Sunday, January 24, 2010

You Know What They Say About Assuming

See here’s the thing. I was born and raised in Washington DC. Dunno if you know this, but it’s a majority African American city. By like 65 to 35 percent. There is also great ethnic diversity there, being as we host the diplomatic missions of the countries with which the U.S. does foreign relations business, and being as there’s a significant immigrant community from Africa, Asia and South and Central America. And DC is only sixty square miles. That’s not much land when you consider a good deal of it is federal property and/or national parkland. Translation: we all get along not because it’s politically correct but because we have to. And we’ve done a pretty good job of it most of the time (or at least no worse than several other major cities I could name).

Then there’s how I was raised. Which was to judge people not by their appearance but by the content of their character. That’s not open for debate in my household. (And I would argue that it’s neither liberal nor conservative to hold such values—it’s human.) Oh, and I’m Italian American and Catholic too, a background that has historically been treated less than kindly by the white Protestant majority. Just sayin’…

So here’s the thing—why do you continue to say hateful racist crap right in front of me and act like I’m supposed to agree with you? Why do you do it when I’m at work where you know I can’t answer or even acknowledge such comments because I’ll be fired, where my silence looks like assent but is anything but? Come on; don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.

I don’t know if you have gotten the memo, folks, but there’s a man of mixed racial background in the White House. A man duly elected by a majority of the people who bothered to vote. I don’t care if you agree with him. I don’t care if you like him. I don’t necessarily like or agree with every policy coming out of the Obama White House either. But here’s the thing—I respect the office, and I respect that the will of the American people put him there. And further, I form opinions about him based on fact, on reading different points of view, applying my own life experience and insight, and coming to my own conclusions. I know you probably will just accuse me of being a “socialist” or whatever because I say such things (whether or not you understand what such labels really mean is a whole other question). I don’t expect that you’ll see me in any way except the way you’ve been taught to see me, to judge me as you seem to be judging our president and people of color in general--solely on appearance.

But here’s the thing, and it’s the only thing I’ll ask of you: don’t put words in my mouth, and don't assume. Don’t assume you know jack about me or who I am or where I’m coming from or what I believe based on what I look like, where I work, how I’m dressed or anything else. Don't assume that you speak for me just because I am silent. Got me? Don’t assume. Because I don’t know if you know this, but there’s a saying about assuming things, and frankly it doesn’t reflect upon you very kindly. So the next time you see me, kindly think twice before you open your mouth.

That is all.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Tempis Fugit

Another January gone by, another birthday approaches. I don’t feel any different, and yet as the last few years have passed I am starting to feel irrelevant. That the world as it is now is not one in which I am valued as a customer, a client, a participant. That there has been a fundamental shift in values, that everything has sped up, that we have lost so much in our race to have the latest technology, to have it all now now now. I feel this way because most of my friends have Blackberries, iPhones, and Twitter accounts while I remain thus unencumbered, and while I once would have felt left out, I now just regard it all with a sort of bemused detachment. It’s not that I don’t care about or want to know about all this stuff, it’s that my life doesn’t move at that pace anymore and more importantly, I don’t care that it doesn’t. Who knows, maybe it never did to begin with.

Brian Wilson once wrote a song called “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.” Like me, he always felt like he was on the outside looking in, that he belonged to another time, another place than the one into which he had been born. That the things he thought were important were lost on others, that they valued things he found abhorrent or worse, irrelevant. I too, have felt that way most of my life. Have always been a step or two behind my contemporaries. Have always felt like I didn’t belong to their world in some indefinable way. Because of this, and because I don’t really look my age, I have always tended to fall in with people younger than myself. And yet because of this age discrepancy my friends and I lack a shared frame of reference. Which ends up making me feel even further removed from it all. There often seem to be not just distances but chasms between us.

I have never been a trailblazer or an innovator, either, a trait that just seems to add to that sense of detachment, that remove I’ve always felt. I have always been a step behind in most everything, it seems—in discovering the music that’s so important to me, the bands, the atmosphere, the fashions, the scene. I’ve always found offbeat things long after they’ve become acceptable and safe. I have no avant-garde spirit, I guess. Have always been unwilling or unable to take risks others have found necessary for their very survival. I guess it’s because my sense of self has always been shaky; after all, you can’t blaze trails without an idea of where you’re going and why. I don’t know. All I know is things are moving too fast for me and people don’t seem to pay attention to much anymore except making sure they’re keeping up.

It seems to me lately that it’s not the message that’s important anymore, it’s the medium. But that’s not the technology’s fault—it never was. After all, you can’t blame television or the telephone or the fax machine for how we have chosen to conduct our lives. No, things have changed because we have allowed them to; we failed to see the danger, and have thus become slaves to the very technological advancements that were supposed to make our lives simpler and easier. And of course most of us didn’t even realize what we’d lost until it was too late: things like sit-down dinner with the family, Sunday gatherings with the relatives, lingering over a well-cooked meal and a bottle of wine and some good conversation. Tasting the food, appreciating the labor involved in growing and harvesting it, the time and effort involved in its preparation, the satisfaction derived from having time to truly enjoy the smell, taste and texture of what we’re eating. Taking pleasure in good company while sharing these blessings. The slower pace of life, the satisfaction of simple things. We’ve lost that and we’re not getting it back. Paying attention to the small things in life seems so, well, archaic in these days of instant messaging and keeping up with the tweets.

I don’t know where all of this is leading, only that it has passed me by and I no longer have the energy to keep up with it all even if I wanted to. I guess in the end a large part of getting older is simply acceptance. Accepting my own faults and frailties, accepting myself for who and what I am. Accepting that events happen over which I have no control. Accepting there is nothing I can do about this. And most important of all, not wasting time and energy worrying about any of it.

So next week I draw nearer to the dreaded half-century mark. And as I do so, I become increasingly irrelevant to the world at large—or so it seems. (Assuming I was ever really relevant to begin with, which is an entirely different matter for another time.) I should be upset about this, I guess, and at one time in my life I suppose I would have been. But at my age, that’s just too much work.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

New Year's Manifesto

Just stop it.

Put down the digital camera, iPod, the iPhone, the Blackberry, the Sony Reader, the Kindle, the Wii. Stop playing with it. Turn it off, put it down and fucking pay attention.

Pay attention to the world, to your friends, to the birds perched on your windowsill. To the sound the wind makes when it blows through the trees. To the feeling of cold air on your face and inside your lungs.

Just. Stop.

Stop spending. What are you buying all that stuff for?

Relax. Why are you working so hard?

Slow down. Pay attention. Look people in the eye. Smile at them. Say “please” and “thank you” and hold doors open for people.

Stop tailgating. Don’t honk your horn. Stop cutting people off. Use your turn signal.

Don’t yell. Stop talking. Just listen.

Turn off your goddamn cell phone ringer when you are in a public place, and don’t answer it unless you are alone or you have a real good fucking reason. Call people back when you have time to give them your full attention. Turn off your phone when you are in the checkout line, at a restaurant, a movie, a concert. Turn. It. Off.

Stop texting when you are at a concert, a movie, in the car, when you’re talking to people.

Treat people with courtesy and respect. Be kind to those who serve you.

Be patient with the sick, the weak, the elderly. Smile at them and offer to help.

Pay attention to your kids. Teach them manners, teach them respect, teach them love.

Set a good example.

If you have to think about it twice, don’t do it.

Don’t buy it if you don’t need it.

Turn it off. Slow down. Watch. Listen.

Pay attention.

Love each other.