For the Greater Good

fire-bucket-brigadeI’m a parent. I’m supposed to be teaching my kids, guiding them, yet I’m continually humbled by how much I learn from them whenever I stop to watch and listen.

Recently we took a trip to the local science museum–because science is real, and fun, and interesting, and because my kids always do better in museums with hands-on experiments about centrifugal force than they do in museums with hands-off paintings on the wall. Nevertheless. Toward the end of the day we made our way to a large space dominated by a Rube Goldberg structure with balls and pulleys, chutes and ladders. More than anything, it looked like a life-size version of the game Mousetrap we used to play as kids. The true purpose of the From København to Singapore exhibit, which involved push and pull cargo ships and lots of plastic balls, was lost on me. But just by watching, I learned a lesson.

The space was packed. There were parents on the sidelines, some, like me, continually checking their phone for news about the downfall of western civilization. Ok, maybe that was just me. But those very adult worries were swallowed up by what was going on in the room. What was going on in the room was this: a room full of about forty kids–all working together–in order to make things happen.

There was a hodgepodge of languages, Danish, English, Spanish, Russian. There were toddlers pulling little cargo boats and kids in their early teens loading them up every time they ‘docked’. There were boys unloading and girls shoving more balls into the chutes to start the process all over again. And yet somehow these kids, who’d never spoken to one another or met one another, all worked together to move those balls from the København side of the room to the Singapore side. They were all working together for the greater good.

Kids seem to get this idea naturally. Never mind that the greater good in this case was a hands-on experiences in a science museum. You put a bunch of kids together in a room and give them a task, and more times than not, they’re going to figure out how to make it work. They don’t give a rat’s ass about what the kid next to them looks like or what language they’re speaking or whether they’re a boy with long hair or a girl with overalls on. You give them a job, and they figure it out. They’re not concerned with the who, only with the how.

assembly-line

The larger message wasn’t lost on me.

There used to be a lot more working together for the greater good, for a common goal. Sure, there are always those actively seeking to undermine others, just as there is always going to be the one kid who crosses his arms and refuses to budge until he gets a turn with the cargo ship. But overall, there was a sense that to keep things working the way they’re supposed to, whether it’s an exhibit in a science museum or a country, there has to be push and pull, loading and unloading toward a common goal.

After 9/11, as a New Yorker, I witnessed the real life version of that science exhibit. A city coming together for the greater good. First responders weren’t going to leave someone buried under the rubble because of their religion or because they didn’t have documentation. Blood banks weren’t going to turn away donors because they spoke a foreign language. In a time of crisis, we reverted back to the same instincts I saw in those children. We worked together for the greater good.

Something’s changed. A lot of things have changed. There’s no one thing to put your finger on, no smoking gun, no one cause and effect. But it’s impossible to deny that at the moment, we seem to have two distinct groups, both convinced they are acting for the greater good. But instead of actually moving those balls from København to Singapore, they’re actively working against one another until all we’re left with is a giant mess of balls in the middle of the room going nowhere fast.

women-wwiiI’m sure there were kids there yesterday who were tired of loading balls who wanted to steer a toy cargo ship. But the whole thing would have come to a standstill without everyone working together. Those kids instinctively knew that. They knew they couldn’t do it on their own. They couldn’t do it with only the people who looked like them or spoke the same language. If they did, the balls would stay in their chutes, on their own side. Blue with blue, orange with orange and never the twain shall meet. Going nowhere fast.

I don’t have any answers. But I’m starting to think I should just ask a room full of kids what they think we should do with this giant mess of balls we seem to be standing in the midst of.

Dear Mr. President

mr-presidentDear Mr. President,

You won! Congratulations. Now that you’ve installed yourself in the Oval Office and surrounded yourself with a cabinet that appears to be mined from the nightmares of the liberal left, a few things, if I may.

Please don’t speak of the MAJORITY. The fact is, the majority of Americans voted against you. Sure, you won the election, and there is plenty of back and forth over the system that allowed that victory, but at the end of the day, the MAJORITY of Americans don’t want you there. In fact, I’d say the MAJORITY of Americans loathe you, both personally and the policies you stand for. Of course, I have no proof of that, but if I had to guess, I’d say at least 1 to 1.5 million more Americans actively loathe you than don’t. I’ll get the National Parks Department on it right away for proof.

