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Sunday, June 25, 2017

That's Not Who I Am

When I met my husband and he told me his last name I thought, “That’s a weird name.”
Now it is my weird name.
It’s weird because it’s so close to another, more common name, yet it is not the other, more common name. And getting people to recognize this is an ongoing, uphill battle. Especially over the phone. Here is the conversation I have with nearly every stranger to whom I speak on the telephone:
Me: My last name is Keffler. K-E-F as in Flower-F as in Flower-L-E-R.
Other Person: Okay, Maria Kessler.
Me: No. It's Keffler. K-E-F as in Frank-F as in Frank-L-E-R.
Other Person: Thank you, Mrs. Kessler.
Me: No! They're not S's. They're F's. F-F as in Foxtrot Foxtrot. K-E-F-F Foxtrot Foxtrot-L-E-R.
Other Person: Okay, let me see if I can pull you up in our system. Hmm. I can't find a Maria Kessler.
Me: @#&*$!!!
I once told a linguist about my issue with Keffler/Kessler and she said that over the phone the F and S sounds are nearly indistinguishable. We figure them out by context. For example, if we hear "Corn Flakes" we automatically interpret the first letter in flake as an F, because that makes better sense than Corn Slakes. But Kessler is a more common name than Keffler, so people automatically hear S instead of F in it.
And as we know, it's very hard to change people's preconceived ideas.
A lot of times it doesn’t matter that much if someone gets the name wrong. Another surname in my extended family borders on bizarre. It’s of foreign origin, sounds nothing like it’s spelled, and gets pronounced no fewer than fifteen different ways by those who see it written. So at restaurants that branch of the family gives the maître ‘d the name Smith. It’s easier, more efficient from both sides, and does nothing to prevent my family from getting a table, nor the restaurant from seating paying customers.
     But when I’m trying to make a doctor’s appointment, dispute a billing error with a service representative, or register to vote, it’s imperative that they get my name right. Then I must move my opponent nemesis counterpart past his or her preconceived assumptions.
How do I do that? How do I convince another person that what they heard is not what I said? That they got me wrong? That an error exists in their understanding? Alan Greenspan put it best/worst:
“I know you think you understand what you thought I said, but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”
Does anyone else struggle with this? You feel like you’re beating your head against the brick wall of someone else’s assumptions and preconceived conclusions? Here’s what I’ve tried:
First, I state my case again, and repeat it more clearly. Like when someone assumes because I’m a Christian I must hate anyone who isn’t Christian:
My name is not Kessler. It’s Keffler. I know you’ve encountered a lot of people named Kessler, and I may be the first Keffler you’ve ever met, but I am not who you think I am. I am a Keffler.
If we’re still at loggerheads, I try clarifying, or pointing out the difference between myself and others who may seem like me, but aren’t. Like when people assume that because I don’t believe one can legislate morality, I must therefore be pro-abortion:
I think you’re hearing Kessler with an S. But it’s really Keffler with an F. Can you hear the difference between those? I know it’s hard to distinguish. You’ve got most of the letters right, but two of them are still wrong.
I can also try coming at it from their side, letting them know that I understand and appreciate their point-of-view, but that in this case their point-of-view does not represent reality. Like when people claim that the media I read is biased while assuming that the media to which they subscribe is not:
You’re saying Kessler. That’s exactly what it sounds like, isn’t it? But my name is weird, and those two letters in the middle are different from what you’re hearing. It’s actually Keffler. This is a common mistake made by lots of people on both sides of the issue.
I’m pleased to report that, as frustrating as the Keffler/Kessler dichotomy can be, I’ve never had a hate-filled, name-calling, knock-down-drag-out boxing match over my moniker. We get it sorted eventually, even if the receptionist has to change my information in the computer system later, when I’m standing there in person with my driver’s license in hand.
I’m hopeful that by continuing to be patient, clear, respectful, and tenacious, lines of communication and understanding will remain (or re-) open, and better exchanges of information will prove productive for resolving differences and coming to workable solutions to our problems.
So until that day, I will keep trying.
And trying.
And trying.
My name is Keffler. Maria Keffler.
“Okay, Mrs. Kiefer…”

