December 9, 2009

Seasons Of Living

This is the first Christmas season without my mother and father and it has hit me hard. Granted, I am a middle aged man with a family, and there are those who have suffered greater losses while much younger. Still, my children miss them very much, and their passing left a big hole in our lives. Also, not having parents leaves me at the top of the family tree along with my brothers and sisters. I’m too young for that, I think.

My nieces and nephews are either in college or getting ready to go. My daughter is in high school and we are already picking out universities from websites and catalogs. My son will be entering middle school next September, and I feel like life is sailing past me rapidly. I’m in my forties, sliding down the back end of the hill. There’s nothing but gray hair and an A.A.R.P. membership in my future. I’m not unhappy, but I have a vague sense that I lack accomplishment.

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October 7, 2009

Public Relations & You

I’ve been asked by a professor at the college where I am employed to deliver a lecture on public relations. My speech is tailored to the young, inexperienced, undergraduates in her class. The main theme will focus on how the demeanor and appearance of job seekers influences potential employers.

In my other professional life, I am managing editor for fiction for an international literary magazine. In that role I get to read some well written stories. In many cases, however, I must turn writers down in short order. My duty is to accept only the best a writer has to offer which complements the style accepted by the periodical I work for. I am intolerant towards authors who submit poorly written query letters which do not provide a plot summary or begin with a salutation. Many of the e-mails I receive are composed like text messages and expose the authors as incompetent writers. This brings me to my earlier ideas on public relations.

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August 15, 2009

A Learning Moment

“Do you want to know what the President did today?” I asked my ten year old son. He wasn’t paying attention as he was playing Nintendo. With my laptop on, I scrolled through news websites with the TV on in the background.

He came over to see what I was talking about. There was a picture on the Drudge Report of President Obama, Vice President Biden, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Sgt. James Crowley. This was the scene which the President hoped for, a “teaching moment.”

My son asked me what I was talking about and I showed him the photo. I then explained about the arrest of Professor Gates and the misunderstanding about race, and why it became important for President Obama to preside over this meeting. My son sensed that this was a significant story. He nodded his head and listened as I spoke. “He’s doing a good thing, he’s a nice president” he said. He paused over the laptop a moment longer and I patted him on the back.

As a former New York City police officer, I can closely relate to Sgt. Crowley and his handling of the burglary investigation. I’ve never been accused of racial profiling in my career; yet, I can detail incidents where bystanders expressed antipathy towards the white officers present at the scene. Upon reading the report of the incident at Professors Gates’ home, my reaction was to side with Sgt. Crowley.

August 13, 2009

Phone Envy

My wireless carrier offered me a brand new phone if I added another line. So far, there are three names on our account: my wife, my fourteen year old daughter, and of course, me. Our daughter was the first to chime in on the topic.

She reasoned that my son, who is going into the fifth grade “needs” a phone so he can text his friends (who each have one) and call us when he want to be picked up from a play date. Our carrier would send our son the latest and greatest which technology has to offer; and, I can’t see why he would require such a gadget. I get by with my standard-issue flip phone. Why does he have to own a cell phone with a keyboard and movie camera?

July 5, 2009

The Business of Men

Mr. Hoyt’s truck overflowed with the stock of his trade; car parts of all types, tires, and occasionally, kitchen appliances. He’d park his large, creaky, vehicle across the street from our home by Mr. Lowman’s house. It was one of many stops he’d make in the course of a day to sell his goods.

Mr. Lowman was a mechanic who relied upon Mr. Hoyt to supply him with the components he needed to run a part-time auto repair business from his garage. We lived in a blue collar neighborhood and it was necessary for people to work more than one job in order to make ends meet. My dad was no exception.

As a boy of maybe five or six years old, I’d watch Mr. Hoyt amble across the street to our home to meet with my dad, leaving his sons to tend to the business of off-loading tires and other items. Dad would greet him at our front door and invite him inside to discuss their particular deals over a cup of coffee in the kitchen. During the holidays, they’d sip whiskey in the dining room like gentlemen, as they would not drink in front of my mother.

My dad was an oil burner mechanic. Mr. Hoyt, being the type of business man he was, knew folks who needed work done and found people to do the work for them. He could rely on my father to answer his phone in the middle of the night and then run out to fix an ailing boiler during the cold, winter months. I am still not sure what the arrangement between the two of them was; but, my father was happy to greet him, and Mr. Hoyt always walked away with a smile and an envelope.

There was nothing peculiar about a grown man providing products and services to the mechanics and utility men of my neighborhood. However, the era of my childhood was the 1960’s and Mr. Hoyt was an African American. One needs to remember these were the years when the late Dr. Martin Luther King was leading peaceful marches across the south, and ultimately in Washington D.C. for civil rights. In the mean time, Mr. Hoyt drove his panel truck across town and through neighborhoods where he was not able to buy a home, in order to provide for his family.

