Bank on This: Phone-Banking Isn’t Everything It’s Cracked Up To Be. It’s Better.

You know those things you swear you’ll never do because you’re bad at them and you think they’re annoying and don’t make any difference and oh, by the way, you hate doing them?

Could I be talking about anything but political phone-banking? And have I been doing it anyway? And am I going to quit with the stupid rhetorical questions? Yes, yes, and yes.

The whole enterprise started with my furlough. I had some extra time on my hands, which I mainly filled with some physical volunteer work: packing school meals to be delivered to children, and groceries to be delivered to families. That felt meaningful.

But then both those programs ended (because hey, everyone knows kids don’t need to eat in the summer, especially when their parents might also be furloughed or unemployed!). [Note: this is NOT a slam on my community, which is doing everything in its power to help everyone.It’s about funding from upstream.]

Anyway, there I am in early June with the world on fire with injustice and COVID, and my deep-seated urges to pitch in have nowhere else to turn but…the phone. Calling voters in states without mail-in ballot programs to try to help voters get mail-in ballots, and gosh, by the way, wanna help elect Mr/Ms/Dr ____ to the ______?

On my first go, in Wisconsin, I swore I was done with this.

Woo-hoo.

Me, phone-banking: This is such a waste of time.

Myself: Nuh-uh, all the political people say it’s been proven that phone calls make more difference than any form of voter contact!

Me: But I even hate getting these kind of calls!

Myself: Well, you won’t from now on, will you? Maybe this is your punishment for not being nicer to the last person who called you.

Me: Not true. I’m always nice. But you may have a point there: this job feels like penance. Can I just go ahead and like, bank it against future sins?

But then the nice campaign people in Wisconsin let me know how badly they needed my help, so next day, there I was again. I don’t know how many calls I made because I hadn’t thought to keep count. But then I took some phone-bank training and discovered the joy of tally marks.

So NOW when I’m calling, I’m really competing with myself. Last week I made 100 calls in 2 hours. How ’bout 110 this week? Do I hear 120?

And along the way, even though there are SO many things I’d rather be doing on a lovely summer afternoon, like

noticing wildflowers…

or

…noticing wildlife…

I’m learning other ways to “enjoy” my political “work.” Like:

Fun with numbers! “Hey, this guy’s number’s almost the same as my Social Security.” “Whoa, a triple 6–wish I had a cool Satanic phone number like that.”

Enjoying the different recordings people leave on their voicemail, like this one man: “Hello, this is Mister Wonderful.” Or this adorable couple: “You’ve reached Grandpa and Grandma Willis.”

[Note: these generally make up for those irritating ones where the person’s clearly trying to fool the caller into thinking they’ve reached a real person instead of a recording. You guys suck.]

Grooving on cool names. I like to do this: “Hi, I’m Gretchen with the ____ Campaign, and I’ve been calling folks all afternoon and you’ve just won the Coolest Name of the Day award.”

Playing the Find my Age game: I’m 58. Nothing so special about 58, right? Except that only about .000008 of the folks I’ve called seem to BE 58, and only half of those are women. So when I get a 58 year-old female on my list (all we get are name, age & gender, and sometimes not even gender), I let them know how excited I am to talk to them! [If they pick up, that is. Which they do only about 10% of the time. So I’ve really only bonded with two other 58 year-old women so far. Sisterhood is beautiful.]

So much darn fun, I can almost forget I’d rather be kayaking.

For those of us who enjoy Life Lessons, there’s the Note Your Prejudices game: see what mental image pops into your head when you see someone’s name, age & gender pop up, then–quick, before they answer the phone!–re-arrange that prejudice into something completely different. Then find out how right or wrong you were when they answer! (If they answer. 😦 ) And briefly ponder the internal biases that caused your initial guess, quick–before you dial the next number.

Then, of course, there’s always good ol’ Gazing Out the Window…trying not to think about hiking into the sunset

Not till you’ve finished your tally marks.

or making pie.