So, in between overuse of exclamation points (God help me survive four years of that), 140 character assignation attempts, and generally scaring the bejesus out of the modern world, you need to remember that when you say you speak for Americans, you really don’t. Not all of us. And not the majority of us.

The orders you are signing with the stroke of a pen? Those orders don’t respect the wishes of the majority of Americans either. They pander to a fear-fueled base of people who need something to project their fears onto–because facing inward and realizing that the life of a coal miner is never going to be the life of a Kardashian is too depressing to face. Oh, and those frothing at the mouth to turn a neighbor in for wearing a headscarf or not speaking English or cooking something that smells ‘gross’. And the ones that are all rah-rah-sis-boom-bah about blowing shit up. You are governing to a minority who feels that exceptionalism takes the form of Fuck you world, we’re America! Here, hold my beer.

That is not what American Exceptionalism is, or ever was supposed to be. American Exceptionalism is the idea of creating a bastion of freedom and democracy to use as a model, not chest thumping and grunting and posturing to see who has the biggest missile in their pants…I mean arsenal.

You have, in two short weeks, reduced my country to satire. In fact, no one can tell what is satire and what isn’t anymore. McSweeny’s, known for it’s cutting wit, just published one of your ‘speeches’ in lieu of a satirical piece. I use the term “speeches” lightly because really they are just a mash-up of words. Incoherent and full of braggadocio–or was it braggadocios?– ego stroking, full of falsehoods, well…shit to be honest. My seven year-old did a research project last year which was better thought out than your speeches. And his vocabulary was bigger too. And he knows what a thesaurus is. Granted, he’s pretty smart. But still…You know that theory that if you gave a group of monkeys long enough they would replicate Shakespeare? You didn’t have enough monkeys. And you didn’t give them long enough.

groucho-marx

You may be playing to your base, but the eyes of the world are on you, Mr. President. And right now, those eyes are rolling heavenward with a mixture of “Are you kidding me? and “What the fuck is actually going on?” If, as my favorite author Margaret Atwood wrote, the greatest fear of men is being laughed at, well then, you should be shaking in your boots, because the majority of Americans and the world are laughing. Granted, we’re laughing while shitting our pants in terror, but we’re laughing none the less.

Your posturing is ridiculous. Your obsession with ratings and popularity. Your bullying. Your need for sycophantic (look it up) behavior and blind loyalty, your form of governance, which essentially amounts to I’m not going to share my shovel with anyone in the sandbox, your bizarre fixation with adoration, everything really. Everything about you is ridiculous.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

We, the MAJORITY, we will never love you. No matter what you do. No matter if you give free health care to all and reverse the Hyde Amendment. You did too much damage to our relationships, our psyches, our ideals and our vision of what America is and could be. Personally, I will never get over the pussy grabbing comment. Ever. No, we will never love you. You will never speak for us.

But you can go a long way toward easing the loathing.

You can start by listening to those around you when they tell you to wait, to study, to look before you leap. You can actually listen to what the MAJORITY of Americans want. You can do all you can to avoid getting into another war, instead of rushing headlong into one or two just to see who can piss higher up the wall. You can at least try to meet us–if not half way, then perhaps a quarter. An eighth even.

majorityI’m not going to lie. There is still a part of me that wants to see you fuck up spectacularly–simply because I think you deserve the loathing of the minority as well as the majority. But I’m willing to shelve my increasingly dark fantasies if it means no actual Americans will be harmed during this reality show administration.

You want me to give you a chance? You’ll have to actually give the majority of Americans a chance first.

Respectfully,
A Majority Member

Strangers in a Strange Land

photo-dI used to write about the ups and downs of  life abroad. I used to write pithy posts about parenting. I used to write salty observations of marriage and life and love and all the stuff that falls between the cracks like so much cheese doodle dust.

Now I seem only to write about events taking place 3,000 miles away. In a homeland that’s not my current homeland but whose life, liberty and pursuit of happiness schtick is part and parcel of my makeup.

