Belonging

When my grandparents came to these shores on a boat (in steerage), they were strangers in a strange land.  And they had nothing.  They remained that way their whole lives.

America.  Such a strange country, America,” is something my grandfather would say as he shook his head about something peculiar he read in the newspaper or saw in person or on TV (female wrestling was one such thing).

America.  Such a vondehful [wonderful] country, America,” is something my grandfather would say as looked at the success of, and integration of his children and grandchildren into, American society.

My grandparents were not of this country, although they were naturalized citizens.  They left their home countries to escape atrocities.  So, they were not of those countries either.

They were displaced people their whole lives.  But they felt safe here.  They were citizens here.  They loved this country.

Next to the pictures of Mom and Dad on their wedding day and our various graduation pictures, was a picture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt signing the Social Security Act. 

Because a person could do anything and be anything in America.  And America took care of its people who worked hard and raised the next generation of contributors to society (and tax revenue).

My parents and we, their children, grew up with a sense of belonging.

We belong.  This is our country.  We are Americans. 

And, in this country, we have the luxury of a prefix — Chinese-, Japanese-, Polish-, Russian-, Anything-American — because 

We belong.

That is not to say that being Jewish or of Polish, German, Russian and Prussian descent was easy.  Educational and employment discrimination, fights and name-calling of my parents’ generation gave way to schoolyard name-calling and social discrimination in mine.

And, in the next generation, there is still anti-Semitism.  Because prejudice will always exist.  Because crazy people vandalize synagogues.

But we belong to this country and we can, and do, succeed in this country.  But we had to work hard and deal with stupid people and prejudice along the way.  That is a fact of life.  But because I am a citizen, I have the same rights as the bigots.  With education, I can make sure they don’t lord over me.

I think about the Algerians and other North African people in France or “guest workers” across Europe.  These individuals and their families can be two or three generations in Europe and still not be citizens.  Bigotry and malice can cripple their advancement.  They are effectively ghettoized.

In Europe, Asian and African immigrants cannot be citizens. Even when two generations have lived there and no where else.  Even when the grandchildren only know how to speak French, Dutch, German, Flemish, etc. and not the language of their grandparents’ country.

And so they DON’T belong. ANYWHERE.

And they have opportunities. NOWHERE.

And their country of birth claims them as citizens. NOT AT ALL.

And they have bright futures and integrate into the larger culture without losing their cultural and religious identities.  NOPE. NOT HAPPENING.

(This sounds like the story of the Jews in Europe (other than, ironically, Germany) up until just before Hitler came to power.)

I wonder what would happen if these immigrants and guest workers, or at least their children or grandchildren, could be citizens.  I wonder what would have happened in my parents’ and my generation didn’t “belong” to our great nation.

What if they belonged . . . .

One Nation?

I believe in America, its promise and its endless possibilities.  I also know that, in America,  people live in abject poverty, without adequate schools, and in fear of deportation.

And I know that there are as many Americas as there are colors of skin, nationalities, religions, sexual identity and orientation.

We live in a fractured America.  Some of us cross any number of the shards.  Some, like me, can pass as Christian and straight.  If I even wanted to do so.  I am too old to hide.  But I am lucky; I have a choice.

But is any of us satisfied with this type of America?  Don’t we get tired, after every miscarriage of justice, of assuaging our horror and guilt, by saying, rather apologetically, “but there are good and kind people all across this country”?

Look, everyone has prejudices.  But that isn’t supposed to matter.  The point is that America is supposed to be one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Justice.  Justice.  Justice.

It isn’t just a word.  It is the basis of our nation.

It means that even if you steal, or sell cigarettes illegally, you don’t deserve to be tortured or killed.  Even more, you deserve treatment in accordance with the pettiness of the crime committed.  In other words, there shouldn’t be a bruise on you.

I was taught that wrongs will be done, but justice, JUSTICE, will prevail.

I believed in that.  I placed my faith in the systems of “justice” and government.  Because two generations ago, this country took in wretched poor refugees and gave them opportunities for work and their children a free education.  I grew up hearing, “G-d bless America.”