I think I’ve earned pie.

But really? It’s all about the tally marks. And yes, just in case you were wondering: I DID make 120 calls this afternoon, thanks!

Which means I need to shoot for 125 next time. 

Total # of calls (since I started keeping track, so it’s really about 100 more): 650. And when I get to 1,000, I WILL make a pie.

Anyone else engaged in some political work right now which requires a struggle to feel meaningful? How do you keep your positive energy up?

 

The Big Antiracism “Now What?”: Can There Be Angels in the Details?

Erin Aubry Kaplan, in her op-ed in the New York Times, “Everyone’s an Antiracist. Now What?” makes a rather devastating point: Congratulations, White People. You have arrived…at the beginning of something:

Recognizing that Black people matter as much as all other Americans is only acknowledging what’s always been true. Embracing Blackness as a something of value and dignity is a baseline for progress, not progress; it is moving into position at the starting line, but it is not the race.

I am finding my days heartened currently by the scope of racial education among people and groups who have, like me, always assumed themselves to be “good,” “non-racist” folks without doing any real work to back up that assumption. People who’ve coasted on privilege for generations (like me) are finally scrutinizing that fact and grappling with the implications. BUT, as Kaplan writes,

But this is all part of Step 1. Being truly antiracist will require white people to be inconvenienced by new policies and practices, legal and social, that affect everything in everyone’s daily lives, from jobs to arts and publishing.

It’s one thing to declare your support for Black Lives Matter with a lawn sign and quite another to give up segregated schools, or always seeing yourself and people like you as the center of the moral universe. The privilege to not engage is one that many may be loath to give up, even if they believe engagement is the right thing to do.

This is the part where people usually say, “Yeah, antiracism’s great, but the devil’s in the details.” As in: what do you mean by antiracist work? What if it’s not only inconvenient by messy, complicated, hard, threatening?

To that thought–my own thought!–I am trying to give this reply: What if those aren’t devils but angels in the details? What if we can find our own redemption as a dominant race by taking some nitty-gritty steps toward REAL equality, REAL justice? Doesn’t that sound like a blessing to you?

So, for my own work, my own “angels,” I am committing to the following:

  1. actively engage in the struggle to protect voting rights in “battleground” states, by phone-banking to promote mail-in balloting, along with promoting progressive candidates from the bottom to the top of the ballot; continue to mail letters to individual voters to urge their participation in November
  2. continue to advocate, through phone calls and email, for the closure of the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, WA, run by the private prison company Geo Group
  3. continue to educate myself about the American carceral state, to see what else needs advocating for (restoration of voting privileges for former felons? prison defunding? what else?)
  4. look for opportunities to support Black businesses, like WeBuyBlack.com (gorgeous dresses!)
  5. stay open to calls for action from organizations like Color of Change, using the privilege of my free time to advocate on specific cases of injustice whenever I have a moment

    Not gonna lie–it’s a tough read.

When I find myself foot-dragging on any of the above actions–which, face it, are not inherently fun–all I have to do is re-read Kaplan’s line: The privilege to not engage is one that many may be loath to give up, even if they believe engagement is the right thing to do.

Photo Courtesy of Color of Change.org

I admit, I’m writing this as much to keep myself motivated as anything. Privileged non-engagement is very, VERY comfortable. That’s why I’ve lived there for most of my life.

Anyway–thanks for reading about my commitments. I’d love to read about yours! Please share your current or next steps, wherever you are on this journey.

 

“Stand-up Tragedy”: When Coping Mechanisms Become Calls to Action

I’m not a particularly gifted comedian, but comedy plays a big role in the life I’ve made with my Mate. We like to say Jon Stewart pretty much raised our children. I know he got us through the Dubya Bush years, especially after the invasion of Iraq. When the Daily Show theme music came on, we’d yell, “Hey boys, Funny People!” and the boys would come running.

