Personal Touch Foils Prejudice

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Like many people, I am prone to snap judgments. Upon meeting or even seeing someone for the first time, I immediately make an assessment about their likability and character. That would be all well and good if my judgments proved to be unerringly right; but so often my first impressions have been dead wrong.

I can recall a girl in my high school English class whom I immediately characterized as a spoiled rich girl. She was impeccably coiffed, made up, and dressed, and she was not afraid to speak up in class. All this made me dislike her out of hand. As the school year progressed, though, and we were thrown together on class projects, I discovered the girl’s real self: an eccentric, witty, self-deprecating girl whose passion for literature matched my own. For her part, she had me pegged as a prissy goody two shoes based on the sole fact that I never crossed my legs. Of course, we became fast friends.

We all have our prejudices, and it’s probably a vestige of our survival instinct. Prehistoric humans needed to be able to assess danger within seconds in order to protect themselves. So they developed an ability to categorize an animal or other human instantly as either dangerous or safe. With the development of more sophisticated societies, these snap judgments remained while the need for protecting ourselves from outsiders dwindled.

Over the past 50 years, America has made great strides in civil rights. Even Martin Luther King, Jr. himself would probably find it hard to imagine the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. Yet with the candidacy and election of Donald Trump, much of the remaining racism in our country has bubbled to the surface. Now more than ever, our citizens need to find a way to come together and surmount the deep-seated fears and hatreds with which we have grown up.

Here is where the personal touch can help. It’s harder to demonize whole groups of people when we have personal relationships with some of them. A case in point is the story of Chris Buckley, former Klansman and Army sergeant with an unyielding hatred of Muslims. Buckley’s wife reached out to an organization that helps white supremacists leave behind their hate-infused worlds. A member of that organization introduced Buckley to Heval Mohamed Kelli, a Syrian Kurdish refugee who had made a life for himself in America and is now determined to give back to the country that took him in. (Chicago Tribune, June 10, 2018)

Chris Buckley’s encounters with poor African Americans and with men like Kelli have helped dispel the fear and hate he had built up in his heart. Himself a drug addict and the survivor of an abusive household as a child, Buckley has chosen the path of compassion and help for others who are struggling as he has struggled for most of his life.

In my previous post, I wrote about how the personal touch can help us feel more connected and less lonely. But I believe it can do even more. Personal encounters with people of different races, religions, and social classes can bridge the gaps in our understanding and break down the walls of prejudice we have falsely convinced ourselves we need for protection.

Stories like Buckley’s make me hopeful that there is deep goodness inside each of us, and with some effort we can all bring out that goodness for the betterment of society and even for ourselves.

 

 

 

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The Personal Touch

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030620-N-7391W-007Continuing in the vein of my previous post about dropping out of the digital age, I have been thinking a lot about what gets lost when we automate everything. The example I gave of walking into a Panera Bread and ordering from a screen reminds me that in small ways every day, we have the opportunity to make a personal connection or keep ourselves isolated. Not only does my choice to order my lunch from a live human being make for a more enriching experience for me, but it helps someone keep a job.

Automation has been costing jobs in all manner of manufacturing concerns for decades now. Even businesses touted for building plants here in the U.S. use very little human labor. And it’s hard to argue with the efficiency of making things more quickly, more perfectly, and at a cheaper cost. But automation is also affecting the service industry in many ways: ATMs at banks, self-serve kiosks at grocery stores, automated phone systems – all serve to keep us from having to speak to other people.

The other day I was recalling the job my older sisters had during high school. They worked as Directory Assistance operators for Bell Telephone Company. Back before  dialing 411 led to an impersonal and sometimes frustrating exercise in using voice recognition software to find a phone number, my sisters had huge telephone directories that they would flip through and scan as quickly as possible to find the numbers for businesses and residences all across Chicagoland. The job was demanding, and their employer exacting. But there were benefits to this “old school” style of providing directory assistance. Sometimes callers weren’t quite sure of the name of a business or had only a vague idea of the address associated with the person they were trying to reach. My sisters, with their encyclopedic knowledge of Chicago and its environs, could find the requested number by asking a few good questions. The personal touch helped them help customers.

The personal touch is something I think we need to retain in a society that is increasingly alienating in so many ways. It can help a young woman find the perfect dress for an occasion. It can help me decide which entree to choose on a large restaurant menu. It can give a person who is lost and in distress not only direction, but also sympathy and solidarity. Most importantly, having personal interactions with strangers every day can bring us out of our isolation and make us happier.

With the alarming increase in suicides in our culture, the last thing we need is to be isolated from other human beings. We are social creatures in need of conversation, touch, and the so-called niceties of regular human interaction. Sure, I may get through the line more quickly if I use the automated service. But I’ll take the human contact, however flawed and imperfect, any time.

