A Tale of Two Fourths

As a kid, I used to look up into an inky sky and watch fireworks explode over my neighborhood. This was the 70s. There were no town-funded displays, it was the family down the block whose Dad knew a guy who knew a guy. The backyards weren’t yet fenced off and  the street was one, giant yard; kids cannon-balling into pools and adults cannon-balling into coolers full of Miller Lite. There were hot dog chunks marinating in a gooey sauce and fruit salad in hollowed out watermelons, the tops decorated like an American flag.

Miraculously, no-one drowned while the adults were busy drowning in Budweiser, blue cigarette smoke circling their heads like halos. No one blew off a finger tip or got third degree burns or accidentally torched a house or slipped inside for a cop and a feel with someone else’s wife. At least if they did, I never heard about it.

I didn’t even know what we were celebrating, not really. There had been pilgrims and a war and Betsey Ross sewed a flag. The pool water was slick and cool on my skin, the sting of chlorine sharp in my nostrils. Watermelon juice dripped down my chin. Dusk came down and someone else’s mother would come along and choke you in a cloud of OFF until you could taste the fug of it on your tongue like a fur. 

There were good people in that neighborhood. Hard working. Vans in driveways and fathers that got up early to go into shops and mothers that macraméd twisty twirly pigtail holders for the Christmas PTA sale. The rich family at the end of the street had a heated pool. The kids all  knew they were rich because they handed out full size candy bars on Halloween. When you’re nine or ten, those are the things that counted.

I thought that’s what every neighborhood in the US was like. I didn’t know any better. 

****

Two decades later my husband and I drove down Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn, looking for an address. There were new apartments for sale, in our price range, which was stupid expensive then and obscenely expensive now. The building, deep brown brick with brand new Windex shine windows, was on its own on an otherwise barren city block, the kind of abandoned stretch with sun-parched weeds twisting through the buckled concrete. Two or three blocks away were the unmistakable silhouettes of housing project towers that dot the Brooklyn skyline like Soviet-dressed sentinels. We did math in our head while we circled the block in our crappy car; mortgage rates and commuting times, maintenance costs. As we rounded a corner, a sudden phalanx of police cars, lights flashing, sirens wailing like the furies, screamed down the street.

It was the middle of a sweltering New York City 4th, when the city stinks of spoiled milk and rotting garbage. I don’t care where you live, NYC reeks in the summer. It was blazing sunlight afternoon, not yet dusk, not even dark enough to watch a sparkler spritz and pop in the air before it fizzed out. Two, three, four, police cars screeched to a halt sideways and perpendicular, blocking off the street. Doors flew open and cops jumped out, storming up a nearby stoop. Lights flashed, radios crackled.

We drove quietly in the other direction.

It’s taken me a long time to confront my own racism about that day, my reaction, my assumptions, the nifty little racist trick of finding excuse after excuse to forget about that (relatively) affordable apartment.

It never occurred to me that the folks who lived on that street were just having a street party– the same way we used to when I was a kid. Relaxing in the sun on a day off, drinking a beer. Taking a moment to breath in between working their asses off–just like the folks in the white neighborhood I grew up in. They didn’t have one long summer lawn slash of green to run through, but they had stoops connected by sidewalk pavement. Their kids were cooling off in the spray of fire hydrants instead of doing cannon balls because there is no damn pool. And maybe there weren’t hot dogs in gooey, sauce, but I bet there was watermelon because you can’t have a 4th of July without watermelon.

What if there was a girl, popsicle juice dripping down her chin, sitting on a stoop and thinking this is what every neighborhood I know is like. She didn’t get fireworks, she got flashing blue lights and sirens; not even in the dark where if she squinted, maybe they could kind of/sort of look pretty.

No one ever called the cops on our neighborhood parties, even though there were fireworks that no one was supposed to have going off in the night sky. Even though there were at least a dozen other things the folks in my white, working class neighborhood were given the benefit of the doubt about.

There’s a kid who grew into adulthood with a memory of the 4th of July not being cannonballs in pools and rocket pops, but guns drawn and flashing lights and cops storming a stoop.

That’s their version of the United States.

It’s totally different from mine. But…here’s the kicker. My story? It’s pretty. It’s nostalgic and it makes you feel good.

But it’s not right, or better. Those two countries are the same damn country.

My story is not more American than anyone else’s. It’s just one story in a land of 365 million stories. A time, a place, a memory. 

But my story sounds better, doesn’t it? Wholesome and patriotic. Kids running and laughing up into the night sky as bottle rockets exploded in the dark. Still tasting the fug of that OFF on their tongue. Drunk adults hiccuping softly in the night. Like they earned the right somehow to own the story. 

That sure sounds a lot better than the police coming and shutting down your street party, doesn’t it?

