Wednesday, October 4, 2017

You're Better than You Think You Are

If you happened to be awake and on the Internet in the early morning hours of October 2, you probably saw a non-stop stream of people offering help to strangers in the middle of the night. People offered rides, shelter, water, food--even their own blood--to anyone in need.

I've written before about how we see the best in people in the midst of a crisis or in the wake of a tragedy, how having life abruptly stripped to its essentials reminds us of what's most important. This time, it occurred to me that people aren't really different in those moments at all. They've simply been shaken free of distractions and remembered who they truly are.

If you stood in line for hours to donate blood in the wake of the Vegas shooting, you care about human life--even the lives of strangers.

If you had power during Hurricane Sandy and you threaded an extension cord and power strip out your front gate and left a note that anyone who needed to charge a phone or other device was free to share, you understand that even small contributions can make a huge difference to people in need--and you're willing to make those contributions.

If you immediately responded to the more recent round of hurricanes with donations to organizations working on the ground, you understand that providing relief to those in crisis is important--and you're willing to back that understanding with your wallet.

If you offered a place to sleep, or food, or water, then you don't like to see people hungry, thirsty and tired due to circumstances beyond your control--and you're prepared to do something about it.

This time, when the crisis ends, try to remember those things about yourself. You don't have to change your priorities or try to be a better person or anything so just have to remember who you are.

Every day of your life, you'll encounter a person who is hungry or thirsty or frightened, a person who needs a ride or just an encouraging word. Every day of your life, there are people in the world whose lives could be changed in some small (or huge) way by a small effort or contribution on your part. Every day of your life, you will meet a person on the street (or in the grocery line or on the telephone when you're angry because your cable doesn't work) whose day can be immeasurably brightened or darkened by the way you speak to him or her.

In those moments, don't tell yourself that you should care. Don't try to be better than you are. Instead, remind yourself that you DO care--that when confronted with those very same needs in an attention-catching way, you cared more about strangers than your comfort, keeping your car clean, whatever other plans you had for that money, getting a good night's sleep. That's who you are. Sometimes, that person gets buried or distracted by day-to-day life, responsibilities, stresses, even the quest for a new toy. But, when the chips are down and we see inside you, you're a person who stands for hours in the Vegas sun to give his blood to a stranger.

Don't forget that. Let us see that person every day.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

It's the End of the World as We Knew It...

and I guess I feel fine. Life is good. But, I'm experiencing a rare bout of nostalgia.

Thursday night, changing clothes, putting on make-up, using grape-scented spray to make our hair even bigger, walking the mile from our dorm to Otto's.

Yesterday afternoon, DeKalb historical photographer Brad Oropeza (who also happens to be my daughter's boyfriend) called me from the corner of First and Lincoln Highway to tell me he was watching the building formerly known as Otto's being reduced to rubble.

The bar has been closed for a long time, and I hadn't been inside in much longer. Music had changed, Cosmopolitans had been invented, and life had gone on.

I've passed by that building, sitting quiet and empty, hundreds of times over the past couple of years. That slice of the world as we knew it ended long before they started knocking down the walls, and sometimes it made me a little sad to see it dark and cold. But, I generally don't give much time or attention to the past.

For a moment on Monday afternoon, that changed.  I looked at the pile of broken brick and stone where I'd sat down on the stairs and laid out every student ID, credit card and library card for the bouncer who didn't want to accept my state ID, and I saw my friends half a lifetime ago. I felt the familiar floor under my feet.

The things that happened there were for the most part not significant. A strange man disbelieved me when I told him my name, because a Tiffany song was playing when he asked. A friend fell on our way in the door, early and totally sober. The place was nearly empty at 8 p.m., and we persuaded her that no one had seen--but hours later, someone passing by said, "Aren't you the girl who fell?"

I cried over a friend I wished were more. Our table cleared when "I Melt With You" started to play. I walked away and left a beautiful but arrogant Greek soccer player standing alone on the dance floor. A man on the sidewalk outside sang "You are So Beautiful" to me. I did watermelon shots for the first time on the evening after another big first.

