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Fourth of July – Collard Green Muslim Style

29 Jun

I love Fourth of July weekend. For the last two years we trekked out to a historic parade site and sat in the sweltering heat two hours in advance to get front row seats. Inevitably one of our kids spills something on us, and themselves, that is sticky, of course, and we sit in it beneath the piercing sun, attracting flies, waiting for that dang parade. The youngest of our young’uns gets too tired, but has no place to sleep so he starts flailing and having a panic attack in front of the other crowd-weary parade goers. That’s how much I like the Fourth of July. Sometimes you have to suffer for the things you like. My kids get first dibs on candy, loud fire trucks and period costumes. I wear my red, white and blue hijab (scarf) to get into an even more festive mood.

Here I am here, with my very Arab husband. Our, then, eight year old son took this photo.

I had to hunch over a tarp with a bunch of other women on the side of the road at a souk in Morocco to fish for that hijab. I paid two bucks for it and tucked it in my shopping bag next to the carrots and fresh zucchini. Not bad, huh?

This year we have different plans and I want to hurry up and tell you about them in these precious few moments while my kids punk their brains out on a Power Rangers special. Yes, that is what they are doing right now. For shame, I know!

My Yankee friend from Amish country; the one I wrote about in this post, gave us the bright idea to go camping. She’s a planner; I’m not so much. I would never have thought about reserving my camp site three months in advance! Thank God I did because the best sites fill up quickly.

I love camping. It makes me feel like a bedouin…one tethered to a hot shower, a ready to fire up BBQ pit, and a giant inner tube to coast on the lake.

Yup, that’s me and my brood…and yes we did go down to the tune of my daughter belting out her signature Collard Green holler.

I’m not one for primitive camping; at least not in this stage of my life. When I have to go potty I want to sit on a toilet that flushes and when I smell like funk, I like to take a hot shower, and when my stomach growls I like to sit in a comfy lawn chair and watch my husband BBQ something I marinated without having to rub sticks together to start a fire. Oh…and I almost forgot….when I’m tuckered out, I want to sleep on an air mattress at least. The earth doesn’t feel so tender when it’s kissing your hip bone. I’m a mother; I can’t afford to suffer through a sleepless night just for the heck of it. I have to save my reserves for middle-of-the-night vomit tours or coughing triathlons which may strike at any time.

Maybe one day I’ll try camping in the middle of nowhere but for now I prefer four-star outdoor accommodations. That doesn’t mean you have to stay at a KOA where your neighbor is likely to pop out of his RV and invite you to a bingo game (or at least the glossy brochures make it seem like that).  State and national parks offer great accommodations without cheesy add-ons. Our family is getting to know as many Maryland State parks as we can travel to this summer as participants in the fabulous Maryland Park Quest program. So far, we have hiked, scavenged, and/or swam at seven state parks and each one has stopped us in our tracks at several points to ponder, in our own ways, at the awe-inspring beauty of God’s creation.

Our family is thrilled for the opportunity to participate in the Park Quest and grateful for the dedication of all those whose work made it possible. We hope to make it a regular part of our summer plans into the future. Here are some snap-shots of our adventures to leave you with. I hope that your family has a memorable 2011 Fourth of July Celebration. It’s a fine time to enjoy the great outdoors. I’d love to hear about your adventures.

Maryland Gunpowder Falls State Park

Here I am trying to maintain my balance on the river rocks which I managed to do. What a fine metaphor for motherhood. I ought to stamp that on my morning coffee cup.

We ran into wild raspberry bushes at the Chesapeake Bay and munched on them until we had our fill:

The youngest of the young’uns likes to hitch-hike here:

….and here at Susquehanna State Park in Maryland.

There is never a dull moment outdoors. I never hear my kids say: “I’m bored!”

We love state parks with living museums which give you a chance to both hike and learn something fascinating about the people who once lived there and imagine if we were one of them instead of one of us.

The best part, by far, is the views which makes us wonder; if the earth is this beautiful what must heaven be like? Happy travels…from the mountains to the praire….from sea to shining sea!


‘Bald’ Peanuts

20 Jun

If you grew up in the South Eastern part of the United States, (what my daddy refers to as ‘God’s country’), you get all giddy at the sight of a pot-bellied man stirring a kettle of boiling peanuts by the road-side; if he is chewing tobacco and sporting overalls-all the better.

The kettle holds a salty, velvety, steaming tonic for the soul. I sometimes call them Collard-Green Caviar and they are pronounced, bald peanuts. The recipe is simple which I’ll share later, and involves simply: raw peanuts simmering for a few hours in salt.

My kids don’t even know they are otherwise known as boiled peanuts. They’ll ask me: “Mama, could you make us some of your bald peanuts?”

I live up North now which is fresh out of pudgy men dripping sweat over vats of peanut-gold. Instead, people above the Carolinas are stocked with road side snow-cone shacks, featuring at least thirty flavor varieties; which I reckon is some kind of consolation. They are served by high-school girls- their locks tied up in ribbons, and their neon bikini strings roped round their slender necks.  They chew large wads of gum and smile defiantly despite whiteheads erupting from chins and foreheads. I love snow-cone princess, but they are simply no match for pot-bellied entrepreneurs operating out of their mud-crusted giddy-up trucks.

Several weeks ago, my dear friend from Winter Garden, who was my friend long before Facebook announced the fact, reminded me of those roadside boiled peanut stands. As a status update, one sunny day, I dutifully reported the good fortune of spending a peaceful afternoon on the back porch with my kids, accompanied by a pitcher of sweat tea and a whole vat of bald peanuts, which I had prepared during the morning and early afternoon.

