by Nancy McDaniel

Back on the beautiful beach on Florida’s Gulf Coast, I walked. And thought. And thought. And walked some more. It’s quite lovely here and I am bored out of my mind. The city girl in me rebels against resort-ism. The wilderness girl in me rebels against the over-the-top trappings of extreme affluenza. So, as usual, my mind raced and raised questions I hadn’t thought about in a long time. If ever.

Digging to China
The 23-person crew of the “surveillance plane” hadn’t been released yet. (Somehow “Spy Plane” sounds so unbearably ’50s and Cold War. Isn’t that over? What ever happened to Gary Powers? Because we have a Republican President again, is that why we have spy planes and FBI/Russian counter spies? Why are we still spying? To get plans for competitors for Disney World? Can’t Spielberg or George Lucas help us here and do A Disney Quest kind of virtual spying or something?) So as I walked on the beach and saw the children digging with their plastic shovels and tiny purposeful hands, I remembered how we used to say we were “digging to China.” Is that what they still think they are doing? And, if that is the case, did they think they would eventually get to Hainan Island and do an Israeli commando type raid to rescue the ill-fated crew?

Which reminds me, isn’t Shane Osborn just about the best name for a crack Navy pilot that you can imagine? Even Hollywood screenwriters couldn’t come up with a better one. (And of course he just HAD to come from Nebraska.) Shortly thereafter, Dubya and Colin and Don got it sorted out with the Chinese and Our Boys (and Girls) made it home. Which I am certainly glad for, but if the kids had just kept digging, maybe we wouldn’t have had to apologize for something we may not have done. (Which is something I always do.) As an only child who hates confrontation, I often back off and say I’m sorry even if it wasn’t my fault, Maybe I chose the wrong career. Instead of advertising perhaps I should have been a diplomat. Let’s see, how many words are there in each language for “sorry/apologize/regret?” Let’s see, how about contrite, penitent, and remorseful? Just in case we need them again, State Department, take notice. And that’s just in English.

Sun Bronzed versus Brown Skin
Then I wondered about the perverse logic in this. I saw people who probably paid thousands and thousands of dollars to lie on the beach or around a fancy condo pool, lathering up with Bain de Soleil (do they still make that? I always loved the orangey jelly-like stuff that smelled like I thought the French Riviera might) and baking until their skin turned the color of cherry wood or mahogany. And about as dried out. Don’t get me wrong, I do this too. And I even know how bad it is for my skin and my “age spots” (lovely term, that.) But many of these are, I suspect, the exact same folks that avoid people whose skin is of a naturally darker hue. Black or brown or ebony or what-have-you.

Somehow, to many of these people, that naturally darker skin color makes a person intrinsically less valuable or desirable or intelligent or worth associating with. But isn’t it interesting that their skin color came easily to them? They didn’t have to work or pay money for it at all. In fact, some of those people spend money trying to go the other way – trying to bleach their skin or “pass.” Look at Michael Jackson (do I have to?). If he isn’t the whitest Person of Color we have ever seen, then who is? There’s of course no answer to this conundrum, just a beachwalk musing that came to me.

The Subway Seating Dilemma
All of this further reminded me of a particularly poignant scene in a wonderful play by the Chicago playwright, Rebecca Gilman. The play is called “Spinning into Butter” and it recently opened in New York, following a phenomenal run in Chicago a couple of years ago. The scene involves a middle-aged woman who is a liberal arts college dean in the Northeast, an apparently liberal, open-minded, kind of person. When a racist incident turns the campus upside down, several lives are turned upside down and inside out as well. This memorable scene had the audience so spellbound, that I have never heard a theater so quiet. It was like people stopped breathing during her monologue. She talks about her Subway Seating Decision. The gist of it is that she has a hierarchy of seat-taking on the subway. Something like looking for a completely empty seat first, followed by a seat next to an elderly white woman, followed by an elderly white man, young white woman, a young white man, and so forth and so on.

