From Opelousas to Spokane

Back in March I was visiting my mother’s birthplace Opelousas, Louisiana and a few weeks later the place I was born, Spokane, Washington. The two cities are about as far apart as you can get, both in terms of distance and culture.  My mother very rarely visited Louisiana after she married.  I hadn’t been back to Spokane since my father’s funeral, nearly 12 years ago.

Although there are no similarities between my birthplace and my mother’s, it’s clear that we both have had our own reasons for being away from the places where we were raised.  I can only speculate about my mother, but I always have had mixed feelings about Spokane. I was a successful student and athlete there, it was a safe place to be a kid in the 1960s and 70s, and it has a natural beauty that is difficult to match.  However, it was a place I had to leave in order to find my path in life, the same way my mother left Louisiana for Los Angeles in the 1950s.  It was there that she met my father, just like I met my future husband at Stanford.

The last time I drove into Spokane I was numb. My father’s sudden heart attack and untimely death had hit me very hard. This time was very different.  I was coming as a successful academic, attending a conference at Gonzaga University.  I found time to visit my old high school, Gonzaga Prep, which has been improved over time, but entering those hallways brought back a flood of memories.  Like any teenager, I couldn’t fully appreciate the support and education I received during that time.  Now as a grown woman with a family of my own, I can better appreciate the start that G-Prep gave me that has led me to become the person I am today.

This week was the 3rd anniversary of my mother’s death.  I can’t help but wonder what she would think of my trips to Opelousas and Spokane.  For me, it provided insight into the life she had led as a young girl in Opelousas and the life I had led as a young girl in Spokane.  I wonder if she could appreciate whatever life lessons she had learned there?  I feel so blessed to have a rich family history that is part of the broader mosaic of a black America that made its way from the South to the West and Northwest.  But in the end, it’s not only where you are from that’s important, it’s where you are going…and I’m sure my path will lead me back to these places, as well as others that will leave an imprint not only on me, but my boys who will some day read these words and hopefully gain a better understanding of what these places meant to me.

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Visiting with my cousin Gertrude (91!) and Aunt Lucille
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At Spokane Falls

How much is enough?

My thoughts have been like a billiard ball today.  I wore one of my mother’s rings for the first time – even though it had always been one of my favorites, it has taken me nearly a year to put it on.  I have been thinking about her nonstop since I visited the place she was born, Opelousas, Louisiana last week with my cousin, during a visit to New Orleans. I was reminded that my grandfather worked there as a sharecropper until they moved to New Orleans when my mother was 11.  She finished 8th grade and went to work as a seamstress until she moved to Los Angeles at the age of 21.  She met my father not long after she arrived and they married a few days before her 22nd birthday.

Sharecropper->Seamstress/Mother->Professor

Despite the fact that my mom worked at home, we  always walked to school, about six blocks away, regardless of the weather. I was reminded today of a time when I was in 7th grade and there was no bus to take me home after an awards ceremony at school.  There was no thought of calling my mom, I just decided to walk all the way home, probably a good 5-6 miles. My parents weren’t particularly supportive of my sports activities, so I imposed on them as little as possible.  Also, being the youngest of seven meant that I was rarely on their radar screen, at least not until there were only a few of us left at home…I was reminded of this by a passage in an article a student sent to me: “But women still bear the brunt of the work at home, devoting, on average, 28 hours a week to socks and meals and carpools in comparison with men’s 10. Meanwhile, insofar as this generation has adopted the Tiger Mom ethos, they have also—horribly and ironically—saddled themselves with the escalating burden of hyperparenting: monitoring Charlie’s piano practice, for example, or whisking Katie every weekend to her synchronized-skating competitions. Contrast this with the women of the Mad Men era, who were generally content to leave their less-coddled offspring to play in puddles, eat the occasional Twinkie, and even do their own homework.” http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2013/04/01/why-women-should-stop-trying-to-do-it-all.html

That would certainly describe my parents form of parenting – yet I hold a full time job, am an athlete, run a nonprofit, volunteer on several boards, and make sure my kids get to all of their activities every afternoon – I rarely schedule anything between 4 and 7 since I’m being the “mommy shuttle” and cooking dinner every night.  I may not have organic chard, but I certainly have organic mint, chives, and rosemary in my garden. I also have a handsome and amazingly supportive husband.

How much more do I have to “lean in”? When can I say that I “have it all”?  I often tell people that I have already achieved more than I ever thought I could as a first generation college goer – I’m a successful academic who will have published books with Cambridge and Oxford university presses by the end of this year. I have two beautiful boys who are bright, talented, and appreciate their mother. Why do I find myself saying at the age of 48 “is this all there is?”

Sharecropper->Seamstress/Mother->Professor

The answer is clearly yes and no.  I do have it all, but as a chronic overachiever, I can’t seem to rest on my laurels. But it’s laurel leaves that surround the green jade stone in my mother’s ring. I doubt she would understand this crazy world that I live in, yet I know she is proud of me. In the three years since she passed I have gained a greater appreciation of her life and the sacrifices she made for me to be successful.  There was no going back to Opelousas for her – but my journey there was in many ways part of her journey.  It reminded me of the distance we have come as a family.  Now I have to learn to internalize that lesson, so that I am better able to appreciate my own achievements and fend off the voices that would urge me to always do more…I am enough.

The Romance of Sports

A year ago at SXSW, I went to see the premiere of Matthew Cherry’s movie, “The Last Fall.” I had supported the movie via Kickstarter after a recommendation from a friend. I had heard that the movie gave a realistic view of life for most NFL players who don’t get the multi-million dollar contracts.  The movie did not disappoint – it showed a side of football that is rarely seen: what happens if you are a borderline player who is let go from the team who drafted you after a year or two? I enjoyed the movie, despite the depressing theme and got to meet the director, Matthew Cherry and the star, Lance Gross.

As a football fan all of my life, I already knew that this was the reality for many players. However, I couldn’t help thinking that it would be great to show it to every parent and young man who thought he could have a career in the NFL. As a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, I had heard too many stories of players who didn’t finish their degrees, but also didn’t make it in the NFL. I often wondered what happened to these young men.

This past summer I was having a discussion with several of my nephews about recent moves by the NCAA to allow players to earn some money and other changes.  As a former athlete myself (I ran track during my first two years at Stanford University), I knew the rigors of taking courses while keeping up with a grueling workout schedule.  I wasn’t on scholarship 30 years ago, so I quit after two years to focus on my studies and nurse my many injuries. My nephews, who were on scholarship, complained about the fact that their coaches wouldn’t allow them to major in fields like engineering or the sciences because the demands of those majors, including labs, would interfere with practice. We all shook our heads as we realized the wasted potential.

These two experiences came to mind as I watched the horrific injury to Kevin Ware and the resulting articles about the potential costs to him and his family.  When I saw an article by Dave Zirin in The Nation that Adidas and the NCAA were preparing to profit from a t-shirt with Kevin Ware’s number, I was sickened. Kevin and his family can’t claim a penny of the money that will be made from that t-shirt.

I have been angry with the NCAA for a long time, but this put me over the edge. Taylor Branch’s article in The Atlantic magazine from last year lays out in gruesome detail “The Shame of College Sports.”  It’s time for sports fans to speak up – just like on the issue of concussions in the NFL, it will take action on the part of those who support these players. I won’t let my romance with sports keep me on the sidelines any longer…As a mother of two boys who I hope will be able to play college sports one day I will speak up, and I will continue to do so until we see change.