Friday, January 12, 2018

some unabashed personal observations on a president who calls certain countries “shitholes”; and, thank you, rachel, for your vision

I once knew a man from Haiti. We were both motor route drivers for the Chicago Tribune—we delivered newspapers from our cars. His name was Jean, he was a few years older than I, and he was fussy, liked things his way, and, in his way, was rather bossy. His skin was very dark, he stood tall, erect, he never hurried. I could not understand him very well when he spoke, but as far as I know we had no problem with each other, were pleasant to each other, got along fine as we prepped our newspapers, loaded our cars, drove off separately into the night to do our jobs.

Jean and I worked alongside three men from Guatemala. These guys always came in together and worked together on several routes. They were brothers, or maybe cousins. We called one “el jefe” as he seemed to be in charge. Whenever a route was down, meaning either there was no permanent driver for it or the driver had not shown up, Felipe (“el jefe”) was on it. Unless, of course, Jean got to it first. Often who got the extra route would involve some heated discussion. Me, I always just did my route and went home. It took a while for me to understand that most of the other drivers were looking for as much work as they could get. The Guatemalans were all shorter than I, and quick. They conversed in Spanish. After a while I let them know that I could understand a bit of what they were saying, and that seemed to amuse them. We got along pretty well.

These men and all the route drivers, that job, the whole scene of delivering newspapers starting in the garage where we all showed up in the middle of the night to roll or bag our papers to being on the road, tossing papers as close to front porches as possible or hustling down an alley hurling papers onto the back porches of three-story apartment buildings in all kinds of weather, came back to me first with the news of the Salvadorans who are being told to leave the U.S. No, they are not Guatemalans, but my mind drifted to Felipe et. al. (Here is an editorial on the Salvadoran subject.) Then, reading about the mudslide in Montecito, California, in the L.A. Times, I saw this photo of a newspaper delivery person. The photo, taken by Sky Gilbar for The Times, was in a slideshow. The caption read: Newspaper deliveryman Rudy Corona of Santa Barbara, walks out of mud and debris with his dogs after his car became blocked.

Then this morning, as I learned of an American president asking why would we want Haitians here, my old co-worker Jean came to mind.

A clipping from my digital Chicago Tribune delivered electronically January 12, 2018.

How an American president could say such a stupid thing as is quoted in this article and many others is beyond me.

I understand that many will excuse the president’s words in any of the numerous ways we have become accustomed to, but I am steadfast in my belief that Donald Trump speaks his mind, and his mind is an unholy mess.

Since the Trump Debacle began, I have not felt able to adequately describe the impact of this presidency on my ability to be an American, which is, after all, part of my identity. I have lived with presidents I did not support, some of which tried my respect, but this is not that at all, and this is not then. This is living now with a president who attacks this country relentlessly. He inflicts suffering every day. He threatens Americans, he denigrates Americans, he calls us liars, he holds us hostage—it is unfathomable. Yet, like a mudslide, there it is.

Trump’s presidency has affected me to the core. It has changed my perception of many I know. It has changed my perception of where I live. For the world, there will be broader, graver consequences, but every day I am conscious of the changes this presidency has brought to my own daily life.

I cannot help but spend whole parts of days thinking how sad, how misguided, how foul is this presidency and thinking that the responsibility for it lies with those who voted for him. Donald Trump is, after all, who he is, and he has been plainly who he is for many years. But where he is—No, Donald Trump would not be where he is without the votes of nearly 63 million American people. Yes, I know, his main opponent got more votes, but if not for each vote he did get Donald Trump’s every inane remark would not be news. His every stupid, illogical, factless and tactless tweet would not be news. His every foul, ignorant comment would not be news.

More than a year ago I was mocked by friends who were Trump supporters for expressing similar feelings of sadness and dismay. By my choice, I no longer have those friends. I remember being sent a ready-made graphic about how if “we” survived eight years of Obama, “you” can survive four (or was it eight?) years of Trump. I thought that was so stupid, on so many levels, but first—isn’t it about more than survival? For the average American, isn’t each day about a little bit more than just surviving? About more than just having what you need to be alive one more day? For some, I know, it is not. And there is no need not to be grateful for mere survival—it can be the greatest thing, especially when the nutty leaders of the world are bragging about the size of their nuclear buttons—but for most of us and surely, as a country, isn’t life about more than stark survival?

More than anything Trump is a killer. He is a killer of thoughtfulness, intellect, wisdom, compassion, spirit, scientific inquiry, fact, hope. He is the incessant dripping faucet—the sound you cannot stop that grates more and more until you manage to tune it out but all the while the costs build and build and one day you get the water bill and say “Oops. I should have done something about that leaky faucet.” And Donald Trump is like the creep who blocks your path as you amble along peacefully. The creep teases you and taunts you and won’t let you move forward and there’s no purpose to it except he’s getting your attention. Another word for the creep is “bully.” How not to engage? How to keep moving forward?