I still say, “G-d bless America,” except now I also say, “G-d save America”.

Because when our systems of laws and order fail, fractures of our nation becomes shards of glass on the floor.  Almost impossible to reassemble, but stronger if we glue the fragments back together.

Let us all glue this nation back together so that it is again: “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Rest in peace, Mr. Brown and Mr. Garner.

276 girls

http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/09/world/africa/nigeria-abducted-girls/

How is this possible?  There have been decades of atrocities, unbreakable cycles of violence, the world over. Countless children sacrificed to the power struggles over land and its resources.  Nigeria has devolved into chaos.

Legacies of colonialization and Western arrogance.  And backlash.

This is the one case that is gaining international attention.  Because of the brazenness and insanity of the Boko Haram fighters.  How does a militant group, fighting in the name of God, kidnap 276 school girls to sell them into marriage and slavery?

These girls.  These poor girls.  Their poor families.  I cannot imagine what it is to have my child taken from me by lawless gangs who roam with impunity.

This massive kidnapping is about radicalism and the cheapness of human life, in general, and that of a girl’s life, in particular.

And the knowledge of the perpetrators that we, in the United States, will soon turn back to the results of the NFL draft.  And then they can do this again.  And again.  And again.  Until no child is spared from the war crimes.
Our souls, and our beliefs in the sanctity of human life and in the God-given right of a child to realize his or her potential, lie in the balance of our nation’s response to this crisis and others like it across the globe.  Let’s find these girls, airlift them and their families and share the bounty of our nation with them.  It isn’t fair to those left behind, but it is a start.  And, in Jewish theology, it is a person’s moral obligation to save even one life even if one cannot save everyone.

God bless and keep these girls, and keep them safe from more ravages of war.

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?

[For the song, “Mrs. Robinson”:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9C1BCAgu2I8]

Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?
Our nation turns [our frightened] eyes to you.  (Woo woo woo.)

Once we believed that our political and sports heroes could save us our innocence and our dreams from the stark realities of war, assassinations and a nation divided.

We looked to them — to Joe after Marilyn’s death, to Jackie after JFK’s assassination, to Coretta after Rev. Dr. MLK’s assassination — to steady us.  To remind us of better times and take us past the tragedies.  To take us back to a winning baseball team, to Camelot, to a place where dreams were possible.

God bless you, please, [this America].
Heaven holds a place for those who pray.
(Hey, hey, hey.)

Today, I am scared.  Because we are a nation so bitterly divided.  Because my dreams are ever less fanciful, my reality ever less comforting, my hopes and expectations ever lower, than just a week, month or year ago.

And there are no heroes, but where is there a parent who wants to tell that to his/her children?

Most of all you’ve got to hide it from the kids.

What is the embodiment of my fears?  Heritage Action for America scuttled any potential deal on the debt ceiling in the House of Representatives.  Because lawmakers are taking their cues from lobbyists-thinktanks-donors and not their frightened constituents.  That very action breaks the very foundation of our nation — representational government.

Laugh about it, shout about it
When you’ve got to choose
Every way you look at this you lose.

And all that people have worked for, and saved for, and paid taxes for, hangs in the balance.  Because we, the people, are pawns in a power grab.

WE, THE PEOPLE.

We whom our government serves.

WE, THE PEOPLE.

About whom no one seems to care.

WE, THE PEOPLE.

Joltin Joe has left and gone away (hey hey hey).  It isn’t the same to turn our frightened eyes to A-Rod.

Marbles

Mom and Dad always taught us that if you lose, you lose with dignity.  You don’t take your marbles and stomp off.

Except I never played marbles and I had no idea what they were talking about.  Just like my son doesn’t understand the phrase, “you sound like a broken record.”

But, eventually, I got the point.  If you lose fair and square, then you congratulate the winner and move on.  You don’t try to pretend the game never happened or that the winner cheated or that you were robbed of the trophy.