Every now and then, a mercy-laden breeze would drift from yonder over our little plot of joy- bringing with it sweet perfumes of Spring, as if to say, you made it through another cold winter, it’s all sunshine and cricket songs, picnic baskets and long days, green grass and bare feet. It’s days like that which gave inspiration to Travis Tritt’s song: It’s a Great Day to Be Alive:  You know the sun’s still shinin’ when I close my eyes; they’re some hard times in the neighborhood but why can’t every day be just as good.

He should have written about boiled peanuts instead of rice.

I thanked Allah for the decent, simple pleasures of life, which cost just a trifle, and for the good health of all of us to enjoy them. Not long after, a bright, red cardinal and his muted, dust-colored bride swept over the lawn and pecked at the earth. I imagined them feasting on their own version of bald peanuts. 

I was giddy to share my good fortune with friends, via Facebook – many scattered far and wide over time zones and even continents. My good friend from Winter Garden, made a very fitting observation. She pitied me for resorting to boiling my peanuts on my own stove when:

We can get ours from fellow redneck sitting under an umbrella with a vat of boiled peanuts on a burner on the side of the road! When I first read your status I thought, she must be in Winter Garden:)

After that comment I wanted to click my bare feet three times and wake up under the fierce rays of the Florida sun, tucked under a potent shade tree, next to a boiled peanut stand. I was feeling sorry for myself that I had to get my green peanuts at the local Asian market, put them on a conveyor belt and take the change from a five foot tall Korean woman, which is about as far away from a collard green mascot as you can get! 

You never know what you’ll miss until you look around and realize that even if you start walking toward it, barefoot, until your feet crack and bleed, you wouldn’t get near enough.  Then you miss it with a crazed lonesomeness that won’t sway to any distraction, not even a majestic, brightly colored snow cone from a woman-child who can sing all the words to a Lady Gaga song.

I didn’t even know that bald peanuts are a collard green people’s delicacy until I moved North. Do ya’ll know who told me? It was a Yankee! Can you believe?! It’s true. A dear friend, raised up North, asked me if I’d ever eaten a boiled peanut.  I thought, well, sure hasn’t everybody?! She might as well have asked me if I’d ever eaten a boiled egg. Dogone, she awakened me to the reality that boiled peanuts are the pride of collard-green civilization.

She said a friend of hers, who grew up in the south, cooked her up a batch once and she loved them! That made me so stinkin’ jealous. I wanted to be the Collard Green ambassador to have introduced her to that charming, simple dish.

So, while I sulked over my childhood friend’s bragging rights, the thought occurred to me that at least I could profit from the thrill of finding an unsuspecting Yankee, and converting her to bald peanuts.

So, the next day, I simmered another pot. I already had the perfect candidate– a friend born and bred in Pennsylvania- a convert to Islam like me, whose mama and daddy were also born and bred, and many of their relatives before that, in Pennsylvania. She isn’t just from Pennsylvania, she’s from the middle of it – rolling hills and Amish-made quilts. You don’t get more Yankee than that! I could be close to certain that she had never eaten a boiled peanut. She’s also very adventurous, gutsy and inquisitive, so I could also be near certain she would oblige my request for just one bite.

Now, she’s not Southern, so she didn’t eat one and bust out with a declaration, like: Well, I declare, that is the tastiest thing I’ve ever had in my mouth!!!! Yankees don’t substitute exclamation points for periods as readily – hooting and hollering and letting everyone on the block know that they are having a good time and won’t ya’ll come over and join us!!!!

No, Yankees are a bit more sober which requires getting to know and translate their expressions into collard-green lingo. If a Yankee simply cracks a smile and head-nods in agreement – that is the same as a slew of exclamation points.

It didn’t take my good friend long to become addicted to bald peanuts. She even made a trip to the same Asian market that week to buy a batch and boil some at home for her husband. That was my first convert. I checked it off my list of things to do before I die.

It gets even better. A few days later I was at a gathering of Muslim women and an American friend of Syrian descent gave me two thumbs up on bald peanuts. How did she know about them? Well, of course, my Yankee friend told her. Afterward, she went out and bought herself a batch to boil for her visiting uncle and the rest of her family. They were all hooked too! Another friend, who grew up in New Orleans, in a large Palestinian family, was clueless about boiled peanuts so I dispatched some to her house as well.

I was beside myself; indeed, euphoric. I’d set out to convert one person and now I had lots more. It was a bald peanut revolution. How far could this go? I thought maybe I ought to open my own peanut stand. I’d be the first collard green lady in hijab to make Yankees swoon.

The night drew on and there was yet a lonesome woman at the gathering who had never tasted a bald peanut. She is a Uyghur Muslim raised in China, fluent in several languages; including, Chinese, Turkish and English. She’s a smart cookie is what I’m trying to say, and I like her plenty; not only for the fact that she’s been informed by leading a very fascinating life, but because she doesn’t take herself or others too seriously. In fact, I took an easy liking to her which is why it was so important to me that she adore the southern pastime of munching on bald peanuts.

When it comes to bald peanuts, companionship counts. It is a dish best shared with family and close friends, who don’t require small talk or pretension. This way, you can pop the whole peanut in your mouth and expertly extract the liquid, salty gold inside with awkward contortions of your mouth; then, just spit the shell back out- covered in the sheen of your own saliva, and open it to savor the tender peanut-pearls inside.

Digging into a bowl of bald peanuts makes you want to cut past all the fluff. The joy of rolling a soft peanut shell around your mouth is like soaking in an anti-venom for stress. It makes you feel settled down and nostalgic; you don’t want to have that vibration interrupted by the kind of person who’d likely throw a hissy fit over the temporary breach of hygiene and poise required to really savor this collard-green caviar.

