Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the month “July, 2020”

On Another Subject: Slippery Words

 

seg4When I was a child, my parents moved us from Palo Alto to a small city of about the same size in the segregated South. (It was a bad move, but that’s another story.) My parents were from a part of the country where you were more likely to see an antelope walking down the street than a person of African descent.  I had to learn some new words, and meanings of words.

There was one word that  could be used on the playground if you were using “Eeeny, Meeny, Miney, Moe” to choose out sides for a game, but if you used it anywhere else around my parents you risked getting your mouth washed out with soap.

There was another word that sounded almost the same but was used only by grownups when they were speaking seriously, and you could almost hear the capital letter when they said it.

The ordinary word used in polite conversation, and on rest room doors, and over water fountains, was “colored.”

Usage of this word to label persons of African descent is now archaic, surviving only, as far as I can tell, in the NAACP, almost never spelled out as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.   The preferred word today is Black, capitalized as though it referred to a geographic region or a nationality.

As a child I had never heard “black” ascribed to a person in conversation, although it was used frequently to describe the natives encountered by the hero of my father’s favorite book, “Tarzan of the Apes.”  In that context it seemed descriptive, not pejorative, although the book itself is indisputably racist to any modern reader.  When “black” first came into common usage to describe people back in the 60’s, it sounded rude to me, as would using “red” to describe a person descended from pre-Columbian Americans, or “yellow” to describe a person of Chinese descent.

nomexWhich leads to that awkward expression “person of color.”  Since “colored” historically referred to those people now called “Black”, a new term was needed which would be more inclusive of people who are not of European descent and appearance. This includes those formerly called “Indians” who are now “Indigenous”, also capitalized.  It also includes people originating from south of the US border who were  “Mexicans” or “Spanish” in my youth, and then became  “Hispanics”.  This word has now been discarded as being too deferential to the genocidal Conquistadores.  “Latino” was used next, but this word recently has been interpreted as sexist and supplanted by “Latinx”.

Mysteriously, “Persons of color” does not seem to refer to people of Asian descent.  Somehow they seem to have escaped the baggage associated with having endured prejudice, poverty, and exclusion which other immigrants have carried for generations.  But I am entering a minefield, I know.  Tomorrow may bring some new terms, some new usage, and all I have written here may be outdated and even shameful.  Language is slippery, and morphs without notification.

Maybe we should all just call each other by our names.

Life in a COVID-19 Hot Spot: Week 19 – Revisiting a Blast from the Past

tarzan_jumpdocYears ago, my father used to say “Everything I know about life I learned from  Tarzan of the Apes.” Although some tattered Tarzan paperbacks were around the house, somehow I never got around to reading them, though my kid sister read the series avidly.  Some time back I mentioned this family story to my husband, and as a gag gift at Christmas he gave me the first four books of the series.  They sat on my bookshelf untouched until four months into lockdown.  With all libraries closed and the neighborhood Little Free Libraries exhausted, I turned in desperation  to the Lord of the Jungle for escape.

Fortunately, I was able to remember that my father was laughing when he claimed Tarzan as his literary preceptor.  The book was published in 1912, and by today’s standards is offensively racist, with its portrayals of black Africans as vicious and cowardly: sexist, with its portrayals of Jane Porter and other women as helpless creatures instinctively drawn to the alpha male; and even animalist – Jane Goodall would shudder at the way Burroughs describes the life and traits of the Great Apes.TarzanJanedoc

If you can overlook the above offensiveness, the story can suck you in.  Tarzan’s birth, adoption by the apes, upbringing, and his discovery by other white men are ingeniously plotted (though Burroughs probably owes a lot to Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli of The Jungle Book). The first volume, Tarzan of the Apes, takes our hero through the events of the above paragraph, terminating with his unselfish refusal to claim either his title of Lord Greystoke or the woman he loves from the hands of the man, his friend, who has  taken both.