Unless, of course, you are part of the Tea Party.  Then you think that G-d is your co-pilot and that Barack Obama is not a legitimate president because, well, how could we elect a black man and no black man was ever born in the State of Hawaii.  (SIDEBAR:  Ted Cruz, you were born in Canada and had dual citizenship until a week ago.)

Let’s be fair.  We have had presidents who ascended to the highest office in the land under a cloud.  The “elections” of John F. Kennedy and George W. Bush come to mind.

But the Tea Party did not mind George W. Bush being president.  Hmmmmmmm.

Maybe because they “won”?  Hey, I remained an ordinary, law abiding citizen and patriot even through the terrible years of Bush/Cheney.  And I did not think they were duly elected, but the Supreme Court spoke.

I didn’t take my marbles and stomp off.  But, now the Tea Party is mad because Barack Obama is president, and a legitimate president.

But the government shut down and the debt ceiling should not be about one man and his health care reform and his birth certificate. 

These issues are about the people you all pretend to care about.

This is America and the majority spoke.  Be patriots.  Show the world that this is your country, come what may. Come on, I dare you, Tea Party members of Congress.

Put country first.

Hey, I am as liberal as they come and I say to you, “Less government? ok.  No government? Anarchy.”

And anarchy is treason.

And so are breaching the public trust and the full faith and credit of the United States of America.

And then you will see citizens like me  — middle-aged, economically secure (or so we thought) taxpayers — take to the streets and scream for your heads because you let our nation default.

So, before you smugly take your marbles and stomp off, remember, if you let our nation default —-

then you are no better than Benedict Arnold, betraying your country and fellow citizens and playing roulette with the total collapse of the republic.  

The hangman awaits.  Your move.

an H-E-N-D

H-E-N-D?  Human-engineered, natural disaster.  Hurricane Sandy.  I would have called it a man-made natural disaster, but that sounded too oxymoronic (however, true).

And it would confuse the morons who don’t believe that humans are at least, in part, responsible for climate change.  Ok, I don’t have to be insulting, but let’s just leave it like this:  it has to better for the planet if we don’t dump toxins in the oceans or let toxins loose into the atmosphere.  If we were as gentle with the world as we expect our loved ones to be with us, then maybe we wouldn’t need a political-scientific war of words.

Since I am not good at the big theories, let me tell you about a small, unintended, consequence of H-E-N-D Sandy:  Dad’s care.

With power outages predicted, one of Dad’s children or children-in-law needed to be with him, even though he had a home health aide.  Why? What if he fell, or became confused and agitated, and the phones were down, how would the health aide — who cannot leave his side — get help?  What if, as happened, no one comes to relieve the home health aide because everyone is stranded?  One home health aide couldn’t leave for 60 hours; no one could get to Dad’s house to relieve her and she had no way of getting home.  We needed to be there to let her sleep and help with cooking and minding Dad.  And Dad needs minding.  Especially at night.

We are lucky.  Dad didn’t lose power.  We live nearby.  We married good, kind and loving people who were willing to treat Dad like their own dad and take shifts in Dad’s care.  I slept there twice; HOSOB once.  POB and SOS were there during the day.  SOB had to be in her hospital because other hospitals were evacuating very sick people to her ICU.

But so many of the elderly or infirm in this country are not so lucky.  Their children don’t live nearby.  They can’t come to the rescue in a disaster.

I bet a lot of people went without medications, good food, and proper hygiene during these past three or so days.  And I bet they were frightened.

So, don’t think about this on a global scale.  Think about your neighbors, whether they are elderly or the children who couldn’t fly to their parents’ rescue.  Then, think about your gas guzzler car, your over-processed food, your bottled water.  Then, consider how you (and I) contributed to the crazy weather patterns that made H-E-N-D Sandy an epic disaster.

Another Gut Check Moment in New York City

I don’t take cabs as much any more — economical and environmental reasons — but so often when I do take cabs, I learn life lessons from the drivers.

Thursday night was no different.  The driver had a French African accent I found hard to understand and identify. After we both understood our destination, I asked, “Where are you from?

