my own part, though, I will always prefer to use precise and exact adjectives to describe individual bad behavior, words with which the English language abounds. Words such as entitled. Or belligerent. Bellicose—I particularly love that one, as I do pugnacious. Rude. Argumentative. Disrespectful. Confrontational. Sanctimonious. Insolent. Bad-mannered. Loud. Aggressive. Lawless. Uncivil. Disorderly. Unprofessional. Abhorrent.

And, of course, hypocritical and self-righteous.

These are words that have nothing to do with race, or religion, or gender. They are words that genuinely describe the behavior, not the person; words that have not been concocted to encompass a belittling physical description.

Words have power, and it is imperative that we use that power not just precisely, but to good purpose. And that purpose is never accomplished by employing generalities, epithets, or incivility in our speech.

If you enjoyed this essay, you might also like the post “Please Stop Using the Term ‘Karen'”, from December 1, 2021.

Apricot Sour: The Stories Grandma Told, Part 2

To make you laugh…

An acquaintance pointed out to me that part of the motto of this blog is “…make you laugh”.  But recently, very few of my essays have been amusing.

She was right, of course.  And (also of course) it’s mostly because since the advent of Covid-19, I’ve found very little to laugh about, either worldwide or personally.

Or have I?  My friend’s remarks set me thinking about my grandmothers, Marie Gregory and Mayme Snoddy.  As I pointed out in the post, Clickbait, my grandmothers laughed easily and often.  Laughter was their finely-honed survival skill.

Of the two of them, though, Grandma Marie was the better–th best–storyteller, and never more so than when she was telling tales upon herself.  I related many of these in The Stories Grandma Told,  but she had dozens of entertaining sagas.  I now regret having never recorded them, but here are just a few more of her lighthearted tales.

Despite the fact that she lived a long life, surviving the majority of her peers, Grandma held no reverence whatever toward the common rituals associated with death—although she never missed a funeral!  But her eyesight was failing, and more than once she once called me to request that I drive her to a funeral calling.  “I need a ride,” she would announce, adding casually (and always to my utter shock), “I have to go look at a stiff.”

Late in her long life, Grandma’s not-so-secret vice was playing the horses.  All winter long she would hoard quarters, plopping her stockpile into her biggest “potchit” (pocketbook).  Come springtime, she would head out to the track and use those quarters to liberally place two-dollar bets on any horse that took her fancy.  Grandma never won much, but she enjoyed the whole process immensely.

What drove her to madness, though, were the friends who didn’t understand that a two-dollar bet was the minimum one could place.  She would be besieged by those who handed her a dollar with instructions to “put it on a good horse for me”.    “So,” she’d fuss bitterly, “I have to make up the difference!  And they never win anything, so I don’t even get my buck back!”

Those quarters once proved her downfall, though.  Grandma and some of her cronies met monthly for an inexpensive restaurant meal. At one of these get-togethers, conversation drifted around to the mixed drinks that everyone had enjoyed in their youth.  Grandma and another friend fondly recalled apricot sours. Out of the blue, they each decided to order one. 

The drinks came and were duly enjoyed. Later, to everyone’s consternation, a single bill was presented to the entire table. And that was the moment when Grandma discovered that she had left the house with the wrong pocketbook. Scarlet with embarrassment, she realized she didn’t have her wallet. She was going to have to pay for both her dinner and her apricot sour in nothing but coins.

The pre-calculator generation, too polite to belatedly ask that checks be separated, were scratching their heads to figure out the divvy.  Those two apricot sours, though, had greatly increased both the tax and the tip.  So Grandma was able to partially redeem her situation by offering to pay the entire tax and a generous tip, while the others split the rest of the check.  She escaped the restaurant with her dignity partially intact, leaving a gigantic mound of quarters on the table to tip their server. 

That story led her to also remember one from years earlier, when she, as a young working woman, met her girlfriends for lunch.  They’d gotten together one Monday after her weekend spent in the great outdoors…when she’d been bitten by chiggers.  In a Very Private Place.  Itching unbearably after sitting for an hour, on leaving the restaurant she’d ordered her girlfriends to circle the wagons and then, hidden, but to their horror, walked splayed-legged down the city sidewalk, hiking up her dress and scratching madly to relieve the bites.

