Making Gumbo

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Thursday, June 01, 2017

What is the price of getting away from it all?





    “Time amid the silence of nature, in other words, makes you smarter.” (Michael Finkle)

     At some point in life, many say they just want to get away from it all; people and all that. But what would that really take?  What would that really mean?  What would that really benefit the person?  “The Stranger in the Woods: The extraordinary story of the last true hermit,” by Michael Finkel takes on those question.

     At one point in telling the story of Charles Knight, Finkel writes:

     “Language and hearing are seated in the cerebral cortex… When one experiences silence, absent even reading, the cerebral cortex typically rests. Meanwhile, deeper and more ancient brain structures seem to be activated—the subcortical zones. People who live busy, noisy lives are rarely granted access to these areas. Silence, it appears, is not the opposite of sound. It is another world altogether, literally offering a deeper level of thought, a journey to the bedrock of the self.”

     “The Stranger in the Woods,” the story, is a compelling, intelligent, moving, intellectual, report on the questions of solitude based on the experiences of a man who lived in the woods of Maine, away from it all, unseen, unheard, untouched, by another human being for twenty-five years.

    Finkel observes:

     “At the end of a serene weekend [on a Maine pond] you can’t help but envision quitting your job and remaining there for life. Everyone dreams of dropping out of the world once in a while. Then you get in your car and drive back home.

    Charles Knight stayed… He followed a very strange calling and held true to himself more fully than most of us ever dare to. He clearly had no desire to be a part of our world.”

      I highly recommend this quick, profound meditation on the strength it takes to be truly alone and the benefits and costs that come with achieving that goal.

posted by Rupert  |   12:49 PM  |   0 comments
Sunday, January 08, 2017

Underground Airlines: An American Horror Story

Underground Airlines is an American horror story.

 Imagine the horror of an America that still has slave-states in the age of the internet, cell phones and I-phones. What would that look like? 

 As Ben Winters imagines, that would be an America with the “Hard-Four.”  Four states of the “united” States where enslavement of black people is legal. In Mr. Winter’s imagination, to end the Civil War that would be an America that capitulated to the interests of slaveholding states.  And that capitulation would come in the form of a constitutional amendment protecting slaveholding in those states forever.

 What would that mean?  How would that work?  As Ben Winters imagines, that would be an America with hard borders between slave-holding and slavery-illegal states of the “United” States.

 How would that feel?  As Ben Winters imagines, that would be an America where enslaved human beings did not all accept their lot; some would be angry and always trying to escape to a non-slavery state.  Victor, a black man and a slave bounty hunter describes it this way:

 “When I looked up again at the people… going about their bustling midday business, shopping and eating and chatting, I did not see the white people, only the black: and as I watched I swore I could see fumes rising from [the black peoples} mouths—fumes rolling out of their mouths like exhaust, and I would see that every black person had the same small cloud of angry smoke coming out of his or her mouth and nose, a haze rolling off the street like exhaust, filling the air, the white people breathing all that and not knowing it.”

 Underground Airlines is a reminder of what as a nation we avoided by defeating an inhuman, inhumane impulse.  But it is also a novel that points to the unavoidable and real legacies of our nation’s history of having once enslaved human beings.  This well written, compelling, mystery novel, points to the real leftovers from slavery; an American psychology filled with racial stereotypes and irrational fear that continues to hibernate in our nation.

 Ben Winters main character, Victor, is a black man caught in the system, and used as a slave catcher.  At one point that character has a revelation about segregation.  He thinks to himself

“It took me some time but I know the secret now.  Freedman Town [a city ghetto] serves a good purpose—not for the people who live there, Lord knows; people stuck there by poverty, by prejudice, by laws that keep them from moving or working.  Freedman Town’s purpose is for the rest of the world.  The world that sits… with dark glasses on, staring from a distance, scared but safe. Create a pen like [Freedman Town], give people no choice but to live like animals, and then people get to point at them and say ‘Will you look at those animals? That’s what kind of people those people are. And that idea drifts up and out of Freedman Town like chimney smoke; black gets to mean poor and poor to mean dangerous and all the words get murked together and become one dark idea, a cloud of smoke, the smokestack fumes drifting like filthy air across the rest of the nation.”