Since the election of 2016, I’ve leaned hard on Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah to remind myself that I’m not the only one who feels like my country’s turning back 100 years. But since the death of George Floyd, like the comedians themselves, I’m finding more solace in bitterness.

Isn’t that a contradiction? No–not when the bitterness is shared, and focused.

This morning’s New York Times article about Richard Pryor, by Jason Zinoman, put it best. After moving on to discuss Pryor’s legacy among Black comics, including SNL’s Michael Che and The Daily Show’s Roy Wood Jr., Zinoman focuses on Dave Chappelle, and coins the perfect phrase:

Over the past few decades, Chappelle has repeatedly made comedy from the pain of police brutality, but what stood out about his recent set was how his typically grave tone didn’t pivot to a joke, how often he let his unfiltered outrage sit there…Chappelle went long stretches without jokes, producing a kind of stand-up tragedy. When he asked what the police officer whose knee was on the neck of George Floyd could be thinking, he spoke with a righteous anger that comedy could not address. There are limits to what a joke can do.

Stand-up tragedy. YES. That is what feeds my soul these days: someone standing up, literally, and calling out what happened and what it means. Here is Trevor Noah, his first workday after the death of Rayshard Brooks:

Trevor isn’t telling me what to do. But when this professional funny person, this man whose impish dimple has brought me so much joy over the past five years, looks me in the eye and speaks his bitter truth, I feel called up. Which is how I want to feel right now.

It’s even more (bizarrely) comforting to hear comedians call other people out–people not like me, whom I wouldn’t have the right to criticize. Here’s Hasan Minhaj, from his show Patriot Act, calling out his fellow immigrants from Asia and the Middle East:

There are some speakers, like Killer Mike and Kimberly Jones, whose words are pure bitterness and zero comedy–no less brilliant and even more gripping–and I’ll probably focus on them another time.

Right now I want to give a huge shout-out to those “Funny People” whose wit and wisdom is fueling me these days–and hopefully you too. Please share others!

‘Nuff Said? We’ll See.

This book is suddenly a national best-seller. My copy’s back-ordered. It’s a start.

Of what? 

“Some people go out in glory

Yeah with the wind at their back

Some get to tell their own story

Write their own epitaph

Sometimes you see it coming

Sometimes you won’t know until

You’re out of breath

With a knee on your neck

For a $20 bill.”                          –Tom Prasado-Rao

 

Friends–let’s do the hard work, whatever’s ours to do.

White, Horrified and Helpless: Six Ways to Find Your Direction

Let’s say you’re White. Let’s say you’re not in close touch with many People of Color. Let’s say the reality of being Black in America is coming home to you in a deeper way than it ever has. Let’s say you are feeling ready to do more than just feel bad, attend a demonstration or write a check. Let’s say you are wondering where to start.

That was me, following the election of 2016. From what I’m hearing and seeing on social media, it’s a lot more people now. If it’s you, please keep reading.

Since struggling in the winter of 2016-17, I’ve begun to find some direction, some guidance. I would like to share it here.

  1. First, rip off your emotional blinders. Read Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

    This book is soul-changing.

  2. Learn the history you never knew you needed to know: Wherever you can fit it into your day, listen to episodes of the podcast “Seeing White” by John Boewin, with special guest Chenjeria Kumanyika.
  3. Get personal with that history. Read The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.

    Better yet, read it with a friend.

  4. Turn the lens on yourself. Read Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility or Debbie Irving’s Waking Up White. Or both.

    Start a book group.

  5. Reach out. Investigate groups you may have never heard of, like Color of Change. What work are they doing? Do you want to support it, and if so, how? Watch Netflix shows like “Dear White People” or “BlackAF”–they’ll make you laugh while your mind is expanding. Read People of Color. Listen to People of Color. Think about what you’ve never thought about. Think about where this country has an opportunity to go.
  6. Get involved with a group like VoteForward or Common Purpose to defeat Donald Trump. While we find a way to move forward, we have to keep our country from sliding further backward. How can you help?