My friend Rachel Biel, of Paducah, Kentucky, began a recent blog post with this: I want to move from the house that I live in.

Well, this past year, I have had the same feeling. I’ve wanted nothing more than to get away from a place where people believe a man like Donald Trump makes a great world leader. (Both Rachel and I live in so-called red states, and the U.P. is especially red.) But Rachel and I are different. You see, she does not want to leave Paducah. She does not want to get away, flee, find a better place, a more politically comfortable place. Rather, Rachel wants to build a place in Paducah where she and others from Paducah, as well as from around the country and indeed from around the world, can come and feel welcome. She sees her home in that new place, and she sees that place as a spot where people from various cultures and walks of life come together to learn from one another, to share with one another. A place people come to be inspired and to inspire others. Rachel describes it also as a place for people to leave from in order to explore the world. She describes it as a cultural center, a cultural exchange, an eco-village, and please, Rachel, save me a spot at the table.

I am one of the least multicultural people around, until I think of all the multicultural spots in which I have spent much of my adult life, like the garage where I rolled and bagged newspapers. The university I worked at. The social service agency I worked for. The cities I’ve lived in. The restaurants I’ve enjoyed. All a mish-mash of people from different places, different countries, some born in America, some recent immigrants, some (I imagine) undocumented immigrants, some students and professors on various visas. Different languages, different customs, different religions, different colors, different foods, different life experiences, and, even here, in this incredibly white Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I think of the slightly foreign (to me) Finnish inflections and customs and experiences that are a part of everyday life.

But I wasn’t raised in a multicultural setting, and I didn’t go out looking for it. I just went out looking for a job, for a place to live, and there it was. However trite to say it, that is America: a conglomeration of people, cultures, languages, and skills. And Donald Trump, judging by the crap he tweets and says everyday, strikes me as so ignorant of that fact that I wonder if he is even American. If so, I marvel at how limited his experience is. How limited his education is. And I wonder how he can not know and cherish who we, as Americans, are. He strikes me as one of the most unAmerican men I have ever had the displeasure of having to listen to.

Yes, Rachel and I are different. I knew this from the start. She was raised in a multicultural environment and has always sought it out to the point of creating it. We met at that social service agency. I worked in the office with mostly white folks. Rachel worked in and managed a store the agency ran. The store involved folks of all color. It was intended as a place where people could sell their art and craftwork or sell art and craftwork imported from other countries, usually their home country, and people from all over the world, now living in Chicago, were part of that store. Rachel knew these people, was friends with some, worked with all, and seemingly got along with and so enjoyed this wide array of cultures—it overwhelmed me. I was intimidated by it. Managing the store, keeping it organized, seemed to me somewhat of a nightmare. I served as an assistant in certain aspects of paperwork and sometimes manned the cash register. The store—there was nothing tidy or neat about it. Not that the store wasn’t clean—it was—it was downright beautiful with all its different colors and textures and aromas and delightful surprises. So many interesting things. I guess what I am saying is that it was not sterile. Rather, it was crazily alive. And that can be frightening. Rachel’s ability to create this space, to nurture it and manage it, seemed a skill I couldn’t quite grasp.

Rachel and I left the social service agency, went our different ways, and didn’t keep in touch. When we reconnected a few years ago, our affinity, differences, and respect for one another was apparent. If I had to put it in three nutshells, I would say Rachel is a leader, I am a follower. Rachel’s convictions make her feel strong, my convictions make me feel vulnerable. Rachel is a doer, I am a muller.

Rachel is also an artist and an entrepreneur. She has created two websites that bring artists together. One in particular—the one I am familiar with—is Artizan Made. It promotes a wide variety of artists and craftworkers from around the world. Rachel is also a prolific writer. She tells her life stories freely, tells you of her beliefs and how she comes by them. She shares the work of so many others. For the past twelve years, she has done this via websites and social media from her home in Paducah. After Trump’s election, she created a Facebook header that portrayed her as a blue dot in a red state. Now she wants to move from the house she lives in, but not from Paducah. She wants to create her vision—a vision she first had many years ago—right in place.

A part of me does to Rachel’s vision what I often do to my own: Get excited, cut it down. Label it: Pie in the Sky. Believe it: Unattainable. And if somehow attainable: So what? To what value? Why do I react this way? I wish I knew. I see the value in everything Rachel is talking about, and I have had visions, dreams, if you will, of my own, and I have chased them or, rather, plodded after them with a measure of success and a measure of oh, so this is reality, this is the sacrifice, this is where it all falls short, falls apart—but in the end, why be a naysayer? Why be a party pooper? What is to be gained by that? Especially in the face of an American president who calls other countries “shitholes” and who gauges the value of people by where they are from. Following his example, someday whatever the value is of being American will be greatly reduced. Maybe that day is already here. Maybe that is what is troubling me. That this part of me that identifies as “American” is, has already been, or is becoming worthless. Unless, lo and behold, we find a way to survive Donald Trump.