Yesterday at the Berkeley post office I was waiting in line for stamps. A long line, moving slowly, two working clerks. A clerk was free, and the man in front of me didn’t move up, so I tapped him lightly on the shoulder–something that seemed a perfectly normal thing to do at the time–to alert him that the clerk was free. The man was an older black man and he immediately turned and grabbed me and pushed me hard, yelling “Don’t you put your white hands on me, ” etc. No apology could mollify him; he was clearly at some hair trigger point, and my tap had been the trigger. The supervisor came out and after some time calmed him down somewhat, and we all went on with our morning, slightly shaken.
I realize we are now in a world in which it is not safe to tap someone on the shoulder; the shared assumptions of civility have eroded to the point where we don’t know what will offend, I lesson I’m glad I learned with someone who wasn’t carrying a gun!
Then this morning, swimming at the Y, I had a lane to myself, backstroking happily down the center of the lane when a swimmer who had gotten in without my knowing barreled into me and went on without a nod or a word. The protocol for entering a lane is to wait and make eye contact with the swimmer already in the lane, so you both acknowledge you are now sharing the lane; this avoids such confrontations. I thought about stopping and saying something to the other swimmer, and decided to just change lanes.
Back in the women’s locker room, showering, a person with a penis strolled past. I sent a questioning look to the woman showering next to me, and she shrugged. “I guess he identifies as female,” she said. I wasn’t shocked, exactly, but it was not completely comfortable for me, either. Just not the world I am used to. I don’t know how this should be handled, really. I’m glad I don’t have to make the rules.
And on this subject, there was a terrific essay Saturday in the Wall St. Journal by Jim Mattis, recently our Secretary of Defense. It’s worth paying to read the whole essay if you don’t subscribe, but here is part of it:
“Unlike in the past, where we were unified and drew in allies, currently our own commons seems to be breaking apart. What concerns me most as a military man is not our external adversaries; it is our internal divisiveness. We are dividing into hostile tribes cheering against each other, fueled by emotion and a mutual disdain that jeopardizes our future, instead of rediscovering our common ground and finding solutions.
All Americans need to recognize that our democracy is an experiment—and one that can be reversed. We all know that we’re better than our current politics. Tribalism must not be allowed to destroy our experiment.”
This is what I plan to work for. I wrote this poem last year about my stance as an activist, so hear at long last is your Monday vitamin:
It’s Friday. We pull out of the Paris climate accord
and I get my hair cut as Aretha bridges
troubled water. I could lay me down,
but I doubt that would accomplish anything.
Would anything accomplish anything?
Still, I’m uncomfortable doing nothing,
an equivocal activist, pretty sure
I can’t count on my teammates,
jumpy as a handful of BBs
dropped on stone.
I can see how restful it would be
to believe in the simple solution.
I tread the Earth, while the sun rises
and sets without comment
and the chickens, remorseless,
search out any protein around,
even if it’s the last Doloff cave spider
and dragonflies ricochet above us
stitching the tattered sky
while I do what passes for
the best I can.