 Appearing now, with all the racial, intergroup, neo-diversity, turmoil of our time, Ben Winters’ novel is a clarion call to all of us to pay attention.  Pay attention because there but for the moral thinking and actions of American heroes, there goes a horror-story-America with the “hard-four.”  Especially today, in the continuing struggle, pay attention, because right now too many in America are leaning toward accepting their-own psychological enslavement.


posted by Rupert  |   8:13 PM  |   0 comments
Sunday, January 08, 2017

Transgender in the Light of Our Humanity


    I have not read a more human story than that in the novel “Documenting Light” by E. E. Ottman.  Two people meet, are attracted but scared by that attraction to each other.  Both are, at first, afraid to reveal their true selves.

    They are a self described “…nonbinary, feminine, trans-person.”

     He is a self-described “…regular old trans dude.”

     Brought together by the mystery of the apparent intimacy of a photograph of two men, they begin to work together to figure out the history and the nature of the relationship of those two men. Searching into an undocumented, queer, past, that search is really a search to see themselves in history.   

    “It was odd when he stopped to think about it, to never see yourself reflected in history, to have no history, to have no sense of yourself in time. The idea that you could be linked to others across time and space based on shared experience—it had always seemed that it didn’t apply to people like him.”

     Soft and quiet, through the developing relationship we are watching form between Grayson and Wyatt, we are taken into the hidden-history idea.  A novel of romance yes, but “Documenting Light” is a novel about how the history we are taught is incomplete by intention; incomplete on purpose

    “What gets taught at anything lower than a three-hundred-level college course is very political. You were never taught queer history because there are people with a vested interest in you not learning queer history. But the same can be said for race history—of all sorts—and most gender history too, not to mention disability history. We don’t learn it, not because historians don’t study it but because the people who make the decision about what goes into history textbooks aren’t fans.”

 There’s that to contemplate.  But that hidden-history idea comes to life through Grayson and Wyatt’s human struggle to connect; to feel a belonging to, and with, another person; with each other. Searching out the mystery of the photograph, admitting to each other and giving into their attraction, the story becomes one about a transcendent relationship. 

 As I was taken in by their story, I realized I was reading and watching a deep, yet everyday intimacy develop between these two people.

     “’….afterward, you want to grab dinner.’ Wyatt tried their best to keep their tone casual, like it was no big deal even, though their pulse stuttered with the possibility of a yes.

    ‘I think that would be great.’ Grayson hesitated for a moment.  ‘Like a date?’

    ‘Yes, like a date.’

    Grayson smiled, wide and bright, down at his hands. Wyatt smiled too.”

     Here was a story of a growing intimacy between two people, each who had long unfulfilled relationship hope and desire, finally moving toward fulfillment.  Feeling their fragile intimacy grow sturdy, my eyes grew misty; my being ached.

      But I did not sympathize with their struggles with being different in our world. I did not sympathize with Grayson and Wyatt’s stumbles as they tried to connect to each other against all odds. I felt no sympathy. Instead, I experienced a deep empathy as their story reminded me of my own relationship hopes and desires that have gone unfulfilled.

    As a social psychologist, relationships are what I study and analyze in order to teach and explain the dynamics to all who struggle. I do that work with intense drive; just ask my students.  I do my work with a fierce hope of helping others figure out healthy ways to find what Grayson and Wyatt found in the misty, foggy, dizzying world of all our vulnerable human sexuality; in the misty, foggy, dizzying longing for a connection to another.

     I was moved by the story of the emerging relationship of Grayson and Wyatt who, as we all will do, were walking in the misty, foggy, dizzying world of our vulnerable humanity.  I was moved by these two people trying to find each other, because their struggle was showing what I truly believe and teach…

 …That relationships are our highest striving; that the attempt to find true connection with another is what makes us most human, and that that struggle is worth it

Find and read “Documenting Light.”  You will see humanity. You will be uplifted.