When I presented this friend with a cup of boiled peanuts she wowed me by picking one up like she’d done it a thousand times and popping the whole thing in her mouth! Most newbies feel obliged to feign daintiness the first time, but she leapt directly into the spirit of eating bald peanuts, which confirmed my suspicion that I have good taste in people. There could not have been a better finale to my week-long stint of converting my corner of the world to collard –green goodness. The encore was that two weeks later, my Pennsylvania-Yankee friend came over. We sat on the back porch with our kids on a rare, lazy afternoon and devoured a whole stock pot of bald peanuts. We talked about everything and nothing, which is the best conversation for such an occasion. She challenged me to try a Pennsylvania whoopee pie to savor the flavor of her own people. I am waiting for her to cook me up a batch from her mom’s recipe (wink, wink if she is reading this). 

If you’re collard green, I challenge you to out-match my conversion rate so far. On the other hand if you want to know what all the fuss is about then try cooking up a batch. Here is the recipe. It’s as simple as this:

Step 1:

Get five bulging handfuls of fresh green peanuts;

Put em’ in a tall pot and cover with water like you plan to make soup;

Throw in a ½ cup of salt to start;

Turn the fire up high and wait for them to boil.

Step 2:

After they have boiled for 20 minutes or so, turn it down to medium heat and let them continue boiling.

Go invite someone over and think about how nice it will be to enjoy your bald peanuts with that person. Don’t forget to make a pitcher of sweet tea and cool in the refrigerator.

Step 3:

Turn the heat to low and let it marinate in its own broth. The peanuts will become saltier the longer they languish in the broth and will taste their best 5-6 hours after you started cooking them in the first place. Don’t add more salt until you are ready to eat. If it is not salty enough, add enough to taste and then simmer for another ten minutes.

Step 4: (optional)

Dig up a pair of overalls, tussle your hair to look haggard, make a quick homemade sign: ‘Boiled Peanuts 4 Sale,’ then stand on the road-side next to a pick-up truck. Don’t wave folks over; infact, act like you don’t care. A real Collard-Green mascot knows that he doesn’t have to pitch a bald peanut. It’s just that good. See if you get any takers and let me know.

I double dawg dare ya!

The Day My Soul Caught Fire

24 Mar

When my Muslim friends raised overseas ask me what makes growing up in the South so unique, I talk about church camp. All my good Yankee friends are surely going to protest:  I went to church camp too; the South didn’t trademark that!

Honestly, I don’t know because I never made it past the Mason Dixon Line until the age of 15; our town sent me on a mission trip to build a protestant church in Spain and convince the Catholic citizens of Barcelona about our Southern brand of religion. So, alright my friends, maybe ya’ll did go to church camp, but you never went to Jesus camp.

My collard green daddy didn’t send us to camp to explore new interests, like horseback riding, origami or basket weaving. Heck no! Jesus camp had one purpose- to teach you how to love Jesus and fear God. Those who loved and feared the most were honored with a baptizing ceremony at the alligator-infested lake. Breathing in the bloated, soggy air under lava-hot Florida sun rays, made the threat of alligators less irksome, and salvation, a risk worth taking.

We’d all go down there, singing a gospel song and gather at the muddy edge. The pastor would go waste deep and start baptizing campers one by one to a round of amen. I almost waded in once, but changed my mind after my friend came up to a shout of hallelujah, and poor thing, she forgot to wear an undershirt. That’s the closest I’d ever been to a wet T-shirt contest. The pimply boy-campers, hovering around like flies on the sweet-tea pitcher, pounded out an awfully sincere word of praise. She spent the rest of the week getting waited on hand and foot.

Meanwhile, I was in no danger of fending off a courtship. The most prominent thing about me was a nasty under-bite, for which my mama sacrificed three days wages to pay for an orthodontic retainer. That tooth lasso could usually be found clacking around my mouth, which no doubt, was an effective boy repellent.

I pity you if you never went to Jesus camp because it was a four-star kiddie vacation. There were the sing-alongs in the fellowship hall, the breakfast of pancakes and sausage, the obstacle course, swimming, nature walks, devotionals, calling the top bunk, reprimands for practical jokes- somehow always involving toothpaste, covert hook-ups, a crush on that very fine camp counselor-college student, giggles, verbal cat-fights, fumes of gossip, canoeing, bonfires, S’mores, and Bloody Mary stories- followed by high-pitch screams.

Last but not least, was the reliable, collard green inoculation against evil in the form of a well-choreographed finale sermon.  The whole congregation of campers held hands and swayed to the organ music. We swore from the bottom of our collard green hearts to go home and be better children, students, and community members…better Christians.

When my son was six-years-old a group of Muslim parents from North Florida organized a camp and registered participants at mosques around the State. It was to be held at one of the camp grounds where I attended as a retainer-sporting princess. I was ecstatic to learn that the program rules allowed younger children to attend, accompanied by their parents. The three-day weekend activities were centered on the theme of Islam and Ecology, and the goal was for campers to depart, affirming in their hearts that they would go home to be better children, students, and community members…better Muslims.

Several volunteers lined up to lead workshops; there was even a contest to determine which child delivered the best presentation, educating fellow campers on how to better care for our planet. I eagerly put my name on the volunteer list and started preparing for the role. Then, I talked it up every day till X marked the spot on our calendar. We piled in the car, my son behind my seat and his baby sister, along for the ride. Our voices alternated between Islamic themed sing-alongs and our favorite blue-grass hits blaring from the CD player. I filled my son’s head with visions of myself as a child, a few years older than him, sitting in the back seat, just like him, listening to the radio with my daddy, just like him, wishing the miles away in anticipation …just like him!

He hung onto my every word because the only thing he loves more than telling me about something he’s gonna do, is listening to me tell him about something I already did. His expression always hovers between disbelief and longing to walk into that world with me…as if he can hardly comprehend that I was a kid once too.