But perhaps my favorite story was one from the last few years of her life.  Never one to suffer fools gladly, Grandma always had a ready retort on her lips.  On this occasion, she was backing her huge yacht of a car from a parking space when two foolish teenage girls, blithely unaware, strolled directly behind her.  Grandma stomped the brakes and narrowly missed hitting the imbeciles, who then took great offense, one yelling, “Watch what you’re doing, you old chicken neck!”

Once they’d passed, Grandma pulled out into the lane,  came level with them, stopped, rolled down the window, and snapped back, “Oh, back up to a mirror and look at your own fat ass!” Then, chuckling, she drove coolly away.

I was shaken to my core when Grandma left this life, finding it hard to believe that such a vital, bold, sassy matriarch had passed.  But I knew what she would have wanted, so, at her funeral, I squared my shoulders and marched up to her coffin, where I whispered, “Oh, Grandma, look what you’ve gone and done to me!”  Then I listened for her laughter as, tears sparkling, I finished: “I have to go look at a stiff.”

If you had a good chuckle from this essay, you might also enjoy “The Stories Grandma Told”, which you can locate in the Archives, below, from March 31, 2021.

Rah-Shar!

At the previous New Year, an acquaintance was delighted to learn of a tradition I’d always practiced but she’d never enjoyed: that of putting money out on the doorstep before midnight, and taking it in after the clock has ticked over, so that one might be bringing money in all year. Bearing in mind her delight in learning of this old ritual, I decided to rerun this post from 2018, about another lovely custom.

The other evening I poured myself a glass of sparkling, barely-alcoholic blush Moscato wine, using one of my lovely pink Depression glass stemware pieces. I held the glass up to the light and admired the bubbles of rosy wine sparkling within the equally-pink glass, and then sat down to sip my treat as I relaxed with a book.

It didn’t quite work out as I had planned.

Having perched myself on the corner of the couch, I set my glass down on the wooden arm and picked up my Kindle. A moment later, reaching for the stemware, I knocked the glass right off the arm of the couch, splattering wine everywhere and smashing the glass into a thousand shards and fragments as it hit the wall.

Whereupon I exclaimed, “Rah-Shar!”

You see, years earlier, my Chosative (Chosen Relative) had told me of a magazine article she’d once read, which explained an especially lovely concept: When some beloved or treasured item breaks, it is essentially taking the hit for a loved one—taking harm upon itself, so that the person or people you care about will not be harmed. Consequently, instead of regretting the loss of something unique or cherished, one should acknowledge the event by exclaiming the word which embodied this concept.

We both loved this idea. Unfortunately, my Chosative hadn’t written down the foreign word and was quite unable to recall it. The two of us spent the next few years searching for the word across the vast reaches of cyberspace, to no avail. We even each separately contacted one of those of public radio shows that explores the delightful concepts of language, but they failed to respond. Perhaps they couldn’t find the word, either.

And then one day, while desultorily once more searching for the word as she waited for a repairman, there it was. Purportedly Algerian, the concept was part of the consciousness of several Eastern countries, but the word itself, the single word embodying the concept, was, the article claimed, Algerian.

“Rah-Shar!”

The listing was far down under the thread following a question, “What do you say when you break a glass?” There were many answers, ranging from the downright silly to the rude, but a number of Eastern countries seemed to have assimilated this concept that a broken treasure was protective; that to accidentally break something beloved or cherished was actually lucky, for it meant a family member or friend was now safe, the broken object having taken upon itself the harm that would have otherwise befallen them.

“Rah-Shar!”

Considering this concept, I compared it to what I had once written in this very blog: that we should never refrain from using our beautiful or special things, never save anything “for good”, for our good is right now; that as much as our guests deserve to be served upon our fine china, with our costly glassware or silver—even as they deserve to dry their hands upon those lovely embroidered guest towels, or to enjoy the scent of our expensive perfume–so do we deserve it, also. We are, always, every day, deserving of our own best.

