This IS America

If you like to play on the lake you probably keep your gear in a water tight container in case it falls into the drink. We like to protect our stuff.

In the dinosaur days of photography, I developed my own film in a dark room constructed to be light tight. We like to protect our images.

After more than six decades lived absorbing, assimilating, criticizing and ultimately acquiescing to the culture in which I swim, I’ve accumulated plenty of stuff and developed an image of America that is culture tight. We like to protect our own bubble.

Last night my gear fell into the water, my pictures were ruined and my cultural bubble burst and splattered all over me.

By accident of birth I’ve lived in the American experiment all my life. I am happy to live in this country, rather than in many others. If it’s a privilege, I freely admit I did nothing to earn it.

Raised in the north, I’ve lived my adult life in the south and have always felt like the irritating grain of sand in the oyster that eventually suffocates in the secretions emitted to coat the irritation. I’m still not southern and few would call me a pearl.

Regional, cultural differences blossom in this country, but that’s part of what makes it beautiful. It’s what gets us in the car to see things unfamiliar. We can eat ethnic food anywhere, drive through coal country, cattle country, mining country, prairies, mountains or deserts and say, “This is America.”

We can see the world’s largest twine ball, or Mount Rushmore, or Hoover Dam, or China Town or the Bronx and say, “This is America.”

We can rejoice in our differences, our diversity, in our inclusiveness, in our historic open arms, in our different houses of worship, accents, or food choices and say, “This is America.”

But now, after every horrific massacre, school shooting, hate crime, mass murder of gays and Jews, and shootings of unarmed black men, some microphone jockey will urge us to stay calm and not despair because “this isn’t America.”

How many times can you say “this isn’t cancer” before you admit that seeping, bleeding scab on your forehead really is cancer and its ugly and you need to do something about it?

I’ve come to the horrible realization that this IS America.

What was a silent, deadly undertow of distrust, prejudice, economic superiority, income polarization, selfish nationalistic identity and hate of “other” has become the tsunami that is washing our nation into the sea.

I’ve felt it for some time, but I was forced to admit it Monday night (Oct. 29) when I sat among many hundreds of Winston-Salem citizens gathered in vigil at Temple Emanuel in mutual support of our Jewish neighbors following another massacre by a middle aged white man. This one over hatred of Jews.

It’s always hatred of something “other” isn’t it, someone who is not like me, someone who threatens to come and get something I think is rightfully mine, and only mine.

The synagogue last night was filled with “other.” Other faiths, colors, genders, styles, languages. It’s a beautiful thing to participate in an atmosphere like that, bound tangentially to each other by common concern.

Thoughtful, sincere speakers who did not look like me opened my eyes to the level of discrimination prevalent in this country. I thought Jews were being hyper-sensitive to feel anti-Semitism everywhere; that we’d made big progress in black-white relations; that LGBTQ persons were finding it easier to live who they are.

Not.

This was not a political rally but neither speakers nor participants tried to gloss over their conviction that the tiny hand pulling back the curtain on America’s pervasive prejudice belongs to the president. Any reference to his divisive rhetoric that waves the permission stick over our innate hates and prejudices drew loud applause.

We were not alone. Per PRRI’s 2018 American Values Survey, 54 percent of Americans believe the president’s decisions and behavior encourage white supremacist groups.

Although those in the room were nearly universal in their perception, we still wonder, of course, “What can we do?” Resoundingly, we were encouraged to vote!

And be kind. Be wise. Don’t let those win who incite fear to keep us apart, to keep us leery of “the other.”

And don’t despair or this brief era actually will become the new definition of America.

God forbid.

 

 

Foxes lurk outside school hen houses

Each Monday I go to a local elementary school to be a reading buddy for a second grader named Patrick.

Patrick’s school is in the part of town I don’t drive through without locking my doors. It anchors blocks populated with old, wounded cars parked half onto the sidewalks in front of old, weary houses.

Girls who look too young to wear makeup walk around broken pavement with a baby on their hip. There are no shops and no grocery stores on this side of the freeway, which slices the neighborhood off from a prosperous urban center like a cleaver through spareribs.

This morning in the media center I selected four books about farm animals. Most city kids think milk comes from the refrigerated shelf in the grocery store, or that chocolate milk comes from black cows, and that McDonald’s whips up chicken in the back room.

We talked about pigs and cows, chickens and eggs. Roosters and hens. When I couldn’t recall what the thick red hangy-down thing is under a rooster’s neck, I looked it up on my phone. I actually googled “hangy-down thing on a chicken” and it came up “wattle.” Of course. Patrick laughed delightedly and repeated, “wattle.”

Chickens on the farm live in a coop, our little book said. Pictures showed a coop on wheels inside a fence. It said the farmer moved the coop daily to give the birds access to fresh grass and more bugs.

What the book didn’t say was the coop gets moved so that chicken droppings continually fertilize new areas. Hey, I grew up around farming.

The little book introduced hens and roosters and eggs and chicks. And then, it introduced a full page, bright colored rooster, with a bright red wattle, screaming lungs out at a fox, lurking on the edge of the fence.