Dropping Out of the Digital Age

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I’ve decided to drop out of this century. I realized I am hopelessly out of date today when I completed a survey for my local library. When asked about digital materials and library resources, not only did I have no use for them, I’d never even heard of most of them. No, dear library, I don’t want ebooks or audiobooks or apps on my phone. Just give me an old-fashioned paperbound book and a cup of tea, please.

Then I noticed articles in my newspaper about the gig economy, and I don’t even know what that is. Also, states like Alaska and Vermont are offering to pay people just to move there and work remotely for a company in another state. What is that? Whatever happened to the kind of job where you get up, get dressed, and drive or take the train or bus to an office/school/restaurant/store and work there for 8 hours?

My daughter’s schools and camps now insist that all documents be scanned and uploaded to their websites. No more mailing or even faxing! No wonder my postal carrier looks glum these days. Online classes and bill payments, electronic grade reports, medical MyCharts. Sure, I feel totally secure having all my personal medical information on the web -NOT!

There is some evidence that I’m not alone in my discomfort with runaway technological progress. A recent report indicates that a large majority of people aren’t comfortable with the idea of owning or riding in a driverless vehicle. Ironically, all the titans of tech in Silicon Valley send their kids to schools where use of technology is verboten.

I admit that I like the convenience of ordering online, Googling, and even playing games on my phone in doctors’ waiting rooms. The digital age has even made it possible for me to share these curmudgeonly thoughts with a wide audience.

But I lament all that has been lost as we focus on our phones and other electronic devices. Face to face conversation, cursive handwriting, letter writing – they all seem to be facing obsolescence. Let’s face it. Anyone under 40 is incapable of balancing their checkbook by hand. (My kids don’t even know what balancing a checkbook is.) Call me crazy, but I would rather order my broccoli cheddar soup from the Panera cashier than punch a bunch of buttons on a machine and make my lonely way to a table, where soon, no doubt, a robot will deposit my food.

So I am dropping out of the digital age. You will find me at the library reading real books and writing in my paper journal with a pen. And if you see me, please stop by for a face to face chat. I’m still doing those.

 

Wisdom Teeth

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My youngest child needs to have her wisdom teeth out. Just as with her three older siblings (and most young adults), her third molars are impacted into her jaw and need to be surgically removed.

I still vividly remember having my own wisdom teeth extracted back in the days of chloroform and leeches. I was actually hospitalized overnight and can remember my mom coming to my hospital room with a milkshake to make me feel better. My own kids all weathered the experience reasonably well and were kind of funny as they slowly came out of their anesthetized haze. My older daughter kept telling me she thought the fish wallpaper in the oral surgeon’s office was so pretty, and my younger son kept slapping his cheek and exclaiming, “I can’t feel anything!”

Wisdom teeth are vestiges of our early millennia as homo sapiens. Early human diets were uncooked and rough, and people lost teeth on a regular basis. So third molars were very important to survival. As humans evolved and ate a softer diet, our jaws narrowed and now rarely can allow the wisdom teeth to break the surface of the gums.

So having wisdom teeth removed has become a rite of passage for young adults. For me, it has been a time when I could baby my children who are not really little kids anymore. For at least a couple of days, I could  park them on the sofa, ice their cheeks, and prepare Jello and other soft foods for them to eat. I could watch TV with them and wish these lazy summer days wouldn’t end.

My youngest child will be a junior in high school in the fall. She is driving and going out most nights with friends. Soon she will be taking ACTs and SATS, applying to colleges, and making her way out into the adult world step by step. I hope the presence of her so-called “wisdom teeth” indicates a maturity that will enable her to be sensible and safe. And I hope I have the wisdom to let her grow up and leave the nest, however hard it will be for me.

Still, I look forward to babying the baby of the family when she gets her wisdom teeth taken out. We still have a lot of TV to watch together.

Who Needs Roseanne When We’ve Got The Middle?

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The surprising popularity of this spring’s Roseanne reboot, followed by its swift cancellation, has some critics regretting the loss of a TV comedy that depicted life for working class Americans. Little did they realize, we have already had a hilarious take on life in the fly over zone for 9 great seasons: The Middle.

The Middle is the story of the Hecks from fictional Orson, Indiana. When we first meet them, dad Mike is working at a rock quarry and mom Frankie is having trouble selling cars at a local dealership. Their three kids are a popular slacker (Axel), a klutzy positive thinker (Sue Sue), and a brainiac with social problems (Brick).

The Hecks are always just barely scraping by. Their appliances don’t work unless large amounts of duct tape are involved. Their cars are serviceable clunkers. Frankie brings home questionable meat and produce from the Frugal Hoosier. And throughout nine seasons, their financial fortunes don’t improve much.

Premiering around the same time as Modern FamilyThe Middle has always been like the less glamorous, less popular younger sibling. The Hecks lack the snappy repartee of the Pritchetts. Their stories are not as manic and zany. But the Hecks, with all their problems, dysfunctions, and squabbling, give Middle America a family it can relate to.

