Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Helpfulness, Foolishness, and Assumptions

The other evening, on my way home from my church gig, I stopped to help someone.

I don’t say that to toot my own horn. I’m not advertising for good karma, or “what goes around comes around.” It just made me think of a few things.

 

The basic layout of the event was: it was a few moments before sunset on a late-October Sunday evening, and I took my usual shortcut through the back streets of Worcester to get home. During rush hour, I can avoid getting caught in stop-and-go (and mostly stop) traffic; and at any other time, well … it’s just habit now.

A minivan sat at the end of the street that re-connected with the larger avenue which I would otherwise have used. Its right-turn signal was on. So I pulled in behind it. The line forms to the right, and all that. The driver got out, and at first I thought he was just waiting to pick someone up and was making a big show of waving me past (as Bill Cosby once said, “Come around, idiot! Come around!”).

Then I noted that he was looking at me and waving a finger. Didn’t think I’d done anything wrong, but in a city like Worcester with its share of weird driving customs, I might have. He looked agitated. This is not always the best sign. I thought he looked a bit frantic. And then I got a bit frantic when he came around to the passenger side of my car. But for some bizarro reason, I rolled down the window.

I know. It’s a dangerous world out there; what were you thinking, Rob? I’m not sure, other than, “for all I know, in a moment I could be a current event.” I’m not here to claim that some higher power was assuring me it would be all right. All the safety manuals in the world tell you not to do this. I might have been on the verge of being carjacked.

Hello!” he said. “Could you do me a huge favor and give me a lift to the gas station on Park Ave.? I ran out of gas. I passed eight stations and thought I could make it to where I’m going. Can you help?”

Sure,” some other voice than my own said.

So he trotted back to the minivan, put the hazard lights on, locked the doors, and came back to my car. And climbed into the passenger side seat. Maybe I should say he shoehorned himself in. He was a big fella.

Thanks a million, man. I was gettin’ worried.”

No problem at all.” And it actually wasn’t. I was not far from my house; neither was that gas station, past which I bicycle all the time; and I had no particular need to get home in a screaming hurry.

I can’t believe I didn’t stop at one of those gas stations before. Just stupid.”

Hey, it happens.”

My fuel light was on and everything. I hoped I could get to the dinner party I’m going to, and then figure it out from there.”

At the gas station, the attendant loaned the man a plastic gas container, which he filled and then set gently in the back seat of my car. Again he clambered into the front seat. This more than resembled my attempts to sit in my five-year-old nephew’s little toy two-seat pedal truck. There should have been cartoon sound effects.

We drove back toward the man’s gas-less van.

I really appreciate this, man.”

Not a problem,” I said again.

In this day and age, most people drive by; they won’t stop. It’s a crazy world out there, and who knows what crazies are out there? And when you’re really in trouble, people probably worry that you’re one of those crazies.”

I hear you,” I nodded, waiting for the next sentence. I’ve seen my share of bad movies. Speaking of crazies…

Must have been twenty cars passed by. Maybe I didn’t look pathetic enough.”

I smiled. “Glad we got you helped out, then.”

We arrived at his mini-van. He wrestled himself out of my car, fetched the gas can, and paused before going to refuel the van.

Really. I owe you. Didn’t know what I was going to do there for a while. My name’s Ben, by the way.” He shook my hand. “I’m Rob,” I replied. “Good to meet you.”

Same here, believe me. Thanks again.”

And I drove off, not neglecting to consider that if things had gone a little differently, I could have become a news item, or at least a detail in the Worcester police logs. I wondered what had possessed me to open the window and talk to the man, or in fact what had caused me not to hit the gas and just go go go. I wasn’t in a bad section of Worcester, but sometimes one can’t be sure what’s a bad section of any town and what isn’t. It is, as Ben said, a crazy world.

 

Here’s a little detail to add to what was a thoughtful remainder of the evening:

I look somewhat like the actor Bob Balaban, which is to say, middle-aged, bespectacled, bearded, thinning hair, and not the most imposing-looking guy in the world.

He looked remarkably similar to Ruben Studdard – if, instead of singing on American Idol, Ruben was driving a mini-van in central Massachusetts, and if he wore tattered sweatshirts and jeans instead of glitzy famous-person clothes. Ben was a BIG fella.

In short, not to put too fine a point on it: I was white and he was black.

 

I’m not here to brag that I am so racially color-blind that I didn’t notice this. I’ve known black people and white people, I’ve had black and white people as friends and colleagues, but I’m not here to try and convince anyone that my reaction was totally, utterly free of an awareness of our respective racial backgrounds.