Africa.

Where in Africa?

Burkina Faso.”  This was the first time I had ever met anyone from there.  And now that I am used to the cadence of his English, he is very well-spoken.

I have heard of it. It used to be called Upper Volta.” I said more for my benefit as if telepathically showing to my parents — one dead, one alive — that there was something to my liberal arts education after all, even amid the four years of debauchery.

Is your family there?” I continue.

Yes.

That must be hard. Do you see them?” (Of course, I make that inappropriate assumption that others have families like mine, whom I would dearly miss.)

Ten years.

How long have you been here?

Ten years.

Do you have a family here?

I come with my friend.

My friend. Ahhhhhhhh.

I am a lesbian; is your friend a man?

Yes.” He says with openness but no relief.  We weren’t navigating the great divides between our lives.  We were just able to be less vague and more truthful.  I was still a white, well-heeled American sitting in the back of his cab and he was the refugee driving me around and trying to make a life in a strange and, at times, harsh city.

And you can’t go home?

I would be killed.  Even by my family.

We reached our destination.

I am glad you are here and I am sorry that you had to leave your home.”  Not a brilliant sentence but heartfelt, even if for a stranger.

It is the punishment.

“It is the punishment.”  As much as this man traveled to be free, he carries the homophobia inside.  Two people in the same car, worlds apart.

Oh, Rush, please don’t go

Rush Limbaugh, please stay in the United States.  I know you threatened to go to Costa Rica if Obamacare was upheld, but what did the Costa Ricans ever do to you?

We already export fast food, inane television shows, and grotesque materialism to the rest of the world.  I think your bile and insane rantings would make the US a true pariah among nations.

You spent years berating Democrats as being unpatriotic because they protested Bush/Cheney policies they didn’t like.  Now you don’t like something and you are going to “self-deport” (to quote Mitt).  Now, who is being unpatriotic?

When you are talking to your friends in the Congress, could you please tell them that they need a remedial course on the Constitution and constitutional law.  Since Marbury v. Madison, it has been well established that the Supreme Court is the final arbiter of whether a law is or is not Constitutional.  Senator Rand Paul doesn’t seem to know that.  And, if he doesn’t understand some basic principles about how our founding fathers set up our system of governance, then maybe he is unfit for his job.

But you are perfectly suited to being a shock jock on talk radio.  You are crass, bellicose, incendiary, pig headed, and an ego-maniac with one or more personality disorders.  That you are popular says more about us than about you.  And that is truly the pity.

But stay here, Rush, because other countries have enough problems without you.  Not that you were really going anywhere.  Because you really are too much of a hypocrite and meglo-maniac to give up your fame and fortune for principle.

Principles can be soooo inconvenient.

A Silent Cacophony

After work, I rushed for my 7pm appointment at Bliss.  Facial with micro-dermabrasion (who knows how that is spelled).  POB had one and, because she does not want to be a Bridezilla — in contradistinction to my Bridezombie — I had to have one, too.

So, I changed into my robe and slippers and joined others in the quiet room permeated by lemon and sage scents.  There were healthy (and not so healthy) snacks and lemon-infused water.  I ate some sliced cucumbers and drank the water (Bliss’s version of Kool-Aid).  There were four of us in our matching robes and slippers waiting for our treatments, with the new age music and the scents filling the air and I thought this must be a high-end version of an insane asylum.  Judging by how the “technicians” greeted the other inmates, I was the only non-recidivist in the bunch.

Then, my name was called.  Nanetta was my technician.  Did I fill in the new inmate form?  She asked with an Eastern European accent.  No, the concierge didn’t ask me to fill anything out. “Come with me,” she said, in a tone that suggested that I had been transported from 57th Street to the gulag.  Why again did POB need me to endure this?  Nanetta told me to take off my robe and get under the sheets on the table.  Oh, no, I am prisoner in Soviet hell.