Far later on the list comes Black Woman (old, then young) Elderly Black Man and at the very very end, Young Black Man, especially with a knit cap and an allegedly menacing look. (With apologies to Rebecca Gilman, this may not be the exact order, but you get the point.) It is a staggering moment, the moment when the dean realizes she is not such a liberal as she thought. She is stunned to realize that she is as much of a racist, in her own mind at least, as the people she reviles and despises. And we, the audience, cannot turn away. We cannot say “oh, but I would never do that” because we – or at least I – have been there too. Done the same thing. And I now think about his monologue every time I get on the subway.

You’ve Got To Be Taught
Remember the beautiful music of “South Pacific” and the stunningly sexy “sun bronzed” Rossano Brazzi and the perky blonde Mitzi Gaynor? And the impossibly handsome young Lieutenant Joe Cable and the exotically beautiful Liat (who ever did play them? I don’t remember) I saw the remake on TV recently and was struck by how racist the story was. I had forgotten or maybe when I saw it the first time, I was too young to even understand. It was just happy, then tragic. People in love and together, people apart and sad. Who knew why? I didn’t.

But the words to the song “You’ve Got to be Taught” are so true, yet today. And I thought of that as I saw young children playing on the beach. And I wondered how they would turn out and which way they would be taught. “You’ve got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made And people whose skin is a different shade You’ve got to be carefully taught. You’ve got to be taught Before it’s too late Before you are six or seven or eight To hate all the people your relatives hate You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

And I remembered the story my best friend told me about her son, who always loved watching and playing baseball. When he was little, he and a friend of his were talking about Major League baseball players. And the friend asked about a particular player, “What color is he?” And Paul thought and thought, stumped by the question. He finally answered, “Well, I think blue and orange.” Because at his age, skin color was not something he had ever even thought about before. He just thought about the team colors. Would that this simplicity and gentle naïveté last forever.

I Just Want to be Average!
In the wake of all the dreadful school shootings amidst protestations of bullying, I wonder: What kinds of kids don’t get picked on? I think only three: very attractive, very athletic…. and very average. Even 45 years ago, all kinds of kids got picked on if they were Too Fat (yep, me, “chubby”, “fatso”, “blimp”) or Too Skinny (“stringbean”), Too Tall (“stretch,” “stilt”) or Too Short “(munchkin,” “midget”), Too Clumsy/not co-ordinated (“spaz”, “klutz”), Too Smart “(brainiac,” “teacher’s pet,”) or Too Dumb (“retard”). Or Catholic (“Mackerel Snapper”) or Jewish (worse name.) Eyeglass wearers (“Four Eyes”) also heard about it from the mean kids. Not getting picked to be on a team was one of the most humiliating things. Or not being asked to dance at the middle school mixer. (No wonder I still unconsciously try to lead when I “slow dance”; it probably comes from all those years of having to dance with another girl who wasn’t picked either.)

Coming home in tears, how many times were we told: “Sticks and stones may break your bones but names can never hurt you.” How not true was that? Of course being called mean names hurts. Deeply. But most of us bounced back, sometimes a bit scarred, but generally we grew out of it with love of family and friends and a growing self confidence (helped by the loss of a few pounds or the ever-humbling D in Calculus to augment the straight A’s).

But we didn’t have guns. Are kids really that much crueler now? I suspect not. Or that much thinner-skinned than we were? I doubt it. Scary what access to handguns and automatic weapons will do. Sorta casts bullying in a whole new light. My fervent wish for all children is that they not be made fun of or picked on or bullied. But as long as kids will continue to be so terribly mean and cruel to other kids who aren’t just like them, my more pragmatic wish is for no guns. Bloody noses and hurt feelings can be easily mended. Bullet wounds and psychological trauma cannot.

Maybe walking on the beach is good for the soul, if not for the skin. If introspection is healthy and makes us more aware of important issues around us, my spring wish for everyone is a walk on the beach.