As we approached the entrance to the camp, the traffic accumulated. It was a two-lane road, running a path through flat, sandy earth yielding only brown tufts of grass. In the distance I could see a group of people huddled on either side, holding up fluorescent poster boards on yardsticks; they alternated pumping them up and down like gilded, iron horses on a merry-go-round. As our car advanced farther in the queue, we could distinguish the lettering enough to make out the words: Jihad Terrorist Camp, Islam is an Evil Religion, Get out of America …and more.

My son was not a fluent reader just yet; still, I tried to distract him, but it was no use. The protestors were shouting and their voices became audible as we moved closer.  His father turned up the radio real loud.

“What are they doing?” my son asked. I un-latched my seat belt to turn my full body around in the seat and look into his quizzical expression, laced with a trace of wariness.

I shocked myself with a rapid response: “They welcome new campers like us. It’s part of the camp spirit,” I said. “They even made signs! How cool is THAT?!!”

A big grin spread across his face, and revealed the gaping hole where his two front baby teeth used to perch. He perked up in his booster seat and gave them all a big wave and a holler: “Welcome to you too! Thank you! Welcome!!” he screamed at the top of his lungs, trying to make his voice more audible over the blaring radio.

He pleaded with his daddy to “roll down the window,” so that the “nice people,” could hear him shout back. His dad feigned grumpiness, and claimed he didn’t want to let the air conditioning out. I reassured him that the welcoming committee would be just as happy to see his smiling face through the window. My son didn’t ask why their foreheads were crumpled up and their fingers were shaking up a storm. I slumped back down into the seat, struck by the realization that a six-year-old will take his mama’s word for just about anything.

It was probably no more than ninety seconds until our car inched into the clear, but it felt like ninety years.  The weight of the world bore down. The reality of raising my Muslim children bore down. The sight of the protestors’ signs, their battle-cry expressions, and waging fingers, bore down. The sight of my boy’s tooth-less, gullible grin; the force of his hearty wave; the piercing noise of that radio, drowning out their venomous shouts; the bitter taste of that lie on my tongue – it all bore down.

I wanted to unleash a river of scalding tears, caged off and burning a hole in my throat…burning me so badly it felt like fire ripping through my entrails, and lighting my soul ablaze. I wanted to make an opening to exhale. I had something to say, muddled inside the inferno of my disfigurement. If you came here to shock us; if you came here to wound our notion of belonging; if you came here make us want to crawl out of our skins, just because you can; if you came here to make us weep into our pillow to muffle the sound from our children; if you came here to do all of that… you won, damn you. You won!

I am acutely mortal in such circumstances. I didn’t feel defiant, yet humble, like David before Goliath, or merciful and determined like the Prophet Mohammed when his people threw garbage and rocks at his head, yet he only responded with an earnest prayer, asking God to forgive them all. My mind didn’t instantly revert to the oft-repeated verse from the Qur’an: “And the servants of (Allah) Most Gracious are those who walk on the earth with humility, and when the ignorant address them, they say, ‘Peace!…” (25:63). 

I’m not proud to say that I only felt smoke rising from my sudden, ruptured existence. I loathed them all.

I didn’t grip my husband’s hand, in a show of affection and solidarity. He didn’t grip mine. Whatever comfort we might afford one another, was muted in the shock of our predicament, and in the need to keep appearances for our boy- now nearly bursting out of his seatbelt in joyful agitation.

Our son almost opened the door before the car came to a full stop. The hot coal in my throat started to extinguish with the need to turn our focus on the details of registration and cabin assignments. The fire still flickered and I yearned for a private moment, just long enough to have a good cry. I wondered about the older children who read the signs, and actually understood them, but I didn’t ask. In these situations, people don’t want to talk, they just want to forget.

Those who lagged behind skipped the clan-like welcome. Even hate-mongers break for happy hour. They didn’t hold their ground against the “terrorist;” rather, they left voluntarily not long after our scheduled entrance. Apparently, it was not conviction that drove them there, but the sick thrill of capture…a hit and run. They smacked our kids real good; now, it was time to celebrate over a round of cold beers and high-fives. Maybe a reporter would even quote one or two protestors, then ask a Muslim camper to respond- as if it was a battle between two sides, and the public must decide. Only if the bigoted assault were directed at any other group of children would it be deemed a shameful act.  These were, after all, Muslim children and wasn’t it Muslims who attacked us on 9-11?

Meanwhile, we met in the Fellowship Hall. The keynote speaker told all the children that they had a duty to God; and as an extension of that duty, a duty to their fellow citizens, and a duty to care for the earth. He said it is not always easy to be faithful, but we must be sincere and try to do our best. We must not let hatred directed at us, interfere with that duty. The talk was followed by a communal prayer. When I touched my head to the floor, bowing down in worship, I noticed the burn was no more. I felt close to my Creator, and vast distances away from the world outside.

My son would soon read fluently; he would hear and see all things clearly. I could only protect him for a while longer.

My children will receive shocks of pain from corners that I never anticipated, and that I scarcely would have imagined as a child. They will know pain, but he will also know the sweet relief from bowing, in humility, in utter helplessness and submission before their Creator – like Abraham, Moses, and Jesus… like Mohammed, peace be upon them all.

I was reminded of this day, while watching a You Tube video featuring a group of protestors, led by fiery politicians, shouting down Muslim men, women, and children, as they approached the entrance to an event raising money for U.S. charities, aimed at stopping hunger and homelessness in America.

It is horrifying to watch and words do not do justice. I should warn you that it is not appropriate for young viewers, although you will see that many of those who attended the charity event were children.

Among the protestors, you will see more American flags than at a Fourth of July Parade, which begs the question- what does pure, unadulterated hate have to do with the symbolism of our flag?  The answer is so obvious, the question doesn’t even seem worth asking.

