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May 28, 2013

A Life Lesson

[Had video here, went missing from Youtube and I can't find it to re-link to it]

Pretty funny how our assumptions can come back and bite us on the ass. The video reminded me of something that happened in my college years.

The college I attended had a very strong black population. One day, walking from the dormitories to the building that housed my class, I crossed the main quad and stumbled my way into some sort of rally that the black students were having. As I walked across the quad, I became aware of someone shouting over the speaker, "Your people enslaved our people!" and I noticed that the black students around me were staring at me. I stopped and looked around and saw a middle-aged black man with a microphone staring and pointing at me.

"Excuse me?" I semi-shouted back. I was about two-thirds away from the 'podium' area from which he was speaking.

He reiterated, "Your people enslaved us!"

"Nope, didn't happen," I responded and began walking toward my class again.

The speaker made some derogatory comment about white people not accepting responsibility for the slavery of the black people.

Not being one who is able to keep quiet when I feel the truth is being mangled, I shouted out to him, "On both sides of my family, my immigrant great-grandfathers and grandmothers arrived just about the turn of the 20th century. My mother's side moved all the way to Santa Barbara. My father's side got stuck in the coal mines of the Pennsylvania area, which, if any of you know your history, was pretty harsh labor and akin to indentured servitude. He was one of the few who worked his way free and he resettled in Michigan. Neither side of my family owned slaves as it had been abolished a generation before they arrived in this country."

Also, seeing a ripe opportunity at making a shot back at the guy, I concluded, "You should really know your facts before you accuse someone based solely on the color of their skin."

I then proceeded to walk across the quad while a bunch of the black students around me smiled and clapped and the guy with the microphone blustered and 'um'ed' and 'ah'ed' his way back onto his hate-filled, anti-white person speech. But he had lost a lot of momentum. And I found I had a lot more black friends and acquaintances from that day forward.

May 22, 2013

Good Fences

Robert Frost wrote "Mending Wall" about two men rebuilding a rock wall that separates their properties. The narrator questions the need for the wall, as he believes "something there is that doesn't love a wall." But, contrary to the narrator's whimsical assertions and questioning nature, the neighbor just steadfastly keeps building up the broken down wall and says, "Good fences make good neighbors."

In today's society, we are losing many of our old walls. Public conversations and private lives are available for all to see and hear. You cannot walk through the grocery store, a mall, anywhere any more, without hearing someone's private life discussed in public. Our television and the Internet fills us with sights and sounds of people doing the things they used to do privately. "Reality" TV is everywhere you look, and everyone is on it; in any given day you are photographed by 100 different cameras, from traffic cams, to store security, to ATM cameras, and people's cell phones.

The Internet is often a very hurtful and negative place. You cannot have a disagreement without it turning into something more than it should be. People hide behind the perceived anonymity of the World Wide Web and think they can do as they want and say whatever they please. Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and other sites allow people to put their entire lives online for all to see, and then they are shocked when criminals use that knowledge against them. The vitriol and venom found spewing forth from people online is staggering.

On rare occasion, the lack of walls can be a comfort and a balm. After a tragedy, people can come together and crowd-fund a response, release an outpouring of support for some cause or dire need, or work together to heal those affected. We occasionally use this openness to express our anger to change things and right wrongs en masse. But these acts of kindness and benevolence seem so few and so, so far between the venom and the vitriol.

We also build false new walls where none previously existed. Instead of unplugging and being with those we call our friends or our family, we put a new wall of technology up and we pay more attention to it than to real people. It is more imperative to post what we are doing and where we are going to the unknown masses than it is to be there, in the moment and with the people we hold most dear, and experiencing it. Rather than turn off the phone and have a night in, we allow the outside world to intrude at its insistence rather than with our permission. But these walls are illusory; our lives are still up there, in public, for all to see, while we ignore the important people right in front of us.

When I was young, I agreed so firmly with the narrator in Frost's poem. I saw no need for walls or limitations. I liked the idea of the elves and the gremlins tearing down the walls when we weren't looking. I wanted to be free and run where I wished to and to do what I wanted. Now, with age and wisdom, I lean toward the neighbor; I want my walls. Right now, I do not want them so large I cannot see over them, and I do not want them so long that I cannot walk around them, and I do not want them so thick that there is no hope of tearing them down. I want a nice little wall that says, "This is mine." I want those around me to know that there are limits. Their rights end where mine begin. I want others to know that I have worked hard for what I have attained and they have no right to just traipse across it, take it as though it is theirs, use what is mine up, and leave me with nothing.

So, I grasp another stone in my sore, tired hands and I raise it up. When my neighbor suggests his many reasons for not repairing the wall, I simply shrug my aching shoulders, place my rock in its spot on the wall, and say, "Good fences make good neighbors."