In the same vein, then, we should never hesitate to use our lovely things: our glassware or silver or china, our best perfume, our embroidered towel—even the amazing toy still kept in the box “to make it more valuable someday”, and never played with. For if these precious things do shatter or tear, if they break irreparably, they are serving a much greater purpose than that of merely providing us pleasure: they are protecting those we love.

As I cleaned up the fragments of my once-lovely pink Depression glass, I murmured a thank-you to the wreckage. And as I placed the remains in the trash bin, I said quietly once more, “Rah-Shar!”

If you’re wondering about that term “Chosative”, you’ll find answers in the Archives, in the post “Chosen Relatives”, from December 18, 2017.

Happy New Hope

The clock ticking, the joyful shouts welcoming a new year, won’t really have changed anything at all. After all, this post originally appeared on December 29, 2017…yet it is still pertinent.

In a very few days, a few hours, the clocks will tick over one more time, the sun will cycle across the International Date Line, the ball will drop, and all around the Western world we will hear shouts and cries of, “Happy New Year!”.

And nothing will have changed.

Oh, we’ll all awaken a bit wearier, perhaps hung over, a few hours older. Those who still enjoy and use a paper calendar will take down the old publication and hang up the new, possibly admiring the photo on the edition they chose. But the major things, the important things, will be no different.

Our problems from the old year will still be awaiting us, unerased, staring back at us from the bleary face we see in the mirror. Within a few minutes, a few hours of that clock tick, someone, somewhere, will have been born—or died. Bills from the holiday season will sit quietly awaiting payment, mostly on slender funds. Children and pets and our elderly will require care, possibly needing trips to doctors and veterinarians at the most inconvenient of times. The furnace will break down, or the water pipes freeze. The same worthless politicians will sit in office, masquerading as world leaders. Vicious on-line comments will be posted behind the perceived safety of a veil of anonymity.

The clock ticking, the joyful shouts welcoming a new year, won’t really have changed anything at all.

Except, perhaps, for our perception of hope. Hope is the one real difference made by that clock tick that purports to indicate that something new has begun. The hope that this year will, truly, be different. That the good things, the lovely things, the beautiful things will, this year, outnumber the bad. That we will experience kindness and courtesy, not just from friends and family, but even strangers. That some politicians will take a deep breath and stop–just stop. Stop threatening, stop posturing, stop repeating the sad history of our worn-out world. That a cure will be found for whatever devastating disease our loved ones are experiencing. That no one will be homeless, or lonely. That each of us will be given a fresh start, a second chance.

Hope is the only genuine difference of the new year–the one thing, ancient legend instructs us, left in Pandora’s box once all the evils invented by cruel gods had been unleashed upon humankind.

But in the original matriarchal myth of Pandora, before the shift in her legend created by the misogynistic writer Hesiod, her name meant not “all gifted”, but “all giving”. She was not created by those same cruel gods to be unbearably gifted and seductive, but was a goddess in her own right, born from the earth itself, who came to bestow upon humans all the things necessary to life.

And, being a goddess, she would have understood that nothing—not fire, not food, not water–nothing is more necessary to life, to the very desire to live, than hope. It is the very substance of the air we breathe, and just as necessary to our existence.

So, this year, when the clocks tick over, and those shouts of gladness ring in the airwaves, don’t be fooled that anything will have changed.

But never stop hoping that it will.

If this essay spoke to you, you might also enjoy “Paper Calendars”,
which can be found in the Archives from December 11, 2019.

Blessing the Hearth

I feel the shades and spirits of those centuries of women who came before me

A couple of years ago (pre-pandemic, when one still opened the front door to a knock or ring of the doorbell by a stranger), I was accosted by a salesperson attempting to convince me to sign up for home insect control. Now, I’m not the sort of woman to simply slam the door in the face of some hapless huckster. I know door-to-door sales work is a thankless job. So I usually allow them to get in a few (very few) words first before saying the obligatory, “I’m really not interested” and firmly shutting my front door.

But I did have a bit of trouble controlling my mirth when this young man gestured to the porch overhang, talking about all the spiderwebs that gathered at rarely-used front doors as family came and went through their attached garages. He pointed directly to the corners where such webs would be expected to lurk.