It was only a year. An academic year, in fact, not a full one. But, it was the year I turned 21. A year when the world was unfolding in front of me in exciting and unpredictable ways, and the dark, crowded bar was filled with music and people and sights and smells that were familiar and comfortable. It's been 29 years to the week since I graduated, and yesterday I found out that a lot of ghosts had been living in that abandoned building.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Last Train to Clarksville

It's the end of the summer of 1990. I'm 24 years old and driving from Georgia to the Chicago suburbs in my 1979 Mustang, accompanied by my 16-year-old sister, my friend Kim, and a toy poodle. Somewhere along the endless, multi-state stretch of Route 65, we see an exit sign for Clarksville, Tennessee.

Naturally, we decide to get off the Interstate and go looking for the train station. I'd like to blame this on my sister. Not only was she a huge Monkees fan as a child, but just this week she argued that they'd "held up." I can't, though. We were all equally eager to visit the famous train station and...take pictures? Sing? 

Our hopes were dashed, though.

After searching in vain for the train station or a visitor center--remember, there was no GPS or even Google in 1990--we spotted a bearded man walking down the street and pulled over. I rolled down my window and asked, "Can you tell us where the train station is?"

My sister says she still remembers the expression on his face. It only held for an instant, and then he laughed and said, "There's no train station here."

We laughed at ourselves as we made our way back to the Interstate, but I think we were all more than a little disappointed. It wasn't that we didn't get to SEE the train station so much as the sad news that it wasn't real.

27 years and dozens of hilarious retellings of this story pass.

It's Easter Sunday of 2017 and I'm sitting at my mother's kitchen table with my mother, my sister, my 21-year-old daughter and my daughter's boyfriend, who is a photographer specializing in historic sites (this becomes important later).

Well, not much later.

We tell the story. 

My sister says, "The look on that guy's face!" 

I look to my right, and I see that look again. This time, it's not followed by laughter. Instead, my daughter's boyfriend quietly passes me his cell phone.

This is on the screen:

Yeah, that's the historic Clarksville train station.

Unbelievably, this story that's been making us laugh (and others laugh at us) for nearly three decades just got funnier.

My sister and I had just been discussing a weekend trip around my birthday in June, and it's decided. We're going to Clarksville. We're TAKING THE TRAIN TO CLARKSVILLE. Maybe Kim (who I've seen only once in those 27 years) will want to MEET US IN CLARKSVILLE. 

On the way home, I say to my daughter, "So, there's a train station in Clarksville. This is the best thing that's ever happened to me."

"I'm glad to hear that," she says, "Because it could have been the worst."

This morning, just before I started to write this post, I consulted Google to get a picture of the train station. In the process, I learned that although there IS a train station in Clarksville and there IS a military base not far away, the writers of that song didn't know either of those things at the time. The original draft used "Clarksdale," which was a stop on their own train line, and they changed it because Clarksville sounded better.

We're going anyway.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

January 24, 2017 in America

Earlier today, an online friend asked me to lie to her and tell her I thought we were all going to be okay. She’s an intelligent woman and not someone I’d think of as a head-in-the-sand type, and I’m pretty sure she knows I’m not going to lie. But, her comment made me think about what I’ve been putting out into the world for the past couple of months. So, this post is part balance, part mea culpa. None of it is a lie.

I do believe that we are at greater risk for both nuclear engagement and terrorist attacks on American soil than at any point in history. I also believe these potential conflicts, should they arise, will have a devastating impact on the world as a whole. I can’t sugar coat that, and those are risks I think most people aren’t taking seriously enough, so I tend to reiterate them.

I can count on my thumbs the number of times in my adult life that I’ve been able-bodied and clear-headed and entirely unable to think of a productive step to take. That’s the position I’m in now, and it’s beyond uncomfortable for me. It’s downright frightening.

In the wake of the election, I knew exactly what to do, from working with the faithless elector movement to providing legal research to some important (but ultimately unsuccessful) efforts to set things right. If our current administration starts bar coding Muslims or making good on some of our new President’s other insane promises, I know how to fight that.

I do not know of a single thing I, or you, can do to minimize the chances that Donald Trump will provoke a war out of ego and inexperience, nor that his anti-Muslim rhetoric will convince the Muslims of the world that we are their enemy. I’m not a marcher. I need direct, productive action steps. The uncharacteristic sense of helplessness I feel in not having an action step regarding these all-important issues, I think, makes me sound more alarmist than people are accustomed to.

That’s real.

But, it’s not the whole story.