“Why is the rooster so upset?” I asked Patrick.

“Because the fox eats meat, and chickens are meat.”

And, because we read about dinosaurs last week, he reminded me that people are meat too. Like meals on wheels for dinosaurs.

Then Patrick made a simple observation that caused me to pause and cringe. The rooster screaming “cock a doodle doo” to the others in the coop “was like lockdown at school” he said. Matter of factly. Like saying, “I got a drink from the bubbler.”

His principal was like the rooster, shouting a warning and getting everyone into a safe position. Who knows who the fox represents. Someone hungry for meat. Someone anxious to see chickens flying and flopping around, feathers torn and floating through the air. Someone thrilled by the pierce of screams, who licks his lips on the taste of terror.

It was the simple directness of his statement that struck me. “Like lockdown.”

As the rooster is alert to an encroaching fox, the principal is alert to the possibility of a shooter in her elementary school. Alert to a fox. In the henhouse.

And Patrick, who comes to school with all his friends to learn reading and writing and math so he can grow into an independent, self-sufficient adult, is forced to learn also that foxes lurk outside his coop.

And they are hungry.

 

Learning terror on the highways

Self-driving cars are racing into our future. They supposedly will cut fuel consumption, extend our suburbs yet decrease commute times, cut the number of cars on the road by more than half, ultimately make our roads safer and cure the heartbreak of psoriasis.

Scientists theorize that a car with a dozen or more computerized “eyes” that are constantly alert and instantly responsive will be safer than a car with a human driver with just two eyes whose response times vary because of distractions like sleep deprivation, cell phones, music, mirror checking and messy sandwiches.

In the meantime, we humans are going to have to continue to navigate our crowded, crumbling roads and teach our offspring to drive safely upon them as well. It’s an important, and potentially terrifying lesson.

In fact, I remember just how terrifying it can be.

The 1979 movie “Alien” was the most terrifying cinema I’ve ever watched. I was sure the monster was in the cat and I urged Sigourney Weaver to leave it behind as she abandoned her space ship, but she went back for it!

I didn’t know until the final credits rolled that the movie was over. I relaxed for the first time in two hours and my stomach was sore three days from the tension.

But I didn’t know terror.

I’ve been trapped in a July hailstorm above timberline on Pikes Peak with the trail disappearing beneath ice and darkness approaching. We couldn’t have survived a night on the mountain me and three buddies braved the storm, climbing, exhausted, to the top.

But I didn’t know terror.

When I was sideswiped on a rain slick interstate by an 18-wheeler on a cold dark night, I still didn’t know terror.

I’ve taken the subway from New Jersey into Manhattan at midnight, heeding a native’s warning to sit as far front and as near the conductor as possible. I perched on the scarred plastic bench holding my country mice eyes unseeing, straight ahead. I pled silently for a cloak of invisibility to drape over me and to cover the neon sign I knew flashed above my head saying “Easy Mark.”

But terror remained only a textbook definition, a movie subject, an Edgar Allen Poe concoction. I only thought I knew terror, like a boy thinks he knows love.

Then, I took my 15-year-old daughter driving for the first time. And I discovered terror.

I grew up on a farm, driving tractors and trucks in the field from age 11. I learned the levers and pedals that made things go in slow-moving vehicles, in wide open spaces.

I had no idea until that first driving lesson how narrow are the roads or how close to the roads are mail boxes, or how sharp are the curves and how abruptly the pavement drops at the shoulder, or how wide are oncoming vehicles.

In the very first moments, after Erin adjusted the seat, mirrors, seatbelt, radio, sunglasses and hair, and figured out which pedal was go and which was stop, she almost took out one of those mailboxes. Fortunately, the ditch we rolled into on the other side kept the box safe.

It’s a helpless feeling, to be sitting on the rider’s side, with no brake and no steering wheel when all manner of disaster careens at you. I pushed a size 10 footprint into the floorboard when Erin didn’t seem to turn the wheel enough to accommodate the slow rolling curves. Unlike a 3-D movie simulation, these terrors really can jump off the screen like a Velociraptor to bite off your head.

I told Erin to ignore the cars on her bumper, and not to fear the ones coming toward her seeming to take up the whole road. When they get closer, you’ll see the road really is wide enough for both of us, I assured her. And the bridges only seem too narrow. And 30 miles per hour is fast enough!

You cannot imagine how dizzyingly fast 40 mph seems to a dad when his first time driver is behind the wheel.

To her credit, Erin finished the one-hour session with a new appreciation of how difficult and mind bending it is to drive well – a task that looks so easy when observing an experienced driver. She made a lot of progress and our next session was much easier. (I won’t go into the part about trying to teach her how to drive a stick shift.)

And importantly, I was reminded that the best way to overcome the terrors that lurk “out there” – under the bed, around the corner, in the operating room, on the next calendar page, when the phone rings, when your wife says “we need to talk” – is to face them. Get in the car with them and stare them in the eye while racing down the open highway.

Of course, it’s better to have a brake pedal on your side when you do.