I’m not here to boast that I could sense something about the situation that told me it was perfectly OK and perfectly safe and that I wasn’t about to become a statistic. When Ben first came around to my car window, I will admit that I thought, “for all I know, it may have been a wonderful life.”

I would like to think that I would have said that if Ben had looked like George Lopez, or Jackie Chan, or Jackie Mason, or James Mason. Or Bob Balaban. I would like to think that I am so open-minded that Ben’s racial background wouldn’t have mattered at all. But I grew up in the 1970s in an affluent suburb of Boston, amid not exclusively but mostly white persons, and I bring with me the subtle baggage of that time and place. As much as I consciously work to fight against it! – because I know we’re all God’s children, and we all might easily run out of gas at 6 o’clock on a Sunday night and need someone’s help; and if I ever find myself in that situation, I would be pleased if someone stopped to help me, no matter what they looked like.

But if I ever AM in that situation, here’s the rub: there are stereotypes which have been out there for a very long time, and which (in spite of all our best efforts) are still out there, about who looks threatening and who doesn’t.

I don’t look threatening. Seriously. That’s not even a personal bias about myself; I just don’t. And therefore I don’t have to deal with society’s stereotypes about how threatening I would look to many people if I were six foot tall, three hundred pounds, and black.

But Ben does.

We didn’t talk specifically or explicitly about race. But in this world, sadly, there are pre-existing notions about who is more likely to be a “crazy”; about who is more likely to be a carjacker; about who is more likely to rob you; about who is more likely to bomb a building. And far too often they’re based strictly on looks.

 

I was glad Ben got where he was going that night. I was glad I got where I was going. (Mom, if you’re reading this: I promise to be a careful citizen in the future, as well as a caring one.) But I was more than a little sad that I had so much to think about afterward.

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October 24, 2011 Posted by | civil rights | , , , | Leave a comment

Perspective, Part 2

This past Monday was indeed a Monday. Maybe not meteorologically: the weather was bright and sunny. But inside my little world of middle school music-making, well … in spite of how much I think of my middle-school beginner instrumentalists, we were just not communicating well.

How much of it was them and how much of it was me? That’s still up for debate. I may not have been explaining myself as well as I could have; they might have had a brief afternoon of what I euphemistically call “brain fritz”. Once again, gang, for the thirteenth time in this 40-minute period, flute “D” is left thumb, two, three, right hand one, two, three… no? Okay, for the fourteenth time…

So, with a less mild case of exasperation than usual, I drove home, shaking my head a number of times en route.

Now, when I climb up into the Facebook saddle, I do try to remain appropriate, measured, and at a low level of inflammatory-ness. (Inflammatoritude?) Sure, the only people who can read my blather are my Friends (unless some corporation is snooping, and at that point, surely they must have more interesting spy targets than me).

My particular online Friends are good at providing laughs, advice, and sympathy; and occasionally they’re good at gentle reminders as well.

 

My Monday evening Facebook status post read: “Okay, I’m ready for a weekend! … –Oh. Only Monday, is it? Hm.”

Clever. Understated. Not too whiny; just the right amount of mild desperation; not exactly a “standing on the ledge ready to leap” post.

 

A subsequent comment, from a late-1980s UMass band colleague (who might remain nameless, except that he played quads and used to bear the nickname “Fruit Loop”), read thusly:

And I was just thinking that I’m ready for the deployment to be over. Only 4 months to go. Freedom must be defended!”

 

Okay, no need for anonymity. Quite the opposite, in fact: my Friend, Mike Jolin, is over in Afghanistan, or at least I think so. Somewhere in that neck of the woods. And while I don’t know whether he’s actively hunting down explosive devices or terrorist cells or the best way to make the Afghan people think highly of the US again, I do know he’s over there, and soon the blistering heat of summer will give way to the numbing chill of winter, and he’ll be in the middle of it. And in the middle of God knows what else, from now until (optimistically) February, I guess.

So, somewhat chastened and definitely reminded that no matter how hard one tries, one’s sphere of awareness can occasionally shrink to the size of one’s own head … I commented in reply:

This much is true. Perspective is a valuable thing: there are no IEDs in middle school.”