I believe the vast majority of Republicans are not insane. The current legislature will undoubtedly make many decisions we don’t agree with and some, like the swift changes to health care legislation, will have a significant impact on millions of people. But, we can fight bad law. It’s happened before and it will happen again—at any point in time, our legislature seems wrong-headed and destructive to some of us. The current state of the legislature is, from my perspective, very bad news. But, it’s not cause for panic. When people say “he has both houses of Congress,” I don’t think that’s accurate. Paul Ryan and his ilk are not my kind of legislators, but they are not Donald Trump.

I believe that people with more information and more power than you or I are doing their jobs. That includes the U.S. intelligence community. These are people who—again, political beliefs aside—have devoted their lives to the security of the United States of America. They know more about Trump’s ties to Russia, his history and his financial dealings than we do, and if they conclude that he is under the influence of Putin, colluded with Russia or is otherwise intentionally acting against the interests of the country, I do not believe they will stand by and allow that to continue.

I am connected with a network of more than 120,000 attorneys who are committed to fighting to keep this country what it was meant to be—and, of course, there are many others who don’t happen to be part of this group. Members of this group started the faithless elector research, provided research assistance for the elector lawsuit in Colorado, uncovered the 50+ electors who were not legally entitled to serve in that capacity and started the early research on standing to file suit on the conflicts of interest issues. Others are teaching workshops to allow attorneys in other fields to step in and defend protesters, provide immigration assistance and fill other emerging needs.

Many of them, like me, are in a state of uncertainty. We’re mourning, angry and frightened just like every thinking person in the world. But, we don’t stay this way.  Our nature and our training is to analyze and act—and we’re just one group.

I am also very encouraged by the response from the rest of the world. Although it makes me physically ill to see other countries protesting the inauguration of the U.S. President in the same way they protested apartheid and the Tienanmen Square massacre, I am heartened to see that both citizens and governments around the world are prepared to act, and that they seem to see clearly that it is an individual and not our system or our people that pose a threat.

When tragedy and danger strike hand-in-hand, it’s disorienting. But, the initial shock passes. History says we’re a resilient people, and that once you get our collective attention, we can move mountains.

Meanwhile, our new President seems wholly preoccupied with his inauguration numbers and convincing himself that we don’t really disdain him as much as it appears. There’s a lot of criticism flying about that, but I’m happy to see it. The longer he remains distracted, the more time he invests in tweeting about his television show and persuading himself that a lot of people came to his inauguration, the less damage he’s doing. And, while he’s arranging for ringers to make it seem like what he says is well-received, intelligent, competent people around the country are shaking off the shock and mobilizing.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

In Defense of Rural America

Let me be clear from the outset: I am not defending anyone's decision to vote for Donald Trump. If you know me in any context, you know that I am working day and night to try to prevent Donald Trump from becoming President. I respect differing viewpoints, but I believe there is a line where the question crosses from one of differing political views to one of character.

In theory, it's very black and white to me: a decent human being does not vote for someone who has threatened to force all Muslims to register with the government, who has suggested that Mexicans are rapists and criminals. That's an easy concept, in the abstract, and I have seen it voiced loudly, frequently and often viciously among the people at my side in the trenches over the past weeks.

I get it.

But, I'm burdened by reality.

I've lived in the rural Midwest for most of my adult life. I currently live in a county that went 59.32% for Donald Trump, and I suspect that number would have been higher had Gary Johnson not been in the running. During the years that I lived in the suburbs, one of my primary life goals was to get back to this small town. There were many reasons for that, but one of the most significant was the way people treated one another.

I heard what you just thought. I can see it in your head, that lily white little Mayberry town where everyone treats each other well because they're all exactly alike.

23.5 percent of my little Mayberry town is Hispanic. Our public schools were in the first wave of testing dual language education. Though the numbers are smaller, we are also home to African Americans, Asians of various descent and a small number of native Americans.

On my block alone there are whites, blacks, Mexicans and two Muslim families whose national heritage I do not know. By and large, no one gives a crap. And yet, there is a kind of ingrained racism in many.

My daughter works in a farm store, and several times each week someone--usually an older farmer--makes a snide comment about how he has to select English on the card reader. This is America, isn't it?

It makes her blood boil to the point that I fully expect that one day she will quit or get fired as a result of one of those conversations. Yet, having lived among these particular people for more than ten years and people like them for longer, I can tell you with absolute certainty that if any of them had an elderly Mexican neighbor who didn't speak English, the vast majority of those crochety old farmers would bend over backward to help her.

