I Know You Are, But What Am I?

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Donald Trump’s entire strategy for defending himself against any charges is to go on the offensive. Essentially, he lobs at his critics the playground retort, “I know you are, but what am I?”

In the past few weeks, the president has actually told U.S. citizens of color to go back where they came from. More recently, he decided to attack his critic Rep. Elijah Cummings by denouncing Cummings’ district as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.” The comment was akin to his description of certain African nations as “shithole countries.” The more blatantly racial Trump’s attacks become, the quicker he is to label his critics as racist or un-American.

And instead of calling on the president to refrain from such remarks, his apologists get into a dissection of the victims. First they analyzed and called into question every statement made by the four Congresswomen who were the subject of Trump’s vitriol: women of color, all of them U.S. citizens and only one of them born outside the U.S. And as pundits pointed out, even that naturalized citizen had been a U.S. citizen longer than Trump’s own wife, Melania.

In the case of Trump’s attack on Baltimore, Rep. Cummings’ home turf, pundits started in on the Democratic failures to solve endemic poverty in big cities. Again, all this serves as a dodge to avoid confronting the fact that they support a small-minded racist.

The Trump strategy of counterattack is a brazen and shameless one. Despite the fact that there is ample evidence he obstructed justice in his attempt to derail the Mueller investigation, Trump has managed to turn the investigation against itself, demanding that U.S. justice and intelligence agencies be investigated for pro-Hillary/anti-Trump bias.

Aside from the fact that the “I know you are, but what am I?” tactic is the mark of a man with stunted emotional maturity, the repeated attempts on the right to distract the American people from legitimate concern and criticism of this president are disturbing and dangerous. It seems clear that the Republicans in power, their media mouthpieces, and Trump’s diehard base will ignore any level of impropriety, dishonesty, and meanness from this president.

It’s up to the rest of us to keep focused on what we see right in front of us: a divisive, mean-spirited, and narcissistic bully who must be called to account – in 2020, if not sooner.

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Man on the Moon and Other Milestones

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In a person’s life, there are many memorable events: births, deaths, marriages, rites of passage, and historical events. One such event from my childhood was the sight of Neil Armstrong stepping out of a space module and landing on the moon with the famous words, “One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”

It was July 20, 1969. My family was visiting my father’s brother and his brood of nine kids. We were clustered around a small television set in the living room, and although the summer day beckoned, we were riveted to our seats. Space travel was a feature of my early years. Ever since the USSR had beaten the US into space with Sputnik, we were in a Cold War competition to travel farther and dare more than our Communist foes.

Seeing footage of the moon landing, the flag planting, the gravity-defying leaps of the astronauts, the deep craters that from Earth looked like holes in Swiss cheese: it was awe-inspiring.

Other things about that summer of ’69 stand out for me. The Chicago Cubs were in a rare race for the National League pennant. In those days, you could go to the airport and watch planes land and take off just for fun – no boarding pass required. My dad used to take us on occasional Sunday afternoons to greet our heroic Cubs on their return from an away series. We got to see the greats up close: Ron Santo, Fergie Jenkins, Billy Williams, and, of course, Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks. On these trips my dad, still dressed in his Sunday suit and tie, was sometimes mistaken for a Cubs manager and once even asked for an autograph.

That magical season ended in a defeat at the hands of the New York Mets, a team I detest to this day for “stealing” the pennant from my beloved Cubbies. Still, I cherished the baseball cards I’d collected and reiterated in my head the lifelong Cubs mantra, “Wait ’til next year!”

We all have unique milestones in our lives such as those I recall from 1969. There was the Blizzard of ’67, for instance, when record snowfall paralyzed the city of Chicago. There were the riots in ’68 that occurred at the Democratic National Convention being held in Chicago. Later in my life I witnessed a rare sighting of Halley’s Comet, saw the Berlin Wall get torn down, and lived through the Y2K scare of the new millennium. Most of us alive today got to see the first black president of the United States, Barack Obama. And, of course, my consolation prize for the disaster of the 2016 election was the Cubs’ winning the World Series – after a 108 year drought!

The 50th anniversary of the moon landing has created a renewed interest in space travel. There is even an entire line of gear with the old NASA logo to purchase. Still, there’s nothing like being able to say, “I was there.” I hope the newest generations of Americans get to witness some spectacular and inspiring events in their lifetimes.

Keep the Old

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Throughout our lives, we meet new people and forge new friendships – from childhood besties to our college posse to the circle of parents surrounding our own children. Someone once told me that our friendships naturally change as our lives change. But with any luck, there are those friends with whom we forge a bond that lasts a lifetime.

