New Normal

I can’t imagine how long it took the kid to screw up the courage. It was 1971, the first year of forced busing in Wichita. Probably as an experiment leading to an experiment, our 7th grade science teacher had given us a week to find a lab partner.

One of the kids bused to the Land of Baloney on White Bread with Miracle Whip had no friends. He was shy to begin with, so when he approached me on decision deadline day and asked if I’d be his lab partner, I felt like a schmuck. I’d already struck a Bunsen burner/beaker bond with a kid who lived down the street.

I’m sitting in an airport in Tucson after three days observing a civic engagement conference. Over my right shoulder a woman carries on a telephone conversation in Spanish. There is an overtly friendly 20-something clerk at a nearby coffee stand, chatting up all comers, a little bright spot in the day of stressed, harried travelers.

She asks a little boy, “You have any muscles?” He shows off his 3-year old guns and walks away grinning.

At the conference, within our name badges were meal cards. Until I sat down for dinner the first night, I gave them no thought, then I noticed the cards of my table mates. “No red meat” on my right. “Vegan” to my immediate left.

(I feel bad for 21st century event planners and caterers. The choice used to be simple: Rubber chicken or... uh... nothing).

When she’d set out candy and nuts during the holidays in Plainville, Kansas, my grandmother matter-of-factly referred to Brazil nuts by an epithet today we would consider obscenely racist. Her daughter, my mother, a generation more culturally aware, made certain my siblings and I understood that even though we love her dearly, on this point, Grandma was just flat out wrong.

I travel, live in Manhattan, spend a lot of time in Wichita, the city where I grew up and see the evolution from the days of forced busing. Firmly ensconced in the precipice of middle age, I have become more aware of social injustice and societal disparities.

Ubiquitous dollar stores and payday loan outfits on every street corner are simply a reaction to the market. All things being equal, the free enterprise system will exploit opportunities and find its center. Politicians do the same thing. Sanders’ populism and Trump’s anger are not new phenomena.

Presidential politics and the free enterprise system are reflections of societal evolution, they are not societal evolution. All things are not close to equal. In the second decade of the 21stcentury in the United States, I can make choices to become more culturally aware. To move beyond my otherwise middle-of-the-country sensibilities.

The change, the adaptation, the evolution happens in individual human hearts and minds. And stomachs, too. If someone insists on being served a vegan meal, I’ll always be the red meat yang to their yin.

The action of the black kid asking the white kid to be his lab partner in 1971 was a manifestation of the hopes and dreams of the duly-elected members of the Wichita school board, who were, no doubt, anguishing over how to move beyond ‘separate but equal.’ They had no clue whether it would work, but they made a choice to change, to adapt, to try.

Gotta go, they’re calling my flight.