There were none. I mean NONE. Nope, those corners were free of spiderwebs, wasps nests, cobwebs, or cottonwood drifts from the blooming trees. It sort of put paid to his little demonstration. I grinned only a little as I told him I wasn’t interested and closed my front door on his bewildered face.

The only time I’d had greater enjoyment from a front porch peddler was the spring afternoon near Easter when I’d opened the door to a proselytizer trying to drum up customers for a local church. He invited me to join with them on Easter Sunday to “celebrate Jesus’ death”. (Yes, he actually said that.) Now, it’s been a long while since I practiced organized religion, but even in my dim and distant memories of such Easter services lay the notion that we were joining to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. For this particular porch peddler occasion, I did not even attempt to stifle my astounded chuckles. But I digress….

You see, there were no webs or cottonwood or nests, or indeed, any detritus of any sort on my tiny front porch or its rafters because I regularly practice blessing the entryway to my home. Stepping out armed with a broom, I sweep away anything on or above or around the porch and walkway while repeating the words, “Bless this home and all who dwell therein. This home is surrounded, enfolded, protected, and watched over by the Divine. Bless this home and all who dwell therein.”

Performing this personal ceremony, I feel empowered. With each stroke of the bristles, I claim the protection of my Higher Power. The exterior of my house is both cleansed and wrapped in a mantle of security; cocooned within a shelter of psychic defense as I move from my front porch to my back patio, sweeping and safeguarding that entryway, also.

There was a time when such household protection rituals were common, especially when every home was both lit and warmed by a fire. The hearth was the center of the home; the place where family gathered for warmth, and where women worked to cook the meals or to sit nearest the light to sew and weave. To bless the hearth was to bless the home, and was the exclusive province of women. For centuries women, denied the right to be priests or ministers, or to even participate in any meaningful way in the accepted religions–those women were, nonetheless, the hearthkeepers; the ones who genuinely kept “the home fires burning”. Women swept away the ashes and laid the fresh fires upon the hearths and kindled the logs. Women spoke their blessings over the flames, weaving a circle of protection about their homes and loved ones, blessings woven of love and as sturdy as any cloth upon their looms. They swept their front steps and dooryards, presenting a clear path for all who came and went. They polished the brass of door handles to a shining surface, reflecting the faces of those who visited.

And so, sweeping my own path and entryway and porch roof beams, clearing the ashes from my wood-burning fireplace before laying a fresh fire to be kindled on another cold night, I feel the shades and spirits of those centuries of women who came before me. I am following, not in their footsteps, but in the path of their work worn hands, as I perform the same rituals they once did. I am translated, shifting from my merely human form to become the daughter of all those who went before me, themselves daughters of Demeter, goddess of hearth and home; tenderly weaving words of beneficent protection about my dwelling, while envisioning all those I love cocooned within the warmth and undying fire of my love.

Did you enjoy this post? Then you might also like, “Another Talking Stick Ceremony”, which you can find in the Archives link below from December 10, 2017.

Dinner Parties From Hell

Judging by the many tales I’ve heard over the years, many a dinner party ends in total disaster!

My mother-in-law gave perfectly marvelous dinner parties, and, in fact, taught me everything I know about holding one. And although I have rarely had the opportunity to do so except for very special events such as Christmas Eve or significant family birthdays, I’ve been faithful to her instruction. A proper dinner party requires days of preparation, and there are never any guarantees that everything will go smoothly. I still recall the total mortification of The Apple Crumble Catastrophe, and cringe at the memory of the Too Many People Crowded Around the Small Table Due to Unexpected Guests Christmas Eve dinner. (With regard to the latter, just thank heaven I always cook too much!) Still, most of my dinner parties came off well enough that guests were sated and satisfied, if not impressed, and I myself recall them, if not with pride, at least with relief.

However, judging by the many tales I’ve heard over the years of dinner party disasters, my experience has been the exception, rather than the rule.

Perhaps not surprisingly, as I recounted in The Dinner Party (you’ll find that in the Archives from September 4, 2019), most of the truly awful dinner party stories I’ve heard have involved brides and their newly-acquired families. Maybe that’s because family hierarchy and interactions haven’t been decided when someone marries into the group—or simply because some in-laws are really, really rude and judgmental. But of the many Dinner Party Disaster tales that were related to me over the years, there are some that I still recall vividly, and most involved newly-minted family members.

