Travel makes epiphanies

HoF

This summer, our family took its first pilgrimage to the Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, New York. As anyone who’s made the trek can tell you, it takes determined intent. You don’t drive by Cooperstown on the way to somewhere else. It’s about 200 miles northwest of New York City, 250 miles west of Boston and, not to mention, about 2500 miles east of our hometown, San Francisco.

We went because (a) we’re all baseball fans, (b) since the focus of the trip was touring colleges for our daughter, we felt our son deserved a destination he’d more fully appreciate [He’s 14 and he sat through an intimate hour-long conversation with the admissions director of Bryn Mawr without complaint. Nothing less than heroic.], and (c) a visit to the shrine of baseball seemed an appropriately American thing to do.

The Hall itself didn’t disappoint us – we walked through beautiful and well-curated exhibits and saw artifacts from our favorite players and teams. Nor did Cooperstown, which was quaint and naturally beautiful. But it was a serendipitous and overheard conversation at dinner that made the greatest impression and will always stick with me.

We went to Cooperstown’s Alex & Ika, a wonderfully unique place to eat, and had to sit at the bar because it was so crowded. Happened to sit next to two women, one younger and Japanese, the other older and white, sharing some awesome-looking appetizers. They were having an intense conversation and, for once, my habitual eavesdropping paid off. The younger woman had a very good command of English, although it was heavily accented. She was a student at Williams College, itself a two-hour drive, or several-hour bus ride to the east [As I said, you don’t drive by Cooperstown on the way to anywhere.].

She’d come to Cooperstown right before the start of her fall semester specifically to see the Hall of Fame. Turns out she knew a lot about our ‘national passtime’ and very much wanted to better appreciate the quintessentially American game.  And she knew and wanted to see all the Japanese players who had exhibits or artifacts in the hall – Hideki Matsui, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hideo Nomo and, of course, Ichiro Suzuki – and mentioned them reverently by name. For her, a visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame seemed a trip of devotion and respect, not just for baseball or the players who represented the Japanese game but also for America.

What a great testament, was that pilgrimage, not just to this woman’s spirit, and her dedication to her home country and its long baseball heritage, but to the beauty of this country as well, and its generation-after-generation attraction of people to its shores, for the fulfillment of whatever driving purpose.

IKA

No Need For Alarm

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There’s been a long-in-coming and pretty widespread panic about our nation’s demographics that looks something like this:

Our country’s is increasingly filling up with non-white, non-Christian, non-European, non-English-speaking, uneducated, differently-socialized, undereducated people. Soon, we won’t be able to keep our economy afloat, fund Social Security, maintain even a reasonable approximation of democratic institutions.

The effect is especially acute in places like Texas, New York and, of course, California, where I happen to live, but if you live anywhere with radio, TV, newspapers, online access, a barber shop or grocery store, I’m certain you’ve heard this point of view articulated too.

And, I guess, if you’re a part of the Christian, European, English-speaking part of America, it might not be a difficult thing to believe or, more correctly, be made to believe.

Now, I’ve read the studies and seen the data too, but I’ve recently seen evidence that leads me to a very different conclusion about our future.

Not long ago, I attended a dedication event for a new solar installation at Hartnell College, a community college in Salinas, the hub of a verdant agricultural valley in California. And I met the very kids who represent the bogeymen of the supposed demographic Armageddon posited, above.

They were nonwhite, mostly Latino. Families from Mexico and Central America. From households in which English is not the primary language. Parents are agricultural laborers or other non-skilled or semi-skilled workers without much formal education. The students I met were the first in their families to attend college.

And these kids talked with me about their experiences at Hartnell. They participate in hands-on research. One young lady is working with a team to find more efficient ways to water crops. A young man I met is working on developing robotic arms to clean and cool solar panels because, as he explained, they’re less efficient when they’re dirty or too hot. Several of the students were finishing their time at Hartnell and were transferring to schools in the high-powered University of California (UC) system, world-renowned Berkeley among them.  I met a Hartnell alumnus who finished his B.S. in physics at UC and will start a Ph.D. program at the University of Wisconsin, Madison in the fall.

They were well-spoken and whip-smart, eager, informed. And they talked about their conscious work to grow and move into realms their parents couldn’t even have dreamed of for them, just a generation before.