She asked me about the moisturizers I use.  I told her I don’t really use moisturizer and, if I do, it is whatever POB buys.  She shined a beaming light into my eyes.  “You don’t know moisturizer?”  she said in an accusatory tone.  Omigod, I am going to die for the sin of taking my good genes for granted.  “I do what I can!” I said in a way that is the intersection between emphatic and meek.  The crashing you hear is the tension underlying post-USSR Eastern European and the descendants of those who fled the USSR in 1921.

Nanetta took pity on me and put cucumber slices over my eyes.  “I just snacked on cucumber slices in the waiting room!” I said to bridge the divide between us.  She laughed, in a slightly un-amused way. The gulag, for sure.

She started the micro-dermabrasion.  “Does this hurt?”

“As much as vacuuming my face with sand paper hurts, I imagine.” (what else was I supposed to say?)

“Would you like the anti-aging collagen treatment? It only costs —-”

“If you say, ‘anti-aging’ I don’t care how much it costs.  Do it.”

Now we could relax because I was an easy mark for anything that promised the Fountain of Youth.

We chatted about life and her story about coming to this country.  Nanetta is Romanian and was pleased that I knew a little about the country’s history pre- and shortly post- USSR’s implosion.  She struggled to learn English and put her daughter through school.  She has endured hardships, but she makes a living through the self-indulgence of people with money.  I wondered if she smirks at the irony.

She asked about my beauty treatment history and I told her that I was getting this done because I was marrying my partner.  Whoa, that took a little time to sink in.  (But this is New York, why?)

When she finished, my skin felt great.  I went into the changing room and, having only a robe on, shed my robe as I prepared to get dressed.  One of the house-staff asked me, as she was picking up my robe from the bin, “did you have a good visit with us?”  Is this woman — a stranger — asking me to have a conversation while I am naked?  Really?  Really?  “It was terrific.  Excuse me while I put on some clothes.”  I think that she realized that I was not one of the usual inmates who would chit-chat naked with a person who was fully clothed.

Call me the uptight Americana.  I am totally good with that.  Because if you want me to talk to you when I am naked, then you need to be naked, too.  For the record, there aren’t that many people I want to talk to while either of us is naked.  It sounds like a stress dream.

I dressed and walked along 57th Street with glowing skin, as a result of good genes from Mom and the efforts of Nanetta.  I thought about a manicure and pedicure and all the other things that would make me feel even better about the trials and tribulations of life.  But then I looked at expensive stores and expensive half-built high-rises and felt defeated and under-privileged (but with great skin).

I hopped a cab.  My cab driver asked me if the buildings we were passing were Lincoln Center.   I said “yes” and asked how long he has been driving driving.

“Three weeks but I have been in this country for one years [sic].”

“Where are you from?”

“Africa.”

“Where in Africa?”

“Sudan. Darfur, ma’am. One years [sic] ago since I left.”

There is nothing to say to someone who has been to Hell and back.  I sat quietly and then had to say that the reason for my silence was that I was overwhelmed that he survived and escaped Darfur.  I asked him how the rest of the world can stop the violence.  He said that Save Darfur was a blessing (www.savedarfur.org).

I listened as he tried in broken English to tell me that the government does nothing but kill its citizens and the people are starving and there is no water or schools.  And I offered lamely that I descend from survivors of atrocities and that there is hope for the generations to come. Then we passed a Pinky Nail Salon.

“Our nail salons must seem stupid.”

“Life is different here than in Sudan.”

The understatement in this conversation could make a person cry.

He said his sister and nieces and nephews have a better life in CHAD.  Let’s all stop for a moment and realize that together we earn more the gross domestic product of Chad.

Life is better in Chad.

Life is better in Chad.

Hug your spouse, your children, your-pets-who-are-children and be amazed at where you live and what you have.  Because, in this world, there are places for which CHAD is a step up.

Such was my day in the extremes that intersect in New York City; silently at first, but then with a great emotional burst of noise and pain, acknowledgement of plenty and nothing, experience of joy and sorrow, and of personal triumph and communal defeat.

A day full of lessons to remember.