Friday, May 3, 2019

My Encounter with the RedHats

This Sunday, I was shopping for curtains in Home Goods, when a woman and her teenaged son breezed past me in crisp, bright red MAGA hats. My stomach contracted and I literally became nauseated. Word to my friends living in red states- I salute you. I’m a California softy living in liberal LaLa land. I’m not exposed to open carry or MAGA hats. 

She walked past me again, and I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. 
I stopped her.
I kept my voice calm.
I said, “Excuse me. Can I ask you a question?”
She looked surprised but she stopped and said yes.
I asked (calmly, I swear), “Why are you wearing those hats?”
She straightened, jutted her chin forward. “Because I want our country to go back to what our founding fathers intended, and I believe in the constitution.”
I nodded. “I’m curious. How did did you feel about Trump banning an entire religion from our country, since that violates what our founding fathers intended and the constitution?”
She changed the subject to a Fox News talking point. “Well, Sri Lanka just banned women wearing hijabs, but when the President tried to do that, everyone attacked him!”
I said, “Look around you in this store. Do you realize that the majority of people here have been negatively affected by Trump’s policies? Do you realize they may feel hurt by seeing you wear those hats?”
Defiantly, she said, “We’ve been wearing these hats all day and no one has said a thing!”
“They may not have said anything, but I assure you they were thinking and feeling things. I know I am. I actually felt sick when I saw your hat. Many of the people here may even feel threatened by seeing you in that hat.”
She shot back, “Well, they threaten US.”
I said, “Wow. You’ve been threatened? That’s terrible! Who threatened you?”
Her son broke in and said, “This isn’t about politics- this is about God.” He pointed to the sky.
I looked back at the mom, “Do you actually believe trump is a Christian?”
“The guy who cheats on his wives with porn stars is someone you look up to?”
She said, defensively, “I wasn’t there. I don’t know that any of that actually happened. And I don’t judge anyone.”
“How about immigrants? Do you judge them?”
She cut me off, “I stand 110% with the President and appreciate all the good he has done for this country!” And with that she stormed off. 

I just stood there in shock. Angry. Shaken. Had they gotten this ideology in church? This was how she was raising her young son?

I kept pushing my cart, thinking about the fact that yes, one way or another, trump will eventually be gone, but these people will still be all around us, and we will have to go on as a country with the knowledge that we are broken and divided. 

I didn’t change anything by talking to MAGA lady. She is firmly entrenched in her position, and raising her young son to be the same. I am firmly entrenched in mine, and am raising my young son to be the same (and already raised two strong young progressives). 

So what’s the moral of the story here? I have no idea. Maybe if anything, our country has begun a long-needed conversation, and my run-in with MAGA-lady was just a tiny part of it.  Or maybe it was a complete waste of breath. I only know if I didn’t say something, I would have felt worse. 

I also thought about making blue hats that say MAKA: Make America Kind Again. 


Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Smartest Kid in Class


It’s always a perfectly ordinary day when fate delivers its most crushing blows, and that’s the way it was that sunny, January morning. I was walking into the supermarket with my husband Troy, drinking a cup of coffee, when I picked up the L.A. Times. The picture on the front page made my stomach lurch.
“Oh my god…” I put my hand over my mouth.
“What?” Troy asked.
“I know him!” I pointed to the photo. “How can this be real?” My eyes filled with tears.
Troy skimmed the headline. Wall Street Journal reporter...kidnapped...terrorists...“Oh my God…” 
As I numbly walked through the supermarket, absently dropping items into my cart, I was overcome. Memories and emotions I had pushed away for so long now enveloped me. 
Birmingham High School, 1979, was where I first met Danny. He was a brainiac, as we kids used to say.  I was an average student, but French came easy to me. Any kind of language, actually. It was the math and reasoning part of my brain that struggled. In my first year of French, I got straight A’s without trying too hard. But then I was placed in honors French with the infamous Madame Leisner who, as everyone knew, suffered no fools. It was French immersion class, meaning she spoke no English at all to us, ever. Once I got past the initial intimidation, I fell into it wholeheartedly, speaking French with my friends outside of class, and even began dreaming in French. I hoped one day I’d go to France, but I didn’t know how that would happen. 
Danny and I were in Madame Leisner’s class together for two years. I was sure Danny had been to France. He was the kind of kid who, I imagined, spent his summers in Europe with his family. I had a single mom who worked nights and supplemented our income with food stamps, while I, at fifteen, worked in a restaurant to get by. The reality was, I would probably be a waitress and work nights like my mom.  But a girl could dream, and I did. In French.
Danny excelled in Madame Leisner’s class. In fact, he excelled at everything. He was an accomplished musician, an honors student, popular, came from a successful family. Danny had a way about him. He stood tall, with no need to impress anyone. He was super smart, not geeky smart, but the kind of smart you wanted to be. He seemed comfortable in his own skin, which made the slacker kids uncomfortable around him. He came from a supportive family who encouraged his education. And I was the kid whose dad was in prison. I was the kid who longed to speak a different language. 