    Racism is like COVID, or cancer. If you can’t study it and talk about it, you can’t cure it.

You know and I know, it is no longer possible just to dislike racism. We are either doing anti-racist work–starting with ourselves–or we are permitting racism to hold its grip. Please add your own suggestions here for what people like you, like me, or ANY people can do.

My New Furlough “Job”: Fun With Elected Officials

Even though, like many Americans, I’m furloughed from my job at the moment, I recognize that I’m in the 1% of ridiculously lucky people who has no one in my home demanding care nor worry; ample resources; and lovely outdoor space close to hand.

I’m sorry, New York–I wish I could send you some!

What I also have? A sense of helplessness. When we finished quarantining after our road trip, I signed up to deliver food around our island. But then I had to go off-island again. Twice. I understand the reason for the quarantine rule, but still I chafed. What can I DO to HELP?

Enter University of Washington professor David Domke and Common Purpose. I’d already attended an Orientation with this impressive group dedicated to promoting voting, and signed up for national get-out-the-vote work next fall. But next fall is so, so far away, and the daily COVID news weighs heavily. So I was thrilled when the email call came to ADVOCATE FOR EXPANDED VOTING OPTIONS FOR NEXT NOVEMBER,* from my own living room.

*Notice I’m not saying voting for whom? That’s not what this push is about. You don’t have to dig too deep to find which party supports more voting and which party wants to limit it…but that ain’t my affair. I just happen to think America has had about enough disenfranchisement for our past couple-plus centuries.

Plus, Professor Domke said it would be fun!

27 of our 50 states don’t allow for any way to vote except in-person on one single day. Which, in a pandemic, sounds pretty CRAZY, right? Right. Just ask Wisconsin. So I signed up to contact elected officials in those 27 states. Two senators. One governor. And one person in charge of elections.

Oh dear. That’s 4 x 27…128 people. Fun, huh?

I decided to treat this task like a job. You have the option to call, email, or tweet, and since the only thing I loathe more than making political calls is receiving them, I chose email as my medium. I tweaked the form letter Common Purpose sent to make it sound more like me. Okay. Ready for fun.

For the past 2 days, I’ve emailed for approximately an hour. Because there’s a Senate bill coming up now (Thank you, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden!) I started with Senators. 

Copy email letter. Open provided link to given Senator. Autofill all my details. Pick topic. Paste letter. Make sure I’m not subscribing to any newsletters! Prove I’m human. Click Submit. Next…

Y’know what, Professor Domke? This is NOT fun. This is boring as all get-out. I hate this.

So I started embroidering a little.

I let the two senators from North Carolina know I’m a Tarheel born & bred, and finished my letter with “Go Heels!” (Too bad for me if they’re Duke fans.)

I congratulated some of the senators who recently (or less recently) dropped out of the race for being so stalwart.

I started noticing stuff. Like: Some senators make you choose a prefix for your name; others let you opt out. Some senators have “Abortion/Right to Life” on their Issues list; others, just one or the other. Some senators don’t have anything on their Issues list that covers the topic at hand–Elections? COVID? Civil Rights?–forcing me to choose “Other.” Hmph.

And Cory Booker has the most adorable website, which asks for your first name right off the bat, then goes to “Hi, Gretchen!” Awww…Miss you, Cory.

After thirty minutes or so, I noticed something else: I was actually having a kind of nerdy fun. Go figure.

Hey, time’s up. I contacted 40 senators. Only 14 to go. And then all those Governors and Secretaries of State…

Wonder if any of their websites will tell me “Hi!”?

If you’d like to join this fun enterprise–no, really, in all seriousness, if you’d like to participate in the push to keep voters safely at home without being deprived of their right to help elect our next President, click here.

Woohoooo! Democracy! At least until I get to back to work at the bakery.

Equal Time For the Better Angels of Our Nature

My readers probably know that I’m not much of a podcast listener, but that if I AM listening to a podcast, it’s probably On Being with Krista Tippett. I started this habit after the 2016 election and, three and a half years later, I need her show more than ever.