 This review was originally published on the website of the North Carolina State University Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity:

 You can find “Documenting Light” by EE Ottman as an e-book here:

posted by Rupert  |   8:06 PM  |   0 comments
Friday, September 21, 2012

Shadow of Night

    A week after the Cruise, back in Raleigh, on a Saturday night I began to feel an ache in my right side.  Familiar, the ache had a familiar feel; something from the shadow of my past.  I went to bed and awoke to searing, jabbing pain moving through my right side. 

     It’s serious when it hurts to breathe, but I thought I knew what was going on, so I went to Mission Valley CupAJoes for breakfast.  I looked terrible, bent over, walking like a zombie, sometimes gasping for air.  Looking at me with alarm in his eyes, I had to assure Dave that I was not dying. I got coffee, juice and a breakfast sandwich.  I ate.  Then, I made my way to the emergency room.  In constant pain, I was under the watchful eyes of Dr. Pleasant.

       Yep, I am not making that up; Dr. Pleasant.  When this young, white woman introduced herself, I looked up at her and said nothing.  Despite the pain I was in, I smiled.  She said, “I know… you can’t make this stuff up.”

     For the next five hours, I was under the care of Dr. Pleasant and her nurses.  I thought I knew what was going on, but because I have had a blood clot with pulmonary embolism in the past, many tests had to be run. Blood was drawn, EKG, nuclear breathing tests of my lungs to search for a blood clot.  

     No matter because I was kept by the good company of the atmosphere of Elizabethan London, the School of Night, Matthew, a thousand year old Vampire, Diana, his wife, who is a modern day woman and scholar, who is also learning that she is the kind of Witch who spins time. I was reading the second book in Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy. The first book was “A Discovery of Witches,” a compelling, multilayered, metaphysical-historical fiction. 


     After reading and being overtaken by that discovery of witches in the summer of 2011, I was upset to realize that “A Discovery of Witches” was part of a trilogy and that the second book was not due for another year.  Now summer 2012, the second book, “Shadow of Night,” is published and the story has blown me away.  No it is not the kind of book that stops real physical pain. I have never found such a book. But yes it is the kind of book that helps you hold pain at bay by giving you a delicious story on which to concentrate. 


    Diana and Matthew have gone back in time to search of an ancient text that might explain the origin of creatures (Witches, Vampires, Daemons). Imagine being in Elizabethan London in the company of Christopher Marlowe (a daemon), Walter Raleigh (a human), walking the rough, muddy, streets of that London, and meeting royalty because your husband, your Vampire is a spy for the queen. He is Shadow.

     Imagine too that it is in this time you have available to you a cadre of witches (Goody Alsop being one) who can teach you about your powers and your true identity as a creature.  And imagine too the possibility of a child conceived of the union of a powerful, unexpectedly humane (yet to be feared) vampire Matthew and the modern witch-woman Diana he truly loves.  It is Matthew, the Vampire, who speaks of what a child needs.  He says: “All a child needs is love, an adult to take responsibility for them, and a soft place to land.” 

     No wonder that Diana is drawn to him. No less because of her own fierce, independent spirit. Diana is a scholar in search of ancient secrets, and she is possibly one of the most unique witches of all time. 

     Now you’ve got yourself a story, an adventure, and one that is in the hands of a true writer and storyteller.  Pain or no, that’s good company.

     Oh, about that pain. I was right. Pleurisy.  Look it up.

posted by Rupert  |   10:46 AM  |   1 comments
Saturday, September 08, 2012

Summer 2012: Carnival Fascination and Stephen King

    Sometime in April (2012), I got a call from Phillip, my “…little brother.” 

   “I have a question,” he said.   “Ok…” I said.

    “Well, I have talked to Elinor and J.C., Carlos and Tresha, and they all have agreed to go on a cruise in June.  What about you?”

    “A cruise?” I said.

    “Yeah, five days, leaving Jacksonville.  So how about you?