I protect their right to wave our flag. In fact, if that right were in serious jeopardy, I would hold it up for them, swaying it high over my hijab-wearing head (with giant ear-plugs). While I support their right, I disdain their work to make the symbolism of our flag the functional equivalent of a swastika. I wish they would don the disguise of their forefathers– a white sheet and pointed hood. It is, after all, an honest badge for those who cannot feel anyone’s humanity but their own.

This targeting of Muslim inter-faith leaders and community builders, along with their children, will be featured in a documentary aired on CNN this Sunday at 8 p.m. EST. It is called, Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door. Click on this link to see the trailer. I am hopeful that a mass media outlet is bringing this issue to light.

I will say goodbye, now, with a statement from the trailer. It was made by a Muslim mother who will be featured in the documentary. When asked whether she thinks fellow Americans hate her, she stated:  “No, I don’t think so. I don’t think people understand what Islam is and (what) Muslims are.”

I also want to conclude with a word of sincere thanks to a high school classmate who contacted me recently to say she made an appointment at her local mosque to address for herself negative assumptions about Muslims. So far so good; they gave her a warm reception over the phone. I hope the inter-faith relationships she encounters will last a lifetime. She’s collard green, of course. I know they are just going to love her.

Uncensored Out-Crowd

2 Mar

My eldest son didn’t know who Justin Beiber was until we enrolled him in a Qur’an class at our local mosque (a.k.a madrassa). His class-mates told him about an episode of CSI, wherein Beiber gets riddled with bullets in a shoot-out scene. A few weeks before that, he came home wondering about Eminem. A classmate generously provided the correct spelling in the margins of his homework assignment.

This ain’t your mama’s madrassa!

He implored me: “Mama, please, you gotta’ tell me everything you know about Justin Beiber. Everyone talks about him.” I laughed to myself and wondered how many kids ask their mom that question. He knows I will investigate. A few months ago we discovered that Zoey 101 was a hit TV series. Thank you Wikipedia! I found the goods on Beiber, also, through the internet. Then, I pulled down Rolling Stone from the magazine section in our local library. They put Beiber on the cover. In the article, Beiber is described as, “the most adorable, talented, sensual kid in the world.”

Hold up! Sensual and kid do not belong in the same sentence unless it is on a State Attorney’s charging document and pursuant to an arrest. The kid is sensual? No thank you. I poured through the article and then took the honors of editorializing it for my boy. Aren’t I a good collard green Muslim mama? I gave him the abridged G- version, but here it is uncensored:

Beiber is a child-laborer, albeit very well paid. He is carefully scripted because there are money-grabbers with investments and expectations in achieving dividends. Grown women can throw themselves at him; their daughters, via Twitter, can beg him to send cyber-french kisses; sulking children, with nannies as mamas, can demand that their parents bid, on E-bay, for a lock of his highlighted hair in anticipation of show n’ tell.

His own mama has to sit back and put up, though her baby is a product…and products must be sold. Their lifestyle is a far cry from single-parenthood in a roughed up neighborhood which is what they endured before Beiber was noticed. Beiber’s daddy wasn’t around much when they lived in poor town. He shows up all the time now. The first investor sent front-money for them to move out and into a nice townhome in Atlanta. Beiber was a likely candidate for pop-star success because: 1) he can dance and sing, 2) he doesn’t have acne, and 3) he’s a white boy.

White is green when it comes to developing talent for the tween market. Just ask Beiber’s counterpart- Hannah Montana. There’s more. White is green, if it likes black. It must love black.

Rolling Stone reports: “Nothing makes them happier than when someone compares Beiber to Michael Jackson, his idol.” Beiber is quoted: “Michael is my inspiration, and I want to emulate his career as much as possible.”

How many times did that child have to practice saying ‘emulate’ before they let him have a Capri Sun? I imagine it in my head: “No, Beiber – not mutilate his career, emulate, emulate… keep practicing!”

That script is green dollas, cabbage, bacon, cheddar, loot…what have you; it’s all money as long as Beiber doesn’t actually look like Michael Jackson (especially pre-plastic surgery). When what Beiber says is not expertly crafted, he can tote Ebonics, and even better if he does, but his appearance should not give it away.

The script is crafted by producers who don’t discover talent- they develop it. They know that if masses of moms and dads are going to buy pop-star paraphernalia they will grab more, and pay premium, if their daughter is drooling over a boy with downy soft blonde hair. If they are going to drag their work-weary limbs to a crowded big box store to buy a life-size poster of a teen idol, it better be someone they expect her to bring home to dinner when she is nineteen, on a weekend back from Vandy- where, of course, she is primarily focused on her studies.

As for drugs, of course, Beiber hates them. Drugs are for losers! That boy’s got a good head on his shoulders. He’s not like the rest. Just say no, yo! Teen pop stars never do drugs, or at least we don’t get to that part until the industry has moved on, and the former idol finds a new niche, offering up their tell-all to nostalgic, mortgage-wielding grown folks who remember when. 

As irritated as I sound, actually, I don’t mind the intrusion into our cocoon. Our son became a tween this year on his ninth birthday. I want him to get a glimpse of pop culture and I want that to generate conversations between us. I’m frankly relieved that he comes home and wants to describe his observations, ask questions and get answers. We talk about why our TV doesn’t stream Leave it to Beiber, or M & M. We are ooey-gooey, fundalicious when it comes to filtering pop fizz, but probably not fundalicious enough; at a recent homeschool co-op class he announced: “Come to Papa!” He ripped that line from Garfield comics. It was a headache explaining to him that he can’t impersonate Garfield outside of the family-audience, without revealing more than was necessary. I was about to issue a Mama Fatwa.

