You Can’t Sit With Us: Reflections on a “Mean Girls” National Policy

Detail from photo of immigrants seated on long benches, Main Hall, U.S. Immigration Station, date unknown; New York Public Library Digital Collection
Detail from photo of immigrants seated on long benches, Main Hall, U.S. Immigration Station, date unknown; image, New York Public Library Digital Collection

Find someone who looks like they need a friend, and be that person’s friend: it was my mama’s mandate to me on the first day of third grade, a tall order for an eight-year-old kid at a new school, but the outcome for me that year was a tight friendship with a sweet, third-generation Scot. It lasted until her circumstances prompted a relocation with relatives in Louisiana, but we enjoyed months of camaraderie before that day arrived, and I’m glad I knew her.

The simple be-a-friend exercise earned me a number of meaningful connections I might otherwise have missed through the years; when I became a parent I repeated this mandate to my own child, who internalized it well and continues to practice it himself, and with far more aplomb than I ever possessed, all the more remarkable in his case because he’s been on the receiving end of exclusion too often in his young life. Or maybe that explains it.

Exclusion. Nobody likes feeling left out. This morning I checked my news feeds on the ‘net and found little beyond a collective hue and cry centered around that theme writ large: the exclusion of people seeking refuge in our great land.

Anybody who knows me at all understands how I hate jumping into the political fray. I eschew conflict, most especially political conflict. One afternoon last week I listened to the late Mary Tyler Moore explain in a 1995 interview how she grew up in a repressed family bereft of conflict because unpleasant things were simply never discussed—they were just there, and nobody talked about them; she went on to describe how she borrowed some of her own mother’s real-life proclivities to play the role of Beth Jarrett in the movie Ordinary People.

I confess I own some of that. Talking openly about conflict is risky, because it lays open the possibility of controversy, which can be downright ugly. Speaking out about deeply held convictions puts us at risk of estrangement from the people we love and admire and call our friends. And that is why I eschew conflict, at least I think it is.

I still cleave to the notion, however naive, that we have far more in common with each other than not. And anyway, I don’t think the world needs to know our opinions about everything, as social media suggests it does—including the opinions of the delusional, the unhinged, or simply the misinformed among us.

Misinformed. Never mind fake news: last week a colleague linked me a poorly written HuffPost article about an exercise trend that draws inspiration from the ballet world. The writer got a few facts about classical ballet dead wrong, and not surprisingly; people outside the ballet world who try to report on it get it wrong more often than not. A few hours earlier I’d watched a news clip showing moments from a professional ballet company in their daily morning class. Seems nice enough, positive marketing for ballet. But I cringe every time a reporter stands there nodding her head knowingly while the ballet rep explains something, and then attempts to “translate” what they’re saying for the audience, distilling it I suppose so everybody can understand. But they rarely synthesize the facts correctly; something important is usually lost in the translation, and the reporter’s comments often perpetuate the misconceptions floating round in the public mind’s eye to begin with.

That’s just ballet. What of the story of an entire ethnic group? Or a faith tradition? Or a profound world event, for example the Holocaust, or the tragedy that is Syria?

In first grade a favorite rainy day activity was sitting in a circle where one kid whispered something—a word or phrase—into the next kid’s ear, who then whispered it into the next kid’s ear, and so on, until finally the last person had to say it aloud. It was never anything close to what the first person said, so the phrase “Lego blocks” emerged instead as “dirty socks” or some other thing that set off the first grader giggle box in everybody. Nobody was disparate in that classroom setting: we were all one, each of us united in this fun game that demonstrated how simple it is for a thing to be lost in translation. Nor were we desperate.

Desperate. How desperate must be a person or family to willingly risk everything—everything, including their lives—to leave their familiar homeland for a better life elsewhere? Surely each of us has imagined ourselves in that person’s shoes and felt anguish at the prospect of wearing them.

When my son visited me during the holidays a couple of years ago he brought with him a close friend, a young man of Palestinian descent whose family has owned a beloved East Tennessee eatery for decades. One night during their visit Handsome Chef Boyfriend prepared Yorkshire pudding for us and explained to my son and his friend all about this favorite food in the context of his own family. Then he asked my son’s friend about his family’s culinary traditions, which spawned a beautiful conversation that went on for some time. Earlier my son—who is of Mexican descent—and his friend encountered some scorn on the sidewalk when they were shopping one town over, based solely on the somewhat “ethnic” appearance of each of them. They’re both Americans. 

My son is a funny and irreverent guy; he is also fiercely loyal. He handed back the scorn, which was deserved.