Right now, it’s excruciating to be an American living outside America.

But it’s also liberating.

Like so many other things in life, it’s both a blessing and a curse.

By definition, I’m an immigrant. A stranger in a strange land. I know first hand what it is like to try to go about your daily business in a country that’s not your own. It’s disorienting and difficult, frustrating. And make no mistake, I’m doing it from a socio-economic standpoint way up near the top of the totem pole. I can fly home to see my family. I can travel. I don’t worry about how I’m going to feed my kids or if they’re going to be harassed, deported or killed because they aren’t indigenous to the culture we are living in. I am so ridiculously privileged it’s hard to grasp sometimes.

But I can tell you this.

As a foreigner living in another country, I feel an immense gratefulness to the nation which has allowed me the privilege of living here. I imagine immigrants to the United States feel exactly the same way. I walk a careful line –exhausting at times–between maintaining the important elements of my own culture and adhering to Danish cultural norms. I am embarrassed–rightly–of the fact that I don’t speak the language of the country I’ve called home for five years. Yet never once has a Dane scoffed at me or chided me for not speaking their language. Never once has a Dane told me to go back where I belong.

Americans sometimes vilify recent immigrants for not speaking English, conveniently forgetting that not that far up on the family tree they had parents, grand-parents, or great-grandparents who traveled to America seeking a better life or fleeing war or poverty. Those strangers in a strange land often settled in enclaves of ‘likeness’, maintaining their language and traditions while they went about the exhausting task of assimilation.

My grandmother grew up speaking Italian. She and her sisters were the liaison between the old world and the new. But by the time my mother was born a generation later, only English was spoken.

Generations of immigrants have been weaving themselves into the fabric of American society, the same way I loosely assimilate into Danish society. It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s difficult finding a balance between celebrating facets of the culture you came from while immersing yourself in the one you are in.

image053

But they do it. My great-grandparents did it. So much so that their native tongue was lost in the time it took for a daughter to become a mother. The same way recent immigrants to the US will do it. Many will encourage their children to join the military–because what is more of a commitment to your new homeland than agreeing to risk your very life for it, let alone your liberty and pursuit of happiness?

Now I watch from afar, as the country which opened its doors to my grandmother’s family closes them to others. Out of what? Fear? Security? The boogeyman we’ve been told is out to get us?

The boogeyman in America right now is Muslim or Mexican or Somalian. Speaks a different language, worships the same God in a different way, eats different food. The boogeyman who is coming for us, coming for our children. Coming to eat us or kill us or blow us up or take away our ‘traditions’, our ‘way of life’.

It’s a story, the same story parents have been using for generations to get their kids to fall into line when the realities of life are too difficult or distressing to explain.

Are there folks who would do harm given the chance? Sure. There always have been. But there are more of them born, bred, and living within the borders of the United States than those coming in desperate to sleep at night without worrying if a bomb is going to fall through their roof or if a militia is going to come in and rape their daughter or kidnap their son into war.

America’s got plenty of home-grown boogeymen. But it’s too difficult to face that, so we project our fear onto the ones who sound odd or  pray differently, whose food smells unfamiliar.

So here I sit on my ridiculously privileged fence in my ridiculously privileged life. I am torn between the need to keep my family safe, out of the true carnage–that which has yet to be released–and the need to be there to do something. I sit, thousands of miles away, hobbled and paralyzed.

I have never felt so deeply ashamed of my country, and yet proud of the those who are fighting for it. I have never felt so deeply the desire to stay put, to stay safe and sane, and the desire to go home, to put my own boots on the ground of the soil I call home.

ellis-islandAnd I am even more ridiculously privileged because I have that choice.

It is a bizarre and difficult time to be an American abroad. In less than two weeks, those elected have managed to anger much of the world with their sweeping declarations of keeping Americans safe from the boogeymen.

I don’t recognize the America that I am viewing from afar, yet I have never felt so American in all my life.

 

 

More Than Just a Number

doctorI did something the other day we tell our kids not to do: I met a stranger I’d befriended on the internet.