Growing up, like my son, I was on the margin of pop culture, but no one attributed it to any reason, other than that the cable guy couldn’t be bothered to come over. I felt like I was trying to solve a pop riddle most of the time, with only a handful of clues.

There was a boy named George, so they called him Boy George, but he wore eye shadow and lipstick. My friend brought a magazine to school which featured Cindy Lauper in hot pink hair and high-tops. Ms. Lauper said: Girls Just Want to Have Fun. I thought she looked like the expert on fun. Madonna, on the other hand, was in a mess of trouble even before she started wearing her underwear on the outside of her clothes. Someone said she got pregnant, but she wasn’t even married! Her daddy was livid. I knew she couldn’t be collard green like the rest of us, because all she said for herself was:

Papa Don’t Preach.

Papa Don’t Preach?!  Papa Don’t Preach?! Woman, are you crazy?! If I ever said that to my daddy, he’d a had a comin’ to Jesus talk with me – collard green butt-whipping style. Why was this grown woman inciting my friends with parent-rearing advice?! Couldn’t she have the heart to at least stamp a disclaimer on her lyrics. Something useful, like – WARNING COLLARD GREEN KIDS: Don’t try this at home unless you have a prosthetic butt!

When I was my son’s age we lived just on the outskirts of town. I always dreamed that the cable guy would show up one day. All the kids at school had already invited him over. The cable company didn’t service our street because it was too far out, although we lived just a quick bike ride to downtown. That left us with three channels, and cycling between the sparse selection of VHS rentals at the gas station, besides whatever the grey-haired ladies at the public library could offer. I was probably the only kid, besides my sister, who knew all the words to the Yentl soundtrack. We had a sprawling grove to run on and a wide, long creek to explore, but the drawback was no cable until middle school.

We didn’t have enough money to own an Atari set. I only chomped Pac-Man dots at Chuck E Cheese. If we ventured to a movie it was more often than not at the drive-in Star-Lite theatre. They charged by the car-load, not by the head, and our mom didn’t have to hide a bag of store-bought popcorn, from Jimmy’s Thriftway, in her over-sized purse. It was more convenient and a heck of a lot less embarrassing.

By the way, collard green folks love, I mean love, drive-in theaters.  A rarity will even drive-in to church. Stop laughing because I’m serious. I lived in north Florida after I left home, and drove by a drive-in church every day on my way to work. Attendees could just roll on up to hear the Lord ’s Prayer over the speaker, attached to their window. I never drove-in, but I wondered whether the concession stand was open. That was a gruesome thought. One of the best parts about church-going is singing the hymns. A mouthful of Milk Duds would make for a pitiful, downright offensive, Amazing Grace.

I know I’m not a Christian anymore so I have no business running my mouth off about how to be a faithful church-goer, but love on me enough to let me say something about drive-in churches, then you can sing Papa Don’t Preach at the top of your lungs.

If you attend church services at a drive-in you are suffering from a case of Cheez Wiz intoxication. Take the aerosol nozzle out of your mouth and go drink a cup of black coffee. Have some respect! Go take a shower and get dressed up. Put on a pair of nice shoes and a tie. Get down to the brick and mortar church that your great-great-grandparents built, shake hands with the usher, ask about his elderly mama, stand for the hymns and then sit your butt down on the wooden pew! Oh…and put your popcorn money in the offering plate, but more if you can. If you’re going to be a church-going Christian then you should really go to church. If you want to watch M*A*S*H re-runs, by all means, park your rusted up “vintage” Cadillac at the drive-in, attach the tin-can speaker to your car window, and laugh until your cheeks ache.

America is a great nation, but let’s admit, pop culture has attached to her some funky fads. Who knows, in my great, great-grand children’s generation there may be a drive-in mosque. At least I’ll be long gone. The idea of worms feasting on my flesh, in the grave, is the only pleasure derived from the thought of a futuristic drive-in mosque.

Anyway, back to my childhood trying aimlessly to solve pop-riddles. Even after we got cable, I never gravitated to the pop-fizz besides some TNT movies, Nick at Nite, and Sale of the Century– my favorite game show. I resigned myself to living on the margins of pop culture, and it felt fine, so I didn’t make much effort to get initiated. The closest I ever came was trying out for cheerleading in high school. I made the squad which was clearly a sympathy vote; I couldn’t do anything besides scream real loud and smile unnaturally- like there was a popsicle stick lodged horizontally inside my mouth. I felt glow-in-the-dark walking around school in a pleated, short, polyester skirt and decided it was not much fun to stand out in the hot sun watching other people watch me. Jumping around, like a court-jester, half-necked in front of a sea of yelping, post-pubescent boys, was not something to look forward to every week; although, no doubt, they did.

I took up swimming and had fun, even though I never made it past lane two, which was equivalent to a tadpole rank. At least it led to a well-paid job as a life guard. I was semi-emerged into pop culture, but not well enough to enjoy a conversation with anyone in the cafeteria over a bag of onion-flavored Funyuns.

My biggest drama was trying to hatch a plan, with the Lutheran minister’s daughter, to get a ride to a Tori Amos concert at the Tupperware Center. We got there and weaved our way through the over-crowded hall. She heaved and I leached onto the back of her shirt, afraid to let go. When we got settled I whispered in her ear: “Why is everyone wearing the same perfume…it’s sweet-smelling, but it stings my nose.” She said: “That’s weed, dork.” Thus, I found out that weed wasn’t just a pesky plant we plucked from endless dirt rows, the year my daddy decided to become a farmer, stuffed a scarecrow, and plowed the earth behind our house.