Today I want to provide a peek into an especially uplifting interview about…ready? The evolutionary aspects of human goodness. Evolutionary? Human Goodness? Yes please!

(What follows are shameless excerpts from the transcript of Krista Tippett’s show, which I’m assuming she won’t mind because I’m encouraging everyone to listen to her.)

Human goodness? Does that mean sunflower seeds?

Nicholas Christakis is Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale. More specifically, he works at something called the Human Nature Lab—which sounds spooky until you hear what they’re studying. They’re studying goodness. (Oh my goodness. Literally.)

Says Dr. Christakis,

I’m interested in the qualities that make a collective good. How is it that a group of humans come together to form a good society? And in what way, and to what extent, has evolution equipped us with these capacities?

Please, oh please, tell me more about our good capacities. Do you really mean to say we have them built in, evolutionarily, and if so, why do never hear about this? Dr. C?

…scientists and citizens on the street have focused on the dark side of human nature, on our propensity for selfishness and tribalism and mendacity and cruelty and violence, as if this were a natural or normal or primary state of affairs. And yet, I think the bright side has been denied the attention it deserves, because, equally, we are capable of love and friendship and teaching and cooperation and all these other wonderful things. And, in fact, I would argue…those qualities are more powerful than the bad qualities; and therefore, in some ways, much more important.

More important? Really? Tell me why!

I think, if every time I came near you, you were mean to me, or you filled me with fake news — you told me falsehoods about the environment in a way that was detrimental to my capacity to survive in the environment, or you killed me, I would be better off living apart from you.

But we don’t do that. We live together. And so, therefore, the benefits of a connected life must have outweighed the costs. And they did outweigh the costs. And the question is, how did that state of affairs come to be?

Whoa. He’s right. We DO, for the most part, live in societies. Have done for millennia. And yes. Dr. Christakis is talking about EVOLUTIONARY time here, not human history.

…In fact, every argument that I make…I could make about human beings who were alive 10,000 years ago, before the action of a lot of the technological and historical forces that we take as so relevant and ascendant today. So we were capable of love and friendship and living together 10,000 years ago. And we were also capable of violence, of course, then, too. But all of these things were a part of our nature well before we then had this overlay of cultural and technological and historical forces acting. And in some ways I would argue that those forces are a thin veneer overlaid on a much more fundamental edifice.

A not particularly relevant but definitely uplifting photo I took the other day.

In other words, the prof is arguing that certain basic positive traits are the driving force of ALL human societies EVERYWHERE. These traits include our ability to…

love the people we’re having sex with; we form sentimental attachments to them. We are, technically, monogamous. We befriend each other; we form long-term, non-reproductive unions with other members of our species. This is exceedingly rare in the animal kingdom.We do it; certain other primates do it; elephants do it; certain cetacean species do it — we form friendships with unrelated people. It’s universal in human groups.

 

cooperate with each other, altruistically.We’re kind to strangers — again, to unrelated individuals;

 

...teach each other things. People take this for granted, but it’s actually unbelievable.

Yeah, the purple highlights are mine. They represent my DELIGHT in hearing an eminent, sober scientist tell the world that we humans are as good as we KNOW we can be–not simply as bad as our TV and movies tell us, over and over, that we must be.

THIS is relevant: Seattleites being altruistic by staying home, off the freeway. (OK, yeah, also being a little scared.)

If you, like me, need some inspiration right now, I encourage you to read this last paragraph aloud, as if it were a sermon, or a speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

Deeper, more powerful, more ancient forces are at work, propelling a good society, endowing us with these wonderful capacities, which were always there, are still there, are unavoidable; and that, if anything, these moves that we’ve made as a species in the last few hundred years are…the thin veneer over this more fundamental reality of the better angels of our nature.

Preach on!

Which do you want to focus on: the dark, tangled foreground, or the shining tree?