It was in this town that my white, agnostic-Wiccan blend daughter met her autistic, Mexican, paganish boyfriend while they were both volunteering for a Christian charity that embraced them both with open arms.

I've heard that kind of dissonance described as hypocritical, but I think it's something else entirely. The person standing next to you is a person, regardless of race, color or creed. You hear the things he says and see the way he behaves and share a laugh with him, and it's impossible to miss the fact that he's more like you than he is different. You don't assume a man is lazy when he's working beside you--you observe that he is or is not. You don't apply statistics from possibly-biased news sources to determine whether the single mother who lives next door to you depends on welfare--you see her leaving for work in the morning. In the face of three-dimensional humanity, those superficial characteristics like skin color and marital status fade into the background.

Black, white, Christian, gay, Muslim, Hindu, Middle Eastern, Mexican, straight..those are concepts. It's easy to attach a stereotype to a concept, or to seize hold of the stereotype that's offered to you. In theory, it shouldn't be. In theory, the idea that black men are criminals should clash in your mind with the fact of the black accountant down the hall at work who plays chess with you during lunch. But concepts are different from individual human beings around them--just like the concept of a person who would vote for Donald Trump is different than the individual humans around me.

That doesn't make the things they say okay. It doesn't make the fact that they've elected a crazy man who seems to hate everyone except the President of the Russian Federation to the presidency okay. But, it does bear thinking about, because while that war is going on between the minorities and liberal activists on one side and the guys in white rural America who bitch about the card machine but don't think much about race when confronted with an actual human, the real enemy is largely unattended.

The guys who voted for Trump not believing he could do what he said, taking it as the same kind of rhetoric as bitching about the card reader, believing he'd be a change and another career politician was the last thing we needed--they're an easy target. But, they're an easy target because they're not suited up for battle. They're just going about their lives. They're guilty, perhaps, of not thinking things through to their logical conclusion, of making decisions in the abstract, of not considering those individual human who will be affected. They're guilty, perhaps, of focusing too exclusively on how they and their families will be affected and not giving enough consideration to the world at large. That's wrong.

But, it doesn't change because we villainize them. It doesn't change because we force them down off the fence and onto the other side.

There are more good people in this country than there are bad We can't spare any.

I haven't come to writing this post easily. Like many of you, I woke up on the morning after the election feeling like I'd been transported into a strange and hostile territory. I didn't feel entirely safe going outside, and I'm a white professional. That hasn't magically disappeared. I don't know how to tell which of these people around me is part of the "he says what we've all been thinking" brigade. It troubles me deeply that I might unwittingly be sitting next to someone who has been secretly thinking those things.

But here's what I know: these people around me, people the returns say overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump, have been by my side stocking shelves in the food pantry, Christmas shopping for children in need, feeding the hungry, raising funds for any number of important causes, running food drives and coat drives and making nursing home visits and donating books and...(you get the idea) to help people of all races and religions.

And, they're people who take the time to listen. People who don't mind giving you a ride even though you live ten miles outside town. People who will offer you their umbrella to take with you, or the coat they're wearing.

They're imperfect, like all of us. Some of them have big things to learn about the world beyond the borders of their little towns and the harm that casual, theoretical racism can do. But we're at war. And, we have limited resources. Do you want to go to war with the guy who bitches about the card reader and then drops off a nice big check to the soup kitchen serving the Mexican-dominated trailer park, or with the ones who spray paint slurs on walls and assault people who don't look like them and gather together in back rooms to work out a viable plan for registering Muslims?

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Flipside of Empowering Racists

I've heard a lot of concerns voiced over the past several months about how Donald Trump's rhetoric has empowered racists to come out of the closet and vent their hatred. To a degree, I view that as a positive sign: if that kind of poison is roiling around in the brain of the person sitting next to me on the bus or working in my office, I want to know about it.

Others, though, have rightly pointed out that it is dangerous. The racism that's been unleashed isn't just about people outing themselves because they finally feel like it's acceptable to be a bigot--there's also violence. It's clear that more people are at risk since Trump started saying those things racists believe everyone was thinking, and especially since the election created the impression that the majority of Americans agree with him.

But something else is happening, too.

Something I've seen congratulated and celebrated again and again at an individual level, but not recognized as a trend.

