We are all creatures of our environment, often to a degree not realized until we step out of that environment. It is tempting and predictable to assume that one’s small sliver of the world is an accurate sample of a larger reality. It is only when we step away, even briefly that we have a “Yowza!” moment. If you’ve ever spent time in Times Square you’ve seen the “Yowza” expression synchronized on hundreds of faces. Many of those people have never seen anything so brash, so bright and so ludicrous in one place. They will go home & tell their friends how overwhelming New York City is. And they’d be right; for them NYC is overwhelming. For a New Yorker the equivalent experience would be traveling anywhere that is not NYC.
For many the disorientation starts with food. We all know that seafood should not be eaten in landlocked areas, and that Chinese food is best prepared by those who’ve eaten it. A decent bagel or thin crust slice of pizza can be challenging to find between coasts. However seeking something as mundane as skim or soy milk for a good cup of coffee can also take on mythic proportions. (The holy grail of morning beverage can become all-consuming and sometimes it’s best to just switch to tea for the duration.) Familiar foods are very important to people; it’s why there are McDonald’s and TGIFridays in Times Square. But eventually a traveler adjusts (an average adult can go for three weeks without food) and can take a good long look around.
Much of what we know about the mood of the nation is through what we read or watch. We might be tempted to cherry pick stories and developments that suit our own political agenda. We might be lulled into thinking that people think as we do (a dangerous and narcissistic assumption if there ever was one.) It is by traveling out of our comfort zone that we discover how discomforting the world really is. It is embarrassing to discover how ignorant we really can be about our fellow Americans. There are few issues in America that are as topical a gauge as race and gay rights. It is tempting to assume that we’re rounding a corner and headed towards a finish line of sorts. Popular culture and media would have us believe that gay is the new, well, the new black. And black? Well black has been beautiful for almost fifty years, no? No.
One person’s experience in a Midwestern area (right outside of a major city) is hardly scientific, but it is illuminating nonetheless. Walking through downtown areas, socializing at large events, dining out and taking in culture, I was struck by the racial divide. Beyond the staff & entertainment there were few if any faces of color. I saw only heterosexual couples (which is barely anecdotal let alone scientific.) Far more telling were the conversations I overheard. If any reference was made to homosexuality it was in regards to entertainment. (Some readers might recall a time when African Americans were often only discussed in terms of entertainment.) I overheard an educated woman discuss attending a Halloween party in black face. It was so popular amongst the party guests that she did it again the following year. Twenty years ago Ted Danson, at the very height of his popularity, almost lost his entire career because of a similar antic. Twenty years ago.
I’ve no doubt that many of the people I encountered would find my way of life confusing if not abhorrent. Without question people are entitled to live the way they wish. It is imperative however that we all realize there is a larger world. We may choose to live amongst people who are like us (i.e., of like mind, religion or skin color) but we must stay conscious of the bigger picture. We cannot lose sight of the fact that not everyone views human rights as progress. We cannot discount what may very well be the majority sentiments of this country. It is far too tempting to look around our mini universes and slide towards complacency. Yes, it’s comforting to be surrounded by what seems “right” to us. But it’s important to keep in mind the larger reality. Taking that decaf cap with skim for granted is one thing (we can always get tea) but we should never take progress for granted.
*Once In A Lifetime (1981) – Talking Heads