Saturday, June 3, 2017

What My Privilege Looks Like

I’m a white, female, cis-gender American. I’ve written before about experiencing some misogyny, but the bulk of my life experience has been pretty equitable and unchallenged with respect to my personhood.
The first time I did encounter negative racism because of the color of my skin I was 26 and trying to get into a bar in Okinawa with my Japanese friend to celebrate New Year’s Eve. Not long before, two Marines kidnapped and raped a twelve-year-old Japanese girl, so anti-American outrage blazed even hotter than the already tenuous relationship between the locals and the U.S. servicemen stationed on the island.
At the door to each nightclub we approached the bouncer looked me up and down with contempt, turned to my companion and said, “Japanese only.” My friend explained that I wasn’t military—in fact, I lived in Japan on a missionary visa as a Christian teacher at a nationally known and respected girls’ academy in Osaka.
Her every explanation and plea was met with the same two words, delivered coldly: “Japanese only.”
After multiple failed attempts to gain entrance to a countdown party, humiliation felt like a full-body tattoo I could neither cover nor escape. My appearance alone made me the object of derision and rejection. My friend wanted to keep trying. I couldn’t take any more public shaming. Outside a post office we found a ragtag group of foreigners who’d ginned up an impromptu party with a boom box. We got drinks out of a nearby vending machine.
 I remember thinking, as we counted down the seconds till midnight, “Goodnight. Is this what minorities in America live with all the time?”
We hear a lot about white privilege now, and I hear a lot of white people taking various degrees of offense either at the idea that they’re blissfully ignorant of their advantages, or at the implication that they’ve experienced any advantages at all. Each of us has had our own unique set of experiences, of course, so I can only reflect on mine. But here’s what I’ve found my own privilege to look like:
Going Out
I’ve never been denied entrance to any recreational establishment anywhere in the United States. During my young and single days, my friends and I were admitted to bars with no more than a cursory glance at our IDs. I can’t say how much my pigmentation had to do with my freedom to mingle, but I know my age and gender at least occasionally played a part.
Encountering Law Enforcement
I’ve been pulled over a few times—and rightly so—but I’ve never had a single unpleasant interaction with a policeperson. I can count on officers to be gentle, pleasant, and professional with me. If I smile and apologize, I have a reasonable chance of getting off with a warning rather than a ticket. I’ve probably passed the age where crying will reliably work as a get-out-of-ticket card, but I can report that in the past my tears have been met with anxiety and compassion from the male officer who’d stopped, then subsequently released, my speedy self.
I’m not proud of it, but it happened.
At the Store
Staff at the businesses I frequent do not assume when they see me in their stores that I may be a thief, or that my check or credit is no good. To my knowledge I’ve never been followed or watched by security or another employee when I shop. The combination of my skin, age, clothing, and demeanor suggests that I am well-off, responsible, and trustworthy, and I am always treated as such. A cashier or manager may occasionally be gruff, but my assumption in that situation is that he/she is having a bad day, not that the rudeness has anything to do with me. Because, why would it?
On the Job
I have a college degree and a non-ethnic-sounding name. That alone gets my resume further along the hiring process than many others. There’s nothing arresting about my appearance: I’m neither exceptionally stunning nor painfully unattractive, my skin tone matches that of the dominant culture, and I have the knowledge and resources to present myself in a way that conveys professionalism and competence (whether I actually possess them or not).
Speaking the Language
I’m not only fluent in the official language of the United States, I also know how to adopt certain vocabulary content and linguistic means to make myself agreeable (or imposing) to different groups: knowing what “scaffolding” means to an educator gets me extra currency with my kids’ teachers, and understanding when to drop (or avoid) a phrase like “I asked my lawyer’s opinion about this” can open a number of doors for me. Whereas the Hispanic and fluently bilingual, graduate-degree holding principal of our elementary school was immediately (and loudly) asked, “Do you even speak English?!?” by the man driving the other car in a fender-bender, no one in my country has ever assumed I can’t defend myself verbally.
She responded perfectly, by the way: “Yes. Do you?”