    My brother Phillip knows me.  After all we have always been brothers.  And although I say he is my “…little brother,” he is 58 years old.  That’s how long he has been my “…little” brother.  So Phillip knows me and knows my tendency to be fine being by myself. In other words, he set me up.  He asked everybody else first, and once they agreed asked me “…well, what about you?”  He set me up.

     Phillip and his ten year old son, Phillip II, had worked it all out.  The two of them had researched the cruise, chosen the Cruise liner and Cruise ship, as well as choosing the proposed dates to coincide with the beginning of summer and for me the end of my semester.  That is how it came to pass that on June 4, 2012, we boarded the Carnival Fascination for a five day cruise with a stop in Key West and one in the Bahamas.

      Let me tell you we had a good time.  The two Phillips had planned this very well.


     The two Phillips had a suite, with a large balcony.  On the same deck level, Elinor, our sister, her husband J.C. had a room that adjoined the room shared by their adult children Tresha and Carlos, which also had a balcony.  I was on another deck level with an ocean view window.  So the ocean was ever present.

     Phillip and I both served in the U.S. Navy with duty aboard ships that stopped in ports around the world.  He and I were not interested, and did not ever get off this Cruise ship.  For us, it was about being again on the ocean, out on the big water that mattered most.  Everybody else got off at the ports of call.  Phillip and I stayed onboard the ship and talked to each other as brothers, about events in our lives that we had never discussed with each other.  We discovered that we had the same psychological experience on our first cruise; being on the big water the first time felt like finding our place in the world; a place with nothing but adventures to be lived.

     What a time the family had on this five day cruise.  We sometimes had lunch together, but we always had dinner together.  Before dinner we would gather in the suite of the two Phillips and sip wine, talk, tell stories on each other and on our now dead parents (grandparents to some in the room). On the dress-up dinner night, we had a little celebration for Elinor and J.C. to honor their fiftieth wedding anniversary.  Fifty (50) years of marriage!


    When we weren’t together, we did our own thing.  Me, I was in my room reading Stephen King’s 11/22/63.  What would you do if you found a way to go back in time?  Would you try to change history by stopping some awful event?  If you did try to go back to stop that event would doing so be easy? If you fought through the hard parts, changed history, would the change work out for the better?

    Up to this point, the only book of Stephen King’s I had read was his masterpiece, “On Writing.”  I just was not attracted to his novels since they were all horror.  Yet I wanted to read something of his because of two movies made based on his fiction writing, “The Shawshank Redemption,” and “The Green Mile.” I was intrigued because those two movies told a story, were about something, and were filled with the poetry of life.

      When I came across his novel, 11/22/63, I was drawn to it because I was a teenager in Louisiana when John F. Kennedy was assassinated.  Not only that, but my father was a local, grass-roots politico and staunch supporter of Kennedy in the hope that he would lead the federal government to improve the situation for black people in America.  King’s novel was about changing what happened; preventing the assassination of one of our most important Presidents.


    I have so many things to say about reading King’s novel while on this cruise.  First King’s book is a master class on how to write a compelling, can’t put down, intelligent, thought-provoking novel. Every detail brought up was used to strong effect in the novel, somewhere, and usually after you had forgotten the detail.  Second, King’s research on Lee Harvey Oswald and that time in America is impeccable.  Third, I found out King is a romantic in the best sense of that word; a believer that there is hope in what we try to do, hope even if we fail, and hope for the relationships we are willing to really work for.

     In his novel, King reminds us, if not teaches us that time is obdurate; resistant to change.  Time will fight you.  But dancing is life.

     During the cruise I read for hours every day. All twenty-four hours a day, the ocean was under me, dancing.

posted by Rupert  |   8:06 PM  |   1 comments
Friday, March 16, 2012

Radioactive Love

    I have a vague image of a woman holding a lamp that lights the way as she walks through a hospital room, watching over the sick and dying. That is the image that pops into my head when I hear the name Marie Curie.  Where in my childhood that I get such an image?

