Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Divided we rise

Italian wisdom
Several times a day, for several months now, the news has been reminding us how divided we are as a nation.  I'm not convinced.  This relentless pessimism, which is really a kind of nostalgia, reminds me of how teachers constantly bemoan the supposed decline in students: those of yesteryear were always somehow smarter, better read, more tastefully dressed, more polite, more mature, probably even better-looking.  Yet there's no hard evidence of this.  I strongly suspect that if today's students really are lacking in some areas, they more than make up for it in others.  I remember the blank faces of my very well-read parents as I enthused during October break from college about a class on Asian religions, and realizing that they no longer knew more than me so much as they knew different things.  Even with the help of spelling and grammar checkers, my students are unable to create prose as error-free as what I used to generate in cursive, yet they can cut and paste photos into an online presentation, or film and edit a short movie, to make my head spin.  And those are just the obvious intellectual advances: there are also countless forms of social and moral progress, like the fact that homophobia, which was assumed throughout my childhood, is now all but extinct.

I can only shake my head at reports of liberal children turned away from the conservative family Thanksgiving table, or Democrats who've suspended their morning constitutional lest they be forced to converse with Republican neighbors.  Are we really so boring that all we can talk about is donkeys and elephants?  Was Thoreau right to complain that common fellowship is merely a dose of  "that old musty cheese that we are"?

Keep the "passion" in the juice, and out of polite conversation
Three things happened recently to remind me that plenty of common ground remains despite all the political posturing.

Days after the election, a former student sent me a long, distraught email saying that as an immigrant, an Indian, and a woman, she didn't feel safe; her parents were leaving Michigan, and she could no longer consider living in a "red" state.  I talked her down as best I could by email, and we agreed to have lunch while she was in town for winter break.  Thanks to my counsel, or the passage of time, she was back to her old buoyant self by then.  In fact, she reported, she was dating someone who'd voted for Trump, whose kindness and sensitivity--including staying up late to comfort her throughout election night, and making her breakfast the morning after--had reminded her how artificial the political divide can be.

An acquaintance who's been forwarding virulently pro-Trump and anti-Obama emails by the bucketload sent a personal email of appreciation for a blog on my sister site (Rocinante's Apple) which I'd conceived as a way of poking fun at a conservative view of foreign policy.  Rarely does anyone, left or right, take the time to express thanks for a blog post.  It seems we can at least still laugh with each other, or even at each other, and the old courtesies are not gone from this world.

Peppers + fire = magic
The day before Thanksgiving, in pursuit of what's become an annual tradition of making ajvar, a Serbian salsa of roasted red peppers blended with olive oil and garlic, I was outside with my bon aimée roasting peppers, sipping scotch, and smoking a cigar.  I got some funny looks from passing cars and pedestrians, as I always do, and everything seemed normal until the mailman walked up.  He looked at me, smiled, and said, "You like cigars?"

     "Yeah," I said.
     "I'll bring you some," he said.
     "Sure.  I'm half Cuban, I get 'em all the time.  You gonna be here Friday?"
     "Yeah, I'll be here."
     "I'll bring some by Friday afternoon."
     "That'd be wonderful.  Thanks.''
     "No problem.  See you Friday."

We missed each other Friday, and Saturday I left my mother's house for Michigan.  But when I visited again for Christmas, a plastic bag filled with two tinfoil cylinders awaited me.  Gingerly unwrapping them, I found two Cohibas, Havana's finest smoke--not an easy thing to come by, given the embargo.  You can fly to the Caribbean and smuggle some back, you can drive to Canada and sneak some across, or you can befriend your mailman.
Stocking stuffer for grownups

It was almost New Year's by the time I found a chance to smoke them, standing around  in the apron of my mom's garage with my very "blue" sister and our staunchly "red" old friend.  We found plenty to talk about, savoring the peaty scotch and sweet, spicy smoke, remembering all the previous times each of us had enjoyed a real habano, and chuckling over the serendipity of having a mailman for a "supplier."

By then I'd run into the mailman a couple more times, and he'd promised to bring me more cigars.  Busy with the aftermath of Christmas and preparations for New Year's, I didn't see him again until Saturday morning, New Year's Eve, as I was heading out to a friend's house in Massachusetts.  Making a pit stop at my mom's house after getting gas, we spotted the mail truck on an adjacent block.  By the time we left the house a final time, we had to circle around the neighborhood to find him, but eventually we were able to wave him down.

     "I'm so glad I saw you," he said.  "I forgot to bring these yesterday.  Enjoy." He handed me another plastic bag.
     "Wait, I have something for you," I said, dashing back to the car.
     "Do you drink?" I said, presenting him with a bottle of whiskey--a brand-new product from my "red" friend's distillery, as it happened.  I felt stupid asking, but people have so many prohibitions these days.
     "Sure," he said.  "Thanks."
We shook hands, smiling, he off to deliver mail and cigars like a kind of Cuban-American Santa Claus, and me off to keep adolescents out of trouble and into knowledge, like Ichabod Crane in a compact car.
The real deal

When we talk about being "divided," the media benefit, and perhaps the politicians benefit, but reality suffers.  Even if we are more divided in a strictly political sense, who cares?  We have so many more opportunities to be united, or to come together despite our supposed divisions.  It's up to us, as real people, to be better than the pundits, pollsters, and politicos.  Being unwilling to see the thousand shades of "purple" behind the "red" and "blue" is a failure of imagination, a selective blindness.  All last fall, on my Kiva Fellowship, I had deep, far-ranging conversations with coffee farmers and shopkeeps and horse breeders in a different language, an alien culture, and a level of poverty so deep they might as well have been from another planet.  Yet people claim that Americans, who share everything except a political party, can't talk to one another?!

Pass the cigar.