As I reflect on my experience of social privilege what concerns me is the likelihood that I still don’t recognize all the advantages I enjoy simply because of who I am, many of which came along with my birth package and have no relevance to what I deserve or anything I’ve “earned.”
Am I privileged? Yes.
Am I as privileged as somebody else? Maybe. Maybe not. We’re all on a continuum that runs from Fully Disenfranchised to Spoiled Rotten.
I’d argue that anyone who denies the existence of that continuum can probably be found somewhere on the latter half of it. Because if you’re not privileged, you know it, and you know why.
The blissful ignorance of privilege is simply one more privilege the ignorantly blissful enjoy.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Confessions of a Hypocrite

Dave Morrison Photography

Sometimes I feel kind of guilty about some of the stuff I do, because it’s often the stuff I’ve told the members of my family not to do.
Yeah, I guess that’s hypocrisy.
But then I ask myself, “If no one saw it, did it really happen?”
Yes, it did. It happened. In fact, it’s said that character consists of what you do when no one else is looking.
So, in an effort to come clean about my personal failings I will now take a few moments to confess publicly a few of things I’ve done when my family wasn’t looking.
I’m so ashamed.
Deep breath. Here goes.
* * *
Sometimes, when no one’s around, I drink straight from the milk carton. And the juice bottle. And your glass, if I like what you’re having and I’m thirsty and you’re not paying attention.
* * *
I listen to classic rock when I’m driving but I change to Christian music when someone gets in the car with me. Or if the classic rock station plays John Mellencamp. I don’t like the music of John Mellencamp, even if we are both from Indiana.
* * *
Kids, I bite the ears off your chocolate Easter bunnies every year. It isn’t one of your siblings. Or your dad. I’m sorry for framing you guys for it.
* * *
A magnetic sun storm did not take out our Wi-Fi. I was sick of seeing the battery compartments of screened devices whenever I looked toward your faces, but I didn’t have the energy to be an actual parent and do battle with you.
* * *
Dad and I hide the good chocolate from you kids.
* * *
I hide the really good chocolate from Dad.
* * *
Darling Husband, I know—and don’t care so much—that I drive over a corner of the grass every time I back out of the driveway. And I only make a more careful egress when I see you watching me from the kitchen window.
* * *
I am aware of how the hardwood floor got that chip in it. And I don’t want to talk about it.
* * *
I actually do know how to use a hammer and a power drill and drywall mollies. I just don’t care to.
* * *
I occasionally serve meat and dairy products that have been in the fridge past their use-by date. If nothing smells obviously off, I trust that your gut bacteria can handle it. You’ll thank me later for the iron stomach I’m helping you develop. And no, that’s not why I sometimes say, “I’m fasting” while you eat dinner. That’s a spiritual thing. Really.
* * *
The other night, when one of you asked me what I was drinking and I said, “Cranberry juice,” it was actually cranberry and lime juices with vodka and Triple Sec. It’s called a Cosmopolitan. They’re really good. Especially after the day I had.
* * *
And yes, I do know where your favorite sweatshirt/pair of pants/pillowcase went. It was nasty and skanky and not even bleach did anything to improve its appearance or smell. It’s gone. Let it go.
* * *
Getting all that off my chest felt really… cleansing.
Confession is good for the soul.
Wait— what? Did you say you’re glad I’m not going to do those things anymore?
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Confession is one thing. Actually changing my behavior is quite another.
What do you mean, if I truly felt badly about what I’d done I wouldn’t do it anymore?
Geez. It’s not like I killed anybody, people.
I mean, I savor the exceptionally fine chocolate. And none of the rest of you have a palate sophisticated enough to appreciate the difference between chocolate dollars and DeBrand’s.
Why are you looking at me like that?
You know what? Let’s just forget I said anything. Strike all the above...

