The Bus Ride Home

It was Christmas break, my freshman year of college. A large group of us stood on the platform, waiting for the bus to take us home. A group of strangers, we stood making small talk, all relieved to have finals over and break about to start.

The talk lulled and I turned. I had to rush. The bus was here.

Like a wave, the crowd moved to where the bus was stopped. The bus slowly filled, leaving about twenty of us on the platform, laughing and joking to cover the worry that we’d have to find another way home. Right before he pulled away, the driver told us they’d be sending another bus for us.

More students came, the camaraderie increased and by the time the second bus showed up, we filled it with a laughing crowd.

I sat a few seats from the front and a guy from the group I’d been talking to slid in next to me, continuing the conversation.

Then he changed topics.

“I’ll bet I can guess your nationality,” he said.

I grew up in a big, diverse city where second- and third-generation immigrants identified themselves as Swedish-Americans, Greek-Americans, Japanese-Americans, etc., so I didn’t think anything about it. Being short, with dark hair and an olive complexion I’ve been mistaken for Greek, Puerto Rican, Portuguese, Native American, and Indian. I didn’t think he could guess. I said okay.

“Greek?” he guessed. “Italian?” He went on, but never got it.

Finally I listed my ancestors’ heritage, but he didn’t comment on anything until I mentioned a Jewish relative.

“You know,” he said, “Jews are trying to take over the country and the world.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“There’s a Jewish conspiracy,” he said.

My dad had repeatedly warned me that I’d run into antisemitism, but this was my first encounter. In retrospect, I’m sure this guy had a litany of complaints against many groups.

“I know a lot of Jewish people,” I said, “and none of them are trying to take over the country.”

He started listing his “evidence” and I realized I was trapped on a full bus, stuck sitting with this guy for the next three-hour ride. I didn’t know enough back then to quit a losing fight, so I kept trying to talk sense to him. He kept going.

“The movie industry is brainwashing everybody. MGM really stands for Metro Golda Meier.”

He went on and on. Finally about the time he was complaining about being forced to buy kosher tuna fish, because all the major brands had a K on the label, the girl in the seat in front of me couldn’t take it anymore and came to my rescue.

Turning around and kneeling to look over the seat at him, she said,”I’m Catholic and you are terrible!”

I hadn’t thought about that bus ride for a long time. Events in the news and fake news lately have brought back memories I’d happily put behind me. Too many people are willing to skirt the surface, accepting headlines and sound bites as facts, expecting simple solutions to complex problems. It’s much easier to scapegoat a group of people than analyze a situation to look for a multi-faceted solution. It’s much easier to read the headlines, maybe the first paragraph, than dig down and read the details, look for the reporter’s sources.

We all need to read multiple sources before we believe what we hear and read. We need to pay attention to the difference between objective evidence and opinion pieces. We need to beware of conspiracy theories. We need to read what people who don’t agree with us have to say, with a mind open enough to ask whether any of what they have to say is valid.

If you think that an entire group of people can be all good or all bad, you are wrong.

If you think that Americans who speak up in protest are whiny or should be arrested, you need to read the constitution and some history.

If you think that all right-wingers are greedy, close-minded bigots and xenophobes, you are wrong.

If you think that all leftist liberals are unemployed criminals looking for a handout, you are wrong.

If you think that Fox News is a hard news network, you are wrong.

If you think that CNN is without bias, you are wrong.

If you think that Donald Trump can save the country single-handedly, you are wrong. The issues are too complicated for even the best president to do alone, and I do not believe we have the best.

If you think that Donald Trump can destroy the country single-handedly, you are wrong. A lot of people need to sit by and do nothing for that to happen.

And if you think that a single person can’t do much to help, think of the girl who turned around to join the fight. She may not have changed one idea of the bigoted bully next to me, but she supported me with her presence and gave me an ally for the rest of the ride.

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A Christmas Wish

I’ve never been good at taking sides. I’m no good at “Us and them.”

Back in the day, advertisers encouraged us to choose Pepsi or Coke. I never had a strong preference.

I’m not a big sports fan, so you won’t find me bad mouthing one team over another.

In high school my closest friends were scattered in different groups. So no cliques for me. I was the one explaining everyone to the others.

I really hate presidential primaries. They make me pick a party to choose a candidate, but in my heart, I’m an independent.

I do have a huge streak of loyalty. If you have won my friendship, it will take a lot for me to give you up. Heck, I have trouble changing hair stylists.

So this dichotomy is what makes me a patriotic American who sees the need for improvement.

The election season was especially bad at drawing lines between us and them. There were those fearful of immigrants and those who called the fearful people xenophobes. There were those who valued policy over image, on both sides, as well as those who valued image over policy. There were those who wanted to turn time back twenty years to an age when manufacturing jobs were available and those who ignored those needs. There were those who wanted to make things better for the next generation, but none of them agreed on the best way to do it. There were those who said that everyone has rights and those who felt that maintaining their own way of life was more important than any single person’s rights. There were those who believed in the story told by extreme right wing media and those who looked for the facts and dismissed the power of that right wing media. Ironically even the parties divided themselves into us and them, changing the party platform on each side, one to “Keep them out” and the other to “Make it free.” We seem to be splitting further into us and them and them and them.