Please know: like Dr. Christakis, I’m no Pollyanna about human nature. All I’m asking for is equal time for our better angels.

“How To Love a Country”–With a Little Help From My Poets and Reporters

As part of my New Year Intention to spend more time with bridge-builders, I recently listened to an On Being podcast I’d stockpiled for moments like these (like, for example, when your country suddenly decides to go to war). I sure picked a good one. When Krista Tippett interviews civil engineer/poet Richard Blanco, these guys give me language to keep looking for bridges.

(Did you catch that? Poet AND civil engineer? How much bridgier can you get?)

Mr. Blanco celebrates what he’s noticing about this country, that whoever “we” are, we’re starting to pay attention to others at risk.

 I just love that we’re stepping up, and we’re realizing, no. OK, this is — I don’t have to go to that protest; it’s not about me. But that poem … you know, “First they came for the so-and-so”? Remember that poem? And I think we’re finally — we’re not doing that. We’re not waiting for them to come for us. We are stepping up and realizing that the quality of life, the virtue of this country, depends on every human being’s story, to a certain degree; that our happiness depends on other people’s happiness, and we’re moving from a space of dependence to realizing our interdependence.

And Krista agrees:

It becomes a discipline, almost like a spiritual discipline, to take that seriously, too. It’s a way of us, some of us, enough of us, collectively, living this phrase that you have at the beginning of the book, How to Love a Country: “Tell me with whom you walk, and I’ll tell you who you are.” So it’s us, expanding that sense of who we are.

As an American, I would prefer to walk in a wider lane than I have, historically, as a White woman. I want a richer sense of who “we” are. Since I moved from a very diverse town and job to an island that is…let’s say NOT diverse, I’ve been finding other ways to broaden my “we.”

The most significant step I’ve taken is to subscribe to the New York Times, and then sign up for its newsletter on the topic of “Race/Related.” That means I get stories right into my inbox that particularly relate to people NOT like me. The other day, for example, I read a wonderful story by Kurt Streeter about the WNBA star Maya Moore taking a sabbatical from basketball at the peak of her career to work on freeing a man from prison whom she believes to be innocent. What a story. What a gift.

Yes, the NYT costs money and CNN is free…but the NYT is doing work I actively want to support. Because it supports US.

Listening to the interview with Richard Blanco left me feeling choked up about my country. (Do you know how hard it is to ride your exercise bike hard while choking up? I had to slow down.) And this is the poem that did it. I’m passing it on to you now, hoping it both chokes you up and builds you up, as it did me. As it could us.

The poem is called Declaration of Interdependence, and is woven through with actual excerpts from the Declaration of Independence. Here’s the poet’s explanation of the title:

...finding language, finding another angle, finding another dialogue, and how easily stereotyped and typecast people can become in the news; and, also, how we do it to ourselves — “Oh, you drive a red pickup truck; therefore, you must be this person. You shop at Whole Foods; therefore, you must be this kind of person. You drive a Subaru; therefore, you must be this kind of person,” and realizing that that’s really something that’s been slowly chipping away at our brains, this sort of immediate — I won’t say “judgment,” but a typecasting that sometimes, we’re not even aware. So I just wanted to break down some of those stereotypes and create empathy across those stereotypes.

But it also, ultimately, comes from a saying, a greeting from the Zulu people, that was the real inspiration here…They don’t say “Good morning” like we do, like we did, this morning. “Good morning; I need coffee.” [laughs] They look at one another, right in the eyes, and say, “I see you.” And there’s an incredible power in seeing and being acknowledged. And if I’m not mistaken, the reply is, “I’m here to be seen. And I see you.” …We’re not seeing each other as clearly, and I think this poem was trying to let us see each other clearly.

And here’s the poem. Happy Interdependence Day!