We’ll never all “just get along;” the size and scope of our problems can never be reduced to the silly word just. But we owe it to ourselves not to be misinformed, lest we risk isolation that finally ruins us. The mandate to find somebody who needs a friend and be that person’s friend has never felt more timely.

Talk to Me, Dammit: A Lamentation

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Disconnected

A wise friend once observed she could live life without ever, or at least rarely, leaving her house if she chose. She could buy groceries and other goods and have them delivered to her, arrange for her car to be serviced, set up play dates for her children, and manage countless other tasks from the privacy and convenience of her home. And for this woman in particular a “shut-in” kind of existence might have held a special appeal: she was mama to young triplets, two girls and a boy. And she was terminally ill.

Her life held so many challenges when I knew her, the logistics of getting everybody where they needed to be—on time and prepared—second only to taking care of herself. Helping her wrangle children and belongings one sunny morning only a couple of days after her routine chemotherapy, I mused what a monumental challenge parenting her brood must be—I don’t know how you do it so seamlessly, I said. Sweeping a gorgeous curly lock from her tired face, she quipped in her endearing deadpan, You’ve gotta have a lot of bags.

I found that so comically reductionist, but it made perfect sense at that moment when we were shuffling towels and children and floaties from our cars to the neighborhood pool for a playdate. Beyond clever life strategies, though, my friend possessed a disposition that eschewed a cloistered life: she longed to be part of a community of people. She made it a point to leave the house and do everything the conventional way, with face-to-face encounters in all our neighborhood venues and beyond. And when she could not leave she brought the community to her home in weekly morning gatherings.

She’s gone now and her children are grown. She made that important observation about community more than a decade ago, when the web had already facilitated so much for so many, and when the emerging smartphone technology was changing how we communicate with each other. In her obituary my friend opined that we’re put on this planet to help each other; when I reflect on her words now, I believe they were prophetic. We pay a heavy toll for crawling inside ourselves and forgetting the real, three-dimensional world all around us. I don’t mean nature, or even the built environment, but the world of people.

Are we losing our ability to talk to each other? My own Millennial grew up with a multitude of devices at his fingertips; they are a fluid extension of him. But there are times I want to reach through the ether, grab him by the collar, and shake the stew out of him. In our almost-daily video chats, despite the magical technology that truncates the thousand miles separating us to two feet, there is sometimes more dead air time than talk. While the line is open he simultaneously texts or messages friends (and even people he does not know) from various platforms; sometimes he says “hang on,” other times he engages without telling me, so I’m confused as to whom he is speaking at that moment. Once in a while I hand him some tough love: I’ll hang up and you can call me back when you’re ready to talk to me <click>. That feels so mom-ish and old fashioned, but still: I can’t imagine indulging him this way helps him develop the skills he needs to become a responsible adult, a road he’s still navigating. Or maybe it does; maybe the mere “presence” of his mom means as much to him now as it did when he was a child, even if there is no meaningful exchange of ideas.

Still, it’s a disquieting habit. I helped raise this kid and therefore presumably own it, along with his dad. He represents others of his ilk, a generation for whom the communication game has changed, and the rules are no longer recognizable, at least not to me. Being brushed off by someone less familiar to you than a member of your own family, when they owed you at least a modicum of decorum or civility but failed to disengage from a piece of hardware, is more difficult to wave off; these people feel damaged to me.

But I also wonder whether our fantastic modern devices are damaging the rest of us, who were not born wearing earbuds. Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I recently observed another couple at a local eatery who were each buried in a device for nearly their entire meal. They did not speak, coming up for air only long enough to shovel down bites of food, then turning back to whatever important thing held their rapt attention. We grinned and shook our heads.

I admit to drinking the Kool-Aid, too, as a compulsive user of small electronics. And I produce digital marketing content for a living, working in an industry that has grown up around this technology and helped shape it: you could say I’m part of the problem on a global scale. But our devices are intoxicating: they deliver the world to us in the palm of our hand. Who can resist that Siren? And paradoxically they’ve disconnected us, I think. To be sure, there are times when that is the better alternative—in a crowded doctor’s waiting room or on a jetliner, for example, when the need to create a barrier is important and real. On more than one occasion I’ve buried myself in a device to avoid an encounter with an undesirable; a book would have stepped up to the plate years ago, still a willing companion from time to time when you remembered to bring it. The phone, though, is small, powerful, and it’s always there. And when you live in the middle of nowhere as I have in recent years, it can actually help you feel connected, that is assuming you can find a signal.

Our devices make us feel evolved, but I question that condition when they appear to isolate us from each other instead of drawing us together. Look at me when I’m talking to you, your mom once insisted. Wouldn’t it be something if this one familiar refrain, forgotten in some circles, may finally be so important it saves us as a species? After all, maybe we really were put here to help each other.