Good people are coming out of the closet, too. People who used to mind their own business are speaking up for a colleague when a racist comment is made. People who haven't mentioned a gay brother or Muslim son-in-law in social media because there was just no reason to make waves have recognized that if those things make waves, the problem lies with the other person.

They're often small acts--a comment made, an action reported, a disagreement where they once would have remained silent. But they're spreading. Just as racists and sexists and xenophobes and whatever it is that we call people who get unduly fussed about other people's sex lives are increasingly showing their true colors in public, so are those who recognize that humans are humans...and that the broken ones are those who can't see that.

Those bigots who are feeling liberated right now may just be in for a surprise.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Dear White People: Smile, Whether You Feel Like It or Not

I worked for legal aid in Georgia during the summer of 1990, and I saw many upsetting things. I saw large employers who paid training wages and no benefits for the first 90 days and then trumped up a reason to fire everyone before the higher rates kicked in and start over; prisoners with serious medical conditions denied access to care; manufactured reasons for keeping prisoners from the law library and even their own attorneys; restaurant management who apologized to white customers because there were "so many niggers" in the place and promised that they were working on it and much more... including a black activist who suggested to the crowd listening to him speak that perhaps they should kill me, since I was well-dressed and white.

None of that was the worst thing I saw that summer. The worst thing was the acceptance. The kind, smart, accomplished black women I worked with who comforted me and tried to get me to understand that the systemic racism was just how it was. The man who looked at me incredulously in a group of 15-20 people he did not know and confidently said, "Of course niggers are inferior." And, most of all, the number of black men who would avert their eyes, step to the side, even cross the street to avoid coming in contact with me as I walked along the sidewalk, and the way they would startle and look frightened if I smiled and said hello.

I learned that it was kinder not to greet them, though it never came naturally.

26 years have passed and, safely back in Illinois, I've chosen to assume that even in Augusta, Georgia, it is no longer shocking for a member of one race to greet another on the street. I've chosen to believe that no decent, hard-working adult feels he has to cross the street in deference to or fear of a member of another race.

Maybe it was even true. It was certainly true in my Midwestern world, where I'd never seen that sort of behavior in my life.

Like it or not, we woke up in a New America on Wednesday. Since then, I've been experiencing things that I'd never seen in Illinois before, that I saw only in the deep south more than a quarter of a century ago.

Wednesday afternoon, I shouted (at my dog, but he was out of sight) and a Muslim woman who happened to be driving down my tiny residential street with her child stopped her car and backed up, watching warily to see what I would do next. The next day, as I walked down the street alone, and elderly Mexican man stepped onto his porch a few houses ahead, saw me, froze with his hand on the door, and after looking at me for several seconds backed back into his house. This morning, a young Mexican man rounding the corner of his house saw me coming and simply stopped walking and stood perfectly still, half sheltered by the corner of his house, until I smiled and said good morning. He didn't answer, but he started moving again.

I'm not going to live in that world, and I hope you don't want to either.

So, what I'm asking is that if you're white, you remember that the onus is on you. As sick and afraid and angry and depressed and (insert every negative descriptor you know) as we may all be feeling, most of us white people aren't feeling directly threatened.

I find it unsettling, encountering another person on the street and not knowing what's in his or her head or heart. I feel a little bit like I've stumbled into an alien world where I can't tell the humans from the monsters. But, I'm not monster food.

I don't feel much like socializing. I'm not brimming with love for my fellow man right now. I definitely don't feel like smiling. But, I have to. And, if you're a decent human being who happens to be white, you do, too.

If your expression reflects how you're feeling in the wake of this election, every person of color, unpopular religious affiliation or alternate sexual orientation you pass on the street may reasonably believe you're making that face at him or her...and maybe it means you're hoping he gets deported, or that her "sick relationship" is finally torn apart, or even that someone would shoot him. Maybe that you could shoot him.

So smile, whether you feel it or not. Be friendly like someone's life depends on it, because it just might.

Note: I know the past couple of posts here have been unusual for this blog. I have a political/social blog, and of course considered keeping this content there rather than on my personal blog. In the end, though, I decided that there wasn't much that was more personal to me than the way human beings treat one another in the world around me. There are many other things going on in my life right now--a cool book project, a new granddaughter and more. But the biggest thing in my life right now, and I suspect for some time to come, is how I can do my part to make the people around me whose only crime is to have the "wrong" skin color or worship the "wrong" God or sleep with the "wrong" gender feel safe again.