The story is one of those bizarre ‘small world’ moments that happen from time to time on the internet, but over the course of the last few months, Valerie and I have been instant message pen-pal-ing, sharing stories and articles, histories and theories. When she told me she was coming to Copenhagen to visit her sister, of course I wanted to meet her in person.

On the surface, we have little in common. I’m from the Northeast, and she’s from the deep south. She’s retired, no kids, likes dogs…yet we connected through a commonality: looking for a little bit of orientation in a world that to many, seems to have turned upside down.

Sitting across from one another rather than across a computer screen, we talked about many of the same things–politics, women’s rights, travel. We talked about her work. I asked her, as a doctor who has done a lot of work with veterans, what she thought was wrong with healthcare in the US. She paused, considering before she answered.

There’s no autonomy in the way doctors are allowed to work anymore, she said. It’s all about codes and numbers, squeezing in as many patients as you can. Eventually, she said, patients stopped being patients and started being customers. They’re even referred to as such by some.

It’s the same complaint I’ve heard from teachers. Students are no longer students, they’re test-takers. Many teachers I speak to feel like they’ve lost the autonomy to actually teach to a group of individual children, but now must teach to prospective test takers, teaching to achieve test results. Students, like medical patients, are reduced to numbers and output. Customers for a huge test-taking industry in the United States and elsewhere.

A string of numbers in a column somewhere that will be tabulated and calculated and crunched.

*******

Somewhere along the way we it seems we stopped being human beings and start beingAt Cooper School Miss Thelma Dewitty teaches the second grade. Miss Dewitty is a graduate of the University of washington. She taught in Corpus Christi Tex., for seven years, coming to Seattle in 1947. ( / ) customers. In a never-ending quest for bigger profit margins, happier share-holders and bottom lines we have certainly succeeded in lining a lot of pockets. We’ve saved some big corporations some money. We’ve saved some businesses from going under.

But at what cost? I worry we are also stripping the humanity out the very things we need to keep us human: medicine, teaching, the arts.

The day after our lunch, I read that several high-profile authors have decided to quit Twitter. Another up and comer lamented she would do the same, but didn’t have the luxury, she was still building her brand. I get it, because I do it to. An author with an as yet unpublished book, a writer shilling my work for shillings, if not for free, the first piece of advice you get is not about polishing your work or honing your craft, it’s about building a brand for yourself so you have a base to market to. You need a brand.

We’ve all become brands to a degree. Individual social media logos. Profile pictures and Snapchat avatars. Billions of individual brands. We merge and acquire with other brands to form supersized corporations. The GOP is a nothing more than a massive corporate machine made up of millions of individual brands. The Democratic party the same. We may as well all be walking around with corporate logos tattooed on our forehead.

We’ve become Coke vs. Pepsi.

**********

How do you successfully treat a patient when the end result is not to treat, but to code the right diagnosis on the insurance form? How do you gain a skittish patient’s trust when you have quotas to meet? How do you teach a child when the end result is test numbers, not learning?

There is a place for business. Marketing of goods. Marketing of services. Commerce. Trade. But increasingly we are treating all of our interactions like business transactions. We shouldn’t be trading in human beings. We shouldn’t be using our own lives as currency.

Medicine, teaching, jobs that require face to face interaction in order to do successfully-those are not businesses where you can just come in, look at the numbers and say, cut this, do that, increase productivity. The results are physicians like Valerie who end up retiring out of frustration, because they can’t do their jobs the best way they know how. You can’t come in and look at the numbers and say, these students need to score higher on tests or we will cut your funding. All that’s doing is tying the hands of teachers who know how to teach those kids, who are all individuals and learn differently.

The United States is about to swear in a leader who ran on a campaign promise of running the country like a business. It makes me pause to think what that really means, in real terms, for the people who make up that country.

1950-connally-lilienthal-mcmahon-locAll those numbers and statistics who are not individual brands to buy and sell and trade, but human beings with needs and wants.

We are not customers. We’re not numbers to be crunched or cut when it is going to save a few pennies. We are citizens.

We need to keep shining a light on the human part of humanity. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes it’s as easy as  going to meet someone you’ve never met and sharing stories over lunch.