Last weekend, my husband and I got together with a group of his old pals from college. We converged at a lake in Michigan, the state in which these bosom buddies had met a few decades before. Of course, the group included spouses, some from the same college and others met later along life’s path.

From the moment the first arrivals gathered over pizza and beer, we enjoyed an easy rapport, a sense of picking right up where we had left off that I have experienced with some of my dearest friends. There is something comforting about hanging out with people who knew you when. No pretense is possible when you and your friends go way back to your more youthful and foolish days. Some of the fun, in fact, is in reminiscing about those crazy times and those “near death” experiences or humiliations you suffered in your callow youth.

The weather was hot and the sun plentiful in Michigan. We had lots of good food and drink, plenty of laughter, and the gift of time – time to catch up on each other’s lives, time to bask in each other’s presence. Since our salad days, we have married, divorced, become parents and grandparents, experienced health problems and the deaths of those we dearly love. All of that has become part and parcel of who we are, etched on our faces and in our hearts. Keeping in touch through the vicissitudes of life has only strengthened those bonds.

When my kids were little, they loved a video titled Wee Sing in the Big Rock Candy Mountains. In it, the characters sing a song reflecting the need to hold onto our earliest friendships. The lyrics go: “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold.”

As we head into our golden years, let’s cherish those golden friendships and keep them close to our hearts.

 

Normalizing Hate

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Twitter has done at least one beneficial thing since its inception: given us a glimpse into the mind and heart of our current president. And it’s not a pretty picture. The president’s latest tweet attacked four women of color, all U.S. citizens, with the admonition to go back where they came from. The House of Representatives rightly voted to condemn this racist and xenophobic rant on the part of our country’s supposed leader.

The president has done everything in his power to attack and marginalize immigrants of color. Muslim travel bans, cruel treatment of Latin American migrants, labeling them criminals and rapists: This is classic scapegoating. It’s wrong, it’s dangerous, and it must not be normalized.

I know I’m not supposed to haul out Nazi Germany as a comparison, but the same tactics were used to victimize and ultimately exterminate millions of Jews during World War II. First they were attacked for being dishonest and mercenary. Cartoon depictions of Jews made them seem less than human. These tactics made it easier for ordinary citizens to stand by while Jewish people’s possessions were taken away and ultimately they themselves were rounded up.

I used to be opposed to going through the trauma of impeachment proceedings against our current president. It’s not that I don’t think there is ample cause for impeachment. I just felt that Democrats needed to focus their efforts on defeating the man in 2020. However, allowing this president to spew vitriol and hate for another year and half is unacceptable and runs the risk of normalizing such attitudes. The Congresswomen cited in the latest hateful tweets have been dealing with death threats. Let’s not wait for someone to make good on such a threat before we take action.

The American people must not allow hatred against certain religious or ethnic groups to take hold in our national psyche. It goes against everything our great nation stands for. Let’s not normalize hate but condemn it whenever and wherever we find it, even at the highest echelons of our government.

 

Good Samaritan

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700446167Yesterday’s gospel reading at Mass was about the Good Samaritan. Most people know the story of the man lying by the side of the road, beaten and robbed, while the religious leaders of the day passed by without helping him. The Samaritan, a kind of outcast, was the only one who took pity on the victim and hastened to his aid.

There are many lessons to take away from this parable, but the one the priest focused on in his sermon was this: There is a difference between knowing the right answer and doing what is right – a difference between following the letter of the law and practicing compassion. The pastor’s sermon had special poignancy at a time when President Trump is stepping up deportations of illegal immigrants, detaining large numbers of migrants at the southern border, and failing to unite separated children from their families.

It’s true that there are millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States. Many Americans believe that accommodating these millions has become far too heavy a burden and that border enforcement needs to be increased. Donald Trump’s call for a wall separating the U.S. from Mexico became a rallying cry for these frustrations.

Border enforcement is one thing. Separating children from their parents and keeping unaccompanied children in inhumane detention centers is just wrong. Many border officers have voiced disquiet at the conditions these migrant children are living under and their role in enforcing President Trump’s policies. Like the Good Samaritan, they see that the fact something is legal does not necessarily make it right.

The priest and the Levite in Jesus’ parable are following the law as well. Ancient Jewish law prohibited them from exposing themselves to human blood. So in the strictest sense, they were following the rules. The Samaritan, whose mixed ancestry and religious practices made him anathema to the Jewish people, depended less on rules and regulations and more on his heart. There are times when compassion and love trump the law.

Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan in response to a lawyer’s question: “Who is my neighbor?” Like many lawyers, this man was trying to get Jesus to misspeak, to contradict the law of Moses and thus bring condemnation on himself. How often have human beings insisted upon following the letter of the law to the detriment of others?

