Wednesday, August 25, 2010

In the Neighborhood Again

I've written about my neighborhood before. My neighborhood is so central to me, shaping my perceptions and my feelings and my sense of community. It's where I live, work (home office), and walk everyday, and I'm deeply connected to most of my neighbors. As an example of how important my neighborhood is to me, I'll tell you that I have made it one of the settings for my new novel. I would not have expected that these two parallel rows of houses facing each other along a straight length of asphalt (or whatever they make streets out of) could become so intertwined with my identity, but there you have it.
     My town is decidedly liberal in outlook. A joke my daughter heard in high school was that if someone wanted to vote Republican in this town, he had to go down a dark alley in a trench coat to do it. I suppose I feel a certain comfort in living among people who mainly share my worldview, though David Brooks in the NY Times today questions the benefit of living among too much agreement. Still, I've always lived in places like this, and I suspect I always will.
     I have one neighbor who decidedly does not share this liberal worldview. He's lived in this neighborhood longer than I have, and I have to give him credit for being able to tolerate the liberal onslaught all these years and for having the courage to post the biggest McCain-Palin signs he could find (and Bush et al. before that) and come to the block parties and say whatever he wants. He even got together with my husband once, over drinks (this was after the Obama election), to tell him how worried he was about the country and hear what my husband had to say that might reassure him. He was honestly trying to understand.
      I ran into this neighbor the other day when I was out walking, and he must have felt like talking because we lingered for about 15-20 minutes, chewing over the end of summer (he loves to swim at the neighborhood pool, but it closed early this year because of budget cuts), the departure of one household of long-time neighbors and how much we're going to missing them, where he'd like to move if he could (he's tired of living here, he said), the conflicts he had with his father-in-law, what a loudmouth he is (he said this, several times; I didn't).
     One thing about this neighbor. Hanging from his front porch is that ugly poster of Obama made up to look like the Joker from Batman. I hate that image. It's nightmarish. My neighbor has an absolute right to hang whatever he wants from his house (I guess), but this seems to cross a line. After we parted ways that day, I thought that I might have found a way to say something to him about it. E.g., "I would never tell you that you can't have that image on your home, but why do you? No one on this block--regardless of their views about Bush or anyone else--ever displayed anything so provocative and disturbing." I regret that I didn't. If he had the courage to listen to my husband, perhaps I could have listened to him.
     But perhaps this is "simply" what a "loudmouth" feels he needs to do to make his views known. Not everyone is the type to skulk down an alley in a trench coat?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Discomforts of Sibling Rivalry

No two people are alike. We know this. Even if we share DNA, which we all do. Of course, some share more DNA than others--e.g., siblings. But still. It all mixes up in its own special blend and expresses in its own special way related to both nature and nurture. I know this. So why can the differences feel threatening, or at least unsettling or discombobulating or stew-inducing?
     That's me, above, at the beach. Photo courtesy of my sister, who is great with a camera and with original angles on things. We were at the Jersey shore, because I went to New Jersey last week to visit my sister and her husband. Even though my sisters and I can be a prickly bunch (I have another sister, but she wasn't with us in New Jersey), we had a good, rich visit. Still, I couldn't help noticing how the differences between us rattled me. Even what some might term superficial differences. 
     Example: clothing. My sister has a very interesting and stylish wardrobe, takes pleasure in putting her clothes together in intriguing ways, keeps her eyes open for new ideas, and looks good and put together pretty much all the time. 
     Not to say that I don't care about clothes. I do. And I too have some interesting pieces and try to put them together in interesting ways. It's just that most of the things I own are 20 or more years old. I don't shop much or easily.  Agony is a more accurate descriptor of my feelings while shopping. Also, I work at home, so I don't need to consistently refresh my wardrobe. My approach to wardrobe issues makes sense, and most of the time I'm comfortable with it. So why did the fact that my sister's wardrobe outdid mine (see, now I'm framing it as a competition) have to stir me up? 
     Competition (or the related rivalry) is a discomfort that is built into most sibling relationships. At least in my case, this competition and the way I deal/feel in it, is a foundation for how I manage and negotiate difference/diversity in the world. I compare. I size up. I see where I stand in relation. I'm clearly ahead. I'm falling behind. Often, I'm fully side by side. But it doesn't take much to stimulate that comparative/competitive thing. Some say "celebrate the diversity," or "Viva la difference!" Yes and yes. But still. Diversity has many facets.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Discomfort Plain and Simple