So guess whose story you hear? Guess whose story is the one that gets told? 

Don’t let anyone tell you, today, of all days, that America is any ONE thing. It is beautiful for spacious skies and it is dark and ugly and grim. And those polar opposites? They are not always what or where you think they are. It is coastal cities and rural corn fields. It is the good, it is the bad, and oh my God, it is the ugly. It is the kid born in Kentucky as much as it is the immigrant from Bangladesh who just became swore an oath to a country he believes in but might not believe in him back. It is taxi drivers and tractor drivers. It’s a girl growing up in a white, working class neighborhood and it’s another girl growing up in a black, Brooklyn one.

And every one of us has a story. 

You want to truly make America great?

Start paying attention to the stories that are the most unlike yours. 

 

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Why the Movies of My Youth Could Never Happen Today

maxresdefaultI’ve seen E.T. at least a dozen times. No matter how many times I watch it, I still get a little thrill every time Elliot and E.T. fly across the moon. I weep with little Gertie as she holds out her flower-pot parting gift. I snuffle and gulp down a sob every time E.T. holds out his glow stick finger to Elliot’s forehead and tells him,”I’ll be right here.”

I watched it for the first time with my boys the other night. It took some convincing on my part. They are used to Marvel and Galaxies protected by Guardians. Special effects and CGI. The family adventure dramas I grew up with are too slow-paced for them. Not enough stuff gets blown up.

Even though I know E.T. backward and forward, watching it with my kids I was struck by something new this time. Maybe it’s been on my mind. Maybe because I now have a kid around the same age or older than Elliot.

E.T. could never happen today. I’m not even talking about the extra-terrestrial part of E.T. In fact, the sentient alien being part would likely be more believable than the fact that for the most part, kids were left alone. For long stretches of the afternoon and evenings, after school, on weekends, in the mornings, alone. Alone. Without adult supervision.

If E.T. were made today, Michael and his friends would have been lined up on the couch playing Minecraft on a server, too busy to order a pizza. Elliot never would have tracked down E.T. because Elliot never would have been allowed outside on his bike by himself. His access to sugar and Reese’s Pieces would have been strictly managedHe would have had to lure E.T. back to his home with kale chips or fruit kabobs. Gertie was left on her own in the house, Michael was backing cars out of the driveway. Kids were drinking unlimited cans of Coke. Grade schoolers were encouraged to use scalpels and given access to chloroform. Kids were allowed out on Halloween by themselves.

It was just like I remember.

If E.T. was made today, he would have simply used a phone home app.

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The Goonies? They would have all been in sanctioned after school programs. Data would have been in Chess Club and Early Engineers. Chunk would have been on Weight Watchers. Mouth? Mouth would still be Mouth. There’s a Mouth in every generation. But no treasure hunts, no long stretches of time to go exploring or spelunking. Not without grown-ups hovering nearby.

How about Home Alone? Child Protective Services would  swoop in faster than you can say aftershave to take Kevin into custody. Some neighbor surely would notice; not the increase in activity at the house mind you, but a ten year old kid walking outside by himself. This is the stuff that gets noticed nowadays.

The Karate Kid? No way Daniel-son would be allowed to hang out with Mr. Miagi. An unmarried middle-aged man? Are you kidding? Hello! Pedophile Alert!  If Daniel of today showed early promise in karate, he would be signed up for classes. The travel team, club tournaments. There would be no classic “Sweep the Knee!” for the win because everyone’s a winner!

The Princess Bride? No thanks, Grandpa, you don’t need to read to me, I can binge watch Netflix or YouTube videos to learn how to strengthen my archer queens.

The Breakfast Club? Over-involved parents would call meetings to discuss their child’s detention and threaten to sue if the decision isn’t reversed.

Back to the Future? Skateboarding without a helmet? NO way.

All those things we took for granted because it was the norm. Biking around for hours, swimming unchaperoned, roaming and hanging out. Smoking in the woods. Ok, ok, smoking in the woods wasn’t such a good idea. But I never thought I would look back on the movies I grew up with and feel sad for my kids because they’re growing up in a time when most of those things seem more unbelievable than coming across an alien from another planet.

There’s a reason why the blockbusters of today take place between the pages of a comic book, or increasingly, in a postapocalyptic world. It seems the only place where kids are free to roam around un-supervised is in Sci-Fi.

etKids haven’t changed, not really. John Bender was surely a Dauntless the same way Data was an Erudite before there was Divergent. The Outsiders were the rebels of District 9 before The Hunger Games. And before the Age of Ultron there was a simpler extra-terrestrial named E.T. and a movie about a boy who was free to grow up with the magic of possibility.

