Sunday, July 2, 2017
And then it got late, especially late for my younger sister and I being two of the youngest kids on the block. It was well after 9:00 PM, the murky purple sky had turned black. There was no moon, only the pinpoint sparkle of stars barely piercing the night, kept muted further by the valley heat. We'd all been indoors for a few hours, watching TV and staying cool at our neighbor's house with their modern central air conditioning. Once outside, the heat drove us all again to the above-ground Doughboy pool.
That tingling frost of fear rode spread up my spine and burst inside my frontal lobes. The pool lights were on and the pool sweep, too. And there they were: dozens and dozens of empty bottles bobbed and twirled in the pool. Many had already sunk to the bottom. I was only eight years old, but I half-expected to see a body resting at the bottom of the pool. Thank goodness that wasn't the case.
But we knew something was wrong even before that; the boisterous adults, all our parents, had gone fairly quiet in the last hour before our creepy discovery. As we stood and watched the bottles sink, the smell of chlorine and alcohol filled us up with a dreadful nausea.
Then the party was over. Our parents told us it was time to go home. Nobody asked what had happened, and no one offered an explanation, and yet the creep factor increased as soon as we walked into our own house. There was trash strewn on our living room floor and in the kitchen. There were nasty words written with lipstick across all our mirrors. There was Vaseline smeared around our toilet seat.
Our mom told us that some stranger had broken in and trashed our house, which we knew wasn't exactly true since most of us in the neighborhood never locked the front doors when we were just down the street. She put my sister and I to bed, and then through my door I could only hear the muffled anger of my parents fighting, yet another night of my alcoholic father's abuse escalated further by the all day's drinking and the vandalism in our house.
Decades later my mom would tell me what really happened. That the neighborhood adult friends had been pranking each other all summer, and then one drunken Saturday night, everyone turned on each other and did some real damage to each other's homes. Some neighbors never talked again after that. She said that the pranking became an exponential revenge game, one neighbor punching back at the other, over and over and over again.
But it wasn't just about the pranking either -- she had told me there was this constant unfiltered judgement of each other's families and a certain few who spouted back-stabbing bullying slurs just because they didn't like something about the other or felt unjustifiably threatened by the other.
Today in communities across America, we seem to be more polarized than ever. Or at least, we're more painfully aware of the polarization than I can recall (or that historians could probably point out otherwise). And we seem to be collectively encouraging it, although I'd argue that the ebb and flow of political correctness isn't the culprit either. We've used that scapegoat one too many times, to make incivility okay and for us to turn on each other so easily. Our leaders and other supposed role models now use the "he said -- she said" bullying polarity nearly flawlessly and it's been fully injected into our societal DNA.
In fact, I just witnessed yet again another Facebook conversation dissolve into a hot mess of personal attacks, jabs, upper cuts and right hooks. Plus, as we all know, the anonymity of social media (like Twitter) has become a vampiric outlet for too many of us.
When faced with these toxic interchanges, my wife and I do our best to use our Kidpower trash cans (throwing verbal attacks away and letting them go) instead of punching back, and our walk away power, as in "leaving in a powerful, positive way," and we teach our children the same. In fact, the best self-defense tactic is called "target denial" -- in other words, "don’t be there." We don't get it right all the time and it also doesn't mean we shouldn't face a bully and stand up for ourselves, and there are many options and flavors of defensive responses including physical self-defense if ever needed.
My hope is that most of us in the muddied middle will again fill and slow the growing chasm for ourselves, for our children and for future generations. That we'll do the hard work of finding empathic common ground even with discord and disagreement. Not to live together in harmony either, because that's a wishful illusion, but to co-exist as fruitfully and happily as possible while working together to keep this grand experiment of our republic thriving.
Stay classy, America. Time to celebrate the beauty and bravery of freedom ringing, not the thin-skinned ugly of civility shrinking.