Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Elbow Room

I first realized it when I flew home for my cousin's wedding in October: I'd never before been so happy to find myself at Newark Airport. Then it happened again as my plane landed at Logan and I walked out into the terminal. For four days I've re-entered a world of car horns and obscenities, and I've never had such a distinct feeling of coming home.

As I stood on the T this morning simultaneously cursing the group of shouting teenagers in my car and feeling immensely grateful for their existence, I began to wonder about these stereotypes of Southerners as being nicer and Northeasterners as being not necessarily mean but unconcerned with the welfare of their fellow humans. Now that I live in the South I’m seeing how much truth there is to those supposed differences, but as a born and raised Northerner I always feel compelled to defend the detachment: that’s what feels right to me, and I’d like to think that doesn’t make me inherently less nice.

What occurred to me on the T is that there’s just a lot more physical space for people to spread out in the South, and in my favorite cities (New York and Boston) there are so many more people crammed into the available space. In Nashville my apartment isn’t flanked on all sides by neighbors, and it’s more than spitting distance from the building next door. When I go to the far side of town (which is much farther away than the far side of Boston), I get in my own car and have however many cubic feet of space (and sound and attempt at thermal regulation) all to myself. In Boston you’re constantly surrounded by people – roommates, upstairs and downstairs neighbors through thin ceilings and floors, next door apartments with windows so close you could reach in from your room, jam-packed subway cars and buses, sidewalks full of pedestrians – so in order to maintain any sense of personal space you have to manufacture it for yourself.

Northeasterners are “mean” simply out of self-preservation.

It’s not that someone from Boston necessarily cares any less about other humans, but if you let concern for others surface even half the time you’re in close proximity to other people you’ll be completely overwhelmed by caring for a vast sea of humanity. In Tennessee it’s much easier to attempt connection with a large percentage of the people you encounter because on any given day there are so many fewer people who will come close enough to your personal space for interaction.

Obviously not everyone responds to these situations according to the stereotypes, but I think that if you grow up in the Northeast then you are much more likely to develop the apparently prickly exterior necessary to preserve some semblance of personal space, just as if you grow up with a lot of siblings you tend to be aggressive about staking your claim on things you want (lest someone else get there first). Yes, some people find themselves better suited to the environment opposite that of their own childhood, and some people feel equally comfortable in both sorts of places.

I think I’m a true Northeasterner in this sense, which is why I feel so at home when I’m surrounded by people who will honk and swear and cut you off without thinking twice. To me that’s just how you stake out your space in the world. My subconscious definition of "home" seems to include dense population and the attendant survival techniques. But defining "home" is another story for another day.....

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Day 2008

I just voted in what will probably end up being the single most important election of my lifetime. The economy is on the verge of collapsing, the government of the last eight years is hated by pretty much everyone both at home and abroad, the war that was supposed to last a few months has been going on for more than five years.... shall I go on?

Now we're faced with a massively polarizing election. Dems say that if McCain wins we'll have four more years of Bush's policies - but is that true? Might it even be worse? After all, if the 72-year-old with cancer kicks it while he's in office, we'll be stuck with a dangerously ignorant and inexperienced, extremely conservative woman running the country. DANGER, WILL ROBINSON!

Of course, the people on the other side seem just as afraid of Obama - they call him a socialist, terrorist and Muslim and say that if he wins we'll all be killed, or at best be forced into a socialist state. I think it's 'funny' that we've come so far that a black man might be about to win the presidency, but we still have such intense fear of the word Muslim that it's used to try to sink a campaign. Then again, maybe the people who are so afraid of a Muslim wouldn't vote for him anyway, just because he's black. Religion just adds another excuse. (P.S. All you prejudicial fear-mongers out there: how can be a devout Muslim AND be tied to the Reverend you all are so afraid of? Pick a slander and stick to it, will you?)

It's obvious which side I'm on.

But that doesn't mean I think our future is rosey if the "right" guy wins. Our country and our planet are a big hot mess, and it's going to take a long time, a lot of resources, and possibly more hope and courage and kindness and understanding and generosity than the world's population is willing to offer up.

I do hope that we start moving in the right direction. I hope that Obama wins, if for no other reason than McCain would definitely be a very bad choice and Obama has a chance of being a good choice. I hope he proves himself even a better choice than the marginally optimististic among us expect. I very much hope that this is indeed the most important election of my lifetime, because I hope it never gets worse, only better from here.

A friend said that we'll see change no matter who wins, it's just a question of what that change will be. It's undoubtedly true. I really, really hope that it's a change from fear - which is what's motivating so many people in this election (fear of a 'terrorist' president, fear of an unexperienced right-wing VP with a good chance of needing to step up....) - to hope. I would love nothing more than to see Americans stop acting out of fear and start acting out of the desire to improve ourselves, our country, and our world. Hopefully our present fear will push us toward a future with much less of it: even if people vote out of fear, the outcome could point us in the right direction.

I guess by tonight we'll start to see what's coming next, and then we just keep hoping for the best.