We raved about how it was the best concert of our lives, the best concert we’d ever attended! Outside of our respective churches, it was the only concert we’d ever attended. Not having a lot of mental pop-fizz to occupy my mind awakened me to some other thoughts, like why the honky-tonk I was alive and where I was going to end up. One night during my senior year of high school, one of my best friends and I covertly sat out under an oak tree, on the margins of the orange grove, miserably coughing our way through a shared cigarette. She interrupted my stream of consciousness and cried out: “You think too much, you know!” She put up with all my garbled, aching, yet pleasurable thoughts, and she didn’t even get a Girl-Scout patch for it.

My destiny was to never solve the pop riddle. It was not my path. I don’t even try anymore. I would rather not know why the Desperate Housewives are so dawn desperate. I longed to be on the margins, which is why I always scattered to the periphery if I ever got the chance to enter the ring. I have no regrets that it took so long for the cable guy to come over for dinner. Now that I’m grown up with a family of my own, I won’t even extend him the invitation.

My son watched the first half of Yentl the other night. He’ll have to grow a beard before I let him watch the second half. He loved it and was very grumpy when I turned it off, even though I promised he could watch an episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender, as a consolation.

He’s got his pinky-toe in the ring, with some TV, a Play Station and a Wii, and a little bit more each year; but, pretty much he’s just trying to solve the riddle. He’ll have his own field to plow one day. He’ll make his own choices. He may turn out to love his induction into the out-crowd; conversely, he may fight with furious thunder to master a shrouded and un-inherited language, to live in the Real World. I will fight with equal thunder to have him hear my reservations, and the pounding of my aching heart.

I am certain, though, as clear as the newborn memory of cradling him on top of my chest, skin-to-skin, tracking the pattern of his faint breath, and sobering to the realization, that he is a being, apart from me- that I will love him. I will love him with every inch of myself…who once sheltered his very soul. I will love him, by permission, with the one part of mercy, out of the hundred parts of mercy that the Source of creation sent down amongst the creation.* I will love him with a quality too pure to come from me; it only clings, by design, from the Source of that nectar…the Source of creation. I will love him, truly, with no sanctuary for conditions.

*No. 5613 – Narrated Abu Huraira: I heard Allah’s Apostle saying, Allah divided Mercy into one-hundred parts and He kept its ninety-nine parts with Him and sent down its one part on the earth, and because of that, its one single part, His creations are Merciful to each other, so that even the mare lifts up its hoofs away from its baby animal, lest it should trample on it.”

My Daddy is Better Than Your Daddy

11 Feb

One question I get a lot is: what did your parents say when you told them you converted to Islam? I usually get this question from non-collard green people (a.k.a Yankees). A southern person doesn’t have to ask how my family reacted. A southern person just knows – with a lot of hollering and cursing. My daddy is real collard green because that is exactly what he did.  

Collard green people don’t hang around like flies on the sweet tea pitcher and discuss it from all angles. Heck no!  If you tell a collard green daddy you got a mind to stop being protestant, he will shoot up from his recliner like he’s watching college football, and his team just lost a touchdown. Then, he’s going to holler: Oh hell no!…and…No, they just didn’t!…and…What the hell just happened?!”

That is exactly how my daddy reacted when I told him I was a bona fide Muslim.

Then he stormed off and didn’t talk to me for a while. One day, out of the blue, he showed up at my grandmother’s house where I was visiting and said: “Get in the truck, let’s go for a ride!” and of course I did. That was that. We talked about the weather and we’ve been talking ever since.

That’s my daddy…and he’s better than your daddy, so don’t forget it! Keep reading and even you’ll be convinced.

Before I do, I want to confess something smarty-pants about myself, which is that I can read collard green minds. I acquired this genius after a series of encounters with nice collard green folks who said one sweet thing to my face and an entirely different thing behind my back. I became good at translating collard green facial expressions and body language.

When I became a Muslim, and started wearing a headscarf, it was only natural for some folks to think I’d gone….well, crazy. They’d hug my neck and say: “How are you? It’s so good to see you again. You look as pretty as ever,” Later, my sister or friend would call me up on the phone and say: “Do you know what that ugly woman just said about you?!”

I’m not pointing a finger at the judgmental people in my hometown because I love them all from the bottom of my collard green heart, even if they do think I’m a little crazy. Besides, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I know where I come from and I’m grateful. A small southern town needs a nice-sized crowd of judgmental people or it’s not even worth calling home. Judgmental people are part of the back-bone of what makes southern towns so quintessentially fabulous. Southern people are also incredibly generous. Don’t let me forget to tell you sometime about when people from my home town came out, all smiling, in dozens of cars and a bus-load, to attend an inter-faith gathering after I extended an invitation on behalf of the Muslim community. My grandmother was one of the first to walk through the door of the mosque.

If it interests you, I’ve compiled an excerpt of transcripts, compiled from reading all those collard green minds. Here is what some folks said to themselves when they saw me for the first time wearing a Muslim headscarf.

That is just crazy!

What the hell is wrong with that girl? Doesn’t she know she grew up in Winter Garden?

That is the funniest Halloween costume I have ever seen in April…she’s a trip. I oughta’ call her when October rolls around and invite her to my party.

Golly, that precious girl is already gearing up for the Nativity Scene. If there were more Christians like her in the world, we’d be better off!

I don’t know much, but I can guaran-dawn-tee ya’ ….that girl is crazy!

I can’t wait to go home and call up what’s-her-face, and we’re going to have a good time hollering about how crazy that girl is.

Oh Lawd! I’ve got to rush home and call up what’s-her-face and pray for that crazy girl.

Did I drink too much last night, or did crazy just walk in the door?

Come to think of it – her parents are kinda’ crazy.

Her poor parents – how’d she turn out so dawn crazy?!

Here’s the reality. I’d be crazy to ball up all my convictions, like a wad of trash, and throw them away with the coffee grinds and melon rinds. I’d be crazy to believe something to the core of my collard green heart, and then tell people something different. I’d be delusional and even worse…I’d be a stinkin’ liar.