     That is the question I kept asking myself as I read Lauren Redniss book, “Radioactive, Marie and Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout.”  Turns out, I had no idea who Marie Curie had been, how important she had been to the science of radioactivity, and how she and her husband Pierre had shared a radioactive love.

     But theirs’ was not the naïve idea of hot love that we live with today.  Pierre Curie was a physicist who studied crystals, and whose work was ground breaking, setting the foundation for the creation of mechanisms that power things we take for granted today; inkjet printers, medical ultrasounds.

     Marie Curie was never a nurse. She studied mathematics and physics, and when X-rays were first discovered became interested in minerals that gave off light; uranium being one. 

     Both Marie and Pierre were high level thinkers and researchers. 

    Can two geniuses find love and sustain a relationship?  For me, as I read, that became the central question about the life of Marie Curie.  A woman of her own mind, at a time when women usually were mere baubles on the arm of a man, Marie wanted a love life, a family, but she wanted equally to be able to do her independent work.  Pierre was a man who wanted Marie the woman, but who also wanted Marie the thinker.  So they became collaborators in all things; life and work.  Noting this about their relationship Redniss writes,

     “With the constant companionship that accompanied their research, the Curies’ love deepened.  They cosigned their published findings.  Their handwritings intermingle in their notebooks.  On the cover of one black canvas laboratory log, the initials “M” and “P” are scripted directly one atop the other.”

     Today we use the phrase “power-couple.” Well here was the ultimate power-couple who shared marriage, children and a Noble Prize in Physics for their work on radium and radioactivity. It was Marie who coined the word “radioactivity.”  Her work influenced everything we learned about and now know about radioactivity.

     Set up as a graphic novel, Redniss takes us through the many facets of the questions, quandaries and paradoxes that knowledge of radioactivity has brought to human history. That, in and of itself, makes this a book that all of us need to read. And the book, with its colorful, emotion laden art (by the author), is a captivating read that took me away for three hours. 

     For me, the most compelling part of the story is the human story. In her diary Marie wrote: “We [Pierre and I] lived in preoccupation as complete as that of a dream.”  Yet dreams can contain moments of disappointment and even terror. 

     Still learning about the properties and effects of radioactivity, handling radium every day, both Marie and Pierre were being poisoned by their work. Pierre dies in part because he was so weakened by that poisoning.  Four years later, Marie takes a lover, another physicist, who is married.  That caused a scandal so extreme that two men had a duel over her honor, and she was discouraged from going to Oslo to receive her second Nobel Prize, this one in Chemistry.  Marie ignored these requests. That should have surprised no one because Marie Curie had always been an independent thinker.  That is why her greatest joys came in her relationship with Pierre. 

     What is radioactive love?  It is having someone who gets and respects your passion… that’s radioactive love.  Such mutual respect lights things up; it heats things up.  It resists random change, even as it accepts its own natural change.

     To love is to respect.  Sadly and with imminent danger to self and others, too many people use the word “love” when they mean “want.”  That is dangerous because “I want you” is only a statement of passionate desire.  “I love you” should be a statement of the interaction of desire, respect and commitment to the relationship that lights up everything. Love, you see, is a decision to bring and keep desire, respect and commitment together, in order to have an authentic, luminous, relationship.


    Marie Curie’s relationship with Pierre was such because they respected each other.  Losing such a rare, radiant, element would be the most difficult thing ever in life. No wonder that when he died, a day after the funeral, in her diary Marie wrote,

     “My Pierre, I got up after having slept very well, relatively calm.  That was barely a quarter of an hour ago, and now I want to howl again—like a savage beast.”

    You want to know what radioactive love looks like.  Read this book.

posted by Rupert  |   10:21 AM  |   14 comments
Sunday, September 18, 2011

If White Kids Die

    It was a hell of a time.  It was a complicated time.  It was the time of the civil rights movement.  It was the movement for black equality in which some white Americans were foot soldiers. 

