I was born in California and lived in the very progressive, diverse Bay Area until I was ten. At that point my parents, both from the rural Midwest, decided that they wanted their kids to have an upbringing more similar to their own, and they moved us to rural Nebraska. I had been fully immersed in the anti-war, pro-Civil Rights culture of my childhood environment, and it was a shock to me to hear racist and pro-war pronouncements; one uncle of mine, watching Aretha Franklin perform on television, said: "Look at that monkey sing!" I was aware enough to be deeply shocked. I started to speak my mind more and more, calling people out on homophobia, discrimination, and other forms of hatred. I couldn't wait to get out of there. But as I grew older, I recalled the kindness of many of the people I grew up with. They were often generous and kind to me, despite our deep divisions and my "smart mouth." They believed in helping each other in misfortune, working hard, having fun. There were no significant class differences there, no significant wealth (well, aside from Warren Buffett, who lived in Omaha in any case). My parents and one brother's family still live there, and I go back regularly with my son, who has been brought up in the San Francisco Bay Area, as I was. I have spoken to him about the ambiguities of life as I see them: the loving and giving Sunday school teacher whom everyone loved, but who would say incredibly hateful things about the Sioux (her excuse? she had been brought up near a reservation in South Dakota...) The generous and funny grandmother who gets angry when abortion is mentioned ("it's murder!") and who has a hard time tolerating homosexuals (her son, my brother, was sexually abused by a man when my brother was seven). Figuring out the good in people (why are they angry and fearful?) and drawing it out has been a kind of ongoing project. Figuring out the hard and unforgiving places in myself is part of the project too. And when I think of how my father has transformed his life, from being in some cases narrow and bigoted to working with Mexican immigrants, learning some Spanish in his sixties, establishing a Spanish-speaking daycare, English classes, a housing and immigration office, a center for battered women, a suicide hot-line... all without a college degree -- it's just plain miraculous. Miracles happen through listening, paying attention, empathizing, and acting. I will never dismiss the "red states" out of hand as my neighbors here in the Bay Area do.
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