I never sat down with my daddy to endure a deep, subdued conversation, wherein I eloquently expressed all my yearning and belief. I never needed to convince him to love me for who I am. That’s for other fathers. My daddy’s heart is too wise. He might have hollered, but at the end of the day he expects me to “get real,” and he never leaves me guessing. He tells me how proud he is of me- in case he thinks I might have forgotten. If you think otherwise, he’ll tell you too!

He’s not just better than your daddy today – he’s always been that way. Growing up I didn’t know anyone more fun than my father. He used to hitch up a wide wagon to a tractor, fill it with hay and candy, and take all of our friends through the orange groves. When I grew up, he painted his favorite tractor orange and blue for his favorite college football team – the Gators. The first time I ever went on a hay ride outside of the orange grove it was at an official fall festival up north. I nearly fell asleep. I didn’t know hay rides could be boring, and even worse – slow. That would have been a sacrilegious ride in my daddy’s book. I had chest pains that afternoon from missing him so much. My father would have ripped and roared all around the grove and over its protruding tree roots. He would have made up scary ghost stories and told jokes while the stray branches lashed us in the face. The ride would not have ended until everyone was wetting their pants, crying and laughing, and begging for him to keep riding.

He made our home a carnival. Sometimes on Sundays he would cook up bushels of blue crab; he let me help him clean out the guts which I was always honored to do, and secretly devastated when he forgot to ask. We would sit around the kitchen table with hammers and pliers, and mine for crab meat all day long, while my daddy fussed that we were wasting the best parts. He’d act out funny demonstrations on how to extract the crab’s flesh, with sound effects; then, he’d dip it in hot butter and tell us to “eat up.” People from our town liked to stop by and talk to my daddy. He would pull up a chair, or two, or three or four, and make sure they had plenty to eat, drink, and talk about.

My father can make blue crab taste like it ought to be illegal, but did you know- he also made big, fat gooey cinnamon rolls?

He never had a son until I turned thirteen, so he gave me the honorarium. He let me tag along on trips to the hardware store with him where he’d brag about what a good student I was to everyone standing still. Someone always ended up telling me what I already knew, but I loved to hear -that my daddy was one of a kind…”a real good man.” I’d ride around with him all day and he made sure the car was supplied with all the things my mom would never let me put past my lips -sticky candies and ice-cold Coca-Cola.

Under strict supervision, he taught me how to shoot a rifle which I never knew would feel like a mad mule kicking me in the shoulder. He forgot to warn me. His targets were cans of Mountain Dew. I shot the heck out of them, but when quail hunting season came around, he bought me a very fancy sling shot and warned me not to touch a rifle, for fear that I might get hurt. When I asked him how come he was always on the grill cooking for the guys and never out in the deep woods with his rifle hunting, he confessed that he didn’t like the feeling he got from shooting a bird. I felt so relieved and in awe. I wanted to jump up, hug him around his neck and never let go. I wish I had of done that.

My father, like most collard green daddies, considers that owning a rifle goes along with being a grown man; but you know, when my mom wanted my sister and I to have braces for our teeth, he didn’t have anything to sell to pay for it…so he sold his gun. I went to school with sparkling new braces to match the other gangly, rich kids, and ever since I have never been shy to smile wide.

We didn’t need an expensive jungle gym in our backyard because my daddy always found the perfect tree to rope a tire swing, and I don’t remember him ever telling us he was too tired to whirl us around the world “just more time!” Once, he swung up a tire swing high over the creek and I managed to get myself stuck dangling over the middle.  I was too scared to get down, so I waited for my daddy to come rescue me, which he did.

When I was close to the age of sixteen, he somehow got hold of an old truck that didn’t have a roof or any window- just the steel frame. He taught me how to drive in the orange grove, with him in the passenger seat. Once I got nervous and couldn’t focus my mind well enough to hit the brake pedal. I put us right through a large branch, but he was quick enough to find the brake with his own foot. We were stuck there in the tree, both rising our breaths like crazed bulls out of shock. I turned to look at him but I couldn’t see his face because the tree branch was smack-dab between us. I could only hear his fiery voice hollering: “What the hell were you thinking?!” to which I replied, “I dunno.” He didn’t give up on me, though. Then, after I turned sixteen he bought me a car with money my parents barely had to spend.

My father was the most fun daddy I knew, but he wasn’t always just for laughs. He knew what to say and how to say it when the ground was sinking. When my favorite dog Maggie died, he met me at the bus stop after school, unannounced, and said, “Get in the truck…let’s go for a ride,” and of course I did. He took me out to the middle of the orange grove where no one could hear me weep, and told me that Maggie was buried. I cried so hard; my body was shaking, but he held me up and told me to get it all out; that it was safe to cry. When I dried my tears we went back down to the house and never spoke about it again.

I cried but he never did. Once, after we got in the car from attending the funeral of his childhood friend, I looked in his rear view mirror to see his reflection in the glass. He had on a pair of black Ray-Bans and I caught the sight of a single tear trickle down his right cheek. I didn’t say anything, but I watched it make its way to the tip of his chin, and then disappear. I thought I had just witnessed a lunar eclipse.

If you could stay put to listen, I could tell you a lot of stories about my collard green daddy, but I imagine you have to get to your next rodeo. One thing I feel obliged to say before you go is that I haven’t always realized how much better my daddy really is than your daddy. Hard to believe, I know, but I’m hard-headed. I feel very bad about that, but since I have hard-headed kids, they may do the same, and you know what they say about pay backs.

If you think your daddy is better than mine (which I highly doubt), don’t be hard-headed. If you are able to, you ought to call him right this instant, and say it out loud, even if he makes light of it and cracks a joke- which is what my collard green daddy will surely do.