14 December 2006

Wearing other people's shoes

My granddad is a big believer in the Pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps School of Life Management. Besides the obvious fact that pulling on your bootstraps tends to get you nowhere fast (try it next time you have boots and straps at the same time), I have always questioned whether the people who advocate this argument the most strongly are able to understand the obstacles that others face, having the capacity to understand that the playing field truly looks different to everyone.

"Et tu, Brutus?"

How many twenty-year-olds today could say where that came from, not to mention say what the question meant when it was uttered? Do younger learners have a lack of emphasis on what has come before, on learning myths, classics, Bible stories, Arabian nights tales, upanishads? (And does this rant mark me as a fogey? Yes. I know.) I wonder whether we, by not learning these stories and myths, lose some of our ability to empathize and have compassion for others. If all we get is TV sitcoms and movie thrillers with lots of explosions, how can we really believe in each other?

But when we learn of the travails of Odysseus (and the way they were kept alive by Homer), there's something to hope for in that effort having been made to communicate those travails alone. And the writer had the hope to write the story down and include lessons about our time and people and place in the scheme of things, and in seeing the poetic renditions of his journeys you feel for the man who has been separated from his wife and life and wonders whether she will remember him when he comes home. By the same token you must stop and wonder what it is like for Helen every day to fend for herself in the new post-Trojan War climate with no husband to stick up for her.

The instigator of this chain of thoughts was a big story in yesterday morning's paper about more than a thousand arrests in a U.S. Immigration Service raid on a large meatpacking business in Greeley. Today's paper had a follow-up story about how all of the service providers for the people affected are seeing a spike in requests for help, and the story featured the police department's pledge to have at all times a dedicated Hispanic advocate in place. Anxiety in the community is running high.

And there are an awful lot of people whose great-grandparents and even grandparents immigrated here but they can't see how this isn't different. They say, "If they're illegal, round 'em up and send 'em home."

I tend to stand on Mr. Laudisio's side when he says it is embarrassing for us to pretend we don't all depend on the services these people provide. I think he's right: if you rounded up everyone with faked papers and sent them home, who would mow your yards and change your oil and clean your Sears store and wash your restaurant dishes? Who would launder and press the clothes at your dry cleaner? And this is an embarrassment. I can't tell you the number of people I have met from other countries who were not able to use their skills here, like the fellow who had a motel just off the beach in Fort Lauderdale, who was a professor in Argentina. But to get people here to see him as an intellectual was impossible.

I cannot help remembering what it was like to arrive in Germany completely unable to recognize street signs and speak at all. Having no one get my jokes for six months. It was difficult -- and that was in a country where everyone speaks English, too, because English really has become the lingua franca. (Does anyone growing up now know what lingua franca means? Does anybody really care?)

But you might not know when you got to the U.S. whether to call it "the seven-eleven" as people here describe the chain of convenience stores, or whether you'd say "the seven-to-eleven." (Incidentally, since I seem to be in history mode, because most of the stores remain open around the clock the source of the name is no longer clear, but it was revolutionary, when convenience stores came along, for one to be open from seven a.m. until eleven p.m. (giving its proprietor barely enough time to sleep -- think about that life).

Somehow we must always preserve our ability to envision life in someone else's shoes, without coveting their life or the trappings thereof. (Sure, I envy the guys in Gomez for always getting to hang out and play music, but they've put in the thousands of hours to earn that for themselves. And that's just a message to me to do what I need to do in my life, right?)

I don't envy many people, having what feels like a very good life, but I always need to remember that not everyone makes their decisions from this comfy a perch in the world, and I could stand to put myself out there on others' behalf a little more than I do to level the playing field.

Seems like a lot of little people aren't getting what they need. I want to help in the best way I know how, and maybe that's writing something that can reach a little farther than I can one-on-one. Because I do have empathy for the cleaners and the immigrants and the people who aren't getting enough of the picture. The girls of the world.

And I must address this in a way I care about, and remember that is worthwhile, and I must make sure it is worthwhile, not let it slide into entertainment without any other reason for existence. That's what literary fiction is to me: fiction with meaning.

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