Sunday, January 28, 2018

A Random Gratitude

The neighborhood is a quiet one where everybody walks. Five minutes by foot to the office. Three blocks to school. Home is a multi-story building with a park on each side. Whole Foods has a store five blocks to the east. The walk back is only a little uphill.

In the afternoon, children throng the streets, heading by foot and bike to after school activities. Lessons, sports.

I love a particular stroll at dusk, past the playground where my grandson and granddaughter climb and swing, twenty feet from their front door.

It’s so peaceful. Even though when you lift your chin, you see Freedom Tower poking up six blocks distant, reminding everyone that peace is relative.

On Halloween, that tenuous peace was shattered by an Uzbeki terrorist. He did it in a van, mowing down eight tourists, and swerving into the area where a high school and two adjacent schools were letting out.

This happened three short blocks from where my grandchildren live. My son arrived ten minutes later at the apartment, on his way to the airport. His babies weren’t there. He couldn’t reach their mother. Very little was known about the extent of danger, that soon in the aftermath.

Before long he learned that they were, indeed, safe—a few blocks away from where evil blossomed, this time.

I was in Winedale, 1720 miles distant, but it felt like a near miss. The killer’s path of carnage ran along the Hudson River bike path toward Battery Park City. In June, my son, grandson and I had stood together on that bike trail, at the entrance to Pier 25, where many West Side residents take their children to play. There are tennis courts, a soccer field, beach volleyball, a miniature golf course, ice cream and hot dog stand, a marina, and so on. If the terrorist had made his foray ninety minutes later, he might have killed a great many more people, and their children.

We seize upon familiarities in the aftermath—a foreign terrorist, ISIS-connected, using a rental van similar to earlier disasters in Nice and London. The guns he waved weren’t real.

Five days after the van attack, peacefully worshipping residents of a tiny Texas town near San Antonio were slaughtered in their pews at the First Baptist Church. Twenty-six people died that morning for motives not fully confirmed at the time of this writing. The lone gunman was a Texan, a dishonorably discharged airman with a long record of trouble. Enraged at the time, possibly, over a domestic dispute.

The latter horror felt much too close for comfort, geographically and personally, for many of us in Fayette and surrounding counties. It was a town smaller than some of ours, a Sunday morning church service. Urgently, we want to know the why of it. A reason is required.

We want explanations because they give us the much needed opportunity to distance ourselves from the unthinkable. To make ourselves and the ones we love seem less at risk. The more details we learn that separate us, the safer we feel.

But we are not safe. We cannot be safe from random violence. Deranged minds may have motives, but motives don’t change the reality that for the victims, death came like a lightning strike, a falling meteor. Unexpected, undefended, random.

We human beings hate that. We’re hardwired to impose a pattern on chaos. And what lengths we go to in pursuit of those patterns.

What philosophies, what religions, what conspiracies we embrace in our desperate longing for order, for meaning. All of us do that in one way or another. It’s not limited by culture or nationality.

For some, even the most maleficent conspiracy is better than drifting among the vapors of randomness. Conspiracies imply a human cause. Cause implies the possibility of control.

As do guns. Why else do the most insecure, the most troubled among us, amass their arsenals? Their AR-15s and other assault-style rifles. Devices designed primarily to slaughter herds—of people, that is.

And so the bloody cycle of pain and loss continues, played out on our most personal screens, until—bless our bruised hearts—we are distracted from it once again.

A Power Thing

I was born into a world with clear boundaries, honored in the daily performance of chores. My mother, trained as a classical violinist, kept house. She did it well, too. She created a comfortable home for us, while caring for her aging parents who did not drive, and helping her uncle with his business.

She lived a family-centered life, directed by duty to others. The challenge lay in how to be happy and fulfilled within the restrictions that life required.
She had tricks for coping that she tried to share with me. Prayers played a large role. Count your blessings (of which there were many)…Her struggle would today be called a “first world” problem, a matter of “white privilege.”

Those descriptions, however, do not remove the sharp sense of wasted capability, as the years dwindled away. Perhaps that’s why she encouraged me to explore a wider world, despite her fear of the risks that entailed.

Today, working wives are the rule, rather than the exception. Women compete head to head with men. Work beside men.

And find, in every arena, that men remain the gatekeepers, the bosses to a large extent, the powers in government, entertainment, publishing, the churches.
We, as women, are still petitioners, needing their approval to rise in all fields outside the home.

Without this imbalance, we wouldn’t have Harvey Weinstein, FOX’s O’Reilly and Ailes, and the whole less well known army of unattractive older, powerful, men who sexually harass women who work for them.

“Me, too,” is the hashtag that peppered social media last week with support for the brave women who brought this common experience into the light of public attention.

People were shocked by the sheer number of women using the hashtag to express shared experiences of harassment, abuse or outright rape. Men were shocked.

Men have a hard time with this issue, I think. A hard time calibrating whether a joke will be sexist, whether friendly banter will sound to the woman like harassment. A friend, being prepped for a medical procedure, felt violated by the male doctor’s self-deprecating sex joke.

Why did he tell a sex joke at so vulnerable a moment?

Was he supposed to know that because he was a man, and she was a woman about to go under anesthesia, sex references were off limits? Personally, I have doubts. More likely, it never occurred to him how she would feel.
That’s not always true, however.
A restaurateur I once worked with referred several times in a discussion to whether I’d ever seen or eaten a particular pastry in the shape of a woman’s breast. It made me feel uncomfortable, but only now do I recognize that I had pushed him on a subject—unrelated to pastry or breasts—about which he felt far more uncomfortable. The sexual reference was intended as a warning: stay away. He cancelled the project soon thereafter.

When I was young and for a long time afterward, a boy, a man, was expected to be the suitor, the initiator of a date, a goodnight kiss. Rejection must have been dispiriting. Infuriating, often.
Perhaps those abusers whose transgressions have been plastered all over the news in recent months never recovered. Maybe their substantial egos were wounded so deeply they couldn’t forget.

Then, monetary success gave them the opportunity to retaliate. Beautiful, sexy young women who needed their approval and assistance would be made to pay for every painful rejection by a desirable woman in the far distant past.

When we dismiss sexual misconduct as an expression of disproportionate male sexual need--“boys will be boys,” after all--we miss the point completely. Utterly.
It’s a power thing, baby.