Tarzan2Of course, we couldn’t leave it there.  The second volume, The Return of Tarzan, sees Tarzan transformed into a 1912 version of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher: handsome, well-spoken, without ties, and able to fend off an adoring female or fight off  a dozen malefactors without suffering a scratch. I’m about half-way through this volume, but I’m pretty sure that Tarzan’s true love Jane Porter will end up in his arms by the end.  After all, I still have Son of Tarzan and Tarzan the Untamed waiting on the shelf, and I’m pretty sure Tarzan didn’t get it on with any of the apes.

Life in a COVID-19 Hot spot – Week 17 : the Doldrums

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I’ve hit the wall. I feel as though the General Confession I learned in my innocent childhood has come to fulfillment:  I have left undone those things I ought to have done (like getting this blog entry out on time) and I have done those things I ought not to have done (like completing 199 rounds of Word Play in three days). And there is no health in me (although I passed my Covid-19 test with flying negatives.)

Maybe it’s Post Project Depression – I had been working on a fun project for one of my favorite little girls (see below), and happily I was able to gift it in person last weekend,(socially distanced, air hugs, but in person!) and see the gleeful reception first hand. Now it’s finished, no more figuring and contriving and eking out, and there is a vacuum where that flicker of creativity glimmered, and no glee to look forward to.

Maybe it’s the general flatness of my social life.  Other than the week-end’s distanced visit, my calendar is a panel of blank days punctuated by periodic Zoom and Skype encounters.  The trouble with Zoom and Skype is that they are so darned flat!  No body language is visible in those postage-stamp-sized video clips, no signals that the other person has something to say,  it’s like being in grade school where you have to raise your (digital) hand to be recognized.  By the time I figure out where the Hand icon is, I’ve forgotten what I meant to contribute to the discussion.

Or maybe it’s those rounds of WordPlay and Spider Solitaire that are slowly eating away my brain. Even with a sparse calendar, I find myself forgetting Zoom meetings and Skype appointments, doing my classwork (yes, I’m taking an online class) haphazardly at the last minute.

July is a big Birthday month in my family.  I have eight birthday cards to mail.  Hope I don’t forget anyone!

An article in the paper gives me some hope that it’s not just me; even people who normally have proved to have total recall are finding it difficult to distinguish one lockdown day from the next. If only, like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day”, I could feel that I was learning to live my day better with each repetitive cycle.  At the moment, I don’t guess that I could say I am.

Life in a COVID-19 Hot Spot: Week 16 – Minor Surgery, Social Distance Style

Once a year I go in to have my skin inspected.  That  sore that hasn’t healed – is it  sun damage? A genetic pre-disposition?  A pre-cancerous lesion? Or is it the Big C? Usually it’s one of the first two.  Once in a while, the third diagnosis surfaces, resulting in some nitrogen burns here and there.  This last February, just before the lockdown, one small sore on my ear that had recurred several times turned out to be basal cell carcinoma – not too serious, slow-growing, but needed to be excised.

But then lockdown. Elective surgeries were postponed.  Three and a half months later, I get an invitation from my doctor to reschedule.  Outpatient surgeries which did not requre a hospital bed are being allowed to go forward.

A little bit different than earlier trips to the clinic.  Entry porch is clearly marked with footsteps at six-foot intervals.  Signs say “No entry without mask.” I enter, show my card to the receptionist, who is behind plexiglass.  She confirms my appointment, takes my credit card for the copay, waves me to the next station, where a guard waves something in my direction which turns out to be a remote thermometer.  Also behind plexiglass, he raises a paddle with a Thumbs-up sign, and I pass through the portal into the main lobby.  Signs on the elevator door  say “Maximum two people in elevator.  Please respect social distancing.”  I’m the only one in the elevator to the third floor.

The nurse who escorts me to the operating chair is masked.  The doctor is masked.  She ties her long black hair back firmly before tucking my hair into a cap, leaving my ear, site of the excision, exposed.  A sting as the anesthetic goes in, some pressure as the bad cells are carved away, a thirty-minute wait reading the magazines I brought while the lab confirms all is clear, and then I’m done.  I leave with a packet of band-aids and vaseline, and some printed instructions for cleaning the wound.  I have scarcely exchanged a word that was not related to my procedure with anyone I encountered. There may have been smiles behind the masks, but they were short-circuited.  Not much scope for comforting or building a relationship, but I got my $20 copay’s worth.

 

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