About a month ago, I found myself out for dinner at an old-school Chicago steak house. An odd place for me for a number of reasons, including the fact that I don't eat steak or beef. But my husband had received a generous gift certificate to this establishment, and so we went.
     This was the kind of place that tried to make you think you were in the "good old days"--that is, before we knew what we know about alcoholism (martinis), lung cancer (cigarettes), or heart disease (huge, fat-marbled steaks as big as your head; butter and sour cream slathered on the baked potato). The days of Mad Men--sexism, racism, political incorrectness, all A-OK.
     I was fine with living these illusions for a few hours of my life--a Disneyland-type experience. But I did not like the illusion carried into the bathroom, where I discovered a bathroom attendant, African American and in uniform. That photo above is captioned "bathroom attendant's work station." I do not think the woman in the bathroom of my steakhouse had such an extensive array of goodies to share with me, but this is the general idea--that she has your hygienic and cosmetic needs covered.
     I had been in bathrooms before with attendants and always found it an uncomfortable experience. Not welcome. Not a mark of luxury. Not an assurance that the bathroom would be kept neat and clean to the highest standards or that if I needed any help it would be available. Although, I now see, these are the reasons restaurants and hotels have such people. Plus, in some places, they might be there to monitor unruly or illegal behavior.
     The restrooms at the Drake Hotel used to have them. And a few other high-class joints that I can remember. They were always African-American women, while the customers were almost always white. They certainly were in that Chicago steak house.
     I knew that it was good, in a sense, that she had a job. And I knew I should give her a tip. But I didn't want to. I didn't want to be part of the whole embarrassing world in which such hierarchies exist--where I was the white woman at the Disneyland steak house being handed a paper towel by a black woman in a uniform. I'm a generous tipper under most circumstance (at least I think so), but I couldn't make myself do it. It would have made the whole experience too real. Which it already was.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Dendrites, Neurons, Axons, and Tightropes

In my dream last night, I found myself high above the ground, trying to make my way back home. The above-ground path I had been walking on for some time was made up of a comfortable network of interlocking bridges and tree branches with plenty of handholds and nothing to fear. However, just before I woke up panting, I realized I had taken a wrong turn off the comfortable network, and what lay before me was a very narrow, tightrope-like structure. The only option, it seemed, was to go forward. Not to get too technical about it, but as I reflect on it, I think it looked kind of like a neuron--a brain cell--with the axon as the pathway ahead.
See what I mean? This seems apt because although I have had a reasonably clear focus on this blog over the past year or so, last week I mentioned that I am not sure whether or how that particular path will continue. The thing about neurons, is that they exist in a dense network of connections, and once the brain-message gets across that narrow axon, it connects up with the network and can go in multiple directions. (again, excuse the lack of technical lingo and expertise re: neuroscience.)
Anyway, my sister, who is serious about psychoanalysis, told me that the reason a psychoanalytic patient sees the analyst at least four times a week is that so much happens in the human mind and soul in any one day that if you only go once a week, you simply miss too much. I have been thinking about this, as I blog only once a week, and every week, I think about or hear or read about a hundred things I could write about that are relevant to my blog topic--the discomforts of diversity. The world is so full of these things--ethnic clashes all over the world, recent events on the subject of race in the U.S., debates in my own local community regarding building low-cost housing or even the mention of LGBT issues in the elementary school.
     This week, in Newsweek, which we get because we donate to our local public radio station, there was an article about Al Sharpton, a person I have always found fascinating and have actually admired. The year he ran for president, he gave a terrific speech at the Democratic Convention. I thought about writing about him. Also, in this issue of Newsweek was some follow-up on the Shirley Sherrod events, a multifaceted story to stimulate multiple brain pathways. I've considered saying something about her. You see how everything leads to so many possible places? I guess the other thing I could say about that tightrope/axon situation I found myself in last night is that one of the subplots of my new novel has to do with the circus, and in particular a circus acrobat. And when one is working on a novel, or any major writing or creative project, one is certainly facing a heart-pumping tightrope of a walk in practically every sense of the word.