      So, who wants fajitas for dinner?!? Let me look around the fridge here. I’m pretty sure I bought a package of tri-tips a couple of weeks—I mean a couple of days ago…

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Immigrants Have It So Easy

When someone says, “If foreigners are going to live here they should learn English,” it’s not unreasonable to assume that the person speaking has never studied a foreign language, and certainly hasn’t tried to use one in another country.
It’s not as easy as monolinguals think. I have three years of high school French, a college minor in it, and I spent a summer in French-speaking Africa, yet every time I utter a word of français in Québec, the Canadian to whom I’m speaking switches straightaway to English.
I teach ESOL, and right now I’m privately tutoring a student who is illiterate even in her native language. We’re exactly the same age, but while I had the opportunity to go as far in my education as I so desired, Nala* never even had the chance to learn how to write in her own tongue.
Nala is bright, and she’s determined. She’s become a naturalized U.S. citizen, with a passport and all the rights afforded to Americans. She took the citizenship class, passed the exam, paid the fees, and was mailed her naturalization certificate.
Only it never came.
Immigration sent it to the wrong house by an error of one number in the address.
Nala asked if I could help her out by talking to immigration about this problem.
I’m fluent in English and an American by birth, yet I spent one solid hour on the phone at Nala’s house, just trying to find the right number/office/person who could help us procure a duplicate naturalization certificate.
“You’ll need to go online and make an appointment to see an immigration officer in person at your closest field office,” I was eventually instructed, after running my phone’s battery down to the single digits.
Nala and I went online, navigated the website, and found the link to click for obtaining a sit-down at our local field office.
No appointments were available for the next two weeks. “Check back tomorrow,” came the automated message.
I told Nala I’d keep trying.
After only two more days I was able to secure a 15-minute appointment. Nala and I, and a third friend to serve as an interpreter (because they’re not provided), attended the meeting on a Friday morning.
If you’ve ever been to the DMV, you will have a good mental image of our experience, except include a security walk-through with metal detector and bag check, passport/ID check, and uniformed security personnel stationed in every room.
“She’ll need to submit a form requesting a replacement certificate,” the officer told us during our appointment.
Oh, and that costs $565.00.
No typo there.
Nala was expected to pay $565.00 for the pleasure of re-applying for the certificate she already earned and paid for.
When I balked at the cost and explained again that the fault lie not with Nala but with immigration’s envelope-addresser, the officer suggested we also fill out an Application for Fee Waiver, via which we could explain our argument that no charge should be made for the replacement naturalization certificate.
These forms must be downloaded online—at the same website where I made the in-person appointment—and subsequently mailed in via the U.S. postal service.
We went home.
I got online and pulled up the two forms.
The first PDF came out seven pages long.
The second was eleven.
The minutiae of the information required on these forms staggered me. Remember, I’m fluent in the official language of U.S. immigration, yet even I could not be certain of the correct answers to some of these questions.
Nala and I are still in the process of getting these forms filled out and submitted, with some help from another volunteer at the program where I teach. He’s done this before and told me that there is a cottage industry of people who help immigrants fill out these forms.
For a fee, of course.
While you walk through life for the next few days or during the coming weeks, would you occasionally pause to ask yourself what it would be like to do the thing you’re presently doing—maybe asking for help at a customer service desk, disputing a bill with the cable company, or simply navigating the grocery store—if you didn’t speak or read the native language of the country in which you live?
In fact, give it a try. Attempt one of your daily tasks utilizing not one word of English.
Most of us have no idea what immigrants go through every single day.
So until I’ve been one, I’m going to think twice before declaring how great they have it.

*not her real name

Friday, May 26, 2017


Nine rows in front of me he’s with his friends, waiting for the concert to start. Their orchestra performs near the end.
He’s already that old?
He stands up to search the auditorium. Certain he’s looking for me, to know where I’ll be during the concert, and where to find me later—because he still needs me to drive him home—I wave, low and small, just over the seats but not above my head, so I don’t embarrass him.
He waves back once, impatiently, curtly, with a “Yes, I see you, geez” half-a-second smirk.
Then his searching gaze moves on.
He wasn’t looking for me.
He’s already moved away, hasn’t he?
And I guess he’ll keep going farther and farther now.
But I’ll drive him home tonight.
And keep waving.