I believe that if someone were to ask Jesus that question today, he would respond with a similar story that might involve our treatment of minorities, would-be immigrants, and other marginalized people.

Who is my neighbor? The one who needs my help, my compassion, and my love.

Gotcha

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3628e74410cef8316a75ca354bc5f3e4.jpgThe July day was sweltering in a small city in China the day we adopted our daughter. But the large hotel conference room was chilly as my husband and I entered it to the sounds of babies crying. The rest of our adoption group were there with babies in arms as a small woman with tears in her eyes approached us and handed us a little girl, almost one year old. The baby began to wail as she realized her caretaker from the orphanage was handing her over to total strangers. I was crying too and trying to say “I love you” in Mandarin. My husband was videotaping the whole affair, but he forgot to take the lens cap off the camera. So all we have to commemorate the moment is the audio of lots of crying.

Adoptive parents refer to this day as their child’s “Gotcha” day. Many have parties not only to celebrate their child’s birth, but also that fateful day when their precious child came into their lives. My daughter’s Gotcha day was this week, and it always brings me back to memories of China in the heat of the summer.

For days our new daughter appeared shell-shocked as she adjusted to two new people who looked, sounded, and even smelled different. I carried her in a Snugli through parks, museums, temples, and other sights as our guide showed us the land in which she was born. All the babies in the group were about to turn one, so the guide arranged a little birthday celebration at our hotel. The candle on the cake was shaped like a lotus flower, and it opened slowly when it was lit.

One morning as I fed our baby congee, the traditional breakfast of most Chinese, she looked up at me and gave me the most heartwarming smile. I knew we had crossed a threshold. As we packed our suitcases to leave for home, she started to become animated and engaged, giving us an impish smile as she removed articles of clothing I’d just packed.

The flight back to the U.S. was rough. It was an overnight to L.A. and was widely known as “the baby flight” because it usually held a number of families returning home after adopting their children. Our daughter was inconsolable. She had gotten sick and was on antibiotics, but I’m sure her ears or sinuses must have been hurting. I was dazed and sleep-deprived when we finally landed and went through immigration, thus making our new daughter a U.S. citizen. My husband claims that I scared a celebrity by leering at her while we waited for our luggage at baggage claim.

Once home, we awaited the return of our older children, who had been staying with my husband’s family. Their noisy arrival threw our baby off for a while, but she soon adjusted to three doting older siblings and an extended family who all loved her instantly.

Today our daughter is a thriving teenager, and it seems a distant memory thinking about the forlorn little girl we pledged to care for and never abandon during our swearing-in ceremony at the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou, China. When people adopt a child, particularly from overseas, well-wishers often comment on how lucky the child is. But we were the lucky ones – blessed with our beautiful, infuriating, fabulous daughter, who we couldn’t have loved any more if I had given birth to her.

Daughter, I’m so glad we “gotcha”!

 

More Than One Thing

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lastblackman1.0The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a quiet movie that is playing at only a handful of select theaters. Most critical reviews are focused on its treatment of San Francisco and the woes of long-time residents displaced by gentrification. But I took something else away from the film.

In a scene towards the end of the movie, the main character Jimmie Fails gets up to speak at a showing of his best friend’s improvisational play that has turned into a de facto memorial service for a neighbor recently shot dead. In describing his complicated relationship with the man, Kofi, Jimmie says, “Everybody is not just one thing.” That line stayed with me long after the movie ended.

Everybody is not just one thing. We tend to categorize people and judge them by superficial characteristics: looks, clothing, manner, speech. In Last Black Man, a group of young men in the neighborhood stand around swearing and insulting each other, pushing each other around, acting the tough guy. But when Kofi dies, the most belligerent of the group collapses into the arms of the very same man (Jimmie’s best friend) whom he has relentlessly mocked in the past.

In our increasingly polarized society, we need to remember that people are complex. Take Donald Trump, for instance. I myself have had very little good to say about our current president. And I don’t feel like he’s a good man. But I do not know Donald Trump personally. He may be a loving husband and father. He may be a good friend. His public persona is not the whole of Mr. Trump or of any of us. So it would behoove us to think carefully about labeling and name calling and ascribing hateful titles to people, something that, ironically, Mr. Trump does on a regular basis.

We should also hesitate to paint all members of a group with the same broad brush, whether they be Wall Street bankers or migrants at our border.

All of us are afflicted with the same infuriating, confusing, and glorious infirmity: the human condition. The Last Black Man in San Francisco portrays this reality beautifully. There are no clear villains or heroes in the movie. Instead, we get an up close portrait of a friendship and of the life of two young men navigating the new realities of their beloved city and trying to find their own place in it.

Let’s remember that we are all many things and afford each other the respect deserved by all human beings.