My kids prefer their own generation’s movies, as they should. The movies I grew up with have a rawness they aren’t used to. Sometimes the emotions are too real for them, too overwhelming, especially for my older boy who shows the same sob swallowing tendencies I did. (I do.)

I promised my son I would try not to cry too loudly and snottily as we sat together on the couch the other night. Of course I failed, though I tried mightily to stifle my sniffles. I watched out of the corner of one glistening eye as he cried too. We were probably crying for very different reasons, but he got it. He has a heart light.

There’s still enough magic in those movies to hit home, even if the world they take place in is almost as unrecognizable to my kids as the Marvel universe is to me.

That 70s Show

bikesForget running to the convenience store with a note to buy your mother’s Pall Malls. Forget rolling around in the way, way back or playing kick the can in the middle of the road until the porch lights flickered on. Forget swimming unsupervised and sweating in the car while your mother ran into the bank. Forget never needing to account for the ten hours a day you spent without supervision, cell phones or other means of communication, whole days when no one knew exactly where you were. Forget all those things. The one thing that truly stands out to me about being raised in the 1970s is this:

The hesitation to praise, promote or otherwise indulge my own abilities.

Kids today, including my own, steam through life towing their very own cheering squad behind them. From the moment they are born (Great job making your way through the birth canal, Jack!!) to their experiences in school (Everyone’s a Winner!) straight on through to adulthood, they are constantly and consistently praised for achievements, both real and exaggerated. They get a medal for showing up; they get a medal for being born.

I did not grow up that way, nor did most of my fellow Gen Xers. No, I did not have to walk to school uphill in my off the shoulder Flashdance sweatshirt or through the snow without my Capezio shoes, but it was generally expected that I not just show up, but that I do the work, and that I do it well. If those conditions were met, then praise was parsed out. I won’t say sparingly, but certainly not as lavishly as it is today.

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To give you an example (and forgive me, Mom, you know I love you): in my junior year of high school I belonged to an organization called DECA. As part of this program, I competed in various disciplines at progressive levels. When I was 16, I won a spot at the regional level. I won a spot at the state level. I competed on a national platform, and I placed 4th. In the nation. My mother’s response was this: “just think, if you’d worked just a little harder, you could have placed 3rd!”.

She was thrilled for me, of course. She was proud of me, I know. I don’t hold anything against her or hold any grudge (plus, it makes for a great story). My point is, that kind of thinking, the attitude of you show up and do the work, that was part and parcel of growing up in the 70s. You were expected to do, to do well, to do your best, to work hard. Some times you were acknowledged or praised. Sometimes not.

Us 70s kids were born and raised before multi-hyphenates became a thing. I am both floored and flummoxed by the ease at which younger generations are able to attach words and titles to themselves, the ease at which they are able to confidently call themselves “X”. Truth be told, I am a bit envious of it as well.

What this means is that the notion of deserving something is a difficult one for me to ingest, even as an adult. While I am inwardly thrilled when something good happens, the notion that I ‘deserved’ it makes me uncomfortable. It is just how we were brought up way back in those Happy Days. You didn’t flaunt, you didn’t brag, you didn’t exaggerate or pretend. The problem with this deep-seated tendency to down play is that when I am acknowledged for something, even something that I have worked for, I have a difficult time finding the right balance between justifiable pride and arrogance; it is a fine line to walk.

For all my leftie, pink-0, liberalist leanings, I hold a very old-fashioned view of myself. I blush at the very notion of calling myself a writer. When I joked recently about it being a big deal to change my work status to include the word ‘writer’ on my Facebook page, I wasn’t kidding. Recently I had to write a short bio and it took me a painfully long time to decide whether to use the sentence Dina is a writer.

8fec81204944199ea73f9dccf14cfb94In the way, way back of my 1970s mind, there are certain criteria I must meet to call myself a writer, criteria which I haven’t yet met. Honestly, and you can go ahead and laugh here, there is still a small Cinderella part of me that thinks that a Fairy Publishing Godmother is going to happen across something I’ve written and whisk me away to the land of book deals and movie rights.

The problem is that my self-imposed criteria will never be met without a hefty dose of self promotion. I don’t mind the work. I am used to the work part of it. But I bluster and bluff when it comes to getting my successes out there. I worry incessantly that I appear to be merely fishing for compliments. Social media makes it easier, but I still sweat over whether or not something sounds too boastful, too full of braggadocio, too full of myself. If I told you how long it takes me to hit ‘post’ on a tweet or a status update which is acknowledging something I’ve done, you would laugh.

So, how does a product of the 1970s update her thinking?  You would think that between the writing and updating a status or a tweet, that the latter would be the easy part, right?

If it is, you were probably born a lot later than me.

 

How do you walk the line between pride and hubris? How do you comfortably promote yourself and your work?