If those students, and people like them, represent the future of California and, by extension, our country, then I can’t wait. Our future is bright. We’re in tremendous hands.

A link to an article in the Salinas Californian (including a nice video featuring some students) about Hartnell College is here.

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Luncheon, Civility, and Other Anachronisms

I had a wonderfully restorative lunch today with a good friend. We talked about many things, some quite contentious; we agreed on lot, disagreed on a few, remained civil always.

Part of my enjoyment was due to the fact that there are fewer and fewer opportunities to openly and candidly discuss and civilly disagree about matters of interest and contention with people of shared good will. Our country has been purposefully cleaved by people whose interests are served by a hostile, mistrustful, and radically bifurcated country.

I’m reminded of this by Olympia Snow’s announcement that she will be leaving her seat in the Senate because it had become too shallowly self-serving and too uncivil. (My thoughts about her departure are here.) I’m also thinking about the death of Andrew Breitbart, who brought uncivil personal attack of his enemies, both online and in the flesh, to a high art form. And, to be fair, I also have to mention groups like Code Pink, who think nothing of shouting down and otherwise proudly interrupting people they disagree with, even during sessions of Congress and other civic functions. Or recent political campaigns based on demeaning and vile tactics that make Americans lose faith, not just in particular candidates, but also in our political system, and each other. (Thank you for this legacy, Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, et al.)

The result is a society more dysfunctional and less humane, one in which we’re split into tribes, and very mistrustful of the other.

Some years ago, I had a long philosophical conversation with a colleague and friend who happens to be a conservative Republican. Our talk crisscrossed many subjects, as conversations will do, at one point landing on immigration.

Eventually, I talked about the experience of my grandparents, who came to America virtually penniless (My grandfather arrived with $10 in his pocket; not hyperbole, I’ve seen the ship’s manifest at the Ellis Island museum. My post about him is here.), about their belief in America, concept and reality, and our family’s history of progress here.

And I choked up, as I’m wont to do when I think and speak about them.

My friend told me it was the first time he’d ever even considered the possibility that a liberal Democrat (me) might just also be patriotic; still among the saddest sentences I’ve ever heard spoken.

Look westward

My grandfather Vasilios, who would much later call himself Bill, landed on Ellis Island with ten dollars in his pocket. That’s not some kind of romanticized family legend, by the way, but a documented fact; I’ve seen the ship manifest with my own eyes. At that time, all immigrants had to declare the cash they’d brought with them and it was clear that Vasilios was operating on a crazy-thin shoestring. And he wasn’t alone.

They came west across the Atlantic by the hundreds of thousands each year and took up jobs and lives in the American experiment – over eight hundred thousand in 1921, the year Vasilios made his way – and powered one of the greatest economic and social engines in the history of the world.

For my grandfather, it was clear, to him at least, that his life was going to be made in California; there was going to be no other place for him. It was, he felt, meant to be his final destination from the moment he saw a crudely printed flyer in his village coffee house announcing the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill. So, west became the direction of his attention, his immigration and his dreams.

And west he came, until there was no more land to cross and he stopped, where all like-minded crazies and dreamers stopped, at the far ocean of the American continent. The societies they built here reflected that combination of insanity that convinces a person it’s a good idea to leave home forever with ten bucks in your pocket, and the nervous tension created by running out of land to cross.

Wave after wave of immigrants have come to California and the west since, and they continue to come – even though now they more frequently travel north from Latin and Central America or east from Asia and the Pacific Islands to get here. And with them have come the unending hard work and blazing innovation and constant reimagining of the country that this region represents.

The pioneers of Silicon Valley, like David Packard and Gordon Moore, destroyed previously held ideas about the reality of technological boundaries. Alice Waters, Marion Nestle and Michael Pollan re-imagined how we should feed our kids and ourselves to achieve healthy lives and a healthier society. A long line of activists stretching from Harvey Milk to his legion of successors has completely redefined, not only who can hold elected office, but human rights and the very idea of family.

It’s no great wonder to me that our country so frequently looks to the west for innovations and new ideas; I walk out my front door, turn left and can see the same mighty Pacific my grandfather saw and find myself feeling the same crazy combination of feelings. Our country and the world still look west for yet unrealized, but worthy, dreams to pursue.

May we always.