French was one area where I could almost stand shoulder to shoulder with a kid like Danny. I barely had to crack a book. When I received a “B” that quarter with no effort, I was quite pleased with myself until Madame Leisner kept me after class the next day. She held up my report card with a stern face.
“Qu’est-ce qui se passe?” She demanded. (What’s going on?)
“Porquoi?” I asked. (Why?)
And in French she continued to lecture me (I’ll spare you the translations), the bottom line being – you can do better than this. Way better. And she was right, I could, but I just couldn’t think of reasons why I should. I mean, who cared? 
She did. 
Until that moment, until that day, I had no self-respect. I ditched school. I got drunk at parties. I had no vision of a future. Until she said, “You can do better than this.”
The next thing I knew, she had taken me from struggling through a reading of “Le Petit Prince” to reading French novels like  “Les Miserables.” She had me writing essays in French.  She pushed me to excel. She was not the mushy-gushy I care about your feelings kind of teacher. She was brash and insistent, commanding respect. There was no room in her world for mediocrity.
One day after class Madame pulled me aside and said she wanted me to enter a French speech competition. I could never say no to Madame, but I was shocked that she chose me over Danny. He could have surely won that competition with ease. He was the perfect choice. I was bewildered. Why me? Why didn’t she choose him?

The speech competition took place at Harvard Westlake Academy, where the wealthiest, most privileged kids in L.A. attended school.  I pulled into the parking lot in my trusty old Mustang, which bellowed like a motorboat and leaked oil everywhere it went. I parked alongside the Cadillacs and Mercedes, signed in and took a seat alone amongst the other kids who sat with their parents. I felt awkward and clumsy, an imposter in their emerald city. When it was my turn, I got up before the judges and delivered my speech about Les Baleines (the whales) and their impending endangerment. I could feel panic rising in my throat, my vocal chords constricting. The way the judges looked at me, confused, tilting their heads, made me nervous. I felt their eyes were saying you don’t belong here. I could feel myself flailing. I knew the flow and rhythm of my speech was horrendous. I was shaky, stumbling on my French pronunciations – which had always been my strength. French people said I spoke naturally. Not that day. Needless to say, I did not win. Danny surely would have, but Madame Leisner bet on the dark horse this time. I was crushed, humiliated that I had let her down. It wasn’t for lack of preparation - I put the time and research in. My problem was I didn’t have the self-assurance of a kid like Danny. 
It was painful to face Madame Leisner on Monday. But she just picked up where we left off, Ouvres vos livres, s’il vous plait…(Open your books, please) and we went forward as though nothing had ever happened. I looked across the room at Danny. So smart, so serene. Why didn’t she choose him?

After High School, I continued to flounder, while Danny continued to excel. I dropped out of college. I waitressed. I got married and divorced. I waitressed again. He went to Stanford, became a journalist, then a bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He married a French writer, and was about to become a father. How, then, could this headline be real? Our Danny, abducted by terrorists? I studied the L.A. Times article, poring over every word. I couldn’t accept the reality of what I was reading.
The fluorescent lights in the supermarket were beginning to give me a headache. I felt woozy. I stopped in the cereal aisle, leaned against the cart and said a prayer that he be delivered home to his family, and then I fell into my husband’s arms and sobbed in the middle of Ralph’s market. 
My prayers, and the prayers of so many others, were not answered. Weeks later, Daniel Pearl was brutally murdered by the militant terrorists who had held him captive. Our Danny, the smartest kid in class. An incredible bright light was gone in an instant. And I am still here on Earth wondering why? What sense could be made of all this?

Years later I attended a writer’s workshop, where once again, I was surrounded by the best and the brightest ivy league-educated writers, and could feel those old feelings of insecurity beginning to creep in. When the instructor returned her notes on my piece, there was one place where I had used a really awful clichĂ©, something about feeling like a girl in a Cinderella fairytale, and she wrote in the margin “You can do WAY better than this.” Tears welled up in my eyes, and I smiled. I remembered Madame’s insistence, and again, I thought of Danny. A musician, a courageous writer, a soon-to-be father, and loving husband, he lived up to his own expectations for his life. He stood out in this world. We all expected it from him. The problem was, I had never expected it from myself. Now, Danny was gone, without the chance to wake another day. But I did have this life I was given, and it struck me, how dare I even think of wasting another moment hiding behind my insecurities. Facing the mortality of my peers at such a young age, especially one who was so iconic to me, rocked my world. I had to look within and ask myself some tough questions. Danny gave the world his best. Had I? You can do better, that’s what Madame said. If nothing else, in honor of Danny, I was obligated to prove her right. 

In the years since Danny’s murder, I have pushed myself to do better. I became an author, and founded a nonprofit, running workshops for teens in crisis. I set a standard of excellence, the kind I saw in Danny, for my own children. Two have already graduated college (the youngest still in school). Like Danny, all three play instruments. 

I ponder this intricate web of humanity; how often we touch each other’s lives without ever knowing it. A hug, a handshake, a smile at a stranger could change the course of a day - that day could change the course of a life. Although I didn’t know Danny well, simply by being his authentic best self, I absorbed the message that I too could rise to the best that was in me. Maybe that is the point of it all, and the sense that can be made. Each of us is here to connect, to lead by example, to touch the life of others. And if we’ve done it well, we leave this world a little better than we found it. I would say Danny did that well. He left an imprint on the world beyond what he could have ever imagined. His was a life well lived, which continues to inspire people all over the world.

Today, my French is rusty, and I still have not made my way to France. But I have set an expectation for myself and I know that one day soon I will get there. When I do, I will sit in a Parisian cafĂ© and raise a glass to Madame Leisner, and to Danny, the smartest kid in class. 

** The High School that Danny and I attended, Birmingham High in California, now features the highly acclaimed Daniel Pearl Journalism Magnet school.