Monday, June 13, 2005

Killing Another Mockingbird

My life has never been as unhappy as it was at the end of 2004. Overworked, underappreciated, my social life in shambles, my friendships adrift, I flew past my expiration date left with the question, "now what?"

And although I know there are some people who will disagree, I've never been one who has been reluctant to make a change when I feel stuck- a change in jobs, a change in living situations, a change in a relationship, a change in my approach, I've done it all over and back again.

I found myself spontaneously making two significant changes this spring without giving either one much thought. First I added a third cat into the home front mixture for no apparent reason. Maybe it was a subconscious acknowledgment that after spending 40 years on this planet that at this point I almost prefer the company of a feline friend, because I'm learning more from them, as much as I do the human kind. Yet I'd like to think that it's more about there is no more noble reason to live than to try to make someone else's life just a little bit better. And I've come to the conclusion that the effort might be better appreciated by the four-legged species (or three-legged as the case may be) than the two legged kind I've recently run across.

The other change was the purchase of a scooter which has ended up changing not only my overall view of transportation, but has also given me a greater appreciation of the world around me. When you're not isolated in the cocoon of a heap of metal and glass you can't hide behind air conditioned or heated comfort. When you are constantly exposed to the elements not to mention the potentially fatal implications of trying to deal with people around you who may not be paying much attention, you find yourself hyper-aware of the things going on around you and in my case I have found I appreciate the sights and smells and sounds of things just a little bit more.

The other day I was scooting all over town on one of the few sunny days we've seen around these parts in over a month. I was nearby a Cost Cutters and my hair, now the length of Chewbacca's, was really bothering me so I stopped in and got it cut. No sooner was I hopping back on my scooter when out of nowhere it started to rain even though the sun was still beaming through the few clouds in the sky. It continued to rain all the way home and by the time I parked my scooter in my garage I was rather drenched. Just as I was entering my house the rain stopped and the sun's bright beams that shone the rest of the afternoon seemingly mocked my very existence.

Just as I throwing my hands up to give up once and for all, the third cat, young Thelonious as he is wont to do, came and played ignoring the anti-social nature the others, Thompson and Diego-san have tried to teach him is the cool thing to do when I'm in such an agitated state. It wasn't long before Theo got out his favorite crinkly ball and we were endlessly playing fetch. As he scampered after the ball, retrieving and dropping it at my feet anxious for its next flight, the other two Boyz made sure to stay out of Theo's path, and at the same time made indications that they were thinking about (ever so deeply as cats constantly seem to do) what the implications, end result, and timing of such a decision would ultimately be.

All this reminded me of a moment with a boss, Jenny Engh, I'll always have the utmost respect for, where and when she turned the corner and ran into me and for no apparent reason said, "I've discovered the meaning of life. It's to always remain curious and to keep learning." I'll never be sure why Jenny said this to me at that moment but I'm finally beginning to understand and appreciate what she meant. You begin to get old the moment you stop trying to learn about new things as difficult and painful as the learning process often is.

I recently found myself at a Twins game munching down a brat and being an involuntary captive audience to the discussion of the two men behind me. It often amazes me that people will talk about things and not care one hoot about who hears them. The two men obviously weren't much fans of baseball as they kept talking about how if they didn't use softballs in batting practice, the Yankee hitters would be peppering every batting practice pitch into the Metrodome's upper deck. I almost turned around then and burst their illusion that those were actually baseballs being hit, but I didn't. It was then the older sounding man asked the other, "What's the park that they can actually hit the ball into the ocean?" To which the younger man (and to give him the benefit of the doubt I'll have to admit he sounded teenage-ish) replied, "Um, I think it's Chicago..."

At this point I have to admit I am an absolute baseball snob. It is my one bias I can purely identify though I'm sure others exist. I don't care what other character flaws may exist but if a person truly understands and appreciates the beauty of the game of baseball (and there are seemingly few who do) I can forgive them most of their other transgressions.

Having such biases seems to be part of our human nature. (It may even go beyond that- I've noticed that Thompson, like Mr. Max before him- is much more likely to be trusting of our female visitors than he is of any male who steps into the house.) And after having seen the movie Crash this past week I have to say the topic of personal bias weighs heavy on my mind this very moment. The movie has its flaws but it isn't one that you can watch and not think about afterwards. I was so glad when my friend who came along said to me (even though she still isn't sure she liked the movie), "Everyone should see it."

The only truly great movie I've ever seen dealing with the subject of racism is Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing.

Usually racism in movies is handled in a black and white manner. The racists are cartoonishly evil and their victims are on the short list of who will be the next Pope. A good example of this was the 1996 Samuel L. Jackson, Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock movie A Time to Kill. That movie argued that some race based murders may very well be justified, especially when you're murdering some buffoonish evil pickup truck drivers. It's easy to approve of killing when the people you are killing have no redeeming qualities.

What Lee did so powerfully in Do the Right Thing was create a situation that explodes in racial tension and the viewer can clearly understand why all the characters acted in the way they did. Sure we might not have agreed that they did the right thing, but you can clearly see why they thought they were living up to the title of the movie.

Paul Haggis' Crash comes close to Do the Right Thing in its unblinking look at racism. It's easy to agree to dislike a racist if that person has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. It's another thing to have to balance a person's good qualities with that which brings out the ugliest side of many of us. There's a scene early in Crash where a white woman makes a defensive gesture when she and her husband are approaching two young black men. It's not an unusual or broad gesture and yet one of the two young men is quick to pick up on it and some of his anger and jaded life view seem suddenly a bit justified.

Crash tells several interlocking stories about people of all color and place in life. There's the rich black couple that get pulled over by a racist cop who molests the wife and leaves the two arguing whether the other is black enough. There's the district attorney and his wife who are carjacked by two black men leading to the wife (Bullock) ranting about not wanting a Hispanic locksmith changing the locks on their home. (He's tattooed, got a shaved head and is sure to give his "homies" a copy of the house key.) There's the Iranian shopkeeper who tries to buy a gun from a man who calls him an Arab even though the man is Persian. There's the crime scene investigator who doesn't bother to differentiate the nationality of the woman he's sleeping with to his mother who thinks he has sold out his own race and brother.

If nothing else Crash makes an effective point that the root of racism may not be so much hatred as it is anger. Scene after scene the anger seeps from the encounters between the film's characters. This is an angry society we live in and that anger often leads to misunderstanding and ignorance. It often hurt me growing up when I'd come across those who would slant their eyes with their fingers and call me a "Chink." I got by that by telling myself that I wished that if they were going to be such bigots that at least they could make the effort to get it right. The slur was meant for Chinese and if they wanted to accurately label me the least they could do was call me the "Jap" I was and am.

There's a small moment in Crash that made me appreciate Sandra Bullock the actress even if I didn't appreciate Sandra Bullock's character in the movie. It was when after a painful day she reaches out to the nearest person (who happened to be of an ethnicity she recently revealed a hatred for) and reveals that the person (her maid) is ironically her best friend. She wrings out the complexity of the moment with such emotion that it is hard to watch. The movie clearly demonstrates we all have our ugly judgmental sides that if logically analyzed would sour like the contents of a long expired carton of milk.

Yes we are all crashing into each others in total lack of understanding but as bleak as the movie is, there is a slight uplifting thread about how the actions of one person to conteract this unending cycle may actually be able to start to make a change, as small as it may seem. And that ripple, maybe just maybe, just be enough.

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