“Declaration of Interdependence”

 Such has been the patient sufferance…

We’re a mother’s bread, instant potatoes, milk at a checkout line. We’re her three children pleading for bubble gum and their father. We’re the three minutes she steals to page through a tabloid, needing to believe even stars’ lives are as joyful and as bruised. Our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury…

We’re her second job serving an executive absorbed in his Wall Street Journal at a sidewalk café shadowed by skyscrapers. We’re the shadows of the fortune he won and the family he lost. We’re his loss and the lost. We’re a father in a coal town who can’t mine a life anymore because too much and too little has happened, for too long.

A history of repeated injuries and usurpations…

We’re the grit of his main street’s blacked-out windows and graffitied truths. We’re a street in another town lined with royal palms, at home with a Peace Corps couple who collect African art. We’re their dinner-party talk of wines, wielded picket signs, and burned draft cards. We’re what they know: it’s time to do more than read the New York Times, buy fair-trade coffee and organic corn.

In every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress…

We’re the farmer who grew the corn, who plows into his couch as worn as his back by the end of the day. We’re his TV set blaring news having everything and nothing to do with the field dust in his eyes or his son nested in the ache of his arms. We’re his son. We’re a black teenager who drove too fast or too slow, talked too much or too little, moved too quickly, but not quick enough. We’re the blast of the bullet leaving the gun. We’re the guilt and the grief of the cop who wished he hadn’t shot.

We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor…

We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor…

We’re the dead, we’re the living amid the flicker of vigil candlelight. We’re in a dim cell with an inmate reading Dostoevsky. We’re his crime, his sentence, his amends, we’re the mending of ourselves and others. We’re a Buddhist serving soup at a shelter alongside a stockbroker. We’re each other’s shelter and hope: a widow’s fifty cents in a collection plate and a golfer’s ten-thousand-dollar pledge for the cure. 

We hold these truths to be self-evident…

We’re the cure for hatred caused by despair. We’re the good morning of a bus driver who remembers our name, the tattooed man who gives up his seat on the subway. We’re every door held open with a smile when we look into each other’s eyes the way we behold the moon. We’re the moon. We’re the promise of one people, one breath declaring to one another: I see you. I need you. I am you.

–Richard Blanco

“I see you. I need you. I am you.” (Photo by TPapi, “Crowds on the Mall,” Jan. 9 2009)

New Year’s Intention: Spend Time With Bridge-Builders

You know who I mean. People who challenge me, gently, if I start to rant, instead of saying, “I know, right?” People who aren’t afraid of talking with folks who disagree with them. People who are only afraid of what happens if we all stop talking with folks we disagree with.

I am not a bridge-builder by nature. Truth be told, I don’t know many in person. So my 2020 intention is to spend regular time with them through books and articles and poetry and podcasts and blogs and movies. 

I intend to read, listen, watch learn–and spread the word. So here’s a start: “My Semester With The Snowflakes,” by James Hatch. This former Navy SEAL  enrolled as a freshman at Yale this past year, at the age of 52.

I should give a bit of background information. I was an unimpressive and difficult student in public schools. I joined the military at 17 and spent close to 26 years in the US Navy. I was assigned for 22 of those years to Naval Special Warfare Commands. I went through SEAL training twice, quit the first time and barely made it the second time. I did multiple deployments and was wounded in combat in 2009 on a mission to rescue an American hostage.

Every single day I went to work with much better humans than myself. I was brought to a higher level of existence because the standards were high and one needed to earn their slot, their membership in the unit. This wasn’t a one-time deal. Every time you showed up for work, you needed to prove your worth.

The vetting process is difficult and the percentage of those who try out for special operations units and make it through the screening is very low.

In an odd parallel, I feel, in spite of my short time here, the same about Yale.

(photo by Roger Kidd, courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Hatch goes on to address the notion of “liberal snowflakes.” (Yep–folks like me.)

Let me address this “snowflake” thing. According to the Urban Dictionary, a “snowflake” is a “term for someone that thinks they are unique and special, but really are not. It gained popularity after the movie Fight Club from the quote ‘You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else.’ ”

I hear the term occasionally from buddies of mine who I love. They say things like, “How are things up there with the liberal snowflakes?”