Of course  I have a stance on all these issues. But I draw the line at splitting myself off from the people who believe differently or have a different culture than my own. There is no them. There is only us and we need to keep trying to get better.

If you are reading this, I’m making an assumption. You are a literate human somewhere in the world. I wish that we could see ourselves and others first as humans, before we draw the lines between us and them. I wish that we would try to see the world from the point of view of another.

I make this classic wish for us all –

Peace on Earth and Goodwill to Man.

On a Dime

 

Realize

Last Sunday I turned Sixty Minutes on in time to watch the tail end of an interview with a woman whose tour group had been kidnapped in Yemen. One thing she said was that she realized that if she and another woman had switched positions, it would have been she who had been shot. She had cheated death by standing a few feet to the side.

My sister had a moment years ago when she was attending an event at a hotel, standing on a walkway overlooking the ballroom, when across from her the identical walkway collapsed killing over a hundred people. That day simply choosing where to stand determined whether you lived or died.

I have never made one of those life or death decisions, unless you count those driving moments when you slam on the brakes or veer out of the way of disaster. But I have been thinking lately about all the decisions made by those that came before me that have made my very existence possible. One might say divine intervention, but still you have to balance that with the individual free will decisions by all who came before us.

Being an American, and not a Native one, all of my ancestors had to make the choice to leave the home they knew and come here to try for something better. I think of the countries they came from and the absolute unlikeliness that their descendants would have met their spouses had they remained in their native lands. I have realized that if any of a string of ancestors had listened to their disapproving parents, my particular sequence of genes could not exist.

I think of the peaceful, fruitful, secure life that I am fortunate to have and the multiple trials and tragedies that influenced every one of my ancestors’ life decisions that led to the mere possibility that my siblings and I could be born. The early widowhood that aborted emigration the first time, but prompted it again several years later. The huge families of children in the 19th century, that ensured descendants, but the loss of a husband to war could make remarriage a financial and practical necessity, more business arrangement than love match. The escapes from persecution and lack of financial opportunities. Then there were the choices of where to settle once they were here. Just as many immigrants do now, they often chose to join family members who had chosen to come before them.

I have realized that my existence is a chance event inextricably tied to world events, which resulted in my mother meeting my father, seven years her senior, in college. If Hitler hadn’t run rampant through Europe and the Japanese hadn’t attacked Pearl Harbor two years before, my father might not have been drafted, might not have been injured overseas, might not have been at the university in time to meet my mother. If their two friends hadn’t determined to bring them each along on their own scheduled date, would they have somehow met on campus?

Worse yet, if any these events had changed as a flip of a coin, without my existence, my children could not be present in the world.

I have realized life can turn on a dime, without our even knowing it.

Two Trees

Tree

There are two trees directly behind my house. Let’s call them the older one and the young one.

The older one isn’t really that old in the life of a honey locust tree. But it was an adult when we moved in 22 years ago and it has the occasional dead branch to show it’s been around for awhile.  Its two longest, strongest branches stick straight toward the house like two arms reaching, grasping for a grip on the gutters, roof tiles or the upstairs window that leads to my daughters’ old room. The canopy is lovely, with evenly spaced branches creating a cloud of leaves. From certain directions you’d never know what a connection this tree seems to feel for our home.

The young one is a pecan tree. We planted it the year after we moved in and for several years it was just a short straight stick in the ground that never died or branched out, but barely grew taller each year. Finally when it reached the height of a medium-sized child it sprouted branches and then it seems I blinked and it was fully grown, with well-spread branches just asking to be climbed, and a cloud of green leaves that hide its pecans so well that we usually don’t know they are there until the squirrels come and point them out to us.

The other day as I walked my dog, I reflected that despite the difference in age the two trees are close to the same size. The older one is a bit thicker in the trunk and has those dead spots, like a scattering of gray on its green head. The young one is a bit taller, strong and flexible, swaying easily in the breeze. If you look from just the right angle you can see its trunk leans away from the older one, but side branches from each tree reach out to touch in the middle, as if they are leaned in to listen.

As my dog and I wandered around the side of the house, I looked back at those two trees and thought that their life spans are not so different from human ones. They grow and make dramatic changes like we do from sprout to adulthood. Older trees, like those of us who are older, have some scars in their bark, some bit of drooping here and there, but are still spreading their branches wide in welcome. In the time it took the young one to sprout branches and reach for the sky, my daughters have done the same. Just like the young one, they stand tall and strong, leaning out to face the world, but I like to think that they still turn that listening ear toward home.

trees