The first, told me by an acquaintance about her sister, was The Spaghetti Dinner. Now, spaghetti is a meal that many young people serve to guests when they’ve first begun housekeeping. It has the simple honesty of a well-loved peasant dish. Add a salad, garlic bread, wine and a dessert, and one has all the ingredients for a jovial, easy meal.

In this case, the Young Bride invited her new husband’s parents and his younger brother for a meal. With five for dinner, she made her mother’s meatball recipe, which was meant to yield two dozen large meatballs. Instead, as an inexperienced cook, she ended up with 19 very large meatballs, and a single little small, squashed meatball that looked more like a ping-pong ball. YB spooned them all into a bowl and placed everything on the beautifully-set table.

When the meatball bowl arrived at her place after having been passed around the table, there was a single meatball left. One. Just one. The little spare squashed meatball. YB looked around at her husband and guests. Her husband had taken five giant meatballs; her mother-in-law, two. Her new brother and father in-laws each had six on their plates.

Her new mother-in-law helpfully offered to refill the meatball platter from the kitchen, and YB, abashed, had to explain that there were no more. Since none of the carnivores offered to relinquish any of their kill, she nibbled her single ping-pong meatball and filled up on salad and pasta.

But, as her sister concluded the tale to me, when YB served dessert, she served herself first.

Another dinner party disaster tale told me was The Vegetarian Dinner. In this case, the hostess was the Unpopular Fiancé making a special effort to ingratiate herself with her soon-to-be mother-in-law. Having interrogated her almost-husband regarding the food preferences of his family, including his unmarried, disdainful adult sister, UF received only the not-very-helpful information that Mom and Sister were vegetarian, while Dad (who already liked her, anyway) would basically eat anything put on his plate.

So UF read recipes, and experimented with unfamiliar forms of cooking, and finally put together a lovely vegetarian meal with a carefully selected, expensive accompanying wine.

Only to learn, as they all sat down to the table, that her future mom and sister-in-law were not, after all, vegetarian. The were vegan. And teetotalers.

Dad packed away everything that was placed in front of him in calm enjoyment and tossed back multiple glasses of wine, while Mom and Sister nibbled on the salad and home-baked bread, sans butter, eschewing the cheese-laden vegetarian lasagna. They concentrated on the green beans almondine, of which there was obviously not enough, since it was only a side dish. The dessert of baked-from-scratch cake with ice cream was a total disaster, also.

As they left, Dad congratulated UF on a fine dinner. Mom only remarked, “Well, at least you didn’t give us food poisoning.”

Astonishing though it was, UF still married the guy whose clueless information had provoked this dinner party disaster. But they never invited his family to dinner again.

So, as I say, even those of my most imperfect past dinner parties come off looking pretty well, by comparison. Although I must admit to never again having served apple crumble!

As mentioned, you’ll find “The Dinner Party” by scrolling down to the Archives links. It was posted September 4, 2019.

Please Stop Using the Term “Karen”: It’s Racist, Ageist, and Misogynistic

Slurs are specifically intended to elicit a negative reaction.

WARNING: This essay recounts several racist and rude labels, not to insult, but to press a point about the damage done by such slurs. Confronting them may be extremely disturbing and triggering for many readers.

It seems not terribly long ago when I first encountered the word “Karen” used as an epithet. Totally bewildered, I had to punch out to Startpage (no, I do NOT use Google!) to find the meaning of what seemed an obvious slur. The various sites I glanced through each provided basically the same definition: Entitled White Middle-Aged Woman. A few sites included a belittling physical description and mentioned personal behavior characteristics.

My immediate reaction was indignation: indignation first on behalf of a relative named Karen, who in no way fit the descriptions I encountered; then on the part of an acquaintance, a Black woman, also named Karen; and finally on behalf of all the women in the world, everywhere, named Karen. I wasn’t sure if the appellation had arisen due to someone’s upsetting encounter with an actual, unpleasant individual by the name of Karen, but it seemed absolutely nuts to use a common personal name to label a cluster of disagreeable behaviors inherent within an artificially concocted subset of humanity. Nuts and rude.