Every morning, I have closets of breakfast food easily within reach. On the way to school, I don’t watch out for land mines, just potholes. At school, I get to teach fifth-graders how to toot flutes. On the way home, I don’t have to watch out for snipers. From the car to the front door of my house, I don’t have to carry fifty or more pounds of military-issue equipment, and if the weather is ugly, it’s only ugly for about eight seconds, then I’m standing safely under the roof. The heat works; the electricity is reliable; and I can decide to fire up a burger, park my backside on the couch and at least one foot on the coffee table, and watch a little English Premier League Soccer, or “Warehouse 13”, or my favorite cable news show, pretty much at the moment the idea strikes.

 

Anyway, shortly afterward, in the grand Facebook tradition, Mike “liked” my IED comment. Still though, I have to apologize. I do still regret my moment of self-indulgence. May God keep our men and women safe until our leaders see fit to bring them back home.

October 19, 2011 Posted by | blogging, education, Facebook, heroes, Internet, social media, writing | , , , | 1 Comment

The American People

Okay. Enough.

Listen up, journalists, commentators, pundits and other TV blatherers … and while we’re at it, listen up, politicians. And frankly, listen up, anybody who loves to take names in vain … this evening is absolutely the last time I am interested in hearing anyone – cable or broadcast talking head, statesman (-woman) or politician – anybody!! – use the term “The American People” in the context of “this is what I declare the will and thought process of the entire population of the United States of America to be.”

As a great American philosopher once said, I’s had all I can take, and I can’t takes no more.

(Well, all right, I’ll hear it again, I’m sure, but I will be tempted to chuck a Nerf ball at the TV.)

Every single television broadcast day, and every single political -slash- legislative day, somebody steps to a podium or an anchor desk, steps in front of a microphone on the Senate floor or in a secluded radio production studio, and says something like, “That is what the American people want.”

For a while, I was thinking, could we adjust the terminology a bit? For some reason, the phrase “the American people” has long bothered me, and I haven’t been able to put into proper words just why, but it has. For a while, I wondered if maybe the phrase “the American public” might serve better. It just sounds about a millimeter less presumptuous, maybe. When I was a kid, I would listen to the radio news at noon, and then shortly thereafter, Paul Harvey would come on the air and open his five-minute period of news and comment by calling out, “Hello Americans!” and I can handle that. That’s who he thought he was talking to, and aside from a stray Canadian picking up a stray radio signal, he was probably 99.9 percent correct. So okay! Hello Americans.

But for some time now, “The American People” has been used with increasing arrogance. “The American people will not stand for this,” says a random politician that at least half the country has never heard of; and if it’s something we can all (or most of us) agree on, like it’s a terrible thing to rob a bank (although perhaps bank robbers would beg to differ), then all right. But you’re more likely to hear that “the American people will not stand for this” when it’s something a particular politician or TV pundit would like the American people to not stand for, and more often than not it’s an issue about which actual American persons (rather than the mythical characters the politicians and pundits’ magical-thinking techniques conjure up in their own heads) are not of a single mind about.

Polls show that the American people…” Just a damn second! I have never been polled by a national polling organization about an Important Issue Of Our Day. Not one single time in more than four decades. Not outside a supermarket in person, not by phone, not by mail, not via the Internet, not via carrier pigeon or frickin’ smoke signal. Not about abortion, or taxes, or the designated-hitter rule, or whether Ken Burns should ever make another documentary. (He should.) And according to my unscientific conversations with friends and colleagues, neither have a whole lot of them either, even though they have well-informed opinions about lots of issues and might be able to shed a little more light on those issues, on the off chance that polling organizations came into contact with them.

Even the best of the polling organizations, those who are not financed by the left, the right, the center, upstairs, downstairs, or the bottom of the barrel, report poll results according to a sampling of the population that is hardly representative of the 300-million-plus people in the American population from a strictly mathematical sense. Logistically, it would be very difficult anyway. Usually, the polls’ margin of error ought to completely eclipse the polls’ sample size and render them meaningless anyhow.

Also, consider what sorts of people are Americans: farmers and yuppies … students and senior citizens … “This American Life” fans and NASCAR fans … jazz enthusiasts and classical-music hounds … people who watch the Food Network religiously and people who watch the local religious cable channel hungrily … rappers and knitters … white people and black people and Asian people (and there are many different sorts of those) and Latino people … people with different prefixes in front of “-sexual” … Methodists and Muslims … moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats … people struggling with weight problems and people struggling with anorexia … rich and poor … Red Sox fans and Yankee fans (sorry; had to say it!) … people who drive hybrids and people who drive SUVs that practically rate their own zip codes … people who wave flags madly at Fourth-of-July parades, and people who, while clapping for the fire trucks and marching bands in Fourth-of-July parades, think about some of our country’s less grand adventures as well …

In short, we are not a nation of homogenous people. About the only darn thing we can say with certainty that we all are, is human beings.