    In this memoir, Dick J. Reavis tells us his story of being a white civil rights foot soldier during the summer of 1964. His mother and father objected.  His father said to him that yeah Dr. King wants you down there but don’t you see why; “…If white kids die, then this Dr. King will get more publicity.”  Still Dick Reavis left Texas to go South to Georgia and then Mississippi. Reavis become a worker for SCOPE (Summer Community Organizing and Political Education) a project sponsored by the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference).

    A Texas white boy, Dick J. Reavis had a lot to learn about the civil rights movement and about interacting with African Americans.  He learned that SCOPE represented a shift in the goals of the movement:

    “Always before… the Movement had in many ways pleaded… for whites to accept blacks.  The shift towards community organizing meant that the Movement would henceforth demand not a seat next to whites in a diner, but the seat at which the whites were sitting: it was [now] a struggle to take from whites the seats of power and patronage. …the Movement was not asking for acceptance, tolerance, or love; it was demanding power.”

    That made things complicated.  But even a young and motivated white boy could find a way to wrap his mind around that. More difficult were the lessons that were to come from interpersonal interaction mistakes. One of the things that made it a hell of time was the push to transition from a racial-caste system where being white made you right, and being black meant you had to get back, to a system where black and white people would have to interact with each other on equal terms.

   Problem was the caste system still existed. That meant that even an attempt to prevent a negative racial incident could go bad interpersonally for those on the same side. 

    A movement meeting was held in the backwoods outside Demopolis, Mississippi; although a SCOPE worker and a driver, Reavis was not allowed in because he was white.  Reavis and Jerry, a black movement spokesperson, left that meeting to head back into Demopolis.  Just as they made it to town, the car lost power. Reavis pulled over and just then two uniformed white men pulled up to see “…what are you boys doing here?” Thinking only of getting both himself and Jerry out of this unharmed, Reavis acted as if Jerry was a “…boy” who worked for his dad.  As part of that act Reavis handed Jerry some money and said to Jerry, “There, boy, go get us some oil.”  The ploy worked; the two white men left, but…

    “…Jerry didn’t speak to me for the rest of the day, and I don’t believe that he ever spoke to me again, though for a month or two, we lived in the same house… It took me years to understand why.”

    Young Dick Reavis was approaching all his interactions through the lens of strategies and getting the work of the movement done.  He had never felt the negative, heavy end of the racial caste system and so had not felt how everyday that system demeaned the humanity of African Americans.  So to save him and Jerry from going to jail he used what he knew of the caste system to play out the role of a white supremacist, using the appropriate language.  What he didn’t understand was that “…Jerry would have preferred risking jail to the insult… however well-intentioned…”

    One of the points I teach in my “Interpersonal Relationships and Race” course is that racial language has a history that still carries into the present use of words.  One cannot avoid that history by saying, “I didn’t mean it like that.”

    Writing with honesty and grace, in his memoir Dick J. Reavis tells us of encountering and failing at a number of these interracial interaction dilemmas.  Here again is a small story of what was going on in the everyday march of the civil rights movement.  Whites were involved and struggled to learn how to interact racially.  At the same time, blacks were struggling to learn how to interact interracially, and making mistakes, but mistakes that were not even seen as such. 

    All those mistakes influenced the successes and failures of parts of the movement, because the movement was complicated and “…a struggle against all kinds of odds.”  Looking back Reavis says, “While we accomplished some of what we set out to do, in the main, I believe we were defeated, and that our hopes now fairly or unfairly devolve onto the generations that will come after us.”

    That is all the more reason that it is time for stories like this one, from the foot soldiers, white and black, to be told.  Reavis makes this point too.  He writes: “My only hope is that in reading this work, members of a younger generation will see what I and my peers did not accomplish, and will do what they can for the cause…”

    We must never forget that it was a hell of a time.  Today, it is still a hell of a struggle. Now we see that this was not and is not just a black and white struggle, but a struggle to find respect for our common humanity; racial, ethnic, gender, religious humanity. All who care must be forever vigilant.

posted by Rupert  |   11:01 AM  |   6 comments