For a long while I continued merely feeling indignant and disapproving  whenever I encountered the pejorative term in written or spoken form. But after long, long months of seeing the tag flung about by otherwise intelligent and ethical people, I’m far past indignation. I’m miles past, “Well, that’s just rude.” I’m fully into the territory of flaming, roaring, raging, disgusted pissed-offedness.

If “Karen” is used to intentionally indicate Entitled Middle-Aged White Woman, then it is a racist, misogynistic and ageist epithet. Hardly misses any harmful categories there, does it? It is right on par with all other vile epithets. It is deliberately insulting and intended to elicit a negative emotional response in the reader/listener.

I know from personal experience what it is to be called a Wop (which, according to the person spouting the cruel nickname, was “…just a joke. Can’t you take a joke?”) It wasn’t a joke. Passive aggression never is. Racial and ageist and sexual slurs never are. If their reality disturbs you, then skip the rest of this paragraph; otherwise, let’s be brave and confront just a few of these ugly, detestable monikers, shall we? Wop, Dago. Nigger, Jigaboo. Redskin, Paleface. Chink, Gook. Krauts. Japs. Kike. Old Fart. Greaser, Spic. Slut, Ho. Camel Jockey, Raghead. Hillbilly. Faggot, Homo. Honkey. Polack.

A terribly uncomfortable, viscerally disturbing list, is it not? Nauseating to some. Agonizing for others. And those are just the ones with which I am familiar. I’m sure there are countless more.

And now, Karen.

“Don’t call people names. It’s not nice.” I must have been scolded with that phrase a dozen or more times during my childhood, by parents, grown relatives, and teachers—adults who then, not caring that they were overheard, tossed out in casual conversation any number of racist, sexual and ethnic slurs. Leading by example was not a strong suit on the Pale Island* of my childhood. Then I grew up and moved to the American South, and found my jaw dropping as I heard Black teenagers affectionately call one another “Nigger”. Surely I hadn’t really just heard…! Except…why not? Hadn’t my family members often comically or affectionately bandied about the term “Wop”? “You dirty Wop,” my then-young father and his long-time friend and mentor laughingly called one another. Ah, of course: the difference. Between ourselves, and only ourselves; between us Wops, it actually was a joke, and even a term of affection. But only between ourselves. When my (now thankfully ex) husband, not of Italian American heritage, tried the same thing, it became a rank bone of contention between us.

Don’t call people names. It’s not nice…unless they share your heritage and experience. Unless they are in on the joke: the joke of taking something derogatory and evil and transmuting it into a shared experience, thereby rendering it harmless.

There is no way “Karen” can be rendered harmless. It is a vile and bitter taunt; a sneering, intentionally derisive gibe. It is a label—a label that “others”—dehumanizes–human beings, who (despite possibly having and sharing characteristics, some of them disagreeable) are, in fact, human beings. People. Women. Individuals.

Not a group. Not all the same.

It’s long past time that we all, every last one of us, stop applying these offensive sticky notes to the members of our human family.

There are, sad to say, many people who walk this sad world wearing a patina of entitlement. And those people come in every color of the human rainbow. They are male, female, and every finally-recognized gender in between. They come in all ages, all sizes, and are drawn from all walks of life.

There are, in fact, no Karens. There are only self-satisfied hypocrites who find security in labeling others in order to assure themselves of their own righteousness.

*The reference to the ” ‘Pale Island’ of my childhood” can be found in the blog post Juneteenth from June 16, 2021.

When We Weren’t White

This blog post was actually scheduled to publish during the week of Columbus/Indigenous Peoples Day. But Mercury Retrograde was in full swing at that time, supposedly causing everything technical to go totally whack; somehow, the post never appeared. So let’s blame it on Mercury Retrograde! Here it is now, belated and totally out of sync with the holiday, but heartfelt nonetheless.

I am, as confirmed by DNA testing, half-Italian. My grandparents were each born in America, but their own families, including some older siblings, were born in Italy: Lucca, in Tuscany, and Vasto, not far from Rome.