Not all of whom have a flair for the English language. Consider these:

I think that this liberal progressive agenda is not the thing that the American people want and it’s antithesis to who we are as a constitutional republic.” -Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.)

I think it’s clear that this liberal progressive agenda is not the thing that Rep. West wants. On the other hand, plenty of American persons that I know, and that’s just in my little corner of the world, would be thrilled to see us follow that ol’ liberal progressive agenda. Who we are as a constitutional republic, is a group of people who (hopefully) elect their governing representatives by use of simple majorities (except sometimes in the case of that pesky, imperfect Electoral College), and as mentioned above, a simple majority elected Barack Obama based on the things he said he wanted to achieve, so can we necessarily see this “agenda” as the antithesis of our constitutional republic? I don’t think so, but do correct me if I’m wrong.

I don’t care whether you’re driving a hybrid or an SUV. If you’re headed for a cliff, you have to change direction. That’s what the American people called for in November, and that’s what we intend to deliver.” -President Barack Obama

I voted for the man and I would do it again. Compared with many of his predecessors, the man can indeed string an artful sentence or two together. But although the political press described our current President’s election victory over Sen. John McCain in 2008 as a landslide, or at least a mandate, or at least a win by a significant figure … the actual final popular vote has been listed by reliable sources as 69,456,897 (Obama) to 59,934,814 (McCain). Mr. Obama won by the combined populations of New York City and San Antonio, Texas. In a nation of about 300 million, that’s not exactly a crushing majority. Even when only half the population votes (a shameful statistic but a topic for another day), that’s a difference of only one-fifteenth of the total votes cast. There were nearly 60 million American people who didn’t vote for Mr. Obama. He could say that a majority of the American people called for change, and he’d be accurate, and I would fold my tent.

The American people are screaming at the top of their lungs to Washington, ‘Stop! Stop the spending, stop the job-killing policies.’ And yet, Democrats in Washington refuse to listen to the American people.” -Rep. John Boehner, Speaker of the US House of Representatives

A lot of us are screaming, okay; but we’re not screaming that.

The American people… want change. They want big ideas, big reform.” -Rahm Emanuel, former Obama Administration chief of staff

See the above thoughts about the election of Mr. Obama. And, clearly, there are a number of loud people in America who would just as soon not see any change at all in the way things are going. Those people conceivably could include the brothers Koch, and anybody with a vested interest in the continued success of big corporations that somehow pay very little in the way of taxes, just as two examples.

And the American people are the greatest people in the world. What makes America the greatest nation in the world is the heart of the American people: hardworking, innovative, risk-taking, God-loving, family-oriented American people.” -Mitt Romney, candidate for the Republican Presidential nomination

By way of a mere flourish of public speaking, whether via speech-writing or stump-speech-improvisation (a risky environment for reasoned expression of thought), Mr. Romney has eliminated from consideration for membership in the club of “the American people”: atheists and confirmed bachelors, to name just a couple demographics. (Also people who would rather not spend much time with their families, presumably.)

We’ve had Town Hall meetings, we’ve witnessed election after election, in which the American people have taken a position on the President’s health care bill. And the bottom line is the people don’t like this bill. They don’t want it.” -Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.)

Eric Cantor has never spoken to me. I have never spoken to Eric Cantor. If all goes according to how I would like it, this condition will continue for some time.

I felt like all of the American people did not believe me because of the things that were said about me, and said that people would say that it was just for the money, and it wasn’t about the money. It was about what he did to me. And I knew I was telling the truth.” -Paula Jones, speaking about the deeds and/or misdeeds of then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton

Ms. Jones was operating under the unfortunate misapprehension of many celebrities (a long list of them throughout recent American history) that most of the American people gave a wet slap about her, or even knew who the hell she was. Most Americans have more important things to do, like figure out how they’re going to make their next mortgage payment.

But, ahh: leave it to Norman Lear, creator of such remarkable American televised entertainment as the sitcom “All In The Family”, to cut to the chase:

That’s the heart of it: My shows were not that controversial with the American people. They were controversial with the people who think for the American people.”

 

 

 

So let’s do two things: first, let’s not let our leaders – media or government leaders – get too comfortable in the notion that what they want, think, condone or believe is what we want, think, condone, or believe. And next, let’s get out there and do what needs to be done, so that we can elect people (to think for us?) who really can claim to represent us … the people of America.

October 10, 2011 Posted by | government, journalism, media, news, politics, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment