Examining Our Prejudice

I sat in a meeting recently where a consultant told us to “examine our own prejudices,” before interviewing candidates for a job opening. That how each of us personally feels about an individual’s age, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity could affect our perception of his or her ability to do the job. No matter how vehemently we deny it or how politically correct we see ourselves, we all harbor prejudice of some kind. It’s part of the human condition. The tough part is knowing when prejudice is whispering in our ear, trying to exert undue influence in our decision-making.

I grew up in a middle-class, blue-collar small town. There were certain black classmates I could invite to my birthday parties and others I could not, because they lived on Front Street and didn’t always dress well or smell good.  My grandmother was educated in the south in the early 1900’s. If there was almost-spoiled food in the refrigerator or clothing that was no longer wearable she would say, “Give it to Marian.” Marian was a kindly black woman who served for years as my grandparents’ housekeeper.  No one questioned giving something to her that we wouldn’t eat or wear ourselves. The unspoken implication was that Marian was poor and would be happy to accept our cast-offs.

My parents often referred to a highly successful local businessman as being “light in the loafers” because he was gay, a statement usually accompanied by raised eyebrows and knowing looks. My family members were not terrible people, and I don’t think they saw themselves as prejudiced. Their behavior reflected the social norms of the day in a conservative small town.  I look back on that era now with horror and amazement.  

discrimination-60512__480 (2)

My life has been blessed and enriched by people I’ve met along the way who are different from me. I can point to the individuals and situations that have vastly changed my perspective over the years and I am so grateful for those God-given opportunities.  But I still have work to do. I freely admit prejudice against those who choose not to be educated, who close their minds, who refuse to give something new a chance. Who judge based on appearance or lifestyle. Who bully those they perceive as inferior to them. Who indirectly condone the murder of school children because they’re afraid someone will take away their hunting rifle. Who blame others for choices they themselves have made. Who blaspheme Christianity by using it as a defense for acts of political or ethnic hatred.

Sadly, we live in a time where those 1960’s attitudes are once again not only prevalent but encouraged by some. The sentiments that used to be whispered in the board room or the roadside bar are now not only plastered on our car bumpers but promoted all over social media, where the poison spreads even faster than it did in the last century. The unspoken message is “It’s ok to be cruel and trample others as long as you come out ahead.” Abhorrent rhetoric from the leader of our country has re-ignited racism and prejudice in unprecedented and truly frightening ways.

So, where does that leave the rest of us who are trying to do the right thing, to live as God intended? Does blatant and publicly acceptable racism force us to take a harder look at our own attitude? Yes, we’re shocked and appalled when police are called to remove black women from a local golf course for no apparent reason. But is there a tiny part of us that is angry and frustrated and under the right circumstances, may be forced to confront some racism and prejudice of our own? Is what we say on the surface reflective of what we’d do in a given situation or are we just giving lip service to maintain our appearance of political correctness?

 Examining our own prejudice is a tall and painful order. I’m working on it before those interviews start.

seeking human kindness (2)

 

           

Zombie on the River

 

Chiques Hill, a high out-cropping of rock near my hometown in southcentral Pennsylvania, provides a breath-taking view of the Susquehanna river. To the north, like a vision of Oz, lie the giant cooling towers of Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. Thin white plumes of steam spiral out of the towers for Unit One, the only reactor still in use.  From up here, it all looks so placid, like a futuristic settlement on a far planet.

I remember seeing the massive turbines roll through town on flatbed trucks, headed for the new power plant being constructed on a sandbar on the Susquehanna known as Three Mile Island. We just landed a man on the moon, and now this clean, modern energy produced without smoke or pollution, would be generated twenty miles north of us.

Ten years later, on a day in late March, we heard about a minor incident occurring in unit two of the nuclear reactor. I was out shopping for wedding shoes with my mother. We listened to the reports on the car radio and then went to our favorite restaurant for lunch as planned. My mother was fighting breast cancer, so I was just happy to spend a normal day with her.

Outside there was no evidence of anything amiss.  No mushroom cloud or strange light in the sky. It was a typical end of March week in the mid-Atlantic, still more winter than spring. There was no assault on the senses that made you think something terrible had happened or was about to happen. We joked about holding our breath and glowing in the dark.

News reports told us that a pressure valve in unit two failed to close, and contaminated water drained into adjoining buildings, causing the core to dangerously overheat. Emergency cooling pumps were activated but human operators in the control room misinterpreted the readings and mistakenly shut down the pumps and the reactor. Residual heat from the fission process was still being released which caused the core to overheat to just 1000 degrees short of a meltdown.

TMI 5

Most of us had no concept of what any of this meant. Men in short sleeve dress shirts and narrow ties reassured us from our television screens that all was well. Governor Thornburgh, calm and professorial in his horn-rimmed glasses, initially suggested a precautionary evacuation of nearby towns but was quickly silenced by the corporate owners of the plant.

TMI 8

The core had come within an hour of a complete meltdown and over half the core was destroyed, but it had not broken its protective shell. No radiation was escaping. Sighs of relief. Crisis averted. No need to evacuate or scurry into those buildings with the ubiquitous yellow “Fallout Shelter” signs leftover from the Cold War days.

On March 30, we were told there was a bubble of highly flammable hydrogen gas within the reactor building created two days earlier when exposed core materials reacted with super-heated steam. The day of the incident, some of this gas exploded, releasing a small amount of radiation into the atmosphere. The sound at the time was attributed to a ventilation door closing. The experts weren’t sure if this bubble could create a further meltdown or possibly a giant explosion. Residents were ordered to stay indoors. The governor advised all pregnant women and young children who lived within a 5-mile radius to evacuate. The floodgates of panic burst open.  

My uncle, a retired physician, who had been shepherding my mother through her cancer treatment, tells her it’s time to head out, especially for someone with a weakened immune system. Schools and businesses closed. We decided to leave until whatever was coming was over, if it was ever over.

Lines formed around gas stations, banks were emptied of cash, roads were jammed with cars packed with possessions. People who never dreamed they would be refugees suddenly found themselves leaving their homes, not knowing if they’d ever return. With the looming specter of nuclear annihilation now a reality, those duck and cover drills we did at school during the Cuban missile crisis seemed utterly absurd. 

TMI 3

 My parents went to the New Jersey shore to stay with my mother’s best friend from college. It was the last time they would see each other. For my mother, who found it ironic that she was being evacuated to avoid radiation exposure, this was a brief reprieve from her radiation and chemo treatments. By the first anniversary of TMI, she had been dead for a month.

I went to my fiancé’s apartment outside Philadelphia where we practiced being newlyweds while waiting for Armageddon. We were young and idiotic, so we drank cocktails and watched TV, cooked meals, and walked the dog, all the while pretending we were grown-ups, just in case we didn’t get to do it for real. We found it darkly romantic. Huddling together safe from the sinister bubble. Waiting for news.

We returned to our homes after President Jimmy Carter toured the plant in his haz-mat suit and reassured us that the danger was past. TMI became a touchstone, a reference point. “I started teaching the year TMI blew up.” “Our first child was born during TMI.” “We live just south of TMI.” To this day, I never think of those three letters as standing for “too much information.”

TMI 4

In the years following the accident, disturbing studies on cancer rates of those who lived within a close radius of the plant popped up on a regular basis, only to be quickly discredited by representatives of the company’s owners. Investigative reporters dug deep, but that data was banished into the far recesses of the state department of health. Hard copies probably now long destroyed.

 TMI is once again back in the news because it is to be permanently shut down in 2019.  Nuclear energy generation is no longer profitable and at this point, the state is not going to bail out the company. This morning an article in the local paper described the potential dangers associated with long-term storage of nuclear waste. Beyond the environmental impact, there is concern that with reduced security at closed plants, the waste itself could be more vulnerable to attack by terrorists or anyone with a deadly agenda.

 40 years after a nearly catastrophic nuclear event, the dancing atoms will at last be stilled. Insidious spores of radiation will no longer be spewed into the atmosphere. TMI will become an island wasteland, an abandoned behemoth rising out of the river, a permanent shrine to one of the greatest human screw-ups in modern history, its deadly innards sealed in lead and concrete but always with the potential to come back and destroy, given the right circumstances. TMI is our zombie on the river. It will never really die.

TMI 6

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Safe Place to Play

A game meant for languid summer afternoons and balmy starlit evenings. Cold beer in plastic cups and crackling peanut shells and kids with dripping ice cream cones. A game that has changed very little in the last hundred years. A game of skill and finesse that can be excruciatingly slow (Ah, yes, only 27 more outs to go…) and whip-crack fast when the bat and ball find their sweet spot or a flawless double play ends an inning like a door slammed shut.

Independent league baseball is a kinder, gentler version of the major league game and in recent years has become popular in mid-sized communities like the one where I live, the stadiums often serving as a centerpiece for resurging downtowns. 

These are not farm team stepping stones to the big leagues but usually the last stop for a career that either never happened or is on its downward trajectory. Players take to the field with a kind of earnest and subtle desperation, well aware that this may be as good as it gets for them.

Stadiums are small but comfortable and easily accessed. No mile-long treks from distant parking lots. Affordable prices allow families to have a good time without breaking the bank on twenty-dollar hamburgers. Representatives of local charities often man the concession stands, schlepping hot dogs and pouring beers to raise funds for their organization. Norman Rockwell could set up his easel and feel at home here until he sees the giant electronic screen and the bowed heads of fans staring at their phones.

Baseball at this level is a throwback to a simpler, more innocent time. Between innings, kids run the bases dressed in fruit-of the-loom costumes. People launch beach balls into giant inflatable toilets sponsored by a drain-cleaning company or guess how much a can of pineapple costs at the local supermarket. You end up talking to the person sitting next to you whether you know them or not. A hairy team mascot cavorts on top of the dug-outs along with fresh-faced teenaged cheerleaders dressed in polo shirts and shorts. There is still a manual scoreboard changed by disembodied heads occasionally peering through the squares. No angry words are hurled except between umpires and managers and from the occasional disgruntled fan.

Last weekend we attended what turned out to be the final game in the league championship, the world series at this level. The Star-Spangled Banner was sung by a local tenor while a platoon of Boy Scouts carried an enormous flag onto the field. Everyone stood and continued to stand until the Boy Scouts had retreated from the field. That felt good. I was afraid I was going to see something else happen but it didn’t.

It was a tight game, but the local team pulled it out in the end. League champs for the third time in eleven years. There was a ceremonial unfurling of the banner and presentation of the trophy and everyone except the opposing team went home happy. A great night. A safe place to play.

When I got up Monday morning and heard about Las Vegas, I couldn’t help thinking about the contrast between our baseball game and the experience for those concert-goers. The innocence and the horror. And I wonder, are we no longer allowed a safe place to play?

Our movie theaters and nightclubs, ball fields, and concert venues, even our church gathering areas—all places we go to socialize and dance and be entertained and cheer for the team and learn about the Bible and watch our favorite actors–places we go to experience the simple and exquisite joys of life are now turned into potential death-traps. And even if most of us never have to face the tragedy of a mass shooting, it is the fear, the constant underlying worry that paralyzes us and poisons the experience of what should be something wonderful.

Can we walk into any kind of public venue now without thinking, “What if?” and doing a cursory check for the nearest exits? Can we watch a major sporting event on television, see the thousands packed into a stadium bowl and not have a part of us hold our breath, waiting for that first firecracker sound? No matter how many purses and backpacks are inspected at the turnstile, no matter that we must walk through metal detectors or be wanded by a gloved attendant when entering a public arena, someone keeps finding a way to kill. An individual brought what amounted to an armory of weapons into a Las Vegas hotel over the course of several days, and no one batted an eye.

The footage from the concert showed people enjoying a country music festival on another balmy starlit evening thousands of miles from the baseball game. Did they feel like we did in our cozy little stadium– safe and secure in that valley created by the glittering mountains of Las Vegas hotels? That it was worth the airfare, the cost of the hotel and the tickets? Worth it to be able to say, “Hey, we’re in Vegas and all’s right with the world.”? Pour another drink, flick the lighter and sway to the music. Until the shots ring out and there is nowhere to run.

I don’t have any answers, and I’m not about to engage in the rhetoric surrounding possible solutions. We must live our lives; buy the tickets and take the trip and go to the game and the concert. We can’t cower in our homes. We can’t let the bastards steal our joy. But each of us deserves that baseball game I attended. We have a right to see our team win or hear our favorite singer in concert or simply go to a movie or a Bible study without worrying about being the next breaking story on CNN. We all deserve a safe place to play.