Let me assure you, I have not met one kid who fits that description. None of the kids I’ve met seem to think that they are “special” any more than any other 18–22-year-old. These kids work their assess off. I have asked a couple of them to help me with my writing. One young woman volunteered to help me by proof-reading my “prose” and, for the record, I believe she will be the President someday. I recently listened while one of my closer pals, a kid from Portland, Oregon, talked to me about the beauty of this insane mathematics problem set he is working on. There is a young man in our group who grew up in Alaska working on fishing boats from a young age and who plays the cello. There is an exceptional young woman from Chicago who wrote a piece for the Yale Daily News expressing the importance of public demonstrations in light of a recent police shooting. She and I are polar opposites. I am the “patriarchy” at first glance, and she is a young black woman who is keen on public protests. Not the type of soul I generally find myself in conversation with. We come from different worlds and yet we both read classic works with open hearts and minds.

We recently met with a prominent writer from a think tank who is researching the state of the humanities in the university setting. There were four of us students: two young men, the young woman from Chicago, and me, the old guy. As the younger students started to express their thoughts, the young woman (truly a unicorn of a human) used the word “safe space” and it hit me forcefully. I come from a place where when I hear that term, I roll my eyes into the back of my vacant skull and laugh from the bottom of my potbelly. This time, I was literally in shock. It hit me that what I thought a “safe space” meant, was not accurate. This young woman, the one who used the phrase, isn’t scared of anything. She is a life-force of goodness and strength. She doesn’t need anyone to provide a comfortable environment for her. What she meant by “safe space” was that she was happy to be in an environment where difficult subjects can be discussed openly, without the risk of disrespect or harsh judgment. This works both ways. What I mean is, this young woman was comfortable, in this university setting, wrestling with things like the Aristotelian idea of some humans being born as “natural slaves.” She was quite comfortable in that space. The question was, how comfortable was the 52-year-old white guy in that discussion? Did it make me uncomfortable? Yes. I’m grateful for the discomfort. Thinking about things I don’t understand or have, for most of my life, written off, is a good thing.

That, my friends, is the sound of brick and mortar. A bridge. Thanks, James Hatch. Here’s to more voices like yours in the year to come. And Happy 2020, everyone!

Bridges, please!

But Wait! I Have One More Gift Idea! Just…Give! OK? Merry Christmas.

Before I sign off for the holiday week (I know, I’m not a teacher anymore, but I still think of Christmas/New Year as one lengthy holiday. That’s still better than the corporations, who seem to think it starts after Halloween.)–sorry, where was I? Right. The holidays. I know it’s late, but I have ONE MORE EXCELLENT GIFT IDEA, and it requires NO driving, NO wrapping, and very little time. But lots of thought, and heart.

Why not give the gift of giving? My best find of 2019 was the Americans of Conscience Checklist, a weekly message in my inbox full of suggestions of political phonecalls to make or letters to write (including thank-you notes to people who’ve taken good or brave action). AoCC is a regular part of my week now–usually 20 minutes’ worth.

And now, AoCC offers a curated list of causes to donate to, based on your passions–or those of the person you wish to gift. Click here to see the list.

Categories for giving include:

Migrant justice: give to an organization which collects airline miles to help re-unite separated migrant families.

Prison reform: support an organization dedicated to providing books for prisoners, while educating Americans about the prison crisis.

Election integrity: give to a non-partisan group which oversees elections at all levels, in our own country. And there’s one particular group that focuses on enfranchisement in Indian Country.

I can’t think of a better way to show your love for someone than to donate to a cause they love.

Of course, it’s not all about money. If you want to gift someone with the feeling I’ve been enjoying these past few months–the feeling of empowerment–just send them the AoCC link and let them feel it for themselves.Merry happy!

Merry, happy Everything, people! See you in 2020.