He was a fixture in our lives until I entered high school, and when my Dad found another line of work which was more lucrative and did not require him breaking his back. Mr. Hoyt still visited his other client across the street from us. In his later years, his beard turned white and his body became slightly stooped, as he was a lot older than the men he provided both parts and work for. By then, his sons did most of the driving and heavy lifting, and my dad still invited him inside for coffee when he came around.

In my early childhood, he was the only black man I was familiar with. Yet, as welcome as he was in our home and Mr. Lowman’s, others were not as tolerant.

A man named Slater who once lived in the house next to Mr. Lowman, originally hailed from Kentucky; and, he was fond of displaying a large Confederate flag on his front porch. Mr. Hoyt often parked his truck in front of Slater’s residence, and he had to endure the malevolent Civil War banner staring him in the face. Mr. Slater would then scurry next door upon seeing him arrive in order to purchase wares from him too. That type of ignorance is too baffling to comprehend.

Mr. Slater liked me and would often wave as I rode my bike up and down the street with my friends. One particular Fourth of July, when I was about twelve or thirteen years old he draped his detestable Confederate flag on the wall of his porch again. I reminded him that Kentucky was a border state during the Civil War and officially remained neutral during that conflict, making his allegiance to the Confederacy both odd and gratuitous.

He didn’t wave so much to me anymore after that little history lesson. How he reconciled his bitter, racist beliefs with his genial, yet inhibited relationship with Mr. Hoyt was beyond me.
I can’t remember when I stopped seeing Mr. Hoyt come around. To this day, Mr. Lowman still occasionally fixes cars for pay in his garage but the kind gentleman and his sons aren’t the suppliers he relies on to keep his side business going.

When I was a boy, I understood the awkwardness of whites and blacks doing business in a world of hate, mistrust, and segregation. There were the cold stares of those who drove past his truck piled high with vehicle parts, and with his two teenaged sons in the front seat waiting patiently for their father. The young men would look away or talk quietly while ignoring those who could not identify with my dad and our neighbor who invited a black man to our quaint row of homes.

In the decades since those days when Mr. Hoyt took his commerce wherever he saw fit, our society has changed. One could not appreciate how dramatically different it is now if they did not witness a business man having to tread carefully down a suburban street just to make a living, compared to just a few days ago our nation elected a man to become the next president who also happens to be African American.

I do not know where Mr. Hoyt is today or even if he is still alive. However, I believe that his sons appreciate now, more than ever, the fortitude and courage displayed by their father as he drove down boulevards and across racial divides to conduct the business of men.

-Michael J. Kannengieser

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May 20, 2009

My Father, My Teacher

All which I thought I knew about my father was altered in the final days of his life. I believed, correctly so, that he was a strong, powerful man, both physically and in stature; but; I was also exposed to his profound spirituality. 

In my contemptuous, youthful days, I succumbed to the teen aged notion that I was going to live forever and that God did not exist. It was easy and convenient for me to shed the faith I had instilled in me from the time I was born. I called myself an atheist. There's a haughtiness to that belief system which is attached to the inherent and natural anger experienced by those who are pushing eighteen. Perhaps this is sparked by a fear of being nudged out of the nest into the real world, and by the anxiety which accompanies making a life for oneself which creates inner turmoil. My dismissal of God from my life also came at the same time I rebelled against my father.

He raised six of us, three boys and three girls, and he tended to our sick mother. Often he would take on another job to provide for us, making sure we had the bare essentials to get through life and to keep a roof over our heads, and regretfully, I could not appreciate his efforts.

Advice came in the form of bromides and life lessons, often learned from his own mistakes, which I fended off will the skill of a fencing champ. His instruction also came in the form of actions. He led by example, and often I lagged behind not paying much attention. Only now as a middle aged man raising my own family can I understand and appreciate his philosophies of dealing with difficult bosses, unreasonable deadlines, and the vagaries of keeping pace with and eventually surpassing ones peers. I only wish I had been a better student. 

With that said, I've gleaned much from his final hours, ones in which he suffered greatly. He faced his death with dignity. His bravery came from his strong belief in God and his unwavering conviction. His only regret was leaving his family behind, of not being a father and a grandfather anymore. 

It's not easy to become a role model. Folks often claim to be one and are not up to the task. Yet, my dad was a teacher, provider, husband, caretaker, father, grandfather, friend, and a servant of the Lord for his entire life. He enlightened his family until his last breath. Dad taught me that faith is not foolish, that love exits beyond life, and that death is not the end. 

My father has left us, he's given his last bit of counsel, but I remain his son. Hopefully, with the same grace and dignity he possessed, I can guide my own children through their lives while drawing from the deep well of sensibility and insight my father imparted to me.  God willing, I may also rediscover my faith which I retain a faint memory of from when I was a boy. Dad has shown me the way.

-Michael J. Kannengieser