One of my great-grandfathers actually arrived on the shores of America pre-Ellis Island, coming through Castle Garden, on the southern tip of Manhattan. Mansuetto Gregori arrived with his wife and children sometime during the 1840s or 1850s, long before Castle Garden stopped processing immigrants in 1890. Family legend, related to me by my grandmother decades ago, held that, having arrived in New York and before moving to what would eventually be Sioux City, Iowa, Mansuetto quickly changed the spelling of the family name to Gregory, hoping to be taken as “Black Irish” (the name once given to those dark-haired, olive-skinned Celts who descended from survivors of the 1588 destruction of the Spanish Armada). The Irish, as Mansuetto quickly determined, had assimilated and were accepted in America, as Italians were not. I’ve never quite understood why Mansuetto would have believed that his accent, as he learned English, would fail to identify him as Italian rather than Irish, but I suppose that logic would have been his least consideration at the time.

We Italians weren’t White, you see. We would not be considered White until 1965 (I was 11 years old), when racist quotas on Italian immigration would finally be overturned.

So although many people–people of color, indigenous people, and those of Asian, Pacific Islander or Jewish descent–might easily glance at me and think, “privileged White person”—and although I, personally, suffered quite little of the anti-Italian sentiment which was once rife in the United States–well, no, not quite. My experience falls nowhere near the same classification as that of many Jews or Asians, and certainly doesn’t even place in the same solar system as the racism experienced daily by most Black people in the United States. But it was not all smooth sailing, either, especially for my paternal Grandmother and Grandfather. As I have reported in prior blog posts, they endured terrible incidents of bigotry throughout their lives. For my Grandmother, especially, those incidents left emotional scars; I will never forget my feelings of disbelief, shock, and grief as she related the painful story of the racist remarks she suffered in her early childhood from her teacher, an Irish-American Roman Catholic nun. (See “And Speaking of Prejudice”, from January 18, 2018.)

For, yes, as Italians, we were also Roman Catholic. Few people today realize or recall just how detrimental to his campaign was the Roman Catholicism practiced by John F. Kennedy. Yet it was not long after his assassination that I sat in my fifth grade classroom, listening fearfully, as my teacher explained to the class that, should the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religion ever be revoked, “THEY” would come for us, just as they had murdered our President.  Fortunately for my peace of mind, there were many Catholic children in the neighborhood where I first grew up, since Holy Name church and school were literally around the block.  But the one little girl who was just my age (all the others were older or younger) wasn’t permitted to play with me, the “Car-tholic” girl.

Still, most of these fears and slights touched my life only peripherally, fading away as I grew to adulthood. Perhaps that is why I reacted viscerally to the reframing of Columbus Day as Indigenous People’s Day. Please do not misunderstand! I genuinely believe this is a long-overdue reparation for and acknowledgement of the horrific damage suffered by the native peoples following the arrival of Europeans on the American shores. Nevertheless, I also have a heartfelt personal investment in Columbus Day, as an Italian American aware of the sad truth of the origins of the holiday: that the celebration (originally intended as a one-time event) was declared by the short-lived President Benjamin Harrison in 1892, following the horrifying New Orleans lynching of 11 Italian immigrants. The murders brought Italy and the United States nearly to the point of war; the Italian consul in New Orleans left the city at his government’s direction, and Italy cut off relations with the United States until President Harrison’s paltry act of reparation.

So while I rejoice at the new national consciousness and acknowledgement of wrong doing, at the truth and justice brought to the reframing of the day, for me, personally, it can never quite be that. Columbus Day will for me, always, be known as “Murdered Italian Americans Day”. My racially-profiled ancestors are to me, you see, quite as important as yours are to you. And none of them, yours or mine, deserved to be treated as less than human because of the circumstances of their birth and heritage.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “You Dirty Wop”, which you can find in the Archives, below, from February 1, 2018.

The Gifts of the Season

It’s not just toxic recipients that one has to deal with at the holiday season.  Perfectionists and critical relatives add a whole ‘nother layer of angst!

My late mother-in-law was a marvelous woman in many respects.  One of the things I most envied about her, though, was her artistic ability.