Who among us has not fought with siblings in the back seat of the family car on long, boring road trips? Who cannot relate to being an overwhelmed mom whose idea of making dinner is picking up fast food? Don’t we all have weird relatives that only add to the dysfunction of stressful family gatherings? Isn’t there always another family in the neighborhood who puts us to shame with their cookie-baking, high-achieving, wholesome ways?

What makes The Middle such a relatable show is the deep affection the Hecks have for each other. Despite their near-constant bickering, they weather the storms together and identify as a family unit. I recently watched the final episode of The Middle, which sees the Heck family grappling with a child leaving the nest and the knowledge that their close-knit clan will never be the same. It’s a heartfelt episode, and it made me cry, as did many touching moments in the series over the years. It’s a kind of laughing through the tears experience.

There is absolutely no politics in The Middle. Religion is treated with respect and gentle humor. The one gay character in the show has a slow and unspectacular awakening to his true identity. The Middle is not a show about issues, but simply about family. And it’s a gem.

I’m sure The Middle will find its way to Netflix or late night TV.  And when it does, I’d highly recommend viewers give it a try.

Doing Hard Things

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Years ago I stumbled across a book written by 19-year-old twins Alex and Brett Harris entitled Do Hard Things. Their thesis was that society expects way too little of adolescents and that is up to young people to rise above the low bar set for them by “doing hard things.”

I bought the book for my teenage sons, but reading it myself, I realized that all of us – not just teens – can benefit from raising our expectations of ourselves. The Harrises discussed pursuing excellence in school, standing up for moral values, and working to make a difference in the world as antidotes to a modern culture of pleasure-seeking and pain avoidance. As Memorial Day approaches, a day on which we commemorate the courageous sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, it might behoove us to think of our own contributions to the world in which we live.

Doing hard things can look like the parent who gets up in the wee hours of the morning or works a second shift to put food on the table. It can look like the schoolmate who stands up to bullies. Doing hard things can mean abstaining from unhealthy behaviors and completing grueling workouts to stay in shape. It can mean giving one’s time to an elderly relative, a sick child, or a friend in need. It can involve volunteering to feed the hungry, build shelter for the homeless, or tend to the sick.

Alex and Brett Harris draw on their faith in God to inspire them. Certainly, a rich faith life can impel us to see our role in the world as something larger than mere existence. But no matter what faith we subscribe to, or whether we have any religious faith at all, the concept of working hard for the betterment of ourselves and others is one that can enrich our lives and give it greater meaning.

The other day I read an essay that my son had written for a college philosophy class. In it, he described his understanding of existentialism as the idea that the world and our lives have no intrinsic meaning of their own, but that it’s incumbent upon each of us to create meaning for ourselves in the way we live. While I do believe that God invests our existence with deep meaning, I also agree that it is up to us to act, to make a world of which we are happy and proud to be a part.

I’m at a stage in life where it is tempting to sit back and take it easy. Certainly I don’t feel the pressures and drive I had when I was a young professional or the mother of young children. Yet it’s never good to become too comfortable with our lives. Comfort brings stagnation; growth involves hardship and pain.

I intend to keep growing by pursuing the hard things that give my life meaning.

 

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

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I’ve been tricked into reading two books about zombies.

Mind you, I’m not a fan of The Walking Dead. I’ve never even seen the classic George Romero movie Night of the Living Dead, which opened 50 years ago to widespread thrills and chills. Let’s just say that brain dead human flesh eaters are not my thing.

But not long ago, I read a review about a dystopian novel with an intriguing opening. It depicted a young girl describing a typical day in her life, which comprised being awakened in her prison cell, strapped to a wheelchair at gunpoint, and wheeled down a corridor with other wheelchair-bound children for their day at school. “Don’t worry,” she tells her military guards. “I won’t bite.”

The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey is about a virus that has decimated the planet by turning people into brain-dead “hungries.” But the children in the opening sequence are hungries with a difference: Their brains seem to be functioning perfectly well. Scientists speculate that these kids could be the key to unlocking a cure.

What I love about Carey’s novel is the inner conflict of various characters as they try to figure out what it means to be human in a scary and uncertain world. In his related novel The Boy on the Bridge, Carey continues to pursue this theme along with ideas about military authority and military decisions – and the movement toward autocracy in desperate times.

Reading these novels in Trump’s America gives them heightened resonance. As many in our country find scapegoats in illegal immigrants, questions arise about how to handle an influx of desperate Latinos fleeing poverty and violence. Children are being separated from their parents at the border. President Trump characterizes these people as “animals,” somehow not quite human. Like zombies?

As Matt Thompson of NPR states in his article “Why Black Heroes Make Zombie Stories More Interesting,” “The true horror in any zombie story worth its salt is what other people do when faced with the zombie threat. Zombies are merely relentless; humans can be sadistic.” (“Code Switch: Race and Identity Remixed,” NPR online, Oct. 1, 2013)

So I may have been “tricked” into reading about zombies, but M.R. Carey’s thoughtful, suspenseful dystopian nightmare made it worth my while.