Never was this ability more evident than at the holiday season.  A tray of gorgeous glass ornaments and greenery accenting a sideboard; a transparent vase filled with shining beads, artfully wound in graceful spirals and spilling in perfect draped arcs from the rim…  Mary’s decorations were breathtaking.

Her gift wrap, too, was spectacular.  Presents might all be wrapped in glossy white paper with tartan ribbons and real holly one year; the next, each would be covered in a harmonizing paper. Even the tags matched.

Now, I dearly love Christmas and am no slouch with the decorations, but I could never begin to equal Mary’s artistic flourishes.  My gifts are nicely wrapped, but haphazard, and the best one might call my décor is cheerful.  Mary always seemed pleased, though, with the gifts I presented her, no matter how irregularly wrapped, and praised my decorations sincerely each holiday season.  I genuinely appreciated her compliments, since I was all too well aware of just how much better she did things. 

This came to mind during a recent holiday season as I tried to wrap an extremely large gift.  I had only one roll of giftwrap of the right width for the present, which was heavy and unwieldy.  I’d had quite a bit of trouble maneuvering it onto the paper and getting the wrapping around it, but was finally working on closing the ends when the box shifted in my hands.  The result was a tear across the underside of the gift wrap.  It was easily enough mended with tape, but as I finished wrapping the box, I had a sudden flashback to a story told me years ago by two women at the office where I worked.

One young woman, I recalled, was both working and attending college, and couldn’t afford to travel home for Christmas.  The other coworker—let’s call her Charity, because that fits–kindly invited Carol (since that seems right for Christmas) to join her family for the holiday.

Carol came gladly, armed, as a good guest, with a pie and a gift for her hostess and a bottle of wine.  But she also came armed with a distinct sense of justice and a great dislike for bullies.

Because that’s what Charity’s mother was: a bully.  Unendingly critical of her daughter, she found fault in every tiny flaw and found flaws where they did not even exist.  Mom was one nasty ticket, and saw no reason to alter her behavior just because of the season of loving and giving.

But Mom hadn’t counted on Carol.

Arriving in a flurry of snow and smiles, Carol presented her hostess with the pie and wine. As Charity’s friend, Carol was already blacklisted, so Mom pounced.  “I don’t suppose anyone,” (here looking directly at Charity) “informed you that my husband is severely diabetic,” she grumbled.  “We always avoid sugary desserts at family dinners.”

“Is that so?” Carol countered coolly.  “Well, I’m sorry he can’t indulge, but surely the rest of us can enjoy the pie.”

“And I, of course,” Mom continued without pausing for breath, “am a non-drinker.”

Carol smiled.  “My Dad’s a non-drinker, too.  But he never begrudges everyone else a little tipple at the holidays.  Says his choice is no reason for the rest of us to be deprived.”

Apparently realizing that Carol was no easy target, Mom backed down until the gifts were handed ‘round.  As one of those irritating people who carefully slit tape and preserve the giftwrap, she turned over her gift from Charity to carefully unwrap it and discovered, yes, a torn and mended corner.

“Really, Charity!” she berated the girl.  “I can’t believe you didn’t take the time to start over and do it properly when you spoiled this gift wrap!”

Everyone was silent at Mom’s outburst, glancing with embarrassment at Carol.  More than equal to the occasion, though, Carol merely smiled and handed Charity the gift she’d brought: an oddly-shaped package, covered in reams of tape barely holding together giftwrap composed of the Sunday newspaper comics and tied with a colorful shoestring.  “Sorry about the way it looks, Charity,” Carol chirped.  “Wrapping paper just wasn’t in my budget.  But on the day when generosity of spirit rules, I know you’ll forgive me!”

I don’t recall how the rest of the story concluded: whether dinner was a delight or a disaster, or if Mom managed to choke down—or on–a piece of pie, or her own bile.  But I do know that Charity and Carol remained fast friends for the rest of the time I knew them.

As I say, the whole memory came to mind as I slapped tape every which way over the gift for my kids.  I sure they didn’t even notice as they tore the giftwrap in excitement from the box.

And, in the season of loving and giving, that’s just as things should be.

If you enjoyed this essay, you might also like “Second Hand Rose”, which can be found in the Archives from July 1, 2020.